Friday 30 December 2022

Oomphing the cake-house

All flour-based baked goods depend upon getting some gas, usually CO2 into the doughy matrix and expecting that this gas will expand in the oven and create an airy loft from the lumpen stodge. There are two ways to make this gas - biological or chemical - and biological has a far longer history. The biological method [as in hot-X buns R] uses microbes, chiefly yeast and Lactic acid bacteria (or indeed a SCOBY = Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast) to convert sugar into carbon dioxide and ethanol:

C6H12O6 → 2 C2H5OH + 2 CO2

Because it's a bio-process you need to be careful with the temperature: nothing much happens in the fridge but if you get too warm [40°C is positively hot in this context] the microbes will curl up and die. 25°C [our airing cupboard] is close to optimum.

The Blob has had A Lot to say about fermentation, so today we're going down the chemical rabbit hole. Interest sparked by a question from Dau.II aka Cookie "aluminium-free baking powder? isn't all baking powder alzheimer-free?". Which elicited an aside about the increasingly weak link between Aluminum and Alzheimer's. And then down the hole we go . . .

Pretty much all chemically induced CO2 involves sodium bicarbonate and acid = H+:

NaHCO3 + H+ → Na+ + CO2 + H2O

Trad Irish soda bread gets the acid from buttermilk or sour[ed] milk. The bicarb is added to the dry flour as a white powder and the wet acidic liquid a) swells the flour grains and sticks them together b) interacts with the tsp of bicarb in the mix to start fizzing c) also starts to breakdown the starch into its component sugars. Scones are essentially the same gig with the addition of butter [with options on sugar, raisins, grated cheese]. I guess, in a way, it's part biological and part chemical. They Say that, while yeast bread requires a lot of kneading to develop sheets of gluten to catch the rising CO2, soda-based products require a quicker mixing and into-the-oven before the CO2 leaves the matrix and settles on the kitchen floor - it is heavier than air. For scones, in recent years, I put the mass through a few [quick] rounds of roll-and-fold. This seems to give more loft to the scones, perhaps because regular air gets caught between the laminations and this is more grist to the heat causes gas to expand mill. For the same reason as minimize kneading and get cookin' soonest, you must pre-heat the oven.

But nobody in, say, England has easy access to buttermilk and sour milk is "p💀is💀n". The answer is to sell a wholly chemical product called baking powder, in which the acetic and lactic acid in the natural product is replaced with a crystalline chemical acid. In the old days this was often tartaric acid - often called cream of tartar or 2,3-dihydroxysuccinic acid = COOH(CHOH)2COOH and a filler like corn-starch or rice flour to soak up atmospheric water and prevent premature chemical reaction in the tin.Nowadays it is more likely disodium diphosphate Na2H2P2O7. Both of these acidic compounds have two fizzy H+s which will lever the CO2 from the bicarbonate . . . as soon as they get wet together.

This early reactivity is not usually a problem if it's just me knocking up a batch of scones or Myrtle Allen make a lightning round of brown soda bread. But it's an awkward PITA for Mr Kipling producing enough artificial food-like cakes to feed the City of Bradford. The cake and bread industry called forth their food engineers to create SAP sodium aluminum phosphate = NaH14Al3(PO4)8 and/or Na3H15Al2(PO4)8 a monstrous relative of disodium diphosphate which only starts to work when external heat is applied. This means that an acre of baking trays can be assembled over some time in the Mr Kipling factory and all shifted into the oven together. This is much more efficient for fuel and labour. The jury is out on whether adding a load of aluminum to the diet of the nation to make Mr Kipling's shareholders even more money is an unalloyed good. The FDA categorizes SAP as GRAS - generally recognised as safe [whc Bloboprev].  YMMV?

Wednesday 28 December 2022

Diana the Dryad

Diana Beresford came from a WWII mixed marriage: her father Jack was a loose leaf of the Beresfords from Waterford and her mother Eileen O'Donohue from Lisheens down Gougane Barra way, Co Cork. Diana's folks parted company and then died soon after leaving the child orphaned and a ward of court just as she reached double digits in age. She was housed in Cork City by her Uncle Patrick O'Donohue, a scholar and chemist but brought herself up: it was teaching herself to cook or starve. The household was peculiar because organised curiosity [ahem science] was absolutely normalised. How long does it take to boil a potato . . . let's find out by trying different times and keeping records. Luckily the unworldly Patrick was backed up by the fact that Diana went off to school most days where she had access to ignorance and books, antipathy and recognition.

In the Summers, meanwhile, she went to her mother's people in a rural backwater up the Owvane River valley. As it happens, we drove through Lisheens on our way to The End of the Beara Peninsula this last Summer. In Lisheens, all the young people have left . . . for the city, for Britland, for America. It's kind of hard to maintain the old ways - meitheal, scything, saving the hay, sharing the tools - if there are no fit bodies. Prior to her first orphan Summer, a coven of old people gather and resolve a) that Diana, as orphan, is a ward of the valley b) she will be vested in the accumulated knowledge of hundreds of years of embedded domesticity. No pressure, our Di!

The consequence was that Diana had a unique education in science and woo and was able to jostle the two together because she was resistant to being brow-beaten by everyone knows certainties with which scientists can cloud their optics. Having an extraordinary, retentive, memory helped a lot in accumulating facts, statements and suppositions so that they could be added to the mill. That attribute also served her well in school and university where she achieved a double First from UCC in botany and medical biochemistry. It's clear from those results and other think-forward think-wide anecdotes that many times DB-K was the smartest person in the room and that discomfited older patriarchs who in those days and times [yes, yes and today!] expected people to agree with them and their complacent conservatism.

After being ground up small and spat out by a complacent and misogynistic scientific establishment, she washed up at Carrigliath, Merrickville, halfway between Ottawa and the St. Lawrence River in E Ontario. There, Diana and her husband Christian Kroeger, bought 160 acres of unproductive colonial farmland, and lived in a shed until they built their own home on the property. They started [from nothing] to create an arboretum and experimental station to improve productivity in Boreal forests as well as feeding themselves from what they could grow. A Garden for Life: The Natural Approach to Designing, Planting, and Maintaining a North Temperate Garden was the resulting book.

To Speak for The Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest is her most recent autobiographical book which I've been enjoying à la ear through Borrowbox. What is a challenge, and also A Good Thing, is that DB-K stands with one foot in Woo and the other in Science. The second half of the book relates many instances where tradition and traditional medicine have been vindicated and absorbed by modern materialistic science. For example Taxol, an alkaloid ultimately derived from yew (Taxus spp.) is accepted as a valid weapon in the fight against cancer. But a really skeptical reading will be concerned that <confirmation bias alert> we only hear about the cases where trad gets accepted. No quantitative analysis is carried out to balance these positive against the count of  bat-shit craziness which shamans, druids and healers foist on their vulnerable clients. 

Her Big Project is to get every person on the planet to plant six (6!) trees. Her back-of-envelope calculation is that those 48 billion trees will sequester enough carbon to reset the clock on the climate emergency. My back-of-envelope is that I've planted about 1,000 trees . . . so I'm in Smug City and made some effort to ensure their health and survival for their first 15 years. Not too much futility planting on my conscience. Grand Plans are kinda useless unless they are backed up by some sense of the logistics of distribution . . . and an estimate for the cost of maintenance.

But, as I say, it's a good thing if the smartest peep in the room is open to thinking outside the box to give the unexpected a chance to blossom.

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Monday 26 December 2022

Struck by lightning

Christmastime is characterized by long nights and cold. In the old days, this wasn't a huge bother: folks still had eight daylight hours to: stir up the embers and set the kettle, break the ice on the water-butt, splash the face; see to the stock; gather some winter fuuuuel; go to mass; visit with the neighbours; and get back inside before the end of twilight. Because holiday, the day could be extended for a bit of a ramble about the olde days. For that, all it took was a candle or a kerosene lamp and a hearth to sit round. 

Today, not so much? or worse Today, rather too much. We have so much . . . kit . . . convenience . . . comfort. Although really, things like indoor plumbing, microwaves, and WiFi don't add much to the essentials of good cheer and good company. And damme but it really sets me off kilter when this unconsidered background infrastructure fails.  One of the conveniences of modern life is that you can get weather reports from Met Eireann with 5 minute updates of precipitation across the country to know when to get the laundry in off the line. As well as precipitation, those Met Eireann movie-maps show thunderstorms incommming or [phew!] by-passing the home place. Shortly after [a light] lunch on Xmas eve, I checked the weather and noted a clatter of lightning strikes in Co Waterford as a weather front moved NNE across the coast. Thought no more about it.

CRASH! At 15:35 there was the most tremendous bang, seemingly inside the house, a simultaneous flash of lightning and all the lights went out; a couple of minutes after there was another flash followed 3 seconds later a clap of thunder - that's 1km distant and moving away. We've had loads of unannounced power-cuts here. The light go off, the modem cuts out, the fridge goes silent . . . we phone 1-800-372-999 and log another power-outage. Then we potter about unplugging things, digging out candles, telling each other not to run the taps [own well, own pump; no power, no water]. This time there was the CRASH but also a smell of burning in the bedroom nearest the fuse-box. There was still an hour of day-light so it could have been worse timing for settling into siege mentality. A bunch of battery-powered strings of LED Christmas-lights turned out to have more utility than expected when bought.

I'll use this opportunity to give a shout out to the country's ESB maintenance crews. They were super-busy that evening because the power-outages were scattered across the Sunny South East as sultanas through an expensive Christmas cake. You can follow their progress by telephone or internet updates and they are pretty accurate in estimating when normal service will resume. Their reports soon settled on a back-in-the-saddle time of 19:30 - four hours away, so the mac-and-cheese was heated through on the gas hob rather than crisped up in the electric oven. We ate, we tidied up, the lights came back on, the wireless internet had not been fritzed [altho the telephone land line had]; we settled in to watch Jeremy Paxman haranguing young people on University Challenge . . .

. . . and the lights went off again! This time the e.t.a. power was 03:00 Christmas morning. Somewhere in the neighbourhood, a handful of ESB Effectives in  hi-viz  gilets were getting wet, up ladders, for about 12 hours in the dark - just doing their best to keep everyone else's holiday on track. Hats Off! And I hope they clocked a huge wodge of overtime.

Power went off again! on Christmas Day in the late afternoon, which made us smug about deciding to have Christmas dinner by daylight. We were only without power for 2½ hours in the re-play. This time all our devices were fully charged and books had been given as Christmas presents, so we were not really inconvenienced at all at all. The ESB Effectives answered the call again and sorted everything out double quick. Did I say that our landline went phut in the first CRASH strike? Digiweb, our phone company, allows themselves 5 working days to restore service. For infrastructural services, privatization is a scourge, it just allows a vampire layer of pencil-pushers to elbow themselves between the network and the punter - and make a living as service providers.

Sunday 25 December 2022

Joyeux Noël 2022

But really you shouldn't be here, today. May your potatoes be roasted and your roof sound. And we wish you alle best for 2023.

Friday 23 December 2022

Blue Riband Engineer Props

In the 20thC the great industrial nations of the World competed to build the biggest, fastest, fabbest commercial ocean liners. It was a matter of prestige [sucks to the French!] but also practicality: fast, large ocean liners could be re-purposed as really effective as troopships. And when I say large, I mean LARGE: when RMS Queen Mary [displacement 80,000 tonnes] sliced through HMS Curacoa [displacement 4,000 tonnes] like butter on 2 October 1942, she was carrying 10,000 US squaddies for the European theatre of WWII.

The prestige aspect also counted $$$s into the exchequer because foreign-johnnies were more likely to place orders with Harland & Wolff, or Swan Hunter or John Brown if a British-built ship was in the trans-Atlantic news.

Between 1838 and 1952, 35 different steam ships held the Blue Riband an informal accolade for sustaining the fastest average speed crossing the Atlantic. 25 of these cheetahs of the seas were British; 5 DE, 3 US, 1 FR (SS Normandie), 1 IT (SS Rex). When the Sirius and Great Britain juggled the record between them in 1838, some sail packets were quicker - presumably with a fair following wind; but reliability trounced speed for people and products with a deadline to meet. Those early fastest-with-the-mostest voyages took 12 to 15 days at an average speed of 9 knots = 17 km/h. By the time ships had been superseded by jet-liners in 1952, the crossing was taking 3½ days at 35½ knots = 67km/h! Which was faster than I could drive my Yaris to work.

And the last holder of the Blue Riband - for the rest of time - was/is the SS United States. Significant technical innovations were required to wrest the accolade from RMS Queen Mary. You can let this all wash over you for 16 mins: What Made the SS United States SO Fast? The ship was designed by William Francis Gibbs for the United States Lines but the US Government upfronted about 2/3rds of the cost of the project ($50million) and had significant say in the how why what of the design and manufacture. So much for the small-government anti-socialist posturing of the time. The Feds and USN had been mightily impressed by the troop carrying capacity of the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth and conversion for this purpose was part of the design brief. The SS United States was never required for this purpose, although both the Korean and Vietnam wars raged during her service career. Interestingly, in view of troopship capability, the beam of SS United States [30.9m] was close to Panamax size [breadth 32.3m] while the Cunard Queens were decisively too broad [36m] to travel conveniently between Atlantic and Pacific.

Earlier, Gibbs had been closely involved in the design and construction of Liberty Ships [bloboprev].

Fire-safety was also high on the list of things to incorporate - not least because SS Normandie had caught fire (while undergoing troopship conversion in NYC in 1942), capsized and been written off. The only wood inside the new ship was the butcher's block in the galley. A mahogany grand-piano was only allowed after something similar didn't burn despite being drenched in gasoline. And asbestos sheets were used throughout; which made deconstruction 20 years later a nightmare of new understanding of that material.

One aspect of speeding through the water was to have a very shallow draft and, for stability and comfort, that required lowering the centre of gravity. The solution was to have almost all the superstructure made of aluminium. Another was raking the cut-water and making the foot-print of the vessel more spindly / pointy.

But no matter about the lines and the hydrodynamics, the ship needed to be shoved through the water by something. That turned out to be new top-secret, powerful steam turbines which operated at super-heated steam temperatures. The Queen Mary had similarly powered engines but weighed in 50% bigger at 83,000t compared to 53,000t for the United States. The engines turned 4  huge 18ft = 5.5m propellers whose design was assigned to a marine engineer called Elaine Kaplan [at a party R] The forward pair of props generated considerable turbulence which was amplified aft and this created the twin problems of cavitation and vibration. The former literally ate the manganese-bronze prop-blades and the latter really annoyed passengers. Kaplan's solution was to use two different propeller designs: forward pair with four blades; the aft with five, one of which [above L] is on show at the Mariner's Museum, Newport News, VA. Like the turbines, this novel design was top-secret, cold-war-sensitive and no below-the-waterline pictures were to be published.

The project, from post-war doodles to commissioning, lasted 7 years: the SS United States was launched in June 1951, and undertook her maiden riband-scooping voyage 53 weeks later. She had less than 20 years of commercial operation. She's a sad rust bucket now. Elaine Kaplan <tsk!> doesn't get a Wikipedia entry.

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Wednesday 21 December 2022

Si deus fuerit mecum in via ista

 Here's Bridget Barbara with a prized possession:

It's a single vellum sheet from an antiphonal, hand-written in Italy, probably about 1470. She picked it up at [SLYT 15 mins] the New York Antiquarian Book Fair 5th-8th March 2020. Even from the [blob crap quality] picture it is clear that she is delirah with herself and her acquisition. It's nice that such items are not so crazy-rare that an ordinary New Yorker, with some $400? of disposable income, can have one to hold . . . forever. Well, actually, of course, young Bridget is going to hold this page for not more than 10% of its 550 year life so far.

This particular antiphonal is part of the liturgy for Dom. 2 Quadragesimae = 2nd Sunday of Lent: Si dominus deus meus fuerit mecum in via ista per quam ego ambulo et custodierit me et dederit mihi panem ad edendum et vestimentum quo operiar et revocaverit me cum salute erit mihi dominus in refugium et lapis iste in signum. Which is in turn from Genesis 28: 20-22:

20 And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on,
21 So that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God:
22 And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.

. . . just after the bold Jacob has finagled his older brother Esau out of Isaac's, their father's, blessing and is on his way to seek him a wife in a different land. While Esau was an hairy man, Jacob was a smooth operator. The stone mentioned in v.22 has just the night before served as Jacob's pillow and he has had a rough old night dreaming of god and his angels. Even after this vision of heaven, he's still bargaining with The Lord: there really is no stop to Isaac's hubris.

I like Bridget's enthusiasm for using artifacts to reflect on our place in history and how all of human history is a compressed microsecond in the scales of universal time. Bridget feels for the 15thC scribe whose finger-prints are being smudged by and mingled with her own . . . "Was he handsome?" she muses. My own brush with the finitude of history was much shorter "One evening she [my elderly relative in 1973] 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." pshaw only 160 years.

Monday 19 December 2022

Cognit disson Marzipan style

Eee, I do like marzipan. If nothing else, it is a vehicle for sugar / calories. Most commercial varieties are much less than 50% almonds, and sugar is the primary ingredient. The stuff is typically sold in a 500g block which is A lot, unless you are wrapping it round a large Christmas cake. Most weeks of the year, the top compartment of the fridge door has the remains of a pack of marzipan next to the remains of a pack of fresh yeast.

About 2 weeks ago, I mix'n'matched these two products by rolling out some bread dough & slathering it in butter; cutting a few slices of marzipan into pea-sized cubes; rolling the latter up in the former and baking it as a cheapo festive holiday stollen. It was nice, and nicer toasted. But, as ever, my eyes were bigger than my tum, and I cubed more marzipan than could be realistically kneaded into a loaf. Accordingly, I swept the remaining cubes into a small round snap-lid food container and popped that in the fridge against another baking binge.

Fast forward a week or so, we have baked potatoes and all the fillings for dinner: butter; grated cheese; sour cream; tuna, corn and scallion mayo; olive oil.  None of these fillings got finished; no food ever gets binned in Casa Blob; so what was left went back in the fridge. The next day, or perhaps the day after, the spirit was strong within me to bake some cake-like comestibles and I reached into the fridge for the marzipan cubes. 

Cripes! I cry, that's an aggressive fungal attack [R]. The Blob does crap-quality photos but in this case it captures rather well the gestalt that struck my retina without my glasses. Bright yellow cubes almost overwhelmed by fibrous pink and green matter

The thing is that what hits the retina is just a part of what we "see". The blooming buzzing confusion of photons passing through the lens of your eye is interpreted by the visual cortex so that it makes sense. Charles Bonnet syndrome is an extreme but common case. In an evolutionary sense we need to know what to do about things in our immediate vicinity: in broad-brush terms: eat it; do not eat it; flirt with it; ignore it; or run like buggery in the opposite direction. That covers most of the situations which matter. Growing up successfully incorporates our experience in better and better interpretive models for dealing with the outside world. Occasionally, especially if tired, hangry or horny, we make a wrong call because what the incommming information doesn't fit our prior knowledge and expectations - we experience cognitive dissonance.

Sunday 18 December 2022

Friday 16 December 2022


My mother first came to Ireland  in 1950 as the fiancée of a rather jolly, sometimes tetchy, often witty Anglo-Irish naval officer. That would be the Royal Navy, because when my father was sent from his home in Co. Waterford to Dartmouth at the age of 14 in 1931, there was no Irish Navy. Indeed there wasn't even a Republic. Dunmore East was still 'home' until 1947 when my grandfather retired from his prestigious but under-paid job as Harbourmaster.  Anyway, my mother was shocked to see bare-foot children running about the dusty village streets of Co Wexford. That dust poured up through holes in the floor-boards of the car. She'd grown up in an English seaside town and was currently working in London where flush toilets and H&C running water were fitted as standard. Her war years were spend in uniform and she'd come up against British poverty and deprivation - and Englice and British bed-bugs. But to see it in the village where her in-laws settled in retirement was a bit too close for cozy acceptance.

That experience frames life in rural Ireland for me around the time I was born. My parents rented some dilapidated shit-holes when they were newly married but there was never any doubt that their children would have shoes year-round. People who actually lived in rural Ireland (rather than racist through on a two week holiday) had a different, not quite so jaundiced, lived experience. One such was Alice Taylor who was born on a farm in N. Co. Cork in 1938 and 50 years later wrote a best selling memoir To School Through the Fields. I've just finished listening to her read her own book through Borrowbox. The audiobook was published in 2017 when Taylor was nearly 80 years old; so it can get a little quavery. 

To School Through the Fields is definitely part of the Irish Nostalgia canon - perhaps selling more copies than any other book in the genre. There isn't much mention of shoes or their absence but it describe a life of remarkable self-sufficiency. The kind of back-water paradise that Eamonn de Valera wanted to foist on everyone who had a cross-roads to dance at. The Taylor farm grew wheat, oats, barley, spuds, cabbage, various sorts of turnip and a lorra grass: the grass was converted into milk, cream, butter and buttermilk by a sequence of cows. Turkeys, geese, ducks and chickens converted weeds, seeds and meal into enough animal protein to be a condiment to potatoes, cabbage and soda-bread. Oh, and two bonhams selected from the litter and fattened up on scraps, spuds and turnips to be slaughtered and salted down when winter set in. A paradise indeed if you like bacon and cabbage - and that would be me. Although I'll tell ya bhoys, all that salted pork gives your poor kidneys a run for the money

In 1950s Ireland, a lot of activities are achieved by meitheal = community action. Threshing the corn, saving the hay and killing the pigs were all chores where many hands make light work. Each family paid for their neighbour's labour by reciprocal work and reciprocal feeding on the work-days. Folks must have been keeping a tally on some level to ensure that nobody was free-loading. But that tally was only partly counted in clock hours: widows, the sick [tuberculosis was endemic in the 1940s and 1950s], fine singers and humorists were cut some slack in recognition that it took all sorts to make a happy community. Few communities would address the issue of acknowledged spongers by exclusion but rather vent their frustration by gossiping behind the perps' backs.

And children seem to have been indulged / fed by the whole community.

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Vilket fräscht helvete är detta?

This time last year, by request, for her birthday, we went  IKEA  and bought Dau.I a wing-back chair. As a reader living a multi-function apartment, she liked the idea of limiting draughts round her ears while snuggled up with a book. This year she yearned for a matching foot-stool and so hey-ho hey-ho off to Ikea we went.  

One of the themes in The Blob is to give tribs to people who are sufficiently flex to change their minds. Let that also include me! Browsing back through the archives you can detect childish delight that I could buy a serviceable book on Amazon for $0.01 . . . plus $3.99 p&p. But it looked like a better deal than $12.99 plus $3.99 p&p. But me getting suckered into the Bezos narrative has seen his empire drive local book-stores to the wall and treated their employees as expendable zero-hour contract-bots. So I don't do that any more: Kennys is my only man . . . and Borrowbox is better yet. 

IKEA used to be my sort of place and we've bought a fair amount of clobber there - not to mention some bilious yellow upholstered furniture. What's not to like about Scandi-chic clean white delph? or a bright plastic and stainless cheese grater? Last year, in full chrimbo-mode, we bought cheese, rye-crackers, ginger biscuits and horse-radish sauce from their micro-deli. Walking into Ikea from the car-park I was talking up a storm of Svensk ost [no better really than LIDL's own-brand 'Maasdam' or 'Emmental']. So I was hacked off to find that cheese no longer featured in Ikea deli-inventory. 

Then I got lost in Kitchenware, assumed the rest of the team was powering through to soft-furnishings and found myself in a sort of ware-house with aisle of ceiling-high shelves holding tonnes of flat-pack. In the near distance consumers were lining up for the checkouts with gurneys laden with boxes and lamp-stands. I didn't start whimpering like six-y.o. me when lost in Dingle's department store in 1960; I figured that I must have missed them in the Ikea-maze. How did folks manage before cell-phones? After some minutes and one missed call, I heard that the rest of my party were a) separated and b) still mullocking about in kitchenwares!  I went through the check-outs to double-check about the absence of cheese and and settled down to wait. At least I was warm and dry and not homeless.

It occurs to me that it would help the Lost-in-Ikea syndrome for each family to come with an easily identifiable team hat [as L] and/or a distinctive coloured jacket. Especially the hat, I guess, so that you can find your quarry over the landscape of shoulder-height shelves. But actually, I suspect that is my last time in Ikea. I have a life-time supply of dishware [unless I get badly shook with the tremors] and enough cheese-graters to see me out.  Thanks!

Monday 12 December 2022


Had a WTP? etymological moment in the middle of the night - woke up screaming and all. El Blobbo has used the word paraphernalia - in the sense of baggage, stuff, accoutrements, shite - many* times in the 2 million words that is the corpus. Paraphernalia is a very long word and, for the first few times I used it, the red ragged spellinge errur underlining would appear because I omitted the second R. This is the first time I've ever knowingly written accoutrements which in my mind are exclusively the appurtenances of knights-in-armour - greaves, mace, hauberk, cuirass etc. And, recursively, that's a blobofirst for appurtenances! Should stick with "stuff" - simpler.

The prefix Para- means 'beyond' which I remember from internalizing the, now old-fashioned, names for chemical isomers. Take aminobenzoic acid, there are three isomers depending on how close the amino group is to the carboxyl:

Para-amino-benzoic acid PABA is probably the most familiar. It effectively absorbs UV-light and was used extensively in sun-screens until They decided that its allergenic [and clothes-staining] potential out-weighed its anti-melanoma efficacy. PABA is "natural" and created in reasonably large quantities by the intestinal flora. Ortho-amino-benzoic acid [Anthranilic acid] is an intermediate in the production of quaaludes, so don't take any of that through US customs and immigration. The other one MABA 3-Aminobenzoic acid is really dull by comparison. Preferred IUPAC names are  2-Aminobenzoic acid  [ortho]; 3-Aminobenzoic acid [meta]; and  4-Aminobenzoic acid [para] or H-2Abz-OH etc., if you're in a tearing hurry.

Mais revenons nous à nos phernalia! Turns out that paraphernalia's original meaning was the independent real and personal property of a married woman which could be willed or given away at her sole discretion. That was back in the day when women were transferred as a chattel at marriage from one bloke [father] to another [husband] and came with a dowry or bride-price. The remains of this sorry state of affairs is the convention that bride's father pays for the wedding and its reception. Indeed etymologically phernalia comes from the Greek φερνή phernē meaning dowry. So paraphernalia was the stuff beyond or in addition to the dowry. That specific legal meaning slumped over the years to mean stuff with a hint of clutter. I'm glad we've sorted that out!

* Blob-usage of the word in question:

  • Art historians love fossicking through this sort of stuff to identify sitters from the heraldic paraphernalia that clutters the corners of the picture.
  • In among the usual paraphernalia that you get in such places, there was a python in permanent siesta mode . . .
  • I was born less than 10 years after the end of WWII, so the paraphernalia of that conflict were still 'in the air' . . .
  • at the family home looking at piles of papers, plates, pots, pot-plants, and paraphernalia.
  • my assigned bedroom was filled with catholic paraphernalia, including an Infant of Prague on the mantle piece
  • purchase a red enamel tea-pot and some other kitchen paraphernalia
  • . . . seen through a gale of advertisements for gripe-water, baby-buggies, mobiles, pop-up books and all the paraphernalia that modern babies require/acquire.
  • You never really wanted to store that information and it gets displaced by the next hot girl's telephone number; the location of the car-keys; or how to spell paraphernalia depending on your age and priorities.
Next week gorm[less].

Sunday 11 December 2022

Sun Day Elf Dec 022

Scraping the bottom of my 'mind' for St Peris' Day

Science books 2022 recommended by Science News & flagged by P:

Friday 9 December 2022


My Son the Engineer [bday = tday], started off in railway signaling. But after he left Global Multinational Corp GMC for a trimmer, more efficient, can-do company he's become much more of a generalist. But he's still stoked to be working in transport infrastructure; not least because his air-mile years were fuelled by interconnected systems. I'd never have gone down that route because in railways, design and specification mistakes kill and/or cost a bundle. I was happier devoting my 'mind' to matter which mattered very little. Nobody died because I tallied up some synonymous codons incorrectly or mis-calculated the frequency of blotched tabby in Campbellton, NB.

I do have a hankering admiration for civil engineers who build bridges which don't fall down and connect the bridges with rights-of-way which are as direct as the landscape will allow. Sometimes the topography will present a really substantive barrier and the roads and rails just have to go round the obstacle. But even at the birth of railways, the best engineers, working for the most ambitious companies, would drive a straight line; brushing aside formidable barriers. John Hawkshaw's 7km Severn Tunnel was completed for the GWR in 1886 [Bloboprev]. Over a similar decade of works, the Gotthard Tunnel was completed under 15km of Alps in 1882 under the supervision of Engineer Louis Fabre, who died before he saw his baby breached.

The underlying aspirations of the EU are to connect and "equilibrate upwards" all its citizens. Let Italian yoghurt exported to France pass French yoghurt on its way to Italy if it allows money to be made and taxes to be gathered. Goods and people want to get to their destination as soon as possible; even if the load is shelf-stable the economy doesn't want to tie up rolling stock for days if delivery can be achieved in hours. One of the key axes of transport runs from the industrial cities of Lombardy north through Switzerland, Germany and Denmark to the industrial cities of Sweden. Ball-bearings and Saabs in one direction, Fiats and suave suitings in the other. There is a strong incentive to straighten out any kinks in the line:

One of the biggest jinks in the line occurs because The Baltic Sea is wet and can be stormy. The Øresundsbroen / Öresundsbron across the seaway between København DK and Malmö SE has been open for business for 20 years but the København to Hamburg connexion makes a big dog-leg across the islands of Zealand and Funen just to reach the continental mainland. WhatIf, the economists, politicians and engineers wondered, we go due South across Zealand, Falster and Lolland? then it's only 45 minutes on the ferry across the Fehmarnbelt from Rødbyhavn, Lolland, DK to Puttgarden, Fehmarn DE. That is indeed currently an option, the trains [and trucks and  cars] load up on the ferry and trundle off at the other end. It is less fun in a storm; and I guess a real pisser for the schedule if the ferry is cancelled for really bad weather.

Ferries? So yesterday, maties! Why not just go under or over all the awkward water? After years of dancing around the issues of finance, cost-benefit and unintended consequences of such a €10billion mega-project the tunnel option got the green light and started to build in 2021. One issue is that commerce doesn't any more have automatically the loudest voice. Shellfish, dolphins, kelp-beds and just shhhh quiet! have their advocates and some of these constituencies have wonga to back their claims. There is also the problem of unexploded WWII munitions on the sea-bed. The current plan intends to deep-dive the 18km gap with a modular system . . . inspired by Lego? The tunnel will be primarily formed of 79 individual 217m long reinforced concrete sections – each 42.2m wide and 8.9m tall and weighing in at 73,000 tonnes. And get this ordinary people: the engineers are allowing a tolerance of 1 part in a million = 15mm over 18 km! 

Designed for speeds of up to 200 km/h, the new [rail]road will cut journey times between Denmark and Germany from 60 to 7 minutes. The issues around this Mega-tunnel are laid out handily in this piece to camera by B1M [bloboprevmisc].  Kelp-huggers have tried to pause the dredging - to level the tunnel-bed - in the interests of biodiversity. Here's the party-line from the horse's mouth Femern A/S.

Wednesday 7 December 2022

A Fortunate Woman

A few years ago, I mentioned with approval A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor (1967) by John Berger. Within a couple of months, I wrote John Berger's obit. He was a great writer, a passionate political writer and A Fortunate Man [R fishin'] was an inspirational book. Among those inspired were the author and the protagonist of a remarkable sequel / counterpoint in Polly Morland's A Fortunate Woman: a country doctor's story which tracks the doctor who inherited the same practice in the Forest of Dean some years after "John Sassal" retired and quickly shot himself. General practice improved significantly between 1966 and 2006: boundaries were put to always-on 24/7 care so that doctors could have some work-life balance and make better decisions without sleep deprivation. OTOH, the size of the practice, even in rural remote areas, had ballooned so that each visit to the doctor was quicker even if more supported by meds and tech. Much less time per patient could throw deep listening out of the window and any savings on labour cost have been largely transferred to Big Pharma. 

A Fortunate Woman comes to us because Polly Morland's 80-something mother became demented, copped a 'Rona, was rattled through the corridors of the NHS and finished up, all shook, in a care home; she died in the midst of her daughter's project. Morland had to clear the family home for sale and turned up a dusty copy of A Fortunate Man. Which happens to be set in the valley which Morland calls home! This tumble of happenstance impels her to email the current doctor and compare notes. Indeed, A Fortunate Man has been the turn-key to the current doctor's life; and so the two women meet, hit it off, and the story tumbles out onto the page. It is compelling, graphic and inspiring. It's available on Borrowbox both as ebook and earbook.

Continuity in general practice yields significant benefits: "These include closer adherence to medical advice, better uptake of vaccines, reduced use of out-of-hours service, lower referral rates, better retention of doctors, better patience satisfaction and fewer emergency hospital admissions". If you know your doctor knows you, then you're more likely to respect and listen to them. 

There's a nice anecdote about a home visit to a dying man where the doctor's ministrations are delayed because the district nurse is putting the old chap to bed.  The doctor spends some useful minutes listening to the man's wife . . .

At that moment, the living room door flies open and the district nurse bustles out.
'Sorry to keep you, doctor. One of us will be back to see him tomorrow late morning' She turns to the man's wife 'SO HE'S ALL SORTED PET . . . YOU GOT THAT? SO DON'T YOU WORRY, YOU'RE DOING GRAND

It is revealed that the star of the drama had confided to this new Nurse that his wife was very deaf and a bit slow. We guess to add some comic relief to the end-of-life story.

Inevitably, given that the book was conceived, researched and written since "Wuhan 2019", a chunk of it covers the pandemic and its impact on a small rural community in West England. I suppose it's fair that these events weigh heavily on the story because CoViD-19 is the most significant medical crisis since 1918 . . . and this is ultimately a book about community medicine. But taking the long view, I reckon that 50 years down the road, readers will pick up A Fortunate Woman for its insights into empathy, healing, community and respect rather than PPE, vaccine roll-out and procurement scandals.

Monday 5 December 2022

Dog watch

After lurking for many years, and finding loadsa blob-fodder, I finally subbed up with Metafilter in 2020 and started to make some contributions on the site. MeFi has its own conventions and dynamic but leans old, white, left and US. And every MeFite seems to have a high-maintenance dog or a cat at home: so many questions about how to treat the persistent smell of pet-vomit on bed-clothes! I dunno, I don't come straight to bed in my wellies after working in a shit-strewn field. But loads of people seem to give [their] dog's feet a "clean pass" between outdoors and on the sofa. There was a post recently, framed thus  The Mountain Dogs follows two beloved golden retrievers, Sampson and Baylor, as they climb to the summit of the Pinnacle Trail in Stowe, Vermont each day without their owners. It attracted a couple of dozen comments, all but one of them approving the freedom accorded to these dogs and their owners.

Before that nay-say, I'd drafted my own counter-blast to free-roaming dogs in public spaces . . . but then deleted it and moved on. It seemed a bit gratuitous to rain on the parade of dewy-eyed cynophilia just because I've had a few adverse experiences with uncontrolled dogs. But The Blob? - that's a different matter; this is my parade. So I'll share here my unposted MeFi comment:

Another county heard from?  My son and I spent part of the afternoon of Christmas Eve 2003 burying what was left of my father-in-law's [LR] pet goat [LL] which had been savaged to death by two dogs from across the road.  The owners of those dogs presumably believed that their dogs would never do anything like that. We own about 300m of a lane, and the fields on either side, which goes up past our home to a extensive area of upland commonage which we are delighted to share with walkers, ramblers, bird-watchers. We also own sheep; it unsettles them to smell strange dogs and they definitely don't like playing chase with any dogs. In Ireland there is a dog attack on livestock on average every day. So I ask people with loose dogs on my property to please keep them on a leash. About a third of the time I am invited to fuck off.

The what was left of phrase is indicative of the the mess The Boy and I faced when we pulled away the tarpaulin which Pat had dragged over his caprine pal. We never found the fourth leg, for example. On the way home from our grisly task, we speculated that we could identify the culprits by finding that missing tibia outside the back-door of one of the neighbour's homes. Of course, Pat didn't make a report, let alone a complaint, because thet wouldn't be neighbourly.

And let me add that, although we didn't have mammalian house-pets when I was growing up, I am not anti-dog. I offer a picture of Rashers-the-dog on our front stoop in May 2009 - 3½ years before she fell ill and was killed at home by the vet. <snif!>

Sunday 4 December 2022

Feast of St Barbara

Yes, it's true, 4th Dec is St. Barbara's Day; despite my suggestion that Barbara should really be venerated on 11th July. But the following links have nothing to do with artillery.

Friday 2 December 2022


There are a handful of British writers about trees who have shifted our ideas about what a wood is; what wood is and what would we like to do with them. I've cited some before: Oliver Rackham (1939-2015), Roger Deakin (1943-2006), Robert MacFarlane (1976 - ). I haven't mentioned Richard Mabey (1941 - ) yet and it seems egregious to wait till he'd dead and then write an obit. Mabey first crossed our orbit when he wrote Food for Free (1972)  the forager's vademecum. It validated my rather performative consumption of things not bought in shops: bay-leaves, hawthorn buds, blackberries. But more importantly it pointed to a world of nibbles which I'd been too timid to chomp.

In the middle of October I took out two books from the Wexford library and found time to read them over the following 30 days one of them was The Ash and The Beech (2013) by Richard Mabey. It was originally published in 2007 as Beechcombings : the narratives of trees [full text available on wayback] and it is almost exclusively centred on Beech Fagus sylvatica as the climax tree in normal succession in SE England. The Ash bit is a cynical ploy by the publisher to sell more books when ash die-back started to get traction in England in 2013.  Mabey lived for years in the Chilterns and in the 1980s, he was possessed to possess and wander in his own wood and purchased Hardings Wood: a 7 hectare mixed deciduous wood saddlebacked near the village of Wiggington where? and within hummm of the A41 between Hemel Hempsted and Tring.

There's a lot of heart-wood in this enthusiast's book: arboriculture, beech-mast, commons, ecology, forestry, history. A lot of early modern forests were distinct parts of local commons with rights accorded to local farmers and peasants. Even people without freeholds could have rights [estovers]

  • to gather deadwood for fuel, kindling [by hook or by crook]
  • to get sticks to repair their homes [housebote]
  • bracken etc. for bedding [beech leaves make grand mattress stuffing]
  • thorns for hedging and fencing [haybote]
  • coppice to make/repair tools [cartbote, plowbote]
  • to graze their pigs of acorns and beech-mast [pannage] 

You may imagine that pigs scarfed up a lot of seedlings to go with their acorn-n-truffles. Beech was regarded as useless for most of these purposes but adequate for fuel. When cheap coal came on stream with the industrial revolution, there was less dependence on the commons-woods for fuel. Accordingly, it became easier for local magnates and large land-owners to "enclose" the commons; pushing off the minor rights-holders with a once-off payment. Once the community lost their rights, it was easier for the woods to be exploited . . . to extinction, if ploughlands or building plots were deemed to be currently more profitable. The result was 100 years of diminishing cover of the country by woods.

Some push-back came from local consortia but the courts, as always, tended to favour the party with the longest pockets and magnates tended to win. Eventually, Victorian public opinion pushed politicians into legislating to create or transform commons and woods into places of recreation and exercise for everyone. Even those who didn't know a housebote from a houseboat.

Another certainty that the book puts under scrutiny is the idea of succession: that IF humans and their stock would just bugger off THEN any open space outdoors would start to fill in with shrubberies and thorn-brakes which would in turn harbour and protect birch, ash and rowan; which would shelter the slower-growing climax species of beech or oak. There is no known case where any real-world longitudinal study has followed the cycles of upward replacement so neatly shown in ecology text-books.