Sunday 31 October 2021

Sung sing song


Friday 29 October 2021

A rough accounting

The Blob PageView Stats, wee hours 22 Oct 2021 = a week ago:

At the start of El Pandemico, I spent several weeks listening to the news and clipping cases and deaths into an Excel file to plot the rates. Then I stopped abruptly and with prejudice. Recording the number of cases was futility closet unless I/we knew and believed the baseline - how many people were being tested and so had a chance of becoming a documented case.

I was like that with The Blob. An earlier front-end of Blobspot made it easy to find how many people had read my deathless prose and so I reported, for example, the milestone of 100,000 PVs in 2015 about 3 years and 1,000 posts after the Birth of Blob. Then I gave up and with prejudice because of some frankly incredible fluctuations in these readership numbers. If Blogspot couldn't differentiate between human eyes-on-phone from a data scraping FAANG robot, the numbers offered no solace or feedback. Luckily for The Work, I didn't need to be thanked to continue to churn out my daily 700 words

On the Write Front, I engineered things so that the millionth word I wrote was Zeugma. But the 2 millionth word passed several months ago without any sort of acknowledgement. According to the hive mind these are the best / most clickable Blobs with their rough PVs

  1. Stilt Walking Nonsense 15K a take-down of a meme on the molecular basis of happiness
  2. Mary Anning's Dog 4K a passable short bio of the famous fossilista
  3. Lack for Nothing 2.5K etymology of Waterford slang
  4. GCHQuiz clues and Answers 1K  Ruminations on one 2016 Christmas Quiz
  5. Normal accident 1K a near death experience by medical error
  6. Castle Rackrent 1K an angry polemic about landlords and homelessness
  7. Bellos II 1K a reasonable explanation of how Benford's Law works
  8. Da Nags 1K a neat enough essay on the naming of race-horses
  9. Baltic Ace 1K an anniversary report of a fatal collision in the North Sea
  10. WASH 1K random ruminations on clean water
These are neither better nor worse, by any objective measure, than 10 average posts from The Blob. Note the criterion of average, rather than random. There is a tail of utter bollix in the archive: posts where even I, the author, cannot work out what is going on. So I exclude those but it is a mystery why these posts float to the top. 

It is also a mystery what is happening at the beginning of 2017 and in the Spring of last year. Then, more than a thousand visitors a day were dropping by every day [as illustrated above] Or what happened on 19th October this year when more that 5,000 ppl/robots dropped into Blobland and hopped out again sharpish never to be seen or heard of again? Whatevs! If you're reading this sentence, it means you have stamina; I hope you use any residual energy this day to do your community some service.

Wednesday 27 October 2021

Cat and mouse and langskip

 A turning point in my life was when I dumped a tedious final year student project squinting down a microscope counting rye-grass chromosomes . . . in favour of coursing across the country testing the historical migration hypothesis. The idea was that

  • domestic cats don't swim well
  • their travel across the oceans is greatly facilitated by hitching a ride on ships
  • each voyage starts somewhere . . . and finished elsewhere
  • voyaging cats are a random sample of the cats in the starting port
  • IF the destination has no [domestic] cats [like all the New World including the Atlantic Islands]
    • THEN the gene frequencies there will resemble those in the home port
  • this is an example of founder effect: it will be hard to subsequent arrivals to shift the gene frequencies of an established population

It seemed to work: I spent some time tooling around the Azores in the 1980s looking for domestic cats and noting their coat colours. We'd shown that the cats on St Pierre et Miquelon, the French department South of Newfoundland, were exactly the same profile as those in Bordeaux and the Dordogne. With some vigorous arm waving, a case could be made that NYC [Nieuw Nederland from 1614 until 1667] cats resembled those of Amsterdam and Rotterdam and were different from New England. The cats of the Azorean islands looked like each other but different from mainland Portuguese cats and missed the characteristic "Viking Profile" of higher-than-expected pure white and orange/tortie cats. Such cats are found across Shetland and Orkney and the first research grant I ever landed [£200!] was to classify the cats of Donegal for evidence of Viking settlement there. I wrote about this decade of travel before.

Why would I specify that the cats of the Azores didn't look like the cats of Trondheim or Københaven,
Q. why ever would you expect them to?
A. Because hot fresh evidence has appeared to suggest that, as with Greenland and Labrador, Nordic peoples discovered, explored and settled the mid-Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Azores hundreds of years before the Portuguese rocked up in the early 1400s.

This was flagged by a really interesting post of MetaFilter. There are links to the original papers and a really engaging 30 minute interview with genetical ecologist Jeremy Searle. The data is two-fold: a) a 2015 paper by Searle who sequenced the mitochondrial genome - ~14,000 bases - of a few hundred house mice from Madeira and several of the Azorean island b) lake bottom mud-cores which found 1) loss of tree pollen; 2) gain of rye-grass Lolium spp. pollen and 3) a layer of 5-beta-stigmastanol, a steroid molecule characteristic of sheep and cow shit . . . in cores dated 700-1200 CE at least 200 years before the advent of Diogo de Silves in 1427. Searle, who has sampled mouse DNA from all over Europe, pegs Denmark as the origin of Madeira's mice and places further North for the Azores. These data are much more extensive, robust and repeatable than our cat coat colour genetics but our data from the 1980s is a sort of proof of principal.

[who knew that the Spanish for longship is drakkar? so cool]

Monday 25 October 2021

Moffat of Henhouse

Another Moffat heard from! We left Gwen Moffat swinging is space from an uncertain belay. I've spent the last couple of weeks coursing through The Secret History of Here, a year in the life of Alistair Moffat, arts impressario [Edinburgh Festival Fringe], journalist and author. About 30 years ago, Moffat left the buzz of Edinburgh and bought a ruined steading and 80 acres just south of Selkirk in the Scottish Borrrder country. As a writer, working from home was normal before it became trendy covid-imposed and his wife Lindsay had an interest in horses, so buying a piece of semi-self-sufficient security as a finishing school for his three townie children seemed like a good idea.

Hmmm sounds a lot like us. Moffat was larricking across a hillside some years ago when he noticed that a roughly shaped boulder had ᚐ ᚆ incised along one edge. That's really not a lot of signal to realise that he had the tail-end -HA of an ogham inscription. No amount of searching in the locality has been able to turn up the rest of the words. This is, apparently the most easterly example of ogham script ever found. It's the kind of discovery that changes a chap's life to one a little more observant, a little more obsessive; like our Ringstone has put a big dunt in my own driftiness about the landscape. Here's The Henhouse in the midst of its patrimony:

Did someone mention maps? A bit more than myself, Moffat has been poring over ancient mappes, rent-rolls and census returns to conjure up a deep history of the random tract of fields, tracks and copses that he acquired. It's like Prairyerth, William Least Heat Moon's rabbit hole of details about a single county of Kansas "Be careful going in search of adventure - it's ridiculously easy to find." You can do the paperwork at your desk: cosy enough having stoked up the wood-burning stove. But to really discover the landscape you have to be up and doing outside. Moffat was greatly assisted in this element of his research when the family acquired a rather disagreeable Westie Terrier called Maidie who didn't like puddles, long grass, nettles, streams, strange dogs, cats or cats-and-dogs rain. Walking off some of this prima donna's yappy energy required long treks before breakfast pretty much every day. But it gave them both an all year all weather view of the place.

The small steading is bisected by an ancient trackway which served as a thoroughfare long before the Romans pushed north of The White Wall to subdue the wild folks of North Britain. Conveniently the local laird officiously shifted the right-of-way in the 19thC which allowed the Long Track to sink back into undisturbed obscurity. With the help of his pals Rory Low, the detectorist, and Walter Elliot, poet, writer and archivist, Moffat has turned up a trove of treasures from neolithic arrowheads to silver pennies to a pair of WWII love-tokens.

Another thread holding the book together is the walking-in-wonder relationship between nearly 70-something Moffat and his 3 y.o. gdau Grace. Moffat's own father died at 70 and he has a curmudgeonly streak of reflecting on the end of days - both his own and the planet's. He also has a tendency to get weepie over the might-have-been which blight all of our lives. Grace otoh is full of curiosity and the joys of Spring all year round.

The thing about later books by established authors is that their publishers are [too] indulgent about copy-editting. A book is not the same a blog. The Blob is now 2 million words of stream of consciousness: nobody is ever going to read that through at a sitting. The life-in-a-year format inevitably includes stuff for thin months which a ruthless good copy-editor would have left on the cutting-room floor. The Secret History of Here errs towards scattergun middle-way of The Blob and away from both The Haiku & from the coherent longform narrative you find in a real book. Maybe it's better as a talking book than the e-book I had through Borrowbox?

Sunday 24 October 2021

Hokusai and everything

Augers and auguries

Friday 22 October 2021

Away with the screaming couch

 I was sharing an anecdote about blind in college and how one supervisor made a big difference by asking the right question: "What can I do for you that will let you live your best life?". Then hot on the heels of that trigger, I tuned into a zoomposium on being disabled [team pictured below] in graduate school organized by @DisInGradSchool; unsurprising that I got the link from Metafilter. A bit more surprising is that a year old YouTube on such an important topic should have accumulated 300 views and 3 comments. Then again, maybe not, only 6/6,000 people turned up to a pronouns workshop during Diversity and Inclusion Day in 2018. Poor us the consumer: limited time for YouTube and baskets of kittens vying for attention.

While we might be outraged if issues of Ableism in college were presented by a privileged white chap backed by a trust-fund, it is shocking that disabled graduate students have to work so hard on their own behalf to begin to approach the level playing field experiences of Able students. That is the key to Ableism - the trials and tribs of the dispossessed are largely invisible and probably inconceivable to those of us who are within the normal range [however in heckity that is defined]. Many supervisors of my acquaintance would begrudge their disabled students devoting time off the bench on such a public good venture as this zoomposium. But PhDs are rarely vocational [a PI might supervise >30 graduate students in a lifetime but only one of them can inherit the chair when the incumbent [finally! have they no rest homes to go to?] retires. It is all about the process because the average publications generated by an average PhD will be cited less than once and plummet to obscurity before the degree is won. A PhD is a licence to think for several years: investigate the unknown; navigate the landscape; avoid the pitfalls or make tools to climb out; critically evaluate data; cogitate independently; collaborate in buzz-groups. Putting together and scripting a zoomposium on disability; presenting it to the public; contriving a transcript and uploading it to YouTube is at least as much creative work as making a yawwnn poster to present at the annual conference.

Now here's the thing: The Institute and the Supervisor trust their students not to make up the data but they don't trust them about their own health conditions. To get a lien or accommodation because you are dyslexic, dyspraxic, autistic, visually impaired, mostly 'armless, consumed by cancer, weeping with pain, recently bereaved; you need to fill in some fatuous form in triplicate, draft a cover letter and get it all signed by a doctor, counter-signed by your boss . . . by their boss and your next of kin and then . . . you can get a week-long extension for an assignment. No wonder the disabled forego this humiliation and soldier on through the pain to the detriment to their own health and . . . [get this The Patriarchy] their productivity.

The zoomposium is entitled The Couch from a brilliant anecdote about how a PI accommodated his autistic graduate student during their one-to-one meetings: my advisor has a couch that is pink and plaid and very visually loud. And when I'm looking at him sitting on that couch talking to me, I can only hear the couch I have no idea what he's saying [laughter]. And I felt ridiculous telling him "I can't hear you over the couch." He took that completely fine, it was fine, and we move somewhere else and now I never have to look at that couch again. The [laughter] from his colleagues was so full of empathy and love.

What can the rest of us do, as colleagues, allies, supervisors, administrators?

  • Ask "How can I accommodate you?"
    • and listen to the answer!
  • Move the Disability Centre nearer to the centre of campus rather than hidden in some bushes the far side of the football stadium
  • Make an offer of help which you can fulfill
    • Can I draft a letter?
    • Can I review the next chapter of your thesis?
    • Can I take your plates out of the incubator tomorrow morning?
    • I'll sit here like Bob the Scientist and listen while you vent
      • I promise won't offer any advice, let alone solutions, but I will hear you.
    • What kind of cookies will I bring in tomorrow?
  • Call out any dipshit sexist, ableist, racist comments made in your hearing
  • WTF, don't limit that pro-active collegiality to the token in the wheelchair - just normalize being kind and asking what people need. 

Wednesday 20 October 2021

Science of Storytelling

 Fado fado i Sasana . . .

The Science of Storytelling - Why Stories Make Us Human and How to Tell Them Better is a book by Will Storr "Award winning journalist, best-selling author and story-telling speaker" according to his own puff. He's also an accomplished ghostwriter so it's not clear if his "has sold a million books" includes the works for which he received cash but no credit. 

The only time I was paid cash for creative writing, what the reader saw became notably more readable and engaging because of the care and attention of a copy-editor from Natural History. There is clearly something to The Craft of writing: the information content is only part of the story. Even clear, unambiguous conveyance of facts and ideas can be dull dull dull. You can teach Craft in college or writer's workshops and some of the students may even pick some up of the floor in these sessions but again obey proscriptive rules doesn't make the story take wings. I also worry that the care and attention of that copy-editor from Natural History moulds every submission into a similar generic house-style which also can be a bit dull. Here's a rule: the only verb that may be used to anchor dialogue is "said". The argument is that, if you use murmured, cried, ejaculated, the readers attention is diverted and distracted from the actual dialogue. Kerri ní Dochairtaigh's persistent use of wee instead of small, tiny or little was distracting although allowable given that wee is the standard in the Scots and Nornish dialects of English; for the rest of us wee is yellow.

Will Storr's contribution to the how to write better conversation is to read a few books and a few papers of accessible psychology and use these to better order sentences and paragraphs so that curiosity is maintained right up to the end. His position is that curiosity is a key element of what it is to be human. We are, despite the Armani suit and iPhone, not parsably different from the palaeolithic hunter-gatherers who were our ancestors a mere 1,000 generations ago. Stories are one powerful way of informing children [and adults, indeed] about the acceptable limits of behaviour in our time and place. [Aside 'tho Storr doesn't say this: Step-mothers get bad press in fairy stories. I think it's a bit glib to frame the trope into the different reproductive strategies of the incoming woman and the genetically unrelated sub-adults already occupying the home [and heart, we hope] of the Patriarch].

It's likewise superficial to present a, probably under-powered, probably WEIRD, psychological study with a >!shazzam!< flourish to explain why MacBeth works by MacHinery needs oiling. 

Another strongly held Storr belief is that character should drive the story, not the plot. If characters are just automata carrying the story forward, then the story will ring hollow - because it is. IF you can create believable, internally consistent, even if contradictory people [or hobbits or rabbits], THEN the story has a heart which can beat in harmony with the reader's.

It's not that I think this book is not worth reading [or hearing - it's on Borrowbox] but I do recommend buffing up your crap-detector before accepting all its findings. Indeed, Storr is at pains to say that his ideas hope to help readers become better writers; and there is always more than one way to nail the plot. If you can't read the book [7 hours] Will Storr does it in 15 TEDx minutes. If you're planning on writing your first novel, then the Science of Storytelling is not worse than any number of books analysing the structure of the novel from the perspective, and with the tool-kit, of The Arts Block.

Monday 18 October 2021

Do they take sugar?

Inappropriate Questions is an interesting CBC podcast. It's run by Harv and Elena [L] and gets a bit edgy.

Where are you from? jingles a few bells. Because the cliché question when two Irishers meet on an airport layover is "Where are your people buried?" According to the podcast their are certain First Nations where a genealogy is essential for correct and appropriate treatment by others. Less so in Ireland but it won't be long for those two travellers to find a cousin or a college friend in common. Clearly the issue resonates with the status and integration of New Irish.  [transcript].

I get that question a lot because my accent [RP / Middle-class Southern Brit] doesn't match the shit-covered bib overalls standing in a lane in the Irish Midlands. One of the few occasions when me-the-Patriarchy is back-footed. It doesn't usually provoke a knee-jerk, and later regretted, "go back where you came from", though. I remember pausing on the Camino to chat to a young chap. He asked where I came from and I said "Ireland" because that's where I'd left my books and family. His companion, a Nordie, harrumphed and turned away with "Don't sound Irish" which was just a teeny bit pots and kettles.

Another episode interviewed Christine Hà, whom I last saw on the way to becoming Masterchef in 2012 - when The Blob wasn't even a twinkle. Hà is an expert, not only in cheffery, but also in being blind and her IQ question was "is it okay to ask blind people if they need help?". It is clearly only going to start the conversation if you only ask one person for their experience, so they spoke to Dr. Mahadeo Sukhai, blind from birth and also Director of Research at the Canadian National Institute of the Blind. Dr Sukhai has a chirpy sense of humour but ex officio he also has data. The CNIB's position is that being put in the position of having to ask strangers for help is a poor second best to designing, equipment, products and systems so that they are fit for purpose - for wheelchair users, vision impaired . . . and any others towards the end of whatever bell-curve of 'normal' is in the works. In any society with a finite budget, this must be an aspirational position because governments are, in their nature, utilitarian: trying to spend the least possible amount to ensure re-election.

Appropriate Question: How can we help you in your work / in this situation? Do you need help? is too binary Y/N 1/0.

There are transcripts even if the index is a bit ragged. [via MeFi, where commentary, examples]

Sunday 17 October 2021

Sun Mixum

Rockin' and a rollin'

Friday 15 October 2021

I will lift up mine eyes

 It's about eight weeks since I was tasked to survey and mark three sides of a (400m x 200m) rectangle of our commonage, so that we could cut all the bracken Pteridium aquilinum within the area and none beyond it . . . it's a controlled experiment, like. Well, last Saturday ready or not I had to retrieve my bamboo flags because the cutting season is effectively over.  Conditions were less than ideal; with the clouds capping the top of our hill periodically descending to envelope the lower reaches in gloom. But at least it wasn't raining: so I merely got damp to mid-thigh rather than wringing wet.

As I noted when I put the berluddy bamboos up, I shouldn't have been out on the hill-face on my own with such unsure footing. Especially when the cloud came down enough to obscure the sticks I was looking for. I had to back-track 75m to fetch one I had walked past in the mist. I paused for a breather when progress became futile . . . until the Yaris-sized cylindrical rock, which I had been heading for, reappeared. Beyond the rock through the roiling fog-bank, I could clearly see a large long hummock slashed with diagonal marks. Puzzled, I tried interpreting this as a clump of gorse Ulex europaeus bushes or a large distant ridge. Both wrong, like Frs Ted and Dougal with the cows: it was a smaller rock, closer to.

But the oddest thing happened when the cloud opened out to reveal a glimpse of sunny fields on the other side of the valley. My sense of horizon had been totally fritzed because I found myself having to look up at these fields which kind of canted them into a vertical panorama - most disconcerting. Made me think about pilots flying into mountains while disoriented by cloud. I made it home with 12 sticks having put out 12, so I go closure on that at least.

Thursday 14 October 2021

Hail to the chieftain

Paddy Maloney [R with Zuckerberg haircut], founder of The Chieftains and Claddagh Records gone die on Monday in the fullness of his years. The Chieftains put Irish Trad on the world stage not least by listening to music from outside Ireland and riffing on that. Let's just listen:

Wednesday 13 October 2021

Mind and change

The second week of November is Science Week. It was a bit piano last year, what with Coronarama but The Powers that Science are trying for a bigger splash this year. A national, multi-venue, several day festival needs a good bit of forward planning. [spoiler] Wexford Science Café has decided on a theme of Metanoia - allowing your certainties to be toppled by evidence. This is particularly on point because of the bunkers, barricades and tribalism which has been cemented by The Virus. I think the formal question put to participants will be "What have you changed your mind about since Wuhan?". The participants in the WSC gig in Science Week will mostly be, well, scientists.

Meeeeee! I cried, without really having a clue about whether I had changed my fossilized thought-cycles about anything since March last year. I find myself notably prone to availability error: I {gab | blob} happily on [and on] about what is uppermost in my 'mind' so I had a couple of ideas available which could be worked into a five minute piece-to-camera.  But my original idea, about the ethics of keeping small animals in homes, was bit edgy for pet-loving Ireland. So it was erasers out, and back to the tabula raza to think about my recent mind-changing experiences.

A tuthree weeks ago, when I was on the hill scything bracken with my neighbours and was getting talked at by one of them about the pernicious dockens Rumex obtusifolius & R. crispus which were taking over his pastures. This man is scientifically ignorant but not stupid and his solution was to spray the whole field with a dicot specific herbicide like by 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid aka 2,4-D [branded Trimec; I've blobbed about how this selective chemical works]. But, he said in his stream of consciousness, it will kill all the clover and I know that clover is, well, A Good Thing.  This same man used to say kidding-not-kidding that with modern farming if it couldn't be done from a tractor seat, it wouldn't be done at all. I turned away back to The Work and pondered how and whether a different view of docks could turn them into an asset. That's a well-trodden path of ponder since farming stopped turning stock into species-diverse meadows and embraced monocultures of Lolium perenne - perennial rye-grass - which tests have shown will get sheep and cattle up to market weight quicker than any other species . . . especially if you lurry on the nitrates. Docks are weeds because they are successful when all the other dicots have been done to death.

The very next day I heard Catherine "Sheepish" Friend talking about composting bracken and wool as a replacement for peat-based compost. Now that was a change of view-point about my previous six days of work trying to make bracken disappear rather than having sheep disappear into banks of bracken far higher than their woolly backs. I sort of knew that the old people used to harvest bracken as an available winter bedding which was thrifty but labour intensive. But this was a whole other view of the value of ferns. And right now the value >!for shame!< of a shorn fleece is about the same as a Mars bar and much less than a latte. As proof of principle, I went down to a field more convenient than The Hill and cut a generous sheaf of bracken [L] to add to the compost. Need some industrial espionage [or indeed some original scientific research] to determine the exact proportions of ferns to fleece.

Another option for surplus fleece is as packing for boggy walk-ways in Co Leitrim. [via G my KK correspondent]

Like Baldwin's of The Déise who started making ice-cream on the farm because it was tooo depressing to see their milk sold for half-nothing and turned into milk-powder. You can add value to things if you are creative and work hard on the marketing. Paddy and Joyce O’Keeffe, pioneers in the dairy-biz and founders of Tipperary Organic Ice Cream [prev] retired in 2008.

Monday 11 October 2021

Black and Red

At 08.20 hrs on the morning of 8th October 1952 in lifting fog the Night Sleeper bound for Euston from Perth thundered past three adverse signals and ploughed into the end of a local train stopped at the Up Express platform in Harrow and Wealdstone station. Minutes later a Northbound express struck the pile of debris, mounted the platform and took out the station foot-bridge. It was a mess:

Railway carriages were / are built to keep the rain out not trains and there is a hella stack of inertia in 700 tonnes of train travelling at 100km/hr. The carriages which adsorbed this energy were shattered if primarily wooden or crushed like a compacted coke-can if steel. The people inside were not restrained in anyway. At least the folk waiting on the platforms could dodge out of the way, although several of them were among the 112 who were killed and +300 injured.

There were many heroes but many reports singled out Lt Abbie Sweetman USAF [L holding a drip] - The Angel of Platform Six. She was part of a medical team from a nearby USAF air-base who arrived asap after the crash and started a triage station on one of the empty platforms. Triage is where competent people make decisions about [further] treatment. It is a key skill where there are numerous casualties. David Nott, the MSF surgeon, recognised that triage was as important as treatment. It takes somebody with blunted affect to keep calm and carry on rather than go all to pieces. Lt Sweetman administered morphine to those most clearly needing its relief but she also marked their foreheads with a clear red M with her lipstick before shipping the injured to hospital. She also tagged the untreated (and so in need of extra care and attention) with and explained to the ambulance men what the glyphs meant.

It was a lesson to the English paramedics, who as lowly "ambulance drivers" were trained to scoop and run. Getting the injured to trained medical staff in hospital with expedition. They were empowered by the example of USAF effectives that they could also stay and play and make a difference.

Another the past is a foreign country story is that of 14 y.o. boy scout Gilbert Powell who heard the >!crash!< and jumped off the bus to school to see what he could do. Being small and agile, he was sent in under the pile of shattered railway stock to see if anyone was still alive in there! There was a different baseline for health and safety in 1952, not least because it was barely 10 years since the blitz when you couldn't wait for someone in authority to start digging your neighbours out of the rubble. Poor young Gilbert got roasted successively by his father, his mother and his headmaster for getting his uniform dirty and being late for school.

My Son The Railway Engineer would like to add that the disaster at Harrow and Wealdstone - the worst peacetime rail-crash in Britain - gave significant oomph to the roll out of AWS advance warning system. AWS is a nifty system for bringing the signals inside the drivers cab and making them audible. It works by electromagnetic induction from devices installed between that tracks which is picked up by detectors on the train.  For a variety of reasons SPAD [signal passed at danger] is still a problem but AWS internalization is a step in the right direction.

Sunday 10 October 2021

Me Da's bDay


Friday 8 October 2021

Requiem for Zollies

 I confess that I have only the haziest idea where Solomon Islands, the country, is. South Pacific but nearer to New Guinea? Ethnically Melanesian rather than Polynesian? Guadalcanal? Yes to all. And it's not Arthur Grimble's Pattern of Islands - that's Kiribati. Mount Popomanaseu on Guadalcanal, is 2,310m high so less at risk from climate change and The Ice-shelf Apocalypse than  the whole island on Ireland. But Guadalcanal is only the biggest, fattest and most populous of the 1,000 islands that string out across the Ocean between Bougainville [NW] and Vanuatu [SE]. Stats and Map.

I am sorry to report that, in my lifetime, 5 of these tropical paradises have been wiped off the map except in the memory of the last people to have a clam-bake on the islands. They are part of a barrier reef along the North coast of Santa Isabelrom the West:

Name 1947 2014 ID
Kale 4.9 ha nul 16
Rapita 4.6 ha nix 14
Kakatina 1.5 ha zonders 12
Zollies 1.2 ha nada 2
Rehana 3.8 ha zero 1

These findings are the headline of a 2016 paper Interactions between sea-level rise and wave exposure on reef island dynamics in the Solomon Islands by Albert et al. Well that's how the Guardian treated the news in May of that year. 

But the divil is in the detail. When you zoom into Figure 2c [L], you get the explanatory "Note: Kale Island was completely displaced by 2014". Kale, much battered by storms and greatly reduced in size, is still keeping its nose above the water. I guess that there is not a grain of sand left dry at low tide that was present above the tide-line in 1947, but surely its the same island by any sensible definition. It's the same with your pointy finger: every molecule in every phalange has been replaced since you stopped growing. The calcium phosphate matrix is in a state of dynamic equilibrium [TMI prev] with the circulatory system because calcium is essential for muscle and nerve function. Whatever about the detail, this is not looking good: Zollies is a straw in the wind for a lot of low lying archipelago nations. But remember that Amsterdam, Bristol, Cork, Dublin are all at sea level and will need to stockpile sand-bags. Did someone mention sand? That's disappearing into concrete at an alarming rate.

Wednesday 6 October 2021

Feathers and stones

For my birthday, I was given Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh to read because it is about landscape and language. I really should have slowed down and started with more care and attention because I found myself giving a judgmental <tsk> when the word unimaginable was used 3 times in the first 10 pages. That's a lazy word, I thought with my copy-editor's hat on. But ní Dochartaigh was quite right: for comfortable middle-class patriarchal me, the terrors meted out upon a younger Kerri in Derry during the twilight of the last century are indeed unimaginable. At the age of 11, petrol bombs were pegged through her bedroom window and her family fled in the night leaving everything behind. There was no obvious safe-haven because one parent was catholic the other protestant. The family fractured under the pressure and the rump of it left Derry for the rural idyll of integrated and inclusive Ballykelly. At the age 16, Kerri's boy friend was murdered and buried in a shallow grave in the woods. Too late, the Good Friday agreement which had been signed off a year earlier but not implemented until 7 months later.

No snowflake, she, Kerri battled on through school [recurrent chickenpox during her A-Level exams!] and secured a place in Trinity College Dublin vowing never to return to Derry. Sojourns of exile in Edinburgh and Bristol followed: consuming her 20s pursued by the Black Dog and unresolved, indeed undiagnosed, denied,  PTSD. Her restless, disfigured soul sought solace in Thin Places - where the spirit world was separated from quotidian 'reality' by shell of a robin's egg. She had been introduced to such places in Donegal by her beloved slightly off-kilter grandfather who was both Seanathar and Seanachaí. Wherever she washed up for college or work, Kerri made time to roam, not always alone, in wild places where curlews uttered their plaintive cry and waves smashed against the cliffbase.

For a city-girl she learned to pay attention to moths and dragonflies and frogs. And often she'd pick a sprig of gorse, a perfick stone or a bright feather from moor or foreshore to hold the memory of a flaming sunset or a buffeting wild-water swim. Sometimes these found treasures would travel with her on the next stage of her not-Derry journey; sometimes they became another entry in the catalogue of loss.

Now here's the thing; some pretty other-worldly events have impinged on Kerri ní Dochartaigh's life. I found myself asking if that was just because she was paying attention and so opened the doors of perception or if her teetering about on Thin Places somehow opened a crack in the fabric of the universe. I have two daughters. One of them strides through the world making her way to purchase cheese and return home to cook: she often stops to talk to the homeless guy on the bridge between her quayside home and The English Market, where she chats away to her friends the cheese-mongers. Otherwise she walks invisible. Her sister, OTOH, will frequently be asked for directions to the station; or at work be a magnet for questions about the catalogue, Excel, tomorrow's weather or the favorite for the 2:30 at Newmarket. Is there something in her demeanor which says bother me?

Thin Places is poetry, and it's not always clear to this reader if crows, foxes or butterflies are out there or in her troubled mind; but she seems to attract 'wild' animals in the way that Sts Francis and Clare did in 12thC Italy. There's one cathartic incident when she is sitting on the stoop reading a book and watching the day when her phone beeps <where there is no coverage!> on the kitchen table within. She gets up to answer and a window, complete with frame shatters out on the still warm step. The poor chippy responsible lets out a synchronic howl of despair thinking he's killed the girl downstairs. Maybe, it's the unexplainable unaccident that we can all expect once in a life time. I had mine in 1992.

Soon enough after that NDE, Kerri is called home, not by her family but by the unresolved trauma that her family had been unable to cope with, let alone help her. Help comes in the form of a man, who has patience, compassion and a sort of unconditional love; against this rock the fear, self-hatred and anger break in waves until their energy is spent. Weekly sessions with a professional therapist helps, too.

So in contrast to my other recently read see the nature, hug the trees books [Dara McNulty - Nan Shepherd;- Andrew Grieg - John Burns] Thin Places is not fluffy. But Thin Places shows that what kills not fattens for taming the savage heart. Those who go the edge and return can tell us something worth knowing about the human spirit and what courage can achieve.

Monday 4 October 2021

Sheep as fluffy

 The flight to the city and consolidation of rural holdings into latifundia operated by robot-tractors means few farmers are getting their hands dirty. But publishers recognise a market for romanticized tales of embracing rural bliss. I'm their mark! Return to Ithaka or Driving over Lemons or The Shepherd's Life. Maybe 1'm not the core demographic of folk who read these Good Life books . . . and dream; because we are living that life and have been for the last 25 years. I could write a book too, but it wouldn't find a ready market because our farm life has no publishing hook: no hilarious pratfalls, no earnest tragedy, no stoical privation. I even have a title Ten Minutes from Ballindaggin. It's all in The Blob anyway, just needs a filter to fillet out the farmlife fables.

The hook for Sheepish: Two Women, Fifty Sheep & Enough Wool to Save the Planet might be lesbian yarn because the author Catherine Friend does get into carding, spinning, weaving and knitting towards the end of her book. Friend was an author before her partner Melissa brought her into farming: first as the indoor hand but more and more into the bodily fluids cycle of tup, take, birth, shots, suck, wean, feed, shear and death. It's pleasant and empowering to see a city-bred keyboard-jockey get increasingly engaged with farming and the outdoors. It's good see see anyone changing their strongly held opinions about something and embrace The Other. You can't easily call knitting-and-stitching folk "fiber-freaks" if you're knitting your own comfy shockin'pink winter socks. Bonus: knitting from your own wool!

Doing something anything with our wool is a touchy issue. This year we took 15c a kilo for raw fleece and the Agri Strore wouldn't even pay us until they had been paid in turn by the wholesaler. What is the point of subsidizing sheep farmers if the product is mere drugget on the market? There are 3 million sheep in the Republic each producing 3kg of wool that's 9,000 tonnes of wool but there is not a single plant for processing this mass of fibre in the country. Here's the math:

  • Sheep's wool house insulation density = 18kg/cu.m.
  • 1 roll 100mm x 400mm x 6500mm = ¼ cu.m. costs £30
  • or £120 / cu.m.
  • we get €2.70 for 18kg of raw fleece
  • if They can make a profit on this transaction in Germany and Britain, why not here?
Did someone mention Cumbria? Sheepish mentions in passing that Dalefoot Composting is making a peat-free potting compost from fleece and bracken. I've spent 6 working days on the hill thrashing bracken to free the grass and forbs for sheep. The dead plants were left lying in their own spores. Dalefoot says there is value in bracken and fleece. I'll scythe bracken if you bale it!

Sunday 3 October 2021

Sunday Roundabout

Bits n pieces

Friday 1 October 2021

Across the river

Maybe it's because we're the last farmlet in Co Carlow but I am endlessly fascinated by frontiers, borders and what lies beyond. In our case, it's a six acre field of Wexford cows. Most of the time you can tip-toe across the rocks of the R. Aughnabriskey, which marks the county boundary here, without getting wet feet. Don't try it during a wet Winter, though; the stream can be a roaring torrent 2m deep, ready to sweep you off your feet to an undignified battering death.

I was enticed to read at piece on RTE Brainstorm How Ireland's county boundaries define us, which was a bit rambling and unsatisfying given that title. But Dr Siobhán Doyle, a cultural historian from TUDublin, did have some interesting views on cases where the traditional county borders, frequently defined by rivers, have been modified subsequently to consolidate urban development. There are four cases, I am familiar with, two cited by Dr Doyle:

  • On foot of the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898, Carlow town [and County] annexed a 50 hectare triangular chunk of Kilkenny across the Barrow Bridge which includes Carlow Town Park and playground [map above]. The boundaries are two straight lines are right angles: clearly drawn boldly upon on a map in the late 19thC rather than surveyed on the ground.  It is certainly not obvious at eye-level where Carlow ends and Graiguecullen, Co Laois begins. The boundary clips a corner of Killeshin CoI parish church leaving half the graveyard in another county. There is a huge flap periodically "widespread shock and outrage" when another Boundary Commission announces that the whole of Graiguecullen will be transferred to Das Grossekarlowreich to simplify the administration of what is clearly the same urban district. These petty local loyalties are greatly exacerbated by the existence of the GAA which encourages tribal flag-wagging in order to sell more county-colour jerseys.
  • 50km down stream, 30 hectares of the Kilkenny=West bank of the Barrow were assigned to the "Urban" District of New Ross and thus to Co Wexford. New Ross for many years competed for the least attractive town in Ireland prize and having the derelict asbestos-roofed Albatross fertiliser factory in this Rosbercon exclave did nothing to enhance the view. The site was cleared in 2018 - people are brightening up the other side of town with floral displays and colourful murals.
  • Still further South, the same 1898 Act transferred Ferrybank, including the railway station, North of the mighty River Suir from Kilkenny to Waterford. Again, more recently Boundary Commissions have advised rationalising the county border to weight domestic and commercial common ground, rather than the geological accident of where the R Suir heads off to the sea. As with Carlow, Waterford was founded and grew to commercial greatness because it could act as a gatekeeper for river traffic in days before there were reliable roads let alone railways to transport goods and people. You really should check out Dr Doyle's article if only for the paint war on the cliff above the railway station. 
  • Further North, in the heart of the Midlands, Athlone sits astride the Shannon, which is here the border between Counties Westmeath [East] and Roscommon [West].  As above, the 1898 Act formalised the addition of the railway station and the big church of St Peter and Paul and the army barracks into Co Westmeath. This is a much bigger area than that added to Carlow or Ross, somewhere between 200 and 250 hectares. You can see below that was rather an ambitious "urban" transfer because swathes of New Westmeath are still manifestly agricultural fields even 120 years after 1898:
For me the most intriguing aspect of this map is the straight blue line which joins the two ends of the triangle of annexation. Zooming in on Google Maps confirms the suspicion that it is a canal: taking an efficient direct line while the Shannon takes a lazy eastward bight. The existence of this artificial water way was a complete surprise to me . . . and to The Beloved who spent all her school days in Athlone.

But the Athlone canal had not escaped the attention of Brian Goggin at Irish Waterways History.  Mr Goggin was an enthusiast who acted as a one man compendium of knowledge: the kind of chap who'd do really well at Mastermind. His website seems to be a clearing house of information and a regular port of call for fellow navigation enthusiasts.  Mr Goggin died last year and is clearly much lamented by his family, friends and correspondents.

The Athlone Canal was started in 1757 at the behest of the Commissioners of Inland Navigation. It was designed with a single lock rising 4.5 feet = 1.4m. The whole scheme was by-passed and rendered obsolete when the present weir and lock was constructed in the actual river during the 1840s. In Easter week 1989, we were moored above the "new" lock waiting our turn to descend when the sky darkened and a ferocious blast of horizontal sleety-snow swept the river. By the time we'd negotiated the lock and were on our way South to Portumna, the snow was forgotten and the sun burst out from behind the clouds. In Ireland we have weather, not climate!