Monday 27 February 2023

Sorrows of Werther

The Sorrows of Young Werther aka Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774) is a novel by Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Goethe (1749 – 1832) is the German for polymath. He was besties with Friedrich Schiller; wrote the definitive Faust; made important advances in the study of homology in development; not only in vertebrates but also in plants; investigated the physiology and perception of colour. His fan club included Darwin, JMW Turner, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, both the brothers von Humboldt, Emerson and Mahler. It is entirely appropriate that the principle vehicle for German culture abroad [think British Council, Alliance français, Instituto Cervantes] is The Goethe-Institut. I'm glad we got that out of the way because, today we treat of . . .

The Sorbitols of Werther - a more contemporary issue than the triumphs and sins of a German philosopher. I disappeared down a rabbit hole of non-reducing sugars, disaccharides, and food engineering when tasked to replenish the stock of car-candy for the family jalopy. A simple enough task you might think. But I was a bit out of my depth because, of all the things I do in a car, eating candy ain't one of them. But a distant tinkle said that I really should furnish some Werther's Original Butter Candies. The only reason was that my friend K had grown up in the town where these sweets are made . . . in Germany. When I described my purchase auf Deutsch as Verther's Butter Candies, one of my kids fell about larfing because they knew that Werther's were absolutely  Made in Britain . Bzzzzt - <wrong>!

My first candy-foray found me in Tesco where Werther's Original Sugar Free Butter Candy was the nearest available thing on the shelf. How "Sugar Free" and "Original" can appear in the same sentence about a product first marketed more than 50 years ago is a mystery - and also a hard No from me. I eventually tracked down Werther's Original Original Butter Candies in another place for the same price but weighing 135g rather 80g. WTF?! What is the mystery sugar-free ingredient that jacks up the price from €8.15/kg to €13.75/kg?

Well the ingredients are a matter of public record:

  • Original
    • Sugar, Glucose Syrup, Cream (Milk) (7.4%), Condensed Whey (Milk), Butter (Milk) (4.8%), Partially Inverted Refiners Syrup, Salt, Emulsifier: Soya Lecithin, Flavouring
  • Sugar-free
    • Isomalt, Acesulfame-K, Butter (Milk) (7.9%), Cream (Milk) (7%), Salt, Flavouring, Emulsifier: Soya Lecithin

hmmm Isomalt? I assumed that was an isomer of the disaccharide maltose. We familiar with the concept:

  • Lactose: glucose and galactose
  • Sucrose: glucose and fructose
  • Maltose: glucose α(1→4) glucose
  • Isomaltose glucose α(1→6) glucose

But I was wrong. Isomalt is not a synonym for isomaltose!

Isomalt is a 50:50 mix of  two disaccharides, one of those saccharides being a polyol or sugar alcohol: glucose and mannitol  + glucose and sorbitol. Sorbitol has a lot of leverage in food engineering because it has 2/3 the sweetness of sucrose but also 2/3 the calories. Isomalt is also useful because it tolerates heat without loss of sweetness or its pure white colour. Think how regular sugar turns to bitter caramel when you boil it up. Werther's, as a hard candy, can clearly find a use for Isomalt.

Your gut not so much. If you glom too much [like an ounce or 30g is enough trigger] polyol it arrives in your colon unabsorbed where is can cause osmotically-induced diarrhoea mit flatulence und rumblings. They say that polyols are, conversely, A Good Thing at the other end where some kill cariogenic [tooth-decaying] bacteria or at least don't cause them to grow like sucrose does. Whatevs. My body is a temple and it's not ready for artificial sweeteners.

Sunday 26 February 2023

Effortless Grace

♬ ♫ ♩ ♪ Introit for your background

Friday 24 February 2023

physics light-bulb

At the birth of The Blob - nearly ten years ago - I professed to be baffled by Physics insisting an inclined plane pushed back on a block sitting on top of it. At that time, my HoD had asked me to teach a couple of lab-sections for 1st Year Physics; which makes you wonder how deep was the barrel The Institute was scraping to find Effectives people to be the adult in the room to get the students' Learning Outcomes [✓] fulfilled.

Well I know all about that equal-and-opposite force physics now, having wet my pants in a most undignified vindication of the principles!

We are currently feeding our 15 sheep a supplementary ration of sheep muesli; and getting a nibble for myself as usual. YSMMV but ours are getting 100 oz = 2.8 kg = 5 scoops of an old milk-pan every day until the grass starts to flush. Like a good cavalry officer sees to his horse before setting camp for the night, it's only proper that the sheep get their breakfast treat before I have my pot of tea and two slices of toast. Accordingly, last week I was out in the fields by the dawn's early light to call the beasts to their grub. They were in the furthest field "The Field Over the River" from the trough. As always I counted t'buggers as they answered the call:  3, 5, 10,12, 15 . . . 17, 20?! We live in dread that the count will come up short - because that's either a sheep with its head caught in the wire OR a very still sheep with its legs in the air. Extra sheep in our fields is a different sort of PITA.

With commendable shepherd-kool, I was able to get myself between the five strange sheep [2 hoggets and 3 lambs] and our flock as the latter galloped up the hill to breakfast. With luck any disturbed alien sheep will head back to where the boundary has failed, so you know which section of the perimeter to remediate. Our small farmlet has >1,300m of perimeter hedges and ditches so fencers want to focus. Conveniently, they all headed off to the NE corner of our property and 4/5 of them squeezed through a gap between the end of some fence and a gorse bush Ulex. Unsurprisingly, the last of them flung itself painfully against another bit of fencing and then ran off in all directions. No point in chasing that sort, especially if a singleton. We've been marching with the NE neighbour for 25 years and have never had such issues before. It turns out that, as an experiment; or in pursuit of a bargain, neighbour had bought a bunch of shaggy-fleeced, thin-faced, spackle-headed, mountainy jumpers which are notoriously able to leap tall fences, fight off wolves etc. harrrumph! their bargain is my headache.

I set to repairing the wall and tightening up the surmounting fence, so that there was no gap between the two elements of the boundary. I quickly ran out of stones which had obviously fallen from our side of the wall and started casting about for suitable boulders on their side. The two holdings are there separated by a little stream 1-2 meters wide. The cartoon [homage to xkcd!] shows me with lump of stone twice the size of my head in the act of pegging it across the stream rather than attempting to carry it over the slippy, uneven river-bottom. The next moment found me on me arse, with boots full of water and a painful ding on my left elbow. That boulder had the inertia [hard to get movingness] of a steam roller and shoving it away from me just pushed my scrawny upper body backwards and pivoted the legs (rotation about my midpoint) out from under me in the opposite direction. Being bruised, dinged and sopping wet was the work of milliseconds; it took me 24 hours, and one sleep, to work out why [it's the Physics, stupid] my plan had gone so painfully wrong. 

Because I'm well 'ard, and because dry socks were a 400m uphill trudge away, I picked myself up and carried on fixing the fence. Mutter mutter, dang sheep, darned neighbour, fakkin' brambles, etc. etc.

Not a million miles from, and equivalent in pain to, Dr Johnson's response - I refute it thus - to Bishop "Tree falls in a forest" Berkeley's metaphysical woo.

Wednesday 22 February 2023

Small towns like these

When evil stalks the land . . .

The Canon can't even agree with the names of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Revelations Ch.6 counts The white horse of conquest; The red horse of civil war; The black horse of famine; The pale horse of death . . . and Hades followed close behind. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill by sword, by famine, by plague, and by the beasts of the earth. Ezekiel 14:21 otoh For thus saith the Lord GOD; How much more when I send my four sore judgments upon Jerusalem, the sword, and the famine, and the noisome beast, and the pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast? Which more or less agrees with the Hades subset of Death in Revelations.

Whatevs, both versions externalize evil as something which is visited upon us by a malign fate and is largely beyond our control. But I suggest that some evil grows in our own hearts. It is for sure true that the deck is not even and the deal is not fair. To some of us comes generational wealth; to others genetic compromise. Sometimes, like with the Habsburg's, both at once. But we must take the hand we are dealt and make the best fist of it we can. And one way is to open that fist and extend the open hand of kindness when the opportunity presents. Unless we do that, evil propagates inside and shrivels our souls.

I've just had Claire Keegan's short novel Small things like these wash over me through Borrowbox. I was urged to read it by my pal Rissoles. Although his reading and mine will have been different because his baggage is not my baggage. The story is nominally set in New Ross, the post town nearest where my grandfather is buried. I passed through the town every year of my childhood on our way to long visits with old people whose clocks ticked the tedious hours of drizzly Sunday afternoons. But at least I only lived there for a month in my early 20s during the Summer of 1977. In Keegan's 1985 New Ross there is no hiding place. Escape to England or Germany or America is possible but your business will still be picked over, and found wanting, by those who remain. 

We know now about Magdalen Laundries and mother-and-baby homes. But in 1985, these things were not whispered about, let alone exposed to daylight, regulated by the government, and prosecutions brought. The count of dead infants packed into a Tuam septic tank, or the account books detailing how much each live adoptee was sold for, or the cost to get your sheets hand-laundered is a matter of statistical record. But it takes someone with empathy and precision, from The Arts Block, to capture what it felt like to be called a bastard, or to notice the shifty eyes of people who owed you money but thought they were your betters.

The story tracks the run up to Christmas for a grown man who escaped from an enforced infant emigration to a Good Catholic family in America because a woman of another religion employed his mother and didn't throw her out on the street when she fell pregnant. Oh, that's good, I thought, my [protestant] people being cast as the good Samaritans, that's ecumenical. But at one point, the man's own wife casts this crucial act of long-term charity back in his face by berating the benefactor for having an [undeserved, of course] farm of land and spare money which should go to support the [Catholic] community . . . because Them Prods are not really Irish [I paraphrase]. I've been at the end of that dip-shittery . . . and much more recently than 1985!

One of the key reveals in the Christmas week is the probable identity of the man's father which has been a mystery to him all his life. That also struck a >!frisson!< chord with me because I've been recently in touch with my second cousin who was born in Bessborough Mother & Baby home in Cork in the mid 1950s and has recently gotten names for her birth mother - and father! - and is at a loss as to how to progress these thin slivers of data towards making contact with people who have a lot more genes in common than she and I do. Suggestions on a postcard?? I have an adjacent gripe that several family members persist in having my Coz binned as "adopted" [with a subtext of 'bastard' mebbe?] as if that made her not really family. Which is super ironic because the whole family that we know of, including the NZ and Oz branches, are all illegitimate descendants of The Laird and the red-headed cook.

The New Ross book is set at the same time that Ann Lovett was dying in the rain next to her stillborn child in Granard. No outsider really knows what happened that January in Granard, let alone 40 weeks earlier. Small Thoughts Like These, although fiction, has the ring of truth about how people behaved [badly] in small town Ireland back then. I don't really think we've gotten a huge infusion of compassion since then, do you? When you've finished it check out Colm Tóibín's sweeping novel The Heather Blazing [last para] which is centred in Enniscorthy at the other side of County Wexford.

Monday 20 February 2023

Cleaning the nest

You only need to clean the nest if somebody or something has fouled it. If you think "🐤" when primed with "nest" then you're probably going to cut the perp some slack . . . because infants are uncoordinated and incontinent. But today we treat of grown-arsed adults who fire Lucozade bottles out of their car-windows because their mammies didn't teach them manners. Every Spring, some of our neighbours are gee'd up to clear trash off the roads and out of ditches and drains. This annual community venture is supported by An Taisce - the national trust for Ireland. Others of our neighbours are busy, so drive all-unseeing past the steadily accumulating detritus of late stage capitalism. Broken Window Theory applies: if the ditches are full of wind-blown and man-tossed shite: it gives licence for passing strangers to contribute more.

Our Colonel of Community Clean CCC declared that the Darwinday weekend would be be clean-up time and ordered up the An Taisce skip. It was a good choice to clean early in the season because you can see the trash and catch fewer nettle-stings and bramble-scratches when the greenery is short. I was anxious about the fine weather breaking, because dry gloves is an important factor in making this chore tolerable. Accordingly, we three donned gloves, seized some empty 25kg feed-sacks, and set forth at 10:00am. "Our" stretch of road, from The 1798 Monument to The Bridge by The Wall, is 1,000m in length and perforce we make two passes - out and back.

That kilometer yielded the fill of 6 sacks: Lucozade, crisp packets, sandwich cases to the fore. Over the years we have dealt with the archaeological stuff: galvanized buckets, baler-twine, glass pop bottles, feed-sacks, old trousers but the soil is dynamic and still throws up the corner of some ancient rubbish which we excavate for land-fill elsewhere. Behind the 1798 monument is a scrubby bit of woodland in a dip below a gravelled place for parking 4-5 cars. Ya may as well hang out a neon sign saying "Leave your trash here" . . . and people do: since last year another 3 bags of misc trash; two beat-up tractor tires; some rusty bed-springs; a tangle of fencing wire; two road-workers signs; and a ten litre bucket of sheep-dip! [see R]

Needless to say, we all felt super-virtuous at noon when we trudged back into the yard after two hours of community service. Bacon sarnies all round!

Sunday 19 February 2023

A few good things

What's up, Doc?

Friday 17 February 2023

A bit of the ould sod

We live in an ever changing world. It would be grand if everything would stay the same as when we were 11 years old and running about bare-foot on a sunny Spring morning with our whole lives ahead of us. The general consensus is that most of the changes to the landscape are some form of degradation; because of the press of 8bn people and their need for food, plastic wash-up bowls, cell-phones and bicycles. Some folks make a stand and do their best to stop the rot insofar as they are able. One such consortium is the Drummin Bog Project which found the last small patch of raised bog in S County Carlow and vowed to a) preserve it from further depredation by drainage, litter, and fertilizer ingress b) turn back the clock by re-watering the area.

The thing is that bogs are a natural stage in ecological succession. Dips in any landscape accumulate water until a pond or lake establishes itself year round. Weeds grow in the water and shrubs develop at the pond edges. Later, Alder Alnus and Willow Salix trees overshadow the bushes and shed their leaves in the water until the bottom is full of partly rotted vegetation. Sphagnum moss also loves the damp edges and grows out into and finally over the pond. You then have a bog and the year by year accumulation of dead Sphagnum becomes peat, thick enough to walk on - if you don't mind squelching in your bare feet. It takes a long time: bogs get thicker by 1mm a year. But it doesn't (naturally) stop there. The mosses, shrubs and trees all suck up water and spew it out into the atmosphere and gradually the loss of water and addition of organic matter turns the area into dry land. Alder and Willow are replaced by Ash Fraxinus and Birch Betula and they in turn yield to forests where (hereabouts) Oak Quercus is likely to dominate. Dry Heath is another sort of intermediate stage in ecological succession . . . maintained in this extended adolescence by sheep which graze off saplings before they can become trees.

When Europeans spread out across North America thousands of square kilometers of the flatter landscape were covered in bogs [see Proulx]. The last 400 years has seen a catastrophic acceleration of bog-loss as wetlands have been drained for agriculture, roads, housing tracts and shopping malls. The same on a smaller scale in Ireland: far too much peat has been ripped from the land to fuel power-stations and the insatiable global demand for potting compost to leave degraded dark brown deserts across the Midlands. The Drummin Bog Project seems quixotic because the area is so small = 5 hectares of cut-away bog + 2 hectares of scrubby woodland. But Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little. The D.B.P. is making small steps in the right direction -  mobilizing artists, teachers, scientists and creatives to raise awareness that a) there is a problem b) bogs are cool, diverse, and inspirational c) frogs and orchids have rights. May their engagement inspire other actions to promote a happier and more diverse and interesting planet county.

Now hear this! You can sponsor the work. The D.B.P. has cleverly used existing tech to survey and subdivide the area. That would be what3words which I've had >3 words about in the past. For €10 you get a 3m x 3m square of bog with which to empathize. There are nearly 8,000 such squares seeking a Laird. In contrast to the nonsense of selling plots on the Moon, you can actually go to visit your plot. 9 sq.m. is a handy kind of size: enough for a picnic rug [water-proof bottom!!], a cooler full of tinnies and a portable barbecue for to cook some sausages. Actually, I don't think the D.B.P really want visitors. Imagine: just settled down to enjoy a sausage sandwich and catch some rays, when someone in a Barbour jacket appears from behind a shrubbery to berate you for planting your arse on a rare orchid. But that's okay, it's not really about you (or me) it's about the orchids, frogs and a passing hen harrier. Anyway my patrimony [You may call me Lord Cyclist of Backside] is nothing special in the context of the bog but rich in possibilities for a better future for the planet.

We've done something similar before. Just after returning to Ireland in 1990, Crann and Coillte conceived a cunning plan to plant a tract of the Glencree Valley in Co Wicklow with native Oak trees. This was a shake up for Coillte, the semi-state forestry agency, which was obsessively committed to Sitka spruce Picea sitchensis for timber and Noble fir Abies procera for Christmas trees . . . both of which are alien invasives. We knew some of the tree-huggers involved and I was (briefly) on a fabulous tax-free retraining fellowship from Brussels. Accordingly, we stumped up 10 plot sponsorships and gave the ID+location certs to all our immediate rellies. I think they cost £10 and the idea was that for each donation, ten Oak whips would be planted near each other on the assumption that the best one would survive. Heck-and-jiminy, those Oaks are more than 30 years old now: must hunt out our certs and hug our locally elite tree.

Wednesday 15 February 2023

Easing the spring

2nd of February AM: I went down the yard to fetch some sticks for the fire and thought that the grass in the yard looked and felt remarkably dry. Accordingly <carpe diem>, when I had filled the log- and kindling baskets against tea-time and a boiling kettle, I dragged the wee lawn-mower out of its shed and gave the grass a short-back-and-sides. It still being winter, and Ireland, you cannot count on grass-dry days at all at all, let alone when the grass is just the right length.We do what we can, when we have time. It is a blessing to be retired and/or working from home because then the moment ~45 minutes~ can be seized. The moment I seized to mow, someone else, 40 km distant, was teaching Human Physiology to 1st Year Pharm Techs instead of me. I guess I'm over Covid, if I can yomp about pushing a mower over the bumpy ground and not collapse wheezing. Sure pissed off Dau.II, though, because mowing is her job when she's here and she's copped a not'Rona flu-thing during a visit to Dublin [Ye Citie of Pox] and was hors de combat [she's all over la Francophonie so French phrases are allowed}.

One week earlier on a similar, sunny day, I'd touched up my chain-saw with the intention of cutting-to-length the two piles of logs I'd stacked under cover last June and July picture:

Cutting blocks with a chain-saw is hard work; I R old; so I said I'd only work through a tankful of gas; then split the bigger rounds and stack the whole lot in a wood-shed convenient to the house. And it was so. The Western pile is now reduced by maybe 2/3rds:

Not all of that reduction was the work of a noisy, dangerous and polluting machine. I've resolved that, anything smaller than my wrist will be cut with my trusty bushman bow-saw. This adds considerably to my mouse-driven upper-body asymmetry but is much better for the planet and my ears. They say that hand-processed wood warms you twice: once in the chopping and then in the hearth.

A week after I mow mow mowed the grass at the home place we were down on Costa na Déise on other business and found one hour of dryness to cut the grass down there, too. We'd missed a last cut in October 2022 for reasons, so things were looking 'tufty'. Now they are looking, still ragged-arsed, but less like Shere Khan might be hiding in  there; which is a great relief to the Things To Do TTD list which rattles about in my 'mind'.

WTF with Easing the Spring? Naming of Parts.

Monday 13 February 2023


My continuing random walk through the non-fiction parts of Borrowbox turned up How to Forget by Kate Mulgrew. If you're a normal person, like, with a telly, you probably twigged Kate Mulgrew as a familiar / famous name; even if you failed to identify her as/with Captain Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager. Not me: although we're about the same age, I'd never 'eard of 'er. The book is my jam, however, because it concerns serial end-of-life issues: documenting the death of her father [cancer, quick], mother [dementia, s l o o o w] and teenaged kid sister Tessie [astrocytoma, aaarrrgh].

The Mulgrew family grew 6 children to adulthood (see above and an infant died as well) just outside of Dubuque, Iowa. The parents, like many parents in the 50s, allowed the kids considerable freedom of movement. The house came on a 40 acre lot which formed a backdrop for kids to be adventurous, resilient and self-sufficient. Nobody paid enough attention when Tessie started getting headaches - because Mulgrews toughed it out. So by the time she was obviously ailing, the tumour in her head was inoperably large and pervasive. Tough families internalize their grief and guilt.

Another jolting anachronism is The Dhrink. If you've seen Mad Men, you'll know that every 1960s executive had a bottle of bourbon in their filing cabinet. Middle class Dubuque was like that: the men would leave child-care to their wives and older daughters [like Kate] while they got 'lit' with their pals downtown after work. When sufficiently tanked to face diapers, TV and dinner they'd drive home in tank-sized sedans and only rarely kill anyone on the journey. 

Mrs Mulgrew developed Alzheimer's despite seeking a second opinion from a West Coast neurologist who confirmed the diagnosis, plain for all to see, of the family's regular Dubuque physician. Her trajectory [unsteadily downwards with some brief partial recovery] will be familiar to all families who live with dementia. The Dad continued to patriarch while the grown-up children responded in ways predictable from their role in the family dynamic - some 'better' than others; some with true kindness and compassion. At least some of these offspring had accumulated sufficient wealth to keep their mother at home and cared for almost until the end. Then it was possible for them to buy a smaller house nearer to emergency services to see out the old lady's final bed-ridden, incontinent, mindfree months.

At some point, Mrs Mulgrew refused even the tiny quantities of food she had been coaxed into eating. But she lasted at least 2 more weeks on ice-cubes and wet face-cloths. There is an unintentional funny [if you're agnostic] incident when an old friend comes to pay her last respects. This old friend is Mother Superior of some prestigious Catholic institution and comes in full regalia. The immediate family gather in the bedroom for her ministrations. The Religious bends to her dying friend's ear and gives her permission To Go. But the shell of Mrs Mulgrew won't take the hint and Mother Super has to return to her earthly duties before The End. After sharing rather too much intimate information about her still living family and friends, Kate draws a somewhat discrete veil over her mother's actual last breath; and I respect her for that. But the last statement of anyone near the beside is brother Joe's "A watched kettle never boils" which might, hopefully, indicate that Mrs. Mulgrew was able to depart when the room emptied a bit and quiet preceded quietus. In a way How to Forget is a reasonable guide for How To Die.

Vergissmeinnicht? Keith Douglas.

Sunday 12 February 2023

Darwin Dad

Charles Darwin b. 12 Feb 1809

Friday 10 February 2023

Joined up thunk

After three years of dental isolation, we booked back-to-back checks-up with Old Bill of the peach-coloured dental couch. We've been together now for 25 years and he looked after our girls from baby-teeth to leaving home. Now t'bugger is going to retire! Which is fair enough because he's of pensionable age, but it does cast us loose a bit. The Beloved asked if he'd contact all his clients to let them know but he looked pityingly at her and said "there are 20,000 names on my books, that's a lot of postage stamps". Anyway, I made a note-to-self to call in before the lease is up on his premises and come away with my dental records. Not my dental file - I'm not from the cannibal isles.

We're well into the 21stC but still, in Ireland, medical records may still be kept on 3 x 5 index cards in dusty cabinets as if they were the personal chattels of the medico who scratched them in their pharmacist-baffling crabbed hand. When we were home-educating in the 00s it transpired that home-ed registration [TUSLA & Dept Education] records were not cross-referenced against children's allowance [Dept Social Welfare] records. School-kids were still entitled to children's allowance over the age of 16 if in full time education; home eddies maybe not so much.

At the end of last month Health Research Charities Ireland, an NGO / umbrella-body / quango, issued their 2023 HRCI Position Paper calling on the government and its healthcare apparatus to embrace joined up thinking w.r.t. medical records. The Exec Summ:

  1. Progress the implementation of a national electronic health record 
  2. Build on momentum to support genetics and genomics research  
  3. Establish research support functions within the health service

When I was working in St Vincent's University Hospital 20 years ago they were talking large about how modern technology could present all a patient's data to those attending at the bedside. That would include allergies, biopsies, cardiology reports, drug-reactions . . . X-rays, yellow fever vax records, and zoonoses. For an elderly patient with medical history the physical records might be several kilos in weight scattered in a dozen different locations in SVUH and other hospitals, at their GP's surgery and maybe even in Germany or Australia because the Irish will go all diaspora. With tech otoh that crucial chest X-ray from last year would be on a screen at the nurse's station at the flick of a switch. But it was all talk and wistful aspiration. And here's HRCI calling for those same resources twenty years later. Jo Publick also wants Electronic Health Record EHRs. It's frustrating!

And who should be the CEO of HRCI be but Avril Kennan, who did me a huge favour many years ago by introducing me to her parents. Dr Kennan of HRCI is doing an important job making sure that those, who have drawn a challenging hand in life's genetic game of rummy, get the care and attention that we all deserve. HRCI claims to represent 1 million people [whoa that's 20%!] in Ireland because HRCI umbrellas 43 (!) separate charities from Adelaide Health Foundation to St. Vincent’s Anaesthesia Foundation. Cancer Research Ireland isn't in there because CRI is big enough to fight its own corner. Considering that 64,000 diagnosed with Alzheimer's and add all the impacted friends-and-relations, for that one condition; then 1 million people becomes credible. Kudos to Dr Kennan and HRCI's Advocacy Team for drafting this infrastructural policy document. 

According to this paper, the EHR should be designed to facilitate access of people's health data for medical research as if that was an unalloyed good. EHRs are A Good Thing for you or your aged parent: partial [in both senses] data in the hands of the the attending physicians may lead to faulty diagnosis, inappropriate treatment and poor outcomes for the patient. Ireland has a history of medical cock-ups and cover-ups which have generated understandable skepticism about scientific certainties uttered by the Minister of Health or the Chief Scientific Officer, let alone HRCI. Let's hope that the woo-folk in the Dáil won't diss EHRs out of fear about "genomic science" and cyber-breaches involving personal medical data.

More women in Science

Wednesday 8 February 2023

The recent past is . . .

 . . . a foreign country. They do things differently there. For the last ~35 years [half my life], I've been a stranger in a strange land by virtue of not owning a television. It caused my family some problems with social integration. The Boy turned 10 in 1985 more or less at the same time as we moved house and went TV-less. Through the end of the 80s he might have been handicapped during lunch recess because he hadn't seen last night's episode of what ever floated the collective tween boat at that time. With commendable chutzpah he decided that the best way to address this was to invent episodes of Star Trek which nobody else had seen - but sounded exciting.  His peer-group at the time were mad about choose-your-own-adventure books and played CYOA games of remarkable subtlety and imagination in the back of the car driving to swimming. They took turns being story-master and seemed all equally able to articulate an entirely credible and internally consistent fantasy world of tunnels and turnings to challenge their mates.

For reasons, I never went to the staff tea-room twice a day at work in Geordieland in the late 80s. So I rarely experienced FOMO actual missing out when grown-arsed adults could think of nothing better to talk about than what they'd seen on the telly the previous night. I can remember one time when I experienced a sense of curiosity (and bemusement) about how colleagues behaved normally / amused themselves of an evening. That was when, in 2000AD, I started working one-day-a-week at StVs Hospital in Dublin and everyone had lunch at a big round table on the landing. My colleagues spent several weeks talking about nothing else but Big Brother Season One. I really felt like an anthropologist peering out of the jungle watching an animated group of people acting in ways that were completely alien. Except that, I just couldn't be arsed to understand why they were so excited. Television is not without its uses, and edutained me quite effectively through my minority . . . but Big Brother seemed like an exercise in performative cruelty: which I gather got worse in subsequent seasons

This sense of curiosity about an alien culture has flushed back over my mind  while listening to my latest audio-book: Watching Neighbours Twice a Day... how ’90s TV (almost) prepared me for life by Josh Widdicombe. Widdicombe was born in 1983 and lived through the 1990s in a remote village in the West of England. His book is a memoir about how television set his compass and those of all his friends. They'd watch crap TV rather than no TV: ads, jingles, catch-phrases, serials, sport and pop music; it was all hoovered up. Not without some critical evaluation but 4 channel TV was a great leveller: everyone in his class at school would tune into the same programmes every evening and discuss them the following day.

Widdicome is about 30 years younger than me, so would have been more susceptible to Telly's blandishments in the 90s. Certainly, his hippie Dad preferred to be in a different room reading the paper when Big Brother was on. The other incident which brought me up all standing was prefaced as being the most significant event of the 1990s, in the Summer of 1997. I paused the tape, racking my mind for the answer. It turned out to be the death of Diana PoW. I remember that happening, of course, but I had the distance of a) no telly b) the Irish Sea to give perspective. So many bouquets! Ian Hislop of Private Eye was one voice pointing out the humbug of the response. More recently, the Brits have experience similar para-social catharsis over the death of Diana's MiL. Dunno, but I was never a boy-scout, despite liking knots, because I rebelled against the idea of being in a group all doing things together. I'm not making a judgment on the intrinsic value of TV (Big Brother excepted) but the core is uneasiness about everyone getting the same information at the same time. I've written before about watching a beer ad in the cinema and finding it freshly funny.

As Widdicombe points out, the 90s was the only complete decade in which this uniformity of cultural experience occurred. the 00s saw the birth of multi-channel Cable, FB, YT etc. which effectively gave access to infinite variety and made the wallpaper of the mind much less monolithic.  If you were born on these islands in the 1980s, you'll probably find Watching Neighbours Twice a Day pleasantly nostalgic.

Monday 6 February 2023

Seeing things

My current ear-book is Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks, whose books have amused me in the past. As with a lot of my hits on Borrowbox, I downloaded Hallucinations because it was the first of at least 200 titles which I hadn't swiped left. Borrowbox needs to be a broad church to serve a diverse client-base but I sometimes thing I'm not even in the graveyard, let alone warm and dry in audible heaven.But I've only noped! on a couple of books having started them.

I was hooked because the first chapter was about Charles Bonnet Syndrome - CBS - and featured a lot of case histories about folks with macular degeneration or other visual impairment. Both of which ARMD and CBS were experienced by my mother before she died 3 years ago. CBS is when your visual cortex fills in the void when stimulation from the retina ceases to deliver. My mother saw both jagged patterns of a cartoon TV gone wonk and more explicit, exotic and detailed visions of specific ships and explicit sailors. Both are characteristic of CBS and making a named diagnosis was a relief for those who cared for / about my Mum - she wasn't losing her marbles entirely. What was interesting, and again this is characteristic, was how matter-of-fact she was about the loony-tunes film that was by-passing her ragged retina on a daily basis.

Another peculiarity of the syndrome is that the madey-uppy visions generated by the visual cortex don't have to make sense as / when interpreted by the higher, integrative, centres of the brain. Seemingly CBS folks, not especially serious musicians, are entertained by musical staves . . . but the melody is typically unplayable [I dunno, requiring six fingers on each hand?]. That's interesting because it tells us that the visual cortex knows nuffink about music and is really just pretending. Musical staves are rather an exotic point of focus but again that's typical of CBS - if you're pretending, might as well go full monty with flowers, Siamese princesses and knights with scimitars.

The rest of the book riffs on the extraordinary dance which links the processing brain with the sensory system of inputs. It can only really be understood when something goes wrong and bizarre things outfall. Hallucinations are not only visual but have be auditory - Jean d'Arc hearing the voice of god - or olfactory - believing you can smell chocolate pudding. Or, perhaps most distressingly, when you feel things which aren't there: remember phantom limbs on The Blob back in 2014?

Elsewhere in the book Sacks covers with much more authority hypnopompic and hypnagogic "dreams" and phantom limbs which have also been touched on in the Blobopast. It's also interestingly confessional, in that Sacks was out of his gourd on a crazy research program involving a combination of recreational drugs when they were still legal while he was a young medic in 1960s California. Interesting book: recommended.

Sunday 5 February 2023

Best Feb Best fed

very little about fud, though; sorry gourmands

Saturday 4 February 2023

Jed dead

Struck in the face by a 10in by 10ft hanger, hidden in a raffle branches, as he tidied up some storm damage, arborist & tree-surgeon Jed Walters was killed instantly on Friday 20th Jan 2023. He was about 50 and leaves bereft a wife and two daughters. I know a few foresters and I know enough about chain-saws [I done the course!] to be terrified respectful around them. "about 50" means that he'd mebbe 30 years experience cutting down and tidying up trees most days of the working week. That's a lot of face-cuts, back-cuts, Humboldts . . . and near-misses; but now Atropos has caught up with him.

The youtube [tree] community has some tributes to a respected member of their profession:

There's a GoFundMe created by Jed sister-in-law, to raise $250,000 for his wife and kiddies. Nearly 3,000 people have stumped up some cash for the cause.

Friday 3 February 2023

that way madness lies

A family from The Midwest has been promised Lotto money - €31 million - to support one of their number who has cerebral palsy, hearing loss and other cognitive impairments. The family's lawyers allege that the tragedy occurred because 1) the mother's urinary tract infection UTI was neither identified nor treated 2) steroids were not administered at the appropriate time. As all these events happened nearly 20 years ago, it is difficult to mount any effective defense against the allegations.

TIL that untreated maternal UTI is indeed associated with cerebral palsy CP. One study from 25 years ago found that kids with CP were 5x more likely if the mother had a UTI than otherwise. Significantly, the top Google hit for the association flags up a firm of Michigan attorneys who specialize in getting cash for misfortunate sufferers from CP. Cochrane, the GoTo for authoritative medical evidence has nothing to say about the UTI/CP association but does recommend pre-term screening for maternal UTI because that intervention helps prevent preterm and low-weight births. Cochrane's assertion is that routine screening and treatment will reduce cases of pre-term birth from 5% to 3%; saving €60,000 each time. Someone needs to do the calculus for the cost of "routine screening" to set against 2% x €60,000 to see if that's an efficient use of health resources.

Cerebral palsy is a terrible thing: physiotherapy and other interventions - like respite care for the parents! - can make life easier and more fulfilling for all concerned but it all costs money. Mr Justice Coffey has decided that €31m is what it will take to cherish this citizen and her family while she's still with us. But here I choose to put €31m into context for the nation's young people. The annual budget for all Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services CAMHS appears to be on the order of €85million annually. The same source indicates that another €40million a year would bring CAMHS funding close to what civilized societies expect from the tax-dollars. 

And now we have a damning report: Mental Health Commission finds CAMHS is barely fit for purpose. Any organization needs an audit from time to time. But with CAMHS, the first pass audit turned up a quite disconcerting proportion of failings. You can't close such a Pandora's Box, once you've peeked inside - you have to keep digging because each deficit, failing or error is a beloved but troubled child not getting the help they need; and deserve at least as much as all the high-profile cerebral palsy cases which reach the courts. 

Trouble is, mental health is really not usually amenable to a quick fix. But if CAMHS is chronically under-funded, under-staffed and swept under the un-sexy carpet [and it is!] then the few Effectives left in the building don't have time to give any child the attention needed, let alone ALL the children who need it. One of the identified failings is giving anti-psychotic meds to children for longer than is clinically advisable because auditing a child's chart takes time and there are three more new kids on the books who have just tried to top themselves or are unable to face school or are in A&E again atfer self-harming physically or chemically. Hello! There are 20,000 "open" cases on the CAMHS books, the failure-to-serve rate from the pilot audit indicates that 4,000 [20%!] of these open cases have been badly served by the state.

Adversarial defense of claims against the HSE and its subsidiaries including CAMHS means that, in addition to the cash or credit awards to the plaintiff, the plainiff's lawyers and the HSE's lawyers get their cut. In a case which has dragged through the courts for years of billable hours, this is also going to be a seven-figure sum. 

Every million given to the lawyers is 15 person years of salary for mental health Effectives. Or one new CAMHS unit [Consultant Psychiatrist; Registrar; 2x Psychiatric Nurses; 2x Clinical Psychologists; Social Worker; Occupational Therapist; Speech & Language Therapist; Social Care Worker; 2x Grade IV clerks] servicing maybe 1,000 young troubled citizens a year.

And remember: one of the reasons that a CAMHS case is no longer open is because a coffin has closed. We've got to do better than this.

Note added in press: I was visiting m'pal Rissoles a tuthree days ago for the first time in yonks. One of his kids recently prevailed upon Daaaad to go with her to a local perf by Blindboy Boatclub of the Rubberbandits. In the questions from fans afterwards, a succession of youngsters stood up to say thanks for The Blindboy Podcast which had saved them from a sea of trouble. B.B. was flattered but understandably aghast: "WTFittyF" [I paraphrase at second hand] "there's something seriously amiss if my ramblings about mental health are more help that the serried ranks of services paid for by the state. Y'all, we'all should get onto our elected reps and let them know this is not good enough." Amen!

Wednesday 1 February 2023

Go Polar

Going to school in England gave me a particular view of polar exploration. I've retained rather too much information about Bowers, Evans, Oates, Scott & Wilson who arrived at the South Pole, pretty much done in, a months after the Norwegian expedition. Scott's people all died on the way back. I doubt one Brit in 1,000 (incl. me) could name more than one person in the successful Norwegian team: Amundsen, Bjaaland, Hanssen, Hassel, and Wisting. Amundsen's party, with better logistical decisions and the willingness to kill and eat their sled-dogs took 99 days on the 3,440 km round trip. In 2006 Hannah McKeand arrived at the South Pole after completing a solo trek of 1,100 km in 39.4 days. Ten years later Joanna Davidsson shaved 9½ hours of the record. No dogs were harmed, let alone eaten, in either of these ventures.

About a month ago another very fit young person cruised into the Scott-Amundsen Polar Base, after 40.3 days of solo sled-pulling, paused briefly and set off back to the coast. This is Preet Kaur Chandi [R] from Derby, England. Polar Preet, as her handle has it, served 10 years in the UK Army, largely in the Medical Corps. This is not her first trekky adventure but it is certain sure the coldest. It is amazing what technology has thrown at the problem of keeping warm and dry in adverse conditions: Gortex beats a Shetland sweater; freeze-dried rations are better that pemmican; reindeer-skin sleeping bags are frightening heavy for their TOG score.. Modern nutritional calculations show that, apart from the scurvy, Scott's logisticians were 3,000 calories a day short of the team's fabulous energy requirements. Carbon-fibre and Kevlar sleds beat fir and steel. What Chandi, McKeand, Davidsson and other solo-sloggers have realised is that expeditions acquire their own momentum: caching food, fuel and spare clothing requires multiple return trips which must be sustained by food and fuel. After multiple National Expeditions to Everest, involving dozens of climbers and scores of sherpas, Reinhold Messner reached the summit on his own in 1978. Solo Polistas are like that.

Polar Preet is consciously doing this to provide a positive role model for young women - personified by her 11 y.o. niece. "No boundary or barrier is too small and I want to continue to smash that glass ceiling. Rory "Afgho" Stewart [prev] mentioned, on a recent The Rest Is Politics podcast, that he'd met Captain Chandi at the South Pole! Bet he didn't walk there, though.