Wednesday 30 March 2022

Bart O'Borgia

Rodrigo de Borgia was born in Spain in 1431. He did well for himself. His uncle Alfonso aka Pope Callixtus III appointed young Roddy a cardinal at the age of 25. Pass it on . . . when Rod, in his turn was elevated to the throne of Saint Peter in 1491 as Pope Alexander IV, he was quick to appoint his illegitimate son Cesare Borgia a cardinal at the age of 18. Cesare was a ruthless careerist, rumoured to have killed his older brother in a love-triangle, and the subject of Machiavelli's The Prince the still relevant text-book of realpolitik. Whoa! Aren't ordained ministers of the church meant to be celibate? And fair-dealing? How much more the top-gun of the Vatican.

But, tush, enough of this. History is often a mystery and written to make a narrative out the mess that is the human condition. And Rodrigo is dead 500 years, that sort of thing doesn’t happen any more . . . does it?

The March meeting of the Wexford Science Café involved a celebration of Wexford scientists of yesteryear. Mary Mulvihill's book Ingenious Ireland has 32 chapters by county and is rather slim pickin's for Wexford. Someone joked that Mulvihill was running out of steam by the time she got to the Ws. But the combined minds of the attendees couldn't really present a lot of biographical fodder for the county. It has long been a source of bitterness that there was no University in the Sunny South East; with the under-thought that it's because there was never any oomph from the [non-existent?] Wexford STEM folk. Before the actual meeting - in the library - in person - the inner circle was tasked to do a show and tell on the Wex Sci Talent.

Someone volunteered to talk about mathematician Bartholomew Lloyd [L], born New Ross 1772, elevated to Provost of TCD in 1831 and died in harness 1837. I was delirah because there is a rumour that me and Bartholomew are related, but knew bugger all about the fellow. Unfortunately, when I offered: "Several years ago I was at a lunch at the Big House in King's County where my grandfather was born and was assured by David Norris that the New Ross Provost Lloyds were related to my K.Co. branch of the clan" Dr. Someone backed off from presenting his findings about early 19thC mathematical education in Ireland and insisted that it was my job. I shudda kept my flappy mug shut. But I would be a poor trained researcher if I couldn't rustle up enough for a five minute talk in about the same amount of Googling.

Bart is famous for bringing The Calculus into Irish mathematical education . . . only 150 years after Newton [1666] and Leibnitz [1672] invented and developed the concept. Which makes Trinity look like a bunch of hicks. But it should be noted that TCD added Calculus to the curriculum some decades before Oxford and Cambridge. Prior to becoming Provost, Bart had been Professor of Mathematics from 1813 and then held the Erasmus Smith Chair of Natural and Experimental Philosophy from 1822.  Thing is that fellows and professors at Trinity College were meant to be celibate - married to the job -  but Bart had married Eleanor McLaughlin in 1799 and they had produced 4 sons; starting with Humphey b. 1800 in Dublin. So that's one tick of walk like a Borgia.

One of the first actions of the new Provost was to ensure that his son Humphrey inherited his now vacant Smith Chair of Natural and Experimental Philosophy! In my book that's tick two of walk like a Borgia. The apple falleth not far from the tree and Humphrey Lloyd became Provost in his turn in 1867. Lloyd Jnr. made objectively the greater contribution to science: doing, like, actual experiments in optics, crystallography and magnetism. And founding TCD's School of Engineering 150 years before I got a free dinner out of the family connexion. But that's a story for another generation.

Monday 28 March 2022

Orange is not the only . . . compost

🍊 Dan Janzen is now one of the grand old men of ecological science. He first loomed over my horizon shortly after I rocked up to graduate school in Boston. That same year Janzen published a paper in the Ann Rev Ecol & Syst entitled How to be a Fig. My attention was probably drawn to this overview of Ficus ecology by Pete August who was then completing his PhD with Tom "Batman" Kunz on How to be a fruitbat. Every fig that you eat is filled with egg-cases and a dead female wasp who has parasitized the fruit to lay her eggs and propagate her species. Without her pollinating invasion, no fruit. Without bats to eat the ripe figs - and shit out the seeds on the branches of a distant tree, there would be few new fig trees. And don't forget that the tree which hosts the fig-seedling will eventually get strangled in place soon after the fig roots have reached the ground and no longer need support. [bloboprev] It was stories like that which blew my sheltered European Ivory Tower mind: the diversity and inter-connectedness of the natural world were almost too complicated to comprehend.

🍊 Dan Janzen coursed over my horizon again in the middle of last week when my correspondent and independent researcher G [multiprev] flagged up a more recent research project which Janzen had started at the end  of the last century. With his wife Winnie Hallwachs, Janzen had been instrumental in creating the  Area de Conservación Guanacaste ACG in Costa Rica where they had been doing much of their field work. The ACG was an almost pathetic too little too late project to save a fragment of the old growth tropical forest which used to cover swathes of Central America. Stout Cortez and his conquistadors started the destruction of the alternative reality which was the New World in their rapacious looting for gold and god. Colonialism and capital had finished the job. 

🍊 The thing is that tropical forests are abundant but nutrient depleted. If a single tree falls, its resources are captured and recycled back to the community by an active army of beetles, termites and fungi. If an entrepreneur clear fells the trees to supply the market for hardwood cabinets for Japanese salarymen, then the recyclers are coincidentally done to death and the biomass is shipped abroad. There is little carbon left to sustain regrowth. In one sense, the timber is typically a windfall once-off bonus payment for the new owners of the land who plan to grow beef for hamburger or citrus for the morning OJ of the plain people of America.

🍊Janzen and the ACG struck an unlikely deal with Del Oro, one of the fruit-growing megacorps which had been responsible for replacing a great tract of mind-bogglingly diverse old growth forest with a neat monoculture of orange trees for the juice market. In exchange for a tract of still-a-forest which they owned, Del Oro would be permitted to dump their waste skin and squeeze-dried pith in part of the degraded once-upon-a-forest. Del Oro accountants considered that the exchange would be a nett gain for their share-holders, the papers were signed, and truckloads of bright orange garbage were shipped to the designated area. But within a year of the start, the scheme was brought up all standing by a spiteful law-suit by a rival juice company. TicoFruit fought their case, that Del Oro had "defiled a national park", up to the Supreme Court of Costa Rica; and won.The last truckload of 12,000 tonnes of skins was shipped before the cease-and-desist order was applied; and Del Oro and ACG walked away from the project.

🍊Fast forward 15 years. Tim Treuer, a graduate student from Princeton, had completed “It was so completely overgrown with trees and vines that I couldn’t even see the 7-foot-long sign with bright yellow lettering marking the site that was only a few feet from the road,is course work but needed a project on which to attach his thesis. He fell to talking with Janzen, who had a faculty position in the school, and it was agreed that the pile of orange skins in Costa Rica could bare looking at again. Treuer went South to scope the situation and couldn't even find the site. “It was so completely overgrown with trees and vines that I couldn’t even see the 7-foot-long sign with bright yellow lettering marking the site that was only a few feet from the road". They upped a drone to capture the bird's eye view [L]. The side of the road which had been buried in orange skins was clearly different - and "better" - from the unremediated forest which had gotten only a whiff of decaying orange . . . and a blizzard to fruit-flies and fungal spores. The back of my envelope indicates that ½ a tonne of peel waste was deposited on every sq.m. Treuer et al. did plenty of science: measuring the height and girth of trees; counting species; comparing transects. But the picture is the executive summary.

🌳 In 15 years our 0.4 hectare forestette, with scarcely a single orange peel, has done well for carbon uptake and up-growth. Several of the trees, especially larch Larix europeaus, are now taller than our 2 storey home and as thick in the butt as my thigh. We've been talking with Sean the Forester [not the same as Seán the tree-surgeon!] about thinning in the tail end of this winter.

N🍊pe! It is not okay for you to take your organic-rich old mattress and drop it into a secluded culvert up in the hills: to increase the biodiversity and recycle nutrients, like.

Sunday 27 March 2022

Friday 25 March 2022

The Rochdale Reader

Years ago I was entranced by The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford [Reviewed by Robert McCrum]. It starts, as 6 yo Francis started, reading the Hobbit as his first book. The blizzard of glyphs gradually sorted themselves into signal and by the end of the book he had become a read-all, read-any person. Nobody taught the kidder to read, he learned the skill because he was motivated to find out what happened next.  The apple falleth not tooo far from the tree? There were plenty of books in the Spufford house because both the parents were Professors: Margaret was a rural development historian and Peter was an economic historian.

My most recent audiobook has been No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy: Memoirs of a Working-Class Reader (Hardback) by Mark Hodkinson [L in the 1970s]. His upbringing, born in Manchester and raised in Rochdale, was not so genteel. There were no books in his home; indeed his father worried that Mark reading books was a slippery slope to full chiffon gay. One of the 'handicaps' that was an asset to his development was the presence of a beloved but mentally unstable and potentially violent grandfather. The old chap died [slowly, alone, in the woods, having tumbled down a steep hill] when Mark was in his early 20s. In the dead-tree book, the story of their relationship and the swings of old chap's dementia, is italicised and interleaved with Mark's own journey to adulthood. On Borrowbox, which is read by the author, these interludes are cleverly indicated by a short piano arpeggio. From reading under the bedclothes and haunting 2nd hand bookshops (while ignoring school entirely as a source of education) he inched into journalism before papers were brutally shoved aside by the internet. 

He parlayed his journalism into long form and wrote a number books about soccer and punk which were two externals about which he developed some passion. After his grandad died and Mark was ploughing his own furrow, he found that people who spoke with a familiar voice [northern, white, working class] were like warts on the Literature Elephant: small, insignificant, faintly annoying. A one point he has an extended swipe at Robert McCrum [cited at top], official gate-keeper of what gets published by Faber & Faber and The Observer for a few decades. McCrum, like Spufford, had a Prof for a Pa and of course went to Cambridge. So it's easy for him to read and review Spufford's memoir which gets more eyes on those pages and more sales and the Patriarchy tightens its grip of public discourse.

With awesome courage and determination, Mark Hodkinson assaulted the Ivory Tower by creating Pomona as an independent publisher. Unfortunate timing! like his foray into print journalism, independent publishers were all in the process of being bought out or squeezed out by Harper Collins Printrun Penguin and Behemoth. These monster megacorps would hardly entertain a prospect unless 30,000 copies could expect to be sold. That was about 10x the longest print run Pomona ever got out to the bookshops. Nevertheless, for several years, Pomona took risks on publishing different voices to provide much needed variety and choice for readers; most of whom have never been to Cambridge even on a tour-bus. If you have a "library" at home, even a fish-box filled with Penguins, I think this book will speak to you.

Wednesday 23 March 2022

Face plate

 I watch this stuff so you don't have to. In this case, a presentation by Dylan Beattie, at the NDC convention at the end of last year, on aspects of the encoding of text. I've covered several aspects of this in the past

    • early memory was expensive, so the boffins invented a code ASCII where all the letters, digits and punctuation any reasonable person would require were represented by 127 different bytes - each of 7 bits
  • UniCode
    • whoa the world cried: we too are reasonable people who want to write の β ç Д and 用
    • indeed we have to write these or the instruction manuals will be ambiguous and people will die
  • less than [<] dead
    • indeed, incorrect encoding has killed Irish patients
  • Ogham = ᚑᚌᚆᚐᚋ
  • The world of representing the world [⚧ for example] in text is stranger than the doodz of the 1950s could have imagined.

but enough of the blob-back-catalog! we've read all that. What has Mr Beattie added to the debate?

One element of the NDC talk has become super topical since it was given 4 months ago. This concerned the 1968 UNESCO Vienna Convention on Road Traffic which among other things ventured to regulate cross border vehicle traffic. For people who ventured to take their cars abroad in the 1960s and 1970s one of the requirements was to put a conspicuous oval sticker on the back of your jalopie to tell everyone where you came from (IRL) for us (GB) for the Brits (F) for France. Apparently, the poor benighted GBrexiteers are going to have to pay £1.50 each to change their car-sticker from (GB) to (UK): to emphasise how much their government loves and respects their [Not Great Britainish!] citizens in NI.

At the other end of Europe there has been some posturing and face-saving. Apart from the sticker, signatories of the Vienna Convention, including USSR Russia and Ukraine are required to identify each car with a unique registration using only Arabic numbers and the Latin alphabet - no Cyrillic need apply. You can see why this might be handy in identifying the owner of vehicles which pitch over a precipice in the Alps or are accumulating parking tickets in Bratislava. Back in 1968 USSR, to the nearest whole number, no Soviet cars were allowed to cross the border so this requirement had no noticeable impact on Soviet licence plates. Seemingly, if you had [authorization] to drive from Moscow to Paris, you'd get issued with a set of offsite plates which you had to return to the Central Praesidium when you came back. I guess all bets were off for defectors.

Since the collapse of the Soviet dreamtime, ordinary Russians, not just oligarchs, have been travelling to The West for business and pleasure. This traffic rapidly overwhelmed the borrow-an-international-plate scheme, but it would cause a grave loss of face if the licence plates of Mother Russia hand-written by St Cyril himself had to bow to the diktats of Vienna. A bright Russian bureaucrat from their Vehicle Registration Praesidium suggested that they revamp the look and feel of car number plates to greet the new post-Soviet dawn . . . only using characters that looked like letters which were also used by the Latins. Those letters are PIKE MATCHBOX. When the tanks come rolling up our lane next Summer, we won't be able to identify them as Russian because their plates will be Vienna compliant.

Monday 21 March 2022

Census centennial

Last Monday I alerted myself and yourself to the imminence of the 2022 Census. Our Lady of the Census came to the door on Saturday morning. These things are <borrrrring> necessarily conservative because the quants at the CSO find it easier to make comparisons if the questions are the same as last time . . . and the time before.

But a new departure on p.23 is getting me all excitey! And I quote:

Time Capsule:
The Time Capsule is a dedicated space at the end of the census form for you to leave a message – if you wish – for your descendants / future generations / historians. Your message can be about anything you want, to anyone you want. Like the rest of your form, it will remain confidential until all of the Census 2022 forms are released to the public in 2122. 

Notes /instructions on the last page of the census form
Information you provide in this Time Capsule is optional and is collected voluntarily under Section 24 of the Statistics Act 1993. This content is protected by the same confidentiality protections as all your Census data for 100 years. After 100 years, this Time Capsule will be made available to the public. This space is for handwritten messages only.
Photographs and other attachments will be removed and cannot be returned

All the history we ever learned in school was about Patriarchs on Horses shoving pointy things at each other. It's only afterwards that I've read about the ordinary doings of ordinary folk in Firozkoh, the capital of the Ghurid Dynasty, when the city was  destroyed by Mongols under Ögedei Khan in 1222 or just prior to the Jamestown Massacre of 1622. Now, the 2 million households have an opportunity to tell it like it is.  Don't bother to tell your great grandchildren about the 2022 War in Ukraine; that will be exhaustively covered in the standard history.

So here's the plan. As well as Greeting The Future Inhabitants of Ireland with "Hello lads, sorry for the mess" we are going to bury an actual time capsule with some stuff which may be interesting / useful to people 100 years from now. On the TTD Things To Do for the project, the only time sensitive item is to a) decide where the sarcophagus will be buried b) how that location will be transmitted to The Future. Do you think that GPS satellites will still be beaming in 100 years AND that there will be "phones" capable of picking up the signal to get a location. Even if not, I reckon that GPS-like Lat and Long will be surveyable.  

A note on accuracy. My smartphone will give 6-figure accuracy for GPS coordinates. In Ireland, at callit 60° Latitude, a degree is about 100km N-S and 50km W-E.  So that 6th figure is claiming accuracy down to 10cm Lat and 5cm Long. But I've found that the last two figs are aspirational rather than reproducible.

Another note on accuracy. Last August I wrote about what3words apparently not being geo-stable over even 5 years let alone 100. Although I think that somebody will have translated each what3words 3m x 3m square into a non-electronic or at least 100 year stable map. But heck'n'jiminy, 3m x 3m is a task to dig over to a depth of, say 30cm to find something which may not be there; unless metal detectors still exist and our time-chest has metal hinges [note to self: make it so].

The only thing for it is to identify a 100-year-stable feature on the landscape and give Pirate Treasure instructions from there to the hole / chest / capsule. Some of the field boundaries onn our gaff have been there for at least 170 years . . . but some have changed. Even in the 19thC before back-hoes and bull-dozers, the mighty folk of the past were determined to build and erase 100s of metres of stone wall. I think I can identify places on that built environment which where the rocks will remain. The stream at the edge of our gaff will still be there, too. Another [either / or / both] option is to finger a really distinctive rock on the hill above the house and place the capsule at its foot and then draw a picture of the rock along with GPS and what3words coordinates.

What to put there? That depends on how millennial = apocalyptic I'm feeling at the time. D'ye think that entrepreneurs in 2122 will be mining Powerstown Dump looking for unbroken glass bottles for storage and metal for sorting and smelting? Happens today in the Third World.

Sunday 20 March 2022

Patrick's weeeekend

The Man in his beneficent generosity has "given us" an extra bank holiday because we deserve a break after the pandemic.

How quickly they ['s headline this morning] forget [Mariupol, Kharkiv]:


Friday 18 March 2022

perchance to dream

Baron Cuvier (1769 - 1832) confidently maintained that, from a single fossil bone he could infer the entire skeleton . . . and by extension a great deal about its life-style and diet. Archaeologists do this all the time: four rocks in a rough circle, dusted with charcoal, becomes a hearth; a chipped flint becomes an arrow head . . . which infers a bow - which points to carnivory.

My latest random book from the library is How to Think Like a Neandertal,(OUP, 2011) by Thomas Wynn [anthropologist] and Frederick Coolidge [psychologist] reviewed. You might think that a rather optimistic brag, given that all we have to go on is a suitcaseful of Neanderthal skulls. On average these have a larger endocranial volume than the average [1300cc] among "modern" humans. But we know that a bigger brain doesn't correlate well with intelligence. Lord Byron [2000cc] was not twice as smart as Anatole France [1000cc] and certainly not more compassionate.

Wynn and Coolidge both work at U Colorado, although in different departments and had been working  together on the evolution of cognition for ten years before they published their book on Neanderthal thinking. Many of their arguments hinge on the fact that the last common ancestor between humans and apes [Pan troglodytes, chimpanzee, is our nearest and dearest] was ~5 mya while between us and Neanderthals there is only 0.5 my. We are accordingly much more likely to have behaviour, practice and thinking like Neanderthals than either of us are to chimps. You can do quite a bit of lifting with that assumption.

If you do free-association with paleolithic hunter-gatherers then caveman is likely to pop into your head. The key thing is that a lot of human [both species] burials have been found in caves. That's partly because other burials: out in the bush, say, are much less likely to have survived. But it's also because lots of these caves have hearths and some have paintings which indicate that humans lived and slept in caves. The in-the-knows of the anthropological world are certain sure that no ancient art works are the work of Neanderthal hands. Work-a-day, functional worked stone axes yes; paintings and sculptures nope. No great ape ever sleeps in a cave because they habitually sleep off the ground in trees - usually constructing some sort of nest to do so. There are obvious advantages to sleeping up a tree if there are predators in the area which have bigger teeth and sharper claws who might fancy eating a small primate if such a dish was available on the ground. BUT when you sleep you lose consciousness and are prone to fall off your perch.

Several adaptations to this state of affairs have become fixed in our species because proto-human apes without those adaptations took a tumble and didn't leave any descendants. One of these fixes is REM paralysis which, in normal people and apes, disconnects the motor neurons when REM sleep starts. That way we can have vivid dreams of chases and extravagant sex without, like, acting them out with a thrash weeeeeeeeee CLUNK! We've never seen a Neanderthal sleep but Wynn and Coolidge [and me] will bet Lombard Street to a china orange that they also experienced REM paralysis.

But Wynn and Coolidge continue to push the idea that Neanderthals are totally on top of procedural tasks like making Levallois stone points, hafting a spear with the best, and hunting down a mammoth for a [mammoth] feed. BUT, they spent 400,000 years making the same-old, same-old paleolithic tools. Modern humans otoh were creatives. Mesolithic people invented nets, weirs and hooks for fishing; probably canoes and paddles; birch-bark containers; textiles from plant fibres; microliths assembled into longer sharp edges as sickels. Primitive stuff I guess, but Neanderthals were not invited to the party.

REM sleep is coincident with dreamtime and dreamtime is powerful magic for creative thinking. The events of the previous day are jumbled together and re-assembled to try to make sense of the buffets of an unpredictable world. Leaving trees and sleeping in caves allowed for longer periods of sleep undisturbed by anxiety about the big tumble. More REM! More creativity! So Neanderthals didn't sleep in caves, but only cooked there? I R Confuse! I could go back to re-read the final chapters of How to Think Like a Neandertal with furrowed brow and more care and attention. Then again, I could not: life is short and the actual data about Neanderthal cognition are few and far between. Drawing plausible arguments, like from rabbits from a hat, don't cut it, especially if the result is to give Neanderthals consolation prizes for pretty much everything and not really acknowledging that, for half a million years, they held their own: living, loving, and lounging around. A different sort of success without agriculture, bell-ringing, cash, dogs, exercise bikes, fajitas, gold, harpsichords, iPads, jigsaws . . . and a despoiled planet.

Thursday 17 March 2022

A pipe-free life

Lá Fhéile Pádraig! Here in Ireland we get a day off work to honour our Patron Saint Patrick. It's special this year because on Monday 17th Mar 1997 - 25 years ago - we threw a party for the builder and all his sub-contractors and their families. Cakes were made, drinks were taken and that night we slept in the house for the first time since we started camping on the property the previous Summer. It had been a year-long, legal and logistical journey since the auction but the house now had, for the first time: working electric sockets, hot&cold running water, functional gutters, a front door that closed tight and a roof without leaks. What any late 20thC home would expect as normal.

It took just 15 months before the acidic water ate through the hot-water cylinder to generate the first leak into the kitchen through the ceiling. It's been a succession of failures since then, and we've worn through 5 plumbers fixin' & replacin' stuff [starting with anything copper with the water so acid] which should never have been installed in the first place. It was therefore entirely appropriate timing that we should come home at tea-time yesterday [16th Mar] to hear the long familiar sound of drips in the hallway. 

Drips are waaaay better than a gusher. But it would be nice to limit our encounters with the current plumber: the poor fellow was only here in January! Nevertheless, a plumber who responds is waaaay better than one who is busy or who screens calls and doesn't pick up. On the up-and-up, we had floor-boards up, mops rags and sponges sopping up and ladders up to the attic before St Plumb came to the rescue. He replaced another length of copper pipe with Qualpex plastic, caught me up on some local gossip and departed after somewhere between 1 and 2 billable hours.

Not for the first time, I have spent part of the night asking whether all these modern conveniences are really worth the candle. My pal Judith Hoad embraced a Bucket Economy which kept it simple by eschewing pipes, taps and sinks. Clean water is a precious commodity but is pissed away by almost all of us on the island. If we brought every gallon into the house by bucket from the well-head then we'd be a lot more careful about wasting it. We know another family in West Cork who lived in a home without flush toilets. Nobody wants to go outside in the middle of the night for a tinkle, so they kept a bucket on the upstairs landing as a convenience. All went well until the day Dad stumbled at the top of the stairs while on empty-the-bucket duty. >!kaSPLOOOSH!

The picture at the head of then page requires an explanation? It shows my new Steelex 4-litre stove top kettle, literally eclipsing our old 2.1-liter enamel Le Creuset fashion accessory. I am introducing this by stealth, so that we will have hot water [bottles] when we get our next plumbing failure or electricity cut && the plumbing cavalry cannot gallop over the hill to the rescue immediately.

Wednesday 16 March 2022

Blow out

It's an anniversary of sorts this week because we moved into the house on the evening of 17th March 1997 - 25 years ago! We have a mighty poly-tunnel in the garden behind our house. We reckon it's been there for 15 years now; so we've had the tunnel for longer than we've not had it. I just can't imagine how we handled the the laundry before we had somewhere to hang everything without needing to keep a weather eye open for rain. And the tunnel has been useful for high-ventilation entertaining during Coronarama. The plastic is holding up but is getting opaque from sun-bleach even if I scrub the algae off - this significantly reduces the productivity of things photosynthetic. The failures have almost all been caused by rotting of the ordinary building timber to which we anchor the sheet of plastic. Replacing the punky rotten timbers as and when they fail has been a bodger's [meeeeee!] paradise and the overall look is patchwork.

It took a pounding during the Darwinday storm of February 2014. The Beloved and O'Manch, our then wwooffer, had to hold onto one edge of the plastic which had rrrripped off its foundation. It was like Cape Horn apparently but after 40 mins the wind abated and they were able to tie the thing down. Our neighbour, with a much smaller suburban polytunnel was looking out at the storm through the kitchen window, heard a bang and watched the whole thing thrash over the ditch into the neighbour's field. Mostly through the scots pines and hedges provide a rather sheltered micro-climate: in February, for example, Storms Dudley, Eunice and Franklin were weathered not a bother. 

Last Saturday the county was subject to a yellow wind and rain warning, not worthy of becoming a named storm. As evening loomed The Beloved asked if it was okay to leave the door to the tunnel open over-night. I answered in the affirmative and then thought better of it and jinked up through the rain to close up. Imagine my concern to find that half of the door-frame at the far end of the tunnel together with its attached corner of plastic was thrashing about; detached from its bottom moorings.

That couldn't be left open all night; not least because it could get thrashed to buggery before breakfast. I don't have an emergency first-aid kit for storm-wracked but I've been beach combing for years and had a handy selection of cordage to hand. It was really just a question of which rope was strong enough but thin enough to thread between the door and its frame. In about 40 minutes, before full nightfall I had secured the flapping spar and cinched it tight with a Spanish windlass, whc I've used before

The next morning, the weather had blown through and after a restoring cup or three of tea, I set to making a more lasting repair. As with dentistry and painting, 80% of the work is prep. One of the problems with outdoor carpentry is that old steel screws get super rusty; especially in <surprize!> wet wood. And with a history of repairs back through the years, it's no unlike an archaeological dig. I needed a hack-saw to get rid of protruding screws as a prophylactic against tetanus. I also needed 

  • some prosthetic timber to shore up the punky rotten end where the door-jamb met the plastic supporting horizontal
  • a packet of miscellaneous steel braces bought many years ago as a too cheap to refuse, these will come in handy somewhere, sometime
  • a selection of 5.0 x20, x30, x40 and x60mm woodscrews
  • the new Erbauer cordless driver and drill set whc The Boy found me as a hot UK deal before Christmas 
  • fence staples
  • 1.5m square fence posts
  • beach-cord to tie bits together
I was pretty happy with the result. But really it is time to replace the plastic. I hear that the tech for connecting the plastic sheet to the metal hoops has evolved out the last decade and a half: no more 4x2s and battens would be good.

Monday 14 March 2022

Census same old

It's census time! In Ireland we have one every 5 years; the last being in 2016. The country took a rain-check on 2021, because Coronarama - but the collective "we" need data to plan for the future and take stock of the state of the nation. Or indeed the past: the clip above is a facsimile of the census report from The Home Place in King's County for 1901. All the boys were seemingly away in South Africa being surprised by Boers. There are even more servants in 1911 when The oldest brother had a) returned b) married the only daughter of an Australian sheep magnate.

On one 2022 issue What is your sex? 1 [_] Male 2 [_] Female The Man is tone-deaf. It's really not helpful adding in the notes the option to tick both boxes. I don't think it's just me who, since 2016, has been compelled to re-evaluate the nature and nuance of sexual identity. For about 17 out of every 1,000 births it is not abundantly clear which binary gender should be put down on the birth cert. Persisting in believing that M vs F is the only choice is regressive and not helpful for planning the future. And FFS, why not put women on top?: What is your sex? 1 [_] Female 2 [_] Male  even alternating the order each go round??

This time, The Man done better on religion; toppling Roman Catholic from the default pole position. In
2016 it was : Roman Catholic; Church of Ireland; Islam; Presbyterian; Orthodox; Other, write your RELIGION; No religion
In 2022:

  1. No religion
  2. Roman Catholic
  3. Church of Ireland
  4. Islam
  5. Orthodox Christian
  6. Presbyterian
  7. Other, write in your RELIGION

It's a known thing that the first name on, say, an election ballot gets a boost. As does the last election poster visible as you enter the polling station. Religion is a private matter and we really need a secular state - starting with schools and hospitals.

Sunday 13 March 2022

Winter of our content

go snow

Friday 11 March 2022

What's my line?

And they're off! There are 17 horses in the race to be the newest member of Seanad Éireann representing the University of Dublin aka TCD. This change is a result of political musical chairs following election of Labour's Ivana Bacik to Dáil Éireann on 8 July 2021 at a by-election in Dublin Bay South. You'd surely rather be in the Dáil if you're looking for more than a cosy sinecure. Quite apart from the fact that a TD's salary [€100,191] is a lot of Mars Bars more than a senator's [€70,168] It's been a bit over two years since I got my papers as Citizen Bob. One of the unexpected benefits of this change of status is that, for the first time this life, I get a vote in the Seanad's TCD Constituency being both a graduate [BA Natural Science 1977, me] and a citizen.

Since 1938, there has been space in the Seanad for 3 TCD representatives making a total of 22 incumbents, of some of whom you may have heard. Perhaps not [R] Ernest "Ovid" Alton Chair of Latin; 1938 TCD Senator and 1942-1952 TCD Provost. Currently, apart from Bacik, "we" are trusting David Norris [public egg multiprevs] and Lynn Ruane [good egg prev] to Do The Right Thing. I live a very retiring life up a bohereen in the hills, so the first I heard about the upcoming outing for Democracy was receiving a flyer in the post from one of the candidates. That was a clear and consoling indication that I was indeed on the electoral roll, having applied [you have to apply] at the very beginning of Coronarama. The following day there arrived another handful of densely packed information leaflets about prospective senators. Getting the postage paid by The Man is one of the perks of Democracy na Éireann. If I'd had m'ear to the ground in time, I might have thrun my hat in the ring as candidate #18.

And let's talk about flyers and costs. As of yesterday I've received 12 puffs from 12 of the candidates. All with the same return address - a PO Box in Blackrock. One of those was the only post we got that day, requiring Pete the Post to make a special detour up our lane. If they are all processed through the same [free to candidate!] delivery service. National post rate is €1.10 per item, so my delivery has cost someone 12 x 1.10 = €13. The electorate is about 70,000 people; some of who live abroad and will require higher stamp costs; but let's ignore that and fantasize about what the plain people of Ireland could better do with €900,000. My vote is for 3 starter homes for indigent TCD graduates. FFS - why not bundle all the guff into one envelope . . . or better still send PDFs to all of us.

Each of the candidates is asked to say what they do . . . perhaps to let voters estimate if they have spare capacity for the onerous job of being a Senator. In 2022 we have: Barrister x 2; Consultant; Councillor; Entrepreneur; Ex-ambassador; Journalist; Minority rep; PhD student x 3; Professor; Psychologist; Public Rep; Pychologist; Social worker; Writer. There is a link for a bigger statement of platform for each of them. I'll have to do a bit of reading here because, with one or two exceptions, I've never 'eard of 'em. Wikipedia has a more useful summary of what the Gang of 17 stand for. I can't in all conscience vote for the three clearly New Irish candidates [Ali, Chu, Oleborode] just to stick one to the patriarchy. It would also be silly-pedantic to reject the "Pychologist-writer" juSt becauSe thiS 'writer' is carelesS on the Spelinge. Help me out in the comments.

Wednesday 9 March 2022


I know three things about the Rothschild family a) they were Jewish b) they were rich c) they made a killing on the market by being ahead of the posse with news of the outcome at Waterloo 1815. Only two of these facts are correct. I did also spend a year in school reading and writing a lot of 19thC European esp. British history, including a weighty biography of Benjamin Disraeli, so I was aware that Nathan Rothschild fronted his pal Disraeli £4,000,000 in 1875 to allow the British government to secure a controlling interest in the Suez Canal. 

The dynasty grew out of a house on Judengaße at the nicer end of the ghetto in Frankfurt am Main when in 1770 Mayer Amschel Rothschild married Guttle Schnapper [R] and they had five sons. They also had five daughters, but they didn't count because the canny crabby patriarch deliberately excluded them from any share of his estate.  Amschel the oldest boy stayed at home; Salomon went to Vienna; Nathan to London; Calmann to Naples and Jacob to Paris. This is not to say that the girls of the family didn't do the counting as the money flowed and the bills of exchange were, well, exchanged. As well as the cooking, cleaning and child-rearing!

The Women of Rothschild: The Untold Story of the World's Most Famous Dynasty by Natalie Livingstone is an attempt to redress the invisibility of the women who were born into or married into the family. These two classes were often the same because, the patriarchy was really anxious not to dissipate the family fortunes through the dowries of outbreeders. Really they were like the Hapsburgs in their relentlessd endogamy. I don't think there's any evidence that serial inbreeding caused a lot of adverse medical conditions as rare recessive traits frothed up. Some of the Rothschilds were clinically depressed, and several of these killed themselves but that happens in other families even today.

What does not happen in other families is dying from septicaemia after circumcision as happened to poor wee René son of Leonora and Alphonse de Rothschild in 1861. Indeed, bris or no bris, young René would have been fine if he'd been born in 1961 at Peak Antibiotic. A similar tragedy happened to Rene's Gt Grandfather Nathan Meyer R., who got a boil on his bum which was lanced but never got better and he died of septicaemia in 1836 aged only 58. I have a frisson <yarrooo> of empathy on that because in 1961 I was at Peak Boil round my waistband on me bum and elsewhere. I think in 1961 Staphylococcus aureus would still yield to penicillin, or methicillin. It is now the SA in the dreaded MRSA.

I guess, from a scientific view, the most interesting of the women is Miriam Rothschild 1908-2005 who was the Gt Gt Grand-daughter of Nathan Meyer R. (1777-1836) of the boil. She inherited the flea collection of her father Charles (1877 - 1923) who couldn't tame the black dog and cut his throat in 1923. Flea collection? Yup, that would be around 260,000 specimens from nearly 1,000 species of Siphonaptera, 500 of which had been discovered and named by Charles. That included Xenopsylla cheopis, the vector of Bubonic plague [whc Prev]. Miriam [and George Hopkins] spent 30 years writing up the collection into a 6 volume illustrated catalogue. Miriam also contributed a bunch of science, compassion and common sense to the Wolfenden Report [bloboprev] on homosexuality and prostitution. That is certainly not the end of her manifold contributions to science and society. You should look her up - obit Guardian.

Monday 7 March 2022


Robert Macfarlane is the poet's perambulator.  He writes like An Old (although he's younger than The Boy) and is a regular contributor to Resurgence, the English alternative woo glossy magazine. I'm a bit pissed off with Resurgence since they refused to take my essay on the process of pilgrimage [Santiago etc. bloboprevs] in the 00s. They said that they had Santiagogo covered by an upcoming piece by one of their regulars. We had and still have a sub but no such article has appeared. I may have transferred some of my resentment to Macfarlane as a usual suspect quite likely to write about the process of pilgrimage; but I never really got into his books. 

Which is a shame because his writing really is my jam. Adjacent to Meg Lowman, the Sheldrakes, EO Wilson, Tim Richards. Indeed Macfarlane was the literary executor for his good friend Roger Deakin. And i'm pretty sure he was cited or referenced by Richard Nairn. I did finally read Macfarlane's The Old Ways [2012] and was entranced by his account of a voyage over the whale-road to the Shiants

My latest audiobook is Underland: a deep time journey [2019] by Robert Macfarlane.  It is read, effectively, by Roy McMillan although we could have done without the Norwegian accent. First time I've heard the tree pronounced as it is written rowan rather than roe-an. The audioPublishers Penguin have used the change in medium to add some very understated background sounds. I had to switch off at one stage because I heard a distant dog barking which turned out to be on the tape. 

At some point in the introduction Macfarlane says that Underland is the book which all his previous work has been pointing at and laying the foundations for. It's a compendium with a theme, like Tim Richards' Outposts. The theme being the world beneath. There is a [good] chapter on the wood wide web and the vital importance of fungi for the sharing of resources among the plants of the forest which is largely informed by the beautiful Merlin Sheldrake, a family friend.  But, having read Sheldrake's book, I know all that. 

What I knew less about was the labyrinth beneath the streets of Paris. The Ile de France is bedrocked with limestone which has been extensively quarried for building material. Only occasionally do the citizens fall into the abyss as a section of tunnel and gallery subsides under the weight of years. Such an incident starts off Parisians: an adventure history of Paris by Graham Robb. But really, Macfarlane's description of the extent and purpose of the tunnels is much better. Perhaps because it is informed by Macfarlane's actual adventures with tunnel rats beneath the streets of Paris. In one escapade he spent a week down below without seeing the sun; camping out on stone shelves and benches and attending wild parties in the sous-terraines. Pictures and history at SoloSophie [L]

otoh I knew nothing at all about the Boulby Underground Laboratory near the River Tees on the NE coast of England. The lab is down there because, among other ventures, they are clocking the appearance of neutrinos and evidence of Dark Matter far away from the electronic jangle of the above ground world. The UK scientific establishment couldn't have afforded to dig hundreds of feet down, let alone pay for the up-keep and infrastructure of such a facility. BUT they can piggy-back on a huge and largely invisible commercial enterprise to extract potash and other minerals from the deep. The visible surface commercial site at Boulby is big enough at 200 hectares but it services a network of tunnels over 8,400 hectares in area running back under the the North Yorkshire Moors and far out to sea. If these galleries are more than 1,000m below the surface they don't worry unduly about unplugging the sea above. It's hard to appreciate, after two million tonnes potash and halite have been extracted and brought to the surface, that none of this was here before 1968, when the first shaft was sunk. Chekkittout with the BBC [2m].

Macfarlane estimates that there are 30 million miles of man-made voids beneath the surface of the Earth: roads, railways, sewers, mines: enough to circle the globe 1000 times. 'tis a wonder folk don't fall through the surface more often. Good book, recommended.

Sunday 6 March 2022

Misc March Six

March is here.

Friday 4 March 2022

Gadus morua: all gone

A while ago, I audio'd Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of Their Common Fate the latest [publ 2020] big book by Mark Kurlansky. His first best seller Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World [1997] has been in my sights for at least 20 years, but I never got round to it; perhaps because I was working, rather than reading about other people working. And that puts a finger on a significant difference between these two fish books: Cod the book is framed around the people - who saw fish as an exploitable resource; Salmon zooms out the lens to put the fish centre stage. This is partly because, in the 22 years separating the two publications, there was a sea-change in Joe Bloke's appreciation of the fragility and interdependence of the living world. 

Another angle on the green deafness of Cod to modern tree-hugging ears is that the chapters are interleaved with recipes for eating cod - and the last chapter is essentially a bacalhau / morue international cook-book. Indeed, the book attracted attention for Foodies to win the 1999 James Beard Award to recognize exceptional talent and achievement in the culinary arts, hospitality, media, and broader food system. Note that the French word cabillaud is lifted from Dutch kabeljauw a rare case where the French have learned something about food and cooking from l'etranger. Purists and cooks should note that morue refers to poisson séché et salé whereas cabillaud is fresh. When I was walking through Portugal in 1989, apart from caldo verde twice a day, I'd alternate carne de porco assada with bacalhau in any one of the 365 ways in which salt-cod is served to a grateful Portuguese public.

When I was a kid in, say, 1960, frozen fish fingers were a thing: I could happily eat 8 or 12 at a sitting with or without spuds and peas. Back then, cod was so plentiful that fff was made from oblong fillets of cod covered in "bread" crumbs now, of course, the bread crumbs are still the chemical same; but the interior is made of whatever fish-offal is available and cheap; stabilised, bleached, emulsified, re-chunked and pressed into shape. Like a hot-dog's "chicken non-meat byproducts" don't even think of what's inside if you intend to eat the things; kids won't know any different.

Anyhoo, Kurlansky's thesis, pretty much incontrovertible 20+ years on, is that it took Europeans just 500 years to plunder seas to buggery: from the first voyage of Giovanni Caboto, sponsored by England's King Henry VII, to the publication of Cod, which coincided with its effective extinction as a commercial prospect. Abundance in 1497? "the sea there is full of fish that can be taken not only with nets but with fishing-baskets." It is a slight exaggeration that crewmen could walk from one boat to another stepping on the heads of mighty codfish. 

You really can't blame the poor bloody fishermen setting out through the chop in their beamer [R]. The best minds on the planet couldn't solve this example of the Tragedy of the Commons. In those 500 years of sea-pillage, nobody has been incentivised to hold back. It's all Macbeth with his damned be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough! And through at least the 20thC, sea-fishing was about the most dangerous occupation still available to the working bloke. And if incentives don't work, then neither do bureaucratic strictures. Quotas are an ecological and economic disaster as perfectly edible nutritious, not to say delicious, by-catch is dumped back dead into the sea because it doesn't meet this week's price or permit. 

I guess I didn't learn a lot from Cod that I didn't know already. But hey, that could be because I did actually read it 20 years ago and internalized its message as my own. IF you've ever eaten some battered cod <mmmm, so good> piping hot from the chipper ANDIF y' never thought to ask where it came from THEN you really should read this book.

Wednesday 2 March 2022

Sturm und drang

Did I mention that Storm Eunice delivered a source of firewood 12 days ago? I did. It took all of the following week to put manners on the mess, so I could see the wood for the trees, rocks; branches-under-tension; branches under compression; wire fences and the other manifold hazards of chain-saw land. I've delivered so many ivy branches to to the sheep that they stopped eating the stuff. It may not be toxic but it could sure get boring, I guess.

Monday 28/Feb, I touched up the teeth of the chain with my Stihl file gadget and went at the downed branches. Trees don't become firewood until they are reduced to a size that will fit in the stove! It is always reculer pour mieux sauter: a neat enough pile of branches becomes a ragged splat of logs big and small but all less than 14 in = 35cm long. Longer logs means fewer cuts, so a bit of min-max optimisation is required. 

Tuesday St David's day, I clocked our first flowering daffodils [much later than those of the flatlands NWES of here] in passing. Then I loaded my current audio book and finished loading the ash into its stack. The final tally [see L] is 2/5ths of a cord = 1.4 stere [see how to measure firewood] ignoring the trunk which has a volume of about 0.75 cu.m. solid or another ~1 stere stacked - because cordwood is about 25-35% air-space. In addition, I salvaged about 10 cu ft = 0.25 cu.m. of laurel logs and loglettes. These are chock full o' prussic acid HCN and need a hella long time to dry out before burning. The last holocaust of laurel went up the chimney a full 12 years after being cut in 2008 by Tadek the Polish wwoofer [multibloboprevs]. To speed up the process I have, after several sleepless nights, contrived a cunning [patent pending] wall-rack just one log thick and oriented at right angles to the prevailing Westerly wind. Breeze is at least as important as temperature for drying logs. 

At the far end of Europe, a little beyond Tadek's homeplace, while I was dragging around the aftermath of Sturm Eunice, the Russians decided to up the sturm und drang ante on neighbouring Ukraine. Ireland has not been slow about ethnic cleansing in my lifetime if you can credit that two people called McGuinness and sporting a similar shock of red hair could treat each other as, like, Other . . . and then decide to burn down their houses and spit on their infant-school children. Still, it's nothing like Breslau or Srebrenica. I am sure you have made up your mind about Ukraine, Russia, The Great Patriotic War and the breakup of the USSR. Not me. But I am surely fed up with Othering especially if it is weaponized by violent patriots and mendacious rhetoric. Dau.II realises more than most of us that a lot of the world's ills could be solved with some decent home-cooking and a cup of tea. She didn't need to push very hard for me to join her in sending some money to WCK World Central Kitchen which has become a little like MSF Médecins Sans Frontières except with soup not tourniquets. Here they are serving food just across the Polish border: