Monday 30 November 2020

Barrington of the Lights

Every Spring, the first cuckoos Cuculus canorus and first swallows Hirundo rustica return to our valley; the latter making mud-pie nests under the rafters of our sheds and raising their young. It is one of the marvels of the natural world that small vertebrates should make such a long and hazardous journey. It is a triumph of natural history / science that we know something about how these mighty migrations are achieved. Before the 1890s, evidence of long-distance bird travel was largely anecdotal. Pfeilstorchen - German storks wounded by arrows of North African origin - were noted in 1822. Catching birds with mist-nets and putting a small uniquely numbered aluminium ring on one leg is one way by which a bird can be reliably identified in both Europe and Africa . . . but not at the same time! - they aren't electrons. Without this incontrovertible physical data, bird migration would be frankly unbelievable. If you can ring one bird in a mist net, you may as well ring hundreds and soon enough there is a number-crunchable dataset.

Another way of getting a handle on the problem is to document and place and time of appearance of members of a given bird species rather than individual birds. Reliably identifying the species of birds, especially little brown jobs LBJs, is a task that requires skill and experience but can give population level data. Like little old me recording the time of arrival of the swallows at S825481 every year. Those anecdotes are kinda useless unless bundled up with numerous other reliable sightings across Europe and, at the other end of the year, Africa.

In the 1880s, a group of ornithologists in the Western European Archipelago WEA devised a cunning moth-trap plan to generate a lot of data about incommming birds to the islands. This was to mobilise the services of lighthouse keepers to record what birds crashed into their windows on moonless nights and fell dead to the ground to be picked up the next morning. Richard Barrington [RIA bigraphical note] of Fassaroe Co Wicklow was one of the Point people to get an address list from the Commissioners of Irish Lights and set up a correspondence with the keepers around the coast. They were requested and required to send Barrington a leg and a wing with a note as to time and place [as L]. After the initial project came to an end, Barrington continued to collect data for the next 20 years and published his report of some 30,000 dead birds in 1900. It had a thoroughly Victorian title: The migration of birds, as observed at Irish lighthouses and lightships including the original reports from 1888–97, now published for the first time, and an analysis of these and of the previously put together with an appendix giving the measurements of about 1600 wings. Barrington found that dark nights were key: only 16% [106/673] of the dead were recovered when the moon was more than half full. 

One of the unexpected outcomes was that some of the keepers became expert twitchers before that, somewhat pejorative, name was coined; being able to distinguish redwing Turdus iliacus from song thrush Turdus philomelos for example. Lighthouse keeping required having operatives on site to maintain the light, wash salt off the optics, check the oil-levels; but these tasks filled only about 1 hour a day. Being on sight to report passing ships and ships in distress was an additional benefit of having people stationed in those remote and rocky places. But the excitement of a sea-rescue was too rare to stave off the boredom of the daily, weekly, monthly round. A man needed a hobby and for some bird watching became a second life. The Boy worked in logistics in Heathrow for a couple of years. The freight company was transitioning to air-freight containers, robots and barcodes but someone had to be on site 24/7 in case one of the containers went on fire or came of the rails and crashed 30m to the floor. On being pushed he estimated that he was actually working for about 5% of his shift, the rest was paperwork and minesweeper.

Barrington was a bit of an adventurer. In 1886, he helped fund an exploratory expedition to Rockall [R being defended by British marines], with Robert Lloyd Praeger [prev] and a handful of other naturalists aboard. They were checking to see if it was feasible to set up a weather station on the rock. The fact that the weather precluded them from even landing, let alone holding aloft an anemometer, put the kibosh on Met Station Remote. But that didn't stop the lads from doing circuits round the outcrop counting gannets or whatever it is that twitchers do with their binoculars. He also wagered a pal £50 that he could walk from the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin to the summit of Lugnaquillia and back - that's about 120km along and 925m up - in 24 hours.  He lost, but not because he wimped out.  He's not to be confused with his brother Charles Barrington - Barrington of the Eiger - who made the first ascent of the Eiger . . . because he was on holiday nearby in Grindelwald. 

Barrington, R and his lighthouse project is mentioned in Anthony McGeehan's 2018 profusely illustrated and mapped book To the Ends of the Earth: Ireland’s Place in Bird Migration.

Sunday 29 November 2020

St Andrew's Day tomo


St Andrew is the patron of butchers [sausage!] and farm-workers. Which is sufficient excuse to start a bit foody:

Saturday 28 November 2020

Support Local

Do you have a personal relationship with your grocer, butcher or hairdresser? Many people under the age of 50 might even ask "What's a grocer?".  Well into the 20thC, gentlemen, including Winston "entitled shit" Churchill felt it was beneath their dignity to pay their tailor. Many of my neighbours think the same about the competent and ever-available garagist/mechanic who gets the Little Red Yaris through her NCT each year. If you live rural, in Poland or Ireland, the community will be sufficiently small that you are a known face: the barman might well start pouring your pint as soon as he see you half-though the door. Mr Dunne the Butcher in Btown knows me even though I'm only in there twice a year. That might be because my transactions have been outré: 1 bag of mutton bones; 1 whole pork shoulder; 1 mighty organic Easter chicken.

I was an early adopter of the Interweb. I sold [about 10] books through that medium in 1989. But like so much in my life, I failed to recognise the potential, let alone have a wild time in the boom at the turn of the century. In 2000 The Boy turned 25 and it seemed appropriate to find a copy of his birth-film "Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l'an 2000" for his birthday. Amazon and Google existed then but were really still in the my uncle's garage stage of their meteoric rise and rise. I tracked down a copy of the film-script from a stock-list at bookshop in Texas, phoned them, dictated a credit card number and had the book in the post the next day.  It was like our earlier [1980s] epiphany about Interflora, which was started 100 years ago and seemed to be the only way to order flowers for delivery to your Granny in Dover. But after a couple of really disappointing bouquets costing £20, we started to consult the yellow pages in Whereversville and deal direct with them over the phone. It cut out the middleworm and got better quality for less money. It really wasn't that troublesome, and as mother's day comes round every year, you could develop a relationship with a florist whom you'd never hugged.

When the Celtic Tiger came in the 00s, I went mad along with everybody else. Not on the scale of shopping trips to NYC or four holidays a year but, over the next few years, I ordered maybe 100 DVDs on and was seduced by really cheap books delivered to my sofa by Amazon. It took a while for the true cost of fulfillment to penetrate my rather dense brain. Avoiding products that grossly exploited both workers and creatives joined forces with a determination to own fewer books rather than more. So I stopped using Amazon in maybe 2018. But a book always makes an acceptable gift and I've found that in Galway will deliver books post-free in Ireland: more money but a clearer conscience. Along with the rest of my tribe I was delirah when emerged as a sort of Interflora for paperbacks. I was even happier when they launched in the UK.  They have an option where you can support a specific bookshop or send the profit to a general fund for independent bookshops to be shared out in some equitable fashion. 

The most likely beneficiaries of my booky largesse are Gdau.I and Gdau.II in Bath in the West of England and it turns out that their suburban village includes the rather wonderful Beaufort Bookshop

Beaufort is more than a new and 2nd hand bookshop; it's sort of a community learning resource centre with a particular focus in kids. Of all the bookshops in all the World that's the one which I need to still be there when the girls become teenagers. Accordingly I ordered a book on and specified that £3 would wing it to Beaufort . . . but their website choked because I don't live in the UK, nor is the billing address of my cred-card in United Kingdom and that was the only option. Well bugger that! But my Jonas and Interflora priors equipped me to go pluck direct from the book-tree and I sent an e-mail and then phoned the proprietor Dr James Thomas. 
  • Yes he would accept an injection of cash; 
    • and would he send me his bank details?
  • Yes the kids could collect books from the shop
    • but he could also "run them up the hill to the house"
  • and Yes he could advise me about what thoughtful 9 and 5 y.o.s were reading this year
    • not necessarily dragons or unicorns

I was completely hand-clappy delighted with this positive response and an hour later had transferred £100 to Beaufort so we can run a tab from Ireland.

Friday 27 November 2020

The Van

At the end of my to-fro with the UPS delivery driver, I blurted out "I used to work for National Carriers in England": must be been trying too hard to establish my down with the hood cred. But it's true: the Summer after I left college we set off on a road trip round England looking for a) work b) somewhere to live that wasn't a sky-blue Citroen Dyane. After a few weeks the solution to those two requirements intersected on the same day in Cambridge. We rented a two bedroom micro-flat in Chesterton from Jesus College and I started work the following Monday behind the railway station with National Carriers - the parcel delivery wing of British Rail.

The first week I shadowed one of the more patient drivers to learn the paper work: every day we had lunch in the van parked just outside the perimeter of Stansted Airport because the gaffer was a place spotter. One of the other drivers was a Polish exile who had escaped to England in 1940 and flown Spitfires for the RAF. All this was wasted on me because i.m.o. aeroplanes are meh! 

I got my own 7 tonner the next week [as L], which was loaded up by the warehousemen - blokes with the sack-trucks who had one gear: "amble" and strong union. The "girls" in the office would give me the paper work: addresses and consignment descriptions and I was off to Peterborough or Royston and points in between. My van-mentor had said it was bad form to return to the depot before very close to 5pm. I could roar around the country and finish early but that would make the other drivers look bad. If, for whatever reason, I couldn't do all my drops before 4:30, well, tomorrow was another day. I went home for lunch if I was anywhere near, otherwise I brought a book and a sandwich.
Those vans are big and some of the delivery addresses were 'secluded'. One little factory was the other side of a railway bridge and up a hill with two right-angled turns . . . and nowhere to turn at the far end. As anyone who can parallel park will tell you, forward and reverse movements are not symmetrical. Backing down road way was tight and on the final turn under the bridge, I managed to rip a hole 1500mm long in the near-side corner of my roof. The guys at the 'garage' were mildly pissed off that they had to make repairs on one part of the 'fleet', rather than hangin' out for the whole day doing not very much. One of the other drivers told me, helpfully but too late, that nobody would think of driving to that place: everybody parked on the main road and made that drop by sack-truck - it was quicker.

Another time I found myself in a dead-end in a warren of little garages and reckoned there was just enough space to do a three-point turn to get out and back on the road. Turned out to be a 15-point turn. I was losing patience by then and found that only thing between me and freedom was the corner if a brick garage which was going to snag my nearside front bumper The bumpers on 7 tonners are 6mm steel, so I imagined that I'd chip off an inch of brick and be on my way home for tea and medals. 
No so! My degree was not in Materials Science. Bricks are tougher than steel. I returned to the depot with that half of the bumper pointing forward like the beak of a Greek war-galley. I had sufficient imagination to think what it would do as I passed cars, prams, bikes and telephone boxes. Luckily I was only about 10km from home and I wasn't stopped by the police. The guys at the 'garage' were more pissed off because it was my second make-work mishap in a month.

Mostly it was good fun, I got to see a lot  of the East Midlands of England and found that there were a huge diversity of ways to make a living under late 20thC capitalism: abattoirs, boiler-makers, carpet-fitters, domestic cleaners, equestrian-centres, farms, garden-centres, hair-cutting. I rarely got tipped but did get to make some window boxes for the tiny flat from some discarded crates. I could have stayed but we decided to take the loot and go home to Ireland for Christmas. That's when we 'inherited' the bed-sit in Leeson Street and the following Summer we set off for Sicily and Nederland.

Thursday 26 November 2020


Today: Thanksgiving! My mother was a good plain cook. Limited repertoire, nothing fancy, no garlic; but reliable. My father was a naval officer, who ran a tight ship. For him, lunch was at 1 o'clock ± 2 minutes. His wife managed to deliver, every day that he wasn't at sea. For Sunday dinner, you have to work backwards: the chicken, the gravy, the peas, the roast potatoes, the carrots have to be au point at 1255hrs; the table must be laid; the wine, if any, must be chambré; the troops must be assembled with hands washed. It's not obvious to all thinking people how to achieve this efficiently and on time; it comes with experience. You shouldn't roast the spuds without first par-boiling them for 5 minutes and that must come after "peeling potatoes". Carrots take longer to cook than peas. Where is the blue table-cloth??? You don't need a written SOP, or a flow-diagram but it helps if you have helped a more experienced cook in the process. I too have lunch at 1 o'clock ± 2 minutes [must be genetic] but most days a cheese sandwich will do just fine. 

In my mother's kitchen there was often only a single Effective, so she didn't need a foreman or a line-manager. It's different in a steel foundry will 3,000 employees and a full order-book: 12,000 horse-shoes by Wednesday next; 400 bollards by the end of the month; that cauldron for the brewery. Each product will have different specs for ductility, quality and strength. As well as the delivery date, there will be prior dependencies [like the potatoes above], and a labour-force with varied levels of skill and experience. All these have to be managed efficiently or there will be unhappy customers, unpaid suppliers and revolting workers. 

Henry Gantt was born into good slave-owning farming stock in Maryland in 1861. That all patrimony went up in smoke in the Civil War and he set to work in the steel industry after securing his M.Eng. He is now best know for the eponymous Gantt Chart which forces you to think your project through. It highlights
a) if some of your personnel /tasks are overloaded and others are passengers; and thus allows you to balance your resources /time
b) dependencies: in the picture the bioinformatics doesn't start until some sequence data has been generated.
makes you
c) get real on how long things actually take so you can cut your cloth to fit the time available
allows you in Excel
d) to go mad with your colour palette.
Here's one I did earlier

For the last 25 years the EU has requested-and-required applicants for grants to submit a Gantt Chart with their research proposal. They also formalised the breakdown of the project into Work-packages comprised of Tasks. The Department of Agriculture and SFI, soon slavishly followed Brussels in these requirements. Research proposals are largely aspirational: if we knew how everything would work out we wouldn't be doing science! I doubt if any of the peer-reviewing scientists who vetted the applications looked carefully at the Gantt Chart beyond noting [✓] that there was one. They knew, from their own experience, just how unlikely it was that the project would follow the chart. In my decade working in Comparative Immunology, we applied (not always successfully) for a lot of money. My expertise at Gantting got better as I recycled the basic template, but mine were never as pretty as those of my co-worker Kieran - he has an artistic eye. 

In his day Henry Gantt was equally famous for his management of people - in the interests of efficiency and the pursuit of the almighty dollar. He recognised that you could do better for the share-holders if you did well by the workers; not only in the pay-packet but also in respect and engagement. "I have never had any opposition whatever from the workman that was not immediately overcome as soon as he understood what we are doing".  He advocated giving a bonus to foremen who reached certain standards of quality: to incentivize them to train their team well and deal effectively with any passengers. He was much more about carroting the work along than pacing the hands with a big stick. Sustainable production means less labour turn-over and so a more knowledgeable work-force and more dollars all round. Gantt [biographical deets] died on the Sunday before Thanksgiving 1919.

Wednesday 25 November 2020


 I was moaning on about how appalling UPS is at delivering goods in rural Ireland. In July it took ten days to not deliver a book from Oxford to our gaff. Eventually they threw up their hands and subcontracted the delivery to a local carrier who knew where everybody in the parish lived. They mist have lost money on the deal. Why Oxford? Because, like many, The Boy won't deal with Amazon any more; he dealt rather with Blackwell's which has been selling books since 1879. We've just had a twelve day UPS delivery . . . from Blackwell's. At least this time a UPS van made the drop - fore-noon on Saturday - after we'd given up hope for that week.

UPS has a website where you can track your parcel. They [deliberately, I assume] make it difficult for customers to bother a customer-service person because every human-human interaction costs the company money. But dealing with a rogue parcel by their tracker-app is customer-time consuming - and decidedly frustrating as the punter tries to make sense of the reduced-instruction-set jargon excuses and explanations: "No phone number, trying to resolve" "Returning to depot" "Parcel has been re-directed". That last is obviously a catch-all because it popped up an our after The Beloved tracked down a UPS person and attached an Eircode and a telephone number to the tracking number. Eircode was a boondoggle costing we-the-people €20 million to set up a for-profit company. I've explained why it is a crappy ID system partly because it [for quite specious parity-checking reasons] assigns random numbers to houses within a delivery area which is more or less the same as a county. So F43 A103 and F43 A104 could be 20km from each other. In fact, making Eircodes unparsable by UPS and other carriers was deliberately implemented to give An Post, the government carrier, a logistical advantage. They are thriving on Coronarama: more than doubling the number of parcels they deliver each week - to 2 million.

In any case on Saturday I got to meet and exchange phone numbers with the local UPS driver who covers 100 of the scut-end of our county. I made a comment about UPS not believing in Eircodes. He replied "not me, mate, I use Eircodes all the time . . . if I can get the correct one. Head Office don't care though: they just put a random one on rural parcels, so I am skeptical about any added Eircodes". And Blackwell's is part of the problem because they printed a really telegraphic address label with neither Eircode nor contact phone number although both of these were requested and supplied at the time of ordering. Because there is no penalty for woefully late delivery, none of the commercial ventures in the transaction seem to give a damn. The extra time and stress is laid off on the customer who's paying for it all and the delivery driver who has to suffer the occasional tongue-lashing when he's been wrong footed by a spotty youth in Dispatch.

Tuesday 24 November 2020


PhenylKetonUria PKU is a rare [1 in 10,000 live births] "inborn error of metabolism". It is caused by a defect in the gene PAH which means insufficient availability of an enzyme phenylalanine hydroxylase. And what that means us that phenylalanine / Phe / F one of the 20 amino acids that are the building blocks for proteins cannot be converted to Tyrosine / Tyr / Y. Absent PAH, Phe is processed by an alternative pathway to phenylpyruvate and phenylacetate which accumulates in the body to toxic levels with terrible progressive effects on the growing child = hyperactivity, seizures, mental retardation, eczema, learning difficulties. Clinician know what condition they are dealing with from two characteristic symptoms a) the strange musty-mousy smell of phenylacetate b) super pale hair and skin. The pale skin is because tyrosine is an essential precursor for the production of melanin the tanning and black lives matter pigment. Getting the disease is rare because carriers of the banjaxed gene are rare but still about 2% 1:50 of the normal singing-dancing population. It's one of the arguments against falling for your first cousin [or your sister!]. 

The disease was described by Ivar Asbjørn Følling, a Norwegian doctor, in 1934 but it wasn't until [I was born] 20 years later that a neat cure, based on a low Phe diet, was developed and rolled out at least across the developed world. 20 years after that, I was in college and I attended a lecture on the utilitarianism of health interventions. In Ireland, 60,000 children are born each year (it was the about same in 1975: smaller base population + higher birth rate). On average 6 of those will have PKU, which if detected early and The Diet implemented religiously, will have a fine fulfilling life in society paying taxes. If not detected, those children will be a handful needing a lot of support and/or being put in A Home. Call that €100,000 a year each or €600,000 every year to the tax-payer. You can detect PKU reliably by taking a blood-sample with heel pin-prick and a Guthrie Card and getting that processed at the National Children's Hospital. That costs €10 a pop or €600,000 a year. So Guthrie cards pay for themselves in the first year . . . quite apart from immeasurable benefits of having a healthy child rather than one who is deeply compromised.

I am currently reading Carl Zimmer's She has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity which is excellent. Written for Jo Public but full of information which I, a professional geneticist, although no longer near the cutting edge, found interesting and informative. One of the early chapters is about Pearl Sydenstricker who grew in China with her missionaring parents. She grew up and married an agronomist Lossing Buck and their daughter Carol [shown R] was born in 1921 with blue eyes and straw-white hair and increasingly troubling distressing behaviour. The marriage didn't survive that jolt and Pearl was left holding the baby. She needed to earn money to support her micro-family and turned to writing novels, the second of which The Good Earth became flavor of the month, Book of The month and won her a Pulitzer Prize (1932) and a Nobel Prize (1938).

Having grown up foreign, and fluent in Chinese, Pearl had zero tolerance with labelling people, especially children based on their skin pigment. She co-f[o]unded Welcome House an international interracial adoption agency which went on to place 5000 orphans in homes where their future was brighter than a Third World orphanage. I think of her life [2010 biography] as being a bit like The Verger's: if Carol had been born without PKU it is unlikely that her mother would have written her best seller and gotten it published to such acclaim. And without the acclaim, there would have been no money or drive for Welcome House. In that sense Carol took one for a team 5,000 strong. tsk! more Utilitarian reasoning!

Monday 23 November 2020

fitted as standard

The latest fash-gadge the iPhone 12 was launched last month without a wall charger. Apple tried to make it a win for the environment because "everyone has an iPhone charger already"; and excluding that lump from the package will allow more boxes per pallet and that will mean fewer carbon-footprint deliveries to the big box stores. Yer, maybe. It's as likely a bean-counter's way of shaving the margin like the finance whizz who calculated that American Airlines could save $100,000 a year by adding 3 olives to the in-flight salads rather than 4. Indeed it could be both: win-win Apple!

Marketing: what a game! largely without shame. 

When we bought our first desktop computer, an Amstrad PC1512, in the late 1980s it came fitted as standard with two 5¼ inch 360Kb floppy discs: one for MS-Word and the other for the document. And inside the box was 512Kb of RAM. That's kilobytes not megabytes. People with a lot of money could install a 10Mb hard drive. Just to emphasise: there are single pictures on my smart-phone which are 10Mb in size. As well as the box, the monitor, the keyboard and the mouse, the package included a Manual. That was several hundred pages long and tried to cover all the eventualities so that users would have the best experience possible and recommend Amstrad to all their pals. It had a nifty list of keyboard short-cuts which I have been touting ever since. Later versions of our home computer - jakers we must have had a dozen over the last 30 years - didn't bother with a manual. Presumably on the same logic as Apple's, that everyone had one in a drawer somewhere. I know I kept that manual, at least till the end of the century because it was still useful. 5¼in floppies became 3½ stiffies became Zip-drives became CDs became DVDs became USB-keys became The Cloud where your whole life is available to FAANG. I've boxes of these media in the attic with no kit to read them.

Now everything is on-line, of course - except the bits that aren't. It's really difficult to find information about early-to-mid-20thC women in science for example without going back to old fashioned research in the stacks of a really good library.

And hardware moves on in a planet depleting way: how many features on your car are essential to getting you from home to work and the weekly shop. Central locking? Button-windows? Reversing cameras with added beep? All these things come fitted as standard without giving thrifty punters the option of doing things on the cheap. And don't get me started on toasters!

Living remote we have feeble cell-phone coverage [watch me fire out the front door holding the phone aloft to catch the rays and launch an e-mail] so we need a land-line in case Zombie Apocalypse. Successive wireless phone-sets have [taken a lightning-strike and] died and this unfashionable medium now costs €80 to buy from Argos. Last night I was upstairs and three times missed the evening call-in from Cork, so we need an upstairs hand-set. If you have a spare phonio in your attic . . . ?

Sunday 22 November 2020

sun 2o2 Nov

Bits n bobs 

HELP . . . a microplastics study . . . take you ten mins . . . no special expertise required: 

Saturday 21 November 2020

Arts Block

Wexford: enough cups for a wake or a wedding:

Friday 20 November 2020

Bucket List

I'm very much with Louis "glaciers & Harvard" Agassiz on celebrating the ordinary. One of the benefits of lockdown is that I have a copper-bottomed excuse for not travelling to Rose Red Petra or Valparaíso de Chile "before I die" so that I can tick these venues off my Bucket List. If I ever had a bucket list, I've long ago ceased lugging it about. Because . . . what do I do with the fact that I've been  to Vienna and eaten cream-cakes Brattleboro, New Hampshire where I've never dined finer? For example I am one of a very few people who have witnessed the Petitcodiac Bore - a tidal event at the head of the Bay of Fundy [multiprev]. Pat the Salt (b. 1925) avers any day you wake up alive, is a good day. True Dat! We are all allotted about 30,000 of them: if we achieve something useful and something kind on most of those days, why, that's a bucketful of blessings.

Yesterday was a pretty good day, no piña coladas or  sea-otters (*)but I did tick a couple of items off my TTD [things to do] list. I put my 14 y.o. Red Yaris in for the NCT. I believe in the NCT, it has had a demonstrable positive effect on road safety since it was started 20 years ago. But it's still stressful getting the old bus through its exams. New rules this year: 

  1. by government fiat NCTs were pushed forward by 4 months to accommodate Covid back-log and reduced capacity as NCT engineers got sick
  2. Nobody can sit in the waiting room while their car is being processed. You are advised to dress appropriately for outdoors. For about a third of the days in Winter that will be Sou'-wester and real greasy Aran sweater. Not yesterday, It was sunny but chill without a whippy wind, so all you need is a good talking book on your phone. Borrowbox rocks!
We didn't pass - one pesky broken brake-light - but I know that the car is good to go for another year. So that's a relief. Me, I don't need a car since I R Retire but I know a Returning Native who is coming home in January and will need wheels to function in an impossibly rural location up the Déise.

Back in February a medium-sized Scot's pine Pinus sylverstris [example, not ours, R] developed a green-stick twisting fracture in the main trunk and pitched over the boundary into the neighbour's field. I went up the next weekend to tidy up the raffle. I cut the smaller branches into heavable chunks and pitched them back on to our side of the line. That left two limbs driven into the ground supporting the "top" of the tree while the other end hung from the trunk by a complex of twisted fibres. Since then it has been g r a d u a l l y collapsing like a drunken diva towards her chaise longue.  The lines of tension and compression in a fallen or leaning tree are not obvious to all thinking people; so these cases are known in the trade as widow-makers. On Tuesday last, she slumped down to rest heavily on the top strand of the fence.

My risk analysis had to juggle a) replacing a section of fence to keep the cattle out of the garden vs b) getting the saw jammed in a settling cut and having to borrow a front-loader to take the weight off and retrieve my saw-blade. The 13in blade of the saw was just long enough to go through the fattest part of the trunk; I correctly gauged whether to cut up or down; and in about 20 minutes we'd cleared the field but for the saw-dust. Win! I can lose a lot of sleep not doing things, so I am working on myself to face up to tasks and just make a start . . . like Javi.

(*) Satire supplement Groundhog Day for black man.

 “Political satire became obsolete when Henry 
Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.” 
Tom Lehrer.

Thursday 19 November 2020


Q.ho knew there was still a whole industry for making fur coats? 
A.nyone who walked down Grafton Street in the middle of Dublin.

JM Bernardo and Sons, furriers to the entitled rich, is a peculiar anachronism surviving into the 21stC without getting fire-bombed by animal rights activists. Fur coats are in the news this month because it turns out that American mink Neovison vison is particularly susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 and several mink farms in Denmark have been sharing the virus across species between the caged beasts and the workers who breed, feed and cull them. 

Beyond being in the same family Mustelidae of the Order Carnivora, European mink Mustela lutreola are not particularly closely related to their American cousins N. vison. If you see mink darting through the underbrush on the banks of the River Barrow, and you do, those are certainly Neovison, descendants of mink liberated from fur-farms by activists or criminally negligent farmers. Because mink look cute  [R] but are serious predators of rodents, frogs, crayfish, ducks and chickens. In real life, each meal is hard won; in a hen roost at night "surplus killing" can occur which is wasteful if the poulterer is too squeamish to make an enormous coq-au-vin and invite the neighbours in.

Javi [prev] our first au pair from Spain was made of sterner stuff. One afternoon he heard a commotion in the lane and was quick enough to see off a fox who was in the process of killing one of our hens. The bird expired in his arms and he brought it up to the yard to pluck and process. For all his aspirations to be a man of the woods, he'd grown up in suburban Madrid and never plucked a hen before. We had The Beloved's grandmother [since passed on] staying with us, she'd been hen-plucking all her life but was now blind but was free with her advice and critique. Great trans-national comedic potential and a drift of feathers. Eventually, the bird was cooked; it was tough.

There is some concern, largely allayed with accumulating data, that the mink strain of the virus might either a) by-pass the currently developing vaccines b) produce an increase in mortality and morbidity in people who contract it. As with foot-and-mouth, and tuberculosis, the blunt instrument solution to finding that mink is a reservoir of SARS-CoV-2 is to mandate the culling of all the mink in captivity in Denmark. That's a huge logistical problem because at steady state there are 17 million mink living a dull and stressful life in little cages across Denmark. A mink weighs about 1 kg, so that's 17,000 tonnes of mink carcass to process. That's an aperitif compared to the amount of dead pigs which get factoried each year in Denmark but it's still 400 x 40 tonnes trucks to go from farm to wherever they process dead meat. There are 3 mink farms in Ireland [200,000 animals] and 80% of people in the country think the whole enterprise should be shuttered forever. The Brits banned fur-farming 20 years ago. Don't play me the cruelty card if you pay less than €20 for your Sunday chicken.

Well, really, and, like tsk! who would want to wear a fur coat??

That would be me! Or rather my younger self. Just before I left England for college in Dublin in 1973, I was given a mid-calf length fur-coat. Not mink, but decidedly down-market muskrat Ondatra zibethicus. A friend had bought it for a jape in a charity shop and decided to would be a better fit for me. For reasons which baffle me now, I decided that this was an essential piece of kit for my new life studenting. I don't think I was wearing that coat the night I met The Beloved, so it must have been something else that made her throw her cap at me. But that coat became part of our lives, we christened it Sohrab after the epic Victorian poem by Matthew Arnold [prev Dover Beach] Sohrab and Rustum. S&R is a tragic tale of too much testosterone, mistaken identity, plumed helmets, jingling harness, exotic locations and ultimately <dang!> filicide.
Here's Sohrab getting up:
Sohrab alone, he slept not; all night long
He had lain wakeful, tossing on his bed;
But when the grey dawn stole into his tent,
He rose, and clad himself, and girt his sword,
And took his horseman's cloak, and left his tent,
And went abroad into the cold wet fog,
. . . 120 lines later, here's Rustum:
And Gudurz enter'd Rustum's tent, and found
Rustum; his morning meal was done, but still
The table stood before him, charged with food—
A side of roasted sheep, and cakes of bread,
And dark green melons; and there Rustum sate
Listless, and held a falcon on his wrist,
. . . 200 lines later, the denouement 
But Sohrab heard, and quail'd not, but rush'd on,
And struck again; and again Rustum bow'd
His head; but this time all the blade, like glass,
Sprang in a thousand shivers on the helm,
And in the hand the hilt remain'd alone.
Then Rustum raised his head; his dreadful eyes
Glared, and he shook on high his menacing spear,
And shouted: Rustum!—Sohrab heard that shout,
And shrank amazed; back he recoil'd one step,
And scann'd with blinking eyes the advancing form,
And then he stood bewilder'd; and he dropp'd
His covering shield, and the spear pierced his side.
. . . 80 lines more, the rapprochement 
"O Sohrab, thou indeed art such a son
Whom Rustum, wert thou his, might well have loved!
Yet here thou errest, Sohrab, or else men
Have told thee false—thou art not Rustum's son.
For Rustum had no son; one child he had—
But one—a girl; who with her mother now
Plies some light female task, nor dreams of us—
Of us she dreams not, nor of wounds, nor war."
etc. etc. turns out the mother had told the father than she'd birthed a girl to protect her child from the tragic fate which unwittingly she'd brought upon his head. There are further ironies in that the R Oxus, on the banks of which the drama of Sohrab's death played out, finishes it's journey thus:
The shorn and parcell'd Oxus strains along
Through beds of sand and matted rushy isles—
Oxus, forgetting the bright speed he had
In his high mountain-cradle in Pamere,
A foil'd circuitous wanderer—till at last
The long'd-for dash of waves is heard, and wide
His luminous home of waters opens, bright
And tranquil, from whose floor the new-bathed stars
Emerge, and shine upon the Aral Sea.
In Sohrab's time, and centuries later, in Arnold's, the Oxus bled at last  into a tumultuous sea. It took just two generations of Stalinist delusion and centralist Marxist economics to turn the Aral Sea into a desert of salt pans and wreckage. 
Sohrab the fur coat had a far less romantic end. At some stage in the 70s we left the coat with Pat the Salt for safe-keeping little appreciating that his life was becoming almost as peripatetic as ours. At his next house move, the ratty old fashion accessory finished up on a bonfire of the vanities along with a bunch of other stuff.  Probably better thus. From Århus to Oxus in 5½ minutes - that's The Blob.

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Rights to writes

Science Week was last week and the science community in Ireland did its best to get science out into the public popular domain through the Zoomiverse; because in person events are still impossible. In general face-time is better but on-line is an opportunity to participate in events which would be geographically impossible. I can get to a zoomevent in Cork as easily as Dau.II who lives there. Wexford Science Café's Going Viral gig had both the main speakers dialling in from Dublin. If Dublin, why not Kazakhstan?

Why not indeed? and the Postgraduate forum of Waterford Institute of Technology, in a mighty coup, managed to get an interview with Алекса́ндра Аса́новна Элбакя́н / Alexandra Elbakyan [R,R] the creator of Sci-Hub, the pirate server which allows everyone access to the scientific literature. They also rustled up a Russian/English translator [R,L]. Despite widespread publicity, only about 40 people thought it would be worth an hour of their time to hear a quiet revolutionary. It was recorded!
I put her in the same bin as Greta Thunberg [prev] who galvanized the climate change movement. Clearly global warming is The existential crisis from which we cower, but getting the most out of the creative scientific minds on the planet is a substantial component to to solving that problem.

Caitlin Moran maintains that institutions [countries, corporations, charities] which deprive arbitrary cohorts of people from participation are stupider than those which are inclusive. It's just the math: if you prevent women from contributing you are halving the sample size from which to bounce ideas off. [Two half ideas being a solution] Insofar as women are different from men, with different ways to doing things, it's even worse. Same if you exclude la francophonie, blacks, gays. poor people: echo-chambers do not induce a creative ferment. Young Alexandra [she turned 32 on 06Nov20] is a computer programmer from Kazakhstan. Ten years ago, during her undergraduate degree, she found it impossible to get access to the scientific literature from Almaty, KZ. Kazakhstan, depending on how you squint, has a GDP per capita about 1/3 of Ireland's. Working at The Institute, it was impossible to do legitimate scientific literature searches because the suits were unwilling to fund the library's access to the scientific literature. Can't have been easier in KZ.

But, unlike me, she wasn't prepared to put her research on hold and, inspired by anonymouse, hacked a path past the commercial pay-walls to the golden seams of peer-reviewed papers. Being Aleksandra of the Generous Hand, she was happy to share her software with anyone she knew . . . and anyone they knew and <shazzam> Sci-Hub was born in 2011. It has made possible about 60 final year research projects at The Institute because my students could make a reasonable review of the literature in their chosen field. I can always ask my pals in proper universities if I really need a PDF of an article, but that's a finite resource of social capital. 

Needless to say, the Big Five academic publishers were severely pissed off that about 1 billion papers had been downloaded over the last ten years. Including several dozen served to my project students. The Big Five business model would have required each punter to pay $35 for a PDF of each paper.  I don't think anyone claims that we-the-poor-scientists owe Elsevier $35,000,000,000 because if we did have to pay $35-a-pop, we'd be, let's say, far more focussed in our reading - to the great detriment of Science, Inc. Nevertheless, a court in the US has awarded Elsevier $15 million in punitive damages against Elbakyan and Sci-Hub. She is officially now in hiding lest she gets extradited to serve time in a US penitentiary.

Last Friday "in Waterford", she seemed to be quite even-keeled about her trials [in absentia] and tribulations and was taking the fight to The Man by citing Articles 19 & 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

  • Article 19.
    • Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
  • Article 27.
    1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
    2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

That is a loada bollix not practically useful: more or less on par with Mr Softplay claiming Magna Carta supports his decision to open his ball-pit of spittle during the pandemic. Arm-waving about your rights in such general terms is going to butter no parsnips in court. A far more effective way to combat the profit-taking and general rapaciousness of academic publishers is through collective action. 

1) At the moment each university Librarian negotiates the best deal they can and signs a non-disclosure agreement, so that their peers are in a similarly weak position. Groups of librarians (let us call them a union?) have far better bargaining power: UCal blew off Elsevier last year

2) Each Scientist has considerable power to decide where to publish their latest findings. But they tend to go for journals with the highest impact, which are almost all commercial ventures, because their credibility, rep, promotion, all depend on "impact metrics".  Politics being the art of the possible, the scientific collective could finger the most rapacious journals and refuse to submit their work there. Collective action is far more difficult than competitive action. They could with an easier conscience refuse to referee articles pro bono for commercial publishing ventures. Some further thoughts in Sci-Pub and Sci-Hub from Rohin Francis another Elbakyan fan-boy.

On 2017 the Journal of Hymenoptera Research published a paper describing two new species of Ichneumonid [prev] parasitoid wasps Idiogramma elbakyanae and Gelanes horstmanni. That's a pretty cool way to put one over on an annoying rival! although the [Russian] lead author on the JHR paper wasn't coming from that direction.  "The [first] species is named in honour of Alexandra Elbakyan (Kazakhstan/Russia), creator of the web-site Sci-Hub, in recognition of her contribution to making scientific knowledge available for all researchers". Nevertheless, Elbakyan was not amused and, seemingly pulled the Sci-Hub plug on ".ru" All 150 million inhabitants of Mother Russia in retaliation. The gloves are off! 

Most science people agree that there is something rotten in the heart of scientific publishing. Several things actually. The rich corporations are getting richer by the cartel while the poor bloody infantry of science can neither afford access to the literature nor the cost of publication. Actually, most reputable journals will publish worthy papers if the authors declare that they have no money for the page charges: doubtless it will help if you hail from The South. While on the wings are a buzzing swarm of parasitoids predatory publishers who will publish any old shite if you pay them a fee of several hundred US$s. 

The world would be a poorer place without Alexandra Elbakyan. Bitcoin is the only way you can contribute to her cause, because Paypal won't entertain her.

More women in Science

Tuesday 17 November 2020

Moral Injury

The frantic scenes in Bergamo [oasis of calm R] during the First Wave are beginning to fade from front-and-centre. In those first assaults of Covid-19, hospitals and ICUs were overwhelmed by an inrush of sick and very sick people each of whom demanded attention from health-care professionals HCPs. Those doctors and nurses found themselves having to triage time, treatment and equipment because each of those were finite. Now we're in the Second Wave and the health service is better fixed for dealing with it but not sustainably. Time passes fast if you can see the end. The front-line workers can keep calm and carry on if they believe in The Vaccine a miracle. But esprit de corps helps: loyalty to your work-mates. Word on MeFi Street says that HCPs are finding it hard to square the triangle of patient-care, self-care and family-care without systemic support from management. Which requires less busy-work, fewer hours, better sleep, better support, better respect . . . and a lot more money would help too. And really they need applause about as much as they need The Clap. And defo nobody requires a round of compulsory wellness, mindfulness and resilience courses on Zoom.

Here's the voice of experience [7 incandescent mins] reflecting on the disintegration of HCPs as management requirements and lack of appropriate equipment prevented them from, like, caring. Dr Damania refuses the label 'burnout' and insists he and his front-line colleagues are being subjected to moral injury by The Man. It's a thing (the piece-to-camera is dated May 2019) that predates Covid.

Actually it predates the birth of my kids. I've know my pal B for more then 50 years. She is the only person from my teenage years who has kept in touch. She is a year younger than me and has an older sister who caught a devastating tropical encephalopathy as a toddler and needed a lot of care and attention: from parents and siblings. That family cared about and for me insofar as a spotty youth needs that attention - I guess we all do - partly because care was in the air. Anyway, B left school figuring that she was a caring type of gal and enrolled in nursing college where she was trained in a 1970s version of how to be a nurse. B did well in the academic parts of the course - because smart - and did her job effectively on the wards and climbed the career ladder to ward sister. Until she broke. One too many tired, distressed, incontinent, old ladies shouted at her one too many times . . . and she quit. It was a devastating attack on her sense of self. She's an artist now, illustrates children's books. 

So if anyone mentions burnout in a Covid setting, bring them up short and shouty. Burnout is victim blaming. We need to reflect on how much we value healthcare in our society. The answer seems to be not very much when we allocate our tax dollars and a helluva lot when we need it for our own family.

Monday 16 November 2020

Magna Carta

 . . . a funny name for a girl. I got myself  caught in a vortex of covidiotology and almost went under. But I Bobbed up and lived to tell the tale. From the public discourse, you'd think that me-exceptionalism is a symptom of Covid-19 but that's just ascertainment bias. All but the saintliest of us think that "I'm just popping in" allows us to park in the disabled parking spot (it's always empty, innit?). But we'd have the grace to be mortified if we found someone unloading a wheelchair in the roadway when we just popped out

A peculiar coven of scofflaws has arisen in England who are a) not about to be stopped going about their business by an invisible virus b) are familiar enough with medieval Latin to cherry-pick a clause from The Magna Carta to assert their rights over any rules, regulations and laws which it suits them not to obey. Here's the owner of a softplay area in Liverpool who is protecting his clients [and their grandparents] from SARS-CoV-2 with a magic text pinned to the door. That text is from Clause LXI which sets out the mode of redress if King John failed to adhere to the strictures laid upon him by Clauses I through LX. I believe we could all benefit from sight of Clause LXI so we know of what we treat:

Cum autem pro Deo, et ad emendacionem regni nostri, et ad melius sopiendum discordiam inter nos et barones nostros ortam, hec omnia predicta concesserimus, volentes ea integra et firma stabilitate (in perpetuum) gaudere, facimus et concedimus eis securitatem subscriptam;

videlicet quod barones eligant viginti quinque barones de regno quos voluerint, qui debeant pro totis viribus suis observare, tenere, et facere observari, pacem et libertates quas cis concessimus, et hac presenti carta nostra confirmavimus; ita scilicet quod, si nos, vel justiciarius noster, vel ballivi nostri, vel aliquis de ministris nostris, in aliquo erga aliquem deliquerimus, vel aliquem articulorum pacis aut securitatis transgressi fuerimus, et delictum ostensum fuerit quatuor baronibus de predictis viginti quinque baronibus, illi quatuor barones accedant ad nos vel ad justiciarium nostrum, si fuerimus extra regnum, proponentes nobis excessum, petent ut excessum illum sine dilacione faciamus emendari.

Et si nos excessum non emendaverimus, vel, si fuerimus extra regnum, justiciarius noster non emendaverit infra tempus quadraginta dierum computandum a tempore quo monstratum fuerit nobis vel justiciario nostro, si extra regnum fuerimus, predicti quatuor barones referant causam illam ad residuos de illis viginti quinque baronibus, et illi viginti quinque barones cum communa tocius terre distringent et gravabunt nos modis omnibus quibus poterunt, scilicet per capcionem castrorum, terrarum, possessionum et aliis modis quibus poterunt, donec fuerit emendatum secundum arbitrium eorum, salva persona nostra et regine nostre et liberorum nostrorum; et cum fuerit emendatum intendent nobis sicut prius fecerunt.

Et quicumque voluerit de terra juret quod ad predicta omnia exequenda parebit mandatis predictorum viginti quinque baronum, et quod gravabit nos pro posse suo cum ipsis, et nos publice et libere damus licenciam jurandi cuilibet qui jurare voluerit, et nulli umquam jurare prohibebimus. Omnes autem illos de terra qui per se et sponte sua noluerint jurare viginti quinque baronibus de distringendo et gravando nos cum eis, faciemus jurare eosdem de mandato nostro sicut predictum est.

Et si aliquis de viginti quinque baronibus decesserit, vel a terra recesserit, vel aliquo alio modo impeditus fuerit, quominus ista predicta possent exequi, qui residui fuerint de predictis viginti quinque baronibus eligant alium loco ipsius, pro arbitrio suo, qui simili modo erit juratus quo et ceteri. In omnibus autem que istis viginti quinque baronibus committuntur exequenda, si forte ipsi viginti quinque presentes fuerint, et inter se super re aliqua discordaverint, vel aliqui ex eis summoniti nolint vel nequeant interesse, ratum habeatur et firmum quod major pars eorum qui presentes fuerint providerit vel preceperit ac si omnes viginti quinque in hoc consensissent; et predicti viginti quinque jurent quod omnia antedicta fideliter observabunt, et pro toto posse suo facient observari.

Et nos nichil impetrabimus ab aliquo, per nos nec per alium, per quod aliqua istarum concessionum et libertatum revocetur vel minuatur; et, si aliquid tale impetratum fuerit, irritum sit et inane et numquam eo utemur per nos nec per alium.

Wusses without a classical education can find a modern English translation. The base-line is that the rights which are transgressed by regal malfeasance will be vindicated by 25 barons of the country. But actually the message is hidden in plain sight in lines 3-6 of the Latin. I edit to make this clear

facimus et concedimus  de regno quos 
   I       can            do
voluerint,  totiviribus suis observare, tenere
vot            I            vont

Similar appeal used in Australia invoking Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One tweet: "Don't mistake inconvenience for oppression". Because successful politics is the art of the possible and you had better choose the hill on which you are prepared to die. Rohin Francis [on vaccines], a cardiologist from London and my current favorite health commentator, is pushing Dunning-Kruger single malt: for the man who has everything but doubt.  

But science is hard: policy is hard: fairness, even if an aspiration, is hard; integrating noisy data and drawing correct conclusions is hard. Clipping a snippet off the internet and laminating it is a cinch. But really, would you use that sheet of paper to stop a bullet? Nope? Same thing with the virus. And here's Eleanor Janega, a qualified, articulate medieval historian in why you're deluded to put your trust in a charter which has long since been formally repealed and which cobferred zero rights upon proles like you and me and Mr Softplay. And a legal-eagle view. All this triggered by MeFi post with added commentary.

Saturday 14 November 2020

Enough is as good

. . . as a feast. Or, actually, enough is better because it is now so easy to get too much; if we're talking about food [we are: 'feast' is a clue]. It wasn't always so easy for poor people to eat too much because, when my folks were growing up in the 1920s, food was expensive: as marked by the proportion of their income which was devoted to food. Even since 1980, average food budget has halved from 28% to less than 15%. There's a strong argument that the Brits were better fed in WWII under rationing than at any time before or since. Those rations were arrived at empirically and so evidence based; and a large part of that was due to  Elsie Widdowson [R, later] and Robert "Mac" McCance a pair of Cambridge nutritionists and physiologists. They wrote The Book: McCance and Widdowson's The Composition of Foods.

Elsie [b.1900] grew up in SE London where her father was a grocer's assistant. Elsie and her sister Eva got into Sydenham Grammar School because their parents recognised that the girls were bright and bookish and curious and could do better than serving behind a counter. They both went on to get a parcel of academic degrees. For her PhD Elsie analysed the sugar content of British apples as they developed from flower to fruit, she recognised that the process of measurement reduced the content of some sugars and so these were usually under-estimated. McCance was a medical doctor with an interest in diabetes and homeostasis in the composition of body fluids. Their complementary interests and skills grew into a 60 year collaboration which generated thousands of accurate, reproducible measurements and hundreds of papers about diet and nutrition.

Since the industrial revolution of the 1700s and 1800s Britain had ceased to be self-sufficient in food. British workers produced knives & forks and table-cloths for export and got bananas, butter, wheat and sugar in return. In 1939, it was realised that 2/3rds of British food appeared over the horizon in the holds of ships. This deficiency was a concern given the experience of submarine warfare in WWI. McCance and Widdowson were tasked to determine if it was possible to feed the nation without relying on colonial and US food imports. The first step was to determine what was the minimal sustainable diet; recognising that diet was more than mere calories. They determined that IF, on average, everyone got 

  • 125g fat
  • 150g sugar
  • 175g UK fruit [apples mainly]
  • 50g egg [that's one egg]
  • 125g cheese
  • 450g animal protein
  • ad lib wholemeal bread, potatoes, cabbage
  • each week!
THEN they'd be fine. They knew this because they tried that diet for 3 months and found that they were still healthy and happy and indeed fit enough to go on a mighty yomp across fell and dale in the Lake District. A diet primarily of cabbage and spuds wrought some changes: mighty floaters un the t'ilet [a joy for Denis Burkitt] and a miasma of sulphurous farts. Train-travel must have been a trial for the other passengers. But soon enough there were no other passengers because rationing was instituted and everyone was in the the same intestinal ferment.  Of course there was unfairness: my grandfather got both the eggs each week and those with money could avail of a busy black market in desirable commodities. But the baseline meant that everyone got enough and most didn't get too much and general levels of health improved.

Their initial findings needed some tweaking because some deficiencies took more than 3 months to manifest. It turned out that phytic acid in wheatgerm chelated dietary calcium, making it unavailable for absorption. This only became apparent because the war-time diet was so restricted on dairy. The solution was to spike flour with calcium [and iron, niacin and thiamine] so that enough got through for healthy bones. They travelled to Dublin and met deValera as consultants after an out-break of Irish rickets. The Irish government followed the food-adulteration policy of the Brits and brought rickets under control. Widdowson and McCance also realised that women and children were not just smaller men but had slightly different dietary requirements - proportionately more calcium for starters.

Late in life Dr Widdowson endowed her BSc Alma Mater Imperial College with an Elsie Widdowson Fellowship which allows staff returning from maternity leave to have a year without teaching, so they can get their research back on track. She was a committed Christian and fond of citing, from the Book of Daniel Ch.1, the first experiment in dietary health:

  1. Then said Daniel to Melzar, whom the prince of the eunuchs had set over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah,
  2. Prove thy servants, I beseech thee, ten days; and let them give us pulse to eat, and water to drink.
  3. Then let our countenances be looked upon before thee, and the countenance of the children that eat of the portion of the king's meat: and as thou seest, deal with thy servants.
  4. So he consented to them in this matter, and proved them ten days.
  5. And at the end of ten days their countenances appeared fairer and fatter in flesh than all the children which did eat the portion of the king's meat.

Friday 13 November 2020

Granma & Grammar

Think back to your own experience of, say, learning Irish in school. I have good friends who are ardent Gaeilgeoirí, and I take my hat off to them, not least because they have been at pains to send the language up the generations to their own children, at least. But the vast majority of adults in Ireland would struggle to order a loaf of bread, some size 9 wellingtons and a packet of chipboard screws, in Irish. And that after 12 years of formal schooling in the language. Part of that was because the teaching of Irish in school is resolutely un-cool and focused on grammar and the dealings of old people long-dead, like Peig Sayers. Assertions that she was "one of the greatest woman storytellers of recent times" were met with skepticism or derision; and when the last exam was taken, that was it for Irish.

Meanwhile, on the far side of the World, the struggle continues to preserve a unique cluster of languages as a living, aspirating, way of expressing thoughts, emotions and information. Wade Davis, [MultiBlobboPrev] ethnographer and adventurer, has urged the preservation of minority languages because “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.” And, face it, the current dominant model for how to run the planet could maybe do with some help, hmmm?

I continue to mine the back-catalog of Lingthusiasm [prev] and found myself stoked by an interview [listen] with Dr Ake Nicholas [transcript], who hails from Ma'uke, the Eastmost dot on the map, but escaped from that small-small place to mainland NZ as a child. Before that shift she had been speaking Ma'uke Māori at home. Afterwards she was enrolled in a English-language school and spoke English on the streets. She was mentored by one of her teachers, a Māori-speaker. Trouble was CI Māori [aka Māori Kūki 'Āirani] and NZ-Māori [aka te reo The Language] were almost mutually unintelligible. But that threat was an opportunity to the young linguist who became consciously fascinated by different ways of communicating. Her parents were active in the kōhanga reo ["language nest" to revitalise the language] movement; which has not been without its murk.

Anyway, there's a nice story in that interview about the efforts made by enthusiasts to stop minority languages getting washed away in the tides of history. One of the key elements in successful preservation is to catch language-punters while they are young because damn-but-it's-hard to learn any language after the onset of puberty. I was never a natural with language but I know I hoovered up, sifted, collated and understood other information between the ages of 8 and 13. I was smarter [knew more] on my 13th birthday than at any time until I got my PhD 15 years later. But the problem is that you only need to re-vitalise a language when/if it's on the brink: when the only people who speak it reg'lar are on their pension. And we know how tetchy and intolerant folks can get as the sciatica, arthritis, deafness and palpitations make life hard to bear.

So the Language Nest movement [it's gone global] tries to create materials and resources that are engaging for The Yoof and give over with Granma and how to make soda-bread and darn a sock in Irish. And it definitely needs to go easy on the differences between the present an aimsir láithreach and the present-continuous an aimsir gnáthláithreach because that's so borrrring. There may be strife, because the adults in the room, no matter how well intentioned, are likely to find yoof-culture alienating or threatening or dopey. There is, for example, a Māori Kūki 'Āirani folk hero called Tampiritoa [say it and listen] who is Dumbledore untimely ripped from the womb of Harry Potter and given a new life in stop-action videos - Kua ruti a Tampiritoa - in the language. Wouldn't be my cup of tea but they use Cuisinaire rods as props, so that is cool. Whatever works!

Last word to Wade: Language is much more than vocabulary and grammatical rules. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind. And don't forget the trigger fish