Friday 31 July 2020

Escherichia shathak

Tinker tailor soldier spy . . . so many ways of making a living. Kids still want to be <borrrring> doctors and digger-drivers because they don't know that a living can be made as a derivatives trader, youtube-influencer or <boRRRRing> deep-sea core driller. Core-drillers are in the news last week because a consortium from the Kochi Institute for Core Sample Research, (JAMSTEC) and the Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island [R] have turned up a zombie microbial community deep in the Abyssal Plain of the South Pacific Gyre.  The location and pandemic paranoia have spawned a bunch of waggish Cthulu Lovecraftian commentary.  Including my title flagging a new species of Gammaproteobacteria Escherichia shathak named after Theodor Escherich and the Mistress of the Abyssal Slime, Death Reborn. The worry-wart commentary hinges on the fact that we are currently dealing with a jumped-the-species-barrier drain on the resources of the epidemiologists, pathologists and ICU beds. Not to mention production of masks, hand-sanitizer, PPE, flour and toilet-rolls.

If you're that way inclined you're not going to take solace from one of the lead authors' airy What could possibly go wrong?: [Cosmos quoteTo begin with, he says, if such a plague were possible, it would probably already have been produced by offshore drilling, which has long been stirring up similar sediments on a much larger scale. But the reality is that bacteria in the deep seabed aren’t something we need to worry about. “Pathogens are common in harbors,” D’Hondt says, noting that these are places easily contaminated by human waste. “But they’re not common in the deep ocean or the sediment. It’s just the wrong environment for them.”  Like bats or sooty mangabeys are the wrong environment for human pathogens . . . until they're not.

We need to take on board Tony Kavanagh's comment "extraordinary claims require extraordinary levels of proof" about the outlandish and rapidly discredited claim that some bacteria use arsenate instead of phosphate in the backbone of their DNA. Anyway, let's look at the science which claims that
  • The sea floor is covered with a sediment of organic matter of which whale-fall is only the most dramatically lumpy.
  • Oxygen gets carried deeper in the sludge as more debris accumulates on top
  • Their deepest sediment cores are 100 million years old.
  • That there are microbes of that vintage which have been marking time on a minuscule energy budget repairing DNA damage and probably reproducing on a very slow cycle
  • That these microbes represent taxa which The Blob is familiar: Alphaproteobacteria, Betaproteobacteria, Gammaproteobacteria, Firmicutes, Actinobacteria, Bacteroidetes
  • That 99% of them have been brought to vibrant life when given a warm bath and a good feed.
Take that last claim: they have been remarkably successful in bringing these zombiobes to life and growing them under laboratory conditions. Up until very recently, it was reckoned that 60% of the bacterial species in our own guts could not be grown on a Petri dish. Deadly nosocomial pathogen C.diff was named difficile for this very reason. They seem to have set up a micro-aerophilic (low oxygen) environment enriched with stable rare isotopes of essential organic atoms 13C and 15N and found that these isotopes are taken up and incorporated by the microbes. Furthermore the microbial cell count, after a slow start, increased by up to 4 orders of magnitude, within 68 days of the start of the experiment. 68? that's not even a whole number of weeks or months. When I see those sort of numbers, I am alert for the possibility that someone is cherry-picking the data to get the most exciting outcome. A similar concern has dissed claims by covid-19 antibody test producers that they are 100% accurate . . . in the 8 patients which were tested 17 or 43 days after infection [BBC listen now, 'tis bri'nt].

They have been able to separate out single microbial cells grow them up in the lab and sequence their 16S RNA, which allows these antient bacteria to be slotted into the Tree of Life by comparing their 16S sequences to known bacteria. That's where the diversity list in the penultimate bullet [above] comes from. These bacteria have been living in tiny pores in these clay sediments, only a tiny fraction of the revivified bacteria come from phylogenetic groups in which spore formation is characteristic. Jaysus, what a life! It's like living out the endless days in a dark coffin deep in the earth, if these poor microbes ever got an itch, they haven't been able to turn around to scratch it. Nevertheless, and to bring this essay full circle: "There are more [ways of making a living] in Heaven and [beneath the] Earth, Bobatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy".

Thursday 30 July 2020

On the hillside

The Blackstairs Farming Futures BFF, Knockroe Division, are under starters orders to get out on the hill and start meithealing away together. Lockdown has put a damper on the project through to the end of June. It's all part of a cunning plan Pilot Study to see if we can't make a better fist of managing Ireland's uplands. Last Sunday 19th July, 6 of us went up the hill to find areas of heather "suitable for burning". In my book NO area is suitable for burning because by turning the above-ground parts of plants into carbon-dioxide you are sending irreplaceable micro-nutrients in a great black plume into the next county. But I am in a minority of One on that. So like Lyndon Johnson on the hideous Edgar Hoover, it seemed better to be inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in: boycotting the procedure will deprive me of agency in influencing the process.

One sub-text of the BFF project is to promote community by incentivising neighbours to talk to each other and work together. That's been a roaring success, especially for blow-ins like us. I hope the neighbours have seen that, despite the funny accents and the Birkenstocks, we are within the normal range . . . and not above getting dirty and wet while cleaning out the drains. There we were following a sheep-path across the face of the hill when I saw a huge umber moth about 5cm across [R slightly less than life size]. I know nothing about lepidoptera beyond that butterflies have bobbles on the end of their antennae and moths don't. So I referred ID to Angus Tyner: tree-hugger; fell-runner; naturalist; mothista; but I heard nothing probably because my email records are, like me,  old. And also to Des Higgins [bloboprevs]: who affirmed that it is an oak eggar Lasiocampa quercus or rather Northern eggar, the morph typically found in Ireland. The common name and the quercus is from the resemblance of its cocoon to an acorn. I was, of course, delighted to see the thing itself up close and to get a name; with a [Latin] name you can tap into the combined knowledge of hundreds of naturalists. And because I've got GPS coordinates on my camera, I can probably find the moth again.

On our expedition to identify areas of leggy heather of about half a hectare in extent, we were not communicating terribly well. The two who are real shepherds and spend a lot of time on the hill looking at, and for, sheep, yomped off up a sheep-path and the rest of us struggled after them. It was a 4-limb scramble in parts with the ever-present danger of a leg disappearing down a hole between two rocks. One of my neighbours, faced by another near-vertical obstacle, tossed her water-bottle to the ground to free up both hands. I could have offered to carry the bottle in my ruck-sack; I could have gone back the few feet and picked it up; I could have chid her for littering. But it didn't seem worth getting on a better-than-thou-sister hobby-horse over a plastic bottle. So we all went on . . . until we didn't. Eventually, the distance between the two shepherd-yompers and us 4 clompers extended beyond shouting distance and we paused [again] to admire the view. And after a short while, turned for home: we were two hours out; it was almost getting dark; and was that a rain-cloud incommming?
Score. Lost 1 bottle : Found 1 Oak Eggar

Wednesday 29 July 2020


The Boy sent me a book, I don't know where it started but someone handed it to UPS and it has disappeared into the Black Hole of their web-of-shelob.  It started on its journey on Monday 20th July 2020. Thereafter it was acknowledged by UPS:
Tues 21-07-20 9:39 United Kingdom Label Created
Tue 21-07-20 20:30 Bristol, UK Shipped
Tue 21-07-20 22:27 Tamworth, UK Arrived at Facility
Wed 22-07-20 7:35 Tamworth, UK Departed from Facility
Wed 22-07-20 19:00 Finglas, IE Arrived at Facility
Thu 23-07-20 3:00 Finglas, IE Departed from Facility
Thu 23-07-20 8:54 Waterford, IE The address is incomplete
Thu 23-07-20 16:12 Gave them Eircode Change is in progress. 
Fri 24-07-20 2:00 Waterford, IE Arrived at Facility
Fri 24-07-20 9:00 Waterford, IEDelivery by end of day
Mon 27-07-20 9:00 Waterford, IE Delivery by end of day
UPS is a vast international organisation they will ship a terracotta warrior or a skunk's head [it's the rabies testing innit?] from anywhere in the World to anywhere else. So long as you have an 18 digit tracking number you can find out where your package is. That's so long as everything goes to plan.  All bets are off if things are the least bit difficult.

Some time between 23-07-20 3:00 Finglas and 23-07-20 08:54 Waterford, my parcel was at perihelion to where it wanted to finish up. But it whooshed past at full Doppler . . .receding towards Waterford. Later that day it went for a jaunt through the next county.  Being in the wrong county, it never arrived here. That's when I first phoned the customer service line. I spoke the tracking number to their robot and s/he [sounded like a shebot] repeated it back to me, so I know their system had captured it. Eventually I got through to a real person [sounded Irish] but I had to repeat my tracking number >arrrgh<. I offered my Eircode, and he took it but was told that UPS marched to a different drummer; using Eircodes only as a last resort. Eircode was and is a huge boondoggle but it's a nationally rolled out boondoggle that is now seamlessly linked to, say, Google maps.

Friday 24/07 UPS.COM promised us delivery by the end of the day.
Monday 27/07 UPS.COM promised us delivery by the end of the day.
Tuesday 28/07 it was "Your package has arrived at a local UPS location and is still being processed for delivery." So I phoned again, got my tracking number bot-registered but had to say it again to the human operative [sounded Bangalore, female] but when she asked me to repeat the number, I hung up.  Richard Feynman has a story about getting paid an honorarium for doing a bit of public speaking. He said he'd accept but only on condition he'd only have to sign his name 13 times. But the necessary bureaucracy required . . . 14 signatures!  So massive moderate fail UPS!

STOP PRESS: the parcel is now 160km N of Waterford back in UPS Sorting:
In Transit 29/07/2020 6:20 Finglas
Another fly-past expected this morning . . .

Tuesday 28 July 2020


Years ago, passing through Mountrath, Queen's County, I saw a clatter of half whiskey barrels outside the junk-yard second-hand furniture emporium. I stopped, jumped out of the car, and made them an offer they didn't refuse. I think that year it became a birthday present for The Beloved, who likes old round things made of wood. [For a while she said she'd use my skull (old roundish mostly wood) as an ink-stand, if I predeceased her.]. The barrel was intended as a planter, (too big for an ink-stand) but I don't think it ever served in that capacity. When we put up the poly-tunnel, however, it was recruited as a rain-catcher at one end of the up-slope gutters. The wonderful thing about oak barrels is that they are water-tight so long as they are wet on the inside but get leaky if there is a long drought. In long dry summer of 2018, I had to keep splashing in precious water to stop cracks appearing between the staves.

Wooden barrels, of all sizes, used to be very widely used for storage and transport but their use is getting more niche [mainly in the booze trade] as blue polythene "herring-barrels" replace them: lighter, cheaper, cleanabler. Plastic barrels, as petrochemical by-products, are just extruded so the factory has a very low wage-bill and the material costs are artificially low because nobody taxes "unsustainability".  Cooperages, otoh, although they do use machinery, also employ a lot of crafts-people to shave the staves, assemble the barrels, whack on the hoops, fire up the insides, drill holes for spigots, make the end roundels and force them into their grooves.
What sizes are barrels?  For that we refer [again] to Pendlebury's New School Arithmetic (1924). Last time I took a gander at weights and linear measures. That could do most people, for most daily work, most of the time. But for some substances (liquids especially) weight is not so handy because the container needs to be factored in: so a series of defined volume measures are used.
  • Imperial measure
  • [a pub measure in England is a mean 1/6th gill: in Ireland a liberal-handed 1/4 gill]
    • 5 fluid ounces = 1 gill
    • 4 gills = 1 pint ("a pint of pure water weighs a pound and a quarter")
    • 2 pints = 1 quart 
    • 4 quarts = 1 gallon (about 4.5lt)
  • Not to be confused with US 'customary' measure in which a pint weighs a pound
    • 4 fl.oz = 1 gill
    • 4 gills = 1 pint
    • 2 pints = 1 quart [which is conveniently close to 1 litre]
    • 4 quarts = 1 gallon (so a US gallon is about 4 lt) 
  • Above those domestic quantities there a range of medieval-sounding larger containers
    • 9 gallons = 1 firkin
    • 18 gallons = 1 kilderkin
    • 36 gallons = 1 barrel
    • 54 gallons = 1 hogshead
    • 108 gallons = 1 butt
    • 216 gallons = 6 barrels = 1 pipe
A kilderkin weighs about the same as me: so if you are reasonably fit, you can lift a kilderkin but you can't carry it from breakfast to lunchtime. And a pipe weighs about a ton. Indeed a tun is another measure of liquids, variously defined but often a little bigger than a 'pipe'.

At the bottom of the page in Pendlebury which deals with Measures of capacity - British and Metric, there is this gnomic statement:
A gallon contains 277.274 cubic inches: 
hence a cubic foot of pure water 
weighs very nearly 1000 ounces. 
I like the "hence" which implies that the calculation is obvious to all thinking people. Earlier they helpfully tell you that 1728 cubic inches make 1 cubic foot.  Ans: 1 cu.ft = 997.14 fl.oz.
Every day, and in every way, metric measures are just easier,

Monday 27 July 2020

Revising the revisionists

Statues are potent political symbols, not least because they are not usually installed behind the bike-sheds but rather in the centre of town where everyone can see them; often upon a durty great plinth so they can be seen better . . . the plinth also stops gurriers climbing on the horse and so aspiring to greatness in their turn. Andrew Carnegie [bloborecent] started on $1.20 as a 13 y.o. bobbin boy in a cotton mill and retired on his money richer in real terms than Jeff Bezos will ever be. If life was black & white, our moral and ethical stances would be a lot easier: Hitler [prev Irish connexion] = Bad; Mother Theresa [prev Irish connexion] = Good. But when people, like Edward Colston or Andrew Carnegie, were both rapacious capitalists and generous philanthropists we are forced to reconsider our smug certainties.  No patriarch has a greater desire than me to big up women - in science, in history, [Hanna Reitsch] in politics [Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović - Vigdís Finnbogadóttir] in the future.  The statue at the head of this Blob is right opposite the British Houses of Parliament in the grounds of St Thomas's Hospital, Westminster. It is of a woman (it's the skirts silly); it's on hospital property because Mary Seacole was a nurse; that hospital so that she would perpetual reminder to The Man that you can't keep a good woman down. Bronze, as opposed to white Carrara marble, is appropriate because as well as being a nurse, "Mother" Seacole was [¼ if you care about detail] black. So much, so certain.

But it's like “Eskimos Have Fifty Words for Snow” is an amazing phrase, because every word in it is wrong. Mary Seacole was neither a mother, nor a nurse, nor black. And insofar as she "bought cheap and sold dear" in her various business ventures, she was as much a capitalist as Colston and Carnegie. But we gotta have some affirmative action on the street-scape if we're going to see tribs to folk other than white male soldiers and politicians. Let's look at the several claims.

If by "black" you refer to anybody with a touch of the tar-brush, then everyone is black if you go back far enough. Not very far in the case of my children, one of whose eight great-great-grandmothers was authentico africano but Dau.I the Librarian is the only one who catches comment because she's a) at the front desk b) tans well and c) has super curly dark hair. Her brother and sister pass no problem for white which indicates just how fatuous the whole concept is. Today's hero was born Mary Jane Grant in 1805: offspring of a Jamaican "doctress" aka herbalist, midwife, hygienist, healer and Lt James Grant, a Scots army officer. There is no mention of the mother's name and it's likely that Mrs. was a courtesy title. Mary Grant was happy in her own skin, called herself creole and was proud of both threads of her chromosomes. In her 30s she married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole perhaps an illegitimate son of Admiral Nelson [woot woot Irish connexion alert] . . .

. . . who died within a decade and there is no mention that the union was blessed with children. It is, therefore another courtesy title when the "Hotel" she established in 1855 between Balaklava and Sevastopol was known as Mother Seacole's. She had applied through official channels to ship out to Crimea (did I mention there was a War on? and Florence Nightingale [Bloboprev] was recruiting nurses /orderlies). But The Man wouldn't entertain her application, so Seacole shipped out on her own nickel. She rocked up in Balaklava with a pile of  'stores' with the intention of providing some infra-structural support to the British and French armies. She and her business partner scavenged, begged, half-inched and accumulated the matériel to build the 'hotel' which was really a sort of general store and bar; familiar in any and every small town or village in Ireland. In O'Shea's of Borris you can [or could] buy a pint of plain, a packet of crisps, a pair of gumboots, a lump-hammer and a 25kg bag of chicken feed all the while watching the rugger on the telly. Mother Seacole's would sell anything from a needle to an anchor and a tot of rum too. Reading between the lines, the whiff of alcohol was at least as much a cause-for-pause among regular Victorian folk as the shade Mrs. Seacole's skin.

But the reason for the statue in Westminster is nothing to with running a shebeen in the Crimean War, it's because Mary Seacole was a nurse in the Crimean War . . . overshadowed by Florence Nightingale's over-bright lamp and so quite unfairly written out of history. And the subtext is . . . because she black. Seacole was a bit of a celeb after her Crimean escapades: she got to know a lot of really influential people in adverse circumstances and they bailed here out later when her business ventures went belly up. After she died in 1881, the details of her contribution faded from the collective memory, school text-books and the newspapers. 100 years later, the revisionists started to polish her reputation and with the turn of the current century the Rehabilitate Seacole Campaign acquired legs and raised £500,000 to de-invisible her. In 2013, the transport charity Sustrans sponsored lacy steel sculptures of Seacole, Alan Turing and Paddington Bear (august company indeed) near Paddington Station in London.  But the contemporary evidence that Seacole was any sort of a nurse in Crimea is patchy at best and this disconnect has exercised Canadian biographer and anthropologist Lynn McDonald in two papers 2016 & 2013.  The evidence is that on 18th June, 16th August and 8th September 1855, Mrs. Seacole sold a load of refreshments to battle-field spectators and then provided first aid to the wounded. Nobody questions that Mrs Seacole was compassionate, generous and not totally driven by money. But there's more to a nursing qualification than doing your bit in a crisis. By that criterion my pal Michael Farrell is a nurse because as a young squaddie in the army he was on hand after the 1974 Talbot Street bomb and I'm a nurse because I saved a fat lady from going under in the swimming pool in 2003.

As the nursing and caring professions are disproportionately filled with female POC and knowing that is not going to change anytime soon, then young women who cannot "pass for white" will need role models and exemplars to look at and aspire to become. But Mary Seacole, while colourful, is a lazy-arsed choice in that department. And it is invidious to make an adverse comparison with Florence Nightingale who really was a giant in the second half of the 19thC: not only for inventing and organising an effective system of nursing care for wounded and diseased soldiery but also for having a really good understanding of the importance of gathering, collating and mobilising data to better inform epidemiological and nursing practice. It's 70 years since Windrush Generation nurses started to arrive in Britain from Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados: surely some of them gave a lifetime of brilliant, thankless, stirling work in British hospitals. What about a statue to one of them?

Sunday 26 July 2020

Miscellany for you

None of these are Irish; some are worth a gander; ymmv

Saturday 25 July 2020

Context, streetscape, revisionism

Toppling statues, in Bristol and elsewhere, has been flavour-of-the-month for Black Lives Matter. It behooves us all to scrutinise the whole lives of the heroes of our streetscapes and adjust our appreciation accordingly. Take Andrew Carnegie, for example, he started from nothing, emigrated to America and became a multi-millionaire steel magnate, philanthropist and golfer. In 1901, at the age of 66, he sold all his steel holdings to JP Morgan for $303,450,000 or  for $480,000,000 and retired on his money [what's $180million between sources?].  There are only so many yachts and mansions that you can use and Carnegie spent the last 18 years of his life endowing public libraries in Scotland and elsewhere in the English speaking world including more than 60 in Ireland . . . and Carnegie Hall in NYC! What's not to like about that?

Well the back-story is that one of the first libraries built with Carnegie money was constructed in Johnstown, PA in 1889 after the original building was swept away in a disastrous flood which killed 2,000 people. Carnegie Catechism:
  • What was the cause of the flood? 
    • A failed dam on the South Fork of the Little Conemaugh River. 
  • And who built the dam?
    • South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club
  • And who owned the SFFHC?
    • Fifty local magnates including Andrew Carnegie
Carnegie was able to become, briefly, the richest man on the planet because he was the Jeff Bezos of his day. Reducing the cost of production to the lowest possible level by increasing mechanisation but also by shaving wages to the bone. That was instrumental in the polarization of labour relations as the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (the AA) moved in to get a better deal for the workers. Depending on your view-point this culminated in the Homestead Strike / Homestead Lock-out / Homestead Massacre of July 1893. Should we bulldoze those libraries, because they were built with blood-money?

Friday 24 July 2020

Invasive white teeth

Monday 0700 hrs, sunny morning, one lonely orange to be eaten; so I threw a cushion on the stoop and started to peel my breakfast. My eye-sight is getting quite degenerate but I don't need glasses to peel an orange. As I looked the day, I saw a bit of fluff on the flagstone at my feet which, turned over became a shrew. I not a real biologist; they can name a tree to species from its winter silhouette, and have an inventory of the 100 commonest birds and butterflies in the country. But I know the difference between shrew and mouse. ID is easy for Ireland because there's only one species of native Irish shrew Sorex minutus, which is the smallest mammal of which we know on this island.

Or that's how it was when I was in college. Since 2007 another much larger, though still much smaller than a bread-box!, shrew Crocidura russula has been introduced and is spreading rapidly through the countryside. I think that's what we have here:
although it is a bit edgy because I only have a single datum and no comparators. Sorex minutus weighs less than 6g has red-tipped teeth, inconspicuous ears and a long hairy tail; while Crocidura russula (greater white-toothed shrew) is 3x bigger, white teeth, prominent ears, long white hairs on the tail. But my lad weighed in at 7g and it wasn't until I put the corpse on a black background that I was able to twig the white hairs sticking out on either side of the tail. I think I must have a juvenile Crocidura russula which is the Occam's razor way of reconciling the inconsistent weight data. What's a prominent ear, FFS? My ears? A jackrabbit's? Elephant's?

Anyway I've grassed myself up to the National Biodiversity Centre in Waterford, and if a) they're not on Summer hols b) they care; then they will get back to me about the species. The bigger shrews are spreading rapidly through the country at the rate of 5km a year (which is a long walk for a small chap to find a mate) and displacing their smaller cousins wherever they get established. It's going to be like the retreat of red squirrels Sciuris vulgaris in the face of Sciurus carolinensis which is American: greyer, bigger and more competitive.

Note to self: do not leave dead insectivores, no matter how small, in the sun on the black cover of your field notebook . . . unless you want little, sticky, sicky puddles at each end.

Thursday 23 July 2020

Doing right or right doing?

Both ideally . . . but if you had to choose? Two pop-ups on the racism front have set me to thinking about this difficulty.  To expand with two different framings:
  • choosing between getting the task done or getting the optics right 
  • choosing between getting the task done in way that's inclusive
The two triggers
  1. A paper in PLOS Computational Biology in their long 10 Simple Rules series Ten simple rules for building an anti-racist lab by Bala Chaudhary and Asmeret Asefaw Berhe. Many of these 10-themed papers have been authored by Philip Bourne including the self-referential Ten Simple Rules for Writing a PLOS Ten Simple Rules Article. The anti-racist rules paper is under review. It lists a number of things that lab PIs can do to either salve their right-on conscience or do something useful to stop being a racist dick in daily life in science.  Dr Bourne has recused himself from this project possibly because  He White  [R notice the choice of B&W photo; I couldn't get more self-referential if I wrote each sentence twice I wrote each sentence twice)  [MeFi comments]
    • Not every patriarch is able to stand down when there is an opportunity to speak up: they [errrm we] are used to holding the mic and dominating the podium. As Dau.I the Radical pointed out Harrumph, if that young feller wanted to make a stand against sexism in science, then, rather than sounding off as a SWM PI, he could recuse himself and ask a female colleague to give the career-advice holiday pep-talk.
  2. MSF Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders have been washing their implicit racism in public. [MeFi comments] with 1,000 of their operatives signing an open letter acknowledging that "white doctor saves back babies" is endemic in the organisation; local  operatives are paid buttons while the ex-pat doctors get 4x4s; dusky Northern docs really don't have parity of esteem.
I don't think we need much editorial on these matters, except to say that my heart sank as I scanned through the list of 10: so much to do before we get down to The Science! It's like my Ethics is Hard revelation that there is more to biomedical ethics than a a good heart and common sense. Rule 1: Lead informed discussions about anti-racism in your lab regularly: yes yes, once a year will be regular enough!! We have to get statistical significance dinned into everyone's head . . . and absolutely clean behaviour in the tissue culture room (not so much the centrifuge) . . . and explicit hypothesis framing . . . and who's making cookies next week  . . . and . . . and . . .
20+ years ago, we were founder members of what became the Home Education Network HEN. One Sunday every month through 1999 we packed our two small children into the car and drove 110km to a Scout Hut in Greystones to thrash out a coherent response to the Government's plans to regulate and control truancy Home Education. HEN was, and is, a broad church. There were some very floaty skirts in the room, lots of Birkenstocks; children called Aragorn;  it was my first encounter with rice-cakes. There was A Lot to do setting up an organisation, starting a newsletter, recruiting members, drafting policy, encouraging our children to play nicely, identifying sympathetic politicians, raising a bit of money, setting a date for the first annual meeting and sourcing a venue. It was different from my professional experience: there was to be not Chair and Secretary but rather a Facilitator and Scribe. That was okay in a, like whatevs, nice folksie way of sorting the optics. I often found myself sitting beside the only other bloke in the room who worked in a professional capacity in biomedicine because there was comfortable common ground there.

After we'd swallowed Facilitator and Scribe we were asked to adopt Consensus Decision Making as the modus operandi for our group. [Bob thinks; whoa! Woo-Wah alert]. But it sounds great:
"Consensus decision making is a creative and dynamic way of reaching agreement between all members of a group. Instead of simply voting for an item and having the majority of the group getting their way, a group using consensus is committed to finding solutions that everyone actively supports, or at least can live with." What's not to like about that??  But it's like ethics, invisible racism, unconsidered sexism . . . it's hard to achieve those clearly desirable outcomes. The advocate of CDM assured us that it would be easy: "I propose that we devote the next three monthly meetings to sorting out the group dynamics through CDM . . .".
Nooooooo! We have tasks, we have things To Do, a potentially adverse legislation Express is rushing down the tracks at our little homely caboose. We can't be fannying about here. In the end we adopted Facilitator and Scribe but we parked what they actually represented and got on with Business.  No regrets on that one: it was a fair compromise between doing the right thing and doing it in the right way. I do so try to be aware of the unconscious bias in my patriarchal thoughts and deeds.

Wednesday 22 July 2020

Dead don't hang about

I follow a retired academic from Minnesota who blogs about butterflies and other things at tywkiwdbi. The signal to noise ratio there is better than large swathes of the blogosphere. Last week he cited a study about a holocaust [lightning strike in August 2016] of reindeer in Norway and who stood to benefit. The original study is one of several papers documenting the effects of leaving 300 Rangifer tarandus carcasses in place and seeing what happened.  Well, not the whole body, the heads were all removed and shipped to the state path lab to be screened for chronic wasting disease which I've been intending to write about for the last several months.

We have quite a lot of experience with the decomposition of artiodactyl carcasses because we're soft-hearted about offing our aged sheep. Possibly to avoid setting a precedent and finding our aged selves getting sent for thanatization as unproductive mouths surplus to requirements. We put a lot of back into burying the dead sheep until one of our neighbours confessed that he left them where they fell; finding that the foxes and crows cleaned them up in a remarkably short period of time. For a couple of years we carted the dead off to a secluded corner where the vulpine deconstruction could be carried out in peace. After the foot-and-mouth debacle of 2001, all Irish sheep had to be ear-tagged and accounted for; so now we have to call the local 'fallen animal man' and pay €30 to have him render the remains into GreyPak supermarket own-brand sausages.

Meanwhile back in Norway, the local meat bonanza on this remote section of birch and heather tundra was noticed and exploited by a variety of carnivores including raven Corvus corax, hooded crow C. cornix, golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos, red fox Vulpes vulpes and arctic fox V. lagopus [not Alopex no more] and wolverine Gulo gulo. You may be sure that there was a pecking order here: the top carnivores would be quite happy to eat crow. The main point of the Royal Society paper here considered is that rodents [root vole Microtus oeconomus, lemming Lemmus lemmus, bank vole Myodes glareolus, field vole Microtus agrestis and the grey red-backed vole Myodes rufocanus] steered clear of the site through 2017 and only returned the following year after the Big Boys had stripped the bones and dispersed.

Although these vertebrates are the most obvious beneficiaries / agents / actors in the process, it is important to acknowledge the importance of bacteria and fungi in the process: the stage names give clues about this activity - fresh - bloat - active decay - advanced decay - dry decay. Ligaments, hooves, bones, hair all persist long after the wobbly bits have gone. You might keep your eeeeuuw reflexes under control to view [smell-free!!] this clip from A Zed and Two Noughts the colourful and deeply peculiar film by Peter Greenaway scored by Michael Nyman. It's 2 minutes long and shows various corpses, from Apple to Zebra in busy-busy time-lapse, decomposing to Nyman's composing [Nyman & Greenaway bloboprev].

In an earlier study the same research group found that "scavengers direct seed dispersal towards ungulate carcasses",  they were particularly interested to find viable crowberry Empetrum nigrum [L] seeds from crow splat on and around the cadavers. It's hard for crowberry to get a start in the niche-filled natural ecosystem: the shoot has to fight up through the moss and heather to get enough light to photosynthesis. A gert big reindeer body, otoh, squashes the local plants and deprives them of light for several weeks and this levels the playing field for crowberry and other minority species. Who else benefits from the change in the local landscape? Meadow pipit Anthus pratensis for starters: they were observed picking off the blow-fly Lucilla sericata etc. larvae for dinner.

Tuesday 21 July 2020

The big chap

 The Cerne Giant [L above] is on a hillside two villages over from where my parents lived in Dorset. His todger is 10m long and his club even longer. There have, of course ,been rumours that IF you desire to fall pregnant THEN visiting himself at night will help things along . . . you have to lie with a a real man as well; we're not talking about miraculous conception here.  Recently, some enterprising prankster added a contemporary mask to the big feller's face.

On a more historical front, National Trust archaeologists have recently put an 'earliest possible' construction date on the Cerne Giant. It's a dynamic structure, if everyone just left him alone then the grass and forbs would inevitably eat into the crisp white outline and in a generation there would be virtually nothing to see here. In 2019 a team of local volunteers hammered 17 tonnes of chalk into the white bits to make him all bright again. They do this every 10 years or so. While the labourers were doing the heavy lifting, the archaeologists went with their tooth-brushes to look at the interface between giant-work and bed-rock. There they revealed long dead shells of the vineyard snail Cernuella virgata, apparently crushed by the initial excavations.  But C. virgata is a blow in from continental Europe and was unknown in England before 1300.  The first written record of the Cerne Giant is in 1694.  It is thus much more likely that the picture started as a satire against Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) than that it was subject to neolithic fertility caperings.

Monday 20 July 2020

The trumpets shall sound

I went to a lockdown garHaHaHaden party on Saturday arvo. It was pretty weird, of course, trying to maintain a semblance of physical distancing while catching up with the crew I worked with during the 00s. Everyone really needed a hug but nobody was getting one. The ostensible reason for the knees-up was that  we were all moving on. One couple was off the Middle East; someone else was going back to Cambridge MA [code for Harvard]; another was coming out of maternity leave; and another was returning to UCD as a Professor and Senior Fellow; . . . and me of course: I R retire!

Without a great deal of evidence, two of the no-longer-quite-youngsters were saying that I was a great teacher and asking what was the key to that success. I was caught a bit wrong-footed by this tribute, but I fluffed something about supervising several dozen final year research projects over the last seven year. The students involved had a very wide range of abilities from our very best to the walking wounded. But I'd like to think that everybody involved, including notably myself, got something out the process. As the project is allocated a nominal 180 contact hours over the 30 week teaching year, you'd better hope that it wasn't a total busted flush!  The self-starting highly motivated kids didn't need any help: just an occasional nudge to get them back on track. And everyone has an existential crisis at some stage in the developing project: so there will be a bit of judicious buttering and sometimes a metaphorical knee firmly in the base of the spine to get them to stand a bit prouder of what they'd achieved. And the weaker students, some of them quite damaged, some of them bone idle and none of them knowing much? Well they were swept forward with the same philosophy I applied to Dau.I and Dau.II when they were educating themselves at home. And one thing that works is to listen to what the kids have to say; rather than steaming through with my own narrative. It takes dollop of humility to acknowledge that teacher don't know everything and that everyone knows something that you don't and you can always learn. What you learn might be nothing to do with science but might be about courage, resilience and compassion. It was only by giving space on the floor that I encountered someone who had milked a camel.

That talk about getting people to fulfill their potential  . . . and a little bit more, led inevitably to our boss by whom we'd all been mentored and for whom we engineered a national prize for getting the best out of her human resources.

But with l'esprit d'escalier driving home that evening, I expanded on the idea that teacher not knowing everything is a really important part of allowing students to have agency it their own learning. IF you can't be told what the answer is, or you can't work it out from teachers unconscious clues, THEN you have to find out for yourself. It was definitely like this when they asked me to teach second year physics: I knew far less than the students - who had the benefit of passing 1st year physics which I had conspicuously failed to do in high school. But it was the most tremendous fun finding out what the answers were.

As I prepare to leave the stage, I'm convinced that the content of most lectures is the least important part of the process. If think about it, what is the point of telling anyone something that can be found out in 3 minutes on Wikipedia? Coronarama will be an opportunity for many of us to stop lecturing like we're the Oracle and the other people in the room are tasked to take notes. It will be much more rewarding to make everyone in the room think about what the key issues are and use those deliberations to reflect on what we collectively need to discover to address those key issues. What the teacher knows might be part of that; but it's not the whole answer and it's going to be goddamn boring if the teacher is merely chanelling the certainties of their own teachers . . . and so recursively back to . , , Aristotle, Boyle, Charles, Dalton or one of the boys (it was mostly boys) who actually found out what the answer was.

Sunday 19 July 2020

Shipboard Sunday

Ahoy me hearties

Saturday 18 July 2020

wool waste

We lost a sheep at the beginning of July. Dau.II was home for her first home visit since Marmalade weekend at the very end of February. It would be more accurate to say that, while looking for apples, she 'found' a sheep that had expired in a quiet corner of the field. The fallen animal guy is now charging a mighty €30 for the call out on top of the €30 for EU-compliant disposal. That's a big increase from €35 all in back in 2017. It was definitely worth our while to deliver the carcass (double-bagged) to the rendering yard in the back of my Red Yaris (windows double-open). On the way home The Beloved offered to buy me an ice-cream! The very next day, I was counting the sheep, found I was one short and, casting about, saw two legs sticking up behind a stand of rushes. As I approached, with sinking heart, Lady Bracknell echoed in my ears "To lose one sheep, Bob, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness".  But it was okay, the misfortunate beast was merely 'backed' and, on righting, gallopped off to join her rellies. Getting backed is a condition when, with a full wet fleece and an unlucky lie of the land, the sheep rolls over onto her back and cannot struggle upright again. By midnight she will be fox-food. That's one reason why real shepherds go out to look the sheep several times a day. After the long dry Spring, the warm drizzle of late June meant that fly-strike was increasingly likely

Anyway, it was clearly time to call Paddy-the-Clip and have him shear the sheep ASAP. He's a pillar of our community and shears across three counties. He's also our nearest neighbour across the mountain (the journey [map R] is about 3x longer by road) and has been right neighbourly in the matter of sheep maintenance. Not least in the fact that he'll come to us and set up his rig to shear a few handfuls of sheep when on another day he might get paid for de-fleecing 300-400 sheep. Since my thumbs started going weird, I can no longer be trusted as efficient sheep-catcher at shearing and have been politely asked to keep out of the way. That means more work for Paddy but does mean that he isn't bent double all the time and can stretch his back between sheep. And with Coronarama we can't even give him his dinner. Getting the sheep all bald was really good news for them (two were getting the beginning of maggoty) and us. The bad news is that the World Wool Market effectively closed in February. Paddy told us a risibly low price was being offered at the local Agri-Coop - I heard 15c/kg but may have been mistaken. Whatever it is well down from €1/kg for 2016, let alone €1.45/kg in the heady days of 2015. Shearing alone costs about 50c/kg. Last year it was the same, so now we have two cu.m. of close packed wool waiting for the market to recover.

This is crazy because there is at least one Irish company selling sheep wool for thermal and acoustic insulation at €8/kg in convenient 100 or 150 mm thick rolls. More power to them of course, because adding value is the only way forward in agri-business whether it's productifying fleece or making ice-cream or cheese from milk.

Friday 17 July 2020

Wild colonial boy

That would be Chinua Achebe. I've just finished a book of his essays and talks The Education of a British Protected Child. It was published in 2009, although the chapters are all, with one exception, from the previous century. It is a bit repetitive, because it's easier to "edit" such a book by clagging a bunch of stuff in unchanged rather than reordering the material and deleting the duplicate anecdotes. That sounds petty and pedantic but it matters because it looks like the old chap had a rather limited number of original ideas and tended to rechurn them for different invitational events.  He was 30 when Nigeria achieved independence from Britain in 1960. He was an Igbo from the Eastern part of the country and one of the first graduates of the University of Nigeria at Ibadan. His first and best book Things Fall Apart 1958, established his reputation as an African man of letters and he worked for several years after independence for the National Radio Broadcasting service.

Nigeria existed as a colony because the Brits didn't recognise black people as individuals; just generic units who lived within borders that were agreed in London, Paris and Berlin. There are 500 different languages spoken and an ingrained tension in the fact that Islam holds sway in the North but various Christian sects got in there first, with missions, hymns and converts, nearer the coast. In Ireland everyone speaks the same language and until recently almost everyone was Christian but that hasn't stopped pogroms, civil war, ignorance and intolerance since the foundation of the state 100 years ago.

The Beloved and all but one of her sibs was born in Kano, Northern Nigeria. In 1953, a riot erupted between the ethnic Hausa, the local Northerners mainly opposed to independence and the Igbo and Yoruba from the South who were agitating for independence now. It was May and most of the family had gone out in the bush for a picnic and swim. The Beloved's Auntie Margot, then 17, was feeling crook so elected to stay at home.  A mob burst into the family compound looking the William, the family's Igbo cook.  They paused when they saw Margot, whom they all knew by name, at the front door and demanded that she turn over the poor Southerner. Margot's response was to ask them to wait while she went inside. She re-appeared with her father's double-barrelled shot-gun and invited them to leave the compound because it wasn't going to end well for at least two of them if they stayed. 50 people met a violent end that weekend, but not William.

Nigeria lasted just six years before democracy was replaced by a military coup, then a counter-coup and the secession of the Eastern, primarily Igbo, Region from the Federation to set up the Republic of Biafra in 1967. I was 13 at the time and watched the bloody civil war to restore the Federation unfold on the television over the next two and a half years. The Federal junta, led by General Gowan were supported by the British government as they blockaded the Igbos and other Easterners in Biafra and relentlessly squeezed the life out of the secessionists. Chinua Achebe had left his radio job and Lagos to bring his family to the ethnic safety of Biafra. The Achebes all survived, although 2 million people died, most of them small children, mostly from starvation and the diseases attendant. Médecins Sans Frontières was founded during this conflict.

The picture [L] by Thomas Gainsborough is of Ignatius Sancho (1930-1789) acknowledged by Achebe as one of the few pictures that recognised the humanity of people of tan, rather than treating them as specimens for consideration. That's 250 years ago and the respect accorded to Sancho, greengrocer, author and friend of the Great and the Good is notable for its exceptionalism. Most black people were othered as inherently inferior if not actually enslaved for 100 or 200 years depending on how you work your definitions. Achebe gives a telling example of how even in his time, and ours, black people are treated to different levels of dignity and respect. He cites a PBS/BBC documentary about sex and reproduction in the animal world. Daringly, the directorial team decided, as the final scene, to film a birth in a London maternity hospital. Nobody noticed, or nobody cared, that everybody in the room, cameraman, key-grip, best-boy, director, midwife, obstetrician was white but the utterly exposed, labouring, mother-in-progress is from Ghana. It was a good long while before white women could be filmed giving birth on national television.

Thursday 16 July 2020

The camera lies

The Beloved and I have different last names and sometimes it's easier to admit to being Mr Farmer  rather than pedantically insisting on being Dr Scientist. Maybe especially over the telephone when giving directions for a parcel delivery, for example. There have been a couple of times when a telecalls operative has refused to talk to her because the account was in my name, or vice versa. Effectively the TelOp would engage with anyone who sounded like a man and affirmed that they were me. But The Beloved [everything I own is hers]  is met with a finger-wagging no no no, you can't fool me, you're a woman. People do this all the time: I am sure that a woman-who-sounds-like-a-man gets a little more credence on the wireless; and we're probably pretty good at guessing the age of people whom we can hear but not see. In all these cases we're acting Binary rather than Non-Binary and in 99% of the encounters that probably works fine.

YMMV but, if the answer hadn't been given in the footer, I wouldn't have binned Ken [L]ait in among The Patriarchy. It's okay, Ken Lait does not exist outside of the generative software of a project by MeFista Malevolent.  What Matt "Malevolent" Round has done is scrape the 650 mugshots from the UK parliament and used them to train a neural net to generate Looks Like an MP pictures. You can play with that here. Not only are the faces in some sense mix-and-match; the names of  these MPseuds and their constituencies are as well. It is of course ominous predictable how many of the iterations are well-fed, middle-aged, white dudes. It is also, for me, really edgy just how photo-realistic these artificial constructs are. No surprise, I guess, to people more familiar with video games: photoshop has come a long way! . . . but still has massive fails.

Here's another set of artificial human faces generated with StyleGAN. It is couched in a binary format to decide which of two pictures is real vs fake. I was hopeless at this task: scoring correctly only 1 time in 3 which is less than random. I bet I'd get better if I persisted because guessing-and-feedback is sort of what a neural network is all about. You can educate yourself in the theory of spotting fake-fotos.

Wednesday 15 July 2020


Qibla قِبْلَة‎‎ "direction" is where to face when, as a good muslim, you perform your 5x daily prayers.  Islam is quite forgiving about these matters but all religions have sticklers for precision, believing that if you're off-the-angle for prayer you won't encounter angels when you die. That's okay, religion is not really evidence-based but requires a certain amount of faith. Christians are also traditionally directional. Churches are built facing East (Jerusalem where the Saviour met his untimely end rather than Mecca) and believers are buried feet in the same direction; so that they can sit up when they hear the Last Trump and get the best view of whatever happens at that time.

Today, the sticklers can get all sticky and use a really simple appropriate technology to determine the direction of the Qa'aba [R] in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca. Because Mecca is North of the equator but South of the Tropic of Cancer 23.44°N, there are two times each year when the Sun "culminates" above the Ka'aba 21.42°N just after noon local time and starts to head back towards the horizon. Those days are 27th May and 09:27 UTC 15th July this year. Saudi Arabia Time is 3 hours before Greenwich or UTC (Universal Coordinated Time) as we try to call it now. The Tropics are geographically interesting because at that latitude, the Sun just kisses the line and there is a single moment in the year when the Sun is directly above your head.  If you're North of 23.44°N then this never happens.
IF you plant a vertical stick in a convenient patch of ground where the Sun can be seen ANDIF it's not a miserable drizzly morning like today in Ireland ANDIF the Sun is above the horizon where you live (shucks, sorry all you sleeping North American Muslims) THEN then the shadow of that stick points directly away from the Qa'aba and you've got your fix. This works fine if you are in the same place every day, you just need one good sunny day and you can then use local building corners to orientate your prayer-mat until you have no further use for prayer mats because you've gone to join  the Prophet. Again for Irish people you have to remember that the Government floosters about with the time and we are currently an hour ahead of UTC.  So get your sticks out at 10:27 local clock-time.
If you're a travelling salesperson, or in the merchant marine, the stick solution is not really useful.  But fear not! There's an App for everything. Google's QiblaFinder will sort you out wherever whenever you are. From us the Qibla touches the S corner of my neighbour's barn and passes more-or-less over the [now defunct] Post Office in Kiltealy.

Tuesday 14 July 2020


I don't mind being wrong. Getting caught without pants is an object lesson in not being too snitty, snotty and certain in what I write. But really: twice in a week is making a bit of a pigpen out of  The Blob's signal-to-noise ratio. First I had to eat 'umble pie about my over-ethusiastic support for John Ioannidis' conclusions about the rate of Covid-19 positive in California. I know where that came from: my desire to flag the winner-takes-all way in which Coronarama is causing collateral deaths from undeclared coronary infarctions, and from parking breast-check, cervical screening and bowel-cancer surveys. Let alone my neighbour Liam who went into hospital for a diabetes episode, caught SARS-CoV2 and died with that 'existing condition'.

Then just at the end of last week, I had a go at Sara Baume for talking about anadromous herring: She: " . . . he remarks that there are fish who swim against the current - salmon and herring - who live in the open sea but are compelled to travel back to their rivers and streams to spawn"
Me: WTF!? Anadromous herring would be a first on this planet.

I'm glad my pal P from Massachusetts is a) awake b) reads The Blob c) knows about the alewife Alosa pseudoharengus which runs up many New England and Canadian rivers to spawn. This meant that she could pull me <tsk! tsk!> up on my error: because Alosa pseudoharengus is in the same family as Clupea harengus the Atlantic herring. Then again, fisherfolk have different common names for other [not anadromous] Clupeidae, as I acknowledged by in 2017: There is another species Clupea pallasii in the Pacific and the genus is related to sardines Sardina pilchardus, shad Alosa alosa and menhagen Brevoortia tyrannus all of which are hunted for food. Indeed the family Clupeidae comprises at least 200 named species. Which is all the more reason for using Linnaean binomers even in common discourse so everyone is on the same identification pages. Otherwise we're all Humpty-Dumpty in our discourse and nobody knows what? we're talking about. Bean there before with peas - igloos - fulmar - bergamot - bollixlost in translation . . . mais revenons nous à nos gasperot:
Alewife [some of them above] were fantastically numerous when Europeans arrived in America 500 years ago. Maine lobster-fishers love to bait their pots with alewife partly because they can be scooped from the water by the basket [above]. The end of the Red Line on Boston's MBTA is called Alewife because the station is situated near Alewife Brook a tributary of the Mystic River [cue Van Morrison, why not?]. On toponymy Gaspereau Nova Scotia is named for the runs of Alosa pseudoharengus.

I met P when we were both in graduate school in Boston University in the 1980s. I was looking at the colonial history of New England and the Canadian Maritimes: tracing the waves of French, Dutch and English immigration through the genetic variation of present day domestic cats. It sounds unlikely, but the hypothesis turned out to have a surprising amount of internal consistency. I read a lot of books about 17thC colonial land-settlement, trade, commerce and agricultural practice. I was shocked to find that fish were so abundant that they were used as agricultural fertiliser which seemed completely arseways. A rich amino-acid-balanced source of animal protein, which could have fed the populace, was being used to grow a lysine-deficient sort of protein in corn Zea mays. Maize has to be grown and eaten with beans and squash to achieve a balanced diet. Alewife was particularly prized because it delivered itself inland during the spawning season and so saved on transport costs! As late as the 1880s 200,000 tonnes of fish was being rendered for oil and the dried carcasses being sold for fertiliser every year.

But before we get on our certainty horse to berate the rapacious exploitation of the natural world by The White Man, let's note that the idea of using fish for fertiliser was shared with the Puritans by Squanto their Native North American Liaison Officer NNALO. The local NNA name Munnawhatteaûg corrupted to menhaden, means literally 'fertilizer' (that which manures), "Afterwards they (as many as were able) began to plant ther corne, in which servise Squanto stood them in great stead, showing them both ye maner how to set it, and after how to dress & tend it. Also he tould them excepte they gott fish & set with it (in these old grounds) it would come to nothing, and he showed them yt in ye midle of Aprill they should have store enough come up ye brooke, by which they begane to build, and taught them how to take it, and wher to get other provissions necessary for them; all which they found true by triall & experience".

I had just finished beating <mea clupea mea clupea mea maxima clupea> mea breasta about anadromous alewifes when I picked up My Next Book David Cabot's 1100g weighty Ireland - a natural history. He washed up in Wexford in 1959 to start a BA in Natural History at TCD and never left. He got an Honorary Degree from TCD last year. In his book, he covers two other "herrings" which thrash up Irish rivers to spawn: allis shad Alosa alosa and twaite shad Alosa fallax. The latter is still to be caught at the head of the tide on the river Barrow at St Mullins. Well that was in 2015: maybe not so much now because twaite shad was 'vulnerable' on the 2011 NPWS RedList for Ireland; and the water quality on the Barrow hasn't gotten any better over the last decade. Alosa alosa is common enough in Europe but so rare in Irish waters that Red List labels it "data deficient". And the bottom line: a) there are anadromous herring if you define herring broadly and don't limit it to the kipper herring Clupea harengus, b) I was in error.

Monday 13 July 2020

Thor woz right

One of the formative books of my sub-teen life, along with Triffids, was Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft [Kon-Tiki ekspedisjonen]. The common theme is a self-sufficiency adventure involving a small group of people leaving the civilised masses behind. They made a film of the book a few years ago which was a fair telling of the story; and which we got to see.  I saw a 1:1 replica of Kon-Tiki [the original being destroyed in the climactic crash-landing] when I was teaching in Oslo in the late 90s.

Heyerdahl's theory was that South Americans had travelled across the Pacific to land on RapaNui  hundreds of years before Europeans had arrived to impose their name Easter Island. This outsider's theory was met with harrrmphing immediate dismissal by the anthropological inner circle, including my hero Wade Davis. Why, everyone knew that Polynesians had island-hopped their way from Asia to people pretty much every speck of dry-land in the vast wet stormy expanses of the Pacific Ocean.  Eee, they were quite cross. But distant drums of evidence have been accumulating that at least part of Heyerdahl's thesis is probably true. Chickens went East, sweet-potato Ipomoea went West. Some hold that Ipomoea made it without human help, like floating coconuts, but only Gary Larson could imagine Polynesian chickens in canoes [he hasn't yet].

One of the themes on The Blob is the rolling triumph of DNA evidence in shining light on the history of the world. There is a quiet sense of vindication for me because I spent 10 years of my early scientific life using [present day] genetics to trace the history of colonial migration in the 16thC and 17thC. Sequence analysis has shown that whales are streamlined hippos; there is more than one giraffe;  ditto elephant. The last 25 years has seen really careful lab work coupled with really nifty big-byte software develop a shining signal from really old, really degraded, really noisy, DNA samples. One of the drivers of the rise and focus of spotlight DNA is Dan Bradley at my Alma Mater Genetics TCD; most recently the bus has been in the capable hands of Lara Cassidy who has been revealing where Irish people are buried. At the end of June they were documenting incest and trisomy 23 in the ruling classes of Neolithic Ireland 5,000 years ago. The incest was revealed by showing longer chunks of similar DNA sequence than you'd expect if Mammy and Dad were unrelated.
Now, on the other side of the World, analysis of DNA extracted from present day inhabitants of Europe, South America and Polynesia is firming up the foundations [N&V] for Westwards travel in the Pacific. Title says it all: Native South Americans were early inhabitants of Polynesia. Heyerdahl's expedition was in the spirit of Elon Musk's SpaceX project: all ya gotta do is get there; getting back is a another day's work. It's looking a lot like there was traffic back and forth across the featureless ocean between the Marquesas, Rapa Nui and Colombia. The first author of the Nature paper Alexander G. Ioannidis is from Stanford; I can't easily establish if he's related to John Ioannidis [bloboprev] of the same institution.

The methods used by Ioannidis, A. and Andres Moreno for Pacific peopling are very similar to those of Cassidy and Bradley for Neolithic Ireland. These analyses are a bit above my simple-mind pay-grade but it looks like the granularity of the genomic chunks is key to determining how long ago they were "admixed".  For Ireland the sequence of brother and sister appear in long contiguous stretches across the chromosomes: that says 20 years of separation. In the Pacific they can date the timing of the arrival >!KaPooof!< of the first South American in the Marquesas to 800 years ago from the size of characteristic S.American DNA chunks. Intriguingly that's the best estimate of the time that Polynesians extended their range to Rapa Nui 3,000km south-by-east. These dates can be calibrated by the presence of larger lumps of European DNA in the plain people of Rapa Nui today. That cannot have happened before 1722. And in Rapa Nui, which was annexed by Chile in 1888, the genetic waters are further muddied by Native South American genes arriving with Chilean army conscripts.

Needless to say, there will be push-back from those who have a vested interest in tracing history by artefact, or language, or what they learned in graduate school 40 years ago. But, at least as part of an integrated platform involving trad archaeology,
DNA is The Future of The Past