Saturday, 30 November 2019


One of the less obvious consequence of global warming is that plants and their pollinators are going to drift away into different time-zones. This will be bad, possibly fatal, for both species. This is a bit hypothetical but bear with me: just sowing a seed of doubt.
  • Plants are sensitive to light
    • almost of all of them capture sun-light to make carbohydrates from CO2 and water
    • there are non-photosynthetic plants like Beechdrops Epifagus virginiana which makes a living sucking carbs from the roots of Beech Fagus sylvatica trees and has lost its ability to use sunlight.
  • Some plants use the sunlight also as a cue for some physiological necessities. Poppies and crocuses practice nyctinasty: as daylight ebbs, the basal petals put on a growth spurt which closes the flowers up against the night. Nobody really knows why they do this and there may not be a single driving cause.
    • Charles Darwin, the consumate observer, thought it was to reduce the chance of freezing
    • or at least it might protect the delicate reproductive parts from storms at night
    • Others have suggested that the habit preserves scent for the day-time pollinators, rather thanwasted on those wastrel moths
    • More convoluted explanation: by closing up a field of poppies, nocturnal predators can more easily see and knock off the insects that munch on plants
  • Even to rather unobservant people like me, it is obvious that each plant species comes into flower in its season. Ivy Hedera helix flowers in the early winter where/when its nectar serves as an important food source; usefully extending the season for honeybees. The berries come later and are a winter essential for non migrating birds. Snowdrops Galanthus nivalis make their play for a reproductive future at the other end of Winter.
  • Insects are more sensitive to temperature
    • Many of them can't even get going in the morning until they have been warmed up by the sun.
    • On a longer time scale, they may well hibernate through the winter (because there is little to eat) and the sun rises later and often behind clouds.
  • If the ambient daytime temperature goes up by 2°C across the year then insects and small mammals are going to wake up earlier and earlier expecting their plant food to be available on time . . . because that's the way it's been for thousands of generations. But the plants, being light-cued, are still on Old Time. The finely balanced mutually beneficial relationship has been sundered. 
  • Life is a tangled web of inter-relations. Evolution is nothing if not pragmatic: whatever works, however it works, will become more common in the population. Most of our scientific explanations of why things are the way we find them are superficial, almost trivial, simplifications of the complex drivers of diversity which make biology so interesting.
Very slow carbon hand-clap, 1st World humanity.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Running the rails

I wrote about Prof Louis Agassiz, glaciologist and natural historian, because he was able to find wonder in the ordinary by spending large tracts of his Summer vacation on a minute survey of his back-yard in Cambridge Mass. That capacity to embrace the daily and look at normal things with care and attention is extra valuable in the trivialised sound-bytie tweet-attention-span world young people now inhabit. A couple of days ago, youtube decided I would enjoy a quietly contemplative short vid in which Beau Miles scrambles, trots and bush-whacks his way on a long defunct railway branch-line close to his own back-graden. Youtube was right: I love the idea of running along a chunk of industrial heritage with a long-handled shovel to hack at the brambles [freeze-frame R]. It's nice: there are no car-chases, no sex, only the mildest of threats, and the local police do not arrest him.

One reason for a sense of empathy was that years ago I did some exploration of railway heritage which, looking back, was demonstrably reckless and ill-considered. At the time, of course, it seemed a bit of a jape in the sense of Five Down a Sardine Sandwich rather than One Goes Down a Tunnel . . . without a torch, PPE, or letting anyone known about the plan. The difference between 15 and 65 is 50 years and the development of functional imagination to replace a sense of immortality. In the very earliest days of railway mania, some entrepreneurs surveyed a built a 6 mile = 10 km branch railway line from the city of Canterbury to the seaside resort of Whitstable in SE England. Opened in 1826, C&WR [soon to be nicknamed the Crab & Winkle Line] predated the Liverpool and Manchester Railway but was initially operated by horses and pulleys because the gradients were too steep for the feeble steam locomotives of the time. One of the insuperable gradients was Tyler Hill, but the 19thC engineers solved this problem by driving a tunnel through the hill that was nearly half a mile = 700 m long.  The railway chuntered along for 100 years until the passenger service was closed in 1931, while freights ceased to be economic in 1953.

Without traffic the line lapsed into dereliction. In ~1969, I was 15 and acquiring my very expensive education in Canterbury. I heard about this railway tunnel and one afternoon decided to walk through it. The thought being the deed when you are an impulsive teenager, I set off forthwith without telling anyone.  The South end of the tunnel (nearest town) had been fenced off and boarded up but a recent assault by vandals had prised open part of the barrier so I slipped down the embankment and started off along the darkness. The North end was revealed as a single pixel of light and I walked briskly along until I stumbled over a pile of loose bricks. After a few minutes of more circumspect progression and I was out in the fresh air again.

In 1974, the tunnel collapsed, more or less where I had tripped over the pile of bricks, and part of the Cornwallis Building of the University of Kent at Canterbury was destroyed in a dramatic subsidence event. When I grew some sense (it comes with imagining your own children coming to harm) I reflected on what a dip-shit I was as a teenager. If I'd tonked my head in the tunnel, it would have been a long time before anyone found my recumbent body and likely the rats would have gotten there first. The Tyler Hill Tunnel, what's left of it, is a listed building. In retrospect my tunnel experience was nothing on the adventures of Buttercup the cow.

I didn't learn much, really. In 2008, I went to spend a week with my pal Tadek in NE Poland up near the Lithuanian border. Indeed we went on a mushroom hunting trip and looked down on the armed guards manning the nearest border post. At one point on the road-trip we paused in a lay-by very close to a concrete WWII pill-box and I went up a dirty embankment to explore. About 3m in, before my eyes had acclimated to the dark, I pitched into a huge hole in the passage floor that was filled with a variety of tinnies and other detritus. When I emerged nursing my bruises and scrapes, my 'friends' explained that, when in active use, that hole was a man-stopping feature optionally covered with a wooden draw-bridge. They hadn't thought to stop me from entering the bunker, though.

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Water: cleanliness is next to replicationness

I recently reported, couple of weeks late, our coliform=nope results. I could have popped them up earlier but they kept on getting bumped down the list by more immediate[-seeming] copy. That timing was okay because it means I can sweep in this rather lovely validation of those results.

One of our students has featured going to Dijon (let's call him D for Dijon) for his work experience because he had enough French to chat up the francophone Erasmus students in Food & Ferm Microbiology class last year. He is  also the poster boy for the New Irish: he has a really good tan, but on the telephone his accent would not hint at that, although his last name does. He's diligent, good fun, confident and kind and often willing to think [outside the box].  He contacted me a couple of weeks ago about the quality of the water at home in Dublin. He suggested that my current 3rd Year microbiology students might like to analyse a sample of his tap-water. Au contraire, j'ai dit, pourquoi ne pas vous faire des boites et faire l'analyse vous-même?  Then I found some appropriate, surplus to requirements, MacConkey and Nutrient Agar plates in the microbiology lab and saved him making up fresh - Win! And what might be wrong with D's water?

Irish Water, the government quango, is trying to deliver clean water and process the sewage safely for a whole country that is collectively unwilling to pay for this service. It is hopelessly, pathologically, under-resourced with its treatment plants operating at close to full capacity all the time.  Sooooo if there is a spill of rain that stirs up the sediment in the reservoirs, then the 'turbidity' goes over the limit and that treatment plant has to be switched out until the discolouration settles down. There's more to water treatment than keeping the coliforms and cryptosporidium out of our tap water. We kill the coliforms by dosing the water with chlorine but if the water is rich in discolouring peat residue then TriHaloMethanes THMs might be formed and these are potentially carcinogenic. This is not a desirable deliverable and modern treatment plants even have an automated cut-switch if the turbidity and THM risk gets too high. A couple of weeks ago, that spill of rain happened above a water-treatment plant in Leixlip in outer suburban Dublin. A spill of rain should come as no surprise in Ireland, but really there is no spare capacity. It didn't help that there was an operational failure on the cut-switch and thousands of tonnes of insufficiently-treated water shouldered past Leixlip and into the down-stream supply network . . . which serves 600,000 people across 4 counties.

Irish Water issues a boiled water notice to those those homes and premises to those usually served by Leixlip, although boiling does nothing for turbidity or THMs. I guess they are treating turbidity as a 'surrogate marker' for other sorts of contamination including coliform. Boiled water is grand for a family for a few days; a bit of an adventure even. But for a café it is an expensive inconvenience verging on disaster - imagine washing salad for 300 covers with bottled water. My correspondent M, who lives in the [unaffected] southside of the city, found it was impossible to buy bottled water anywhere in the city or county. I tell ya, when armageddon comes, neither water, nor bread, nor toilet paper will be obtainable the day after the Martians arrive on the White House lawn.

D is currently doing a final year research project, so it was dead easy for him to take 0.1 ml samples of water from home and spread them out on a few dozen Petri-dishes. I gave him a bottle of our water as a negative control - something known or strongly believed to be free of contamination. Two days later we were both reassured when D found no bacterial colonies had grown on any of the plates.

At about the same time (12 Nov 2019), Irish Water were given the all-clear by the EPA and Leixlip could start pumping good clean water to the public to end the Boil Water notice. "The ultimate solution is to replace the filters at the old plant and this process is being accelerated as quickly and safely as possible while still maintaining supply to the greater Dublin area. If we could, we would shut down the old plant, take it off line and do all the refurbishment at once. This is not possible because 20% of Dublin’s water supply comes from the Old Plant and we do not have the spare capacity to allow this to happen.” Creaking at every Victorian seam, leaking 50% of its treated water the Irish water supply is a money pit that nobody has the political ooomph to fix.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

The eyes have it

I was over in England for a week in May 2017 to contribute to a rota of friends, neighbours and family who were able to help my aged mother apply drops to her cataract-scraped eye-balls. She was then 97 years old. I think that was my only visit in that calendar year. This year I've crossed the water at least four times (if things get often and irregular, it is hard to count), with out without the girls . . . It's predictable, or at least unsurprising, that the required care-and-attention increases exponentially as our parents age. It was, with 20/20 hindsight outrageous, culpable and cruel that the ophthalmic surgeon scraped my mother's eyeballs, knowing that her primary optical deficit was in/on the retina (macular degeneration) rather on the front (cloudy lens = cataract). The consequence was that it made it almost impossible for my mother to leave the house as the sunlight was positively painful after her treatment while wearing sunglasses against the glare closed off the dribble of peripheral light that allowed her to navigate.

On the September visit to England, I lost my driving glasses in the hospital car park. My twin sister (almost identical eye-balls) lent me her spare pair but it was time to get another pair on my own prescription. After much faffing, I finally got to see the family optician in Waterford this week. O was shocked, shocked, to be told that it is five years since I had my eyes tested. The testing has cranked up a technical notch in the intervening years. Not only can the optician take a picture of your retina [as R, old hat now] but can also carry out a quasi-MRI scan of the back of the retina to catch incipient macular degeneration. With my mother's history, they are a little more vigilant on the mac.degen axis. Unsurprised but vaguely relieved to hear that there is no evidence for any such degeneration in my eyes.

There must have been some post-austerity changes because, if you are up-to-date with social insurance, you can now claim a free eye-test and the glasses . . . both for reading and driving. They blagged me into getting 'anti-glare coating' on the driving glasses but even then The Gumment picks up the lion's share of that. So I came out of the opticians €32 lighter in the pocket but with two pairs of tailored-to-me functional spectacles on order. That's because I was happy to have the lens supported by 'national health' frames.  The choice was presented to me as a shoe-box full of different frames. Don't make me no difference, I whined, fashion accessories are wasted on me. But that wasn't quite true. I refused a pair with bold red ear-hooks "clash with my yellow phone" and a couple of golden-shiny frames as well. And I insisted that the frames be different in shape and colour so I don't try driving blind. The other reassuring information is that, while my prescription glasses are slightly asymmetrical, for general reading I am assured that +2.50 glasses at €2.99 from ALDI will continue to serve.

It took 80 minutes (!) to get through all my eye-business. Which was just enough time to ear-wig on another eye-punter's business transactions. This lady would clearly be mortified to be seen wearing government spectacles because she was allowing herself to be flattered around the up-market frames. Eventually she agreed to shell out €460 (!!) for a lens+frames bundle . . . and was havering about whether she'd sign for a <bargain alert> second pair at a 50% discount. It's like the outrageous difference between functional hearing-aids and commercial hearing-aids which I ranted about 3 years ago. This sort of economic system is clearly working for some entrepreneurs but I keep wondering if me might try From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs [Karl Marx (1875) Critique of the Gotha Program] for a while . . . just see how that might work, like.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Shilling for The Institute

In case you were worried I was out of pocket for volunteering, I did get paid for driving to the last Job Fair instead of taking public transport. And I was doing the same thing last Tuesday in the local big "wedding-reception" hotel. I've done this most years because that's what institutionalised folk do - try to ingratiate self with the boss. It's a little biy more than that - it's nice to talk yo budding scientists - but not much. And this year I was called to the Waaterford Coast to deliver a Yaris-load of wood-chippings for mulch; so I missed using my voucher for a midday Farmer's Dinner [not a bit like R] and tea-or-coffee. Dang!

Lacking [m]any potential students, I went on a Progress round the room talking to anyone who was conspicuously between clients. My opening gambit was about the brochures, were they useful. One person suggested that everyone has to hand out brochures because everyone else hands out brochures: you'd stand out, and not in a good way, if you had nothing to give. This is one of the issues with election posters about which Ireland goes bonkers for every election and referendum.  The clear beneficiaries of this thoughtless bandwagonism are printers. Is it beyond the wit of man to call everyone round a table and call a halt on the waste?

I also edged up to the woman running the show for The Other Midland Institute. I asked her about their brochure-on-a-USBkey. Yes, they did exist but . . . they still printed pallets of brochures each year. I can't help feeling that The Kids in the milling throng at these events see the brochures and the people handing them out as unspeakably dull - but still more interesting than a day of classes in their unspeakably dull schools. Such a waste, and such a failure of imagination.

Monday, 25 November 2019


A few years ago, having relied on Wikipedia as the Go To source of information, I coughed up 30 notes to keep that corner of the interweb ad-free. They [or at least their best-behaved robot] responded effusively. I felt virtuous for having contributed to a source which I consult at least daily. I didn't go so far as to set up a standing order but I've been sending Wikipedia the same amount of money in a desultory fashion since then. Occasionally, like last week, their robot pulls on my coat again
and usually that triggers another contribution. Unless you believe that information, like water, falls from the sky, you should do the same.

I got a really peculiar response:
I feel so lucky to get to be the person to thank you for your € 30.00 gift, on behalf of a world of people seeking free knowledge. What shape does your curiosity take? And how does Wikipedia fit? I used to try and guess what motivated you to give. What special spark exists in your mind, connecting you to a global community representing every pursuit and personal history, united by a commitment to keeping Wikipedia online? The longer I do this work, the more I realize I can’t put your curiosity in a box. There is no one singular experience of Wikipedia. Curiosity is as diverse as we all are, and it looks a little different for each of us. When you use Wikipedia next, I hope you feel even more deeply that it belongs to you. Because without you, and without the love and support of billions of people who come back to us every day, we would be nothing. Thank you for giving Wikipedia shape, and purpose, and momentum. 
Thank you for fitting us into your life. With immense gratitude, 
 Katherine Katherine Maher, 
Executive Director Wikimedia Foundation 
Many employers will generously match employee contributions: please check with your employer to see if they have a corporate matching gift program. Of course The Institute hasn't embraced such a scheme but I couldn't correctly guess any corporation which had signed up. So here's the list

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Ult Sun 024 Nov 019

IR doing this by remote from England, where I am visiting with 4 generations of fam.

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Cooking by the handful

. . . and not by the book. When Dau.II and Dau.I were still living at home and spending a helluva lotta time in the kitchen, I put a huge sign above the stove asking
"Are we going to measure or are we going to cook?"
I ripped the idea from a cook-book that had no recipes when we were given it but rather blank pages and an occasional inspiring Foodie quote. But it was also a homage to my grandmother's apple pie which was done entirely by feel and experience. I'm not even sure if Grannie had a weighing-scales in her kitchen. I was consciously trying to encourage experimentation: what will happen if the recipe calls for 8oz of flour and you only got 7? Is there a substitute? Will it make any difference? How can you compensate?

I'm not saying recipes are without value, no cook should have to reinvent the wheel of getting the proportions correct for Madeira cake: if you double the butter, most of the excess will end up  in a puddle on the oven-floor. That happened to my first 2019 Christmas cake, perhaps because I had no ground almonds but kept the same amount of butter as my standard recipe. But it's also really important to reflect on allowable variation. We spent a part of last weekend doing a final wrap on the green-beans and tomatoes in the polytunnel. We were a little slow off the mark this year, so the plants didn't really have a full season to grow big, come to flower, get jumped by the bees and set fruit. Accordingly there were a good few green tomatoes which were never going to get red enough to offer to the vicar in a sandwich. Obviously the thing to do is make Green Tomato Chutney.
Obviously the thing to do next is get on Google to get a handle on the proportions. The first three recipes came from BBC , RTE ● and GIY [Grow-It-Yourself] only the last of which has an obvious credibility in the business of growing and preparing food. All of these options bulked out the ingredients with apple, onion, sultana, sugar, vinegar . . . and tomato; and then got fussy with the spices - cinnamon? clove? chili? which add punch for flavour but are small potatoes in weight. What struck me was the wild variation in the amounts included in each recipe. And the fact that some give weights in kg and some in old money lb. The only thing was to enter the data into Excel and have it compute percentages for these six bulk ingredients. When thus normalised it is clear that the wild card is the start opf the show. In the  recipe, apples and tomatoes get parity of esteem; on the other hand, recipes  and  had about 5x more tomatoes than apples. As I'm trying to use up toms and have refused bushels of apples all this Fall, I won't be using  this year, thanks. I'll have to buy some vinegar, everything else I have, except maybe time.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Knockroe Spring

. . . good to the last drop.
With commendable, almost embarrassing, efficiency, Our Lady of Smartie has answered our prayer to tell us that the bore hole sunk in the corner of our yard in Summer 1996 is [still] coliform-free! It's one of the aspects of rural life that you can be entirely without symptoms even when consuming large quantities of bacteria - especially if you don't move about much. If your well is contaminated with coliform, because the shit-hole is leaking into the domestic plumbing, at least it's your coliform. I guess it helps if all the fluid you drink passes your lips as scalding hot, mortal strong, tea.

You could be years drinking from the contaminated kitchen tap with not a bother on you . . . and not realise why Uncle Jack from Baltimore spends the last few days of his visit on the t'ilet. And the kids, with the cruelty natural to their tribe, start to call him Uncle Jacks. If he stays on, his guts will soon settle down to the assault and come to an equilibrium; sure, doesn't he have half of his genes in common with your mother?

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Palace of Plag

I written several times about plagiarism before. My definition is Ripping off somebody's ideas and presenting them as your own.  It's not so clear when you get down to details. Every year around this time we have a class on plagiarism which requires everyone to think a little harder than the glib answer I trotted out. Actually thinking (and discussing) about the edge cases makes it more likely that people will do the right thing later. This year, for a change, I asked the kids to define plagiarism in student’s own words:
  1. Plagiarism is using someone else’s work (text, pictures etc.) as your own. 
  2. Plagiarism is a quote from a source that you can use in internet and that should written in your own words. 
  3. Plagiarism is rewriting someone else’s text. Not giving the sources of the text. 
  4. When you don’t acknowledge someone for their work looks like they’re your own words. 
  5. The copying of information and claiming it to be your own without referencing or giving any sources as to where the information originates. 
  6. Plagiarism is when a person submits the work of other man/people as their own without permission or referencing. 
  7. Plagiarism is taking someone else’s work and saying its your own work and without giving any credit to the writer. 
  8. To copy someone else’s work without them knowing and claiming it as your own.
Professor Naive might think that the students now understand what plagiarism is and would never commit the sin. But s/he'd be wrong, or at least couldn't be right in all cases because no two students have precisely the same answers to a questionnaire asking them to judge a number of scenarios as plagiarism or not-plagiarism. There is a certain formality in the way academics, and by extension their students, cite and reference other people's work. It provides an audit trail in case any reader wants to follow up the ideas.

Credit where credit is due: these plagiarism exercises were designed by The University of Leeds; for which much thanks.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Vaccine downers

In his 1916 Proclamation, St Padraig of Pearse promised “The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally.

That sounded just fine, despite being seen as quite difficult to achieve in practice. But it doesn't take a moral philosopher to expose the uselessness of the statement; it just takes someone who has seen a version [as L] of the equality vs equity meme which has been widely circulated recently. The trouble with memes is that they get tired and debased long before their value is diminished. Here's an interesting re-look at some of the issues. Anatole France, who was born 35 years earlier than Pearse, articulated the key issue: La loi, dans un grand souci d'égalité, interdit aux riches comme aux pauvres de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain. From Le Lys Rouge, The Red Lily tr: The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

I'm thinking about these issues because Aoife Bennett has been awarded a chunk of money because she is now suffering from narcolepsy and she definitely didn't before she took a shot of Pandemrix against the swine 'flu while at school in 2009. I wrote about the connexion between 'flu vaccines and this peculiar and rare condition in 2013. There was a bit of a flap about swine flu in 2009, in England the data looked like:
There were several weeks that Summer (with a second peak in Oct/Nov) when 50,000+ new cases were being diagnosed and 10 people were dying from the flu [source: BMJ].  In England 140 people died of flu and more from more than 500,000 cases that year. For parochial interest, the population of Ireland is about a tenth of England's and the flu cases and mortality rates were about the same. The flu is nothing like the sniffles or a cold: if you can think about getting out of bed you haven't got the flu. Anyone would want to avoid that, if they could do so easily, perhaps especially if The Gumment was picking up the tab. The tab, in this case, being the price of a couple of doses of Pandemrix manufactured by GSK aka GlaxoSmithKline one of the world's largest MegaPharm companies. The HSE forked over €80,000,000 for 8 million shots of Pandemrix in 2009 and  sweetened the deal by offering GSK indemnity for any adverse reactions to their vaccine. In 2011, they uttered some of left-over doses in the face of an anticipated flu sweep and at least one now narcoleptic girl got Pandemrix both years.

Aoife Bennett's case is that the HSE should have known about the narcolepsy connexion. A spike in narcolepsy, probably associated with Pandemrix, was reported in Finland a month after the HSE started to reissue the drug in 2011. The population of Finland and the rate of flu vaccination is about the same as Ireland; and if the HSE and the Irish disease surveillance system hadn't been asleep at the wheel, they too have spotted the association early enough to toilet the surplus vaccines that were issued in early 2011. I don't think anyone is claiming that GSK and the regulators were culpably negligent in 2009 before Pandemrix was widely enough prescribed to trigger a countable number of narcolepsy cases.

Padraig Pearse's poorly articulated 1916 'cherish equally' aspiration in a free and independent Ireland was that if some person, especially a child, gets all buggered up then the state will take care of them, even if they will now require more care and attention and money than their more fortunate neighbours. Pearse knew nothing about medical or regulatory negligence; his assertion was that the state had the back of all its citizens even the unlucky ones. The Ireland we have now is not a socialist paradise: successive centre-right governments have been elected on a wave of lower taxes, so there is no spare money to handle the difficult cases: the Down's, the haemophiliacs,  the anti-D women, team cystic fibrosis. Actually, these cohorts do have their cost of treatment picked up by the Minister of Health but thousands of other less articulate people with less dramatic conditions are quietly shuffled to the back of the class if they are quiet and undemanding, or to a no-see-um institution if they start to frighten the horses.

This is why Aoife Bennett has to sue the state for some help and take a 10 Year journey through the courts to vindicate her right to be treated with equity. It's your fault, and mine, because we don't pay enough tax to cherish anyone else: our mortgage, our car, our lattes, our holiday, our children's education takes precedence.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

CCD Compassionate Crap Detector

It is not true to say that Dau.I and Dau.II never had a lesson in their lives. They both had a week in a Steiner school with their cousins in Cape Town in 1999. And, ten years later, Dau.I had a three week stint in the Hothouse for Harvard School . . . Be Your True Self Place . . . Centre for Talented Youth Ireland CTYI. Although she was sixteen, the CTYI experience was much like being a student . . . without the drink; but with the hoovering up of information; and the talking shite - politics, pleasure, philosophy - into the wee hours.
She is now a Librarian (her dream job since 6 y.o) but has just enrolled in a distance learning course in Psychology with Philosophy at DCU - incidentally the same place that hosted, and hosts, CTYI. She Skyped me up on Sunday afternoon and was clearly in bed. I laughed and said that she was clearly studenting if she was still in the scratcher, to use the mildly repulsive Dublin slang expression, while studying on a Sunday afternoon. Because she wasn't contacting me to stiff me for money, or for unconditional love, but because she wanted some feedback on her second assignment in PY101 - 1st Year Psychology. Her class had been requested and required to write 700 words, with citations and references, on The Discovery of Self In Infancy.

It's not obvious how you'd go about establishing this in pre-verbal children. Clearly asking them "And how are you feeling yourself?" is not going to elicit a more coherent answer than "With pleasure, thanks" perhaps especially if diapers are off. But psychologists are nothing if not ingeniously creative in designing experiments that begin to answer such existential questions. There is indeed an extensive literature on the idea, perhaps commencing with Jean Piaget's observations of his own and other children in the 1920s & 1930s. These early studies were strong on assertion and less strong on evidence, particularly with respect to replications and sample size. Earlier Dau.I had asked if I had legitimate access to a classic paper from 1972  Mirror self-image reactions before age two by Beulah Amsterdam from UNC, Chapel Hill. I hadn't, but Sci-Hub delivered anyway. In our Skype-to-fro later in the day, the key issue of sample size, and by extension, the credibility or reliability of any findings from small studies, was aired. I was delighted to see that at least one 1st Year science student in Ireland was critically evaluating the primary scientific literature rather than accepting the findings because they had appeared in print in a reputable journal.

Batting ideas back and forth we came up with the idea that as well as citing the source of information in a student paper, it would be really handy to include the sample size for any experimental results. Sample size being a pretty good surrogate marker for the data's reliability. The thing is that nobody thinks they have the time to follow up all the references cited in a paper and it would help to annotate an essay thus: an often-repeated test for the measurement of self-recognition and self-awareness (Amsterdam, B. 1972) [N = 88].  Which may be more valuable reading than (small children's brains seem to process self-awareness in a similar way to those of adults Filippetti M et al 2015) [N = 15], simply because the sample-size is 5x bigger. So that's the Crap-Detector; what's with the Compassion?

The compassion stems from an earlier to-fro with Dau.I regarding a Twitterstorm about Young Adult literature, its authors, readers, and critics. Being Twitter, the interactions soon degenerated into cross-patch vindictiveness which allowed a lot of other people to weigh in with their judgemental certainties. Someone was a little more forgiving and optimistic: One of the biggest backlashes was the vitriol with which everyone approached Twilight. It wasn't anything in the text that made it special or worse, it was that it was a series which teenage girls loved, and that meant that it was worth hating because nobody, including teenage girls, wants to be associated with teenage girls. But Twilight grew a generation of readers who will eventually find something else to love. My main issue is about the meritocracy of reading, we don't want kids reading comics, we don't like teen girls reading YA, or heaven forbid adults reading YA. But all these things when left alone build readers and maybe, hopefully critical thinkers. (Baldwin, E 2019) [N = 1] . . . because she is The One, CCD.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Newton's cat-flap

On dit que; they say that Isaac Newton invented the cat-flap. He got fed up with his moggy, by name Spithead, blundering into the darkened room, when Newton was carrying out his optical experiments, by pushing open the door and flooding the room with light. The Great Man therefore cut a hole in the door and sealed both sides with black velvet which allowed Spithead in and out at will and in darkness. When Spithead had kittens Newton cut a smaller hole in the same door to facilitate them. This allowed Newton's pals to laugh at his naivety "For a clever chap, it's a  wonder how he manages to get his britches on the right way round most mornings".

<trigger> descriptions of self-inficted injury </trigger>

I was visiting with my pal Rene last weekend: I bring flapjacks, he makes tea, wat leuk, gezellig. I noticed that he had a huge partly healed dinge, about the size of a thumb-nail, on one of his fingers. Eeeeuw, that looks painful, I said, how did that happen?  Someone gave him a shiny new coffee-mug. As usual for breakfast he half-filled the cup with milk for his breakfast muesli and went out into the utility room to heat it up in the microwave. 2 minutes later, when he heard the >ping<, he went outside again, opened the microwave door and  grabbed the mug by the handle. The pain, the smell of burning and the sound of sizzle arrived in his head at more or less the same time. But he couldn't drop the cup because the melted flesh was stuck unto the handle. >!Yaroooo!<. The shiny new cup had a metallic glaze. Nobody claimed that Rene is stupid, he knows not to put metal in a microwave but he was on autopilot making breakfast and that theoretic knowledge wasn't allowed to surface.

Could have been worse.  A few years ago at the Home Education Network HEN annual gathering, one of the dads turned up with his arm in a surgical brace. Eeeeuw, that looks painful, I said, how did that happen?  Home Ed kids have nothing to do all day but play and one day his crew had decided to make and fly kites. Dad, who is a computer engineer working for IBM, was 'working form home'. The kite finds itself caught on some wires looping towards the house. Dad is called. He spends his whole life solving problems. The kids have tried throwing sticks and stones to dislodge the kite. He knows that the bamboos in the garden are not long enough, so he duct-tapes two together. Still he cannot reach high enough. Aha! The lopper from ALDI with extensible aluminium handle. But that is still clearly too short; so he goes to the garage to fetch is largest metal step-ladder. As he climbs the ladder, he pauses to admire the view . . . he notes the transformer [as R] on a distant electricity pole . . . speculates how many thousands of volts course through it . . . shakes his head and gets on with The Task. >!kaBOOM!< The next thing he remembers is waking up on his back in the dirt with a smell of burning. The pain came later. Ignoring the sub-conscious message from his sensible centres, he had contrived to use his body to short out the mains electricity supply to the house. With months of physiotherapy, he was hopeful that he'd get partial use of his left arm in due course. Moral: don't buy single-use clutter-bargains from ALDI?

Now me, I don't believe in napkins: who needs paper when you've got a sleeve to clean the crumbs off your face? A couple of years ago, the orange enamel kettle boiled over. Some goof-ball [probably me] had over filled it. It was wet on the bottom but the hot water was needed in the kitchen. Can't be having drips across the hallway so I sweppppt the kettle-bottom across the trouser of my up-lifted leg. It was like the old joke about Do not phone Paddy while he's doing the ironing. I had applied a thin layer of boiling water, under mild pressure, to my thigh. It is hard and undignified to get your trousers off in a hurry; hint: put kettle on floor first. In the end, not all of the skin peeled off, just the bit in the middle of the burn where the heat had penetrated deeper.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Sunday gatherum

Whaaaat's happenin'? Here comes the Sunday

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Snail Jumper

Science Week 2019 is drawing to a close. There are events in Wexford and Carlow [and probably all over the country] tomorrow but I'm done [in]. On Monday I got my vital statistics check [tl;dr I am alive]. On Tuesday we had a well attended Science Café about the doors of perception. Wednesday is my heavy teaching day, so I concentrated on our students at The Institute rather than Joe Public. Thursday was The Institute's annual Open Day where busloads of secondary school teenagers arrive by bus from all over the Sunny South East; all delighted not to be in class for the school day. Someone said we had 1,500 visitors which makes the concourse a milling hub-bub. I am usually assigned to shout at any youth who expresses the least hint of interest in doing science and give them a selection of brochures which they can take home and throw in the bin. Y' have to shout to be heard and even if the youngsters shout back I have difficulty hearing what they are saying - it's the presbycusis, silly. [a new, but relevant, word for aged me].

This year, I was promoted upstairs where various scientific demonstrations are on show with, importantly, a bunch of scientists who can explain and inform and answer questions. That was a lot more useful than the general mill on the ground floor. Everyone visiting the Biology Lab had walked up stairs and along the corridor to be there so there was a far higher proportion who seemed interested enough to pause to look down a microscope or get up close and personal to some of our larger animals. Large is relative! We don't have the space to support an okapi Okapia johnstoni [L eating some Congolese vegetation] or aardvark Ocycteropus afer.  What do we have then? well some hissing cockroaches Gromphadorhina portentosa; a common tortoise Testudo graeca; a tarantula Brachypelma somethingi and some giant African landsnails Archachatina marginata. They all live in quite austere conditions in glass terrariums.  For Open Day, these lads were all on display and the cockroaches and snails were available for petting:
The caption for this photo is "No Jim, don't jump: you don't want to finish up like the little 'un". It is an occupational hazard with these snails that they will course about their space and not only on the floor. Far too many times, one of them has fallen off the wall onto the pointy bit of their shell. If that chips off it serves as a gateway for fungal infection which the snail immune system is ill-equipped to handle up there: presumably the front foot of the snail wades through the same fungal spores without much bother.  You can't easily tell from the crap photo but Junior is the latest snail to take such a tumble. I was explaining this tragedy to one group of school-girls when one of the larger snails did a runner and made for the edge of the terrarium lid: "You'll never take me alive, Copper" shis companion responded with equal "speed" to intercept the fatal plunge. I use the pronoun shis because this, and most, species of snail are hermaphrodites [having both male and female genitalia]. I'll let you know if the baby survives. Discussion about its future elicited a number of solutions from the kids about how to seal the shell hole in a sterile fashion that didn't require playing a blow-torch over the point. Really small direct interactions with teenagers, especially girls, have been shown to make a significant difference in youngsters switching to science. A ten minute chat will make more difference than 750g of Prospectus.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Waistin' away, me

Almost exactly this time last year, I rocked up for a Health Check run by the 2nd Year students in Strecgth & Conditioning. As this is an annual event associated with Science Week, I went down to the concourse on Tuesday to get my height [176cm] , waist [80cm], weight [66.7kg], and blood pressure [117/75] measured. I took these raw data over to which said Your BMI is 21.6. Well done! Your BMI and waist circumference show that you are a healthy weight. This means that you are less likely to develop heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. You are probably a healthy weight because you eat well and take regular exercise. It’s important to keep up these healthy habits. The "healthy range" for BMI is 18.5-25kg.m-2 so I am good to go despite never taking regular exercise.

For the second year in a row, I've lost another couple of kilos of lard from round my midsection since last year. At this rate,I'll be back to my birthweight before I turn 96! Not sure what is driving this weight loss. Could be cutting out the cup-cakes . . . a wasting disease . . . nematode load [R a liddle baby Ascaris hatching from its egg]. No more than for Mary Cain, weight-loss is certainly not helping me to run faster.

Now it is true that my cholesterol [HDL, LDL, good cholesterol and bad cholesterol; all of it] is high at 7.1 mmol/Lt. The threshold for "high" is 5.2, so this is clearly in to high range. But I'm not going to worry about it. If I take my worries to the Doc, he'll prescribe me statins. And the benefit of statins, though statistically significant, is a long way from being a miracle clean-up cure.

Thursday, 14 November 2019


I've been a bit of a fan of Jacob Rees-Mogg and John Bercow because they have made parliamentary  democracy less dull across the water in London. I was therefore interested in the valedictory remarks of JRM about JB when the latter ended his decade as Speaker of the House. I knew it would be erudite and witty, and respectful because good manners is important to people like that. I was surprised when Rees Mogg claimed that the principal function of parliamentarians is to seek redress for the real or perceived the real wrongs of their constituents. Whoa Jake, what about steering the ship of state? keeping checks on the current government? making sure that legislation is fair and fit for purpose?

ReesMogg was alluding to his campaign to override the evidence-based decision of the National Health Service to not pay for Brineura, an extremely expensive therapy for a rare [maybe 40 cases in UK, 4 in Ireland?] neurological condition called Batten's Disease from which one of Rees Mogg's constituents suffers. All those with Batten's Disease are young because it is invariably fatal within 3 decades of being born. It is rare that any of them get to vote, either because of death or because a catastrophe of seizures, decline in speech, loss of mobility, involuntary muscle spasms, progressive dementia and visual impairment all conspire to make voting the last thing anyone in that home cares about. Batten's is a lysosome storage disorder brought about by a deficiency in one of the several dozen enzymes that do their work in those tiny sub-cellular blobs. I wrote a tutorial / Exec Summ about the various therapies that are coming on stream to alleviate the perfectly dreadful symptoms of some of these conditions.

It's big ask: science has to deliver a replacement enzyme to most of the cells in the body, encourage it through the cell membrane and then through the lysosome membrane without getting waylaid, degraded or misdirected. Actually, in the case of Batten's the drug of choice, Brineura, is delivered by a syringe-pump through a catheter direct to the middle of the child's brain. The mechanism is [obviously?] permanently attached, with a new cartridge of Brineura clicked into place as required like toner in a printer.

And for why? So that a tiny number of tiny people can have a fairer chance at a longer, fulfilling, pain-free, uncompromised life. That's really worthy, who wouldn't want that for a child? But these therapies are still quite hit-and-miss and never as good as a fully functioning natural gene making just enough of the right enzyme to work its clean-up magic.

Let's first guess the bill for the R&D.  The road to develop a successful product is paved with mis-fires, dead-ends, failures and hair-tearings. Drug development costs are rocketing skyward, currently estimated on average to be $2,600,000,000 which needs to be recouped from each product that finally passes through the FDA and EMA [European Medicines Agency] approval process to The Market. That is the R&D cost, but The Market has to satisfy the manufacturing, marketing and distribution costs; the desire for profit; and the venture capitalists want a return on their investment. So BioMarin, the Pharma company that owns the intellectual property and the licence-to-sell, has a shit-ton of investment [$700million last year] that needs to be recouped . . .  across a very small select market.  Maybe 10,000 kids with Batten's in the whole [paying] world - excluding all the Battenistas who are born in the third world with no hope at all of paying for the therapy. The equation
investment < cost per dose * life-expectancy-on-drug * # patients
yields the marketeers from BioMarin a figure of $£€500,000/yr for each customer. Even in the [paying] world that is more than any family dependent on a salary can pay. So the tab has to be picked up either by an insurance company or the Government.

But there have to be some standards before tax-payers foot the bill for medical interventions. In the UK the gate-keepers on payment are NICE National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. That's quite different to the EMA which keeps tabs on the safety and effectiveness of drugs. It's three tier in an ideal world:
  • nobody can buy things which are harmful, 
  • you can buy things where the balance of good outweighs the accumulation of likely adverse side-effects if you can afford them
  • The Man will buy them for you if NICE decides that the tax-payer is getting value for money
In February, there was bad news for the 1,000 UK families with Batten's in their midst when NICE decided not to authorise the funding of Brineura. It's mainly because a) it costs so much and b) there is only evidence for short-term benefit. The long term effectiveness and extension of high QALY life is much more open to question and BioMarin was unable to satisfy NICE or the NHS that Brineura was anything other than kicking the can down the road: where The Can is a child. “However, in the absence of long term evidence about its effectiveness in stabilising the disease and preventing death, and having taken all the health and non-health-related benefits of cerliponase alfa [that's Brineura] into account, the committee considered that the drug was not a good use of NHS resources,” That decision, on some level, 'saved' the NHS £20,000,000 . . . a year! That's a lot of sugar. £20 million will put [pick one or mix-&-match]:

  • 400 nurses on the wards.
  • 4,000 hip replacements
  • 20 MRI scanners

Where does Jacob Rees-Mogg get his oar into the story? Well, one of his constituent (a young chap called Max Sewart) has Batten's and, in July 2019, the Mogg was able, with Speaker Bercow's imprimatur, to secure parliamentary time to urge the Health Minister and the NHS to come to any agreement with BioMarin that would supply Brineura to his constituent. His speech was peppered with numbers but is essentially an emotional appeal to secure preferential treatment for His Boy. I also know a very nice boy, currently in a horrendous spiral of destruction, addiction, self-harm and court-time who could really benefit from a few hundred €uros worth of support, evaluation and treatment. Without it, I fear that he'll be damaged beyond repair or dead before young Max. But that's the un-sexy end of health care provision, though, so Minister Simon Harris ain't going to break the rules on that story.

This essay draws a parallel between the negotiations with BioMarin over Brineura and Vertex over Orkambi, the cystic fibrosis which was approved in Ireland by Simon Harris, the Populist Health Minister, over and against the advice of experts and officials in his own department. Rees-Mogg and Harris will probably benefit in the polls for these preferring shameless appeals to emotive arguments rather than sober sifting of evidence, cost-benefit analysis and QALYs. One peculiar fact is that from the same data, some countries decide that a new drug will be paid for by the state; while other countries say no. QALY is an imperfect measure but at least it aspires, as does NICE, to be a fair and objective way of allocating the limited amount of money which the electorate is prepared to fork over in taxes. Brineura is approved for selling, though, and if Rees-Mogg really believes in Brineura, he may consider paying for young Max's treatment himself, hmmmmm?

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

₿ is for Bitcoin

If the ₿ looks a little furry it's because it's got two tick-marks top and bottom to better resemble a $ sign. If I'd been considerably more nerdy in the aftermath of the financial crash of 2007/2008, I might have invested in Bitcoin for a bit of a laff and found myself unexpectedly rich towards the end of 2017 when Bitcoin values peaked close to $20,000. But my financial savvy is so off -centre that I would probably have held on until the cryptocurrency tanked early the following year; falling to about $3,000. As I write ₿1 = €7,928.48, which is a lot of sugar for something that is invisible.

As part of Science Week, Dave Malone from U Maynooth came down to The Institute to ask the question "Is Bitcoin generation using more electricity than Ireland?".  This is a question related to the statement that The Servers [Friendface, Global, Dripfeed, Instaluv, Twaddle etc.] are consuming 10% of the world's electricity. Wot are we like? All those crap photos and phatic exchanges on Instablob have a cost . . . to the Planet, in carbon footprint.

I've known Malone for nearly 30 years since he was one of the SYS$OP for the Math computers in the early 1990s. The Faculty had the empowering idea to turn poachers into gamekeepers by putting the smartest kids in the math class in charge of the computers, their system maintenance, firmware updates, security and passwords. The grown-ups were concerned that these star students would dissipate their creative efforts trying to hack into the computers to get access to the Pentagon. He was kind enough, and rebel enough, to create a mathcomp account for The Boy when the latter was still in secondary school - their social network intersected at a group of Northside Nerds who liked to trick about with computers in those distant pre-WWW days, when the Internet was e-mail and file-sharing.

In order to do his calculations and answer his question, Malone needed to explain what Bitcoin is and how it works. tbh, after his talk, my understanding of the technicalities was still quite shaky - despite me being the only person in the room taking notes. I guess that the majority of the audience had at least looked at the case in Computer Networks class, so the talk was more of a report from the coal-face that brought their dry academic knowledge closer to real life. Insofar as anything about Bitcoin relates to real life. I'm certainly not in a position to prove my knowledge by explaining it to you here. It helped to get an Executive Summary from Dave when I au revoired him after his talk. "Bitcoin is like a puzzle where you get rewarded for trying hard to solve it". That will do. One of the other fanboys on the dais [there were two (2) women in the audience!] recommended But how does bitcoin actually work? a 26m video essay by 3blue1brown.

Satoshi Nakamoto is an alias for the founder of Bitcoin. Somebody with that name wrote the original paper describing the process. There has been a lot of speculation about who the real person is behind that handle. Bitcoins are far to lumpy to buy anything in the real world. Yachts might be priced in units of €8,000 but you can't buy pizzas with that sort of money. Accordingly Bitcoin is fractionated into millibitcoins currently valued at ~$8 and Satoshis = 10-8 Bitcoins. 1 Satoshi is tiny - about 1/100th of a €$cent.

And the answer?  Ireland's total electricity consumption is ~ 4 GWh gigawatt hours per year. That's 4 billion watt hours. Bitcoin mining currently is sucking up about twice that. 9GWh each year.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Fraochán tea-pot

Vaccinium myrtillus is a shrub with edible purple fruit [L: yes, the fruit are that sparce] commonly called blueberry blåbär bilberry melleņu mustikka myrtille wimberry borówka whortleberry Heidelbeere or fraochán. Hereabouts on the last Sunday of July, families would head off to the hills for Fraochán Sunday. In the war years, these little berries acquired a monetary value because the Baltic was closed to civilian traffic, yet there was still a market for blueberries in London. Wholesalers would bring a van across on the Fishguard Rosslare ferry, drive to agreed mountainy cross-roads and give ready money for each punnet of berries. Folding money was extremely hard to come by in the closed economy of deepest rural Ireland. Labour was exchanged rather than bought; people grew their own beans, spuds and cabbage; fattened a pig on the stalks and peelings; those with a little more money would have a cow for butter and milk and a calf to sell for cash.

I guess the habit of picking fraocháns stuck even when the van stopped coming. The effects of vitamin C deficiency were known by the late 1700s and James Lind recommended a supply of fresh fruit or fruit juice for the British navy in 1795. Limes were more readily available from British colonies in the Caribbean than Spanish oranges, so this fruit became the official preventative against scurvy. Dealing with a gross deficiency is not the same as recognising the benefits of enough vitamin C for ordinary people who had access to cabbage and spuds. It wasn't until 1930 that ascorbic acid was isolated, purified and identified by Albert Szent-Györgyi as the effective anti-scorbutic molecule. Nobody has picked fruit without stuffing at least some in the mouth. When the fraocháns couldn't be sold, they could still be eaten, and only a rare child came to harm from scarfing down too many. Occasionally, Fraochán Sunday coincided with one of those rare days in an Irish Summer when the sun shone and everyone would troop off to the hillside for the day.

A day-trip required sandwiches, or at least cold boiled potatoes, and tea: the colour of tomato soup and strong enough to trot a mouse on. Thermos flasks were for the gentry and who likes old tea when the hills are alive with the sound of water and dead heather makes a fine quick fire. I'm sure that some girls drifted off from their younger siblings and <surprise> encountered their bloke over a shoulder of hill where they could have some privacy.

Well I'm sorry to say that, on such a Sunday, years ago in the Blackstairs, someone forgot the tea-pot. Or rather, I am sure somebody was blamed for forgetting the tea-pot but really everyone had the benefit of the beverage that warms but does not inebriate so everyone was responsible for leaving it on the hillside. I'm also sure that the tea-pot wasn't just abandonned as lost. Several children were sent up the hill again [and maybe again, poor weans] to scour the heather for the missing utensil. But it was never found. The family are quite likely still telling the story of how, now matronly, Auntie Sorcha lost the family tea-pot when she was as tall as you are now, M'cushla. Sometime later a sheep or a cow stepped on it and some time after that the rivets eroded through and the handle fell off. I know all this because, like a metal-detectorist finding a wedding-ring on a beach, I turned up a partly crushed handleless aluminium tea-pot [R above] when I was coursing about the hillside BoPeeping for our sheep. It was entirely random that I discovered it half-buried in the turf under a thatch of heather. It would have been the divil of a task to locate it if I had been anxiously looking! I never did find the sheep though. That required the help of two sets of neighbours Effectives from adjacent townlands.

Monday, 11 November 2019

Poppy time

I flagged Armistice Day, Remembrance Sunday yesterday; moving it to Sunday as they have done in Official Britain since I was a lad in the 1960s when everything stopped at 11am for two minutes of reflection (or fidgetting if you were 8 y.o. But since yest-morning I've come across two links about intolerance for people who choose not, or forget, to wear a poppy - in  Britain or Canada - so I've decided to schedule this note for 1100 GMT today. At 1102 you /we can go back to our daily 21stC grind.
I've had my say about bullying in the poppy place last year 2018 and in 2016 too. But I couldn't put it better than shoesfullofdust: I always took the advice of the local legion. You wear it on November 11th. They just want you to take one minute of one day to remember. Anything more, it becomes more about you than them. It becomes nostalgia. And sentiment. That's not what they wanted. Remembrance. Thoughtfulness. Gratitude. Get on with your day. Enjoy what you have because they saved that for you.

Reason and the blues

I had a bit to say about blue light in my executive summary of Karolina Zielinska-Dabkowska's work on spectral impact on the retina and the visual cortex. She is concerned that the displacement of  trad incandescent lamps by compact fluorescent lamps CFLs is having unconsidered consequences on human health and happiness. CFLs are better for the planet's carbon footprint, but their spectrum is really different from that of natural sunlight especially in the evening. This seems to interfere with blue-sensitive intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells - ipRGCs to play havoc with your sleep-wake cycle.

All that science, all that evidence, is a bit overwhelming for Joe and Josie Public. In imitation of the simple politics of Animal Farm “Four legs good, two legs bad” people have been bamboozled into accepting and repeating a "blue light bad" mantra. Entrepreneurs, ever restless for new markets to exploit, started to manufacture and sell blue filters for screens, these seems to be software based rather than transparent foils to remove blue.

But here's Phillip Yuhas, the Professor of Optometry at Ohio State U, givimg us some advice about screen-eye coordination for health; invoking the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to focus on something 20 feet [6m] away it will make your eye-muscles work and not get lazy. Also blink early and blink often - 10-12 times a minute will keep the optics lubricated, Old people take note: homeostasis on maintaining trickle in the tear ducts is not as good as it once was.

Yuhas also sets us straight on what matters . . . and its not blue filters. It's picked up on JSTOR too. They are only capable of reducing blue wavelengths by about 15%, which is equivalent to holding your screen 3cm further from your cornea. Try that now? See any diff? No, so you can take the blue filter off your Christmas list.

He still agrees with Karolina Zielinska-Dabkowska (and the evidence) about the impact of blue light from CFLs and screens on your ipRGCs with adverse effect on your sleep hygiene. But a tech fix is not called for here. It's a self-discipline issue. Getting enough quality sleep is important! It's worth working to achieve. We live in a world with infinite time choice. IF the BBC schedules a must see programme just before your bedtime THEN you can catch it later in the week. And face it, all the crud we watch, how much of that is vital to our health, wealth or happiness. The hours I spend watching trees being felled and Mongolian throat singers for edutainment = mostly of no value. Really I'd be better off sacking out on the sofa following Winnie-the-Pooh [Not!]: Sometimes I sets and thinks, and sometimes I just sets in preparation for bed.

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Science Week 2019

Easy stuff
Foodie supplement
More difficult.
Tomorrow it's Veteran's Day /Remembrance Day. Let's remember the Women who served as ARNPs [advanced registered nurse practitioner] or Surgical Nurses in Medical Evacuation Centres. Check out Women under Fire.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Die Mauer existiert versteckt in Sichtweite

Remember remember the Ninth of November!? Thirty years ago, partly because of a bureaucratic communication cock-up in the DDR helped by some leading questions from Western journalists at an East Berlin press conference, some of the border crossings in the Berlin Wall were opened up on the evening of the 9th of November 1989. Either by Heinz Schäfer [L] or Harald Jäger [R] who were local gate keepers. Schäfer was probably first responder but Jäger had a TV crew in attendance and has now become the GoTo for a soundbyte. It's like Claudette Colvin getting ooffed from history because Rosa Parks made better copy. A flood of Ossies went through to sample bright lights and champagne of The West. It was hard to put the cork back in the bottle without a blood-bath and no local commander, certainly not  Schäfer or Jäger, was gung-ho for the status quo enough to have his men fix bayonets. Over the next days and months, the wall was comprehensive demolished, initially by entrepreneurial Mauerspechte [wall-peckers] and later with bull-dozers and back-hoes by the Border Guards.

Along the way, someone realised that the symbol of division [and oppression if you're a Wessie] had heritage value and a few segments of the wall were retained as a memorial and tourist attraction. The Wall was more than 100km in length with another 50+km of West-East border maintained with fences, wire and automatic machine-guns. In 2018 a chunk of Wall was rediscovered in a jungly part of the Südpanke-Park. Here's another section quietly reverting to nature like Chichen-Itza after the Maya departed.
I like the idea that something concrete and so steeped in history can be hidden in plain sight for so long. A bit like the Knockroe Ringstone.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Field's Medal

It's coming up for Science Week 10-17 November across the country; even in Wexford. I had a lot to do last year [Eponyms; Gabriela; networking] but the local organisers haven't asked me back for an encore this year. I'm not very good at sitting on my thumbs, so I've been making what hay I can from Other Men's Flowers. One of the old style lecturers at The Institute makes up poster boards each year with batches of Thinking Puzzles which can be stated simply but require some mental work to figure out. Some of these puzzles are very old. I share some here:

P1. Man owns a square field which is too much to manage. Accordingly, he fences off a quarter of the section and divides the rest of the property equally among his 4 children. Because the kids are self- centred and argumentative, he finds a way to divide the white part of the field into 4 holdings equal in both size and shape. How did Fair Deal Dad manage this task?
P2. Given three containers which hold exactly 8 lt, 5 lt and 3 lt. If you start with the largest bucket brimful of beer, how can you contrive to measure exactly 4 lt in at least one of the containers?

P3. Given a kilo of coffee, weighing scales and two weights of 10g and 40g, how do you separate the coffee into two parcels one of 200g and one of 800g? Not more than three weighings are allowed.

I set a sample of these problems to my 1st Yr Quant Methods class last week as a change from doing self-directed algebra problems until heir eyes bleed.

Thursday, 7 November 2019


Useless if delayed! A month ago, I voluntered to bang the recruitment drum at a school-leavers job fair. Actually make that The Job Fair. Dozens of 3rd level educational institutions from Ireland and abroad have a presence there because thousands of school leavers will be in the same hanger for a couple of hours. Handing out brochures has got to be the most ineffectual method of persuasion but I could be convinced that an engaged chat with someone who works at St Trinian's College Dublin would tilt the table in StT's favour. You won't find anyone more bat-shit bonkers with enthusiasm than Old Bob. But I had a class to teach at 0900hrs on The Day. If I went by public transport, the whole event would be in the sweeping-up-unread-brochures phase. Accordingly, with the approval of my line manager and her line manager, I ran from class and arrived at the Fair (or affray) just after 1100hrs.

I talked until I was hoarse for the next three hours.

4 weeks later, our Admin told me that The Institute didn't approved of car-travel to Dublin - which is served by an efficient system of public bus and rail connexions. I knew that because, a few years ago, I loaded up my car with post-grads and we all drove to a {relevant | important | interesting} scientific conference. Then also, I got the travel signed off by my HoDept and the HoFaculty, but the application was refused by The Money because that was institutional policy. One could have wished that my managers had been aware of the policy when they signed the paper! Then we could have gone, at much higher expense and inconvenience, by public transport. I left the refused application form in my To Do drawer until the heat of indignation drained away.

That's the baggage. This year, Admin advised me to xerox an AARoadwatch route-planner and attach that with a brief explanation for Finance. Yer 'tis
My Yaris clocks the base-line [engine < 1200cc] mileage allowance €0.38/km so my application for refund was €64. Fatter cars, because less efficient at transporting fatter bottoms, can claim more 1200-1500 @ 40c and >1500cc @ 45c. The public transport cost (train taxi taxi train) is about €60 and, because it falls within policy guidelines, goes through the system like butter. We'll see if I get refunded . . . or if I have to go and spitefully shoot the three probable students I recruited at the HORDS event.

But really wot are we like with the mileage? At the last save-the-planet event I attended, the founder of one of the NGOs said that their policy for reimbursing travel for voluntees, trustees & committees is totally flat. Everyone gets the same mileage whether they come in a 4x4 Chelsea tractor, a  Yaris or a bike. That's got to be better. Why should the company subsidise your Choice to tool about the planet in a gas-guzzling steel tank?

There's an old joke about a magnate explaining his success to his over-privileged son.
Mag: When I were in t'school, lad, my folks used to give me the bus-fare but I'd run along behind the bus and save t'brass.
Son: But Daddy, why didn't you run to school behind a taxi and save more money?

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Smartie well water

SMARTIE [logo R] might lay claim to Ireland's most contrived acronym (Spatiotemporal multiscale Modelling of Antimicrobial Resistance in the Irish subsurface Environment). It is a project funded by co-funded by the Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences (iCRAG) [never 'eard of it although I know several on the payroll] and the Geological Survey of Ireland (GSI) [which has been around for 175 years, so I have heard of that institution].  A couple of months ago, a colleague at work fowarded a flyer from the Smartie Project which offered to test my bore-hole and domestic plumbing for coliforms, pH, and some other impactors on drinking water quality. What could possibly go wrong? Always short of Blob-copy, it seemed a bit of an adventure and so Reader, I signed up. It was a bit cheeky that The Blurb for Smartie explained how for two separate site-visit water-tests "total service valued at over €300. It is important to note that the EPA recommends testing your well water at least twice a year". Without well-owners' participation there would be no Smartie, we don't need to be thrEPAtened'.

Two months after I submitted my application I found that we'd been selected! Smartie needed a) an adult present to b) give access to the well-head to test the depth of the water-table c) indicate the location of an outdoor tap to sample the water. When we sunk the bore-hole, our neighbours Doran of the Well got the contract. As tree-huggers, we asked if he was going to dowse the ley-lines to find the best place to try for water. He raised a quizzical eye-brow "There's no shortage of water in Ireland, where are you going to install the pump and pressure cylinder? . . . then let's set up the rig as close to that shed as we can - save on pipework".

And it was so. We struck water at about 5m, but the flow was deemed insufficient, so they went on down to 35m or 113ft in old money. The price in old money was £4/ft. The drilling went on for several hours; sometimes the drill shaft was motoring steadily downwards but then it would pause and seem to make no progress. Once the super-hard blue granite seam had been penetrated progress downwards went on apace. It was the most entertaining afternoon: much more interesting than TV. That was 23 years ago, Dau.II was in diapers.

This is now. Between the anouncement of selection by Smartie and Sunday's visit I had to find the well-head which I hadn't seen since the man-hole cover was put down in August 1996. It wasn't hard because I was there when the well was sunk but I had to tonk about with an iron bar until the ground sounded hollow. Then I had to shovel off at least 50kg of dirt and gravel . . . until taDAAAH! thar she blows [L, note shovel leaning u against  the door of the "water-shed]. When Smartie, and her co-pilot / navigator / assistant arrived, we had a) the cover off b) the kettle on. I was delighted to get this boot-up-the-bum to have a look at the well rather than assuming that it wasn't full of dead rats and/or taking water from the surface of the yard. It was also interesting to note that the water surface was only 1.2m below grade, that the septic tank was 35m away and the drain-field another 10m beyond that. The water is pH5.6 which explains why the copper pipes have all been eaten away and replaced by qualpex plastic. pH5.6 is about 25x more acidic than water - pH is measured on a logarithmic scale. In any case, Smartie has taken away several samples of water and will plate the water out on McConkey Agar to see if any coliforms or Pseudomonas are present. If she can get any such 'wild' colonies to grow, she will then see how susceptible / resistant they are to a variety of antibiotics. All good stuff. I hope her well-water data is less noisy than that of my old student, now Dr Lithium.