Sunday 31 May 2020

Last of May 2020

May done and dusted, let's bring on some rain in June?

Saturday 30 May 2020

Stearn's Botanical Latin

The Bane of my young life, apart from the #♫!♪* piano, was Latin. It was a mix of rote learning declensions [nouns and adjectives] and conjugations [verbs] and translating random chunks of Latin prose into English. Latin is an inflected language [like Irish, but not so much in English]: the words change their endings in more-or-less logical consistent ways to indicate whether the dog is biting the man [Canis virum mordet] or the other way round [Vir canem mordet]. I could manage that stuff: there were rules; I was institutionalised. Even if nobody explained why you decline a noun but conjugate a verb. Hell came round once a week: same time, same place, different 'unseen'. Wednesday always came round as a total surprise to me: I woke with a sense of dread that The Gaffer would call on me to translate a sentence. As there were 20 lads in the class and maybe a dozen sentences, it was short odds that I would be so called. Apparently there were ways one could prepare for such a class: look up a few key-words before hand, hmmmm?  But I was habitually off in a world of my own, hoping for easier tasks, more grub, fewer boils. I don't remember being shouted at, or humiliated; I could call myself an ignoramus ["we do not know," first person plural present indicative of ignorare "not to know". I do not know, you know, he-she-or-it knows, they know, but we (because me), we do not know.] with no outside help.

Much later, all those doom-laden hours turned out to be useful.  Latin can be handy for reading French and Portuguese newspapers. Science is awash with Latin: the names of species and body parts for starters. Many of the sesquipedalian words can be broken down into meaningful lumps. Weirdly and wonderfully, this  dead  language is alive and well in biological taxonomy and classification. Although Cicero and Caesar would have about as much difficulty reading a formal species description as we do Chaucer. The big disconnect stems from two primary sources. 1) Linnaeus decided to use plant floral parts as the key diagnostic features to distinguish among plants. But the ever practical Romans were only interested in the bit that they or they livestock ate. So there are lots of classical Latin words for stems, roots, seeds and fruits. For flowers and what we call anthers, stigmas, petals and bracts . . . not so much. 2) Romans had no magnifying glasses or microscopes, so they were unaware of the diversity of pollen or the details of floral anatomy. And, frankly, on the sketchiest and probably false ideas about where fruit comes from and how flowers are involved in the process. Then again, many of the early namers-of-things were native Germanic speakers and contributed a clatter of new coinages from their own tongues.

On our last (ever? - pandemic) trip through Wales in January, I picked up a copy £2! of William T. Stearn's Botanical Latin 3rd 1982 edition. It's a slab of a book, covering the vocabulary, grammar and usage of that peculiar language. It seems that all new species must be named from Greek or Latin roots but also must be exactly described in Botanical Latin. Stands to reason really; you can't allow Danes and Croats to delimit and define the species because only a handful of people will know enough Danish or Serbo-Croat to understand with diagnostic precision what's on the table in the herbarium.

Although there were poets in classsical times they didn't seem to push the boat out to enrich the vocabulary in, say, colour. But the colours of flowers (and to a lesser extent leaves, stems, roots) were often crucial to distinguish among closely related species. It matters to know the difference because different plant species may be toxic or host to a damaging insect pest and the colour of the petals is easier to establish than the concentration of an alkaloid or the transitory presence of them darned bug larvae. Classic Greek was so random in their use of colour descriptors (wine-dark sea etc.) that William E "Home Rule" Gladstone, the British Prime Minister, floated the idea that the whole lot of them were colour-blind. They also had a limited vocabulary in blues and greens perhaps because they didn't uses them in their dying industry or maybe because they didn't care: This one's green and this one's green and this one's green and this one's green . . .

An amateur philologist can have a couple of hours scudding over the Botanical Latin colour descriptors, not only to have a few aha!s over the word used to describe a particular tint.

Whites: Candida albicans is the off-white pure-white fungus, for example. Neither is as snow-white as nivalis. Milk white lacteus otoh has a touch of blue, while chalk-white cretaceus has a hint of grey and is definitely matt. Argenteus is a silvery white with a lustre. cremeus or eborinus are creamy because there is an undertone of yellow.

Greys: you know that gray is darker than grey, of course. In Latin we have cineraceus, cinereus ashy, griseus pearly, schistaceus slatey, plumbeus leaden going in the opposite direction from more white to more black. Stearn throws murinus mousy and fumosus smokey in with the greys.

Yellows and oranges: Loadsa tones here. Citronus lemony; aureus golden; luteus / xantho "such yellow as gamboge" which would be utterly useless to me, had The Blob not done a treatise on the chemistry of orange pigment in 2018; flavus is paler than gamboge; sulphureus is "more lively"; stramineus straw-coloured; ochraeus ochre ochroleucus a whiter shade of ochre; cerinus waxy vitellinus yolky; croceus saffron; aurantiacus orange; fluvus tawny.

Greenssmaragdinus paddy green; viridis / chloro a tone down; aeruginosus verdigris; glaucus, thalassicus sea-green - a bit of blue; atrovirens a deep dark blackish green; flavovirens stained with yellow; olivaceus / elaio olive drab.

Blues: We've a had a couple of Blob-forays into the preception and naming of blues because Greek and Russian have two different names for oxford μπλε синий and cambridge κυανός, γαλανός голубой blues. Botanical Latin has a range also.  Cyanus Prussian, cornflower; indigoticus indigo; azureus sky-blue; caesius eye-blue, lavender's hint of grey;  caeruleus regular blue; violaceus blue stained with red; lilacinus is a paler violet; lazulinus ultramarine; cobaltinus ;

Reds: Puniceus carmine; ruber /erythro blood red; roseus rosy; corallinus coral; incarnatus flesh-coloured; coccineus cinnabarinus scarlet; igneus flaming; miniatus vermillion; laterititius brick; rubiginosus reddy-brown; cupreus coppery gilvus terra-cotta..

Jakers, these poor botanists must be yearning for Linnaeus to roll over in his grave and allow Pantone colour charts and/or RGB hexadecimal codes #00d800 #FFA500 #00ffff to be used in floral descriptors.

"I learned to look at hands, which I'd never looked at before. And instead of just looking at houses and trees I learned to look at houses and trees against the sky. And I learned also that shadows are not black but coloured." The learning outcomes from two years 'wasted' in Paris as an art student; from Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham

Friday 29 May 2020

The Last Hillwalker

That would be John D Burns who was born in Merseyside in the the mid'50s. So he's my age ± (mostly -) a year and wore the same sort of clobber and listened to the same sort of music as me as I grew up 300 km South and East. He started hill-walking with his mates, yomping up hill and dale in the Lake District and completed the Pennine Way while still a teenager. You have to be nineteen, ignorant, unimaginative and immortal to set out on such a trek in totally unsuitable shoes, with hopelessly inadequate clothes stuffed in a ruck-sack designed by a sadist for masochists. You have to have bottle to finish the task. As a student, and later as a social worker, he'd get out of town all possible (and some impossible) weekends and head for the hills. That involved exhausting journeys by train or car to a suitable jumping off point until he applied for, and landed a job in Inverness. That meant he was closer to more challenging hills thereby (although nobody thought in those terms, then) slashing his carbon footprint to service his passion for bleak challenges.

I know all this because I've just yomped through The Last Hillwalker his memoir about a life-time in uplands. It's readable because it's written with a bluff straight-forward narrative drive with a judicious amount of cliff-hangers to drag you into the story. cliff-hangers? yes indeedy, because for John Burns trudging through black bogs in saturating cloud soon became insufficiently challenging and uncomfortable. He must go vertical and later he must go vertical with ice-axe and crampons - and not only in the Cairngorms but in the Alps and Canada as well. By taking risks and pushing through his comfort zone he got better at his craft; learning it seems by the seat of his pants.

Because he was out often and in all weathers, he was able to save a few people's lives. Ordinary people, like himself, who had been caught out by mishap or the unforgiving hills. Later on, when he'd built up a real depth of experience and local knowledge he joined the local branch of the Mountain Rescue and saved more people in really tough predicaments. And yes, brought in a few bodies too. I like very much his insistence that he must give back to the community, the time and skills that he'd built up over decades at the edge. Mountain Rescue go out willingly because, challenge; but also from a strong non-judgmental sense of it coulda been me. He calls himself  The Last Hillwalker from his sense that kids are no longer getting their kicks from scrambling up Helvellyn in shorts and gumboots. The people he tends to meet up on the skyline are folks of a similar vintage who grew up before the cheap thrills of Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed.

Thursday 28 May 2020

Free the lettuce

This year, since the beginning of March, I've been gardening with very limited resources. The Beloved dropped by our local, almost moribund, garden centre before lock-down and bought what they had for seeds: a packet of peas Pisum sativum and a very thin packet of Swiss Chard Beta vulgaris (flavescens).  I planted them all out along with some saved runner beans. The best of my beans are now 80cm tall and the peas are showing blossom.

In clearing space for the potting factory, I came across a bag full of seed packets all well beyond sell-by. Where the date was still legible I tried some triage planting which was only successful for a 2015 packet of beetroot also Beta vulgaris. The rest of the seeds I shook into a big bowl and spread them out across a recently cleared outdoor bed.
A month later, I was just about the rake over the dusting of tiny weed-seedlings in that bed when I noticed something that looked suspiciously like lettuce Lactuca sativa. I got down on me knees to pray for a closer look and saw another lettuce-like object LLO and another and another. The soil was bone dry and I was able to lever each tiny-tot plant up and shake off the competition from the surprisingly long root of each plant. Six BLTs in about a month's time, I reckon. I am always surprised and delighted when my transplants don't shrivel and die immediately. And I was sufficiently confident of those future BLTs after the first six survived for two nights indoors, that I went over the source bed again with care and attention and rescued another 6 baby lettuce.

Lettuce is tasty and wet and I like it, but it is also tasty to a very wide range of Bob-competitors: starting with rabbits and slugs but including the causative agents of bottom rot, lettuce drop and gray mold; powdery and downy mildew; as well as big vein virus, yellow aster virus . . .

Wednesday 27 May 2020

Law of small numbers

Well I'm very sorry to report that the Corona Contentment and Coping with Cocooning survey coordinated by NUIG has been shuttered for lack of interest. It launched at the beginning of April and got a very respectable Citizen Science response. More than 100,000 residents in Ireland were prepared to share how they were coping with weirding weeks of lockdown. That's important. The Man needs to know the impact of his actions, 100,000 people is data which can provide evidence to inform policy.  Without evidence, policy is shaped by grass skirts and maracas, nameless fears and the weaselling of lobbyists. It was a bit of a worry that 63% of the respondents had a university degree, which far outweighed that sort of person in the general population where about 63% of ordinary folks don't have a degree. Insofar as a degree = a government job / currency trader and "working" from home on full salary, that will bias the results towards the happy end of the scale.

Also the median age of respondents was 48, full ten years higher than the median age for Ireland. The 2nd survey a fortnight later, 'they' uttered a call for more young people to respond - because they were more likely to adversely affected and/or just to capture the whole demographic. I agreed and sent a call-to-contribute to all the students [N = 100] I taught this year. The surveyors were hoping to top out the 100k sample size as word got out but actually secured a miserable fall off to about 1/3 of the original numbers. Survey fatigue, I guess. There were some interesting and important results from that survey about the negative impact of putting all our resources in the Corona-basket.

Third survey went out on 6th May, I responded in the same relentlessly upbeat fashion as before, and before.
Anxiety? Poof!
Conversation? For/with the birds!
Dry cough, fever? Nada, nunca!
Indeed I was so busy being Corona-content that I didn't even look at the results of Survey III. Yet I was fully expecting there to be a Survey IV on Weds 20th May; but when I got there it was like the Mary Celeste: echoing corridors and empty rooms. This worthy Citizen Science project had been closed down. No adequate explanation but the numbers told the story. Only 8,700 people had answered the call to Survey III another 2/3rds collapse in responses. Even those small numbers are data to a wonk like me and I plotted them out to see whither they extrapolated for Survey IV.  It looks like [below] an exponential decay which is much easier to handle if you transform the data to a logarithmic scale.

Than strongly suggests that Survey IV would garner only 2,300 responses. Although that is still twice what Gallup will predict the results of an election form, it is worrying small for data anonymity.

What fresh hell is this? We are assured that the survey couldn't be tracked back to us by The Man. Nobody wants to be taken away in shackles because they spoke to the postman in the previous three days and neither of you were wearing an Acme Virucidal Mask © ® €8.99 from Varadkar Holdings. But even at N = 8,700 that assurance is far from being evidence based:
65 yo
56 K
1,347 K
I R 65 and identify as he/him/his, but I was also asked where I was calling from which is a micro-county in the Irish midlands. All other things being equal only ~100 people responded to the 3rd survey from my home county in which only about 0.5% are 65 years old. Things aren't equal because the survey was bought into much more in Dublin that down the country. I am, to the nearest whole number (and it's hard to get fractional people without Madame Guillotine) the only person my age in the whole county and it will be a cinch, for example, to see if I am responding consistently between surveys . . . not least because they asked if we'd completed either of the two previous surveys. In the not-happened Survey IV individual people of pretty much any age would be have identifiable whatever county they hail from.

It don't make nobody no differ if one identifiable 65 y.o. is happier than the old bugger deserves to be. But similar arguments attach to anonymous DNA samples [Science paper 2018] which everyone and his dog is submitting to 23andMe and So many people (<2% of those who identify-as-white in North America) have uploaded their genetic data, anonymised to state or county, that it will be a small hack to find the address of an identify-as-jewish identify-as-bloke 60 y.o. in Baltimore who has a predisposition to stroke and Alzheimer's and is thus a poor risk for a medical insurance company. Even if he didn't send his spit into 23andMe, his second cousin in Arizona might have done. And if you're minded to make an anonymous semen donation for your neighbourhood fertility clinic; forgettit, your offspring will find you and want a part of your estate. Every sperm is sacred!

Tuesday 26 May 2020

Under the influence

</bollix Alert> 04Jun20: The paper which triggered this post has been flagged EOC by the Lancet. EOC Expression of Concern is a not-quite[-yet-]retraction. The Grauniad has investigated the company which supplied the data on which the original study was based. Also check out commentary on Metafilter</bollix alert>
A former talk-show host and current Head of State says:
I think people should [take hydroxychloroquine], if it were me, 
in fact, I might do it anyway. I may take it ... I have to ask 
my doctors about that. But I may take it. 
Bob the Scientist says:
You're about twice as likely to die in hospital of covid-19 
if your doctors give you hydroxychloroquine than if they don't.
Who to believe? It's important because you can't do all the research yourself: not enough time, not enough data, not enough savvy, not enough tool-kit. Your knee-jerk reactions = gut-instincts don't work <be honest> for your bets on The Grand National, so they defo won't work when you're choosing treatments for your mother-in-ICU. That's why informed consent is often a polite charade as the medics-in-charge frame the questions / options in such a way as to elicit the answer the Doc believes is best for the patient. Put your cynic back in its box if  "best for the hospital's bottom line" edges forward in your mind.

There is a class of people out there whose main qualification for being an Influencer is that they have a work ethic, a gabby mouth, an attractive personality and have been lucky. Like myself, jacksepticeye, a nice, funny BIFFO from Ballycumber posts every day. Over the last 8 years he has accumulated 12,000,000,000 views of his youtube channel. He's got a degree in Music Technology and Production from LIT.  Now you might turn to Jack for insight into Animal Crossing but maybe pensions, art history or epidemiology not so much?

The cult of personality is mostly harmless so long as everyone respects the guidelines of non-overlapping magisteria: Beyond what we can all read in Time magazine, I know nothing about meditation; the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn know nothing about science. The other two lads have considerably more influence but you'd be better off talking to me about data, evidence, and statistical analysis . . . and I won't gab on [much] about Ahimsa, Bodhisattva, or Chakras . . . promise. Sometimes you can be fooled: Linus Pauling was a colossal biological scientist with a string of Firsts and a Nobel Prize to his credit. But he was [whoa evidence!] just wrong in barracking everyone around him about a clearly biomedical issue like the cancer-curing capacity of vitamin C.

All kinds of people, with all kinds of random qualifications get to be President of their Country. Proper order: you wouldn't want to office to be held only by lawyers, publicans or pensioned politicians. Heck, I wouldn't want all presidents to be competent in science, or even numerate. Quiz time: who, before they became Pres, was a professional teachertailorsoldier; sailor; comedianpeanut farmerpoet.  It's real nice when your head of state has a few enthusiasms; it indicates work-life balance. The UK Head of State with the corgis and horses; her grandfather with his stamp collection; the Dalai Lama can fix your watch; Churchill was a nifty brick-layer. But you hope that these small obsessions don't edge too much into policy or public pronouncements. FDR kept both his polio and his adulterous bonking under covers. At the top I quoted the POTUS early on in the pandemic suggesting that hydroxychloroquine was a potential cure for covid-19. He doubled down on this affirmation later by saying that, if it did no good at least it could do no harm and later still telling the world that he was taking the stuff as a prophylactic.

Hydroxychloroquine HCQ and its relative chloroquine CQ, are anti-malarial meds which have been around in that capacity for 65 years. More recently they have seen some success in treating inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Earlier this year, somebody noticed that people already on these drugs seemed to fare better when they presented to hospital with Covid-19 symptoms. In desperate times, when all other therapies have failed to work, some doctors will try anything rather than allow people to die quietly . . . even if that something is not FDA approved; even if there is no solid evidence supporting its efficacy; even if it's something they read on the internet or heard mentioned in a news cast from Bergamo. In January, I cited a case of Olanzapine being prescribed for senile dementia despite it being likely to precipitate a stroke. Trump is not the only person who is pushing HCQ as a cure for covid-19; doctors all over the World are giving it a go presumably after a well-framed informed consent conversation.
Well Stop It! Stop it Now!
A very recent paper in The Lancet by 4 MDs (Mandeep R Mehra [Boston], Sapan S Desai [Chicago], Frank Ruschitzka [Zurish], Amit N Patel [Salt Lake City]) has accumulated a lot of data and shown that hydroxychloroquine HCQ and chloroquine CQ with or with Macrolide antibiotics MAB are positively harmful.  Let's look at the numbers. They started by trawling the published literature to identify any controlled experiments of these drugs in a Covid-19 setting. That 'registry' got to include nearly 100,000 patients from 671 hospitals across all 6 continents. My summary tables count
  • the number of people in 5 categories 1) The controls = no [H]CQ treatment 2) HCQ on its own 3) HCQ with MAB 4) CQ on its own 5) CQ with MAB
  • the % in each category who didn't make it
  • the % in each category who experienced (potentially damaging / fatal) ventricular cardiac arrhythmias "heart flutter"
    • one man's ventricular tachycardia caused the deaths 14 people in Oklahoma 18 years ago today <cw: bridge collapse>
  • the excess of dead people in each of the "treatment" categories
If you are in hospital with covid-19 you are neither asymptomatic nor mild-to-moderate, you are ill with a potentially fatal infection. 11% of the people in the study didn't make it. That's more than 10,000 coffins. But the point of the study is in the last table. ~1,785 people are dead because they were actively and consciously given a treatment which we [now] know to have significant adverse side-effects. More than 1,000 of them are US citizens. Insofar as anyone pays attention to pronouncements by the head of state in formal press briefings [and what's the point otherwise?] then Donald Trump has used his influence to off people whose life liberty and the pursuit of happiness he swore to defend.

Monday 25 May 2020

Dosi doh

Old Dog, not dead. I woke up the other night with a nagging sense of unfinished business about . . . Food Fermentation. Five+ years ago when The Institute floated the idea of a new BSc in Brewing and Distilling, I blagged my way onto the curriculum committee and insisted that the course needed a module in Food Fermentation. Without that the course was in danger of becoming boringly parochial and Hibernified. For most Irish people the only thing that's brewed is beer, Well I was little brewed off when the course launched 4 years ago in September 2017; because Food Ferm had been side-lined by the slightly boring course director to the final year and demoted to a 5 credit half-module. Then I got my fingers out to do the math and realised that I wouldn't be there for teaching in 4th year this September so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and, like, whatevs. My business with Food Fermentation is not so much unfinished as unstarted.

When I started work at The Institute 7½ years ago, I was given a timetable with rooms and courses and told to get on with it. There is an ugly untold story that might help explain why everyone was so unhelpful to the New Guy, but I was really too busy to think about that, let alone allow it to prey upon my equanimity. Come full circle, it seems churlish to have The Man dump "my" course on my replacement's desk and expect her to suck it up and teach. If I was going to start clagging material together, I'd better see what "we" had promised to deliver, so I went on-line to get the Learning Outcomes LOs. LOs are much beloved by bureaucrats because they can be counted and having them greatly facilitates assessment. But they are really inimical to spontaneity and because they are written [in stone] they effectively prevent the course from getting updated to current knowledge and practice. Anyway, Thar she blows, the LOs:
  • LO1 Summarize the relationships between the intestinal flora, the immune system, diet and health. Describe the range of Irish & global fermented food products and appraise their value in good health and the economy. Recognize the role of chemical preservation in the food industry: discuss cheap soy sauce, pickled onions, Chorleywood process. Evaluate the production of carcinogens as the downside of fermentation. 
  • LO2 Identify the principal Lactic Acid Bacteria used to transform grains and milk into digestible food such as sourdough bread. yoghurt, quark, koumiss and kefir. Appreciate the value of cheese as long-life milk differentiating among the bacteria and fungi that create it. 
  • LO3 Catalogue some foreign fermented vegetable products (sauerkraut and kimchi); dry fermented meat products (chorizo, pepperoni); filamentous fungi fermented beans (tofu, tempeh, soy sauce, miso). and assess their potential in the Irish market. 
  • LO4 Describe the production of acetic acid as secondary product from ethanol and its industrial and economic importance. Categorize organic acids (citrate, lactate and glutamate) as food industry products: and appraise their economic importance. 
  • LO5 Create a delicious fermented food product and eat it.
Hey, that's pretty cool, no? You could have a lot of fun on that course. I had just downloaded the list of LOs when Dau.II aka Cookie O'Corcaigh called for her daily check-in with the parents. She started talking about a really interesting episode Brad and Sohla Make Dosas of Lockdown Cooking on the Bon Appètit channel. Dosas are pancakes, not a million miles from Pakori, except that a) the batter is made from the seeds of Vigna mungo, black gram, urad dal  (उड़द की खेती) [on the stalk R] b) it is fermented. There is lots to like about this filmlet, not least because because Sohla El-Waylly, the expert, is really non-proscriptive in her recipes in an "are we going to measure or are we going to cook?" way. After soaking the beans and rice [like soya + barley for making soy-sauce], they are blended up into a batter and allowed to ferment for 8-20 hours. The bubbly brew is then spread crepe-thin on a hot ghee-smeared skillet and fried to crispy. Fenugreek Trigonella foenum-graecum which I love, is a key magical booster to the process. But Urad isn't! Sohla proceeds to make dosas with an astonishing variety of pulse+grass ingredients: rice & urad; red lentils & oats! Each combo will need watching because some get frothy quick and others take their time; and it is, of course, temperature dependent. Every batch is different and every batch is good [like my sourdough]: well almost every batch - use yer nose!

Sunday 24 May 2020

24 Mayscellany

Big anniversary day, if you know one, Elbump a Methodist?!

Saturday 23 May 2020

Infrastructural Communications.

I did get a PhD, I had to Go America and work really hard for it. I didn't get to have such sustained joy-of-work until I started The Blob working at The Institute 34 years later. But it was quite weird because although I rocked up to Boston University Biology Department at least five days a week for classes and seminars and number crunching my boss would come in about 5 days a year. Working from home? Everyone is doing that now. In the 1980s it was peculiar. The gaffer worked from home at least partly because it was difficult to channel his several interests into a M-F 9-5 regularity. He was into cats, genetics, cat genetics, population genetics, anthropology, history, numismatics and genealogy. Often one of my chores in BU was to throw his outgoing mail into the Departmental mail-box to save a few dollars on stamps. Ah thrift, my sorta guy.

I was happy-out in that milieu; my very expensive education had coursed over a lot of those areas. And it wouldn't be surprising for conversation to flit from conquistadors to cats to Cardiff to cysticercosis. The genealogy could be a bit of a sleeper for me, because at that age, I wasn't much interested in my own forebears let alone other people's. But I remember one story of a couple of New England families whose stories were intertwined with births and weddings and funerals for 200 years and then abruptly ceased, despite the fact that they hailed from neighboring Massachusetts towns. It was a puzzle until Neil was driving through the area and realised that the two townships were separated by a wide tidal estuary. The bridge joining the two communities was carried away in a winter storm; it was too much faff to go courting by skiff and so the families went on divergent paths until the Eisenhower Interstate system replaced the road bridge 100+ years later.

This was all brought from the roiling deeps of my "mind" when I saw this picture [it's here just north of Edenville MI]:
It's from drone footage from Edenville, MI where a domino of dam failures on the Tittabawassee River has been caused by a "500 Year Flood" in central Michigan. Here's the moment when the saturated earth of the Edenville dam finally bursts, slumps and allows water through. The mighty works of man look rather pathetic in the face of Mother Nature in a pet. For me the hubris is exactly captured by the concrete revetments, designed to keep the river-bank footings of the bridge from being washed away in a flood. ferro-concrete is strong: it has held together long enough for the concrete walls to be caught suspended uselessly from the road-bed rather than supporting it. You can see a) that the road surface and upstream [L] piers are loaded with snagged trees and debris b) because its usual path was blocked with crud, the river (now subsiding) went through the riverbank for a shortcut and caused 10m of road slab to drop into the torrent c) a clatter of hi-vizzed county engineers on the shore side of the chasm trying to make a plan for the immediate and longer term future.

Debbie and Randall, who live on opposite sides of the N Meridian Rd bridge and were dating will be doing a helluva lot of driving to keep in touch . . . even after covid19 blows away. The W Curtis Road bridge just downstream is still walkable but the approach road on the West has been erased; and replaced by a scour of mud. A lot of folks are now homeless downstream of the failed dams: like the former owners of this house which floated off to seek its best life in another, more salubrious, downstream, location. The dams have been placed across the river at considerable expense to win a list of benefits for the local people [the local wildlife not having much of a vote in the matter, although the Feds have tried to protect it]:
  • flood control and mitigation;
  • water supply to irrigate fields; 
  • drinking water reservoirs; 
  • hydro-power
  • maybe fish farms?
  • recreation: fishing, boating, swimming.
This is all grand until it isn't. A 500 year storm is a lot of water all reaching the river over a few hours and then heading off down the incline to Lake Huron. On Tuesday 19th May there was a dump of 60-70 mm of rain in 24 hours. That is a little less than 10% of the annual rainfall; and it all needs to go somewhere. A dam will catch this up-blip of down-pour and dissipate the flood over the next several days or weeks.
  • IF
    • by poor design, poor management, poor maintenance, the water overtops the dam rather than its spillways and emergency spillways 
  • ANDIF 
    • it is an earth-filled berm of a dam 
  • THEN 
Q. And the water behind the dam, which will have been accumulating at least over the preceding winter; say a years worth of rainfall?
A. That will all come down at once, in a rush, making Tuesday's deluge look like a tinkle in a piss-pot.

I learned a lot about the consequences of dams, hydro-electric, corner-cutting on maintenance, cost-cutting on inspections from the Oroville Dam saga in Feb and March 2017 The best commentator for that saga was Juan Browne at Blancolirio. He's got something to show and tell about the mess on the Tittabawassee River.

If it was my home sailing off to the Great Lakes, I'd have some serious questions to put to Boyce Hydro Power, LLC who have been making money from power-stations installed in the failed dams. But the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) will have a case to answer because they recently required the retention of more water . . . to protect the pearl mussels. The Federal Energy Regulatory Authority has been requesting and requiring safety changes for years. [bickerfest reports]. I guess I'd leave my scrutiny of policy and procedures at Dow Chemical until all the fish die and/or the tumors have started to occlude my gut. Dow Chemical, which is headquartered in Midland, confirmed in a statement earlier in the day that flood waters were "commingling with on-site containment ponds.".

Friday 22 May 2020

Enough already!

The Blob is as old as my current instar: which is working the science crowd at The Institute where I rocked up for work on Monday 7th Jan 2013. The point was to weblog the process of transition between two very different sectors of Irish 3rd Level education. And/or between the status of being effectively unemployed (and with mind on life-support although not wholly idle) through 2012 vs working 80 hr weeks to keep flocks of chattering and questioning students fed with tid-bits of [mostly relevant] information. I've never felt so alive: super busy, moderately stressed, but learning a lot. The formal teaching stopped at the end of April '13 but I was still wired, and The Blob kept going. On Wednesday 22nd May 2013, I had nothing to say, and a stack of exam scripts to grade, so No Blob, but the next day, Colonel Bob was back in the saddle whoopin' and a-hollerin' over the prairies of science and the back-catalogue of his "mind" looking for copy. He's done his reg'lar ~700 words every . single . day . since. Some considerably less intelligible than others, as the archives will show: pick a random day [your mother-in-law's b'day, why not?] and a random year 2013-2020 and read what was jangling my brain-chain back then. I do this occasionally and have to scratch my head: I've no idea what that younger me was on about.

Blogger says there are about 1,000 daily readers out there; although who knows how many of them are data scraping robots.They'd give you a break. Haway out of that, though, readers make only part of the engine. You don't have to be OCD [waall mebbe y' do!] to think that stopping an un-broken run of 2,500 somethings would be a shame. But really Ah STOP Bob! It doesn't have to be un-broken: fix it.
Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage.

Thursday 21 May 2020


Three years ago I wrote about the tsunami steady trickle of spam inviting me to support for-profit scientific publications by sending them a rehash of a paper which I had recently published. It's called predatory publishing but that implies agency and action on the part of the wannabe publishers. Parasitic  publishing would be a better description because the only over-head is to write a script that will strip Name; e-mail; title from a paper and insert these data into robot-driven solicitation for new copy. I was interested enough to gather a database collection of these letters to illustrate relative knowledge about correct forms of address. Then for 3 years, to keep my inbox reasonably trim, I deleted each mail as it came in. Just recently, as a bit of a jape, I've taken to responding to such unsolicited e-mails as if they had fired up the (permanent) vacation software in MS Outlook. It cost me little, although my four word reaction was unlikely to achieve anything useful. And then I got a response.
Dear Dr. Scientist,
I hope this message finds you well in this difficult time. 
The article you wrote recently caught my attention and wanted to get in contact with you to discuss the idea of writing a related article for the Internal Medicine Review. 
Dr Scientist is dead
Thank you for your email. I understand. Could you possibly recommend anyone who may be in a position to prepare an article?
Dr Lejárt Halott in Budapest
Prof Dispar Avant in Montpellier
Drs Papagaio Falecido at Universidade Técnica de Lisboa
You may need Google translate (as did I) to twig the full hilHAHAHArity of my riposte. I adopted a similar cunning plant to sort the robots from the real people in my pre-Blob dealings with Sunday Miscellany.

Wednesday 20 May 2020


Unintended consequences department.
We live in The House the Bomb Fell On, or rather the house which Felix built, in 1941, from the rubble of the house the bomb fell on. When we bought it  in 1996, the house was still glazed with war-glass; not quite bath-room quality frosted glass: you could see the hill on the far side of the valley through the kitchen window, but not the sheep on the hill. As a domestic energy efficiency consultant, there is no way The Beloved was going to tolerate single glazing, so we kept the wooden sashes but replaced all the glass with double-glazing sandwiches.  Eeee, it were great! We could count the leaves on the ash-tree at the bottom of the yard, and identify the birds on the lawn. The down-side is that it is now worth washing the windows occasionally.

These last few days, and not for the first time, I've been hearing a dull >!thunk!< as I sit bobby-no-pals quietly blog-blog-bloggin' the days away. Dang! Bird-strike, I think, after I've worked out that nothing has fallen off the kitchen counter. There's not much to do. A full-on head-on collision with an object as immovable as a double-glazing unit, is like taking a no-hands header into an empty swimming pool. Sometimes there is a body on the ground, sometime The Stunned manages to fly off to nurse the head-ache. Last Sunday, I noticed a dead adult song-thrush Smólach ceoil Turdus philomena right by the front door, so went once round the house on a bring out your dead run and found a juvenile of the same species. I laid them out prior to disposal [L].

Between taking the photo and writing about it, there was another >!thunk!< on the front windows. But this must have been a glancing blow because, no body. You can imagine what's going wrong here. The glazing is so clean that the birds are deluded into thinking that there is more vegetation, or even more sky?, through that gap in Yer Man's nest. The dark reflections in the window don't really do justice to how tree-like it all looks in reality and the upstairs windows look brightly sky blue. The birds hopeful journey to fields a-green and pastures new is brought up all standing - at least it's quick.

Then agin then agin, 'tis an ill wind which blows no good. When I laid the poor thrushes out on the bird-table, a half-dozen ants dropped down and started scurrying about the surface. There's an ant-nest just under the front door-step and they must have been foraging about the corpses looking for food: lice [poverty prev] of the insect [six legs] order Phthiraptera or mites [scabies prev] of the arachnid [eight legs] order Mesostigmata. It really can't get more specific than that because these ectoparasites are remarkably limited in their host range. Should I therefore leave the dead birds at our stoop to provide a bonanza breakfast for the ants? I should not; because the next thing you know the rats in the distant farm-yard will be knocking on the front door asking for more.

Talking of scavenging carnivores, yesterday in broad daylight the avian funeral parlour was emptied. I did not realise the corpses had gone until I noticed an explosion of downy feathers in a corner of the yard. Our yard has been taken into the territory of an elusive black cat with scruffy longish hair. I'm guessing that this feline has solved my bird disposal dilemma. The cat's presence is probably invisible good news on the rodent control front.

Tuesday 19 May 2020

End of Days: Rain Dept

Now see here Tó Neinilii, I know you have a reputation for being a trickster and your bailiwick may not extend beyond the Navaho homelands, but the rain (absence of) here is getting beyond a jesting matter.
At last Sunday's weekly family zoom-in, someone asked what our local weather was about. I was happy to report that, while it hadn't rained that morning, a great soggy cloud had hung about the garden for a couple of hours before breakfast. I'd danced out in me jim-jams to move the seedlings out of the tunnel and into some free water. Rain is really the best way to deliver water to plants, a watering can is a very crude substitute. I further asserted that we'd only had 2 days of rain in the last 60. That seemed an unlikely statistic for dear old green old damp old Ireland so I had to check Met Eireann for the cumulative rainfall totals for our nearest weather station [L].

That's  really informative once you twig how to read the diagrams. The bottom picture shows a series of horizontal steps [=no rain] interspersed with dumps of rain 09Mar, 11Mar, 03Apr and 29Apr (these are the vertical bars poking up from the horizontal axis; I've added the horizontal pink lines to emphasise the flat no-rain steps.

It was a really wet February 2020 in Ireland: 3x the 20 year average for the month. But that's really not good enough. In the East of the island we get about 1000mm precipitation a year. If Tó Neinilii wasn't intent on foolery, he'd see that we got 1000/365 = 3mm a night; or better still 10mm every 3rd night. That way the ground would get a good soaking, but there would be no destructive and wasteful run-off like from Storm Deirdre in December 2018. Thrifty me  does my best to capture rain when it falls, but my system of IBCs, herring-barrels, pipes and siphons cannot sequester thin air.

We had a dibble of rain last night. But the top diagram shows that we are really behind on rainfall 2/3s of the way through May 2020. The green diagonal line is the 20-year average for the month and this year's accumulation is barely wetting the bottom of the bucket. I tell ya, we'd better give up the ould sins because The End of Days approacheth.

Monday 18 May 2020


Lord Harris of Micromanagement has started the unpacking of lockdown. From today, mixed doubles tennis or a golf-foursome may be played but not 5-a-side soccer AND only if you live within 5km of your golf club. If you live further out you will be allowed to pulverise the herbaceous borders with a #3 iron: helpless tears of frustration optional. DO NOT LEAVE COMB! Rutger "Ladyhawke" Hair we lookin' at you [R].

Eventually, our Overlords will let us leave our houses when we want; unless we turn 70 before that longed-for exit date and The Man insists on getting us all cocooned up in chokey. On your 70th birthday you'll experience a precipitous drop in your ability to withstand infection. Because USAians never mastered the metric system, they are allowed to be 8.5% [6ft/2m] closer before their risk goes exponential. These cut-offs / thresholds, which The Man gets shouty and in-yer-face about have less to do with minimising transmission and more to do with facilitating enforcement. The 100km/h speed limit applies to everyone - professional rally-drivers and N-plate beginners. The 50km/h city limit applies night and day; whether schools are in or out, at weekends, during lockdown when there's no other drivers and precious few pedestrians. It's just too difficult [and expensive?] to give these limits more nuance to reflect actual risk.

Anyway, and however gradually, we will at some time in the future will be allowed to make our own decisions about where to go and what to do and with whom. Many of you will be thinking, if not actually articulating, what you'll do when the prison doors fling open:
Okay then: put those in order according to each one's risk of you copping a dose of covid while executing  your post-lockdown plan PLP. And another list: how confident are you that each event is in that position w r t your safety. It's obvious (to me) that the numbers / probability matter but it's not obvious what the order should be. Am I too old for First Communion? If not, my face will be at a different height into the clear air to the other communicants and so it may be safer for me than my 8 y.o Gdaughter.

Erin Bromage of U.Mass Dartmouth , immunologist and epidemiologist, has scavenged up some data and analysed it to help you focus on where the red zones should be for you. Go read! Still here? too busy to take 7 minutes out of your busy browsing schedule? Okay Exec Summary:
  • Go somewhere quiet!
    • Best is a Quaker meeting house or zen-do where people are breathing but not speaking
    • Speaking ups the droplet ejection by 10x
    • If people around you are shouting or si♫gi♫g, their transmission rate goes up
    • A single cough will huck up many more deep-lung viruses
    • A single >!sneeze!< will disperse 10x droplets, with 4x the velocity
  • Keep physical distance
    • the further you are from the sneeze the less likely a virus laden floater will alight on your wet epithelia
  • Keep outside
    • Even if you're not in the I felt that firing line, spittle aerosol will circulate for some time before settling to the surface. Outside is more dilute
  • Keep your legs crossed
    • Public toilets have so many fomite surfaces; are used by so many different people; are "cleaned" by people on the minimum wage
    • Aerosol!!!!
  • Avoid birthdays, funerals, weddings
    • Lots of people, gathered from all over, shared food, shared air, shared spittle [even if you adopt a <no tongues> policy.
  • Avoid concerts, sports stadia
    • 2 hours up close and personal with A Lot of strangers. It's like a wedding on crack.
  • Leave home!
    • A very large proportion of cases have caught it from their housemates. 23/7 indoors with your teenage children is a lot more infective than an hour in church or 2 hours at the theatre.
    • 23?/7 For one hour a day you allow the teens out to 'meet their friends' and they [duh, teens!] get a lot more up-close-and-personal than the minister of health would feel comfortable about.
Dr Bromage is reasonable in his advice. It is nuanced and quantitative if not pointlessly precise.  It shd help you weigh the good things to do that first weekend against the likelihood that, 6-8 days later,  you'll have a week of mild-to-moderate symptoms. And believe me mild-to-moderate may be everything and anything up to, but not including, oxygen mask and intubation: Anecdote "‘I have had 14 surgeries. I have had two children. And honestly, my mild case (of COVID-19), I would do any of those over. I can’t imagine being any worse than I was’"
All these streng verbotene Diktate bring to "mind" a limerick, which like the best of them, breaks the rules:
There once was a lady from Bude
Who went for a swim in the lake.
A man in a punt
Stuck his pole up her nose
And said “You can’t swim here, it’s too dangerous.”

Sunday 17 May 2020

Sweet Sunday seventeen

And the winner (scarey enough) of the Tiff Taylor Evolve a Monster competition is . . .

Saturday 16 May 2020


I promised large and delivered small on my project to convert bored to bawd each Saturday during the lockdown. I have only covered <fnarr> 3 of Bocaccio's 100 tales of life imagined during the pandemic on 1347: DecamerOne -- DecamerTwo -- DecamerThr.

Exec Summary: Her husband returning home, Peronella bestows her lover in a tun; which, being sold by her husband, she avers to have been already sold by herself to one that is inside examining it to see if it be sound. Whereupon the lover jumps out, and causes the husband to scour the tun for him, and afterwards to carry it to his house.
Peronella and the Tun
'Tis no long time since at Naples a poor man, a mason by craft, took to wife a fair and amorous maiden - Peronella was her name - who eked out by spinning what her husband made by his craft; and so the pair managed as best they might on very slender means. And as chance would have it, one of the gallants of the city, taking note of this Peronella one day, and being mightily pleased with her, fell in love with her, and by this means and that so prevailed that he won her to accord him her intimacy. Their times of forgathering they concerted as follows:--to wit, that, her husband being wont to rise betimes of a morning to go to work or seek for work, the gallant was to be where he might see him go forth, and, the street where she dwelt, which is called Avorio, being scarce inhabited, was to come into the house as soon as her husband was well out of it; and so times not a few they did. But on one of these occasions it befell that, the good man being gone forth, and Giannello Sirignario--such was the gallant's name--being come into the house, and being with Peronella, after a while, back came the good man, though 'twas not his wont to return until the day was done; and finding the door locked, he knocked, and after knocking, he fell a saying to himself: "O God, praised be Thy name forever; for that, albeit Thou hast ordained that I be poor, at least Thou hast accorded me the consolation of a good and honest girl for wife. Mark what haste she made to shut the door when I was gone forth, that none else might enter to give her trouble".

Now Peronella knew by his knock that 'twas her husband; wherefore:--"Alas, Giannello mine," quoth she, "I am a dead woman, for lo, here is my husband, foul fall him! come back! What it may import, I know not, for he is never wont to come back at this hour; perchance he caught sight of thee as thou camest in. However, for the love of God, be it as it may, get thee into this tun that thou seest here, and I will go open to him, and we shall see what is the occasion of this sudden return this morning." So Giannello forthwith got into the tun, and Peronella went to the door, and let in her husband, and gave him black looks, saying:--"This is indeed a surprise that thou art back so soon this morning! By what I see thou hast a mind to make this a holiday, that thou returnest tools in hand; if so, what are we to live on? whence shall we get bread to eat? Thinkest thou I will let thee pawn my gown and other bits of clothes? Day and night I do nought else but spin, insomuch that the flesh is fallen away from my nails, that at least I may have oil enough to keep our lamp alight. Husband, husband, there is never a woman in the neighbourhood but marvels and mocks at me, that I am at such labour and pains; and thou comest home to me with thy hands hanging idle, when thou shouldst be at work."
Which said, she fell a weeping and repeating:--"Alas, alas, woe 's me, in what evil hour was I born? in what luckless moment came I hither, I, that might have had so goodly a young man, and I would not, to take up with one that bestows never a thought on her whom he has made his wife? Other women have a good time with their lovers, and never a one have we here but has two or three; they take their pleasure, and make their husbands believe that the moon is the sun; and I, alas! for that I am an honest woman, and have no such casual amours, I suffer, and am hard bested. I know not why I provide not myself with one of these lovers, as others do. Give good heed, husband, to what I say: were I disposed to dishonour thee, I were at no loss to find the man: for here are gallants enough, that love me, and court me, and have sent me many an offer of money--no stint--or dresses or jewels, should I prefer them; but my pride would never suffer it, because I was not born of a woman of that sort: and now thou comest home to me when thou oughtest to be at work."

Whereto the husband:--"Wife, wife, for God's sake distress not thyself: thou shouldst give me credit for knowing what manner of woman thou art, as indeed I have partly seen this morning. True it is that I went out to work; but 'tis plain that thou knowest not, as indeed I knew not, that to-day 'tis the feast of San Galeone, and a holiday, and that is why I am come home at this hour; but nevertheless I have found means to provide us with bread for more than a month; for I have sold to this gentleman, whom thou seest with me, the tun, thou wottest of, seeing that it has encumbered the house so long, and he will give me five gigliats for it." Quoth then Peronella:--"And all this but adds to my trouble: thou, that art a man, and goest abroad, and shouldst know affairs, hast sold for five gigliats a tun, which I, that am but a woman, and was scarce ever out of doors, have, for that it took up so much room in the house, sold for seven gigliats to a good man, that but now, as thou cam'st back, got therein, to see if 'twere sound." So hearing, the husband was overjoyed, and said to the man that was come to take it away:--"Good man, I wish thee Godspeed; for, as thou hearest, my wife has sold the tun for seven gigliats, whereas thou gavest me only five." Whereupon:--"So be it," said the good man, and took himself off. Then said Peronella to her husband:--"Now, as thou art here, come up, and arrange the matter with the good man."

Now Giannello, who, meanwhile, had been all on the alert to discover if there were aught he had to fear or be on his guard against, no sooner heard Peronella's last words, than he sprang out of the tun, and feigning to know nought of her husband's return, began thus:--"Where art thou, good dame?" Whereto the husband, coming up, answered:--"Here am I: what wouldst thou of me?" Quoth Giannello:--"And who art thou? I would speak with the lady with whom I struck the bargain for this tun." Then said the good man:--"Have no fear, you can deal with me; for I am her husband." Quoth then Giannello:--"The tun seems to me sound enough; but I think you must have let the lees remain in it; for 'tis all encrusted with I know not what that is so dry, that I cannot raise it with the nail; wherefore I am not minded to take it unless I first see it scoured." Whereupon Peronella:--"To be sure: that shall not hinder the bargain; my husband will scour it clean." And:--"Well and good," said the husband.

So he laid down his tools, stripped himself to his vest, sent for a light and a rasp, and was in the tun, and scraping away, in a trice. Whereupon Peronella, as if she were curious to see what he did, thrust her head into the vent of the tun, which was of no great size, and therewithal one of her arms up to the shoulder, and fell a saying:--"Scrape here, and here, and there too, and look, there is a bit left here." So, she being in this posture, directing and admonishing her husband, Giannello, who had not, that morning, fully satisfied his desire, when the husband arrived, now seeing that as he would, he might not, brought his mind to his circumstances, and resolved to take his pleasure as he might: wherefore he made up to the lady, who completely blocked the vent of the tun; and even on such wise as on the open champaign the wild and lusty horses do amorously assail the mares of Parthia, he sated his youthful appetite; and so it was that almost at the same moment that he did so, and was off, the tun was scoured, the husband came forth of it, and Peronella withdrew her head from the vent, and turning to Giannello, said:--"Take this light, good man, and see if 'tis scoured to thy mind." Whereupon Giannello, looking into the tun, said that 'twas in good trim, and that he was well content, and paid the husband the seven gigliats, and caused him carry the tun to his house.

Friday 15 May 2020

Go counter Go

During my very expensive education in England, I learnt an absurd variety of games. - bezique; billiards; boxing; canasta; chequers; chess; contract bridge; cribbage; cricket (of course); croquet; fencing; field hockey; water-polo; rowing; rugger; soccer; squash; tennis; whist. With hindsight, I can only surmise that the plan was to help build a gentleman who could lose gracefully; because I was pretty much crap at all of them. Unless you are Lionel Messi, the only reliable way to be good at anything is to put in hours and hours of deliberate practice. Butterfly me was too lazy and easily distracted to put in 10,000 minutes of anything, let alone 10K hours [which theory is nonsense]. If this inventory sounds like Thomas Beecham's quip In this life try everything once, except morris-dancing and incest it may be the way I tell it. And there's a gazillion things I haven't tried and one of them is the ancient strategy game of Go [How to Go in 4 mins].

I was thinking of this when I watched AlphaGo - The Movie:  a documentary about the 2016 match between a computer called DeepMind and its coders vs 이세돌 Lee Sedol a Korean who is the reigning World champ at the game. The film is 90 minutes long. No bonking, no car-chases, no fist-fights but really exciting nevertheless. You can keep your "Exciting? Bob you really should get out more" until after you've seen it. I enjoyed it so much that I e-mailed an old acquaintance of mine from TCD, who happens to be Korean "I'm guessing; willing or not, good or not, and unlike me, you played Go when you were a nipper.  You'll get more than most out of it because about 20% of the dialogue is in Korean w/o subtitles." Which, on the face of it, is really quite racist. I'd be bemused or annoyed if one of my American pals wrote "I saw this great movie about road-bowling in rural Waterford, you live in Ireland, you'll love it". Er, nope!

But my pal Ken O'Korea, was delighted to hear from me, not least because, by coincidence, he'd just finished watching the same documentary with his family. He remembered the hoopla of the [Korean] man vs machine match back in 2016; at the time everyone he knew back home was wearing the green jersey or its Korean equivalent whether they could play Go or No. I replied I don't think it's such a coincidence. It looks like the Masters of the Go Universe had paid Google to have AlphaGo the Movie bubble to the top of everyone's recommended views. I think the lesson that "AI is teaching the Go world new Ways of Seeing" can be given a wider application. Science is a very conventional world where funding is directed at the edges of the known and we all lock-step to follow the money down quite rigid channels. Something, AI or whatever, could with advantage shift us out of the rut to do something really novel. We have had quite enough papers about TLR4! Let's see what minority interest TLR5 does for us (maybe a cure for next pandemic?).
Lee Sedol World Champ retired from Go this year ostensibly because there was no point in competing in a sport which he could never win again. Which should put pretty much all female athletes off their game because they can never be better than the best man . . . because testosterone. But it doesn't . . . because bottle.

Thursday 14 May 2020

Who shall be saved?

I've been promising, but I finally settled in to re-read John  Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids [exec summ plot] after a gap of at least 50 years. I borrowed the copy in Dau.I's bedroom here and it had my Da's name in the front, so I felt generationally duveted. When I read Triffids at the age of 12, I was delighted with the idea of free-stuff [beans, ammo, DIY books] in a post-apocalyptic world. I still get a frisson about that now but the book is more interesting / challenging in its address of "what to do when The System is overwhelmed with deeply damaged people who cannot survive w/o help". It is therefore resonant as the indignant cries of triage ring out from outside the ICU in Bergamo and echo the chamber of health policy people in Ireland and round the World.

Triffids is not toooo much of a polemic; it's a story that came out of the Cold War (publ 1951 and blaming the Russians for starting the crisis) that imagines the future in a world turned upside down. Although the issue, 70 years ago, was nowhere near as urgent as now; one sub-text in Triffids is that humanity has been a devastating stressor on the natural world and the author takes a certain grim pleasure in describing the return of the native in and over the built environment. Houses turn to seed-beds if you won't clear the gutters, lads!  But it's not without hope in painting an expectation that, if needs must, you can overcome ignorance and make some sort of a fist of shifting for yourself. "Looking back at the shape of things then, the amount we did not know and did not care to know about our daily lives is not only astonishing, but somehow a bit shocking. I knew practically nothing, for instance, of such ordinary things as how food reached me, where fresh water came from, how the clothes I wore were woven and made, how the drainage of cities kept them healthy".
Two years later, following the Precepts of Heinlein, the Triffid survivalists are "able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, and they have seen very many people  die gallantly".  The casualness with which people get offed, often by triffids but also by people [including the narrator] and accidents [so easy when you're struck blind], is a deck-clearing signature of the first part of the book. It's as bad as The Towering Inferno, where extras are shovelled out of the burning building to fall on the pavements like rain. So to the nearest whole %, <spoiler> everybody dies </spoiler> . . . who gets saved is largely accidental.

There are some black hats but the general tenor of the survivors is that they will do their best to help [blind] people, so long as they have agency in the choice of whom to save. They bridle if compelled to be the 👁👁 of a group of randomers but will pitch in to help if asked nicely . . . and the ratios are not clearly unsustainable. Robert Sapolsky's treatise on human psychology Behave, has a central chunk on Them and Us and how our hormones and neurotransmitters make us define and then react to these two classes of people. Most people are kinder to their own dog than any person outside the immediately household. As a naive utilitarian with blunted affect, I am on the same page as Wyndham: if you try to save everyone then everyone dies. But no person, no too-small group, can survive alone in a hostile world: if you share the Brexit Bunker flour with (or make scones for) the neighbours then reciprocity kicks in and everyone does better, through trade.

Dau.I shared the dilemma of Josiah Hawthorn a prepper who had amassed a sufficient store of flour and beans [and toilet paper, I guess] against Armageddon. When Hurricane Sandy slapped in and inundated New York and the Jersey Shore, Mrs Hawthorn just broke open the bunker and started cooking for folks who had been flooded out . . . and Josiah delivered it; having been shown how to be a Mensch. "What would I do with the money? Eat more??" Aaron Feuerstein.

Three years after The Day of the Triffids, William Golding, another member of the British patriarchy, published Lord of the Flies which offers a very bleak assessment of the capacity for kindness and kinship among a group of British proto-patriarchs boys. Poor Golding had been an oppressed schoolboy and later a teacher of schoolboys and had seen so many examples of casual cruelty that he took the law of the jungle to be embedded in the human condition. Rutger Bregman's [prev] antidote [Lord of the Lifes?] has been widely circulated this last week. By cooperation and kindness, including set a bone! six teenagers survived / thrived for 15 months in an actual jungle on an uninhabited tropical island. Extrapolation and commentary on MeFi.

And triage? Deciding who gets saved? We do that all the time with our tax-dollars, through our elected reps. By separating Health and Welfare into separate domains run by different ministers fighting for a bigger share of the tax-pot, we allow all kinds of "extras" to fall between the cracks. You're better served for prostate cancer than for suicidal ideation. We approve enormous amounts on quite rare conditions like haemophilia, Down's Syndrome and cystic fibrosis. Much less on boring background stuff like  urinary incontinence, alcoholism, mental health and sex education.