Wednesday 31 March 2021

How to be better

You know how Youtube annoyingly provides bing-bongs for your echo chamber? Me, I want to have my horizons expanded by my media consumption; but all I get is The Usual Suspects . . . boringly similar to what I clicked last week. Meh! For the last few years, I have been youb-tuning in to a phone-in talk-show on LBC hosted by James O'Brien. It was mainly because O'Brien was anti-Brexit and Boris-skeptic and was nevertheless able to induce Brexiteers to come on his programme and have their belief system unpicked and their politics exposed as othering them furrin johnnies who want to come to Norfolk and pick asparagus for us. Poor tanned people are prepared to come to England to do cold wet dirty work that pays too little to be worth it for Brits, who in general never seemed grateful. But I never listened to 3 solid hours [10-1, M-F] of that stuff: youtube was delivering me a little 3 minute package-of-fun done up with a bow . . . leaving the rest of 15 hours that week on the cutting room floor. 

But last week I clicked on another such segment and found O'Brien hectoring and dismissive, insisting on controlling the dialogue like a barrister leading a witness down a Socratic garden path to achieve a particular outcome for the jury. Let t'bugger speak! I shouted and then clicked off to a travelogue from the Orkneys [lovely but rainy]. The next day, not quite by coincidence, I downloaded How Not to be Wrong: the Art of Changing Your Mind by James O'Brien from Borrowbox. It's annoying that this is his second confessional book, but How to be Right isn't available; so needs must when the devil drives the cart before the hearse; there's a limited inventory on Borrowbox. Mind-changing prev.

How Not to be Wrong is the result of O'Brien having an existential crisis [at home, I surmise] and agreeing to start some psychotherapy to purge his heart and head of some pretty toxic ideas, about

  • beating children
  • cis het male white privilege
  • the benefits of marriage
  • tattoos
  • obese people
  • Trans Wars [I misheard that as Trams and thought we were up for a nostalgic wallow in the 1950s: when the tram-fare in Sheffield and a bag of chips were both 3d = thruppence]
  • anti-semitism
  • veggies
I've hinted above, O'Brien talks more than anybody else on his radio show and can be unwilling to actually listen to other points of view. But his changes of heart have almost all come about because of what has finally been made obvious by a caller: he talks, biblically, about the scales falling from his eyes.

That list seems a rather random set of masts for nailing your colours to. I mean, tatts!? But the continuing theme through the book is O'Brien's digging up his past [explicitly with the help of his therapist] to see why he might be so emotionally invested in the things he cares enough about to pick over with an audience of thousands. He doesn't care, so far as I know or from the evidence of this one book, about bell-ringing, the Grand Union Canal, Harriet Taylor Mill, or boxing. It's both insightful and worrying that the issues in a bloke's life stem from being frightened as a small boy by a man with tattoos; or being super self-conscious as a teenager about how he looked.

It will come as no surprise to anyone with the least bit of self-insight, that the end of his fear-and-loathing of . . whatever . . comes when he suddenly is forced to see The Other as just another person with hopes and aspirations, rent to pay and ends to meet, and the right to be different. Like the nurse who called in to defend the right of a primary school teacher to have visible tattoos. "I'm a nurse, James, I've got tatts, and a couple of neck piercings, and people call me an angel". The cognitive dissonance causes him to wincingly remember riffing on and on during his programme about fatty-fat-fats while his daughters were being cared for by a trusted childminder who was clinically obese. 

He's still neutral [or he'd like to believe that] on the Trans-Wars having heard much vehemence and certainty from both sides in the argument about what makes a woman. He shares an extraordinary phone in by a father in his 70s whose well grown-up child is transitioning ♂ to ♀ and the dad uses she and he interchangeably and is clearly confused about the whole situation. But just as clearly the old chap loves and wants to support the person whom he taught to kick a football.

So hmmmm food for thought . . . for me about the State of Israel.

I'll add that this is my first audio-book which actually recognises that the medium is different from print and can be editted / presented differently. Massive fail on this for Matthew Walker's Sleep book. The print reader gets a transcript of some dialogue from an old radio programme; audi-istas get the actual recording. And the reader is . . . James O'Brien which adds a level of engagement and sincerity. Maybe all talk-show phone-in hosts should have some therapy as part of the training - it might dial down the cruelty on air.  

Tuesday 30 March 2021

Tinkle tissue

Where we live is not everybody's cup of tea. It's a long way from the shops, it's further still from a cinema and rooks are raucous. The pleasures and privs of owning 16 acres and as many sheep comes with the responsibility of looking after them; which is clearly going to require more effort than minding two kittens and a scrap of lawn too small to warrant owning a mower. One of the peculiarities of Our Gaff is that a major route to the open uplands goes right through our farm. You can drive your big-ass SUV all the way to the commonage but if I tried to do that in my Yaris, I'd leave the exhaust-pipe, the oil sump, and trail of wiring on the bumps in the rocky roadway.

Rather than actually living remote, like 340 days a year with a fortnight off for good behaviour, most people choose to live amid the trappings of civilisation and just visit the countryside . . . when the weather is fine or the missus doesn't need the car. I am absolutely fine with that. Our "mountain" is 200 hectares in extent and there's plenty of room for botanists, ramblers and bird-watchers. Just to remember that the whole hill is owned by someone who is trying to scrabble a living from it by raising sheep. Sheep are freaked by the smell of strange dogs, let alone getting the run around from something that looks a lot like a wolf. Visiting dogs are, accordingly tolerated rather than welcomed and as a courtesy and the precautionary principle are required to be on a lead. It's like wearing a mask in public: it's a bore, your glasses steam up; but you do it out of consideration to the more vulnerable and to show willing.

Did someone mention masks? Like we're in a pandemic? One of the key ways of reducing transmission of the virus is to restrict travel except for supplies and emergencies. It is remarkable how many people have acquired a 5km space-time portal [€299.00 on] so that they can appear at the bottom of our lane with the travel clock set to zero. From St Patrick's Day through the following weekend, the weather was just wonderful: sunny spells, gentle breezes, not too hot. On the Saturday, I was striding purposefully across our yard when I noticed a young man loitering by the gate to Crowe's: the field of the Ringstone. It was in my mind to make a quip about him standing guard while Herself had a tinkle in the gateway; although I couldn't see any Herself at all. Because, like, purposefully, I didn't say/do anything and promptly forgot his existence.

But two days later, after the weekend tide of humanity had washed back to the flatlands, I was going through that same gate and there [L  tinkle tissue ] was the evidence that my unspoked quip would have been mortifyingly close to the truth. What the effedy eff does a grown woman think will happen to the tissue that she leaves behind?  That the butler will instruct the under-footman to dispose of it after he's emptied the Laird's chamber-pot? I tell ya, Downton Abbey has a lot to answer for. Don't get me wrong; the flush t'ilet is the bane of Western water conservation and I'm all for having a pee outdoors but could you please use the compost heap? This is not the first time, I've been treated as an invisible servant. Lara Maiklem has a chapter on how Elizabeth London managed it's 'water' during 3 hr long Shakespearian plays when the groundlings were packed like sardines. Apparently, buckets were passed through the audience and when brimful were sold on to tanners and dyers for an additional income stream for the theatre. And I've riffed before on the fertilising virtues of urine.

Added: Juvenile harbour seal savaged by dog on R. Thames. Dog escapes sanction, seal dies.

Monday 29 March 2021

Rambling cartographer

Dau.I the Librarian works for the people who brought us Borrowbox, the freebie librarie for audiobooks. She gives me the heads up when something appears in the Bb catalogue that she thinks will stoke my fires. How to Draw a Map by Malcolm [and Alex] Swanston? What's not to like about that?? Of course, I downloaded it and read it through with increasing frustration. My usual kvetch about audio-books is how they provide an income for tone-deaf professional readers. The Frayed Atlantic Edge and Into the Silence have both been laughably adrift on the pronunciation of proper names and even [unfamiliar, longish] English words. You'd think and hope, that the men [so far all men] who read for money would be paid enough for their time to research how to, like, say these things in a way that doesn't bring the reader up all standing.

For this book, I have nothing to complain about Philip Bretherton the Voice: diction clear, cadence engaging, pronunciation unexceptionable. I do, however, question the sanity of the publisher. Of all the gin-books of all the book-cities of the world which could have been released as an audio book this is a peculiar choice because the illustrations are so integral to the sense of the book that the artist, and son of author, is given equal billing on the cover. In the first eight pages of the written preview, there are 4 maps which act as a synergistic counterpoint to the text. And clearly Malcom Swanston, founder of the Map Archive, has made substantive contributions to the art of maps in books and other media

Without the maps, the text is greatly reduced in value. If you know nothing about the history of surveying and cartography, and you have 8 hours without the internet or atlas, then this book isn't a total bust. But the history is a disjointed set of cartoon tableaux. The War Between The States is knocked off in 5 minutes of cliché for just one example. I assume the printed book has some interesting maps shaded in blue and grey with red arrows indicating the progress of the Vicksburg campaign . . . or whatever. Indeed, you can buy a number of such maps for £3.29 each.  Without actual maps, How to Draw a Map is kinda useless.  Disappointing; if I had paid money for the audio-book, I'd be kinda pissed. That being said, it sticks in this reader's craw to listen to a chatty aside about one of Swanston's cartographic triumphs cast as cunning plan to garner a load of money for him and his publisher.

Sunday 28 March 2021

Sunday in Suez

The hive-mind delivers! I written before about the spare enigmatic poetry of William Carlos Williams, which is filed in my mind with that of e.e. cummings. The MV Ever Given [here moving in Before Times] mishap on the Suez canal brought forth a flood of waggish and ironic comments about the problem and it's solution, even as oil prices went up $3/bbl the very next day. 
Thinkwert William Carlos Williams
I have blocked I have eaten
the canal the plums
that was in that were in
Egypt the icebox
and which and which
you were probably you were probably
using saving
for the global economy for breakfast
Forgive me Forgive me
It went sideways they were delicious
so fast so sweet
and out of control and so cold
But the ship-wedgie is not the only thing that has floated my boat this week!

Saturday 27 March 2021


One of the delights of listening to Lara Maiklem's Mudlarking is her sense that, picking up a fragment of Tudor window-glass from the Greenwich fore-shore, Henry VIII might have looked through that same window 500 years ago as he waited for the ship that would take him and his court to the Field of the Cloth of Gold. For her, even the gold and silver, although technically bullion and worth folding money today, is most valuable for its evocation of ordinary life in times gone by.

30 years ago, when I was working in TCD, a young Italian intern came to work in our group. His most evocative story was about going, as a truculent teenager, to Greece for a holiday with his parents. As you do, they went on a day trip to visit the Temple of Apollo at Delphi [prev]. They toiled up the dusty path from the car-park behind a coachload of chattering Japanese tourists. Teen Michele was staring at the ground rather than the trees, the sky or the looming ruins. There in the middle of the path was a single silver tetradrachm which had been working its way to the surface for at least 2,000 years, destined to be picked up and treasured by a boy from foreign.

I told this story to Dau.II and she said "That's the sort of thing that could chart the direction of your whole life" Indeed it could, but in this case, the boy was set to embrace science at least for the rest of the century. LinkedIn suggests he is a business magnate now.

Tetradrachms τετράδραχμον were both coins and bullion, each owl-stamped slug weighed 17g and the stamp certified its purity. Although minted in Athens and used to buy all manner of luxury stuff to delight and impress the citizenry, these coins circulated far and wide across the ancient World as far away as India, whose people had no experience and limited knowledge of Attica. But the tetradrachms, as later Maria-Theresa thalers, became the definition of Good Money. At the time of Sophocles, 1 tetradrachm would buy you 
  • the service of a soldier or an artisan for four days
  • a bushel and a half = 55 lt of wheat
  • 12 lt = qt of olive oil
  • 36 lt = 10 gallons of plonk
The silver ore was dug from the notorious mines at Laurion which had been a source of silver, lead and zinc since at least the Bronze Age of Homer. Modern science can ID Laurion silver from the isotopes of the residual lead; other silver mines have a distinctively different physicochemical profile. It's like the Petréquins finding the Italian quarry for neolithic hand-axes from England. The conditions in the mines where so dangerous and life-shortening that no free man would work there. The wealth that created the Wonder that was Athens was founded on the shoulders of slaves working in terrible conditions underground and exposed to lead fumes in the smelting sheds. I feel dirty thinking of it, so let's finish up [R] with a Little Owl Athene noctua whose big-eye cartoon form adorned all the Athenian tetradrachms and, indeed, modern Greek €1 coins

Friday 26 March 2021

Mudlarking, the book

I am having a pandemic that couldn't be beat w.r.t. the impact it's having on my life. In the Before Times, when I was alone on the farm at weekends, with the Little Red Yaris waiting for my whims in the yard, I'd often find an excuse not to go off-site and spend the whole Friday-to-Monday pottering about with shovel and saw. But it is getting wearing that I cannot go beach-combing; a pastime which involves solitary, outside, physical exercise . . . and cleans up the foreshore. So many tasks on the farm would be more difficult without an inexhaustible, every-sized, supply of rope and cordage scavenged from the tide-line.

When Borrowbox, the free audio-book gizmo provide by the Irish Library Service, suggested Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem [reviewed], I was all over it like a rash. Obviously there is overlap between the two professions, but I go big on brightly coloured buoys which are rare on the tidal reaches of the Thames. Over the last 30 years, I have gotten to know the nooks and headlands of Costa na Déise aka The Copper Coast. Over a similar time-frame Maiklem has developed an intimate knowledge of the 40m x 40km strip of mud-and-rubbish which is exposed between high tide and low from Erith to Teddington. Like a gambler who wins big on a teenage plunge on the Grand National, Maiklem was hooked by pulling an evocative chunk of history from the grey mud while walking beside the river. She has gone back to that well countless times over the last 20 years.

The second chapter uncovers the lost type of Doves printers and font-founders which I riffed on six years ago. She has a , which manifest itself as she scanned across the foreshore surface in a zen-like state looking-not-looking for something that was out of place and so perhaps interesting. What a coup! A physical link to William Morris, and the pre-Raphaelites . . . if that's what floats your wherry.

Mudlarks can be characterised as 

  • hunters [blokes, competitive, metal-detectors and money] or 
  • gatherers [women, contemplative, kneeling in the mud and empathy]. 
The hunters are all about trove, gold and value. Gatherers focus their interest on their own niche of expertise: beads, buttons, bellarmines, buckles. There are particular reaches of the river where clay pipes or, more frequently, just pipe-stems are to be found. Those in the know can source you a generous handful of tiny garnets which may have dispersed, not too far, from a foundering East Indiaman. For the hunters enough is not as good as a feast; because there is never enough. Which is really sad because for sure you can't take your golden trash with you when you go.

Maiklem's style is so engaging, I started to think Heck, I could have a go at that. But the later chapters dig into the nightmare of today's Thames beaches: especially seepy after a spill of rain has caused Bazalgette's Victorian sewer system to overflow into the storm drains and spill out into the river. Then the fore-shore is covered with drifts of Q-tips, mats of wet-wipes, condoms, tampons, dental-floss and fatberg concretions. The medieval pins and roman hypocaust bricks are underneath this shite. I'll stick to Trá na mBo, thanks; the air is fresher

Mudlarking is a wonderful book: poetical, insightful, informative and evocative. It emphasises that the contemplation of the universe is fractal. Maiklem's late style of work is down on her knees sifting carefully through a tea-towel sized horizon of mud. Louis Agassiz got as much out of a Summer on his knees in his back-yard as Mina Fleming and Annie Jump Cannon did counting and cataloging stars.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Wm Blake Auguries of Innocence

Thursday 25 March 2021

Beans are up

This year, I got ahead of myself and planted 2 dozen saved beans in micro flower pots on Weds 3rd March 2021. I covered them with a sheet of barely damp newspaper and put the tray of them under the sofa. Since our famous under-floor heating blew a gasket in 2015 it's cool enough in the living room and it's dark under the sofa. It took t'buggers two weeks to show a white shoulder above datum, and since Sunday I've shifted them to the windowsill to start earning the photosynthetic keep. Tomato seed needed. These are unaccountably being distributed by the Irish Library Service. This patriarch is expecting Dau.I the Librarian to sort us out. 

We have a wonderful abundance of early salad right now in the bed which was ennitrogened by the Rhizobium filled root nodules of last year's beans. All from last year's fallen seed: parsley Petroselinum crispum, flat and curley, land-cress Barbarea verna, ramsons Allium ursinum, chard Beta vulgaris (flavescens), mustard greens Brassica juncea. I think we'll be able to stave off scurvy this year.

But the beans are the biz! I still have a kilo dried from last year's abundance and we ate the last of the cropped blanched frozen crop last week. Last year there was a devastating sharp frost in the first week in May, so we need to be careful about planting outside for a while yet.

Spring is definitely sprung though and I feel much better for it.

Wednesday 24 March 2021

Paying forward, tidying up

At the start of Coronarama, An Post, the semi-state mail carrier, delivered post-free post-cards to every domestic address in the country. What's not to love about a freebie? As we have a good relationship with our postie, I scabbed a few more from him as he took my completed cards away to distant friends-and-relations. I heard that you could pick up extras in the Post Office and I sent about 30 in the end. It was like scattering seed corn in a gale; it's silly to expect any return. But I did get one postcard back! And maybe ~10 responses through other media. All those responses were ++ positive: what's not to like about getting a letter, with hand-written address, in among the bills and circulars? Then again <confirmation bias> who was going to reply objecting to my PC intrusion on their door mat? One positive outcome was an expression of delight from an old friend who stopped speaking to me 10 years ago.

In January An Post went to the well again, distributing another batch of free postcards to homes round the country. They must have printed a lot, because I was able to scrounge up a couple of dozen and commit them to Bank of Social Capital. Some of them went to the usual suspects [Dau.I, Dau.II, Rissoles, Russ etc.] but others required a bit of research effort to determine an address and Eircode. I kited one fluffy upbeat msg to another old friend who told me never to darken his door again in 2016; but it didn't elicit a response. Actually that's not true: I am sure it had some effect in melting the cold dead heart of his resentment - nobody likes to be told that they are wrong, especially if it's true. But I didn't get a sunny green postcard back! We so rarely acknowledge the work of those who render us good service or a smile. The Oil-man, the receptionist at the dentist, the vaccinators, the Aldo shelf-stackers. Going out on the street and clapping into the ether at the government's behest, is not at all the same as making eye-contact with someone in a dehumanising uniform and saying thanks. Actually sod the thanks; as Dau.II has discovered the eye-contact, the acknowledgment of existence is fine because exceptional.

In the 90s I put a lot of effort into the quarterly newsletter of the EuroQuango in which I represented Ireland. I was the most active member of the editorial board and wrote a lot of the copy as well as put it all in shape for publication. My book reviews there, thoughtful, occasionally funny comments on the current state of science, were a fore-runner of The Blob. In the 00s, I had a similar relationship with the quarterly newsletter for HEN the Home Education Network. Even when I wasn't editting the newsletter, for that decade I undertook to submit something for every number; having discovered how hard it is to secure contributions to such things. I've recycled some of those timeless jewels articles on The Blob. It was like the post-cards, everyone liked getting the newsletter in the post but never enough to acknowledge receipt, let alone give encouraging feedback. I know that's true because IF the newsletter went out <3 weeks before our annual gathering THEN people would chat to me in the lunch queue about something they'd read ELSE the newsletter just slipped off the radar and over the horizon of give-a-damn. My epiphany [2007?] was twigging that I loved writing and kiting those articles and reviews and the process itself was sufficient reward.

Those book reviews, those HENny ruminations, those past Blobs are mere ephemera: worth notice but often time limited. They are rarely as good with hindsight as they seemed at the time. I have, many times, scratched my thinning silver pate, reading old copy from The Blob: what does this even mean? what was I on? 

What brought that all one? Well, I was chatting to The Boy last Thursday [must make a habit of that] about clearing papers, having decided that nobody is going to write my biography, so stacks of birthday cards, dentist Bills, Aldi receipts for angle grinders, letters from dead people are just clutter for my heirs. In his day, The Boy was a champion letter writer, his friends keep them because they were a shot in the arm at the time. But to the nearest whole number in an average year, 0 zero nul no letters came back. Doing triage on my mother's papers after she went to her final nursing home took 3 or 4 solid weekends of work. Snap decisions had to be made about whether this letter from someone we'd never 'eard of was worth reading/keeping. It's a courtesy to those who come after to leave things orderly.

Tuesday 23 March 2021

Just fishin'

Our house is awash with books and one just surfaced which a) I haven't read b) I didn't know we owned. It's only really since I R retire that I've found time to read, like, books, like I did in my 20s. A full time job and a full time Blob sure fills the time. Andrew Grieg is a poet, novelist, climber and rambler from Scotland. As a 17 year old from Anstruther, Fife he sent a sheaf of his poems to Norman MacCaig, a poet whose work he admired. As a 17 year old from rural Essex, I sent a sheaf of my poems to R.S Thomas, a poet whose work I admired. Grieg got a much more positive response; possibly because he's a poet rather than a self-pitying, hormonal mess with long hair and spots. Indeed he received a post-card asking him to drop in when he was next in Edinburgh. MacCaig [L, as ever with whisky and fag] was about 40 years older than the restless young Grieg but treated him with respect and sensitivity and it began a friendship which last for nearly 3 decades until MacCaig died, in the fullness of his years, in 1996. Young Grieg thus got to hang out with the best Scots poets of the previous generation and such peripheral luminaries as, own own, Seamus Heaney.

Sometime, in the mid-90s, Grieg and MacCaig were getting drunk together again and, in his cups, the young fella asked The Master what was his favourite place in all the world. MacCaig replied "Assynt".
"I know it's Assynt, but where in Assynt? what's your favourite place?"
"I think that would have to be the Loch of the Green Corrie. Only it's not called that . . ."

Game on!

The next time they were in the same room, MacCaig was in his coffin, and the book At the Loch of the Green Corrie is the story of Grieg's pilgrimage to catch a fish from that loch [spoiler location R] in honour of the great man, his mentor and friend. He chooses to go camping & fishing with the Dorward brothers whom he'd known since school days and one of the threads in the book is men being comfortable in each other's silence. There is whisky, of course, and lazy evenings of talk after a hard day of thrashing the goddamn loch for fish which are utterly indifferent to their efforts. On the third day of this quixotic quest, Peter Dorward, the luckiest, most skilled and persistent of them, catches and lands a fish. Honour is satisfied and the three middle-aged men return to their day jobs in three different continents.

The book is 300 pages longer than that and those pages are not blank. They are full of poetry and appreciation of the good things in life, with some regrets, some near-death-experience to stop it seeming saccharine. The good things are not Volvos or iPads or even whisky. It is rather the moments of earthy heaven, so right, so brief, so real.

"It is what Norman and [his bestie] AK Macleod, looking down from the place they do not believe in, would give anything for - one more day of catching or not catching fish at any lochan. Fish supper warm in the hand on a cold wet night, heading home hungry - nothing beats this, nothing. This is what the dead envy us, the sweetness at the heart of physical existence".

All day we fished
the loch clasped in the throat
of Canisp, that scrawny mountain,
and caught trout and
invisible treasures.
We walked home, ragged millionaires,
our minds jingling, our fingers
rustling the air
Norman MacCaig (1910-1996)

Monday 22 March 2021

Messier tidies up.

We had a meeting, possibly the last, of the Wexford Science Café on St Patrick's Eve. I had steered that Ship of Science away from more picking at the scab that is Covid: there is more to life and plenty other ways of dying. We were treated instead to a show and tell by Kevin Breen, Wexford's premier astrophotographer. It's amazing what you can do with a few hundred €€s worth of equipment and hundreds of hours of patient optimism. It's like fishing: if you can't peer through the clouds and temperature shimmers and see nothing the whole night - and still be having the most tremendous fun - then you're not a real astronomer. 

One name that Kevin brought up in passing was Charles Messier (1730 - 1817) a French comet-hunter who got hooked as a teenager by the amazing Great Six-tailed Comet of 1744 aka Comet Klinkenberg-Chéseaux, C/1743 X1.  After leaving school, he started working for/with the official French naval astronomer and cartographer Joseph Nicolas Delisle, so his day job became his impassioned hobby and vice versa. Astronomy was glove to the hand of cartography, especially in maritime circles, because . . . longitude: the vital necessity for knowing where you were on the featureless ocean.

Competitive comet hunting - getting there first, with naming rights, and immortal fame - requires quartering the sky at night looking for something that wasn't there last week knowing that others are about the same task with younger eyes and better telescopes. It was wrecking Messier's head, and his autonomic nervous system, getting a heart accelerating jolt of adrenalin upon seeing a fuzzy smudge in his ocular lens . . . only to realise that he had indeed seen it before.

Soooo, he started, with help from his assistant Pierre Méchain, to catalogue these false positives together with their celestial coordinates. When he/they had enough to make the information formal, a numbered list was published as the Catalogue des Nébuleuses et des Amas d'Étoiles (1774). Subsequent editions bumped up the number of these distant objects to 110. Many of them are well known enough to have 'common names' as well as Messier numbers

  • M1 Crab Nebula [see R] is prolly the remnants of the Great Supernova of 1054 CE.
  • M31 Andromeda Galaxy, far far away
  • M47 the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters [Bloboprev]
The Catalogue doesn't include, say, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, because they are not visible from Paris, being in the Southern Celestial Hemisphere. 110 is a nice doable number, like bagging the 282 Munro peaks in Scotland higher than 3,000 ft. Michael A Philips is one amateur astronomer who has bagged them all and tiled the images into a single spectacular panorama:

Absolutely nothing to do with Mersenne, Marin

Sunday 21 March 2021

Sun day Bee Day


Saturday 20 March 2021


Question on Metafilter last week about jobs where the actual work to pay ratio was most favourable.

Watchman type positions. In the 00s, The Boy went to work for British Airways freight in Heathrow. It was pretty exciting: he'd occasionally trot out on the apron to deliver a last package to the plane as it backed out for take-off [long stick to the flight-deck window chekkitout - you can also [R] evacuate the cockpit through the flight-deck window]. But BA was automating all their logistics into bar-coded air-freight containers and miles of switching track hanging from gantries. He kept his pay and title but thereafter he was watching a bank of monitors. About 5% of his time was dealing with snarl-ups, 95% reading / goofing / studenting for Open University [My Son the Engineer]. 

Movie projectionist Last time we were in the, late and little lamented, Enniscorthy Plaza Quadriplex, possibly in the 00s, the film went wonk and we all shouted "focus! Focus!" for a fix. Eventually one of the customers, possibly me, went out in the foyer and dragged the spotty youth responsible away from chatting up the pop-corn vendors.

Head of School

Postie. My second job was portering in the local hospital. My primary task was to collect and deliver post three times a day to-from the various wards and departments. Between my rounds I was instructed to keep out of sight in the tea-room. I spent more time resting each week than walking.

I see I've consolidated a couple of relevant anecdotes into an earlier Blob.

Friday 19 March 2021

Frog 'e would a-wooing go

It's been a mild Winter / Spring so far. In February it was bucketting down rain, then we had 10 days without a drop, and then we had a couple of storms - situation normal for Ireland. In early Feb I was up the hill on my own and stepped over the fence into the Sitka forest owned by Coillte. It's at least 40 year since it was planted through the steading known as Dreelan's and across the county border into Wexford. It was thinned about 15 years ago and it has been ready for clear felling for the last couple of years. It's dark in the forest and dank and mysterious and in the right season rich in fungi. When the forwarder was in there thinning, several roads where driven through the trees to access all areas. The forest floor was well torn up by the monster machines which cut the trees and extracted them in 8ft and 16ft lengths.

Wherever these tracks levelled out the ruts filled with water and there was a local flush of bright green sphagnum and other mosses. When I visited that February day, the surface of the pools was half-and-half frog-spawn and water and the eggs were piled high and deep in a vivid statement of fecund abundance. As I approached invisible frogs disappeared beneath the surface with a noticeable plop.

[Basho prev] eee but, like Basho, I do love a frog! They represent the transition our ancestors made from the sea to dry land. But like other amphibians they are compelled by evolutionary inertia and physiological imperative to return to water to spawn. It wasn't until reptiles evolved an amnion to keep the embryo artificially wet that we [reptiles, birds and mammals] finally cut loose from the sea. No more than Met Eireann, frogs cannot see the future, they can only feel the wet but they need the pond to stay wet for several weeks: three to hatch into pollywogs / tadpoles and many more until the thrashing propulsive tail is resorbed and four legs develop for earth-walking.  In Ireland there is only one species of frog Rana temporaria, so it's much easier to know what you're dealing with than, say, fungi or small brown birds.

It's a sin and you shouldn't do it at home or otherwise but a tuthree days later, I returned to the forest and scooped a couple of generous handfuls of frog-spawn into a bucket and some mossy clods from the same puddle into a feed-sack and brought them down to our garden. I think these domesticated frogs have at least as good a chance of surviving under my watchful eye as they would have left to nature red in tooth and claw.  On St David's Day, the spawn had effectively disappeared and been replaced by dozens and dozens of wrigglers about 12mm long. I sent the family a really terrible photo of some of this progeny with a 30cm rule for scale. Two weeks later, just before St Patrick's Day, immersed a drinking glass in the frog crate and brought out 30 - 40 tadpoles for a more formal shot [see L]. They have definitely put on weight! At the moment they are eating mostly veg but I have promised them a delicious menu of flies, worms and molluscs for when they turn carnivorous with adulthood. 

Thursday 18 March 2021

It's hard to be perfect

In my friendfacefree corner of social media, a participant solicited opinion on whether to unpal a friend who had skipped the local prioritisations and secured a covidaxx. The consensus was that such queue-jumpers should be shunned; for several because they had lied about co-morbidities. I've written before about my tetchy rejection of such Kantian certainty. YMMV but, for me, transgressions - queue-jumping, lying, assault&battery, plagiarism, murder, speeding - are sliding-scale rather than black and  white . A couple of contrarian responders to the vaxx-jumper dilemma suggested that the now-vaxxed friend would be better off entirely without the friendship of a judgmental mill-stone whose life had been clearly immaculate. Most folks are strongly against murder but murder books, even salaciously graphic murder books, sell millions of copies each year. There is a big fat intersection on the Venn Diagram between those who hold murder to be wrong and those who eat meat from animals that have been raised under unconscionable conditions and slaughtered in a clanking hell-scape of blood and guts. "I'm somewhat shy about the brutal facts of being a carnivore. I don't like meat to look like animals. I prefer it in the form of sausages, hamburger and meat loaf, far removed from the living thing." John Updike

Did someone mention Venn diagrams? That would be me noting the rather wonderful tribute to the eponymous John Venn in the form of a stained glass window in Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. If you check out the link (nobody ever does) you'll note another stained glass trib below Venn's. This represents a Latin square to honor Ronald A Fisher, Sir, FRS - "the greatest biologist since Darwin". Indeed, I wrote about Fisher, in his own right, without mentioning the window because Fisher's serious contributions to biology, maths and statistics could fill a book let alone a 700 word Blob. If you've ever used a null hypothesis, or a t-test, or an Anova, or preferred Fisher's exact test to a ChiSq you shd thanks Fisher for providing the tools. The F-test for significance in that Anova is named F for Fisher. The New Synthesis reconciling Darwin and Mendel into an internally consistent view of evolutionary biology is due to the theorising and hard mathematizing of the numerate triumvirate of Fisher, Sewall Wright and JBS Haldane.

Well that window is now history! Removed last year because Fisher believed that the human race could be improved. The condemnation is two-fold: Fisher was a Eugenicist and Fisher was a Racist. Have you ever been on a march? Have you ever been gee'd up by the stewards to chant a slogan? Did you feel better for that? A sense of solidarity? Would you have been offended by the Orwellian epithet groupthink? Have you ever kept sitting when the rest of the audience rises for a standing ovation? Is August Landmesser dead?

Caius have not left it at the tokenism of removing the window, they have moved their diversity & inclusion policy to front and centre.
[]All Tutors and Admissions Tutors have completed implicit-bias training 
[]All Fellows have been invited to a diversity awareness session to provide education about race issues
[]Appointed a Research Fellow for . . . advancing the goals of anti-racism

[]Well that's sorted, then!

For a Cambridge College brimful of clever people, the narrative and the response has been quite woolly in its logic. Conflating eugenics with racism [and death camps] for starters. Some of this has been unpicked by AWF Edwards, an indignant fellow of Gonville & Caius, in an essay in The Critic. Edwards claims that the management at his alma mater had been steam-rollered into doing something because the spirit of the times was severely unsympathetic to The Man in all His patriarchal elitist sexist racist certainties. Me, I don't think that Fisher was racist, or at least rather less racist that many of his colleagues and contemporaries. But it's really hard to win that argument with people who are convinced that a) they are not racist b) most other folks are. I have Irish friends, none of whom are racist in the classic sense. Of course, they couldn't be my friends if they were anti-vaxxers racist. But let them check out their galvanic skin test response <frisson> to the word Traveller, let alone their innermost feelings if two lads with a flat-bed truck full of gates pulls into the yard. I fail that test and I've bought a lot of gates. Walter Bodmer, professor in his turn and Fisher's last student, has set out the case for Fisher's feet of clay in the Before Window times. 

Fisher was usually the smartest man in the room but he was not always the nicest. He could bear a grudge. He was dismissive of people of contradicted him; especially those whose math wasn't up to understanding what he'd discovered and set out on paper. He smoked a pipe and was for years a lung-cancer denialist. He thought it would be a good idea to sterilise people whose progeny would not be an improvement to the human race. He associated with people who had probably been associated with the Final Solution in Nazi Germany. 

It's classic blinkered patriarch stuff: his ideal of the best sort of person, who should be encouraged to have more children, bore an uncanny resemblance to chaps like him whom he met in the Senior Common Rooms of Cambridge. His cliché for who should be offered sterilisation was someone with mental problems. He wrote an academic letter of support for Otmar von Vershuer, Josef Mengele's mentor, unfortunately including a sentence praising vonV's "wish to improve the German racial stock". 

As well as being willfully wrong about the association between smoking and lung-cancer, Fisher was wrong about the efficacy of sterilisation [or death camps, indeed] in improving any racial stock. His colleague and rival JBS Haldane wrote a classic paper showing a) that most genetic defects are recessive b) by definition they are rare c) Hardy-Weinberg showed that in such cases almost all the defective genes reside in 'carriers' where a 'good' gene masks, or compensates for, its defective partner. Haldane went on to show that eliminating all the double-defective gene cases would have negligible effect on the prevalence of the gene in the population and it would take hundreds of generations to appreciably reduce the frequency. We are less that 100 generations from Caesar Augustus and Pontius Pilate.

But the window?? I was trying to explain my unease and The Beloved offered a story "Suppose you're a small child enrolling in primary school, the head teacher is real nice, welcoming and inclusive but behind her on the wall is a picture of the founding head teacher of that school; stern of mien, with mutton-chop whiskers, a high starched collar, a bible in one hand and a cane in the other. What sort of message does that convey to the child?" And my response is something like yes yes of course and point taken but the youngest person who is going to have the window in their face is old enough to vote; going to college is about making up your own mind and it really helps to do that if your current way of thinking is challenged by the awkwardness of the real world. One of the press releases from G&C suggested that Fisher's interest / obsession with eugenics was the very well-spring of all his powerful ideas, techniques and theories in biological statistics. We cannot therefore brush his eugenics shite under the carpet as an aberration. One irony is that by providing the statistical tools for effective plant-breeding, Fisher was partly responsible for the Green Revolution [Norman Borlaug, I'm looking at you] which put an extra 1 billion people on the groaning planet; none of whom ever smoked a pipe or wore a tweed jacket or had a glass of port after dinner at high table.

Removing the window from public view and storing it in the basement s👁rts 👁ut the optics but really doesn't solve the problem of endemic racism in society . . . no more does a diversity awareness session. And while we're casting stones in Cambridge, maybe Churchill-was-racist College, 2km NW of Gonville and Caius, is due for a name-change?

Wednesday 17 March 2021

How would you know if you're right?

 I've been lurking at TYWKIWDBI since before I started bloggin' myself. I keep going back because the content is nicely random / unexpected but also overlaps with my interest in biology, the out-doors and human folly. Minnesotastan, the author, is rather endearingly cleaning his closets cabinets to make life easier for his heirs; and sharing some of the finds before they go off to Goodwill or the bonfire of the vanities. It's endearing because, like me, I suspect he's come to the conclusion that nobody is going to write his biography; so all that hoarded ephemera [concert fliers, restaurant bills, bday cards, ] is just clutter. Anyway, there is life in the old dog yet and he's still posting about peculiarities that come over his horizon . . .

Apparently, Christiaan Huygens [L b.1629-d.1695], the Netherlandish scientific polymath was in the habit of circulating anagrams to the astronomical community so show a) he was fluent in Latin b) he'd discovered something c) before them.  In 1655 (aged 26), Huygens devised and built a telescope with sufficient resolution to pick out a moon orbiting Saturn, the then furthest known planet. To establish the fact that these two specks of light were associated, Huygens had to record their position over several nights in less than optimum weather: it's cloudy at night in Den Haag almost as much as it is in Dublin. At the same time, he observed the facts a) that Saturn had rings and b) that they presented at different angles according to the season.  The Royal Society, founded in 1660, elected Huygens a member in 1662.

He recorded his mooning thus:
which kindly gives a clue as to where in the universe he'd made his latest discovery "Shift your eye to our most distant star . . .UUU"
The answer is "“Saturno luna sua circunducitur diebus sexdecim horis quatuor": The moon of Saturn orbits in 16 days and 4 hours. Which is pretty darn cool, not only discovering the moon but calculating its orbit at the same time - not leaving many crumbs for his contemporaries. If you teach you might check out the NASA source [PDF] for this story: there's more anagram fun and a celestial crossword.

Brilliant though he be, Huygens acknowledged that he was standing on the shoulders of giants when it came to telescopes, star-gazing . . . and peeing on the lamp-post with anagrams. Notably Galileo Galilei [1564-1642] and Johannes Kepler [1571-1630]. Galileo was much less inclined to give a hat-tip to those who went before, preferring not to share his rather exclusive place in the sun. I know all this from Arthur Koestler's  The Sleepwalkers , [prev] his brilliant biographical history of the early astronomical discoveries. In 1610, Galileo [and simultaneously Simon Mayr in Bavaria] had recorded the four [brightest] moons of Jupiter. That's a bit of an easier problem because Saturn is at least 2x further away from any telescopes than Jupiter. But it's an outstanding achievement.

Galileo had a punt at making another coup about Saturn's satellites but tbh the quality of his telescopes weren't up for the challenge. Nevertheless he sent the astro-community one of his boasty anagrams:
everyone pretty much let him at it with his tedious isn't GG clever tricks but Kepler agonised about the puzzle far more than it was worth trying to get a handle on the inside of Galileo's Big head - and taking time off from his day-job, as well as from productive scanning the heavens rather than anagrams which could mean anything at all - or nothing.
Kepler's best guess: Salve umbistineum geminatum Martia proles 
"Hail, burning twin, offspring of Mars." Whatever that means! Me, I'd lock into the obvious VENUS in the puzzle and pointed my optics at the morning star.

Of Course and, like, duh, the answer was "Altissimum planetam tergeminum observavi" or "I have observed the highest planet [Saturn] as triplets". Squinting and screwing up his observing eye he convinced himself that he could see three bollupes to the planet whereas he was really seeing the opposite shoulders of Saturn's ring system bracketting the planet itself. Galileo was, accordingly, wrong but not as wrong as Kepler in this instance. But as I say above, these puzzles are not meant to solved except retro-actively and only by the author. The anagrams were intended to establish priority.

The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe was published in 1959, so it's probably out of print, and out of library, so maybe kindle is the way here. You can get the relevant part of the book including a couple more clever-clogs anagrams to play with.

Tuesday 16 March 2021

Boots on the ground

Tomorrow, St Patrick's Day, we will have been in our current home for 24 years. On that day in 1997, more or less a year after we'd bought the property at auction, we threw a bit of a party for the builders and their families and slept that night on a mattress in the bedroom. It had been a massive undertaking for The Beloved, who'd acted as main contractor and made the electrician, the plumber, the well-diggers, the plasterer, the builder, the carpenter, ESB, telecoms, the septic-tank guy all do her bidding: not necessarily in that order and sort of on time. As well as minding two small children. At the end of the project, we had a warm dry home but we'd run out of money and run out of oomph and it took about a decade to recover our mojo for anything more than care and maintenance. 

For example, we only ever went up the hill to explore the dry heathland, the scree, the bogs and the wee streams when/if we had visitors. As work wound down for me recently, I got out and about more and last year I was elected, as the only candidate, Heritage Liaison Officer for our commonage. I got interested in different aspects of what I called The Holistic Landscape of the townland. My Heritage Report included a number of suggestions about how there could be more, and more constructive, interaction between people and the hill. The 'problem' is that only two of our neighbours [both getting on in years] actually, from choice, run sheep on the hill; and on some weekends there are more hill-walkers on the hill than, like, sheep. That is what it is but with the shiny eyes of a convert, I like the idea of getting the children of our community up and doing on the hill and getting to know it as well as their grandparents did.

On the map, our Common is a roughly equilateral triangle with the Eastern boundary matching the County border and running more or less due North. Probably because it is the County border and land-holdings tend to stay within a single county, that Eastern boundary is tracked by a stone-faced earthen ditch for almost its entire length. But North of the last ruined steading [Mackey's], the walls on the ground rather abruptly cease although, on the Ordnance Survey map, the county border continues on with the same -.-.-.-.-. determination. On the Western boundary between Knockroe and the next community Rathanna, on the map, there is also a resolute . . . . . line running straight across the landscape. I suggested in my report that it would make a neat project for the local National School to beat the bounds between the two commonages. It would be partly a classroom exercise in cartography: latitude, longitude; grid-reference; triangulation and distance; rhumb-lines; true vs magnetic North; angles and bearings. And partly a yomp across the face of the hills, preferably with a borrowed theodolite and/or a borrowed surveyor  / cartographer.

That might never happen, or not in my lifetime. Last Sunday, before the rain got going in earnest, I powered up the hill to see why the Wexford border makes a little jink in its line between Slievegar Slg and Cloroge More Cl.M . Elucidating this small mystery received a massive leg up from the 1:25,000 map produced by Barry Dalby of EastWest Mapping. The detail on the map is down to the pixel, accurately delineating every wall and field boundary in the settled parts of the map. But there are also several straight lines across the rather featureless heathland landscape of the commonages. These must have been picked out from the satellite pictures: the human eye is super adept at discerning patterns out of random jumble. Two such line segments appear on Barry's map tracking the two North trending segments of the County Line. Civil boundaries don't register on these EastWest maps, whose purpose is recreational rather than political.

On the ground, these lines are revealed as longish sections of bank and ditch long since decayed almost to invisibility - except that that bank is drier and the ditch is greener. Between these man-made features the county border, trending NW, follows the line of a barely visible stream which gathers water to become the Aughnabriskey. That small river again becomes the county border just uphill from our fields; the stream and border being coterminous for about 400 m before parting company. I am possibly the only person alive who can point with confidence to the rock [L!] nearest to the triple-point where Knockroe, Rathanna and Cloroge More meet. That is the starting point for the Great Line of Demarcation of the National School Project.

Monday 15 March 2021

They also serve

I R retire and feel quite a bit like Mr Chips when somebody wants to friend me on LinkedIn and I can't put a face on them. In my second year teaching remedial math, I had a class with a handful of youngwans who all had medium length blonde hair and it took me the whole term to reliably get their names right. My name is Patriarch. But some stand out because they were funny, or clumsy, or made a good fist of their research project. That second year, teaching lab sections for 1st year biology, we came to the microbiology part which requires Petri dishes and Bunsen burners. Who's got a lighter?, I asked and nobody came forward, so I had to find a work around (and a lighter). In my day, many students smoked, so lighters were always available. A couple of days later, I was stopped in the concourse by Gary: "I put a box of matches in the top drawer in the biology lab, in case they're needed in future". Gary & I shared a building and sometimes a laboratory over the next tuthree years. He won his class's Community Service Award one year "for services with The Order of Malta". It turned out that, as a tween, he'd started going to weekend GAA games with a relative who was a fully trained first-aider of Malta and liked the uniform being useful [like the matches, above]. After his degree he got a job, but also enrolled in an evening MSc with which I had some peripheral involvement. Gary was the GoTo guy for all the foreign nationals for whom English was a second language and Ireland was a cultural jangle jungle.

Gary didn't lick caring about/for others off the stones. There was his 1st-aidy relly who had presented a role-model and a chance to try first-aiding as a way of life. And I presume his Irish Mammy, had somethhing to say in his raising. As Linus Pauling quipped "The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas". If you try lots of things [not incest or morris dancing!] you're more likely to get a good fit for your true self. Actually, I don't believe your true self appears >!shazzam!< fully formed at birth like Athene from the head of Zeus [R]. It emerges by the buffetting and buffing of experience with people, things and situations. As the chips are knocked off your shoulders, you fit better and become happier. But I'm not a blank slatist either: genetics plays its part in shaping what's possible.

The Boy lives on the outskirts of the second most expensive place to live in England. It has a university, an excellent rail link to London, nice parks, a lovely river and it drips with 2,000 years of history. The city also has people without homes. Julian House, a regional charity, started out as a homeless hostel and has grown into a multi-tasking power-house for helping the dispossessed. Charities need money to provide their services and fund-raising is vital for lubricating the wheels of change. Julian House has been associated with the Bath Half Marathon for 20 years, for example: fit people run and their pals pay not to run. Several years ago, Julian House started a Spring sleep-out in one of the city's lovely parks and invited people to experience rooflessness for one night. Everyone agrees and acknowledges that being without a roof is not the same as being without a home. And also that one night is a jape, compared to the relentlessness of finding a safe dry place to kip every freakin' night of the year.

When she'd just turned 5, Gdau.I did the Big Sleep-out with her Da; and they've been religious about returning every subsequent year: the year it rained all night, the year he got shouty, the year they went with Gdau.I's pals . . . this year the park is covid-closed, but the gig goes on! And this year Gdau.II was big enough and sassy enough to join the party - even if it was just the three of them in the back garden. Not unexpectedly, the youngest slept best despite the temperature dipping below freezing. It's always darkest before the dawn, but every day the sun rises:

It's early yet but the G.daus are probably on a college trajectory. I'm pretty sure they will grow up match-girls, like Gary.

Sunday 14 March 2021

Osborne Week

I think I'm done with Osbornes

The week: Monday Tamil Nadu; Tuesday Fort Lauderdale; Wednesday Elbow; Thursday Isle of Wight; Friday Walthamstow; Saturday Rathanna.

Saturday 13 March 2021

Osborne's Rathanna

Did you notice a theme in The Blob this last week? Computers - Unions - Tires - Irish - Elastin.
What's that spell?
Wrong! the real connexion those 5 tales is a loose association with Clan Osborne. 

When bought the farrrrm-let in 1996 the nearest pub in the County was about 6km away opposite the church where all the Shannon's of the Bomb are buried. It was called Osborne's and had been a home-from-home for the last of the Shannons, a bachelor farmer who had died in 1994 aged 70. The goss was that Old Ray had won a television in a raffle and donated the instrument to Osborne's because a) there was better reception from the Mt Leinster mast b) he was more likely to be in Osborne's than his own kitchen c) who wants to watch RTE on their own? I went down into Miss Osborne's bar once, to buy some milk. It was cool and dark but she had no fridge and advised me to get the milk into my fridge asap because it was July and the milk had been under her counter a couple of days already. Then she got sick, and closed the bar and was in a nursing home and finally she died, much lamented because she was kind.

Several years later, Osborne's came to a new life under Eric [L,R], Miss Osborne's nephew and Catherine [L,L]. They gave the front a lick of paint and cleaned the inside up while retaining most of the original features. The dark bar became a cosy place to have a drink. We've all been in Oirish Pubs, whether in Manhattan or Manila, which are tricked out with stuff that rings about as false as the python I met in an Irish bar in suburban Madrid. New Osborne's is authentico and I like it a lot. In the Before Times we'd try to catch a snifter there before crossing the village street for a sub-titled film.

I hope that they weather the Coronarama because they have a lot to offer the community and visitors.

Friday 12 March 2021

Osborne's Judgement

Trades Unions were an important force for achieving whatever amount of social justice which we now include in our list of "attributes of a civilized society". Capitalism, red in tooth and claw, allows workers to choose among employers to obtain the best pay and conditions. Indeed it allows workers to withhold their labour and not work for anyone at all. The market will decide how much an hour of your time is worth. It sounds well in theory but the case is altered in actuality. If the valley has but one coal-mine; the town one cotton mill; the village a single shop; then it is Hobson's Choice for a youngster seeking employment. No job, no money; no money, no bicycle; no bike, no real commute options Mr Tebbit. Trades Unions were an antidote to the gross imbalance of power in transactions between capital and labour. If workers got together, their collective actions could negotiate better pay and conditions for them all. The elephant in the negotiation room was a strike, or the threat of strike. No labour, noproduct; no product, no profit.

In the late 19thC, The Man discovered the political will to allow Trades Unions. If withholding labour was illegal, then the labourers were slaves. The consensus among the Christian middle classes on Victorian England was that Slavery was A Bad Thing. The political history of the 19thC is anchored on stepwise extensions of the franchise. And with each extension more workers got to vote for the people who made the laws in Westminster. And it ceased to be satisfactory to have a poor choice between Liberal [slightly left a bit like Democrats in USA today] and Conservative [rightist, conservative, like US Republicans] candidates. Through collective action, mediated by Trades Unions, the working class was able to scrabble together the finances to run candidates for a new Labour party. In the 1900 General Election the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) got Keir Hardie elected to parliament in Merthyr Tydfil and Richard Bell in Derby. 

The following year saw a disastrous set back for trade unionism. Workers for the Taff Vale Railway came out on strike. The Company sued their Union for damages to profits and the courts allowed the company to sequester £23,000 from the war chest of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants ASRS. Up until that ruling, TUs had been thought of an "unincorporated entities" or Trusts and so not actionable. Part of the thinking was that the Union looked after the widows and orphans of their members and their funds should be preserved to succour the innocent victims of fatal workplace accidents. The Trades Disputes Act of 1906 a) legalised the right to strike b) prevented actions being taken against the unions if they called a strike. Taff Vale created a sense of righteous indignation which gave a big political boost to the fledgling Labour Party which returned 29 MPs in 1906, and 40 in 1910.

Which brings us to Osborne and his judgment. Walter Osborne was secretary for the Walthamstow branch of the ASRS and head porter at Clapham. He was, among other tasks. responsible for gathering subs for the union; but he was also a big supporter of the Liberal Party. The TUC and the LRC was squeezing the liberal middle and pragmatically requiring all MPs elected with LRC sponsorship to take the Labour whip. Osborne, in a secure job and established in his community, found socialism <frisson> dangerously subversive and personally repugnant. Accordingly he took the ASRS to court to prevent them from supporting Team Red as a matter of policy. The Courts found for Osborne: "There is nothing in the Trade Union Acts from which it can reasonably be inferred that trade unions as defined by Parliament were meant to have the power of collecting and administering funds for political purposes." which required further legislation to a) allow refusnik union members to avoid paying the Labour Party pledge; although the default might be opt-in and b) starting to pay MPs a £400 /year salary to ensure that they were not financially dependent on the LRC and its constituent unions. Contrast that with wages for workers at that time: agr. labourers £35/yr; coal miners £70/yr; typesetters £75/yr.

Taff Vale and Osborne were set-backs (meted out by old white men who'd never had to work [as it break your finger-nails work] for a living) to the rise and rise of the rights of the working class. Nevertheless, these judgments rowed against the tide of history because the law was changed in parliament by the Liberal party alone or in cahoots with Redmondites and/or Labour. The Liberal government  - that party secured a landslide in 1906 - put forward a raft of social justice reforms: free school meals; old age pensions; national health and unemployment insurance; labour exchanges. Osborne was key to clarifying what everyone wanted and what they could expect in the arena of labour relations.