Friday 31 December 2021


When I was young, I worked for half a year in the Fish Department of Diergaarde Blijdorp aka Rotterdam Zoo to earn fees for graduate school. All my work-mates had left school at 16 because the preferred animals to books but they all spoke English . . . and German or French or both. The only reason I acquired any facility in Nederlands was because I had a pact with mijn makker Yvonne to only speak Dutch on the job. There's a bunch of words about aquariums which I still don't know in English.

Gaston Dorren grew up speaking Limburgish at home. By the time he was the same age as I was picking up the rudiments of Rotterdamish, Dorren had added Dutch, English, German, French, and Spanish to his linguistic toolkit. The tin-ear part of me heaves a big sigh of relief that I grew up speaking English but I suspect my lived experience would have been richer if I'd grown up with more than one way of articulating my world. Dorren has worked to master some non-PIE languages since then and recently published Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages, which I've been reading over Christmas. Turns out that {Ahn Yongo Ankilam Ingilizce Inggris Engelisi Angrezi Eigo Kiingereza Englisch Anglais Inggeris Angliyskiy Ingles Ingreji Ingiliziyy Angrezi Ingles Yingyu}  is the Number One language of the world - and not only for civil aviation and bioinformatics. It achieves this by being the second language for about 1 billion people; nearly ½ million of whom, mostly Polish, live in Ireland. 

The above list of {English-as-a-foreign-language}variants have been transliterated in to Romaji/Latin alphabet and I spared you all the diacritical marks which make, say, Vietnamese, so interesting on the page. The 20 languages riffed on in Babel are those which can muster the largest number of speakers and half the people on our blue planet have achieved mastery of at least one of them. The Others jog along in about 6,000 tongues, about one of which winks out every week. You should be able to have a punt [Anglais?], from the list, at which languages make the cut for Babel.

Each chapter of the book has a title page giving the head count and a stats page highlighting some peculiarities of inflection, gender or grammar which characterises that language. Beyond that Dorren makes an effort to changes up the way each chapter is written. A little like Ulysses where both style and story are different for each episode.

The chapter of Farsi is an amusing Socratic dialogue. While a big chunk of the pages allotted to Arabic consist of a dictionary of words borrowed into English: safari, sahib, Sahel, Sahara, zenith, sharia, sash, sheik, zero / cipher, sequin, sorbet, scirocco, sofa, sugar, souk  . . . and that's only (some of) the Ss.

He devotes much of the chapter on Hindustani [half a billion speakers] exposing the posturing on both sides of the Radcliffe Line. The Pakistanis insist that their people speak Urdu, while across the border Hindi is the language of the government of India. But everyone enjoys Bollywood films without recourse to subtitles. Subtitles would indeed only pile on confusion because two different scripts [ دو مختلف اسکرپٹ दो अलग स्क्रिप्ट ] are used on either side of the borrrder. You may have seen the furious turkey-cock border ceremony at the Wagah Crossing.

Other interesting facts about linguistics, politics, history and the subjunctive have been hooked onto other chapters - these insights are usually relevant in other parts of the world. Great book - recommended. Next? Lingo by . . . Gaston Dorren

Wednesday 29 December 2021

Soggy old Christmas

One of our neighbours escaped the Irish Winter to make a three week sojourn in Tenerife with their family. Fairy nuff, I said, not without a twinge of envy. Their aged dog was not invited and a series of dog-sitters were engaged . . . who turned out to be spectacularly unreliable. I fielded the first call for doggie backup less than 48 hours after they left and again on Christmas Eve: please feed the old boy and make sure he can get himself into his bed afterwards. The Boy is over for the hols and he came with me out into the gloaming for the walk, like. It was handy enough to have someone else to hold a torch to make sure I opened the right tin of dogchow.  It was a little drizzly.

That night it started to rain stair-rods over the 'sunny' south east. Not monsoon quantities but a weather front got itself stuck over our corner of the country and delivered ~50mm of rain between midnight and Christmas noon. When I went to let the dog out, I there were puddles right across the road but four hours later at noon, the drain that runs in parallel to our drain was brimful and roaring. The two outdoor effectives - The Boy and Dau.II  - came with me up the hill to try diverting some of the roaring water off the lane. On our way back, I saw that the drain had breached below our house and was ripping up the road surface between us and civilisation. The cars were ASAP squeezed past the damaged roadbed while Dau.II & I worked to clear the obstructed drain.

Even as we got the drain to drain, the rain started to ease off and by Christmas teatime we were in control without anyone having sustained injury. There is only so much that it is sensible to do with a shovel and wheelbarrow, when tractors with front-loaders, backhoes, and various grades of road-fill are available for hire or purchase. The bridge at Kilcarbry Co WX (about 15km from us) washed out. But for us the Christmas Day Flood of 2021 achieved only Third 🏵️ in records of damage sustained by the lane to our home. First, Second. .The lane is on a 10% grade and downhill water has a tremendous energy for destruction. St Stephen's Day dawned clear and dry and sunny and I was able to recover my spirits by having one Old Dog take another up through the forest to get a little closer to the moon [pic R]. Life is good.

Monday 27 December 2021

A life in an hour of the RNLI

 Years ago The Observer's colour supplement had a last page of mini-biographies which they cleverly called A Life in the Day of . . . Monsieur Hulot [or whoever]. It wasn't until years later that I realised that I'd misread the title as the more normal A Day in the Life Of . . .

My latest audiobook from Borrowbox is Sea Rescue Stories by The RNLI. Borrowbox has a really terrible search function [or I am too thick to make it work properly], so I often download any book in which I can muster a flicker of interest. Which is good for me because I get to read things I would normally pass by if I had €20 I had to spend in bookshop on a rainy afternoon. RNLI gets my tribs and occasionally actual folding money because a) it does good work b) it provides a stage for heroic acts. Running a soup-kitchen or teaching maths to orphans are worthy enterprises but rather rarely requires bottle.

This book is a bit like David Carroll's Dauntless Courage celebrating the history of the RNLI lifeboats, their crews and the maritime heritage of the Dunmore East community [prev-review] insofar as it tells tales of crazy-bravery at sea. But here the stories are written in the first person by a few of the people who have won a medal from RNLI Head Office in Poole. Amazing life-saving exploits at sea are the bread and butter of RNLI and they can't be pinning medals and inviting volunteers up for a presentation in London every time someone is plucked from the clutches of Davy Jones in rough conditions. So I guess these stories are above-and-beyond. One of the stories is the source of the photo

Lifeboating is traditionally man's work; any associated ladies were left ashore to start preparing hot soup and sangers against the return of the crew. Not so much any more: there are plenty of women who pass the exams and afterwards go out on shouts with the lads. Two of the tales are by and about women, and HarperCollins has therefore elected to employ two readers; one to capture these female voices. Why? Why is that the salient feature? What about the fact that these stories come from all over these islands and presumably have interesting regional accents? Wouldn't that make for a more interesting audio book? For the male voice choir they have recruited Tim Bruce who makes it all sound like Blue Peter, the earnest BBC children's TV show of my youth. Gosh gee-willickers, I was exhausted when they pulled us back on board . . . but the thought of tea and sardine sandwiches soon revived me.

There's always room for another hero. If it doesn't happen to you [and statistically, it won't] this book will give you a whiff of what it's like to feel your heart in your mouth at the same time as trying to hold down your lunch. 

Friday 24 December 2021

Holiday Zoom Fun

For as great many covid-conscious families, there will be separation this holiday. YMMV, but we have a spent a chunk of most Christmas Past days on the blower talking to family and friends because a) we miss 'em b) Vodafone offered free calls to all. But it gets a bit desultory if a) it's the only call of the year b) there are multiple parties at each end round-robinning all-against-all. So here's somnething to give structure to your Zoom and a bit of mostly 'armless fun. 

Families tend to read/have the same books. You can play cryptocomms (®©™) where the words [or letters if pushed] of a message /proverb are sent as page X, line Y, word Z and the other end/party/team has to get the answer [quickest]. King James Bible can be handy because-on-line and widely-available as Book, Chapter, Verse, Word. 

Here's your starter.

  • Genesis 8.9.5.
  • Nehemiah 10.33.1
  • Ezekiel 33.8.6 [R looking intently R]
  • Daniel 4.4.5
  • John 1.1.5

The Da Vinci Code would do too. Ezekiel cried them dry bones

Wednesday 22 December 2021

The kindness to others

I'm not a poet. In my teens, my hair was long, I wrote poetry, but I'm not a poet. You need to pay attention to be a poet, and have exacting standards, and bin full of scrumpled drafts. Kate Clanchy is a poet although I've only read her prose; and of that only one book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me and that only through my Borrowbox ears. But listening to the cadence and being sprung from the ordinary by her turn of phrase makes this memoir sing. As you might guess from the title, this story is an account of 30 years at the coal-face teaching English and Poetry and Passion and Empathy in Comprehensive Secondary Schools: in Scotland at first, then among the exotics East of London. Clanchy's anonymized school is filled with the dispossessed - generationally unemployed, refugees, New English, poor. Because parents with any mojo or moolah will place their kids where the exam results are better: in the, largely mistaken, belief that schools generate college-bound teens rather than the resources and expectations of the parents.

Teaching is a vocation, at least for some teachers: Clanchy's mission is to hear the voice of her teenagers [flanking above] and this, in itself, is extraordinary; because ordinarily poor teens are ignored or treated like a noisy noisome pest. She acknowledges that, while some have a true poet's ear for rhythm and sound, they almost all lack the ability to analyse poetry: their own rhythms & metaphors or those of others, in a way that will allow them to pass an exam. And their vocabulary is stunted too: because there are no books at home or Mum barely speaks English. Thing is that these children have lived lives less ordinary and can, if allowed and encouraged, create poems of stonkin' power and affect to make sense of the horrors they have endured.

Clanchy, with her observant eye, has a habit of using an element of her pupils looks or presentation to nail their character. " . . . his anger was as big as the weather" . . . “so small and square and Afghan with his big nose and premature moustache”. This language has triggered a twitterstorm of indignation about Clanchy's ableism and racism predictably captured by the Guardian. And Clanchy, contrite, has agreed to re-write the offending passages for the next edition of the book. So that's a win but it's also a shallow judgement because I find that Clanchy genuinely cherishes the diversity manifest in each writing class. Racist folk see differences as a caricature of their own preconceptions. Clancy sees it as something wonderful: such grace and freshness; such grit, and wit; such mutual support and pride and rivalry. Sure we could be, like the Finns, institutionally colour-blind but that makes for a monochrome duller view of the world. Acknowledging, celebrating, The Other allows us to recognise that differently-abled means that kids with ASD can see things and do things differently not worse than you and me. By extension the views and experiences of the dispossessed

Another mis-step which didn't get as much traction is Clanchy's claim to have been Othered at the start of her teaching career in Scotland. She qualified to teach with a PGCE after gaining a BA from Oxford. Having been born and raised in Scotland that's where she wanted to teach, but all she could raise were temporary substitute-teacher jobs. Permanent posts seemed to be reserved for folks whose Scots-cred was unimpeachable: her English accent and Irish surname damned her to the second-tier along with Canadians, Kiwis and USians whom she met in the substitute teachers annex of the staff-room. So she headed South and worked with refugees, immigrants and poor whites in Greater London. On some level that is equating her status as a refugee from her native land with that of her Syrian and Somali pupils. Of course, pitching up to London on the train from Edinburgh is not the same as arriving in Tilbury packed in a clandestine shipping container, but the loss and sense of betrayal have some sort of cosmic equivalence.

This is a great book: inspiring, compassionate and a devastating indictment of "school" under 30 years of Tory misrule. Read it now before it is re-written in Newspeak greyness. As a taster why not read some of the poetry which she has midwifed from troubled teens over the last 30 years at the coal-face.

Monday 20 December 2021


Our economic and political system is all about acquiring stuff: without consumption of goods [and services] the economy wouldn't grow; and economic growth is the headline statistic summarizing how a society is doing. Crazy stuff happens: every household in our valley owns a cordless drill. The average lifetime usage of such a gadget is 20 minutes.  How much better the planet would be if those 50 households stored a log-splitter, a cordless, a cement-mixer, and a bit of scaffolding in a shed in our midst?

Cars are the same in this sense: unless you are a rep for big pharma, the district nurse or a courier; your vehicle spends 95% of its life stationary at home or in the works' car-park. I chose to have a 90 minute round trip commute making idle time [1.5 ÷ 24 hrs = 96%] but I did less driving on Sat+Sun. There's no way round that if your car guzzles gas [even as little gas as my Yaris]. But if we are going to be moved - kicking and screaming - into a world of electric vehicles then the idle car can be come an asset . . . but only if we can think out side the personal toy mentality of my car.

Utrecht is a city for which I have a lot of affection: we lived there for a while in the 1970s when I was working in Blijdorp Zoo in Rotterdam. The centre was small but perfectly formed round a big church and a market surrounded by a canal where the old cellars and warehouses had been converted to cafés and flower-shops. Utrecht also has a University and has become a bit of a tech and business hub because it's more gezellig and family-friendly than Amsterdam or Rotterdam. It is throwing shapes to be the City of the Future.

My pals at Metafilter flagged a real eye-opening short aspirational film about integrating domestic, commercial and transport electrical energy in Utrecht so that they draw very little from the NL national grid and each sector supports the others to make best use out of car batteries. Because Lithium car batteries have massive capacity for storing electrical energy. Efficient energy storage is vital for any economic planning because renewable energy and human energy consumption both fluctuate wildly through the day, through the week and through the year. 
  • Everyone puts the kettle on during the commercial breaks in the Eurovision
  • Solar panels don't work at night . . . or in Mayo
    • Days are much long during Summer
  • Wind comes in storms . . . or it's flat calm.
So ASR Nederland, an insurance company, has roofed the car-park in solar panels and provided 250 bi-directional v2g vehicle-to-grid car-charging points. The drones come to work and plug in their cars. By the time they have walked up to their cubicles, the car batteries have fired up the lights, the computers . . . and the kettle - because no work gets done without koffie. In the afternoon, the sun comes out and the solar panels top up the cars before they are needed to return to workers home.  There are 2,000 solar panels with a capacity for generating 850,000 kWh of electricity. An average home in Ireland - or Nederland - uses about 4,000 kWh of electricity each year. So roughly the 250 cars can bring home the electrical bacon and run the lights and kettles at 225 homes as well as keep the workplace warm, dry and lit. At weekends, the solar panels can feed back into the National Grid.

Currently there are 140,000 personal vehicles registered in Utrecht. Back of an envelope calculations suggest that, when the count electrical vehicles and charge points reaches 10,000, then the whole city will be a closed loop for its electrical needs. I think that's dead cool. Naturally Metafilter adds some value and numbers to the discussion. TIL that Tesla Power Wall is A Thing.

Sunday 19 December 2021

Friday 17 December 2021


Just when I was gearing up to chainsaw some logs into fire-wood lengths, I found that a huge lump of a branch had fallen from a great height from the tallest and shapeliest of our mighty ash Fraxinus excelsior trees. This tree is definitely symptomatic for dieback judging from the baldy look it acquired this Summer. It is awkwardly placed in the very top corner of the garden where I have my 1 tonne IBC full of water against a droughty Summer and all the concrete blockwork compost bins. Maybe 20 years ago a large branch plummetted to earth from this tree and embedded itself in the ground well within the foot-print of the polytunnel which we put there a few years later.

I couldn't blame Storm Barra for last week's descent to earth but descend to earth it did. Miraculously missing the water container right beneath the broken branch stump and laying neatly between the annual compost bins and the kitchen-compost ditto. I noticed that the wood where the branch had split from the mother-tree was covered in a white mycelia and my first through was this is what happens with ash-dieback.  But the next couple of logs cut from the fallen branch showed a twisted green-stick fracture and a lot of humussy sponginess in the resulting void. In other words nor diebacjk pandemic but quite normal cycle nothing to see here. It is amazing that the tree can sustain such a sub-fatal fracture to one of its branches in a storm and carry the damage for years - setting down new lignin fibres to compensate for the loss of structural integrity. But note also the crack also opened an entry point for the white rot fungus. Immune protection is a combination of physical and chemical barriers.

Wednesday 15 December 2021

Wex Sci Caf Sci Bok Lst

Tuesday 14th Dec 2021, yesterday evening, The Wexford Science Café held an Ignite-like session on [science] books recommended by [only six] attendees. Here's the list of books mentioned:

Tuesday 14 December 2021


I had my second [first] essential to the progress of science jaunt up to Dublin last Friday. The problem with Irish Rail is that the timetable is full of legacy, inertia and crankiness. For example, the ferry from Pembroke in Wales pulls into Rosslare Harbour at 0645 hours and foot passengers are just in time to see the train leave the station at 0720 forcing them to kick their heels in Rosslare for 4½ hours until the next train for points North & civilisation. With only 5 trains a day each way [3 only on weekends], you can't schedule your journey to snuggly bracket a meeting or a bit of shopping.

But a different mindset can turn the 'dead time' in Dublin into a positive. Dau.I the Librarian met me at the station and we hung out for a couple of hours until my meeting. That was great, first we did a bit of lite shopping so I could [✓] my Kris Kingle box and then we stopped supporting the economy and went and sat in the Wintery sun on a bench in TCD's College Park. It was lovely, a bit like hangin' out with her mother when we were bone-poor students in the 1970s and a cup of coffee was a huge bite out of the weekly budget.

Dau.I is one term down in her Master's in Librarian Woo [MLW] and one of her assignments is to decide on the Dewey Decimal Classification for a tuthree recently published books. DDC is a 19thC patriarch's way of breaking down the bookiverse into a meaningful hierarchical classification: 

  • 500 Science
  • 570 Biology
  • 576 Microbiology
  • 576.8 Evolution!?
The commonality of her task seemed to be working out the primacy of the content of a book. Should a History of Guinness Peat Aviation be filed under Transport, Irish History or Hubris? There is no right answer here but librarianship students have to think about, and justify, their decision. That's cool. It matters because any branch library is only going to order one copy of such a book for its patrons and the book will, according, to its DDC, finish up on This Shelf rather than That Shelf which will make it more or less likely to be borrowed by an interested browser.

Because we are both a bit down with the gays we talked about the pros and cons of hiving off all the BLT books into a separate rainbow section. You might think that is a Good Idea: making it easier for the marginalised to get what they want to read as efficiently as possible - a bit like having a children's section in most branch libraries in the country. But imo ghettoization is rarely a good idea. And you might suspect that taking that kind of stuff off the general shelves is more a don't frighten the horses courtesy to straight readers. Apparently Wexford Library Service puts specific stickers on certain categories of book upon accession - a 🗡️ for crime, 🌈 for BTLit etc. - and shelves them with everything else. But really what constitutes LGBT+ literature? Fun Home? Oranges are not the Only Fruit? The Miracle of the Rose? Lord of the Rings? And does a passing mention of a same-sex snog whoosh a book onto the colour shelves?

To show how silly that could get, I suggested that librarians, especially in coastal boroughs, could frame sailing in the same way. Obviously The Cape Horn Breed, Moby 🐋 Dick, lots of WW Jacobs, pretty much all of Joseph Conrad, The Spanish Armada, Mayflower Pilgrims, Swallows and Amazons, and the screenplay for Titanic would all need waterproof covers. But what about a novel where a character called Halyard crosses the Thames on the Woolwich ferry?  Is that Genl. Lit or Nautical?  It would take a librarian with far more self-certainty than me or Dau.I to answer that question.

Monday 13 December 2021

Over promise O'Vaxxie

I wasn't always a vaxxer, but as a Born Again Vaxxer BAV, and because I was relentlessly institutionalised as a child, I'm quite the opposite of vaccine-hesitant. Which is just as well because I feel like The Man has ragged us around a good bit getting two shots into the arms of two elderly cohabitees. 

  • First they took our Eircode
  • Then they assigned us to the R95 vaccentrum in Kilkenny despite it being twice as far of a drive from the Y21 centre nearest us
  • Then they gave us appointments separated by exactly 24 hours
  • Then they wrote the wrong date on my card
  • 12 weeks later, we [same Eircode, same household] were assigned slots 8 days apart
  • The Beloved phoned to see if one or other could be rescheduled
    • No!

Last Thursday 9th Dec 21 we got a rather peremptory txt from the HSE more or less ordering us to find the nearest walk-in clinic for a booster. The messaging was that Sunday 0900-1900 was the Best Time for 60 y.o.s to get their booster shot. Our nearest vaccentrum is Y21 Enniscorthy.  The HSE says people in Co. Wexford are ” eager” to get a Covid 19 vaccine booster. It’s inviting members of the public, who are over the age of 50, to attend a walk in vaccination centre in Enniscorthy on Sunday. The facility at the Astro Active Centre in the town will be open from 9am, and no appointment is necessary [source].

The following day, from a different Mobile #, we were given two appointments back at R95 Kilkenny - one at 17:40 and one at 19:15 both of which are well after dark; and it's a long way from home. As I have Wexford Science Café at 19:00, there is no way we can make that appt. We therefore took a punt on no appointment is necessary in Enniscorthy on Sunday morning. Figuring that Ireland sleeps in on Sundays, we turned up at 10:10 to see a line of folks straggling out of the Vaccentrum . . . into the street . . . across the LIDL entrance . . . up to the main road . . . and back towards town and not because they were separated by 2m. There must have been 400 people waiting there, outside, in the drizzle, in December and all of a good=vulnerable age. Seemed like a recipe for 'flu and we hadn't bought lawn-chairs, a flask of tea or a thermal blanket . . . so we did a U-turn and came home.

I'm delirah that the vaccine uptake is so strong in Wexford but that's a helluva lot of "at risk" person hours waiting around in marginal weather conditions. It's not as if it was tix for the last ever Bob Dylan concert or the allocation of a ration of mealie-meal during a famine.

PS added at 18:00. So as not to spend all our arms in one place, we found a no appointment is necessary vaxxcentrum in R93 Carlow open 2 to 5 this afternoon. Rocked up 25 minutes before the doors opened to be #2 & #3 in the line outside. All done and dusted by 14:30. The joys of not having to go to work, maybe? That would be Moderna: not expecting to develop Bell's Palsy or Myocarditis

Friday 10 December 2021

New sawyer

We felled out a couple of slow-dying ash Fraxinus excelsior trees recently. I've been stacking, sawing, splitting and [wood]shedding through the mountain of fallen timber that resulted.  It's ash, so IF I expose the maximum amount of interior surface area, by splitting anything thicker than my arm, and stack it in a nice draft, covered against the rain, THEN it will be ready to burn next winter. As I said to the New Faller Seán, ash-dieback is going to be his bread-and-butter [and our wi♬ter fuuuuuel] for the next ten years. I like doing the post-op ground-work: there is no tearing hurry, like there is on Felling Day, and log splitting is a contemplative puzzle with elements of zen. I go through the smaller logs with by bushman bow-saw because it's quiet and the cut is razor thin. I've so far filled one bay of the Hilbss Woodshed with ~2 steres of split logs [R with splitting maul for scale, and face shield for safety]. That's a little over half a cord for any Nordamericano readers.

Knotless, branchless ash logs split very nicely with a satisfying >!tonk!<  but they have to be cut to a length [400mm max] which will fit in my woodstove and for that, as for the gnarly bits, a chain-saw is your only man, despite losing 1 cm of each cut to sawdust. Quite apart from the hassle of getting into my kevlar PPE before picking up the orange workhorse. Anyway, on Sunday arvo, I cleaned my chain-saw and touched up the teeth with a file, so I'd be ready to do some work the following [I R Retire, so every day is Saturday except the Sabbath] day. Imagine my chagrin when I test-started the saw and the pull-string failed to engage.  Because, as it transpired, one of the two key watch-springs in the mechanism had broken.

Luckily, making idle conversation over tea and chocolate biscuits with Seán, I had asked who was his Go To for chain-saw mechanics. Tree-surgeons don't expect to do more than routine in the woods maintenance; no more than you know how to replace a timing belt on your car. And the answer for North Central Wexford is Diarmuid Sweeney Grass Machinery at The Harrow. Accordingly I called him up early on Monday morning and delivered the chain-saw before lunch. It was all very agreeable not least because Sweeney's watchword is "No Problem" uttered in a calmly competent manner. It was as well that I tried finding him on Monday because the following day Storm Barra carried away a crucial direction sign.

"No Problem" Sweeney called me first thing 48 hours later to say that my saw was working and ready to collect. That is the fastest turnaround I've ever gotten from the 1, 2, 3, 4 chainsaw-guys I've dealt with over the last 20 years. And the price was less than we pay the plumber. We had company for lunch, which was delightful, but there was still an hour of daylight left after I nipped down to the Harrow and back to collect the saw. Brrrzzzzt brrrrrrzzzzt cut cut.

Wednesday 8 December 2021

wood wide web

[linguistic bias note: wood wide web is a clever, alliterative, memorable descriptor of the interconnexions down under the leaf litter but it gives primacy to the mighty redwood trees and makes fungi a passive bit-player part of the infrastructure. keep mighty myco medicine in mind as you walk through the woods]

Rupert Sheldrake [prevoblob and background]is an interesting bloke, he was born in 1942 and obtained a Bsc and PhD from Cambridge U and worked for years on the biochemistry of plant hormones . . . but he was also interested in the mystic traditions of India. He tried to paddle both canoes by leaving Cambridge and working at The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) near Hyderabad in India. But couldn't square that circle and has been increasingly critical of the complacency of science. He has the distinction of delivering a TED talk which was too challenging for that supposedly Out There organization and got deleted and then re-instated in a cupboard in the basement of TED Centraal - you can find it there but nobody will tell you where it is.

þe apple falleth not far from þe tree. His son Merlin Sheldrake [R offering his book up to The Great Spore of the Earth] is also a scientist but not a boring one. My current audiobook [5 minutes on edible truffles] is his Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures. This long subtitle is a bit like Mark Kurlansky's Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of Their Common Fate [prevoblob] but The fungus book is a bit less gloomy and apocalyptic. One way you can get your Out There ideas out there is to give up on the ould peer review and write a book. In a book, or a blog!, you can leaven the solid findings of scientific research with some untestable speculation . . . about how psychotropic mushrooms may have opened to the doors of perception in early hominids. Give up the ould tree branches wumman, you should try strutting your stuff on the ground . . . and the rest [axes, barley, clocks, dredls, epi-pens, flintlocks . . . and Voyager II] is history. I used to lecture about the contingent events that started humanity down the path from being just another ape and I'd never heard of that idea before. It doesn't seem wilder than some of the other speculation that has been thrown into that stir-about.

It is true that we have all been insufficiently aware of the impact fungi have had on the rest of life on earth. My life would be immeasurably poorer if I couldn't buy fresh baker's yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae from our Polish deli on a regular basis. Fungi have been vital to the colonization of land by plants: they release phosphate and other minerals from bedrock and can buffer the soil for water, so that there is sufficient but not too much in the kind of habitats exploited by plants. There is a whole chapter on the investigation of nutrient transfer and sharing mediated by soil fungi in forests. Physiological ecologists of the profit-and-loss school like to count the molecules of carbon fixed from the air by photosynthesis and traded with fungi for phosphates and nitrates. This is why lurrying nitrates onto farmland to boost yield can be a blinking disaster. Some species of fungi are treasured by other members of the ecosystem because they can fix nitrogen. If this competitive advantage is set at nought by the Haber-Bosch process, then slimmer fitter microbes will elbow those beneficial fungi aside . . . making that field, on that farm dependent on artificial fertilizer forever. To the nearest whole percent, we know 0% about what makes a forest, or a hedgerow, or a pasture tick but in our hubris we're happy to barge in with a helpful intervention.

Just as a particular insight into how fungi can leverage a living, consider the case of zombie ants. These are typically some species of colonial Campernotus which get infected by Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. Through a combination neurotransmitters and hyphal invasion of the ant's brain and motor centres, the fungus alters the behaviour of its insect host. The ant is induced to climb up certain plants and attach itself to a major nutrient transport vein on one of the leaves. There the husk of a former ant hangs until the fungal fruiting body bursts out of its head to shed spores for the next fungal generation. There is nifty fossil evidence from 48 mya that zombie ants were being brain controlled by a fungus similar to today's O. unilateralis.

Next time you're tempted go chow down a handful of Psilocybin, ask yourself what's in it for the fungus to have you wandering about in sheep-pastures looking for god. Just who is in charge here?

Monday 6 December 2021

Virtual evolution

Psychologist William James (*) characterised the world of a newborn child as a “blooming, buzzing confusion,”; we spend the rest of our lives trying to make sense of it all. With the development of language we can explicitly put labels on things out there [Mom; the other feller; the pink dinner, the beige dinner; Mitsy, the cat next door, Cats] but even illiterate animals, like Mitsy, can put things into bins and react appropriately - food = good; sea-water = bad; dogs = proceed with caution. Most folks go through their entire lives (like M. Jourdain in Molière's le bourgeois gentilhomme who is surprised and delighted to have been speaking prose for the last 40 years) doing this with realising they have the skill. Many of us, for example, have been forced into a radical re-think of pronouns in recent years because {M/F, his/hers, ♀♂} is clearly a bit of a BLunT insTrumenT.

I'm a biologist, not a very good one, out in the field, but I think a good bit about taxonomy - the science of classification. I've written about a profound discussion we had sous le pont d'Avignon about how to lump living creatures into appropriate bins. Some schemes work better than others - because they make better sense - they generate more internal consistency; they make the world a bit less random. "Have wings" is kinda useless because it includes wasps, fruit-bats, mansions, buzzards, 747s, football teams, dragons and angels. It's not always obvious either: whales really are streamlined hippos.

I think this is an important concept to get over and when I was teaching "Evolution" and "Genetics" back in the 80s, I used Caminalcules [selection above: from] as a defined dataset to help students think in classificatory terms. These delightful creatures were invented by Joseph Camin the the 1960s. He started by drawing a cartoon animalcule and imagining how it might evolve. Changes were made to a copy of the original drawing and so, iteratively, through several subsequent generations down several different paths.

At some point Camin aka God called a halt to evolution and assembled 29 extant / living species on a single sheet of paper for a student exercise in practical thunk. The task was to use scissors to cut out each of the 29 Caminalcules and put them into bins of similarity. Like mammalian classification, the task is probably recursive: dogs are more like wolves than either is to foxes; leopards is pretty close to those lads; but cows and bats . . . and wombats are further and further away from Fido. I started doing the same in the 1980s: we'd work in pairs initially; pause, compare notes, discuss, adjust and finish up with a solution that pleased everyone in the room. Usually next year's class was in close agreement with their prev peers.

An additional task is trying to infer the ancestors of the 29 leaves at the end of the branches but that was more than my students needed. Having The Answer in the fossil drawings which Camin had made seemed a bit luxurious to me. In the 1990s, I shifted countries and emphasis and started working on DNA and protein sequences and using them to infer evolutionary relationships; and the pattern and process of evolution along the way. In the 90s there was no fossil DNA (and no fossil-fossil missing link whales, for that matter) so a great deal of the effort was inferring ancestral states in the sequence tree.  This century, Dan Bradley and Lara Cassidy at TCD [yes yes and lots of others across the world] have opened up another dusty can of worms by getting to sequence ancient DNA. Now you can ask 23andMe just how Neanderthal your brow-ridge is.

(*) It might be worth noting that William's younger brother was writer Henry "The Turn of the Screw" James.

Sunday 5 December 2021

Sintaklaas today

Bring on the boterletter

Friday 3 December 2021

Timber Wars

Joseph Wood Krutch: When a man wantonly destroys one of the works of man we call him Vandal. When he wantonly destroys one of the works of God we call him Sportsman . . . or a logger.

Following on from my education about the interconnectedness of Salmon, I found myself listening to the a 7 part podcast from Oregon Public Broadcasting called Timber Wars or how the spotted owl Strix occidentalis [R ¿looking hunted?] helped save [fragments of] the old growth forest in the Pacific NorthWest. As we saw in my previous, the forest provides food, shelter, gravel and ambient temperature for the very first teeny-tiny stages of this beautiful and tasty fish. And, of course, the forest as a million year developed ecosystem is home to a beboggling variety of insects, molluscs, fungi and and potential antibiotics . . . as well as board-feet of building lumber.

Wednesday 1 December 2021

New Faller

 There was a time in my life when I had to spend a regular night in Dublin and was too thrifty to pay for a hotel. It was almost always because that night was bracketted by two long days pushing the frontiers of science at work. In those noughty days, you could get a clean bed and toast for breakfast for about €12 and I made it a bit of a project to spend my money widely to see which hostel offered the best value

I now find that I've gotten to know, and paid, quite a number of tree-surgeons and found that some are more fun than others; some are cheaper in the long run; and one was a nightmare - a bully who did none of the physical work but scraped half the actual money into his pocket. That bloke came with three other people - the tree-monkey upstairs and two fit young chaps to do all the pully-hauly ground work. All I had to do was a) pay b) stay out of the way. That was efficient but also wasteful as a goodly amount of [what I would call] firewood was pushed through the chipper without heating anyone's living room.

Ideally, 1 would like to have a couple of days to process the branches rained down from above and only chip the twigs and ivy that were too small to pass as kindling. But in practice it never works out like that because the groundlings have to clear the brash away from the base of the tree lest it builds into a nightmare log-jam higher than a tall man can reach. It's heavy work and has to be done quickly . . . and I think I may be getting to old for that nonsense.

This Summer, ash die-back Hymenoscyphus fraxineus really began to make its presence felt in at least some of the ash trees Fraxinus excelsior on our farrrm. A few weeks ago, a new kid on the tree-surgeon block sailed over our horizon for having sorted out a dangerous beech tree Fagus sylvatica belonging to some pals from the next county. We gave him a call; he came to scope the problem the next day; gave us a reasonable quote and a date three Saturdays thence. The immediate problem was the two ash trees which loom up behind the house, with heavy branches hanging over our little slated toolshed and the heating-oil tank. Eventually these branches, weakened by die-back, will crash down; probably at night in a desperate storm. Before that the tree will be unsafe to climb and so beyond controlled demolition. So we're moving early while the problem is still soluble with money. Three weeks gave me enough time to rig a temporary shelter over the oil tank [R] - if that gets cracked or upset we may drill a new well. An unintended consequence was it provided another reflective surface to annoy our psychotic window-bashing blackbird.

I was far too busy hauling branches about to take time to photo-document the process, but I did take a snap of Seán high up in a denuded tree [L to compare with the Before picture from July]. Yes, he is walking out along a branch 12m up, suspended by a safety rope attached to a residually higher part of the tree. The dense green to the left of this picture all came down after lunch. None of the falling timber, bar leaves and twigs, fell on the oil-tank shelter or the slated roof. But I'm glad I made the lean-to: an in$uranc€ pay-out is never as much as the disruption and inconvenience of a significant accident occurring. A huge pile of brash - maybe 20 cu.m. in size - was passed through the mulcher: about 70% fired directly into two 1 tonne builders' bags. I spent an hour the following week raking up the rest of the mulch spatter and bagging that too. A garden can never have enough wood-chip. Another unintended consequence is that we can now see the mountain from the yard in front of the house; so that's a win.

I tell ya, sad as I am to have one less tree to hug, felling out those too-close-for-comfort ash has been a load off my mind.