Wednesday 29 June 2022

Fitness yompscape

 A while ago, I was waxing all groupie about the August 1932 Genetics Congress. In those days, genetics was quite the exclusive field - in the sense that all the practitioners could cram into a large gymnasium. Now there are probably as many "geneticists" in Ireland as there were in the whole world 90 years ago. but of the few hundred attendees in 1932, most have sunk without trace: invisible to Wikipedia, absent from Pubmed, almost ungooglible. That's how it is: few of us in science really break the cage that constrains us and go explore really new fields. It's rather same old same old soon forgotten workaday make-work.

Sewall Wright's paper on adaptive landscapes was different. It set out a new, and very fruitful, way of imagining the world and individuals therein as they are buffeted by a hostile environment and try to make the best fist of their lives with the physical attributes and quirky behaviour they are dealt at conception. Wright simplified his ideal, theory-tractible world as a 3-dimensional landscape with living things scattered across it where the dice of genetics let them fall.

He imagined two people creatures starting off somewhere on the landscape and allowed them to shuffle about the landscape with a slight tendency to move uphill. But he also acknowledged that there's a gale across the land which blows you off course, and then disorienting fog comes down so you can't easily tell where up is. Up is the power of selection: the slight tendency to leave more offspring than your neighbour because of some heritable beneficial attribute. In the pic [L] two very similar creatures start off close together in the landscape. Actually it might be better to think of lineages rather than individuals. Ma does well and leaves her kids in a better place - further up the hill. The kids will trend upwards because of what they have inherited from Ma, but it will be fuzzy: there will be back-sliding and drift but the tendency will be Up].

By chance A and B move apart but still have an anti-gravity bias to moving uphill. They both eventually reach a peak of perfection at the top of a + hill. From that height they can do no better, every step will see them in a lower / worse position. BUT the hills are alive with the sound of inequality: A is well-satisfied with reaching a local maximum fitness; B is also at a local peak but it is 2 contours higher in absolute terms. B is fitter; A is doing well but is toting around a weird imperfect toolkit and is, frankly, a bit of a kludge. This way of thinking can help explain some of the WTF show-stoppers biologists encounter with any careful investigation.  Think the recurrent pharyngeal nerve, male nipples, susceptibility to SARS-CoV2, all those work-days lost from lower back pain, the insane desire to go mountain-biking. Evolution is not about perfick; it's about good enough.

On the right is an actual topo map of the hills close to where we live. IF three walkers start close to each other on the road which skirts the uplands [as well-engineered roads often do] ANDIF each party moves only uphill step after step  THEN they will likely all finish up on different peaks. Following this algorithm PersonBlue comes to a point where if they stumble left they finish up at the pico di tutti picos but a trip to the right and they will finish pretty high up and no way down but at an objectively sub-optimal summit. Anyway, I though it would be fun for a bunch of people who have heard of Sewall Wright to start low and head up and find out just how fit they are . . . on Sunday 28 August 2022: exactly 90 years after Sewall Wright presented his paper. Those gasping at a decision point can head for an easier goal or turn back for home and start preparing kebabs for the rest of us.

Now, I am fairly certain that none of my family could recognise a picture of Prof Wright if it jumped up and bit them; let alone explain to a six year old why he is worth commemorating. But I'd expect more from geneticists and evolutionary biologists. I was, therefore, surprised [and disappointed] at the reaction when I announced his March 1988 death at work. Work was the Department of Biochemistry & Genetics (in a different country) but only one of my colleagues knew about whom I was talking; and they were quite frankly Scarlett about the news. Wright was right, though, and his way of seeing the natural world was insightful and informative. See y'all at the end of August.

Monday 27 June 2022

A quiet life

My father's family were shy breeders. He was an only child, doted on by a generation of older female relatives. Annual family holiday to Ireland were effectively a series of courtesy calls to these ladies. All through my childhood the itinerary would tighten as, one after the other, these aunts and cousins left home for A Home and then left the stage altogether. But we never visited with Cousin Periwinkle, who lived halfway up a cliff in Glengarriff and was somehow beyond my father's Pale. It was a missed opportunity because Mona Periwinkle "Peri" Cotgrave was an interesting person who'd been places and done things in the 1920s and 30s - winning golfing prizes; running a fitness studio; getting her poems published; starring in a film. 

In mid-June my twin sister and I celebrated our birthday together ABC in Allihies at the far end of the Beara Peninsula in West Cork. As Glengarriff nestles in the oxter of that same peninsula, it was an opportunity to pause in the town and make enquiries about our scapegrace relative. 

Periwinkle was born in Roscrea in 1899 and appears on the 1901 census as an infant living in her mother's family home in King's County:

The boys of the family were all abroad in the army - either India or South Africa. Peri's father Major Edwin Cotgrave of The Central India Horse was also out in India in khaki and effectively had disappeared from her life. Apparently, he named his daughter Periwinkle after a racehorse on which he'd won a lot of money. But this Periwinkle [b 1887] is too early and this Periwinkle [b 1900] is too late to convincingly bolster that theory and there are no Periwinkles between them in the studbook.

Peri served in uniform during WWII like so many of her relatives, and like my mother. When she was demobbed, she returned to Ireland with her partner Pat[ricia] Fanshawe and set up a ménage à deux in a house in the woods close to the Blue Pool in Glengarriff. They arrived in town in an army surplus jeep and were accordingly known locally as The Jeeps or The Babes in the Woods. When the jeep finally fell apart, they took delivery of a Citroën Dyane in a shipping crate and had it assembled by a local mechanic. They seemed to have money but never enough of it and gardened for food as well as pleasure. Later they had a business making jewellery and trinkets out of beads and sea-shells which might have brought in a few shillings from tourists.

In the forenoon, pretty much every day, they'd repair to Doc Ryan's bar for coffee G&Ts before lunch. Although Peri was as likely to be found up at the bar downing pints of Smithwicks and chatting with the men. When Doc's daughter was married of course The Jeeps were invited. They were accepted in the community and held in affection and respect; which may seem surprising in post-war Ireland where homosexual acts were formally illegal until the campaign of David Norris in the 1980s led to decriminalization [in 1993!]. It seems that Peri and Pat were one of three out lesbian couples in Glengarriff in the 1960s. I don't think that Glengarriff was notably more inclusive and tolerant than other Irish towns but rather that don't ask don't tell was a widespread approach to lesbians . . . so long as they were also incomers?

Peri died, suddenly at home, in 1975 and is buried across the bay in Bantry. Pat couldn't afford living alone in Glengarriff, sold up, and bought a modest 2-up-2-down, 35 km South in Ballydehob. Distance allowed her to drop out of sight to the Glengarriff community.

Before I left for Beara, I contacted the Arts Officer for Cork County Council. I thought it might perk his interest that an unknown 20thC poet had spent 25+ years in the county and was buried within his patrimony. Not yet, but he did forward my enquiry to the Local Studies Librarian who sourced me the death notice [above L] from The Examiner.

I've devoted a couple of days to investigating the life and times of a rather distant relative. I think I'm satisfied with that. It's like that for almost all of us. When the teenagers who knew the pensioners become pensioners and die in their turn, another vibrant, heart-beating, skillful and beloved person will sluice out of the bath of history forever. Turnover is a little over 100 years. In 1973, on my way to college, I spent a week in South Wexford with another of my father's elderly female relatives. The clock in the hall ticked very slowly that week but chatting to this elderly lady was not without interest. One evening she said that, as a young girl, she'd talked to an old man who used to cross the river by stepping stones. That convenience was replaced by a bridge in 1815. So I've danced with man who's danced with a girl who could have danced with Napoleon.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

Alexander Pope

Friday 24 June 2022

The St Lego parade 17/Mar/2001

Years ago when the kids were small and it was too drizzly to work outside, I needed a pen but could not find one in the usual places. There were plenty of pen-adjacent objects in cups on the kitchen window-sill and in both top drawers of The Beloved's desk: 

  • pencils, some with points
  • coloured pencils, fewer with points
  • several incomplete sets of rainbow felt tips
  • wax crayons
  • crappy inked-out promotional ballpoints
  • cheap false-economy red biros nicked from work

Eventually I gave up looking for a working pen and settled down to process the data. I counted between 800 and 900 "writing implements" in a single small house in rural Ireland to over-service the needs of a 4 person nuclear family. I talked about this to anyone who'd listen for the next tuthree years because it seemed a telling metaphor of haves vs have-nots in this grossly unequal world. Every birthday or christmas someone was likely to give the kids another set of felt tips . . . because I know they like drawing.

At about the same time I looked at the dustbin full of Lego and wondered how two small girls had accumulated so much. In my day, as a 1st generation Lego child, I had a biscuit tin of red and white bricks from which, with much compromise and ingenuity, I could construct something that resembled a house. It was March, I was 'resting', so I pulled out all the yellow-headed mini-figs after the kids were in bed and set them up on the living room windowsill as a St Patrick's Day parade:

Exciting as the StPs parade is in Graiguenamanagh, with two MF35 tractors and the lorry from the creamery, ours was the only parade in Ireland that year which featured a yellow duck, a cat, a horse-sized dog, a shark & Gandalf. The crowd, as you can see, was not very animated.

Note: I've been looking for these pictures ever since I started The Blob. But when you have several thousand photos in trunks and storage boxes dispersed throughout the property, it is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Or a Lego-head in a pile of poo. It took Dau.II's dogged perseverance to gather all the photo-bins and go through them systematically to turn them up. I have, after 20+ years achieved closure on that chapter in my life. Happy out!

Wednesday 22 June 2022


Skellig Michael Sceilg Mhichíl is one of those island cases where the surface area is surely greater than the 22 hectare satellite footprint because so much of it is near vertical. My calcs at that link are at variance with estimates from math-heads and cartographers, who know what they are talking about.

Map attrib.  It is one of the remotest and least habitable places available and [so?] was chosen to host a small colony of monks, maybe starting from the 500s CE. But the earliest documentary evidence of a monastery is when vikings sacked the place in 823 and 838 CE. And the monks finally up-stakes and left at the end of the 1100s. That's 300+ years of continuous habitation; and I guess they ate a lot [every day is Friday] of fish and seabirds because everything else had to be scratched from the surface. The island was a place or pilgrimage long after the monks left but I hope that visitors from the mainland brought a bag of honey bannocks or a bit of ham to share when they landed. It is notoriously unreliable for landing: a storm can blow up in the 90 minutes it takes to come out the 12km from Portmagee and there's nothing to do but go back again. Chekkitout on GoogleMaps: they've sent a few streetview cameras out there which indicates just how many tourists you may expect to share your visit with.

Little Skellig Sceilg Bheag [dark blob L] is smaller (8 ha.) and not just because it is a mile distant. It also hosts the largest colony of gannets Morus bassanus in Ireland; and is [therefore?] off-limits for tourists. Nobody lives on Great Skellig year-round any more but wardens have been installed during the Summer months and one of them Robert L "Bob" Harris worked there for 34 years! from 1989. It's a bit like Jim Henterley fire-watching on Desolation Peak in Washington State: you're on your own for most of the time but visitors appear erratically. Harris has written his sojourn up in the book Returning Light (2021 HarperCollinsIreland). This is nicely produced with a section of glossy colour photos in the middle and some line-drawings by Karen Vaughan. HarperCollins is a publishing behemoth capable of providing editorial support, so I couldn't find any typos. 

I think it's rather wonderful that a life-time spent in a remote and intrinsically interesting location can read ever so slightly boring. Verbatim diary entries, even if severely editted for flow, are not the most coherent way of telling a story. But then again, there is no story: life on Skellig in the 20thC is The Weather, first and foremost, and The Wildlife and then nothing. Nothing exciting like a Viking raid. And the interactions with the other wardens, the lighthouse maintenance crew, and the hordes of rubber-neckers are washed out into a barely visible background. Only Owen Walsh, the skipper of the Agnes Olibhear gets a bigger part than the chorus. The diary entries are leavened with loonnngg scads of Bob's poetry which may, or may not, be as good as Seamus Heaney's. I skipped all that introspection; rushing on to the next encounter with storm petrels Hydrobates pelagicus or baby puffins Fratercula arctica - much more engaging.

Monday 20 June 2022

Decluttering the clusterpic

As another birthday looms up, I guess I've been taking crap photos for about 60 years. I think me and my sibs might have had access to a cheap point-and-shoot camera in the 1960s. There is not much evidence to show for this now because few enough pictures were taken: apart from the cost of the camera the consumables [film, developing, printing] were not insignificant. But this is also true that, for far too many of the surviving photos, I am the one gurning and subverting what should have been a nice family occasion. By the time The Boy was born in the 1970s, Instamatic cameras were widely available and processing costs were affordable: maybe the cost of a paperback book? So there are rather more photos of him as a chap. 

Sometime after his 2nd birthday, we sat down and put all these documentary records into a handful of albums. They have not worn well, despite being protected from sunlight and extremes of temperature and humidity.  The film quality must have been a reflection of the price. If we'd been serious about archiving his childhood, we'd have spent more, taken fewer pics and and thought more carefully about storage. It is also hard to remember in the digital age that the feedback was hopelessly deferred. You had to finish the whole film of 24 or 36 pics and then send the film for processing. It might be 2 or 3 weeks before you realised that you'd been clicking away with no film in the camera, or double exposing a film or just taking hopelessly over-exposed, badly lit or poorly composed snaps.

It's downhill after that. Photos were taken, developed, printed, viewed, shuffled, finger-printed, splotched with butter and put back in the shipping envelope. Periodically these envelopes were bundled into boxes and we've been toting this burden around or storing it under beds and the top of wardrobes for two more children and four more decades. In the 80s and 90s, photos-by-post companies were in hot competition - offering an extra set of prints for £1 or printing a 6 x 4 photo and two much smaller versions on the same paper. The idea being that you could send the extras to doting grandparents or the pals who was visiting at the time. Needless to say we rarely had enough friends to offload these surplus pics.

And the duplicates often came in a separate envelope that might have finished in a different box or shuffled in with other related or unrelated photos in a desultory, partial, uncompleted project in the distant past. 

Enter Dau.II wearing her red underpants over her blue tights to sit down and put some order on this chaos. She is a notorious light packer and simple lifer. I think she's figured that it's easier to work out who's who when her parents are alive than . . . later. After cleaning the cooker but before de-weeding the patio, this superhero of clutter [stand aside Marie Kondo] heaved the family photo archive from under her bed and started to put manners on it: "this picture of trees against a skyline for which nobody can hazard the GPS coordinates beyond: probably Ireland, possibly Northumberland, maybe 1980s? hmmm? we might ditch that??".  And the goddamm dupes? The family are keen on jigsaws, it looks like we might have to rent a church hall, spread out all the photos face up on the floor and pair them off.  I think we have agreed that 

  • the negatives are for the bin
  • only one copy of each pic will be accepted to the archive
  • pictures of clouds, feet and the inside of rucksacks will be discarded
  • fuzzy, over-, double- or under- exposed prints = dump
  • discard all but one of several similar pictures of the same person
  • ugly babies of unknown ancestry = bin
  • back-of-head shots, even if the President of Ireland = trash
  • dilapidated cottages we didn't buy in the early 90s can be culled

Still and all, there is a good chance that these actual photographs will outlive the digital tsunami of really crap photos which we are currently contributing to.

It is appropriately ironic that this post includes zero pictures!

Sunday 19 June 2022

Off Site West side

Nothing to see here except the stripey wall near where I'm rusticating.

Back next week.

Friday 17 June 2022

Sustainable sausinges

Chicken? Can't be bothered. It is fearsomely efficient at converting meal into meat but, brother, it ain't natural to grow from 2oz=50g at hatch to 4.5lb=2kg in 42 days having eaten 6.75lb=3kg of feed [feed conversion ratio 1.5]. imo chicken tastes better than soya beans, but that's a very low bar and not low enough to swallow the ethical issues of factory chicken. But at least you know where you are with cheap chicken; adding slogans like "organic", "free-range", "corn-fed" requires an additional level of skeptical enquiry about those words really mean. "free-range" often means has access to the outdoors but the door is hella small, at the other end of a vast shed and all the food is inside . . . where it is warm and dry. Talking to a palomino a while back, who claimed that their latest cheap chicken filled the kitchen with the smell of herring when cooked; presumably because that month fish-meal had been cheaper than soya-mit-corn.

One of the local supermarkets took a punt on packets of Saustainable Sausage from Olive Pork outside of Drogheda, Co Louth. But not many folks took up the offer and we acquired a packet from the remainders almost sell-by shelf. Sustainable is an unsettling adjective to use because, to me, in a food context, it conjures up survival bunkers, desiccated beef chips and bins full of dried beans. I quipped with a neighbour that she could eat as much as she wanted because it was engineered to last forever. Actually, the apple & sage sustainable sausages are fine, but I doubt I could blind taste them different from Clonakilty, Tesco, Denny, Galtee reg'lar sausages. 62% meat is about average for Irish sausages [but rather less than Tony O'Regan's and a lot less than JP O'Connor's] which are habitually adulterated with meal - it's not chorizo, lads. The apple pieces are only 84% apple and the sage is the last, smallest contributor to the mix at 0.3%. And all the usual suspicious suspects E300 E330 E451 E621 [that's MSG] are thrun into the mix to make sure it gets to the plate without crawling out of the supply chain.

The sustainable tag is pushed because these porkers are fed on spent olives - the cake that is left after all the oil has been extracted from the fruit. That's a nice idea, in a Simon Fairlie sort of way - pigs are ominivores and will grow fat on stuff that we cannot or will not countenance on our own plates. But Fairlie feeds his pigs from weeds and kitchen scraps; not olive cake which has been shipped halfway across Europe from the nearest cheapest olive groves. And, as with the fish-meal chicken in the 1st para, it's possible that the pork tastes a bit olivy before that scent is overwhlemed with the apple, MSG, sodium sulphite . . . and the dusting of sage.

As y'do, I googled up this product and came across some really bizarre statements on which appear over the Olive Farm by-line: after a lorra guff about Omega 3 and its effects on mood we get "Lastly, the pork meat that Olive Pork use is from the shoulder meat. Shoulder meat has many connective tissues as it connects the body, legs and head. This means that the meat in pork shoulders is high in collagen". WTF? Are we, like, 6 years old? Yo toe-bo♬e's co♬♬ected to yo foot-bo♬e etc. etc.

Wednesday 15 June 2022

Occupational disease

Last month, I alluded to the irretrievable loss of some [of my] original scientific / historical research. For reasons set out below, I had a complete set of Carnivore Genetics Newsletters a periodical produced through the 70s and early 80s of the last century. For years, I lugged these around with me because I like complete sets and C.G.N. was my intellectual jam. Then I decided that storing this information in a box in a shed at home was not really getting maximal use out of the information contained in the series. Accordingly I donated the set, including some periodical storage library boxes [PSLBs], to the library of the Genetics Department at my Alma Mater, Trinity College Dublin. At the time I was back working in that department, so it was easy to achieve this archival aim. 

But the rise and rise of genetics servicing the human genome and big data meant that space was increasingly at a premium to house gophering post-grad students and ambitious young faculty. A new departmental librarian was appointed [everyone pays their community admin taxes except the total gobshites with delusions of Nobel grandeur]; and the C.G.N. archive was discarded as just too retro for a modern school of molecular biology. Better communication and a more inclusive sense of "worth" might have alerted me to the discard so I could dumpster-dive them back to my shed. But, no, they're gone; I am not bitter.

C.G.N. was produced several times a year by my boss, the US co-editor, out of a cellar in Newton, Massachusetts aka the Carnivore Genetics Research Center C.G.R.C. Because I started my US years living in that same cellar, for four years I was always part of the production team:

  • Taking the camera-ready typescript to the cheapest reliable printer in Cambridge MA
  • Collecting several xerox boxes of collated newsletters and a box of end-covers printed on slightly more robust 160 gsm stock.
  • Standing round the dining room table with whomever was available and willing
  • slapping covers on the inside pages
  • applying two industrial staples to each composite copy
  • crimping flat the exposed ends of the staples with some modified pliers
  • stuffing envelopes
  • applying address labels and stamps
  • lugging the boxes to the post office for dispatch 
I was usually designated to do the crimping and every time I developed a fine red case of crimper's thumb - an occupational repetitive strain injury from applying significant pressure with pliers to the inside edge of thumb and fore-finger. But begob, I infinitely preferred crimper's thumb to collator's paper-cut. And in a wider occupational disease view, crimpers thumb is better than scrotal cancer and it's less disabling than chippy's knee. I'd like to use that back-story to explain why my thumbs feel painful at the bottom joint when I close them to the far side of my palm. But it won't wash, because both left and right thumbs are about equally affected and I was ever and only a right-handed crimper. Must be some form of Arthur-itis.

Monday 13 June 2022

90 Years On


If you care anything about the history of genetics, you'd want to have been a fly on the wall at the Sixth International Congress of Genetics hosted by Cornell University at Ithaca, NY in the last week of August 1932. Someone took an official group photo of nearly 400 of the delegates which required herding the cats into a block 40 people wide and stacked 10 deep. Too large to give each one more than 2 pixels per face on a low graphics quality medium like The Blob, but we can zoom in to some interesting areas. Above:

  • 35. Theodosius "Nothing Makes Sense" Dobzhansky 1900-1975 still clutching his program in the front row.
  • 40. Marcus Rhoades 1903-1991 Cornell geneticist
  • 41. Barbara McClintock 1902- 1992 Nobel Physiol&Med 1983[!] [Prev]
  • 42 Mrs Rhoades
  • 43. Harriet Creighton 1909-2004
Creighton, HB; McClintock, B (August 1931). "A Correlation of Cytological and Genetical Crossing-Over in Zea Mays". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 17 (8): 492–7 was the first description of chromosomal information exchange - a driver for generating diversity for evolution to act upon.

Nearer the centre are the knobs

  • 24. Thomas Hunt Morgan 1866-1945 Nobel Phys&Med 1933
  • 25. R.A. Emerson 1873-1947 Boss of McClintock, Rhoades and Creighton
  • 54. JBS Haldane 1892-1964 [Prev]
  • 97. Richard "Hopeful Monsters" Goldschmidt 1878-1958
  • 132. R.A. Fisher 1890-1962 [Prev] [Cancelled]

Sewall Wright must have mitched off early, because he isn't in the official photo despite presenting one of the key visualisations of evolution in action at this meeting in his paper about adaptive landscapes. "The roles of mutation, inbreeding, crossbreeding and selection in Evolution". This showed that, even if natural selection worked perfectly to improve the fitness of living things, nevertheless we might finish up with a less than perfect solution to The Evolutionary Problem of surviving long enough to get off at least one shag resulting in offspring that are "better" than their parents. Wright, Haldane and Fisher were the numerate triumvirate who in the 1930s put manners on genetics and evolution by providing a mathematical and statistical framework for biology to show what could, and could not, happen in real life.

This is the session which everyone wished they had been at:

Tuesday August 30
R Goldschmidt, Chairman; D.F. Jones, Vice Chairman and Secretary
Special subject: Contributions of genetics to the theory of organic evolution

  1. The process of evolution in cultivated plants. N. Vavilov, Institute of Applied Botany, Leningrad
  2. The evolutionary modification of genetic phenomena. R.A. Fisher, Rotheamsted experimental Station, Harpenden.
  3. Can evolution be explained in terms of at present known genetical causes? J.B.S. Haldane, john Innes Horticutural Institution, Merton
  4. The roles of mutation, inbreeding, crossbreeding and selection in Evolution. S. Wright, University of Chicago, Chicago

Nikolae Vavilov, who he? to get top billing with Fisher, Haldane and Wright. Vavilov Николай Иванович Вавилов was a senior and widely respected geneticist and agronomist who was a) trying to improve the state of Soviet agriculture using genetics and selective breeding b) boost the press image of the USSR abroad. At Cornell that Summer, he proposed to host the Seventh Congress of Genetics in the Soviet Union in 1937. There was some dissent but this proposal was accepted at the Sixth. Vavilov went home and won the support of the Politburo, was elected Chairman of the 7th Congress, and started to get the scientific and logistical ducks in a row in Leningrad and Moscow. However, in November 1936, the Poliburo abruptly cancelled the Congress, which was postponed and held in 1939 in Edinburgh. Vavilov had transgressed Stalinist ideas of how the world should be by attempting to show how it was IRL. His political masters refused him leave to attend the Edinburgh Congress, where an empty chair was placed in protest and his honour on the dais.

Stalin had been schmoozed by an idealogue and data-fixer called Trofim Lysenko Трохим Денисович Лисенко [politprev] who maintained that by altering the environment plants could pull themselves up by their phenotypic boot-straps and breed true to Marxist expectations, without the baggage of ancestry and inheritance. Vavilov was arrested in 1940, sentenced to death in 1941. This sentence was commuted to 20 years in prison where he died of malnutrition in 1943.

Sunday 12 June 2022

Sun dae mix jun 12t


Not red

Friday 10 June 2022

I said take care of him

Pat the Salt, my venerable father-in-law and quondam globetrotter, turned 97 at the beginning of June. He was on the regular trotting about his half acre lot behind a push mower up to the age of 85. That year he rather abruptly stopped doing this necessary chore and it fell to me and Dau.II. Fair exchange is no robbery and we got our dinner and an afternoon watching daytime telly as well as a good physical work out. One of the interesting aspects of growing old is watching the finely-tuned physiological machine start to sag as things fall apart. Compare 20-something me lepping downhill from rock to rock in confident abandon with 60-something me who has to be careful jumping off a 60cm ditch onto soft grass. Or 8 y.o. me being able to pee 2x higher than my schoolboy cap vs 68 y.o. me being as feebly leaky as a failed tap-washer.

My sainted mother outlived her husband by 20 years but carried on with her daily round: 

  • Port Salut and instant coffee for breakfast
  • reading the deaths column of the Telegraph 
  • weeding the herbaceous border
  • lunch: spinach, trout, 
  • good works
  • shopping [spinach, peas, quiche, trout, Port Salut]
  • snooze
  • dinner: quiche, spinach
  • telly
  • bed

As she moved from octogenarian to her 90s, my sainted sister, who lived 2 hours away, would come visit for an overnight on the regular: help with the paperwork, source services to help with housework, provide an excuse for lunch in the local pub - and an alternative to spinach with everything. Living in a different country, my visits were much less frequent. In the Summer of 2019, I was visiting and had occasion to watch my mother repairing to bed tacking slowly up the stairs to Bedfordshire. It looked like an accident waiting to happen. Indeed, one of the arguments my mother made for having 7-day clean-and-care attention rather than M-F, was to prevent her lying injured after a fall for more than 24 hours.

And the chair-lift, it was so! I tried it out when I went back to visit the following month and it . was . real . slow . but . steady. Nevertheless it was probably quicker [and certainly safer!] than tottering upwards [downwards is probably more hazardous] under her own steam. So that was July, in September, my mother had a problem that required hospitalization, and she never went home again. £3,000 worth of kit was now just an obstruction on the stairwell and the electric stair company stoutly refused to acknowledge that it had any monetary value for re-use, re-sale or re-cycle.

Mais revenons nous a nos béliers. Like my mother, who had a 5 year head start, Pat the Salt is not as tough as he was. All the muscle-groups you and I take for granted in. say, walking to the kitchen to make a restoring cup of tea are losing their ability to co-ordinate the extension of the knee, let alone the left-right, left-right of walking purposefully in a straight line. A kindly and competent occupational therapist OT put it into perspective last year by saying Pat launching from the sofa and walking to the bathroom is, for him, now, the equivalent of mowing the half acre 12 years ago. As with my mother, tech has a number of solutions for the task of keeping elders at home which is desirable socially, medically and economically. One of the big stressors [if you can imagine it with your confident 40-something - half his age] demeanour and flexibility is sitting down backwards . . . and sitting down frontwards is no use at all.

The day before his birthday, Pat took delivery of an electric ejector and soft-landing chair courtesy of the HSE. Picture above shows me halfway through the cycle of stress-testing the machine. As you can see that, in addition to sit and push-forward-to-stand-almost-upright, there is an option to cant backwards and help the blood rush back to your head. That's another element to elderhood, the valves in your leg veins get spongy so the blood pools at your feet rather than being delivered upstairs for vital functions like not fainting. The same canny OT advised to have Pat count to 10 after sitting up out of bed; and count another 10 before moving off. 

No more that my mother's chair-lift, Pat's new chair is about as exciting as watching the tide ebb. But it smooths over a lot of uncertainty and stress and makes life much easier on carers also. Th€ co$t? About the same as 10 days full board and lodging in a state approved nursing home. As a tax-payer [just above the threshold when all my pensions come home to roost] the zimmer frame, the rollator, the foldable car-boot wheelchair and the seat of which we treat are all excellent value in buying time from block-booking a bed somewhere which is not home.

Note: We have all been enjoined by a sardonic Dau.II to refrain from calling it The Electric Chair - that's a little too Oklahoma-close for comfort.

Cultural reference: I said take care of him.

Wednesday 8 June 2022


Logainm is a searchable database of the placenames = logainmeacha of Ireland. The island is partitioned into ~60,000 townlands - the smallest civil division available - ranging from less than 1 acre (Termonmagurk, County Tyrone 0.63 acres = 0.25 ha) to several thousand acres (Fionnán co Galway 7,500 acres (3050 hectares. That's smaller than a parish [2,509] let alone a barony [328] or a county [32]. is briefed to document and archive all the geographical names in Ireland; I guess down to individual fields, streams, bogholes. Names have utility: sending The Chap out to cut hay, the Gaffer needs to indicate unambiguously where to start. It may also give clues as to past agricultural practice . . . and also maps with names are important for taxing folks!

I've just finished reading That Place We Call Home by veteran RTE broadcatser and gaeilgeoir John "Creedo" Creedon. I got it via the family KrisKringle at Christmas last year, was gallopping along in January but set it aside to deal with a welter of time-limited downloads from Borrowbox.  Like my mother and Dover Castle, knowing something is available forever often encourages putting it on the long finger. Creedon has pitched a number of shows to RTE which involve him tooling round the country gabbing to the ordinary folks he encounters to investigate the local peculiarities of geography and history. This book is a sort of distillation of a couple of decades of turning up, listing and being interested.

I'm interested toponymy & etymology, so this should be my jam. The story often hinges on the dilemma about whether to translate or transliterate Irish placenames to generate a pronounceable English equivalent. Take Baile na gCailleach, as Creddon does on p78. This is the town of the nuns / women of mature age / hags. We've had nuns for longer than you or I can remember so there are many examples of Baile na gCailleach about the land. But Anglophication has taken many different patths: Collinstown WH; Ballynagale WX; Calliaghstown D; Collierstown Duleek MH; Callystown LH; Ballynagalliagh SO; Ballynagally LK; Calliaghstown MH; Ballynagalliagh KE; Collierstown Kells MH; Collierstown MH; Galliagh DY.

Our hill [one of the many] Knockroe[s] is clearly Cnoc Rua the red hill but is that the red-brown of dying bracken Pteridium aquilinum or the pinky-purple of flowering heather? Erica cinerea and/or Calluna vulgaris? And on colour, I was paying attention to the signage when I was last on the Waterford coast and twigged that Benvoy is An Bhinn Bhuí = the yellow cliff presumably named for the yellow clay exposed by the eroding cliffs.

Son Creedo's book is not an academic treatise, nor is it peer-reviewed science. But it's not a trivial skim across the landscape either. So many places are revealed and named that, unless you are already fluent in Irish, you're sure to learn something new about the places with which you are familiar.

Monday 6 June 2022

Norwegian wood

I have this fantasy that hay-barns in Norway are a) made of wood b) painted/stained rust red. We just wrapped our polytunnel refurb project. Like a dentist, some rotten material had to be cut out and replaced with sound stuff. That turned up some more evidence that the tunnel was constructed in 2005 [R]. First R & K cleaned the plastic: stoutly asserting that 17 years was young: so it really did not need replacement. Then they rebuilt the semi-circular ends: notably by re-pleating and stretching the plastic. But more importantly by replacing [see before] a 1 metre wide section on either side of the doors with draft-buster builder's netting to improve the ventilation [shown above]. In Ireland the biggest problem with polytunnels is over-heating rather than freezing. 20 minutes after the sun comes out from behind the clouds of the last shower, the temperature can increase 10°C. 12 sq.m. of extra ventilation might dilute the hot air. The other thing that's been upgraded is the steel 'profile' sheets which separate the bottom of the plastic and its associated timber framing from the wet and microbe-rich earth. Timber, even deal softwood will last for a long time so long as it is kept dry - think of the joists, rafters and floor-boards in your own home - but in the damp, not-so-much. The original 2005 profile was imperfectly buried and so needed a succession of futzing blobby intermittently successful solutions [involving wooden stakes, rocks, chicken-wire and sand&cement] for keeping sheep in the tunnel, and rabbits & rats out.

You can see the new tidy tunnel-end at the post-head. I spent two days on my own after the lads had finished carpenting, slapping fence preservative on any timber that was exposed to the weather: hence the Norwegian wood crack in the title.

The final stage of the refurbishment was to get an extra screw of tension on the plastic along the 17m sides of the tunnel. The standard practice in 2005 was to wrap a few turns of plastic round a [series of] 2x1 lath[s] and screw that swissroll to a 4x2 timber that was bolted to the hoops of the tunnel . . . the ends of which were embedded in massive concrete footings buried in the ground. 

R & K are seen above screwing a new Norwegian stained 2x1 lath through the olde punky 2005 2x1 lath and into the structural 4x2 beneath.  But first they have wedged a 3x2 spar between the plastic and the original 4x2 support rail. This has the effect of getting an extra bit of tension on the plastic so it finishes up drum-tight. K maintains that he's not happy with his tunnel if you can't hear bees dup dup drumming against the plastic. Any play in the plastic is going to wear it out as it fraps in the wind against the steel and timber framework. The boys are leaning in to the work with a couple of impact drills using the threads of the hex tek screws to inexorably crimp the timbers together against the spring of the plastic. This adds an addition inch of tension in the sheet.

Like I said, we covered the tunnel with plastic in Summer 2005 on a warm calm day in July. We made a meitheal out of it, enticing about a dozen frends&relashuns with the promise of barbie and beer. It's handy to have that many arms to really pull the plastic tight before screwing it to the support rail. [Commercial operations forget about timber and attach the plastic to a steel tension bar which may be club-hammered down the steel hoops to which it is attached: that way a couple blokes can do the work of our dozen. I'll also add that a pair of these patent tension bars will set you back €1,500+]. Our dozen otoh, which uncomfortably included three alpha males, achieved a really tight stretch but failed to attach the batten with sufficient screws. About a year later, when I was the only adult on the property with two tween girls, there was a bit of a blow, one of the screws failed and half of one side of the tunnel unzippered itself from its foundation. That was the first [but not the last] time that 11y.o. Dau.II got to drive a cordless drill while her sister and I pulled the edge down as . far . as . we . could.

But that corner of the plastic was still manifestly too high; which meant that it was a long way from the gutter which was trending downwards to the collection barrel; which meant that a lot of the rain-water missed and dribbled down the wall.  Oh, we can fix that, said the boys, we can use Archimedes: levers, like. Who's heavier? R is heavier? He can spring about on a spar inside the tunnel; while K says a little more . . . a tad less from outside with a great big tek screw ready to capture the win.

All in all we've given the poly-tunnel a new lease of life; perhaps not 17 years but I'm confident that the structure will weather whatever End Of Days storms can throw at it this Winter. In the run up to the works, the tunnel was substantively de-cluttered and tidied by Dau.II and The Beloved; which adds to the pleasure of being there. I've redone the clothes lines as well so they are less floopy and in your face. Just needs a really comfortable sofa.

Sunday 5 June 2022

June Five High Five

Clipped from a recent ALDI weekly newsletter: ear-birthing aids for men and women.

Friday 3 June 2022


 Let's drink to World Peace. That's a big ask, I guess; so could we just park ethnic cleansing? If young expendable boys must beat their chests and shake spears at each other, I suppose we could sanction that in some form . . . calling it GAA, for instance. It is not okay that ordinary farmers and shop-keepers should be taken away to the forest to be killed because they live somewhere nice but wear the wrong colour hat, bend the wrong knee or speak the wrong dialect. We had about 30 years of that in Ireland since I was born and that's 1,560 weeks too much. One way to mitigate this sort of ugliness it to draw borders which maximize the 'ethnic purity' on either side of the dotted line. In 1947, Cyril Radcliffe's Border Commission took 10 weeks to draw lines on the map to separate India from Pakistan. That only left 15 million folks on the wrong side of that essentially religious divide . . . and only 2 million dead from the tidying up pogroms.

The border tangle in the Central Asian *Stans looks like the kind of Gerrymandering you get when political parties get to decide where to draw administrative boundaries and fail to resist the temptation to be partisan [bin thar before]. As an aside, note that Kazakhstan is by far the biggest, richest and least densely populated of all the former SSRs. 

Millions PerCap$ Density
Kazakhstan 19 $10,700 7
Kyrgyz Rep 7 $1,300 35
Tajikistan 10 $900 71
Uzbekistan 35 $2,000 78
Turkmenistan 6 $7,100 12

Quiz!: Match Silk Road city to country: Almaty, Bokhara, Ctesiphon, Damascus, Erbil . . . Khiva, Loulan, Merv, Nisa . . . Samarkand, Tashkent, Urgench, Yerevan, Xi'an.

Millions Majority Minority
Kazakhstan 19 68% Russian 19%
Kyrgyz Rep 7 74% Uzbek 15%
Tajikistan 10 84% Uzbek 9%
Uzbekistan 35 84% Tajik 5%
Turkmenistan 6 82% Uzbek 9%

The take home from this is not that Uzbeks are partial to diaspora: there are just more of them. There are almost twice as many Tajiks in Uzbekistan as there are Uzbeks in Tajikistan. Compare the per capita income in the previous table to work out why that might b€€€€ so. The officially atheistic Marxist paradise USSR affected to believe that religion was irrelevant but most of the inhabitants in the Stans are [Sunni-ish] Muslims. Whatevs, in contrast to Ireland, that is not the root of many conflicts in the region. The Soviets did their best to curl the tails of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan to corral their citizens by language and culture. 

Like with Lithuania, this has resulted in some peculiar wriggles and blobs on the map:

There are exclaves of all flavours. Tajik islands in the sea of Kyrgyzstan like Vorukh shown centre in the map above. But also Sokh = So'x which, bizarrely, is ethnically Tajik, politically Uzbek and surrounded by Kyrgyz. If you want an old style adventure try flying into So'x on a 70 y.o. crop-duster Antonov 2 biplane with geoblogger Bald&Bankrupt [1]. Politiblogger James Ker-Linday explains the how fist fights turned into Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border fire-fights last Spring.
tl;dr there's a lot of arid hills in *Stan; flat lands in the river valleys are premium real estate which is becoming increasingly valuable as environmental degradation surges ahead on a wave of extractive and exploitative "economic growth". I touched on this a few years ago writing about the Aral Sea getting sucked dry for cotton and melons.

1 Ben Rich aka Bald & Bankrupt was detained at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at the beginning of May for trespassing near the Russian space launch site.

Wednesday 1 June 2022

The smell of rain

I continue to plumb the depths of free non-fiction audiobooks available through Borrowbox. Every time I login, I am assailed with ranks of new acquisitions in the fields of murder, bodice-ripper and celeb culture but I have to scroll through pages and pages of fluff to get at science, history or geography.  You might think that What does rain smell like? 100 fascinating questions on the wild ways of the weather by Simon King & Clare Nasir, read by the authors, would be my jam. And it is, but there is much to diss about the book and its delivery as well.

As an example, I fired up the next chapter as I set off to drive to Wexford a couple of weeks ago and managed to simultaneously tap the Go Back One Chapter button. It's 40 minutes from our gaff to the train station in Wexford and it wasn't until I crossed the ring-road that I twigged I had heard it all before. That's a measure of how in consequential the steady drone of cumlonimbus, cirrus, stratospheric polar vortex, dust-devil, climate, greenhouse, hurricane can be. cumlo? yes indeed, that slurry, elision of syllables is endemic in the reading. Why oh why can't people pronounce their final Ts? Have they no consideration for folks who are less fluent in English; for whom word breaks are key to grasping meaning. It's not a particularly damning indictment that I fell into a drooling sleep while listening to an audiobook - that's normal; but given my experience of double chaptering it didn't seem worth the effort to rewind and listen to the bits I'd missed.

Scientists are, in general, crap at explaining their stuff to outsiders. Apart from The Curse of Knowledge, they often don't know what is normal knowledge among the newspaper- and book-reading public and what is arcana known only to adepts. Thus in an early chapter, "slant" is glossed as "at an angle" but 2 sentences later micron is used without any qualification. A micron is a millionth of a metre and part of the metric system. All of science, including meteorology, is based on metric and SI units; it is therefore weird for these two paid-up meteorologists to be using miles so much. Maybe they hope for big sales in  the USA.

Another gripe, especially for an audiobook, is the inclusion of tables of numbers - those spelling out the wind-speed boundaries for different categories of hurricane? Really who cares in that level of detail? Only nerdniks, and they aren't going to read a book that sees the need to define slant. This level of detail is super-sketch in a chapter talking statistics about other planets . . . on the excuse that they have weather too. King and Nasir here lift the numbers out of NASA or Wikipedia to report that Mars is 227.9 million km from the Sun. But the orbit of Mars is eccentric and varies between 206 & 249 million km during its 687 day journey round the sun. 230 million km is plenty accurate and more memorable . . . and Jupiter is 3½ times further out into the cold depths of space. And while we're here Mauna Loa [above R] is not "an island in Hawaii" but a peak on an island in Hawaii. 

tl;dr: worth the effort (it's not very long) if you really know buggerall about the weather.