Sunday 28 February 2021

End Feb XXI

Longest February ever excluding leap-years.

Saturday 27 February 2021

Live long live simple

Ικαρία Ikaria is an Aegean island quite close to, but half the size, Σάμος Samos which is real close to the Turkish mainland. Neither has seen the influx of displaced persons that, say, Κως Kos has had to deal with . . . because the rest of Europe balks.

In olden days Ikaria, along with Lesbos and Izmir/Smyrna on the mainland was famous for its Pramnian wine: rich, dark, red and intoxicating. They still produce enough good plonk to keep everyone happy. The island has attracted notice for the number of really old people who are out and about and needless to say the wine has been one of the factors responsible. But others say it's because Ikarians are really crap at time-keeping.
The other red connexion is that thousands of communists were exiled there during and after the Greek Civil War after WWII. But for the fact that so many British [and French] politicians had an expensive education, rudimentary Classical Greek and a romantic attachment to Themistocles and Xenophon, Greece could have slipped behind the Iron Curtain along with Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. A number of these Marxist refugees stayed forever and are still influencing local politics towards the left. 
Before that in July 1912, the Ikariots evicted the Ottoman garrison and declared Ελευθέρα Πολιτεία Ικαρίας, Elefthéra Politía Ikarías The Free State of Ikaria [Flag R]. Greece was kinda busy prepping up for the First Balkan War and then fighting it; and didn't get round to annexing Ikaria to The Kingdom until December of that year.
I'm down with the Ikariots because I'm reading a hippy dippy 1970s home-education with spliffs memoir called Escape to Ikaria by Nick Perry. Perry has lived a rather louche life on the edge, seemingly unable to settle down to ordinary suburban living holding down a job in TV. First he bought a Welsh farm with sheep, having only ever seen such beasts through a car window. It took him and his brother and his wife Ros seven years to go bust. During that time Ros had twins and then another chap and they learned how to milk sheep and goats and heave bales of hay about in the Winter. In the late 70s they upped-stakes and took the Magic Bus to Athens, then the first outgoing ferry from Piraeus . . . and landed at Ikaria in the middle of Winter. It thus has a similar beginning to   The Salt Road  by Ray Winn [prev] and a similar ending to  Driving Over Lemons by Chris "Genesis" Stewart [prev]. This is clearly a bit of a genre. I'm sure that having a year on a Greek Island before they turned 10 did the Perry kids no harm. Nick and Ros were able to keep their goat-milking hands in doing for an aged and arthritic Orthodox nun. Nick didn't drown while crewing for a fisherman and didn't injure himself too much working in the building trade for minimum wages without the whiff of health and safety. If you're renting a house for buttons and living in the mo on sunshine, fresh fish, yoghurt and bread, then 80 drachma an hour is enough. It's the car, the mortgage, the shoes, the stuff, which drives wage-slavery.

Friday 26 February 2021

The Bus Stops Here

Contracts [of employment] are two way agreements; but powerfully asymmetrical.  If you poll first at interview and are offered the job, you may think that you're at a disadvantage when negotiating salary because you [really] want, even need, the job. Without an income, debt, penury, starvation and homelessness cast their shadows across your family. For your future line manager or the company's HR, the stakes aren't as high - there are 2 or 3 more 'appointable' people who have just been interviewed. Occupations where there are in-built power asymmetries tend to attract bullies and my experience with HR has been 'mixed'.

At the other end of the contract, both sides need to have a notice clause, stipulating how long each party is going to give to find a replacement [employer or employee, both]. Civilised countries will legislate a minimum amount of notice required of the employer to protect the, potentially more vulnerable, workers. Years and years ago, I was advised that unless I could fall under a bus tomorrow without my place of work missing a beat in its enterprise, then I hadn't done my job. Accordingly, I have since been more careful with my filing, record-keeping and SOP generation.  In my last [ever] job, the toxic HR system failed to have my replacements in place before I took off but I worked really hard to tidy my desk and leave all the useful signal in the filing cabinet while dumping the noise. Six year old Faculty Meeting minutes are less useful than you might have thought when they got filed.

In what passes for my social media, advice was sought from a young employee who was being blandished [=bullied in silk gloves] into staying on beyond their notice: because essential. But not so essential that the boss had recognised their asset-ness with comfortable and respectful working conditions, let alone regular pay-hikes. The supportive comments rained in. If it was Junior's job to train in their replacement and 2 weeks wasn't enough time for that to happen then that was a HR / management problem not the employee's. Someone used the term Bus Factor aka Bread Truck Scenario. This is the number of key people in a team or organisation without whose expertise and deep knowledge the enterprise would be severely hampered. In well run companies this should be close to zero. But that sort of system redundancy requires a personnel buffer and far too many companies, run by accountants, prefer to shave costs on payroll and hope that no key people win the Lotto, cop a 'Rona or sustain a debilitating accident. This cheese-paring on salary and appointments is the source of frustration at the non delivery of health services.

I liked that perspective very much. It's not on the employee, especially not on the quiet, min-wage, infrastructural cogs in a well-run machine to establish the Bus-Fall Protocols. That's why they pay Management the big bucks - [adverse] contingency planning is on the Gaffer's To Do list. Salary-fat managers and experts and don't always deliver I - II - III.

Another useful phrase cropped up in my Bus Factor researches - "cross-training". We did that when I was played soccer at school. Every so often, we'd all be wrenched out of out usual position [left-back or goalie, me] and made to play some other role. The thought was that everyone needed to be substitutable, even if it required a bit of shuffling. My last place of work made a token attempt at this while I worked there. Teaching staff were requested to take on unfamiliar courses, especially tutorials and laboratories. Some of the old stagers only taught biochemistry or microbiology: same old same old material for 20 years! I, to my great joy, was given one of the three lab sections in Food & Fermentation Microbiology. I guess the reasoning was that, if the real microbiologist fecked off, then that module would not be complete bereft. Otherwise the quality and delivery of the teaching was completely without oversight or audit: because the TUI union was really strong on teacher autonomy.

And what about "grey rocking" as a strategy for dealing with toxic, narcissistic and bullying colleagues?  New concept to me - very sheltered upbringing.

Thursday 25 February 2021

Ferlinghetti gone

I was a late reader /writer. I was really functionally illiterate until I was about 10. I could read, but I didn't. I could write but it was horrible to behold and took a hella long time to implement. Neat hand-writing is almost as efficient as short-hand for getting ideas / facts / data down on paper. Long after all my computers and phones have been sent to the Jack and Jill Foundation [which can unfortunately no longer turn dead e-kit into nursing hours] the written word will still be with us. I still have two foolscap loose-leaf blocks full of poetry which I copied out  as an exercise to develop my 'fine cursive hand'.

My younger teener self thought it was a good deal to buy new books. I was, in parallel, reading through the school library  and the books my parents owned at home. But my books and the conscious decision to buy them - of all the gin-books in all the towns in all the world -  helped define my sense of self. Later, of course, I realised that you could buy a lot more books at yard-sales at 25c and 50c; and that random books could be more interesting than chosen books.

At some time in my mid-teens I lashed out a portion of my agricultural labourer's wage on Penguin Modern Poets #5 - Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti [L outside his independent bookstore in SF], Allen Ginsberg. I must have glanced at the contents and was maybe taken by the ragged ee cummings typography.  I copied out, between a bit of Landor and a bit of Wordsworth, with nothing from Corso or Ginsberg ; three of Ferlinghetti's poems Dove sta amore ; Come lie with me and be my love and Sometime during eternity :

Him just hang there
                                       on His Tree
          looking real Petered out
                                          and real cool
                                                             and also
                   according to a roundup
                                                    of late world news   
             from the usual unreliable sources
                                                               real dead

I still have the transcriptions, although the Peng Mod Poets 5 has long-and-long gone beyond my control.  There was a time when I could recite Ferlinghetti from memory, but I had more or less forgotten that his poems seemed so important 50 years ago. Then Lawrence Ferlinghetti, born 24 March 1919 died on Monday 21 Feb 2021 [Guardobit] having clocked his century and then some. The news brought my younger radical poety self all rushing back at me - for heaven's sake get a haircut yeh young blaggard.

Wednesday 24 February 2021

Anxious me, lucky you

 Article about serendipity and creating space for better luck. I flagged this tuthree weeks ago with citations. I doubt if you followed through on those earlier links. I'll fillet one sentence to save you the trouble

"wipe out your ‘to do’ lists. Pay the bills if you can, replace the burned-out lightbulb, catch up with doctors’ visits and teeth cleanings . . . When you stop procrastinating and these mundane things are finally taken care of, they will no longer take up headspace"

Amen, Brothers and Sisters! Dau.II is back to her daily call, now settled in her new gaff. After enough days had passed since our Thelmo and Blobise, I confessed that January had been a bit stressy for me . . .  because change. It was on me to facilitate two jurisdiction-changing life moves and I rarely seem to be able to expect everything to go smoothly - so sleepless nights. I certainly wasn't trying to guilt-trip her and explicitly acknowledged that the anxiety was endogenous and just looking for an external peg to hang its adrenalin hat on. It's quite likely, a few days after settling the last fret, to send out its feelers looking for the next big worry. That's why the italicised sentence is important: clearing the mental decks removes the burrs and hooks which can start to accumulate the anx-transmitters. Because, for sure, it's got to be controlled by some combo of cortisol, dopamine, GABA and epinephrine.

This is why good sleep hygiene [tutorial for better zzzzz] is so important: a dreamy 8 hours is like power-washing the polytunnel - everything looks clearer when you let in more light. I think, for me, anticipated travel is a good predictor for worry. I'm defo on the right track giving up the ould work. And a bit of lockdown is fine. YMMV of course, because your neurotransmitter cocktail is different from mine.

Tuesday 23 February 2021

And so to bed

I've mentioned Samuel Pepys in passing because he was alive and writing in The Plague Year of 1665. It's his birthday 23rd Feb 1633 today. He started recording his life and times on 1st January 1659/1660 because new decade. And also because his wife had just endured an early miscarriage: Blessed be God, at the end of the last year I was in very good health, without any sense of my old pain but upon taking of cold. I lived in Axe yard, having my wife and servant Jane, and no more in family than us three. My wife, after the absence of her terms for seven weeks, gave me hopes of her being with child, but on the last day of the year she hath them again. I have a sense of empathy because I started recording my life and times in January 2013 because new job.  Pepys is of interest to us now because of the insight he gives about day-to-day life for a well-heeled official in Restoration London. It spares no blushes and he has little shame about his bowels, and especially his water works - having been cut for the stone just before the diary starts. cut for the stone was surgery, without anaesthetic and with sketchy asepsis, for the removal concretions in his urinary tract - yarooo! He also had an eye for a pretty young woman and was, on at least one occasion, discovered by his wife while groping their maidservant. At least one of his many mistresses negotiated advancement for her husband - a shipwright and carpenter. 

It would be like me to be particular in transcribing the diary in 17thC English rather than in today's vernacular, but that would make it, apart from proper names, incomprehensible unless you dear reader are fluent in Shelton's short-hand. But the fact that this shorthand records how thing sound rather than how they were formally written gives historical linguists insight in how words were spoken by people of his class and times. He ate 'ysters, for example, and suffered from b'ils on his neck, sounding a bit stage-Irish to modern ears. The brilliant, searchable, Pepys Diary site is maintained by Phil Gyford.

At the start of the Diary, Pepys was Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board, which allowed him the patronage to give William Bagwell a leg up in his shipwright career, even as Pepys got his leg over Mrs Bagwell. He was an efficient and conscientious bureaucrat for the Royal Navy and rose to Secretary of the Admiralty - implementing new policies for victualling the fleet and [not] paying the sailors. Because of his enquiries, sailors were entitled to receive a daily quota of one gallon of beer, 1 lb / 500g of biscuit, 4 oz / 100g of salt beef or fish, butter and cheese. And he ensured that supplies were inspected for quality. Some call him the father of the modern Royal Navy. He also started the requirement that ship's officers should pass a competency exam in mathematics and navigation. No GPS then, only sextant and log tables. He corresponded with Isaac Newton about probability, was elected to the Royal Society and served as President of that body in the 1680s. So to his contemporaries he was a man of parts and none of them knew about his diary.

So to the Privy Seal, where I signed a deadly number of pardons, which do trouble me to get nothing by. Home by water, and there was much pleased to see that my little room is likely to come to be finished soon. I fell a-reading Fuller’s History of Abbys, and my wife in Great Cyrus till twelve at night, and so to bed. [7th Dec 1660]

Monday 22 February 2021

What I meant was

I was on a Thelma & Louise last week with an inexperienced driver and someone else who got up to 3rd gear doing circuits of a bucketty 1 hectare field when she was 12. It was fine: there were no cops chasing us . . . partly because we elected to drive through the midle of Midleton and get some mentored experience of town-driving and avoid-not-evade a known Garda checkpoint on the Midleton by-pass. And although we went along the Déise Coast Road nobody drove over a cliff. That was all good.

We started talking about what is forbidden according to the RSA Road Safety Authority but actually common on Irish (and other) roads . . . and maybe even useful for normal, safety, efficient, driving??? In any such discussion you have to be careful of the usual me-exceptionalism which applies to pretty much everyone pretty much everywhere. Parking in Disabled spots because I'll just be a minute; that sort of thing.

We were cruisin' along a main N road at 80km/h when the speed-limit was 100km/h. Suddenly a big-arsed car overtook us by following the jink and swerve get out of the way y'dodderer protocol preferred by such creatures. I explained that, although it was strictly illegal, it was common practice, on straight sections of main roads in Ireland, for slower cars to drift onto the hard-shoulder to make room for those in a tearing hurry. Obligingly the silver car ahead of us proceeded to demonstrate a practiced drift-to-verge manoeuvre to give sea-room to big-arse.

Indicator lights are just that: indicators. I can't hear the dashboard tick of the indicators on my Yaris, because I R Old, so I often pootle along a straight road with no turnings telling everyone I'm about to turn. I am not the only one. A good rule of thumb is to ignore the indicators of all cars negotiating roundabouts. No advantage to lurching into the path of another car because they were indicating a left-turn. I am the only person who, to facilitate inter-driver comms, actually points at the direction I intend to take. That gives more confidence that I am actually going there rather than what my indicators are doing.

It is unsafe and illegal to make any hand-gestures Except!! to other drivers because they are open to mis-interpretation. ditto flashing lights: in Ireland, in city traffic, a super-brief flash of the headlights is an after you message; in Greece head-light flashes more usually mean stand aside, I'm coming through. But nuance is all: the length of the flash differs in the two jurisdictions. In Ireland a double-flash to oncoming traffic can mean speed-trap ahead OR rocks/sheep on the road. In urban traffic, where everything is much slower [although plenty fast enough to kill pedestrians] hand gestures do lubricate the social niceties and the flow of traffic. Humans have been using gesture since we were hunting mammoths so the body-language, and facial expression can add an awful lot of quite nuanced information to the basic hand gesture. In my 20s I had a couple of jobs driving vans for money and racked up a lot of experience for getting through my assigned drops as efficiently as possible; much of it by using non-verbal comms with other road users.

Sunday 21 February 2021

Miscellany 21 02 21



Saturday 20 February 2021

Space below my feet

Just before Christmas, I flagged a short biographical film about Gwen Moffat, a pioneering rock-and-ice climber of the post-WWII years. A couple of days later, The Beloved was in the local Post Office which as a side-line runs a micro lending [take one put one] library. She picked up a copy of Moffat's autobiography Space Below My Feet published by Penguin [90p] in 1976. It actually cost Garry Styles, Galway 1978 99p because back then Ireland charged VAT on books but the Brits didn't. Someone later had paid £2.50 and the first 100+ pages have fed a family of book worms. And now I have, for €0, the book for a while. It's an interesting read; a lot more interesting to people who do actually rope up and climb rocks. A lot of names are dropped in the first part of the book when Gwen is out there meeting the best young climbers of her generation.

One of the nothing to see here themes is the frequency with which these mostly young, mostly men drop out of the story . . . from a great height. It's like the Towering Inferno [prev] where the director shovels the extras out of the building to indicate that the stars are really up against it. I have to admire the dedication and question the sanity of people who put themselves literally in the teetering edge at every opportunity.  What is also remarkable is how unjudgmental are the mountain rescue people who go out - usually when / because conditions have turned really bad - to find the benighted . . . or pick up the pieces. It's like the lifeboats; those who get rescued have made a mistake or had tough luck; the rescuers have been there themselves because the sea and the mountains can both rapidly changer to danger and are unforgiving when a crap hand is dealt.

Nevertheless, I think its important that, when they are young and supple, youngsters should go outside and put themselves up against it. In a medium that has real consequences and real dependencies on the actions and reactions of others. Grand Theft Auto VII and Assassins Creed III may tune up your sympathetic nervous system and hone your reflexes but without any consonant muscle activity [thumbs excluded] you may jangle the co-ordinated mechanisms for maintaining physiological homeostasis. Don't do this at home, lads: do it on the fells.

There is a glossary, it is evocative:

  • abseil: descend by a doubled rope when climbing impossible / inconvenient
  • arête: a narrow ridge
  • belay: securing the party by a projections - bollard of rock, piton, etc. - The projection so used
  • bivouac: voluntary or involuntary encampment with tents
  • brèche: a gap in a ridge
  • carabiner: a metal snap-link for attaching rope to pitons, running belays etc.
  • chimney: a fissure wide enough to admit a climber's body
  • chockstone: a stone wedged in a gully or crack
  • col: a pass
  • corrie: a high, bowl-shaped valley 
  • couloir: a gully
  • Creag Dhu: hard-chaws from Scotland
  • cwm: a hanging valley
  • glissade: descent on snowy slope controlled by ice-axe
  • jug[-handle]: a very good hand-hold
  • mantelshelf: levering up onto a ledge solely by arms and shoulder. The ledge in question
  • moraine: clatter of stones and debris brought down by a glacier
  • Munro: a Scots mountain [N = 282] higher that 3,000 feet  
  • pitch: a section of climb between belays
  • piton, peg;  metal spike with a ring in the head driven into a crack to hold a rope or belay a climber
  • roches moutnonnées: rounded, glacier smoothed rocks
  • run-out: the amount of rope run out for a pitch
  • verglas: veneer of black ice on rock - slippy

Friday 19 February 2021

Escape from

 . . . the Pepple's  Republic of Cork .

Lockdown? It's a bitch! Dau.II, like her sister 2 years prev, left home a few months before she was old enough to vote. After an au pair Summer in suburban Dublin, she shifted her duff to live with her bloke in the People's  Republic of Cork . For the last six years they've been living right in the City Centre. That was a big change from growing up as far as you can be from a bus-stop and still be in Leinster. But she was adamant that living in suburbia with a garden [lawn-mower, car, garage, 2.4 kids, annual Spanish holiday] was an unacceptable nebbishy half-way house. They were fortunate to snag one of the last landlords in the country with a shred of honour. The affordable mid-recession rent has never increased; despite The Market more or less doubling rental prices over those six years.

But living thrifty and having a really modest foot-print on our pillaged planet only takes living so far. In September, half of Dau.II's core social support crew went back to college and left town and Pandemic Man forbids her to talk to the rest of her pals. Neither of them are working and they're just haemorrhaging money for a really good 4th floor view of the River Lee . . . and access to the deli-delights of the English Market, of course. At Christmas, she floated the idea that she and her bloke might move one county East and live in her grandparents' old gaff in the Déise. It's flipping back to Lifestyle Remote but actually Costa na Déise is surprisingly well served for buses: 3 times a day each way between Tramore and Dungarvan.

And that would have been finio in The Before Times. Dau.II shops once a week on Wednesday which the Tesco Crowding App reports as being the quietest time of the week. She sits down in Tuesday night and plans the menus for the next seven days "It's way easier than trying to think in the supermarket". Sorry Tesco, no impulse buys in that family. But really in these Covid-days, you'd need a death wish, or at least a cranked up appetite for living dangerously, to get on a bus, even spaced out at 25% capacity. If you do the calcs, for a normal office fonctionnaire, in normal times their car is sitting idle (either in the driveway at home or in the office car-park) for > 90% of the time. [calcs for me: 90 commuting minutes a day M-F = 7.5 /168hrs = 4% active use rate each week]. It was my plan, coz I R retire, to pass the little Red Yaris, after getting her through the NCT in December, on to an enterprising Polish construction worker who wouldn't mind a few dings in the paintwork.

Then one of my rellies came home for good from Foreign and I added her to the list of insured drivers and handed the Yaris off on her until she found her feet. A cold coming we had of it [that would be TS Misogynist] in January. It was obviously going to be harder than I imagined to shake off a car that has been super-dependable for 8 years: hauling wood, dead sheep, sacks of feed, groceries, occasional passengers. It turns out The Pep, Dau.II's bloke, passed his driving test in 2014 more or less at the same time they started living together . . . in the city . . . with no need for a car at all at all. In those days, you could be taught by your Ma or Uncle Joe or really anyone with a car who was prepared to load their insurance to accommodate an absolute beginner. Having passed the test, you were good to go anywhere whenever you wanted - without having had any experience, let alone training, for driving at night or on motorways. Very shortly after than, the Road Safety Authority required beginners to swap their L plates for N = Novice plates for two years [prev]. At the same time they required formal instruction from a registered driving school, which was a huge bore for young tearaways who just wanted to get 💨Go Faster decals for their wheels.

After a turmoil of needless anxiety from me, it turned out that I could add The Pep onto the Yaris  insurance roster without any additional tearaway loading and last Wednesday I got up at dawn to {deliver the Yaris to | collect the 20-somethings from Cork}. We are in Level 5 lockdown; only "essential" travel is permissible beyond 5km. "Essential" is undefined and so far untested in the courts but the Gardai are now empowered to slap a €100 Fixed Charge Notice on anyone deemed to be transgressing these guidelines. The Media is a having an irresponsible field day reporting on a lot of edge cases: two pals done "for having a picnic" because they were consuming a Danish as well as lattes while taking a walk in a Dublin park; two lycra cyclists discovered exercising 20km from home; a lad who was found bypassing his local chipper and buying a rissole at a more distant emporium. Thus the only way to determine if "moving house" is essential is to pack your clobber in a van / Yaris and set out. I didn't sleep well the night before.

I dressed up in Full Patriarch [tweed jacket, open shirt, cravat, mask, recent silver hair-cut (self!!! I haven't been to a barber for 30 years)], because that almost always helps. I encountered only one Garda Check Point and was half way through my spiel "I'm going to pickup my dau" when I was moved on through "ghter who is moving house". The 20-soms were packed and ready when I arrived 3 hours later and with some ceremony I handed the keys to The Pep to drive us to his new gaff: 

Driving a car is like riding a bike, once you've mastered the skills, it all come back to you quick enough. Except that cars are evolving rather fast and have zero conventions about where the controls for lights, wipers, air and heat are located. We agreed that, as well as L plates and N plates, P plates for can drive but am rusty would be better for everyone. Whatevs. I've been on plenty of white-knuckle car journeys as a passenger and last Weds wasn't one of them.

Thursday 18 February 2021

A place in the country

Not having a telly, I waste a fair bit of time channel flicking through Youtube for slack-jawed edutainment. A fraction of these clips/flicks ends up in The Blob's Sunday Miscellanies; when you see something peculiar or useless there, you'd be excused for thinking I exercise no editorial winnow. About a month ago, I spent 10 minutes watching an expert restoring a 400 year old painting by Rubens to its original Summer brilliance. It's a landscape called Het Steen [R] in which the house of the same name has but a small part in the drama half hidden by trees on the left. The view was really familiar to the artist because Het Steen was his gaff. I wondered idly where the mansion was located and google revealed that it was for sale in 2018 for €4million. It's got 33 rooms and is 25 commutable km from Antwerpen/Anvers, so I don't doubt that a diamond dealer or currency trader or footballer would snatch it up.

It seemed a small enough price to pay for a lovingly restored ancient monument which still had bricks-and-mortar shelter value. Certainly the price compared favorably with, say, a painting by the Flemish master. Lot and his Daughters [1614] went under the hammer in 2016 for $58million! But that was news because it broke records but reg'lar Rubens portraits go for about the same price as his substantial, functional home. It made me wonder about the cost of authentique French chateaux. Here's one in Lot-et-Garonne, same size as Het Steen with 33 hectares to keep people at a distance. It's half the price of Rubens home-place. There is a wide range of choice in and around the 1 €uromillion. On dit que you'll need at least as much again salted away for care and maintenance. €1m will buy you a quite modest terraced house in Dublin 4 or D6. There's something wonk in all this.

Note added in press. Check out Rachel Rothwell's rather wonderful Wexford Stories today? She has republished the very first of my earlier Not Sunday Miscellany stories with a good quality repro of the actual picture in all its 1960s chilliness.

Wednesday 17 February 2021


There was a brief fashion when it was suggested that our, human, official name should be Homo faber [looking at you Hannah Arendt] in recognition of the fact that "handy-man the tool-maker" had done more for us than Homo sapiens whose wisdom has delivered an awfu' lot of useless nonsense: The Blob for starters.

Perhaps the quintessence of tools is the humble hammer which was probably first a handy sized rock which an early ancestor used to pound open an aurochs femur to access the brain-nourishing bone-marrow within. Why just last week, I used a slightly larger two-hander stone to pound in a fence-stake because it was just the one stake and not worth walking up the field to fetch my 2kg sledge hammer for. That image should bring into focus that not all hammers are the same: that sledge would be no use at all to an upholster.

A couple of years ago I downloaded the PDF of a 1940-vintage catalog from Joseph Tyzack & Sons Ltd, Meersbrook Works, Sheffield. Manufacturers of trowels, saws and tools of every description. Someone has lovingly scanned this profusely illustrated book from a copy shipped out to a hardware store in New Zealand. There's an index, of course, offering a variety of hammers: brick, builders', Canterbury, claw, coal, comb, engineers', Exeter, fruiterers', gardeners', grocers', joiners', Kent, lath; Masons' club, M' mosaic, M' punch, M' walling; nail, adze-eye, plumbers', rivetting, scaffolding, scutch, slaters', tack, telephonist or pattern-makers, Warrington. I won't bore you with more than one picture:

This is so informative about how life was 80 years ago. Grocers needed a tool that was a combi axe / hammer / pry-bar for accessing robustly crated tea, fruit and nuts. Shipping containers did away with the need for a lot of intermediate packaging to make the product water- and pilfer-proof.  Our friend the upholsterer can order a tack-hammer as well. No clear to me why telephonists need a hammer at all, let alone customised to the profession. And a word to the wise: the gardener's hammer on p 157 is exactly the same as the 3-leg best steel claw hammer p 45 shown above - you won't need both.

Tools are, of course, fit for purpose: they have evolved since the "Ug, bang two rocks together, mate; that will pull the girls". But they are also subject to cultural inertia, the long handled pointed shovel, universal in Ireland, is a specialty item in England and handles for forks and spades come with D or T handles depending on location too. Surely some equivalent tools are ergonomically better than others but there are only a few such studies. Phew! now I shift the Tyzack PDF from Desktop to Archive.

Tuesday 16 February 2021

'Rona - the numbers

If you have math-able kids, it can be fun to play some guestimation games.

BBC via The Conversation via More or Less gets the order of magnitude on how much SARS-CoV2 there is out there from Christian Yates of U. Bath. His wife, who lives with the guy, suggested it's either a teaspoonful or a swimming pool, it usually is.  They are Landmark Numbers, for positioning us in the world of quantity. Don't click on the link until you've given it a go with your 12 y.o. If you have a kid who is not math-able it's possibly because this sort of think-fest has been absent. Dau.II used to think that way, and probably still does because she's a fan of More or Less, Tim Harford and his books.

Guestimation is important for critical thinking because it forces you to lay out your assumptions and have a punt at the size of the numbers. Not precise numbers, but order-of-magnitude numbers. For the teaspoon or swimming pool SARS-CoV2 question you need to find out [roughly]:

  • the number of infected people at any one time
  • what are typical viral loads in human tissue
    • do lung epithelia harbour more than kidneys?
  • factor in the length of time infected - everbode kno that's 14 days
    • maybe do something to note that viral load starts small and peaks at ~day6
  • can we ignore viruses on surfaces and flying spittle?
  • can we ignore reservoirs in bats and pangolins?
I used to do a similar exercise with my Yr1 remedial math classes: How many trees are there is Ireland? A reliable minority of each class would be quite resolute in saying "[la la la can't hear you] I have No idea". Often, in my Socratic toga,  I'd take them to the window and invite them to count the visible trees? "Okay, so in Ireland it's more than 25! so you now have some idea". Sometimes that started them, reluctantly at first, thinking. I've shown my working that 4 cups of botox is enough to kill everyone on the planet if distributed evenly rather than unfairly concentrating the stuff in film-stars' faces.

One of the arguments against lock-down was that it was inappropriate to shutter large sections of the economy and prevent all social interactions because a) the very old contributed disproportionately to the roll-call of death b) very old people have a low life expectancy. While acknowledging there was an upblip in the number of deaths when the cases spiked, we were warned to check back later to see if deaths from pneumonia, 'flu, stroke, dementia, heart failure and cancer were down . . . because those 'normal' dead had been carried off a few months early by CoViD-19. I haven't seen any such follow-up from, say, the Irish CSO. They work careful, but they work slow and currently they only have available hatches and dispatches for Year 2018 or quarterly breakdown for Q2 2020
But I did get an annual report for Jersey, from my pal Dec who lives there. In contrast to other island nations, Jersey seems to have followed the UK [and Ireland] in doing too little too late on border controls. With the result [much handwringing] that the fatality rate per 100,000 is among the highest in the world. Guernsey, the neighbouring, smaller, bailiwick clocked half the rate of fatalities. But here's the thing: the overall count of deaths from all causes is down in Jersey for 2020 compared to previous years. This paradox is unexplained; could be a statistical blip; and is hard to analyse statistically because the absolute numbers are so small: 674 dead of which 59 are CoViD related. hmmmmm?

Monday 15 February 2021

Europe 60 years ago

When I was a nipper, there was much less choice in books, maybe particularly children's books. One year I was given a boxed set of the Golden Book Picture Atlas of the World. Six volumes for the six continents, published in the USA in 1960. I loved those books: there were maps, there were pictures of evocative foreign places: steel works in Poland; a Dutch cheese market; peasants all over picking grapes, scything or threshing wheat, planting potatoes. A few nights ago, I needed a map of Switzerland, the internet was on snooze, an Atlas was two steps away, so I reached down Book 3 Europe and the USSR.

The Book 3 map for Switzerland was shared with WEA, France, Germany, Austria and the Low Countries, named only 17 Swiss towns [Quiz: name them? answers at the bottom] and was the size of a regular postage stamp, so wasn't really suitable for my query: where is Zermatt? But as I was there I started to leaf through this snap-shot of what somebody in Baltimore in the late 1950s thought American schoolkids should know about The Old Countries. It seemed to be a string of clichés masquerading as fact, but then, what can you say about a whole continent in 100 pages that won't seem a bit random to somebody who actually lived in Czecho or Belgium at that time?

Random is a bit of a trigger for me and I set Excel to generate 10 random pages between 194-287 and 1 random sentence from each of those pages. That's about the survival rate from manuscripts that were in the Library of Alexandria before it was torched by the Romans in 48 BCE. What would the intelligent aliens who come after us make of "Europe" if only 10 sentences survived?

  • p 238. [In Venice] Taxis are boats called gondolas.
  • p 242 In both cases [backwardness and huge estates in 'Southern Europe'], farms are apt to be too small to benefit from  the use of modern machinery.
  • p 273 Horses are still much used in the backcountry [USSR].
  • p 277 The Soviet government [USSR] felt that to keep power and to strengthen the nation, more industries were needed.
  • p 235 They [UK FR NL ES PT] also acquired new colonies in Asia.
  • p 205 Selling fish in Caxias, a tiny fishing village near Lisbon, Portugal.
  • p 237 Its [Belgium] exports include textiles, chemicals, and glassware.
  • p 230 That is why Ireland is called the "Emerald Isle".
  • p 212 Vienna, the home of Mozart and many other famous composers, is the music centre of Europe.
  • p 246 He can watch [Portuguese] workers fashioning beautiful tiles, and women making beautiful lace.

In 2018, I did a similar sample of words from a foreign phrase dictionary. 

Golden Atlas Swiss towns: Basel; Bellinzona; Bern; Biel; Brig; Fribourg; Geneva; Horgen; Lausanne; Lucerne; Lugano; Sion; St.Gall; St.Moritz; Visp; Winterthur; Zurich. Cartographers make decisions on what to include based not solely on, say, GDP or population. St. Moritz [pop 5,000] makes the cut because nothing else is happening in SE Switzerland; while La Chaux-de-Fonds [38,000] in the NW has a lot of characters. 

For up to date information [you know you need this], the 20 most populous urbs in Switzerland are Basel; Bellinzona; Bern; Biel/Bienne; Chur; Fribourg; Geneva; Köniz ; La Chaux-de-Fonds; Lausanne; Lucerne; Lugano; Schaffhausen; Sion; St. Gallen; Thun; Uster; Vernier; Winterthur; Zürich;
or more usefully in order of size: Zürich; Geneva; Basel; Lausanne; Bern; Winterthur; Lucerne; St. Gallen; Lugano; Biel/Bienne; Thun; Bellinzona; Köniz ; Fribourg; La Chaux-de-Fonds; Schaffhausen; Chur; Vernier; Uster; Sion. in 2019, I showed myself just how plug ignorant I was about the political geography of the PRC. I'm on slightly surer ground with Swiss geog but must confess that I'd never heard of Winterthur [pop 110,000 bigger than every town in Ireland except Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick].

Sunday 14 February 2021

Sunday Uplift

StVs ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 

Saturday 13 February 2021

Dauntless Courage

I grew up a navy brat; knowing the difference between a sheet and a halliard and the mnemonic there is no more red port left in the bottle. The other side of the boat, or the channel, is starboard: clearly there were no colour-blind navigation officers! For my parents the RNLI lifeboats was the charity of choice and very many of the incommming Christmas cards that they recorded each year were supporting that charity. I've written a lot in support of this position which I articulate as, apart from doing good, the RNLI allows people to be their best selves or, in a word, heroic.

Last Fall I gave back a tiny token by returning a couple of my father's pictures to Dunmore East where he, in his turn a navy brat, grew up. All the chat on that lovely late Summer evening was about the imminent appearance of Dauntless Courage by David Carroll a book "celebrating the history of the RNLI lifeboats, their crews and the maritime heritage of the Dunmore East community".  A met David a few years ago at a heritage & history centennial commemoration. We have a particular and peculiar small-world connexion. My grandfather was Harbourmaster at Dunmore from the foundation of the Free State until 1947. My father slept in the other bedroom of the tiny 2-bed Harbourmaster's cottage on the quay from 1922 until he left home for boarding school in The North and subsequently to the Britannia Naval Training School at Dartmouth. I guess he slept there also when he came back to visit his folks. When my grandfather retired the post was taken up by Captain Desmond Carroll, David's father.  I've reflected before on how my father was honest but not priggish or rigid, and that this was a good thing when dealing with [in]discipline on the ships under his command. To evading government currency restrictions, from David's memoirs, I can now add defacing government property to the list of rules & regs ignored by my Old Man "He had a son called Llewellyn who I suspected slept in my bedroom a long time previously. A compass had been carved into part of the wooden window frame and we always credited Llewellyn with this. From a very early age I therefore knew where North, South, East and West were located and knew if the wind was blowing from the north, it was coming from the direction of Councillor’s Strand and this was the one that was feared as the harbour was unsheltered from this direction".

That tale doesn't feature in Dauntless Courage because it is really off topic but it's the kind of detail which peppers the book to make it more than a series of lists and tables of who was in which edition of the lifeboat for each significant 'shout' from 1884 to 2020. The book is valuable because it consolidates a lot of archival material, including many reports from undigitised newspapers into one place. It is therefore of interest locally, but also useful to future researchers in the wider area of rescues at sea. It is profusely illustrated with facsimiles, drawings, paintings and full colour photos and weighs 3 lb 1.25kg. You don't want to read it in bed: the tales won't help you sleep and you may do yourself an injury if you do drop off.

One interesting development is the relentless increase in power and technological sophistication in lifeboats. In 1884, a crew of men put out to sea under oar and sail often in appalling conditions and snatched sailors from certain death in the angry and unforgiving sea. Modern lifeboats set out [as L] at 25 knots with radar and search-lights, radio for updates and the helicopter for back-up. It doesn't in any way lessen the courage required; partly because bigger and better RNLI boats will undertake rescues impossible for open row-boats.

Dauntless Courage also gives credit to The Infrastructure: a small army of [mostly] women who come down to the harbour when the maroon goes up and start clapping together ham and slices of bread and brewing a mighty tureen of tea the colour of tomato soup. Whatever the outcome of the adventures at sea, people will need that tea and hang-sangwiches when they return cold and wet . . . whether it's an hour or 14 hours later. Those same people organise the fund-raising: table-quizzes, flag days, cake sales.  Wherever you live, give generously to the RNLI and if you live near the coast think about volunteering.

Twitter 7th Jan: "Shout last night, fishing vessel 2 persons onboard suffered engine problems 10 miles south of Dunmore East. Our volunteer crew launched on an really cold night to tow the vessel back to the safety of Dunmore East Harbour. The whole operation took 4hrs"

Friday 12 February 2021

Silurian fisticuffs

I am plugging away at the sack of books which Dau.I lifted from the idle and dust-gathering shelves of her library and sent where they might be read by someone. I heartily recommend Reading the Rocks: how Victorian geologists discovered the secrets of life by Brenda Maddox. She wrote an excellent biography of Rosalind Franklin [reviewed] but hasn't limited her biographical chops to scientists.

The thesis is that, in 1800, rocks were rocks, history was short, all life was created species one at a time, and man was descended from angels with no relationship at all at all to gorillas, chimpanzees or orang utans. By 1900, it was all over bar the shouting biblical fundamentalists: rocks were full of fossilised creatures, which appeared in predictable sequences of related forms, and these data were key to understanding where we [all: people, porpoises, parrots, petunias] came from. The change of view was wrought by hammer on rock-face , and ding-dong debates at GeolSoc and other venues. Not everyone behaved nicely. For too many of the stars it was more important to be right - and the other fellow wrong - than to be correct. On the other hand, there are many instances of people agreeing to differ and still remain polite, and even good friends. 

One place to start is the publication, in 1815, by William 'Strata' Smith, of the first geological map of Britain. He tramped across the land with hammer and note-book paying particular attention to the fossils in the surface rocks, he noted that one group of fossils was replaced by another along rather predictable lines across the country. He coloured his map accordingly and produced a thing of beauty which was commercial gold. Entrepreneurs knew where they would be at nothing in the search for coal, which was being increasingly shovelled into steam engines which drove the industrial revolution. He tramped everywhere because, surveyor and son of a blacksmith, he couldn't afford a carriage.  In 1819, George Bellas Greenough MP, first president of GeolSoc published his own glossier, more detailed, map which rapidly eclipsed Smith's. Thereby diverting cash sales from the poor to the already rich, a tendency which we see even into our own time and not only in geological turf wars.

Have you ever wondered why Western Britain obtained naming rights (Cambrian Ordovician Silurian Devonian) for most of the Palaeozoic Era? Probably not unless you had enough classical education to twig that Ordovices and Silures were pre-Roman Celtic tribes in N and S Wales, respectively. The reason is because British geologists were waaaay ahead of the counterparts in North America and continental Europe. Although scientists are meant to robustly test / challenge to destruction their own hypotheses, they are human enough to cherish their intellectual babies while denouncing the brain-children of rivals as ugly, stupid and scarcely worth of attention. The Ordovician was created by Charles Lapworth FRS in 1879 to act as a neutral buffer zone between Rev Adam Sedgwick FRS's Cambrian and Sir Roderick Murchison, Bt FRS MRIA.'s Silurian period. Sedgwick and Murchison had been friends and hammer-buddies in their youth. Sedgwick refused to speak to his pal for decades because Murchison started to colour his published maps with the whole of Wales as Silurian. Not very Christian, you chaps; and a rather pathetic role model for scientists at the top [FRS FRS FRS] of their profession.

Sedgwick featured largely in the education of Charles Darwin who didn't absorb much of the lesson in how to bitter controversy infect your whole life. Brenda Maddox's book gives a central place to another of Darwin's mentors Sir Charles Lyell [L, whose mutton-chop whiskers were by no means distinctive in that time]. A biography is different from a text-book because the best of them bring in colourful biographical detail in the hope of showing how real people came to have their best ideas.  Lyell, like his younger contemporary Charles Dickens, got on the lucrative American talking celebrity circuit. He and his wife Mary went on four transAtlantic tours snowing the colonials with a blizzard of fossiliferous facts. He also drank the Slavery Kool-aid writing that plantation slaves seemed to be better off, and better behaved, than the Irish navvies who lived and worked in the same counties. This sort of talk really jangled Darwin's chain, coming as he did from staunch abolitionists on both sides of his family. But Charles L and Charles D remained good friends despite this political and many scientific and religious differences.

Maddox also cites the courtesy that existed between Darwin and Wallace over the biggest idea of the 19thC. Much has been made of the disparity in wealth and connexion between those two men and how Darwin carried away the celebrity recognition prize because his well-placed pals fought his corner. But my reading is that Darwin was kind, loyal and good company as well as being super hard-working, diligent, focused and clever.  Wallace lived out his days - he died in 1913 at the age of 90 - rather in awe of his more famous colleague. Reading the Rocks is defo worth reading for filling in the gaps in the stratigraphy of science as well as the science of stratigraphy. And it's appropriate to be giving plaudits to Darwin on this day especially: his 212th birthday!

Thursday 11 February 2021

KISS my vaxx

I was in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago. The Wexford Science Café devoted their Dec and Jan meetings to Coronarama, vaccines and messaging. The deliverable was a Press Release asserting that, if journalists wanted some Sense About Science on the pandemic and its control, then they could call The Immunologist, The Pharmacist or The Communicator from our ranks. My contacts were also there as The Convener of WexSciCaf.  Simon Bourke, enterprising chap from the Wexford People called us all. As readers of The Blob may suspect, I can get a bit over-gabby when I'm on stage and without a script. Suddenly I've said something that may be true but isn't really helpful in a discourse that needs clear messaging. I stopped the clock after talking to Simon for a bit and expressed concern that he'd go controversial rather than Keep It Simple Stupid on the desirability of getting [almost] everyone vaccinated ASAP. He replied that keeping readers (and contacts) content was the sustainable model for effective local journalism: ensuring that everyone was mentioned / pictured when Taghmon National School won the tiddly-winks. if you annoy your sources they dry up.

We don't need to get everyone vaccinated: people with organ transplants [and immuno-suppressive drugs] get a free pass and we-the-people can carry a quota of anti-vaxxers who will ride disease-free on the sore arms herd immunity of the rest of us. But we do need a goodly proportion if we're to knock this disease on the head. How big is "goodly" depends on the R-number, the transmissibility, the infective period and will be different for each disease. And we need to do it quickly because every day there is a set-back or a cock-up on the roll-out more, particularly elders, will die. The capitalist world has delivered a worrying level of choice on the vaccine front which is fuzzying up the message. 40% of French people are now likely to refuse the vaccine - especially if produced in China. Brits only want the AstraZeneca-Oxford Vaccine because it injects an invisible, but highly effective, Union Flag into their arm.

AstraZeneca seem to have booted their Phase-III trials by not including enough pensioners. This means that there is insufficient evidence that elders will benefit from that variety of vaccine. [Because AZ is British?] German newspapers led the charge with stories that AZ vaccines shouldn't be wasted on old people but reserved for younger people where there is good evidence of efficacy. The Irish Government has also drunk this Kool-Aid and this decision has thrown a spanner in the works for planned orderly vaccine roll-out. Changes in the protocol are a disaster for messaging. It gives traction to doubters and we really need to bundle people along on a known trajectory. In my piece in The People I shared the fact that, by overthinking the issues aged 21, I didn't get The Boy vaccinated with MMR; that two years later in the middle of a road trip he contracted measles; and two years after that we confessed these facts to a doctor in Boston. The incredulous reaction [Did you say you come from Ireland or Eritrea?] was humiliating

Boston? We had wonderful news from Fenway Park  yesterday. My dearly beloved foster mother and widow of my mentor got her first shot. I don't know, and don't care, which variety of vaccine she took because whatevs! Any and all of them will provide a degree of protection and as far as we can see there have been zero serious adverse reactions to any of them. As older folk are disproportionately likely to be seriously affected by a dose of 'Rona, there is a numerical argument that they should keep their place at the head of the queue even if there was evidence that a given vaccine was less effective in that age-group. The Conversation gives some numerical examples. These show that you can save more lives by using a less effective vaccine on a more vulnerable group. By leaving them unvaccinated they are more likely to cop a 'Rona. That argument is, contra Lord Sumption, treating all lives as equal. 

Elected governments don't have the stomach to do a QALY assessment on who gets shot. Saving the life of a young mother is going to do more good for the tax-payer's collective bank balance than saving the life of the 90-something great-grandmother of those same children. Likewise, if you are moving the most vulnerable to the head of the vaxx-queue, age is a really good proxy. But obesity is another strong indicator of Covid-risk. Governments really don't yet have the stomach for prioritising fat people for vaccines. 

Finally, because we need clear message, a confident statement from Zeynep "Ever Good Sense" Tufekci "I can, without a hesitation, say that of the ones I know are being considered in various places in the US, UK and Europe—Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech, J&J, Oxford/AstraZeneca, Novavax—I would be happy with receiving *any* of them. I would easily recommend *any* of them to anyone I know, whatever they were offered."

Wednesday 10 February 2021

St Fursey's Altar

I am steaming across the landscape of 32 Words for Field until we pause at Loughanleagh = Lochán Leagha = Lake Doctor where, <cue Twilight Zone>, there is no lake. In exchange . . . A local person will tell you to look out for St Patrick's knee-mark on a rock near where the well of the lake was; on your next visit you will find it and clear see an indentation carved into stone in the shape of a rough horseshoe, but because it faces towards the rising sun over Dundalk Bay it is likely that it too is far older than St Patrick. It's a remnant of a ritual of our sun-worshipping ancestors." [p.155]

That seems really sketchy 'evidence' for inferring a) the date of the handiwork b) the religious beliefs of the handiworker. But, wahay, it's no more than you'd expect from the Arts Block. And I've been happy enough to patter on about the Earth Mother when showing visitors the markings on our Ringstone. If you're expecting evidence [aka confirmation bias] of heliolatry you have two chances of being right: depending on whether you're C for catching the rays or the 180° opposite galloping towards them. And Eee, 'appen, we have one of them horseshoes as well. [see R with stick for orientation] 

Nothing would satisfy me but that I should yomp 1500m N and 250m up the hill to determine the direction our mythic hoof-print was facing. I left at 1100hrs: it wasn't exactly raining but it was a grand soft day with clouds obscuring all the hill tops. I found myself unaccountably delighted to be up on the hill with nobody to bother me with chat and any distracting horizons obscured by the enveloping cloud. As I headed up to the Giant's Table, a golden plover Pluvialis apricaria started up from the wet grass almost under my gallumphing feet and whirred South across the tundra. Mystic! Wonderful!

Arriving at the dolmen. I laid down a straightish stick in line with the hoof-print and got a compass-bearing on the invisible sea to the SE. It was 125° which old style sailors would call southeast by east. The catechism continues:
Q. On which day, if any, does the sun rise at 125° when view from the Sunny SouthEast of Ireland. 
A. Upon the 16th January.
Q. And which [Irish] saint is venerated upon that day?
A. St Fursey of Killursa [Cill Fhursa] near Headford, one of an Ceathrar Álainn, miracle worker in East Anglia and Picardy.

It is as clear a message as could be. St Fursey is the patron of our hill and the Holistic Landscape at its foot. We must all meet at his Altar at Sunrise every 16th January: bring your wretched and dispossessed, they will be made whole. Sunrise is easy: 08:36hrs. Sausinge sandwiches and hot-to-trot strong tea after witnessing the sunrise. It will be entirely appropriate to cut branches of whin / gorse / fursey Ulex gallii as you approach the altar. I have his sandal!

Tuesday 9 February 2021

Wheels, two

Like loadsa kids, I learned to ride a bike at about 6 years of age. Thereafter I rode just as fast as I could; because boy. Going too fast caused some mishaps, none fatal. But I wasn't nuts about bikes like some of my pals. I found that bikes were an efficient way of getting from here to over there. There was a time, in my first proper job, when I gave up cycling to work because it made me insufficiently aware of the journey. Shank's mare - for yer mindful man.

It all changed when we came back to Ireland in 1990 [Jakers, 30 years ago!]. For impractically romantic reasons we elected to rent a rambling old, draughty old, farmhouse out near the Airport. It was about 12km from work in Dublin City Centre. The miles clock up when you commute 25km every day. I think, just prior to my last RTA, I had 40,000 km under my belt: that's one circuit of this our blue planet.

But it's not about me today, it's about Emily Chappell [L] who, in the 00s, was studenting through her second degree and aspiring to land an academic job in due course. The words were going round and round and not coming to land on the page, so she took a job as a bicycle courier in London. She found that was even harder work: dirty, widely contemptible, physically exhausting, occasionally life-threatening . . . but it sang to her. She worked in the collect&deliver trade for six [6!] years, covering about as much tarmac in a day as little old commuter me did in a week. She was often the most productive rider on the books of the small company she worked for and was Courier of the Year in 2010. She won partly because of a mad protestant work-ethic but also because she flew and because she worked clever: always thinking about how to get from here to there efficiently. You can take the thinker out of academia, but it don't stop them thinking.

She started a diary and a blog and eventually wrote it all down in a book What Goes Around [2016 Guardian + Faber&Faber] which Dau.I looted from the shelves at work and sent down with the last courier from Dublin to Boondocks. It's wheely readable. Those couriers have a tremendous if laconic esprit de corps and become legends in their own road-world . . . if they stay the course. Many aspiring couriers, often students, start in the Summer but bottle out when the weather gets persistently wet, drab and filthy. If you survive a couple of Winters you'll be known = recognised by a minute raising of the chin of other couriers as they whizz past. Eventually Emily moved on - cycling from London to China, easy stuff like that. If you listen to the cited interview you'll realise she's since written another book. So that's me bday present sorted this year.

PS. When Emily was on the street she stopped for red lights, and she never rode on sidewalks. Me, I never rode on the sidewalk, because pedestrians /kids were more vulnerable than me. We both certainly jinked in and out of stationary traffic. If car-drivers choose to transport their sorry selves around the city in a tonne of steel and plastic, they are collectively to blame for being in a linear car-park every morning and evening. Yes, even my humble Yaris has a curbside weight of 1,000kg. There's a certain type of car-driver who resents the fact that cyclists make progress along the road while drivers are merely progressing their DuoLingo. If that resentment comes up against fear in, say, a near miss then the result can all too easily boil over into road rage, a lot of cursing and foolish / dangerous behaviour. Emily put in more miles than me and was in more of a hurry so accumulated a fatter portfolio of such incidents. Physics says that cycles are more stable at speed, and again it's not safe to cycle in the gutter. She took to carrying a camera around with her and stopped to ostentatiously photograph drivers who behaved in a dangerous or threatening manner.

After a particularly shaking incident she was off-loading back in the dispatch room and her controller had a look at the van in the picture and was able to make out enough of the logo on the door to twig that the company operated out of premises just down the street. Soooo, hard chaw that he was, Emily's gaffer phoned his oppo in the van company and told him to .  never . threaten . any . of . his . couriers . again. It was like my neighbour who "arranged" for The Boy's bike to be returned after it got nicked by another kid. We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Monday 8 February 2021

Call no man happy til he's dead

πρὶν δ᾿ ἂν τελευτήσῃ, ἐπισχεῖν, μηδὲ καλέειν κω ὄλβιον ἀλλ᾿ εὐτυχέα. [Herodotus]

Croesus was King of Lydia [560-546 BCE], in Asia Minor, now the West End of Turkey. He  was fabulously wealthy and successful in all his endeavours . . . until he wasn't. His beloved son Atys was killed in a hunting accident and his wife topped herself during the sack of Sardis, the Lydian capital. Losing those closest to you, especially out of order [father die, son die, grandson die is one recipe for good fortune], is usually accounted a tragedy. Wealth is associated with Croesus at least partly because he invented money [example L]. His government produced coins of fixed level of gold purity and stamped them to attest to this quality. Merchants and traders everywhere found this a really handy, reliable, medium of exchange and Lydian coins had a premium like Maria-Theresa Reichsthalers in the 18thC; British sovereigns in the 19thC; and the almighty US dollar did in the 20thC. The word dollar is, indeed a corruption of Thaler

But we're here for the happiness not for the loot. It's hard to know much for certain about Croesus because he quickly became the stuff of legends. Even his mode of death became more fabulous with each retelling. At the height of his powers, he invited Solon, the Athenian statesman and philosopher to visit so that he could learn something useful about how to live. "Who is the happiest man who ever lived?", he asked . . . expecting the Me Me Me answer "Why you, O gracious and most powerful king!". But Solon wasn't having any of that sycophancy and spoke the truth (as he saw it) to Power; citing a succession of quite ordinary folks who were dead.  It forced everyone in the room to reflect on such, now tired old, saws as carpe diem, live in the moment and call no man happy til he's dead. Happiness, in Solon's estimation, is more than being lucky [in your birth, on the Lotto]; ghastly misfortune stalks us all, ready to snatch the paltry trappings of success and deliver misery and pain.

So whatevs, like?

I've encountered a tuthree short bios recently that point to a life well lived, (which is surely the aspiration of all who are not totally damaged goods?):

  • Vince McIntyre, an Irish son-without-the-farm who left for Canada as a migrant farm laborer and is now farming his own gaff without machinery just as things were in 1950s Ireland.
  • Corky Lee an ABC in NYC who caught a lucky picture of police brutality and devoted his life to documenting (and changing) the lives and trials of the Asian community in New York. Dead from Covid last week.
  • John Sassall - A Fortunate Man by John Berger and Jean Mohr.