Thursday 31 December 2020

End of Year

To any regular readers, thank you for staying the course through 2020. We were blessed to be allowed for two weeks to have Dau.I and Dau.II back at the home in which they grew up. They decided that nothing would do but they create a gingerbread village to house the ghosts of Christmas Past:

I include a cup for scale, to indicate just how small ghosts are. This year has been longer than usual [hint: 29 February] and, for me and many, a lot lighter on the carbon footprint. I R retire now, so there is no need and small excuse to go off-site at all. It is such a privilege to be able to run about the hill behind the house without having to get into a car: 200 hectares of plague-free dry heath
Hang in there until Midnight, lads, we'll all turn into 2021 pumpkins and be the better for it.

Wednesday 30 December 2020


I reported that Maria Boyle twisteddoodles raised, and is indeed raising, two small girls who are within the normal range. Her twins [emphatically people in their own right] are now 5; so they were born in 2015 although the book was published 4 years later. It takes a lot of work to get your blog, or your diary or your tweets into a coherent form for long-form publication. My pal Russ has done it twice; I am far too lazy to leave 2 million blobby words on the cutting room floor and save 100,000 for publication. If the resultant book reads easy, that is testament to the author, copy-editor, agent and trusted literate pals. The Newborn Identity reads easy even if the team are careless about the accusative case for I. Colm and I puked in the washing-up basin is okay but Roisín puked on Colm and I is better written Roisín puked on Colm and me

The family seems to spend a lot of time <frrpp> giving at both ends </frrpp> in a way that I don't recall while raising one chap in the 1970s and two girls in the 1990s. As Dr Boyle's day-job is all about disease transmission from contaminated surfaces, you might imagine she'd be able to avoid that sort of mess. Maybe contact with coliform is unavoidable. I guess such wearing events loom large in the script because they are more interesting than ordinary [in the sense of let us not live in interesting times]. I imagined that such a book would get quite a lot of traction among twenty-something women like Dau.I and Dau.II because it talks about the ups and downs of motherhood. But not so, both of them have read the book but it's not being passed rapidly from hand to hand among their pals.  Time enough for all that when the time comes, maybe? And I daresay that is an offensively patriarchal view of the centrality of motherhood among the cohort of potential mothers.

Two things strike me as being relevant commentary on the the zeitgeist of post-Tiger Ireland. One is the steady presence and availability of Colm, the twins' father. Maybe the gender wars have made great progress since my day, but Colm seems to do a lot of childcare and maintenance; as well as being a sort of loose-cover protecting the furniture from baby-barf. He's a keeper!

As well as growing two new humans, Maria and Colm are forced to look from new accommodation during the twins' first year about the place. Why? Because their landlord wants to sell the house and get a return on his investment. WTF?! Why is property privileged over people in the Irish Constitution? I was caught up in a draggy cycle of rent-hikes and evictions through the 00s because of the commodification of domestic property. If such buildings are seen as an investment, financiers will out-pocket families. M&C, both working full time, could only contemplate acquiring a [mortgaged] home of their own because of financial support from both sets of grand-parents. For that reason, The Newborn Identity should be required reading for all members of the government.

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Tread softly

My phone carrier Vodafone sent a message 22/Dec announcing free national and international calls and txts on Christmas Day. Way-hay you might think! But Bobby-no-pals has a very limited Venn diagram intersecting a) people in my phone book with b) people who'd entertain a call from someone who only calls at Christmas. The other aspect is that our phone coverage is so crappy that I often have to charge outdoors holding my  Nokia aloft to launch a txt.

On Christmas Day in the arvo I left my female rellies slaving in the kitchen, seized my  Nokia  and my azada.  The phone for free-calling, the azada in tribute to Paddy Looney who was happy to do drain work for his community of hill-walkers. I made contact with my Britse rellies alright, but the Merkins weren't picking up at 09:00hrs local time. It was wonderful to be up the hill on me tod. But the journey was infinitely enhanced by bringing Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain as an audiobook. In the shade of the forest 130m higher than our yard ice lingered on the path as micro-plates suspended between the stones. With happy synchronicity, Nan was simultaneously describing a burbling winter burn that could be heard but not seen through flat translucent sheets linking the boulders of the creek. The ice had formed on the surface of pools which had subsequently drained away downhill.

Shepherd wrote her book in WWII, describing her ventures to, across and round the Cairngorm massif which defines the central part of the Scottish Highlands. She was then in her 50s and teaching English in Aberdeen; but using every spare minute to progress her compelling love-affair with the hills. The Living Mountain is the result of decades of focussed attention on the details of what the landscape presented. She cherished the reds of birch leaves in September and ling blossom & flitting mountain ringlet in July. Nan Shepherd is on the money:
She could pause still enough, for long enough, to bring a crested tit Lophophanes cristatus close enough to breathe on and had often looked down upon golden eagles Aquila chrysaetos as they coursed the heather valleys for dinner.

And all her observations of people, birds and mammals; butterflies and beetles; shrubs and bright flowers; were recorded with judicious evocative descriptions that run arpeggios on the hum of the holistic landscape. A small taste. Our own red hill Cnoc Rua is only quantitatively different from Nan's Cairngorms: slighter but no less interesting to those who pause in their rush and chatter to really see what unfolds before their open eyes.
I have spread my cloths under your feet
Tread softly for you tread on my dreams

Monday 28 December 2020

Dusty Death

. . . and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. [Macbeth]

A hit, a very palpable hit! [Late Hamlet] I'm a great believer in reading outside my echo-chamber: random books have done me proud in the past. I was scanning the severely limited inventory on Borrowbox to land some audio-book fish for the holidays: nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing . . . Trace by Prof Patricia Wiltshire. My female relatives read a lot of bodice-rippers body-rippers murder mysteries; many of them far too challenging for me. The genre has come a ways since Sherlock Holmes solved the problem by taking a rattling train to Dartmoor and smoking a couple of pipes. Patricia Cornwell, for one example, tends towards grizzly details of bodies in bin-bags . . . the flies, the flies. I started one of her books and could not finish it.

Patricia Wiltshire, contrariwise, is strictly non-fiction; but works in the same arena as a forensic palynologist. Palynology is the study of scattering παλύνω ultimately from dust πάλη [aaarggh not the dreadful Gwyneth Paltrow's shameful concoctions]; and forensic is the application of science to crime. Wiltshire used to be a lot of things including a botanical archaeologist, but her core bailiwick now is collecting and characterising plant pollen and fungal spores from dead bodies, brake-pedals and bin-bags;
 and matching those data to a location. Making that connexion in a way that will convince a jury and outsmart a defense attorney requires an encyclopedic knowledge built up from 40 adult years of staring down a microscope with the fingers of one hand marking several different pages in a weighty Victorian botanical memoir. The internet has a been a boon to her because she can rapidly get a second opinion or pull on a distant colleague's coat for their niche expertise.

She was over 50 years old before [the out-of-box thinking branch of] the police networked themselves up against her by telephone . . . because Kew Botanic Gardens couldn't help them progress their case. She's in her late 70s now, but still in the saddle and widely respected for her dedication and professionalism. She was early on able to suppress her gag reflex by resolutely affirming her belief that dead bodies are no longer people. Although this needed some effort when she was presented with cauliflower cheese in the police canteen after working in the morgue. The smell of sulphur from the brassica and butyric off-milk from the cheese is just what the intestinal flora produce in their post-mortem work.

I know that Trace is a Jo Public version of the forensic process rather than a scientific article, but I'd be more confident of the results if the evidence was treated double-blind. Bias will creep in if the analyst knows whence the sample originates. Nevertheless there are many stories of uncanny precision in describing a locating crime-scenes from the quantitative and qualitative analysis of microscope slides. In one case, Wiltshire is driven out to the site after she has analyzed the pollen profile from the perps' shoe scrapings. She walks along a field-boundary hedge until she stops where a blackthorn and a whitethorn-with-ivy rear up over a little clump of dead-nettle . . . "Here!" she announces [correctly] to the trailing policemen. No other location along the 300m hedge would deliver the unique combination of pollens. For her, "a lawn is a lawn is a lawn" is simply not true: if you get down on your knees and look it is infinitely variable. Although that lawn is very different in its palynological profile to a wooded glade, despite being probably dominated by the same three species of grass.

Verdict: this is a book worth reading as an antidote to Agatha Christie or CSI on the telly. It shows that results that come from hard work are rewarding and useful while results that come quickly might be suspect because superficial. Forensic palynology, and indeed archaeological palynology, requires the mastery of many different disciplines - botany, parasitology, geology and statistics for starters - and weaves many threads of disparate evidence into a coherent tapest[o]ry. Hear it on BBC from the horse's mouth?

Sunday 27 December 2020

Contemplative rakings

 All you need is - soft shoes and a rake . . . and a toy boat:

. . . and now back to family.

Saturday 26 December 2020


I R actually a twin, born to a 34 year old mother. Many people are unaccountably interested in this reveal. Their first question, even after I've claimed a twin sister, is to ask "Are you identical?" Usually my vague circulatory hand gestures about the chest are sufficient to answer the question; but not always - the idea of having an alter ego or doppleganger is important for many people. Obviously I've written about twinning before. Twins are slightly more likely to be left/right-handed discordant. In humans, it is not generally true that boy twins weigh heavier than than their female womb-mate [although that was true for me and m'sister]. Nobody has suggested that we might not be [genetically] related although we really don't look much alike: the audit trail since the midwife attached wrist-bands has been pretty solid.

I am currently reading The Newborn Identity by twisteddoodles aka Maria Boyle PhD. It is the story of getting preg with twins, delivering same and sustaining them through their first year out in the dry, cold world. It's funny and informative: I thank the gods for sparing me the first, preg, half of that ordeal and the patriarchy for giving me a pass on much of the second part.

Identical twins separated at birth are another facet of the fascination with twins. And there have been some remarkable studies of the peculiar aspects of life which are shared by twins who have had no common upbringing but 100% of their DNA is shared. On the far side of that world are people who have a striking physical resemblance [often shown up by social media] but have zero identity by descent - Niamh Geaney is a well trotted example. She is a poster-girl for a site which pretends to help you find someone who could act as your Kagemusha if you feel you're not long for the world.

YMMV, [give it a go, it's free] but my experience is that A Lot more people need to register for the site before it's going to work for old white patriarchs. Heck, they can't even get the [steel-grey] eye-colour right.

Thursday 24 December 2020

Inventory, logistics

We all have to be born somewhere. I was born in Dover: Buckland Hospital. If not exactly an accident, that location was driven by the fact that my mother was born there herself and could call upon some family support in the aftermath. You can defo see France from Dover, especially if you climb a ways up The White Cliffs of Vera. For this reason, Dover has been in the News this week because a lot of vehicular traffic passes through the ferry port [or alternatively catching the train at Folkestone and doing the journey underground and sous mer]. A "deal" may be announced within  an hour of this Blob. I don't know how it will turn out, but it looks like the UK has been sleep-walking towards Brexit with the Brits wanting eat their cake [cheap wine and vacations on the Costa] and have it [no to Johnny Foreigner and absolutely no to Jacques "Aiglefin" Pêcheur] too. 

If you look carefully, you'll notice that all the 18-wheelers are facing the same way --> towards France. check out pictures of Manston aerodrome which has been taken over as a 20km linear-truck park. If trucks are parked in 20 rows across the tarmac there are certain economies of scale: you don't have to walk so far in the rain [it's December] for the jacks. The picture above is from Operation Stack or Operation Brock: cunning plans to store unmoving trucks along the edges of main roads leading to the ports. Those lads have a portaloo installed every 1 km possibly next to the emergency telephones. If you've never had to use those phones [and most of us haven't] you may not have noticed the arrows which point to the nearest emergency point. Nobody, in theory, needs to walk more than 500m for solace. As Dau.II pointed out you can't run fast when your legs are crossed.

Whatever about toilets, what about food if, for two days, you're parked in a line waiting for clearance. A number of big hearted groups led by The Sikhs and the Salvation Army are preparing and delivering hot food and sambos to the benighted drivers. Bring on the rice and dal, brother!

Over the last 4 decades Western economies have been told that only losers maintain inventory on the premises. Just-in-Time economics pushes the cost of warehousing Stuff onto suppliers and manufacturers and sets in place a whole system for delivering just enough matériel to be sold more or less immediately. Drugs are delivered to pharmacies and car-parts to garagistes on demand because the inventory would be too diverse to imagine storing it all in the back-room. Thus Eric the Car likes to get the Yaris for service just after 0800hrs, so that he can give it the once-over before making the call to Car Parts Logistics before 1100hrs to have the bits-n-bobs delivered after lunch.

All those lorries idle in Kent were taking Stuff or bringing Stuff; much of which [lettuce, baguettes, cream, fish, prawns (8 tonnes)] is "useless if delayed". It is now the job of British government ministers to lie stoutly assert that there are  no supply problems  and don't bother stock-piling because bread will be available forever. British supermarket chains are less confident and are capping the usual suspects at 3 per customer. These perennial anxiety items include: toilet paper, bread, wet-wipes, lettuce, pasta, rice, flour, eggs, soap, oranges . . .

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Ros an Sidhe heard from

My pal Russ, blogger, broadcaster and author has taken his nom de blog from the place he lives: Russianside [the headland of the fairy-folk] which is part of the village of Cheekpoint [Pointe na Síge - the seamed/streaked point]. If I had grown up there, I'd have been convinced it was the very centre of the World and in a sense it was the Centre of the Sunny South East before roads became anything more than rutted cart-tracks. For here the major arteries of trade and communication, the Three Sisters [the Rivers Barrow, Suir and Nore] meet at the head of Waterford Harbour - map:

My father grew up, also messing about in boats, at the sea-end of The Harbour, as the son of the Harbourmaster of Dunmore East. In 1931, when my Da was fourteen, he left home and joined the British [and Free State / Saorstát] Navy and lived out of a kit-bag for the next 36 years. Until I was 14, I too shifted my duff every year or two as we were subject to the requirements of the service setting up home in Dover, Kingston, Keston, Norwood, Malta, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Haslemere. I don't have any sense of belonging to a particular place. Which makes me a Citizen of the World; but my life lacks that foundation being a known and acknowledged part of a community.  The consolation prize, such as it is, of being unanchored was that I laboured through a very expensive education which delivered a lonely wight who knew a lot.

Having no keepsakes in a parental attic doesn't count much as hardship or deprivation and I am full of admiration for people, like The Girl Who Invented Herself, who refuse to accept the misère hand dealt by the Norns and make their own deck of cards to play the game of life. Andrew Doherty [the bold Russ] is another such. He grew up in Cheekpoint, son of a seaman, with every expectation of making a living from the tides that swept past the end of his lane twice a day. And if he'd been born at any time between 940 AD and 1940, that would have been his, willingly accepted, fate. But a couple of decades makes a huge difference in the whizzing world we live in and Russ had barely started in the salmon trade before it was shuttered by Brussels, what he did next is chronicled in his first book of memoirs - Before the Tide Went Out.  We missed the official launch of that book because we wimped out of travelling 60km through a crashing wind-storm.

And the pandemic fritzed the launch of his most recent opus: Russ has gone back with his dipper to the Well of Memory to write another book Waterford Harbour Tides and Tales compiled from his Blog and drawing on the collective memory of his father, his mother and his whole community. You can still buy copies. It is a local history book, focusing on the past through a slightly rosy glass but it is also an investigation into the truth of Truth and how tales get cemented and given substance through repetition. Homer was only able to keep his story straight by using kennings, a steady rhythm, highly conventional epithets and frighteningly detailed descriptions. We are warned to be careful what we say on-line because it is impossible to erase an unfortunate tweet and the implication is that everything that was ever known is sitting in a repository on a server-farm next to a hydro-electric plant in Norway. Whatever the truth of that, most information is effectively buried beyond recall by the noise of other data which competes for our attention. It is nice to have a small coherent set of tales well told; on pages, bound into a book, which will out-last most of the fluff on the world's servers.

I bought a copy of Tides and Tales for Dau.I so that she could read some chunks to her maternal grandfather Pat the Salt during their weekly skype. Pat was another chap who ran away to sea at the age of 14 and had his own ghastly adventures in the merchant marine 1939-1945. I'm not sure I'd want to have those memories triggered by other stories of horizontal salt-spray, torpedoes and floating wreckage . . . and rescues! Perhaps the thought of fresh-caught fish compensates.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

Brrrm brrRRRM

 When I was in primary school in the 1960s, we spent a good part of our off-time running around with our wings arms outstretched going neeeowww neeeOWWWW budda!-budda!-budda! in 2-dimensional fully terrestrial dog-fights with each other. We also voraciously consumed "trash-mags" of soldierly adventures in which the German soldiers cried Donner und Blitzen when they were surprised by the ever-victorious Tommies. Less time had elapsed since the end of WWII than we have lived since Y2K and 9/11. I'm sure my parents, who had both been actively in uniform during the conflict and never talked about it, wished we would all shut TFU. When not having aerial fantasies, we were furiously driving sports cars as Stirling Moss who was at the time the fastest Brit on four wheels. I don't suppose anyone much younger than me gets a rush from uttering the name, but I imagine than most boys will have a frisson from subsequent stars of Formula One racing. Indeed I'm guessing you could accurately predict a bloke's age by hitching him up to a galvanic skin response recorder and reciting: Gary Hocking 1963- Jochen Rindt 1970 - Ronnie Peterson 1978 - Gilles Villeneuve 1982 - Ayrton Senna 1994 - Fritz Glatz 2002. In contrast to those younger men [who died in harness], Stirling Moss lived on until April this year.

Making a cult of Formula One racing, as the modern day equivalent of Byzantine chariot racing, is surely responsible for a chunk of road accidents, some fatal, every year; as young chaps, in emulation, push the envelope of their immortality. Renault and Honda, for example,which make bumbly boxy saloon cars for ordinary motorists, have kept one foot on the gas of F1 because sexy speed sells.

I watching some commentary on the recent class action suit about early onset dementia from contact sport encephalopathy CSE and someone said "exercise is great but sport has issues" about the health benefits of leaving the sofa occasionally. There is no doubt that corporations of old white men make money from the daring antics of the younger generation: in boxing, rugger, cycling, race-cars

Formula One motor racing is driven more by tech than by drivers. In a similar way as cycling and athletics have been driven by drugs rather than training. 40ish years ago there was a bit of a civil war between the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA) who seemed to favour the established big-money big-sponsorship names vs the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) who sort of represented the Young Turks of motor racing: leaner, hungrier, more exciting. 

There are handicaps in horse racing, where saddles are loaded with lead weights so that the better horses are held back and all the starters have a chance of finishing in the 1st three. And there is has been a move away from performance enhancing drugs in cycling and athletics; enforced by before and after urine tests and spot tests for banned substances at pretty much any time. In motor racing, for it to be a race, you have to set up some ground-rules and parameters or there will be not race but rather a case of Ferrari first the rest nowhere., which would be pretty boring to watch . . . and Rolex would go watch over something else.

Accordingly the F1 governing  body stipulated that all entrants had to weigh at least 585kg before and after each race. On e reason might be to stop motor teams shaving weight [and structural integrity] from the steel cage around the driver's cockpit. As with De Nags above, less weight gives the driver an edge for acceleration. So, at the 1982 Brazilian Grand Prix [TMI!!] several of the FOCA team cars sported "water-cooled brakes" with substantial reservoirs of weighty fluid. These tanks were brim-full for the prior weigh-bridge but were designed is dribble out the fluid in early laps until the lighter cars could overtake their more powerful rivals. At the last pit stop before the end, the tanks could be brimmed up again for scrutiny.

It will surprise nobody that there was no specific clause in the list of regulations which prohibited this chicanery. But then there was no specific clause prohibiting turbo-charged engines which had been brought into the competition by The Big Boys of FISA. There was a row and Renault [FISA centraal] sued to have the two water-dribblers Nelson Piquet and Keke Rosberg who had passed out Alain Prost [Renault] disqualified so that their boy won the race and the accrued points towards the Annual championship. Renault did not object to dribblers who hadn't passed Prost, so they were allowed to keep their points. Two things a) Requiring intense scrutiny only where the injured party lost may remind you of the voter fraud cases only in AZ, GA, MI NV, PA, WI where the Democrats actually won the election. b) Keke Rosberg finished up winning the 1982 Championship despite his nul points for Brazil.

The row came to a head later that year when the lads from FOCA boycotted the San Marino Grand Prix. Which made that event a rather thin affair; with only 14 starters. It was therefore a stitch-up for local Team Ferrari, whose two drivers Villeneuve and Pironi were waaay ahead of the peleton and instructed to slow down to conserve fuel. The interpretation of those instructions led to a bitter internecine feud on the circuit and afterwards which finished just two weeks later when Gilles Villeneuve was killed on the track in Belgium. I said it was a dangerous sport!

Monday 21 December 2020

Dread, existential

Morning folks, it's Solstice! and how are we doing on watching The Giant Conjunction? Tonight is as close as Saturn and Jupiter have [apparently! they are never closer than 700 million km in their terms] been since 1623. We've had, since the 18th, two of our grown-up childer on site to share the wonder but it's been miserable viewing weather for star-gazing. Last night, after a brilliant crisp sunny outdoor-work Sunday afternoon, I had great hopes for the evening show. But although Mars and the Moon were early visible high in the sky, a thin miasma of horizon-hugging cloud over the Kilkenny shore occluded Saturn and Jupiter. Dang!

Miserable? Did someone say miserable? Not me! Apart from having the dearly beloved Dau.I&II home for Christmas [my cup runneth over] I've had a real great lockdown. I've been legitimately allowed to do nothing at all for much of the time: unless I feel like a yomp up the hill, or some logs need splitting, or the drains cleaning, or The Blob a-writing. Two months of Saturdays since I R Retire. But m'pals at Metafilter have been reflecting on how children are handling the pandemic: not very well in some cases. Because their time-scales and grasp on the world are different from ours. Gdau.II was due to transition to school this last September, and did, but her experience has been, shall we say, weird; and a substantial fraction of her life has been spent unable to hang with her peers. A peculiar (and life-changing?) New Normal.

I think we all have a story of misunderstanding some aspect of the external world because, as children, we lack experience to give context. On Sunday 4th Feb 1962, when I was 7½, I was not paying much attention to the 6 o'clock News, when they broadcast a segment from India, showing crowds of people wailing and throwing dust on their heads. The magisterial BBC voice-over explained that tomorrow, 5th February all the classical planets would be in conjunction:  

Mars: 02♒22; Saturn: 03♒50; {{Sun: 15♒42; Moon: 15♒42}}; Mercury: 16♒55; Venus: 17♒47; Jupiter: 18♒37 . . . and there would be a total solar eclipse at Noon. And, according to the dusty folks in India that presaged The End of the World.

Well, I woke up the next morning in a state of existential dread! and spent the morning wandering around, on the edge of tears, silently saying goodbye to things. My anxiety neurotransmitters were up to ninety, and it was hard to walk so heavy was the slump of shoulder. When nothing happened by lunchtime, the cloud lifted a bit. I won't claim to have questioned where on the planet that aligning Noon was going to happen with a clap of thunder and the bray of terminal trumpets. Apparently the line of totality was almost entirely across the Pacific: with hindsight, I could ask what the lads in India were making such a fuss about. It never occurred to me that I could share my worries with other people at home. Imagine what it's been like for 2020's introspective 7½ year olds. Nine hours of worry were exhausting; nine months must require drawing deep on their reservoirs of calm. Let us all be kind to tots and cut them some slack?

Sunday 20 December 2020

Sunday roundup 20Dec20

go go Go

Saturday 19 December 2020

Hearts and minds

Gorra vaccine! Indeed we have a clatter of different vaccines to choose from. Mine's a Pfizer spritzer, thanks. Some people naively believe that, with vaccines, we have knocked Covid19 on the head. Or at least that vaccines provide a bright light at the end of the tunnel. Without vaccines, the prognosis for global Covid19 is kinda crappy. Except in those places, mostly on the other side of the World, which went at the pandemic firstest with the mostest and isolated cases, traced contacts, and later started testing their citizens left and right. Test Track Isolate works. But b'god it's hard work, especially the tracking which is really labour-intensive and, I guess, emotionally draining. And for whatever reason, the Irish Government dropped that ball.

Now We The World have the vaccine and the population has been triaged into 15 categories: starting with 1) any elderly residents of care-homes that survived the holocaust of The First Wave 2) front-line workers . . . and so on to . . . 14) healthy "non-essential"18-54 y.o.s . . . 15) children and pregnant women. Some people optimistically believe that having given everyone a draft number, they will all rock up to the appropriate vax-centrum at their appointed time. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it's all about the presentation, innit? hmmm, in 2015, the Irish Government, under pressure from the EU Troika [remember that?], created a new utility Irish Water to deliver "safe, clean and affordable water and waste water services". What's not to like about that? Very few people drink water from their own wells and keeping the nation's kitchen tap water reliably free of Cryptosporidium and Coliforms cannot be done for nothing. The creation of Irish Water was a political disaster because charging people direct for their consumption seemed a no-brainer to Phil Hogan, the Local Government minister, so he just told his Department "make it so". It was a no-brainer for [institutionalised] me also: it consolidated far too numerous, thus overmanned, thus inefficient, water authorities and provided a dedicated income stream to up-grade the leady, leaky, Victorian infrastructure of clean water delivery. Nobody likes to pay taxes, especially a chilling recession, but I stumped up; for the community, like.

If he'd been more in tune with ordinary people's sensitivities, hurting after the Bank Crash, Hogan might have sold the plan to them rather than imposing it. This is the same Phil Hogan who, on foot of the debacle, landed the lucrative fish of EU Commissioner for Agriculture and the same fellow who resigned this summer because of further blindness to the optics of his actions. It was a lesson that the plain people of Ireland [I guess like any other demographic; even a convention of particle physicists] are not much impressed by data & evidence but can be played swayed by appealing to their emotions. The water protest changed the political landscape by giving traction to the rise of numerous demogogues independents across the country: there are now 19 of them across 39 constituencies.

What to do about the Vax Rollout? Even if it works as the best possible strategy for a return to normal economic and social life, the plain people of Ireland may baulk and refuse the jump. Vaccination strategy only works if there is significant take-up: the exact number varying according to the infectivity and spreadability of whatever scourge is being controlled. It's no good saying that this or that group of scientists are all for it. That's evidence based, and of course it helps, but it may not be enough. We had a Wexford Science Café Zoom last Tuesday where these issues were discussed. We're all scientists there, but there are also some folks smarter, and more people-sensitive,  than me. They appreciated that there's no point preaching to the evidence choir out in the streets of the Sunny South East. And whatever happens it's got to be done right, right from the off. The various government departments [Health, Finance, Welfare, Justice], the too-many quangos and semi-states [HSE, NPHET, NVRL], all the talking heads of reason [Scally, de Gascun, O'Neill, Mills, Staines, Holohan] need to get together and Get The Rollout Right. We won't get a second chance; there is enough skepticism, truculence, and pissed-offery out there waiting to be called forth by The Media seeking to be bala-^-nced. The Vaxxers need to sweep almost everyone onto their side before the a wedge of polarisation entrenches positions beyond the reach of reason.

Best idea so far is to put on the County Jersey: most Irish people are [absurdly, irrationally] attached to their local GAA sports team and by extension to their county . . . even those who can't reliably spell sliotar [clue R, nó fada]. On roll-out day, in each county, get the media out in force to witness the first vaccineers:
  • a reasonably lucid and presentable [but frail-looking] elder from a nursing home
    • if this person has an All Ireland medal from the '50s, so much the better
  • the Captain of the county footie team
  • ditto Camogie
  • the local TD [promise them 100 rational votes next election]
  • the best connected local chap / youngwan who escaped from Ballybeg and made good in science [preferably in immunology or epidemiology] . . . might even be an ex-GAA player . . . could, with advantage, participate by video-link from Harvard [looking at you Aideen and Lydia!] or the Mayo Clinic.
  • Slogan: "We're Taking one for The Team"

Heard across the count[r]y that evening "Be the holy, Jimmy, I'll have some of that, where do I sign up?"

PS. And for a different demographic: an Insta-influencer, preferably with wild-coloured hair, preferably local-born

Friday 18 December 2020

On the shoulders of dolphins

 About once a decade, a mother will ask me to advise their teenager about careers in science. I doesn't always turn out as Mam expected because my first and strongest advice is to take a gap year after school. Not a this will look good on my CV year designed by Mammy's life coach, but a real wind in my hair escape from home to try something different preferably in foreign because it's never too late to learn another language. Working in a bar in Madrid; or walking the Pacific Coast Trail; or waking σε μια ελληνική παραλία after too many beers; would all fit the bill. The other point to make is: don't over-think it - if you resolve to make your own luck you'll be successful from any one of a dozen starting points.

About 6 years ago, when I was still working at The Institute, we had a handful of Malaysian students arrive to complete their final year of college education in the Irish Midlands. That would seem very random until you factor in that one of our Suits had been on a Malaysian recruiting junket selling the virtues of the education to kids who could muster €10,000 for international fees. One of them elected elected to do a 4th year research project under my supervision - which meant something something molecular evolution using the tools of bioinformatics. And that is how I met Ilaina Khairulzaman:
Bob: Your appearance is a bit surprising, I've sort of run out of project titles. What are you interested in?
IK: I live near the beach, I like things that swim.
Bob: [Remembers a previous "done" project looking at the inventory of bovine immunity molecules] What about dolphins? They can swim. [my pal Des showed that dolphins are effectively streamlined cows].
IK: I loe dolphins!

The genome of Tursiops truncatus bottlenose dolphin had been recently sequenced; I reckoned, as a minority species, it would be notably under-analysed, so there was surely a project in there, comparing the dolphin's immune repertoire with its nearest rellies. Accordingly, I threw her a manual of binfo techniques, and asked her to go and read what was known about cetacean immunology as the basis of the required literature review . . . Answer: Not very much.

It turned out to be a golden bit of research. Partly because dolphins and other cetaceans a very peculiar reduced instruction set innate immune system with genes for hardly any anti-microbial peptides [prev]. But also because Ilaina was dived in for a total immersion investigation of the peculiarities of dolphin immunology. Nobody had done that before. One of the peculiarities of The Institute is that, in order to graduate, the student must complete a 12 week work-placement, usually in some industrial setting. I arranged for her to spend the following summer working in my old lab . . . doing more of the same. But Ilaina made herself useful in that setting as well as continuing to push at the frontiers of science w.r.t. cetacean immunology. My old / her new boss found some money to keep her on the pay-roll  - and said that with a bit of spit and polish her research would make a very nice MSc thesis. And it was so.

There was a PhD in there too but Ilaina had other ideas. Soon after arriving in Dublin she started to hang out in the haunts of public understanding of science because, although she could do original research fine, she could do passion for science rather better and it was more . . . engaging. Since 2017 she has been working with a UK charity Sense About Science, which seeks to promote evidence-based policy and public engagement with science. They've had a very good year because they are part of the antidote to pernicious nonsense which is circulating about Coronarama. Ilaina is Head of international public engagement, training and marketing. Which is probably bigging her up a bit; but heck, why not? If I have retired to be CSO [Chief Sofa Officer] of the Fáinne-chloch Institiúid Smaointeoireachta Éabhlóideach, then Ilaina can be V.P. IPET&M. So long as nobody doubts her commitment to lighting a fire under the youngsters of Europe so that they park their aspirations to be currency traders or Insta Influencers and see that science is a worthy challenge for a thinking body and can be the most tremendous fun at the same time.

More women in science

Thursday 17 December 2020

Heads up: ye Goddes

Big event up coming in the firmament: apart from it being the Feast of St Thomas the Apostle: patron of India and skeptics. Not St Thomas Aquinas, the Aristotlean theologian: his day is on 28 January. Nor St Thomas à Becket [of Canterbury]: he's on 29th December. And, natch, apart from it being the Winter Solstice. Remember that, in just under half the years, Solstice doesn't fall on the 21st. Whaaaat's happenin'? The Great Conjunction is happening! Known among the red tops as the Christmas Star. Every 20 years or so the two biggest planets in our solar system line up with the Earth so that they appear really close together. They are closest at 18:37 GMT but close enough any evening between 19th and 23rd December this year. It's Winter in the N hemisphere, so weather is predictably crappy, so don't put all your money on the 21st. Indeed you should go out, with the kids, anytime from this evening to scope things out. The planets are super bright but close to the horizon and also close to the sun, in the SW sky shortly after sunset. The earlier the view the higher they'll be. Readers much younger than me will get another chance in 2080.

The field of view for a hobby telescope is the blue inner circle [Note the source] Jupiter ♃ and Saturn ♄ are here about 6' of arc apart, which is really really close. The moon is about 30' = ½° across. The distance between these two giant planets [U Exeter - good animations] will be 1/5th the diameter of the moon. They haven't seemdd so close since 1623. Whatever the details, people with crappy distance vision may see the event as a single point source of reflected light. Beg borrow steal binoculars . . . and be sure to sanitize in between geeks if you're sharing the view with unpodded people. Lidl has a special this month on spotting scopes and binoculars.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Firing the patrimony

Not that one! This [L Dr Eugene Costello, UCC] is the bridge-builder for whom I was setting the scene yesterday. I was alerted to a Zoominar last week in which Dr Costello was talking about Uses of Uplands. As a reculer pour mieux sauter he has been investigating past patterns of land use to better inform policy about how to manage this precious resource for our grandchildren. He's particularly interested in the almost lost [on these islands] practice of transhumance which I covered in a colour supplement a couple of years ago.  On the very top of our hill is the ruin of a two-room cottage which, I learned this Summer, was the summer lodging for Mrs Blanche's shepherd. Mrs.B sold that 200 hectare section of her patrimony to a consortium of commoners in the 1940s and the shepherd lost his job. The commoners continued to run livestock (mostly hardy black-faced sheep) up the hill for the Summer while the winter's hay was growing on the in-bye fields in the valley. But each year, fewer and older people used the hill in this way, the rest finding it more efficient [and warmer] to make money filling in application forms at the kitchen table rather than seeking sheep in the wet mist. 

Costello has written The Book on Transhumance and the making of Ireland's Uplands. But he's also written a very interesting paper: Hill farmers, habitats and time: the potential of historical ecology in upland management and conservation. Which is £75 = €83 easier to read. His thesis is twofold: 

  • The concept of SACs [Special Areas of Conservation] is based on a snap-shot of land-use, land-disuse, flora and fauna in 2000 AD. This is fantastically [as in fantasy] short-sighted and gives no way of predicting, and thereby impacting / controlling, the future. It is all very well to protect the species characteristic of  Upland Heath:

    • Potentilla erecta tormentil Néalfartach; 
    • Galium saxatile heath bedstraw Luibh na bhfear gonta; 
    • Trichophorum cespitosum deergrass Cíb cheanngheal; 
    • Erica tetralix Cross-leaved Heath Fraoch Naoscaí; 
    • Vaccinium myrtillus blueberry/bilberry Fraochán
      But think!: by privileging these species, are we preventing the flourishing of other ecotypes which may be in a better position to handle climate change? 
  • On the other (it was ever thus) hand, the proper study of how things were 100, 500, 800 years ago may allow us to focus our attentions and avoid futility planting such as my sister invested in during her time on Erraid.
Costello's paper describes two valuable painstaking investigations focusing on past trees in his Kerry valley. One was a book-l'arning catalogue of place names, similar to Zimmerman and O'Hara's catalogue of places associated with grain-farming. Scoping out all those Doires, Doiríns, Coills, Crannachs tells us where trees grew in The Before Times, but where sheep and fire have erased all trace now. Pollen cores are another way to access these data. Surely the place to start afforestation, if that's what the situation demands, is where trees grew previously. And indeed which trees. There might be something in the mineral content of the sub-soil or an invisible aspect of micro-climate which favours trees. Better than random, for sure.

And did someone mention burning the wood . . . as a matter of deliberate practice? My polymathic pal Mick Monaghan is convinced that a string of horizontal platforms along the downhill edge of the Blackstairs commonages were created to pile a stack of timber to make charcoal for the iron foundry in Enniscorthy 15 km to the East on the River Slaney. Costello reaches similar conclusions for Bunbinnia, Co Kerry. 

If charcoal commands a price, then it can be produced sustainably through a system of coppicing. Woodland and sheep don't mix but if you can give the woods a head-start and the stocking is not too dense it is possible to diversify the habitat and support a greater range of species. There is a hint in the place-name data that woods existed in gullies, draws and cliffs which are inclement for sheep. Thought-provoking stuff.

Tuesday 15 December 2020

More than 3-D

When we bought the farm 25 years ago, we paid no attention to the fact that we were to be on the edge of an SAC. We also paid no attention to the fact that, in the auction, we'd actually bought a chunk of this Special Area of Conservation dry heath that characterizes the vegetation of the red hill which gives its name to our postal address. Our share of the 24th part of the commonage came with the house. Pro rata we own more acres of hill than we have in our 6.47 hectares of in-bye fields which surround the house.

Those upland acres turned out to be an asset when The Beloved started farming from the kitchen table by applying for grants to do the right thing by current government agricultural policy but also by our druthers. REPS [Rural Environmental Protection Scheme] GLAS [Green Low-Carbon Agri-Environment Scheme but also green in Irish] and AEOS [Agri-Environment Options Scheme] followed each other as a succession of application forms. The consequent cheques paid for 500m of hedgerow, 12 acres of traditional hay meadow, a mini orchard, innumerable if currently uninhabited bee-boxes, bird-boxes and bat-boxes [trio L], and regular piles of gorse Ulex europaeus brash for small creatures to hide in. The gorse woody stems make excellent quick firing for the wood-burning stove.

The dry heath of the Blackstairs, and other uplands along the NW fringe of Europe is worth preserving because it gives elbow room to a unique assemblage of plant species and their associated vertebrate, invertebrate and microbiological hangers-on. If the heath goes through inattention, over-grazing, under-grazing or carting away in 40t trucks to access the lithium or andalusite mineral below then a handful of species and an irretrievable ecosystem will go extinct. And extinction, as we now know, is forever. The brief of the National Parks and Wildlife Service is, partly through designating SACs, to preserve Nature from the depredations of commercial expediency or ignorant collectors or quad-bikers.

But wait! Dry Heath is as much the work of human hands as it is fruit of the earth. If it wasn't for first clearing trees and the annual round of grazing by sheep, let alone occasionally burning the heather, there would be no dry heath. It is a stage in the process of succession from bog to forest artificially maintained by farmers trying to extract a living from that unprepossessing resource. All those cheques from Min Agric took account of the 7.89 ha we owned [in common] on the hill. But until recently it was an alien place: I spent far more hours beachcombing the Waterford Coast than walking through wet-bracken. A couple of years ago (and proper order), The Man announced that if we were going to claim a subsidy for farming the hill we'd have to put some sheep up there as evidence. The last 3 years, accordingly, I've spent many happy hours fossicking about the hill looking for sheep but finding moths, flowers, stone work and myself.

After a summer mapping the territory and paying attention I concluded that our uplands were more than a 3-dimensional pimple on the World. A proper appreciation of its existence and its "value" required attention from multiple disciplines including historians, archaeologists, botanists, hill-walkers, agronomists, economists, bird-watchers, poets and . . . farmers. It was, indeed, A Holistic Landscape.

That essay is the opposite of the way governments and the education system works. There it is a territorial war: science professes to know nothing about The Arts Block. Historians and art critics are baffled by science.  Even within biology geneticists and immunologists operate as if the other discipline exists over there; which is a disastrous stance for dealing with the epidemiology of a pandemic. The Departments of Welfare, Justice and Health fight each other during the budget negotiations and are Resolute in shuffling off responsibility for drug-addicts, the homeless and the mentally ill onto the other departments. Jakers, we need some joined up thinking! Damme! I came here to talk about a notable bridge builder and I've consumed 700 words on the Intro . . . come back here tomorrow for Pontifex Maximus?

Monday 14 December 2020

Stop piffling about the climate

 . . . and DO SOMETHING! Preferably something directed, coherent and effective. No grandstanding, no empty promises, no half-measures which won't offend the Dairy Lobby. But it's better to do something, than sit on your thumbs hoping that bush-fires, hurricanes and storm surges only happen in foreign. There is an alphabet of groups who profess to have skin in the climate game: An Taisce, Birdwatch Ireland, Concern, Dublin FoE, Eco Congregation Ireland, Feasta. But on some level they owe allegiance to Stop Climate Chaos a SuperQuango or Metabund which organised a Meet The Legislature day long Zoom on Monday 7th Dec 2o2o. SCC must have some political clout because they persuaded 90-something TDs to commit 30 minutes of their day to meeting Climateers. Irish Times reports. Seemingly about 1,000 people registered for the event and stayed for at least part of the day. The Beloved and I registered separately and tuned in from different parts of the house - to fatten the crowd, like. 

Politics is the Art of the Possible [Bismarck: Die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen] but in Ireland it is the Art of the Local. Citizens elected to the national assembly keep one-and-a-half feet back in the constituency scratching backs and attending funerals so they get re-elected next time round. Accordingly everyone registered for the Zoom was assigned to their constituency breakout-room and their TDs were paraded in front of them in a beauty pageant. Actually it was more like we-the-people were the job panel interviewing prospective candidates - which in a sense we were. But copying transparency / fairness protocols from job interviews it was decided that each of our 5 TDs were posed the same five questions. Which repetition a) makes it a bit boring for almost everyone in the room b) doesn't winkle out effective triggers for each TD. 

To be useful, these sessions have to change hearts and minds. So it helps to know if TDa has a brother in Transport while TDb is married to a dairy farmer. Pitching a tailored message to each parliamentary effective is more likely to move someone than generic same old same old. In the run up to the Repeal the Eighth referendum, out current Taoiseach performed a mid-campaign U-turn to support the repeal. I am convinced that a close relative opened his eyes about a trip to England to terminate an awkward pregnancy. You can adopt the moral high ground more easily when those affected are unknowns Others. For me one of the most powerful interjections came from a young teacher from the Barrow Valley who suddenly waxed passionate about a dismal future for the kids in her class at the Educate Together school. It was brilliant as theatre, including a break in the voice, because it went off script and to the heart of the matter. An image of children growing up to shat-upon world where no birds sing.

Climate Change is really the heart of the Green Agenda and the cliché Greenie is from the middle class 'burbs: all bicycles, lentils and canvas shopping bags. These people can be dismissed by the farming lobby because they all lack meadow cred. Our constituency has incubated Mullinavat Man, a farmer from South Kilkenny, who discovered climate only about two years ago. There is a stream that runs along the edge of his family farm where he used to fish as a nipper. I don't think he was really into fishing but it was something that he did along with scrumping apples and feeding the hens. He recently met a local chap who had taken his son down to the same river for some Dad-time fishing . . . and come up empty.  It was a what have we wrought? moment for him equivalent to J Robert Oppenheimer's "I am become death, destroyer of Worlds" after the Trinity Test on 16 July 1945 at Alamogordo. It was the first inkling that the lurry on the phosphates business model for Irish agriculture since WWII has had consequences . . . beyond the boost to barley yields. You can't say a farmer from Mullinavat doesn't understand rural life, its hardships and uncertainties.

I am sorry to echo de Valera but Ireland is still an agricultural nation. Ire Ag is punching way above its weight in contributing to our Carbon Footprint. And Ireland is, for total emissions, shamefully are the bottom end of the spectrum between Czecko and Estonia. In other Western European countries, Energy [effectively electricity production] and Agriculture [mostly methane rich cow burps] are running neck and neck at 25% to destroy the world we know and love. So anything that targets or de-incentivises farming is going to have more leverage than smaller sectors like domestic consumption and non CO2 greenhouse gases: hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3). Don't get me wrong, I love cheese but cheese from cow's milk is an ecological disaster, goats convert greens to milk with far less methane than cows. And those of you who eat beef-burgers really need to think pork instead or chicken. Or even no-meat Mondays!

And the home we choose to live in! They are a disaster: concentrating radon but dissipating heat in a broiling upward plume. Before we returned to Ireland 30 years ago, The Beloved had been working for a crew in Newcastle called Energy Action which was dealing with Fuel Poverty. I still can't get my head around Fuel Poverty enough to distinguish it from Food Poverty or, like, Poverty. But Kathleen Funchion TD, Sinn Féin mentioned it during her SCC session which elicited a great despairing wail from TB. During the last 30 years 1 million new homes have been built in the Republic with staircases, ceiling heights, and roof-tiles controlled by Building Regulations. But energy loss has been a dead loss with the barest nod towards insisting on fuel efficiency or insulation, so that, as a country, we import less oil and coal and burn less peat to keep the citizenry comfortable in their own homes. That is a mammoth wasted opportunity. Retro fitting is far more expensive than doing it right first time.

What to do? Turn the thermostat down and put on a sweater! In the 1980s in Boston I discovered that I could function well indoors at ambient 60°F but not at 59°F. Your mileage may vary slightly but for me the physiological tipping point indoors is between 15°C and 15.5°C. If you are heating empty rooms to 18 or 20°C you need to examine your thermostat and your head.

Sunday 13 December 2020

Sunday Bobtail

Hara, from the '53 Stations of the Tokaido' by Utagawa Hiroshige 安藤 広重 . . .

Saturday 12 December 2020

Merit or gratitude

Our girls educated themselves at home and left just before they became eligible to vote. After Dau.I left home and country her younger sister was home alone for nearly two years before she, in turn, made tracks. In retrospect a large part of those years was taken up sitting on the sofa watching boxed sets [Desperate Housewives; House; Masterchef] dreadful stuff if you tend the least bit towards judgmental. Two positive notes: a) this binge-watching was in the centre of the family space rather than up in her room b) it was eclectic - didn't seem to matter what she watched or with whom so long as she didn't have to run around in the cold rounding up sheep.

That's how we got to watch all 20 episodes of Harvard professor Michael Sandel's [L,L; Mr Burns, Homer Simpson's devious and ethically-challenged boss L,R] freshman Philosophy Course. Sandel is quite dismissive of Utilitarianism - probably because he's smarter than me - and thinks that there is something to be said for <me: aaaaargh!> Kant. But he is also a great rhetorician and could persuade most normal people to his way of thinking if they were the least bit open to change. His course is heavily over-subscribed year after year and is a prime example of the quality of the education students have the opportunity to embrace if they can overcome the 1 : 20 odds by successfully applying to Harvard.

I wasn't averse to watching Sandel talking for 10 minutes about The Tyranny of Merit. Like Utilitarianism, Meritocracy looks okay at first glance: if everyone has the same chance in life's tests, then the winners can bask in their success while the losers have only their lack of application or native talent to blame. Except, despite the rhetoric, you don't have the same equality of opportunity as I did with my expensive education. In Ivy League America, families from the top $1% contribute more students than the bottom $50% - and that discrepancy is a) self-perpetuating b) "corrosive of the common good". Academic success breeds hubris in the winners who make invisible the role of fortune [both sen$es!] in their ad astra ambitions. A sense of humiliation is to be expected of the hordes milling outside the Groves of Academe. And justifiable anger if they have heaped debt on their shoulders to meet the eye-blinking costs of 21stC higher education.

Sandel wants to stop "college, the best you can buy" being the only arbiter of opportunity. Where opportunity is defined by loadsa cash and the stuff which goes with it. College is not the only avenue for money and accolades: sports and entertainment are other channels for achieving millions and an early retirement. But heck-it your odds in those games are far, far longer than getting into Harvard. And another thing: it's not only about the money [even under today's corrupted values] it is also about recognition that, whatever your métier, your labour contributes positively to the common good. If you look down on your child-minder, your plumber, your garbage-collector you have only yourself to blame when the revolution comes.  

The next day, I started in on All Things Shining: reading the Western classics to find meaning in a secular age by philosophers Hubert Dreyfus [ UC Berkeley] and Sean Kelly [Harvard]. Philosophy, insofar as it has any utility, seeks to understand the meaning of A Good Life and maybe sketch us a road map towards that desirable goal. My pal P sent me the book, for which much thanks, from Boston by UnAmazon. 

There's an intriguing chapter there on trying to figure out what Homer meant by Ἀρετή areté = excellence, virtue. Robert "ZAMM" Pirsig [prev] travelled that same road on his motorcycle. Homer was writing reciting 2,800 years ago and in many significant ways that past is a foreign country. William "Home Rule" Gladstone was so weirded out by Homers kennings [wine-dark sea etc.] that he seriously suggested ancient Greeks might have been colour-blind! Here's Dreyfus and Kelly "Excellence in the Greek sense involves neither the Christian notion of humility nor the Roman ideal of stoic adherence to one's duty. Instead, excellence in the Homeric world depends crucially on one's sense of wonder and gratitude" Note the wine dark text! " . . . the basic Homeric sense of the sacred: that it is the highest form of human excellence to recognise, be amazed by, and be grateful for whatever it is that draws you to act at your best". Plumbers, student nurses, Martin "Ich kann nicht anders" Luther - we see you!

Nimo Patel is grateful.

Friday 11 December 2020

Copping a 'Rona

As I think I shared before, Dau.II aka Cookie from Cork [L zzzzzz tired outnafter a heavy evening's baking] calls home, like E.T., most evenings. I don't know anyone who is happier in their own skin or less dependent on external validation. But even the most resilient among us can start to show cracks after 40 weeks of Plague and Isolation. She meets her local bestie about once a week at opposite ends of a park bench to catch up and support their favorite coffee shop. After a short hour of chat and people watching she sent me an e-mail: " . . .  what the likelihood is that any given person I pass/meet during December is actually carrying 'vid19? I think I've worked out that in my constituency 1 in 400 has it (CSO stats report 270 out of 100,000 approx). And nationally 1 in 1250 has it (80/ 100,000). Is there a way to figure out how much lower the risk is depending on lifestyle/work status/how many you live with? How do you calculate how much higher the risk is if you are combining Cork and Dublin and Carlow stats? How many people who have covid are circulating in the population, versus in isolation/hôpital?"

Which allowed me to riff " Can't fault your math: 270/100,000 = 0.0027 = 1/370 and 80 ~= 270/3 so 1/1200 is good enough for national. Presumably infection in our rural community is much lower than your neighbourhood to balance its 270/100k hotspot. Infection is two stage: you have to get within spittle distance of that 400th perp AND you have to suck it up yer nose. All the advice this morning on the wireless was about opening windows during Xmas dinner. You are vanishingly unlikely to cop a 'Rona from some rando in the street. But your hour-long coffee with Bestie was bringing transmission likelihood up a good bit. Although nowhere near like being indoors with her; let alone with Louie and Huey and Dewey as well: assuming LHD all independently likely to be the Infective 400th. In that case, you'd be at 1% for encounter and close to certs for transmission.  If B+D+H+L are in circulation having similar sessions regularly with permutations of their network then it's getting very likely that one of  them will have brought it into your gaff for that party. 

Beyond that I would park any worries. There are families whom I defo would not have round for Xmas dinner because I don't trust them collectively to have avoided everyone in their network who had got up close and personal with everyone in their network who was carrying. I danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Rona. If you have some semblance of a normal Like Before Times social life then infection is likely. otoh, you'd be fine to have Bestie and her roomies to dinner if they are still podded up together."

We've all got to be proportionate here. No benefit to jumping out of the way of the Covid Train if you get run-down by a social isolation jarvey or whacked by undiagnosed cervical cancer. But it's easy to wear a mask in Lidl and we shouldn't be so afraid of the weather that we refuse a walk in the drizzle with a pal who is drowning in sorrow.

Thursday 10 December 2020

Economics gone maddening

I don't think I want to live in a Marxist paradise where everything is rationed and everyone gets the same amount of money, eggs, bicycle inner-tubes, garden forks and guitar strings regardless of what, or how much, work they do. Flat fairness isn't really fair. Youngsters need more money than grey-beards: courting costs so much, and it's better to have fun while you still have knees that can dance and a head that can hold its liquor. Call me a Protestant but I can see why it might be A Good Thing if a material benefit accrues to people who work harder . . . or who are more thrifty: in The Before Times, Dau.II could pay the rent and put food on the table if she worked 3 days a week and she couldn't see the point in working more to spend each weekend recovering from the exhaustion of working 9 hour days on her feet in the English Market.

But I certain-surely don't like living in the current economic model where the CEO earns 100x what the effectives on the shop-floor take home [up from 20x differential in 1965!]. Where the cost of a pair of shoes might be half what the maker of the shoes earns in a year. Where nobs in Dublin 4 live in homes that costs more than a Lotto win and where homeless people buy Lotto tickets because there is no other way to light the tunnel.

I've had a poke at Cruise Liners before. They charge a lot; pay the workers very little; are registered in countries that don't have good employment law; they are extravagantly wasteful of food; a disaster for the planet . . . and recently far too big to be either smugly elitist or even vaguely romantic. Here's Why are Billions of Dollars Worth of Ships Being Intentionally Destroyed? 15 minutes on the economics of the merchant marine - which nowadays is reduced to a) bulk carriers for coal, oil, wheat, bauxite, iron-ore, fertilizer b) container ships for sneakers, toasters, umbrellas, Velux windows c) cruise-liners. A big-assed cruise-liner playing host to 5,000 people will have cost $500,000,000 [that's half-a-billion] to commission but its scrap value as steel is $4,000,000. Cruise-liners are owned by companies that are in the biz to make money. They buy labour cheap and sell cabins dear. In 2019, 30 million people paid $150 billion [$5000 each] to cruise on the backs of 1.2 million workers on mostly crappy contracts. In 2020, cruise-liners became early conspicuous as incubators of aerosol transmittable viruses and the whole boondoggle was stopped in its seaways. Salt sea air is supposedly refreshing but it is also super-corrosive: the half-life of a steel wheel-barrow on the Waterford coast is about 2 years.

Cruise companies, despite the eye-watering throughput, are highly competitive and work to really tight margins. And their accountants have reported that there will be zero income but hefty maintenance costs. The managements seem to have all come up with a similar down-sizing solution. It's best for The Company to staunch the haemorrhage on maintenance and get $4 million as cash-back from a breakers beach in Turkey or Bangladesh. It's also better for the workers on the fore-shore to have continued wages despite the horrifying PPE-free working conditions. The price of steel is rocketting up because China is building roads, dams and bridges to offset the collapse in the global demand for sneakers and toasters.

For the math of equity it is interesting that $4 million is about the price tag on Castle Knob, Aylesbury Road, D4 in the heart of Ireland's embassy belt. [Holistic thinking alert] What about Hijacking paying Carnival Cruises $10m for the MV Global Duchess Dowager on its final journey from the Caribbean to Shiyyp Büstiç, Turkey? We could park the old lady in Cork Harbour and provide 2,000 en suite rooms for students if the WiFi could be sorted. If the students pay half the rent as they're getting gouged in "student accommodation" then the venture would pay for itself in 6 months even at 50% occupancy. As a planet, we can't keep on building things and throwing them away.

Seemingly, the megaCruiseLiners which haven't been scrapped are back in business. With new protocols about occupancy, health-costs, miscegenation dining with strangers, and off-shore freedoms. Here's a summary of the changes from a believer [10 mins]. A less positive take from Alex Belfield, the relentlessly negative sourpuss [2 mins].