Wednesday 30 June 2021

How they brought to schwa to Carlə

I sprang to the stirrup, and Dau.II, and she;
I galloped, Dau.I galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!'’ cried The Belov'd, as the gate-bolts andrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the ewes sank to rest,
And into the daylight we galloped on quest.

Apols to Robert "Ghent to Aix" Browning

Whither gallop, me bold questers?

To The Fermentary ! next our new Post Office at the top of the one street of Borris:

Who knows how, when and where entrepreneurs take the plunge and sink their all into a new venture? I've been making annual cratefuls of marmalade for 20 years now, everyone loves it, a pot makes the perfect gift. Nobody has a bad word to say about the flapjacks either. I would never $ell the stuff, though - I just don't have the marketing and distribution chops: I'd have to scale up to satisfy demand; the kitchen would reek of Olde Seville; and I'd have contact burns all up my arms. Let's leave it at makes the perfect gift . . . perhaps with a small packet of flapjacks mit.

The Fermentary launched its retail outlet on the first weekend of June 2021. They might have had a slight failure in local marketing, because we heard about the event, after the event, from Dau.II in Cork. She's the foodie in the family, so hears the faintest distant drums of comestibility: cheese or cakes; charcuterie or . . . croissants. The next weekend, she came across the country, following her nose, to see if the product was good. The weekend after that, her sister Dau.I came down from Dublin. On dit que it was because my birthday went down during the week between these visits but good croissants have an irresistible pull to those who've ever had one. Or read the book!  

The Fermentary is an offshoot of The Plúr Bakery in Newtown Co CW where the gaffer is James Jordan. They've been making sourdough and other fermentables for a while now and selling it at the Saturday Foodie Market in Kilkenny. There's a linguist in the batter there because their signage has a schwa for the untrilled first syllable Fə'mɛntary and an {IPA 303} for the second syllable. Me, I really like their aux amandes - good to the last crumb but the reg'lar croissants are great and they do a crusty, aery, tasty sourdough loaf. A batterie de kombucha is available on tap if you like your ferments by the glass. They open at 0800hrs Fr Sa Su and when the croissants are gone, they're gone, so get there early prepared to queue. Chocolatine? Pain au chocolate?

Well now, I've had a great many fine examples of  Viennoiserie this month and intend to spend my carbon credits supporting this local business every possible weekend until I burst or they go bust (which heaven forfend).

Monday 28 June 2021

100 focal

 Listicles! How long is your attention span? If you're on Buzzfeed it will be 10 lol cat fails that make you fart or 25 ways to impress your boss's boss. Then there's meta-lists. QI expects greater stamina: I wrote about 1339 [2013] and 1441 [2014] but you'll have to hunt up books 1234, 1342, 1423, 2024 yourself. For academic-adjacent books 100 is a nice round number. A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor director of the British Museum was a magisterial romp through the BM collections giving context to each thing. Fintan O'Toole and the Irish Times had to clag up a derivative parity-of-esteem listarip-off  A History of Ireland in 100 Objects. Likewise, the linguist David Crystal compiled The Story of English in 100 Words in 2011 so the Royal Irish Academy RIA must contract for A history of Ireland in 100 words by Sharon Arbuthnot, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, Gregory Toner, illustrated by Joe McLaren (St Brigid's Day 2019). Does that not show a certain want of imagination?

This endeavour passed me by entirely when published although I am exactly the demographic to buy a few copies for my gaeilgeoir pals. It took a flag from my cousin Trevor in NZ, who is a puzzle-cracking comparative linguist in his own right. I acted on that faisnéis and quickly located a copy, on a shelf, in Btown library. We were still a bit lockdowned at the time, but the librarian left the book outside on the TBC table, in a canvas bag, with my name on it. I get to keep the bag! Must do that more often.

And the book? It's fine, if a bit A camel is a horse designed by a committee (probably coined by Alec "Mini" Issigonis). MacGregor and Crystal wrote books with an internal coherence and one scholar's concentrated vision. The Irish me-too books are fuzzier and less focused because they are trying to please too many people. But ignore my snippy carping, if language is your beef, 100 Words will leave you well fed. 

What they've done is pick their 100 words, presumably leaving many on the cutting room floor, and gathered them into 13 bins like Writing and Literature, Technology and Science, Food and Feasting. I was surprised and little bit smug to note how many of these Irish words I knew despite níl focal Gaeilge ina phluc because I went to school in England. 

So the Science & Tech words? 

  • Cló [form, shape, appearance], 
  • Long [ship], 
  • Fuinneog [window], 
  • Gloine [glass], 
  • Fadhb [problem], 
  • Sníomh [spinning], 
  • Caistél [fort], 
  • Clog [clock], 
  • Ríomhaire [computer], 
  • Réalt [star] 
Some of these and their essays aren't notably techy imho but maybe it was a case of a must-have word needing a bed somewhere in the book. Clog got me a bit all riled up. There is a backdrop of discourse here in Ireland which tries to deny that we ever got anything from The English except oppression and taxes. So under Clog: " The Modern Irish for 'clock' therefore, was originally the word for 'bell' and not borrowed from the English "clock" as might be assumed". But that's the origin of [English] 'clock' as well! So both languages have have a common root word. There's at least one other example of similarly tendentious explanation. harrrumph! The irony here is that the whole concept of the book is lifted from an earlier example in English written by someone educated in England . . . although born in Lisburn <huzzah!>.

Sunday 27 June 2021

Last June 2021

Today - the Feast of St Sampson the Hospitable

Friday 25 June 2021

Health is broke

It's four years since I read and reviewed The Way We Die Now: The View from Medicine's Front Line (2017) by Seamus O'Mahony. That was essentially a reflection on how medical hubris had deluded people that they were going to live forever. That assumption may be uppermost in your 19 y.o. 'mind' when you launch your body off a cliff-face paragliding, base-jumping or mountain biking; at 79? not so much. The actuarial odds; your slowed reaction times; the leaching of calcium from your bones; the feebleness of your immune response; all these are stacked against you at 79. O'Mahony is six years younger than me but he retired in 2o2o just as soon as his pension enabled him to do so. His Death Book made him realise that he could do better with his literary talents than writing coherent case-notes and the endless reports required of him as a latter-day health bureaucrat aka consultant gastroenterologist.

I say latter-day, not because O'Mahony is a Mormon but because in his former days (when he was in live forever mode) he and his medical professional colleagues had considerable autonomy, not to mention privilege. For about 100 years, more or less bracketting the 20thC, doctors had become gods with the power of life and death. Aseptic technique and antibiotics had a lot to do with this power. But knowing when and where to apply the levers of medicine was built up through experience; and experience built up through insane hours on the wards, in theatre or seeing a lot of sick people in clinics. Then it all turned sour: sleep-deprived doctors made too many poor decisions with obvious adverse outcomes for patients. Families refused to defer to the actual doctor in Cork, when Dr Kildare was saying something different, and far more optimistic / godlike on the telly. Dr Google only added the last nails to the coffin of medical unaccountability and that only in the 21stC.

Since I was given a smart-phone in 2019 I've been downloading audiobooks from Borrowbox. When I saw another book by O'Mahony Can Medicine Be Cured?: The Corruption of a Profession (2019), I failed to read the small print and downloaded an e-book rather than an a-book. Different medium, and not accessible when driving or walking, but readable nevertheless. When that was finished, I immediately downloaded his third unpicking of the tapestry of modern medicine The Ministry of Bodies: Life and death in a modern hospital. One anonymous reviewer called him a physician-poet, which would have pleased him mightily because William Carlos Williams of the red wheelbarrow was another such.

In the same way that The Blob refers to The Institute as my quondam place of work, O'Mahony's last gig in Cork University Hospital is lightly fictionalised as The Ministry. He retired last year because he'd done enough. Most of us couldn't work in a hospital for 20 minutes, let alone 20 years of being shouted at by those in hopeless pain and treated as an interchangeable cipher by managers and auditors in comfy offices: "we need X+1 effectives on the roster this weekend, can't you postpone your daughter's wedding?" And ever and always, despite the rhetoric from head office, the patients are last on the list whose requirements must be met. 
  • Problem: Bad headline about people stacked like cordwood on trolleys spilling out along the corridors from A&E
  • Solution: Minister announces firm new targets for allowable wait-times; managers bully doctors into clearing beds in the wards
  • Consequence: often no action because there is no infrastructure [nursing homes, district nurses, home-helps] to support folks who are still frail but no long need an acute bed.
Never enough joinedy-up thinking. Too much bean counting.
  • Problem: Stroke
  • Solution: The Man sets targets for reducing the incidence of clots with the blood-thinner heparin
  • Consequence: every patient is routinely heparinised on admission which makes them ineligible for surgery lest they bleed out.
The very best doctors see the whole patient, not a clatter of ¿fixable? symptoms. Regular doctors just add more meds to the list, already too long, of brightly coloured pills that appears with breakfast. And according to these books, consultants engage in a perpetual internecine feud: refusing to accept difficult cross-discipline patients on their books. An elderly lady who has broken a hip because she fainted in the kitchen is neither cardiac nor orthopedic.

O'Mahony's special tetchiness is reserved for speech and language therapists. Mission creep has allowed this discipline to own choking and swallowing. Woe betide the doctor who has a weekend's leave and comes back to find half their ward sporting nasogastric feeding tubes because the junior doctors were unable to withstand the monomaniacal certainties of the SLTs. If you are really frail having the discomfort [abdominal cramping/swelling; diarrhea; nausea; vomiting/reflux; perforation, pneumothorax . . . I could go on] and disempowerment of a NFT makes your hospital stay decidedly crappier. Note to my adult kids: I can imagine worse ways to go than choking to death on one last meatball. The holistic existential irony is that, if your child stammers, the waiting list for a qualified speech and language therapist can be years rather than weeks.

Wednesday 23 June 2021

On the wagon.

I've just finished audiobooking The Accidental Soberista: Discover the unexpected bliss of an alcohol-free life by Kate Gunn, well read by Caroline Lennon. Kate Gunn plunged like a duck to water into the post-dotcom internet bloggin' and blaggin' her way into the corporate world. She had the digital chops to help Capital show its shiniest face to the world. Good for her, I was there but lacked the imagination and the chutzpah to do the same thing. I started bloggin' just as it became old hat and influencers went Insta. Indeed I'd never 'eard of Kate Gunn before I saw her book on Borrowbox. But we have in common a tendency to over-share in our respective media. In 2019 Gunn published a book Untying the Knot about the dissolution of her marriage.

The Accidental Soberista is another confessional. Her post-wed partner Aodhán was medically advised to give the booze a rest, and Gunn elected to go along for the ride out of a sense of solidarity - and, I guess, curiosity. A significant support for the transition was the One Year No Beer campaign, which maps out some standard operating procedures for 30-day and 90-day modules of sobriety. If you can stay on the wagon for 3 months, you can probably do it forever. The argument is that it is possible to separate fun from alcohol and still have a social life, even in pubs, without feeling bleh the following day - Erdinger is your friend. You may need new friends as the sclera of your eyes return to the bright white of childhood because folks are not funnier when drunk . . . unless hilarious is synonymous with repetitive and boundariless. 

The Accidental Soberista is polemical. With the ardour of the convert, Gunn wants to share her joy with everyone; which is captured quite cleverly by her book's cover design [above L]: emptying the wine-glass reveals a new world of clear head, clear skies, sunshine and fluffiness. But I think she and her editor have made a strategic error by emphasising her post-booze sporting triumphs. Successfully training for and completing a competitive marathon and a competitive triathlon is frankly unattainable for most people in the bar on any Saturday night. Humble-bragging about these achievements just makes it easier for Joe Boozer to flip her off as That Wagon Wagon and relegate sobriety to a winning-the-lotto fantasy.

I was on the wagon for the whole of 2012. Up to and including 2011, we had been in the habit of glugging down 2-3 bottles of plonk a week. That wasn't hang-over territory, although it defo required a designated driver if we were going out. At the beginning of 2012, the post-crash tide drained out of scientific funding and I was contracted down to one day a week of paid science-work. Time rich but cash poor. Three bottles of wine @ €7 is (7 x 3 x 52) €1,000 a year which was more or less what I was pulling in each month as a Senior Scientist. So I stopped consuming alcohol. It was a commercial decision and I didn't miss it. Years earlier I had, with the intelligence of a lab rat, made the connection between having four pints in a session and feeling like the armpit of Beelzebub the next day . . . so I never consumed 4 pints. Except when I did. Those instances were always when two pints drained my sense of judgement  enough to take a third and then peer-pressure and the round of the generous hand delivered #4 to the table and I (now well buzzy in the head) lacked the will to let it go to waste. Maybe other folks'' hang-overs are different but I can't imagine embracing a life where I reliably feel wretched every weekend morning.

The Accidental Soberista is only 3 pints at Kennys or €0.00 on Borrowbox. It prattles along in a chatty and informative style and presents some quite sobering stats about the costs of alcohol in Ireland - malaise, road-traffic accidents, mental health, cirrhosis. Running a feckin' marathon is entirely optional but for you the cost-benefit equation might be food for thought? 

Tuesday 22 June 2021

The Wright Stuff


You probably have people in your life whom you know slightly but reliably. It's like you were besties in a previous existence because you know that they will (just ask) lend you a tenner, offer an emergency couch to your cousin, or write a letter of recommendation. For me that was Frank Wright, who died after a long illness in December last year [Scotsman Obit -- Workobit]. I only heard the news last Friday from Des "Cetartiodactyl" Higgins. I was speaking to Des to assure myself that he was still with us after he was able to attend his own wake with a twitter-storm of valedictory good wishes. The three of us Des, Frank and Bob, were all closely associated co-authors with my first binfo boss Paul Sharp who has done well for himself.

I used to meet up with Frank on the conference circuit in the early 90s. In 1991 he arrived a day early for a Genetics Society meeting in Dublin and we spent the morning chattin' away while assembling name-badges and conference-packs for the delegates [Above L]. He could have gone out for a bit of tourism but he preferred to be useful . . . because Frank. The following year, we both rocked up to a MSAMB [Mathematical and Statistical Aspects of Molecular Biology] meeting in London. We were catching up at the drinks before the conference dinner when he abruptly stopped to reveal a cunning plan to secure seats at the same table as John Maynard Smith who was like a god in that niche area of science. Frank, who had clearly done his assertiveness training, steered me into the wake of JMS and elbowed aside better mannered more senior scientists who also wanted to hob-nob with the great man. At the dinner the craic was mighty. I knew I had a photo of Frank, and in the same bin I found a picture, probably from the 1991 TCD conference, of John Maynard Smith being profound with Paul Sharp [below R].

The year after that I was able to return the favour because I was on [INCBI] expenses at another molecular evolution conference, but Frank was between jobs. Although he had scraped together the train fare to the conference venue, he didn't have a hotel room booked. Not a bother on him, he asked if he could bunk down in my room. Which was fine because we both got mildly hammered at the afters party. Frank secured a free breakfast the next morning on my coat-tails.

What we had in common is that we were both "infrastructure guys": making it easier for other people to do science. While Frank was nippy in getting the best seats at a dinner he would never gouge someone scientifically out a sense of ambition for himself. Rather he was careful, reliable, helpful and generous with his time regardless of whether his good deeds would further his career. There will be many people in Scotland who miss him more that I do. 

Sunday 20 June 2021

father's day 2021

Today's the day when Dads get slippers from their kids. Turns out that the crate of beer I opened on Thursday was meant for Father's Day. It's okay there's still some left

The cake [R] was definitely for my birthday. I've written before comparing the simply delicious, minimum ingredients, Victoria sponge with shop bought cake. By request, the 2021 bday cake was filled with whipped cream and strawberry jam. Note to self and cook next year: cake with candles is fine, cake dusted with icing sugar is fine together they make a Woody Allen moment but at least we didn't have a >!WHOOMMMPH!< moment.

Friday 18 June 2021


Projectiles are in the air! [har har]

Massive fail news on Bloomsday involved a case of a spectator getting concussed by a sliced golf ball . . . and suing the golfer, the club [no, not the 4-iron club; rather the "19th hole" club], and the organizers of the tournament. WTF? here's a grown-arsed man, a golfer even, who got dressed, left the house, put himself in the line of fire and then wasn't looking or paying attention when something happened on the golf course. Golf. like baseball and cricket, is only intermittently active, so you'd think you'd be awake when the ball was struck. The Judge in the High Court, quite properly IMO, ruled that Mr Campbell from Donegal was responsible for his own safety. Mr Campbell's lawyers will appeal because they are embedded in Ireland's compo culture.

Baseball crowd heroes is a regular youtube trope. Although I guess there's a grimmer parallel universe if you google "MLB tonk paramedic" [don't go there]

For aircraft bird-strike is an occupational hazard. Like golf, airports have a lot of green space between the fairway / runway: grass needs earth; earth hosts worms; birds eat worms so keeping birds out of the flight-path is important. Many airports take a leaf out of the Duke of Wellington's quip-book. When The Great Exhibition was opened in Paxton's giant glasshouse in 1851, Queen Victoria noted the presence of a great many sparrows [shitting] inside the building. Seeking a solution from her entourage, The Duke suggested "Sparrowhawks, Ma'am". But even with the best prophylaxis in place birds gonna strike and aircraft manufacturers need to engineer their planes to survive such an assault. It's a minimax problem: you don't need to worry about wrens Troglodytes troglodytes [10g]; but an Andean Condor Vultur gryphus [12,000g] strike is so rare that you can discount them also.

Boeing and Co have for a long time been using chicken as their preferred projectile and employ a flight impact simulator or "chicken gun" to fire at vulnerable parts [pilot windscreen and engine intakes] of commercial aeroplanes. They also worry about fatigue cracks around port-holes but birds will just glance off the sides of aeroplane fuselages. What everyone is concerned about is an uncontained disintegration [bloboprev] of the engine where bits fly out of, or through, the engine cowling and start peppering the fuselage, or the hydraulics of the rudder.

Chicken guns typically use compressed air as propellant and can deliver standard-sized chickens to target at up to 600km/h. Anything that breaks has to be sent back to the engineering drawing board. Now you may have noticed that a chicken is only approximately a cylinder. TIL [today I learned] that the chickens are usually inserted into a properly cylindrical cardboard "sabot" to make a snugged fit for the gun-barrel. Sabot is the French for clog. The old joke is about some noobs using a chicken-gun for the first time and causing consequential damage to their kit. An enquiry to the suppliers elicited the laconic reply "first defrost chicken". Snopes assures us that this is a joke rather than a True Story

Thursday 17 June 2021

Jarige jongen

🎂 Hey, it's my birthday today. If the 🎂 is not sufficiently convincing, there is a birthchart. When The Boy turned 18, just a week after his sister Dau.I was born, I went down the offy and bought 18 different bottles of beer for a coming of age in Ireland appropriate present. Heck they were different times, I think I was probably driving with drink on board back then. I never drove hammered but we didn't adopt a rigid designated driver policy until nearer the end of the last century. Finding 18 different brands of beer in 1993 was actually scraping the bottom of the firkin as to availability. Now there will be at least 18 different independent craft brewers, each with multiple lines, to choose from. Indeed there are 16 such breweries beginning with B!

The wonders of the intebrew mean that everything is available and anything can be delivered to any door in the Western World. The Boy decided that it was pay-back time and shipped an International Craft Beer Hamper from Martin's On-line Off-licence:

Looks good enough to drink! And comes with a single beer glass for Little Bobby Lockdown. It arrived yesterday morning by courier. I shall be wearing a purple-trimmed toga all day because this sort of thing became normal in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire . . . not the internet, of course, but the every wish and whim right now aspects of the transaction. Veni Vidi Bibi!
Now here's a wild thing [update 0930 17Jun21] a much battered helium birthday balloon was wind-caught on our front gate in the morning. I don't think it's taken 37 years to get to the right place; and when I was 30 we lived in a different country. I guess it's just the Universe indicating that she cares.

Wednesday 16 June 2021

Not Fair

Let's hear it for Lily "Not Fair" Allen. I've just finished her [interim?] autobiography My Thoughts Exactly [Guardian review]. Which is a rather strange way to consume 6½ hours of an old buffer's time. Let me [hasten to] add I knew absolutely nothing about the woman except that she wrote "Chinese" and a rather sweet 2013 Christmas Song for John Lewis. Dau.I and Dau.II would have been the right demographic to be fans, but it didn't really turn out that way, so I was ear-wormed to Bell X1 and Coldplay instead.

Spending even 1 hour on the stories and reflections of an A-list celebrity pop-star might seem peculiar for an Old who was more of the Dylan and Cohen demographic, but borrowbox doesn't offer an infinity of choice and I was taken by the fact that it would be read by the authorial voice and that it was not fiction. Of course, truth is always filtered through our own perceptions and those perceptions may be clouded by emotional baggage and driven by our reptile brains.  

What I find engaging is that she can a) recognise that, say, her parents had their own issues and b) how that baggage caused young [and not so young] Lily trouble and damage while c) looking down from an authorial Olympus of detached interest, rather than bitter blaming. It's a bit schizophrenic, but for me it works.

We live in a cult of youth: young soccer stars, young pop-singers, young actors who are presented with uncountable piles of wonga and ungated access to sex, drugs, cars and bling. How to use these resources wisely or well is not covered in Home Ec classes in school. The young star is battened onto by host of creatures whose only interest is not actually killing the golden goose. Agents, accountants, backers, backing groups, chauffeurs, choreographers, coke-dealers . . . all want their cut and nobody can be trusted to give objective, disinterested, caring advice. No wonder so many go off the rails.

At the age of 21 Lily Allen brought out a chart topping song Smile, and for the rest of her 20s she was besieged by paparazzi and had lies told about her by the tabloid press. From the cosy comfort of their desks, journalists would sit in judgement on this young woman feeling fine about scrutinising and damning her looks, her weight, her friends, her clothes, her decisions and her parenting. But when there was an actual story about her being stalked by a paranoid schizophrenic with murderous ideation, the press was conspicuously absent / silent . . . because Allen as victim was harder to process than Allen as Bad Rich Bitch Person. At the same time, the police seemed to have perverted the course of justice in an ecstasy of of their own judgement. What? the press and police tied up in the same bag of shit? No, that can't be true.

Lily Allen's life hasn't been a bowl of cherries - more like Truffaut's 400 Blows:

Tuesday 15 June 2021

Nothering the travellers

This went off prematurely on Sat 12/06, so I'm relaunching today.
On dit que when people from Scotland do something great they are British; it is only when they do something annoying that they become Scots. And it must be annoying when Tory Nincompoops and foreign journalists use England and Britain interchangeably. But it is pernicious nonsense to claim that this:

Lord, grant that Marshal Wade,
May by thy mighty aid,
Victory bring.
May he sedition hush,
and like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush,
God save the King.

is the 4th verse of the UK National anthem. Although it is true that this and the other verses were composed during the '45: the last War Between The States in 1745-46. Culloden, on 16 April 1746, ended that quixotic escapade. 

I really do my best not to make the same lazy-arsed mistake with "The Netherlands" and "Holland". Noord Holland [Amsterdam+] and Zuid Holland [Rotterdam+] together make up on 2/5th of the population of the country. The majority from Drenthe, Flevoland, Friesland, Groningen, Gelderland, Limburg, Noord-Brabant, Overijssel, Utrecht, and Zeeland [not to mention Bonaire, Saba and Sint Eustatius in the Caribbean] must be mildly pissed off that is the official site of the Netherlands Tourist Board. Feckin' Mokumers they must think.

Britain/England . . . Nederland/Holland . . . whatevs?  I caught an example of this closer to home when Miley Doran [R with his dawgs] joined La Torellina and me in the Society of St Adjudor at the beginning of the month. You really wouldn't have known from the reporting of  that young Miley was a Traveller when he plunged into the River Barrow to save a mother and daughter from drowning. 

Saturday 12 June 2021


Squirrel Nutkin Sciurus vulgaris is [right] cute but I haven't seen any [yet] hereabouts. It's partly because I see nothing hereabouts because, when I'm outside, I'm usually blundering about disturbing the peace with a lawn-mower or saw. But in the middle of last week, a cock-pheasant Phasianus colchicus strutted across the yard and before I'd found a camera he'd been joined by his hennie. These birds are more usually heard grackling indignantly as they fly away from intrusive galumphing people. So it was nice to see them, from the kitchen window, passing through in their own good time.

I've seen loadsa pheasants in my time; but never in all my born days have I seen a pine marten Martes martes. Although several of my naturalist neighbours have. On Sunday morning we were pottering about and a pine marten lolloped through the gate to the haggard and started exploring the yard as we watched from the kitchen window. It was amazin' mystic, wonderful to see this top predator making our home their own. What's that got to do with the native squirrel? You may well ask. Because they are both making a come back in the Irish Midlands and there is some evidence that forward march together is not coincidental. Grey squirrels Sciurus carolinensis were introduced from North America to Ireland in 1911. They are bigger and bolder than their red cousins and have spent the last 100 years displacing the reds from their habitat.

The argument is that red squirrels and pine martens have been living together since time immemorial and have come to an equilibrium in the evolutionary dance of life and death. Greys otoh are naive to that particular predator and haven't yet worked out appropriate defensive strategies. A recent study from QUB applied marten-smell to feeding locations and report that reds avoided such feeders after treatment whereas greys didn't. Fig 3a from that paper [R]. Fig 3c suggests that reds were more vigilant under the same conditions.

Another study from NUI Galway [PDF of original survey results] looked at the relative distribution of greys, reds and martens in 2007, 2012 and 2019. A lot of that data was crowd-sourced after an extensive publicity  campaign so that may cast some asparagus on the absolute numbers of reports [3,402 in 2019 up 20% from 2012] but there are significant differences in the proportions among the three species between the two survey years. On the face of it it looks like reds have gained ground in the Irish Midlands with a little help from the depredations of a resurgent marten population.

These studies were reported without any critical analysis by Richard Nairn in his Wild Wood book. Which is fair enough in a memoir. It's a pity I didn't get to referee either of these papers because, I would have devoted a day of my time to constructively picking apart the methodology and assumptions. With any effort at all I'll say a) If the hypothesis is that it is a specific pheromonal response to scent of martens, I would have used cat urine as a control rather than nothing at all. b) In the 3rd paragraph of the results of the NUIG survey a number of 3 [species] x 2 [years] contingency tables have been analysed with ChiSq. They have looked up the resulting numbers as if there are 3 degrees of freedom. But that's almost certainly not true. There are only 2 d.f. because once you've assigned numbers to #grey and #red then #marten is not 'free' to vary: it must be 1 - (#grey + #red). That's sort of okay, because using the wrong line of the table results in a more conservative test of the difference. Then again, if they can't do elementary stats correctly, critical readers are justified in giving side-eye to the rest of the study.

But here's an interesting anecdatum. Last year we had a plague of rabbits, really for the first time in 25 years. I constructed an elaborate [2x1s and chicken-wire] rabbit proof fence for the two ends of the poly-tunnel so that the rabbits were at least slowed in their depredations on the beans, lettuce and tomatoes. This year looked like being the same. A couple [pair, M+F, breed-like...] of rabbits were to be seen daily in the garden nibbling away at the greenery bold as brass. I would ineffectually peg small logs and large stones at them but I was girding my expectations for no cabbage in 2021. And then from about 3 weeks ago the rabbits weren't there any more and two weeks later a pine marten graces us with their appearance. Like Darwin's ruminations on the relative count of clover, bees, cats and mice; this is another example of my enemy's enemy is my friend.

Thursday 10 June 2021


There are two ways for MegaPharm to make money: sell a lot of pills cheap or service minority diseases for eye-watering prices. Ideally, MegaPharm, wants a common progressive degenerative disease which fails to kill affluent white-folks. There are a few which [✓]: heart and circulatory disease, cancer, Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's is particularly attractive because there is no cure, the symptoms are distressing, and it lasts for years. Every player in Team MegaPh has had a punt at an Alzheimer medication [primer previa] and pretty much everyone has dug deep in their R&D kitty and still come up empty.

The latest cap  thrown in the ring is Biogen's Aducanumab [-mab IDs it as a monoclonal antibody] which will be marketed as Aduhelm and received a new sort of appro from the FDA on Monday. This anti-body targets the amyloid plaques that everyone who can spell aluminum knows to be associated with the development of Alzheimer's. Associated with: nobody knows about cause and effect here: it is possible that nobbling the plaques is like throwing gasoline on a fire because the plaques are desperate but characteristic response to the underlying unknown cause of The Alz.

Any new med in the USA has to be approved by the FDA [Fud n Drug Admin]. Normally, MegaCorp has to show that a) the drug works ["efficacy" in the jargon] b) the side-effects, if any, a small compared to the benefits [safety]. Many of us will have experienced side-effects of vaccination in recent weeks, believing that these are going to be less offensive than a dose of The 'Rona, long-covid, intubation and death. The last step of the licencing process is for the drug company, here Biogen, to submit the results of two independent Phase III trials where the drug has been compared to placebo for the treatment of a large sample of people with early stage Alzheimer's. 

For Aduhelm, one of these trials showed that there were no statistically significant benefits, the other that the benefits were positive, but barely discernible. By the traditional standards of the FDA, this should have been enough: indeed Biogen should have owned the results and withdrawn to join the long line of might-have-been money-printers for Alzotherapies. But the FDA is barrelling on regardless of the evidence: "We decided that the accelerated approval pathway fits well here: it allows for there being some residual uncertainty on the drug's clinical benefits while making the drug available to patients rather than having to wait." FDA approval means that Medicare is obliged to pay for this treatment in eligible patients. The FDA reserves the right to pull the plug if the larger sample of treated people throws up even more adverse side effects and/or there is no demonstrable benefit. But FDA approval means that income is now being generated by Biogen during the roll-out. The company's share price bounded 50% higher on the news and the value of other companies known to have Alz drugs in their pipelines achieved a collateral boost. The guide price for 12x monthly infusions is $56,000 - ymmv depending on how well your insurer plays hard-ball. Even so, the actual patient and their families will probably have to stump up 20% of the cost of the treatment. Biogen is anxious to get this cash-cow a-milking because the tiny but lucrative market for Spinraza [Bloboprev] their successful therapy for SMA Spinal Muscular Atrophy is being challenged by Zolgensma [yest].


  • Painful brain-swelling - 40%
  • small bleeds in their brain - 17%
  • headache, dizziness, visual disturbances, nausea, and vomiting - the usual suspects
Who is going to be making a decision on whether to risk a painful brain swelling in an elder who is still able to have a conversation and is reasonably continent ? Unlikely to be someone who can easily fetch $50,000 out of their back pocket for the next several years. Even a $10,000-a-year "co-pay" would eat up all my pre-retirement discretionary income. It would probably be the difference between the kidder going to college or not. Nobody should have to make those choices even if the $50K brought the Elder back to playing soccer or scrabble with the grandchilder. But Aduhelm doesn't promise that; it hopes, with a following wind, to be able to promise a teeny amount of slowing in the rate of decline in cognitive function and a definitely reduction in the number of amyloid plaques.

But here's the thing; when it goes to market Aduhelm will start to bask in the kudos of the placebo effect - it will be as effective as homeopathy which works quite well for this very reason (so don't knock it!). A few anecdotes of Dad's improvement in cognitive function will start a cascade:
  • families will demand
  • docs will prescribe
  • pharmacists will fulfill
  • public will pay
  • most patients will decline anyway
  • sales reps will get bonus
  • shareholders will need a bigger handbag for the loot
But the same benefit could be achieved by Big Red Pill Inc., @$5 a day to cover the marketing campaign.
Tnx to G for goading me to pay attention.

Wednesday 9 June 2021

Arms Race

Due to my very expensive education, I have done my team some service in pub quizzes . . . until it came to the picture round. Then it is a massive fail because having no TV really puts the kibosh on recognising celebs: actors, newscasters, soccer players, pop-singers.  You will almost certainly do better:

me, I saw Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry when it came out, and clips appear from time to time on youtube, so I get the cultural reference in the picture [L]. But I had to read the "answer" to twig that it's not Clint Eastwood but his fellow Californian Arnold Schwarznegger underneath the bouffy 70s hair. The rest of the scene is a [famous] still from the movie but Arnie's features have been deepfaked into the picture. Deepfake? barely 'eard of it of it until I encountered a geeky explanation by Mike Pound. In short the deal is to deconstruct facial features into 1s and 0s based on some 1000s of pictures of the same person - smiling, serious; looking up, in profile; in full sunlight, having a candle-lit dinner - and then apply those coordinates to another situation. Perhaps that other situation is occupied by an actor and perhaps that actor is doing something compromising. And then you have evidence sufficient to convince a hurried or unscrupulous tabloid journalist that there is a story that is worth ca$h to the creator. The tabloids don't care about any collateral damage meted out on the celeb.

Actually, that goose is only laying golden eggs for a window of time. As deepfake gets better at its illusions, plausible deniability gets to be ever more plausible. Nope! I was never in that swimming pool that picture is DeepFake. Which will drain the pool for traditional blackmailers as well. Good stuff!

In his DeepFake video, Dr Pound speculates on how, in a world of smoke and mirrors, we might be able to detect the authentic, The Right Stuff. One avenue suggested, ultimately futile, is to use AI gamekeepers to catch the AI poachers. It's futile because it results in an arms race of ever more complex, resource depleting, carbon footprinting, programmes with which the white hats outflank the black and are, in turn, bested.

In immunology, an Arms Race is the standard metaphor for the to and fro between the anti-microbial defenses of the immune system and the ingenious counter-activity of bacteria and viruses which, after all, are only looking for their place in the sun propagating their genes into the future. In the many discussions about life, the universe and immunology which I had travelling between Dublin and Wexford with Cliona "The Gaffer" O'Farrelly [prev], racking our brains for a bettaphor was a frequent theme. Anything which involves war and fighting is such a Boy Thing. It is no surprise that the Arms Race became embedded in the immunological zeitgeist during the Cold War between The West and The Reds. Think of Nixon's War of Cancer [1971] or the fake news, propagated in 1985 by the KGB, that HIV/AIDS was deliberately developed by the US as a bioweapon. The [Wuhan Chinese Virus Lab Release] biter bit, indeed.

Metaphors matter because they set an implicit agenda and channel Ways of Seeing problems and their solutions. The Arms Race has squandered our capital with broad spectrum "kill them all" anti-biotics, futile end-of-life treatments and fabulously expensive treatments for degenerative genetic diseases [Orkambi agianst CF or most recently Zolgensma against SMA spinal muscular atrophy]. Zolgensma is going head-to-head with Spinraza which I had digs at 2 years ago. Let's step away from those war-like mental formations and think rather about dance. Or Aikido, where to turn your opponent's energy away from destruction and into a neutral space. This is to acknowledge that the average microbe is either irrelevant, harmless or even benefical to human health. Using a nuclear coal-hammer to squash a gnat is noisy, inefficient and unsustainable. Turning pathogens aside through better diet >!prebiotics!<, better sunlight, better exercise, better sleep may be cheaper and less damaging in the long run.

Tuesday 8 June 2021

28 + 47

 Team Tim Harford's [multiprev] BBC R4 programme More or Less is back on air. Dau.II is a slightly bigger groupie for this Polish Your Crap-detector prog than me: insofar as she told me about the new season rather than the other way around. I gave her The Undercover Economist for her last year and she returned How to Make the World Add Up for Christmas. Both books are excellent: they make you think. For us, this extrapolates; from the quirky examples that float through Harford's mind to think critically about the numbers that surface in ours. That's important, if you have a feeling for numbers [Landmark Numbers for example] then you are less likely to get flim-flammed or bamboozled by the black hats lurking out there to take advantage or innumeracy.

Calculators came on the scene in the mid-70s before that adding numbers had to be done with pencil and paper. But it could be done in your head if your pencil broke. In 1983, my colleague Rob Harper could accurately tally up long columns of figures quicker than they could be keyed in to a calculator. I think he'd worked as a child in the family corner-shop. It would a rare student from The Institute in the 2010s who do that; their instinct, even for simple sums like (28 + 47) would be to reach for a calculator - or their phone. And absolutely believe the answer generated, even if bonkers.

In the 02Jun21 episode of More or Less they summarized the results of a crowd-sourced problem: "How do you add 28 + 47?". There is no correct way but you might pause and reflect on how you do this task in your head.

- * - * - * -

  1. The brute force as if I had a pencil and paper approach is to add the units 8 + 7 =15; then add the tens 20 + 40 = 60; then add 60 + 15 to get 75. If your method didn't get that answer, then you might try this.
  2. A number of people rounded up 28 to 30 and/or 47 to 50 and then subtracted the surplus from 30 + 50 = 80
  3. Harford stripped the 7 from 47 and added that to 28 to make 35 and added that to the stripped 40. He was delighted to be told by the elementary math teacher that this was called partitioning.
  4. Teacher also mentioned the idea of Number Bonds To Ten which are still taught in primary school. If you can internalise these pairs of numbers (3 + 7) (4 + 6) etc. which sum to ten, it will greatly help your mental arith. If you have small children this can be trained in by playing Tens Solitaire where you lay out 12 cards on the table and are allowed, by dealing from the remaining cards, to cover pairs of cards which bond to 10. You finish with only face [JQK or even VDR] cards visible.
I like that story a lot. It shows that there are [usually?] more ways of skinning a cat than drowning it in cream.  It pays if elementary school teachers are not too rigid in teaching methods [not only math: think phonics and other ways of teaching reading / literacy]. I suspect that some young minds will be more receptive to particular methods than others: and if provided with choice they'll get a better fit for what works.

Monday 7 June 2021


 It's four months since I brought a bucket of frogspawn + mud + moss + grass-clumps down to the garden and installed them in 40 lt plastic crates. By 1st March, they had hatched into tadpoles and since then they have been wriggling around: so they aren't dead yet. But they aren't frogs neither. The weather has been scatty and unpredictable this Spring with long dry spells; several of the original puddles in the woods have dried up taking the unfortunate tadpoles to oblivion . . . but providing nourishment for the other inhabitants of the forest But (I checked last Thursday morning) there are still puddles in the same place up in the forest.

Dau.II was visiting in May and spent a bit of time observing the captive tadpoles, claiming that at least one had two back legs. This has the ring of truth because back legs appear before front, at least for Irish frogs. But I couldn't replicate this finding despite scooping several glassfuls of tea-coloured water and inspecting the inhabitants. Suffice to say, I am concerned that there will be no metamorphosis into the adult form. But a few days ago I had an insight which I hammered into a hypothesis and carried out an experiment. Anyone can have an insight, but it helps if you have several threads in your head to increase the likelihood that they will tangle into a skein from which a metaphorical ideas-jumper may be knit.

In the back of my mind is the 'fact' that our farmlet, along with most of the farms on granite bedrock hereabouts, is deficient in Selenium. We and our sheep don't need buckets of Selenium - indeed it is toxic in excess - but we need enough. Then there was my book-l'arning about amphibian development; in particular the peculiar life-status of the axolotl Ambystoma mexicanum, a neotenous salamander which comes to maturity still having gills instead of replacing them with lungs as the legs develop. Neotenous means 'retaining baby features'. Humans, as a species, are neotenous: our adult skulls look far more babyish than baboon skulls [pic]. Axolotls are on the very edge of extinction in the Mexican wild but there are numerous lines in labs, aquariums and pet shops. Axolotls fail to metamorphose into salamanders because they have a mutation which prevents them from producing TSH thyroid stimulating hormone. Without TSH, there is no thyroxine, and without thyroxine there is no metamorphosis. Having acquired a mutation which might mean the end of the line for Team Axolotl, there was considerable evolutionary pressure to make other changes. These changes included bringing on the development of gonads in a thyroxine-independent way. And that genetic solution worked until Mexico City polluted all the lakes in which axolotls normally live.

I've had occasion to teach thyroxine in my endeavours to present the Joy of Human Physiology. Thyroxine is the 'metabolic hormone': ginning up a whole host of other activities so that we work efficiently. It is peculiar in that this hormone incorporates iodine into its functional structure. Iodine, like selenium, is thus an essential micro-nutrient and if you can't get enough you're in trouble. Goitre, Derbyshire Neck, is one manifestation of iodine deficiency in the diet. Iodine also made the news 20 years ago, when The Man delivered anti-Chernobyl.II tablets to every household in Ireland.

My hypothesis developed as the idea that 'my' tadpoles were slow to embrace adult life because they were iodine deficient. Last week therefore, I got my ex-colleague A to score me 30g of potassium iodide KI which I made into an aqueous solution and added to my two amphibian ponds. The molecular weight of KI is 166, so 166g of KI dissolved in 1 lt of water gives a 1 molar solution [mole prev] which contains 6.022 x 10^23 molecules of iodine.  I dissolved ~16.6g [tenth of a mole] in water before adding it to two 40 lt containers; so there are only 6.022 x 10^22 or 6,022,000,000,000,000,000,000 iodine molecules to share among a couple of hundred surviving tadpoles. Should be enough.

Sunday 6 June 2021

B Day

 D-Day 6th June 1944 is long long ago. I've had two Sundays off, but I really need to clear the backlog of this is could interesting links

Friday 4 June 2021


Jaysus, I'm wringin', me finger-nail is broke and I could murder a cup of tea. On 22nd May, my writer-persona, quite casually, pitched The Blob off the cliff announcing with puerile melodrama <ta-DAH> that, after eight years of daily posts, it was The End. A handful, maybe two handsful, of my regular readers wrote in or commented to say So long and thanks for all the fish. That response was considerably more measured than the hysterical fan-boy storm-cup that Conan Doyle generated when he made Sherlock Holmes take one for the team by heaving self-and-nemesis into a fatal encounter with the Reichenbach Falls [as L, hat goes first].

Conan Doyle was, at that stage, really tired of his know-it-all detective. He had other literary fish to fry and Sherlock was a massive distraction. "I must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him." His two volumes of Napoleonic War Brigadier Gerard stories are really good fun and the period details are exactingly researched. Delving further back, The White Company is a ripping yarn about mercenaries in the 100 Years' War. I probably have it confused in my head with Walter Scott's Quentin Durward which is also set in France, although 100 years later. One of the reasons for Conan Doyle's enduring fame is that all his books are readable. Anyway, the poor fellow was surprised at how invested his readers were in Sherlock Holmes and, after a holiday from the relentless treadmill of producing 'tec thrillers, he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles. HoB was set chronologically before Reichenbach, but The Adventure of the Empty House brought Holmes back from the dead and the carou$el $tarted grinding the corn again. Holmes had climbed up and down the cliff beside the Reichenbach Falls to evade the dastardly rock-pelting confederates of Professor Moriarty and escape. Moriarty was defo dead, though.

But enough of the famous and the dead, this is about meeeeee. Wet but unbroken, I've crawled back up the precipice and beg your attention: I am hereby giving notice that The Blob is back on a when the spirit is upon me basis. Apart from anything else, it's useful as a record of the everyday story of country folk. The really dramatic events like the DarwinDay storm are in the public record; who did what with which sheep, not so much.