Wednesday 29 September 2021

The Leaper

Like a lot of people, I like a bit of salmon: fresh, smoked, tinned, en croute, in chowder. But I would survive if I never got to eat another morsel. Salmon is served at weddings or as stamp-sized canapés and has the whiff of de lox luxe. Back in the day, salmon was so abundant that indentures for London apprenticeships would limit the amount of salmon the poor young chaps would be obliged to eat in the Summer.  The transition from feast to famine is explored in Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of Their Common Fate by Mark Kurlansky - my latest audiobook.

A large part of my post-graduate education was the formal study of ecology: the complex tangle of interactions and inter-dependencies in the living world. We talk about food-webs nowadays rather than one-dimensional food chains because, on occasion, top predators are partial to a locust or two, or even a bit of grass. But Kurlansky indicates how little I know about what makes the world pulse or what causes one species to drift off-stage . . . forever. By extension, to the nearest whole number, even professional ecologists know <nothing> about the role played by a given species; let alone what other species impact on its life.

Take logging. Forests served a vital role in the life-cycle of salmon: 

  • Their roots retained the soil when it rained in winter, minimizing the fine silt that entered the salmon-run rivers. No silt meant that the up-stream gravel beds were more easily exposed for the female salmon to prepare the redd in which to lay eggs. The fertilised eggs had to sink into the interstices of the gravel or be dinner for birds, frogs, caddis-fly larvae and other fish.
  • Fallen trees created pools where salmon could pause for a breather in their foodless fight upstream to spawn
  • The trees shaded to river from the beat of Spring sunshine and kept temperatures low. More oxygen dissolves in cold water to give the salmon muscles the oomph to carry on.
  • The forest supported a wide variety of insects, the eggs and larvae on which the young hatchlings start to feed to fuel their journey back to the sea 
When the trees are felled out and sent down stream:
  • The roots lose hold on the banks, so the river straightens out and runs faster; which is good for fluming the logs downstream. Nevertheless the logs are felled in Winter and typically stockpiled inland until snow-melt gives the water depth and impetus to carry the harvest down stream to the sawmills. Which is just the time the poor salmon are fighting upstream against the traffic. And did I mention sawmillsdust? A highly organic waste-product which is dumped in the river where bacterial degradation sucks all the oxygen out of the river.
  • You are likely one of the 40 million people who have bought into the NatGeog wolves change watercourses just-so-story
  • Take it with a pinch or three of salt [debunkarama]
  • But you get the idea. The great salmon rivers (Columbia, Fraser, Snake) of the Pacific Northwest have been straighten and dredged to facilitate commerce in ships - Lewiston, Idaho is a seaport 500km from salt-water!
  • No trees; no shade. No trees; different insects. No trees; no topsoil. It takes a long time to wash the silt down-stream to expose the river gravels again.

Tree-huggers, like you and me might have an unthinking affection for clean blue hydro-power. So does FAANG, they site their server-farms right next door. Once you start using electricity it's hard to cry hold enough. More demand requires more damn dams. For more than 100 years, planning permission for new dams has been contingent on allowing migrating fish to by-pass the obstruction. Part of the budget accordingly went towards incorporating fish-ladders but neither the power-company nor the industries and services there-dependent, in their rapacious souls, gave two toot-toots about salmon. Fish & Wildlife Services, let alone distant [first-nations] fisher-folk had a very small voice and short pockets compared to Big Power.

I could go on [and on]. I could fill in the details. But this map review is not the territory. Ya have to read this book, even if you're not a piscatarian. It's not fun but we really need to reset our base-lines. In Ireland Salmon is Salmo salar [the salmon that leaps] but there's many more species in the Family: broadly Salmo in the Atlantic, Onchorhyncus in the Pacific. Here's a list, not least because the common names are so evocative of A River Runs Through it.

  • Oncorhynchus apache Arizona trout
  • Oncorhynchus chrysogaster Golden trout
  • Oncorhynchus gilae Gila trout
  • Oncorhynchus kawamurae Kunimasu
  • Oncorhynchus masou Masu
  • Oncorhynchus mykiss Rainbow trout
  • Oncorhynchus tschawytscha King, Chinook
  • Oncorhynchus nerka Sockeye
  • Oncorhynchus kisutch Coho
  • Oncorhynchus keta Chum
  • Oncorhynchus gorbuscha Pink, humpback
  • Oncorhynchus clarki Cutthroat
  • In the Atlantic, it's way more complex with 50-60 recognised Salmo species mostly trout: Salmon salar, of which we feast, and Salmo trutta with brown trout, lake trout and sea trout as sub-species. All delicious, all at risk

    Monday 27 September 2021

    Wot a day's work looks like

     Someone with a proper camera located at the same position could, by subtractive technology, overlay and compare these two photos to show the work done on Weds 23rd. But the Department of Ag's satellite will have perked up and reported a change in the landscape last week.  Despite the hill-face being steepest in this view the area cut of ferns looks foreshortened here: drone or satellite would be better.

    Prev. Pic tok tea tim Tue 021 Sep 021 [recording Monday's work]:

    Pic tok mor nin Thu 023 Sep 021 [recording Wednesday's work]

    It's not every day that you can see a clear result from that day's labour.

    Sunday 26 September 2021

    Sun End Sep


    20-something family member was taking the written part of their Driver's Licence last week. So I sent some patriarchal advice:

    Jaysus, keep both hands on the wheel
    by return I got this plaint

    but then how will I hold my vodka?!

    Friday 24 September 2021

    Am I the Oilhole?

    Unless you've been living under an Internet stone since June 2013, you will be aware of the AITA sub-reddit and/or AITA twitter feed: "A catharsis for the frustrated moral philosopher in all of us, and a place to finally find out if you were wrong in an argument that's been bothering you".

    Soooo, I was up the hill again with the neighbours, cutting the [dying] ferns Pteridium aquilinum to improve the quality of grazing on our commonage. I was up there on my ownio in mid-August mapping the cuttable territory. Since then, I have put in five days of physical scything labour with a good bit of phatic chit-chat on the side. As an in-blow with the wrong accent and lily-white hands, it's important to show that, while I cannot harrow a field or shear a sheep, I can keep up my end as a labourer.  My scythe is by far the best tool for the job . . . so long as the rocks and woody heather [Erica cinerea Bell Heather Fraoch Cloigíneach; Erica tetralix Cross-leaved Heath Fraoch Naoscaí; Calluna vulgaris Ling Fraoch Mór] are not too plentiful. The Lads turn up with a variety of slashers and bill-hooks which are real heavy-duty over-kill for the task . . . except that those tools can take numerous dings from hidden stones. A boulder as big as a suitcase can be completely invisible behind 15cm of bracken.

    You may not be able to see any difference [L] between the 4m wide strip I've laid low and the untouched still standing ferns on either side. This is because a) cut ferns don't lie flat like grass or oats b) it's late and the bracken is turning brown anyway; making the whole exercise a bit of a futility closet. Should be done in June, while the growing stems are still depleting the underground reserves and before the plant starts replenishing supplies through photosynthesis. And avoid bracken in July when the spores are present as brown scabs on the underside of the leaves! Those spores are carcinogenic.

    Getting paid by the day means breaks in the work for re-fuelling with tea and sangers and farmerly chat about the GAA, the weather and prices at the mart. Some of this is more interesting, some less; and I now have a better idea of who married whom before I was born and how that attached certain fields to still living descendants.  During one lull in the conversation, the community wag offered "I guess this is where we gossip about the neighbours . . . ooops, no, they're all here".

    The talk became animated when it turned to the price of agri-Diesel. This product retails for about half the price of regular diesel and is dyed green to stop farmers filling up the Mercs with the stuff. As the world knows, the price of oil is creeping up [again] and farmers get through a lot of diesel. They are also notorious for driving a hard bargain to determine what the market will bear for hoggets and hay-bales.

    Farmer calls regular diesel supplier and is told that the price has gone up to 80c/lt. Orders a load but then >!thought!< calls rival supplier down the road and is quoted 76c/lt. Goes back to original supplier, retails this information and threatens to cancel the order . . . boss comes on phone and says, rather than lose a valued customer, they will sell at 76c. Delivery fulfilled 0800hrs the following day. Farmer "Harrumph, what price loyalty, hey? Sure these oil-men are just codding us all." Listening to this, I wondered whether I should be asking for discounts like my neighbours. 

    But a restless night and some dreams later, I concluded that loyalty is a double-bed. If you believe that all your suppliers and servicers are out to gouge you to the extent you no longer trust them to be offering a fair-price then that leaves you in a rather uncomfortable bivvy-bag on Isolation Island. And if Jerry the Oil [who really pushed the tanker out when we were snow-benighted in March 2018] is forced to shave his margins to the bone, maybe he'll have to let go the really nice woman who answers the phone. Is that really what you want? Is 5% = €40 worth that much to you?

    Thursday 23 September 2021

    A good thrashing

    Sorry to disappoint if the title suggested an insight into the virtues of my very expensive education. I first went to [this] school in 1959: I was hit, with a stick, by an adult at the various schools I attended up until I got the vote and left school in the same Summer. But the tide was going out for such assaults in my part of the education system in England, so it really didn't happen much. YMMV [James O'Brien's did] , and I'm sorry / outraged about that.

    Today's post today is about cutting ferns / bracken Pteridium aquilinum on our hill [above]. It was my task a month ago to map out the territory to be cut in 2021. The 20 acre = 8 hectare treatment section had been draw with a ruler on a satellite map by an ecologist who'd spent precisely 3 half-days on our hill in his life. Our ecologist is a personable fit young bloke, competent at his mètier, but his knowledge of our hill is strategic rather than tactical. The 200m x 400m rectangle included a) dense forests of head-high ferns [dark-green above] b) rough pasture where grass, gorse, heather and fraocháns are at least holding their own against the invasive [brown / spackled above] c) blank bouldery scree where neither sheep, nor folk, nor ferns can cop a reliable toe-hold [grey above].  That photo was taken from the valley on Tuesday afternoon after The Lads had been cut, cut, cuttin' along on Saturday and Monday. I was amazed at how clear was the evidence of clearing that I stopped on my way back from a trip to town and took the picture. I appreciate that it will be much less clear to you, dear reader, WTF I'm talking about, so zoooom:

    Any fule can see the trees to the left of the scene. The line to their right (green below, not green above) marks the mountain wall which separates the commonage from privately owned fields. What thrilled me was the straight green line running parallel to and above the mountain boundary: both clearly the work of human hands. Begodde, I done that! With a bit of help from the neighbours, d'ac.

    But having been the boots on the ground as well as the photographer, I can add some detail to this broad-brush.  My scythe is the tool of choice for thrashin' fields of bracken, especially if the ground is even and not too steep. It is, contrariwise, a liability if the footing is uncertain and/or the target is sparse and rocks abound. Under those circumstances a sickle, a deftly handled bill-hook, or even shears are better. Our gaffer, accordingly, sent me off a bit from the main party to scythe away all Bobby-no-pals. In contrast to a slasher or bill, scythes are definitely right-handed, they don't have a reverse gear but cut from right to left. Ideally, this leaves a windrow on the leftside of the scyther. The process only works if you start on the left edge of the field and work right in rows, so that the spoil falls away from the working face. Just before knocking off on Monday, I noted a white rock further up the hill and elected to cut a bight / bite out of the fern-forest to delineate a couple of separate squares for The Lads to work on the next labour-day. I actually laid down 2x 2m windrows before the works whistle blew and we all trudged home for tea and medals scones. Very satisfying to see the result of concentrated work. Pity the task will never be repeated here; because fern-thrashing works . . . but only if it is persistently executed for several consecutive years and in late June.

    Wednesday 22 September 2021

    Mrs Orwell

    I devoured George Orwell [L,L] when I was acquiring my very expensive education. This wasn't particularly subversive in the late 1960s because Orwell was nearly 20 years dead and his late public successes Animal Farm [two legs bad, four legs goat L] and 1984 were assigned reading in British schools. Animal Farm was allegory light, and was read as a children's story like, say, Charlotte's Web - another book in which a pig is the star. As a devastating indictment of corruption by totalitarian power, the cartoon format insulated the reader from looking critically at, say, the government of Britain. The success of the Cold War, which got in the pores of the first half of my life, was that it othered the Soviets and diverted our attention to Them and allowed us to be smug about Democracy. With hindsight, it looks like the welfare state - NHS, council houses, the dole, nationalized industry - was a sop to the under-class to prevent a revolution such as had changed the political landscape in the Soviet Union and the PRC. The fall of the Berlin Wall and dismantling of the Iron Curtain was co-incident with the ending of mainstream socialism in these islands: council houses were sold off to the current incumbents, industries were privatized, and inequality became far more extreme.

    The Orwell books which I read more than once were Homage to Catalonia and Down and Out in Paris and London. From the Paris section I took on board the belief that plongeur was an heroic métier: I think it helped shape me as an infrastructure guy rather than a centre-forward. I've just finished Orwell's Nose a pathological biography by John Sutherland, which The Beloved snagged for me from Wexford County Library Service. 

    The conceit is that Orwell was hyperosmic - reeling from the smells of the lower classes [the poor bugger was a scholarship boy at Eton] - the drains, the boiled cabbage, the oxters - while being patriarchally indifferent to his own contributions to the personal odourscape. Sutherland also indicts him for writing brutal lightly fictionalised portraits of people who went out of their way to support him: his parents, his younger sister, his teachers and most of his literary patrons. We also learn that Orwell was partial to outdoor bonking. The women of his circle applied NSIT not safe in taxis to Arthur Koestler; Orwell was more NSIH not safe in heathland.

    The two women who did the most thankless skivvying for Le Grand Auteur were his sister Avril Blair and his first wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy [R from passport photo]. Eileen gave up her almost completed Master's in Psychology at UCL to become Mrs George Orwell and facilitated his fantasies about running an honest yeoman small-holding by doing all the mucking out and heavy lifting. Pausing only to bring Himself a cup of tea as he pounded away on his typewriter. She was afar better typist than him and made the fair copies of his works which were sent to publishers. Sutherland: "Heretical to say so but, from the small samples one has, Eileen often strikes one as the more vivacious writer of the two." She was no mere typist; at least an Oxford trained copy-editor who helped make the prose more lucid. For example, she midwifed The Road to Wigan Pier when Orwell ran off to fight in Spain. And she was a much better socialist than her husband. In many Orwell biographies Eileen shimmers, almost invisible, in the background doing the chores. It's looking much more likely that, like Mrs John Le Carré, she deserves co-authorship on much of Orwell's most productive and influential work

    Eileen died of neglected cancer, aged 40 in 1945. George died of neglected lungs aged 46 in 1950.

    Tuesday 21 September 2021

    Wexford Science Cafe

    Founded in February 2015, the Wexford Science Café used to meet in The Sky and the Ground, South Main Street, Wexford, the third Tuesday of every month at 8pm. Since the pandemic we have been meeting on-line and [so?] shifting to earlier [7pm] in the evening. One of the silver-linings of Coronarama is that, while I've gotten my monthly WexSciCaf fix, I haven't had to drive 40km [and 40km dark km back] to get it. I've been the convener since inception. As with any organisation, there are more people who rock up on the regular for a warm bath of scienciness than people who will actually undertake to make a presentation or lead a discussion.  You'll notice that a disproportionate number of the topics we've discussed have simultaneously appeared on The Blob. As soon as possible [October?] we will return to in-person meetings, probably with a video option and likely in the Wexford Town Library, Mallin St, Wexford, Y35 AY20. Meeting in a pub is all very well and The Sky has been wonderfully hospitable but none of us drink any more because a) we are old b) all have to drive home afterwards.

    Finally, after pissing and moaning to the inner circle for a couple of years, someone else has accepted the mantel of convener and will be trying to line up a schedule and send out invites each month. All I need do is appear [or not; if something more pressing demands my attention, or I forget]. That's a relief but also intrinsically A Good Thing because New Convener has other interests and a barely overlapping network to draw on. 

    The other excellent bit of initiative is that one of our techy members has acquired a domain and set up a webserver powered by nginx at But our new webmaster was unsure about how to actually populate the site with WSC announcements, gossip, and propaganda. 

    I replied thusly: In ~1995, I was one of the top web-designers [in a field of maybe 15] in Ireland, hand-cranking HTML for one of the first WWW servers in the country. The ratio info:<html> was about 5:1 because default HTML is miraculously efficient and elegant. Now the ratio is nearer 1:500 - contributing enormously to the internet's carbon footprint. You defo don't want me to lay hands upon the page: I doubt even if teen-nerds do this sort of thing anymore

    But the new website needed something, even if it was a placeholder and I was probably the only one in the room who is still writing HTML, like, by hand. Almost every Blob needs a bit of HTML tweaking of the text in ways that Blogspot defaults don't offer. What you see at is what I cobbled together with minimal HTML interventions. If you CTRL+U or right-click on the page and ask for "View Page source", you can see how it works. HTML syntax is simple: each <tag> requires a closing </tag> is all. Signal-to-noise about 3:1.

    You can, and web-writers do, make it far more complicated than that making access detectably painful for folks in the Third World or with crappy internet connexions elsewhere. For white folks, who can afford €20/month for their connectivity, bandwidth is not a real problem and the invisible cost of serving pretty pages with enticing graphics is a plume of carbon emissions from the power-station adjacent to the server-farm which is hosting and delivering the data.

    Stop Press: Tonight is 3rd Tuesday so we have a session.

    Monday 20 September 2021

    Storm names 2021

    This just in! Ireland punching above its weight cornering this Winter's storm names!! This year Met Éireann, Met Office UK and KMNI Koninklijk Nederlands Meteorologisch Instituut are, not for the first time doing hands-across-the-ocean, singing-from-the-same-hymn-sheet about the weather. They've picked: Arwen; Barra; Corrie; Dudley; Eunice; Franklin; Gladys; Herman; Imani; Jack; Kim; Logan; Méabh; Nasim; Olwen; Pól; Ruby; Seán; Tineke; Vergil; Willemien. Although it is vanishingly unlikely that any of us will experience Storm Tineke, let alone Storm Willemien. Relative populations:

    • Ireland 4.9 million
      • 1
    • Nederland 17.3 million
      • 3.5 x
    • United Kingdom 66.6 million
      • 13.5 x
    By long tradition, they never assign names beginning Q U X Y or Z. So the list-length is 21. pro rata, Irish names should get 1 place, Nederlanders 4 and Brits the rest = 16. But four storms are pulling on the green jersey. It's a racing certainty that British news will not acknowledge thé fadas in Méabh; Pól; and Seán.

    Previous names, thoughts, pronunciation here last paragraph; ignore the dead sheep.

    Sunday 19 September 2021

    Sun Sept Suppl

    The day Ötzi the Iceman was discovered 1991

    Friday 17 September 2021

    So long and thanks for all the stamps

    We were a bit piano at home last night because Dau.II had noted an obituary in the Guardian announcing the death of Clive Sinclair [R in 2013] serial entrepreneur and quintessentially English boffin. I've written about the impact he had on our lives 

    Sinclair is an easy target for ridicule: hopeless with people; over-ambitious; other worldly; but he created work for hundreds or people and empowered and entertained 100s of thousands of people. Carping with 20/20 hindsight is waaaay easier than having an original idea, capitalizing and implementing it and bringing it to market. So the electric clog didn't have a radio and couldn't fly: it was an electric vehicle two decades before the know-it-all gripers had thought about climate change. Other people could have built on or leap-frogged the basic idea and saved the planet from millions of gas-guzzling cars . . . but no, we all agreed the C5 was <ha ha ha> ridiculous. And the share-holders and managers at GM and Ford and Nissan rubbed their hands all the way to the bank.

    I noted before that Clive Sinclair took a punt on The Beloved when the temp agency sent her to help with the filing and typing. She was indeed crap at typing but is and was a natural organizer and soon had systems streamlining the work of head-office in Cambridge. When she was interviewed, she noticed a photo of The Boston Office on the wall behind the manager's desk. With commendable chutzpah, she asked if she could be transferred to the Boston Office. They asked her to work out her probationary hire period first, hmmm? I was at the time in grad school in Boston, her trans-Atlantic transfer would have immensely simplified our lives. 

    A couple of years later, though, she'd had enough and said that she was going to leave Sinclair Inc. and go to Boston anyway. The company was much bigger then and she had grown with it to become an asset. Sinclair asked her to wait a week until the manager of the Boston office was back in Cambridge. That interview suggested that something could/should be worked out and The Beloved was promoted to Customer Service Manager North America; to start in 2 months time. 

    So it took a while but it worked out very well for all. The Company acquired An Effective; The Boy got to experience three years of the US school system; The Beloved accumulated a lot of airmiles going to Geek Conventions; I got promoted from a basement to a semi-basement with a proper bathroom and kitchen. In 1983, we all moved back to Europe when I got my first academic job in U.Newcastle. The Beloved and Sinclair kept in desultory touch because they both had a bit of a pash for W.B. Yeats. 

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence: 
    Two roads diverged in a wood,
    and I —  I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.
    Not Yeats - Robert Frost

    Wednesday 15 September 2021


    Just finished listening to Grace Dent's [that's her R, talking about twitter 10 years ago] autobiographical memoir Hungry on Borrowbox. I'd never 'eard of 'er because it's years since I bought a copy of the Guardian [Aisling Bea alert!]; and I stopped watching Masterchef when Dau.II left home. Indeed we haven't owned a television since 1985, so TV celebs are quite the closed book for me. I was alerted to Dent's book and her existence by Dau.II [it's her foodiness's bday today] who has become a Guardianista since becoming Chef in her own kitchen.

    Dent was born in 1973 and grew up on the working class side of the tracks in Carlisle. None of the adults in her life had any aspirations or expectations for her beyond getting a catering/cleaning job at the motorway service station and getting pissed at the weekends.  Young Grace had other ideas because a) she had dreams b) she could write and against all the odds scraped into Stirling University. There she started to write both on campus and sending stuff the national magazines.

    Against the odds and with quite frightening Chutzpah, Dent blagged her way onto the paid staff at Marie Claire; and used that a stepping stone to other journalist gigs. She became a name among the London chatterati because she had he finger on the pulse of whaaat's happenin' in the capital. Through persistence, brass and learning she got her foot in the door at events where the glitterati would also turn up if they needed a free glass of Moët and a fistful of canapes. Suddenly her phone was ringing. An editor needed someone to fly to an event in Vienna this weekend and, because Dent was seen everywhere, her number was called. Megacorp would pay for a 1st Class flight and a council-flat-sized suite in the Centraal Hotel. She is currently restaurant critic for the Guardian where she can be scathing, funny and insightful but turns . . . or indeed all at once. Dau.II rates her writing along with Felicity "Croissant" Cloak's.

    Back to the book! Chez Dent in the 1980s was the heart of Thatcher's Britain. What's not to like about being given the freehold on your council house? When the shopping heart of Carlisle was ripped out by building a massive Asda supermarket on the ring-road, the Dents became Asda's best customers. Especially last thing before closing when processed carbs and saturated animal fatsBlack Forest Gateau was reduced to almost dumpster prices. The whole family wandered down the aisles amazed and delirah at the cardboard-clad bargains. There's a telling moment when Mrs Dent comes home with bags of cheap groceries and berates her husband for not eating his way through the cornucopia of last week's browsings: there is no shelf space for this week's! Mr Dent develops diabetes from his heroic efforts to support Cadbury's share-holders.

    Later on the poor chap slips into w{o|a}ndering dementia and the family do their utmost to keep him in his own home until his medical and physical requirements become too much entirely. Grace leaves her London flat to moulder and quixotically rents a bungalow for herself and her parents near her brother's gaff in Cumbria. She can't drive, so logistics are difficult, not to mention the wearing, draining, exhausting business of care. Did I mention that Mrs Dent is in and out of hospital with cancer? 

    What I love about Grace Dent is that, even after embracing the nonsense world of black & white truffles aux penguin jus, she still likes the comfort food of working-class North Britain: deep-fried pizza, chips with everything, HP sauce. Check out her chat cheese and pineapple porcupine with Yotam Ottolenghi [min 3.15] Her silver-spoon London pals have never tried deep-fried frozen pizza - they really haven't lived!

    Monday 13 September 2021

    Please make free

    "Property is theft" Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

     We live really quite remote, 300m up a bohereen from the county road, 2km from the nearest shop and 12km from post-office, bus-stop and chip-shop. On the other hand, that same bohereen is a primary access route to several hundred hectares of hills and uplands which is dead nice to walk in. It is all technically private property but by long-standing convention, visitors are welcome so long as they keep dogs leashed and take their trash home with them. By long-standing convention, Irish people will park wherever they can find space and hill-walkers will throw their cars onto the verge and happily leave them there all day.

    Right opposite our front gate  is a patch of grass which can, in a pinch, give room for a couple of cars or 3 Honda Civics. I mow it regularly and have, in the spirit of civic duty, staked the ends where the flattish ground falls abruptly into a drain. It is right opposite our front gate, but nobody ever asks if it's okay to park there; even if we are making a hubbub in the yard and clearly at home. I am pretty much past caring about this. If I happen to cross the lane to check the sheep or fetch fire-wood, the parkers will generally ask "Is it okay to park here?" very much in a nonne "expecting the answer yes" sense, as they continue to change their foot-gear and shoulder their ruck-sacks. It's nice to be asked, I would ask, but, hey? 

    Last Saturday tea-time I was sitting, shagged, on the stoop having a reviving cup of tea after a day scything bracken on the hill, when I witnessed some elaborate, noisy and invisible parking theatre just beyond the sheds "Forward a bit, left bit, left a bit, another 2 feet, you're grand". After more chatter and slamming of car-doors, two young women strode past the gate in party clothes and disappeared up the hill. Fair enough; I never got to embarrass myself by making some ironic passive-aggressive comment to their faces. It's always better that way.

    Several hours later, as I was making my evening rounds [counting sheep; watering the sage and beets; bringing laundry off the line] I noticed the car was still parked there. But I wasn't unduly concerned: there were two of them, it wasn't mid-winter, it wasn't  full dark  yet and I was bushed; so I went to bed. 0630hrs Sunday morning, however, the car it still there and I'm uneasy. It's defo not appropriate to call mountain rescue; but I don't want to regret doing nothing if folk are in trouble on my watch our hill. I take note of the car-registration and start rehearsing a script for calling the Gardai but not before noon. At about 1130hrs, a neighbour drops something off with us and leaves the gate open . . .

    I go to close the gate and there are the two Ladies of the Car. I am effusively welcoming because now I don't have to do anything about their tragic disappearance. "Oh we were wild camping in that field over there! . . . it was lovely, we saw a baby fox this close . . . we went to visit the rock art and then walked up to the Dolmen before bed". That field over there is Gort na Dau.I which has a conveniently flat bit at the bottom big enough for a dozen tents. It's where our girls had their annual Summer camp for several consecutive years in the 00s. The gate is about 40m from our back door; in my book wild-camping is the Big Two-Hearted River or the Cuillin Hills. Anyway: I gave them an earful . . . about the Ringstone, the Earthmother and St Fursey's Altar[R]: far far TMI, I suspect; but that's the penance to be paid for causing me anxiety. Actually, of course I was delighted that they'd had some innocent fun . . . and not left anything behind but some flattened grass.

    Sunday 12 September 2021

    St Ailbe of Emly

    Happy St Ailbe's Day!

    Saturday 11 September 2021

    Let there be light

    We've been living where we live for 25 years. Dau.I and Dau.II were tots when we moved in. They grew up outside: even micro-farms generate plenty of work and everyone must bear a hand. On fine days, they would walk up the lane to The Mountain Gate and beyond with their mother and have stories and a picnic lunch. The rocks on which they sat acquired names and associated rituals. At the Mountain Gate, a spruce plantation started to obscure the view to the East and the lane continued up between this dark green cliff and the slightly gentler grey-rocky slope heading West up the hill. On sunny Spring mornings it was chilly near the forest and I have been known to yomp across the heather further uphill in order to feel the sun on my back.  Other times we've scrambled across the rabbit-proof fence and plunged into the forest to check its gloomy heart. Tadpoles! Fungi!

    The forest was thinned a good few years ago and it's been threatened to be clear-felled since at least 2017. This Summer Coillte, the state forest service which owns the forest, drove a new road in from the the far side where they were already harvesting trees. Clearly the writing was on the wall. Earlier this, the second week in, September we undertook to dog-sit for friends-and-neighbours on the other side of the valley. Taking the aged hound for walk up the hill behind their house, we looked back and saw:

    Aiieeee! Without us being more than subliminally aware, our forest had a huge bite taken from its heart and the stripped trunks of the trees laid in pale windrows up the slope. The following morning the horizontal part had more or less doubled in size [above].

    That evening after I'd been over to feed the hound and put him inside for the night, I walked up the hill through the clouds to see what things looked like close up.

    All it needs is a raven or two to sit on the branch to caw balefully about all things must pass.  At the forest edge you can see the forwarder; a big-wheeled off-road vehicle [stirring-music youtube] which cuts the living trees [closer to the ground that here near the fence], seizes the butt and passes the whole trunk through a mill which a) strips off all the side-branches and much of the bark b) cuts the core into lengths - either 2400mm = 8ft, 12ft or 16ft. The whole rig can swing around as it is brashing the trunk to leave logs of each length in heaps together for later collection. It's hard to credit this progress. Well into the 1950s lumberjacking was done by hand with a bushman saw and an axe both razor-sharp [source: Lumberjack by William Kurelek]. Now a single operator with a forwarder can fell and process mature trees at the rate of about one a minute. Here's a sort of before and after view through the mist:

    In August this year Gdau.I and Gdau.II went for a walk through the forest with The Boy for the first time. It was dark and mysterious and rather wonderful, as it had been for their aunties at the same age, 20 years ago. When the girls were there, the stumps in the left foreground were big trees contributing to a solid green wall. Those looming trees behind? They won't be there by the end of the month.

    Friday 10 September 2021

    The Science of Cheese

    🧀I'm having a great deal of fun reading A Cheesemonger's History of The British Isles by Ned Palmer as an eBook on my Borrowbox device. Ned Palmer consolidated his love of cheese by working for several years in Neal's Yard Dairy in London. He also developed formidable upper-body strength from turning heavy rounds of cheese to keep the cellar's treasures in peak condition and reducing the population of cheese mites Tyrophagus spp. [literally that is cheese-eater in Greek] to manageable proportions. In the course of his work hefting and selling cheese he got to know many of the artisanal cheese-makers who rediscovered and reinvented the lost arts of this cottage industry in the 1980s and 90s. The book's conceit is to pick one presently available cheese which seems to exemplify the techniques of a particular bygone era . . . and go visit the place where it is made. With luck, the cheese-makers will get some free labour out of their visitor but it's clear that some of the tasks cannot be done efficiently by a tyro tyrokomos τυροκόμος.There is a zen of cheese - good cheese is not to be bludgeoned and cheesemakers know when to step back and let the microbes do the talking. But when the the work of human hand is required, that hand must be practiced, committed and fast.

    🧀Todd and Maugan Trethowen [R up to his elbows] started making their traditional Gorwydd Caerphilly in response to the demand for carefully made cheese towards the end of the last century.  It's no longer made in Wales because the logistics got too difficult in the remote valley where they started to revive a real cheese that was rather different from the plastic-wrapped blocks of "Caerphilly" sold by the tonne in Tesco. Like my late lamented friend Mario Fares and the options of PAML, Maugan Trethowen systematically altered all the parameters of their cheese-making process - e.g. heating successive batches of milk from 20°C to 50°C and carefully recording the outcomes. Gorwydd settled on 22°C as the optimum. Unless you do this, you may get good enough but you'll never get the best.

    🧀Later on, in a discussion of witches and their effects on the neighbours' cheese, Palmer writes about curd which congealeth so it will rope like birdlime that you maie wind it on a stick . Ropey milk was part of my patter at The Institute when I was introducing the Lactic Acid Bacteria practicals in the Food and Fermentation Microbiology course. What the local witch-finder described above can be rendered in science-speak as the production of exopolysaccharides by Pediococcus sppPediococcus is also an LAB but fermenters definitely want to keep it out of the workplace for this reason. Scrupulous washing of hands is required in modern food production facilities but there is also an argument that the shelves, walls and ceiling of the cellar and, indeed, cheese-makers' hands are an important source of good bacteria which can fight off the black-hats more resolutely than bleach. 

    🧀As a final anecdote about trade secrets, open disclosure and The Art, I'll quote Joe Schneider, who makes unpasteurized Stichelton in the same region of the English Midlands where Stilton enjoys Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) under EU law. The small print of that PDO specifies that Stilton is made from pasteurized milk. Pasteurization, by definition, alters the microbiology of milk and so makes a different product from what was created and marketed on either side of The Great North Road in the 1700s. Schneider's position is that you can control Listeria in more subtle ways than killing all the microbes in the milk. But "You can come to my dairy, take pictures, take notes, copy everything you like. You won't know how to make my cheese. I don't know how to make my cheese". This is like trying to follow a protocol that is detailed in the Materials and Methods of a scientific paper. My old boss had a standard operating procedure SOP when her students couldn't make it work. She'd phone up the rival lab and ask if they'd host the student for a couple of weeks. More often than not, student came back with a working method. Not everything can be written down, including the invisible indescribable background certainties which make things work . . . of course you don't leave the eppendorfs in the ice after you add the primers. 

    🧀Colour supplement: Gorwydd Caerphilly -  Appleby's Cheshire - Coolea

    Wednesday 8 September 2021

    Conversion 1400 g to 28 Kb

     August was busy like a hive is busy. We had almost the whole descendant family present at the same time for about a week and various lesser permutations for pretty much the whole month. There isn't a whole lot to do on the farrrm unless you're driving a tractor or chain-saw, so Dau.I and TGWIH graced us some time acting as catalysts for a significant de-cluttering. Actually much more than catalysts - they kitted out with gloves, overalls and Rosie-the-Rivetter bandanas and shifted a lot of boxes. None of those boxes went back indoors at the same weight. There's a certain amount of self-interest here because in 2019 both Dau.I and Dau.II came with me to England after my mother left for a nursing home and a life-time's matèriel has to be rehoused. They've seen what decisions have to be made when under the cosh of time.

    There is no point in keeping books which I'll never read again; and every time we go through this exercise the bar for worth keeping is raised. Not only books but papers. The precious collection of scientific reprints upon which my PhD thesis and subsequent research was based? All gone! Ten years ago The Boy asked "These scientific papers, hm? If you wanted to read them again, they'd be available somewhere as a PDF, yes?"  They have indeed all been digitized. But the real point was to reflect on the likelihood that I would every need to read this old paper again when there are prairies of new things to think about. Last week I came across:

    That's the 1990s in promotional wall calendars! High quality stock, glossy pics, room to record appointments and meetings. They've weathered a damp shed for 20 years with only a little mildew - but they're no longer pretty . . . or current. So I spent an evening transcribing the information into a multi-tabbed Excel spreadsheet. Each year is a sparse matrix: a lot of days when nothing particular happened. So 1.4 kg of card-paper has been converted to a searchable archive with a file size of 28 kilobytes. 
    Every month for a couple of years in the early 90s I attended the C.U.C. But I had to sleep on the problem to remember that it was the Computer Users Committee rather than Credit Union Clondalkin. I am baffled as to the identity of several of the people with whom I had a power-lunch 25 years even now that I have their names. And really, if the Excel file corrupts itself, these data are of no interest to anyone. Nobody is going to write my biography! 

    Monday 6 September 2021

    Mad meds

    Years ago, after the Internet but before the WWW, there were Usenet News Groups where folk with similar interests and obsessions could come together to compare notes. It's where someone on rec.arts.books flagged for me The Lost Continent, Bill Bryson's first and funniest book. I made some contributions about maintaining dirt roads, the coexistence of chickens and orchards, what I read in my Summer holidays.  

    I was asthmatic before it became ubiquitous - first attack 1956 following a temper tantrum about having to leave Duncannon after a week of sand and chilblains. There were no meds back then and I survived, until as a teen, I grew out of it. The Boy inherited that predisposition and had a near-death experience when he was 15. After that I took asthma [a bit] more seriously. Asthma and Usenet came together then and I used to lurk about the group. My only contribution there was to suggest that there might be some merit in The Buteyko Method of managing asthma through breathing exercises. Well! you would have thought I suggested roasting asthmatics on large bonfires. There was a shrill push-back from people who were wedded to their meds: if I don't have my inhaler charged at all times I . will . die. I was conflicted because I was alive . . . but the boy had been seriously ill,  without medical asthma intervention.

    This see-saw between meds v. cure-thyself came whooshing back when I read a balanced piece by Devon Price about neurotransmitters, character, mental dysphoria and external impacts. It was flagged <surprize!> by MetaFilter. From Big Pharma's viewpoint, a great med is one which is prescribed for many forever. Statins, for example. This is supposed to be the argument why no MegaPharm financial controller is going to fund a search for novel antibiotics: there's not enough $ugar in a drug which is used for 2 weeks every decade.

    I've known one case where the anti-psychotic Olanzapine gave an elderly raving relative a short-sharp shock that brought them back to earth and in a happier place. But it took a pro-active daughter to review that elder's daily pharmacopeia and get Olanzapine removed from the menu by increments over a few weeks. So far, there has been no relapse.  There is, accordingly, an argument that medication can be used, a bit like electro-convulsive therapy ECT? to reset an internal clock. The downside is that the homeostatic feedback of human physiology will, under some regimes, fight back against intrusive meds so that the dose needs to be eked ever upwards. And in any case, your body is not my body and our set-points will surely differ. It is important to work actively with your GP to get the dosage balanced to maximise benefit while limiting the wearing side-effects: headaches, constipation, tremors, flatulence, flushes, more headaches.

    My contribution to the Metafilter debate assumed that there were few in the forum who had a stake in mental illness and were old enough to remember RD Laing [R looking baleful]: Interesting. It's helpful to tease apart proximate [mechanistic, neurotransmitter] causes from ultimate causes. RD Laing is 32 years dead but he tried to shift the the angle of attack: "Insanity - a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world." and "A child born today in the United Kingdom stands a ten times greater chance of being admitted to a mental hospital than to a university ... This can be taken as an indication that we are driving our children mad more effectively than we are genuinely educating them. Perhaps it is our way of educating them that is driving them mad."  RD Laing talked a strong line about medicalizing the neur-atypical and had a more holistic view of how society impacts on the vulnerable. In an ideal world, some of the money which is currently floating champagne parties in Pfizer, Glaxo and Bayer would be diverted to therapists, counsellors, down-with-drink campaigns and . . . house-builders. But my woofle is less informed and thoughful than Devon Price here.

    Sunday 5 September 2021

    Sun Sep

    Start with song

    Saturday 4 September 2021

    Unstrung hero

    On 3rd September, my mother and grandmother had briefly got under the kitchen table in their home in Dover [as today R] after PM Neville Chamberlain announced that from 11am Britain was at war with Germany. After a few minutes, no death raining down from the skies, the dusted off their pinnies and continued to prepare Sunday lunch for the Patriarchy (Uncle John and Grampa) who were in a different part of the house reading newspapers. When we started to visit in the 1950s there was a patch of the ceiling paper of a slightly different design. Later on the house had sustained damage from a nearby explosion blowing in the window of the living room and sending a splinter of glass into my grandfather's eye blinding it. As kids we peered at his eyes discretely to work out which one was glass and which functional. The difference was harder to see than the damage to the ceiling.

    Let us, on this day, pause to think about Larry Slattery of Littleton Co. Tipperary, whose plane crashed into the sea at Wilhelmshaven during the first raid over Germany carried out by the RAF on 4th September 1939. The raid, although commendably quick off the mark, was a disaster, half the planes got lost and returned their bomb-load to base, several Blenheims were shot down with most of their crews killed. Slattery the navigator/gunner was fished from the drink with a broken jaw and foot, patched up in Kriegsmarine hospital in Wesermunde and spent the rest of the war in Stalag Luft III POW camp. He thus acquired the distinction of being the longest held Allied prisoner of war.

    Slattery was an accomplished violinist and was a founder member, and leader, of a 70-strong camp orchestra whose concerts were important for maintaining morale and sanity among those men for whom the war was over. The instruments were largely supplied by the International Red Cross. Indicating that, at least on an implicit level, the IRC recognised that mental health was as important as, well, health. When he died in the 1970s, fellow RAF survivors of a musical turn endowed a scholarship fund in his name to funnel money to needy young musicians. POW camps were run in parallel by their German captors and by an internal structure headed by the senior Allied officer present. The best camps maintained discipline and morale by organising classes and entertainments with whatever talents that were available. Slattery became fluent in German, for example. Stalag Luft III was the site of two WWII escape dramas The Wooden Horse and The Great Escape, but the majority of the kriegies kept on keeping on until the end of the war. 

    Friday 3 September 2021


    A discussion on MeFi about just how good bad was the algorithm for delivering you to social media advertisers yielded this wonderful riff from Mike Hoye:

    Some friends and I used to antagonize each other by sending each other bizarre Amazon product links to playfully poison each others recommendations, but I think at one point we some how broke it and I spent a year and a half with this one ridiculous foot-long mall-ninja knife following me around no matter what I was shopping for.

    • "Hey, guy buying children's socks: you also need a ridiculous knife, right?"
      • "I'm good, Amazon. Thanks."
    • "Hey, I see you're buying a soothing, uncaffeinated chamomile tea. May we also suggest this cheap-ass, fuck-off big mall-ninja shiv. What do you say?"
      • "Um, no."
    • "So. Coffee filters, dishwashing soap... and a shiv?"
      • "Calm down!"

    Well I don't know what I clicked on at all at all but I've been youtube-awash with a particular sort of grooming product called the Manscape Lawn-mower 4.0 - billiard play - army play - which is designed to trim down there . . . hence the metaphor of two pink snooker balls [L]. What could possibly go wrong?

    • BeardTube thinks it's over-priced, under-powered and does a bait-and-switch on a replacement parts contract of $15 every 3 months.
    • There are a load of counter reviews from articulate, desperately enthusiastic young men who are getting 20% of the take for their endorsement. 
    • It is perhaps ominous that the trimmer is shipped with "Ball Toner" and "Anti-chafing Ball deodorant" containing soothing aloe vera. Cripes lads, if you'd just leave your pubes on, then none of these unguents would be necessary.
    • Tommy Tiernan and Des Bishop are of the bumping uglies school of genital aesthetics. But whatever your position on whether groins are pretty, it's hard to accept that that removing the fur makes things more attractive. 
    • Emilie Pine on the other side of the gender divide continuum also wonders why depilation is now so common and WTF the subtext is of removing / reducing that attribute of adulthood.

    Wednesday 1 September 2021

    Gödel alKhwarizmi Bacon

    The title is a piss-take on Douglas "Up his chuff" Hofstadter's long and pretentious book Gödel, Escher Bach - an eternal golden bore braid [Bloboprev]. Kurt Gödel, Muhammed "Mr Algorithm" al-Khwarizmi and Kevin Bacon are the only people mentioned by name in Milo Beckman's book Math Without Numbers. Although "pythagorean" and "platonism" gives a cautious hat-tip to a couple of ancient Greeks. It must be a deliberate no-name levelling policy to use circumlocutions for other famous mathematicians: 

    • Dutch topologist who was booted off the editorial board of Mathematische Annalen [LEJ Brouwer].  
    • Author of a book called Principia Mathematica [AN Whitehead and Bertram Russell].

    And it's usually polite to cite your sources. Beckman includes a discussion of some infinities being bigger than other infinities similar to mine but I explicitly recognised that the idea is original to Georg Cantor not to me or Beckman. In the same chapter, Beckman joins a long list of people [incl Veritasium] who discuss Hilbert's Infinite Hotel Paradox. The thing is, it's easy to re-tell the story - heck, even I've had a go - but it's a different order of cleverness to have cast the problem in a way that can make it accessible to Joe Blowe and Jan Publiek.

    Earlier on in the book, Beckman [and their illustrator M Erazo] show that one of two groups of things is obviously bigger than another. Changing up the picture beyond 3 or 5 {boxes, dots, apples} makes the illustration more visually appealing but lurries in a confounding variable because M's objects are all different sizes. Thus [starfish, halibut, digestive biscuit] has, because 300kg halibut, greater biomass than [crab, whelk, scallop, sea-urchin, augur-shell]. Been there before comparing "abundance" of Prochlorococcus and humanity.

    The conceit of Math Without Numbers is explicitly stated inside the dust jacker "The only numbers in this book are the page numbers" but that is explicitly contradicted on p.124 with the statement "zero is a number". In fact numbers are mentioned on almost every page of the book but they are written out in english - seventeen - rather than roman - XVII - or japanese - 十匕 - or 'arabic' - 17. So that's a bit of old bollix. Why pick seventeen?

    Wellll, because TIL that there are exactly 17 distinct types of 2-D repetitive wallpaper symmetry patterns with which a plane may be covered with no gaps. They right purty:

    And that, in this our Universe, there are only 17 combos of mass and charge which are tolerable to make the fundamental particles from which everything else is constructed. They are far too small to be pretty but they have a certain orderliness:

    For all my snippy snark, this book has clearly made me think. Not worth buying a copy, but worth checking out of the library. But we'll give Milo a chance to convince you otherwise: