Friday 31 March 2023


The Blob has had rather a lot to say about gratitude and the art of saying thank you [most recently]; like when I realized that editing newsletters was it's own reward and that expecting any readers to send cakes for my efforts was all frosting. I've ignored Mark Twain "Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for."

I resolved to take a break from the ould social media because I was starting to care what other people thought about my comments. It's not a good place to be, because pleasing a bunch of para-social randos is a recipe for regression to the mean until we all sound like each other. It makes the world a very boring place if there is no grit of dissent.

There is only so much entertainment to be got from staring at the ceiling - especially in winter when there are no flies drowsily circulating up there. Accordingly, casting about for something to read, I pulled from the shelf East & West, a collection short stories by W. Somerset Maugham [bloboprevs], and opened it at random. Maugham was a story-teller and to achieve that he needed to be a story getter: travelling outside his echo-chamber; conscientiously listening to other people; probing and poking and goading a bit . . . et voilá! more copy. The Back of Beyond [full text; cw: adultery, domestic abuse] is one of many set in the East: in particular colonial Malaya where the rubber [supervising, tapping, patriarching R] came from. It concerns a bit of adultery between two consenting adults married to others who should have stuck to being good neighbours but had inclination and opportunity to try something more interesting than watching geckos on the ceiling. For reasons, they agree to give up the ould nookie and return to their wedded spouses. He then dies [off-stage] and Her extravagant grief allows her husband to rumble his own cuckold's horns.

Husband is severely pissed off because his dignity is affronted and he goes to an older chap for advice about how to handle the divorce. Old Chap, calling up his own younger-self experience, says he'd be mad to divorce his wife just because she had a fling with another bloke. Husband rails on about how he's always giving and few seem to appreciate his generosity. To which Old Chap, with characteristic Maugham cynicism retorts:

"One mustn’t expect gratitude. It’s a thing that no one has a right to. After all, you do good because it gives you pleasure. It’s the purest form of happiness there is. To expect thanks for it is really asking too much. If you get it, well, it’s like a bonus on shares on which you’ve already received a dividend; it’s grand, but you mustn’t look upon it as you due . . ."
 "You'll have to walk warily. She'll have a lot to forgive too . . .you're behaving very generously, old boy, and, you know, one needs a devil of a lot of tact to get people to forgive one one's generosity.

I posted the whole of The Verger, another story by Maugham a while back. I like Maugham's writing: his insights into the human condition seem to hold value in our different world.

Wednesday 29 March 2023

Walking round his father

Christopher Somerville [R staring at some folklore] has a nice gig if you can get it as The Walking Correspondent of The (London) Times. Being a scion of The Patriarchy must have helped to get a foot in the door there, but The Times would have turned him out if he hadn't been able to write with knowledge and insight about boots, lanes, hilltops and blustery weather. I don't take the Times, so I haven't read it since I was living in my parents' [who did take it] place[s] as a teenager. Through my childhood, every 18 months on average, my naval father would get a new posting which usually involved a new home for his family. It was what it was, and the destabilization has help craft me. There's no future in going what if? about the past.

No shade on Somerville for deciding to squeeze a few more walking miles from his life by writing books about it. I've just yomped through his The January Man; a Year of Walking Britain the conceit of which has the author re-viewing past walks (with his Dad) through the lens of his more recent encounters with people in remote places. This is what pretty much all books about landscape and walking do. I have had occasion to crit such books in the past: it's not a good idea to include every encounter. A good editor is key if the author wants to be considered for a Wainwright Prize. One of which was won by Dara McAnulty [bloboprev]. Another for Underland by Robert MacFarlane [bloboprev]. Somerville was shortlisted but didn't win in 2017. Jan Man is still an excellent example of the genre.

One of my points of engagement is that Somerville is cut from rather similar cloth to me. Like mine, Somerville's father had an intermittently bloody exciting WWII as a career naval officer. It took several decades and a few pints before Somerville Jr. heard the least peep from his father about what he'd seen and done. My brother went to visit our father in retirement, 50 years after the end of the war and they went off to the pub for a bonding pint while my mother prepared Sunday dinner back home [sometime the cliché is the lived experience]. As the sat in the pub, The Brother tried "In the war, like, were you ever scared" to which The Da responded "Harumph, look at the time; drink up, we'd better get back to your mother". Which was ridiculous because it lacked at least 30 minutes to 1300 hrs [± 2 mins] when lunch was started every day. Somerville Jr otoh secured an harrowing anecdote about evacuating bloody, soot-smeared British squaddies from a small harbor in Crete in May 1941. It was like Hemingway's On the Quai at Smyrna:

The Greeks were nice chaps too. When they evacuated
they had all their baggage animals they couldn't take off
with them so they just broke their forelegs and dumped them
into the shallow water. All those mules with their forelegs
broken pushed over into the shallow water. It was all a
pleasant business. My word yes a most pleasant business.

Each chapter in The January Man is pegged to a month, but the narrative loops back and forth through time and space often reflecting on how father and son settled into a relationship which could pass for love between two buttoned up Brits. Shared adversity in crappy weather and wild places eventually gave them some common ground to talk about . . . without getting too emotional, you know.

The January Man of the title is taken from a folk-song here sung by Steeleye Span. You might think that January Man is olde, anon, trad but it was conjured and written by a folkie called Dave Goulder in 1970 and has since become part of the English Folk Canon

Monday 27 March 2023


My statement at dinner that my latest earbook was The Book of Eels: their Lives, Secrets and Myths by Tom Fort was met with gales of incredulous laughter from Dau.II. I was disconcerted at the reaction because monographs on aspects of the natural world are my jam: Salmon by Mark Kurlansky for one example. The laughter came from a place thinking that eels were unimportant, effectively invisible and so rather a niche thing about which to write an entire book. True, but that the great thing about publishing 100,000 new titles every year - there's a long tail to entertain those with minority interests. The world would be a duller place if all there was to read was Harry Potter and Stephen King. 

As a book-l'arning biologist, I know something about the life-cycle and economic history of eels Anguilla anguilla but I'm a crap field biologist and lacked the persistence and contemplative habit required to fish effectively. Tom Fort makes the point that anyone in Europe who has walked beside a river, mere, beck, drain or culvert has been within spitting distance of some eels but very few of us have seen them. His book was first published in 2003 and that point is unlikely still to be true for anyone born in the present century. Because like so much of nature's bounty, eels have not proved to be inexhaustible in  supply.

After a wigging from my pal P, I have now sorted out the inventory of anadromous species of fish: These are fish which spawn in fresh water but spend some part of their life-cycle at sea. Catadromous fish, including eels, mate and spawn at sea and live the adult part of the existence in freshwater. Whichever way they are going, the transition between a marine salinity of 35 ‰ = 3½% and the 0.2% = 2,000 ppm generates an osmotic shock which requires a host of physiological actions to maintain the internal salinity at a comfortable 9‰ = 0.9%. Eels, salmon and mammals, including us have essentially the same level of salt in our blood plasma and lymphatic circulation. They say that is because when vertebrates evolved the salinity of sea-water was about 1% and pumping excess sodium and potassium ions through the membranes wasn't an issue. The last 450 million years has swept a lot of soluble minerals into the sea. In that time also the Atlantic Ocean has opened up from a crack to a pond 5,000km wide. Gradually the adult eeels have had to travel imperceptibly further each generation to reach the trad spawning grounds.

The first part of Fort's book tells how scientists from Italy (🇮🇹 Giovanni Grassi) and then Denmark (🇩🇰 Johannes Schmidt) showed where adult eels go when they leave their home rivers, lakes, drains and marshes for a last sex-fuelled vacation. That hot coupling destination is the wide Sargasso Sea on the Bermuda side of the Atlantic in the middle of the North Atlantic Gyre. You're quite right to give side-eye to the flag-emojis because wot-in-heck does nationality have to do with the great enterprise of Science? But 100 years ago, chauvinism and flag-wagging was very much to the fore in funding the research to solve the catadromous details of this important species in European feeding.

The second half of the book turns a spotlight on the catastrophic collapse of eel fisheries across the whole North Atlantic 'market'. Lough Neagh, the Rivers Thames and Severn, the Delaware River system, and Commachio where the Po debouches into the Adriatic. I won't even attempt to summarize the details but the story repeats itself. Demanding and cash-rich external influences seduced local fishers into eating their seed-corn. Globalization is a great disruptor of the commons: when resources are shared among neighbours there is a chance for sustainable development even if that looks like same-old same-old rather than "progress". Inexhaustible supply is a tenable position if those involved tweak traditional methods or harvest. If outsiders sweep in to feed at the same trough, often with different industrial-sized techniques, the balance is likely to get upset and the resources trampled into the mud.  It may be a small-small thing, seemingly unrelated, like installing street-lights on bridges. Eels prefer to travel on dark and stormy nights: 200W of sodium light across a stream mouth act like daylight on Dracula: no way up there. But what do I know?? my pal Russ actually fished for eels in Waterford.

Sunday 26 March 2023

Seanachie sunday


Friday 24 March 2023

Sleeping Benchy

One of our oldest pals had an interesting father: republican, volunteer, musician, journalist, and history buff. He's dead these last 15 years and his children are scattered: like so many families who came of age in the 1980s; then there no jobs, not even jobs for the boys. From somewhere, shortly after the funeral the idea materialized that it would be a grand thing to have a place to sit and look up at some rolling Irish hills and, if so inclined, say a small prayer for this man. The action items were:

  • fence off a corner of one of our fields; with such a view complemented by a soundscape of water: tinkling, babbling or roaring according to the season
  • source a suitable seat: preferably a bench because two is company
  • lift a few of the paving stones from the old chap's yard
  • clean out the brambles, gorse and ferns
  • plant a little holm oak Quercus ilex to frame the view
  • add a handsome flat-topped boulder for, like, the tea tray
  • . . . and don't forget some brack

And it was so. Enda's Corner was a bit of work but I liked the outcome, and counted the project as a Win. But it was as far from our kitchen as it was possible to be; heck it was almost in the next county and so that bench was rarely used. I suspect that the longest the seat was occupied was a couple of Summer hours when I sat with another friend, also now dead, while we talked about teenage daughters, the joys and tribulations of raising such cr'atures.

This Spring, the daughter of the hero of our tale, our pal, announced that she planned to come home from foreign and would like to come visit with us on a whistle-stop tour of friends and relations.
[aside:We had another couple of friends in the early 90s: He - also dead and far too young - from County Clare via London, She from Canada via Scotland. Shortly after they became an item, he took her to visit his extended and extensive family in The Banner County. Jaysus, she confessed later, it was like she'd tapped into the motherlode of mouse-trottable tea with ham & salad sandwiches . . . and don't forget some brack].

Naturally we went down to visit with Enda in anticipation of the visit and were disturbed to find that 10 years of neglect, and exclusion of sheep, can reduce a comfortable and inviting coin de sejour into a prop from Sleeping Beauty. Our fairy-tale briars had been so feisty that the bench, let alone the paving stones, were entirely invisible from even a short distance. It was almost as much work to restore the corner to a semblance of its former state as it was to carve out the paradise from the wilderness in the first place. The bench, indeed, sadly under-engineered for two monstrous wide Dad-bottoms in the first flush of its youth, was reduced to fritters by 15 years of sturm und drang. So 'elp me guv'nor, the thing came apart in my hands when I tried to pick it up:

The holm oak o.t.o.h. was doing princely; having long out-grown its supporting stake and now 2.5m tall and thriving. The gorse had also grown back strong as ever but the fence posts were rotten through. Setting to, we generated some 5 cu.m. of brambles, gorse, twigs, and ferns and tucked this detritus under the nearest hedge . . . to mulch down . . . for habitat.

The redoubtable Dau.II resolved to reduce the bench to its component parts, discard the cheap and feeble slats and replace them with some naturally distressed 2 x 1s [18mm x 36mm] that had already seen service as a rabbit proof fence. From an early age, Dau.II has been interested in making things; but 8 years living in an 4th floor apartment in a city got her out of the habit of wielding a cordless drill and a handsaw. We soon realised that reuse, recycle, refurb is the worst of all construction projects.

  • The original bench came as a flat-pack kit: the ends in cast iron with pre-drilled bolt-holes; 8 wooden laths all precision cut to the same length, holes pre-drilled; the bolts and screws all the same, appropriate, size in two little plastic bags. Idiotsäkert as they say in Ikea.
  • A from-scratch bench made from wood and screws has enormous tolerance and is susceptible to any amount of bodging. I've made several of these from scaffolding planks and/or pallet-wood for the cost of the screws.
  • The refurb job o.t.o.h. is constrained by the interface between the, effectively unalterable, cast-iron end-pieces and the timber. There is for example a gutter [R above] to receive the ends of each lath which limits the thickness of the timber - especially where the gutter is curved. These gutters are cast to different widths on the left and right arms! And ensure a rather feeble depth in all of the (bottom-supporting) planks.

Now a good pair of hands, a materials person, would have no problems with such a job. But Dau.II and I were spavined by lack of handy tools like clamps; and my best wood-saw was awol; and some of the 2 x 1s were too fat and needed to be chamfered to slot into the gutters; and some of the 8 laths were a few mm longer than the others (?!?); and I only have one cordless to both drill pilot holes and drive the screws. But we persevered! And with some puffing and blowing assembled a working bench, rather more robust than the original, which should be good for 2   3   6! years. I'm hopeless at this sort of thing: so many times have I swapped out a light-fitting only to find the protective cap in my pocket after I've re-done all the wiring. The first iteration of the bench proved to have a significant list to port when set upon its feet - but some assertive horizontal shear force ironed most of that out. And here's the finished product, with one coat of Danish oil. Yes, it is 150mm more cosy than the original 1200mm length. Bonus: bucket of kindling from the punky original laths.

Wednesday 22 March 2023

La Chevalière d'Éon

Have you ever picked a fight with the wrong person? Is one of those questions that pops up on These are usually stories of Hell's Grannies duffing up wanna-be muggers with deft blows of a sequinned handbag. All good fun and inspiring in their way. Sometimes the courage is not in meting out revenge but taking abuse on the chin and refusing to compromise your true self. I often think of Quentin Crisp in this regard. He was born in 1908 and openly flamboyantly wonderfully Out in London when to be even slightly camp was considered an invitation to be bashed. 

But Crisp was not the first to be gender fluid in London society. Nearly 200 years earlier Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont was born into the Burgundian nobility in 1728 but was happier as La Chevalière d'Éon, and he came out as a woman at the age of 49. They had 30 years of living their best life in Versailles and London. Never 'eard of 'im? Never 'eard of 'er? Yup, me neither, but from Adam Savage at the armorer, I was off down a rabbit hole to the British Royal Armories at Leeds. Whooshing past plastrons, vambraces, breastplates and visors to land at a sword gifted by La Chevalière d'Éon to an English friend in 1777. Yere 'tis:

What it says on the tin steel in gold: "Donne par la Chevalïere d’Eon à son ancïen Ami Geo: Keate Esquïre. 1777". As one brought up as male in the French aristocracy, d'Éon was trained in the gentle art of fencing and served many years as a soldier notably in the Seven Years War. He was part of the mission sent to London to negotiate peace in 1763 and was rewarded with a purse of livres and a gong [Order of Saint Louis] when the war formally concluded at the Treaty of Paris. You really can't get more central to diplomacy centraal than that. Shortly after that d'Éon transitioned, but it didn't stop them fencing for sport, wager and cash; here against the Chevalier de Saint-George, another interesting, multi-talented fencer of the day:

The Prince Regent looks on from under a big hat. d'Éon died poor and paralysed from a fall in London at the age of 81 and is buried in St Pancras Old Church. Before his corporeal remains were interred, they were carefully inspected by a surgeon who found a well-developed bosom and normal-looking male external genitalia. We know now that has a rather poor consonance with gender identity. I'm quite sure that if some 18thC bravos decided to bully d'Éon, the way their shabby descendants abused Quentin Crisp, they could expect a poke in the face with something sharp.

Monday 20 March 2023

There's Gold

. . . in them thar youtubes . . . for a teeny fraction of those generating content on that platform. A few years ago, I was suck[er]ed into a feed of snipers / snorklers / scubaristas who would plunge into rivers after the Labor Day weekend and retrieve Go-Pros, phones and jewellery from the murky bottom. The feed-back loop of para-social whoops and hollers from the comments led to these Sn/Sn/Sc people posting every week or every day as they rose up trove from the depths. It seemed too good to be credible. I came to believe that I'd seen the same alga-covered GoPro the previous month; and so I stopped watching dripping stopped-watches. I think I must have para-plunged into these inland waters from following beach-combers [a thing I do]; some of whom use metal detectors to scan the sand at low tide. The jaded palettes of folks-like-me need the content providers to be "exciting" or at least sufficiently different. 

On the principle of why keep a dog and bark yourself, I have gravitated towards actual gold-panners rather than recycling para-Go[Pro]ld hunters. There's a group of Canadian YTers who are extracting gold from the Fraser River of British Columbia in a way that is mildly entertaining and rings true to my not-too-fiesty crap-detector. DanHurdOfDanHurdProspecting is an older guy with a flaming orange beard who is working several claims with a shovel, a gold-pan and a wet bottom and sharing his finds with something North of 1 million subscribers. Pioneer Pauly otoh is a younger sniper; he shrugs into a wet-suit and plunges into torrents with sharp eyes and a snuffer bottle. Gold is super heavy [19x denser than water; 7x denser than granite!], so sinks to the bottom and gets caught in crevices. In quickly flowing water, Pauly can fan off the 'over-burden' with one hand and this sand and gravel is swept downstream to reveal the good stuff. Two Toes How To snipe.

TODAY is the 79th day of the year and, following my tribs to Tin [50Sn] Day it seems appropriate to talk up Gold 79Au today. Melts 1064°C, 1948°F, Boils 2836°C, 5137°F. It is chemically inert. So you can purify the stuff chemically.

Inventory: license; gold pan; sifter = classifier; high-banker; water; back-hoe; shovel; pick, crevicing tool; trowel (cat-food scoop will do); pry-bar; snuffer-bottle; metal detector [optional]; wet-suit; crusher; shaker-table; dry socks; hat; sunscreen; no-see-um repellent; milligram scales.

Prospector's jargon by size: nugget > nuggy > picker > flake > speck > flour. 

Gold panning is another way to sort heavy material and wash away the lighter stuff. Because gold is the densest material in any shovelful even flour can be concentrated in a gold pan in sufficient quantities to make it worth the work. A nugget much smaller than your pinky finger nail could easily weigh a gram and that's $60 at current prices. The 'picker' [big enough to pick up with your fingers] shown [R] is the reward for processing maybe 10kg of dirt. It's the cash-value for a day where Dan and Pauly get to hang out together which is the fun pay-off. Gold can be found all over the world:

 The price of Gold goes Up and Down; it is now worth $60/g = $1850/oz

  • Feb 2001 ~$450/oz century low
  • Aug 2021 ~$2200/oz recent high
  • 10 Mar 2023 $1,834  . . . 19 Mar 2023 $2,001 ! Ya shd a bought a week ago
But you don't have to get your socks wet, or break your fingernails: you can sit on your sofa and make a fortune trading gold. Don't do this at home, folks, you will lose your shirt: Bitcoin - it's yer only man!

Sunday 19 March 2023

Gone away


Friday 17 March 2023


When in 1973 I up-stakes and left the stable country where I was born, included in my essential kit was a) a box of books, including at least one banned at the time b) a ratty old fur coat constructed from many dead muskrats Ondatra zibethicus. Five years later we left Ireland again as part of the Great 1980s Diaspora and didn't return until 1990. We left some of our accumulated rommel with Pat the Salt and he did me and the planet a great favour by dumping the coat and some other shite when he in turn was next on the move.  Even as late as the 1970s (80s? 90s?) fur was widely seen as a resource for fashionable and well-to-do people to purchase and wear about their person eeeuw?! Mink Mustela neovison is indeed still farmed for  the fur-trade as we found out when a Covid-mandated cull of 17 million mink was implemented in Denmark in 2020.

I don't believe that many would hold a torch for mink, an alien invasive species in Ireland. They are widely distributed escapees from fur-farms and make aggressive depredations on rodents, frogs, crayfish, ducks and chickens. Beavers Castor canadensis US & Castor fiber EU might be another matter, though? They are completely unrelated to mink and ermine Mustela erminea being exceptionally large rodents subsisting on a strictly vegetarian diet. They have recently been re-introduced in England and may have a role in flood-control because their dams impede water run-off and so dissipate the energy of storm water. I'd be happy enough if a couple of pair set up home above us on the R. Aughnabriskey which can get super fiesty during the Winter flood season - ripping willow Salix and alder Alnus from the bank as it roars past our property.

In 1948, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game was hard at work transporting beaver from where they were too close to human habitation - and that zone of human habitation / industry / agriculture was steadily increasing as GIs returned from WWII and wanted a piece of the good life. The IDFG recognised that beaver had value - but just get them the heck away from Lewiston and Idaho Falls where they were a nuisance. An adult beaver weighs 20kg - about the same as a feed-sack of sheep muesli - so "transporting" a pair of beaver from a remote stream near Moscow, ID to an even remoter stream in the back-country could be a logical days work. Carrying a pair [propagating here folks] of beavers would require a mule and a mule-stringer and probably a IDFG scientist to supervise the release in suitable habitat. That is 2 person-day's work even excluding the transport to the head of the mule-trail whither a truck could add some economies of scale.

But 1948 was an interesting time to be in. Ford and Willys-Overland had, for example, produced 640,000 jeeps - most of which survived the war intact and many hadn't even been shipped abroad. Many were transferred to the USPS for rural postal routes; but jeeps were also repurposed as farm vehicles: trailer-hauling, ploughing, sowing spuds; and in Glengarriff as a runabout for two middle aged lesbians.

There were also a helluva lot of army surplus parachutes and Elmo Heter, working for the IDFG, invented a crate which could fit two beavers slung beneath a small parachute. The device had a cunning mechanism which secured the lid until it flipped open when the crate touched down. The intention was that Mr and Mrs Beaver would then head off down hill [as shown above] until they encountered a suitable stream and start one dam thing after another. The protocol is described in a contemporary propaganda film. National Geographic has more detail, including some guesstimates about the cost- benefit analysis. Beavers on golf courses are a pain in the hole and the most co$t effective solution is shooting  the poor creatures. But IDFG recognised that, with a more holistic worldview, the same beavers could, for $7 or $8 a head, be a landscape-shifting asset elsewhere in the state creating as much as $300 in added value. I like this story a lot because it's cool when someone's yuk is another person's yum.

Wednesday 15 March 2023

Ides of March

Hey-ho, that would be today. Some blokes just won't be told. Everbode kno that Julius Caesar was quite clearly informed to beware the Ides of March but he went to town anyway - and was stabbed in the Forum . . . also the duodenum, the carotid artery and the pancreas. But heck-n-jiminy, what's a fellow to do? The Head of State can't go back to bed because some randomer utters an imprecise warning. Also, as a man classically educated in the ways of outrageous fortune, Caesar would have known that IF he went back to bed THEN he'd find that Calpurnia had short-sheeted it as a jape and, boy, would his face be red

Only slightly less well known is that the Roman Calendar was wonkily asymmetrical: front loaded with Kalends, Nones and Ides with a long void in the second half of each month until Kalends comes round again. It won't surprise anyone that the Roman month was originally based on the phases of the moon [moonth, if you will]. But, by the time of Caesar, the Romans were going some way to reconciling the incommensurate cycles of the Earth round its axis [days]; the Moon round the Earth [months]; and the Earth round the Sun [years]. And the Year triumphed over the month: it was more important to keep the seasons in sync - for farming and business - than to cede counting off the days to the phases of the moon. Islam still prefers to have Ramadan cycle through the solar year because 12 months of 29 or 30 days comes to 354 or 355 days not 365 or 366.

The Julian Calendar, implemented in 45 BCE, went for alternating 30 and 31 day months with a short February to make the sum up to 365 days. Every fourth year, February was 29 days long because the year is more-or-less 365¼ days long. It replaced a ragged-arsed 13 month year of alternating 29 and 31 day months totalling 355 days; with an intercalary month between Februarius and Martius every 2-3 years if it was religiously and politically expedient to reset the civil calendar with actual ecological reality. Julius Caesar, as Pontifex Maximus, recognised that having the Pontifex Maximus make the call on how many months there would be in a given year was wide open gate for corruption and finagling and so regularized the year to what we have today. I've been over how the Julian adjustment accumulated errors over the centuries and needed a rejig under the remit of Pope Gregory. Martius was the 1st month: which explains the names September, October, November, December not matching their position in the modern calendar. Also Blob Equinoxes: not always on the 21st.

Anyway, back to Ides! The Kalends (originally matching  the New Moon) was the first day of each month. The last day of the month was Pridie Kalendas. Nones (originally marking the moon's first quarter) was on the 5th, except for Mar, May, Jul, Oct when it was two days later in the 7th. Likewise Ides normally fell on the 13th except for Mar, May, Jul, Oct when it was on the 15th. So Jules was done to death, by Et tu Brute and others, on the 15th March 44 BCE, he was 55.

The Romans were mad for counting backwards - see IV and IX and pridie kalendas above. There was a Pridie Nonas and a Pridie Idus as well. The other days were also looking forward quantitatively to the next Big Day:

  • 1 Kalendis (Kal.)
  • 2 ante diem quartum Nonas (a.d. IV Non.)
  • 3 ante diem tertium Nonas (a.d. III Non.)
  • 4 Pridie Nonas (Prid.Non.)
  • 5 Nonas (Non.)
  • 6 ante diem octavum Idus (a.d. VIII Eid.)
  • etc. 
Blimey, even the standard abbrevs. are longer than the convention we follow: 9/11, 15/03.

Tuesday 14 March 2023

New Oroville spills

How quickly they forget! Not many people in Ireland will be triggered by the word "Oroville" to be pitched six years back to Northern California when 180,000 citizens were told to leave their homes at very short notice because a dam[n] spillway had gotten all tore up and the emergency spillway looked likely to fail catastrophically and release a wall of water 100m tall to scour everything downstream. You, dear reader, may remember because I covered the story obsessively at the time but most folks have more pressing matter to occupy their minds - like the price of electricity here and now!

Dams and their reservoirs require active management to balance their complementary functions.

  • Dams stop river flow allowing more controlled water supply downstream
  • Water comes mostly in Winter but agricultural demand is mostly in Summer. Reservoirs keep the excess in reserve for demand six months later.
  • Reservoirs also serve domestic water to wash behind ears, wash potatoes, wash cars and make coffee
  • A big dam will have a big head of water behind it; so turbines can be en-coupled to generate hydroelectric power
  • A big dam will create a large lake which has recreational / amenity value

Juan Browne at Blancolirio reports. The California DWR [Dept Water Resources] recently decided that Oroville Lake was filling up a little too fast for comfort given that a second atmospheric river was expected to dump A Lot of warm rain across the Oroville catchment. On Sat 11 Mar 2023, therefore, they opened the reg'lar spillway for the first time in 4 years to release 8,000 rising to 8,500 cfs [cubic feet per second = 225 cu.m /s]. See above: the white diagonal streak pluming out lower right is water cascading down that spillway. The white rectangle top left is the emergency spillway: reinforced, repaired, back-filled and backed up since the Big Ooops moment in Jan 2017. The terracing and roadways and landscaping are all new too. In all this single element of the power-generation + agricultural irrigation infrastructure has cost $1 billion to make it secure and functional with a judicious margin for the unexpected. 

225 cu.m /s is a lot of bathtubs but it's the drippiest of tiny drops in the context that Lake Oroville contains 4 billion cu.m. behind the dam spread over 6,250 hectares of surface. Then again there are a lot of seconds in a day and the atmospheric river wasn't due for 3 days. Putting all the numbers into a calculator says that DWR can lower the lake level by a meter in that half week. They don't want to lose their nerve and spill too much because excess will run off down to the ocean without growing a single almond and because the Feather River will erode banks and scour its bed if forced to carry too much flow. Then again, 2022/23 has been a snowy old Winter so far in N California: twice the average snowfall is waiting for Spring to fill the Lake with snowmelt.

Monday 13 March 2023

A Life that Counted

In my career in science teaching and research, especially in its last eight years at The Institute, I tore a lot of hair at the idea that grrls don't or can't count. Not entirely, but in large measure, if our students had clocked better grades in Leaving Cert maths, they wouldn't have been sojourning 4 years of their lives at a Regional Technical College; but would have gone to a University. No amount of rebranding the letterhead: RTC >> Institute of Technology >> Technological University addressed the basic issue. On my watch, basic innumeracy was as likely in lads as lasses; but it took some effort to restore their confidence after so much labelling and learned helplessness in school. Nevertheless I was always looking for role models for Women in Science, because the Patriarchy-fu is strong historically, and lamentably, even in the 21stC. I think I've found another.

Barbara Everitt Bryant has died, in the fullness of her years (b. 1926), surrounded by her family, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She was appointed to head the US Bureau of Census in 1990, the first woman to do so. Her career was typical of smart young middle-class US women coming to adulthood after WWII. Of course she should go to college and read Physics there if she had the aptitude and interest. She was literate as well as numerate and after graduating helped edit Chemical Engineering in NYC. But her husband's career took precedence and she took an academic sabbatical to raise 3 kids. Only then did she go back to college, securing an MA and PhD, and going to work as a market researcher for a Republican polling and think tank group called Market Opinion Research. In 1990, President Bush Sr. saw her a safe pair of GOP hands to head the Census Bureau.

However, it was on her watch that the issue of undercounting [minorities] really gained legs. In an ideal world, every person in the State on a certain date should be contacted and useful information about each one recorded. This is essential for planning. The number of newborns in 1990 can inform budget allocations for secondary school places in 2001/2. If nobody knows how many people are 60-65, then there won't be sufficient hospital beds in 2010 or coffins in 2015. But, contra the Declaration of Independence all men are not created equal: some groups are going to need more care and attention and consume more resources from the community / state. If you miss these indigents then it's going to cost more later because the unplanned is always over-budget. In Ireland, on Census night, a great effort is made to find all the people who don't have an address to which the CSO can post a Census Form . . . because they are sleeping under bridges.

In 1989, post-hoc recounts of selected census tracts in the US suggested that 4 million people were invisible to The State: an under-count of 1.6%. But Blacks were under-counted by 4.4% and children by 2x. Dr. Bryant agreed with her Census wonks that something should be done about the discrepancy rather than sweeping these dispossessed under the carpet of policy. Thereafter the Census Bureau published adjusted (statistical best guess) figures for the population and its sub-categories. This caused a perfect storm of indignation and law-suits because knowing the truth was going to mean extra work and awkward questions for The Man. On her watch, she also got the Census takers to give up the old pencils for taking narrative responses from censusees. A properly designed computer codable questionnaire captured the vast majority of the useful information and didn't need transcription services afterwards. 

Everyone agrees that Barbara Bryant did The States some service.

More Women in Science

Sunday 12 March 2023

Say that again, Suriname

The material world

Saturday 11 March 2023

The devil damn thee Covid

One of the threads in the woof of The Blob is that there aren't enough women in science and that girls need some inspiring role models to show that they can so get their heads around the inclined plane, genomics and food engineering . . . and diesel engines, cordless drills, railway signalling and building bridges.

Five years ago I cited zany inventor and engineer Simone Giertz as one of those inspirations: Giertz seemed to have a lot of fun in the struggle to make stuff work. Much less than a year later, I had to report that Giertz had been diagnosed with a brain tumor [called Brian ho ho] but was getting the best treatment for it. Sheesh! It knocks all kind of holes in my more-women-in-science project if the key players are in hospital rather than making video content. Giertz seems to have made a pretty good recovery.

I was disconcerted when my YT feed recently delivered a picture of Giertz on another channel presenting An Update of Dianna. Turns out that Dianna Cowern aka Physics Girl has been whacked by a terrible version of Long Covid [twitter] and is reduced to a wan shadow of her former ebullient self. We've met her before tracking and explaining mysteriously moving desert boulders. And here she is more recently tracking a moving sludge spring. That turns out to be fueled by CO2 which we've met in particularly deadly form at Lake Nyos in Cameroon. Engineers found a solution against that specific event ever repeating. Nobody doubts Cowern's enthusiasm for the Work of explaining the natural world in an evidence based way: with whoomph but without woo. Just after she cut her PBS umbilical and launched as an independent content producer, covid struck her down.

Simone Giertz says it would help her pal's struggle to recover if folks would subscribe and join 9,000 others at Patreon. But really bugger covid.

More women in science

Friday 10 March 2023


Q. Internationalization is a very long word, how do you spell it?
A. Mondelēz! Previously Kraft - previously Blob.

Globalization means that The Market drives every cog. If it's cheaper to make Cadbury's chocolate in Poland, then Mondelēz will, for the shareholders!, sack everyone in Keynesham and employ equivalent operatives in Skarbimierz on the River Oder. So much the better if the local government offers tax-breaks and a brand new shed to assemble the Fruit&Nut. Read the LRB article by James Meek cited in The Blob above: a great polemic.

Well, The Mon is it again with another icon brand, previously associated with duty-free shops the world over and joined at the hip with Switzerland. That would be . . .

The cocoa-bean counters at Mondelēz have decided that it will suit their bottom line better if the classic Δ-shaped confection is stamped out in Slovakia rather than in Berne; where it has been made since Theodor Tobler created his sweet sweet money-spinner in 1908. To stop the debasement of the Swiss flag  and other characteristic iconography, Swiss appellation d'origine contrôlée legislation will require that the suffix ". . . of Switzerland" must go, to be replaced with "established in Switzerland". The distinctive packaging picture of The Matterhorn [incorp the shadowy bear for Berne] must go as that is too too Swiss for something now part-made in Bratislava. ¿Que? isn't the Matterhorn on the Swiss-Italian border? Isn't it really Monte Cervino? Would Mondelēz execs at head office in Chicago have the chutzpah to replace Monte Cervino with the Grand Tetons in Wyoming?  Oblig teton anecdote from Bill Bryson

Don't bother me none. I've eaten Toblerone. Heck, I've bought Toblerone when it was on special in an airport. But my wouldn't miss a beat if Mondelēz decided to chop the bar from its inventory. As these things go, the table of contents is not too complex [no Acesulfame-K etc.]: Sugar, Whole Milk Powder, Cocoa Butter, Cocoa Mass, Honey (3%), Milk Fat, Almonds (1.6%), Emulsifier (Soya Lecithins), Egg White, Flavouring (Vanillin). Just not my cup of tea.

Wednesday 8 March 2023

Reaching back

I haven't been super-proactive on this front but I do believe in saying thanks if someone has done you a good turn - even if it's just their job. One of those links cited an 8min vid about thanking your old high-school teacher. Mine was Mr Wilkinson. Just about 2 months after I wrote about it in 2018, I got an unsolicited message on LinkedIn:

Are you the Bob Scientist who taught Evolution in the Genetics Department in the 1980s?

When I answered in the affirmative, he confessed that he'd been on a real bumpy commercial plane ride in California and realised that he'd never thanked the few people who had made a difference . . . and that I was in that exclusive club. That's memory speaking to make it more dramatic; the actuality was more prosaic: "On a car ride, I realised that there were a few people like you, who had changed my trajectory positively, but I had never thanked for it! I am delighted that the Internet was so efficient at finding you." We to-fro'd about the old days and I shared a few Blobs. Partly because of my talking about evolution and how to think, Mike [let's call him Mike] was now CEO of a small enterprise SME in Pharma. 

Head Office was in Manchester, but there was an office in California and another somewhere in Europe. It sounded like a few people were making a living out of his enterprise. We were going great guns by e-mail and Mike suggested that I might like to fly to Manchester in the summer to act as The Disruptor at one of the company's monthly business and future meetings. I was flattered, of course, but I have a reasonably well-tuned crap-detector and reckoned I could earn a consultant's fee if I went to Manchester a couple of times a year to hang out and give an Outsider's view on their internal certainties. It might grow into a nice little earner, like my foray into pop sci writing for money. At the time, I was two years off  living on my state Old Age Pension of ~€1,000 pcm. One over-nighter in The Maldron Manchester would double my income for that month - and I could loot little jam-servings off the breakfast buffet!

Well friends, my dreams of becoming a roving intellectual on the SME Pharma nickel was still-born. Mike announced that he was flying to the California office the following day and we could firm up details when he returned the following week. It never happened. Some time later I gathered [or maybe fantasized: see above for over-active memory] that Mike had been refused entry by US customs & immigration and had been whooshed back to England without leaving the terminal at SFO! It can happen to the best of us [* like me - see next para] and doesn't have to involve anything nefarious. It surely wasn't my business to pry. The US Visa issues didn't clear up and it seems that Mike's company collapsed - if the CEO cannot visit the US Office (where most of the revenue derives) it could fashion an insurmountable barrier. There certainly wasn't sufficient fat in the company to entertain Disruptors. Mike is now operating as a sole-trader in more or less the same field: you can't bury a good entrepreneur.

[*] For many years you have been able to clear US immigration at Dublin [and Shannon]. In the 00s, I set off to visit BOS with my UK [special relationship] passport. On the previous post-9/11 visit my visaless passport had been okay for travel; but now that privilege only worked if it was a machine readable passport - security theatre kept moving the goal-posts. The INS was perfectly polite about it, but refused me entry and I was escorted out through a side-door to a featureless concrete corridor somewhere in the bowels of Dublin airport. Eventually I opened a one-way door, popped out into the short-stay car-park and went home to re-group and re-book. I'd bought a 3for2 deal of big box Lily O'Brien chocolates in duty free for my several US hosts. The kids were accordingly delighted to see Father Chocolate back home much earlier than expected.

Monday 6 March 2023

The Solenoid of the New Machine

What about the dignity of work? What about a fair distribution of the resources of society? What about Karl Marx: " Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs"? Where did that aspiration go horribly wrong? So many questions and I don't propose answers except in the very limited sense of the construction industry. It cannot be right that, by kneeling on floors all their working days, carpenters' knees are bursa burst by their mid-40s and they have to repurpose their lives for the last 20 years of their career. Ditto block-layers whose lower back pain kicks into cripple mode at about the same age.

We've come a long way in my working life: manual handling courses, knee-pads, gloves, safety visors, steel-cap boots, hard-hats were none of them fitted-as-standard when 16 y.o. me got my first job on a neighbouring farm. One morning, the farmer and his two labourers, went off sow spuds [a three-person, one tractor job] down on the field by the river. Rather than leave me completely idle, Mr Nichols the farmer handed me a chain-saw and invited me to saw a fallen beech tree into fire wood. In short order, as I cut through the recumbent trunk, the tree settled, seizing the saw in a vice-like grip. After half an hour ineffectually trying to release the saw, I got on my bike and cycled home for lunch. After lunch I was promoted to sitting on the back of the tractor, sowing spuds, while one of the two Effectives did something useful round the farm yard. There was no PPE available, or even considered, for the chain-saw!

What about Construction!? I was coming to that! In my day, construction was a hazardous industry. People were brained by falling spanners; or fell off the scaffolding; or wrenched their back lifting 4in solids - one in each meaty hand. The construction industry would like to cast these wretched disabled workers aside and replace them with younger models on a starting wage. Because modern construction is more about profit for investors and owners and less about worker safety and a durable product for the client. Celtic Tiger? Pyrite! Priory Hall! Planning!

My ears have just galloped through SAM: One Robot, a Dozen Engineers, and the Race to Revolutionize the Way We Build By Jonathan Waldman; published by Simon & Schuster. SAM is a report in the lineage of The Soul of the New Machine [1981], in which Tracy Kidder told the story of the development, by Data General, of a new line of computers to go head-to-head with VAX/VMS machines produced by Digital Equipment Corporation. I was in graduate school just down the road in Boston when Kidder's book came out. It was brilliant as it set out to make the struggles and challenges of engineers [folks like me but smarter and better with their hands] into the stuff of legends. One of the tensions in the book is the interaction surface between the software engineers writing code and the hardware engineers brandishing soldering irons and tin-snips. The head of the project was Tom West, whose daughter <small world alert> is Jessamyn West the owner of Metafilter where I hang out for a large fraction of my para-social life. 

Watch SAM at work; while not broken down.

A soul solenoid is a device which converts electrical energy into mechanical work. The device of which we treat - SAM = Semi Automated Mason - lays bricks. You might think that this task would be amenable to automation: uniform material [bricks and mortar] which require repetitive, precise actions to achieve the desired product: walls. And that's true IF your wall is built in a warehouse or parking-lot and doesn't have windows, doors or corners. A key issue is the semi-automated: SAM can pick up a brick with its Stäubli robot arm, butter two sides with mortar and squidge it up against the last brick in the wall - rinse, repeat. In the artificial work-site of a parking lot, SAM can lay 2,000 bricks in a working day, without breaking sweat, dropping a brick or falling off the scaffolding. But it needs a real mason to wipe its cracks so that the pointing will pass muster when the foreman or architect comes to inspect the work. Absent corners and openings, on the straight-run bits of the job, SAM can power through course after course so long as bricks and mortar are supplied. It saves the heavy lift aspects of the masons labour [which is great for the human back]; and arguably lays bricks with more precision. 

SAM, the book, reads like a thriller. The development company, keeping a dozen engineers on salary, has a ferocious burn rate and needs to send prototypes out on actual jobs to get some profile and publicity in the industry. The poor machine has hardware and software problems and the bugs can only be ironed out as they manifest. It wouldn't be cutting edge if SAM worked straight off the drawing board and out of the box. The book ends with the company facing an uncertain future but having pioneered the field of construction robotics in actual terms rather than merely by adopting an inspirational name. 

Construction Robotics still has a website and is selling product. But it's marketing much more on MULE (Material Unit Lift Enhancer) than on SAM. MULE keeps it simple, stupid by concentrating on lifting blocks rather than adding the complexity of buttering them with mortar. The Masons' Union is presumably delighted.

Sunday 5 March 2023


Quite miscellaneous

Friday 3 March 2023

Sweets for my sweet

I was going on [and on] about Werther's Candies the other day, partly because they market a sugar-free version - for some definitions of sugar - of which the ingredients are.

  • Isomalt, Acesulfame-K, Butter (Milk) (7.9%), Cream (Milk) (7%), Salt, Flavouring, Emulsifier: Soya Lecithin  

I ranted on [and on] about the isomalt but short-changed y'all on the more frighty-sounding Acesulfame-K. That was not least because, until last week, I'd never 'eard of it. I thought I was down with the artificial sweeteners: cyclamates, saccharine, aspartame but food science continues to develop as ingredients are found to be harmful or taste funny or cost too much.

Saccharine was famously discovered by accident in 1879, by Constantin Fahlberg, who was working in a coal-tar laboratory at Johns Hopkins U and neglected to wash his hands after the day's work. At home he noticed his fingers tasted sweet, assumed it was from the ortho-benzoic sulfimide on which he'd been working, and the rest is history. Fahlberg managed to make a fortune from his discovery. His boss at JHU Ira Remsen [looking sulky and beard-challenged R] was left to chew his beard in frustration about being cut out from the credit of discovering the sweet sweet gold-mine.

Bizarrely - who teaches chemists basic lab safety? - Acesulfame-K was also discovered by a hand-hygiene failure; this time in a lab at Hoechst AG in 1967. While working in the lab, Karl Clauss, licked his digit to turn over a sheet of paper and discovered that (5,6-dimethyl-1,2,3-oxathiazin-4(3H)-one 2,2-dioxide) is sweet to the taste. Being chemists they tricked about with the formula and production protocol to create the potassium salt of 6-methyl-2,2-dioxo-2H-1,2λ6,3-oxathiazin-4-olate aka Acesulfame-K which is about half as sweet at saccharine and, like aspartame, about 200x sweeter w/w than sucrose. It's also more heat-stable than aspartame, which makes it the preferred in the Werther's factory in Halle because their butter candies are boiled to buggery to create that sweet sweet taste. You may be sure that there are other compounds to be discovered which neatly fit into the sweet receptors on the human tongue . . . but are not carcinogenic, riotously expensive or salmon pink in colour.

Wednesday 1 March 2023

Putting your affairs in order

That above would be the eight still-with-itus who were selected in 2018 by the Royal Irish Academy RIA to represent 21stC Irish Women in Science because they had recently secured a European Research Council ERC Starter Grant. In all of Ireland, in all the world, the RIA couldn't discover a woman capable fo painting such a group portrait; so they gave the contract to Blaise Smith.  Aoife McLysaght is identified by the arrow and I was up in Dublin recently for her professorial Inaugural Lecture in our Alma Mater TCD. I've outlined McLysaght's career on The Blob. Getting your Professorial "Chair" is a big deal. As well as doing excellent research [attracting a boodle of cash to the University] and teaching, you will have had to win some prestigious external awards [like the ERC grant] and served time on the boring-but-necessary administrative tasks like Head of Department, Registrar or the Dean of Insomnia. 

The Event turned out to be a  great networking event. I was able to introduce two young scientists of my acquaintance whose overlapping fields of interest could use a synergistic boost. I got to chat with Simone George my favorite autodidact of science and fight over the canapés with a bunch of people whom I hadn't seen in the present century but who were there when I was giving McLysaght her start in molecular evolution / bioinformatics 25 years ago. And of course it was nice to be acknowledged by name during the lecture for creating the opportunity. Saying thanks for those little nudges in your career path is important - it tidies up the loose ends.

So it was perhaps appropriate that on the bus up to town I was listening to The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson with Jane Magnusson read by Juliet Stevenson. It was on the NYT best-seller list for weeks in 2018. It's hard to see why because it's quite opinionated and weak on evidence and addresses a topic [end of life] which many people pretend isn't going to happen . . . to them. I may have missed something. I am aware that I missed a chunk in the middle of the book because I slumped into a drooling sleep some time after Arklow and didn't wake up until Kilmacanogue.  The diktats advice from Grandma Magnusson is that a) you can't take your stuff with you b) chances are none of your descendants will have the same, or any, associations with any of it c) as a courtesy to them, you should give, or dump almost all of it while you are still capable of making decisions and hauling a bag of papers to the shredder.

Of course, framed like that, I cannot but agree. But too often the author slips from advice and suggestions into prescriptive rules that can or should be universally implemented. I have for example been inconsistent about keeping birthday cards. Some Junes they have finished up in an envelope with the year written on the outside; other times they've got lost in the clutter of LIDL catalogues and electricity bills; after at least one birthday I was feeling salty enough to dump them all in the trash (when nobody was looking). As my cards & papers are as patchy and random as the Sibylline Books, an argument could be made that a clean sweep (into a bonfire) is the simplest solution.

But I'll tell ya one thing. In 2018, we again did triage on the books which, lacking shelf-space in the relative dry of our heated home, had been relegated to shelves in one of the sheds. Two years ago, these were again sorted and some went into Tesco-crates marked "Bob to keep, 2021".  I just checked on those and they are positively furry; so I can't love them that much, eh?