Saturday 31 October 2020

Saturday Miscellany

Lots of interesting: 

Friday 30 October 2020

Slide Rule

"Biographical history, as taught in our public schools, is still largely a history of boneheads: ridiculous kings and queens, paranoid political leaders, compulsive voyagers, ignorant generals, the flotsam and jetsam of historical currents. The men who radically altered history, the great creative scientists and mathematicians, are seldom mentioned if at all." - Martin Gardner [prev tribs]

True dat, Mr Gardner. I was down with Pat the Salt this week wearing my caring mask. I heard that libraries were going to be shuttered for the current six-week lockdown, so picked out a couple of books to take away for light bedtime reading. There was plenty of my sort of book choice because that home-library had been accumulated, mostly 2nd hand, by someone of my generation. Since 2016, I've been intending to re-read Nevil Shute's post-apocalyptic On The Beach but that ending was toooo bleak for present-pandemic and so I snagged Marazan [spoiler], his first published novel, and Slide Rule, his autobiographical account of British aviation 1920-1940.

It turns out that writing ripping yarns was just a hobby for Neville Shute Norway, his core business was working on the design of R100, a hydrogen filled airship for Imperial communications, where he was the Chief Quant. R100 was designed and built to government contract by Vickers-Armstrong, the Tyneside armaments firm. In parallel, the UK Air Ministry itself was developing, to the same specs, the R101. For Shute, like Tim Harford, a firm believer in market forces and entrepreneurial derring-do, the government run R101 programme suffered from bureaucratic bloat, group-think complacency, gross inefficiency and insufficient independent oversight. Because the R100 Vickers team were checked by share-holders and accountants, they had to take ownership of their designs and be really creative in finding efficient solutions to a truly massive, cutting edge, engineering problem. Cost over-runs were not a real problem for the lads on Team R101.
A slide rule [bloboprev] was the standard tool for making the long&laborious calculations so that the 3-dimensional stresses of compression and tension struts equalled out to zeroes. They needed a lot of paper and clear hand-writing and all the calculations were made independently in duplicate. CAD? Calculators? Spreadsheets? Monte-Carlo simulations? Nope! They were all in the far distant future. The slide-rule was more efficient for multiplying two numbers than looking things up in log-tables, let alone doing six digit calculations long-hand. And a slide rule gave sufficient accuracy for engineers. If students had to use slide-rules today they'd have a much better feeling for the numbers that they write in the reports and exam answers. Otherwise nonsense.

The >!poof!< of the pudding is that R100 was first off the blocks and made a successful round-trip across the Atlantic to Canada in the Summer of 1930. That put it to the R101-opposition to go on their own first long-distance Imperial Connect, before they were really ready for it. R101 had an Airworthiness Certificate on paper, but hadn't really been properly inspected or had sea-trials. On her maiden voyage that October, R101 broke apart in a storm near Paris, crashed to the earth and went >!whoomph!< in a ball of flame. Remarkably 6 of the 54 people aboard survived. Among the dead was Christopher Thomson, the Air Minister, who had bullied management into over-riding any misgivings of the engineers, so that his trip to India could fit into his political schedule that Autumn. The R101 disaster put the frighteners on the Brits and R100 was scrapped to give a 0.1% return on a £600,000 investment of tax-payers money.

Shute/Norway then went entrepreneurial himself to co-found an Aircraft design and development company called Airspeed. In the early 1930s, you could build your own aeroplane in a shed and plenty of people were having a go at the business. It was a young man's gig, because you have to believe in personal immortality to take-off in something that you'd built yourself from spruce, wire, chutzpah and canvas. The company was seriously under-capitalised but they were really confident in the elegance and functionality of their aircraft. The Airspeed Envoy and it's development the Airspeed Oxford were the most successful of their products. 8.750 Oxfords were built and flown all around the World during WWII and afterwards.

Slide Rule gives a really interesting account of how hard it was to get anyone to venture some capital rather than jumping on the band-wagon after all the heartache. Government Enterprise Boards, and banks, is seriously seriously risk averse and so berluddy useless if you have a really innovative project to fly. Shute/Norway's experience was that useful risk-takers are those who have windfall capital at hand and are prepared to lose a small part of that loot on a bit of fun. Often these people would like to give back to the local community in the form of jobs and see their disposable cash as lubricating that public good. Writing Slide Rule in 1954 in austerity Britain, when WWII rationing had just ceased but taxes were high, led Shute/Norway to castigate taxation that sucked up capital and didn't use it efficiently. He would have loved Bill Gates. 

Thursday 29 October 2020

2020 La Niña

Fed up with bad news about The 'Rona? What about La Niña? ready for some hardship from The Girl?

Well might the anchoveta Engraulis ringens feature on an issue of Peruvian stamps. A lot of Peruvian citizens depend on its appearance within cruising distance of the coast. When the anchoveta appear they are absurdly abundant: annual landings of just this species are in the millions of tonnes. Typically, the fishing fleet consists of purse-seiners: about 75% of the catch lands in Peru, the rest in Chile.
The Bonanza year was 1971 when 13,000,000 tonnes were caught: it's been up and down since then but the trend is down because fishing is the classic case of the Tragedy of the Commons: if more than two people are involved, it's hard to resist the urge to catch one more fish. The Peruvian fisheries can predict whether is will be a good year for epipelagic fish by the simple expedient of taking the water temperature at the surface and 50m down. Actually, a long interesting discussion suggests vice-versa that the fish can predict the weather

If it's warm then it's an El Niño year, warm water means less dissolved oxygen. Apart from weird life but not as we know it Jim abyssal ecosystems around hydrothermal vents on the Ocean floor, everything depends on oxygen because Prochlorococcus [prev] depends on oxygen to do its foundational photosynthesis. El Niño is named for the Christ-child because Christmas was peak-anchovy . . . if there were any to be had at all. 
Some years are El Niño events but a smaller number are La Niña years. That's when persistent off-shore winds barrel down off the Andes and sweep all the warm surface water out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Think Kon-Tiki? They are replaced by a massive up-welling of colder, oxygen- and nutrient- rich water from the depths; Prochlorococcus goes exponential and gets eaten by herbivorous plankton, which get eaten by carnivorous plankton and so up the food chain to anchovies . . . and beyond! - skipjack tuna Katsuwonus pelamis and blue fin Thunnus orientalis and, of course, the alpha predator Homo sapiens all have a field day.
Now I dare say you are quite Frankly Scarlett about the livelihoods of Peruvian fisherfolk. But you should be aware that weather depends inordinately on the temperature of sea water. A small increase, say 1°C, over millions of hectares of sea is a heckuva lot of calories/Joules of energy and a proportion of that will make the air above a lot more active. Think hurricane season in the sub-tropics: global warming is going to deliver many more of them before we're all dead.
In over-simplified terms [because that's all I can manage!], a lot of cold surface water along the Panama coast in La Niña years - like this year - means that the Caribbean is less windy which stops The Weather tramping across the Atlantic throwing shapes. These weakened incommming Westerlies barely reaching the European Altantic coastline allows big lumps of very cold air from Siberia to move Westwards and envelope Ireland and the rest of the Western European Archipelago in frost, ice, snow-drifts and woeful driving conditions. Remember the Emmalo? Storm Emma Feb/Mar 2018. The Great Thaw of Feb 2010, was the end of the coldest Winter since 1962-63
Just sayin'! I can't be wronger or randomer than the Donegal postman.

Wednesday 28 October 2020

Επέτειος του Όχι

The Anniversary of No! Remembering the 28 Oct 1940 response of Ιωάννης Μεταξάς, the Greek Prime Minister, to an ultimatum by the Italian ambassador that Greece allow Axis forces to occupy 'strategic locations' within their Kingdom. Explanation. Later the same day Italian military divisions rolled across the frontier from Albania and were stopped and rolled back into Albania by a determined Greek army. Fighting ceased in February 1941 with the Greek occupying "Northern Epirus" aka Southern Albania. Honour satisfied! Metaxas is a controversial figure in Greek political history: he wasn't above banning books and suppressing elections and preferred a monarchy to democracy but then again his Όχι! was the representative voice of the Greek people. Not least because, on 15th August 1940, an Italian submarine had sunk the Κ/Δ Έλλη a Greek cruiser at anchor off the Greek island of Tinos:

The boys danceThe boys march. It means something.

Tuesday 27 October 2020

The death of butane

Down the rabbit-hole: you never know where you'll pop out. Because National Math Week, I was writing a little teaser about mathematical series and suddenly we were back to chemistry class 50 years ago. You might think that iso-butane, the branched carbon backbone version of n-butane, would be chemically identical: they are both C4H10 after all. It's subtle but they are different in their physico-chemical properties.

Name Propane iso-Butane n-Butane
BP°C -42°C -11.7°C -0.5°C
Vap.pressure 859kPa 215kPa 311kPa
Sol.water 47mg/L 49mg/L61mg/L
Butane is not much good in Nunavut or Siberia during the winter, because it won't vaporise in freezing temperatures. Propane is more volatile and so handier in those chilly circumstances. Iso-butane [-11.7°C] is a superior fuel compared to n-butane and there is indeed a price premium on it. Vapour pressure otoh is much less for butanes than propane and so butane is the alkane of choice as a propellant. Propel what? Bullets! [it's a boy thing].

I've lived a very sheltered life, and a privileged one, too. It never occurred to me that solvent abuse was an option. But it seems that "Inhalation of butane can cause euphoria, drowsiness, unconsciousness, asphyxia, cardiac arrhythmia, fluctuations in blood pressure and temporary memory loss". Jakers! I can only imagine doing butane if I had a very short attention span and stopped reading the effects list immediately after "euphoria". Butane is readily absorbed through the lung epithelium and its solubility in water/plasma is about the same as oxygen [40mg/L], and like oxygen it can cross the blood-brain barrier and start tricking about with the neurotransmitters and their receptors.

The problem is that when "they" spray liquid butane directly down the gullet it gets colder as it vaporises and can deliver -20°C to the wet epithelium. That causes a laryngospasm as the vocal chords clamp shut to protect the even more delicate lung tissue from freezing. It's call SSDS sudden sniffers death syndrome and causes about half the deaths each year among the inhalant community.
DON'T DO THIS AT HOME: effin' heartfelt plea from survivor. Another confessinfo from chemistry Prof who got high on white-board markers - it's the xylene, silly!

Monday 26 October 2020


Tim Harford [prev] writes for the Financial Times and hosts the More or Less podcast through the BBC. I found a copy of his Undercover Economist and arranged for the amazon-free outlet in Galway to ship it to Dau.II in Cork for her bday last month.  We are both partial to the More-or-Less podcasts, which often hinge on a listener's query like "I've been told there are more beetles in a mole's stomach than there are islands in the Orkneys; can this be true?" The answer necessarily involes a shrewd amount of defining of terms "before or after breakfast? how big is an island? islandSwitha beach? which species of mole? does the tide mratter? You can spin out pretty much any topic to 15-20 minutes if you ask some experts to free-associate and let them off down a rabbit-hole.  After a while you can echo Oscar Wilde with "b'god Harford, I wish I thought like that" and the answer comes back "you do already" but everyone can always devote time to polishing their crap-detector.

Whatevs! Tim Harford reads really easily and economics is surprisingly interesting. This is partly because Economics is surprisingly everything as anyone who has heard Steve Levitt [car-seats, bad] or Steven J Dubner [artificial insemination in turkeys vs chickens] talk; or read their first book Freakonomics will appreciate. Harford is a big believer in market forces: if we leave everything to them, then prices will equilibrate where both the seller and buyer feel that they've gotten a good deal. His position is that, if politicians put their oar in with tariffs or taxes [or regulation? health&safety??] against the flow of the market, then it is inefficient. Which means that somebody ends up paying too much as special interests get preferential treatment. Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) called economics the dismal science but Harford [and Levitt and Dubner] make it rather jolly and edutaining.

The last chapter in Harford's book is about how China was transformed from a centralized, cultist, communist crazy-state into the global economic powerhouse which is now scaring the bejabers out of Western capitalist democracies. It was largely due to Deng Xiaoping [L.R. with US President Jimmy Carter L.L.] who was an early adherent of Communism - he was Mayor of Chongqing [prev] 1949-1953 - but twice purged from the central praesidium and survived The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution [although purged millions didn't] to become Top Gun in the People's Republic in the late 1970s. Through the 1980s he changed the economic policy and incentives of the country without [unduly] alienating the still powerful Communist Party. It's a bit like the current Pope recently making pro-BLT statements; he's got to get any real changes past The Curia.

Deng had seen the effects of economics by decree under Chairman Mao, who had some truly daft bees in his bonnet about how best to re-distribute wealth and opportunity. By imposing quotas on the steel industry, he incentivised mill bosses to turn shovels into steel billets so that they were available for the shovel factory. If there weren't enough steel-workers for the quotas, then the government would round up the members of some peripheral ethnic minority and ship them East.
Deng's insight was to leave the central-control part of the economy to creak along in its rut: everyone maintained their job-for-life if they wanted it. But Deng allowed a parallel market-led economy to flourish: if an entrepreneur was able to get 5 blades of grass to grow where only 3 blades had been previously then s/he got to keep the extra 2 leaves. That extra disposable income lubricated the growth of other entrepreneurial ventures. He also allowed foreign multinationals to get their start in the market and thereby shake up the [smug, complacent, insiders who ran the] indigenous competition to be more efficient . . . which led to further opportunities for economic growth.

In the ten years of the 80s, the Chinese market-economy out-stripped the tired-old, same-old komintern economy, so that the latter became an almost irrelevant wart on the economic bubble. Economic liberalisation didn't go hand-in-glove with political and ideological liberalisation as The Disappeared of Tiananmen Square [4th June 1989], Falun Gong and the Uyghurs have found to their cost.

Topical footnote: listen to Steve Levitt talk about incentives, Google, data and pandemics . . . in 2008.

Sunday 25 October 2020

All Change

Feast of Crispinian and Crispin patron saints of  cobblers, glovers, lace makers, saddlers, tanners, and weavers

Saturday 24 October 2020

lost + fined

Prevlier on losing the ould marbles. Ireland developed a national library service just in time for The Plague Year. One of the features was that no library is going to fine patrons for the late return of a book. It's all part of a, somewhat desperate?, plan to encourage reading and book-borrowing. But we might suspect that there is going to be A Lot of shrinkage as Coronarama drags on and on. For example, I found a CD in the passenger door of my car which I had completely forgotten about . . . must . return . CD . to . library next time I'm in Tramore.

Library overdues is a perennial slow-news-day story on both BBC and RTE:

The other talking book I have in my car is Educated by Tara Westover. This is an edgy tale of The Other. When it came out in 2018, the narrative was all about how a girl, home-educated by religious fundamentalists, managed to escape from her family and get herself to college. As we run up to the US Elections, it gives a much clearer picture of the kind of people who are going to vote for another 4 years of ignorance at the top. For me, the most disturbing aspect of the tale is the casual violence within and around the family. It is easy enough to accept the distrust of reg'lar schooling, the self-sufficiency, the pride in place and, although bizarrely expressed, in family. Many instances of psychotic attacks by deranged relatives are really Out There and over any reasonable line normal people might draw. It emphasizes why social services are essential in this world of pain. There is so much in common between the god-bothering certainties of these regular church-goers in Idaho and their mosque-going fundamentalist dopplegangers in Isfahan that it is a wonder they aren't fighting on the same side. Then again, Robert Sapolsky's analysis of the neuroscience (and societal definition) of Other helps explain why we might choose to hate people who are just like us. There were places where I could only continue listening because I knew that she would survive to enroll in Brigham Young University. Read the book before you read the Grauniad review?

Friday 23 October 2020

Backronym MAUD

As mammals, we try to make sense of the world using the sensory apparatus with which we have been equipped by evolution. Bats buzz their prey with ultrasound; we are really good at recognising shifts in the patterns which bombard our retinas: that's a  tige in the long grass! Actually we're rather too good at this task and will often over-fit the data so it slots into a familiar bin. We are particularly good at recognising and distinguishing faces, so it is impossible to un-see the faciness of the rock formation on Mars [R]. It's the pareidolia [prev] innit? Part of that problem is that the surface of Mars is hella extensive and bumpy and something, somewhere is bound to look like something  . . . and get a Whoa! headline in the Daily Express. UK Woolworth stores, for example, do not snap to an occult grid of ley-lines.

Today we're having a dive down a cross-lines rabbit-hole about the Birth of the Bomb. Nuclear physics was, in the 1930s, a particularly international field where monster intellects would visit each other's labs and share ideas about the nature of the very small. Otto Frisch, born in Austria and nephew of Lise "Element 109" Meitner, was working with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. While visiting colleagues in Birmingham UK, WWII broke out and he had to continue his researches there. In March 1940, with Rudolf Peierls, another refugee, he worked out that even 1 kg of Uranium235 would be enough to start an explosive chain-reaction.  Bohr continued to write his protégé letters and, as things [political and scientific] hotted up, resorted to telegrams - lots of them, chocka-full of ideas, some sound, some clearly bonkers.

On the day [9th April 1940] the Panzers crossed the border into Denmark, Bohr sent another telegram to Frisch in Birmingham with further suggestions and a cryptic envoi  ". . .Tell Cockcroft and Maud Ray Kent". Frisch and his British colleagues knew who John Cockcroft was [evidence from 1946 photo R] and presumably told him but were baffled by Maud Ray Kent. As they all had brains the size of planets they assumed that, coming from St Niels of Copenhagen, it must mean something. Knowing about Kepler, Galileo and other early cosmographers sending each other too-clever-by-'arf cryptograms to establish priority for the discoveries, Cockcroft decided the phrase was as an anagram for radyum taken. The following day, 10th April 1940, a committee was formed to decided what to do about Uranium in the context of WWII. It was officially named after its Chair George Thomson, and included James Chadwick, John Cockcroft, Mark Oliphant and Philip Moon. But Thomson in an excess of modesty seized on the biggest puzzle of the week and they agreed to call themselves the MAUD committee. Half the fun about being a very clever person with a unique position is being able to name things in such a way that only your inner circle will know the back-story. The MAUD reports provided vital evidence for keeping the Manhattan Project on track.

Later, lesser, bureaucrats applied the pedestrian "Military Applications of Uranium Disintegration" to MAUD as a backronym. Years later it was revealed that Maud Ray was an English governess to the Bohr family who had returned to her native Kent at the start of the war.

Thursday 22 October 2020

Build your own education

I'm a couple of weeks into retirement and have already acquired a couple of students to shout at. Not my students, I hasten to add; they are somebody else's students. OR, and this is the point of the polemic, these youngsters are their own students and not teacher-chattels unless they choose to be. It's about taking ownership of your own education through assertiveness and the exercise of choice. The interesting students are those who kick over the traces and do something unexpected. Like the two lads who set off from Ireland, with sketchy school-french but plenty bravado, for Dijon in Summer 2019 to find work in different science labs.

My most recent acquisition has that in spades. It is an option for Irish undergraduates to spend one of their 4 years of studenting in America. It's like the wonderful Erasmus scheme, without any of the infrastructural support. It therefore takes an exceptionally determined, and well-connected, kid to make that happen. But this fellow had made in happen and thereby broadened his horizons considerably: geographically, socially and educationally. e's now in his final year and has signed up to do a project which has a significant slant towards molecular evolution and bioinformatics - hence my appearance in his orbit. Depending on how charitable you feel, my toolkit in the field is either 5 10 or 20 years out of date. But my crap-detector is better than any 20-something: it goes with the territory along with the silverback and missing teeth.

Anyway, the suggestion was floated that Wozzayank could benefit from this on-line Coursera in sequence analysis and 20 minutes later maybe that Coursera would be better. With a certain amount of justification W affirmed that he saw value in either of those options but asked which one was the preferred? 

To which I replied [bear in mind that I'd never met the chap]: "Ah now W, don't put it back on us; have a look at each syllabus and see which one best floats your boat. There are so many dimensions to the subject and you'll feel more comfortable in some. They say "the Y-chromosome carries the 3-D visualisation gene" and you produced some beautifully informative overlays of homologous structures in your prelim report. But you may be more productive looking at rates and constraints of evolution. Then again, you might think that one of the courses will beef up something not in your current tool-kit. Or, finally, look NOW at the second hand of your watch. IF it's an odd number do the First Course IF even do the Other Course."

A couple of days later, I was talking to TGWIH about which of several modules in her OU course she should sign up for this coming academic year. I was therefore primed for that question and I think it is useful to summarise the polylemma in three Fs:

  • Fun
    • Choose the course which seems most interesting. If you're grown up and/or protestant that might include embracing a challenge, even if daunting. Far too many young people have been duffed up by the system and their crap teachers into believing that they can't do math or foreign languages or cooking or soccer. College is maybe your last chance before retirement when the pressure is off and The Past is behind you and you can re-invent yourself as a building-jumper.
  • Foundation
    • You may be young but you have skills, talents and aptitudes. It might be sensible to choose the next course because you have nailed some of the pre-requisites in your lived experience. That way you can leverage what you know already rather than starting with a blank slate.
  • Future
    • look ahead and think where you want to be at the end of the module or, better, at the end of the course. Which of the options will look best on your CV. Which will most likely turn into the dream job or the mighty salary boost that you surely deserve.
Arrrrrgh! Whatever you do don't take the last option unless it includes substantial elements of the other two. Imagine if in 2016 you had reluctantly signed up for hotel management, or flight school, or RADA because of a family connexion or parental expectation or because you had expectations of driving a Lexus before you were 30. You would have endured 4 years of tedium, struggle and financial haemorrhage only to find that those careers are now dead in the water.  But don't over-think the problem either. There is a fourth F:

  • Flip
    • Make your own luck. If you have the capacity for happiness you'll thrive in whatever course you take, so you may as well flip a coin.

Wednesday 21 October 2020

Shroom Season

I went for a walk across our fields on Sunday last and got to talking with some 🌞heliophiles🌞. As well as finding a novel petroglyph, they also reported that their lunch had been marginally disturbed by a pair of metal-detectorists who were sweeping the ruined steading on the Wexford edge of our common. 

Slightly shifty strangers were therefore in my mind as I wandered home from my excursion . . . and saw three young blokes intently searching the grass of my neighbour's 12 acre field. My eye-sight is no longer 20/20, so I crossed over the grass to see what they were doing. Pure curiosity, but I'm not shy that way, and what's the worst that could happen? As I got closer, I realised that they didn't have metal-detectors. Indeed, they seemed both ill-equipped and under-dressed for October in the hills.

They were not the least bit shy in admitting that they were collecting mushrooms. "What?", I replied, "magic mushrooms, like, Psilocybin?". The very same! They weren't able to say the Latin name Psilocybe semilanceata but knew it as Liberty Cap. It was a bit peculiar because with half an eye and half a brain, I'd noticed some unfarming people coursing across the same patch of field a few days earlier. I'd assumed that those distant bodies were members of my neighbour's extensive family of grown up children. It seems, rather, that the field has a bit of a reputation for accessibility among people in search of nature's bounty.

"As of 31 January 2006, the Government, in the exercise of powers conferred on them by section 2(2) of the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1977, has ordered that ‘any substance, product or preparation (whether natural or not), including a fungus of any kind or description, which contains psilocin or an ester of psilocin is a controlled drug for the purposes of the Act’.1 The effect of this order is to render the possession or sale of so-called ‘magic’ mushrooms criminal offences under the Act. Heretofore, it was illegal to possess or supply magic mushrooms in a dried or prepared state but lawful to possess and sell them in their natural state".

According to The Lads, any upland sheep-pasture is a likely source of the fruiting bodies of  Psilocybe semilanceata at this time of year. Fungi are saprophytic - they get their energy by robbing it from photosynthetic plants. But each species will have a preferred host and a preferred time of year for sending up the obvious part of the organism and shedding a few reproductive spores. Liberty Cap penetrates the root systems of grasses in pasture: the presence of sheep somehow encourages the presence of the fungus. And it seems that sheep will eat the fungus and zone out. Again the lads said that 20-30 fruiting bodies, dried down to 3 grams would be a handy sort of a dose. It is hard enough work down there in the grass to get that much together, so I don't think anyone is making money from the psilocybin trade. Then again, you don't have to look for the fungus in the long grass - we mowed our fields really late this year and they'll still be throwing up their fruiting bodies. The downpour over the last 24-36 hours will have turned the harvest to mush though; or so my informant tells me. And that the vernacular Irish for Psilocybe semilanceata is pookie, although that term might be generic for all basidiomycetes.

My cursory reading of the health issues associated with shrooms implies that they are "mostly harmless". And certainly far less damaging to the population's health than alcohol. But there is far too much money and patronage riding on alcohol to suggest that it too should be banned. otoh psilocybin is being trialled in Tallaght for treatment-resistant depression. Looks a lot like the neurotransmitter serotonin. That seems to be a clue as to its function. John Kelly, psychiatrist in Tallaght and TCD, is recruiting guinea-pigs for his next trial: and apply, especially if you are clinically depressed and anti-depressants don't work.

Tuesday 20 October 2020

Parking possible

I was boasting a couple of weeks ago, about how I executed a neat bit if parallel parking in a tight spot outside Dau.II's gaff on Xxxxxx Xx, in the  People's Republic of Cork .

That was then, this is 08:30 today:

Cue Blondie! This is what happens if there is a) dump of rain b) a southerly wind to back up the R Lee outflow c) a Spring(ish) tide.  Apparently the Silver Yaris doubles as a boat. It could be, has been 2009, worse! And 2014 and 2016, Send wellies.

More Petroglyphery

Sunday started in the clouds - I couldn't see the other side of the valley until about 10 o'clock. Beyond counting the sheep legs [N = 56, which is the expected multiple of 4] and, Wenceslike, gathering some winter fuuuuuelll, I didn't really step out of the house. After a light lunch, I seized a feed-sack and set off towards the river picking kindling because there was a drying wind.  I was surprised to see a small group of people at The Ringstone taking stock and taking pictures and clearly paying attention. Turns out I had met them a couple of years ago further up the hill and, apparently, I'd given them far far TMI about me and airily invited them to visit The Ringstone of Knockroe before they went home.

We fell to comparing notes about the various example of petroglyphs in the neighbourhood; and further afield. They'd never heard of the truly amazing Rathgeran Stone, for example. I see that my Rathgeran link to Megalithomania is broke [sic transit gloria interweb], so here's some pictures of that wonderful piece of work. They were delighted to tell me something I didn't know about my own back garden hill. And proceeded to give me directions to a) an Ordnance Survey broad arrow bench-mark up the lane beyond the forest and b) right opposite a stone with ¶P marked on it. As you see from the pixellated pic [R] I didn't have much difficulty, from their precise description, finding b) ¶P; but the bench-mark eluded me. It is conceivable that the hand which chipped the [to me missing] benchmark is the same as the author of ¶P.

Bagging bench-marks [as L] is A Thing. They are really distinctively the work of human hand. Their locations are documented . . . <duh> on the maps, like. And they take you out of the urban stews where most of us live and give BM-hunters the chance of some fresh air and a bit of a puzzle. Puzzle? Because benchmarks were mostly inscribed 150-190 years ago and . . . things change. The original surveyors wanted to leave a 'permanent' mark so that they or their successors could return to precisely the same spot later. Why? to fill in the cartographic details, or to verify the position? So they chose something that was substantive: likely to weather well; unlikely to be knocked over my a sheep or washed into a draw during a flood or covered by moss or ivy. Nevertheless without the original surveyor's notes these things can be hard to locate in the, say, 50-100 sq.m. where the map suggested they are. The OSI map says, for example, that we have two benchmarks on our property; one at the top of our garden, the other ~10m up from the bottom of our lowest field. They are both out on the laneway side of the retaining wall. But I've not been able to find either one in 24 years of desultory hunting and scraping.
tbh. I'm not that pushed about the bench mark[s] which are very much public domain but I'm delirah to add more historical [rather than pre-historical] data to the collection of vernacular lithic communication. 

I will add the ¶ilcrow Petroglyph to the deranged scratchings of Storyrock and tip my hat to Martina, Dec and Rachel my informants. Having started the day in ☁, I finished up on ☁9.

Monday 19 October 2020

pay peanuts, propagate pandemic

Joinedy up thinking is harder than promulgating a series of arbitrary rules: 

  • 2m distance; 
  • 15 minutes of contact; 
  • outdoors good, indoors bad; 
  • masks not visors; 
  • not those masks, these masks;
  • corona not coronaries;
  • covid not cervical

You will have heard the no-mask argument that "people" [that's me, and you] will take greater risks on distance and parties so long as they are dressed bandito. As if "people" were incapable of dealing with two ideas at once. Ian Mackay's swiss cheese model for comprehensive complementary control measures is graphical and helpful

It's like the sieve of Eratosthenes a series of grids each with a different granularity and starting points which allows only a tiny fraction of the particles to reach the other side. It's not an ideal model because it would be super-helpful to know quantitatively which slices were most effective [had smaller or fewer holes] especially if these were cheapest [in money and social cost] to implement. I suspect that distance trumps masks and probably hand-washing. Me, I would be really leery about touching tap in a public restroom. The chief benefit of I R Retire is that I don't have to use the jacks at work which, at the best of times, were never properly cleaned. and they offered only warm-air aerosol concentrators for hand-drying.
Tweeters I love and respeck are getting grumpy at the continuing uncertainty: "Just tired and ground down by this. The back and forth, the absolute waste when the gov. make a reopening roadmap they abandon a few weeks in, a detailed level structure they immediately ignore. Mental health is paramount, but you can only see people if you can pay to go out."

In March, I was paying attention to the nightly reports of covid-cases and covid deaths. I had them all in an excel spread-sheet and was plotting the % change as well as recording our family's coffs and sniffles. Then about the middle of April I stopped: the covid cases count was meaningless unless The Man was testing people pro-actively rather than reactively. Better still would have been to test a large number of randomers off the street to establish a baseline. That was why I was excited when Ioannidis and Battacharaya carried out the Santa Clara County count. That got a lot of adverse scrutiny and I had to retract my imprimatur. 

But FFS, IF 80% of infected people are asymptomatic but still infectious THEN we should be testing a hella lot more people to flag the carriers so they can be isolated. Even if the tests are imperfect, we should be making it easy and free/cheap to get tested 

  • a) if we're feeling crook in the covid-peculiar [I can't smell anything PDF] ways of feeling crook 
  • b) if we know we've been [< 2m + >15 min] too close to a likely contact.
  • c) if we are worried [give everyone Three Free Covid-test Vouchers and a back-up referral to an OCD clinic]

It's like STD clinics; it's a pub[l]ic good service. Heck, the STD clinics could be doing the testing: they are trained to be careful with bodily fluids. When Dau.I was sick in the Summer and work paid for a test, she had to wheeze her bike 5km to  the nearest test centre and 5km back home to bed and  lem-sip . What's that about? It's like schlepping a vulnerable 95 y.o. to a fomite-blistered clinic for a 'flu jab. Outside the box thinking [rather than suit people with good health, a government job thinking] would deliver these elders their inoculation outside their own front doors.

Tom Cotter: "The reason Taiwan and South Korea were so successful in controlling covid19 was rapid relentless testing and contact tracing. If you were a close contact they even came to your door to test you. No ifs or buts you got tested. This is not the case on Ireland I’m afraid".  Just how little of a shit the Irish Government gives about testing & tracing was revealed when Contact Tracers, a skilled job requiring painstaking dedication, were getting offered zero-hours dismiss-at-will contracts. Oh no, that was a clerical error,  the HSE claimed, when this shameful fact was public-domained by radical TD Richard Boyd-Barrett. 

At the beginning of Coronarama we were hopeful, in a silver lining sort of way, that the crisis would force us to address other shameful treatments of the weakest members of our society: workers and residents in nursing homes and créches, the dark denizens of direct provision centres, shelf-stackers and cashiers in the retail sector. What this force-of-change amounted to, in the end, were a series of cost-nothing, do-nothing sops to the collective conscience like institutionalised rounds of applause for front-line workers.

I R Retire now since 2nd October, but I'm still on the mailing list for The Institute. The President's address on Friday 16th October reflected on the plans for an inevitable change upwards of the Pandemic containment measures from Level 3 to Level 4. NPHET, [National Public Health Emergency Team] has been advising for Level 5 measures for 2 weeks now (and the government have been stalling; the cabinet meets again today). But The President was/is unable to plan effectively for this extremely likely development because "The prospect of a movement to Level 5 restrictions for Adult and Higher Education is less clear because the descriptor for this level currently states, “Recommendations based on situation and evidence at time”.  WTF? 

If not now, when?

Sunday 18 October 2020

St Luke's Day

Luke the Evangelist: patron of artists, physicians, bachelors, surgeons, students and butchers (because he was often [R] metaphored as a side of veal?):

Saturday 17 October 2020

More ears are needed

 I've reached that stage of life where I get to lose stuff, often hidden in plain sight. I haven't yet applied my self-advice to keep things simple and not tote around, or live amid, so much shite. This definitely true for my little red Yaris, which I use . . . for a variety of purposes. Up until recently, I used m'wheels to commute to work several days each week and often, on these voyages into a hostile world, I'd buy something [almost always food, occasionally petrol] from a shop. Those simple transactions seemed to me to require: own shopping basket; shopping bags, glass for recycling, bucket for hand-washing; gloves; mask. Other things accumulated from these transactions: promo-mags from shops; receipts. So the interior of the car is "cluttered"; but then I'm not vain about myself so it would be fatuous to become a suburban Saturday car-valetter. Apart form anything else I live on a farm, so there is a fair bit of real shite about the vehicle let alone the metaphorical shite.

It's not usually a problem!

But earlier in the week, I was i/c Pat the Salt, my venerable father in law, and one of the tasks on my ToDo list was "take Pat to GP clinic for winter 'flu shot". It wasn't a terrible day on the weather front but he's now 90-something and feels the cold more than sprightly me. I bundled him up in a hat and coat. Thermoregulation is not the only deficit of old age: Pat has glasses, hearing aids and going-out teeth, so he can see, hear, and look presentable. When we got to the clinic, following the SOP, I hooked a surgical mask over his already multi-tasking ears and in we went. The nurse was on time, although we were early, and we shuffled into their office. It was utterly beyond their world-view that Mohammed, with fully functioning legs, would come out to serve the ould chap. And The Only Place a 'flu jab may be administered is in the upper arm. I offered his neck . . . but nothing would satisfy the professional but that I unpack the old chap.

And a few minutes later we were safely back in El Yaris and I whipped off Pat's mask and <pToinnggg> one of his hearing aids flew into the back of the car. I wasn't expecting this but glimpsed something travelling fast from the far side of Pat's head. Even National Health hearing-aids are pretty small and beige and the missing part didn't stand out in the complex environment back there. At least the search space was finite, and the hunt was successful. I tell ya, that's an exciting day in pensionland!

Friday 16 October 2020

Rebuild your forest

Digging through a pile of 2018 papers looking for an empty folder to start a 2020 project, I unearthed How to rebuild a forest. Much of the tenor of that essay is to "shut up and get out of the way", and rely on natural succession to restore the status quo ante {clear felling - earthquake - flood - fire -pestilence}.

The worst possible thing you can do is futility planting where you and your friends spend time and money on planting trees with insufficient attention to soil, weather, tree species, pest species or shelter and, like, everything dies. I remember hearing James "Gaia" Lovelock express regret at planting 10 hectares of native English tree species in a corner of his Devon farm  / research station. Not because it went horribly wrong, but because the trees took and thrived and provided habitat and eventually fuel, tool-handles and milking stools. Lovelock beat himself up [gently - he's over 100 now] for the hubris of deciding what trees should grow on the land that he was borrowing from his children. Better to have let nature take its course; allowing the brambles and gorse to encroach on the field from the margins and provide shelter and grazer deterrence for wind-blown and bird-shat tree seeds to get their chance in the sun. By definition, naturally sown trees are the best fit for that corner of habitat. And they will modify the microclimate to suit as they grow up straight and tall.

Or maybe neither straight nor tall, these attributes make them useful for human projects and may be at variance with the needs and demands of the tree itself and the other species with which it interacts apart from Homo sapiens. Straight and tall is achieved by planting trees really close together, probably as a mono-culture, so that each individual fights upwards for access to light in competition with its neighbours. 

Another strategy cited in the Rebuild essay is a compromise called nucleation planting. Here, the area to be covered might be too large to expect an efficient return from allowing it to fill from the margins. The re-foresters accordingly plant little copses of desirable trees - figs seem to be especially valued anchor species - and protecting, nurturing them. That gives the regeneration a head-start by greatly increasing the length of propagation edge; and ensures that the process is tilted towards species which will benefit the local people. Edible fruit, apart from figs, are key assets in this scenario.

Thursday 15 October 2020

Ball's Pyramid

It is a while since we were island hopping. Ball's Pyramid is on the far side of the world. It is clear that Lt Henry L Ball RN caught the moment in geological time when this feature was at its sharpest focus, as he cruised past in 1788. He was Captain of the ship transporting a subset of First Fleet convicts from Botany Bay to Norfolk Island when discovered first Lord Howe Island [previous exciting adventure there] and then Ball's Pyramid about 20km distant. The Pyramid is the edge of a long extinct volcanic caldera; formed maybe 7 mya. It will assuredly disappear beneath the waves, but not in your lifetime, or mine.

It took 94 years before any [white? literate?] person [Henry Wilkinson,1882] landed at the base of the razor; and another 83 years [Jack Hill and Jack Pettigrew, 1965] before anyone struggled to the summit 560m above the azure sea. Five years ago a couple of wing-suiters, Jeb Corliss and Luigi Cani grazed past [The red blob L travelling at 100km/h] having jumped from a helicopter. They were picked up from the far side a couple of minutes later by a zodiac from a well-placed catamaran.

Needless to say nobody lives on Ball's Pyramid.  Corliss and Cani picked one of the rare days each year when the sea isn't throwing shapes at the cliff face. So landings can be a bit random. And visitors are discouraged since it was discovered that the Pyramid is the last refuge of the Howe Island stick insect Dryococelus australis. Lord Howe Island [pop ~380] at 1400 hectares is much bigger; and Norfolk Island [1,600 folks, 3400 ha] is bigger still. But how much bigger? And this is a classic case where, as Matt Parker discussed recently on Numberphile, your definition of area matters. I show the elevation & footprint of the island here roughly on the same scale: it is 1,100m from end to end.

Looks like the elevation is at least 50% bigger than the footprint. But we can make a better fist of the ratio by making 1 hectare squares and superimposing them on the picture. Rules of engagement: if a region of the map is >50% of a hectare it adds a whole square to the count - if <50% then not.
So give-or-take, the vertical area is about 3.5x [64 /18 ha] times greater than the horizontal area. That's a huge differential. In Matt Parker's video, the extreme case of Switzerland is a paltry 7% bigger when topography is included in the model; so it leap-frogs flatties Denmark and Nederland in the country-size rankings. I'm a little bit doubtful about my calcs, therefore. But try them out on your mates next year when we're allowed back in pubs.
More island tales? Island Index

Wednesday 14 October 2020

The math of butane

 . . . That would be now, 11-18th October 2020. There's a heckuvalot of events round the country, mostly aimed at schools; because if you haven't "got" math by the time you leave school, people will tend to give up on you - and you may even have given up on yourself as a numerate person. 

Mathematics is not about numbers, or that is only a tiny part of the circus. Maths is more about patterns and connexions and relationships. I have found it really helpful, teaching remedial math these last 8 years, to recognise that the ancient Greeks did all their maths scratching patterns in the sand of the Agora. Algebra came much later and was able to embrace levels of abstraction / unreality which were beyond geometry. By coincidence, I was browsing through Alex’s Adventures in Numberland by Alex Bellos [prev] and found him citing The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences. I've grazed past this planet before.

Sequences are the epitome of patterns and so feature quite strongly on intelligence tests. "what are the next two numbers in this series: 1 4 9 16 25, _, _ ?" You'd think that a database of counting-number sequences would start simple and get more challenging but not so. Frankly Scarlett, I've no idea what the first 3 even mean

  • A000001: Number of groups of order n  
    • 0, 1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 5,
  • A000002: Kolakoski sequence: a(n) is length of n-th run 
    • 1, 2, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 2
  • A000003: the class number of the quadratic order of discriminant D = -4n  
    • 1, 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 1, 2, 2,
  • A000004: The Zero Sequence
    • 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 
  • A000005: the number of divisors of n.
    • 1, 2, 2, 3, 2, 4, 2, 4, 3, 4, 2
There are now more than 300,000 different integer sequences. Some more familiar than others: Fibonacci, squares, cubes, odd-numbers, primes . . . some children who have been taught maths by bores can be quite excited by discovering unexpected relationships: between odd numbers and squares for a simple example: 1 (+3) 4 (+5) 9 (+7) 16 . . . which I riffed on a month ago in my bonnets off to Grace Cunningham.

You could do worse than using using OEIS as a sort of divination to see how you should approach the day. Can't be less informative that reading "your" horoscope in the Daily Express. You could pick a random OEIS series every day for 100 years without needing to repeat the cycle. My "favorite" number is 59 and A000059 turns out to be graspable: 
  • A000059: Numbers n such that (2n)^4 + 1 is prime  
    • 1, 2, 3, 8, 10, 12, 14, 17, 23, 24, 27 . . .
When I was 17, I switched rather abruptly from The Arts Block to Science at school. The first lesson in Organic Chemistry was about alkanes: methane, ethane, propane, butane some of which you'll recognise if you're cooking' on gas. Here are them boys are with their structures:
That's a series of sorts: each member of the alkane family has 1 extra Carbon and 2 extra Hydrogens; so far so boring. Mr Yates the chemistry teacher pointed out that butane was interesting because there were two structural forms of the molecule: n-butane, shown above, with all the Cs in a row . . . but also iso-butane where the backbone is branched as shown [R]. "Before the next lesson you may like to think about how many different structures are possible for the higher alkanes", said Mr Yates with a brief rotation of his left hand. I was on! and spent the next couple of days doodling out the permutations of structures for pentane through octane. As the carbon chain gets longer the number of structures grows exponentially and these are in OEIS:
  • A000602: number of n-carbon alkanes C(n)H(2n+2)
    • 1 methane, 1 ethane, 1 propane, 2 butanes, 3 pentanes, 5 hexanes, 9, 18, 35, 75, 159, 355, 802, 1858
Like I said, math / science is largely about recognising connexions. That's why it is a desperate shame that Chemistry is taught in a different room to Mathematics and quite probably by a different person. This is not the best way to light school kids up to reflect about how their world [and mine, and yours] is arranged.

Tuesday 13 October 2020

Not the droids

My party line is "Thanks, I've had a pretty good pandemic" obviously with a ". . . so far" addendum.  One of my 50-something office mates copped a dose of The 'Rona at the end of August from his teenage children. It wasn't fun, but they weathered it in time for him to be back teaching when the students returned in late September. Dau.II came home for the w/e as covid-cases started to creep up . . . to look after her aged parents. You could make the case that her aged parents are well able to look after themselves: they only meet the age criterion for vulnerability: only one of the following apply:

  • (over 60 years of age) ✓
  • learning disability
  • lung condition (such as asthma, COPD, emphysema or bronchitis)
  • heart disease (such as heart failure)
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • chronic kidney disease
  • hepatitis
  • cancer
  • clinically stable cystic fibrosis
  • (immunosuppressed
  • cerebrovascular disease
  • neurological issue (Parkinson's, motor neurone disease, MS,  cerebral palsy)
  • splenectomy
  • infection susceptibility (HIV, lupus, scleroderma)
  • on steroids
  • obesity
  • in nursing home
Then again, take nothing for granted and take help when offered; you may miss it when you can't get it. By the time she needed to get home to  Cork  the goal-posts had shifted again and Garda lockdown checkpoints were out on the roads. We were stopped at the Cork-Waterford border:
Garda: Where are you heading?
Self:  Cork City 
Garda: What is your business?
Self: Taking carers home.
Garda: Very good.
It's much harder to find a parking spot near Dau.II's city centre apartment.  They've given 60-80m of curbside into pavement café space and the road worker's break-hut is parked in another potential spot. I impressed my self by getting my nifty Yaris allllmost into the narrow gap between the hut and the next car [see Top]. Good enough, I decided, and went upstairs for a quick pee, tea and scone stop before heading for the hills again.
I was stopped at the same place 2 hours later and turned those answers into the past tense. I was stopped again between Waterford and New Ross. When quizzed about my destination, I said "Home" [with a little slump of the shoulders, it had been a long day] and that was good enough. Quite possibly, the fresh-faced Garda subconsciously recognised that I'd get tetchy and patrician if delayed once more that evening. Worked for Phil "Big" Hogan in August.

Monday 12 October 2020

lost + pound

It's The Beloved's birthday, so it is inevitable that I'll reflect on the prospect of growing old together. Last week I found my car-key [again!] before I'd lost it. I must have been overloaded getting the groceries off the back seat of the car and allowed  the lanyard  to slip through my arthritic fingers. It showed up a lot better in the grass since I changed the colour. Looking for the other key-loss event showed up a disconcertingly numerous number of recent examples of lost & found. Those marbles must be quietly slip slipping away.

Anyway, it's not only me. The Beloved is principal carer and power of attorney for her redoubtable father Pat the Salt. A few weeks ago was on watch with him and had to nip up town to get something. With the approach of pension day, the pension and credit union bag  was on the kitchen table - in full view of any burglar who had climbed over the gate (or indeed 2 m of box-hedge), sneaked past the dog and walked round the back of the house. That would never do, so she put the bag in a safe place. >!poof!< it disappeared. Finding it wasn't helped by having two houses, both alike in dignity and 70km apart, where it might be. I won't reveal where the bag turned up [but it did!] because I know some of you may [inadvertently] share the information with your sketchy cousin who is desperate to service their drug habit. 

At least the bag turned up in a time frame nearer to 13 days than the 13 years it took for a carrot to find this Canadian lady's diamond ring. Ring seeking carrots are, apparently A Thing: Sweden. I read a Quora story of a woman who put her pearl necklace in a safe-place and didn't see it for 30 years when she was widowed and downsizing and the necklace appeared hooked on the back of the marital bed's head-board.

Hearing the lost and found story, a good friend of ours said it was better to leave everything valuable in a reasonably accessible place OR in a concrete bunker at the bottom of the garden. Burglars will literally turn your house over, quickly and efficiently, until they find what they assume to be present in your empty/sleeping home. And they don't have time to clear up the mess afterwards. And getting ritualistic about always hanging the car keys on the same hook in the kitchen only works until it doesn't. But, for sure, the more stuff we have the easier it is to having things hidden in plain sight.

Sunday 11 October 2020

Horses for courses

Equus caballus been there before