Sunday 30 June 2019

Saint Martial's Day

Yesterday was the Dublin Pride march. DCCCDau.I was carrying a banner. But that is yesterday. Today we have a rattle-bag for the last day in June.

Saturday 29 June 2019

Should be banned

What will seem grotesque unbelievable bizarre and unprecedented about today's Ireland from the standpoint of 2039 or 2069? Apart from eating meat or sporting a load of bling? I'm on record as wanting to ban boxing as a spectator sport because it's degrading to watch two people punching each other in the face for entertainment or money. Yes, yes, there are other sports where participants are likely to sustain contact sport encephalopathy but I'm okay with those because the violence and brain damage are incidental to the sport not its entire reason for existence. I don't think we should wrap up youngsters in a risk-free environment - putting yourself Out There is deeply ingrained in our culture if not in our genes. 200+ people have offed themselves by taking dopey selfies since 2011.  It's possibly good for the gene pool in a Darwin Awards sense. But even with boxing, there's a element of informed consent so long as adults are the participants in the ring. On a my rights end where your nose begins basis what adults do in the privacy of their gym is none of my business. My gripe is that grossly unfit people can sit down and watch organised fights, sink a few drinks and put on bets. For shame!

There was a big flap after the airing on RTE last Wednesday of a documentary about dog racing. If you're not squeamish, you can watch the whole of Greyhounds Running For Their Lives. [I'm squeamish].  A number of politicians got up in the Dáil to say how they were against that sort of thing.  Even if they hadn't seen the complete programme. The main complaint about greyhound racing in Ireland seems to be that dogs have rather large litters (compared to, say, humanity and horses) and that at replacement level there are a lot of young dogs which are surplus to requirements in a business that needs only the fastest dogs. I guess that dog breeders are using experience, good judgement and good luck to put 'good' dogs together in the hope of a 'better' pup. Some people in the greyhound trade are casual about what happens to the surplus 'empty mouths' that their breeding programmes and selection regimes will inevitably produce. The TV programme is presumably editted to portray some examples where casual bleeds into cruel. A couple of years ago greyhound racing was banned in some parts of Australia at least partly because of undercover TV footage showing 'live baiting' . Live baiting is when greyhounds are trained to run faster after a squealing piglet suspended by one leg and whizzed around a track. The best that can be said of the human participants in that clip is that they have blunted affect. Life would be a lot simpler, and much kinder, if dog racing was banned.

Segue to donkeys Equus asinus in Ethiopia where we were recently picking teff out of our teeth. Donkeys are essential to the rural (and important to urban) economics in Ethiopia like they were in Ireland 70 years ago. They do all the haulage and owning one is the first step out of abject poverty. Nevertheless, they are, in Ethiopia, to both Christians and Muslims, emphatically unclean. Imperial China had a cunning plan to convert old, dying and dead donkeys into skins and meat and money . . . but it all unravelled. 10 minutes of Rare Earth explains all.

We've moved on from donks in Ireland, they are small and retro. Now we have a peculiar vicarious love affair with thoroughbred horses. More people go on pilgrimage to Cheltenham for the race meeting in March than walk the Camino de Santiago. Now me, I don't personally do sports: since the age of 14, I've only participated in team sports as a form of piss-take. But I do recognise sport's value: it gets people outside, running about aerobically, shedding some kilos, working cooperatively, treating The Other fairly (mostly). Horse racing is not a sport in this sense: indeed it is in many ways the antithesis of sport - the only exercise most 'participants' get is moving the binoculars to see who is closing out the horse on which they've wasted a €10 bet. I say 'wasted' because everyone except the bookmakers are nett losers in any form of gambling. If you want to make a case that, through insider trading and other corrupt practices, some people are making money betting on horses, then I'd listen with attention because it seems likely. £4.5 million is riding on the winners of the ~28 races, there must be a temptation to square some of the jockeys. But the prize money is but a tiny fraction - maybe 1% - of the money which changes hands during the 3 or 4 days of the Festival.

All good fun, you may say. A flutter on the nags; drinks all round if you back a winner; a nice lunch; a lavish dinner; hanging out; memories and war stories. In 2019, however, 3 horses died at Cheltenham; down from 6 the year before and !11! in 2006. Less fun for the nags, who are a long way from informed consent about being put through their paces as part of a raree show. Sir Erec died of a broken leg in 2019 and two other horses were "put down" after "sustaining injuries".  The picture [R] shows Wigmore Hall being done to death 'humanely' and behind a screen after breaking a leg at Doncaster in 2014. Why are race-horse owners allowed to discard their horses when they are beyond the possibility of winning races? We don't do that to retired people anymore. The case can be made that horses are particularly incapable of living through the trauma of a broken leg. And come to think of it we get all tut-tutty about the games in Ancient Rome when there was often a holocaust of animals for the amusement of patricians and plebs. You can make the case that deaths in the Colosseum were integral to the games but peripheral to Cheltenham races. I'm with you on that, and have made a parallel case w.r.t. boxing vs rugger at the start of this piece. But if something like 500 horses run at Cheltenham [and they do] and 1% of them die each year [and they do] then death at the races becomes almost inevitable and therefore integral. Not really that much different from boxing and also shameful.

I am not alone in noting the carnage. At least 1,000 horses were killed on US racetracks in 2018. Our grand-daughters will scratch their heads in wonderment that a civilised society was so casual with the lives of other mammals in the course of entertainment.

Friday 28 June 2019

A scientist's guide to accuracy

Because I lack for nothing, I am notoriously difficult for giving presents to. Being on a decluttering jag these last several year doesn't make it any easier. Last December I was in a book-shop looking for inspiration for outgoing Christmas presents, when I saw a short stack of Humanology; A Scientist's Guide to Our Amazing Existence by Professor Luke O'Neill. O'Neill is one of the few Irish scientists that has a convincingly international reputation, so it's good that the book was put together by Gill Books one of Ireland's few independent publishers. Not so good that Gill catalogued it under the Humour section because that allows the author to defffffflate too many of his explanations about the science of the human condition with a throw-away line that is occasionally humorous but also occasionally just silly. We're in the same trade Luke and me and we spent 5 years working in the same Department - where he was conspicuously more successful by all the metrics that you can apply to teaching and research in science. We both believe that Science Matters (it's The Blob's official name, after all) and that someone needs to bridge the gap between science and The People, because that matters too. I have been known to crack a joke, even on The Blob, some of which are even funny on re-reading, but I've never set out to play it for larfs as the default for making science palatable or understandable.
Q. But what do I know about publishing?
A. Me, nothing. But Amazon knows about publishing, so I mined some data:
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari #16 in books 
    • (#1 in Human evolution)
  • Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine by Hannah Fry #2,146 in Books 
    • (#1 in Algorithmic programming)
  • Humanology -  of which we treat #14,632 in Books 
    • (#13 in History of the Renaissance)
  • How to Grow a Human: Adventures in Who We Are and How We Are Made by Philip Ball #115,556 in books 
    • (#97 in Human Evolution)
I tell my students to go easy on the superlatives when writing up their results. Merely saying that something is stupendous or unparallelled doesn't make it so. Copy-editor me would have shortened A Scientist's Guide to Our Amazing Existence to allow the text to speak for itself. And being told that the author of any book is 'hilarious' certainly puts a damper on my chuckle-button. Which is ironic because Chapter 8 of Humanology is an analysis of laughter which points out that you can't tickle yourself and that being told to laugh doesn't work.

Having unloaded my baggage, I was able to start reading the book. But I was brought up all standing at the bottom of p.2 by a discussion of the age of the Earth as a prelude to making the case that there has been helluva a lot of time to make primroses and primates. "Or 4.28 thousand million years? Such time spans are well beyond our comprehension. If humans had appeared at that time (and they didn't) there would have been around 55,000 generations of us since then." Ahem, no there wouldn't, not unless a human generation is [4.28 x 109 / 5.5 x 104] = 77,000 years! And even allowing for a gross failure [what's a thousand here or there?] on copy-editing, 77 is the current human life-span which is not the same as the generation time: usually taken as 25 or 30 years - between successive zygotes.

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell to get one number wrong (in two quite separate ways) is a misfortune, to get two wrong sounds like carelessness and I didn't have to read beyond p22 to land the second out-by-a-thousand figure, in a timeline of the evolution of life:
  • 1.2 BA - Multicellular Organisms
  • 600 BA - Cambrian Explosion
  • 200 KA - Humans
(where BA is billion years ago and KA is thousand years ago). 600 BA is far longer than we think the Universe has existed. 0.6 BA is meant, or 600 MA.

Does it matter beyond a pedant's excuse to snipe? Yes, in the sense of Fodor's Guide to Credibility which I have described before as an aid to crap-detecting. If there are obvious, checkable errors in one part of a book about which s/he knows something; then the reader is justified in being super skeptical about statements elsewhere in the same book about which s/he/we know nothing. But for the sunk-cost of €18.99, I should have flung the book across the room in a pet and found something else to read. It's like Trish Greenhalgh's advice about How To Read a Scientific Paper: start with the Methods section - if that's dodgy, then the results are worse than useless they are a waste of time.

I didn't get [too] cross. I did finish the book. It was okay. I may get round to reviewing it or at least filleting out some of the interesting bits and doing my own research for a future Blob. Right at the end of the book, life expectancy at birth for Ireland is referenced for men and women. That seemed redundant because I felt sure those statistics had been mentioned earlier in the book. There is no index, so I had to back-track (big advantage to having Kindle edition!) to find . . . different numbers!
I don't know what the error of estimate is for these numbers but I'd probably advise my students to skip the decimal point as "spurious accuracy" and call it 79 years for men and 83 years for women. That puts us in the same ball park as the rest of Western Europe and much longer lived than people in Côte d'Ivoire, who peg out about 20 years earlier.

Stephen Hawking said of his own worthy but widely unread book A Brief History of Time. "Someone told me that each equation I included in the book would halve the sales. I therefore resolved not to have any equations at all. In the end, however, I did put in one equation, Einstein's famous equation, E=mc2. I hope that this will not scare off half of my potential readers".  Maybe Gill Books should have scrapped all the numbers in the book where they are just a hostage to fortune in an industry where copy editors typically gave up formal maths when they were 15.

Thursday 27 June 2019

MORE wood is needed

When Dau.I and Dau.II were 7 and 9 they played Stronghold, a real-time medieval strategy game, on the computer. Voices, in a variety exaggerated regional British accents, travelled through the house and "MORE wood is needed" became a family catch-phrase. Up until about 1970, wood was The engineering material across the world. Battens, beams, braces, chairs, floors, fascia, fences, gates, joists, lintels, props, purlins, rafters, sheds, shelves, sills, soffit, stakes, studs, table-legs, T&G flooring, trusses. Now we have a variety of other options for some of these uses in metal, plastic, and foam. But there is really nothing better for lightness, cost, ease-of-handling and strength than timber. Evolution has done some serious genetic engineering to make trees and their outspreading branches so wonderfully fit for function. With that-all in mind, let's wing off the other side of the World to Lord Howe Island, a sub-tropical paradise halfway between Sydney, NSW and Norfolk Island:
And, for gawd's sake pay particular attention to Wolf Rock, a tide-washed reef off the East coast of LHI. Zoom in:
In July 2002, HMS Nottingham, a Type-42 destroyer of the British navy, was en route from Oz to NZ when she paused at LHI to allow her crew some R&R on the beach and also to airlift a critically sick sailor to hospital. On the evening of 7th July, a Normal Accident unfolded which ripped a 50m gash in the starboard side, flooded several water-tight compartments and almost caused the vessel to sink. The Admiralty report, which assigns blame to almost all the officers and commendation to almost all the crew, reads like a thriller and reminds us all to focus on what matters: which is not necessarily what causes most anxiety. A Normal Accident [multiblobboprevs] is what happens when a series of events, each comparatively innocuous, pile up on top of each other to bring disaster.

The weather wasn't great, and the ship was trying to depart from the anchorage and secure her Lynx helicopter, at the same time, in the dark. The helicopter was being secured because it had just returned to the ship with the Captain who had been ashore on a courtesy call. With the Captain away, the remaining officers failed to delegate the several tasks needed to get the shop safely out to sea and, fatally, several assumptions were made about the involvement of other personnel in the cascade of tasks that needed to be executed. The Officer of the Watch was, for example, "petrified of damaging or losing the Lynx helicopter". For far too long, for any ship under weigh in an unfamiliar anchorage, nobody thought to consult the admiralty chart on the chart table at the back of the bridge to establish the shop's position w.r.t. known hazards like Wolf Rock; and nobody took any soundings to establish how much water was under the keel. These data were especially important as there was a 500m error of estimate in the location of this obstruction. It didn't help that the Navigation Officer had to swap between 1:150,000 and 1;25,000 scale charts and that someone had drawn a pencil line across the small scale chart obscuring the Wolf Rock hazard.

At the last minute, two of the deck officers spotted a patch of white right ahead of the moving ship and did other, seemingly important, things rather than take evasive action. Ten minutes after the Captain stepped down from the helicopter there was an ominous >!krunk!< and the ship was brought up all standing on the edge of Wolf Rock.

Whatever the deficiencies in experience, navigation and ship-handling by the officers, when disaster struck, the crew jumped out of their bunks to emergency stations and acted in consort to save the ship. "The HQ1 C2 team was calm and decisive throughout. Equipment and manpower resources were well managed and the Marine Engineering Officers' performance was particularly noteworthy as was that of several of the senior rates at FRPPs [Fire and Repair party Post]. Both CMEM(M)s [Chief Marine Engineering Mechanic (Mechanical) as opposed to CMEM(L) ditto ('Lectrical)] provided top quality advice and help with shoring. Many junior rates commented on that their presence, leadership and good humour provided re-assurance in a difficult and dangerous situation and confidence that the ship would survive".

As illustrated in the damage control video I flagged on Sunday, there are no modern technological solutions to deal with water fire-hosing into a ship through a gaping hole in the side. Timber, wedges, mattresses and tarpaulins are still the tools of choice.  The first step is to stem the ingress of water from outside the hull; then the water inside the ship needs to be contained by water-tight bulkheads =walls]; simultaneously or asap the water needs to be pumped out until the water level is at least at a steady state. Water weighs in at 1 tonne per cu.m. and seamen wouldn't trust the integrity of the bulkheads against such a press of water, so they tend to shore them with baulks of timber wedged against something immovable.  Type-42 ships are inventoried with 75m of shoring timber but this was hopelessly inadequate for such a major structural insult. The Royal Australian Navy was able to supply an additional 200m of timber immediately but even this was only about half the final tally (500 m!!) for holding the ship together and above the surface.

HMS Nottingham would have been beyond economic repair but for the fact that she had been refitted and upgraded just 18 months earlier. The Admiralty accordingly spent £39million to fix her up for another 6 years of useful life before she was decommissioned and sold for scrap in 2011.

Wednesday 26 June 2019

I am your father, Luke

There are three obvious ways where a <surprise> non-paternity is revealed
a) where you are adopted and your legal parents never told you that you were discovered under a gooseberry bush
b) where your Mum kicked over the traces with a chap with whom she wasn't living
c) where, with or without the knowledge of her partner, your Mum went for a spoonful of lovin' at a clinic -  insemination by donor.
d) mix-ups with the wrist-bands in the maternity units do happen - but mostly in films
I went into the third c) category in a little detail recently when I heard that Berthold Wiesner had been liberal / flaithulach with his precious bodily fluids from 1944-1964. There I expressed the notion that it wouldn't worry me none if there was a DNA skeleton in our family closet. We already know that my great-grandfather was "a cook's bastard". If another skeleton, with more genes in common, materialised it wouldn't affect who I am.

But that's me, with blunted affect and at least a few steps along the spectrum. Other people are much more invested in their genetic relatives, presumably because they have taken up a contrary position in the nature vs nurture wars. A recent HuffPo story peels back the story on a couple of pally (but unrelated) thirty-somethings who sent some spittle into 23andMe / / myheritage without really thinking through the consequences of discovering whose sperm engendered them. HuffPo is quite huffy about the irresponsibility of people who spend their $100 on DNA analysis for a bit of a larf. The default is that your DNA becomes the company's DNA unless you explicitly try to get the genii back in the jam-jar. Therefore by extension, your family's DNA is then Out There, to be (potentially) battened onto by drug companies seeking the grail of personalised medicine or by a parcel of needy and indigent blood-relations.

HuffPo also dig a little into the competing rights to privacy / disclosure for the parents and offspring. Usually, if there is discordance in what's wanted, it's the offspring who wants a relationship with a biological parent and the parent who has moved on to other relationships and may not want youthful indiscretions to come rattling out of the closet. Almost by definition, at least 20 years will have passed since the fateful fetal meeting of sperm and egg. We've recently had a referendum which said that zygotes (as we biologists call fertilised eggs) and embryos do not have an automatic right to life. But if a pregnancy has gone to term, I think (for now - convince me otherwise) that person has a right to know who their parents are which out-bids any parental right to privacy; however inconvenient or traumatic the appearance of a child-of-loins may be. Especially that applies to the the male parent - whose biological contribution can be weighed in a very small receptacle and so should be made responsible for the consequences of that contribution.

On the wireless a couple of weeks ago we had Catherine Zappone, minister of children, talking about the provisions of the Adoption and Information Tracing Bill which is wandering through the legislative process. She hopes to authorise (and resource!) Tusla - the child and family agency - to consult the records and act as an honest broker between the competing claims of the two generations.  Honest yes but efficient and/or tenacious maybe not so much. And the state will be required to divert tax dollars towards servicing this new service. The advocates for the 'bio-orphans' are trying to tease apart privacy and secrecy: with shame embedded in Irish culture it's probably not a good idea to publish DNA parents like we publish tax-defaulters - the neighbours don't need any more salacious gossip-fodder. On the other hand, we don't want blokes hiding behind a cloak of secrecy to evade responsibility. And could we all be a bit more careful when it comes to sex?  After all "The pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous and the expense damnable" . . . and the responsibility onerous - I put it in quotes but it's not from Lord Chesterfield.

Tuesday 25 June 2019


Varadkerógánaigh [The Taoiseach's Youth] is a very long and well-fada'ed word which might become useful if Leo Varadker's blue-shirts more further to the right, start the rhetoric about Foreigners, and need some fit young people to implement the pogroms.
Years ago in a previous life when our home-educated daughters were merely a twinkle aspirational, their much older brother The Boy went to a succession of different schools (7 in three different countries UK NL US up to the age of 14) with a wide variety of ἤθη ethoses. In England, when he joined the local Catholic secondary school, he was required to wear a pale blue shirt, having experienced primrose yellow and white in previous places; each with a different tie. The uniform of my school, where I acquired my very expensive education, was consciously modelled on the fashions of the 19th century patriarchy - to which we were expected to aspire. That uniform was particularly demoralising for teenage me and I really didn't want to subject the chap to the same sort of nonsense.  I was ranting about the iniquity of school uniforms to some friends at work and may have used the phrase Hitler Youth. A fellow parent of a teenager suggested that school uniforms, far from being iniquitous, were on the contrary, equable because everyone, rich and poor, high-born and low-life, wore the same kit. And it cost the same for everyone, too. It wasn't possible to distinguish, by the externals alone, who would go far and who would go on the dole.

Harrrrumph! That struck me at the time as a specious, one-dimensional, argument. Just because every family has to buy the same uniform, doesn't make that a good idea in itself. If it was a good financial deal, kids would wear the uniform outside of school and to Mass on Sunday. But they don't (or won't); so compulsory uniforms are an additional financial burden on poor families that have clothes (that children like to wear?) enough to keep the wind and rain off already. And why do kids all have to dress the same? when they are all so different.
That's where my crack about the Hitlerjugend Hitler Youth [R, of course] came from: part of the training for soldiering, even for child-warriors, is to dehumanise the recruits with shouting and hazing and exhausting exercise so that they become interchangeable and are prepared to take one for the team in circumstances where normal people would put their head down and scuttle away to safety. Uniforms are essential to that interchangeability; and that's fine for soldiers but seems a peculiar requirement for school. It is a symbol and a symptom of the homogenisation that goes on when you cram 30 kids of the same age in the same room for 5 hours every working day. The corners get knocked off so that everyone can fit. Every unique difference and direction of curiosity gets channelled channelled into 30 units fit for the economy. Each mother's son and daughter is, of course still unique, beloved for their quirks and foibles, but they are a lot less foibly than they were as 5 y.o.s.

Now one of the invisible certainties /peculiarities of school uniforms is that, even in co-educational schools, the uniform is different for boys and girls: ties for boys, skirts for girls. Progressive schools, especially for under-11s, have moved to gender neutral track-suits in a particular colour and probably with the school emblem. Last week St Brigid's National School in Greystones is in the news for announcing that, come September, their solution to respect and inclusivity is a gender-neutral uniform policy. Apparently the change was triggered by a well-argued case from the student council; who brought it to the Principal; who brought it to the Board of Management and It Was So. Girls will be allowed to wear trousers and >!choc!< boys let wear skirts. Well, there was a red-mist STORM in the media about it. It's taken about 100 years for us to get used to women who wear trousers but the blokes (as ever) are waaaay behind. If a gender-confused or épater les bourgeois chap turned up in a skirt "he would be sure to get his head flushed down the t'ilet by the school bullies".

Whaaaat? How is that more normal, tolerable than a chap in a skirt?

Monday 24 June 2019

Prisoners at home

Kids (perhaps particularly boys?) who live in the country are particularly precocious when it comes to machinery. From an early age, at least at midterm break, they have been in the cab of Dad's JCB or tractor paying attention. When we were rebuilding our current gaff in 1996, the 10 y.o. son of the contractor would amuse himself, and polish his arm-eye coordination, by reversing his father's 4x4 and trailer round the corner and into our gateway . . . again and again, from both directions, up and down hill. Two years later, a construction flaw blocked our septic system and needed a JCB to dig out the pipework. The same chap, now 12, drove the JCB for 30km on the public road a) because he could b) because his dad was driving the 4x4.  All fine and good fun until something goes wrong and then damage is done and the father is reprimanded, fined, imprisoned - proportional to the damage.

At about the same time, our neighbour above left his 9 y.o. son in his jeep outside our gate while he was counting sheep. The chap decided "to help" by doing a 3 point turn so that the car was facing home.  He disappeared the near-side back wheel into the drain and couldn't get it out - small red face. Naturally his father, with 40 years more experience driving vehicles in adverse circumstances, was able to extricate his wheels without seeking outside help.

For 22 years we have been sharing the lane with that same super competent, fiercely independent, quite curmudgeonly farmer. Fiercely independent involves a certain amount of not listening to advice and not caring much about collateral damage as you go about fomenting cunning plans to turn a legal penny. I've written about how 5 tonnes of sewage sludge was delivered to the lane just downhill from our front gate rather in our neighbour's field just north of our garden.  You might think he'd learn from the trouble that caused. But no, the idea of free fertiliser sent a rush of blood to his head and last week he ordered ten! 20 tonne loads of  sludge to be delivered up our narrow, steep and poorly surfaced lane from the sewage farm that services Kilkenny City 40km away to the West.

Fiercely independent doesn't ask permission or warn neighbours not to hang laundry for several days until the smell dissipates. Rather it causes a 20 y.o. fellow to be employed by a haulage company, which is under contract to Enva [was Veolia], which is under contract to Irish Water, which is under contract to Kilkenny CoCo, to pick up the first load of sludge and marry it to a set of GPS coordinates in the next county. 

First we heard about this plan was a slllooowwwly approaching rig, grinding up the lane . . . and finally bogging where the pitch changes from 8% to 12% just above our house. The driver retreated, tried again in a different gear and bogs again; gouging an inconsistency in the lane's surface into a deeper and less negotiable pot-hole. I went out to talk (calmly - getting all shouty won't help) to him and suggest that he backs his rig into our gateway and take his shit back to Kilkenny. He demurs and elects to back all the way - 300m - down the lane [don't forget the slope] and turn at the bottom onto the county road. There is about 1m clearance but the lane is not arrow-straight and definitely not flat or solid as to surface. About halfway down he contrives to push one of the 3 back wheels of his tractor trailer into the drain and cannot deliver enough traction to get out again.

The immediate consequence (nobody hurt!) is that the lane is totally blocked and are trapped in our little piece of paradise for 6 hours. Meanwhile the chap; the chap's line manager; our farming neighbour above = the sewage contractee; our farming neighbour below who has been driving machinery for 50 years; and sundry others work out how to clear the obstruction without a) killing anybody b) doing further damage to property c) damaging machinery or spilling any sludge [been there, shovelled that]. The Final Solution brought in a loader from Kilkenny and a 3.2m wide tracked digger from Wexford to push-me-pull-you the sludge trailer out of the drain and off the lane. The tracked digger had to go across three fields and two small rivers to approach the sludge truck from above. It took nearly an hour for Sludge-boy just to reverse his rig round the corner and onto the county road . . . mainly because he wouldn't listen to the advice of at least 4 much older men who had a collective 100 years of experience in such matters.

When you're young you are ignorant, because you haven't been on the planet long enough to gain knowledge and experience. But when you won't heed advice and you lack to capacity to try a new way of doing things (albeit under pressure) then people around you will start  to think you are stupid . . . and a liability. Word is that the young fellow will be let go and have to seek another line of work.

Sunday 23 June 2019


Saturday 22 June 2019

Tef makes Injera

I don't know about you, but sometimes I wonder at having had +20 years of formal education and still being plug ignorant about so much. What with switching from Arts to Science and all the gap years, I didn't pour out into the job market until I was 29 [that's twenty-nine!]. That's not to say I didn't work before that. I had earned money as a zoo-keeper, hospital porter, farm-labourer, book-seller, author, teacher, van-driver, fruit-picker; but mostly I spent the time acquiring and analysing information.

If I was asked to name the members of Graminaceae = the grass family which humans regularly eat I'd furrow my brow to list:
  • wheat Triticum aestivum
    • pasta wheat Triticum durum
    • eincorn Triticum monococcum
    • spelt Triticum spelta
  • rice Oryza sativa
  • corn Zea mays
  • barley Hordeum vulgare
  • rye Secale cereale
  • oats Avena sativa
  • millet Pennisetum glaucum
  • milo Sorghum bicolor 
Would I have been certain that quinoa Chenopodium quinoa was not a grass? Maybe not, unless I could remember its Latin name [always helpful but often a struggle] because Chenopodium bonus-henricus good-king-henry and Chenopodium album fat-hen used to help fatten our hens, when we had some. Would I have remembered that, like wheat, there are several different species of millet of which P. glaucum is the most common? Maybe. What about Sorgum? one edible species or several? And I know something about the wheat/rye hybrid Triticale from my couple of years in plant genetics.

But I don't think I've ever known that the major staple in Ethiopia is another grass called teff Eragrostis tef . More people sit down to breakfast on the teff pancake called injera than live in Ireland. Heck 'n' jimminy tho' - this version says it takes five [5!] days of fermenation to make a batch, so you're going to need a set of plastic bowls rotating through the kitchen for the rest of your life. Here's another recipe with English subtitles because it is so authentico. Use only Bob's Red Mill Teff Flour! the only authentic original and best variety.

Teff has been in trouble because of the relentless forces of globalisation. The grains are tiny, and so difficult to handle, but growing the stuff supports thousands of small farmers (about 10% of the population!) across Ethiopia and Eritrea. And they do it in a way that, compared to the Iowa corn belt, is super inefficient. It almost became the next superfood for hipsters in The West. For them it would have been a fashion accessory but demand would likely have driven many of the small teff -farmers to the wall as multinational agribusiness moved in to raise yields. Health and Performance Food International (HPFI) took out patent protection across Europe because they had 'discovered' teff and wanted to market it as a gluten-free, high mineral woowah food. Food safety experts wouldn't have voted for threshing the panicles with a handful of [whoa defecating] cattle. The Ethiopian government moved in to limit the export of teff flour as a way of maintaining the status quo and a way of life that is thousands of years old. But for how long? There are more black hats than Monsanto!

Friday 21 June 2019

Longest day

That would be today, 21st June, when the difference between sunrise and sunset in the Northern hemisphere is greatest. That's because the tilt of the Earth w.r.t. its orbital plane is at a max and will then start to get less and less until the Winter solstice on 22nd December. See what I did there? This year's Winter solstice won't be on the 21st of anything although most folks think that the 21st is the date.  Sometimes the Summer solstice is on the 20th and sometimes the Winter solstice is on the 22nd. I knew that! . . . but thought it might be chaotic because the calculation involves two incommensurate phenomena - the spin of the Earth round its axis and its spin round the Sun. But I was wrong, the change of time when the tilt maxxes out and starts to fall is really reg'lar:
The times on the vertical axis are calibrated in hours after the beginning of the 20th June. The horizontal axis is the dates of this century. Only points above the 24.00 line are happening on the 21st. So solstice this year is at tea-time 15.54 GMT but next year will be just before Midnight of the 20th. As it was in 2008, 2012 and 2016. I abstract the data [from the Grauniad] and do the calcs so you don't have to. A bit more explanation about annual rotations from Blob Winter 2015.
Don't be caught napping! if you miss the Solstice, the sky will fall.

Thursday 20 June 2019

Scaling up

My pal the Lion of Punjab came with another (smaller) parcel of mushrooms Agaricus bisporus [prev parcel] which I accepted gratefully. In an excess of enthusiasm for his work, he suggested that we should bring our undergraduate students to visit the Ashtown Teagasc Food Research Centre, where he works. I said that was unlikely to happen because the external visit rota was more or less set in stone. But the suggestion reminded me of a 1992 field-trip we made with undergraduates from TCD to a mushroom farm. Those field trips were quite the opposite of set in stone: over the 3 years when I was a designated driver ferrying students round the country we visited a stud farm (Equus caballus); an AI centre (Bos taurus); a fish farm (Salmo trutta); a brewery (Saccharomyces cerevisiae); as well as the mushroom farm in Edenderry, King's County.

It was really interesting to see how things scaled up in order to supply tonnes of mushrooms to supermarkets rather than going out into early morning fields and woods with hope and a basket. Edenderry was picked as the site because it was conveniently close to The Curragh of Kildare where there are more equine stud farms and livery stables than pubs and petrol stations. Horse shit is the gold standard for growing Agaricus bisporus; as you will know if you have been mushroom picking where horses have grazed. Horses are not ruminants and have a relatively short digestive tract, so they produce prodigious quantities of dung.  I'm guessing that fungal spores pass through unscathed. I've spent a bit of time recently making compost . . . with a garden fork and a sieve. If you're in the business of raising horses, especially if you are buying in hay and nuts, then the horse-shit is going to overwhelm the ability of your paddocks and gallops to absorb it. In 1992, I think the mushroom farm / stud farm relationship was cost-neutral: by turning one man's dross into gold.
  • Every few days, a forty tonne truck would do the rounds of the stud-farms and take their dung-heaps back to Edenderry. 
  • The dung was emptied into a large concrete area surrounded by a block wall 2m tall. 
  • There it was actively processed by tractors with front loaders - shovel and turn; shovel and turn - until it had been considerably reduced in bulk [huge invisible plume of CO2 and methane] by microbial action. 
    • I am assuming that aerobic bacteria worked their wonders more efficiently than leaving the material around in anaerobic heaps. 
  • When that digestion was judged to have finished; the compost was loaded into wooden trays 2.4 x 1.2 x 0.6 m in size and loaded into a steam sterilising oven. 
  • The trays were emptied into hoppers, mixed with mushroom spores and dispensed into 40kg sacks. 
  • The sacks were left in super-cleansed black plastic poly-tunnels until the bag was run through with fungal mycelia and the fruiting bodies started to emerge on the top of each sack.
    • It was like pop-corn popping - first one, then a few, then a barrage, then the rate trailed off . . .
  • In 1992 the mushrooms were harvested by local people. Nowadays all the workers are probably from East of the Oder-Neiße line: PL LV LT EE RO etc
Back in 1992, they used to give the 'spent mushroom compost' away to anyone; although much of the nutritional value had been shipped out as mushrooms; there was still enough mulchy material remaining to give body to a garden or a raised bed in a garden. Mushrooms were still being produced but not at a sufficiently high rate to justify house room in a commercial concern: a meal's worth over the next week??

I guess, as a source of food, spent compost was worth having but not worth making a distant trek to obtain.

Wednesday 19 June 2019

Space the final frontier

We are almost at the finish of this year's journey at The Institute. The exams are sat, the exams are marked, the students are happy or disappointed and we're all looking at 10 weeks of Summer. Yesterday I was at two final Faculty meetings, because I teach across such an absurdly broad range of subjects.

Apart from Summer, everyone is looking forward to building and equipping and using a promised new Science Building - which I am determined to have named after local hero Yvonne Barr. The contractors have a damn-fool specific limit to the build footprint of 1063 sq.m. No, not 1065! You can see where it came from: innumerate bureaucrats at the Dept Education approve the new building in principle and pull a price out of the air: we'll give them €1.2million. They then consult the manual of build-costs for schools and colleges from the Institute of Quantity Surveyors and divide €1.2million by €1128 per sq.m . . . et voilà 1063 sq.m.  It's never enough! A shiny new building is an opportunity to play your best game with the best equipment and the best facilities and it's only going to come once in a teaching life-time. But every new feature, every aspiration, every required gender-neutral bathroom eats into that rigidly defined footprint.
At the Health / Sport / Rehab / Athletic / Strength & Conditioning faculty meet there was a long, and generally respectful, fight discussion between the advocates for a Dexa Scanner room and the future users of a Sports Rehab clinic. In the compromises and negotiations, the Rehab clinic had been shaved from a comfortable 100 sq.m. to a cramped 80 sq.m. losing a corner of "their" space to a 20 sq.m. storage room. The Dexa-scanner room was also allocated 20 sq.m. but there was no Dexa-scanner [Above, driven by the symmetrical lady in the white coat] in the budget. Could the Dexa-scanner room double-up in space or in time as a store?  Dexa is really DEXA dual energy X-ray absorptiometry - a radiation source that can measure bone-density. It is an important diagnostic tool for osteoporosis and also for strength and conditioning and elite athletic coaching.  But "X-rays"give administrators and health&safety people the screaming abdabs and one regulation requires the presence of one qualified radiologist for every machine. Quite apart from costing North of €30K. So it may never happen.

And what do they need storage for?  Among other things, for a dozen or so Electrotherapy trolleys [R]. As far as I can tell from Google images, an electrotherapy trolley ETT is exactly the same as a tea-trolley except as regards price. Like a jam-jar costs 3c but a "semen capture and retention receptacle" as used so many times by Berthold Wiesner is in the medical supplies catalogue at £30.  The debate went back-and-forth across the floor-plans until I suggested that all rooms have a 3rd dimension called Up: would it be possible to load up half the ETTs onto a hydraulic shelf such as you see at the back of delivery trucks? These could be lifted up and the rest of the ETT herd corralled underneath. That would effectively half the required storage space allowing that much more elbow room for the Rehab effectives. Other useful suggestions were made for secure storage that didn't require a separate room - 'bicycle' locks and cages - and eventually that agenda item was put to bed.

Where do the ideas come from? With l'esprit d'escalier [prev] as I was driving home from work after the meeting, I recalled that we had been delayed twice on the ferry crossing on our Bank-Holiday road trip because I was driving a little red Yaris. All the smaller cars without roof racks were sent up a ramp to a mezzanine deck and had to wait at disembarkation until the trucks and 4x4s underneath had been unloaded. That was the grit that niggles, which had helped create my pearl of wisdom at a Faculty meeting two weeks later.

Tuesday 18 June 2019

K for Banana?

Most people go the other way round: Banana for K [= potassium]; believing that bananas are a rich source of potassium and also that most of us are chronically short of the stuff. We need nearly 5g of potassium every day [advised intake AI = 4,700mg/day] to keep up with the amount we are peeing out. The balance between potassium and sodium is critical to correct muscle and nerve function, and the kidneys work hard to claw these ions back from the flow but inevitably some dribbles away  and must be replaced.

I heard last week that it is A Thing to keep orchids supplied with banana skins, which caused little twinges in my crap-detector: Why bananas? Why orchids? Who says?  At least it gives me an excuse to find a picture [R] of Ophrys apifera the bee orchid. The flowers have been driven by evolution to develop a structure than looks uncannily like a solitary female bee. It is sufficiently realistic (in shape and smell) to induce a male solitary bee to attempt "pseudocopulation" with the flower and carry away a delivery of pollen to the next plant where he will try again to hump the sofa.

The why bananas could be due to either of two attributes: the potassium or the ethylene (C2H4).
Potassium is a silly reason to use bananas for this reason because there are an alphabet of fruit and vegetables that are a richer source of potassium than bananas: avocados, beans, chard . . . Please use the avocadoes because they are virtually indestructible in the compost pile - I sift out their stones and skin whenever I process our compost heaps.

Ethylene is a gas, one of the really simple beginners building blocks for organic chemistry. It can be polymerised in the presence of a catalyst - often Titanium III chloride - and then extruded as sheets or threads to make polythene. We get through a helluva lot of the stuff each year - around 100 million tonnes according to the industry. But long before plastics, ethylene was being used by plants as a hormone /pheromone to promote flowering and ripening of fruit. Bananas and other fruit give off ethylene as they ripen which brings on the process in surrounding fruit; which creates a cascade effect. This coordinated action may confer some evolutionary advantage - overwhelming potential predators with a glut, maybe? CO2 contrariwise slows down fruit ripening and this gas is used on banana boats (as well as chillin') to allow the fruit to arrive still green in Waterford several weeks after picking.

Why orchids is another conundrum to me. I can find lots of assertions that the banana - orchid axis is A Good Thing but very little evidence that the associative effects are any better than random. I'm going with my essay on the etymology of the word orchid [όρχις = orchis is the Greek for testicle] and suggest that any banana-benefit peculiar to orchids is a load of bollix.

Monday 17 June 2019

Der Tag

Spiced carrot and walnut cake, with maple and cardamom cream cheese frosting. Tiny carrots on top, non-negotiable. 🥕🥕🥕🥕 [Source].  Expecting delivery of similar later in the week.
I was born
I R Old
I will be fat.

Sunday 16 June 2019

Father's Day

Always round about my birthday, which helpfully increases the likelihood of getting Cake from my childer. Let us celebrate the relentless rise of The Dad Joke, a thing that didn't exist when my father was alive: so he developed his own style.
Pa: Apparently an actress just killed herself.
Ma: Oh my! Who!?
Pa: Dunno . . . I think her name was Reese something?
Ma: WITHERSPOON!!!!!???????
Pa: No, it was with a knife...
Today, my son asked "Can I have a book mark?"
I burst into tears. 11 years old and he still doesn't know my name is Bob.
I'm reading a book about anti-gravity. It's impossible to put down!
I ordered a chicken and an egg from Amazon. I’ll let you know.
A slice of apple pie is $2.50 in Jamaica and $3.00 in the Bahamas. 
These are the pie rates of the Caribbean.
My friend keeps saying "cheer up man it could be worse, 
you could be stuck underground in a hole full of water." 
I know he means well.
Man at a funeral: "Can I say a word?"
Widow: "Surely"
Man: "Plethora"
Widow: "Thanks, that means a lot"
Why can't you hear a pterodactyl go to the bathroom? 
Because the pee is silent.
What did the pirate say on his 80th birthday? 
What's the best part about living in Switzerland? 
I don't know, but the flag is a big plus.

Bloomsday 16 June 19

It's Bloomsday, as it is every 16th June, lots of events going on in and around Dublin. Leopold Bloom was a bit of a card "Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine. Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray. Gelid light and air were in the kitchen but out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere. Made him feel a bit peckish.”
It's also Barbara "Transposon" McClintock's bday today. Though she be but little, she was first:

Saturday 15 June 2019

Mancunian Realpolitik

With Brexit turning a new leaf with the departure of Theresa May, there's a lot of talk about the Good Friday Agreement GFA. It's hard to believe that was signed 21 years ago, when I had a lot more hair and was fully committed to the European dream. The easy analysis of the GFA is that it was greatly facilitated by the fact that both parts of Ireland were part of an increasingly homogeneous Europe and so there was no need for a border . . . or  border-checks; security for those border checks; armed British squaddies to protect those checks and checkers; block-houses to protect the squaddies; all of which were potential targets for escalating The Troubles. Europe (as the Common Market) was for sure part of the solution, but it was an agreement brokered after years of negotiations by people of good faith who were prepared to compromise; who were able to recognise the opposition; who weren't rigid over red line issues; who could take an overall, holistic view of a complex problem and come up with a least-worst document that all parties could sign up to.

Part of that process was the recognition by the British establishment that they couldn't continue to ignore Irish Republicanism. From 1988-1994, a long list of proscribed organisations associated with the troubles, were forbidden to be heard speaking on British media. You could read the words in the newspaper, but the words of The Other were invested with such demonic power that the BBC [et al.] couldn't broadcast, say, Gerry Adams talking. Farcically, it was okay to have a voice-actor lip-synch Uncle Gerry's speeches. It was an attempt, albeit inept, to prevent Sinn Féin and the IRA from getting their message out in the public domain; providing an alternative rhetoric from the Unionism of the United Kingdom. So the IRA communicated their message in a different >!booom!< language - making it increasingly expensive for the British economy to persist in ignoring the elephant [LoxodontIRA hibernensis] in room. The biggest bang went up in Central Manchester on this day 15th June 1996 - exactly 23 years ago.
That morning, an IRA active service unit loaded 3 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, some Semtex, a timer and percussion fuses into a large van in London. They drove up the motorway into central Manchester and parked on a double yellow line at 0920hrs, set the timer, put on the hazard lights and walked round the corner to the getaway car. Three minutes later they got a parking ticket. At 0940, a call was put through to the local TV station to give a 1 hour warning. With commendable efficiency, the security forces evacuated 75,000 people from the immediate area and at 1120 the van went up with a bang, taking a lot of glass out and doing nearly £1bn worth of insurable damage to the area. Nobody died but 200 were injured as the debris rained down on people standing outside the police cordon.

The British police and internal security knew within a short while who had carried out the attack but it was felt that arresting the perps and attempting a prosecution would not help bring the troubles to an end. It is not clear who made this realpolitikal decision but it rankled within another unelected constituency The Fourth Estate, in the person of Steve Panter, chief crime reporter at the Manchester Evening News. He ferretted around among his contacts on both sides of the fuzzy boundary between black and white hats and in April 1999, three years later, released the name of the chief suspect on the M.E.N. front page. He came within an ace of being banged up in chokey for not shopping his sources for this information.  Omerta about revealing your sources is put out by journalists as a key point of their ethical position and some of them are prepared to go to jail for the principle. You can read his version of the story in this Twenty Years On retrospective.  But the judge put his finger on the arithmetic of these principles. “Would that extend to permitting a wholly innocent man to face the risk of conviction and sentence?”. In the judge's view, it's not just the journalist who is in the scales of justice when the high moral ground is occupied.

Consumption - sooo yesterday

For the visit me mother over the last bank-holiday weekend and we had to marshall the troops [Dau.I and Dau.II] the night before catching an early ferry. Dau.II arrived first and made herself handy in the garden (her garden in Cork is a pot on basil on the windowsill so wielding a shovel and some secateurs is pure holiday). Sitting over tea-and-a-wedge [of sourdough] afterwards said said she'd been showing a pal some tiny home videos.  I can't find any mention in The Blob archive which is strange because we both have a bit of a thing about living a super-simple clutter-free existence - which would be forced on anyone who chose to live in a box 2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5m (there or there-abouts). The Pal had never thought about that sort of thing to the extent of surfing youtube in search of yet another nifty multi-function space-saving wheeze.

There is a recent voice-of-pundit on Vox which asks "What is something we [all] buy into now that will be totally unacceptable [what were they/we thinking?] from the perspective of 2070?". Peter Singer's contribution was not about trolleology and ethics of being over there rather than here in my face. Rather he thinks that conspicuous consumption will be totally unacceptable [R is a bling sweater as an ironic comment on the practice] in an enlightened future: because everyone will agree that nobs (rich people who show it) are knobs (slighty dopey people who are pitied rather than adulated). If we're to acheive this in the next 50 years we will have to ban advertising which is what creates the desire for stuff that consumes a wholly unsatisfying amount of our income. Take a leaf out of Dau.II's book of life-skills "We lack for nothing. Why, there are four sorts of cheese in the fridge" [prev] there is no way that young woman is going to embrace debt to service the acquisition of stuff. If rich people can think of nothing better to do with their wealth than burn $100 bills in their country clubs on Nob Hill, then there will be a revolution and they will be the first up against the wall . . . to be laughed to scorn for their childish vanity.

Did someone mention consumption?? Other essays in the Vox series includes Melanie Joy's condemnation of Carnism - the pervasive worldview that eating cows, pigs and chickens is, far more than being acceptable, almost an essential part of Western culture. From a chicken in every pot on Sundays many of us would feel bereft if we didn't have something meaty 3 or more times every day. Dr Joy advises that, as we tear into society's acceptable agri-beasts, we imagine eating cats, dogs, giant pandas and koalas. If that's not enough to put a stop to your meaty gallop, you might visit a slaughterhouse once in a while. We take kids on school trips to Coca-Cola bottling plants; it would be unthinkable to arrange a similar visit to Dawn Meats. And nobody has mentioned halal slaughter which is actively targetted by the Western media as inhumaner than the normal acceptable process which most of them have never seen. The presumptive power of the meat 'packing' industry and agribusiness manages to slide the carbon-footprint of cattle [30% in Ireland!] off the table when discussing measures to mitigate climate change! Meat free Monday would be a thin end of the wedge towards more ethical compassionate behaviour which would also help the planet breathe a little easier. In 50 years that wedge might have been driven as far as meat only on Sunday. You'll appreciate it all the more for making it a treat rather than unconsidered calories. I won't, I'll be defo dead in 50 years.

I found some of the other 15 predictions are less easy to assimilate because they forced me to question my certainties

Friday 14 June 2019

Who am I?

After What is Life? and Is there a God? the fundamental existential question might be Who am I? and Where do I come from? For most of us it's straightforward: we have a Mammy and Dad, siblings, a birth certificate. If we ever want to know Where are my people buried? then we can just ask The Folks . . . or Auntie Em, if the parents are reticent or dead. Things are not so easy when the birth-cert father turns out not to be the genetic father. But that can provide an interesting insight into the relative weight of genes and environment nature vs nurture.

My Brother txtd me one evening to ask if I'd ever sent some spittle to 23andMe [prev], or equivalent, for DNA testing. My response "I wouldn't do it without you. These tests are grand for telling you that you have red hair and cystic fibrosis [which you surely knew already] but are much less reliable at telling you how much Neanderthal, Jewish or Xorgian 'blood' you have and therefore not worth $100 of edutainment".  It is marginally more interesting to send in a batch of sibling spit because that will give everyone a handle on what the error-of-estimate is when they say that you are 43% Cajun. otoh, if the genetic pedigree answer is wildly different between sibs, it strongly implies non-paternity in some members of the family. Which is not necessarily something that we all wish to bring to the surface. I've ruminated on the issue before.

It turned out that The Brother's after-dark interest in paternity was triggered by the fact that he was talking to 'one of Berthold Wiesner's children'.  Maybe even the swaddled infant on Wiesner's lap [R]??
Never 'eard of 'im!  But I assumed, in the conversational context, that Wiesner was one of the pioneers of DNA sequencing technology.

Turns out Wiesner is rather the opposite of non-paternity, having been the sperm-donor for an estimated 600 children born 40 weeks later in and around the London Fertility Clinic of his wife Mary Barton. In those patriarchal times, it was unthinkable that failure to conceive might be anything other than the woman's fault. In her previous marriage, as a medical missionary at the frontier of the British Raj, Mary had seen the shitty end of the stick being brought down violently on the heads of women for failing to deliver a son. She realised that it takes two to tango and that male infertility was going to be at least as much of a problem among affluent Brits as among Pathans up the Khyber. In 1939 she was divorced and in 1943 married Wiesner an, originally Austrian, physiologist who was interested in the hormonal control of pregnancy.

Over the next few years Dr Barton told her clients that she could sort them a teaspoonful of quality semen from a stud of highly intelligent, good looking donorS. But the most convenient source of this precious bodily fluid was her husband who was at least symmetrical and not demonstrably stupid. When they published their interim findings in the BMJ in 1945, there was a predictable shit-storm of condemnation from Geoffrey Fisher, the predecessor of Michael Ramsey as AB of C, and Pope Pius XII. The full text of the 1945 paper is a real eye-opener about the causes of infertility and practicalities of insemination. Cases of married men with viable sperm who just cannot get it up make me wonder whether the poor chaps just weren't excited by women. For blokes who have a very low sperm-count, the clinic could provide an in vitro centrifugal sperm concentration service. The authors realise that asking the husband's brother for a contribution is fraught with ethical and practical difficulties. AI provided an opportunity to check the semen for infective microbes . . . and do something about it.

After the very public hoo-har, the clinic pulled in its horns [fnarrr!] but carried on the same services discretely and profitably for another 20 years. By the time Wiesner was all wanked out retired, an estimated 1500 successful conceptions had been carried out at the clinic. The clinic closed in 1969 and the records were discretely disappeared. Jonathan Wiesner, the legitimate son of Barton and Wiesner got his DNA sequenced in 2007, which data serves as a template against which possible half-sibs can identify themselves. Thirty, all above average of course, have since joined the club.  Not ALL of Mary Barton's deliveroos were 'by' Wiesner. Other suspects include JD Bernal [prev] and JBS Haldane [prev] - the still [R] is from the film Offspring by Barry Stevens Not a Son of Wiesner but who has discovered a congenial half-brother in his search for genidentity.

Because patriarchal me knows where I come from [King's County etc.]. I'm tickled, rather than shamed, by the idea that my great-grandfather was the 'natural' son of the Laird and his red-headed cook.

Thursday 13 June 2019


Sphagnum [above a little more than life-size] is pillowing over my awareness horizon because Charles W. Cathcart was mentioned as part of a wikipedia Did you know: tag. There was a time in 1982 when I knew a helluva lot about Sphagnum from a class assignment in graduate school but if you don't use it you lose it and what I now know about moss can be written on a postage-stamp in the 630 words which you are now reading.

In 1982, I was a star-struck groupie of Lynn Margulis taking her eccentric but brilliant course BI504 Evolution. As part of "Organism Day" we were each requested & required to write an essay on any living species - its biogeographical  distribution, ecological niche and evolutionary relationships - and bring an example to class. That morning everyone made a presentation about their chosen organism and took questions. I had recently read a report by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) about Gowing's Swamp in Concorde, Mass. That's Henry "Walden" Thoreau [prev]! Accordingly, I borrowed a car and drove out to find Gowing's Swamp [before GPS, and smart phones] which was behind a school near Revolutionary Ridge. Thoreau (and I) caught the swamp at a snap shot in its transition from a pond to dry land - a process called succession by ecologists. I scooped a little clump of Sphagnum moss into a tupperware container; ready for delivery in class. But obsessive me was unable to determine which of the ~380 species of Sphagnum I might have in my hand. With a great deal of chutzpah, I arranged to take some of it to the world's expert on the taxonomy of mosses, who was a professor across the river in Harvard. Organism Day was a really good learning experience for us students - Margulis realised that content is the least important part of learning in college - process means much more in the long run.

One of the "this is nifty" bits of information I included in my report was the fact that sphagnum was used in WWI as a sterile wound-dressing. It is amazingly absorbant - able to hold 20x its own weight in water. That water is almost always acidic because sphagnum acts as an ion exchange column taking in Mg++ and Ca++ and sending out H+. That acidity discourages a lot of microbes from growing. It also took only 20 years to destroy the copper pipe-work in our mountainy home where the well-water has been filtered through centuries of sphagnum and peat. In addition, Sphagnum cell walls include a variety of phenolic compounds which, like phenol itself and TCP, are mildly antiseptic. Charles Cathcart and Isaac Balfour, the Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh wrote an article in The Scotsman extolling its virtues despite the fact that the Germans had been using the stuff for the previous 30 years. In the real-ekonomik of materials in war time, cotton fibres were needed for gun cotton [structure above R] rather than cotton wool AND had to be imported through U-boat wolf-packs AND was less absorbant AND was not naturally antiseptic.  Sphagnum moss otoh grew in abundance across the uplands of the British Isles [they were all British in 1914]. In an early example of crowdsourcing, women and children were mobilised for moss drives to gather the raw material. In Germany this part of the process was carried out by Allied PoWs as well as civilians. The pickers were instructed to box-clever “fill the sacks only about three-quarter full, drag them to the nearest hard ground, and then dance on them to extract the larger percentage of water.” Water is water and it's heavy, so you don't want to schlep it about the world - better to ship orange-juice concentrate from the warm lands of the south and reconstitute from the tap close to final destination.

Wednesday 12 June 2019

Unclean unclean

<Insert bell emoticon> [if you believe in emoticons . . . and have leprosy]. Last week was a bit slack, between the end of exams and the meeting to allocate final marks. I went in to The Institute only once to save the planet from the carbon footprint of several 80km round trips. There is only so much bloggin' a fellow can do at home without turning into a Shawshank Redemption extra, so I did some outdoor work. The real driver was to find some compost to fill the bottomless buckets to plant out the beans and courgettes that we started from seed 3 weeks earlier.  We have a parallel composting 'system' made with walls of 10cm concrete blocks; which would be more functional if there were more people to create kitchen waste.
  • A row of three 'domestic' bins [as above]: for kitchen peelings, 'good' garden weeds and some lawn-mowings
  • A row of three annual bins: for more pernicious weeds and enormous quantities of spoil from Autumn clean-ups
  • Fresh matter is started at one end of the row; left to rot a bit; occasionally turned . . . with a fork; when full, it is turned into the middle bin; which mixes things up and gets the top layer closer to the worms; that bin is left for a while and then turned into the last bin.
  • In order to make room in the last bin, it must be cleared. It should be then a "friable loam", full of goodness, suitable for nourishing the beans, tomatoes, chard and whatever is surviving under our 'care and attention'.
Should be a friable loam but only becomes that if the end-product is sieved out. We have a couple of garden sieves but they are a bit pathetic for high through-put. This year I used one of our collection heavy-duty plastic grocery crates. They have uniform holes in the base and are designed to be held in both hands = sieve! The result of my exertions yielded:
  • 8 bags of friable loam
  • a heap of ash-roots 
    • which strike up from the surrounding trees and penetrate the compost heaps
    • this is an excellent reason for being more active in the process of turning the compost: the heap is harder to work the longer the roots are left undisturbed
  • a couple of bags of 'lumps'
    • where do the stones come from? 
    • avocado stones do not bio-degrade
  • a bucketful of rubbish
    • where does the tinsel come from?
    • those orange paint-chips are from the last lawn-mower
    • tea-bags do not bio-degrade
One thing that I didn't really appreciate until recently is that the composting process is entire microbiological. The worms have only an ancillary mixing role - their gut flora is doing the heavy lifting. The microbes - bacteria and fungi - are chomping their way through the grass-clippings; banana skins and cabbage stalks. I make their work easier if I increase the surface area of the kitchen waste with a rough chop before throwing in the kitchen bin. It's a balance: I really want the trillions of microbes to do the heavy lifting because I'm getting too old and feeble. But a helping hand from me with a kitchen knife or garden fork is a great help to the process.