Wednesday 24 April 2024

Aristotle all dressed up

It's hard to credit that Raphael of Urbino has been dead for 500 years, because we can imagine meeting him swapping pigments with Michelangelo of Firenze and Leonardo of Vinci as they waited for the Pope to see them. The fact that Raphael died at the age of 37 from infection and bloodletting? Not so much.

One of Raphael's most notable and most copied works is his School of Athens which was commissioned by Pope Julius and executed on a wall in the Vatican between 1509 and 1511. It's BIG (5m x 7.7m) and detailed. The conceit was to represent the greatest thinkers of the Classical world as a reminder the papal court to do better. It was a massive cos-play for Raphael and his pals: discarding their doublets and cod-pieces and striking a pose wrapped in sheets or chitons. At the time, it would have been a hoot, because viewers could make facetious comments about their mate Michelangelo as . . . Heraclitus [bloborecent]. Those classically educated viewers would also have made a much better fist of recognising the iconography of the Ancients. My Mum got to be pretty good on the iconography of saints having spent her retirement years cruising between cathedrals and museums. Doing the who's who (both the philosophers and the models) on The School of Athens been an on-going puzzle for art-historians to wrestle over ever since. Here's one attempt - hint Geocentrist Ptolemy is holding the globe?

But, despite the skirts, they're all . . . men.

In our times there exists a self-appointed coven of crones Na Cailleacha who are venerable and arty and like to hang out together. I've mentioned cailleach as a slightly scary, respectful term for a generally undervalued segment of society. Tremble also at Sprakkar - an Icelandic equivalent. From Spring 2024, this collective decided that it would be grand jape to make a tableau vivant of The School of Athens with only women in the cos-play. Nice touches: replacing Euclid's chalk-board with a black laptop [above R]. Of course they strove to be consciously diverse and inclusive within the women space. Face it, they'd have been hard put to find 40 white Irish female philosophers, all available for a specific weekday morning in March, to populate their School of Hibernia.

And, contra Raphael and Julius II, an identification key has been included for posterity. They borrowed the Museum Building from TCD because of the steps and pilasters and put on a spiffy lunch so that everyone involved could mingle and network afterwards. Getting Mary Robinson, Ireland's first F Uachtarán, and Linda Doyle, TCD's first F Provost, to fill the robes of Plato and Aristotle was a coup. Some of the models have appeared in the Blob before. I haven't gotten round to writing up Dau.II's saxophone teacher / cailleach . . . yet. The fluffy white representations of Artemis/Diana/Medb and Athena/Minerva/Brigid/ standing on the newel posts at the rear are the work of Helen "Cailleach" Comerford who died suddenly a couple of weeks later
Here's a couple of minutes of RTE launching the project.

Monday 22 April 2024

Kent KaBOOM!

 I was born in Dover in 1954; because my mother was born there in 1920 and went home to deliver her sproggs. I never had any sense that Dover was my home-place, not least because the family up-stakes 3 months later when my naval father was posted elsewhere. 

12 years later there was a window-rattling explosion 6 km off the coast of Folkstone, the town next door.  Marine salvers had been contracted to remove the wreck of Polish registered liberty ship SS Kielce [L]. The Kielce had been carrying a cargo of munitions from Southampton to Bremerhaven in March 1946 when, in crap weather, at night, she collided with the steamer Lombardy and sank without loss of life. Resting on the seabed in 30m of water, the wreck wasn't a hazard to shipping; although I bet there were pissed off trawlermen when their gear snagged on on the sticky-out metal bits. 

So the Folkestone Salvage Company thought it was be a good idea to carry out some controlled underwater explosions to reduce the wreck to smaller lumps to facilitate its removal. The third such detonation ignited part of the original cargo - still fizzy after 20 years in saltwater. What's left of the wreck is now 6m below grade in its very own crater. Ordnance experts afterwards estimated at a 2-kilotonne explosion. At least the Kielce had been carrying, like, bullets and incendiary bombs rather some fancy chemical weapons of mass destruction. Needless to say, nobody was in a gung-ho hurry to finish the salvage job; nor yet authorize a further attempt. Accordingly Kielce lies conveniently close to shore and ordinary folks go wreck-diving there on the reg'lar. Thus Callum Beveridge: dived this site a few years ago before being aware of its history. Must be the only wreck I've ever dived where the top of the wreck is deeper than the surrounding seabed. It sits in a 6m depression and the seabed is littered with bent and twisted munitions inc .50 cal browning rounds.

You may be sure that the Kielce experience informed the continuing decision to Do Nothing about the wreck of SS Richard Montgomery off the other side of the county. In 1966, folk were allowed to have a go without being completely fettered by authorizations, risk-asssessments and mighty insurance premiums. Having a go meant not warning people away from the windows of the seafront B&Bs and hotels. Having a go meant allowing Philip Kaye a cross-channel swimmer to be in the water 3km from the wreck site when the balloon went up. Shocked, shocked 'e woz: "I got a pain in my head and the sensation of being beaten with dozens of sticks, I never saw the explosion, but the tremors were terrific. I had a pins-and-needles effect for several minutes."

Sunday 21 April 2024

Aprille shouers

Mish-mash bish-bash

Friday 19 April 2024

New for Old

Roy the Plumber came as promised on Wednesday: third time lucky because Mon and Tuesday were giving stormy weather and he prioritized indoor jobs elsewhere. The forecast for Weds was not manifestly better, but he came anyway at 08:50hrs with all the kit to replace a) the submersible pump b) the old topside pressure cylinder c) the grit-filter d) most of the brass fittings e) the 28 years submersed electric cable. We were allowed to keep the ¾" = 20mm water pipe (L laid out on the grass, taped to a new ½" = 12mm polypropylene rope). 

Roy set to the outdoor work first, which was an astute move because, within minutes of finishing that half of the game, the drizzle drifted in from the North. But not before I was able to rummage up an old tarpaulin to cover the matériel which had been spilled across the grass out of the back of the plumber's van. It you think my desk-drawers  or my tool-shed is a mess, you should check out the vans of anyone of our five sequential plumbers. There is some organization in the hape because they always seem to be able to find whatever unexpected tool or fitting that the job requires. First thing obvs is to haul up the old pump and pipework. When the bore hole was clear of clobber, it was possible / necessary to plumb the depths. 

When it was drilled in 1996, water started to flow from the orifice at about 15m, but the drillers kept going down and down because "the flow isn't sufficient". They finally stopped at 34m or 113ft in old money. The drill sections came in 10ft lengths; except for the first which had 3ft of working bit on the business end. Drillers adopt a "I've started so I'll finish" protocol: if they've gone through the faff of hauling the rig up to install a new section, then they go down the full length of that pipe. Wells are thus . . . 73ft or 113ft or 173ft  . . . deep. The bore-hole cost, old money, £4.00 a foot.

In 2024, the well is 99½ ft deep. In 1996, the pump was suspended 76½ ft down. For reasons not entirely clear, 5 ft = 150 cm was trimmed off the pipe on Weds, so the pump is now suspended 28 ft = 8½ m above the sediment. Which, after nearly 30 years is a geological ~4 m thick. We're all guessing that sedimentation is not linear: most of the grit / sand /sludge was washed out of the rock-fissures in the late 1990s and things have reached a steady state by now. Interestingly whenever were have the cover off to look into the bore-hole [as R] you can see the water surface glinting an arm's length down. As in 2019 when we had the water tested for free.

The electrical cable is not taped to the rope. Which was interesting because heretofore I've thought that the rope was a bit redundant: y' could surely lower the pump down (and haul it up using the power cable and/or the water pipe. That was until I got to play with the old pump and the new one [guess which is which? L]. Those lads are heavy: at least 15 kg. It is entirely possible that the connexions would rip out under the weight. If not immediately then over time. Like with sinking the drill bit, getting the pump up and down is work and you want to have as much as possible of the workings topside where they can be diagnosed, fixed or replaced - capacitor for example.

We're back to 21stC normal now. Water comes gushing at the turn of several available taps, both t'ilets fill their cisterns without a thought.So little heed have been paying to the inestimably wonderful resource - and for all my life - that I thoughtlessly flushed the t'ilet twice before I re[s]trained myself. I was alone in the house of 8 of those tap-waterless days, so I was able to lower the standards on generating dishes and pans for washing. And putting socks over the faucets to stop me being thoughtless. Still-and-all, I doubt I've acquired Giardia, SchistosomaOnchocerca or Fasciola from drinking crystal clear rain water from a bucket. Which is not the case in Somalia hmmm.

Wednesday 17 April 2024

Our bucket economy

25 years ago Lilliput Press published Lives Less Ordinary 32 Irish Portraits by Peter Morgan and Judy Kravis (1999). It's still in print but you can get 2nd hand copies for £5 or thereabouts. It's an amazing record of alternative folk living their own peculiar dream in the later 20thC. I've mentioned the book before especially wrt the chapter about Judith Hoad who lived in a remote cottage without indoor plumbing.

We have, so, indoor plumbing; although Old Ray, who died out of the house in 1994, managed without those amenities for 50 years. When we came with our modern ways and two small children we had a bore-hole drilled and sunk a submersible pump 100 ft =30m below grade. From that central heating was installed so we had hot&cold running water, not only in the house but also in two sheds - and a stand-pipe in the yard for watering walkers and sheep. On Sunday 7th Apr, the water stopped running. Even after I cleaned out the sclerotic pressure valve, the pump would switch off a couple of minutes after reset.

I called Roy the plumber and he came (in the drizzle) the next day for a scoping visit. He has promised to come today to sink the new submersible pump and connect it up.

We are not strangers to waterlessness because, like, the submersible pump runs on electricity and maintenance- or storm-scheduled power cuts stop all taps. It's all do-able for a few days so long as fore-thought has provided some back-up drinking water in bottles. It's disconcertingly convenient to have a 'lec'kettle that works next to a tap that don't. During our bucket week we instituted a parallel system for kettles on the wood-burning stove: 1) for drinking and cooking water 2) for washing and hottle bottles. But it's been well soggy this weather and we're getting hectolitres of clean clear rain water captured by 150 sq.m. of polytunnel roof -  I'd have no compunction about drinking that . . . ignoring the leaves. It is comical to imagine over-educated, over-aged me tottering down the steps from the tunnel with a bucket in each claw.

All good fun until, like a bucket-economy friend of ours in The West, who on the morning To The Compost trip, went all literal and tripped dropping >!kaPLOOSH!< the brimming family pee-bucket at the head of the stairs. Mercifully 'e didn't follow the bucket on down.

Monday 15 April 2024

Roti and reading

Before Easter, I was alone at home [agane: nobody luvs meeee] tasked to make a hella gurt stack of Knockroti, in anticipation of the appearance of Dau.I and Dau.II from Dublin. You know how teenage boys can make short work of an 800g sliced pan & 250g of butter at RT°C, so long as a toaster is available? My family will give them a run for their money - and no toaster need apply: ignoring that universal advice of never eat anything longer than a child's leg or bigger than your own head. It's busy work but not mentally taxing, so it's a good time to ear-book a podcast or something from Borrowbox. My cupboard was bare on both these fronts so I downloaded more-or-less the first non-fiction book that was a) available now b) not a diet book written by an influencer.

As you see above, the Roti shift was productive. The rando borro boxxo was [surprisingly?] on message:

 . . . Failosophy: A Handbook For When Things Go Wrong by Elizabeth Day. I'd never 'eard of 'er - or her book. But it turns out that Day [b. 1978] is a British journalist and book-writer who was raised in Derry (where her Dad was a surgeon in Altnagelvin Hospital) and, in the 00s wrote for a rash of different papers in London. Then in 2018, she launched a podcast How to Fail with Elizabeth Day which turned out to be phenomenally successful. Failosophy is her publisher's second bite at that gravy train.

The conceit of the podcast is that Celeb is contacted in advance and invited to jot down three life-changing failures. If these notes meet some sort of threshold, research is done and Celeb invited in to be grilled about the life lessons.There is no requirement to sort between fale and pech fails. These two Dutch words apparently mean "I booted my driving test by mounting the pavement while reversing round a corner" = fale and "My father was killed when a block of frozen urine crashed through his Heathrow-adjacent greenhouse" = pech. You can imagine yourself learning from the former; from the latter, nt so much.

Lemn Sissay, Brenda Hale, Nigel Slater and Malcolm Gladwell are among those who have featured both on this podcast and The Blob. There is an arresting clip from the interview with Mo Gawdat, whose 21 y.o. son died under the knife during a routine bit of surgery. Asked if he was devastated by the loss, Gawdat answered [paraphrase!] "Sure, of course we're gutted, but I spend more time reflecting on the wonderful two decades during which Ali was the light of our lives". What matters is not the crappy hands which life deals you; it's how you play the cards you get.

Sunday 14 April 2024

Half April 2024

Bits and bobs

Friday 12 April 2024

Hedgehog science

Peter "Boson" Higgs  aka Peter "Waited 5 decades for a Nobel" Higgs, died in the fullness of his 94 years at his home in Edinburgh on 8th April 2024 . He's pictured [R] the year I was born, 10 years before he made his seminal calculation about the structure of matter. Obvs, other people added other data bricks and intellectual mortar to cement the Higgs boson into the standard understanding of the physics of the Universe.

There were tributes on MetaFilter including a citation to a post-Nobel article in the Guardian. That piece included a memorable confession: Higgs said he became "an embarrassment to the department when they did research assessment exercises". A message would go around the department saying: "Please give a list of your recent publications." Higgs said: "I would send back a statement: 'None.' ".
Confession? Indictment!

 🦔 Higgs is a great example of ‘The fox publishes many things, but the hedgehog publishes one big thing' paraphrased from Archilochus, Erasmus, Berlin [that would be Languagehat]. The productivity failure article cited above gave me a rush of empathy. Three of the most interesting, public-engaging, well-travelled, widely-read, student-inspiring faculty at my alma mater were all at one time up before the beak for not publishing enough. Least Publishable Units LPUs are countable but that doesn't make them valuable - even collectively.

This is not the first time I've taken my chapeau off to a scientific Hedgehog. In 2015 I made a sweeping bow to Françoise Barré-Sinoussi when she was retired from l'institut Pasteur in 2015. After isolating the HIV virus in 1983, FBS spent the next 30 years immersed in the scientific, medical, social and political aspects of the virus and AIDS. Focus focus focus. 

  • "πόλλ' οἶδ' ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ' ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα" Archilochus of Paros
  • Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum Erasmus of Rotterdam
  • A fox knows many things, a hedgehog knows one great thing. Berlin of Riga (and Oxford)

Wednesday 10 April 2024

Sea as soup

I was faced with a mountain of washing up and had run out of podcasts and had nothing on the go from Borrowbox. Rather than being the Trappist plongeur or, worse, listening to RTE on the wireless, I logged on and downloaded something, anything, from the non-fiction bin. Came up with The sea is not made of water : life between the tides by Adam Nicolson [prev], which starts with a (for me) wonderful mix of Linnaean binomers and purple (and green & brown & red) prose describing his adventures on the foreshore. In one project he secures permission to create a new rockpool in Argyll. Three days are spend with maul and bar to create a depression which has not been wet since the Jurassic. Rain and the tide duly brim-fills this shallow dip in the landscape and Nicolson settles down to record the immigrants . . . and muse on the etymology of "brim". My experience of tidal pools is entirely superficial: it's wet; there's "a fish"; anemones; a pebble . . . Nicolson has more patience and observational skills and can count.

But nobody can do really useful field-work in the week remaining of their summer holidays and Nicolson turns to the scientific literature to report on the dynamic processes that affect species abundance: mostly nature red in tooth and claw. a cost-benefit trade off played out over evolutionary time. One rock scissor stone tale looked at the interactions of common periwinkles Littorina littorea, green shore crab Carcinus maenus and green algae like Cladophora spp and Ulva lactuca. The winkles eat the algae, which shelter the crabs, which eat the winkles. Who wins depends on how far up the shore the pool is and the local rapacity of gulls which can swallow crabs whole.

It's true that sounds like a very simple ecosystem but you have to start with simple models - preferably generating testable hypotheses - if you're going to establish some principals in our understanding of how life ticks. Later he cites Bob Paine's (1933-2016 obit) concept of key-stone species - often top predators - whose impact cascades down the food-chain. Paine found that when he fecked out all the ochre starfish Pisaster ochraceus on a section of the foreshore, its favorite food mussels Mytilus californianus spread unchecked across the rocks depriving lots of other shellfish of a home. Within a short time the number of invertebrate species halved compared to a control (starfish present) plot. Same with wolves in Yellowstone: in their absence, deer eat all the twiggy saplings leading to deforestation and a catastrophic decline in all the species which use trees for shelter, food or infection (hey fungi have rights, too).

This is, for sure, a beautifully written hello beach, hello sky book. But it is also a philosophical and historical treatise explaining how smarter people than you-and-me made sense of the natural world. He carries a torch of Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BCE) in a similar way that botanist Anna Pavord tribs Theophrastus of Lesbos. There's a succinct history on the causes of tides, including enough of the wrong turns associated with famously smart blokes (Kepler - looking at you) to make me realise that tides simple neither conceptually nor locally. This is followed by a weird chapter on Andromeda stories - where vulnerable people (women, esp virgins, suicides, the unhinged) are pegged out at low tide, so that the sea can perform a non-culpable "disposal". Check out Catherine Campbell MacLean for as local example?

Whoa, Adam: that's a kinda niche to be sharing with beachcombers. But the Nicolson rabbit holes are many and varied - a bit like The Blob. Not many readers will be familiar with the works of 19thC marine biologist Philip Gosse, whose biblical literalism conceived and delivered Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot in 1857. Far from untying anything, Gosse made his arguments into a tangle of special pleading to explain why Adam had a navel (omphalos) and why God created loadsa a dead fossils to bamboozle contemporary geologists. As we all know, Darwin brought out a much more satisfying, internal consistent hypothesis two years later with On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. I knew about Gosse b/c very expensive education but also because of his son Edmund's compelling growing up oppressed story Father and Son ". . . one of our best accounts of adolescence, particularly for those who endured . . . a religious upbringing".

Bottom line for the soul: Nicolson's fossicking along the tide-line seems to lead up to his sympathetic ruminations on Martin Heidigger - emphatically not because Heidigger was an enthusiastic Nazi. It was more because of Heidigger's quip "I care therefore I am" and his concept of Dasein - being present when out and about in the world. Nicolson has spent his entire life in reconciliation between his scientific and poetic understanding of existence - both his and each periwinkle's and the interaction terms! I'm on board with this, having made Science as A Way of Knowing a running theme in The Blob. But I also really like that Nicolson accepts that humans are not cartoons. 21stC discourse finds it all too easy to bring down the shutters: oh, that bastard is, like, A Nazi I don't need to engage with, listen to, or acknowledge the existence of such perps. That's easy; much more difficult to look into the dark corners of our own souls and work on that. And dismissing everything that makes me uncomfortable is all too easy to generalise to include the undeserving: the disabled, the poor, communiss, People of The Book, the homeless, that misogynistic colleague, boat-people . . . travellers.

Bottom line for the shore: the sea is big, wet and salty and a very great number of creatures live there. To the nearest whole number we know 0% about how these denizens interact and are inter-dependent. Humans are almost certainly a key-stone species for world between the tides. Blundering about on the beach with our yappy dogs; allowing a company like Exxon to operate 200,000 tonne oil tankers; forcing the sea to suck up all our CO2.

Monday 8 April 2024

Taking nice things

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house,
thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife,
nor his manservant, nor his maidservant,
nor his ox, nor his ass, nor his pot-plants
nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.

If it didn't happen, they wouldn't be making Ten Commandments about it? And these judeo-christians are really trying to head things off at the pass with their exhortations to damp down or eliminate the feelings of envy. Good luck with that. Meanwhile current law hereabouts cares not a whit about your covetous turmoil . . . so long as you don't act on it and make off with yer man's wife or her ass.

In 1986, we bought our first (of two) houses: a late-Victorian mid-terrace two streets away from a railway-cutting in suburban Newcastle upon Tyne. At that time a friend was writing software to digitize the address-scape of Britain to facilitate the early targetted direct-marketing sector of Capitalism. He reported that our street was coded: ⅓ council housing [#39]; ⅓ owner occupier [#37 us]; & ⅓ private rental [#35]. And we #37 and our abutting neighbours at #39 and  #35 matched this profile precisely. We were the beginnings of gentrification with our books and bottles of wine. After inhabiting a micro-farm for nearly 30 years where the nearest neighbour is 300m away, I can imagine going back to life where we could smell next-door's cabbage boiling for dinner and endure their full volume kid's TV on Sunday morning.

There was no garden attached to #37, but the previous owner had low-walled a corner of the back-yard and planted a sad looking cotoneaster. That yard was just big enough to park a car IF we grubbed up the shrubbery. A strip of concrete 1.5m wide [less for the bay-window] fronted the house. The original uniform cast-iron railings had all been cut off and carted away (?to make battleships?) in WWII but they had been replaced piecemeal for most of the houses. On Summer evenings, we used to sit out front on the stoop or on kitchen chairs to watch the sun set over the end of the street. The unintended consequence being that we met more people from the neighbourhood. After living there for a while, we acquired a job lot of a dozen plants in pots - mostly pelargoniums - and put them all out front on the downstairs windowsills and up against the fence. We made more friends when folk stopped to compliment us for bringing a splash of colour to the street. It might have been super-bougie for some bluff no-nonsense Geordies, but not all. It felt like doing a small-small thing for our community - and ourselves.

Then one night a local entrepreneur nicked off with ALL our plant-pots, just leaving rings of unbrushed dirt where the flowers had been. The galling thing about the whole sorry saga was the knowledge that what had been a public good had become a private benefit. Certainly, our plants didn't re-appear somewhere else in the area - I had a bike; I checked. At least it was less invasive than Mr Ahmed at #41 having his front-door robbed.

And because there's nothing new under this sun, someone from Carrigaline Co Cork has had her day in court for robbing [or more likely fencing] six hanging baskets from a Tidy Towns venture in the hamlet of Inch near Killeagh, Co Cork.  The cunning TidyTowners had buried an Apple AirTag in one of the baskets which enabled them to track their time effort and care property to Carrigaline. Carrigaline is all of 50km from Inch; y'have to wonder that there weren't low-hanging baskets nearer to the intended destination. In contrast to NuponT in 1987, we know where the perps live:

Pelargonium? Today's jigsaw puzzle today.

Saturday 6 April 2024

Stormy Lonsdale

Today, we had a bit of a drubbing from Storm Kathleen; 11th named storm of this season. Named for Dr K "benzene" Lonsdale, Irish crystallographer. But life goes on.

Friday 5 April 2024

So you're thinking of going to university?

My IRL Self provided a check-list for wannabee students based on our experience of being SLO School Liaison Officer - organizing Open Days for my Department at a mid-tier UK University through the 80s. It was published in New Scientist in 1989 . . .

In the next few months, thousands of prospective undergraduates will be travelling round Britain, trying to find a university which will take them for the next three or four years (or to decide which university they should take their custom to, depending on your point of view). What most of them do not realise is that effective teaching and the quality of student life come fairly low down the list of priorities of these institutions, which tend to offer more reward and encouragement to the research side of the university coin than to undergraduates.

However, as research is likely to be of only tangential relevance to students, I exhort all university candidates to consider and number of questions to ask on their visit to university. 

Most of the questions can be asked directly, some by observation, and some by taking a little extra time at beginning or end of the official day. (Any chance of arranging to spend a night with a local student should be seized). For each question you should think about the best person to address: current undergraduates will often be able to give more meaningful answers than lecturers. Although some of the questions will not be answerable in the context of any Open Day, they are nevertheless important. After all, if you are going to stump up the train-fare for the visit you may as well get the most out of the trip as possible.

  1. Does the tour guide appear to be taking any interest in me?Does this person establish eye-contact? Are they showing that open days are a chore? Places which care about student recruitment will put their most personable staff on the job; those that don't will give the work to the departmental deadwood.
  2. Is there evidence that undergraduates have low status? Look for signs such as "Undergraduates may not use the lift" "Staff Toilet". Is there a student common room or (better) a common common room? Do I get a desk? Do I get a locker? Will I be a 'member of the department' or will contact be  limited to lectures and practical classes? Can I park my car near the campus for a reasonable fee?
  3. Can I afford to live here? Are the halls of residence the kind of place where I would want to spend a year? Is there rented accommodation nearby? What will be the effects of geography on my life here? (City centre sites are a long way from the mountains; greenfield campuses tend to be short on cinemas)
  4. Am I going to meet a set of friends who will stick with me for the next three years and the rest of my life? [Ans: probably!]
  5. Does the tour of the department take in the research labs and, if so, how much time will I ever spend there? Do I get the impression that research takes priority of teaching? Can I have a list of research projects carried out by students in recent years? Are projects supervised by lecturers or delegated to technicians or (worse) postgraduate students? Are synopses of the lectures available?
  6. Is there an active degree-based student group or society? Do its activities combine both social and educational events? On the obligatory tour round the local brewery, do I get a free pint at the end of it?
  7. Is there an effective careers information office? Can I look at it? Is it better equipped than the one we have at school? Does each student have a mentor / tutor? Is this person a fund of cogent advice, friendly support and genuine interest in my happiness?
  8. Can I meet the chair of the chess | badminton | hang-gliding club? Is there such a club? Could I set one up?
  9. Can I have 20 minutes to talk to a 2nd year student? Is there an Alternative Prospectus? What are the worst parts of the course?
  10. Does the entertainment offered during the Open Day comprise more than a cup of tea? Do lecturers appear for this? Do they seem more interesting than the poor fish who has been showing us round all day? Is it even the regular tea-break and are undergraduates present? Am I going to be seduced into coming here because they make a nice cup of tea?
  11. Does the Library make provision for recreational reading? (this is particularly important for sites miles from town)
  12. Can I get access to a computer? Can it handle word-processing? Is there any provision for recreational use? Will I be trained | forced to use one? [Cripes that's dated!]

Of course having asked all those questions you still have to answer the most important one yourself: do I want to go to university at all? The wonderful thing about Open Days is that they give you a chance to find out.

[Digging up this olde document was triggered by a question on MeFi - where lots of relevant advice].

Wednesday 3 April 2024

Call this a resort - blehhh

Sheep? Who'd have 'em? It's not rocket-science but it takes a certain amount of engagement, and presence, to manage sheep. The worst thing that can happen is that a) one of t'buggers dies b) we don't realise for a while. Since the foot&mouth epidemic of 2001, farrrmers can no longer leave dead sheep in a quite corner to be recycled by fox and crow. Every beast is now ear-tagged and the DeptAg wants to know the entire life history [incl death, disposal, or sale] of every tagged sheep. We got complacent, unmindful and careless in 2020 [must have been Covid!] and allowed one of our aged ewes to die . . . and get partly dismembered by "the cleaners". I ignored the flies, pretended I was CSI Midlands, and shovelled the bits into a heavy-duty plastic bag for delivery to The Fallen Animal Guy the other side of the mountain.

Since then I count the ewes [60 legs and 15 wet noses and I'm satisfied] several times a day. I've had to cut sheep-wire to free sheep-heads on numerous occasions - hint: cut a vertical strand rather than a horizontal one. And, face-it, it's easier to handle a whole dead sheep than her scattered parts. 

Pegleg trough (see shadow below)
We're in an awkward season now. The grass really hasn't started to grow, so we are having to rotate our stock flock through the various paddocks. We had a bin full of sheep muesli and, one chilly spring day in March The Gaffer decided that the sheep may as well eat it. Accordingly The Outdoor Man heaved a feed-trough from of a distant field and left it in the field with a bucketful of muesli. The sheep were delighted. A tuthree days later, also frezzzing, I cast thereto another bucket of feed. Much gambolling and unseemly shoving at the trough.

But shortly after that I found that the empty trough had been kicked to buggery [see top L]. The end piece out and one side hanging by a thread. All the sheep were looking at their hooves all innocent, or whistling nonchalantly at the far end of the field. What ever these professions of not me guv'nor it was easy to imagine them developing expectations from getting quality chow with added molasses and then abruptly not getting it: Call this a resort? - blehhh - take that <kick>; think it's easy being a sheep? <stomp> horizontal sleet, eh? fancy some?

But something had to be done, though, with the thoroughly broken-through trough *, even if that was choppitup for kindling. What I did in contrast was use the least rotten trapezoidal end piece as a template to cut two new ends from western red cedar off-cuts from the 2016 woodshed project and the 2023 planter-box project. Once these ends were installed, it was easy to cut 400mm off the rottenest part of each trough . . . making good for another couple of years use. No complaints that the troughs are now 15% shorter & 10% lighter for hefting about the property according to the exigencies of the muesli service.

Credit to Young Bolivar for making the original troughs that same 2016 Summer as he designed and built the cedar woodshed.
(*)Where I grew up, these 'appliances' were called troffs, hereabouts they sound more like trocks.

Monday 1 April 2024

I was a pirate fence

All Fool's Day! In the mid-1990s, The Man made me Director-and-sole-employee [DASE?] of INCBI the Irish National Centre for BioInformatics. My brief was to make available DNA and protein sequence databases and appropriate analytical software for Irish researchers. As most of the potential clients knew nada about such databases, I also devised some training courses to get everyone up to speed with this new future. We were a little ahead of the curve and some of our deliverables were at the very frontiers of science [then]. I clocked up some airmiles hawking myself, and these courses, about: NI, NL, BE, CH, NO, SE, FI, TR, ZA. Never made it to Iceland, but might have.

I was better at some aspects of my job [making tea; designing logos; writing book-reviews for Briefings in Binf] and not-so-good at others [firmware updates; blagging people for money; writing, like, papers]. I'd meet with the team [that would be Me] on Monday morning to allocate tasks on the Things To Do list. I had some cyber-adventures.

It may be hard to credit now, but pre-Tiger Ireland was a poor, almost Third World, country: certainly a nett beneficiary of the levelling up aspirations of the EU. 

Giving me systems admin privs over an internet connected server caused a National RedFace Incident in about 1997. As well sponging off the EU, Ireland Inc. was also a nett consumer of internet resources. It was a source of interest and not a little pride when a manager at the National Academic Internet Hub noticed a large blip of out-going traffic - the country was at last providing the world with something useful. The Hub sent a congratulatory message to my Institution, who tracked the source of traffic to my server and asked "what gives?". I was baffled. 

With a lot of help from local IT effectives it transpired that I'd set up an FTP-server to facilitate sharing of DNA data but set the privs to allow read and write access to all. An enterprising anarchist had uploaded some pirated Microsoft products and other [GTA.1-like] tasty resources and let it be known that everyone could stick-it-to-the-man by downloading stuff from my server. I learned a lot on that job - mostly by making mistakes.

Sunday 31 March 2024

Who knew? - Pointless edition

Miscellany, round-up, pot-pourri

Friday 29 March 2024

You'll never take me alive, Eircode

Eircodes are like Brexit, if you can't turn back the clock you might as well lean in to the New Order. When Eircode was created, at vast expense, An Post def'n'y had its thumb on the scale. I've expressed a lot of interest in the roll-out and its implementation 2015 - 2017 - 2018+WhatThreeWords - 2019 - 2020+UPS.

The rule for us is that our local post-sorting HQ is in another county. IF we pretend it's still 2014 and have Co Carlow as the last line of our postal address THEN regardless of the Eircode, mail-sorters send the post to, like, Carlow. Someone there will scratch out Co Carlow and add ↑KILKENNY↑ with real scraggy hand-writing and it will get to us a day late. Happens on the reg'lar. And usually it don't matter a damn because any comms which are time sensitive will come to us by email or txt. And like everyone else almost all of our post is bills and circulars with a blip of phatic cards for bdays and Christmas.

Recipients certainly, and senders possibly, have no control of which, of many competing, outfit makes the final mile delivery. AnPost for example takes up the slack (at less than market rates b/c bulk discount) p.p. Amazon for deliveries to the Irish boondocks. But many carriers have gone on-line to some extent, so that you can track your parcel as it whooshes past en route to the wrong depot. I used a tuthree weeks ago to send reading matter to the Gdaus in England. I received three (3) emails [L] over 48 hours counting down the km/hrs to successful delivery.  For birthday flowers and chocolate at the end of last year "Successful delivery" for us was feck 'em in that shed: they're sure to find it. I was ragin' that the chocolate was weeping condensation when we finally found it four days later - but the web-florist did refund the cost.

We were expecting a parcel of bingly-bongly bells from Plum Village.They were in the UPS system on-line but were clearly not reaching the destination (we checked all the sheds, including those without roofs). One issue is that, having invested m€ga$ in an on-line tracking system, many carriers dispense with all but two of their customer service agents. Their names are Krishna and Samira and they live in Bengaluru. If something goes wrong outside of the FAQ, the unhappy unrecipient has to hear A Lot of cycles of Greensleeves before Samira picks up.

 finally I met a new UPS deliveroo, who wasn't having any of my, or Eircode's, guff. For their parallel delivaverse Co Carlow is, and always has been, Co Carlow; and it's served by the regional UPS depot in Finglas Co Dublin. Kilkenny addresses are served from their Waterford depot. Deliveries to the scut end of Carlow are almost guaranteed to be 1-2 days later than they should, because Eircodes are not consonant with the historical counties.

Anyway, back to Eircodes: here's a defintive map of how AnPost wants their counties to be. Monochrome GoogleMap version. Zoom in to SunnySE (so sorry, Samira: this pic is a bandwidth-sucking 200kb). It looks like a 19thC map of Germany with a rash of independent margravates, kingdoms, bishoprics and duchies all with their own domains. A piddling back-water like Bagenalstown gets parity of esteem with the cities of Kilkenny R95 and Waterford X91 - must be the railway station gives B'town R21 hub-status.

Wednesday 27 March 2024

Pratchett Remembered

TERRY PRATCHETT a life with Footnotes* by Rob Wilkins

*The Official Biography appeared [Go Libraries!], all 400 pages of it, in our living room a few days ago. Reader, I read it. I didn't need to do this, I didn't even really want to do this but I started and so ploughed on to the end. Which is more that I can say for at least two of Pratchett's Discworld books. The picture [L] shows Jocelyn Bell-Burnell [bloboprev], David Attenborough and Terry Pratchett in medieval kit receiving honorary degrees from my alma mater TCD.

Rob Wilkins, the biographer, was the long-term PA / secretary / amanuensis of the prolific and commercially successful author Terry Pratchett. He dead, so fans are not going to get anything more out of him. But Narrativia aka Terry Pratchett Inc is still in business with spin-offs. Merch here. This biography is another spin-off, I guess. It is very much the hagiography, because Wilkins is still working for the Pratchetts at Narrativia and I think still using the Pratchett Estate as his office. A biographer could lean hard into the disagreeable, anger-management=poor, controlling aspects of Pratchett's character; could be more critical out the make-weight elements of the Canon; could be bothered to include an index.

But then few of the people who are going to read, let alone buy, the book are going to want those details. I'm ambivalent about the works of Pratchett. I am close enough in birthplace [180km] and birthdate [8 years] to recognise the allusions in the Discworld satires but that's not enough to retain my interest. If I had wanted to be in the English Media Gang, I coulda been a contender: but I didn't and I left the country before Terry Pratchett started writing novels. And I still get most of the in-jokes. You can take the boy out of the country but you can't take the country out of the boy, I guess.

The most interesting bit of the book is when Pratchett was at the height of his commercial success and before he got his adverse mental health diagnosis in 2007. That's when the author stopped being a knowing, driven, sole-trader with a gift for words; writing because he can do no other. The commercial publishing world has agents, editors, translators, cover-designers, type-setters, printers, and booksellers. This memoir documents how most of the people in this trade (as in science, teaching or probably any other 'industry') are teetering at the edge of their competence and incapable of thinking outside a paper-bag let alone Outside The Box. A number of laughable errors of taste, failures of empathy or business sense are documented by Wilkins. Like expecting Pratchett the golden goose to work a 5 hours book-signing session without providing a decent chair, a table with four legs the same length or even a curling sandwich.

Nevertheless, a minority of workers in this corner of the book trade are really really good at their jobs. Wilkins, and some of the book-dedicatees in the Canon, acknowledge that good editors make a great book. Good publicists have to do more than lay the latest book before the eyes of people who count (money). And never forget that luck and timing still play their part.

Monday 25 March 2024

Bigging up the Danes

For my sins, from 2013 to 2020 inclusive, I taught Human Physiology to 1st year Pharm tech students. My only qualifications for doing this were a) I have a body b) nobody else wanted to do it. I inherited a bunch of PPT slides, the Learning Outcomes and 30-something students almost all of whom were women. Don't know about the students, but I learned a lot. Human Phys is all about homeostasis - keeping the various systems of the body in trim to quite fine tolerances. You know this: over-heating by even 1 or 2 °C makes you feel like crap. If your blood pressure goes up a little, you're likely to blow an aneurism or have a stroke . . . goes down a little and the blood will rush from your head and you'll collapse to the floor. Your bod keeps to the set-points of tolerance with a complex system of checks & balances = belt & braces = redundancy. My fave hormone Vasopressin squeezes the smooth muscle AND reduces water-loss in the kidneys both effects geeing up the blood pressure.

I put it to you that 9/10 people stopped on the street will have heard of insulin and have some idea about what it does [regulates circulating blood sugar). otoh those same 9/10 will nope out when asked about glucagon. But you absolutely need them both and the receptors to which they bind to effect their magic on each cell of the body. I've shared my discoveries about glucagon several times in The Blob. TIL that, like a lot of proteins /peptides, the hormone glucagon is derived from a rather larger "pro"-peptide which is 180 amino acids in length. After translation this longer protein is enzymatically cleaved into three quite similar peptides, at least two of which are biochemically active: a) glucagon b) GLP-1 = glucagon-like peptide #1 and b) GLP-2. This shows that three copies of the active bit 'were created' in evolutionary time and have subsequently been free to mutate and acquire a wider range of specific functions.

*::*:*:.: .. *:. *::*: **:: 

These peptide hormones are at nothing unless and until they dock with a specific receptor sitting in the membrane of all the cells in the body. GLP1 binds to <surprise!> the GLP1 receptor which starts a cascade of internal reactions to do with glucose metabolism. These reactions may be wide-ranging in different tissues (as with vasopressin == ADH anti-diuretic hormone two paragraphs up). One known effect is the inhibition of glucagon. That will prevent free glucose circulating which means that insulin won't have to work so hard to keep glucose levels at their set point. and that would be good for diabetics. A few years ago boffins looked at the sequence of GLP1 and thought "target". They modified the sequence of GLP1 [see alignment of the amino acids in colour above] to create semaglutide which really binds the GLP1-receptor.

Novo Nordisk the Danish Megapharm which owns the IP on Semaglutide = Ozempic = Wegovy is now the biggest corporation in the EU with a market cap of $500 billion. Ozempic is the company's golden goose and is responsible for pretty much all of Denmark's economic growth during Coronarama. If you'd bought shares in Novo Nordisk  5 years ago you would have had a 5x return on your investment. Ozemic featured on RTE on 4th March b/c World Obesity Day.

Ozempic hopped through all the regulatory hoops as an effective treatment for type-II (late-onset) diabetes because of it's domino effect on the regulation of blood-sugar levels. Later on it was realised that Ozempic was effective in helping ppl with obesity shed a few kilos. It was therefore widely prescribed for that condition. In 2021, the FDA approved this use of semaglutide, under the trade-name Wegovy. 

It turns out that Novo Nordisk, even with outsourcing production to several other facilities, cannot produce enough Ozempic to satisfy the market in diabetes and obesity. Part of the problem is that this drug is being widely prescribed 'off-label' to reasonably healthy people who desire to trim their midriff to look good [and maybe pull their cousin's BFF]? at an up-coming family wedding. That's how markets work: well rich people can obtain a scarce resource - because money - and can insulate their conscience from the effect this choice has on really sick poor people on the other side of the tracks. And social media influencers? They can eat their own brittle!

Sunday 24 March 2024

Close encounters

Whaaaa's happenin'?

Friday 22 March 2024

Wexford Roadeo

Oy vey, my son the Engineer designs signalling systems for railways in England. Railways generally get a green pass. Their rights-of-way were acquired in the 19thC when Capital was king. In general railway stations are plunk in the centre of town, so it's still quicker to travel between major UK hubs by rail than by flying. Because the last 10km in from the airport is shared by too many cars, buses, traffic lights and potholes.

An Bord Pleanála ABP is a powerful quango, the last court of appeal in Irish planning. They can take a hella long time to come to their considered opinions about whether projects can go ahead. There is plenty of scope for corruption and their deputy chair just avoided getting banged up in chokey for losing count of how many cunning schemes in property development he had going on the side. otoh, someone has to ensure that major infra-structural projects are compliant with multi-faceted rules, regulations, guidelines, plans and laws. I wouldn't trust engineers, or politicians, or me, on their own [each with their own limits, bias, obsessions] to decide where new roads should go . . . even if "we" agree that new roads are really what people or planet need in the mid-21stC. There are so many more stake-holders than 19thC railway engineers encountered: 

  • Population and human health
  • Ecology & biodiversity
  • Soils & geology
  • Hydrogeology & water
  • Landscape & visual
  • Noise & vibration
  • Air quality and climate
  • Archaeology & heritage
  • Agricultural land
  • Other land assets
The rights of these stake-holders are vindicated by ever-shifting regulatory paperwork published by county, country and the EU.

March is when Engineer's Week happens. Wexford Science Café were induced to Ask An Engineer for their March meeting. I suggested an evening on new roads projects in the County. Our convenor ran an engineer to ground. On 19 Mar 24, Bratislav Dimitrijevic, unburdened himself about the many and varied tasks he had to do as Project Manager, N11/N25 Wexford by-pass. When he graduated in Serbia 20 years ago, he little imagined that in 2023 he'd be haggling with an Irish farmer about a cattle-pass under a proposed road in Wexford. Which proposed road? 75 different routes for the 33km between Oilgate (end of the M11) and Rosslare EuroPort have been considered over the last 5 years. Here are the main options:

In April 2023 the "final" route was chosen after optimizing all the variables. It's more-or-less Route C except that the final route is going to use the existing right-of-way along the Wexford Bypass and ?upgrade the roundabouts? The Green Agenda requires the project to include Park&Ride facilities and "active travel" options: we should be able to walk/cycle from Oilgate to Rosslare barrier-separated from cars and trucks. At the WexSciCaf meeting on 19/Mar we were shown The Map with a fat yellow line looooping across it. This 300m wide corridor has been "sterilized" for planning purposes. But the final road will be only 20m (on the level) to 50m (cuttings and embankments) wide. Apparently ~380 land-owners (great and small) have stake in the 300m x 33,000m strip.

The River Slaney at Ferrycarrig has foreshore and tidal slobs which make it a SAC Special Area of Conservation. 13,500 sq. km. of this our Republic (including 3 stream-fronting hectares at Chateau Blob) are so designated: that's 18% of the whole country. The new bridge will be parallel to and West of the existing 1980 bridge. Built before SACs were a twinkle in an ecologist's eye, this bridge is 125m long and supported on 7 concrete piers sunk in the tideway and damn the otters. Check out the Old Ferrycarrig bridge. The new bridge won't be allowed to drip diesel-contaminated rain-water into the holy Slaney valley, let alone sink concrete piles into the slobs. The engineers are accordingly looking at building another 800m bridge to facilitate trucks and tourists spreading out across the country having arrive at Europort Rosslare. The RoseFitzKenn bridge over the R. Barrow 40km to the West is 890m long with the longest span 230m.

My question was whether sterilized land-owners who were not finally CPOed (compulsory purchase order) would be compensated for spending ?5 years in legal and asset-management limbo. I didn't get an answer to that. But we were invited to reflect on the plight of land-owners abutting the corridor: they get nothing except noise, disruption and envy.

Wednesday 20 March 2024

Trigon Empire

I do a lorra ear-books though Borrowbox. Sometimes I 🐸wish🐸 that a chunky book on my reading list was available in the audio medium but I don't go all into a rage about it; I just question why completely unsuitable books are rendered into .mp3 instead. Like who was thinking what when they published How to Draw a Map in audio . . . with no maps?

Rachel Riley [R] makes arithmetic look easy. Because, for her (and me), tricking about with numbers is easy. It's partly mind-set and aptitude but also partly training. Old style National School rote learning emphasized the training. Thus you get generational transfer of times-tables and arithmetical tools transmitted by national school teachers who were good enough at the tricks but really had not the bog's notion of the under-lying principles and no particular feeling for numbers. A bit like me being required to teach 2nd year college Physics when I'd failed my Physics "O" level at 15

I was in a pretty funny situation earlier in the month ear-booking through At Sixes and Sevens: How to Understand Numbers and Make Maths Easy by Rachel "Countdown" Riley. Obvs [hint: audiobook] without pictures. I hear Riley brightly uttering some bafflegab "a cubed plus b cubed all in brackets is not the same as a to the half plus two sin theta plus b raised to next tuesday" and adding confidently "it will all be clear if you refer to the triangle on page 14 of your PDF". Hint: there is no PDF b/c Borrowbox don't think it's important.

The ostensible reason for the book is for parents to help their kids with the math which the youngsters are being cold-bath-after-breakfasted at school. The first tuthree chapters are on-message and quite inspiring. Asserting that math anxiety is a state of mind and that we all (particularly grrls) should stop labelling ourselves (or anyone else!) as crap-at-math. But soon enough the Riley accepts the school math curriculum at face value and offers a number of different ways-of-seeing to help us crack the code. Which is fair enough given the Mission Statement for parents to help their kids with the math

But really? wtf are schools putting everyone through simultaneous equations? Puzzles which can be solved using SimEqs have been around for about 2,000 years and they currently get binned in the Algebra chapter of maths text-books. But that's it, they are puzzles. Riley professes to love fractions, cats and algebra and handles SimEqs by presenting a plainly out-of-reality but mildly amusing conundrum. The puzzle involves mix and matching school dinners where the menu offers rice, salad and tacos and various combos of kids who come back home with receipts for the cost of their dinner. In this fantasy land The Parent says "Let's work out what the cost of each item is". Because the price is bafflingly not on the menu? Ah ha, this is why the kids are comen como mexicanos it's because
R + S + T = alphabetical algebra.

1r + 1s + 2t = £10.00
3s + 2t      = £10.00
2s + 3t      = £14.50

There follows 5 minutes of ". . . we can now plug r = 2s into either the second or the third equation . . ." which may be clear as a blut of chili sauce IF you have the PDF but in audio-only it's just so much word salad. I like these sorts of puzzles; I'm okay at solving them; but it's a long way from a justification for requiring mastery of SimEqs for all teenagers in school because it will set them up for real life. Because in real life (if you-the-parent really needed to know the cost of a portion of salad at school) you'd send young Jimmy in with a note for the dinner ladies "Please tell my poor Dad how much the salad costs [£__.__]"

I had At Sixes and Sevens in my ears for 8 hours as I fossicked about doing outdoor chores. The last 2/3 of that time, absent the PDF, it was a warm bath of familiar nonsense - like overhearing two people talking Portuguese behind me on a bus. In 1984, my Portuguese was fluent enough to read a newspaper and get what I needed from people in shops and offices; now not so much - but hearing it again triggers happy saudades.

But 'ere: I did learn something which has been hidden from me in plain sight for all my mathy life. Trigonometry is all about the -metry of Trigons aka triangles in mathogreek . . . pentagon, hexagon etc. Trigan Empire in the title is a nostalgic reference to a 1960s childhood getting the glossy mag Look and Learn in the regular. Every issue had a two page spread following the dynastic antics of folks who dressed like Romans and carried swords but also had anti-grav space-ships and phasers. It was great!

Ans: rice £2.00; salad £1.00; taco £3.50