Wednesday 31 May 2023

Mixed greens

Sumer is icumen in lhude sing cuccu . . . we did indeed welcome the 2023 cuckoo on 5th of May - the same day as the swallows returned from Africa. The other flag for Summer is fresh garden veggies. Last year was a bust as far as gardening went down. I started my saved beans ?too early? and they all died and I lacked the resilience to start all over later in the Spring. Dau.II has made all the running this year "not because I like gardening, but because I like a lot of salad". On Sunday 21st, she took a big bowl and the kitchen scissors and clipped what was readily available. The picture does not include a mountain of mixed lettuce and other salad leaves.

Lest you Ukrainian folks complain that you don't know what I'm talking about: Basil Ocimum basilicum; Chives Allium schoenoprasum; Coriander Coriandrum sativum; Dill Anethum graveolens; Marjoram Origanum majorana; Mint Mentha spp.; Oregano Origanum vulgare; Parsley Petroselinum crispum; Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis; Tarragon Artemisia dracunculus; Thyme Thymus vulgaris

When I was growing up "salad" was sad lettuce and crisp 'transportable' tomatoes; with an optional vile off-white acidic faux-mayonnaise called salad cream. One of the transformative events of my very early 20s was setting out to make our own mayonnaise . . . with a whisk. It was bloody marvellous. And the same could be said for my first encounter with tarragon. Pretty much every day now we get fresh picked greens of many different species. A whole plate of, say, raw spearmint might be a challenge but a tuthree leaves give a lift >!surprise!< to any salad. And a good mix of anything does mighty things for the gut microbiome!

Monday 29 May 2023

Her lovely horse

For a few months in 2016, we had "Young Bolivar" aka A Good Pair of Hands staying /WWOOFing with us learning English. His last project was building a mighty, and mighty handy, woodshed at the bottom of the yard. We measured up and decided that for the desired design we'd need N=130 lengths of western red cedar Thuja plicata to clad the walls. Jim Davis in Graigcullen didn't cut to length and threw in a few extra planks for luck, so we were left with a big stack of surplus planks not to mention many offcuts of different lengths from 150mm to 900mm in length. Heck'n'jiminy that's seven (7) years ago! The cedar planks have been stacked at the back of the woodshed all that time, quietly drying out some more.

This Spring Dau.II would have nothing but that we build a tree-house for her niblings down in our sustainable micro-forest. That's as well as the refurbed garden seat. And, because cedar is naturally pest-resistant and because it was already on site, we robbed the stack in the woodshed to fabricate the base of the tree house. 

The latest QALY adjustment here is planting salad and other veg for home consumption. But ppl can't live by bread alone and the democratic majority has voted for The Return of The Sweet-pea Lathyrus odoratus to grace the front of the house.In years past I have constructed functional outdoor beds for either side of the front door. But the pallet-wood aesthetic is sooo yesterday and when these planters stand directly on the ground they become a residential hotel for slugs, snails and ants; for which the democratic majority has little tolerance. Furthermore, pallet-wood definitely doesn't last forever when it is permanently butted up against wet soil. Accordingly, I pulled out all the longer [800-950mm] cedar off-cuts and paired them off to those of equal length and then started making jardinières / window-boxes / Blumenkastenpflanzer. I also sourced 4x ash logs from the wood-pile that were close enough to 30cm tall. 

Another option is to add legs to the boxes which make them a lot lighter and more convenient to move around. But the ash-logs are prolly better for the sweet-peas because that allows the planters to get up close to the wall all the better to string-up the peas. Yes, yes, I know it's possible to have two vertical legs at the back and stabilizing splayed legs in the front - speak to my carpenter. The problem with four legged furniture is that unless the floor is actually flat it is a royal PITA to get all four legs touching base and sharing the weight equally. You can see my third iteration in the foreground [L]. Notwithstanding George Orwell's “Four legs good, two legs better! All Animals Are Equal. But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.” In this case three legs is best of all. The top may not be spirit-level flat, but all three legs must be in contact with the ground and doing an equal amount of the work. That's why milking-stools have three legs.

Sharing is caring! It seems invidious to construct such lovely functional outside furniture and become all hoarder about it. The Girl Who Invented Herself [who prev] is WFH really hard while juggling her caring commitments. The [only?] good thing about WFH is that the inevitable 'unproductive' office time is not spent waiting for a meeting in your cubical or chatting at the water-cooler. TGWIH, by contrast, can nip out into her own garden for a bit of dead-heading or weeding as the sea-mist rolls in. The lawn is out to contract mowers but the rest is a mix of raised beds and jardinières containing a striking array of plants shewing off their reproductive parts. In her younger days, she was mad about the nags and spent a few years shovelling shit for a pittance and meagre board before she came to her senses. It turned out that, like Jack Woltz, we have had a spare horse's head about the place since Dau.I and Dau.II dragooned their HomEd pals [and associated parents] into a perf of Cinderella at the village hall. Said head and a plywood cut-out wheel painted silver had been screwed to a baulk of timber to conjure the arrival of cinders at The Ball with his glass slippers. All it took was a hank of straw stapled to the other end et voilà - cheval! My ♩ove♩y horse, indeed.

Friday 26 May 2023

Flora de Yola

It's been months since I schlepped 40km SE on a Tuesday evening to do Wexford Science Café. It's so easy to get slumped on a sofa after tea. The May meeting, however, billed Paul Green from Ballycullane who has recently published (2022) his compendious Flora of County Wexford. Is there a better way to display the book than next of a clump of cowslips Bainne bó bleachtáin Primula veris in our front yard? eeee but I do love an expert - they can be so obsessive: and so, reader, I went.

I came away with some insight into what it takes to record all the plants in a given area. And 'area' is fractal; you can like Louis Agassiz get up close and personal with all the beetles in your back yard or you can go global like Phoebe Snetsinger clocking off 8,300 different birds before she died in a car-wreck in Madagascar. Green has split the difference: his checklist is the 2,558 monads of Co Wexford. That's larger than the official 2,367 km2 area of the county because of the fringe of monads shared across the county borrrder.  A monad is any 100 hectare 1km x 1km square on the official Ordnance Survey grid which maps the county.  Naturalists also respect tetrads [a block of 4 monads] and hectads [a 10km x 10km region]. The whole island is overlain with a grid of 25 lettered 100km x 100km squares; most of Wexford being in squares S and T. 

Except on the open heath and moorland of the Blackstairs, pretty much every monad in Wexford is traversed by a public road. This is of great benefit to folks whose task involves checking off data on a clip-board containing a species list. Farmers, in general, are hostile suspicious about The Man checking up on their business especially if their own paperwork is perhaps sketchy. This introduces a bias: plants which like gateways and roadside verges are just more likely to be recorded than those which hug river-banks or thrive in the middle of pastures - it's the access innit?

So there I waszzzzz paying attention to the war stories of botanists in search of red-list rarities, when up pops a picture of a small Church of Ireland and its yard - they all look alike but this one was tinkling bells of family familiarity. It turns out that my grandfather's final resting place in Saltmills is the Go To place for orchids especially the green-winged one Anacamptis morio. The botanists have begged the parish not to mow the churchyard in May - when this orchid flowers and sets seed - but the parish is on autopilot for keeping the grass trim - protestants gonna protestant. Heisenberg's observer effect whereby the act of recording something affects its existence should encourage botanists to observe but not intercede but it's right difficult to let nature take its selective course. I gather that some patches of rare plants are reseeded occasionally from seed-banks in the National Botanic Gardens Garraithe Náisiúnta na Lus in Glasnevin. But I don't have a dog in that fight.

There are 850 different species of flowering plant in Ireland. Wexford, like most Irish counties, I guess, sports about 150 species per monad. Obviously, some species will be omnipresent while others will be clinging by their sepals in only one place. Linnaeus decided that the easiest way to definitively ID plant species was by considering the details of their reproductive parts. But flowering may happen at pretty much any [species-specific] time of the year except dead winter. Accordingly, a full survey requires visits in at least Spring, Summer and Fall if not every month. But each monad will occupy the recording angel for 1 to 3 hours, and they must go cross-eyed with the effort after a while. At two monads a day, six days a week, 40 weeks a year, it will take 5½ years to cover each location once. And who pays for petrol, let alone botanist-time? All told such a project, done properly, might cost €500,000 in billable hours and expenses. There is a reason why such Flora projects - which generate data essential to documenting the ecological status quo and thus getting a handle on The Future in a climate changing world - have been traditionally carried out pro bono mundo by vicars who have little to do between Sundays and elders who keep active in body by being engaged in mind.

It is notable that Wexford is, botanically, the best covered County on the island. The vast majority of the work has been carried out by Paul Green and his comrade Paula O'Meara neither of whom are inclined to let mere weather rain upon their parade of data. Hats on! - another lashing shower coming in from the West. Paul Green used to blog about his Wexford project. If there is a second edition of this Flora of County Wexford could someone take a leaf out of Geoffrey Grigson's An Englishman's Flora [bloboprev] and include the Irish names? There are only 800 species on the list! You may start here.

Wednesday 24 May 2023

performative biodiversity

Extinction is forever. Several iconic flowers of the Irish landscape are on the red list: clinging on by their sepals as more land is developed for intensive agriculture, hotels, offices and shopping malls. Because capitalism reasons, it seems impossible to get, like, affordable homes built in the country - but that's a rant for another day.

Monday 22nd May 2023 was designated International Day for Biological Diversity by the UN and RTE put out a piece congratulating Trinity College for the wild-flower micro-meadow at their Front Gate. The statues of protestant icons Burke and Goldsmith used to gaze out at the riff-raff over close cropped lawn mowed to within an inch of its life. In July 2020, the grass was dug up and sown with "meadow lawn turf that included 25 types of native Irish wildflower". I can tell you that it looks well scruffy because wild flowers are but small pin-pricks of colour and scent - just enough to attract the insects which will pollinate them. Cultivated flowers, by contrast, are blowsy in yer face harlots. TCD is making the argument that this biodiversity transition is not for people but for the invertebrates - both the visible busy pollinators and the lads scratching a living under the surface. 

It's not TCD's first such venture. When I worked there in the 00s, a tree-scattered raised bank in the car-park in College Park adjacent to the rugger-pitch was let run wild and shaggy. That area was even smaller than the Goldsmith/Burke lawn but afaik it was just left unkempt and the wildflowers elbowed their way in. It was super convenient for Botany 101 students to use quadrats and transects to calibrate the extent of species diversity. Like I did in Blean Wood as a teenager 50 years ago. 

And South Dublin Co Co SDCC have a Pollinator Action Plan 2021-2025 which seems to bee (see what I did there?) on the right track. They have embraced Long Flowering Meadows which are only cut once a year. Have to hope that there isn't an uptick in cases of Lyme disease [tick-borne Borreliosis] among the walking public. We, for sure, had to scan our kids every evening after they'd been out in the hayfields. And that was before Lyme disease was a thing in Ireland. SDCC would rather folks cavort in the much smaller acreage maintained as Short Flowering [5 cuts a year] Meadows.

A couple of weeks ago I picked up some back-issues of Irish Botanical News the organ of the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland BSBI. An article therein was on message: The case against 'wildflower' seed mixtures - position paper No. 1. Doogue et al. pp Dublin Naturalists' Field Club DNFC.  Ir.Bot.News 32 (March 2022) pp. 32-44. They are correctly scathing about the effects of the wildflower-meadow-seed-packaging-industry. They include a picture of a, frankly gorgeous, non-native wild-flower road-verge at Portrane Co Dublin. Noting that the assemblage is an impossible pastiche of plants from very different ecological niches whose common feature is that they have profuse colorful inflorescences:

You may be assured that all these plants will be dead over-winter and any seed which is set will struggle through the thatch next spring. In a few years, almost all these introduced species will have failed the natural selection test. Whoever bought and distributed the bonanza will have to return to Sandro Cafolla [who prev] for more 'product'. Better, cheaper, to buy a scythe and mow later . . . and in patches. Better still to leave the verge alone and give the airspace to prickly poppy Roemeria argemone which used to be locally abundant but is now fighting for its life.

In their position paper the DNFC makes a few cogent points:

  • Native to Ireland is nowhere near good enough! Ecotypes of the same species will have different flowering times; be adapted to different habitats; be resistant to local pests. Seed from Donegal may be at nothing in Waterford.
  • Native seeds work on the Field of Dreams principle: if god builds it [the correct habitat] the flowers will come.
  • Pollinators are fussy. Not all 'wild flowers' will be to the taste of locally abundant insects.
  • Let's hear it for dull native plants with inconspicuous flowers: gardens are the place for in yer face.
  • wildflowers build up a close mutually beneficial relationship with the darkness below ground - especially fungi and microbes. Wildflower seed packets leave all that behind on the packing-room floor.
DNFC: In conclusion, we are of the view that the distribution of 'wildflower' seed mixtures will nt enhance Ireland's natural biodiversity, it is damaging to what remains and will divert attention and funding from addressing the underlying causes of the ongoing destruction of our flora and fauna. Quite!

Monday 22 May 2023

Wayfarers return

Every year this century, The Wayfarers hiking club has organized a day-long up-and-down hike in the Blackstairs. We first heard about this annual event in May when there seemed to be A Lot of folks yomping and chattering down the lane past our yard. The following year, we tapped a 25 lt drum of spring water and left in on a crate out in the lane, in case someone was parching up. A tuthree years after that the weather was forecast to be super hot and dry. The Wayfarers contacted us and asked if they could be sure that water was available at our nearly half-way house because otherwise they'd make other arrangements for [emergency] re-hydration. My answer was "water is free, water will be available, even if we are not" and it was so.

Over the subsequent years we developed a long-distance relationship: me sending a message to say water would be; they being effusive with thanks. In 2007, we finally installed a stand-pipe in the yard near the front gate. Not just for random walkers you understand: sheep need water too. Recently, for a jape, I've been making a slab of flapjacks and setting out some chairs to make the water-stop more engaging. Sitting in a chair makes it easier to deal with blisters and who doesn't like a flapjack? 2019 was notable because someone left us a thank-you note and €2.50 appeared in the empty biscuit tin. It looked like a turning point in the profitability for Bob's Bix and Bevvies plc. But Coronarama put the kibosh on those dreams, because The Wayfarers cancelled their walk in 2020, 2021 and 2022. Y'have to respeck such tenacious concern for their members and the stewards of the event because, by a year ago, most other public expression of Covid measures had been thrown out the national window.

Whatevs, The Blackstairs Challenge was back on Sat 20th May 2023 and I contacted Wayfarers a month out to promise water. I was perversely looking forward to the event because my engagement was truly peripheral - the walkers were committing [or aspiring] to trek 30+km up hill and down vale while I could be sofa-bound. The day before I 

  • made two (2!) slabs of flapjacks - one with a hint of ginger to spice it up a bit
  • put out a table and a miscellaneous collection of seats
  • cleared up the corner near the tap

Up betimes on Der Tag, I flung open the gate; hammered in my "<W-A-T-E-R<" fingerpost; and waited for the horde. The Off in Killanure is between 0730 and 0830. As expected from previous years the first, excessively fit lycra-clad bodies trotted past the gate at ~0930. They were not the type to pause for water. Over the next 3 hours several dozen happy hikers turned in at the gate, and set off south a few minutes later "refreshed".  Everyone had to be through the next checkpoint before 1300 hrs, so it puts a finite window on the event as far as we are concerned.

Because you can never have enough signage, I tried to make clear what was in the biscuit tin. Somewhat to my chagrin, when we tidied up before lunch the tin was not empty. It had lost its biscuits but acquired €11.20! BB&B plc. may be a runner after all. To my utter chagrin, in the early afternoon there was a knock at the door and two Wayfarer stewards presented me with a bottle of Jameson. That was thoughtful and I accepted gracefully. These things shouldn't be thought of as transactional. Small kindnesses are the lubricant which keeps society trundling along. The next day I sent a note: "Thanks for the bottle of Jameson! It's a bit like the Marriage at Cana: turning uisce into uisce beatha. I know that you know that you don't have to do that. I won't drink it all at once. " Till next year, walking people!

Sunday 21 May 2023

washoe the talking chimp

wash wash Washoe [prev]

Friday 19 May 2023

A simple task

Simplicity is prerequisite for reliability.
Edsger W. Dijkstra

Like M. Jourdain in Molière's le bourgeois gentilhomme who is surprised to find he's been speaking prose for the last 40 years, I discovered I've been using simple machines all my life without realising that was A Thing. Actually, simple machines have been A Thing since Archimedes offered to move the world with one. A machine is a tool which uses mechanical advantage [technical term!] to make it easier for us the move stuff. The Greeks knew five such objects: 

  • the wheel and its axle; 
  • the screw; 
  • the wedge; 
  • the lever; 
  • the pulley. 

In the 1590s, Flemish engineer Simon Stevin added a 6th - the inclined plane - [prev rant] although that is a sort of stationary wedge.

Over the last tuthree years of splitting firewood, I've been making pairs of my own wedges by making an oblique cut in a straight-grained baulk of timber maybe 500mm long [examples R with club hammer for scale). The whole point of simple machines is to make something other than human sinew and muscle do the work. The other solution is to press animals - principally asses Equus asinus and horses Equus caballus but in other times and places oxen Bos taurus; buffalo Bubalis bubalis; camels Camelus dromedarius; and llamas Lama glama - into service. 

Meanwhile back in the wood . . . You can leave wedges in a check / crack / split overnight to work their mechanical advantage. Impatient folks may choose to whack at a lump of wood until an accident ensues. This is adjacent to washing dishes: soaking some burned pans in cold water overnight will save a lot of work scraping and cursing; and be better for the pan's surface. Pouring hot soapy water into these pans if often a waste of energy and dish-soap and the soap-soup gets cold surprisingly quick.

But part of the joy of splitting wood is being contemplative and part of that is looking closely at the piece of work to exploit its structural weakness. Look at the picture: judicious tapping with that one-handed club hammer is often good enough to reduce a log to fire-box size. A lot quieter than the damnable chain-saw. I will agree that my wedges are a mort too fat. A longer more acute point does more work although it looks more breakable.

I'll tell ya this for free: my sinews are really not up for the machismo of wearing out an axe or a splitting maul. I have no desire to have my wrist go sproiiing; putting me out of action for weeks.  And FFS use PPE. You only have two eyes and a flying splinter will take one out as soon as look at you: so wear a forester's visor or safety goggles. Last year, bish bash,  two lumps of wood separated from a log under my maul and drove back into my shins: first the right then six weeks later the left. In both cases my trousers were unharmed but the missile raised a chicken egg sized contusion under the cloth which took several weeks and many dressings to dissipate. I guess kevlar chain-saw chaps would be reasonable protection, . . . down there: so I try to remember to wear them. Here's a chap with some thoughts on wedges which split rounds. This fellow makes wooden splitting wedges gluts.

Wednesday 17 May 2023

Jobs for the boys

One of the niblings, a personable young chap in his early 20s, is trying to find his niche. Not everyone decides, at the age of six, to be a librarian, fire-fighter, farmer or pharmacist . . . and sticks with it. I was only a little older when I announced that I would be a "Surgeon-Chaplain in the Marines" OR a ballet-dancer. I can assure you that no part of this career-plan came to bear fruit. We dropped by the other day to hear that he was just wrapping up a course in driving the many sorts of fork-lift that play a part in warehousing The Stuff that sustains the capitalist monster. He's done the safety-video; just needs someone in his network who'll gave him a trial.

The clearing house that pointed him towards the fork-list course also suggested that he might like be processed through a niche-locator service. When they're 22, let alone when they're 6, few have a clue about the job descriptions that appear on other people's CVs let alone what might be a good fit for them personally. You're probably right to be skeptical about whether a one-size-fits-all multiple-choice questionnaire is going to help you to the key insight that will settle your vocation. 

Look at the list [L] generated for those who completed the questionnaire in a particular / peculiar way but have no post-Leaving Certificate [=High School Diploma] quals. As the list is not alphabetical, one can only assume that starts at the best fit at the top. I suppose, for some meanings of plausible, it's a small jump from farrier (specialist in equine hoof-care) to hairdresser (specialist in human head grooming)  - clue: hooves and hair are both made of keratin??  But there's the obvious safety net because, if there are no vacancies in keratin-trimming, the nibling can always try Prison Officer, Slater or Forestry which obviously require similar  predispositions and skills??!? Farrier, Jockey and Riding Instructor all need The Nags, so there was probably a Q whose import was They Shoot Horses Don't They?

Now here's a job which any of us could have a try at: "Designer of vocational questionnaires". Hint: random number generator might be useful.

Monday 15 May 2023


My youtube feed is bloody woeful; same ould same ould shite that I might have clicked-in-error months ago. What I really want is a random selection of peculiarities that I've never 'eard of. I have been to The History Guy - a USian feller with a bow-tie and clear diction - before but not this year, so I was interested to look-see what he had to say about Johnson Atoll a US government owned "bird-sanctuary" and weapons-testing facility in the middle of the Pacific. As well as poorly fore-thought, poorly controlled, nuclear debacles [Blue Gill Prime 25 June 1962], the site was also used for bio-weapons testing.

Project SHAD Shipboard Hazard and Defense investigated the dispersal of biological agents about the same size - 1-5μm -  as, say Bacillus anthracis a pathogen which we've encountered before on Gruinard Anthrax Island. The first step is to investigate the best way of dispersing / targeting such an agent so that it rains down on the Soviets [Bad Guys R] while minimizing collateral damage to USMC / USN personnel [White hats]. It was as if the multiple own goals (which proved that the wind is fickle mistress) in WWI had never happened. 

The apple falleth not far from the tree! The mad boffins lit upon Bacillus globigii which is close enough [exactly the same 2μm size anyway] to B. anthracis and has the advantage of forming black colonies when spread on Petri dishes. The central conceit of SHAD was to expose USN ships to "Agent BG" delivered in a variety of SciFi vehicles and then swap down the surfaces afterwards to see how far and fast the bacteria had travelled. "In Project SHAD, B. globigii was one of the simulants for biological warfare agents. It was used to determine characteristics such as the behavior of biological aerosols such as downwind travel, dispersion, penetration, and the tenacity of its presence after washing equipment" Bacillus globigii is now known as B. atrophaeus but some [lumpers!] taxonomists think it squeezes nicely in the spectrum of Bacillus subtilis - a genetic and bio-fermentation work-horse which we've met before.

If this sounds suspiciously close to the USN raining Serratia marcescens down on San Francisco in Operation Sea-Spray, that's because it was the same operatives ringing the changes on the bacteriological colour spectrum. That exposure turned out to be fatal to at least one US citizen who didn't sign an informed consent form! Almost all the participants in the SHAD shenanigans were also oblivious to the fact that they were guinea-pigs in an experiment. The biowarfare folks, seemed to have given "Agent BG" a GRAS [generally recognised as safe] designation without, like, actually carrying out some studies to test that assumption. And it turned out that this blasé certainty was quite unjustified although it took 30 years for the Feds to admit this. Most healthy adults will successfully resist the assault - so there wasn't a rush to the infirmary aboard the ships involved in SHAD - but Bacillus globigii has been identified in infections from prostheses and catheters as well as ingested food. The black colonies of B. globigii is not the Black Death but it's not completely harmless either.

Sunday 14 May 2023

More misc maio

Verrry miscellaneous

Friday 12 May 2023

Arma Virumque

Wot, Latin? Pretentious gittery alert! Last November, much delayed by Coronarama, we rocked up to þe olde family pile in the Midlands to hang out with the descendants of my GtGrandfather. It was not unpleasant to meet the second cousins, all the first cousins - my father's generation - being dead. There were, of course, children of my generation and a few of them had children at foot. Gdau.I and Gdau.II's 4th cousins. Unless folks live in the same village forever, it is quite rare to have anything to do with 4th cousins. The genetic dilution is such that they have as much likelihood of sharing a Mendelian genetic trait as any rando on the dance-floor . . . unless you've emigrated to Nepal - for the mountain air, like.

Regrettably, one or more of this cousinage had spent too much time on the dance-floor with randos because The Beloved and I both copped a 'rona, felt crap for a week, and took about 4 months recovering from the assault. In one part of the stately 1710 family pile, þe olde family crest was carved into weathered sandstone: paly of eight,  gules  and  arg ; a lion, rampant, or, holding a snake in its paw. I've known this forever because the downstairs jacks in my parent's home had a framed copy of the said arms. Owning such a picture in that location was a nice balance of pretentiousness and ironic comment on the whole ancestry nonsense.

It set me to tumbling back 60 40 [corrected after comment] years to when The Boy was in primary school in suburban Boston. His class was requested and required, as part of a history and heraldry project, to draw a picture of a coat of arms. Perhaps because his bestie at the time was 'hispanic', The Boy elected to draw the Escudo Nacional de México which depicts "a golden eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus devouring a rattlesnake" . . . something something Aztec legend about the foundation of their core city. I have a vague memory of discussing the home-work project and quite possibly mentioned our own contribution to heraldic nonsense - perhaps México was easier to talk about in class?

Whatevs, the picture generated [see L] became part of [nuclear] family lore and has survived multiple rounds of house-moving triage through the next 6 decades. Its survival is partly attributed to artistic merit but partly to the ironic title added by The Boy's father "Penguin being tickled by french loaf". AITA? Yes!


Wednesday 10 May 2023

Skunk Works

 Nope, not Mephitis mephitis the American skunk today, folks. Today we treat rather of the post-WWII aerospace industry as jewelled by Lockheed Corporation, before its 1995 merger to become today's Lockheed-Martin behemoth. In 1933, Lockheed employed a star engineer called Kelly Johnson fresh out of college. This guy had an uncanny feeling for aeronautics: he could intuit what normal folks had to get out their slide-rules to calculate. In WWII, his team developed the P-38 Lightning and USA's first jet fighter the P-80 Shooting Star.

But he is most well-known for ring-fencing a chunk of Lockheed equity in an autonomous entity, Advanced Development Projects, for creating super secret super planes for The Feds. ADP became known affectionately as The Skunk Works. Johnson was not an empath and he took no prisoners but if you could deliver, he'd back you and pay top dollar to keep you. Skunk Works pushed the envelope to create airplanes which were far beyond the technical capabilities of their aerospace competitors. More importantly, their U-2 spy plane and SR-71 almost rocket Mach 3 Blackbird were far beyond the reach of Soviet counter-measures.

Kelly Johnson retired in 1975 and handed over the reins to Ben Rich who had better people schools and kept producing sky-breaking novel planes until the end of The Cold War. I'm getting most of my info from his memoir Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed [1994] which I've just coursed through as a book-book. Reminds me of why they are called page-turners. In singing the praises of Lockheed's products, you might be tempted to think "he would say that, wouldn't he?" but the narrative is leavened with numerous Other Voices interludes where some of the dramatis personnae - pilots, engineers, politicians, air-force brass - get to add their 2c perspectives.

In the Rich years, Skunk Works most notably produced the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter, which was effectively invisible to radar [R]. The idea developed when one of the Lockheed engineers read and understood a paper by Пётр Я́ковлевич Уфи́мцев a Soviet engineer: Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction. Insofar as I paid attention to boy things in the 1980s, I was super skeptical about a plane made out of polygons would return no signal to radar. But it was so: F-117s were famous for not being shot down.

Towards the end of the book Rich refers to irresponsible outlets in Western Europe for supplying weapons to small hostile countries. In the same paragraph he talks about tremendous losses to Soviet helicopters from shoulder-held Stinger missiles supplied by our own CIA. What is sauce for the Red goose is clearly not sauce for the Yankee gander. Where do people get off with their unconsidered certainties of being in the right??

In his memoir, Rich sets out his stall that Skunk Works was successful because it was not trammeled by paper-work. In those early days, everyone was believed to be on the same page - fighting them Reds - so the USAF would trust Lockheed - and other defense contractors - to deliver what they said they'd create . . . in budget . . . without (unpatriotic) feathering shareholders nests on tax-payer dollars. Proposals, tenders and procurement contracts were short and on message. In one anecdote Ben Rich, in retirement, goes to visit the USS "Old Ironsides" Constitution (launched 1797) in Boston Harbor. The old lady was undergoing a paint job and the site engineer admitted that 200 pages of documentation were required to make this happen. Rich pointed to a glass case displaying the original contract to build the whole damn ship . . . three copperplate pages! 

Another key to Skunk Works success was the physical proximity of the engineers and draughtsmen [yup mostly men) with the machinists, welders, electricians and tool-setters on the shop-floor. If things didn't work / fit, the engineers could immediately go back to the drawing board. When each good pair of hands is respected and heard, everyone buys into the Project and mistakes are less like to fall between domains. Good book, recommend.

Monday 8 May 2023


I've had a quite a bit to say about 23andme, not least because a very early hire was a graduate of TCD Genetics Dept, my alma mater. 23andMe may be original and best, but there is now a long list of other international corps which will analyse DNA from [cells in] your spittle and find a raft of rellies. I was tempted to submit when I had €100 to spare and thought it would be a bit of a jape. I'm glad I didn't, because like the spoken word and the sped arrow, you can't put the genii your DNA back in the box once you've thrown it out on the wind. 

Richard Atkinson had no such qualms, or managed to choke them down, it he had. He worked in the book-trade as an editor and publisher and felt adrift on hearing the news that his line and lineage would stop with him. At about the same time, he acquired a steamer-trunk full of family papers dating back to the 1700s. Shocked! 'e was; shocked! to twig that his ancestor and namesake, Richard Atkinson, was a slave-holding sugar-planter in Jamaica in the 1780s and 1790s. This realisation was rapidly followed by the news that his ancestors had, like George Washington his US contemporary, been shagging their property and there was a whole line [maybe 7,000 people] of black cousins. I mention this at the head of the post to acknowledge and park the murk; because nobody should beat themselves up for the sins of their parents, let alone more distant progenitors.

The original Rcd. Atkinson was a small farmer and tanner from Cumbria, who made his money work for him, moved to London and parlayed his assets into a fabulous fortune. He moved in the innermost circles of political power, knew ministers and fixers and was able to secure lucrative government contracts to supply matériel [rum, biscuit, horses, salt-beef, candles] to the British army during the American War of Independence. Along the way he acquired a controlling interest in a tuthree sugar plantations in Jamaica . . . with the attendant "personnel". 

The present Richard Atkinson spent ten years in county archives and family vaults reading reading reading letters, account books, certificates and wills and eventually wrote his first book Mr Atkinson's Rum Contract: The Story of a Tangled Inheritance, published in 2021. Leaving aside the author's hand-wringing, it's a really interesting insight into how the world turned 250 years ago. History, as she is taught, is a tired re-churning of the same old sources - many of which are the books of previous historians. Edmund Burke was eloquent, Charles James Fox was fat, William Pitt the Younger was young - Prime Minister at 24! Whereas Richard "Rum" Atkinson doesn't even merit an entry in Wikipedia. Battles and Generals fill the pages of Encyclopedia Britannica but nobody knows who ran the commissariat that allowed those generals to win those battles.

Mr Atkinson's Rum Contract redresses that imbalance and brings a rich seam of unpublished papers to see the light of day and, as you'd hope and expect from a book-reader and editor, the result is a well organised narrative with a cast of interesting characters. Short reading by author. Generally good fun; pity about the slavery!

Friday 5 May 2023

Every cat counts

 counts is counted. Although I was alive then, I effectively missed the 80s: Madonna, Calvin & Hobbes all passed me by because I was looking at cats, lots of them, with a view to understanding their genetic and geographic distribution. I didn't do a very good job of it; having been oblivious to the presence of Viking cats on the Azores, for one example. When I got my first proper job in NE England, I told the hiring committee that intended to extend my vital research documenting cat coat colours to studying plumage variants of Columba livia the feral pigeon. My plan for that was to take photos of pigeon flocks in parks and squares and count how many were black, red, barred and white spotted. I bought a Nikon SLR camera with a modestly long telephoto lens and read the literature on pigeon genetics - starting with Charles Darwin, who hung out with pigeon fanciers. Several months later, I wrote up my findings and submitted the manuscript to Ibis, the premier ornithological journal. It was quick rejected and I lacked the resilience and ambition to revise it and re-submit: my central failing as a scientist was lack of finish. The reason I chose a SLR snap-shot methodology was because my boss had published a paper on the cats of São Paulo Brazil doing exactly that.

My internet pal Сергей Холин from Vladivostok has more recently taken the technique back to the world of cats specifically those of 青島 Aoshima aka Cat Island in the Japanese Inland Sea. It is called Cat Island because the cats outnumber the permanent residents by ~50:1 and it is a tourist attraction for that reason. Although it's a rather long multi-mode trek to have the chance to feed and pet a bunch of scruffy looking felines. Don't miss the ferry back: there are zero tourist facilities on the island. Сергей obtained three different high quality photos of some of the cats blew them up digitally, numbered each individual and essayed a genetic diagnosis of each cat in the sample. Here's one of those pictures:

It's quite unsettling to be looking at so many cats returning your gaze; inscrutable as zen monks in their orange robes. But at least the buggers stay still. What Сергей showed is an extreme example of founder effect, almost all the cats are either orange or tortoiseshell giving probably the highest frequency (0.58) of the O allele in the world - certainly 2x higher than nearby mainland populations. otoh the frequency of non-agouti [black, to normal folks] is disproportionately low on Aoshima. These discrepancies are surely due to the random genetic make-up of the cats which were imported in the 19thC to get on top of an intolerable infestation of rats.

The last 6 residents are all elderly and the homes, shops and school of the once thriving fishing community [N = 900 in 1945] are quietly decaying for lack of care and attention.

Wednesday 3 May 2023

Biltong! buy me biltong!

♬ ♪ Came to de market before daylight ♫ ♩
Gotta sell me biltong before de night  

At the start of my very expensive education, I was parked in school in the 1960s, at least partly because my father was away at sea for unpredictable periods and we moved houses every 18 months. At least if the school was the same, that provided some continuity and grounding for me. In those days, abandonment, separation anxiety were ignored despite John Bowlby writing about attachment theory and normal development in the 50s!

Another of the detached chaps at my school was the son of a hotel magnate in Kenya. When he returned from the holidays in Nairobi and the beach at Malindi, this fellow often bought several parcels of biltong [beef jerky] to replenish his tuck-box. It was different from the gob-stoppers and sherbet fountains with which the rest of us courted dental caries and was, therefore, tradable. When I final arrived in Africa [teaching a binfo course in Pretoria and Capetown] 35 years later a chew of biltong was on my bucket list.

Accordingly, when TGWIH went up the Okavango last month, more as a quip than a quest, I asked her to bring me back some biltong. But, regrettably, EU food&ag theatre forbids the import of cured meat products from outside the Union. I'll just have to fantasize about giving my gob a braw workout. Interestingly the ToC for Original Sliced Springbok Biltong is, like Nestlé Munchies, engagingly vague about exactly what's in there:

Meat (kudu and/or eland and/or impala and/or gemsbok and/or wildebeest and/or springbok in variable amounts); seasoning [salt, spices (irradiated), cereal (maize, flour, salt), sucrose, acidity regulator (E262), preservative sodium sulphite (E221), MSG flavour enhancer (E621), spice extracts, flavour enhancer (E635)], vinegar, worcestersauce, pimaricin.

Note 1 E635 enhancer is a combo sodium salts of the natural compounds guanosine (E626) and inosine (E630) two of the many bases that are found in nucleic acids. Basically another blast of umami.

Note 2 pimamycin is an anti-fungal agent naturally made by some species of Streptomyces and now produced in vats by BigPharma.

Note 3 surely you don't think I'd be satisfied with anyone using English common names for the various artiodactyls which may finish up in this brand of biltong? Nope! Why not use Phofu for eland as in the Lesotho stamp above? Or Spießbock for gemsbok? Here are they are with full Latin binomers so nobody can mistake what we're talking about.

  • kudu Tragelaphus strepsiceros
  • eland Taurotragus oryx
  • impala Aepyceros melampus
  • gemsbok Oryx gazella
  • wildebeest Connochaetes taurinus and/or C gnou
  • springbok Antidorcas marsupialis

Monday 1 May 2023

When fat becomes oil

Was I writing about exotic sources of vegetable fats? I was. I went off there down the Shorea robusta [Sal] rabbit-hole pretending that I knew enough about shea butter which comes from the nuts of Vitellaria paradoxa (formerly Butyrospermum parkii). The old Latin name - [Mungo] Park's butter-seed - is indicative of its relevance to botany. V. paradoxa is an, indigenous to Africa, member of the pan-tropical family Sapotaceae.known locally as shí or carité. Irish supermarkets, showing a want of marketing imagination, don't stock any fruits of that family; which include Manilkara spp. (sapodilla), Chrysophyllum cainito (star-apple), and Pouteria (abiu, caniste). I tell ya b'ys we haven't lived: imagining that stodgy old Cavendish bananas are a great treat.

For a sense of scale, those shea seeds [above L] (not to be confused with chia seeds  from Salvia hispanica in Mexico) are the size of a chestnut and are found in the centre of apricot sized yellow-green fruit. The seeds are 50% fat, which is rendered from the nuts by pressing - like olives. Raw pressed oil, even extra virgin, is kinda rank from a mess of proteinaceous and alkaloid congeners. The oil can be refined - if only by adding hot water to the mix and skimming the fat off the top and is widely used across Africa as a nutritious fatty source of food. But you're more likely, in the West, to encounter the stuff in a tub of gloop from The Body Shop. It is our modern have vs have-not equivalent of Cleopatra bathing in ass's milk, like, for her peerless skin. 

While we are on the subject of tropical yum, don't forget the moth Cirina butyrospermi which feeds exclusively on the leaves of V. paradoxa and whose caterpillars are widely sought after as a fried snack [R, Boromo, Burkina Faso]. Be sure to ask for chitoumou or chenille de karité. Mmmm so good.