Monday, 30 September 2019

Suttee

The interests and obsessions of The Blob include a) end of life issues and b) women of STEM. Fiction, not so much; but I do recognise that Science is the A way of knowing and that the Arts Block can give insights into the human condition and living your best life which are both useful and beyond the scope of science. So I should have been delighted with As We Are Now by May Sarton, which I finished reading last weekend. May Sarton was the only child of George Sarton, who made a stab at writing the first comprehensive history of science. His Introduction to the History of Science started at the beginning and after 3 volumes and 4,000 pages had go as far as 1400. Chunks of this mammoth tome have been scanned in for digital access. Clearly he was a chap who needed a ruthless copy-editor.

May Sarton was better at the distillation process because As We Are Now is only 120 pages but offers a compelling insight into how the old are discarded when they are no longer useful, even before they start to get whiffy. Not all useless mouths you may be sure but enough of them across all classes and communities that it is a recognised trope. I won't get over-analytical but there is a hint that As We Are Now reprises the 1st sentence of LP Hartley's The Go Between: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The tendency to park the old is rather weak in our immediate neighbourhood where I can think of three homes within about 5km where The Elder occupied a seat in the corner of the kitchen until the very end. In all those cases, the old person was included and continued to make diminishing contributions to family life even if it was reading stories to the kids or knitting another woolly hat [Jakers, enough with the hats, already].

The protagonist of May Sarton's book is Miss Spenser, a retired math teacher in Boondocks, USA who lived a life of culture and discernment; taught generations of teens; travelled to Europe before you could fly there; and continued to read and write after her official retirement. All was grand until she had a heart-attack and was moved to her brother's house in a different part of the State: torn from the familiar and having to learn where the light-switches were in her sister-in-law's home. The two women didn't get on and the brother was (like pretty much all the blokes I know, including self) useless at brokering a deal between the three of them so that they could adapt to the new regime. A little kindness goes a long way in such situations.

All too soon for Miss Spenser she is delivered to a rough and ready nursing home run by a snobbish, over-worked, casually cruel woman and her grown-up daughter. The book was published in 1973, but you may bet that similar places exist wherever regulation and inspection is imperfect. Even after the RTE exposé of bullying and elder-abuse in Aras Attracta in 2014, HIQA receives hundreds of complaints each year including 12 about an unexpected death.
Q. Who is doing the complaining?
A. The family. They are the only ones who have skin in the game . . . and lack the resources (emotional, physical, financial, logistical) to manage elder care in their own homes. It costs a lot to refit your home for wheelchair access: the bathroom rails, draining floor, spring-loaded toilet seat?

In this not so fresh hell, Miss Spenser makes the best fist of it that she can and begins to acknowledge that her contempt for her sister-in-law was a) largely unjustified and b) totally self-destructive. And begins to form new relationships that depend not on common culture and intellectual discourse but on other aspects of empathy and mutual respect. So far so good: quite edgy, insightful, with the ring of truth. But May Sarton was a poet and novelist: this is is a novel. As she puts down each vignette of trial and character development, she realises that there must be an ending as well as a beginning and and middle. There aren't too many options:

  1. Miss Spenser dies
  2. Her brother and sister-in-law die and she gets to live in their house
  3. One of her several external visitors takes pity on her and finds the resources to bring her into the bosom of a different family.
  4. Miss Spenser thinks "I'll make an end of this and take them all with me in blazing finale".

The title of the post will give you a clue that the wrap-up chosen by the author was abrupt, lazy and unlikely. The book is nevertheless not without value and won't take you as long to read as George Sarton's heavier contribution to the canon.

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Last Sept link fest

As you read this I'll be bumbling through South Wales with Dau.II on a bit of a Thelma and Louise. So . . .
Other matters:

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Them Crittenden Brothers

George Bibb Crittenden (March 20, 1812) and Thomas Leonidas Crittenden (May 15, 1819) were both sons of Republican politician John J. Crittenden and both of them served as generals in the American War Between The States . . . but on different sides.

George threw in his lot with the Confederacy and was in charge at the Battle of Mill Springs when the Confererates sustained their first significant defeat. Georhe's military career went downhill after that, the slide notably lubricated by dhrink. He was cashiered for dereliction or duty and drunkeness three months later, restored to rank two weeks later and finally resigned his commission in October 1862.

Thomas fought for the Union and rose to be a General in The Army of the Cumberland. During the blame-game following the Battle of Chickamauga - a major Union defeat. Thomas was removed from his command because the overall commander Gen. William Rosecrans needed a scapegoat for his incompetence. Subsequent enquiry restored Thomas and sacked Rosecrans. His son John J. Crittenden III fought and died with Custer at the Little Big Horn in 1876.

Both brothers survived the war which is more than can be said for many who served under them. Success in war is partly luck and partly competence and partly good planning and commissariat.  Being habitually drunk is not an abolute impediment to success as attested by the rise and rise of General, later President, Ulysses S. Grant -- who may, or may not, have been partial to the booze.

Friday, 27 September 2019

Render unto Caesar

What do you know about [Julius] Caesar?
I doubt if even half of these Everybody Knows statements are true. The Caesarian section is notably dodgy because Caesar's mother lived for 46 years after her boy was delivered and it is barely credible that she would have survived the microbiological edge-case of abdominal surgery in 100 BCE. It is more likely that the family name Caesar was acquired when a mother and ancestor of the Great Man was sacrificed to save a full term baby boy. The cognomen being derived from the passive past participle of the Latin verb caedo, caedere, cecidi, caesum which means cut, hack, fell or kill depending on context. Grammarians will know that the four parts recorded for Latin verbs are 1. first person singular present active indicative, 2. the infinitive, 3. the first person singular perfect active indicative, and 4. the supine or the perfect passive participle. If you know those you can work out the endings of all the other verb forms.

We've met this brutal word before when, at the end of the seige of Béziers in 1209, Arnaud-Amaury, victorious Abbot of Cîteaux, instructed "Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius" [Kill them all, for the Lord knows his own]

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Down in the dark

Classes started at The Institute on the 11th September and the next day I gave my Pharm Tech the How much do you know? Human Physiology Prequiz. As in previous years only a third of ordinary adults know their guts well enough to correctly order the different sections: Appendix - Colon - Duodenum – Esophagus – Stomach. Of course you can get through your whole life, and be a nett contributor to human health and happiness, without being able to name different parts of your body. But my data suggests that most people have a) no idea how the digestive system works [that's okay] b) no idea how it might work better [less okay if the goal is health and happiness]. This ignorance is appreciated beyond the confines of The Blob: it is explicit in the sub-title Giulia Enders book Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated Organ; [Darm mit Charme. Alles über ein unterschätztes Organ] which I have finished reading.

I'm a professional biologist, so I can't remember a time when I didn't know the basic arrangement of my internal wobbly-bits [diagram R]. Nevertheless, I'm continually learning new stuff, most recently about the importance of the intestinal flora. The Blob records microbiome 26 times apart from this mention and flora 62 times; and rarely as a girl's name. I reckon I'll have more to say on our intestinal co-workers in the future.

On farts. One phrase I've never used before is sphincter ani internus SAI - because I'd never heard of it until Giulia Enders kicked off her book with a discussion of its value. Those of us who maintain some semblance of bowel continence are aware of the sphincter ani externus known to his pals as sphincter ani. When we grow up enough to stop having a accident downstairs we have achieved conscious control of when to open [rarely] and close [mostly] this little ring of smooth muscle. Actually it opens rather more often than when we are sitting at stool because the active microbial flora is producing quite a lot of gas methane and carbon dioxide mainly with a touch of hydrogen sulphide if we've been eating eggs or cabbage. The SAI is a sampler gate-keeper and every so often opens up to allow a sample of gut contents into the ante-chamber of outside. IF that sample is a bubble of gas ANDIF we are not having tea with Great Aunt Gwendoline THEN we can let rip; ELSE NOT. If the sample is more substantive we need to find a toilet - OR the woods IF a bear. It is not only 12 y.o. boys who find a darn good fart to be immensely satisfying. Or dangerous: methane fart deflagration; not the same as a BLEVE. Are you still a 12 y.o?

On sitting at stool. As we get older all the subtle, intricate, multiply-redundant systems of human physiology start to become more erratic: blood-pressure more variable; blood-sugar less reliable; brain function sketchy; bowels sluggish. In Ireland we have adopted a standard toilet which makes it much less easy to have a good crap; compared to all them foreign johnnies who squat to defecate. Squatting puts all the poo-ducks in a row making evacuation of the rectum a bit easier. You can do it sitting on a throne that is 450mm higher than your heels but you are making it more difficult for the poor old bowel. Ironically, as having a good shit become more difficult with age, some dogoodnik carers will actually raise the height of the seat to make it easier for dear old dad to get up and down to it with his enfeebled leg muscles and degenerate sense of balance.

<over-sharing alert>I have taken this Giulia Enders analysis on board and am experimenting with a little step (330 x 330 x 80 mm & made from a square of polystyrene: previously the lid of a biological-sample cool box) to raise my feet and make the experience more squatty.</over-sharing>. There are probably 1,000s of elderly British and Irish folk who are forking out for Movicol or Senokot.; when foot-shelf 10 or 15cm high in front of the jacks might do the trick.

Here's a TED Giulia Enders preview or an exec summary.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

The Arachnidati

I suspect that, if you're reading The Blob, you're probably skeptical about the existence of The Illuminati. I mean, if you were planning to take over the world would you front your organisation with Beyoncé LadyGaga & Rihanna? he asked with a rhetorical flourish. Sing it!??  Sure, would it not be better to throw in your lot with one of the smartest mathematicians on the planet and one of the weasliest, most painstaking and planet-brained lawyers in Britain?

Eeee but we do love a disaster. In my report to head office at The Institute about my recruiting visit to the RDS last Friday I mentioned in passing that I'd seen the aftermath of an affray. The only responses I had from my colleagues were enquiries about the punch-up . . . not about the prospects of having any uninjured students signing up for our courses next September. There has been a fair bit of perverse fascination with watching the political train-wreck across the water. The interest seems to tap into the same darkness that relished public hangings . . . now sublimated into reading gristly Swedish policiers. The UK Supreme Court found yesterday that the UK Prime Minister was wrong in law to close parliament for five weeks when the most momentous political change of the century was trundling <choo-choo> relentlessly towards Brexit Day on 31st October.

For the momentous announcement, the Chair of the Supreme court, Baroness Hale, chose to wear an enormous silver brooch representing a stylised spider.The last person we encountered sporting this eccentric symbol of deceit, patience, femininity and strength, was Cédric Villani, Fields Medallist, iconoclast and almost always the smartest boy in the room. Brenda Hale has, since she was at Cambridge in the 1960s, usually been the smartest girl in the room. What could be clearer, my people? Look:
You'd better dust off your Spiderman costume. When They come for the unbelievers, you want to be sure They know you are on the side of reason.

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Mhíbhuntáiste ag an nGaeilge


Irish as handicap.
Back in 2015 I wrote about how understanding human physiology is much harder if you're learning all those new words - trzustka; ciśnienie krwi; nadnercze - [pancreas; blood-pressure; adrenal to you monoglots] in a foreign language. I give thanks daily that I was born and raised in a country where the local tongue was the same as that used globally for aviation, science and engineering. Else my tin ear would have posed a significant handicap to my scientific career. Being born white, male and middle-class-patriarch helped too.

At the beginning of last week I encountered a young chap raised in the wholly artificial aspirational gaeltacht of Meath which consists of two small villages, Ráth Chairn and Baile Ghib, between Kells [Ceanannas] and Navan [An Uaimh]. If the gaeilgeoirs were an endangered species of bower-bird in New Guinea the conservationists would have insisted on joining them with a habit corridor to discourage isolation and [inevitable in small-small populations: those accidents will happen] extinction. Although the English-speaking denizens of Bohermeen might have objected to having all their signage in Irish. The chap was well impressed that I knew of the existence of Ireland's least known gaeltacht, because most people think he's a spoofer when he claims to come from the Ghaeltacht na Mí.  Because the Irish Language is entangled with the political identity of this our Republic; and because most kids think compulsory Irish in school is a travesty and a penance; the government gives bonus points if you sit state exams in the country's first language. Those extra points may be the difference between getting into Med School or having a [really productive] career in Human Genetics, Medical Device Technology, or Physiotherapy.  You wouldn't think it was a handicap.

On Friday, I met another céad teanga native Irish speaker in my remedial math class at The Institute. He was really struggling, not only in the maths class but also in chemistry, physics and biology because the words were different. He knew all about the dreaded plána claonta but was mildly foxed when the lecturer preferred to talk about inclined plane; although that's one of the easier [plána = plane] simultaneous translation tasks he faced into every day. It's like as if he was doing his biology degree in Warsawa or Groningen. Actually, as I discovered at last year's Higher Options, at both those places you can do a 4 year degree through English, the universal language of aviation, science and engineering. I set my maths class on some self-directed, instant-feedback exercises on Powers2 and logarithms. With some anxiety, I checked in with my fear óg about how he was doing. Oh this is numbers he said I've go no problem with numbers: a haon a dó a trí. The problem is of mathsemantics - when language meets maths.

Monday, 23 September 2019

Higher Options suite-et-fin

Last Friday, I volunteered to spend a few hours at the Irish Times / RDS Higher Options HORDS school-leavers job fair. I remember being there last year. But we haven't learned anything to improve our practice. It is a mill in a great big roaring hall. Which made it quite difficult for deaf-aid me. Comms weren't helped by having a dopey loud generic teen-sound splurfed from speakers on the WIT stand next door.  I had class from 9 to 10 that morning, so had a LeMans start from room A201 at 0955hrs to drive from The Institute to the RDS in an efficient 80 minutes. An affray broke out just as I was getting parked and I passed the injured party before the blood-wagon arrived. Word on the street is that the perps were hard-chaws from St.A's school, and no, not the nice fee-paying St.A's down the road in Booterstown.

HORDS was rammed inside by the middle of the morning. A security person said they had to stall further entry mid-morning Friday for H&S concerns. I mentioned The Affray to her and she had heard nothing Boys! she sighed, they will be boys as if assaulting other chaps was an unavoidable part of the human condition. The yoof wot paused from the milling throng at The Institute got a positive earful: I spoke to an aspiring zoo-keeper, 2 brewers, a medic, culinary arts [I referred her to Hogwarts U], several sporty-people, general biology and several not-sures. Far too many didn't stop as they lifted a prospectus in passing. Last year I made several local sweeps removing brochures from bins and returning them to the stacks on various stands so they had at least a chance of being read once. I think we shifted 3 or 4 pallets - maybe 5 tonnes - full of booklets. But, as my sporty colleague pointed out, any serious contender will only want a couple of pages rather than a hernia from toting a sackful of 99% redundant information. Next year we could install a laser-printer for JIT delivery of the required info, save trees and have a lower carbon footprint. Our rival Midlands Institute apparently were handing out brochures-on-a-USB-key which a) is lighter b) suitably techie. The crowds in the room built up where something active was being done . . . and the defense forces stand. Passively handing out wodges of glossy paper is not where it's at for recruitment.

These events are a great opportunity to collect anonymous data on reaction-times, power-generation, visual acuity, colour-blindness etc. which requires active punter participation which might translate into a registration. And we get a dataset for analysis in our Intro Stats modules. I persist in suggesting this to our management, so far to deaf ears. I won't be doing HORDS next year because I'll be too busy getting lunch in Longford LiL under the free travel scheme.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Equinoxic meanderings

Hey folks, Autumn equinox this weekend! And, no, it is not always on the 21st. Summer is over, a sunny evening is seen as a bonus and a blessing. A few things have popped above my horizon:


Saturday, 21 September 2019

Toki pona - a way of life

What you see above is the entire vocabulary 123 words of Toki Pona a ConLang - Constructed [=madey-uppy] Language like Esperanto [prev] or Interglossa [prev] or GoT's Dothraki. It was invented by a Canadian linguist and translator now known as Sonja Lang and previously as Sonja Elen Kisa. Toki Pona means good talk in Toki Pona and that 'pona' particle is indeed laden with value. It is A Good Thing to have a Reduced Instruction Set RIS vocabulary because it forces users to be careful in their choice of words.  Right Speech is, after all, one of the Buddhist precepts on the Noble Eightfold Path.
Another important simplification is a minimal set of vowel and consonants [source for L] and no diphthongs [iou, io, oi] or consonant clusters [nt ght, nstr] which make it hard for ordinary folk to spell and pronounce: think Aoife or Aimhirghin to non-Irish speakers. And no tones which can cause much faux-pas merriment at foreigners in China. Because Toki Pona wants to be used by people from all cultures and all linguistic backgrounds.  I have held a torch up for Globish the simplified English, so that people from Hong Kong or Malaysia can read The Institute's prospectus without having a dictionary at their elbow.  As you know we have 21 consonants in English and lot more that 5 spoken vowels but some of these are rather difficult for foreigners to get right. And Anglophones are useless at the trilled r in Frrrançais or the ch in Loch Lomond. And failure to correctly clear your throat when asking for a train-ticket to Scheveningen could be a death sentence in WWII.

Math heads might think that an artificial language starting with 50 syllables [shown L] could start with 50 x 50 = 2500 two syllable words but that would be a) too fat a vocabulary b) too controllinh altogether. The actual 123 words are chosen to resemble elements of [several] natural languages. Toki [v.] talk, to communicate, say, speak, say, use language, think in a nice hat-tip to Tok Pisin pidgin-english spoken all over New Guinea. Pona [Adj.] good, positive, useful; friendly, peaceful; simple like Latin Bona, French Bon. The graphic at the head is only a little help with meaning. Meaning is designed to be, if not ambiguous, at least sensitive to context.
I'm not sure but I imagine and hope that Toki Pona folks are descriptivists not prescriptivists. There are many ways to skin a cat. If you forget the word for a fork in Ulaan Baatar you can ask the waiter for the eating tool with spikes. We can manage with only five colours pimeja walo  loje jelo laso . If magenta, turquoise, burnt ochre really matter you'll find a way to communicate with your arty pals. Those limitations are central to the language's philosophy - what do you mean, exactly, by crimson? Was Homer colour-blind with his wine-dark οίνοπα seas? Simple is less ambiguous.

Friday, 20 September 2019

The weaker sex

In 1977, the FDA issued a diktat that women of child-bearing age should be excluded from drug trials. You can, maybe, see where they were coming from. If one of the cases or controls in a trial fell pregnant, then what you do? At the least you'd have one less data-point, or a hostage to fortune if you ignored the developing foetus. And all those hormonal fluctuations, they'd make the statistical analysis a bit awkward. And the Patriarchy would, on some level, believe that women were essentially the same as men. Blokes with a uterus, like. So the findings in the drug trial would be applicable to everyone XX  and XY.  Women became invisible in the development and testing of drugs. Which is really weird because we've known for years that women's disease profile is quite different from that of the male partners and contemporaries. 80% of clinical cases of auto-immune diseases occur in women for starters: the sex-bias most pronounced for Sjögren's syndrome, Graves disease and SLE. otoh, men are much more likely to acquire a cancer especially in the larynx, oesophagus, bladder and lung. Some of that might be due to higher rates of smoking men  . . . but men are also more susceptible to viruses (because their immune system is a bit damper than in women) and there is increasing evidence that many cancers are triggered by viral infections. The female immune system is fizzier and so it more likely to go off the deep end and start destroying the myelin sheath of nerves in multiple sclerosis, for example.

And it's not only viral infections that are higher in blokes:  they are more likely to get TB, malaria, Schistosomiasis, Leishmania, Toxocara and other nematode infections. Presumably all stemming from their dozier immune response to these debilitating and potential fatal diseases.

Finally there is the evidence for vaccine response. Antibody response is greater in females for all the childhood andf teenage vaccines currently on the market except Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis). And in all cases where adverse reactions have been noted for a vaccine, these are more common in girls.
These differences are in the air because of a recent paper in Science [paywalled try SciHub] out of the Whitehead Institute at MIT and a 2016 paper Sex differences in immune responses in Nature Reviews Immunology. It made me look at the introductory slides of my Human Physiology course with fresh eyes. In the graphic [above] of the various biological systems I intend to cover this year the two sexes are only differentiated for Reproductive [it's the uterus, silly] and Endocrine [that pesky progesterone] systems. Osteoporosis is waaaay more common in women than men and those male cancers affect all the other systems; but not enough to upset the fundamental assumption portrayed in the diagram that men and women are essentially the same.

And the weaker sex? Surely men! We start off conceiving an substantial excess of male embryos [maybe 130100] and this is whittled down to 105 : 100 at birth. The scything continues through childhood as boys succumb to fatal coughs and infections [and really dopey self-destructive risk-taking; especially when the adolescent brain cranks up between 15 and 25] to even out the ratio around the age of 30. Women out-number men in all subsequent cohorts. With women outnumbering men 5 to 1 among centenarians.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Barley beery barley

I was at The Ploughing, like I said. When I wasn't coursing over the site looking for freebies, I was standing by the Science desk trying to look intelligent and engaging. The material available could have been better thought through; but that would have required me to put more effort into the process than I felt able for. The most interesting part, for me and lots of our visitors, was a few bits of chemical glassware and a heap of barley kernels on top of a whiskey barrel. It wasn't working but most of the parts for a distillation set-up were connected in more or less the right order [more or less as R]. I therefore started on this patter that the key thing on the table was the barrrrley Hordeum vulgare, recently harvested from a field in Co Wexford. You should taste one, I said, you'll find it chewy. I also invited them to taste a much darker kernel that had been malted to convert the starch to a sweeter mix of sugar and protein and then toasted like a rice-krispie. Most people said it smelled and tasted like coffee and one 10 y.o. chap's eyes started watering much to the amusement of his elder brothers. That is a key ingredient in the bitter flavour and colour of Guinness and other stouts - an acquired, adult, taste.

Malting is the process of soaking the bone-dry barley overnight, shaking off the surplus water and allowing germination to start. After a few days, depending on the temperature - which rises as all this metabolic activity goes on - the Master Maltster decides that enough is enough and 'kilns' the temperature up to kill the barley seeds and stop the conversion of starch into sugar. The malt is then cooked up in water to release all the soluble sugars, cooled down to room temperature ready to have some yeast added.  The yeast converts each molecule of sugar into two molecules of ethanol / alcohol and two molecules of CO2.
C6H12O6 → 2 C2H5OH + 2 CO2
The same process is used in making both beer and bread, the former for the alcohol, the latter for the bubbles of COwhich rises the bread.
  • Does bread dough contain alcohol? 
    • Yes.
  • Does bread contain alcohol (will 2 slices of toast for breakfast get you breathalysed on the way to work)? 
    • Not so much because the alcohol gets driven off when you cook it at 200oC for 40 minutes.
At The Ploughing I tried to encourage all the teenage chaps I encountered to brew their own beer. It is an excellent training in science. Especially when you graduate from making 25 lt from a kit [tin of malt extract R, water and yeast costs about 50c/lt] and start to mix potions and additives in experiments. I started that caper when I was about 16 and bottles it into ginger ale and tonic bottles of which there was a supply from my parents' G&T culture. There was one non-fatal communication breakdown between me and the parents over this. They went away for a holiday and my mother brought a bottle of ginger ale from the cupboard to dilute the duty-free brandy to make a horse's neck. Usually pretty good but here Blehhhhhh! My golden home-brew lager was not the expected complement to the cognac.

The young of today are awash with money - happy to take taxis and buy take-away pizza - so I was making quite heavy weather on persuading them to make a big saving on the bevvies. All you need, I said, is a 25lt bucket in the corner of the kitchen, the home-brew tin, which comes with a sachet of yeast. The planet is awash with plastic water bottles to syphon off the finished brew. Just make sure you put a sign on the lid of your bucket "do not urinate in here" to prevent the drunken flat-mates from doing something regrettable.

Oh yes, me barrrrley buoys, 'tis Talk Like a Pirate Day [prev] hence the nautical metaphors heavy weather; awash;

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Speed the plough

As I mentioned, I was at The Ploughing all day Tuesday, along with 102,500 other people, at €20 a ticket - children go free. That''s ~€1,000,000 at the gate on just Day 1. I was tasked to chaperon the Science desk in The Institute's marquee: an enormous 100 sq.m. steel and canvas structure demanding parity of esteem with UCD's tent next door. The Institute's Suits felt they had to thus put on the razz because the ploughing site was almost within walking distance. I've never done the ploughing before [that €20!] so I'm glad I was able to tick the event off my bucket list on the boss's nickel.
The great thing about these works-related boondoggles is that you get to keep at the kit and freebies - if you really want to boost your supplies of pens, post-its and keyrings . . . and canvas shopping bags [take your canvas bags to the superminchin], of which I got a well-branded selection [R]. I also grazed a dinner's worth of free food mostly generous cubes of cheese from the National Dairy Council, three tents to the East.
Early in the day, I wandered into the KandLe tent which is the command centre of the Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin @BishopDNulty and had my hand seized by The Bish himself. I told him not to bother because my family digs with the other foot, but he breezily assured me "No matter, everyone is welcome here" and quizzed me about why I was at the Ploughing; he is seemingly great pals with our President. I came away with a rubber wrist-band Digging deeper: rooting for Christ which show that someone in there diocese has a sense of humour.  I came away with 20g of Blessed Salt which the elderly lady behind the desk assured me had been blessed by The Bish himself. She suggested I should sprinkle it on the garden to encourage miraculous growth next year.
I may have been primed by my encounter with The Prelate, but less than 5 minutes later I saw two young Franciscans in their brown habit. This made me quite unaccountable delighted and I winked at a [more typically] elderly monk at the same stand and said it was delightful to see youngsters with a vocation, especially in a time of full employment. Lads who want to embrace a life of poverty and service, when they could be driving a digger or working as a financial trader, were likely to be in the business from a sense of conviction and dedication.

And on that, I also had a very positive encounter with the Local Link rural bespoke bus service. If you want all the local gossip - who's the father of the most recent love-child; who was seen in the hospital waiting to see the oncologist; who hasn't paid the garage-man for fixing the tractor - then a €2 ride into town for the messages is the ear to the ground. Me, I need to get my transport ducks in a row when I retire the commuter-car next year.

I'm glad I went, but I was plum tuckered out after 8 hours on my feet, much of it exercising my larynx by spreading the word about the wonders of science. Nevertheless, I went home; recharged the batts with a dish of green beans and spuds; and set off the the first meeting of the 2019-2020 season of the Wexford Science Café. I didn't get home till 2300hrs. There is more to say about that, and more on the Ploughing too, but first I have to go workee.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Climate Strike 20 Sep 2019

I'm off to The Ploughing, in me wellies, to shill for The Institute, all day. They are giving sun, I'll bring a hat. But there are bigger climate things to take on board . . . you'll need to buy a boat, yes, so a nautical metaphor is appropriate.

If all the ice-sheets melt, the sea will rise 70m. That's Florida gone [source] except for scuba-diving:

Think of a city: New York, London, Shanghai, Paris . . . they all started as ports or river crossings, so they're all full of low-lifes really un-hilly. The Eiffel Tower will still be there but you'll have to approach by boat: the foundations being 30m down.
Parochial gigs: climate protests are scheduled for lunchtime this Friday 20th Sept 2019
Carlow   Waterford   Dublin
On Friday, PM I shall be arranging deck-chairs at the Higher Options College Recruitment Fair in thr RDS.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Arán seagal

We went on a date, The Beloved and I, on Saturday night at Highbank Orchard in Cuffesgrange across the county borrrder in Kilkenny. Rod and Julie Calder-Potts the current generation of the family, diversified into apples (from mainly hops Humulus lupulus) 50 years ago and their journey has been to add value to the product rather than have margins cut to the bone by wholesalers and the big supermarkets. Saturday's gig Bia Beag Irish Bread from Irish Grains [link] was the 4th go at an occasional foodie symposium. I could have sacked out on the sofa or better (because it was a gorgeous sunny Autumn evening) pottered in the polytunnel watering tomatoes and picking beans; but I'm really glad I was dragged out to meet some bakers . . . and millers . . . and growers. And not to forget the all important consumers . . . of fine, robust, varied and super-tasty bread. Joe Fitzmaurice, baker from Cloughjordan Eco Village, made this point several times: there is no value in making, baking and pushing the frontiers with sourdough bread unless you are feeding people with the stuff.  I think we all agreed that the feedees had to be plural: sourdough bread should be broken with others. It is the central ritual in Christianity for a reason although nowadays reduced to a non-sustaining token wafer to free the rich from the idea, the obligation, that the poor also must eat.

The other theme for the night was the inter-dependence of growers, millers and bakers [and eaters, of course]. The number of varieties of commercial bread wheat has collapsed precipitously over the last 100 years. Especially since the rise and artificial rise of the Chorleywood Process [prev] since 1961.  80% of British and Irish bread is made in vast factories using this industrial process to make millions of 800g sliced pans every day. Only certain limited varieties of wheat need apply for a place in that process. That limited genetic variation wheat could be wiped out by a new virus [think Cavendish bananas] and may be shook by climate change. We need variety as a hedge against an uncertain future.
The current agri-business model is low margins, high inputs and fantastical levels of debt. To up the yields farmers have to a) lurry on the fertilisers and pesticides b) get bigger acreage for economies of scale. A BIG tractor is required because an MF35 [R example for sale in Harare] wouldn't cut it <putter putter putter> no matter how long the day. Today's tractor costs as much [€150K+] as a house; how is a young farmer going to start into business with land at €25K/ha and that kit-debt to pay off?  Well a not-so-young farmer food-producer, Bruce Darrell also from Cloughjordan is living one sort of answer. You may have seen him on the RED Gardens channel on youtube - growing wheat for example. Most years he produces about 4 tonnes of food which is more than he and family can eat so he puts the surplus out in a shed with an honesty box and his neighbours help themselves.

A more scaled up farmer (and miller; you have to diversify) is Emma Clutterbuck from Oak Forest Mills Co. Kilkenny. They broke out of the standard agribiz model several years ago to grow lower yield but added-value grains such as einkorn, spelt, heritage wheat, naked barley. These all pose challenges for farmers, being more weather-sensitive, harder to handle and much less uniform than 'commercial' wheat. Most grain grown in Ireland is destined for animal feed and you can get a much higher tonnage from that than growing bread wheat. The profit is all from yield because their is no, or very little, premium for quality. Emma has been remarkably adventurous in thinking outside the box to imagine new ways of bringing food to the Irish table. Their mill, imported from Austria like my scythe, was a cunning plan to take back control of quality as well as to add value. Stone-milling is easier on the grain and keeps the oily wheatgerm better intact to yield a product with longer storage and better baking quals.

Next up on his feet was Rob Mosse the fifth generation scion of the milling Mosse family, Quakers of Bennetsbridge and millers on River Nore since time began. Nicholas Mosse the potter is a collateral relative. In 1963, when Rob's grandfather started milling, he was jockeying against 50-80 working mills in the Republic. When Rob took over the reins in 2004 only 7 were left and two of the three Odlum's mills were sold out of tyhe sector within a few months. Milling, following the economies-of-scale certainties of global capitalism, has all been shipped to England. A frisson of concern was raised about Irish food security in a post-Brexit world. Rob's core business is a robust wholemeal for Irish soda bread. Soda bread is a chemical reaction between sodium bicarbonate NaHCO3 and a long way from the slow ferment and protein and vitamin development you get with overnight sourdough fermentation. But brown soda has the virtue of being dense with microbiome sustaining partly digestable long-chain carbohydrates.  He also grows and sources Ölandsvete originally from Denmark and purple winter wheat which have much higher protein levels and tastes of something.

Mosse is in a synergistic relationship with Sarah Richards, proprietor of the Seagull [arán seagal is rye-bread] bakery [L with mis-parked tsssk! van] just down the street from Pat the Salt in Tramore Co Waterford. She is also an engaged experimentalist doing whatever it takes to make bread from a wide diversity of flours. She has the McDonalds uniformity problem to deal with - her best paying regular customers want the same [borrrring!] loaf as they had last week. And consumer watch-dogs require some uniformity in weight, hydration and protein content. We'd all be a lot better off if we trusted the baker to make the best fist she can of a variable product - every loaf is different but every loaf is good - a variable diet is after all good for gut flora diversity and frankly makes life more interesting.

And finally, I got me some rye-flour sourdough starter from Joe Fitzmaurice; he brought a bucket full. The word on Foodie Street is that rye Secale cereale is the best food for a robust sourdough culture. I'm going to have to take an extra day over the bread cycle. Half-and-half: rye motherlode & wheat flour + water mixed and jostled together overnight and use that to make the next batch of bread. The rye starter might get confused and overwhelmed by being dumped into an alien sea of wheat. Rye starter lives for weeks and weeks in a fridge, they say. Mine gets sour and tetchy if it is left for a week.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Sunday Misc

Woo hoo it's Dau.II's happy bday today. But that's not all!

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Zero waste

On this Our Titanic World, where the water-tight compartments [work; home; holiday; ethics; health; sport] have been ripped open by anthropogenic climate change, the orchestra is still sawing away in the ballroom and the deckchairs put back into neat lines. KLM is bombarding us with ads asking us to book with them - via Amsterdam [because nobody can pronounce Schiphol] - to a Dream Destination - Cuzco or Kilimanjaro, anyone? When will the advertising standards authority implement a Flight-Shaming warning to such encouragements to conspicuous carbon consumption? Not soon enough!

I never believed in an Annual Summer Holiday; never gathered up Package Holiday brochures shortly after Xmas; never the discussed the virtues of Dubrovnik vs Casablanca; never bought a kiss-me-quick hat. It would be ridiculous, and untrue, to claim that I haven't had a foreign holiday in 40 years but I didn't feel a need or compulsion, let alone A Right to have a week near a hot beach each year. Vacations happened because we got invited to share a gîte or a cottage in Biarritz, Almuñecar, Mull; or when we went to hang out with friends-and-relations in Cape Town, Boston, Bloomington, London, Bath. If I had done all those extra air-miles to spend time in a marginally ropey hotel with little to do except eat, tan my inner thigh and dice with melanoma, then I might be feeling a twinge of regret or even guilt that I had spend so much [cash and carbon-foot] to have so little fun.

The Beloved is all subbed up to Zero Waste Chef, which recently had a list of 49 thrifty options for saving money and leaving less mess behind. Less mess includes all the invisible detritus of participating in a packaged world. I'll abstract and comment on some of the ZWC 49 articles. No not the 39 Articles that's a different matter.
  • The average US family contributes $1500 to the economy in food waste. Not me. I am religious about making meals from what I find in, and behind, the fridge. The Beloved spends several nights a week minding her aged father Pat the Salt; that's when standards are let slip. If you eat out of the saucepan there is no plate to be washed! All that wasted food is actually an icon of the capitalist way of life: 
    • advertise a gizmo that nobody needs so everyone wants it
    • make a shit-ton of the gizmo [or here new breakfast cereal with neither gluten nor lactose nor peanuts]; robust enough to get home [suitably packaged in extra plastic and cardboard] but not strong enough to function very long
    • let everyone toss the gizmo because it is yesterday, the wrong colour, or useless [or here tastes 'orrible and even the dog won't eat it]; to make room for . . .
    • repeat cycle.
    • my inventory of shame from LALDL includes: electric chain-saw; e-waffle-iron; self-standing chip-fryer; numerous metal brackets; one-time use walking boots [they lasted a week in the garden];
  • Tetrapak of soup €2.99. Not me. There is nothing more forgiving than soup; everything can go in starting with the chicken carcase. No onions? use garlic. No garlic, use chives. The last wretched sprouted potato is a great thickener. No chicken? an inch of a bit of salami, diced. Half a cup of lentils. Something green scavenged from the garden. The outer leaves of cabbage; the brocolli stalk. If you have stale bread butter/oil both sides and fry for croutons.
  • Half a kilo beef-steak $9.99. Not me. I cannot justify eating any meat but beef is the very worst because of the methane produced in the rumen. 30% of Ireland's carbon foot-print can be laid at the door of cattle [prev], if we could just park the beef and dairy we could drive our cars round and round the block and still be ahead. ZWC recommends chick-peas on a kilo-for-kilo swap for adequate protein. We most of us eat more protein than we need.
  • cornflakes, weetabix, frosties, rice-crispies Not me: porridge oats. The former are sold as a convenience food but are at least 4x the price of reg'lar [keep you reg'lar] porridge. Which can be cooked and in a bowl in about 4 minutes from a standing start. Call the price differential 50c saved vs 4 minutes spent valuing my time at €7.50/hr. Less than our minimum wage. But it scales up. You can cook 4 bowls of porridge in exactly the same time to feed self, spouse and 2 kids. Now you're talking €30/hr.
  • Bread! lawks a mussy me, for the sake of sanity make your own bread. Elapsed time may be overnight, but actual work-time is a little as 20 minutes.
  • Lunch at work. My works canteen serves a heaped-to-groaning plate of meat-and-two-veg for €5 which is a good deal compared to restaurant meals. But that would require a drooling siesta of at least half an hour from me and I teach most afternoons. Not me I make a cheese [and what I find in, and behind, the fridge] sandwich - from my own bread, in the morning before work [cost? 30c?] That's plenty enough to power the last 3 hours of the working day. You don't need a chocolate bar! You're not 6 y.o.
  • Paper napkins $10. Not me. I've got a sleeve.
There y'are. YMMV but we can all do better to tread lighter on the Earth.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Beardy Beardy Baby

Ah vanity, vanity. What is it with men and their hair?  Rephrase that: What is it with people and their hair?  Comb comb; wash wash; cut cut; frizz frizz; straaaaaaighten; colour; tint. So many ways to spend time and money on the stuff. I last paid money to a barber about 25 years ago when I could get a trim for £2.00.  My regular place closed down and I asked a young buck in the lab next door where he sorted his hair-cutting and went there. That barber feller insisted that he need to to wash my locks first and charged £8! [If I had presented with boobs rather  than moobs, they would have charged €28!] I went round the corner and bought some electric clippers and have managed for myself ever since. They cost £34, paid for themselves in a year and have since saved me about €800, and endless one-way chatter about football and holidays. Male pattern baldness has been late for me which means I have to work to stop myself looking too shaggy to teach. A lot of blokes are really distressed by baldness. Samson's whole sense of strength, potency and manhood was apparently locked up in his locks, which gave Delilah the edge on him. Modern chaps can turn to meds to restore some semblance of fuzz up top. Minoxidil is the go-to formulation and is now widely available OTC without a prescription: ask for Lacovin, Locemix, Loniten, Lonnoten, Lonolox, Lonoten, Loxon or Regain, Regaine, Regaxidil, Regro, Regroe, Regrou, Regrowth, Relive, Rogaine, Rogan. Don't try to wow the pharmacist with the IUPAC name 3-hydroxy-2-imino-6-piperidin-1-ylpyrimidin-4-amine s/he won't be impressed.

Minoxidil has an interesting story. It was first developed by Upjohn 60 years ago as a potential treatment for peptic ulcers. It didn't work for that condition but was revealed as a potent vasodilator and marketed to lower blood-pressure.  In the Phase I clinical trials, one of the side-effects was unexpected hair growth and it started to be marketed off-label for male pattern baldness. Eventually in 1988, 30 years after its first discovery, it was approved by the FDA for hair loss. Seemingly the moribund hair follicles get a new lease of life from a local rush of blood because of the vasodilation.

Meanwhile in a totally different part of Castle Megapharm another smallish molecule was developed for acid reflux and related burp and blooargh problems. This one really does work for peptic ulcers! The inventors called their new drug Omeprazole because IUPAC's 6-methoxy-2-[(4-methoxy-3,5-dimethylpyridin-2-yl)methylsulfinyl]-1H-benzimidazole was too much of a mouthful. It has been around since 1988 and is on the list of WHO Essential Medications. It is long off patent, does the job and has few side-effects so it is one of the most widely prescribed drugs in the US [70 million scripts in any give year] and elsewhere. Every doctor in the Western World will have prescribed Omeprazole - probably as Losec or Prolosec; so it comes to mind when kids present with burpiness. Pediatric medicines which are basically unregulated. Small children have poorly developed livers and kidneys and so drug clearance is a potent problem and makes them radically different from small adults.  It's usually a case of just giving a child a fragment of an adult pill and hoping for the best.

These two completely different drugs collided [El Pais for detail, BBC for exec summary]in the South of Spain this Summer when a dozen infants were taken back to the doctor with hair fuzzing up their faces in a most disconcerting manner. niños con "síndrome del hombre lobo" / werewolfchild was an easy label for lazy headline writers. All these children had been prescribed Omeprazole, and the fine people at Agencia Española de Medicamentos y Productos Sanitarios AEMPS got on the ball really quickly to identify the problem and get the product off the pharmacy shelves.  Turned out that the local manufacturer of the reflux drug - Farma-Química Sur - committed an 'internal error' and somewhere in the process Minoxidil was mislabelled as Omeprazole. I guess it became most obvious first in infants because we expect their skin to be smooth as a baby's bottom. Big Red Face in Farma-Química Sur but I bet none of the QC managers lost their jobs.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Bombast meets dotty

The Beloved spends some of her time in pursuit of The Miracle of Mindfulness [it's a book]. It is mildly interesting, but not really surprising, that others in the same practice are angry, vindictive, spiteful and lacking in compassion [not all of them and not all the time you may be sure]. You'd expect better of them, of course but then again if you're a bit out of kilter [unbalanced would put it too strong] maybe that's why you [need to] come within the orbit of walking meditation and calming the mind. You'd expect that scientists would be rational, objective, fair, data-driven and able to change their minds when presented with new evidence. That's the theory, but ambition, competitive behaviour, selfishness, jealousy and prejudice are no less common in the scientific community than among tinkers, tailors [R] or sailors.

In 2013, I lost the rag at a Sunday Times report that ranked British and Irish Universities. The Institute continued for several years to puff itself up on the Best Institute of the Year 2014 despite there being objective evidence that other Irish Institutes were, by the SunTim criteria of judgement, objectively better. There are few things sadder than places which still sport plaques like Tidiest Town in the World 1967, after all the folk that made it so tidy are dead. My exec summ from the 2013 Ranking University exercise was "I want TCD (my Alma Mater) to win and my own employer did win, but it's still absolute bloody nonsense".

That was then, this is now. John Ioannidis has assembled a crack team to rank researchers by their success in the business of publishing their work. There are 6 million published, publishing scientists across the world. There is little point in doing what they are doing, let alone get paid for it, unless other researchers read the stuff, incorporate it into their own practice and cite the original study. I've had occasion to look at the science of citation before and before that. I've also had a slap at the academic publishers who lubricate, and profit from, the process.  The paper itself is only 6 pages long but they have made available citation data on thousands of named scientists. The basic Excel spreadsheet, with 40 columns of metrics, is 34MB is size; which would take 3 days to download on our wireless 'broadband' connection. Accordingly, I downloaded the file at work, used the sort function and clipped out just the Irish data, which is small enough to send as an e-mail attachment. I love data.

I probably wouldn't have heard about this study, if my ear to the ground in Trinity College Dublin hadn't sent me a fragment of tendentious 'analysis' of these data which appeared to show that TCD was a) wonderful but b) could do better. At the very least, the management of TCD should pay attention to the study and do something about it. When I 'analysed' the Sunday Times data in 2013 I found that they had failed to sum columns of figures correctly, and, by their own criteria, given the Best Institute gong to the wrong place. If there are obvious, checkable, correctable errors in data then the safest response is to ignore the whole thing because Quality Control has clearly failed.

The Ioannidis data is available for public download and discourse. Indeed people are encouraged to get to grips with the numbers and do some critical analysis. As I say, I'm limiting my investigations to Irish scientists because, frankly Scarlett, I know nothing about the research stars of Taiwan or Afghanistan. And <brrrzzzzz>, the top cited researcher for Ireland, Luke O'Neill, on the first row most people will look at, is wrongly housed in the Technological University of Dublin TUD rather than TCD! Sorting the data revealed several cases of duplicate entries: Coey J.M.D. (another star TCD player) has a doppleganger called Coey JMD, for the most obvious example. This is why I think we should be super skeptical about data if/before drawing any conclusions from it. If 'they' can't get the names or institutions sorted [easy] how much confidence would you have in the fact that, for O'Neill "hm18 (ns) = 52.79329482". Glaaaarrrrkkk. What kind of table reports woolly metrics like the HM-index to 8 significant figures? I knock that out our students by second year.  Blaa blaa blaa.

I worked for 14 years in TCD and 7 years in UCD, 3 of which I was double jobbing in both places at the same time. So I'm interested in the longtime rivalry between the two most internationally profiled Universities in Ireland. One of the TCD analysts was super chuffed that the top 3 most cited researchers for 2018 were all from TCD <puff puff preen preen> but when you look at the data from 2017 TCD secures places 1, 4, 5 because UL's Zaworotko, Michael and UCC's Shanahan, Fergus bounced them off the podium. Those West Country interlopers are 4 and 5 in 2018. It just shows that these metrics are fluid and a bit chaotic and unreliable. No university can depend on a single genius for its reputation unless it be Professor Harry Potter, Master of Quiddich and the Universe.  If you just look at one year and score yourself as 1 2 3 and think that sweeps the board then you are guilty of selection bias - stopping when the result is most favourable for your hypothesis. That is a most egregious scientific sin. Why stop at 3?? If you look at the 10 most cited people from TCD (for 2018 to give TCD its best shot); then they rank as
TCD 1 2 3 11 17 20 21 24 31 32 sum = 162
compared to ranks for the top ten for
UCD 6 7 8 9 12 13 15 26 29 30 sum = 155
smaller is better and this is better than TCD
You may bet that the Publicity suits in UCD will talk about The Top Ten whereas TCD with prefer a gold, silver and bronze metaphor.  But they are both spouting nonsense because the difference in cumulative scores is not statistically significant. A dot-plot [again!] is really useful in showing this:
That illustrates the World ranks for the best workers at the two institutions. The best person the Irish education /research system is  # 477 on the world stage and Ioannidis drew a line so that lowest Dublin scientist recorded [at #129749) is John T Sheridan who studies optics at UCD. Me, I am nowhere! Not even among the grass under the feet of these giants . . . a speck, a microbe. John Sheridan is a really successful productive scientist and he almost didn't make the cut. But here's a peculiar personal thing - Joe Duffy is UCD's Most Cited Researcher in these lists; in 2003 I co-authored a paper with Joe which has accumulated 93 citations.  In a small-small sense, I have made a contribution to Ireland's success in these polls.

But it's not about me. I sent my dot-plot to a bunch of friends (incl some more co-authors) from TCD and UCD with the message "The research outputs of your two prestigious institutes are identical, you really should choke down your sibling rivalry and get married".  Such a merger has been the elephant in the room for at least 50 years.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Anti-pregabalin pilgrimage

Book Review
The Salt Path
Optional background: Don't Give Up 
Peter Gabriel & Paula Cole
Ray and Moth were /are like us, with similar off-centre aspirations: to find and run their own gaff and see what it was like to live a more immediate life: where the hens laid eggs just in time for the children's tea. They weren't interested in making sensible contributions to their pension as a hedge against an uncertain future in old age and infirmity. That's one way to progress; although reg'lar people wouldn't see much 'progress'.  Accumulating a fat pension pot usually goes with a high octane life-style: climbing the corporate ladder because the increments seemed necessary to support the stuff that you need to spend money on. Sometimes you can only get ahead by having the kit [suit, car, shoes, the right sunglasses] that shows you deserve it.

Anyway, Ray and Moth made their bed and lay in it and had two children and a small holding with sheep and chickens and a few paying-guests in the restored barn. It was hard work, living remote in Wales, but that's what they wanted. Somewhere along the way they invested some cash in a business venture of one of Moth's oldest friends. The business failed and the legal small-print said that Ray and Moth would, not only lose all the money they invested, but were jointly and severally liable for all the debts of failed company. After wasting a further three years of life and all their remaining money on lawyers; their home, their farm, their B&B business, everything was all repossessed by the Corporate Patriarchy and they were thrown out on the road with nothing but a peculiar tax-credit / windfall / pension of £48 /week.
That same week Moth was given a name - corticobasal degeneration CBD - to attach to a peculiar set of neurological conditions which had been dogging his active life. Imagine a toxic melange of motor neurone disease ALS, Parkinson's PD and multiple sclerosis MS. CBD, as the second word implies, gets worse as time goes on; the connexions between brain, nerves and muscles get progressively more wonk until sepsis or pneumonia finishes you off because the lungs can't clear themselves. It takes 7 ± 2 years from first presentation to final curtain. Ray and Moth go into denial, as you do when you get a terminal diagnosis. But also because it is now 6+ years since first symptoms and Moth is a long way from being dead.
Could it be something else? they ask.
I am the Consultant! the Consultant replies.
He can't be much more use because CBD is incurable but he give Moth a script for Lyrica / Pregabalin, which we have met before. Pregabalin, (and the alternate treatment for CBD Clonazepam) gives a boost to GABA γ-amino butyric acid, the most well known inhibitory neurotransmitter. But extra GABA will bring a truly frightening array of side-effects [full list] including tremors, vertigo, dry mouth, constipation, vomiting, flatulence, erectile dysfunction, fatigue, peripheral oedema, abnormal walking. That shows you some of the task list for GABA around the body - one of the great multitaskers. It also shows what a blunt instrument oral pharmaceuticals are.  It's like killing a woodlouse with a shot-gun: you may kill the woodlouse but there is a lot of collateral damage to innocent bystanders. On a human level, those symptoms don't give the best launch to a 1000km back-packing camping trip in SW England. But that's what Ray impulsively decides they must do, and soon. The next Summer, as soon as they gather their traps, they start off on the South West Coastal Path from Minehead to Poole and every tide in between:
Vertigo for the cliffs; flatulence and vomiting for inside the tent; oedema in the legs for the walking; erectile dysfunction & fatigue for their intimate relations; tremors for taking notes on the wildlife; and constipation for holding a really crap hand dealt by fate. Neither of them is young any more and their progress, certainly to begin with, is painfully slow and, well, painful. With limited resources [except in bottle!], they inch along the map in their SWCP guidebook. It is a long time between showers, and they would rather eat than use a laundrette because their money won't stretch to both.

It's an interest apolitical political book. It exposes government delusions about the state of homelessness in England: wilfully undercounting those who cannot afford to put a roof over their heads in post-Thatcher Britain. This selective blindness allows The Man and the comfortable middle-classes to believe that all homeless people are druggies and alkies whom nobody can help. Several times in the book it is made clear that dogs especially my dogs are privileged over dispossessed people. More worryingly othering the homeless allows a yobbier, younger jugend to urinate on people curled up in shop doorways because they are untermensch. The standard reaction to homeless people is to shrink away from them or give them a sandwich - because money would only go towards the next bottle of Thunderbird [BBC's take]. My research reveals SocksAndChocs which supplies that sort of thing to the homeless. As Peter McVerry explained to us two years ago, the very best thing you can do for The Down is to recognise them: eye-contact, a greeting, a comment on the weather . . . like you'd do for the bus-driver or the check-out lady. There are people who refuse water - which falls from the skies, after all - to Ray and Moth when asked for it. It won't surprise you to hear that Moth is in the habit of giving his last few coins to someone who patently needs it more than he does.
Q. How do water-refusniks sleep at night?
A. Just fine because their cold-sore is much more distressing than His stigmata.
The Salt Path was a Sunday Times bestseller: you may hope that people come for the escapism of this week's travel book and stay to look at their own reactions to those insufficiently fortunate to be able to buy a £7 book. Indeed the cost of the book is almost exactly the same as Ray and Moth had budgetted each day for ALL their needs. I reflect often on the fact that I am comfortable, sitting on my own sofa in a reasonably warm, dry house simply from the accident of being born in the 1950s. We could buy a home in England in 1986 for £21,000 when my annual salary was £16,000 = ratio 1.3x. 30 years later Dau.II is looking at a home/income ratio of about 15x. It is iniquitous!

The other arresting sub-plot in the Salt Road is that Moth and Ray realise that they've left his spare vial of Pregabalin meds on the garage floor by mistake when packing their bare essential kit. Without the  medicine which the consultant is sure is the only thing between Moth and perdition, Moth begins to make a miraculous recovery. From being barely able to walk and in constant pain, he limbers up and recovers his libido enough to have some beachy bouncy bouncy with a delighted Ray. They surmise that it must be the oxygen as well as allowing his neurotransmitter to return to a more potent equilibrium.

On the very last day of their walk, a positive encounter with a random stranger lands them a place to live within commuting distance of Plymouth where the miraculously revitalised Moth has enrolled for college. In that flat Ray knuckles down to write her book which is its own small miracle. Those of us who have been transformed by pilgrimage are not richer or more sucessful but have shed a few certainties - and probably a few kilos - along the way. Ray gets to appreciate that Home is a state of mind more than a roof of slate.

Here's a fair-enough executive summary of The Salt Road and its back-story. Penguin's inner view with Raynor Winn.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Copper City

The other day I was on about Smeerenburg in Spitsbergen where the whole economy was driven forward by whale oil. The climate up there, even at the height of Summer, is brutal. It's the kind of place where, as soon as the temperature rises enough to take your jacket off, the midges [no-see-ums; punkies; Culicoides spp.] rise in clouds and eat you alive. The rest of the year it's dark 24 hours a day [75+° Lat; Arctic Circle 66°]. The idea that there was a city-sized community flensing, baking and turning tricks really didn't have the ring of truth if you thought about it for 2 minutes or said "Show me the data".

Much further south, on the Waterford coast is the village of Bunmahon where my aged in-laws washed up 30 years ago. Everyone complains about the weather in Ireland but the climate is, unlike Svalbard, just perfick. One thing the two locations have in common is that they have been much more active and populous in the past. I hope that readers worth their Blobbosalt will cry out "Show me the data" at this point. Here's a clip from the Ordnance Survey of Ireland showing the mouth of the Mahon River in about 1840, when Bunmahon was at the centre of a thriving copper industry:
And here is the same area surveyed 165 years later in ~2005. [And terrible pale is looks too]
The GeoHive map-browser allows you to float over the island and zoom into any area of interest. The best feature is a fade-slider that lets you start in 1840 and gradually replace the pixels with a more modern map. Over on the left side, the built environment is much unchanged; dominated by the Church and the row of 8 modest two-storey houses, then called Osborne Terrace. On the right, however, 40 or 50 similar dwellings have been swept into the dustbin of history and replaced with a handful of slightly larger homes. On dit que there were 2,000 people living in Bunmahon in the mid 19thC, served by at least 20 pubs, shops and a pawn-broker.

Six years ago, I was speculating on the population of [the bishopric of] Ferns in Co Wexford. Why keep a dog and bark yourself? I asked my new pal and local historian Barry Lacey and he replied: "I managed to track down the source. In Billy Colfers book 'Arrogant Trespass' he mentions 49 burgage plots in Ferns for the year 1296 (Page 76). These ones were wasted so perhaps you could add a few more during Ferns hay-day. If you were to associate a number of people per burgage plot and add a few more for luck it might be one way to guess its population." Okay, I'll bite: each of 5 dozen burgages holding a dozen people. Ferns in 1250 CE housed 750 people = about half today's population. Barry is talking tonight in New Ross about the South Wexford Brigade of the Old IRA.

After 50 years, the seams of copper were played out by the 1870s and the miners all upped-stakes and moved elsewhere: to Wales for the steam-coal and elsewhere. Bunmahon retracted to a two-pub village again leaving a well-worked landscape scattered with shafts, adits, spoil heaps and ruined buildings. Every so often, someone will see a business opportunity associated with the sweeping white sand beach and /or the industrial heritage: the surf shop; the Café in Kennedy's old drapery; Farouq's general stores and chipper; Ronnie's chipper on the sea-front . . . but these businesses have all bloomed ephemerally and faded away leaving the entrepreneurs more or less out of pocket.
It's hard to imagine that Bunmahon was all a-bustle 150 years ago.