Monday 30 May 2022

Undesirable aliens

Hot Press; Gardaí are asking the owner of a bright yellow corn snake Pantherophis guttatus [specien R] to claim the reptile from the National Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Co Meath. Forget your Japanese knot-weed Fallopia japonica and Zebra mussels Dreissena polymorpha we really don't want snakes getting established on the island of Ireland 1600 years after St Patrick drove them out with his crozier and vibrating reptile excluder [not!]. Jaysus, absence of roaming snakes is the last thing that separates our way of life from the Brits - after all the plain people of Ireland have embraced royal weddings, Pointless and Manchester United with all the fervour of Tory heartlanders. In their right place snakes are cool - just makin' a living like the rest of us except that corn snakes prefer mice and I prefer mouse-sized sausinges for breakfast. I gotta own that fresh mouse is objectively better food than [don't look at the ToC] sausage. Like herping in the Everglades [R] looks like a lot of fun.

Turns out I have a couple of snake stories, both from my year in Nederland [1979]. Anton van Woerkom is now a big cheese in Dutch herpetology. I knew him slightly - I think he was working as a technician in Utrecht U when I was mentored / adopted by Janni van Brink. One afternoon, Anton invited us [The Blob, The Beloved and The Boy aged ~4] to visit his home = herpetarium. I guess we had a cup of koffie and maybe a stroopwafel. It was 'different' to have the walls of the living room lined with terrariums containing a variety of sleepy reptiles. Anton lifted a big boa out of its home to let us have a closer look: it was really for The Boy, I guess. But Anton's labrador got a little too close too quick and was, for his trouble, slashed across the nose by the snake, drawing blood. Respeck! You've got to recognise that different folks have a different take on social distance; and we are much more sensitive to this post-Covid.

Very shortly after this, Dr van Brink wrangled me a job in Afdeling Vissen at Diergaarde Blijdorp in Rotterdam and I lost touch with Anton. It's mildly amazing that I was able to dredge up his name after 40 years. It was impossible to shake loose from snakes, however, because Fish, Reptiles, Birds and their respective keepers were all housed in the Rivièrahal.  As with banks, the working day for us keepers was longer than the public facing day. My first task every morning was to take a bucket of dilute vinegar and a chamois leather round the hall erasing the nose smudges and finger-prints of yesterday's visitors. 

After Jan Publiek went home in the evening, we got to feed those animals whose table manners were really NSFW or at least potentially distressing for children and sensitive adults. We had one tank full of baby garfish Belone belone which wouldn't eat hamburger like their neighbours but subsisted on live baby mice. Some of the snakes also insisted on fresh food which they had to kill themselves. Accordingly, one or two live white mice were dropped into the relevant terrarium after hours. One morning, as I whistled my way round the hall with my bucket, I noticed one of these mice still occupying a corner diametrically opposite to the resident snake. The assistant deputy reptile keeper was tasked to whip the rodent out and put him back in the larder his cage.

My repertoire has a 3rd snake tale, about a python in an Irish Bar in Madrid, but I've told that before.

Sunday 29 May 2022

Mishmash 29May22

The Feast of St Bona of Pisa: patron of pilgrims and couriers. R from yesterday's headlines. Dunno which is which . . . maybe I'm reading this page wrong?

Friday 27 May 2022

Full Tilt

I think, with hindsight and a little smugness, that I'm pretty buff for walking alone 700km up the Atlantic coast of Portugal at the age of 35. But that was a stroll in the park compared to the journey Dervla Murphy made from Ireland (Lismore, Co Waterford) to India (Delhi, Co Punjab) a quarter century earlier. Murphy was then 32, the Winter of 1963 was bitter cold, and she cycled alone [only one gear too!] more or less 10x the distance. On arrival she toiled for some months caring for children in a Tibetan refugee camp. She wasn't a stranger to cycling having made trips from Lismore to Paris and Barcelona as respite from looking after her invalid mother, crippled by arthritis, and her radical-in-some-dimensions but still patriarchal father. She wasn't able to make the longer journey until her aged parents had checked out. But Western Europe in the early 60s was safe for lone female travellers in a way that, say, Azerbaijan was not. She had to boot a Azeri policeman in the balls to slow his "intentions" in a locked room in that, then Soviet, country. In Afghanistan she got caught up in a brawl and had three ribs stove in by a rifle-butt . . . but carried on cycling for several days before checking into a hospital. While whizzing around Delhi on Rozinante her trusty steed, she attracted the notice of Penelope Betjeman, wife of the future poet laureate. That encounter networked her first publishing deal with John Murray who published Full Tilt in 1965.

She left the bike behind when she lived In Ethiopia with a Mule, published, again by John Murray, in 1968. That same year she gave birth to a daughter Rachel whom she raised as a single mother because the child's father was already committed elsewhere - in the Dublin literati scene. Part of that daughter raising resulted in Eight Feet in the Andes 1983 - further travels in Peru with a [different] mule and 9yo Rachel. You can't call Dervla "brave" - she disliked that term because it requires overcoming fear and she professed to be fearless - so brave and courageous didn't apply to her. Altogether her oeuvre consisted of a couple of dozen "travel" books reporting her views from an alphabet of countries on four continents. 

Travel books are mostly constructed, rather artificial, records of knob Y who goes to exotic place X, eats local food, gets the shits, recovers, encounters poor people who are invariably hospitable, has adventures in souks and at border crossing and returns home to write it all down before memory fades. It's easy to carp at the genre and its creators. If authors have been published before they'll get an advance from the publisher which might cover some flights and accommodation. And if the book gets puffed by Oprah or Richard&Judy, the author adventurer may secure some royalties that make life easier. To be frank, some of the adventures are rather thin and these books are only tolerable if they are played for laughs. Peter Fleming, Eric Newby, Redmond O'Hanlon and Bill Bryson, I'm looking at you.

Raja Shehadeh from Palestine [cited below] reckons that Dervla isn't pot-boiling it for the money "I never do taxis, I always take the bus" but rather is embedding herself in an alien culture because that's, like, more interesting than Lismore. And, heck, life is short, the world is wide, and why not step out if you can swing it? I never met, the famously private, Dervla Murphy but was in speaking terms with Joyce Green, the woman who looked after the many dogs when Dervla was off on one of her foreign jaunts. Joyce was an interesting person in her own right who lived just across the county border near Castlelyons, Co Cork. She was besties from childhood with my father's Cousin Posy.

Well, I'm sorry to report that Dervla Murphy died, aged 90, at home on Sunday 22 May 22 and is buried in St Carthage's, Lismore. Hats off

Tributes from poets: Lucille Redmond *-* poemsapennyeach [YT 10m] *-* Raja Shehadeh [RTE 5m] *-* from her horse's mouth

Wednesday 25 May 2022

back down good

A few years ago, I wrote about a neighbouring child dying in her cot and how it changed how I thought about marmite. Cot-death, sudden infant death syndrome, SIDS is not common but loss of a life which is all to do and no sin seems more tragic that one like mine: all done and has son. The best thing to do to ensure the kidder reaches their second birthday is to put them down to sleep on their back. The UK NHS has a dribble of other advice, none of which has the equivalent impact.

Obvs, we the scientific community would love to do something about a) understanding and b) eliminating SIDS. Unfortunately, the journalistic community wants such a cure even more than scientists; even more than there is evidence to back it. A case of unqualified carolling about the end f SIDS was flagged on MetaFilter a couple of weeks ago. A number of research labs are engrossed with the problem and such commitment develops its own dynamic. Young Bobby Postdoc has been making progress but needs a deliverable if the funding is to be extended. A typical post-doc contract will be for two years: it will require above ordinary dedication, competence and luck to generate a top-tier paper in 2 years from a standing start. Labs and their leaders are being driven to put the most positive gloss on whatever results are to hand as the next funding window looms. And the host institute will have a publicity and propaganda department ready to turn any new or vaguely interesting finding / discovery into a Story.

The next ring out from the frog-plop of a good result in the lab, after the Press Release, is The Press who also have their own vested interest in generating clicks or page-views to ensure that Journos continue to put bread on the kitchen table and shoes on their kids' feet. All this makes for a Headline which may be a long way from the evidence. So we get Biospace claiming that "Researchers Answer How-and-Why Infants Die FromSIDS.  After a twitter storm about this over-egging of the pudding the headline was toned down: Researchers Pinpoint Important Biomarker for SIDS - Updated. And there is another ring of lazy-arsed journalists who only bother to read the Biospace executive gloss and use that to make a great leap in some other dramatic direction. MeFite dst flags the key twitter thread which pours cold water on the press puffery.

Now there may be a statistically significant difference in the levels of the enzyme butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) in SIDS kids vs survivors which may result in different levels of the neurotransmitter butyrylcholine [BCh a fatter sister molecule to acetylcholine ACh of whc multibloboprevs] in regions of the brain which control sleep and arousal . . . but this paper out of The Children's Hospital at Westmead NSW, Australia, is not great evidence for such a hypothesis. And what should anxious parents & pediatricians do with the information? There is so much overlap in BChE activity that there will be false positives with whatever threshold you pick for an assay. Hundreds of extra families will spend months on sleep-depriving high alert because young Timmy has lower than trigger-threshold BChE. It is definitely not clear if the level of BChE is the cause of SIDS or a response to an underlying, as yet undiscovered, malfunction that is the real cause. More work needed.

Monday 23 May 2022

History intersects genetics

Science is about finding out. It really makes little odds what scientists study: just let 'em at it. Because the hunt for this thing I have found out is rather a poor predictor for this discovery is a manifest good. Attempts by government, patrons or sponsors (who know bugger-all about science) to guide, let alone dictate, how scientists should spend their time generate a rather poor return on investment. I spent my 20s in a quixotic pursuit of those furry bags of genes known as cats. Not to pet or use to catch rats; but rather to document their variation and see what this could tell us about human [and cat] migration patterns. In my defense, I will say that documenting the coat colour of some thousands of cats from both sides, and the middle, of the Atlantic Ocean cost very little money. Much less than I flushed down the lab sink and spattered over my face during my 6 months of doing real science in a molecular biology lab.

My 'expertise' in the genetics of cat coat colour came back to bite me when Dick Ahlstrom and Aoife McLysaght launched a crowd-sourced investigation of genetic variation in cats in 2015. With results. And much more recently, it transpired that our data from the Azores might be relevant to explainthe peopling of that archipelago by . . . vikings. Normal science is when you spend a few decades doing what your PhD thesis supervisor taught you to do: using the same familiar techniques to crack ever smaller nuts. It can be comforting in a religious practice sort of way - decades of the rosary essentially the same as repeated runs of the PCR machine.

I was careless and clumsy in the laboratory, even when I wasn't being a danger to myself and others. So I was better off on the streets clocking up a tally of feline field notes. When it was raining cats and dogs - and therefore no cats would be out on the streets to be clocked - I was happy to ring the changes in the library reading about New England settlement patterns, or the development of the canal network in Britain and Ireland. I recently mentioned an ancient library search which came to no conclusive end about tailless cats in New Brunswick. 

At the very beginning of my career as a researcher I took advantage of the extensive library of Trinity College Dublin to document the existence of mutant genetic variants more than 1,500 years ago - before the Vikings indeed. I discovered that there was a late medieval translation into Englyshe of De Natura Rerum [On the Nature of Things] which was compiled by the saint and scholar Isidore of Seville in about 600 CE. What floated my boat was that Isidore described the colour morphs of cats that were familiar to folks living in Andalusia all those years ago. Some catte is whyte . . . etc. With my knowledge of Mendelian coat colour genetics, I was able to show that certain allelic variants had been around at least that long. I wrote it up as a note for Carnivore Genetics Newsletter C.G.N. and this insight / angle / result has effectively sunk without trace! 

All this backstory about me interfacing Science with The Arts Block is merely softening you up for a right nifty story about using still life paintings of know provenance and age to establish not later than baseline for the appearance / development of known varieties of produce. Ive De Smet, Plant geneticist, and David Vergauwen, art historian, were intrigued by fruit and veg, plainly intended for eating just as soon as the artist had finished his daubs, that appeared in still lives from the early modern period. That's when technique, training and materials had developed to the extent that painters aspired to create photo-realistic images from a reality they could see . . . and smell.

Ive has a sciency set of tools at his disposal, DNA sequencing can reveal biochemical pathways essential for producing flavor compounds [bananas = amyl acetate etc.] and molecular clocks can estimate the time these traits  were acquired by counting the changes in the DNA since the last common ancestor. But the parallel Art project requires someone to stand in front of a given still life and determine whether tomatoes are present and, if so what colour they are. Browsing a catalog on-line just doesn't have enough detail to be diagnostic. Volunteers sought! chekkittout:
#ArtGenetics on Insta or on Twitter.

Sunday 22 May 2022

Miss Ellen Annie May

It's exactly 50 years since leftie 1930s poet Cecil Day Lewis passed on.  He was born in Ballintubber, Queen's County, not a million miles from my people. But he's buried in Stinsford, Dorset not 10 million microns from Thomas Hardy. His son is still running. Daughter still cookin'.

Poetry? ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.’ Robert Frost.

What else?

Friday 20 May 2022


In 1966, a young Ethiopian was studenting in NW England when she fell pregnant. Her son was born in March the following year and shortly thereafter the student had to return to Ethiopia after a death in the family. The baby was left in the care of Wigan social services. The first half of his minority were spent as Norman Greenwood fostered by Mr and Mrs Greenwood, devout and rather doctrinaire Baptists. They couldn't adopt the child because that would require consent from the birth-mother, who was uncontactibly abroad. The Greenwood's believed that they treated young Norman as one of their own children but that wasn't really true. To do that, the parents would have to be a) much kinder than most of us are b) oblivious to the actions, reactions and prejudice of their community. 

The story is related in My Name is Why? by Lemn Sissay, my latest Borrowbox audiobook. Guardian review. Young Norman was a sparky, super-friendly, sporty, outgoing child. Energy and openness that is adorable in a boy can take on a different complexion when that same person <teen alert> starts to think for themselves, challenging the roles which everyone seems to be playing. We don't hear directly from the Greenwoods, but the book intercalates the boy's narrative memories with excerpts from his fat, partially redacted, dossier from Social Services. Wh'evs, rather abruptly, when Norman was 12, the Greenwoods decided they didn't want to play any more and requested-and-required that the fosterling be removed from their home before Christmas.

Norman's life spiralled downhill from there: untimely ripped from the bosom of the only family he'd known, he was shunted through a variety of residential homes in Wigan challenging the status quo. Being minded by people who had their own issues and troubles and who were increasingly poorly resourced as the Thatcher-Tories worked to dismantle the welfare state. It wasn't a great place for a troubled youth but social services stoutly and smugly believed that he was better off with them than in, say, Ethiopia. He, au contraire, was determined to celebrate his Ethiopian heritage . . . with ganja; but also by discarding Norman Greenwood and going by Lemn Sissay, the name which he'd been given by his other before she bunked off.

My name is Lemn Sissay
My name is Lemn Sissay
My name is Lemn Sissay

He spent the last several months of his childhood marking time in the Wood End remand centre; where the most troublesome = troubled youngsters were subjected to institutional bullying, sexual and physical abuse on a daily basis. The thing is that employees of such places are not conscripted from the general population but rather self-selected from among those whose sense of self depends on being alpha cock on the dunghill.

At the age of not quite 18, partly through his own determination and partly because specific people working for social services were prepared to support his attempts to fly solo, Norman was airlifted from Wood End and installed in a council flat to mind himself. At the same age, both Dau.I and Dau.II in turn left home to make their own way in the world. They were able for that because they'd been brought up in a secure, safe and loving home, embedded in a wider community of tolerant, supportive and caring adults. No chance of a council flat for them, though; the aspiration that we should all care for the dispossessed has gone the way of flared trousers. Inevitably, because I've read both books, comparisons can be made between Lemn Sissay's memoir and Mark Hodkinson's hard enough tale of growing up the other side of Manchester, at about the same time.

The boy done good, though! Lemn Sissay was given an MBE in 2010 and appointed Chancellor of Manchester U in 2015. This year, his MBE was doubled up to an OBE. He has become a bit of a celebrity as a writer, television personality and public commentator. A Desert Island Discs personality. But it's not good enough to point at Mr Chancellor Sissay OBE and believe that anyone can pull themselves by their bootstraps. But that's just not true!: escaping from the underbelly of society is the exception. Only exceptional people can achieve success [however defined] from such unlikely beginnings. But they also need the breaks! A little luck; a little mentoring; someone who'll take time, make an effort for someone else. And while we're about it, can we remove broken people from being in a position of power over children? Thanks, that would be a start.

Wednesday 18 May 2022

Clear as day

Dau.I, the family [photo] archivist, was home over Easter and showed us a 2005-dated photo of our polytunnel covered in [super clear] plastic. That really helped nail down the date: pre-Blob documentary evidence is rare and patchy. The tunnel is therefore almost old enough to vote! But like dogs, polytunnel years are not the same as human years and, like me, the tunnel is feeling its age despite having only 25% of my calendar years. Accordingly, in March we went on a jaunt to Highbank to scope out the cost of replacing the plastic. Polytunnel tech has moved on since 2005 and wooden frames are now considered supremely out of style. We got a blizzard of information about the New Way with polythene fixin's. Although we still agreed that a total re-cladding was required, enough unresolved logistical questions hung in the air that we put the whole project on hold. Eventually I called my tunnel-mentor Rene to have him explain the difference between Richel double clip rails and single Richel clip cladding rails and why the latter might be 3x the cost of the former. A few things became clear: 

  • in 2005 the cost of the plastic sheeting €240 was the most expensive part of the inventory; (4 x 2)s, (2 x 1)s and screws being cheap as chips
  • in 2022 the plastic was a small amount €420 compared to all the steel engineering infrastructure
  • I've lost my mojo for bodging things up from scraps and off-cuts

Being a highly suggestible sort of bloke, it was easy enough for Rene to convince me that a good clean was the way forward and it would be a shame to dump out all that plastic for landfill. And, more importantly, with care and attention, there might be / should be years of life left in the ould tunnel. R and his pal K came up on Wednesday [midweek! when - I R retire - I didn't have to be at work offsite] with a vanload of hosepipe, brushes and power-washers and started to clean years of gunk from the top of the tunnel.  

I haven't been totally remiss from cleaning what I can reach with a 3.6m long-handled brush. It's a lot like the nun's instructions for bathing in a shift "first you wash up as far as possible, then you wash down as far as possible; then you wash possible". As our tunnel is 13m over the hoops, I've never been able to wash possible on my own. One time many years ago, The Boy and I tied ropes to the 4 corners of a very old foam-rubber-stuffed floor cushion, waited for a good wet day and did push-me-pull-you back and forth along the length of the tunnel. It was really difficult to clean the high-points over the hoops because the cushion would slide inexorably down into the inter-hoop troughs. You can see the contrast [above L] when K got his head higher than the tunnel top and applied a proper industrial window-cleaner's brush with skill and vim: L.L. after his attention to detail; L.R. awaiting his ministrations. 

And here is K himself advising me that the plastic will soon be clean enough to see, not only the hill on the far side of the valley, but the pixel sheep that dot its flanks. And it was so. More light brings out the best in the look-and-feel of the tunnel. But it must also be acknowledged that The Beloved and Dau.II (who was visiting) really cleared the decks inside, so that the boys could have a clean sweep at the task. Imagine how red would be our faces if K tripped over a lawn chair or a bag of potting compost while staring fixedly upwards as he pounded his brush against the interior dust-layer.  The prognosis seems to be that we are good for another year . . . and another. Until we have a dramatic event like Darwinday 2014 which tore the plastic from its moorings.  As a manifestation of good faith in old plastic, one reason for washing the stuff, while it is still spread out and taut, is that it will defo get reused / recycled if we decide to go with new.

Having clear as glass plastic is a mixed blessing. Wood pigeons Columba palumbus are hardly the smartest beasts on two wings. Yesterday I disturbed one in the tunnel and it flew up in a flap - WHUMPHing in to the plastic . . . repeatedly until I seized it with both hands and showed it the door. Not unlike our testosteropsychotic window thumping blackbird; maybe it's something in the water hereabouts? One reason that we might have a random pigeon lost in tunnel is that it is The Year of the Pigeon. Our trees, which usually support a couple of pair, are hosting a couple of dozen pair in 2022. Who knows why?

Monday 16 May 2022

Fall of Icarus

 I've been paragliding, I even caught a thermal and almost lost my lunch. Then I had a bad take-off, landed hard and [it subsequently transpired], broke two ribs. It's 20 years ago, and I have no intention of having another go to get airborne.

Toby Ferris has been paragliding too. His Short Life in a Strange World Birth to Death in 42 Panels is my current audiobook. The conceit is that,
because he is 42;
because his father was recently dead at 84 [2 x 42];
because Pieter Bruegel the Elder's entire oeuvre is 42 attributed works
because Toby has two young sons himself
. . . he feels compelled to open the doors of perception, stand in front of each publicly accessible Elder Bruegel and reflect on life, death, the Universe and everything. No postcard, or arty book need apply - it must be a several years road-trip to be there. More Bruegel-inspired writing.

The first picture for such intense contemplation is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus painted in ?1558? and currently viewable at Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, aka Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België. Icarus himself occupies only a fragment of a Narnia like landscape and in deed only his legs and a drift of feathers appears above the wave - Bruegel has made him a shocking but incidental, distant, event in the broad sweep of late-medieval normality.  The painting whooshes Ferris back to his paragliding days when a more experienced, divil-may-care member of his group foolishly larks about while aloft swinging wildly beneath his canopy . . . until he spills all the air from his vital support and plummets to earth; landing with a reverberating thump, on his back, in the gorse. Fantastically he is not dead or even seriously injured. although he spends many weeks in hospital recovering from the results of his folly.

Actually, The Fall is not nowadays believed to be the work of Bruegel de Oude, but rather a copy of a Bruegel original; indeed maybe not even that. But details or attribution should never stand in the way of a great story of real life imitating art. Indeed, the existence of many copies of many certain-sure Bruegel have been valuable in abstracting meaning and de-layering the palimpsest of a work of art. There are, for example, no innocents in the original of the Massacre of the Innocents, all the slaughtered children have been over-painted as sheep, or parcels, or geese. But the full monstrosity of the tale is in your face [and heart] in many of the numerous extant copies. Many of these copies were generated by the atelier of Pieter Breughel the Younger, a man with more acumen at cashing in on his father's legacy than actually applying paint to panel.

Short Life in a Strange World [excerpt] is a find, in that I chose it, because available within a month, after scrolling scrolling scrolling through the finite catalogue of audiobooks available on Borrowbox. It works fine in the ear: I've had it along for the ride walking the hill, washing the dishes, doing the messages and is not too much of a loss that I can't see the the picture described in such obsessive insightful detail. You may get a little TMI about the issues & peculiarities of the Ferris family but maybe that will encourage you to look at the dysfunctions of your own tribe. For a man born just about 500 years ago, Bruegel's reflections on hatching, matching and dispatching haven't become a whit less relevant.

Friday 13 May 2022

Minié killié

I've mentioned evidence to suggest that conscripts are reluctant point a gun at The Other side and pull the trigger. It is based on analysis by Dave Grossman of unfired, loaded rifles picked up after the slaughter at Gettsburg. It gives a certain hope for the world that individuals will have agency for good deeds even when The Man is trying to dehumanize both parties - killer and killee: “a bayonet is a weapon with a worker at both endsas John MacLean has it.

I am currently on a spellbound [L: list words >4 letters including the middle letter] jag. It takes longer than worldle. I think the original idea for spellbound was launched as Spelling Bee by the NYT but I heard about it as a MetaFilter project. It is a teeny bit frustrating that perfectly good words - achene, tarn, filo - are rejected by the game editors but I'm not going to threaten to eat their first-born about undaunted. The other day I had a spellbound punt with MINIE having a vague idea that it was some sort rifle. tbh, I can't remember whether this was allowable to the wordlist editor or not, but it hooshed me off down a rabbit-hole . . .

Claude-Etienne Minié (13 Feb 1804 – 14 Dec 1879) was a french army officer who solved an intractable battlefield problem: how to fire bullets quickly and accurately at the enemy. It had been discovered earlier in the 19thC that accuracy could be enhanced by imparting a spin to the ball as it left the barrel; and that this could be achieved by 'rifling' the inside of the barrel with helical grooves. Furthermore, it was cclear that a tight fit between ball and barrel would impart more whoomph to the bullet. Breech-loading was in the future, so gunpowder charge and bullet had to be forced down the cylindrical orifice with an, appropriately named ram-rod.  The ram rod became another piece of kit which could be lost, bent out of shape or inadvertently fired at the enemy in a fog of terror.

Minié's insight was to replace a roughly spherical ball with a slightly smaller cylinder which could be dropped, rather than tamped, down the barrel. The front-end of the Minié ball was streamlined but the back-end was hollow. When the powder ignited, the ridged skirt of this pocket splayed out to engage with the rifling and capture the full impelling force. The Minié ball combined more shots an hour with accuracy and a devastating 1oz = 30g crump when it made contact with the target.

Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed by Minié balls, first in the Crimean War where Minié rifles were available to the British/French allies but not to their Russian opponents. The damage was considerably greater in the American Civil War where the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts turned out more than 1 million Springfield 1861 Minié rifles. The Confederates relied on then British for Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle-musket.

Wednesday 11 May 2022

A particular world view

I contribute, like mon€y, and a very occasional edit, to the Wikipedia project. I can't remember how long I've been doing this, but  it seemed only fair when I used to check the Main Page daily as a source of more or less random leads for The Blob. When I worked at The Institute we ranted at the students for citing Wikipedia in their essays , urging them to go to the primary source and cite that. But really that's rarely necessary because Wikipedia gives a quick, reliable and good enough answer most of the time. Nevertheless, it has it peculiarities and bias because the core group of active editors is by no means a random selection of humanity: lots of railways and far too much team sports imo

I can do no better to illustrate this than by looking at Wikipedia:Vital Articles which defines importance at five Levels each of which is 10x larger than the higher Level. Level 3 aims to include 1,000 articles which is about the number of people you can readily put a name and face to. When my nautical Da, at the end of his career, was captain of a ship with a crew of 600, he knew all their face-names. I never achieved that level of recognition in my 600 strong secondary school. Vital Articles:Level 3 contains 113 biographies and I invite you have have a WTF!? critique of the choices after having [no peeking!] your own plunge at the task:

  •     2.1.1 Leaders and politicians (27)
  •     2.1.2 Religious figures (8)
  •     2.1.3 Explorers (7)
  •     2.1.4 Philosophers and social scientists (18)
  •     2.1.5 Writers (11)
  •     2.1.6 Artists (6)
  •     2.1.7 Musicians and composers (6)
  •     2.1.8 Scientists and inventors (19)
  •     2.1.9 Mathematicians (8)
  •     2.1.10 Filmmakers (2)
  •     2.1.11 Businesspeople (1)

You'll be relieved to hear that neither Zuckerberg, Gates, Musk, Branson nor Smurfit is the 2.1.11 paragon of businesspeople. Just as an example of why them? let's look at the six most Vital Artists in all the World. They are Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Hokusai, Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo. That list reads like a pathetic attempt by a trainspotter from Peoria, Illinois to be "inclusive". Gotta have a non-Western token - so 葛飾 北斎 - and it looks depressingly dead white men so let's include a woman, any woman, so long as she's held a paint-brush. There are two women among the Scientists and you get null points for guess that one of them is <yaaaawn> Marie Curie.

Vital Articles:Level 4 [N = 10,000 Wikipedia articles] is currently getting a lot of who knew? attention because it is the hunting ground for a Wordle-like guess the blankdle quiz called Redactle. Try it? 

A ████████ is a ██████ ████ ███████████ █████████ ███████ █████████ with ███████████ ██████ ███████ and █████████ ██████████ █████ and ███████ █████████. The ████-█████ ████ of ████████ is the ███████ ████████, █████ █████████ ███ an █████████ ██████████ to █████ ██████ ██████ ████████ ███████ from ████ and ████████ ███████ to a ██████ ███████. A ████████ ████████ █████████ is the █████ ██████ ████ ████████ in ███ ██████, with ████ ████ for █████████ ████ and ██████████ ████ for ████████ ███ ████ ████-████ ████. ███████████ █████████ ███████ ██████ ███████, ██████████████ █████████, ██████████ █████████, ████████ (█████████) █████████, and █████████ for ███████ with ████████ ███████ █████ ████ as ███████████ █████████ (███ ███████████ ████████) and ███████ ███████ ██████████. ███████████ █████████ ███ ████ ██████ ██████ ████ █████ ████████ to ███████ █████████. █████████ ███ ██████████ as ███████, █████████, or ██████████ █████████ on the ███████ of ██████ ████████.

I've had moderate success on this, usually getting a score that is a good bit better than the Global Median. But I have to admit that on two recent puzzles Dau.II was twice as good as her Da at things scientific - so being an expert is not necessarily the best prediction of success. My best score ever came after seeing Out of ██████ (████) in the second paragraph and landing Meryl Streep in 3 guesses

My worst, and below Median, score was 128 guesses not identifying Screw. I was really flailing around here, pursuing lexicographic chimaera: just about half my scattergun guesses yielded nil hits: 20th, agree, agreement, argument, arts, asia, attempt, author, background, band, beginning, believed, biography, brief, certainty, considered, conversation, cookery, created, culture, current, customs, dance, dentistry, depend, determine, discrete, elsewhere, equivalent, ethics, exact, exo, experts, explain, expose, felt, guess , humours, information, integrate, interaction, land, lay, logic, man, mathematics, measure, moment, musical, opt, painting, paragraph, physics, potted, puppet, reconcile, ring, sea, think, truth, way, wheels, write. I rather like the idea that you might also take more than 100 plunges to get to the truth but without doubt your null hits will be different from mine . . . even if we were identical twins separated at birth. 

I gathered all my guesses for Redactles #21 - #29 into a spreadsheet. Discarded all the score 0 words as above [because that's just my "mind" cavorting about]. Then sorted the remaining ~350 words alphabetically. 50 of those have been successful in two or more different Redactles. That's the list to start the process when I start with No Clues. Those words are the interface between my mind and that of Dr Redactle; and include development, evolution, science and species. If the choice of the daily Redactle was random, this approach probably wouldn't work because there would be more Arts than Tech. The nerd-adjacent WEIRD hive-mind of Wikipedia will also lean that way when populating the list of 10,000 Level 4 Vital Articles.  

But I'm retiring for a bit now: overwhelmed by feeling my brain throbbing into action. Here's my full fair-punt list: all, are, area, been, century, current, development, different, each, east, effect, end, Europe, evidence, evolution, example, examples, function, given, good, growth, has, history, life, made, many, material, middle, more, most, name, natural, non, normal, not, one, other, purpose, same, science, shown, similar, species, that, their, there, they, this, thus, war, west, world.

Monday 9 May 2022

Power fosters political inertia

Five years ago, I cited a couple of short pieces by/ about/ with Michael "Exposé" Lewis. Check this one about the transition from Obama to the Trump administration. What strikes me, in the reprise, is the superficial quality of the discourse. There are three fat-salaried people on the other side of the CBS News-desk and they want a wrap on a key element of political and government dysfunction in three minutes.

A couple of months back, my old grad school pal P ordered me to read The Premonition: A Pandemic Story [NPR] by Michael Lewis. I'm an institutionalised bloke; can obey orders, so I put in train its translation from a shelf in Dalkey, South Dublin to a bin in Tramore Co Waterford awaiting my collection. Viva the national electronic library service! Lewis is an accomplished and successful non-fiction author, with an agent, a publisher, editors and friends-who-read. It is no surprise therefore that The Premonition reads easy: weaving several parallel, same-time, threads into a coherent warm blanket of understanding. Part of the skill is deciding which of the stories is the hook and which can be left to later chapters. Indeed, I'm sure that leaving researched and written characters on the cutting room floor is another part of the process. Must be a little galling to be interviewed at length and not get name-checked in the published book.

Because it is A pandemic story rather than the Official History of SARS-CoV2, Lewis has chosen to centre the tale on the Three Covideers shown above 

  • Joe DeRisi, a super-smart, tech-savvy, open-handed, molecular biologist, epidemiologist and genome sequencer from UCSF
  • Charity Dean, a no-nonsense, buck-stops-here California Public Health physician
  • Carter Mecher, a smartest-bloke-in-the-room medical data-slinger and medical historian from the Veterans Administration

These are the people who were right, knew they were right early on and tried to overcome the inertia, terror and vested interests of people, institutions and corporations who were doing just nicely in a warm bath of status quo. In the interests of balance, Lewis finds people on the Other Side - whose actions, or more generally inaction, hyped up the impact of the pandemic. First among these Bad Hats is the CDC, which Lewis characterizes as a political tool, utterly risk-averse and mired in red-tape. Thus, even if it was clear what policy would save most lives or alleviate the pinch-points in response protocols, it was institutionally impossible to find a CDC Effective with sufficient authority to implement a change that was a clear public good. Close reading of the history of the pandemic may conclude that it was impossible for the CDC to implement any change, like ever. Lewis says. "And it's removed the brave ones. The brave ones have all got their heads chopped off. So it's sort of institutionalized a cowardice that we're going to need to face up to so that this business of punishing people who are doing their damnedest to try to save us from ourselves has got to stop."

As well as a poke at John Ioannidis, the fallen angel of epidemiology, Lewis also singles out Sonia Angell, Charity Dean's boss at California Public Health as the main impediment preventing Dr Dean from being brave . . . and stomping SARS-CoV2 into oblivion with, like, public health measures. PHMs are actions which inhibit individual freedom so as to protect "society" or its more vulnerable members. This idea puts its finger on the pulse of politics over the last 40 years: since Margaret Thatcher announced "There is no such thing as Society". In this worldview you and I have no obligation to the dispossessed, the future or the planet. Dean, DeRisi and Mecher and their team were sure that only by early intervention and draconian curtailment of individual rights could the virus be brought to heel. Angell, along with the POTUS, many senior political appointees and public representatives, didn't see a virus with a death-rate of 1.5% as something to get the economy [and, yes, Society too] all bent out of shape about. I don't doubt that your mind is made up on these matters - as well as, half-alphabetically, antigen tests, boosters, China, D-vitamin, entry requirements, hydroxychloroquine, Ivermectin, Johns Hopkins, kids-as-carriers, long-covid, masks . . .

If you are a covid-interventionist, then you'll probably enjoy The Premonition.

Sunday 8 May 2022

New Post

May runs apace

Friday 6 May 2022

Directory Enquiries

Years ago, in my population genetics days, we discovered a lot of Manx cats in  parts of Maine and New Brunswick. By "a lot", I mean countable examples because, on the streets of New England and the Canadian Maritimes, Manx cats are really rare; so even a handful needs some kind of explanation. One of the hypotheses to be tested was that there had been particular and peculiar traffic between these maritime towns and the Isle of Man - where Manx cats are indeed reasonable common. In those pre-WWW days you had to scrabble about for data to analyse and I spent some time in the library looking at the Shipping News columns of local-to-Maine 19thC newspapers. That came up empty. So I turned to telephone directories to see whether there were more-than-expected typically Manx surnames [Clague, Corlett, Kelly, Moore, Quayle, Quirk] in Augusta, Me and St Stephen, N.B. That yielded enough data to analyse . . . and show that settlement from the IoM was not a good explanation for the excess of tailless cats.

Dau.I the Librarian was visiting "home" for two weeks in April: a) Easter & chocolates with her niblings b) "study time" from work to knock off some end-of-year assignments to mark the half-way point of her two-year MLIS degree [Masters in Library & Information Science. When she returned to work  the next week she had to go downstairs to the dungeons archives and: cull some of the staff records, consolidate others, integrate two sources of data and file the whole caboodle alphabetically by surname. Most of the files now exist in 7# stuffed 4-drawer filing cabinets in a basement. Future-proofing and elbow room has allowed her to order 2 more cabinets for a total of 36 drawers.

Channelling Pat the Salt in his aphorism never move anything twice, it seemed to us sensible to add an empty cabinet at each end of the existing row of seven and start distributing the A's into one set of empty drawers until bored and then start similarly disbursing the X Y Zs to the the other empty cabinet. That way she'll be able to leave the Mc's and O's in the centre of the Irish alphabetical world. So there is an implicit hypothesis: that these patronymic surnames are indeed more common in Ireland. 

How to test that? Find a telephone directory [remember them?] and count how many pages were devoted to each initial letter. For reasons inertia, we have retained a copy of the 05 Sunny South East telephone directory from 2010. And here is the data:

Page # Pages Percent Drawers CumTot Cabinet
A 15 3 0.9 0.33 0.33 A B
B 18 28 8.6 3.10 3.43
C 46 32 9.8 3.54 6.98 C
D 78 27 8.3 2.99 9.97 D E F
E 105 3 0.9 0.33 10.30
F 108 18 5.5 1.99 12.30
G 126 11 3.4 1.22 13.51 G H I
H 137 20 6.2 2.22 15.73
I 157 1 0.3 0.11 15.84
J 158 3 0.9 0.33 16.17 J K L
K 161 22 6.8 2.44 18.61
L 183 12 3.7 1.33 19.94
M 195 42 12.9 4.65 24.59 M
N 237 6 1.8 0.66 25.26 N O
O 243 27 8.3 2.99 28.25
P 270 11 3.4 1.22 29.46 P Q R
Q 281 2 0.6 0.22 29.69
R 283 16 4.9 1.77 31.46
S 299 15 4.6 1.66 33.12 S-Z
T 314 7 2.2 0.78 33.90
U 321 0 0.0 0.00 33.90
V 321 1 0.3 0.11 34.01
W 322 16 4.9 1.77 35.78
X 338 0 0.0 0.00 35.78
Y 338 1 0.3 0.11 35.89
Z 339 0 0.0 0.00 35.89
Total 325
100 36

First thing to note is that frequency of Initial letters [M C B D O K H F R W S L G P T N A E J Q I V Y U X Z] is very different from general letter freq for English etaoinshrdlu. Murphy and Mc/MacNames do indeed fill the middle ground of Irish name space, O' not so much: shoved down the list by Connollys Byrnes Dohertys. You might think, and we did consider, that it would be better to audit the actual data in the existing file-cabinets. But that is not really future proofing the system: At the present moment, for example, there is nobody in the City Library Service whose name begins with A. But there may be in the future, especially if the Library succeeds in diversifying its employee base - think Akinrunde, Battacharaya . . . Yong, Zieliński