Monday 31 August 2020

Landmark Numbers

 When The Blob was very young, I wrote skeptically about a sewer-clogging fatberg being the size of a double-decker bus. My calcs suggested it was much smaller. I'd didn't object to the metaphor, however, because, for Brits and their neighbours a double-decker is a) familiar to all but the most rural folk b) bigger than a bread-box but smaller than a building and so a convenient unit of measurement. Matt Parker and Tim Harford agree:

They are discussing, physically distanced, Landmark Numbers which aspire to being the Linnaean binomers of guesstimation and journalism . . . to facilitate communication between two people with different backgrounds by appealling to the common experiences. Being international quants, they provide conversion units for foreigners [1 bus = 30 feet]. Of course in science we have the metric system, and pretty much the whole world has some idea of what a kilo[gram], a litre, a metre, and 100km/h is. Actually, probably not: the majority of my students only know their height in feet & inches. And I guess most people would have to be reminded that a standard bag-of-sugar is 1 kg & so is a litre of milk.

Matt Parker holds that human days per year is a good divisor for, say money or work: it's about 1.7billion for Ireland; about 15x more for the UK and about 70x more for the USA. But it's definitely important to know how many people live in the same country as you. If the Minister of Quangos is talking large that s/he's allocated €5 million to some project it sounds big, like a lotto win . . . but it's only €1 for each of us in Ireland. Landmark numbers help us map the real world. Islamabad and Dehli are only about an inch apart on the map but in reality it's 670km - much further than Cork to Belfast. It's also important to know how big your country is in kilometres or hours sp you can realistically plan your staycation in The West

Here's Tim Hartford having a go at Darrel Huff author or How to Lie with Statistics [and fake news]; because Huff took his glib accessible book literally and started lying for big business. And
here's an engineer's example of trying to get make Landmarks for the world's biggest dams.

Sunday 30 August 2020

Back to work week

 1st September on Tuesday, that's the date we are called to the colours at work - in a normal year.

Saturday 29 August 2020

Rice Bridge


I was heading back to the hills from Costa na Déise on Thursday after lunch with Pat the Salt. If I'd left 3 minutes earlier I would have got across the Rice Bridge without delay. But as I came down Bridge Street through Waterford City the crossing gates came down and a couple of minutes later the bridge itself came up and exposed its bottom to everyone on the quays. I was quite excited because, unless this was a fire drill, something nautical was about to steam through the gap.  I looked up-stream and down-stream hoping for a ship  . . . and all we got was a little fishing-boat which pootled down-stream about its important business. 

Almost everyone sat in their cars because . . . actually I can't think of any good reason why someone would sit in their car on the first sunny spell of the week when there was this Event unfolding before their eyes. I can't accept that all the Déiseans were all bin-there-seen-that-and-I'm-in-a-hurry because it must a rare event. I've been crossing the bridge for the last 30 years several times a month and waited for hours at the Bus Station down the quays a piece and that's only the second time I've seen the bridge up. Ferries are The Biz, but lift-bridges are an acceptable substitute and free. 

Friday 28 August 2020

Lithium, not too much

I was [not] writing about the capacity for boredom . . . because I'm not currently bored. As I thought about boredom, I was thrashing through An Unquiet Mind, Kay Jamison's [R talking about her 2017 biography of manic genius poet Robert Lowell] autobiographical dive into the stormy waters of manic-depression biopolar [affective] disorder whc is BAD. My mother thought that being bored was a character flaw if not exactly a clinical condition, so we soon learned not to use that word to define how we felt. Her response might have made us a bit more self-sufficient and resilient and more active in seeking things to edutain ourselves. Soldier on, I suppose?

You can't call it manic-depression anymore because both parts of the phrase are trigger words: threatening or making unhappy some of those affected by the condition. Those affected by the condition include not only the clinical case but a widening circle of family, friends, work-mates, dependents, employees, followers and line-managers. Before An Unquiet Mind came out, each year hundreds of doctors across the world were topping themselves out; leaving grief and devastation behind them. At issue was the fact that disclosing mental illness was likely to see the end of their licence to practice medicine and so they were in denial or struggling but certainly not seeking medical help for a condition which can respond really well to a combination of drugs and psychotherapy. It's not to say that other people don't suffer BADly, it is just to reflect on the irony of it being visited upon doctors who found that they were unable to cure themselves.  

The key to my Human Physiology course is homeostasis, the maintenance of everything - blood-pressure; core body temperature; sodium and potassium concentration; gut flora - in equilibrium. This is so important that many of the physiological systems are held to their set point by belts and braces involving nerves and hormones. Often, when things go wrong, you don't go completely off the rails or blow a cylinder-head gasket because of these redundant homeostatic mechanisms acting as a back-stop. The whole pharmaceutical industry is predicated on introducing alien substances to play the part of the original, now off-kilter, actors in the intricate dance of neurotransmitters, receptors, cytokines, hormones and enzymes. 

Lithium carbonate was revealed [chance favours the prepared mind] as a calmer of mania by John Cade, an Australian psychiatrist in 1948. At the doses given in the 50s, 60s & 70s Lithium was very blunt instrument. Sure it damped the awkward and time-consuming mania for psychiatric patients in locked wards, but also turned them into ataxic zombies unable to read or concentrate or feel any sense of joy. For a smart, widely-read, widely-reading, creative research scientist and driven author of books and papers Lithium was a disaster. The smart scientist, with a slightly puritan air-force brat upbringing, known as Prof Kay Jamison failed to embrace her meds for all sorts of conscious and unconscious reasons. It was, accordingly, many years before she was able to damp the wild swings between creative genius; cruel, [self-]destructive, shouty, talking-to-unicorns mania; and the black dog of darkest, suicidal ideation. Eventually, she got a great psychiatrist, a couple of really supportive blokes . . . and the Li dosage right for her system. With that sorted she went on to write a) the definitive text-book (with Fred Goodwin) on Manic Depressive Illness. b) An Unquiet Mind. c) The Robert Lowell biography and defg) four other books about madness and genius. Not to mention 3 pages of Honors and Fellowships; eight honorary degrees; 130 scientific papers; and hundreds of students, interns and colleagues who have been touched by her humanity, her restless curiosity and her extraordinary ability to see connexions. Sorry, this is reading like an obituary, she's not dead yet! Check one of her books out of the library: An Unquiet Mind reads real easy and the story is compelling and inspirational.

What do I take from this? That we should be really careful about stigmatizing The Other. That we are all going to need some help getting the full measure of our three-score-and-ten. Spectacles for me; a titanium hip for Sean and Margot [one each, even, they don't have to share]; ventolin for my asthmatic offspring; lithium for those over-active minds; Oxybutynin for over-active bladder. With these medical crutches we can live longer, fitter, independent lives and continue being useful to our families and our communities.  Still in Ireland, and doubtless wherever-the-heck you live, we privilege certain types of medical anomaly, notably HIV and Cancer [also: Top Ten -- Wallflower] -- Battens -- Orkambi <tsk!>] and all too often give the bum's rush to research into and financial support for mental illness. I've written a tiny bit to balance the books - Black dog -- Blackrock -- Bressie & Jeffrey -- Community care -- Drummer -- ECT -- Freedom.

Here's another, 23andMe, angle mentioned by Jamison. Many disorders of the mind run in families. Her own family tree, but only on her father's side, is beaded with black circles and squares indicating mania, depression, suicide. Bipolar for sure has a genetics angle: tree example from the Amish. This adds another dimension to the ethics and niceties of putting it all out there in your autobiography. By grassing yourself up to the Judgement of Publass, you are exposing your children, cousins, nieces and neffies to some undesired attention for which they get no royalties. Jamison is more sensitive about this than I am on The Blob as I chatter on about thinly disguised friends&relations.

More women in Science 

Thursday 27 August 2020

I R Borrred

 I'm an institutional[ized] kinda guy; that's why I've been happy working at The Institute these last several year. The day, the week, the term, the timetable is so busy that I have little time to be idle at my desk waiting for the next event. I have been in other academic posts where I was expected to adult-up and be responsible for running my own day, week, term, timetable. I didn't cope well and it was the least productive time for which I got paid a salary. In the late 1990s, I told one of my colleagues that I was a really good post-doc[toral] researcher: I was hard-working, dogged, not stupid, dependable and painstaking but I wasn't interested / capable of running my own lab. Part of that was a reluctance to be responsible for the health, welfare and success of people under my care.

Interestingly, that same colleague believed my patter and a tuthree years later hired me to work in his new edge-cutting multi-million €$£ research lab. The was he explained this eccentric decision was that he wanted at least one known quant in the multinational mix whom he hired to push the frontiers of science. In more or less the same month [the Celtic Tiger was starting to leak science-bucks], I was hired to work in another lab to supervise a post-graduate student whose project was at the interface between computational biology [me] and innate immunity [The Gaffer]. In the hiring interview she said that the student welfare/thriving buck stopped with her - she de Gaffer - and that I should just concentrate on wrastling the genomes into submission. Working in two different fields in two different labs at the same time was - tiring, energising, creative and interesting. There was a surprising amount of cross-over and complementarity.

My correspondent G sent me an article from the New Yorker about the science of boredom. I found it difficult to relate to because I'm never rarely bored . . . nowadays. But I guess I'd y-a-w-n be all over it with a dull of recognition, if it was 1988 and I was gazing out of the window waiting for lunchtime. It's worth reading, even if you're not prone to being bored yourself. It will give you insight into the Lives of Others who are less well set up for amusing themselves [Ennui by Walter Sickert L]. As a few experimental psychologists are involved, there are some nifty ways to induce boredom:

The outcomes seem to require measuring the consumption of junk-food as a consequence of being bored. The take home seems to be that you'll likely be bored if what you are doing is a) monotonous AND b) of no interest / value. Playing Grand Theft Auto is of no interest / value but it would be a peculiar person who was bored by the proxy-mayhem. Contrariwise, I am quite happy tallying up pages of data or repetitetitetitetitively making thumbnail pictures of our incoming students. It's monotonous but when you're in the zone, the time passes and each page is box ticked. There's a lot of that in science: carrying out a protocol reliably, repetitively to acquire data to test a hypothesis is an important part of the process.

What's your boredom threshold? You can measure it if you have the patience to answer 28 [twenty-eight!] not very interesting questions. I found
You don’t get bored easily.Well I knew that; I have The Blob to put to bed each and every day. But the case would be altered 32 years ago. BBC: why boredom is good for you. Grauniad: why it's good to be bored.

Wednesday 26 August 2020


That would be Potentilla erecta: "As a prompt botanical in purifying the system in diseases of the blood, and discharges of bloody flux. Administered either in a strong decoction, or the alcoholic extract. It is unrivalled in accumulation of excess mucus and the many progressive disease symptoms this condition brings on. To mention a few: the common cold, allergies, hay fever, tonsilitis, cholera, dysentery, haemorrhoids, etc. It is strongly astringent and will quickly relieve pain due to its influence in arresting the discharges and effectively diminishing unwanted accumulation. It is invariably successful in summer complaints of. children, even in cases where other means have failed". [Sauce] sounds like a bit of a cure-all on a par with Lyrica -- stem-cells -- biochar -- plant stannol esters -- Footmaster but I doubt if it will work under controlled scientific conditions . . . and it tastes 'orrible!
Tormentil is, however, very pretty in an understated wild-flower way and an important indicator species for dry heath - an upland habitat in which there is considerable local interest.

I have become more directly interested in the wild-flowers of the commonage up behind our house since the last meeting of our local cumann na common.  We have undertaken to carry out three "Improve Ireland's Uplands" tasks in calendar 2o2o. 
A for A bit of controlled burning 
B for Bracken-thrashing like last year and 
C for Culture
Five of us [not me] have signed up for Fire Training; everyone has agreed to do some collective bracken and bushes cutting. When it came to Who would cover the Culture? I leapt from my chair with raised and waving hand crying "Meeeeeeeee!" . . . under the [utterly mistaken] apprehension that everyone would want something so interesting and physically undemanding. I have accordingly been the only candidate in an election for the local Minister of Arts Culture and the Gaeltacht.

I see this portfolio [I am bigging myself up here] as having a few different threads that need to be woven into a coherent plan; all having aspects of promoting the amenity value of the hill which we own in common. It is a great credit to us, especially those who actually run sheep on the hill and depend on it directly for their livelihood, that Joe and Josie Poblacht are not only tolerated, but even welcomed onto what is, at the end of the day, private property. There is only one family in our townland who has ever made money from tourism through a decade of operating as a Bed&Breakfast years before AirBnB got legs.
  • The Giant's Table, a middling impressive dolmen for the Wiccan
  • The 1950 Marian Year Cross for the Roman Catholics
  • The Lazy Beds: ancient sites of potato cultivation when pressure of population forced people to try farming higher, wetter and acider land. Then came the Famine of the 1840s . . .
  • The Built Environment. This is my gig: documenting the evidence of stone working on the mountain. Including boxed-shaughs, quarried rock-faces, odd bits of wall and once-upon-a-shelters.
    • I'll include here the peculiar horizontal shelves - possibly charcoal-burning sites - which dot the South face on the hill.
  • The Zoo.
    • Buzzard Buteo buteo, golden plover Pluvialis apricaria, wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe, sky-lark Alauda arvensis, crows Corvus spp, Grouse Lagopus lagopus, kestrel Falco tinnunculus. Sika deer Cervus nippon, hare Lepus timidus, fox Vulpes vulpes
  • The Garden
  • Your suggestion here:_______________________
The Culture Liaison Officer could be quite hands off; telling folk that these assets are there and giving them the agency to find / admire / photograph / eat the whatevs. But there is a groundswell of  opinion amongst us that a bit of signage would be a useful way to spent government money on the overall scheme. Later in the week, I was on the Daily Dau.II Call. When I started to explain the onerous responsibilities which I had just taken on, she elbowed me aside and told me to listen. Pal of hers, also home-educated, is at the beginning of her career as an artist and she should be commissioned to do the drawings for the sign. As it happens young N is an artist in the old style and is very unlikely to win the Turner Prize. Indeed as I write this, I can see that she would be a great additions to the calling of Scientific Illustrator in the honorable tradition of Mary Leakey or Beatrix Potter. I'll hope for something more didactic and informative than "Hare treats its haemorrhoids with tormentil"

Tuesday 25 August 2020

Clearing the Desk

As I said, I went in to The Institute, my employer for the last nearly 8 years, to hand in my Pension Papers. Because of astute forward-planning on my behalf by our Pension Guru, in 2017 I was requested and required to consolidate my Superannuation Entitlement for working at UCD and TCD in 00s with The Institute's entitlechunk. That way I'd get one Irish Third Level Education pension to add the State Pension.  This is what I've accumulated

  • 3.0713 years UCD
  • 5.0350 years TCD
  • 0.1826 years part-time The Institute 2006-2007
  • 7.7370 years full-on The Institute 2013-2020
  • 16.0205 TOTAL years

It looks like I haven't worked a lot but that's partly because I worked through the 1990s in the public sector on short-term contracts when there was no obligation to pay-forward to The Future unless you were permanent-and-pensionable. It's also because I was in the USA for 4 years, NL for 1 year and in UK for 7. That's nearly 40 years totes.  If I had been reg'lar and worked 40 years, I'd be effectively on half-pay after retirement. As it is I'll be coasting along on 1/5th pay  . . . + the standard OAP, as well. So we'll be a'right; there will be chocolate biscuits if the grand-children are ever allowed to visit. Numerate me wonders about 16.0205 WTF the 5? Reporting that 4th decimal point means it's not 16.0204 or 16.0206 - the working year is 50 weeks x 40 hours x 60 mins = 120,000 working minutes so the bean-counters at Pension-Centraal are operating in units of 12 minutes.

Still on the hedge-against-an-uncertain-future front. Between now and 2nd October, I'll have to clear my desk, bookshelves and filing cabinet. I made a start on the last and dumped two xerox-boxes full of 'paper' and one of 'confidential' [anything with a name on] paper. Then [rubber-gloves, lads] I started in on the desk-drawers. Top left was full of old time-tables, crumbs, pen-tops, paper-clips and my in-case-of-emergency stash [on view R]. So many dispirin because I've never had a head-ache at work. The NutriGrain bar in case I had a hypo-glycaemic crisis [not neither] - it was given away for free at some promo. I would never buy such a thing; there are 27 (!) ingredients. I'm not sure about the sugar, I think I just half-inch a couple if it looks likely they will be swept into the bin in the post-function clean up. If I want 5g of sugar in my tea [and I often do], I have a small jam-jar of the stuff which I bring from home. I know you're meant to throw the spoons away after one stir, but I never do. 

I was telling Dau.II about the sugar packets and she was ribbing me for never growing up. And it's not as if I lived a childhood of penury when an orange at Christmas was a big treat. A few years ago, she took her bloke for a weekend away at a posh hotel in Killarney. As they were packing up to leave, she lurried the individually wrapped Barry's tea-bags and the shower-cap and the dinky shampoo bottles into her bag [þe apple falleth not far from þe tree]. Her bloke was aghast "Why are you doing that? We have a whole box of tea at home and you've never worn a shower-cap in your life". I have expanded on the ethics of such light-finger behaviour before.

STOP PRESS Further to Golfgate: Kommissar Phil Hogan ist Downfallen

Monday 24 August 2020

Taking a Mashie-Niblick to Golfgate

 For any reader outside of The Republic, the most recent political teacup-storm is Golfgate. Last week, 81 members of the Great and the Good, 

  • a) members or guests of the Oireachtas Golf Society
  • b) accepted an invitation to a memorial round of golf in honour of a recently dead golfing colleague, Mark Killelea MEP for Fianna Fáil FF 
  • c) drove to the Far West Coast, 
    • very likely skirting the edge of Kildare despite that county's lockdown status 
  • d) had "a good walk spoiled" on Clifden Links 
  • e) stopped for celebratory dinner.
Unexceptional in normal circumstances: another junket for the pols which could probably be covered by "expenses". But it was the day after the government published new guidelines to restrict social interactions to flatten the surge of a recent uptick in Covid cases - nationwide but particularly dense in Direct Provision centres and meat-packing plants in Kildare. By the following day Alison Moore of  the Irish Examiner marshalled the facts and reported the event noting the discrepancy between a guideline limit of 50 people at 6 per table for indoor social events and  the actual 81 people at tables set for 10 in the Stationhouse Hotel Clifden.

Big Story because we-the-people have been dutifully obeying the rules for nearly 6 months: cancelling weddings, holidays, TGIFs, funerals and doctor's appointment. Now it seemed that there was a different set of rules for those making the rules. The commentary ranged from echoing Tom Macaulay's We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality to a great many sardonic, ironic and devastatingly witty take-downs.

But to me it was ooooo data, and so I set off looking for a complete list of attendees. What I found was a lot of sloppy plagiarism of Aoife Moore's original story down to repeating her selection, in the same order, of a subset of attendees to "name and shame" in the cliché of the day. I still don't have a complete list. 
  • Did someone mention cliché in the context of Irish political commentary?
    • They did
  • And will anyone cite Myles na gCopaleen's Catechism of Cliché?
    • They will
  • Is there an example of such an interchange?
    • There is:
    • What does it behove us to proclaim?
      • Our faith.
    • In what does it behove us to proclaim our faith?
      • Democracy.
    • From what vertiginous eyrie does it behove us to proclaim our faith in democracy?
      • From the house-tops.
    • At what time should we proclaim our faith in democracy from the house-tops?
      • Now, more than ever.
    • What action must be taken in relation to our energies?
      • They must be directed.
    • In what unique manner?
      • Wholeheartedly.
Myles was a Dublin Insider who could skewer the pretensions of Irish society and roast them until they crackled. At the moment, Das Commentariat are limiting their demands for contrition to a top-drawer dozen of The Clifden 81.
  • And how must they apologise?
    • Unreservedly
Whoo-har. These Dublin Insiders have clearly read their Myles na gCop; or more likely their use of language is as tired and unimaginative as the sincerity of their sorrow. 
  • And how did they apologise?
  • Dara Calleary FF Min Ag
    • unreservedly
  • Seamus Woulfe Supreme Court Judge FG Attorney General
    • unreservedly
  • Noel Grealish Independent TD [Host]
    • unreservedly
  • Jerry Buttimer FG Senator 
    • unreservedly
  • Paddy Burke FG Senator 
    • "an error of judgement on my behalf and I apologise "
  • John Cummins FG senator 
    • unreservedly
  • Paul Daly FF Senator
    • unreservedly
  • Aidan Davitt FF Senator 
    • unreservedly
  • Niall Blaney FF Senator 
    • unreservedly
  • Donie Cassidy former FF TD Senator [Host]
    • unreservedly
I also liked Seamus Woulfe's comment "I was not aware that a dinner was involved". We know what he means but at what stage did he become aware that a dinner was involved? The sight of round tables all crocked and cutlered up?  When the soup arrived? At the third course? After a second glass of hotel plonk? At least his reputational damage will be less than that of the former Attorney General Patrick "GUBU" Connelly who, in 1982, was found giving shelter to a murderer on the run.

Sunday 23 August 2020

Sunnie and Moonie

PacuJawi - bull racing from Sumatra. The bois don't mind gettin' alll wet

Saturday 22 August 2020

Monstrous Regiment

 I was talking the Radical Dau.I midweek. She calls sometimes when she's cooking; I hope she's up for the multitask and not burning the rice while correcting my pronouns.  My pronouns {ho|hum|patriarch}are something I'm working on. Here's an example of Matt "Math" Parker using the singular-they when referring to both ♀ and ♂ mathematical geographers. That's both conscious and conscientious and one of the powers that celebs have: to change the quality and direction of discourse - here for the better. 

I was in The Institute twice in the last 8 days clearing me desk out and printing a few things that needed signing including marks for my last two MSc students. I came away feeling really rather light-of-step as the loose ends of nearly 8 years were plaited up and made ship-shape and Bristol fashion. While on campus I bumped into a palomino and commiserated with them <sic> about learning how to teach "on-line" and the fact that if a physical-distancing lab class is half full, then the students are going to get half an education. Actually, as any home educating family will tell you, that's bollix. Piling content [let's verify Avogadro's, Bernouilli's, Charles', Dalton's, Euler's, Faraday's {see R (left!)}, Gay-Lussac's, Hooke's, Ingersoll's, Joule's, Kirchhoff's Laws] does nothing towards understanding scientific principles and nothing towards helping kids come to their own understanding of the natural world. But contact hours is the currency by which The Institute runs.

I was relating this anecdote to Dau.I and we came to the conclusion that IF profit making educational institutions were driven by bean-counting of this nature THEN they should be discounting fees in the next academic year to the extent that they are short-changing the students of their <effin'!> contact hours. "Ain'ta gonna happen" we agreed, because of the intrinsic asymmetry in negotiating power between The Man and Reg'lar Folks.

We then compared notes on how the hope of a silver-lining to Coronarama [end of Direct Provision; Universal Basic Income; tiny homes for all; minimum wage => living wage; adequately resourced hospitals / sex-education / special-needs / dentistry / diversity] has bled into the sand of another centre-right government coalition who want to get back to the cosy status quo ante where politicians fix things for their pals and are deaf-dumb-and-blind to the dispossessed . . . The Others. 

The status quo mentality would rather spend money on lawyers than apologise for mistakes. The Man will come out fighting for a peculiar, particular vision of how things are rather than asking how things should be. The Dept of <Orwellian Newspeak>Justice </Orwellian Newspeak> is now compiling a database of Direct Provision dissenters, rather than allocating resources dismantling or humanizing DP. [And it's not just the DoJ] DP is where human beings are stacked while the wheels-of-law decide whether they are Gay Enough to be a true asylum seeker rather than an economic migrant. There must be some BLT folks in the DoJ. What say we send them on a feasibility study to experience being Gay in Ghana. There must be some folks in DoAg who enjoy rashers and steak, they could have a week of work-experience in a meat-packing plant in Kildare . . . and not as a €65K/yr inspector with a clip-board and a hazmat suit.

I offered that, if she mobilised her BLT cohorts all gleaming in purple and gold-lamé, I'd let them drill in the woods [free flap-jacks ad lib] against the revolution that's coming immediately after this plague year allows free movement. We agreed that, natch, these Soldiers of Destiny would be called The Monstrous Regiment. It is lamentable how little common-ground there is among the various groups of the excluded. When I was Dau.I's age, Trades Unions would be committed to all kinds of social justice often wholly off-topic to their mandate. Now her union and my union have retreated and consolidated to protecting the rights and privileges of their government-employee members. I've lost two days of my pension 'entitlements' because my union had two days of wholly ineffectual strike 'action'. That was the limit of the pain that the membership were prepared to take to right the wrongs that led to the strikes. 

Friday 21 August 2020

Effective altruism

 Peter Singer, everyone's favourite utilitarian philosopher [prev] was on RTE TED NPR on Saturday where the TED Radio Hour (originally broadcast in June) was reflecting on ethical issues thrown up by Coronarama. He was laying out the stall for Effective Altruism. Altruism is where you take one for the team and most of us think that is worthy and deserving of respeck. Like when teenager Callum Keane recently plunged into the River Boyne to save two smaller kids who were in trouble. Hats off our Callum! And he can join our club of anti-drowners.

That anecdote is right on the money for Peter Singer, whose experimental ethics I wrote about in 2015: "Singer is fond of pointing out that we would happily ruin a $700 suit wading into a muddy pond to save a drowning child but won't shell out $7 to immunize one on the other side of the Third World". I think the phrase was invented by William MacAskill in his book title Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference.  It's hard to see us rescue-from-drowning people as doing better . . . although there are plenty of cases where they contribute to the problem by being out of their metaphorical and actual depth and needing rescue in their turn. In the ruined suit story, Singer is starting a dialogue where lives are given a monetary value to make it easier to compare different actions and inactions. This is where my correspondent B starts to get hopping mad because, for her, it is invidious to say we don't have enough resources to save everyone. And Coronarama has thrown that into focus because a whole raft of things, previously deemed to be impossible (like Universal Basic Income UBI has now appeared as Pandemic Unemployment Payment PUP) are now possible.

 Peter Singer gives a couple of neat comparators: 

  • Guide dogs for the blind? [Only symmetrical blondes need apply] That's a great thing to do but it costs $40,000 to get a fully trained guide-dog into the hands of its new owner (and given the lifespan of dogs, that's a 10 year contract). otosotw [on the other side of the world] it costs $20-$50 to cure one poor black person of blindness from trachoma. And there are more than enough cases to spend the entire $40K doing good out there
  • Highway departments in the US have a threshold for fixing dangerous stretches of road = accident black spots. If the works cost more that $9 million they won't be authorised unless the quants estimate that more than one life would be saved over the lifetime of the fix (no highway lasts forever). But that's a lot of money to save one life. otosotw, you can save the lives of a lot of small black people by rolling out a bed-net scheme to prevent malaria. It's only $2K for every life saved there.
If you're going to tithe your income for something of no direct benefit to you, then it's worth doing some research to get better leverage from your goodness-bucks. Help?:
  • Give Well We search for the charities that save or improve lives the most per dollar.
  • The Life You Can Save Effective charities do more with your donation.

Thursday 20 August 2020

Available for rent

. . . slightly less than 4 sq.m. of office space with a desk and a ratty old office chair; desk missing one drawer-handle. Four drawer filing cabinet available by negotiation with the other 2-and-2-halves people who share the office. Last Friday, I dropped my severance papers in to HR at The Institute, so that my pension would kick in when I leave on Friday 2nd October 2020. That's now 6 weeks away. While I was with HR, I asked how they were progressing with sourcing my replacement: the job was advertised at the end of May. The race is not to the swift, it seems.

In a parallel universe, we had a General Election on 8th February 2020. The indistinguishable and undistinguished centre right parties Fianna Fáil FF and Fine Gael FG took a drubbing from the electorate who returned a land-slide for Sinn Féin SF, the Greens. The usual rattle-bag of independents, fixers and local mafiosi held their own. With hind-sight, The Lads of Leinster House could/should have looked at the numbers [a short quarter each for SF FF FG and the rest independents / mavericks] and realised that two of the three biggest parties had to go into coalition with each other. It took 140 days [that's 20 weeks!] of shape-throwing, blow-harding and over-my-dead-bodying for the TDs involved to accept this reality and elect a new Taoiseach. Winner: Micháel Martin FF 27 June 2020. Who could then go on to open the sweetie-jar and appoint ministers. 

In parallel parallel universe, at the end of May, my pal Kevin [multiprev] was sculpting a Letter to all the Incomming TDs. "we the undersigned believe Ireland needs to establish a dedicated cabinet-level Department for Higher Education & Research" It garnered 1700 sigs in short order, including many from the Inst.Tech. sector, so it was better steered than the previous Open Letter about Science Funding. Well "we" alllmost got our wishes on the Minister when Simon "I'm Fourteen but Keen" Harris was rewarded for steering SS Covid-Response with landing "Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science" FAHERIS? 

That empire needs to be hived off from existing Ministry of Education, premises need to be identified, desks of sufficient size and hardwoodness need to be ordered and installed, painting and decorating must be carried out. Then occupiers of those new desks need to be shifted, they need to find out where the jacksy is and how the coffee-machine works . . . and . . . then . . . they can approve the appointment of new members to The Institute's Board of Governance. Until that is done the candidates for occupying "My" desk cannot be interviewed because one member of the BofG must be on every interview panel. I know personally six of those applicants, all young enthusiasts for science, whose have been in limbo since the beginning of June - waiting for the call. It's really not good enough. 

Wednesday 19 August 2020

White rice and milk pudding

I grew up in a home without garlic, and almost without onions. It was, with hindsight, really weird; because, apart from treacle tart and cornflakes, Allium makes an appearance in almost every meal now. How dull life would be if the only additives were salt and white pepper. Part of my growing up was to leav ehome and the country I was born to see whether the other field was greener. It definitely was because I chose to go [back] to Ireland just after I got to vote and didn't live in England for the next decade. The other thing I did was hook up with someone who was born in West Africa and liked her food hot. That set my clock for chili, cumin, and fenugreek.

We had Dau.II the Foodie to visit for a week along with her bloke, a super-talented singer-song writer, bassist, keyboardist and ♬♫♩♪ist.  A couple of things came up in chat. One item was the news that BIPOC Appétit chefs Priya Krishna [C], Sohla El-Waylly [R] and Rick Martinez [L] will not be going back to Condé Nast to make youtube content for nothing or buttons . . . while their white co-workers get a decent living. I wrote about this shabby discrepancy in June. Condé Nast, the parent company of Bon Appétit, talked large about mending their two-tier ways and re-negotiating contracts to be fairer; and, like, less black&white. But their HR people couldn't get a deal over the line and none of those really talented, knowledgeable foodies will be on BAp youtube no more. Although Priya & Sohla will continue to write for the company. It is standard HR practice to persuade employees that their remuneration is GDPR personal and won't be divulged to anyone else. But the flip side of this is that the employees don't talk about how much they're getting; so nobody can make comparisons. Needless to say, HR & Finance will use this reluctance to talk to divide and conquer; persuading the softest targets to accept less money. Well s l o w handclap HR, because you'll be left with a blander, whiter, less attractive product that fewer people will want to watch. I can't bear to watch "Every time Sohla shared her expertise and Bon Appétit didn’t pay her"

At his last place of work (a multinational civil engineering company), The Boy found out that a female engineer, with equivalent paper quals, and a little more experience, was taking home rather less that he was each month. He was shocked, but not angry or indignant enough to come out on strike about it. In my [public sector] business, the pay-scales are all out there in the public domain. It is easy to work out how much I earn if you know the date I was promoted to "Lecturer" [hint 2015]. It's damnable and I can't begin to make a case that my contribution to the service of the state is three times more valuable [before tax] than that of my "Assistant Librarian" daughter.  And in the music trade, there is a similar reluctance to talk about money and do things transparently. That leads to a loss of trust and presumably contributes the the extreme volatility in who plays with whom.

Tuesday 18 August 2020

River Rodents Good

Christmas 2 years ago I kited the idea [not original to me] that beavers Castor fiber might have a part to play in flood control. The problem being that rain doesn't fall with convenient uniformity - say 10mm every 3rd night between 0200-0400hrs. Rather than 100mm in a single night on top of 300mm of snow. The problem is gravity and mass: when water starts to travel downhill it can be amazingly destructive; gathering speed and debris as it goes. The idea is that beaver dams form a porous impedance to the flow of water: any statistically lumpy build-up in a storm can be slowly dissipated over the following days.

It seems that the idea of re-introducing beavers to the landscape of the WEA is widespread and that Beaver Bombers have been taking action in England without prior approval or sanction. Most recently a colony of beavers on the River Otter, which debouches into the sea at Buddleigh Salterton in Devon, have been allowed to remain by the Minister of the Environment. A single beaver documented in 2013 has now become the progenitor of about 50 individuals. Presumably there was at least one other beaver of the opposite sex. The local ecologists claim the impact has been, on balance, good.

  • Water flow has been improved and bankside erosion decreased
  • Otters Lutra lutra certainly prefer the fish which are multiplying in the beaver ponds
  • And kingfishers Alcedo atthis also are making a come-back
  • The anglers otoh are unhappy because beaver dams are impenetrable to anadromous fish like salmon "saddened that the minister has decided to favour an introduced species over species already present and in desperate need of more protection"
  • Treehuggers are also dissing the idea because riparian trees are important for retaining riverbanks and beavers chop 'em down.
I have  sympathy with the salmon-side of the argument. Kingfishers, I love; and Dau.II watches otters hunting the River Lee from her quayside apartment in Cork. But the less sexy species have rights too: gravelly invertebrates that like a lot of oxygen beaten into the water, for starters. tbh, it seems a bit arbitrary. I was just waving the muskrats must go flag and now we're to be all for releasing other rodents. Where?

Monday 17 August 2020

Avast ye swabs!

 It's a bit early for Talk Like a Pirate Day, so I must be on some other tack; and I am. It's about logistics, and Mahommed and the Mountain. I promised myself I'd give Coronarama a rest for a while especially on the sounding off front . . . especially after I got the trumpet shamefully offkey. Well, it's been a month so I am going to get back gingerly into the saddle on the matter of testing. This was brought into focus by a remark from Dau.I that someone in Dublin had been refused entry to a Covid Testing Centre because s/he had no car to sit in while waiting for the call! That's what seems to be the score in our GP practice as well; although I'm sure there are families that live car-less in town and walk to the GP if they need to.

Then Dau.I, who was always a bit weak in the wind, had a persistent sniffly <coff> before the weekend and called in a sickie at work. The nurse at her doctor's practice said that she'd refer her for testing at the Aviva Stadium's Covid Testing Centre and not to bother coming into the GP. It took 2 days for the paper-work to e-travel from the GP to the testing centre but only 2 hours to get an appointment for swabbing. She was still feeling crook but, not owning a car, didn't see much option about how to make the 5km journey but walking or cycling. Taxis or scabbing a lift off a pal seemed to be more hazardous especially if she was actually Covid+. That can't be right! . . . that really quite sick people are required to present themselves to the Test Centre on the other town.

I speculated that, if enough people were trained in naso-pharangeal swabbing, then they could go off with a bucket of cotton-buds and a list of Eircode addresses and get the samples at source rather than having loads of sick people wandering around town like a zombie apocalypse. These roving testers would presumably be served by a top-flight travelling-salesman algorithm, so that they could do their quota of tests in the most efficient manner possible. How hard can it be? Whatever about hard, it defo needs to be deep - halfway to the ears! When I worked in TCD in the 00s, the Effectives were always at me for 10cc of blood as a "control". My pal Jean, recognising an unmet need, got herself trained as a phlebotomist, and over the years got quite familiar with the crook of my left elbow. Finding a vein cannot be less hard than finding a nostril, surely. I gather there is a bit of a problem with swabbers being too tentative when they go for a deep ream out: SARS-CoV2 prefers a deeper nest than other "respiratory" viruses. Obviously, the tester would need some wheels, and some PPE, along with the training. But if Deliveroo has send a 3 course meal out by bicycle, BikeTesterrrrrs ®©™ can transport their bucket of swabs on two wheels.

That all became a bit nugatory when I re-read a NEJM paper Swabs Collected by Patients or Health Care Workers for SARS-CoV-2 Testing which compared the results of testing swabs taken by untrained people with those taken by professionals. There wasn't 100% agreement, but people can get a good enough result more than 90% of the time and it's generally less eye-watering if you do it yourself than if you get it done by someone on piece-work. We know already that, quite apart from agreement / reproducibility, no test [neither PCR nor antibody] can legitimately claim 100% sensitivity nor 100% accuracy. So whatever result Dau.I gets, it should be treated as indicative rather than definitive.

I doubt if the HSE or Covid-Centraal is going to authorise self-testing at the sick-bed. They will believe that too many people are prepared to game the system by swabbing their sick neighbour's throat and claiming bennies or a few days off work. Like Withnail providing a urine sample by-passing his own bladder.

Sunday 16 August 2020

Pão Sun Mid Aug


Some of the small white fluffy loaves that you can buy for ¥200 = €1.50 at the Syokupan bakery. From the top: Mentaiko/CodRoe; Cheesu; Anko/SweetRedBean; Raisin; Walnut; TunaMayo. Pan the Japanese word for bread is an early loan word from Portuguese Pão. As happens, a passing interest in X on youtube will tilt your feed in that direction. So I get
That's a still from The Way of Walking Alone, a video with Kodo drum background with 21 aphorisms from 獨行道 Dokkodo by Miyamoto Mushasi (1584-1645), a famously undefeated swordsman and philosopher. What else?
  • Farmer growing onions, garlic and spuds in the middle of Narita Airport. His father was offered money to move but preferred to offer 灯油と玉ねぎ cebola con aviation fuel for sale like in the old days.
  • International?
  • Lit Crit: gallopping analysis of Kurt Vonnegut's theories about fiction not being true to life. I guess we read fiction to make it seem that our lives could be are more interesting than they are. They are not! And a good thing too, it is no fun living in exciting times.
  • Faking it "The lines are so clean, did you use a router?" when talking to woodwork bores.  Nobody cares as much about your keep-sake chest as you do. Your grandchildren's photos are waaaaay less interesting to me than they are to the parents. My stock response when presented with newborns in the poopy flesh is "S/he looks within the normal range".
  • Scything in the dewy morning.
  • Kielbasa by the metre according to family recipe.
  • 4th July Asbury Park The Boss's hymn to NJ

Saturday 15 August 2020


Today, bananas! I was going to say that I never make banana bread but The Blob never lies. In 2017, I was apparently in the habit of buying cheap bananas and making loadsa banana-bread. So I never rarely make banana bread; and certainly not often enough to know what are the best proportions of bananas, eggs, butter, sugar & flour. And it depends on what you mean by "best" proportions. In any case, when my pal Rene came round with a generous hand of bananas and there was no room in the fruit basket, I had to look up a recipe and try my hand again. On the don't overthink principle, I picked the top result from oogling "banana bread BBC" and modified it by throwing in a handful of sultanas. It was fine.

On the are we going to measure or are we going to cook? principle, I started to ponder what were the allowable variations in putting together bananas, eggs, butter, sugar & flour and getting a loaf [rather than soup, or soap] at the end of the process. Obviously there must be a certain amount of leeway because one banana is as long as a [very short] piece of string and the weight of an egg hardly more precise. The most scientific way of addressing the problem would be to a) move next door to an orphanage or a direct provision centre and then b) make many loaves of BB each with subtle differences in the relative amounts of the ingredients. But anothher way is to stand on the aprons of giants and see what other people have tried; presumably with success if they have floated to the top of the oogleverse. I scraped the most oogly BB recipes from the BBC and 4 more celebrity-chef recipes to make it up to N = 10:

That's really noisy data, no? 1 - 4 eggs; 2 to 6 bananas etc. so we need to standardise the proportions:
That's much better: everything is now per egg and we can start to compare the different recipes. I suggest that there are two useful definitions of "best": a) uses up the most bananas b) the one which will most impress the in-laws when they drop in for their first post-covid  appearance. 
The a) is easy: the penultimate "6221" recipe requires six (6!) bananas; but you may need to buy a bigger tin because we're looking at 1.8Kg of cake! Failing that any of the recipes where the banana ratio maxes out at 2/eggs.
b) requires a bit more calculation. Impress the neighbours requires potlatch and potlatch requires rich. Rich requires more butter [proportional to flour]. That ratio appears in the R-most column; and clearly the BBC-brilliant recipe is the winner. As it happens, that's the recipe I chose to use of bananas, so win-win. Bit of a waste, because <burp> I scarfed down most of that banana bread before we got any visitors.

Friday 14 August 2020

Lumpen Excel wins

 Shortcuts make things quicker . . . until you plough into a herd of sheep. In shortcuts I include a lot of hidden assumptions made on your behalf by your everyday software. Those word-completion boo-boos when sending the Boss a txt msg.  Those phone numbers that have their leading zeroes Excelised: 087-4822501 helpfully becoming 874,822,501 . . . because it looks like a number. Excel is designed for work in offices where a date-stamp is expected on many sorts of data. But dates are a precision nightmare, at least partly because the USA uses an illogical ordering convention: MMDDYYYY. The rest of us are typically 'little-endian' DDMMYYYY or 'big-endian' YYYYMMDD. Nightmare? 06AUG20 is unambiguous (if you spik ingles) but 06-08-20 would be two months ago in Baltimore. Blogspot/Blogger is an American company so the date-stamps on my posts are 'wrong' for me.

The transition between notes in a paper form and data in a computer has been fraught with trouble because the coders didn't speak to the effectives enough to know what the right questions were. Clinical notes might use <50% as a short hand for less than half. But a coder decision based on "< looks like an HTML tag and so is safer deleted in Excel" translates a rather woolly statement into a precise-but-wrong 50%.

A few years ago I wrote about a paper by Ziemann, Eren and El-Osta which found that gene-names were commonly [~20%] being over-interpreted as dates when foolish biologists stored a list of them in Excel. There are 23,000 protein coding genes in the human genome and, unless you know where to look, you're not going to scan through them all to see whether any of them have been converted to dates. And even if you got that covered, would you remember your Portuguese collaborators and remember to scan for gene-names like Ago1 as well as Aug1?

At least for Human Genes, at least for name/date confusion, the HGNC Human Gene Nomenclature Committeee have ceded the territory to Excel and renamed the ~30 genes most commonly mangled in this manner by Excel-the-All-Powerful [TheVerge] SEPT1 becomes SEPTIN1 while MARCH1 becomes MARCHF1. The rules [not only about Excel-woes] are paywalled at Nature Genetics. The penultimate rule is to stop another sort of confusion: CARS could be vehicles but CARS1 could only be cysteinyl-tRNA synthetase 1.
And we're being encouraged / compelled to be less cruel in naming defects.DOPEY is out DOP1A (DOP1 leucine zipper like protein A) is in. All those neurological deficits in drosophila: dunce, cabbage, turnip, rutabaga; or at least their human homologs, will presumably be cleaned up in their turn. I am glad [tee-hee: I R still 13] that the annotation for E.coli's Fucose-K
/note="fucK ORF (AA 1-482)"
is still hangin' in there. Despite one of the words being offensive to my dead grannie.

Finally, the discussion Mefi -- HackerNews -- about the outrageousness of Excel led me to this too-clever-be-'arf Venn Diagram:

Thursday 13 August 2020

River Rodents

Invasive species tend to upset the habitat cart. They have been from their native ecosystem untimely ripped and inserted in an alien place. That can be both good for them and bad. On the bad side, they are presented with a bunch of different, unfamiliar things to eat. On the good side they have escaped a bunch of familiar creatures that had been eating them: predators and parasites, both. Most of the time it doesn't work out, but when things go well for the interlopers then everyone gets to hear about it. I've mentioned two invasive-to-Ireland mammals recently - white-toothed shrew Crocidura russula and grey squirrel Sciurus carolinensis both of which are bigger and bullier than their native competitors.

Muskrats / Ondatra zibethicus / Muscfhrancach were introduced to Ireland in 1927 1929 by a local landowner C.F Minnit esq. who entertained a fantasy about running a fur-farm at Annaghbeg House near Nenagh Co.Tipperary. The Department of Ag thought this was a grand idea and supplied a helpful list of potential food-plant. But before Mr Minnit could build a house or run to hold his investment, they had gnawed through their cages and escaped into the wild. Very s l o w handclap for all concerned.  Things went quiet for a few years [muskrats are secretive and nocturnal] but there was a media storm in 1933. There was also a hail of shotgun pellets into the banks of the Nenagh river and its tributaries as local lads went out in skiffs and along the banks blazing away at anything that moved.
The epicentre of these japes was Dromineer Bay, where years later Dau.II and I made puddles in the bottom of a small sailing boat. The circles on the map indicate where the 'rats were observed. The Dept Ag had woken up to the wider hazards of invasive species: destroying river-banks or >!shock!< getting stuck in the pipes of the new Ardnacrusha hydro-electric power station further down the Shannon.

Trapping started in earnest in September 1933, with 10 men and 1000 Oneida #1 steel gin traps [example L on Ebay for $30] employed. One muskrat ventured across Lough Derg to be caught and killed in Co Clare but the majority of nearly 500 rodents were destroyed in the area mapped above. The trappers were active through 1934 but the following year it was all over for Ondatra zibethicus in Ireland. In 2015, a single muskrat was recorded in Co Cork. As it takes two to tango, we're safe for the moment. We might reflect on the generative capacity [breeding like rabbits] of some mammals. A couple of rogue muskrats in 1929 had +500 descendants 4-5 years later. Guns make a lot of noise and deposit a lot of lead into the water courses but are not really effective [muskrats are secretive and nocturnal] and you don't want to piffle about with a few traps. It's like fighting a fire: effectives need to come in hard, heavy and early before the invasion gets beyond their control. Obviously it helps that despite [muskrats are secretive and nocturnal] they are bigger than a breadbox, so make a better target.

Wednesday 12 August 2020

Thinner Killer

Had to wash the dishes on Wednesday last week: a man can't makes scones if every kitchen surface is stacked with  delft . As you do, I switched on the wireless; and caught a piece on Sean Moncrieff about the inadvisability using DNP for weight loss. That's 2'4'-dinitro-phenol DNP? Which was used in WWI as an explosive? Yup, that's the boy: it really burns off the fat. The explosive connexion is fairly straight-forward it's the nitro, [NO2] silly. Like TNT or Nitrocellulose, DNP is loaded with oxygen-rich nitro groups which are liable to fire up: explosively if the conditions are right.

The weight-loss connexion goes back at least 100 years, when it was noticed that workers in certain French munitions factories were getting thinner. DNP is a yellowish powder in its pure form and the poor buggers were inhaling enough of the stuff [PPE is a relatively recent idea] to have a physiological effect. It took a while for some sharp entrepreneurs to monetize the observation and start selling DNP to those who felt that less is more in the waist department.  It's a bit like the canny lads who sold dried tape-worm eggs in a little pill as a weight-reduction therapy. Russian soldiers in WWII used to snort DNP during the winter offensives because it made them feel warmer.

The chemical / physiological effect is that DNP interferes with oxidative phosphorylation in mitochondria . . . so no ATP [the energy currency of all our cells] is made . . . so the body switches to alternative sources of energy, such as burning fat. This is why DNP has a certain vogue in among people who are trying for a six-pack. No sub-cutaneous fat makes yer abs all look more chiseled [as R: tires optional]. But no ATP means that all sorts of physiological processes pack up. Human Physiology, the way I teach it at The Institute, is all about homeostasis the exquisite fine tuning of all the different systems so they work in a miraculously goldiloxian way . . . until they don't. If you overdo (and there is really no safe dose) the DNP you are likely to experience: agitation, convulsions, dizziness, fever, headache, hot flushing, kidney and liver failure, nausea, panting, sweating . . . and weight-loss.

It is on the watch list at the UK National Poisons Information Service NPIS where enquiries seem to go in cycles with peaks of interest every couple of years with much more usage since about 2015. There is no antidote or cure if you take this stuff: the good folks in ICU will try to deal with the symptoms as they present, but when multi-organ failure kicks in there's not a lot in the medicine chest and a couple of young people die every year after over-doing DNP.

Tuesday 11 August 2020


Years ago, I subscribed to AWAD A Word a Day which is what it says on the tin. Feller called Anu Garg picks words, often in weekly themes, M-F and gives each an etymology, a usage sentence and an unrelated quote-of-the-day. I wouldn't pay for the service but it gives 2 minutes of Different each day, which is no harm. Anyway last week the word was Ithyphallic: adj: a) lewd/salacious b) priapic. In my rush to scan the day's incommming e-mails I misread it as Ichthyphallic [adj: fish penis like?]. 

I wondered about "Ichthyphallic": it seems a bit of a unicorn because fish don't have 'em. That hasn't stopped folks from the Arts Block using that word w.r.t. things that ain't fishes! Google finds "Melville's ichthyphallic god" a dense Lit.Crit essay about Moby "Not-a-fish" Dick: "
"Most critics of Moby-Dick, especially in recent decades, would agree that Melville's motives for writing it included powerfully subversive and iconoclastic feelings. There is broad agreement that Melville's discomfort with and alienation from the culture in which he found himself pervade his most memorable work. If Ishmael's need to go to sea . . .". But while we're dicking about on the Pequod, Chapter 95 The Cassock deals with using 3 feet of the skin of a whale penis as a protective apron. <blush> I don't where to look. I wrote quite enough about it back in 2013.

Google also delivers waggish tweets about "Thousands of 'Penis Fish' Washed Up on a California Beach" which is all about Urechis unicinctus an invertebrate [not-a-fish] annelid worm.  The Vice story features a picture showing an invertebrate holocaust as far as the eye can see from which I've clipped a small sample from the foreground [L]. The picture taker David Ford said “Those creatures are in a phylum all by themselves with three other things and have been on their own path of evolution for 400 or 500 million years,” But that's a bit of an exaggeration. Science agrees that Urechis unicinctus and other Echiura are "worms" in the Phylum Annelida. Actually they are Polychaetes, related to the common "fish-bait" lugworm Arenicola marina. Mr Ford was not without a leg to stand on when he claimed a special status for Echiura because, unlike regular Annelids, they are not segmented. They are just big pink blobby feeding sacs. But a 2009 analysis of their mitochondrial DNA plonked them firmly into the segmented worm phylum. Their unsegmented anatomy is a secondary adaptation to a sedentary life-style.
It is considered a chewy deli delicacy in Korea and other parts of coastal East Asia: Gaebul or Hǎi Cháng will deliver recipes.

Monday 10 August 2020

Sonnets in the canopy

My friend and neighbour CathyFitz [prev] is my point of contact for all things sylvan. She recently posted a link to a project designed to elicit a variety of positive outcomes from just five minutes of focused attention on a soundless film clip. It's called Imagining Woodlands Under Lockdown and was dreamed up by Jo Dacombe an artist interested in the politics, history and appreciation of landscape. Participants are requested and required to watch a single take of a vertical shot through a woodland canopy somewhere in England and while doing that jot down words as they surface from the depths of your mind. When everyone is finished, they Zoom together, share their written experience and collaborate to create a single coherent poem triggered by what everyone has seen.

Dacombe is asking punters to use only their eyes in this event; not allow the distractions of smells and sounds to de-focus the attention. In normal times,  she will do something similar in real woods and often ask for a different sensory mode to front the experience. Sit down, close your eyes and listen. When a group of humans stops gallumphing through the woods and shuts TF up, then soon enough the forest will come alive again as the native players accommodate to the heffalumps in the glade. Using your ears is key for birders: often you cannot hope to catch sight of your quarry and must rely on the diagnostic calls of each species. I hear our resident Jay Garrulus glandarius far more often than I get a view of him. Contrariwise, picking beans in a dense wall of foliage I find that feeling the weight is often handier than seeing the beans. Up on a ladder it is easy to get Father Dougal fooled about whether it's a small bean 15cm from my eyelash or something worth eating.

Imagining Woodlands is an interesting idea. You may bet your sweet bippy that everyone will bring something different to the table despite have experienced the exact same filmlet. I'm thinking that because one of the words that knocked on the doors of my perception was Rashomon [prev], Kurosawa's film which uses a lot of tracking shots of sun through leaves and which hinges on the totally different explanatory narratives that each of the protagonists develops to come out of the encounter in the woods smelling of roses. Because, this time, it's a visual exercise people are asked to think about how their poem will l👁👁k on the page.

Jim Henterly has spent 27 years working as a Fire Lookout on Desolation Peak. Paying attention to the rolling world around him. "This present moment lives on . . . to become long ago". Jim and his missus did nine seasons at co-watchers when they were newly married and raised a couple of kids in the wild outdoors on the job. Jack "Desolation Angels" Kerouak, the beat poet and novelist, shat in exactly the same woods in the 1950s. Being a fire-watcher is another, much more onerous, activity that requires focused attention. Not only to learn, and act upon, the earliest signs of smoke as evanescent differences of tone against the distant clouds; it's also about the eagles; the unpassing time; the smell of distant bear;