Thursday, 30 April 2020


I don't have green fingers; I'm not a natural gardener. I only engage with the process at all at all for the sense of getting something for nothing . . . nothing except blackened finger-nails, wet knees and a sore back. This is why ramsons Allium ursinum are such a blessing - because they come up every year without an effort on my part and let the same be said, later in the year, for blackberries Rubus fruticosus. Most years, by the time I start thinking about plantings, it is well late into Spring and it looks like the growing season will close out before any tomatoes turn red. This year we are earlier than some others, and I got beans and peas and chard seed Beta vulgaris into wee-pots before Easter. All this planting, especially setting things out in the final destination pots, requires a lot of soil / compost which is not too lumpy. Accordingly, as last year, I spent a few productive upper-body hours last week, turning the compost bins over with a long-handled shovel and filling a few 8½ feed/fertiliser sacks with the thrice shifted end-product.
That's a our compost corner [above] and if any of you Protestants think it looks like a ragged-arsed mess, then this Protestant agrees with you. But not enough, clearly, to have set things up differently. Indeed, although the dividing walls are tidy enough concrete blocks, the front-gates and roofs are a godawful rattle of pallets, plastic election posters [Go Greens!], old cast-iron guttering, gates and a bedstead. If it was tidier, I'd be more inclined to engage with the composting and that in itself would generate more tidiness. At the top of the slope are the 1 2 3 kitchen/domestic bins and at right-angles are the A1 A2 A3 annual bins which take the more noxious crap - thistles, dandelions, couch grass - in the pious hope that 3 years of microbial activity will kill them. About a month ago The Beloved bought some fancy seed potatoes which have been chitting in the back-porch. They'd better get in the ground soon, or I'll eat 'em. Accordingly TB  started to clear a square of ground that once-had-been a spud-bed but had been fallowed for several years and was now a sleeping-beauty of brambles and nettles. Cleaning that generated a whole hape of 'dirt': dockens, dandelions, buttercups and rank grasses which meant I had to turn the dreaded annual bins to make room for this year's weeds.

Chop chop shovel shovel. The problem with unturned compost bins (I couldn't face it last year) is that the local ash tree roots penetrate from the bottom and a) suck all the good out of the brew b) make it hard to drive a shovel in - hence the chop chop. What you see centre stage in the picture above is 15 feed-sacks of reasonable quality compost which I used to top dress and square out the "new" potato bed [with grey surround of fresh concrete blocks in picture R]. That is almost exactly a N=44 bale of blocks which weighs a tonne - all dragged across the grass on a sack-truck. The contents of an annual compost bin, after losing a some weight to the microbial fermentation, weights a little more than half a tonne. Bit by bit, bag by bag, I've shifted at least 3 tonnes of stuff from one place to another. The other beds visible in the picture were mulched with straw and wood-chips ?last-year? which was totally grown through with dockens, dandelions, buttercups etc. But actually (I believe because of the mulching) it was quite easily cleaned: just generating another generous barrowful of thatch and roots for the annual compost bin.

Now that's all the background. The point I want to make is that the rake is an amazing tool for removing weeds. Gardeners know this and have long since ceased to reflect upon the fact. Non-gardeners won't care. Struggle-gardeners like myself get better and better at making the tool sing, or at least zinnng through a flower-bed or seed-bed. The deft final twist that throws the weeds together and leaves the good earth in place - wonderful. But without our hands there would never be any gardeners - you cannot garden with hooves: damned hard to hold a rake for starters. The down on the knees gardening that you need to do at some stage really needs those fingers to separate the wheat from the chaff weeds from the good stuff. Again, there is a deft wiggle and shake that gets a good
handful for the bad weed-bucket.

One final thing about gardening and handwashing - don't! Even with gloves your hands take a pounding when gardening. They are designed by about 10 million years of evolution to work, and work hard, grubbing and rubbing, pushing and shoving; grasping and pinching. Young apes, humans included, have remarkable powers of regeneration in the skin of the hands. Didn't need, or get, soap or detergent; yet a good night's sleep and the hands were ready for the fray the next day. They have a natural protective lube . . . which along with everything else as we age, dries out and becomes less fit for function. Soap and, heaven forbid, hand-cream screws up the homeostatic feedback loop that keeps the the palms and finger pads protected. In short order nothing works without hand-cream and the share-holders at Johnson & Johnson spring happy capers all the way to the bank. If you get sick from eating your dinner with earth-dirty hands, I will eat my words [pizza] hat.

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Intubation, nope

Intubation is an invasive procedure to keep the lungs going in and out and to try to force some oxygen across the membrane of the alveolae and into the blood. One 2008 study at the Deaconess Hospital in Boston found that intubation was a rare procedure in their Emergency Department: 163 cases from 50,000 ED cases in a calendar year. I guess they are reluctant to try because the failure rate is high: 30% of non-trauma patients died anyway as did 16% of trauma [car-crashes I'm guessing for many of them: 5/6 of the traumatic dead had a brain bleed] cases. The non-trauma cases were about 10 years older than the others, and that may also be relevant to their lower survival rate. In Wuhan, "The most recent report showed that, among the 22 ICU patients who were intubated, 19 (86%) of them died" [source]. Another early report [cited here] had an even higher intubation=futile rate.

Intubation is hard to do well at the best of times. It is a taxing technique to learn because only one pair of eyes can see what's happening at a time. Consultant anaesthetists are great at doing it but can get impatient as junior doctors poke about in the pink mush at the back of the mouth trying to find the vocal chords [pic R]. These are are a whiter shade of pink, because there's a lot of connective tissue in their structure, and they are the gateway to successful intubation. One problem is that there are two tubes - trachea & oesophagus - going away into the dark and nobody is helped by inflating the stomach. It's hard enough if there is no great hurry, but if it's an emergency, the intubatee is very sick and needing help now, then successful intubation can involve a brutal assault on the mucous membrane - not for nothing called soft tissue. Damage is likely to precipitate inflammation which will involve heat, pain, swelling and redness. Cripes, if you're sick already, that sort of thing will finish you off.

Your resilience to all these assaults is inversely proportional to your age. I'm 65 and I know this already. I cannot, with impunity yomp up the hill and run down again without feeling it in my bones either at the time (jaysus, man, stop doing that a knee or ankle will holler) or the following morning. All those finely tuned physiological systems just get less good at their jobs; less responsive to change. Pat the Salt my aged father-in-law was pushing a mower up and down his lawn until he was 85 but he's much less determined in his perambulations 10 years later.

Intubations are significantly associated with Ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP) where a wide variety of microbes [Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae and methicillin sensitive Staphylococcus aureus (MSSA);  methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Acinetobacter baumannii] exploit the damage and impaired immune system to give you "fever and purulent tracheal secretions" eeeuw! There are a variety of solutions to minimise these nosocomial infections.

If you catch a dose of Covid-19 and you get sick, you'll find your self bundled off to hospital where all sorts of active interventions are possible. Once you get to hospital, all bets are off w.r.t. your agency and that of your nearest and dearest. Corona virus is so infectious that the hospital staff won't want anxious untrained ignorant relatives getting in the way. If you're sick enough to indicate a session in ICU, then you won't be well enough to object or argue the point about whether to get extra oxygen for your failing respiratory system by mask or by endotracheal tube. If the ICU is "overwhelmed" and serviced by frazzled sleep-deprived shorthanded uncaped heroes I doubt if they'll be phoning the rellies to ask their opinion on the options.

Apparently <shock> some hospitals in Italy were having to make decisions about who would get the ventilator because there weren't enough to go round. Heck, there weren't even enough beds in the ICU. I'm not going to make the ethical call -- and for sure YMMV -- because they don't pay me the big bucks for the realpolitik of health-care provision. But I'm telling my grown-up children to add endotracheal intubation to the list of interventions which I want them to refuse on my behalf.
There are worse things than dying.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

The People say - meh

The Man wants to know an increasingly intrusive amount about our lives. And there is some push-back on that with "Whatever you say, say nothing" [Heaney]. Meanwhile we have sold our inner-most desires and instantaneous geographical location to FAGAM The Five Horsemen for The End of Days: Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. This can be good: Dau.II tells me that you can pick the optimum time for coff-coff-crowd avoidance shopping with an App. That App is fuelled by millions of unwitting planktonic drifty-people whose smartphones are AlwaysOn. The clever engineer at Google who wrote the software to capture and process all that data was hoping to make money for The Man; the indirect benefits of covid-risk reduction as incidental.

But a rational, democratic society needs data to function fairly and efficiently and I would rather The Gumment had my data than FAGAM.
The Man needs to know when I was born for my pension to kick in this Summer;
The Man needs to know what I earn so that my taxes can help the dispossessed;
The Man needs assurance that my car is insured because . . .
I could go on, but perlease reflect on how much you think is appropriate to share. It's important!

We don't need to go back 2020 years to the Census that brought the BVM to Bethlehem for a certain important delivery. Just 220 years to the first Census of population of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801. That was set in motion because of Malthusian concerns that the population was outstripping the food supply. But also to assess the available manpower to prosecute the Napoleonic Wars. They were a decade behind the USA where a decennial Census was mandated by the US Constitution: "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States... according to their respective Numbers... . The actual Enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years".

Those initial aims were to get a snap-shot of the head-count. But subsequent quants realised that the census could be used to plan for the future. IF you know that Termonfeckin has 20% more 1-year-olds than ten years ago THEN you had better start planning for a new school. Without data, resources will be allocated stupidly, unfairly and corruptly.

Round about Christmas last year, I urged you to join me in a crowd-sourcing data gathering exercise being driven by NUIG. It was really interesting, not least because it compelled me to get a true record =DATA of my week's sleep pattern rather than having feelings about the matter. That sleep survey was a trial of the methodology: the hypothesis [that reading in bed helps you get off to sleep] is not the point. Can we persuade 100,000 people to honestly record some aspect of their lives in a form that the data can be analysed to tell us The Way We Live Now. How much effort can we expect Joe Punter to put into such public participation?

The answer to that question is Not Very Much. Which brings me to today's gripe today. By the beginning of April the same NUIG team had decided on a set of questions which were important for developing an Evidence-Based Response EBR to Covid-19.  On 8th April, I got a msg from Dau.I, whose finger is on the data pulse, to take part in a survey:
The Corona Citizens Science project is a national anonymous online survey with the objective of developing an insight into how the Corona pandemic and the corresponding restrictive measures are impacting on people’s activities, work, school and childcare. With the results, we want to identify barriers people are encountering, how people are coping with the lockdown, how they are dealing with childcare issues etc. This information is important for the government to improve their response and will help planning for future measures in relation to COVID-19 and beyond. We’re asking everyone in Ireland to fill out the questionnaire on April 8th any time from 6am for a period of 24 hours. The aim is to report on the findings the next day.
Meeeeeeee! What's not to love about that? It took me 7 minutes and gave me a very important empathic jolt because IF the survey was asking about anxiety, domestic melt-downs, and separating warring kids THEN there must be people who were covid-coping a lot worse than privileged me. I sent the notification out to my whole address book including the Wexford Science Café and every Binfo in Ireland. That's a couple of hundred scientifically literate people. I got three "I did it" responses, which were all "I did it, TYFS". I doubt if the actual uptake was enormously greater than that. I know in my own immediate family that only 50% sat down and did the survey. I did admit to The Beloved that I could be a little less shrilly judgmental about other folks' priorities: maybe it's only comfy covid-copers like me who have the head-space to focus their attention on the social and psychological deficits of Coronarama . . . when the option is to spend those seven minutes savouring really refreshing covid-free coffee.

All told 100,000 people did respond on the 8th April; which is kinda mighty. Big Data means more, is more useful than anecdote. Red-C and Gallup polls ask about voting intentions from just over 1000 randomers across the country. That gives a predicted percentage by party of  X±2% which is accurate enough for the purposes. Polling 10,000 people costs 10x more but doesn't reduce the error to ±0.2%, so N=1,000 is good enough; an appropriate compromise.  Citizen Science can scale up because you're not paying a woman with a clip-board, the process cuts out that middle-man.

Two weeks later, on 22nd April, NUIG Citizen Science announced another 24-hour snap-shot survey on the state of the covid nation. The questions had been sharpened and polished by feedback from the first survey. And the results were published by RTE on Monday 27/Apr. The first output, which really made me tear my hair, is that the rate of participation has tumbled from +100K to 35,000. If people can't find 7 minutes in their day to effectively vote on how we want lockdown to proceed then they'll lose any agency in the process and may indeed find us all fucked-over by what the government decides for want of information. The second output shouts this: 10,830 people (32% of those who could find the seven minutes) have postponed a medical treatment or check-up . . . because we are privileging covid-19 almost to the exclusion of everything else. There are plenty of other ways of dying without a sniff of Covid-19.

Monday, 27 April 2020

Feeding under siege

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
WB Yeats
I've got two daughters who are living in city apartments and therefore have limited facility for exercising their green fingers. Which is a waste, because they are both much more assiduous, careful, gardeners than their father. But y' have to do something to hedge against an uncertain future. Nine beans rows might be a bit overwhelming and nine beans are too Jack & the Beanstalk. But I can compromise! And at the end of last year, I saved a couple of handfuls of haricot beans Phaseolus vulgaris which I planted out in liddle weenie pots. They were remarkable for their sproutability - at least 90% 'take' and in due course big enough to produce true leaves. Much better rate than the peas-in-a-packet we bought in a garden centre before shut-in. For a week or more they have been big enough to plant out in their final position [L] - (in the poly-tunnel because it's not impossible that the angry gods will deliver a late frost). As last year and previously, the beans are planted in raised buckets in a raised bed; because that's the easiest way to ensure they get the use of any water that we can divert inside the tunnel. After all, it doesn't rain in there. At the far end of the bean row is a mighty bush of parsley Petroselinum crispum which somehow survived from last year and was the first green thing which showed above ground this spring. Now every salad we eat gets a generous handful of rough chopped parsley which is an acquired taste that I am acquiring.

We had a minor crisis a couple of weeks ago in Chateau Self-isolation [we aren't quite decrepit enough to be cocooned] . . . it was announced that this . is . the . last . onion. Pan[dem]ic! Providentially, it was simultaneously apparent that the ramsons Allium ursinum were up and almost in flower. Somehow we also had a lot of crinkly cabbage and the end of a 25kg bag of potatoes. To me that shouts Caldo Verde whether or not you have a handful of chopped chorizo to cast thereto. And it was so.  Are you, or have you ever been a member of the caldoverde party? I was, I am, I will be. There is nothing more sustaining than a bowl of cabbage&spuds - I could happily eat caldo verde or some variation of it every day. Variation? A half cup of lentils; a handful of beans; a generous handful of rough chopped parsley.
Now ramsons can be, to some noses, pervasively whiffy. But that's not a bother because we're all Bobby-no-hugs isolating!  Allium ursinum, according the The Englishman's Flora, has a satisfying list of common names in English: ramsons, ramps, wild garlic, stinking jenny, gipsy gibbles, devil's posy, brandy bottles, onion flower, iron flower. Whatever you choose to call it, into the soup pot [L] it goes. The other greens which keep on giving are chives Allium schoenoprasum, yet another of the generously culinary genus of Allium, We have been going triple green <chives, ramsons, parsley> in almost everything we cook this Spring: Caldo Rambo [L], a quiche - bulked out with the last half leek Allium ampeloprasum, a split-pea and frozen chicken stock [dated 19-Apr-19] soup, even a pizza - why not? Apart from the Free Food all the fresh veg is finished; the last cup of butter milk became scones on Saturday; the last dribble of real milk is gone, so I've gone all continental about the tea. Someone will have to go to the shop soon.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Sunday 26APR20


Saturday, 25 April 2020

Bradán an Eolais

Bradán an Eolais = Salmon of Knowledge. Chekkitout? - Amabie in Japan.
Wot's with the fish, Bob?
Dear Reader, you may well ask. We're going a little rat-traps with being banged up at home. We're had worryingly good weather for the last several weeks - so I'm hoping for a drop of rain before we come to The End of Days: otherwise me beans and beets will be at nothing. This time of year, with this sort of weather, The Beloved has been known to turn everything out into the yard for a Spring Clean. It is crazy how much stuff there is. I think we have the intention to do triage on it but pretty much everything that was carried out gets carried back inside as darkness falls. I hope and believe we are getting a little better as we get closer to that final door. It would be a terrible thing to leave the sorting to our poor children.

Whatevs, I found a box full of old HEN [yest] newsletters dating from the tuthree years in the 00s when we were editors. I was struck by the peculiar random pictures of fish [Top] drawn by Dau.II before she reached double digits: Sea Witch, The Wizard of Cod, Sir Pilchard of Bass, the Fisher-King. Ephemera? Not anymore. That composite image will be captured by The Feds and The Reds equivalent and stored on secure server farms until The End of Days, which by my current reckoning will be about 19th August this year.  I was obviously primed for fishing because, a few minutes later, I flicked open a mold-dusted book to find a sheet of paper with a deeply meaningful pretentious [see kenning] oracle from Bob the Younger:

I am the salmon of knowledge:
With fin-waft
I floated by the fountain of facts
With tail-thrash
I thrust through a deluge of data
At stream start
I am sage: soaked in sound science
Then riddle-free
I impart right reasoned words
I sieve, I shuffle, I know, I think, I am.
An Filí Chontae an Rí, 1996
This is actually a bit more meaningful [if such a thing could be possible in the context of such profundity). 24 years later, I am significantly nearer 'stream start' which for anadromous [prev] fish like salmon is the final curtain. That was 1996, this is The Now, and hopefully not The End of Days because I've a couple of Gdau's over the whale-road [hron-rad] who have been banged up with only their parents for several weeks and coping remarkably well considering they can't exchange cooties with any of their pals. Gdau.I wrote a poem to work out her anxiety and after much sharpening of my quill-pen and making some ink I replied:

Friday, 24 April 2020

How doctors tick

We expect a lot of doctors. Even before the current madness started, we knew that they went where the rest of us feared to tread. My GP is quite hands-off; which suits me as I'd rather be told "you'll probably be grand" than that I'd be referred to consultants to be sure to be sure when it was not strictly necessary. I started my desultory and infrequent relationship with him ?12 years ago when I was sent for my post 50 MOT check-up. He checked my prostate per anum with brisk efficiency and a rubber glove. Several years later this invasion was strictly optional in his book because prostate problems were deemed to be picked up from the bloods through a test for abnormally high PSA prostate-specific antigen. He told me once that he finished up as a GP because he was too squeamish for surgery.

How do doctors decide to be doctors and how do they decide what sort of doctor they should be? That question cannot be answered by an anecdote about my GP, it requires data.
Q. Who would be in a position to gather such data?
A. Caroline Elton, a former school teacher who retrained as a psychologist and has been working for 20 years as a sort of careers advisory service form those in, or about to embrace, the medical profession. She has written a book Also Human: the inner lives of doctors which looks at the trials and tribs which doctors have to weather. Even if weathering the storm means beaching the medical career and walking away on terra firma. She has gathered her notes of hundreds of doctors who have been referred to her for counselling or advice about how to cope and/or what to do next.

I will come as little surprise that certain personality types gravitate to certain medical specialities. Women are disproportionately over-represented in girlie roles like Ob&Gyn and paediatrics. Although, here as everywhere, men tend to float to the top. The head of the Dublin maternity hospitals are called The Master of the Rotunda / Holles Street. It wasn't until 2012 that the first female was appointed to such a position: go Dr Rhona Mahony!  Contrariwise, women are often to made to feel that they are not natural surgeons, because that's the domain of old white men, and it's particularly difficult for women to crash that particular glass ceiling.

And there's another chapter on how minority medics fare in their white coats. The answer is not very well, but then working class white lads don't progress easily in medicine because they don't fit. Part of the trouble is that medicine is absurdly elitist in  its requirements for academic excellence to open the gates into medical school. Academic excellence is strongly correlated with middle class families and/or fee-paying schools. And there is a certain demeanour, accent, facility with a rugger ball that goes with a fancy education. There is a certain amount of ghettoisation after qualification: chavvy doctors do well as GPs in working class districts because, well, empathy.

And what about sex? Every few years you hear about some doctor being "struck off the register" for inappropriate action with their patients. But in training, sex is the elephant in the room. Young men are being confronted by a lot of bare flesh but given no help in dealing with any unwonted erotic eruptions. They are just expected to cope. Too often this pops out as a culture of grotesque sexual humour demeaning to everybody involved. Then again, I suppose they get to build up a more than usual experience of the wonders of human diversity both anatomical and behavioural. Elton seems to suggest that medicine, as a profession, is a long way behind the curve in normalising homosexuality.

We give doctors access to our innermost parts . . . and thoughts. As confession ceases to be normal practice a lot of revelation occurs in surgeries, and indeed doctors recognise that many of their patients present because of a fundamental trouble in the soul, which may be difficult to articulate. Such problems can be treated with 5 minutes and a prescription, but a cure is going to require more empathic engagement - and time - than most over-worked doctors can schedule. Those unresolved cases will surely add to the burden on doctors psychic shoulders. It's a wonder how many of them cope without callusing over entirely.
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. . . All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Guilt by flush

Privacy is being constantly redefined as it gets ever easier to pick up information about us. Back in 1994, when the OJ Simpson murder trial was flooding the airwaves, there was a bit more focused over-coffee discussion in the Genetics Department. Not many people, in those distant days, would have known what DNA evidence was and how it was gathered; and even fewer would have been able to evaluate the statistical analysis on which a large part of the prosecution's case depended. The then Professor of Genetics suggested that we should all have our cheeks swabbed and the DNA deposited in a secure database. That way, the police would have a much easier task collaring offenders . . . and the rest of us (all innocent of any crime) would have nothing to fear; and so nothing to lose by rowing in behind this scheme. There are many things wrong with this ostensibly beneficial implementation of Big Data. My first worry (which might have been several hours after the scheme was proposed, because I R slow) was about the secure database.  I found it hard to believe then that the Gardai of 1994 would have been able to establish a truly secure database. Twenty years later, my misgivings were vindicated when it transpired that individual gardai were using the secure police database to not mind their own business about various celebrities and the guard's own neighbours. The cited bloboprev was mainly about ubiquitous CCTV cameras and whether they could be used for gossip and tittle-tattle about the lawful but slightly sketchy actions of other citizens.

In 1994, we were in the ha'penny place with what we thought were Big Data, the human genome was more than a twinkle in Robert Sinsheimer's eye but still years from completion . . . and that was just one genome down [hey, thanks Bill and Tony], 7.5 billion to go. 23andMe, the direct-to-consumer genetic testing company, was founded in 2006 and now has thousands of DNA samples on its books each paid for by the punter. But the company is monetising the information by making data available to Big Pharma to find associations between mutations and disease. What's not to like about that? Nothing, I guess, except privacy and the laws of unexpected consequences. When you send your cheek-scrapings and $100 to one of these DNA sequencing companies you have to sign a long-and-long informed consent document. Which is far too long for most people to read with care and attention . . . and in any case there are sunk costs of $100 and on some level the decision has been taken about doing the test. So far 23and Me have resisted the blandishments of law enforcement agencies to access the data to find matches to rogue semen samples and crime scene blood spatter.

But your information is Out There in a world where every week there is another cyber-security breach with millions of files of person data travelling further than Best Intentions Inc. intended. And here's the thing, when you don't read the GDPR terms and conditions  attached to your DNA make sure that your children don't read them either; and the same goes for your brothers and sisters who also have half their genetic variants in common with you. And maybe your nieces, nephews and grandchildren have locus standi too. By unwittingly grassing yourself up as having a genetic predisposition for Condition X you are giving up your family as hostages to fortune. Quite apart from tying one of you to a rogue semen sample in the form of oh what a beautiful baby.

This all came bubbling up in my mind on reading a report about covid-19. Arragh Jaysus, Bob, enough with the Coronarama! Sorry lads, resistance is useless in these troubled days. One of the key problems with discovering the impact of covid-19 is working out how many people have been infected. John Ioannidis is now convinced that loadsa people in Santa Clara Co. CA are infected with the virus (and by implication other counties across the USA) which means that covid-19 is no more fatal than season 'flu [calcs tutorial]. One of his caveats is a possible informed consent bias in the Santa Clara data: not everyone would have agreed to have a cotton bud inserted in their throats beyond the gag-reflex.

What the IFLS link reports is a study based in MIT but involving 16 authors from 8 different institutions in 2 countries. They went to a local wastewater treatment plant before and after covid-19 and sampled the dulite shite dilute shute dilute shite. They used RT-qPCR to hunt out covid-like DNA and sequence them. The q in RT-qPCR is quantitative, so their methodology gets a titre / concentration of the virus in that community's sewage. They extrapolate to find, as in Santa Clara Co, that there is waaayyy more SARS-CoV2 out there in Massachusetts than the official confirmed cases would imply. Because The Man, at least in Ireland, doesn't have the will and/or the resources to sequence everyone it is fatuous to base mortality stats on tests limited to sick people admitted to hospital and their front-line carers.  So much, same hymn sheet.

But the elephant in the room of the MIT study is that pretty much anyone can pop over the fence of pretty much any waste-water treatment plant [there is security but it's not like Porton Down or Area 51] and find out who lives in the community. I'm not thinking so much about Natural Born Killers holed up after a spree, as people with a tendency to clinical depression, carriers of CFTR cystic fibrosis and generally people who want to mind their own business.

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

Squeeze me up, Sapolsky

I promised I'd write a bit more about oxytocin and vasopressin; the Squeeze Hormones. In my original piece, I was struck by the fact that the genes for these two neuropeptides are next door to each other  on human chromosome 20. It is a classic example of gene duplication: in non-mammalian vertebrates there is a single gene in that position with some variation among taxa and a few different names - vasotocin, mesotocin, isotocin - to reflect this. Robert Sapolsky in his book Behave devotes quite a few of then 700 (!) pages to these short proteins and their receptors. <duh!>, me. If I'd thought about it for 45 seconds I would I realised that it takes two to tango. Hormones are at nothing - just whoooshing round the circulatory system - until they dock with their receptor; THEN things kick off inside the cells whose receptor is thus jangled.

It seems that a number of different genetic variants of OXTR, the oxytocin receptor are present in the population of normal adults and researchers are beginning to tackle how, if at all, these changes impact the health and happiness of those who have them on board. They may drive:
If these funded research topics make you think hmmmm IgNobel awards, then you are not alone. But then the whole point of IgNobels is first they make you laugh, then they make you think. That last one is interesting because it may be an example of co-evolution and explain the, frankly peculiar, affiliative relationship between humans and dogs. When your pooch looks all big-👁y👁s at you there is a rush of oxytocin at both ends of the stare. Somehow, both species have extended the limits of Us to the exclusion of Them. I see now (I tell ya b'ys, I've forgotten more blobbery than I can remember writing) that I covered this puppy luv phenomenon 5 years ago.

Within this our own species, oxytocin's effects are not indiscriminate. The standard research protocol in neuropeptide research is to spritz a solution of oxytocin up the punter's nose and then test them for implicit racism, or recognising and remembering the emotional state shown in a series of photographs. It turns out that a shot of oxytocin makes you bond more strongly with Us [family first, but also neighbours / people with the same tan as you] but brings out the worst in your assessment of black people [or travellers, if you're Irish]. In that sense oxytocin [and testosterone in a different but parallel tale] makes you more so of whatever your natural proclivities are. Some of your ways of being and interacting with others are genetic (OXTR variants?) but others are learned and that's a whole of can of nature / nurture worms. Sapoxytocsky  in the classroom and bloke-talking with Joe Rogan.

As a black and white sorta bloke, I've had vasopressin nailed as having two quite different but weirdly related functions: 1) it causes smooth muscles of the arteries to contract 2) wearing its anti-diuretic hormone ADH cape it slows water loss through the kidneys. Both of these serve to drive up blood-pressure and ensure that your brain gets enough oxygen to work under a wide variety of [adverse?] circumstances. But that's not all! vasopressin, like its sister oxytocin, also modulates behaviour. In fine, it increases human risky cooperative behavior and probably a rake of other peculiar attributes of the human condition. SADHpolsky in the classroom; where inter alia he kites the idea that autism runs in families that have a particular vasopressin receptor variant which, in other species, correlates with low levels of attachment. As Sapolsky says - it has to be more complex than that; and it is. But ya gotta put a few ideas Out There if we're ever going to shake up our complacency and make some progress in science.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Natural born killers

I was down on the Waterford coast a couple of weeks ago when travel was still allowed but social distancing was all the rage. Talking to the neighbour over the hedge, I asked how his 12 y.o. boy was coping with physical isolation. Not a bother on him, Bob, we've got 5G wired to the house and the chap is up in his room driving a T-34 tank and killing Nazi storm-troopers. I'd have been the same, although the cannon shooting was all in my head with sound effects 50+ years ago. Maybe it's learned, maybe it's innate for young fellers to but as I observed a few years ago, there's a lot of surrogate violence about. My source G was disconcerted to hear one of her barely teenaged sons explaining Grand Theft Auto to a pal "Naa, you have to throw the whore out of the car-door as you go round the corner . . .". A week later I was back home in the mountains and a neighbouring Dad had a similar story about his own 18 y.o. chap. "It's like they are recruiting for the army, a whole generation of boys (and girls) are being taught how to pull the trigger on another human being".  Naaah, I replied, it's only the SAS that wants to recruit psychopaths. Regular squaddies just need to know how to polish their boots and march to cadence.

And it's not true that young men people do actually find it easy to kill each other. There's a section on the topic in Robert Sapolsky's book Behave [prev]. Actually you don't need to go further than The Blob, because there are strong hints of this reluctance in the study of Trolleology in which punters are invited to choose how many people will die under the wheels of a run-away train carriage. Most normal people are able to throw a switch and kill one to save five but only a minority carry the logic to conclusions and claim they'd willingly heave a fat chap over a bridge parapet to achieve the same utilitarian end point. And even those people, like me, who assert that logic would overcome any emotional responses, would probably baulk at actually seizing someone by the lapels and heave-ho. Not least: hmmmm, that dude is bigger than me.

Sapolsky's final chapter is War and Peace in which he looks at human capacity for actual and ritualised violence. Reflecting on the ubiquity of CCTV cameras, he cites an analysis of soccer hooligans frame-by-frame as they trade hoots and chest-beating with fans of The Other Side. Only a tiny fraction of the participants are even pretending to trade punches, the rest are surging about making a noise and sheltering behind each other as bottles and coins rain in from Over There.

If you want a brilliant example of the discrepancy between young men's capacity for pretend violence compared to meting out some actual blows, then get Rashomon out of your video closet. This early film by Akira "Seven Samurai" Kurosawa is a minute investigation of the nature of truth. An incident happens in a forest between a samurai, his wife and a bandit. The story is unpacked later in a ruined temple by the several witnesses. The samurai and the bandit have a fight in which both, according to their own "big me up" testimony, behaved with decision and courage. But an independent witness reports that the fighting cocks spent at least as much time trashing about the bushes with their eyes closed in terror as actually getting to get in some on-target hits. Chest-beating is all very well but if the other bloke has a sword, you might get hurt and we are programmed from young to avoid pain. [Exec Summary Rashomon in 9 mins].

Sapolsky cites On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman for another telling example of having a cudgel but not taking it up. After the Battle of Gettysburg, 27,500 single-load muskets were recovered from the field. 24,000 = 90% of them had not been fired but still had powder and ball loaded. Half of these loaded guns had been loaded more than once and one had 23 musket balls choking up the barrel. In the fog of war, the poor squaddies couldn't remember if they'd loaded their gun, and in case would rather [re]load their weapon than actually point it at another man and pull the trigger. And most of the time they were just trying to get out of way of the incommming. Like in Rashomon, many of the heroes were made afterwards from the survivors recycling their own memories until they got to be able to live with them.

And what about PTSD, is that the cumulative load of being scared shitless day and night for months on end? Seemingly not: squaddies in the USAF drone patrol unit suffer as much mental damage as boys with guns deployed in Helmand Province in Afgo but more than medics on the ground in those dusty killing fields. The drone pilots are totally safe as they watch their computer screen in a bunker outside Reno, Nevada but they get to see the results of their actions bleeding out and turning cold in the night-vision camera shots on the VDU a foot from their eyes. Normal people are psychologically damaged by that experience.

In sum, neighbour, I don't think your son will have the chops to become a psycho-killer not matter what his score is on Call of Duty.

Monday, 20 April 2020

The Heather Blazing

Up and down the Blackstairs, as part of the covid-lockdown we have been requested and required to not set the uplands on fire at this time. But some fuckwits hill-farmers persist in exercising their Rights of Ancient Days to burn off the thatch and promote the growth of fresh green shoots for their sheep to graze. A series of incidents made the news last week in Wicklow [400 hectares in one case] because it needed a helicopter to dump water on the blaze to bring it under control. We've had one spill of rain here since the shut-in started a month+ ago which makes it a grand bone-dry time to walk in the hills - although nobody is allowed to. In Ireland you may only burn uncultivated land for six months - 1st Sep to 28 Feb - each year. tbh, I have as little - or as much - care about the wildlife and property destruction in Wicklow as I do about ditto in Australia this past January. But on Thursday night, the arsonists got rather more up close and personal with Castle Bob. As I was composing myself for bed at 2215 I looked out into the darkened yard - in case zombies - and was confronted with

on the hill of Cullentra on the other side of our valley. Which was a bit concerning because one of our kindest and most civilised neighbours lives at the very edge of the forest underneath that same ridge. Such a blaze looks like nothing at all on a camera; it's like the spectacular full moon subtends a half-a-degree angle on your retina so looks utterlty inconsequential when you snap it with your smartphone. Hold a c€nt [remember them?] at arm's length: that's how big the moon is. But Bob's the Scientist! he can triangulate to estimate the extent of the picture I captured at 2240 that night. I stood back in the bedroom upstairs at home until the window framed the flames and could thereby calculate the angle subtended. The 16-04-20 Cullentra blaze is 1500m long! Our farmer's meitheal has been put on high alert because if our hill gets any significant fire-damage we'll lose our hand-out for doing the right thing by the ecosystem.

There's a 42 page Code of Practice produced by the Dept Agriculture which summarises the legislation on the matter
  • Wildlife Act, 1976
  • Wildlife (Amendment) Act, 2000
  • Birds and Habitats Directive
  • Air Pollution Act, 1987
  • The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 2005 and Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations, 2007
  • Forestry Act, 1946
  • Waste Management Act, 1996
  • Waste Management Act, 2008
  • SI No. 286 of 2009 – Waste Management Regulations
  • Fire Services Act, 1981
  • Fire Services Act, 2003
  • Criminal Damages Act, 1991
Few enough of the farmers I know went to college and several of them left school at 14, so a 42 page Code of Practice is not something they'd happily read with care and attention. Any more than they'd read the instructions that came with their chain-saw or PTO at the back of their new tractor. Farmers I know are amazing for getting things done rather than, like me, piffling around thinking of the most efficient way of doing it. But really, the names of the laws and regulations gives an executive summary of the issues. As well as the farmers' right to burn the heather to get a better living from their hills . . .
  • birds and solitary bees have a right to an unblacked nest and fried eggs
  • the mineral content of the soil is not going to come back when it is plumed up in the sky on its way to the next county
  • the soil microbiome, on which the whole edifice is built, doesn't tolerate even transitory spikes in temperature
  • the people down-wind don't want your particulate matter in their lungs
    • whether or not they have asthma or COPD
  • the A&E of your local hospital has a right to be unburdened with your 3rd degree burns when the wind veers 
  • your local fire service has a right to play games of cards waiting for an accidental emergency
  • your abutting neighbours, including Coillte, have a right to grow trees - yes even Sitka spruce Picea sitchensis
The Blob-title is a conscious hat-tip to Colm Tóibín's brilliant novel The Heather Blazing. That is a history of this our bold republic illuminated by the life of a fictional Enniscorthy man who makes good as he grows up with and within the state. Enniscorthy is where Tóibín was born and where we do our shopping, but the book, its loves and losses is bigger than local. You must order it up as soon as the library service resumes.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Sunday mixum-gatherum

Dan Giannopoulos was out and about in Nottingham and saw a casually discarded glove. It changed his life: he couldn't stop seeing gloves. He started to record and eventually collage them. No need to touch them <fomite alert>. Wot are we like!? You can turn an art installation into data - for science
We need reasons to be cheerful. Sing along!
A bit of grin and bear it, a bit of come and share it
You're welcome, we can spare it - yellow socks
Bananas, 6 pack 14
Bananas, loose 6
Bananas, midi 4
Bread , white sliced  17
Broccoli 13
Butter 2
Dog food 19
Instant noodles - chicken 15
Irish carrots  3
Low fat milk 2 litres 11
Mandarins 7
Milk 1 litre 8
Milk 2 litres 1
Milk 3 litres 18
Milk chocolate digestives 16
Mushrooms 300g 10
Raspberries (125g) 5
Sugar 1kg 20
Tomato 6 pack 9
Tomatoes, tinned 12

Saturday, 18 April 2020

You can do it too

At the scut end of the last century we became founder members of HEN the Home Education Network. As the onlie begetters of two adults who have each a backbone, compassion and a sense of purpose we had to develop some sort of educational philosophy. It transpired that the best thing we could do to navigate the growth and development of two insatiably curious girls was to shut up and get out of the way. Home Education, like any movement that attracts fervent believers, can get schismatic. HEN was founded by tree-huggin', Birkenstock-wearin', ricecake-eatin' lefties so many of us were on the unschooling end of the spectrum. But HEN became a broad church and some of us were from the religious right. Believing that women are incubators tended to go with the kids having lessons round the kitchen table and even a timetable, lesson-plans and curriculum. It was rumoured that some of these families had a school-bell to announce break-time (and presumably prayer-time). And, I kid you not, there was [is?] even a group that went by The St Martin de Porres Home-School Apostolate. Outsiders - normals - who sent their kids off to school every weekday morning, could be quite judgmental. No idea what they said behind our backs but to the face it was often one of two tropes.
  • What about socialisation? 
    • With the implication that children in home educating families were somehow imprisoned by/with their needy parents and prevented from participating in normal play-ground behaviour - hop-scotch, skipping, fashion fads, age-stratification, teasing, red-rover, bullying and homogenization.
  • I don't know where you find the energy, it would be altogether too much for me.
    • Subtext. I'm a modern woman with a career. You have bought into a DeValeran patriarchal worldview where [article 41.2 of the Constitution] the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved. See the top frame of the meme at the head of this piece.
The 'too much for me' belief / expectation is based on parents' own experience of school: 30 kids of the same age but widely different ability being taught by a single adult. A lot of the practice of teaching is managing the logistics of this, frankly weird, arrangement. The maths says that each child will get, on average [150m ÷ 30], 10 minutes of individual attention in a 5 hour teaching day. Your child, who is a bit above average, will get rather less because the tails of the distribution (Johnnie Runamuck & Dolores Harvardbound) will require more of the teacher's attention.  This is why learning to read is so important in school - that middle tranche of the class needs to be told "get out the book and do the exercises on page.17".

Home education, unless you're really old-style no-contraception breeders, is going to involve only 2-3 kids. Physical distancing should be keeping their pals the other side of the kitchen window. You'll soon find that, under the age of 16, when the dreaded Leaving Certificate exams start to acquire legs, it makes no difference whatsoever what goes down at the kitchen table.
  • Making cup-cakes is great for maths and chemistry
  • Listening to the news is great for polishing the crap-detector
  • Sharing the PVA glue is great for manners 
  • Working things out rather than trying to discover the 'right' answer [because not even the parents know that . . . but let's find out] is empowering 
The kids don't need the rest. One of our first generation HENnies went to school at the age of 16. She settled into the two year Leaving Certificate cycle as to the manner born, and went on to read German at UCD. At the end of her 1st year in college, HEN was invited to a Dáil tribunal on Home Education. Somebody had the inspired idea of inviting young Siobhán to be part of our team. In response to a dorky question about the school curriculum from one of the TDs, Siobhán looked candidly across the table and said "The maths was the hardest aspect of starting school at 16, it took me six weeks to catch up". All those lessons, all that homework, all those quizzes and tests were really just 10-years of time-filler. Grand if you like it, unchallenging if you had a true mathy mind, hateful drudgery for the innumerate; especially if taught by someone at the edge of their math-competence.

Advice on unexpected home education: make it fun, make it diverse, keep the sessions short, don't mind the curriculum, give the kids as much agency as you can handle. Don't expect them to manage the transition any better than you. Good luck. We raised two girls on cooking, reading and gardening (and little enough of that). They grew up straight upright and normal-range tall. Your kids can pick up The Calculus, the cranial nerves of a dog-fish, and the role of the supernatural in Hamlet if and when they need it.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Behave yourself

A couple of months ago, my friend P in Gt Boston told me I had to read Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst,” by Robert M. Sapolsky. [shown right: clearly a primate, quite possibly an alpha-male] She added that I'd met Sapolsky in the '80s when we are all in grad school together: he had been dating one of the women from the B.U. Biology eco-evo floor where P and I met. I didn't remember any of that, but I can obey orders and the Irish Library Service [remember them?] found the only copy in the country and delivered it to me for collection in Tramore. It's a pity it never got published as a talking book because I would have finished it in a couple of weeks of commuting [remember that?]. As it was, it  took me a couple of months to soldier on to the end: it's a heck of a book with 700 big pages and weighing 1.14kg - you could do damage if you fall asleep reading it in bed. With my two-week event horizon, I couldn't remember the first chapters when I got to the meat [what people do to each other, much of it unkind] at the end.

Since Grad School Sapolsky has pursued two barely unrelated fields in parallel for about 30 years as a research scientist - every summer he'd put on his bush-hat and travel to East Africa to record the antics of Baboons Papio cynocephalus;  the rest of the year he wore a neuroendocrinologist pointy hat (presumably with electrodes attached) in and around Stanford U. He's read his field notes and his back-catalog of papers and those of his pals, rivals and collaborators and written this mighty explicitly didactic brick book. "explicitly didactic" means Sapolsky can get a little school-marmish about the neurological details.
Important brain bits of which you may have heard nothing [spelling test later, kids]: PFC is the pre-frontal cortex and some of its sub-bits are dlPFC vlPFC vmPFC ; amygdala; hippocampus; hypothalamus; fusiform gyrus; insula; dorsal anterior cingulate cortex DACC; paraventricular nucleus (of the thalamus).
You lost? Me too, folks. Sapolsky seems to imagine that I will recall all these grey matter bits'n'bobs, and what they are responsible for, when they come up in later chapters about baboons picking nits off each other or college students being tested for implicit racism. You can manage without the anatomical details but if you start skipping acronym-fattened paragraphs then you'll really race through the book and po[o]p out the back-end without doing much digestion.

There's a lot in there and I won't attempt to summarise Proust in 2 minutes like Monty Python but I may well lift a couple of interesting views of the human condition when I'm short of copy. I'd certainly like to bulk out my, now embarrassingly superficial, executive summary of the squeeze hormones vasopressin and oxytocin.
Here's the great man talking about his stuff at the California Academy of Science. Wot! that's more than an hour long, Bob. Stop whining, I stuck with him for two months. Indeed, The Beloved and I made a stay-at-home date a couple of weeks ago and that was our movie. Turns out we've met Sapolsky before talking about pandemics [ aha, fooled ya: thought we could get through a blob without Coronarama? nope] with some prescience.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Zorro me

Hokay! I give up, I'm convinced; masks are good. The controversy has been partly because the opposing sides had been talking about different things. Like the debate about how vultures found their prey - it turned out that both the ayes [👁👁] and the noes <snif><snif> had it correct for different classes of vulture.

With masks, one group of hospital professionals were talking about N95 hazmat respirators which require careful adjusting around the nose and chin to stop incommming particles from getting to your mucous membranes. The other group, including pretty much everybody in Korea, were talking about disposable courtesy masks made of viscose / rayon. These are sometimes called surgical masks because they are used in operating theatres to stop drupples falling from the doctors' nose into the 'working space' below.

N95s are The Biz in the same way as the chain-saw is a great labour-saving device. If you haven't been properly trained in chain-saw care, maintenance, adjustment and usage then you've got a limb-lopper and I'm not talking branches. Getting an N95 on and off without touching your face with contaminated hands requires training and practice. The professionals therefore felt, on the balance of risk, it was better for normal people to not use masks and just stick to the hand-washing.

Surgical masks also do what it sort of says on the tin; they are designed to protect other folks from your spittle rather than saving you from getting a dose. For that to be effective, you need a cultural shift so that [nearly] everybody wears them. By wearing one [my bandito bandanna top L is better than nothing] I'm protecting you and not worrying that I look like an escapee from a John  Ford film. By not wearing one, you are putting me in hazard especially if I've just seen you reaming out your nose with a finger.

But it's not about my assertions; (my don't do as I do, do as I say tbh.)  Show me the data: yer 'tis: a meta-analysis of many studies of the efficacy of masks in helping flatten the curve. It's driven by  Jeremy Howard, an Ozzie working at the Data Science Institute in San Francisco. Here's the formal analysis [not yet peer-reviewed].That's him [R] in the midst of a hilariously terrible video showing how to make a mask out of a t-shirt. Luckily the instructions are simpler than a chain-saw manual and probably make the criterion Why, a child of six could do that.  Here he is with a not-much-better demonstration of how droplets spatter-travel and how a sheet of kitchen paper will stop their gallop. Maybe follow his arguments on twitter.

One thing I like about this solution is that it is super low-tech and achievable without even a sewing machine. The other is that it doesn't require 100% compliance for our community (be that the 700 people who live near Borris Co Carlow or the 7 billion people everywhere). The graph [L] shows that everyone can have a kinda crappy mask and the curve will flatten and/or you can accommodate folks with eczema and anti-vaxxers and folk who are sorted thanks with their tin-foil hat]. R0 is the transfer / infection rate which experts guessimate at 2.4 people infected by each covid-19 positive person. If we-the-people can get R0 below 1.0 then the virus will dry up and blow away.  That's the dark blue top right corner of the graph. You can get over the critical 1.0 line with masks that catch 80% of the outgoing spittle IF you can blag 60% of your neighbours to adopt the new fashion. Or 50% compliant neighbours? Better than nothing, folks!

Trish Greenhalgh, Queen of Crap Detecting [bloboprev], is singing from the same hymn-sheet in the BMJ. Her team point out that a) there have been few proper trials of the efficacy of mask-wearing b) those studies that have been carried out are not uniformly convincing. But, they advocate wearing masks on the Precautionary Principle Effect PPE [no not that PPE]: IF something is easy / cheap to do and it may stop you or your neighbour's grannie getting a fatal dose of Covid-19 THEN what's not to like about doing it?

In an ideal world this social distancing plus will work as one strand of a troika of other measures:
  • Widespread testing
  • Contact tracing of positives
  • Quarantine of affected people
But those require a police state and/or a really biddable, compliant population. Without those active measures we might have to carry on masking for a considerably longer time. But doing a little for a potentially big pay-off seems sensible. Czechia and Slovakia are re-united in making masks compulsory when out and about. Pic credit

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Heroes DO wear capes

A while ago, I was reporting that life goes on in parallel to the unfolding pandemonium. Life including normal accidents where older people do a trivial trip & fall and end up with broken bones. Time was when every parish would have a bone-setter who would make some sort of a fist of applying a bit of traction, guiding the busted ends back into interlock, applying a supporting splint, and advising - you leave that be for 6 weeks. This person was not usually the same as the midwife; different skills, different traditions, different problems indeed. But like flint-knapping, scything, and divination these professions have fallen into the dustbin of history and become medicalised, legalised and regularised. I suppose this is A Good Thing. But I'm really glad Dau.I and Dau.II were handed into the world in the bedroom upstairs by Kate "Superwoman" Spillane domiciliary midwife. And it's a prolonged pain in the wrist to have to schlepp off to a distant hospital and share spittle with a miscellany of injured parties when Old Seán from round the hill could set a clean broken wrist in 15 minutes including a cup of tea.

Whatevs, my pals D&C set off with C's fractured radius for Ard Keen as we persist in calling Waterford University Hospital. Once arrived, C was many hours inside A&E, D was the same time outside in the car. A diagnosis was eventually made that a pin was required [a remedy which was never in the tool-kit of Old Seán let it be said]. That surgical intervention required a night in hospital and four trips between hospital and home. They were paused by the Gardai six times!  I was busy during Friday being The Outdoor Man mow mow dig dig pot pot chop chop water water, so it wasn't till the evening that I caught a txt from the injured party asking if I knew anyone with a lawn-mower because theirs was banjaxed. It's the grass-sprouting time of year when things can get totally out of hand if you leave it too long. Therefore my txt-bak: I'll come tomo middle day if dry; mow mow mow. And it was so:
 It's the kind of ordinary neighbourly chore that is nowadays #capefreeheroes being treated as the action of a superhero rather than just what folks do for each other. Lest there be any doubt about just how effin' bri'nt I was, I found a telephone booth to get togged up with my mowerman cape and shift me undies to ovies. Watch 'im go! Is it a berk? is it inane? no it's looperman.  Mowing a cocoonees grass is really not a legitimate excuse for breaking curfew but I have no regrets.

When The Institute was abruptly closed a month ago and everyone was bundled off the campus, I Copied my live folders from the works desktop and shut up shop. In the rush, I left my attendance and marks register on my desk, thinking I'd pick the book up later. Now my colleagues are calling for those marks for all the lab sections for which I've been responsible this last year. I decided to drive into work and pick it up and do some food shopping on the way home. I was told that I'd need a letter of authorisation from my line-manager's manager or I'd be refused access to the campus. This took a couple of hours to sort out so I didn't get to work until nearly lunchtime. The campus was distinctly tumbleweed and so few cars were on the lot that they could do social distancing:
That was the first time I've been on Campus for a month and I saw precisely 5 co-workers, to 2 of whom I spoke. I've almost forgotten how to drive. Drive? By "working from home" for nearly 5 weeks and not doing a round trip commute of 80km, I've reduced my driver's carbon footprint by 160kg and saved myself €120! On the way home I stopped to buy some food. As it was the last time I was likely to drive for at least 2 weeks, I converted the €120 into six-packs. It's Hammer Time!

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Practice for Loss

Last September I urged you to read an essay about the singer James Blunt's previous life as Captain J. H. Blount a tanker serving with the NATO peace-keeping force in Kosovo. It could be argued that his considered inactions and those of his CO Gen Mike Jackson at Priština International Airport in June 1999 saved thousands of lives in the bloody internecine conflict. That story was interesting to me because it threw a light on the working life of my father who accumulated 35 years of service in the British Navy. Soldiering is not usually about killing people so much as making the other chaps give way.  Blo[u]nt's father was also a soldier, indeed the whole family has been contributing martial service for hundreds of years.
Last year launched a song Monsters about his ailing father whose one remaining kidney was about to fail. One remaining? Because the old chap had donated his other kidney to someone whose need was greater than his "I've got a spare, work away" - the sort of sang-froid for which British soldiers including my collateral relative and namesake LtCol Thomas Scientist are known. You want to be careful watching that video even if you haven't lost your Dad. It's a video, it is directed, soundtracked and choreographed to find chinks in your emotional armour but it's okay to cry. I think there is a truth in the really understated affection of the father - whom I really hope is not a silver-haired jobbing actor. But maybe that is just me over-empathising about my own pater-filial relationship; which wasn't, shall we say, huggy. The only time I wept for my own Dad and the loss of years was when I picked up The Boy from the station for the funeral and he put his hand on my arm. Each generation we get a little less stiff in our approach to affect. Blunt has also written The Greatest down the generations to his children.

[Blunt Monsters backstory]

There's a lot of original material on Youtube - far more than you could ever watch even with a bank of screens running in parallel. There is also a curious genre of people-of-their-bedroom watching The Talent and recording their own reactions on film. There must be recursion out there: someone recording their reactions to someone recording their reactions to someone . . . there's an English bloke called Woody who makes such videos. Woody, poor chap, is completely unmanned by Monsters and none the worse for all that. There's a lesson in there for all of us as we pass through these Months in  a Time of Covid - no matter how grief-struck you are [and, friends, there will be grief] . . . try to keep your hands off your face.

More?: Adam Mishan is a voice coach who has his own channel and better hand-face discipline but he can't stop a tear or two coursing down his cheek.

Monday, 13 April 2020

The Loyal Opposition

Your capacity for tolerance, inclusivity and compassion is only interesting when you can listen to the other side. It's worth very little indeed unless you hear the other side, maybe even to the extent of changing your own position. Only the greatest among us really mean it when they quote Not VoltaireI disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Because it is only human nature to want to bury the opposition and be right. We live in times more deeply polarised than any in which I have lived, with the possible exception of the miners strike in 1980s UK. Some countries are turning hard right and, believing myself to have leftist tendencies, I feel this more than some other members of the patriarchy. And Covid-19, with all its anxiety-inducing changes, is not dialling up the deep-listening meter.

Across the short water in the UK, one of the most polarising figures in politics is Jacob Rees-Mogg. There is much to loath about the chap - he's parleyed a well-heeled upbringing into a fortune by shuffling money from one off-shore account to another on behalf of his wealthy pals. He is caricatured as "The Honorable Member for the 18th Century" and is consciously out-there with his anachronistic patrician manner. I don't hold with him subverting evidence-based medical decisions [Simon "Orkambi" Harris I'm looking at you too, yeh bowsie] on behalf of his constituents / voters. But patricians can have really good manners and I was impressed at the kind and respectful valedictory remarks JR-M made to retiring Speaker of the Commons John "Brexit-thorn" Bercow. Two weeks ago The Mogg was giving a gracious hat-tip to Labour leader Jeremy "Red-as-Mao" Corbyn on the latter's retirement. I don't think the phrase is used but the tenor of that speech was that Corbyn's sincerity was not in doubt in his role as leader of HM's Loyal Opposition. The two men couldn't really be further from each other on the L-R spectrum and still expect to get elected in Britain: where the electoral system is notoriously unforgiving of extremes. The rest of the Conservative government have been spiteful and mean-spirited about, for example, not giving John Bercow a sinecure for his 10 years of loyal service to parliamentary democracy in the UK.

We could, with advantage, take a leaf out of the Rees-Mogg portfolio in our discussions about Corona Virus and the best way to mitigate its impact. The least dissent or questioning of the lock-down way-of-life brings out howls of indignation which might be caricatured as you're going to kill my grannie if you go jogging ye sonsie git: stay home . . . in your B&B hotel room. Christie Moore, avuncular singer, got all judgmental about middle-class people travelling to their dachas for the Easter weekend - they are spitting at the nation, he said. It's an easy moving target to catch people as they leave the Capital to isolate themselves in their second home. Much easier than sorting out communal feeding and shared bathrooms in DP centres or prisons or homeless hostels. Later in the same interview Christie Moore said he was just grand in his cocooning because the grandchildren travelled [more than 2km, I bet, but tell me I'm wrong] once a week to talk to him through the son's car window. What's sauce for the dacha-owning goose is not apparently sauce for the me-exceptional gander.

But really is lock-down of everyone the only solution to the problem? John Ioannidis is skeptical for an hour . . . too long? John Ioannidis is skeptical for 10 minutes. Ioannidis is not a crank or a yahoo, he's a professor at Stanford . . . who has been hugely critical of the scientific process. I've shown that he's not afraid of big data [and making it publicly available] and also tribbed his study Why most published research findings are false. Ioannidis doesn't get all shouty about the mistakes that The Man is making. He just suggests that a) he also wants to minimise the number of excess deaths this year b) almost every government which can is going for shelter-in-place / cocooning / physical distancing / isolation by household c) this is better than doing nothing but d) there is very little reliable data on why this is a reasonable response to this pandemic.

Charles Eisenstein US public intellectual has some similar questions; which balloon out into in a 9,000 word essay about wot are we like: The Coronation [hat-tip to sister].

For example: everybody knows that the case fatality rate is 3.4%. This is now referred to as The Global Average rate, when compared to Italy where the rate is 10%. But 3.4% is a sum from an early epidemiological tally in Wuhan where the deaths are those recorded in hospital associated with tests flagged as covid-19 positive. He is skeptical about three aspects of the sum:
 % = (covid-19 deaths) ÷ (people who are covid-19+)
  1. some people died at home without being recorded or tested
  2. some [more] people in hospital died with covid-19 rather than of covid-19
    • in Ireland we've heard a lot about this cohort - they have "an underlying condition"
  3. some [uncountable numbers of?] people were never recorded as being covid-19+ because they were part of the 80% [if you haven't heard that number every day for the last month, you have been dozing] who had mild symptoms or none.
When killed by Covid-19, Tim Robinson was 84. My dad was 83 in 2001 when he fell down the stairs and died a few days later. Those are anecdotes. What Ioannidis wants, what decision-makers need, are data to establish what is the likely death /disability rate from covid-19 in <insert country here>. That 3.4% is probably too high [because of the 80%ers] but is it 10% too high or 100% too high? - nobody knows. Without numbers, The Man has no evidence-based idea about whether the plan-of-action is proportionate. Somebody [Gallup or red-C have the infrastructure] needs to go out on the street and test 5,000 random people to see what the infection rate is; and then sample another 5,000 a week later.

I won't here do a co$t based analysis of 'proportionate'. Actuaries do that - they have a figure for what your life is worth, especially if you want to insure it; brutal and utilitarian [=meeee!] as that is. And there are worse things than dying as I've tried to suggest in my posts about road-injuries or QALYs. Let us just reflect ever so briefly on those who are like to die because of being banged up at home for another 4 weeks on top of the 3 weeks we've already enjoyed / endured. Even if you think that the probability of any of these adverse outcomes is small %-wise, remember that there are 4.7 million people dicing with those odds; so that might be a helluva lot of people - the equivalent of everyone in Clonmel or Sligo, say.
  • 100s & 1000s of asymptomatic younger-than-70 people are out of work and banged up at home
  • 960,000 least-at-risk children are being deprived of their schooling 
  • their parents, including health-care workers, are being deprived of state-funded child-care
  • this will be super stressful for all those people
    • stress will lead to an up-tick of depression, heart attacks, suicide
    • with nothing to do but facebook & jig-saws, isolationeers are going to be eating too much so there will be an uptick in obesity and its sequelae: diabetes, depression, cancer, heart-attacks
There are, of course, other adverse outcomes from reactions to covid-19. Saturday lunchtime, I was listening to the wireless. GP from Limerick was talking about the state of his practice in these troubled times . . . and A&E: the local hospital would normally get 1-2 heart attacks a day presenting through A&E, now they are getting 1-2 a week. Which means that sick people, who would benefit from prompt treatment [heart attacks are not necessarily fatal], are not getting it. Either because they soldier on not wanting to be a burden on a stretched health-care system and/or are scared shitless about catching a dose of Corona and getting intubated, and then dying to the shriek of a vital-signs monitor without the solace of family.
But don't listen to me, I have no skin in the game and no special knowledge. But do listen to John Ioannidis unless you're certain sure that your government is doing the very best that can be done.

<Loyal Opposition Alert> what about this alternative action plan [not my idea]: just cotton wool the vulnerable and let everyone else go about their business. Call it a controlled experiment, so we will know next time whether that's better or worse - it will be hella cheaper, that's for sure. Otherwise, next time [bioterrorism anyone?] we'll have even less informed choice