Friday 30 July 2021

World peace, hollow laugh

 I'm gradually gobbling up the podcasts from Lingthusiasm, the podcast that's enthusiastic about linguistics by Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne [prev - schwa]. I reckon that, if we knew more about how languages are used and where they come from, then we'd be more circumspect in how we speak. Although I've inducted them into the Women of Science hall of fame, the Lingthusiasts are more helpful in dealing with ethics, sensitivities and how to live tight.

Episode 1 gets to the heart of the matter with a deconstruction of Esperanto and the invisible certainties of Ludwig Zamenhoff when he invented the first "conlang" [bloboprev]. He was born in Białystok [Беласток ביאַליסטאָק‎ Baltstogė R], a city in NE Poland, whose train-station I have passed through on my way to pick mushrooms and eat pierogi up near the Lithuanian borrrder. If you live in a place where you might need Polish, Russian, Yiddish, Lithuanian and German just to do the shopping, then you might hope for better communication among disparate people. Zamenhoff has left no direct descendants, all three of his children and their families having been done to death in the Holocaust.

Gretchen "nerdnik" McCulloch came across and started to learn Esperanto as a read-all 12 year old. But flung the book across the room when she twigged that all the names applied to women [virino] were diminutives of the cognate man-names [viro]. This shockin' casually disrespectful view of the status of women is found in German and other languages, but Esperanto was starting from a clean slate and you'd expect better. All good though; because this insight into invisible certainties helped young Gretchen develop her feminist backbone. And her rhetorical crap detector "do people who think that if we all spoke the same language we’d get along, have they ever been in a family? Have they never had arguments?" Indeed, it takes more than language to foment distrust, othering and dispute. But, heck, if you're going to paper over the cracks of interpersonal communication with a universal lingo, at least think a bit about your own bias and prejudice. And World Peace requires more work of us all.

Today I learned TIL, that to land a gig on the International Space Station ISS [prev], you must be able to speak both RU русский and US English. If you can't speak the Other, then the space agency will put you through a crash course. The astronauts and космонавты up there have a convention that each will talk in their non-native language; on the evidence that this will minimise misunderstanding by keeping it simple stupid KISS. All teachers are wary of the tendency to woofle off into technical jargon and/or longer words to show who is the educated adult in the room. Apparently the actual denizens of deep space are evolving a creole which they call Runglish. Although Peggy Whitson, an actual astronaut, who has spent months and months on the ISS, has a different take on what is the language of space.

Wednesday 28 July 2021

Quick to learn

Prologue. Many years ago, I had a week back in Boston with the family that adopted me during my PhD.  They had been attending a night class in oriental carpets and the last session occured during the week I was visiting. To everyone's surprise, the proprietor of the bazaar where the course was run, devoted much of the last session to a viva voce quiz on what his students had learned. Everyone passed and everyone therefore got a luck-penny square of carpet back for their troubles. In a spirit of inclusiveness, I was invited to try my hand and "won" a prize, too. It wasn't that hard, because (from a standing start) I'd learned a bit about carpet provenance and patterning from paying attention during the previous exams. Some day I'll be able to parlay that knowledge into a successful round at a table-quiz in Isfahan.

Sunday was Dia de Santiago and no better day for a bit of peregrinage a trek across the face of our hill. My excuse for this was the appearance of an old friend from foreign , let's call him Dan, who was in Ireland for some essential business travel and managed to ring-fence some AirBnB time locally. Last time he was here, he yomped up the hill adventuring with a a handful of his 20-something niblings rather than sacking out for tea and scones with the crumblies. He expressed a desire to tune into St Fursey's Altar which they had discovered on the last trip when it was still The Giant's Table.

We paused at the mountain gate. I showed him [because it's my jam] <teaching-moment> the most accessible example of indents carved in a granite boulder with a stone-pick prior to splitting the living rock with wedges. The story I tell is that some young feller started an over-ambitious project only to be told by an old-timer that he was wasting his time on that rock.  A snap-shot of the process is preserved for posterity in the partially excavated line of indentations </teaching-moment>. We set off uphill on a bee-line for the Marian Year Cross via the Giolleamh Eigin a distinctive sky-line standing stone about half-way to destination. On the way, Dan paused for a "miner's view" [R] and a slug of water and announced "there's another of those stones for your project"

And indeed it was; although much clearer after we pulled back the overlying heather. That's a coup: at least as good as my fragment of Persian carpet. Whereas the mountainside has dozens /hundreds of these worked stones, it is perfectly possible to walk by a fine example  completely oblivious to its existence because you're distracted by midges, fraocháns, chit-chat, or buzzards. One more catch like that and we'll have to call him Hawkeye. Me? I'm delirah to add another datum to my environmental inventory, worked-stone division.

Did someone mention fraocháns? It was Fraochán Sunday and Hawkeye had been introduced to the concept by the three young girls who live in the AirBnB. When we reached the Giolleamh Eigin, I indicated a convenient bush full of the ripe berries and ate one to prove they were edible. Hawkeye was delighted and put N=6 in his water bottle to share with his young pals that evening. Just as well that he forgot all about it, because at teatime, the girls knocked on his door with a neat slice of fraochán pie which would have completely wrong footed him in the potlatch if he'd made the first move.

Monday 26 July 2021

The Good at his job Shepherd

I'm not knocking fiction; it's an effective way of laying bare life as she is lived to better understand how humanity ticks - even if all the characters are talking rabbits. But I don't read much of it, preferring "true" stories. My latest download from borrowbox is Unnatural Causes by Richard Shepherd. Shepherd is the last of the old style forensic pathologists: trained in an era of pipes and tweed-jackets and very dark humour over the mortuary slab. He's retired a couple of times but his experience and expertise are still valued by the small community of those who tidy up the dead. Not so much morticians with a deft needle, formalin and a touch of blusher; more those who come before, tidying up the loose end-of-life ends. Shepherd's position is that we-the-people owe it to the dead to discover and publish the cause of death, even if that task is messy, time-consuming and [therefore] expensive.

One of Shepherd's gripes is that when every aspect of life was privatized and cost-centred under Thatcher and Blair, there was often insufficient money to pay for a decent path report and so death certs were signed off without the cause of death being adequately investigated. Subsequent enquiries, for example, revealed that police and prosecutors didn't give-a-damn about how Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993 because the kid was black. You'll get a better post-mortem if you get offed at the beginning of the financial year! In the old days, forensic pathologists could do experiments and develop particular expertise through experience because they got their salaries on the regular. Today forensic pathologists are all independent contractors, so any spare time between cases is spent hustling for more business rather than stabbing pig livers and documenting the damage.

Shepherd started forensic work in the late 80s when a tumult of tragedies delighted the tabloids: Hillsborough, Zeebrugge, Marchioness, King's Cross, Lockerbie, Piper Alpha, Clapham Junction, Hungerford, East Midlands Airport. Not only was he Point Pathologist for several of these events, he was instrumental in setting up the infrastructure for better handling of such things in the future. Cost-centers really don't like investing in future Maybes, but infrastructural failure means a shameful response when, say, pandemic happens.

Unnatural Causes is, rather stiffly, confessional. Shepherd acknowledges that he could have done better with the optics of his messy profession because blunted affect [and a really sharp PM-40 see R] is necessary to do post-mortem efficiently. One ghoulish detail was caused outrage was the decision to remove the hands from some of the long-submerged bodies of the Marchioness so that the finger-prints could be properly identified with large specialist equipment that couldn't be transported to the mortuary. And the poor man could have done better flipping between his day job and his suburban family life. Helping the kids with their home-work and making together time with his wife 40 minutes after showering the smell of decay out of his hair at work. He couldn't square that circle and his first marriage wrapped up in divorce after the kids had left home.

Keeping the image and smell of death and dismemberment at arm's length for 4 decades and 23,000 autopsies eventually came to unbend his mind with PTSD, depression and panic attacks. If we cared about mental health of front-line workers, we'd budget for therapeutic help: £100 a week for a discrete ear isn't much money and it leverages better product at work. The adversarial nature of the law as it is practiced in their islands is damaging to justice and fairness. Senior council will not be nice about distinguishing between the professional competence and personal integrity of pathologists, police constables, or doctors. It's little wonder that these people hit the bottle [or, god forbid, the family] after a mauling by some toff in a wig at court.

Another insight is that a lot of tea is consumed in mortuaries. It is a necessary professional and social lubricant among those whose work requires them to be present but whose interests often conflict. The pathologist's call can mean more, or less, work for the police. Unnatural Causes may not be your cup of tea but I found it interesting and not gratuitously gruesome.

Sunday 25 July 2021

O Dia de Santiago

2021 is a Jacobean Year when St James's Day falls on a Sunday. It's an especially big deal for pilgrims and there will be a slightly more extravagant party than last year in Santiago de Compostella tonight. The last time I was there was 25th July 2004, another Jacobean Year, when I arrived with bloody socks and The Boy. We'd walked [following the flechas amarelas R]from the Portuguese border in four days. After the 2004 party, I trekked another 780km to the French border blowing off waist-lard in a cloud of carbon dioxide. I apologise for the consequent sea-level rise. But when the road finishes, the camino continues.

Friday 23 July 2021

Spectral optics

Isaac Newton was a relentlessly curious experimenter. In one investigation he inserted a bodkin in behind his eyeball to see how distorting the sphere affected his perception. Apart from gravity, we associate him with the "visible spectrum"; spectrum has become a metaphor for other "within the normal" ranges. Actually, neurotypical folk [which might include me and you - I'm still awaiting a diagnosis] tend to Other people on the autistic spectrum. Othering, especially among school-children, can involve brutal, persistent mental-and-physical hazing, teasing and bullying. It makes life harder than it needs to be for the recipients of this attention.

Diary entry Friday 12 Oct 2018. "There’s a girl on Twitter called Greta Thunberg (we’ve been following each other for a while now) . . ." In hindsight it is hard to credit that, less than 3 years ago, St Greta of Climate was a distant marginalised voice just a girl on Twitter. That entry is from Dara McAnulty's Diary of a Young Naturalist a record shit-happens, mainly in Co Fermanagh and Co Down, from Spring Equinox 2018 to Spring Equinox 2019. In the middle of the book the McAnulty family moves from one side of Ulster to the other which causes a good bit of change-anxiety for young Dara and his younger sibs Lorcan and Bláthnaid who are all somewhere on the spectrum. But here's the thing, first day at the new school Dara is met by a young chap in his class who is his designated buddy; who also shares his interest in the natural world and also the unnatural world of Xbox gaming. There are poignant entries in the diary been here a week and no bullying . . . been here a month and no bullying. Now here's the thing: how is it that one school has systemic bullying and the other doesn't? and what are a) the Head Teacher b) the rest of the staff c) the parents and d) the Department of Education doing about it before the next academic year and the start of another round of institutional inhumanity. Note Greta Thunberg was also bullied in school.

I tease The Beloved about her guru Thich Nhat Hahn being Dalai Lama Light, but that's crass and buys into the Harry Potter Winner-takes-all-ism which is the bane of fame and reputation in our current world system. TNH has a different message, different tech, different presentation, it is othering to bang all elderly meditation blokes in robes into the same ashram as interchangeable cogs in the mindfulness industry. Likewise, it is easy to dismiss Dara McAnulty as Greta-lite on the ecowarrior charts. Obvs Dara is going to get some traction in Ireland because he is Our Ecowarrior but he's got something to say for all of us who are left of the planet. He says, for example, a benison over the 70% of British house sparrows Passer domesticus which didn't leave descendants from 1970.  That's not on the red-list by any means but I remember saying ~50 years ago that soon enough there'll be nothing left but rats, cockroaches, sparrows and starlings after all life's wonderful diversity had been swept clean by whatever Miscreant Humanity had been up to in 1970.

The McAnulty book is pretty impressive for a 17 y.o. but some of the extravagant praise by such Econames as Chris Packham and Robert Macfarlane seems a bit dodgy in its sub-text. It's a little like Samuel "Curmudgeon" Johnson's [prev] — 'Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.'  Where you substitute An autist's writing is . . .".  One thing that I really did get from the book is an insight into one autistic mind. Dara is at pains to note that his brother Lorcan, with whom he's been sharing genes and breakfast cereal for 15 years, has a quite different autistic mind and a different external presentation also.

Buuut, in the Acknowledgements, McAnulty tips a hat to Adrian, at Little Toller, for not trying to 'adult' my voice in the editing process. Which is nice, but a sensitive editor could have done all that and yet suggested some word changes so that this blobby reader was not brought up all standing at the choice of some not-quite-right adjectives. At 17 nobody has had enough time to read enough books or listen to enough podcasts to nail the current nuanced meaning of words in English. Getting this time / experience under your belt is one definition of wisdom insofar as that is different from intelligence [hint - it is]. FWIW, Greta Thunberg's book "No One is too Small to Make a Difference" is even slighter, both in page count and content, than Dara's Diary.

I look forward to seeing this chap develop. I may even get to meet him on a raptor watch if 'my' buzzards and 'his' red kites Milvus milvus finish up on the same mountain shoulder.

Wednesday 21 July 2021

Humble hubris

I spent the 90s pushing the frontiers of science in computational biology. That's a whopping big amorphous field but my boss had peed on a lamp-post that marked a small section of the frontier of science. I was put to work with the pick of power and the axe of analysis reducing the forest of entropy to something we could understand. I wrote - and published - some software to make our sort of analysis more efficient. But I also used existing software because research was hard enough without having to re-invent the wheel for each analysis. In the course of stress-testing PHYLIP, a software suite written by Joe Felsenstein in Seattle, I revealed a bug in one of the programs. Joe duly added my name to a list of people who'd found one for the team. Felsenstein had/has a beard worthy of other computer gods like Denis Ritchie and Ken Thompson.

I was following a peculiar self promotion story on Metafilter which reminded me that I'd had a [mortifyin' in hindsight] transaction with Felsenstein about ten years prior to my public-service debugging venture. In 1982, I had to print half a dozen copies of my PhD thesis as well as the official copies for the university / department archives. 5 of those spare copies came back to me, because my thesis committee didn't need a permanent record of the labour. In my intense echo chamber, I thought my stuff was important and interesting and sent each volume out to people whom I admired in the field of computational biology. The only person who replied [it was before WTF? was a thing] was Joe Felsenstein at U.Washington, Seattle, who said . . . he'd passed it on to a Canadian graduate student because "Canadian Maritimes" appeared in the title. 

I tell ya, science is largely one enormous futility closet. You work away for a year, or three, or four, stumbling around until to find your feet and a compass and, after much effort you write the results up in a single manuscript. This document has to be written to a rigid format in peculiarly stilted language. Most scientific papers, despite the imprimatur of an editor and two independent peer reviewers, sink almost without a ripple.

Monday 19 July 2021


My daughters are big fans of Caitlin Moran; who done good as a journalist and public intellectual without going to secondary school. When they've read the latest Moranifesto they pass it along to me; so I've become a bit of a groupie. Her latest More than a Woman (2020) brings us to date to share some perspective from the shoulders of a 45 y.o. holding up the world. It's a journey. How to Build a Girl was followed How to Be a Woman.  The position for the latest book is the caring professionals and amateurs are disproportionately women with more and more people in need of care. Often a woman will be responsible both as primary childcare and managing the disintegration of both her parents and her in-laws . . . as well holding down a regular job to pay half the gargantuan mortgage.

My residual desire for Social Media is currently met by Metafilter where people discuss things they come across in the media and blogosphere. Metafilter leans left, USA, BLT. All the Republicans have been driven out; and those who are hesitant about vaccines don't brag about it. One of the rules of Metadiscourse is that you must rein in the desire to contribute if you don't have skin in the game. Someone will perk up with Oh no, not #notallmen again if a patriarch like me bridles at being thrown out of the bus with the latest misogynistic monster of media. There is no pain that cis-het ♂ silverbacks can experience which comes close to every day life for black folks. It must be hard to live in a world where you are ex blokio officio responsible for all the wrongs in the world.

Moran addresses with this in a What About the Men? chapter triggered by having her youngest 19 y.o. brother coming to bunk in their married couple two kids London home. This young feller's position is that it's harder for him to navigate the 21stC than it is for women of the same age and demographic. Which comes across as whiny, snow-flaky and bring back National Servicey. Perhaps because she loves her brother, Moran is able to cut him and his peer-group some slack: partly because shouting at him/them is only going to polarize the dialogue even further. And send men in droves off to their cliché pubs, clubs, soccer and Men's Sheds. Still better to be complaining about the ref while watching Match of the Day, than failing to decide between pills or hanging and taking the car out for one last reckless spin. Nobody ever buys men flowers. Men are still dressed like, and behave like, it was 1921. Their roles and their emotional life haven't evolved in 100 years except that in addition to Breadwinner they've also added plongeur, chauffeur, aupair and boulanger to their To Do list. Indeed they can't play the Breadwinner card either because Herself is out to work as well. No wonder they are bewildered.

Another group who are all sheets to the wind in a sea of troubles are teenage girls. Eating disorders and self-harm are no respecters of money or social class and there is a lot of it about. Moran's take is that teenagers have had to shoulder a burden of responsibility about the state of the world which, because young, they are ill-equipped to deal with. This is made worse by St Greta of Thunberg being out there appearing to deal with the world's existential crises and setting an impossibly high bar on other teenagers to be similarly brilliant and effective. Their parents talk about how adults have fucked over the world but that the brilliant youth of today will sort it out for us all. Whaaaaa'? why are we laying the solution on the kids?  It's really hard to work out a script for parents of a troubled teen. One thing for certain, making them responsible for the emotional distress of the parents is no help at all. Moran didn't get her head and her role sorted until her daughter was beginning to see a chink of light in a cycle of anorexia and razors. There are loads of heads out there sounding off about the causes and cures of the epidemic but talk is cheap and mis-steps are legion. But not all of them have been there - as a parent or troubled teen. 

Moran has skin in the game, so is worth listening to. She deals with weighty topics with a light touch; sometimes laugh-aloud funny.  A dash of humility and hefty shake of compassion leaven the mix. The last chapter reflect on how her role is shifting from middle-aged woman to Hag. It won't lessen her responsibilities much just smooze them out a bit so they seem like a helping hand rather than an obligatory part of the daily routine. I suspect she's roughing out the chapter headings for How to Bewilder the Cailleach.

Sunday 18 July 2021

Saint Pambo's Day

Pambo, one of the early Desert Fathers of the Coptic church, is a little bit like Nasreddin in having mildly amusing tales attached to his fame-name. He was said to be a bit moany-moany po-face much of the time and some fellaheen decide to see could they make the saint crack a smile. They put a feather on a baulk of timber and made a great show "two-six heave" of effort to carry it into the saint's presence. He laughed at their extravagant antics and they hooted back "made you larf made you larf har har har". Saint Pambo the Serious replied "I'd did not laugh with joy at your antics, rather with ironic contempt at your foolishness". He was also known as Saint Dick.

Friday 16 July 2021

wot are we like?

Dau.II and her feller came across country to visit for a few days last week. When you double number of mouths, it opens up the menu a bit. It's not really worth making, from scratch, a chicken pie for one; with company there can be economies of scale . . . and >!lamb vindaloo!<. [aside: vindaloo is borrowed from Portuguese de vinha d'alhos - the wine and garlic marinade which starts the process off]. The vindaloo was all hopped up with spices because we are all well 'ard on the scoville scale. One of the consequences was that Bob le Plongeur had to wash-up 3 spice jars.

There was a time when we'd bags of "Indian" spices and decant them into little jars on the spice rack. But if the family have left home and you're not inviting the neighborhood to eat regularly, then many of the volatiles have evaporated or gorn orf before the big bag is empty. So now I buy red white black pepper; cumin, turmeric, coriander, from ALDIDL in robust glass jars with solid plastic snap-lids incorporating a shaker [examples L]. It is a terrible wrench to throw these handy, cleanable, functional and re-usable objects away. We have a box in the shed that has enough of these glass mini-bottles to make a complete chess-set - black and white pieces both.

In these The End of Days I'm doing my best to insulate my future self from regret about the food and materials that I heedlessly sent to land-fill before I knew any better.  It will be embarrassing, noisome, and dangerous to be making trips to a post-Apocalypse Powerstown dump excavating a cliff of trash 20m tall looking for glass jars, steel cans and shirts-missing-a-button.

Wednesday 14 July 2021


 It's that damn schwə again. I think that Borrowbox has my number and probably more on the button than, say, youtube which has generated a very tiresome cardboard cutout of what I actually desire from that channel. There I was coming to the end of David Crystal's nifty Story of English in 100 Words and started casting about for the next best thing in audible erudition. Before I got bored browsing, up popped Cecelia Watson's Semicolon: the past present and future of a misunderstood mark. I'll have that, quotha! It's read by Pam Ward, who gives the book a racy, clearly articulated, voice that makes it sound like Dorothy Parker carrying the day over lunch at the Algonquin Hotel. Me, I pronounce the i in semi /sɛmi/-final because I'm not American with their /sɛmaɪ/-trailers. Ward almost disappears the vowel; hence the ə in the title. Maybe that's how all educated Americans pronounce semicolon: I can't recall ever having had a punctuation chat during my Boston years, where I could have found out.

A whole book is more than most people can imagine could be written about a minority interest punctuation mark. But in a way that's an excellent reason to write one. This blue dot on which we all jostle for attention is a too often experienced as a schmeer of unbumpy trivial discourse. All those phatic G'days and What a miserable summers. Such a deadening view; we yearn for something, almost anything, to perk up our horizons. I do eclectic: islands, ichneumons, Yvonne, ice. I can usually find time for something different, especially if it's been worked up into something more substantive than a hilarious tik-tok or a laconic tweet. It's a bit like Moby Dick, a book whose semicolon use is cited with approval by Watson. Once you start following your nose down any rabbit hole you're bound to turn up something worthy of attention. Maybe not, though? I guess positive publication bias plays a part: if you dive deep down a couple of side channels and come up empty, then you move on to something which engages the attention.

For me, one of the factors about the book that commands respect is that Cecelia Watson has changed her mind on the subject of punctuation. When she was young and institutionalised she was a bit of an apostrophe Nazi. But after securing a gig teaching creative writing, she changed the direction of her red pen. Students have a hard enough furrow to plough in creating something that is true, rings true, and is original. For many of them, grammar rules, punctuation rules get in the way: sucking all the spit out of the creative juices. If you're afraid of being wrong all the time, you ain't doing science; and you're probably not doing much of anything that's worth your committed effort.

You might be surprised that semicolons and their use have a political impact but Watson makes this claim in a chapter featuring Martin Luther Knig and David Foster Whiteass. Famously in April 1963 MLK wrote an open Letter from Birmingham City Jail : "My Dear Fellow Clergymen: . . ." which contains 37 ;;;s and is consciously written in SWE Standard White Written English as a rhetorical gambit to establish empathy among one highly educated person and others similar but not incarcerated. That is, for Watson, OK MLK. A generation later, David Foster Wallace, author, teacher and public intellectual insisted that his black students must/should also write in SWE because if they wrote as they spoke [in AAVE African American Vernacular English] their words would be dismissed by the establishment and their ideas would never get any traction in public discourse. Whoa! cries Watson who makes these goddam rules about how people should communicate? The Patriarchy, exemplified in this instance by David Foster Wallace, is who. And maybe, towards the end of her book, Watson suggests that it is past time that The Patriarchy is using SWE as a bastion to keep the proles out there grubbing roots, gerunds and, indeed semicolons, from the dirt. Rather than plucking juicy grammatical, properly punctuated, fruit from the Hanging Gardens of The Ivory Tower.

Another author cited with approva; is essayist and public thinker Rebecca Solnit. One of the points made in that chapter is how hard good writers work for each sentence. How each subsidiary clause; each separate contingent idea; might involve hours or days of research and fact-checking. Semicolon the book is, must be, like that. There's something about the permanent record about a book: the idea that it will outlive the author that makes it worth a bit of effort not to be obviously wrong. Watson has written the cocktail party chatter essay Nine Things You Didn’t Know About the Semicolon if you don't have the money [$15.99] or the time [3hr:24m] for the Big Girl version. 

Good stuff; good fun; recommended.

Monday 12 July 2021

The Lives of the Cell

Oldies but Goodies Department: You really should read The Lives of the Cell: notes of a biology watcher by Lewis Thomas [prev].

Yonkies but Goodies Department: everything a  needs to know about the contents of a plant cell . . . drawn by Gdau.I [9½], which arrived for my birthday. I hope it was some recycled school work rather than created specially for me. In any case it's well above the median for what I grew to expect when this drawing was turned in by 1st Year Biology students [19½] at The Institute. 

The annoying thing with the voting age students is that pictures like this were routinely turned in as part of a report about microscopy. With a standard optical microscope, even if the material is stained as well as could be expect, you just can't see that much detail. Mitochondria are about the size of a bacterium like Escherichia coli - 1.5μm - that is just resolvable with the 100x objective lens. But only if you use a drop of oil which exactly the same refractive index as glass to connect the lens with the slide. Without this "immersion oil", the distortion as the light bends at the glass-air-glass transitions fuzzes everything up. It's the same as when a bamboo appears to bend when you put it into water. It's something that spear-fishers have to compensate for if they are going to bring home the bacon.

Ribosomes [the gizmos ⌀20nm which convert mRNA into protein] are about 50x smaller than mitochondria so they are absolutely invisible with bench-top optical equipment. And a lot of the other functional structures - golgi apparatus, vacuoles, endoplasmic reticulum, amyloplasts etc. - are, optically just water; in other words the exact same material at the soup [cytoplasm] in which they all sit. Contrary to what most folks believe, the microscope is of limited use for scoping sub-cellular function. Christian de Duve [R] needed a blender and a bunch of test-tubes [and a brain the size of a planet, of course] to discover lysosomes.

Sunday 11 July 2021

Next Sunday

Baby mammals look so cute. Saiga tatarica [R]

Friday 9 July 2021


It was different times when The Boy was born in 1975: no cell-phones; no internet; half the number of people. But somethings haven't changed, and the standard intermodal shipping container is one of them. I have internalised this because the first thing I saw when I dazed off the grounds of St. James's Hospital after hearing about his arrival was a Hapag-Lloyd TEU whizzing past on a flat-bed truck. TEU? = Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit. It seemed like an omen, so we added " Hapag " as the poor wee scrap's middle name.

Shipping containers were the brain-child of Malcom McLean the owner of a trucking company from North Carolina. In the early 1950s he bought a couple of WWII T-2 tanker ships [500ft 150m long x 70ft 20mbeam] and converted them to carry corrugated steel boxes port-to-port. He appreciated that sending several truck-loads by sea was more efficient that sending them severally by road. Slower, of course, but much less fuel and time wasn't crucial unless the cargo was lettuce. The first voyage of the SS Ideal-X from Newark to Houston in April 1956 carried just 58 containers 35ft long. That being the maximum load length for NC roads. One of the innovative break-throughs was to separate the trailer chassis from the box containing goods.

Many of the other engineering innovations are due to Keith Tantlinger an engineer from Fruehauf Trailers. He invented and perfected the twistlock [L] system for securely connecting containers to the transport base; be that a semi-trailer or the hold of a ship. Connectors need to be strong enough and yet easy to separate at the end of the voyage. The top joint of the twistlock is a round-cornered rectangular pyramid which fits an equivalent hole in the base of the container. a 90° turn locks the pyramid into the hole. Similar "mid-locks" can join two containers vertically. Tantlinger also invented the spreader bar so that a crane could seize one end of the container for lift and transport. Such systems only scale up if everyone agrees to standardisation, and Tantlinger was one of the key movers in this aspect of global trade. If there was a Nobel Prize for Commerce, Tantlinger would definitely have secured at least one.
And while we are on secured loads, clock this cowboy [L] delivering fuel in Waterford. It is normal to see coal lorries with piles of Polish coal in 25kg plastic sacks on the flat-bed. It would take quite a jolt to launch a sack off the truck and onto the street and even then it would not travel far even if it didn't burst. Those gas cylinders though? Wouldn't want to be a cyclist having one of those bowling after me.

We all know about the Evergiven backlog in March. On 3rd June 2021 the OOCL Durban had a parallel-parking fail at Kaohshuing, Taiwan: colliding with a smaller moored vessel >!screeeeeeagh!< and carrying away a couple of gantry cranes. Another PoV. That put the port out of commission for a while. At the same time a Covid outbreak put the post of Kantian, China off-limits in a lockdown. 25% of all Chinese trade is funnelled through than port. More importantly, commerce has taken just-in-time inventory to the max because warehousing is a cost. This accident and quarantine has knock-on consequences across the world as ship after ship fails to meet its schedule in a domino cascade. You may have to wait for your lawn-furniture and sweat-shop shirtings.

Thursday 8 July 2021

102 Crystals

I'm not sure why I haven't written about David Crystal, Britain's favorite linguist, before this Summer. I've read a number of his books: he wears his erudition lightly but his stuff isn't lightweight. Then in the last couple of weeks, I've compared another book about language to my penultimate Borrowbox audiobook. I pronounced Crystal's The Story of English in 100 Words to be original and best. We've met his son Ben Crystal, actor and producer, using his best Shagespian voice

Here [L] they are father & son, appropriately enough in the Globe theatre in London. David was born 6th July 1941, so I hope he gets a big cake and a bit of a knees up to celebrate this weekend. For someone who is even older than me, he seems to be right truly down with the hood, and up to date with the English language as she is spoke. In that sense he is, like Gretchen McCulloch, very much a descriptivist, celebrating how people actually express themselves, rather than a proscriptivist, nit-picking and tsking about how the young of today should be speaking.

As he acknowledges in the preface, he wouldn't be the first to adopt the trope of 100 Xs to summarise Y; and in doing so he has been as idiosyncratic as a publisher and his agent will allow an old chap rich in experience with the uses of English. With some rhetorical flourish, the First Word /100 "roe"  is chosen because it is arguably the first word in English where the artifact on which it was written has survived to the present day. That artifact is an astragalus from a roe deer [pic L] found in a cremation urn at the post-Roman settlement of Venta Icenorum near Norwich. The other bones in the urn were identified as coming from sheep. Someone thought it would be helpful to carve the runes for raïhan = "of the roe". Perhaps the urn contains the remains of a chap called Raï, and this was an ironic reminder of how he got his name.

The Last Word in Crystal's book is "Twittersphere" which, given that Twitter was still in nappies when the book was being written [published 2011], is as up-to-date as can be. He has chosen 98 other words to cover the span of the language over the 1,560 years between the two coinages:

  • 5. out 
  • 10. What! - as in what ho! rather than the interrogative what? 
    • Hwæt. we Gâr-Dena in geâr-dagum 
    • þeod-cyninga þrym gefrãnon
    • Beowulf
  • 15. arse - because we're Eurses rather than USAsses
  • 20. skirt - not [quite] the same as shirt
  • 25. wicked  - whose meaning changed from bad to good
  • 30. royal  - a triple with regal and kingly
  • 35. gaggle - collective noun
  • 40. de[b]t - Latinized by acquiring the rogue b [debitum]
  • 45. skunk - one of several words borrowed from folk displaced by colonists
  • 50. billion = 10^9 or 10^12 ?
  • 55. polite
  • 60. species - naming of parts in the natural world adds a lot of words to the dictionary
  • 65. lunch . . . or dinner? lunch-money for the dinner-lady
  • 70. schmooze - via la yiddish
  • 75. DNA - is a very short 'word' for a very long molecule
  • 80. Watergate - and all the subsequent other -gates 
  • 85. Alzheimer's - is an eponym
  • 90. bagonize - the anxiety to which we are prey while waiting at the luggage carousel
  • 95. jazz - named as the word of the [20th] century
  • 99. unfriend - the 2009 word of the year.
There you have it, one man's choice. Your wordage will vary, but at least this list is coherent. Another bonus is that the book is read by author. And that author is sensitive to the medium being the message, so he's compensated for what doesn't translate well from the page and used the sound-track in ways that are impossible on paper - win-win!

Wednesday 7 July 2021

Fraxinal tears

Of all the trees that are in the wood the most huggable, for me, is the ash fuinseog Fraxinus excelsior. Last to show leaf in Spring and first to shed in Fall, the mature trees provide shade from the sun. If forage is short, I can cut down a branch for our sheep who will pile in and strip it bear in a feeding frenzy. In contrast to hawthorn sceach Crataegus monogyna, ash trees never blow over because their roots are strong and deep. The branches do tend to break in storms though and you shouldn't park the car under an ash tree if a big wind is forecast. In my days of making objet trouve anthropomorphic sculptures ash and hawthorn both played their part. And all those fallen ash branches have, over the years, been sent up the chimney of our wood-burning stove. The twigs make excellent kindling, the branches provide a graded series of small to big logs and the really large lumps split cleanly in a most satisfying work-out. We've never had to cut down any tree for fuel, everything comes down of its own accord.

That looks like it is about to change because the dreaded ash die-back has arrived on the farrrm. Crap is the photo is, you can see the symptoms clearly in the canopy of the tree pictured [L, R next to the house]. <Look, no leaves!> This is caused ultimately by Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, an ascomycete fungus first described in 2006. The tree [L, L] above the red-roofed shed is also ash, but not so badly infested. It looks like ash, as we know it, a distinctive and valuable species familiar across Europe, is likely to follow the elm Ulmus procera which was extinguished by Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970-80s. DED was also caused by an ascomycete fungus Ophiostoma novo-ulmi but also required the intervention of bark beetles including Scolyus scolytus. For ash-dieback otoh the fungal spores are wind-dispersed and effectively impossible to interdict.

The best we can hope for is that there are strains of Fraxinus which are naturally immune to this specific fungal species. It is certain that H. fraxineus jumped the species barrier from trees which had long ago come to an accommodation with the fungus. One of the silver linings to the continuing disaster which is Covid-19 is that I can use comparative immunology terms like jumped the species barrier which would have needed a paragraph of explanation when I started blobbin' back in 2013 when nobody had heard of  武汉 or knew the Latin for pangolin. I hope that there are plant pathology labs across the world which are getting funding to study the effects of anti-microbial peptides AMPs on fungal hyphae. Better still if the AMPs come from Fraxinus or Fraxinus-adjacent trees of the Family Oleraceae. You don't see olive trees or lilac copping a dose of die-back - that might be a place to start.

Monday 5 July 2021

Unrat cleansing

When we lived in England, the neighbour's daughter kept an albino rat Rattus norvegicus as a pet. The rat's party trick was to run up inside one arm of the girl's sweater and emerge from the other. Spectators could, of course, track its movements - thinking about Loa loa is optional here. Most people, otoh, consider rats to be a noisome pest [Ger: unrat Schädling], which eat animal feed [dang!] and occasionally transmit Weil's Disease and a variety of other pathogenic bacteria and viruses - plague anyone? Humankind has had a loong-time relationship with rats, the rodents having trained us to gather food into one convenient place for them to sample. As near as dammit, wherever people are, or have ever been, there you will find rats, both brown Rattus norvegicus and black Rattus rattus aka the ship rat. If it was only that they ate the leavings of people, it would be containable. The problem is that rats are omnivorous and "food" includes the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds. Native birds which had been living the good life for thousands of years until people, largely European started the Age of Exploration and introducing their domesticates - goats, rats, mice, cats, pigs, foxes, rabbits, donkeys - willy-nilly. It is very difficult, and fabulously expensive, to put the rat genii back in the bottle - it cost about $10million and took 10 years to eradicate invasive rodents from South Georgia. Interesting chemo-ecological relationships between rats and seabirds in Chagos archipelago.

In the news last week was the fact that rats have been eliminated from two of the smaller islands in the Galapagos. To put this is scale: the entire archipelago is a little under 8,000 in extent - about the same area as County Cork or Las Islas Canarias. The 'clean' islands are Seymour Norte (the speck indicated with the red arrow) and an even smaller islet called Mosquera situated between Seymour Norte and Baltra / South Seymour. The map above [from LatinRoots Travel] neatly shows the parallel system of names applied to the islands since a) Ecuador annexed them on DarwinDay 12 Feb 1832 and b) Darwin himself arrived on HMS Beagle 15 Sep 1835. 

It was considerably cheaper and quicker to clear Seymour Norte [190 hectare] than South Georgia [390,000 hectares], because scale. But also because they used drones . . . to deliver a payload of 20kg of the rodent specific killer bait. I was talking about this with Dau.II when the news was hot and she thought if might be a great crowdsourced project for the next round of elimination. Recruit teenage Call of Duty first-person shooter fans to fly hunter-killer drones from their bedrooms in Romford. The drone [L] carries a bait hopper and a GPS tracker and is operated from a ship to deliver the poison quickly and precisely. Far quicker and more reliable than a bloke with a rucksack.

Bell Labs designed the rodenticide and are talking large about how non-target species are not at risk from consuming the poison - it dissolves in two or three weeks before native birds get a chance to eat it . . . but hangs around long enough to give the rats every chance to eat a fatal dose. It's not clear which specific "rodenticide" is being used on the Galápagos. Could be any of bromadiolone, brodifacoum or diphacinone [anti-coagulants which are replacing warfarin] or bromethalin [neurotoxin]. In the realpolitik of conservation, a certain amount of collateral damage is tolerable. The project hopes to play the [rat] extinction is forever card, at least locally; so long as enough breeding adults of the birds survive then I guess some considerable by-catch is acceptable. 

Note added in press: slight ArsTechnica report on the relationships among islands - rats - seabirds - guano - phosphates - coral - fish biomass.

Sunday 4 July 2021

4th July 2021

Flags optional

Friday 2 July 2021

creep feeder

 Discerning carnivores, like my late-lamented mother-'t-law, talk about getting very young meat - suckling pig, kid, veal - because these products are unavailable in retail Ireland. Actually, Souad talked a lot more wistfully about mutton, which she claimed tasted of something. But then again she was a terror for <gnarr, gNARR> cruibíns [pigs trotters], marrowbones and all the wobbly bits inside. Me, I'd rather eat lentils for the rest of my life than gnaw sustenance from cartilage. Irish people eat a lot of meat but almost all of it appears <shazzam> on supermarket shelves in neat slabs and squares so that nobody has to reflect on the fact that a week ago that hamburger was eating grass. No business likes to have their capital tied up for too long. They like a return on their investment as quickly as possible. So it's economic to feed animals up to the gills, so that they reach "market weight" before the competition. This is most extreme in the case of chicken where 41 days is all it takes from hatch for 2.3kg of soya+corn to be converted into a trussed, shrink-wrapped, oven ready bird of 1.2kg.

Nobody likes mutton, and most folks are squeamish about eating lamb that has as much meat on it as a fat chicken. The Market dictates that "lamb" is a bruising great teenager of 45kg. Getting a newborn to that weight in, say, 15-17 weeks requires more than milk and a nibble of grass. You need to feed the ewes, sure, but you really need to supplement the feed of the lambs even if you have to pay ready money for nuts. Farmers want the best of both worlds of course ad lib milk but also nuts and something has to prevent the ewes from shouldering the lambs aside and scarfing up all the <yum> concentrates. On commercial farms where dozens or hundreds of lambs are growing through their paces every year a creep-feeder [R] is yer only man. There are many ingenious designs out there from swish powder coated monsters to rusty old yokes welded up from sheet-metal and steel tubing.

The deal is that creep-feeders allow unlimited access to the lambs while effectively excluding adult sheep. Bearing in mind that sheep can smell the goodies and will push over or crush anything insufficiently heavy or robust. In the past we have borrowed a creep-feeder from our neighbour after his lambs have gone to market. That monster required 4 grown men or a tractor front-loader to move it. Note the roof in the feeder [above R] - it's best to load in several days of feed at once and let the lambs work their way through it. You must do what you can to exclude a) rain b) ravens. I think it's called a creep feeder because many designs require the lambs to approach the feed on their knees.

This year after an outrageous number of false hopes and misinformation, we have a total of two [2] ram lambs which are each about 36-38kg. These b'ys need feeding up because if we can get them up to weight in a couple of weeks, they can piggy-back with the neighbour's crop on their final journey. So I needed to jimmy-up an exclusionary feeder from locally available materials. In the distant past, I had used two 12ft steel gates with one end attached to fence posts and the open end kept apart with a block of wood and a lot of knotted ropes. That creates a triangular lamb-only paddock where a bucket of feed may be placed. This year a far better solution occurred to me [not for nothing do I wake up at 3am, screaming].  I used a couple of 90cm x 200cm sheep hurdles, made locally by Daniel Whelan Engineering, which are a lot handier to handle [see above L]. We're leaving this all a bit late as you can see that the lambs are almost as tall at the shoulder as their dams. More to the point their head'n'shoulders are almost as wide.

Holding the door open with a block of wood wasn't going to answer, quite apart from the fact that I had no idea what was the crucial discriminatory distance between ewe-shoulder and shoulder of lamb. Experimentation is the key! I found a handy length of timber, cut it into 2 x 20cm lengths and pre-drilled holes every 2cm along the top edge. The Whelan hurdles, in contrast to a 12ft gate, have a couple of eyed lugs welded top and bottom at each end. Four robust wood-screws and some washers worked a charm.  A bit of adjustment revealed that 18cm was a pretty good distance. We still have to carry a couple of cups of sheep muesli up for the boys a tuthree times a day but we should be doing the journey anyway to check that the bould brats haven't gotten their heads caught in the sheep wire or indeed escaped into the forestry from pure divilment.