Saturday 22 May 2021

The End

Nothing lasts forever.

Cory Doctorow has been bloggin' for a lot longer than me - 20 years: "There’s another way that blogging makes my writing better: writing every day makes it easier to write every day". Nevertheless, I have been posting every day for the last eight years. And I absolutely echo Doctorow's sentiments. The last time I missed a day was 22 May 2013. The Blob's original purpose was to document the process of transition to a full-time, full-on job teaching science in the Irish Midlands. I more or less stopped teaching science at the start of Coronarama in March 2o2o. There were a few loose ends final year research project students to tie up <nnnggg nnGGG> but that adventure was done more than a year ago, and I formally retired 02 Oct 20

As the years rolled by, The Blob grew, like Topsy, to catch & incorporate whatever was drifting past my "mind". Although there was a braided thread of funny thing happened in class today posts; but without classes that theme dried up and blew away. My, N = 97, almost invisible,  women-in-science archive is worth a look. There have recently been a lot more book reviews because reading and audioing books is filling the space previously occupied by antics in classrooms and laboratories. In one sense, the tail is now wagging the dog: I feel pressure to deliver daily - all those years of deliberate practice putting one word after the other have Lutherised me into Ich kann nichts anders. otoh I am close to having recorded everything I can remember having ever done. So now I'm easy . . .

22 May? Why that's today!

The End

Friday 21 May 2021

Informed consent

 I had a swipe at the New England Aquarium & Sy Montgomery for keeping an octopus in solitary confinement, which might seem a peculiar position to normal folk who see octopus as, say, food. I've written quite a lot about ethics over the last eight years; concluding that ethics is hard.  If you are complacent about your ethics it's because you haven't thought about it enough. There are few, in the Western world, who condone slavery but plenty who think that professional boxing (licenced and regulated battery for profit) is an acceptable sport. It's not: just count the concussions and contact sport encephalopathy.

I don't know about you, but IF we agree that all people have human rights - regardless of colour, age, gender, sexuality or wealth - THEN it's difficult to draw the line at the edge of Homo sapiens and say that chimps don't have rights. I'm not, here, talking about prevention of cruelty to animals which was promoted and sponsored by some Victorian eccentrics, like "Humanity Dick" Martin, because it was bad for the immortal soul . . . of the perpetrator. Like Jeremy "Utilitarian" Bentham: "The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?"  Let's rather think about the Right to be Let Alone for chimpanzees.

Actually, forget about chimpanzees, they are largely beyond our control in forests or zoos. Let's think about dogs [and cats]. What are their rights? Actually what are our rights to own a dog? If Genesis 1:26 "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth" is sufficient then you really haven't thought about it enough. 

In Ireland you're meant to licence your dogs [at €20/yr!] but apart from that anyone can own a dog - no requirement to be tested or examined as to competence. Virtuous people truck off to the local animal rescue to recycle a dog that has been abandoned and/or abused by the previous owners. The better class of rescue & re-homing centres have standards equivalent to human child adoption agencies. But [unfixed] bitches gonna pup and if you want a dog you can get a dog - and I have never been asked to show a dog licence over hundreds of hours of walking dogs. So many dogs, so little oversight.

The better class of owners will do their best to train their dog, and good for them. But my feelings about dog training has been coloured by Sy Montgomery's tales of training her dogs to stop, go, come and catch frisbees. I did a year of psychology in college and I know that using operant conditioning you can make animals do all sorts of mad antics: catch frisbees, jump through [flaming?] hoops, walk on two legs and come when called. But the dog? In what sense does it consent to this contract? With chimpanzees, the sense of the meeting in modern ethics is that we should treat them as well as, and with the respect due to, people. When, in 2005, we wanted to extend an evolutionary study of the human immune system to look for/at the equivalent genes in chimpanzees we were (quite properly) told to bugger off with any ideas about a blood sample. Because the chimpanzees in the local zoo were illiterate and therefore couldn't read and sign the consent form. 

It's interesting that the word "grooming" has been borrowed from domestic animal care to apply to the mechanics of achieving gratification in another, seepy, repellent, world where the balance of power is really unequal. Consider whether dogs are being groomed to accept their enslaved state by treats, attention and walkies. Or la la la can't hear you - that will work also.

Me, I don't think it's cool of Captain von Trapp to dress his kids in sailor suits and come to a whistle. Ditto dogs. It's not so long ago, that powerful people in the USA could own slaves. The right of married Irish women to refuse sex with their husband was not vindicated in Ireland until 2002. I think the tide of history is running with me on this one. We've freed the gays; now to free the hounds.

Thursday 20 May 2021

Deaf as a post

 Borrowbox continues to deliver. Their search engine is kind of crap: "anne lamott" sourced me in order Ann Napolitano Ann Cleves Ann Patchett Ann Weisgarber whom I presume are "acclaimed" "bestsellers" or whatever Borrowbox thinks will please their imagined demographic. Not me and not even close to what I was looking for: google knows me better. If you can't find specific requests you may as well just browse through what they have.

My latest coup, is Wildwoods by Richard Nairn [L he gorra woodshed!] a ramble, actual and metaphorical, through Ned's Wood a relict 3 acre = one-and-a-bit hectares attached to a micro-farm "somewhere in Wicklow". Ned being a 19thC tenant farmer who finally secured the title to this plot of paradise-with-hardship, through the Land Reform Acts of 1881 and 1885. Nairn passed through Natural History at TCD a tuthree years before me and became a Name in Irish conservation biology working for Birdwatch Ireland; NI Natural Trust; Royal Irish Academy. But for the last 30 years, he's been the founder and director for Natura Environmental Consultants. Wearing that hat, he helped broker a deal between eco-warriors and The Man when the latter want to widen an arterial commuter route through Gleann dá Ghrua = the Glen of the Downs. The commuters got their road, a handful of mature trees were felled; the ecowarriors learned how to sleep in the trees; and the lawyers got their yachts and/or second homes somewhere nice.

Wildwoods is a sympathetic read: I think we're on the same page w.r.t. badgers; coppicing; ivy [good]; native vs imports; Sitka spruce; pine-martens and red squirrels. Planting trees is good: we've planted a couple of thousand of them and never in anything that could be accused of being a monoculture. And neither Nairn nor I are in it for the money. Although he cites a couple of inspiring cases where trad farmers have converted some of their unproductive rough pasture into stands of trees which after a couple of decades are beginning to wash their face in the economy of the farm: pea-sticks and hazel stakes to begin with hardwoods for joinery later.  You don't plant oaks expecting to see them become the keel and knees of a sailing ship in your life-time.

Guardian report on interplanting broadleaves in pasture.

Are we grateful that there is an audiobook of Wildwoods?
Yes we are.
Whom should we thank? who are perhaps the best creator of talky content in English. They also seem to have created Borrowbox.
So what's your problem?
The slap dash production standards for this niche in the publishing world.

My experience is that the best readers are authors unless they have a King's Speech impediment or a really impenetrable accent. Yay! Gretchen McCulloch. What seems to happen is that Bolinda put out a call and the agents of resting actors [short of the readies] and jobbing radio journalists [good speaking voice] put their people forward if their client is desperate the price is right. For Wildwoods the winner of the voice-over contract was Ruairi Conaghan who [at least] has an Irish accent. Except that he was raised in the heartland of Ulster and never had Irish in school. Having a Nordie accent shouldn't be a reason for excluding a candidate but it does render a certain amount of cognitive dissonance given that the author himself has an unexceptionable Educated South Dublin ESD accent [listen?] - he's too old to speak DORT - and the wood in question is in Wicklow.  The problem is that
a) has a tin ear for Irish words: Coillte is not really Quilter; Meitheal is not Meethaul - that's our leader St Micheál of Martin
b) he's Arts Block educated so mangles some science words. There are two sorts of oak in Ireland: Quercus petraea the sessile oak and Quercus robur the pedunculate oak. The former has flowers and acorns which sit directly on the twig; in the latter the flower develops at the end of a peduncle - which in turn is a fancy Latinate name for 'stalk'. Conaghan sometimes uses pendunculate and sometimes pedunculate. Aaaargh you may quote me your Emerson "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" but it sounds like yer man doesn't know or care what he's saying. Taster on Soundcloud.

Actually, I fear that this is all driven by economics. How much does Bolinda pay for 6 or 10 hours of read script? Not enough to make it worth Conaghan's while to listen back to his offering and re-record the bits he fluffed; let alone employ a copy-editor with a sound ear who can mark up the text that needs more than one take. Stephen J. Gould, who produced a column for Natural History every month for 25 years, found that they only way he could justify the time in a busy Harvard Faculty year was to sit down and write the whole essay in one sitting and then <done!> send it off to the magazine.

Wednesday 19 May 2021

Women against the scourge

 Where were you when JFK was shot? People of my age will know the answer to that [8 y.o. me: in my pyjamas but maybe not asleep in Titchfield, England]. Younger people will have a similar awareness about 9/11. Irish people of my grandfather's generation will have been somewhere during Easter Week 1916. The urban legend is that more people claimed a pension for having been in the GPO with Connolly and Pearse than could have physically fit. Schoolboy Nevil Shute became a stretcher-bearer - not in the GPO, though - because his father was a government official. Dorothy Stopford, a twenty-something member of the Protestant Ascendancy, happened to be visiting with Sir Matthew Nathan, the Under-Secretary for Ireland or most senior civil servant in town that week. She kept a, now digitized and searchable, diary of the events from that perspective.

Although Easter Week and the cross-patch response of the British administration [they were after all getting their ducks in a row for the disastrous Battle of the Somme] were defining events in the political development of Ireland, they were just an interesting but passing blip in the life Dorothy Stopford [L,L with Kathleen Lynn L,R another Irish medical pioneer]. She had just started a medical degree in TCD and qualified as a doctor in 1921. In parallel to her journey through anatomy classes, ward rounds and delivery suites, young Dorothy was radicalised into joining Cumann na mBan through indignation at a) the British reaction to Easter Week '16 and b) the systemic impoverishment and othering of the plain people of Ireland. Infant mortality across the Free State was running at 7% and that's the average. The rate would have been appallingly worse among the dispossessed crowded into cottages and tenements.

In the late 1920s, when Dr Price [she married Liam Price a lawyer in 1925] started working in St Ultan's [Protestant] pediatric hospital, infectious diarroeia, pneumonia and TB were the three primary killers-of-children in Ireland. It really was the Third World without the malaria and Burkitt's lymphoma. From 1938-1949 there were 43,000 deaths [adults included] from TB in the Free State. It's like the worst of Covid-19 going on and on for 10 years. In the 1930s Dr Price started to obsess about tuberculosis: directing a lot of the limited resources of the hospital to that one disease. Again, it is easy to see parallels with Coronarama where we have not yet counted the deaths and disablements caused by other illnesses and accidents getting untreated during the pandemic.

In the late 1930s, Price was instrumental in bringing tuberculin skin-test diagnosis and BCG vaccination to Ireland and rolling these preventive measures out across the country. It was quite political because BCG Bacille Calmette-Guérin was French and, according to the British medical establishment [and subsequent sober objective analysis didn't work very well. The latter criticism was at least partly because the French statistics on vaccination and its efficacy were all over the shop.  In 1937, Price administered the first BCG jab in these islands, but it was one of only 6 such treatments in St Ultan's before WWII shut off supplies of this heat-labile resource. 

After the war, lots had changed, antibiotics became available in a wide variety of forms, there was better nutrition and better housing and TB isolation wards and whole hospitals were built across the country on the imprimatur of the radical Minister of Health Noel Browne. So there was more to winning the war on TB than BCG. Browne and the Chief Medical Officer James Deeny both wrote themselves up as the centre of credit. Nevertheless St Ultan's is a beacon in the history of equality in Ireland because it was staffed, run and administered entirely by women. One contemporary called it The Women's Medical Republic. It was thus an antidote to the patriarchy. In the 1980s St Ultan's was closed with its assets transferred to the nearby National Children's Hospital in Harcourt Street. There is a now a 180 bed hotel on the site.

Last night at the Wexford Science Café, we were edutained by Anne MacLellan, the Wexford author who has written The Book on Dorothy Stopford-Price; rebel doctor which is available from the publisher or cheaper post-free from Kennys. If you missed the Café you can get the gist from a talk given by MacLellan in 2019 for a symposium hosted by the RCPI Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. Or a 1200 word, 6 minute, executive summary essay. MacLellan's assessment is measured: Deeny and Browne deserve less credit for beating TB and Dorothy Stopford-Price, not the easiest person to like, deserves rather more; hence the biography. Chapeau! for author and her subject both.

More Women in Science

Tuesday 18 May 2021

One foot in front of the other

Ireland in the Spring is when, if at no other time, we have weather rather than climate. 30+ years ago we rented a cruiser on the Shannon for Easter week: we had broiling sunshine and horizontal snow and everything in between. It has been really dry for the last month, so it's easy to take the good weather for granted. But really, for outdoor chores - counting the sheep [and the lambs!]; chopping wood; planting spuds; turning the compost - it is a good idea to be up and doing when it's not raining. There's plenty of time for tea later.  

On Saturday at about tea-time, I bestirred myself and brought in a basket of fire-wood. I noted in passing that it looked dramatically black over Blackstairs and though to more about it. I hadn't been [back] on the sofa 10 minutes but the Valkyries roared in with a drenching storm which turned to drumming hail. Part of me was annoyed because I wasn't up in the polytunnel for the full grandstand sound-surround experience; but the other 80% was really smug at having the chores done before dark. An hour later, our neighbour across came by with a dozen free-range eggs <whoa brilliant!> and remarked at the heaps of hail under the eaves of the sheds. They had not even had a tinkle of drizzle although they live less than 1km away. What a difference a county border makes. Later still I went up to the said polytunnel and captured a heap o' hail which had been delivered to the rain-butt. I guess like Everest in the Miocene, there was a lot more at the height of the storm.

Carpe diem, lads; because this evening it may be too late. My pal Russ is on the move this upcoming Sunday 23rd May to raise funds for the local chapter of the RNLI. He's undertaking to walk 18km from his home to Dunmore regaled along the way by a relay of friends-and-relations. I think that's a brilliant concept and the RNLI deserves support because fetching sea-farers out of the drink brings out the best in people. My retirement gift to myself was to finish the third part of my Western European Walk [Portugal 1989 - Spain 2004] from St. Jean Pied de Porte in Gascony to Cherbourg. When it was on the long finger of aspirations, several relations said they'd walk a stage with me. Who knows if/when it will happen: as the disruptive tides of Covid drain away so does the synovial fluid of my antient knees.

Anyway, it's not about me; it's about The [Manchester] Russianside Rambler. Give? I gave already.

Monday 17 May 2021

The cloths of Heaven

An Fear aka The Man aka St Micheál of Martin, our Leader, announced that, from 10th May, intercontinental ballistic inter-county travel would be allowed for all. Clan Blob were quite slow on the take-up of these freedoms but we expect Dau.II to come across from the People's Republic later today. Though not without faults [who is?], nobody chid Dau.II for not being willing. She can change a plug, mow a lawn, saw a straight line through lumber and is happy with power-tools. 

It didn't seem fair to ask Corkies to break their journey on Costa na Déise to mow 10 or 12 ares of grass simply because they were passing. And there is self-interest in this: I'd rather not wait an extra couple of hours before the English Market hamper is opened and we can start tucking into cake, custard, cheese.

Accordingly, I scabbed a lift with The Beloved last Thursday when she travelled South about her father's business. It was apparent from the photo above that I wasn't the only one with thoughts of mowing: a farmer was in process of taking the first cut of silage from the meadow on the cliff-top just West of Kilmurrin cove. I can definitely be relied upon to take a crap photo; but this captures some of the magic of the Waterford Coast with its receding headlands all the way to Cork and backdropped by the distant Comeragh Hills. If there's one thing my father could capture in his water-colours it was the idea of the variety of clouds in Ireland. Taking a shy-and-retiring role in the composition is the banks of thrift / sea-pink Armeria maritima [prev] which is characteristic of The Copper Coast; partly because of its resistance to heavy metals.

Preparing for a [brief?] interlude of inter-county travel, Dau.II asked me to prepare a Beachcomber's Guide to The Copper Coast. I was nothing loath; indeed I have made a project of this in the past in anticipation of friends-and-relations visiting this gem of hidden charms - geological [go Ordovician], botanical [see above], ornithological [go Choughs Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax]. All those coves: Stradbally, Ballydwan, Trá na mBó, Bunmahon, Knockmahon, Kilmurrin [see above], Boatstrand, Benvoy, Annestown, Woodstown, [no, not the oyster Woodstown], Kilfarrasy, Garrarus, Trá Mhór. Since she could toddle Dau.II has been to all of them, but unless you're driving and or paying attention to the passing landscape, it can be difficult to a) tick them off in order b) remember which one has the towering purple cliffs and which are only accessible at low tide. It turns out that Waterford CoCo has not been idle during the lock-down but have prepared and distributed a lot of new signage [L], so you know where you be when the car-door opens and you can rush out to explore. As well as the finger-posts, there are new info-boards at each place with some handy annotated photos of what you're looking at. Especially interesting because there have been substantial, photo changing, rock-falls at least on Woodstown and Ballydwan beaches.

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
WB Yeats

Sunday 16 May 2021

Sunday 16

Recruitment drive by a bunch of my pals from Dublin:
Citizen's Science project Viral Resistance Project

You can get vaccinated even if you not white
You can slag anti-vaxxers in a counter-productive manner.
11 reasons for wearing a mask after-vaxx.

More / else / other:

Saturday 15 May 2021

Solitary confinement

Dau.I "The Book" came to care for her parents a tuthree weeks ago. Her male parent was behaving strangely and the family were concerned about his stability. It was good to have a good pair of caring hands on site, not least because of an elder-accident that needed attention. In her mind, read a good book is a pretty good solution for many forms of mental disequilibrium, and I guess she didn't lick this up off the stones. Accordingly, she lent me her copy of How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery. Montgomery is bankable having written a good many books where she has hung out with field biologists and written about what field research is like and how much it is likeable. Quite likeable, is the answer and Montgomery could have been a competent scientific researcher [tenacity, patience, resilience, painstaking] if she didn't prefer writing about the animals in a breezy, intelligent and accessible style. How To Be is a consciously attractive old-style book: untrimmed page edges; rubrics for each section; generous margins ; quirky colophons in red at the header and footer. You don't get that generous treatment by a big publisher [Houghton Mifflin] unless you are, as I say, bankable. Montgomery is one of very few authors who is actually support themselves by what they write.

If you detect a tinge of snottiness from me about writing poety books about science rather than doing, like, actual science, it is because you are well-tuned to emotional baggage . . . not to say hypocrisy. If I was a real scientist, I would have seen a lot more of my scientific papers through the peer-review process. Instead, I crapped out far too often because I lacked finish. On the other hand, I've written thousands of 500-800 word Blobs about all sort of aspects of the scientific process. If I got even 10c-a-word for my efforts, I wouldn't now be driving a Yaris. I guess we work in the same science-lite field. The other thing we have in common (apart from being born in the 1950s) is that we are both service brats with WWII veteran fathers.

The first chapter is about her first puppy acquired when she was The General's Daughter living on a US Army base in the 1960s. After that we are introduced to a trio of emus; an enormous hog; a huge tarantula; a ruthless weasel; 'nother dog; a pair of tree kangaroos; another dog, an octopus; a one-eyed dog. I think that adds up to 13, but I may have left some of the dramatis personnae on the cutting room floor. The conceit is that the unhuman animals have taught the author to live a better life. Not least by developing compassion and empathy for her companions. That's fair enough and worthy of attention but there's an under-current of inequality in many of the relationships described. I'm in the process of marshaling my arguments about the ethics of 'owning' animals but there is something really sketch about the interactions with "Octavia" the octopus.

The New England Aquarium in Boston has acquired a succession of Giant Pacific Octopus Enteroctopus dofleini, [prev Octopus apollyon] because it is a big draw for visitors. A number of books have come out recently pushing the idea that, for all their being invertebrates, cephalopod molluscs are a smart as [insert your favorite mammal here]. I am agnostic about octopus IQ but IF the are as clever as an ass, THEN they should not be isolated in a cage [or a 2,000 litre tank]. The Irish Donkey Sanctuary will not allow people to foster one donkey - you have to take two. For donkeys, in Ireland, in the 21stC; solitary confinement is considered a cruel and unusual punishment. If you think that you're getting a handle on normal octopus behaviour when the creature is so constrained, then you are delusional. It looks like octopus as fashion accessory. harrrrumph! I've had something to say about octopodes in the past including my own contribution towards presenting an octopus to the public . . . after it killed itself.

Friday 14 May 2021

That is forever England

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field.
That is for ever England
The Soldier by Rupert Brook (1915)
Within a month of the publication of this quintessentially romantic Edwardian take on soldiering, Brooke was dead and buried on the island of Skyros as an early, septicaemia, casualty from the Gallipoli campaign. He didn't last long enough to see most of his friends blown to buggery in Flanders or Turkey which might have taken some of the gloss of his poetry.  WB Yeats characterised Brooke as ""the handsomest young man in England" and, at Cambridge before the war,  he broke the hearts of men and women including George "Everest" Mallory. Alfred "Oscar Wilde's Nemesis" Douglas was scathingly dismissive of Brooke and all his poetry stood for.

St Peter's Cathedral, Likoma [L] is a bit like Brooke; planted in a corner of a foreign field, trying a bit too hard to be English and making no concessions to the actual island location in which they can be found. It's rather cheaper and easier to get to Skyros than to Likoma which is a tropical island in Lake Malawi. We've been there recently. If your nose for geogoddity is the least bit like mine, you may have been intrigued by two enclaves in the section of the lake allocated to Mozambique. One of those black lines surrounds the island of Likoma; the other encircles Chizumulu; and they are both exclaves of Malawi surrounded by foreign waters.

The cathedral was built by the UMCA Universities Mission to Central Africa which answered a call from David Livingstone 'to help Christianize the people of The Dark Continent and do their best to oppose slavery. This group eventually settled on the Lake in 1884 because the climate was less devastatingly malarial and denguey: you can't convert the heathen if you are dead. The investment of British money, British missionaries and British architectural standards was key to establishing British hegemony over these islands despite them being much closer to the Portuguese/Mozambique shore.

The Portuguese colonial government sat down with their British counter-parts in the 1950s to thrash out the common ground and iron out any difficulties between the two empires. They agreed to a series of drainage and flood control works around the Shiré River, the plug-'ole of the Lake, which drains from Lake Malawi and eventually joins the Zambesi deep in Mozambique. In exchange for owning a third of the cost of these public works, the Portuguese got access to the fishing up to the median line of the lake . . . excluding the Likoma archipelago.  These signed-off economic and political agreements between colonial powers established the default position on the boundaries for the independent states of Malawi and Mozambique. Protestant Missions converted 60% of the people of Malawi.

Thursday 13 May 2021

Dig it and dung it

As a nipper, my father went to school in Mourne Grange [Cricket XI R] where young Protestant boys could be taught the three Rs and a bit of Latin to fit them to become patriarchs or die early in a malarial outpost of empire. There was a good bit of bible, and Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer about the education. Although, to be fair, Mrs Carey the headmaster's wife, read chapters of novels to the lads on Sunday evening after evensong on church. One visiting dignitary was asked to read the lesson from Luke Ch 13, which happens to contain this sentence "And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it". The visitor was, momentarily, non-plussed but recovered with "And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung <harrrump> manure it". He presumably realised that using the D word would likely precipitate a gale of suppressed giggles through the poo-minded congregation.

I was reminded of this over the weekend because I spend a couple of hours scooping sheep-shit up from the haggard [which had been used a night-nursery and delivery ward for several days in April]. If the sheep aren't grazing it, I'm meant to mow it and mowing <fffrrrrPPPT> sheep pats is only amusing the first couple of times. Furthermore, all that pre-digested grass and coliforms does wonders for the kitchen compost stirred into the mix.

There is demand for compost as we are now planting out some vegetables to eat later in the Summer.  There was a morning frost on 5th and 6th May which would have fritzed any beet and chard seedlings if they'd already been planted out. We have a 3 bin rotation [R] which converts kitchen scraps + nettles + grass-mowings + a bit of straw into a fine friable loam. It is a fine judgment as to how much work I want to put into it. The worms and the lactic acid bacteria should do the heavy lifting but I find we get a better product if I turn the first, least digested, bin over by forkfuls at least once. This aerates the 'matter' which may or may not be good; but it also mixes a clot of straw up with some over-heated grass-mowings to restore a homeostatic equilibrium that makes the worms' work easier. It takes about 40 minutes to mindfully steadily turn one bin into the next. It takes a little less time to spoon the garden-ready compost into bags because a) there is less of it - there is a plume of CO2 over compost heaps from the energetic exercising of microbes b) there are no tangles to catch the fork.

Having bagged the friable of bay-3 and transferred the contents of bay-2 into the vacated space, I had a nice cup of tea. I returned for my upper-body work-out by heaving bay-1's material into the middle bin. This has the additional benefit of putting the most recent, green, tangly, material to the bottom of the pile and mixing it up with more rotted stuff. I'd take a photo, except why bother: the composting area looks exactly like it did last year except the plastic bags of loam are a different colour.

And it's worth putting the verse from the Gospel of Luke into the context of the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree. Which I interpret to mean that lecturers can easily write off the class cut-up as an unteachable pain-in-the-arse BUT a bit of care attention can often bring out the best in unlikely people. Not everyone is cut out for academic work but there are other ways in which folk can demonstrate their worth - to themselves and to their community. That's the take of a once-upon-a-teacher; your mileage in dealing with troublesome people will certainly vary.

Wednesday 12 May 2021

Ringing true

As the Guardian of the Ringstone, I've had many occasions to talk about the technique of splitting stone with an elegant lack of effort by understanding the crystalline structure of the rock and using the mechanical advantage of [a hammer and] wedges. A wedge being a form of lever where a long easy travel in one direction is complemented by a small powerful force at right angles. As Archimedes said, you can in theory move the very earth with a long enough lever and a place to stand. I've been a teensy bit obsessive about this craft on The Blob. One of the keys is to practice until you don't have to look at your hands, With a hammer and cold chisel, you must have faith in the hammer; if you check up on it, t'bugger will hit your chisel hand out of spite. I think it's probably true that, like Zatoichi, a blind rock-splitter would be as good as their sighted peers . . . not least because they will listen / hear better to know which wedge needs to♬k-to♬k rather than to♬k. 

If the ringing in the stone conveys important information about the invisible progress inside, the same is, Tally Ho apparently, true of the sounds made by hammer on caulking iron. You can hear whether the oakum is tight in the seam. As the caulking progresses - best carried out with a meitheal - the hull gets drum-tight and sounds it. If the hull isn't drum-tight, the ship will take in water and the mariners will have to pump instead of dancing horn-pipes in the off watch. As we saw in February and in contrast to Gertrude Stein's "a rose is a rose is a rose", hammers is a broad church to comprehend very large differences in purpose. Caulking hammer's head is made of a hard heavy wood the business end of which is bound by a metal band. The head is split along it's length to better absorb the shock of each blow and protect the user from white-finger and other repetitive-shock injuries. A by-product of the design is that it acts like a tuning fork and the pitch of the hammer will change as the working face gets worn away and the peculiar g=head gets shorter.

In the cited video, Leo makes the case that the caulkers mallet is not retro hang-over from by-gone times. It is an exquisite tool designed by insight, trial and error over many centuries: each part works synergistically not only with the other parts but also with the operators hand. That was my experience when I was using a tradesman's hammer in a peculiar craft. The binding of an old book is a thing of beauty even if you can't read. What I learned over 4 years of Tuesday evenings in the bindery of the university library is that each aspect on the binding enhances the function of the whole. The book opens to be read; but stands upright on a shelf; it can be packed tight; a single index finger can pull it from the shelf without destroying the spine. Leather, acid-free paper, cotton-thread and a bodkin, cardboard and cloth if engineered together properly [a hammer helps!] will be fit-for-function for 1,000 years. You can't say that about your iPad or my Yaris.

Tuesday 11 May 2021

Caprivi Strip

I tell ya b'ys, cigars have a lot to answer for. In the 19thC a lot of patriarchal silverbacks got round tables in Europe and mapped out parts of the world where none of them had ever been; all quite certain that they were doing good for their country. British patriarchs additionally deluded themselves that they were also doing good for the people who finished on at least one side of any line they drew on the map. Anglophone writing of history asserts that their Belgian [Casement] and German counterparts were more inclined to other the natives if not actually deny their humanity. Whatever the motivations, it is undeniable that lines were drawn on maps which were largely terra incognita. There is no truth in the urban legend that the Verebinsky Bypass, a kink in the railway line between Petersburg and Moscow, represents the Ruler's finger protruding over the the edge of the rule.

A few days ago I was writing about the button [Heligoland] on Bismarck's trousers [Zanzibar] and hinted that the Caprivi Strip was part of the same negotiation. The cartoon [L] of Southern Africa may remind old-time Blobbers of a similar outlandish shape in South-Central Asia which I characterised as "the map of Afghanistan features a strange scut tail reaching East to fondle the backside of China". The resulting Wakhan Corridor is 300km long but only 15km wide in places. The Caprivi strip is bigger: 450km long and 30km wide. The narrow shaft of of the dick strip has those suspiciously ruler-straight lines which indicate that neither side has had boots on the ground or theodolites in their saddle-bags. Here be a bit more detail:

In 1890, when the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty was signed, the German political zeitgeist was shifting its focus from boots on the ground [and pickelhaube on the head] in Europe to a colonial empire across the sea, like the Brits had. "Face" and optics were at least as important as economics. In 1887, sod was turned for the Kiel Canal, a route that would connect Baltic and North Sea Germany avoiding the Skagerrak. The Kaiser opened the canal in June 1895. Water transport was definitely in the air when the diplomats were throwing shapes around the HZT table. The German delegation mused Wouldn't it be nice to have a direct connexion between our South-West Africa [NM now] and our East Africa [TZ] colonies?

The British side realised that this gave them an extra card to play and, after a lot of blather and bluster and show of reluctance, graciously pulled back the skirts of Botswana to allow German SW Africa to get a sniff of the mighty Zambesi river where it turned East at the border with Zambia. This gave the German Empire about 100km of prime river-front property in the middle of Africa. They were delighted to have put one over on the Brits. The Brits were beside themselves with glee because they knew the Zambesi fell off a cliff 40km downstream of the new German territory at the Victoria Falls. No amount of locks would get German steamers past that.

Monday 10 May 2021

Plonkety plonk

 "Il meglio è l'inimico del bene" an old Italian proverb quoted by Voltaire means Perfection is the enemy of the good enough. Which resonates for me, as an evolutionary biologist: successful species are a kludge of attributes that work better than those of competitors despite being a long way from perfect. Think the recurrent pharyngeal nerve, or male nipples, the phalanges of your pinkie toe . . .

The Western World has a contemptible obsession with stardom: there is only one [Zatopek] winner of the 10,000m; only one Harry Potter; very few millionaire golfers, soccer players or film actors. In horse racing it's ever and always "Eclipse first, the rest nowhere". The difference between first and second in many fields is not statistically significant or reproducible. Run the race or exam next week and the order will be different: the consequence should be that everyone over a certain threshold is deemed to be good enough . . . and a lot better than slobby old me sitting on the sofa swigging tinnies.

I'm not a black&white bloke, indeed my last true name means 'grey'. My sister briefly shared a flat in London in the 80s with a woman who went on to become one of the top wine-tasters in The World. So I'm inclined to believe that there are people out there who practice enough, and are sensitive enough, to discern subtle differences among wines. Me, I'll trust someone who makes a living visiting hundreds of co-ops and vineyards for LIDL. If the company is going to order 1000s of cases at €100/case then that product is not going to be drain-cleaner . . . it will be good enough for €5.75. In the range €5.95 to €15.95 it's all going to be a matter of taste. I am told by my brother, who's been there, that €50/bottle wines are something else entirely but I'm on the pension now, so I'm not going there.

I wrote a few years ago [whoop, whoop, numbers alert] that competitive wine-tasting is largely flim-flam, boondoggle and blackguardry. IF the label is soaked off or the wine is decanted THEN most people can't identify a wine to grape-variety, let alone terroir. I was delirah therefore to discover the 2018 Master Sommelier Exam Cheating Scandal. It is a tale of hubris [overweening arrogance inviting disaster] and huckster. Who knew that there was a Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas (CMSA)? Who cared enough to let it be known that there were fewer Master Sommeliers than astronauts? Whose sense of self is so tied up in the business that they actually append "MS" to their business cards?
Answer: people whose interest in wine is conflated with their interest in money.

In 2018, and not for the first time, there were shenanigans and insider dealings in the process of accepting new members into The Inner Circle. The examination is in three parts, each section of which costs €1,000 to take . . . with no guarantee of success. Indeed only 1 candidate in 12 passes through the ordeal. It reads like the "servitor" section of the exam is licenced hazing by the judges AND is regressively snobbish in its 19thC ideals about what a Sommelier is. For reasons beyond comprehension, in 2018 one of the judges send out a txt to candidates hinting at which six wines would be on that year's tasting panel: Subject: Heads up // "PG, CndP". Which being interpreted was pinot gris / grigio & Châteauneuf-du-Pape. 

tl;dr The Court of Master Buffoons decided to cancel the certs of all the successful candidates that year on the assumption that any and all of them could have been given the Heads-Up. Like a typically patriarchal, smug, self-aggrandizing coterie of bluffers they refused to have a proper investigation or an external audit to their arbitrary and capricious decision. The Optics are terrible and the lawyers are rubbing the hands.

Sunday 9 May 2021

St Julian's Day

Today, as promised yest, we watched the "sunrise" from St Fursey's Altar. Like Whistler's Mother it was an arrangement in Grey and Black:

It was all rather wonderful: a bit of drizzle, a brief sting on hail, occasional sulphurous roils across the hills to the South but mostly a gradually lifting [and unlifting] grey. Good to be alive; time to think of those who felt they'd be better off dead. Salut Paul!

St Julian of Norwich, her day: "al shal be wel & al shal be wel & al manner of thyng shal be wele"

Saturday 8 May 2021

Darkness into Light

 I've had a pretty good pandemic: 

  • retired in a nick of time to avoid having to teach by Zoom;
  • have a hella big garden up behind the house; 
  • had a Brexit fusilli mountain, so didn't need to shop
  • Bobby-no-pals
  • gorra Vax-1
But I appreciate that others are less fortunate, at least partly because covidization has closed down a bunch of social and medical services. Not that we were ever much good with handling mental health in Ireland. Plenty of cash for organ-transplants and hip-replacements; much less for The Black Dog. Since 2006 Pieta House has been trying to fill some of the suicide prevention gaps for which we-the-taxpayer seem unwilling to pony up the cash. They have a network of 200 therapists and bereavement counsellors across the country. Note: those left behind need as much help as the unfortunates who can't take any more and Go. Lithium doesn't work for everybody and therapy takes time, and therefore money. Advocacy is important and a good image helps a lot: the golden lad Bressie personalized his mental health issues as Jeffrey and used his platform to bring these issues into the light.

Pieta House had a cunning plan in 2009 when they launched Darkness Into  Light  with a 5km dawn-greeting walk in the Phoenix Park. 400 people turned up. Today's event Today is hoping to involve 200,000 people worldwide and raise €5,000,000. Today they were a little shy on numbers but [€6,345,852] cup runneth over for payola.  You've missed the dawn but it's not too late to contribute! #darknessintolight2021   The Beloved is more capable of forward planning than me, so she sent the cash in good time, and we've got the tea-shirts; and importantly it's been on the Kitchen Kalendar [R] for a month. We got the times of twilight

  • 04:06 nautical twilight
  • 05:03 civil twilight
  • 05:41 sunrise 60° NE
and we were All Set to trek up the hill and watch the sunrise from St Fursey's Altar. Friday the Seventh would have been a perfick day for such a venture but we're both institutionalised and must do it when told. However, when we were startled awake by alarums at 0400hrs we could hear the rain hosing down outside; and Met Eireann said [L] it wasn't about to let up any time soon. Pieta will be served nothing having Darby O'Bob and Joan ní Salann get soaked to the bone while viewing a sunrise that ain't gonna happen this morning in Ireland. Tomorrow!

Friday 7 May 2021

Throwaway tech

Humours! Since Hippocrates and Galen, doctors have been tuning in to the fluid balance of the human body. Those ancients and 1,000 years of their followers recognised

  • Black bile - μέλαινα χολή, melaina chole
  • Yellow bile - ξανθη χολή, xanthe chole
  • Phlegm - φλέγμα, phlegma
  • Blood - αἷμα, haima

From which we derive the words for character traits like Melancholy, Phlegmatic and Sanguine. Nobody now believes that depression is due to the spleen making an excess of black bile but the principle did put doctors onto the idea of checking bodily out-puts. If you have experienced a lot of snotty kids in surgery, you can tell from the colour and smell when an excess of rhinovirus has been superseded by a more threatening bacterial infection. In the Netherlands toilets are designed so that user can easily scrutinize the stool before flushing - which is handy for getting on top of another pinworm infestation. It is a rare visit to your medico that doesn't involve a urine sample.

In the old days, the doctor was likely to dip the tip his [sic in the old days] pinkie in the sample bottle and taste it. We have a mighty set of over-lapping, complementary physiological mechanisms for controlling the amount of circulating glucose. Waste not, want not: glucose is the primary currency for energy in the body and without a source of energy cells are quickly dead. The normal interplay between insulin and glucagon scoops up excess glucose before the kidney gets a chance to dump any. You're likely in trouble with sweet pee [Lathyrus odoratus - not].

You may have noticed that your doctor doesn't do the finger thing! They rather shake one out from their vial of 100x Multistix and dip that instead. That gives a more or less instant read out of Blood, Leucocytes, Nitrite, Specific Gravity, Glucose, Protein, Ketones, Ph , Urobilinogen and Bilirubin. At 43c it really is extraordinary good diagnostic value. Novice clinicians may need to read the manual [above R] - not to be confused with a Pantone colour swatch for matching the curtains with your new dinner-service - but old hands know what key colour change they are looking for. We have Helen Murray Free, and her husband Al, to thank for this now taken-for-granted appropriate technology. 

Helen Murray [L] was born in Pittsburg in 1923 and was all set for an Arts major at college reading English and Latin when Pearl Harbor was bombed and vacancies opened up in blokey science disciplines. Murray switched to Chemistry - if you're smart you can do that - and graduated in 1944 and got a job with Miles Labs in their QC and diagnostics division. But she transferred sideways into the research division run by Al Free and the two of them quickly became a complementary and very effective team. They were tasked to develop new diagnostics for urinary glucose. This was important because there were treatments for diabetes [thank you Banting and Best!], so patients could go forward with hope from a reliable test.

Like a lot of chemical tests, they were looking for a colour change which would light up for glucose and nothing else. Their first products involved soluble pills that could be popped into a urine sample. Clinitest used cupric sulfate, citric acid, sodium hydroxide and carbonate for the fizz. Miles Labs' cornerstone product was Alka-Seltzer so <fizz> was almost required.  But that was wasteful because it needed an extra bottle - the rest of the sample could be used for other diagnostics, sent to a specialist urology lab. Creating another diagnostic test - for Hepatitis A - set the Free lab on a trajectory to make a single product that would do multiple tests at once. Another key conceptual break-through was dry-testing where the active ingredients were migrated to a plastic strip which could be dunked. That saved on the extra bottles and effectively replaced Galen's medieval finger-tip. And the idea could be scaled up to make multiple tests from one product. All sorts of teething problems had to be confronted and solved: separating the various chemical cocktails so they didn't bleed into each other; ensuring stable shelf life. Of all the one-time use plastic products which are available, pee-sticks have arguably the best utility:carbon-footprint ratio.

Helen Murray Free [interview] continued working through six children; co- wrote The Book Urinalysis in Laboratory Practice with Al and retired in 1982 before she turned 60. She then devoted the next few decades to making chemistry understandable and accessible to girls and other groups normally excluded from the Joy of Science. She won the National Medal of Technology & Innovation in 2009. She died in the fullness of her years last Saturday having made a difference.

More Women in Science

Thursday 6 May 2021

lol internet

How do you identify? I have recently embraced being An Old, but I don't tbh click heels with delight at being a grandparent, although many do, who can. For all my adult years I've considered myself to be EUropean even when [1973-1993] I was strictly EECropean. That was from an ambivalent attitude to the count[r]y where I was born and which I left at the age of 19.  My current book has given me a new sense of identity - as well as being An Old, I am Old Internet; note to self - get a badge made.

Dau.II put me on to Gretchen McCulloch [R], Lauren Gawne and Lingthusiasm, their chatty, fun informative podcast getting enthusiastic about linguistics. Working through four years of back-catalogue, there have been references to Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch's book on "Understanding the New Rules of Language". I was surprise and delight when I saw that the book was available on the Borrowbox's patchy and eccentric catalogue of audiobooks. Old Internet People [meeeee!] were there before pretty much everyone else. I was using the internet reg'lar for ten years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the WWW. I created an WWW-server and wrote an early Irish website using hand-cranked HTML. I spent rather tooo long, on company time, making 8px x 8px .jpg icons for the ToC for, the newsletter of the EUQuango of which INCBI was the Irish node. McCulloch identifies another cohort of Pre-Internet People; these are people of my age who ignored the internet for the longest possible time. These old buffers are really likely to identify as grandparents because they came aboard only/mainly to see photos of distant grandchilder and <ooo frisson> occasionally Skype them.

Another key question for binning the demographics is "did you embrace the internet before or after your parents". Teens keep shifting the territory on which they communicate - Bebo, Facebook, Insta, Tiktok at least partly to be in another room than their parents. Comparing, flirting, checking, nattering are just about impossible if Mum can overhear. Why, it's almost as mortifyin' as knowing your parents have sex. McCulloch is a scholar and a linguist. She's interested in how language is used; like many linguists she's a descriptivist rather than a judgmental proscriptivist. And the internet provides a huge, already transcribed archive of how actual real people talk with each other. This is different from the language used when a linguist is among them taking notes, or when they are writing an essay for school.

When Pat the Salt retired 30 years ago he had a kitchen table with a distant view of the sea and a manual typewriter about the same age as himself. He set about writing stories about his life and times in Africa. Wanari the Salt-trader is wonderfully evocative of a different place and time. Like The Blob, Pat's typings became a daily stream of consciousness tale of events real and imagined concerning people he'd known back in the day. Salty tales of Mountbatten of Burma, whom Pat met in Nigeria in 1965, and his champagne lunches with an androgynous tennis-coach. The magnum opus filled many many xerox boxes of recycled paper. Slightly more than strictly necessary because Pat would . . . use . . . ellipsis . . . to space . . . his thoughts. This form of punctuation is, according to Gretchen McCulloch, widespread in some arenas of the internet. It indicates a chummy informality, partly because it is transgressive of the punctuation rules learned in school. McCulloch traces the habit back to another era and another medium - PostCards - and has analysed a database of hundreds of PCs sent to Ringo Starr in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Informal comms tell us far more about who we are, what we care about, who we care about, than any of the newspapers of record, formal biographies and stately histories with which librarians like to fill their shelves. 

My audiobook of Because Internet is read by the author which is good. As a media commentator with a good ear, she is acutely aware of the medium and has explicitly acknowledged that the spoken word has additional facility for conveying meaning [tone, timbre, emPHASis] which aren't possible in print. BUT it is less easy to catch some important nuances of internet comms: Capitalisation is one example; lol is not the same as LOL. Using the uc/lc conventions of your peers is an important gauge for whether your interlocutor is one of us. McCulloch makes several concessions to make the audio-book a separate product to the dead-tree version. My audio"reader" has a speed button where you can make the voice go 1.25x or even 3.0x faster than it was dictated. That's great if your return deadline looms and you want to finish the book. I might recommend listening to Because Internet at 0.75x speed because nobody would accuse McCulloch of speaking a languid Southern drawl. However, in whatever medium, at whatever speed, read this book, it explains so much about current discourse.

Wednesday 5 May 2021

Perfidious Albion

I have an old friend who was a commercial lawyer in London who was the World's best negotiator when it came to buying and selling airports and powers-stations. Heck, somebody has to do it and you might as well give the business your best effort. Years ago we were comparing notes over a bottle of red and he told me of a recent coup when, after 3 days of hot and heavy negotiations, at 0230hrs on the last possible day to strike a deal, his team added [or subtracted, I forget] a clause in the contract which was worth $1,000,000 [or ¥1,000,000, it doesn't matter] to his company's bottom line. The amount doesn't matter so much as the sense of putting one over on the opposition. I guess it was framed as "Okay okay, we're all tired, we'll give you THIS, if you concede that", and sleep deficit, the need for shower and a glass of orange juice clouded their judgment.

The Brutish Empire, on which the sun never set, was represented on maps of the era as a lot of dark pink territory. In 1930, a wide swatch of pink joined Cape Town and Cairo even if the projected railway between the two never quite materialise. One of the key outcomes of WWI for this project was the gain of Tanganyika from Germany at the treaty of Versailles. On the other side of the continent German Cameroon was partitioned between the victorious British and French; while the protectorate of Togoland was ceded entirely to the French. I'm focusing on Lake Malawi now because my Philips Schoolboy Atlas has revealed another [prev China - Korea - Russia triple point] peculiarity in the borderlines. I can't easily show you the evidence because Africa is a double-page spread and L. Malawi is mostly in the gutter margin. But the map [here R] indicates the scope of the issue. My [British] Atlas shows the border tracking the lakeshore from the Songwe River in the NW all the way down to the border with Mozambique. From there, the border jinks abruptly into the middle of the lake, which is shared between the two countries. 
WTF?! This means that visitors to the resort of Mbamba Bay [Maps] may disport along the beach but need a passport and visa if they choose to swim. Indeed, it's worse than that because, over the last 120 years, a small river has blurfed about 1 hectare [L with red dots added for emphasis]of delta silt out into lake beyond the border.  If we follow the reasoning of SCOTUS wrt the Ellis Island foreshore and landfill, this part of the beach smells decidedly like Malawi. In contrast to Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera, where similar short-term geological events have changed the shoreline in Africa, Malawi has not yet chosen to garrison this outpost of her territory.

Q. Why am I sure about the 120 year timescale?
A. Because the Heligoland–Zanzibar Treaty / Helgoland-Sansibar-Vertrag was signed 1st July 1890.
This treaty ceded two islands central to the political ambitions of the German and British Empires. Helgoland [170 hectares] guards/threatens the entrance to the Kiel Kanal and the posts of Hamburg and Bremen. Zanzibar [250,000 hectares] otoh has a lot of cloves Syzygium aromaticum. The 
disproportionate 1:1000 calculus was recognised at the time: Ex Chancellor Otto von Bismarck characterised it as exchanging trousers for a button. But that was partly to belittle his recent replacement Count Leo von Caprivi. 

At the same table some other details delimited the spheres of influence of these two rival powers. It looks like, which the name of the treaty confirms, both parties were focused on the islands but the British negotiators were playing hard-ball with the small print. Look chaps, we own Heligoland and you want it. Do you even know where this Lake Malawi is? Our natives do a bit of fishing on it. What? not trout fishing my dear fellow . . . it's of no value to us either but we could concede Heligoland for this bit of a lake . . . and Zanzibar and Pemba of course. Shall we break for lunch and sign afterwards? there's a rather fine claret to go with the beef. In due course The Protectorate of Nyasaland became Malawi and Tanganyika became Tanzania [after it merged with Zanzibar!]. But, as we saw with Machias Island and Märket Island these treaties between colonial powers carry a lot of weight. JStor-walled James Mayall 1973 The Malawi-Tanzania Boundary Dispute. The Journal of Modern African Studies , Dec., 1973, Vol. 11, No. 4 611-628 has documentation from 1922-1972 but doesn't add much light.

There's more to come in the story because the Caprivi Strip was also part of the Anglo-German Treaty of 1890 . . . same continent different river.

Tuesday 4 May 2021

The cobbler's children

My current fave philosopher is Julia Galef. Here she is posing a poser: why aren't ethicists ethical? It's only 5 minutes long; and that's about the median time I will devote to randutainment from youtube. Galef's answer is to do with the telescope effect: moral philosophers get overwhelmed by the scope of their field [How to be Good is bigger than not beating your children] they they are unable to tune their moral compass effectively. Me, I'm meh - ethicists are jest folks, no better no worse than the rest of us.

But it may be that professional ethicists were top of the class at college in the Arts Block; and they had for sure been top of the class in high-school. They have accordingly been groomed and coddled by parents teachers and peers as being a cut above the rest of us . . . so the rules don't apply to them. That argument probably held true for doctors who continued to smoke for decades after the data came in that smoking upped the odds for cancer, COPD, emphysema, coronaries. And it wasn't just numbers in the BMJ: those same GPs were referring their coughing patients up the medical food chain for drugs, surgery, chemo and an early death.

My lifetime experience of working in science is that it is for sure not the selfless pursuit of objective truth. It is to be expected that successful scientists /anyones are ambitious, hard-working and competitive. What's a bit more disturbing is how invested they are in their own theories / research agendas. We should be resolutely testing our hypotheses; rather than consciously or unc. looking for evidence that will bolster our pre-conceptions. The pressure on researchers to deliver, and deliver on a [funding] timescale, has led too many to finagle their results to get a paper out. PIs, who are ultimately responsible for what the lab turns out, too often get caught in the cycle of enthusiasm for the 'right' result. You may bet your sweet bippy that more fibs work their way into the literature than are caught by RetractionWatch.

If you missed the shoe-making connexion implied by the title, the full proverb is "the cobbler's children have no shoes" . . . because daddy works all day to put food on the table and is too tired when he comes home to count toes under the table. Every person, very organization has to do some self-care or there won't be nothing to give.

Monday 3 May 2021

Lorra croissants

Borrowbox, the audiobook lending service, is rather patchy in what it makes available. But that's a good thing because it forces me to choose outside of the comfort bubble and perhaps be happily surprised. For example, I'm not really a foodie person and deplore the number of cookbooks which we have at home unopened from one year's end to the next. Elizabeth David's [bloboprev] classics are still worth reading 30 years after her death because she'd been there, done that in the 1940s and had something to say from her lived experience. Felicity Cloake writes a foodie column for the Guardian which Dau.II reads for fun and information, so I've heard of her. And I thought the cover was interesting . . . so I reserved and downloaded the tale of her road-trip round France in pursuit of the perfick croissant [R]. As you can tell from the bottom right corner of the illustration, this [2,000km] road-trip was largely carried out on a bicycle; with some train-connexions to skip the boring bits. Actually I think Cloake and I would agree that there are no boring bits in rural France and she was regularly surprised by the quality of croissant, lunch or dinner in really quite unprepossessing relais & roadhouses. 

The conceit was that she'd sample croissants across the land for buttery, crispy, puffy, deliciousness and give each one a mark out of /10. There were some dire 3/10s on the journey and only two 9.5s. But neither man nor woman can live on croissant alone and Cloake draws on her extensive network of francophone gourmands to secure reservations at a series of fancy restaurants to pitch for The Best examples of the classics of French cuisine: boeuf bourguignon; tarte tatin; tartiflette; poule au pot. So much reduced stock, so much double cream, so half bottles of rouge; so much butter. Working up an appetite converting your flabby London calves into knotted whip-cord is the perfect antidote to this coronary-inducing rich fare. One of the joys of France is that plonk is so cheap you don't have to think twice about adding a generous glug to the cooking.

I don't think recipes do as well in audio as on a page but, like Elizabeth David, the recipes are embedded in the terroir full of options so sound adventurous and empowering rather than depressingly proscriptive. My experience in the kitchen is that you have quite wide leeway in quantities and ingredients before you construct something that is inedible. Recipes that convert 1oz to 28.5 g rather 30g are probably not written by a cook.

There's a lovely moment right at the end of the book, when Cloake and Eddie Merckx, her sturdy wheels, arrange to meet a pal with chanpagne under L'Arc de Triomphe in the middle of Paris. Having been told off for a) having a bicycle b) swigging bubbly under a war memorial, she is approached by two gendarmes. But rather than giving her a further wigging, the two lads are just interested in the bike and the journey. Full of admiration, the younger cop steps back and raises his cap: "Chapeau, Madame!" Formidable and, like, Ouf!