Wednesday 30 September 2020

Last train to flapjackville

I was up betimes yesterday and drove into The Institute for the last time on the payroll. I had made a slab of flapjacks and left them into the office. Much as people will miss getting home-made cookies on an irregular basis, to the nearest whole number none will take up that baking tray and run with it. The vultures had already descended on the fragments of my teaching toolkit. When I cleared my desk at the beginning of the month, I had left a yard of books which I couldn't justify bringing home and by yesterday's end half of them had been re-homed. Win!

To get a new key cut there, you have to indent in triplicate and get the request countersigned by your Head of Department and counter-countersigned by the Head of School. Even then delivery takes months. Over the last 8 years, I have scavenged, ordered and stolen a set of keys to almost all the science labs. Apart from the key to my [shared] office, I never considered these to be mine. Rather I made a set of key-fobs and hung them on a little dinky row of hooks above my desk so that any colleague who needed access knew where to get the key. Four of those keys are now on someone's personal key-ring; 3 of them to one person who has been working there for three years and has yet to succeed in getting their own key to the lab they use every week. Win!

I have also bequeathed my Lab Cornucopia: a xerox box in a Tesco bag [perfick fit] . . . everything a chap might need for teaching class in a biology lab: lighters for the Bunsens; pens for marking Petri dishes; two packets of craft-knife blades to supplement . . . a dissection kit with scalpel, tweezers, dissecting scissors, probes and weirdly a cut-throat razor; a couple of wooden wedges for keeping the door open and welcoming; a collection of pens, pencils and rules; erasers; masking tape; scotch-tape; string; drawing pins. Win!

The students are more or less back on campus, although the place will be a bit tumbleweed this year because so many classes and being delivered on line. But I was in the same room as 8 of the Yr1 Pharmacy Technicians, all physically distanced, for part of their induction / orientation. I'll be in the same virtual room as the whole set tomorrow for my 1st and last two lectures via Blackboard-Collaborate. It's not the same.

I went to The Office to thank the Admins for many years of being proactive, tolerant, supportive and sassy. You don't  have to buy their sweetness with cookies but it does no harm. I'd just about wrapped up there when my HoD walked in from another meeting. I was able to compliment her for being The Best line-manager I'd ever had: efficient, kind, door-open, supportive, accommodating and appreciative. It's a task that gets few enough thanks and little enough appreciation: when things run smoothly we tend to take it for granted. But only part of smooth running is due to the inertia of forward momentum in the same old rut. I wouldn't do her job for any money.

That's a wrap I said and started off for home. Only to realise, when I stopped to buy a crate of booze groceries, that I'd left my coat behind in the office. Luckily the office door was still open but everyone had gone home, so I didn't have to reprise my departure. 

Tuesday 29 September 2020

The house that Felix built

At the risk of sounding like The Club Bore, we've been interested in Carlow granite since my grandfather's grave-marker was carved out of the stuff in 1957. Who knew back then that 40 years later we'd come and live in a farm built of Carlow granite rubble-in-courses. R-i-C is a way of using the available material to make vertical walls. The stone-mason does their best to find 'face-stones' which have two flattish faces, more or less at right-angles. They might have to <tonk> off some lumps to make the stone fit, or sit, neatly in the growing wall. "Through-stones" are another high-value asset: these are stones which are as long as the wall is wide [typically 500 mm]; they can serve as ties to link the inner and outer face of the wall and give it more structural stability.  Big stones are better than small stones because they require less mortar. The biggest stones will often be found at the base of the wall because they are heavy to lift. But you don't want to be left with only small rubbish when you reach the top of the house: see Psalms 118 v 22. The last course, has to support the roof, after all. The stone mason will often employ a mate who can help with the heavy-lifting and mix the mortar. 

Do not use sand-and-[portland] cement for mortar [or re-pointing]! It is too rigid for miscellaneous rubble stone walls: the coefficient of thermal expansion is different for different materials - yes, even different granites - so you need a packing material with a bit of give. Lime mortar is yer only man. Lime mortar is a witch's brew of slaked lime [calcium hydroxide]; coarse, but not too coarse, sand; cow shit at 5% w/v and water. It is nicely plastic even when set: allowing each stone to heave about in the sun under its own expanding imperatives without disturbing the other stones in the area.

The face-stones and through-stones will be packed with rubble: smaller stuff to fill the middle of the wall and the awkward chinks and gaps in the faces. A day's work will be a 'lift' or 'course' of 400-450 mm vertical which is finished to a horizontal level from which to start the next day's work. They were quite fussy about these horizontals: we have slates and fire-brick shards embedded in the wall to bring up a bit of a dip. It was never intended that the structure of the wall would be revealed to human gaze - we spent a lot of time chipping off the plaster, which gave the rooms a smoothe public face, to reveal the bricolage of structural function.

A mason once told me that the trick was to never return a rock to the pile - find a place for it somewhere. in the work. And in ainm Dé, wear steel-capped boots! Rubble-in-courses won't do for the [door and window] openings. These are often finished in bricks which cost ready money, but have uniform dimensions and make a definitely straight vertical edge which makes the carpenter's work easier. The lintels are typically made of roughly squared granite slabs which have been split from the living rock with hammer and wedges. 

You can see the wedge marks both on the lintels and on the lump of rock which got left behind on the hill. I've clipped a detail [L] to show the wedge-marks highlighted in the oblique light of the setting sun. It also shows that the lintels typically come as a pair so that they can bridge the half-metre thick granite walls. The pair shown left are 2700mm = 9ft long and they have both been i) split from a suitable boulder on the hill ii) brought down to the yard on a sled iii) lifted unto the wall-top. All without the help of petrol or steel-capped boots. We live in The House the Bomb Fell On in 1941. Actually we don't, that would have been wet and draughty with half the roof blown away. We live in the house constructed from the rubble in the Summer of 1941. We know the stone-mason's name because someone told us when we arrived. But also because he humbly left his mark on two smears of sand-and-cement on the gable-end of one of the sheds which was also reconstructed at the time [see pics at top]. We have no idea who his mate was; it may well have been a rotating meitheal of local men who'd be happy to help re-house their neighbours if it was too soggy to make hay.

The House of the Bomb is of sufficient local interest that it has acquired a brown touristic interest sign the size of a bed-sheet that the county council installed at the bottom of the lane a couple of years ago. I could have been over my dead body about it; but I firmly believe that we don't own the house, let alone the Ringstone, we are holding it for future generations. "We have not inherited the land from our fathers, but have borrowed it from our children.” Probably not Chief Seattle: more likely Wendell Berry. [prev]. Nevertheless, the sign is on Friendface, GooglerMaps which means a trickle of randomers appearing in our yard for their Sunday afternoon entertainment. I usually make time to chat, especially if the visitors have asked about parking rather than, like, parking.

Monday 28 September 2020

Keep yer head down

Giraffe's are, like, tall and their neonatal babies are impossibly, lolloppingly cute. As I tried to explain a tuthree years ago, several different species of giraffe are now recognised from a quantitative study of their DNA. So the answer to the question "How many species of giraffe are there, then?" is more than one, less than eight, probably four. I am sorry to report that my machinations to air in Ireland a film about Giraffista Mary Innis Dagg have come to naught - having run into the sand of disinterest even before Coronarama.

There is no harm, though to revisit Giraffe's in the wild; and I have included a picture [L] to show what sort of hat the fashion-conscious giraffe will be wearing at the Serengeti Races in the Fall. Those of you who read my report about the holocaust of reindeer caused by a lightning strike, may have wondered why giraffes have the two little knobby horns on top of their heads. Well, no, I doubt if any normal person could have achieved a segue from Norway to Kenya when considering the lightning-susceptibility of two distantly related artiodactyls. Anyway Gizmodo is reporting a pretty clear anecdote about the death of two adjacent giraffes during a thunderstorm in South Africa. One corpse had a bloody contusion at the base of her horn and the other, apparently uninjured but defo not responsive must have take a "side-splash" or "ground current" from her nearby, slightly taller, pal. Tutorial on the language of fatal lightning strikes. The jury is still out on whether giraffes take more lightning strikes than shorter large mammals: two deaths don't maker a dataset! You'll probably be wondering if there are any behavioural adaptations in giraffes which might mitigate the risk of becoming a statistic during storms. Do they duck-and-cover or gallop towards the nearest acacia tree?

Sunday 27 September 2020

Wild sunday

 head into last work week tomo

Saturday 26 September 2020

The Verger

I cited this story before, but that link was frittered into oblivion by the instability of the interweb. So I thought I'd write it into the record here. In the Church of England, the Verger is the custodian of a church. A cut above a janitor, a sort of Sergeant to the Vicar / Rector [there is a difference] who is the Officer in Charge. Somerset Maugham was a prolific writer of short stories: the settings [colonial empire, London "society", London "under-class"] are all gone but many of the stories transcend their time and place to shine a spot-light on the human condition. Enjoy!

THE VERGER by W. Somerset Maugham 

There had been a christening that afternoon at St. Peter's, Neville  Square, and Albert Edward Foreman still wore his verger's gown. He kept his new one, its folds as full and stiff though it were made not of alpaca but of perennial bronze, for funerals and weddings (St. Peter's, Neville Square, was a church much favoured by the fashionable for these ceremonies) and now he wore only his second-best. He wore it with complacence for it was the dignified symbol of his office, and without it (when he took it off to go home) he had the disconcerting sensation of being somewhat insufficiently clad. He took pains with it; he pressed it and ironed it himself. During the sixteen years he had been verger of this church he had had a succession of such gowns, but he had never been able to throw them away when they were worn out and the complete series, neatly wrapped up in brown paper, lay in the bottom drawers of the wardrobe in his bedroom. 

   The verger busied himself quietly, replacing the painted wooden cover on the marble font, taking away a chair that had been brought for an infirm old lady, and waited for the vicar to have finished in the vestry so that he could tidy up in there and go home. Presently he saw him walk across the chancel, genuflect in front of the high altar and come down the aisle; but he still wore his cassock. 

   "What's he 'anging about for?" the verger said to himself "Don't 'e know I want my tea?" 

 The vicar had been but recently appointed, a red-faced energetic man in the early forties, and Albert Edward still regretted his redecessor, a clergyman of the old school who preached leisurely sermons in a silvery voice and dined out a great deal with his more aristocratic parishioners. He liked things in church to be just so, but he never fussed; he was not like this new man who wanted to have his finger in every pie. But Albert Edward was tolerant. St. Peter's was in a very good neighbourhood and the parishioners were a very nice class of people. The new vicar had come from the East End and he couldn't be expected to fall in all at once with the discreet ways of his fashionable congregation. 

   "All this 'ustle," said Albert Edward. "But give 'im time, he'll learn." 

   When the vicar had walked down the aisle so far that he could address the verger without raising his voice more than was becoming in a place of worship he stopped. 

   "Foreman, will you come into the vestry for a minute. I have something to say to you." 

   "Very good, sir." 

   The vicar waited for him to come up and they walked up the church together. 

   "A very nice christening, I thought sir. Funny 'ow the baby stopped 

cryin' the moment you took him." 

   "I've noticed they very often do," said the vicar, with a little smile. 

"After all I've had a good deal of practice with them." 

   It was a source of subdued pride to him that he could nearly always quiet a whimpering infant by the manner in which he held it and he was not unconscious of the amused admiration with which mothers and nurses watched him settle the baby in the crook of his surpliced arm. The verger knew that it pleased him to be complimented on his talent. 

    The vicar preceded Albert Edward into the vestry. Albert Edward was a trifle surprised to find the two churchwardens there. He had not seen them come in. They gave him pleasant nods. 

 "Good afternoon, my lord. Good afternoon, sir," he said to one after the other. 

They were elderly men, both of them and they had been churchwardens almost as long as Albert Edward had been verger. They were sitting now at a handsome refectory table that the old vicar had brought many years before from Italy and the vicar sat down in the vacant chair between them. Albert Edward faced them, the table between him and them and wondered with slight uneasiness what was the matter. He remembered still the occasion on which the organist had got in trouble and the bother they had all had to hush things up. In a church like St. Peter's, Neville Square, they couldn't afford scandal. On the vicar's red face was a look of resolute benignity but the others bore an expression that was slightly troubled. 

   "He's been naggin' them he 'as," said the verger to himself. "He's jockeyed them into doin' something, but they don't like it. That's what it is, you mark my words."  But his thoughts did not appear on Albert Edward's clean cut and distinguished features. He stood in a respectful but not obsequious attitude. He had been in service before he was appointed to his  ecclesiastical office, but only in very good houses, and his deportment was irreproachable. Starting as a page-boy in the household of a merchant-prince he had risen by due degrees from the position of fourth to first footman, for a year he had been single-handed butler to a widowed peeress and, till the vacancy occurred at St. Peter's, butler with two men under him in the house of a retired ambassador. He was tall, spare, grave and dignified. He looked, if not like a duke, at least like an actor of the old school who specialised in dukes' parts. He had tact, firmness and self-assurance. His character was unimpeachable. 

   The vicar began briskly.  "Foreman, we've got something rather unpleasant to say to you. You've been here a great many years and I think his lordship and the general agree with me that you've fulfilled the duties of your office to the satisfaction of everybody concerned."

   The two churchwardens nodded. 

   "But a most extraordinary circumstance came to my knowledge the other day and I felt it my duty to impart it to the churchwardens. I discovered to my astonishment that you could neither read nor write." 

   The verger's face betrayed no sign of embarrassment. 

   "The last vicar knew that, sir," he replied. "He said it didn't make no difference. He always said there was a great deal too much education in the world for 'is taste." 

   "It's the most amazing thing I ever heard," cried the general. "Do you mean to say that you've been verger of this church for sixteen years and never learned to read or write?" 

   "I went into service when I was twelve sir. The cook in the first place tried to teach me once, but I didn't seem to 'ave the knack for it, and then what with one thing and another I never seemed to 'ave the time. I've never really found the want of it. I think a lot of these young fellows waste a rare lot of time readin' when they might be doin' something useful." 

   "But don't you want to know the news?" said the other churchwarden. 

"Don't you ever want to write a letter?" 

   "No, me lord, I seem to manage very well without. And of late years now they've all these pictures in the papers I get to know what's goin' on pretty well. Me wife's quite a scholar and if I want to write a letter she writes it for me. It's not as if I was a bettin' man." 

   The two churchwardens gave the vicar a troubled glance and then looked down at the table. 

   "Well, Foreman, I've talked the matter over with these gentlemen and they quite agree with me that the situation is impossible. At a church like St. Peter's Neville Square, we cannot have a verger who can neither read nor write." 

   Albert Edward's thin, sallow face reddened and he moved uneasily on his feet, but he made no reply. 

   "Understand me, Foreman, I have no complaint to make against you. You do your work quite satisfactorily; I have the highest opinion both of your character and of your capacity; but we haven't the right to take the risk of some accident that might happen owing to your lamentable ignorance. It's a matter of prudence as well as of principle." 

   "But couldn't you learn, Foreman?" asked the general. 

   "No, sir, I'm afraid I couldn't, not now. You see, I'm not as young as I was and if I couldn't seem able to get the letters in me 'ead when I was a nipper I don't think there's much chance of it now." 

   "We don't want to be harsh with you, Foreman," said the vicar. "But the churchwardens and I have quite made up our minds. We'll give you three months and if at the end of that time you cannot read and write I'm afraid you'll have to go." 

   Albert Edward had never liked the new vicar. He'd said from the beginning that they'd made a mistake when they gave him St. Peter's. He wasn't the type of man they wanted with a classy congregation like that. And now he straightened himself a little. He knew his value and he wasn't going to allow himself to be put upon. 

   "I'm very sorry sir, I'm afraid it's no good. I'm too old a dog to learn new tricks. I've lived a good many years without knowin' 'ow to read and write, and without wishin' to praise myself, self-praise is no  recommendation, I don't mind sayin' I've done my duty in that state of life in which it 'as pleased a merciful providence to place me, and if I could learn now I don't know as I'd want to." 

   "In that case, Foreman, I'm afraid you must go." 

   "Yes sir, I quite understand. I shall be 'appy to 'and in my resignation as soon as you've found somebody to take my place." 

   But when Albert Edward with his usual politeness had closed the church door behind the vicar and the two churchwardens he could not sustain the air of unruffled dignity with which he bad borne the blow inflicted upon him and his lips quivered. He walked slowly back to the vestry and hung up on its proper peg his verger's gown. He sighed as he thought of all the grand funerals and smart weddings it had seen. He tidied everything up, put on his coat, and hat in hand walked down the aisle. He locked the church door behind him. He strolled across the square, but deep in his sad thoughts he did not take the street that led him home, where a nice strong cup of tea awaited; he took the wrong turning. He walked slowly along. His heart was heavy. He did not know what he should do with himself. He did not fancy the notion of going back to domestic service; after being his own master for so many years, for the vicar and churchwardens could say what they liked, it was he that had run St. Peter's, Neville Square, he could scarcely demean himself by accepting a situation. He had saved a tidy sum, but not enough to live on without doing something, and life seemed to cost more every year. He had never thought to be troubled with such questions. 

The vergers of St. Peter's, like the popes Rome, were there for life. He had often thought of the pleasant reference the vicar would make in his sermon at evensong the first Sunday after his death to the long and faithful service, and the exemplary character of their late verger, Albert Edward Foreman. He sighed deeply. Albert Edward was a non-smoker and a total abstainer, but with a certain latitude; that is to say he liked a glass of beer with his dinner and when he was tired he enjoyed a cigarette. It occurred to him now that one would comfort him and since he did not carry them he looked about him for a shop where he could buy a packet of Gold Flakes. He did not at once see one and walked on a little. It was a long street with all sorts of shops in it, but there was not a single one where you could buy cigarettes. 

   "That's strange," said Albert Edward.   To make sure he walked right up the street again. No, there was no doubt about it. He stopped and looked reflectively up and down. 

   "I can't be the only man as walks along this street and wants a fag," he said. "I shouldn't wonder but what a fellow might do very well with a little shop here. Tobacco and sweets, you know." 

   He gave a sudden start. 

   "That's an idea," he said. "Strange 'ow things come to you when you least expect it." 

   He turned, walked home, and had his tea. 

   "You're very silent this afternoon, Albert," his wife remarked. 

   "I'm thinkin'," he said. 

   He considered the matter from every point of view and next day he went along the street and by good luck found a little shop to let that looked as though it would exactly suit him. Twenty-four hours later he had taken it and when a month after that he left St. Peter's, Neville Square, for ever, Albert Edward Foreman set up in business as a tobacconist and newsagent. His wife said it was a dreadful come-down after being verger of St. Peter's, but he answered that you had to move with the times, the church wasn't what it was, and 'enceforward he was going to render unto Caesar what was Caesar's. 

Albert Edward did very well. He did so well that in a year or so it struck him that he might take a second shop and put a manager in. He looked for another long street that hadn't got a tobacconist in it and when he found it and a shop to let, took it and stocked it. This was a success too. Then it occurred to him that if he could run two he could run half a dozen, so he began walking about London, and whenever he found a long street that had no tobacconist and a shop to let he took it. In the course of ten years he had acquired no less than ten shops and he was making money hand over fist. He went round to all of them himself every Monday, collected the week's takings and took them to the bank. 

   One morning when he was there paying in a bundle of notes and a heavy bag of silver the cashier told him that the manager would like to see him. He was shown into an office and the manager shook hands with him. 

   "Mr. Foreman, I wanted to have a talk to you about the money you've got on deposit with us. D'you know exactly how much it is?" 

   "Not within a pound or two, sir; but I've got a pretty rough idea." 

   "Apart from what you paid in this morning it's a little over thirty thousand pounds. That's a very large sum to have on deposit and I should have thought you'd do better to invest it." 

   "I wouldn't want to take no risk, sir. I know it's safe in the bank." 

   "You needn't have the least anxiety. We'll make you out a list of absolutely gilt-edged securities. They'll bring you in a better rate of interest than we can possibly afford to give you." 

   A troubled look settled on Mr. Foreman's distinguished face. "I've never 'ad anything to do with stocks and shares and I'd 'ave to leave it all in your 'ands," he said. 

   The manager smiled. "We'll do everything. All you'll have to do next time you come in is just to sign the transfers." 

   "I could do that all right, said Albert uncertainly. "But 'ow should I know what I was signin'?" 

   "I suppose you can read," said the manager a trifle sharply. 

   Mr. Foreman gave him a disarming smile. 

   "Well, sir, that's just it. I can't. I know it sounds funny-like but there it is, I can't read or write, only me name, an' I only learnt to do that when I went into business." 

   The manager was so surprised that he jumped up from his chair. 

   "That's the most extraordinary thing I ever heard." 

   "You see it's like this, sir, I never 'ad the opportunity until it was too late and then some'ow I wouldn't. I got obstinate-like." 

   The manager stared at him as though he were a prehistoric monster. 

   "And do you mean to say that you've built up this important business and  amassed a fortune of thirty thousand pounds without being able to read or write? Good God, man, what would you be now if you had been able to?" 

   "I can tell you that sir," said Mr. Foreman, a little smile on his still aristocratic features. "I'd be verger of St. Peter's, Neville Square." 

Friday 25 September 2020

Golden Wheat

Down the Rabbit 'ole of Mem from a piece in Flippism Is The Key.

Woot! When I was doing field work in New England in the early 1980s, my boss and I started doing some harmless moonlighting in thrift stores and junk-shops. Heck, if you're going past an emporium which you'll likely never pass again, what harm to make a focused foray? As we were also hooked on the diner ethic [meat-loaf mmmm good], I started collecting droppable, super-robust Buffalo diner china for less than a buck-a-piece. My boss who'd gotten married in 1963 started to beef up his collection of Golden Wheat [looks like] which had been distributed free in Duz washing powder. I left the country in 1983 with a modest misc collection of cups and dishes. The Boss went a bit bonkers on Golden Wheat; every time I'd go back to visit there'd be another box of saucers and gravy boats. Christmas presents from his daughters was _sorted_ for the next decade. Easy come, easy go; job lots of Golden Wheat sell at about 25c a piece.

The Buffalo china was often in a neutral beige colour which was less likely to show washing-up errors and, as I say, designed to fall on a marble counter top and bounce. The older lines had a blobby "buffalo" embossed on the base, replaced later by a printed label under the glaze. Said to be worth money. but not the purely functional bowls, mugs and plates I picked up [unbroken!] for about 25c a piece in the 1980s.

When The Beloved got in on the yard-sales and china jag, she had far better taste than either me of NBT and went for Fiesta Ware a super-bright solid colour Art Deco line of dinner-ware in orange-red; cobalt blue; lime green; yolk yellow; old ivory; robin's egg blue; rose; grey; forest green; chartreuse; John Deere green. The peculiar thing about the orange-red glaze was that it had significant quantities of uranium oxide that would fire up a Geiger counter. Their entire stocks of that material were confiscated by the Feds in 1943 for the war effort. Perhaps my greatest ever dumpster diving coup was finding two Fiesta-ware tumblers in a cardboard box of old china cleaned out at tenant-change by the property company which ran the apartment complex which we inhabited 1981-1983. Depending on the colour, age, etc. these are "worth" $10-$50 each. We picked up a bunch of bowls and plates as 'seconds' after we came back to Ireland in the 1990s and Fiesta-ware underwent a rival. I am happy to say that we use a multi-coloured selection as our everyday dinner ware. The red-orange plate keeps food warmer longer - so that's a win!

Thursday 24 September 2020

Surveying the routes

We're back on the hill, The Beloved and me, making progress for progressive farming in Ireland's uplands. Last week we did a couple of days preparing a square of over-grown heather for controlled burning. Actually it was more preparing the periphery to make it less likely that the heather blazing would take off across the hillside à la California. Clearing a fire-break by hand is heart-break hard. A strimmer, or better a hedge-clipper, is The Biz with a team of rakers and gleaners coming along after each noise-maker.

As the Surveyor General, I was asked to  see if it was feasible to clear the thatch off a path across the hillside to The Giant's Table, our medium sized dolmen; and super modest tourist attraction. I went for a walk to the Cross last Saturday night and came down via the Summit and the Giant's Table. Along the way, I met two of my neighbours in a tractor. One of them suggested strimming a path to the Giant's Table from the North. If you follow the turf track round the back of the hill, it zig-zags up to the summit. At the 1st sharp bend this rutted path is pointing more or less straight at the G's Table. That strikes me as an excellent idea because, having approached the Giant's Table from the South, most people will be heading onwards and upwards. 
I've called this Route A. There are two reasonable paths from the South to the Giant's Table. One veering off the "main road" at the top of the forest. It's 440m [on a gradient of 1 in 3.6] from there to the Table, fairly clear of rocks and reasonably dry underfoot. On the map [R] I've called this Route C.  I prefer a shorter 360m, slightly steeper [1 in 3] route (less work strimming) starting further along the track at the Big Drain under the roadway opposite Ryan's Walls across the Wexford border. This is Route B. 
Having worked out what equipment was required, it took 2 hours to clear 2 sides = 140m of the burning square. Route A+B could take between 4x and 5x as many person-hours. You don't need to be very fussy: the expectation is that encouraging walkers along a make-it-easier path will be sufficient to keep the way clear. 
For surveying the route, it's much easier if two people are involved: one to do the angles and one to plant ["left left right-a-bit, left, that's spot on"] the distant flags. Could be done the same day as the strimming and raking. Again that does have to be obsessively accurate: if the line is, say, 3° adrift if will only be sin(3°) off or 5% at the far end . . . say 20m over half a kilometer.

Wednesday 23 September 2020

Beat me up Scotty

 I subscribe to the half a loaf is better than no bread school of aphorism. Saturday last, I spent a day on the far side of the hill strimming and raking a fire-break for a patch of heather scheduled for "controlled burning". It was a perfick day: scudding clouds, not too much wind, a bit of focus on the immediate, mighty craic. At close of business, as we filed off the hill down a sheep track, I saw a roof-slate in the heather. It turned out to be, not a slate, but a rectangle of heavy duty butyl rubber with chunk ripped out of one edge . . . the flap of a broken fire-beater. That's all very well if you have €30, and it seems to be singularly ineffective at putting out the fire, like; in India they just use a wet branch.

Everyone else had trudged past this artifact, so I picked it up and took it home: half a beater is better than no beater. And it's worth $30 x ½ = 15 euros! If I'd left €10 in folding money by the sheep path, I doubt if 12 poor farmers would have disdained to pick it up. As it happens, I had a 1500mm x 40mm⌀ off-cut of solid wood curtain rail about the shed.  I had gotten as far  as pointing up one end of this pole for a back-up long-handled shovel handle. But that can wait, because the beater calls! So a cut a notch in the end of my new handle, reversed the rubber flapper and bolted it to end the the shaft [see L]. Always ready to see  opportunity when others see threat, I am pushing this design as Bob's Patent Notched Fire-beater: less air-resistance, superior contact and effectiveness. This beater may save your life! Why not? I will certainly bring my new toy along to the controlled burning demonstration - if that ever happens.

You'll also notice a short-handled spade with a walk-on part in the picture. This is another riff on today's theme: two half spades is a whole spade . . . if you keep the keep the broken stump of handle for about 20 years and then find a shovel blade at the back of a shed. A bittle whittle and three short screws and another tool to use when the zombie apocalypse starts to gain momentum

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Just a Little Closer to The Lord

Dang! Missed. Winston Groom dead and I never said thanks. I've been thinking about the rural micro-community in which we washed up 24 years ago; because I've been working shoulder-to-shoulder with them on the Blackstairs Farming Futures BFF project. Like when servicemen of different skin-tone face death and destruction together, they cut each other some slack afterwards and leave their pre-war prejudice behind [a bit anyway . . . maybe?]. Thus my neighbours no longer think I have hooves and tuck a pointy black protestant tail down me trews when I get dressed in the morning. Cuts both ways: these people are kind, competent and circumspect; and they are far better than me at pretty much anything that requires handling the material world. They think they are just ordinary folks, and that's true, but it doesn't mean that they aren't unique and uniquely interesting for their lived experience. Salt of the Earth is a tired cliché but it does the biz here. It's been in my mind to record the snap-shot of who's been living in rural Ireland as the 20thC became The Future.

40 years ago, The Beloved was given "Thanks Wiw!" an anthology of stories "WONDERS: writings and drawings for the child in us all" eds Jonathan Cott and Mary Gimbel. It's 635 pages long but we filleted out a few of the stories and read and re-read them aloud to/with The Boy as he was growing up. Twenty years later with the arrival of Dau.I and Dau.II, Wonders was dusted off and I read the same stories again and again. Indeed, the berluddy book burst its spine between pp266 & 267 because the previous story had been read so many times. That story is "Just a Little Closer To The Lord" by Winston Groom illustrated by Pat Oliphant the renowned political cartoonist.

JaLC2TL is set in Widgeville, Carolina where two parallel communities - one black, one white - have occupied the same space for 300 years. A mysterious traveller, called Walking Hand, washes up in their midst and stays, minding his own business and tolerated in an uneasy way by the people of Widgeville. He is "othered" much as in Ireland [and your gaff too] we other homeless people, travellers, refugees. Stuff happens and violence is about to be unleashed when someone opens the attaché case which has been Walking Hand's only piece of baggage. The case is full of pieces of tree-bark . . .

On each one was a portrait of a Widgeville family, in front of their own house.

"Oh, that's us!" someone said. "They're so real. They almost look like photographs."

And slowly, as each family looked at the painting of itself, a hush fell over the crowd, for each saw in his or her own face a deep and radiant beauty that they had never recognized was there before. The fact was, that the Widgeville people had always believed they were ugly - the whites because they were short and squat and different from people in other towns around them, and the blacks merely because they were black. But in the portraits they saw themselves for the first time as an outsider might see them. each face framed with the glow of hope and loveliness that bloomed from the paintings almost magically.

There's a resolution to that story [nobody dies!!] because Winston Groom was a consummate teller of tales; but you'll have to track down a copy of the book yourself.  Jonanthan Cott the editor was a well respected recorder of pop culture in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Mary Gimbel the other editor had the pulse of the New York arts-and-millionaires scene. Winston Groom wrote his contribution to Wonders, 6 years before he published Forrest Gump. And 16 years before the film that made him famous. That stuff I wrote about war helping colour-blindness in the first paragraph, was Groom's lived experience because he served [L] in Vietnam and what he saw set the compass of his subsequent life. As I say, he'd gone now: ave atque vale.

Monday 21 September 2020

Public speaks

In my piece about dialogue, I did drift into the realm of public talks which triggered a few follow-ons in my "mind". One of the great failures in good manners is the habit of filling churches and auditoria from the back. Pop concerts seem to work in the opposite way; I'm guessing so that the fans have a chance of being showered by the pop idols sweat. When I felt I'd joined the patriarchy at about the age of 40, I'd make a point of sitting near the front of hall so that the speaker would have less of a sense of alienation. The unfortunate consequence of reaching the Age of Respeck is that's when the immortal body of youth starts to sag a bit. Not only the six-pack but also a raft of homeostatic mechanisms for maintaining physiological set-points. 

Academic talks are often given after lunch, which process diverts much of the circulatory system to the viscera at the expense of the head. I learned after a while that the younger members of the audience in the back three rows would open a book on whether the Bob the Oul'Feller in the front was, or was not, asleep. Dang! but it's hard to stay awake when the lights dim and the boring details start to be explained slide after slide after slzzzzzzzzz. At least I didn't fall extravagantly asleep like my Emeritus Professor of Genetics [R] at the TCD Quatercentenary symposium in 1992 . . . I started snoring 20 years later and 20 years younger.

We are desperate, consciously or unconsciously, for the approval of our peers. Gretchen McCulloch talks about taking one for the team by being conspicuously engaged when listening to talks. She knows, as a High Involvement conversationalist, that the speaker's equanimity depends on someone in the sea of faces looking like they're enjoying the event. This can <urban legend alert> be mobilised by co-ordinated crowd action. IF all the students in the room agree to look up and pay attention when The Prof moves left and look at their shoes when s/he drifts right THEN by the end of the lecture the poor speaker will be crammed into the left front corner between the bin and the fire-extinguisher. Ah go on try it. 
And while we're on the judgmental front, I'll note that two of my colleagues, of full age, are in the habit of bringing their smart-phones to meetings and multitasking with the business at hand and the desperate demands of their social media. Well, really!

Sunday 20 September 2020

Begin Middle End


Saturday 19 September 2020

Leeson Street madelaine

Last year, as this year, I mentored a couple of students in the MSc in Pharmeceutical Regulatory Affairs  aka PharmRegs. I was unable to shake one of last year's crop loose and we are still in contact as I watch his pilgrim's progress through the hostile environment of post Twenty-Seventh Amendment of the Constitution which limited the rights to citizenship-by-birth in Ireland. It's not super-hostile in a BLM manner but it's always harder in Ireland for those who have the best tan. Anyway DrV has been working in a Community Pharmacy in South suburban Dublin since the beginning of lockdown. It's been a logistical nightmare because he's been unwilling to let go the bed in the house he shares with a couple of Indian pals in Graigcullen Co.Boondocks. Digs near his work and then a long ragged journey on public transport when he had a few days off work for normal human relations with normal human beings . . . and plenty of dhal.

He sent me a text last week to say that he'd landed a new gaff in Upper XX Leeson Street at the ropier end of salubrious Dublin 4 - where all the embassies are. Nice for him but a vortex to me because, for about 8 months in 1977-1978, we lived in the same house! Not the whole house, mind for either party. DrV has brought the mountain to his Mohammed by persuading his two pals from Tamil Nadu to give up the ould country house and shift gear into the turmoil of the city. They have a whole floor, two double bedrooms kitch bath liv etc.  

In 1977 we inherited a single room 4.5 x 5.0 m with a big Georgian window looking out over the street. I say 'inherited' because these flats and bedsits were valuable assets and you'd be sure to let your network know if you were off the Philadelphia or Dortmund to earn a crust. Bedsits are now illegal in Ireland because the are though to constitute an affront to human dignity and the Rights of Man. But I lived a succession of these private spaces when I was a student and was as happy there as I am now with our mighty farrrm of land where you can't hear, let alone smell the neighbours. We, at that time, were Herself, myself and The Boy, who turned 2 in that room. It was a bit cramped but sure beat a Citroen Dyane which we'd called home for the whole of Summer 1977. 

We still had the car when we lived in Leeson Street and would beetle off to New Ross some weekends to visit The Beloved's family. I'd be sure to bring home a trunk full of fire-wood to send up the chimney of the open fire-place with which the room was heated. In those days you'd be much more likely to throw on a gansey than throw the switch on the central heating. I'd also slope off along the adjacent Grand Canal after dark and scavenge fallen branches for 'sticks' and kindling. A little triangle of park at Wilton Place had particularly rich pickings. Years later the headquarters of Science Foundation Ireland looked out over that park, little appreciating how hard it was to keep scientists warm in Ireland before SFI started to lurry cash into the enterprise.

As well as free sticks, I also cruised about looking for bits of timber. It was probably there that I made an exceedingly uncomfortable arm-chair from a tea-chest. And definitely there that I built a timber platform bed in one corner of our home. The slightly louche brother of a friend presented us with a 2.4 x 1.2 m sheet of laminated MDF for the lid of the platform. It was super-smooth and washable in stark contrast to the other parts of the structure: I had a saw and a hammer but no plane. Underneath, I made a micro-bed for The Boy and a desk for writing. We definitely didn't advertise these structural changes when the landlord came to collect the rent on Fridays. But I still think we improved the utility of the space. The Beloved's sister didn't object when we set off for Foreign in June 1978 and she inherited the gaff on Leeson Street.

Friday 18 September 2020

Culture Tonight

Tonight, across the face of Ireland and the [digital] World, is Culture Night. It's hard to credit that this event is a comparatively recent [2006 start] creation. Then again, it comes as a total surprise to me each year, so I suspect the publicity engine is a bit sputtery. I mean, if they can't catch a known Culture Vulture like me, they must be whooshing past millions of people who will spend the evening watching the footie or getting hammered instead. They are by-passing that mythic creature Gaeilgeoir Teanga Amháin, because they haven't invested in a parallel in Irish web site.  I've suggested that Pat the Salt in Waterford tunes in to Mná na Déise a series of readings from the Women of the County. The plain people of Waterford have some linguistic peculiarities, some of which I've highlighted before.

Meanwhile, in The Republic, I've pointed Dau.II > !vive la francophonie! < at Alliance Française de Cork, where they're having a knees-up. Which will be ironic because much of the programme will be about the Breton language, which the Alliance Patriarchie Française has spent the last 200 years trying to extirpate. I'll leave you to brow the website. The [this is an opportunity not a threat] upside to Covid Culture Night is that you don't have to dither about two possible events happening at the same time buton opposite sides of town.

If you want Culture [in it's widest possible definition, including japes, spelinge errurs, science, farming and unintelligible automatic writing] , you could do worse than use the search box [search image R] at the top left of this page. I was in at my desk at The Institute on Wednesday and printed out the last most recent 100 Blobs . . . while I still have access to a laser printer, like. Almost exactly years ago, I did some obsessive nonsense to ensure that the millionth word written on The Blob was zeugma. I neither know nor care when [with help I am getting better] I passed 2 million Blob words, but sometime over the Summer than milestone whooshed past. I'll have something to read when I drift off into retirement in 15 days, including this one, time.

Thursday 17 September 2020

No, after you

Old joke. Woman meets a faerie in the forest and is granted one wish. She asks "that all my sons be prefect gentlemen".  Within the year she has fallen pregnant. The due-date comes . . . and goes . . . and nothing seems to be happening. A bit late, maybe, but she has an ultrasound which reveals twins. The heart-beats are fine, no fetal distress, so her professionals let nature take its course. Months pass. Eventually the Ob&Gyn puts a stethoscope up to the mother's abdomen and hears "After you, sir . . . no, no, after you . . . I insist old chap . . .

I am a bit of a fanboy about the Lingthusiasm Podcast. I downloaded a bunch of them and have been listening in when I'm dishwashing or driving. Then I have to listen again with my notebook a-ready because there's so much useful information and I'll forget it else. Actually McCulloch and Gawne, the Lingthusiasts, make it really easy with an excellent website which includes transcripts of each episode. I was on about their schwanalysis last week. The attention to detail is evident because their episode on turn-taking and conversation briefly explores the nature of transcription - a service for which they pay a professional. The transcription which makes it easy for you-and-me to read and maybe clip a quote from has been editted for clarity [removal of all the erm ah umm conversational place-holders for starters]. A conversation analyst [that's a job, like bus-driver or electrician] would require a much greater level of detail and times: because a long pause might be a key datum.

And the transcription misses all the gestures which are important for interlocutors to gain or cede, or not cede "The Floor". For the latter, it is not [normally] a question of just barrelling on and raising your voice, although that helps. If your voice goes ↑up↑ at the end of a phrase, or you pack the pause with erm umm I think or you raise your finger . . . hand  . . . forearm - all these indicate that you're not finished. Some of these clues will be missing in Zoom-calls, so it needs ✋ and a alert Chair to keep the dialogue moving productively. This ✋ is the first emoticon embedded in The Blob: a landmark of sorts. 

I you want the floor and you're not on Zoom you can: lean forward; half raise your hand; fully raise your eyebrows; half open you mouth . . . and go ukk ukk. If you are young, female or black you'll have to be waaay more assertive than if you are a Patriarch, the class bully. Talk shows on RTE really need some help here: guests, not just politicians, will talk across each other and many of the chairs / hosts, despite their €1xx,000 salaries are hopeless are achieving an orderly discourse. Radio especially hard on this listener. If you're dealing with youngsters who are learning the rules of cede and share or in polyglot situations where cultural cues may differ, then having a talking stick [R] will help restore discipline.

I'm getting most of this from another wonderful Lingthusiasm episode in Conversation, They have a particularly interesting dialogue about two types of conversationalists. You might pause to reflect if you are innately more of a High Consideration person or one who is High Involvement. Those are much less judgemental, and so more useful, terms than strong silent or gabbling interrupters. Both are assets in a dialogue to keep things going but you want to be careful to bring your natural predilection back from either extreme. High Consideration people, for example, could reset their dial on what seems rude in the interruption stakes. High Involvement people, who are intrinsically less happy with silence, may welcome a bit of interruption. It's really revealing to play back video of a meeting in which you were a participant. This is good reason to meet people over coffee: taking a sip of java facilitates change-over.

In public speaking, rather than dialogue, you have a different set of comms probs. The speaker is usually given the floor until they are finished. Even if they say at the beginning "please interrupt at any stage", people rarely do that. And it will be the alpha males in the room who do so. Unless they're a long way down the spectrum, speakers do nevertheless need cues and clues from the audience or they'll lose heart and so lose their train of thought and the event will drag out more than anyone needs. Considerate audiencers, especially if senior, can lubricate the process and help the speaker by nodding sagely, keeping gaze on the dais.

Wednesday 16 September 2020

The Holistic Landscape

I won an election! Single candidate, single party Viva Blobista!, tiny electorate. As the new Heritage Liaison Officer for our commonage, I am licensed to yomp across the hill paying attention to some of the details: rocks, plants, beetles, spiders, birds and the built environment.  I am particularly interested in the latter: where human sweat and broken fingernails have changed the living rock into things with human utility: lintels, sills, walls, pillars, shaughs, dwellings, tombs, altars. But also remember that the whole upland, dry-heath landscape is creation of human activity: without sheep there would be bog or forest. Mutton and wool, and their getting, have given a two century long pause to the natural succession.

Last Wednesday was a Perfect Day: sunny with scudding clouds driven by a warm damp Westerly wind and I had the entire 200 hectares of mountain to myself. I tasked myself to establish GPS coordinates for the more obvious landmarks on the hill. The Marian Year (1950) Cross; The Giant's Table; Dreelan's, Mackey's and The Great Shaugh. It was on the dot of lunchtime when I arrived at the Giant's Table: a chunky dolmen on the East ridge of our hill. I'd made me a sandwich with cheese and lamb's lettuce Valerianella locusta stuffed into half a homemade chapatti and Bliss was it in that lunch to be alive. But soon enough I was heading downslope to flatter land known as Mackey's Walls which is a ruined steading NE of the Giant's table.

That humble dwelling consisted of three rooms, one tiny and a two room shed [granny-flat??!] just to the West. Our family know it as Mog's Bothy because that's where The Boy used to go camping. The Mackey haggard has about the only patch of levelish dryish grass on which you can pitch a couple of tents. When his sisters were small, he'd take them up there for an overnight of magic, wet socks and pee in the bushes. Mackey's is interesting because of a row of five [one missing, one leaning] substantial squared granite pillars running parallel to one face of a rectangular walled enclosure:

I think they must have supported the front edge a roof extending back to the wall, although a man couldn't have walked upright underneath the rafters. Mystery, really. The other notable feature is that a rather precise half acre of, now heather-covered, lazy-beds fills the higher Western half of the haggard.
Lazy-beds is a rather pejorative term used for the potato Solanum tuberosum ridges which sustained the plain people of rural Ireland before the famine. Parallel trenches were dug and the spoil heaped up between. Spuds were planted into the ridge and earthed-up (with dung, rotted straw, seaweed if convenient) during the growing season to keep the tubers out of the sunlight. Unless you know to look and what to look for, you could miss this evidence of how folks lived 200 years ago. I was talking to Chris Corlett [prev and prev and prev] afterwards, about my finds and he said that [2.4m] wide ridges such as Mackey's were far more likely to have supported oats Avena sativa. and the oats, as in Scotland, supported the people. He said that he'd found evidence of such oats growing 1,000 feet up in County Wicklow. The hardy scallion-aters of Carlow were, from my evidence, growing oats at nearer 1,400 feet. 
Corlett also regretted the fragmentation of knowledge into non-overlapping magisteria. Botanists do plants and historians do manuscripts and rent-rolls and historical geographers do old maps. Arm-chair historians can write the papers and draw their conclusions without leaving the library!

The extraordinary things about the human eye is its scalability: we can focus on the moon or the stamens of a Tormentil. And in real time, in the real wet grass we can flick between one view and the other. Unless your knees are wet you only get a slice of the landscape - thin, insubstantial, almost meaningless. Louis Agassiz, Swiss-Harvard geologist and biologist, famously spent the whole summer on his knees in his back yard; but he only inventoried the beetles, not the deep history of his lawn. 

We need a more Prairyerth Deep Map view of where we happen to be standing.  PrairyErth is set in its unique topology, but that is buffeted by the weather (incl tornadoes) and overlies a characteristic geology, which determines the soil, which determines the vegetation, which determines the fauna that romped and slithered through the tall-grass before people ever arrived in Chase County. The view is so much richer because WLHM looks at these interlocking dimensions of the place through scientific as well as English-major eyes. And the people who finally appeared in this landscape were so intrinsically interesting that you need to hear their back-story and listen carefully to their folk-lore and songs. But most of all it is, like Thoreau, a celebration of the ordinary.

I got a little over-excited with all this cross-disciplinary talk. I started to think about besting PrairyErth's single county deep map and convening a symposium on a single hectare [such Mackey's mapped above] in the heart of the Blackstairs Hills. That would be both a metaphorical and physical "on". We'd pick a day next summer, or <covid> the one after, and bring together archaeologists, botanists, cartographers, dancers, economists, farmers, geographers, historians, illustrators, musicians, painters, poets, translators and zoologists. 
Everyone to spend the morning digging their truth out of the landscape
Each in turn to summarise their findings in 10 minutes
Take notes, lads, two half ideas make something never before seen and imagined.

Tuesday 15 September 2020

Harrassment at work

 It goes on. and on . . . and on . . . and ON! For pity's sake can we stop doing it? It's pathetic that grown up people are behaving like spiteful play-ground bullies. The latest case is Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin a lecturer in mathematics in UCD who was stalked by one of her older seepier blokier colleagues for two years from 2015-2017. Eventually she secured an injunction forbidding him to approach her. Ní Shúilleabháin can do the math to realise that 2017 is more than 2 years ago. This month she wrote about it in the Irish Times. And why not? We need to realise that bullying, intimidation and harrassment in college is not only a matter of protecting students. It means supporting and protecting anyone who is further down the pecking order than the emotionally crippled perps. Yes perpS because there's more than one; it's probably closer to say that there's one in every department of any substantive size. 

In the wake of that new wave of indignation the President of UCD Andrew Deeks issued a reputational damage-limiting apology: In a statement, Prof Deeks said: "I am greatly saddened that one of our colleagues experienced such traumatic events over an extended period, and I apologise to Aoibhinn on behalf of UCD. I also apologise to other colleagues and students who have suffered such experiences while in our care." To which Dr Ní Shúilleabháin tweeted "I’m very surprised to be reading about an apology from UCD President Andrew Deeks, since I haven’t received one or any communication from him on this matter". That tells me that objectifying employees goes to the very top of the chain in UCD; t'bugger couldn't pick up the phone to speak directly to the actual person who had been made miserable and fearful on his watch. Because of policies, procedures and due process <ha!> which he endorsed. All he cared about is how shiny are his own optics. They've cleared up the misunderstanding since.

I know I've written Nobody died but about one case in my alma mater. There an aggressively ambitious, widely published, much sought after for talks, scientist didn't think that a meeting with his students had been successful until one of them was in tears. He's still in post. In contrast to Tim "Nobel" Hunt who had to resign for saying that girls sometimes cry. This August Commissioner Phil Hogan was forced, most unwillingly and ungraciously, to resign because he'd been a multiple scofflaw on his Golfgate visit home from Brussels. A subset of the commentariat was saying that the very same ambitious, self-certain traits that got him in trouble that weekend were actually essential to his success as a politician and negotiator. That's plausible but bollix: real men don't punch down.

For pity's sake can we stop doing it? Because I've just been told of another case of deeply inappropriate behaviour from a senior manager to his subordinates in a multi-million dollar enterprise which preens itself on its gender and diversity inclusivity and general great-place-to-work-ness. A whistle was blown and The Board of Trustees appointed an HR consultant to investigate the several complaints. None of them was found to be bad enough to merit demerits let alone a sacking. This outcome is a win for the Board of Trustees because nothing to see here and they can continue believing their fictions.  For me the problem seemed to be one of statistics rather than optics. The HR hatchet-man [and appallingly for the optics it was a man!] treated all the interactions as series of independent events. But they are not independent! They all involve Probby O'Manager.

As so much, you can do it in Excel! Imagine that PO'M is line manager to 8 sub-ordinate Effectives. Over a certain time-period, they all have 20 interactions [meetings, memos, e-mails, phone-calls] with their boss. Assume these contacts are all essential for business, because otherwise one of the parties could be made redundant. And assume that everyone keeps records of when PO'M stepped >!whoa!< over the line of propriety and professionalism; then you'd generate a table like this:

Now imagine that Probby is valued for a certain brash get-up-and-go-ness. Like Phil Hogan he's known to be a tough no-nonsense negotiator who gets a lot out of his team and wins many contracts for the business. An appropriately briefed HR-hatchet will cut Probby some slack: it's just his manner, don't be so sensitive: so we'll allow half of the interactions to be a bit sketchy and only investigate if there seem to be a significant excess of over-step. The appropriate statistical test for comparing countable numbers of events against an expected values given a particular null hypothesis? That would by the ChiSq χ² test; been there before. Essentially we're doing that classic statistical test of tossing a coin multiple times to determine if there is a heads-bias. You toss a coin 10 times and you expect 5H : 5T but you shouldn't be surprised if 6H : 4T came up, or even 2H : 8T. But you'd begin to think fishy to toss that coin many more times and clock 20H : 80T. Even poor Fiona who gets so much grief that almost every interaction causes an eye-brow lift, her life isn't statistically different from acceptable. Ed plays rugger with Probby and is locker-room inured to trash-talking.
But if, as you should, you tally up all the interactions and perform the  ChiSq χ² test on those data, then it's much clearer that there is a Problem with Probby and he should be sent on a course or handed his cards. 
Finally back to the HR briefing. There are ways of framing a question to elicit different outcomes. During my very expensive education, I learned that Latin has three sorts of interrogative:
Neutral using ne. Do you want to join the team?
tune id veritus es? Do you fear that?
Question expecting the answer yes using nonne.  Surely you wish to join our team?
nonne me amas? Surely you love me? 
Question expecting the answer no using num. You cannot want to join that team.
num dubium est? Is there any doubt?
You can imagine the Board saying "We've had this awkward complaint, could you investigate making sure that due process is followed, we don't want a kangaroo court here."
OR "This is a very serious indictment which could have serious implications for the enterprise's reputation and profitability; we need a root-and-branch investigation of company norms, company culture, actual hiring and promotion practices. We will not tolerate even the hint of bullyism, intimidism, sexism, racism, gayism or agism. This is not a matter of the Mission Statement, this is about real people whose welfare [and <ahem> productivity] we care about"

Monday 14 September 2020

Bad bargains

 A good deal is where both parties feel that they've gotten a Win. A bad bargain, not necessarily involving bullying, leaves one side sold short - if only in their head. Sometimes that will result in long-term harm to the triumphal side; but often not. Not if there will be no repeat business, for example. When we sold the first and only house we bought in England, there had been a fair amount of traffic been vendor and purchaser. The keys were handed over at their solicitor's office - The Beloved did all the legal work on our side having read The Conveyancing Fraud by Michael Joseph [things may be different now]. TB left a card and a bottle of wine on the kitchen table before locking the front door for the last time. We never got an acknowledgement of that gesture which led to a sneaking suspicion that they found the subsidence cracks in the wall that we had briskly papered over. Kidding! we didn't do that but we did feel we got the market / fair price for the house and still hope that the purchasers had as much happiness there as we did.

I was skyping B my correspondent in Singapore and cited The Curse of Knowledge by Steven Pinker as important to bear in mind when teaching. That led her to leave a long informative comment on a Pinker inspired piece I wrote about the gender pay-gap. Including "In Singapore as young men have to do 2 years national service (but the women don't) they are offered more for entry level jobs then women. It's nice and plain on advertisements, usually anywhere from $500 - $2000 a month difference. This is to balance that they have had to sacrifice 2 years of earning that women have been able to take advantage of. "  I don't think that there is an equivalent balance to account for the years women take out of their careers to raise the kids. 

It's not only in explicitly patriarchal societies that men have got that boost in the early stages of their career. Last Christmas at the TCD Genetics alumni party, I was comparing notes with a contemporary who had played his pension cards much better than me. He could have retired on full pension [half pay] at 60 because, according to TCD, he'd done his full 40 years. But only because, when he started his lecturing in TCD in the 1980s, Personnel had credited him with 10 years of contributions because he'd taken time off to get a PhD. Needless to say, that door has long since been slammed shut as collegiate pipe-smoking Personnel has been taken over by a more rapacious businesslike HR. Many inequities are gender-neutral.  

My dealings with HR at The Institute have been much less happy. I know I am not alone in feeling that the hiring process was adversarial, officious and disingenuous. And I'm the patriarchy! I know that people younger and frillier than me have felt bullied into accepting a bad bargain. It's asymmetrical: The Institute has a list of candidates but the best placed candidate often only has one job on the horizon. <Don't do as I do but do as I say>: the best placed candidate does have a hand to play because it is awkward and time consuming for HR if s/he walks away after several days of negotiations and they have to see if candidate #2 is still interested. 

IF a generation of incoming faculty start by feeling hard-done-by and wrung out THEN they are less likely to do the extras that are essential to the running of a happy ship. Everyone working to rule and picking over the details of their contract doesn't deliver the best Learning Outcomes for the students.

Sunday 13 September 2020

A Sept of Clan Munro

How's your sept going? Mine is going mighty. My great-grandfather John Vass from Ayr is my claim to having a Scottish grannie. Although she was conveniently born in Limerick which got me a passport. Clan Vass was a sept of the larger, grander, Clan Munro.

Saturday 12 September 2020


Q. What do these words and especially the vowels flagged within them have in common?
A. Əə Schwa! 

That's the diminutive eh/uh sound that indicates a vowel but doesn't really specify which vowel. Indeed the list is chosen to indicate how versatile [and omnipresent] the phoneme is in ordinary spoke English. While there is some controversy about you say potahto, I say potayto only a really earnest non-native speaker will you catch saying potato rather than pətato.

I know this because I am currently on a Gretchen McColloch and Lauren Gawne jag ploughing through their two-hander podcasts at Lingthusiasm. McColloch is in Montreal and Gawne half a world away in Melbourne but they've been having monthly chats, for the last 4 years, about language. They are both native English speakers but share an interest in linguistics: where science drives its way of knowing deep into the heart of the Arts Block. I've downloaded a clatter of these dialogues to my smartphone as podcasts which I listen to while driving or doing the washing up. But I always have an open note-book close-by to take notes . . . because my event horizon is coming closer each year. With great courtesy, Team Lingthusiasm have also paid to have each episode tidied up and transcribed into text. I can therefore read them in bed [where screens are streng verboten in our house] and more easily search back for the key quip-or-fact.

Mais revenons à nos schwas: here's the podcast & transcript.  The word originally came from Hebrew and into German and indeed used to have its own: schəwa. But language is nothing if not labile [prone to change] as well as labial [lippy] and in that word it was elided to zip. I'll have to stop talking about schwa now because I'll say something goofy/wrong and I've given you the link to follow up with people who actually know what they're talking about. One justification for retaining the idiosyncratic unphonetic spelinge of written English is to point to the origins and etymology of the words.

 When I start my Human Physiology course each year, I give The Lads [as Pharmacy Technicians, they are almost all women] a pre-Quiz so that they have something against which to gauge all the things they'll know at the end of the course. About half the class routinely fails Q10  Appendix - Colon - Duodenum – Esophagus – Stomach.  Please put in descending rather than alphabetical order. I know that none of you, Dear Readers, would fluff that, because you pay attention. But I bet that none of us reflect often, or at all at all, on what our tongue, teeth, palate, lips, lungs and larynx are doing when we speak. But doing so helps explain how languages change through time and distance. Jacob "Fairy Tales" Grimm noted that these changes were consistent rather than arbitrary as [pay attention to your mouth!] b in PIE proto-IndoEuropean changes to p and then to f [pyro - fire; pipe - fife;] and then back to b [frater - brother]. While c shifts to h [cardiac - heart; cornis - horn] etc etc. And remember P & Q Celts. Ordinary folk living quite isolated lives made subtle changes to the way they said things and were still understood; and some of those changes became the new normal.  Now I hope you'll be more schwa-aware in future; I will. And I'll have more to say about Lingthusiasm, because it is rich. And a hat-tip to Dau.II who is diligently doing daily duolingo in French and told me about the podcasts.

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