Wednesday 31 January 2024

The Actual & The Ideal

← Das große Rasenstück from life itself by Albrecht Dürer 1503. Althogh it was painted 500+ years ago, this proto-realistic picture of a clod of turf is as good as anything Keble-Martin produced 50 years ago with much better material resources. Any competent botanist will be able to name at least a dozen species of common European meadow flowers - both monocot and dicot - bonus for Latin binomers!

One of the struggles to bringing botany into a scientific framework was that, up until Dürer's time, writers on the natural history of plants deferred to the Classics - Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, Dioscorides -  even to denying the evidence of their own eyes. My old biology teacher told us that the common bluebell was named Scylla non-scripta because medieval and early-modern plantsmen were shoe-horning the plant into an ancient description of a plant Scylla which had a mark on the petals. Bluebells have no such mark, hence non-scripta. It is now known as Hyacinthoides non-scripta.

We were tidying up the bookshelves and The Beloved turned up The Naming of Names The Search for Order in the World of Plants (2005) by Anna Pavord and asked if we cd/shd send it out to a new home. "Whoa, not until I've read it", I replied. I've been happily and didactically motoring through it since. It's 400 pages of text n pictures + 70 pages of timeline, notes, references and index AND library books take precedence AND wood needs to be chopped; SO I wasn't done in a week, nor yet in a month. But it is def'ny my jam.

Pavord's thesis is that Θεόφραστος Theophrastus of Lesbos (~371 – ~287 BCE), polymath and successor to Aristotle (384–322 BCE) was the greatest and best of botanists from the classical times but all his original works slipped between the cracks of  Dark Age sack and pillage. Chunks of his Περὶ φυτῶν ἱστορία Enquiry into Plants [companion to Aristotle's much better known Τῶν περὶ τὰ ζῷα ἱστοριῶν Enquiry into Animals] were dug up in the Vatican archives and both were translated into Latin by Theodoro of Gaza between 1450 and 1480. Going back to The Source, showed what sorry show of mindless, error-frittered, copying had been carried out by Pliny and Dioscorides. These later chaps were typical of their times when all the smart people were dedicated followers of Plato and his obsession with the Ideal and how our own beautiful, beguiling, pretty world were but a poor shadowy simulacrum of ?heaven? Well be damned to that! What we have is what we get to work with . . . unless we're Iain M. Banks or C.S. "Narnia" Lewis making stuff up. We might as well enjoy, respect and study the plants we see - especially those that are not useful to medicine or agriculture.

Pavord's book documents the transition of botanizing from poring over gospels of ancient wisdom to crawling about in meadows actually looking at reality . . . and looting pretty examples for gardens or 'herbals' of squashed dried specimens to later reference. Part of this was recording the provenance of the plants collected, described or drawn. Paul Green has it easy with GPS on his phone, or an OS 1:50,000 map to report that Epilobium roseum is abundant at S799272 [that's Old Ross] in Co Wexford. In 1632 Leonard Buckner couldn't be as succinct: marestail Equisetum arvense being found ". . . three miles beyond Oxford, a little to the side of Euensham ferry, a bog upon a common by the Beacon hill neare Cumner wood". Location location is essential for the replication / verification of any findings.

There also developed an appreciation, copper-fastened by Linnaeus in the 1700s, that botanical names could / should be labels not descriptors: Plantago foliis ovato-lanceolatis pubescentibus, spica cylindrica, scapo tereti  doesn't trip off the tongue. But calling the same plant Plantago media allows my Austrian and Peruvian collaborators to know precisely what we're all talking about. The Genus species convention also formalised the lowest level grouping of similar plants . . . while also down-grading mere varieties within a species. There are 10x more varieties [30,000] of rose than species in the genus Astragulus [3,000] but the former are considered accidentia, the latter substantia. The former include changes in form induced by the environment (or indeed the horticulturalist), the latter the fundamental nature of each plant - although John Ray (1627-1705) and Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603) were developing this concept 300 & 400 years before DNA came on the scene.

On the same page as that ramble near Oxenford, here's a great bit of Brexit exceptionalism by Thomas Johnson (1600-1644) justifying his attention to back-yard plants ". . . I verily believe that the Divine Providence had a care in bestowing plants in each part of the earth fitting and convenient to the foreknowne necessities of the future inhabitants; and if we thoroughly knew the vertues of these, we needed no Indian nor American drugges". Nigel Farage, please copy?

As you may tell from the above, I obtained a good deal of informative edutainment from reading this chunky, profusely illustrated book. Recommended to obsessives. It's widely available in the Irish Library System.  Cannot handle the book? Pavord writes on the regular for Country Life and other media.

Monday 29 January 2024

The ties that bind

Nope: not The Boss. After 7½ years of working for/ at/ with/ The Institute (and giving it socks) I took retirement in October 2020. Like all my going-gone colleagues, I was quite mercenary about this. We-all retired on 2nd October, at the most inconvenient time to make staff change-over, because all public servants got a 2% pay-rise on 1st October. It was Full-on Coronarama, so there was no formal goodbye; for which I was thankful. Then last Summer, my/our Department rented a room in town and stood us a dinner, a wee accolade and a weird glass ornament

But The Institute wasn't done! And even larger group of retirees was given lunch just before Christmas 2023. To accommodate the logistics of all these people, still-in-harness colleagues were reduced to N = 2 per department and speeches were stop-watched. It was short notice and I think they were grateful when I refused the invite and had a 'umble cheese n pickle sandwich instead. As I suspected a month ago, I could not thus avoid getting a glass vase. It arrived here at home, all parcelled up, the day after Storm Jocelyn blew through. The vase was hand-blown at Jerpoint Glass [L]. Me, I would have preferred a different design; but I'm not gonna use it, so I don't really have skin in the game. otoh, the colour does rather complement The Grape, The Beloved's Citroën Picasso. The design is called Tulip Vase and it's 25 cm = 10" tall. I don't know where I'm going with this: nobody wants a heavy glass object full of flowers (and water) in the car with them if they get side-swiped at an intersection.

If I can think of a way to seal the top, I could fill it with something typical of today and add it to our Centennial Time Capsule. The diggers-up in 2121 may look on such a handy water-proof container as worth its weight in spear-points.

I have baggage about gifts. I just participated in my last family Kris Kringle, for example. Nobody shd be put in a position where they feel obliged to give me something unless they know I want it. Gift giving should never be transactional but Kris Kringle, and indeed Christmas, tends to make it so. The Kwakiutl of the Pacific North-West allowed potlatch = reciprocal gift-giving to get completely out of hand. In order not to lose face, communities would bankrupt themselves and their neighbours as gift value spiralled out of control. With this purple vase it is transactional but not reciprocal. When a powerful entity gives something to someone who is powerless to refuse, that says I still own you. Also, because the vase has no utility, it's a tawdry metaphor that the retiree (who was previously adding value to the enterprise) now has no utility. The Institute doesn't care enough a) to include a named contact on the compliments slip through which I could formally express my thanks b) to ask whether purple matched my curtains.

I could do (a) above: I'm well brought up, I was obliged as a child to write insincere thank-you letters to two rellies who both sent me a Lett's Schoolboy Diary in 1964. Now, though, I really am that man who has everything. The Blob as my diary for starters! Obvs I don't have everything but I don't want no more stuff. Family, pals, previous employers, please note. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker.

yachts make you seasick
devices wear out
events give you covid
you're best off with nowt

 You're kinder than me and can doubtless cast this transaction in a more positive light.

Sunday 28 January 2024

Canossa 1077

On this day, in 1077, in the snow, Holy Roman Emp Henry IV Gang nach Kanossa and submits to Pope Greg VII on the matter of appointing clerics. In 1872 Otto von Bismarck wins the return match ""Seien Sie außer Sorge, nach Kanossa gehen wir nicht, weder körperlich noch geistig". That's Old, wot's New?

Friday 26 January 2024

Outports be gone

Most of us live a dry-land life. Even fisherfolk and light-ship servicers mostly sleep in beds ashore. Huge amounts of treasure, steel and concrete has been poured into railways [19thC] then roads [InterstatethC] to deliver goods and foods to factories and homes. It was not ever thus. Since the beginning of history it has been more efficient to transport freight and people by water: hence the development of extensive canal systems across these islands [18thC]. But canals are only needed where there is no convenient access to seaways. And there is a reason why towns grew up around the first bridge upstream on all the rivers of Europe.

When Newfoundland was settled [17thC], from the Déise and elsewhere, everything looked seaward - indeed largely codward [that's Gadus morhua L and it's rellies] . While settlers might keep a few chickens and try a few hard-scrabble fields of oats, barley or potatoes behind their cabins; there was no need, maybe no possibility, for a metalled road joining the several "outports" [technical term]. Folk found it was quicker to take the hron rad [whale-road] on their byrviggs [wind-horse] [lingoprev] instead. But progress came inevitably to the remotest parts of Newfld: not only metalled roads (even if only local), but dispensary, church, shops, chandlers and post-office . . . school, water-treatment, garbage-collection, electric, street-lighting. All the infrastructure that the rest of us take for granted and pretend costs nothing.

The Provincial Government has been pursuing a policy of drawing in the tentacles of its reach, so it's limited tax bucks can get better bangs - as defined by minimizing payment per tax-payer. Case in point is Gaultois a tiny settlement on a biggish (5x bigger than Inishmore or ½ the size of Nantucket) island. Long Island used to support several other small communities but Gaultois is the only one left - perhaps because, until 1990, a fish-processing plant employed many of the people. They closed because their weren't enough fish coming in to justify paying wages and electric bills.  In 1992, the  Federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, John Crosbie, shuttered the Atlantic cod fishing industry . . . 500 years after it started. In 2007 commercial salmon fishing was banned in Ireland, followed by the end of the eel fishery in 2008.

In March last year, the government polled the people of Gaultois as to whether they would be prepared to accept a resettlement grant and move nearer to Newfoundland Centraal. Half the province's population live in the six largest communities. But there's a loonnnng tail of tiny isolated communities which are inefficient in the sense that thousands of homes across Ireland with their own septic-tank and drain-field are inefficient. The grant is ~$250,000 for  voting age householders and $10,000 for landless voters - presumably renters. Simms-the-Shop was offered twice the assessed value of his emporium. But a few weeks later the ballots had been counted and only 64% voted to shift their duff. That fell short of the 75% threshold, so the deal was off. It's all about the money for the government. Paying out $10 million now will have a pay-back time of about 10 years as services are terminated. The biggest cost is the subsidized ferry service that bumbles along the South coast on the regular connecting the larger communities with Hermitage, a port which has a road which goes somewhere. Hundreds of point-to-point trips each year are made with zero passengers. This don't bother the employees of the ferry company none, but it sure does rile up the bean-counters in St. John.

And what about the feral cats? I posted to Metafilter whc commented. Newfoundland? Prevs: Change Is - Fogo

Wednesday 24 January 2024

Jocelyn sweeps past

Just about 48 hours after Storm Isha gave Donegal a drubbing and scattered Dublin-bound planes all over NW Europe, Storm Jocelyn followed in her footsteps.

We weathered Isha well enough, parking The Grape almost in the living room to escape any falling deadwood. In the morning, I was up at first light to check that we could reach the county road down our lane. We had places to go, things to do in the forenoon. If I didn't need to cut our way out then I could have breakfast instead.
What you see in the foreground is most of the larger wood-rain; none of which fell dagger-down in The Grape's usual parkplatz. But I'd do the same again.

The most significant Isha damage was the loss of half of a dead Scot's Pinus sylvestris down at the bottom corner of the haggard. 

The branch/trunk broke off 6ft =  1.8m above the ground - presumably after getting into a thrashing resonance with the wind at some time in the night. It's quite safe for the moment but is applying extra weight to the leaning ash Fraxinus excelsior from which Gdau.II's swing-buoy is suspended. With Jocelyn incommmming, some or all of this teeter-totter might fall. Then we'll have to find somewhere else to put the more daddo, higher daddo, hiiiigher kidder into low-earth orbit.

As noted last year Storm Jocelyn is named after Jocelyn "No-Bell" Bell Burnell, discoverer of pulsars, long term supporter of Open University and active promoter of more young women in science.

And I quote Met Éireann meteorologist Aoife Kealy has urged people to be mindful that Storm Jocelyn may exasperate damage to structures that have already been damaged by Storm Isha. Exasperate?? My damage would be quite pissed off as well I can tell you.

We escaped the indignity of electric failure with Isha, although at peak on Monday 22 Jan 24 225,000 ESB customers were in darkness. That count was down to 50,000 by noon the following day; just as Jocelyn started to ramp up the windspeed. But this second storm - perhaps frightened by the weather forecasting Donegal postman - edged Northwards and barely brushed the country. At 0700 hours 24 Jan 24, only 29K homes were without power: 16,000 residual from Isha and an additional 13,000 from storm J. By that metric Jocelyn was but 6% as fighty as Isha. Not complaining, mind! As the Storm's namesake said last September "I am delighted to feature in this distinguished list celebrating science and hope that if a potential “Storm Jocelyn” happens, it may be a useful stirring-up rather than a destructive event!".

One bad outcome of this might be to increase skepticism about MetEireann warnings: leading to people being out and about at the wrong time because them weather people always talk it big. That would be foolish because MetEireann is much better at predicting the weather than all the berry-counting postmen in the country.

Monday 22 January 2024

Isha nail-biter

Dau.I & Dau.II went to Edinburgh for the weekend: a late significant-bday present from An Admirer. Bookings were made weeks ago, when Storm Isla wasn't even a Caribbean butterfly flap. But that's okay. Even ferry bookings are mostly 'safe' in January, and planes travel faster than the wind hereabouts. So only Bob "the anxious" would spend the whole winter on the sofa under a duvet; not going anywhere for fear of trees falling. But, nevertheless, like manly folk across the country, I did use the yest daylight hours to touch-up the teeth of my chain-saw and make sure I knew where fuel and chain-oil - and PPE! - were.

But as darkness fell on Sunday (21Jan24) evening, Storm Isla made landfall [crump, above] in Galway, Mayo and Donegal and Met Eireann cranked out a Red wind warning for those three counties with Orange for the rest of the country. Similar calls made across the water.  I was starting to regret that they were not on an earlier flight: to slip out of Scotland and land safely in Dublin before the wind-drubbing started in earnest. It having been gusty all day on the farrrrm with a clattery dusting of dead ash branches.  But whoa! look what happened to that earlier flight:

FR817 set off 4 hours late, was put in a holding pattern over the Irish Sea off Drogheda and then instructed to return to base! The passengers de-planed back in Edinburgh, just as the gate was closed on the next flight . . . which sat on the tarmac full of cranky passengers including m'family for about 3 hours before taking off. Tale-off is the usually the easy part: just line up, throttle up and Go! You can see it all in real time on planefinder: which picks up the transponder of each plane and GPSes it (including altitude).
It was a little dicier at the destination end with a Southerly 25kt (45 km/h) cross-wind, gusting to 45kt (that's national speed-limit 80km/h) on windfinder. With far too much [aghast] attention to detail, I noted that about half the incommming pilots were getting an unfortunate combo of gusts on approach so throttled up at about 1500 ft and made a Go-Round.  The plane-finder evidence says that Daus' pilot thought discretion was better than gofer twice, but Dau.I says it was three times. She's not the best traveller at the best of time but even her phlegmatic sister confessed to feeling a bit green round the gills when they all finally poured out on the plane in Dublin and headed home.

As of 23:30 hrs Sunday evening, with all the family tucked up in bed, there were 170,000 homes without power across the country and sundry reports of downed trees and storm debris. As of 07:00 this morning it's 235K powerless homes.  Last storm year ended 31 Aug 2023; there were only two named storms: Antoni [04Aug23]; Betty [18Aug23]. This year, four months in, we've already clocked: Agnes, Babet, Ciarán, Debi, Elin, Fergus, Gerrit, Henk, and Isha . . . I tell ya b'ys, the weather is getting fizzier.

Sunday 21 January 2024

Kelly's Book

. . . and other matter

Friday 19 January 2024

'tis an ICL wind

There's a hoot-nanny scandal fanning up across the water over the last tuthree weeks. ~25 years ago, the UK Post Office procured software to reduce the paper mountain of audit trail and help out the thousands of sub-posties who were selling stamps and doling out pensions across the country. It's big business, the pensions alone turn over £2billion a week. When a new proprietor takes over the franchise they are given a float of £30K about enough for the first 150 pensions. All the cash is one reason why hoods hold up sub-Post Offices. Obvs, much of that throughput is now done by bank transfer, but that was not at all the norm back when the need for accounting software was identified and the contract put out to tender. The winner, with the lowest bid, was an established British >!huzzah!< company called ICL - International Computers Limited.

With 20/20 hindsight, it is clear that ICL over-promised and under-delivered, there was also mission-creep from the client side, bluster from ICL sales and lack of vision from ICL IT Centraal. Doubtless there were competent programmers and engineers in the mix but ICL delivered an evolving kludge: any unexpected results [lots] were patched up until the next anomaly or crash got people off the golf-courses and at their terminals on the weekend. ICL was eventually on its knees and bought by Japanese MegaCorp Fujitsu. The narrative now is about soaking Fujitsu [and good luck with that! - check the fine print in the original contract] for the compo which the unfortunate sub-posties deserve. But the fault ultimately lies at the door of the management of ICL back in the mid-1990s.

Fastbackwards to the mid 1980s . . . 

In 2019, Trinity College Dublin, my old alma, noted the 50th Anniversary of it's IT laboratory. They pushed out an obsessive detail PDF to mark the occasion. It didn't make enough waves for them to invite the likes of me back for sherry-and-canapés although I had quite close ties with the IT Effectives in the mid-90s of the last century. With one of these self-taught gurus, I dramatically busted a young chap who'd hacked into the computer for which I was responsible. We were all self-taught in the early days.

In the mid/late 1980s, ten years before the Post Office procurement fiasco, a committee of senior TCD people was assembled to spec out a new mainframe computer to serve the academics and administrators of the college for the next several years. This committee got their ToDo list in order and put the contract out to tender. They had £1 million to spend because that's what it cost back then. The winner of that process was . . . ICL.

In 1990, I inherited my seat at the IT table from Des Higgins [prev on whales], who had left the country to write software and crunch data at the EMBL computer lab in Heidelberg. Des is an excellent field biologist, who taught himself how to code during his PhD on spiders. GenBank, the database of DNA sequences was launched in 1982 and was doubling in size about every 15 months. In 1987 a research-active TCD Lecturer called Paul Sharp hired Des to compare these sequences in order to get a handle on the pattern and process of evolution. Sequence alignment is famously an example of NP-completeness, which is a class of mathematical problems that can be verified easily - in finite time with a suitable computer - but cannot be easily solved. Solving is a polynomial problem. Pairwise aligning 2 sequences is trivial: you can make a good fist of it with a word-processor but it does not scale. Time taken for a multiple sequence alignment MSA ~= lenN where len is the length of the sequences and N is the number of sequences that need to be included.

Problem? If two sequences takes 1m 40s to complete then len2 = 100 seconds but ten sequences takes len10 seconds which is about 300 years. Clearly, any non-trivial MSA is going to require some hefty compute-chops or a hella long time. Fortunately for the future of bioinformatics, in 1970 Needleman and Wunsch had conjured up a fix for this - effectively reducing any MSA problem to a series of pairwise [ie doable] alignments. It still required compute power but not 300 years of clank-and-whirr. Higgins and Sharp were delighted to push their frontiers with TCD's new high-spec ICL mainframe . . . except that it was often 'down'. It just couldn't be relied on to be working when they needed to run data through it.

Having been turned away by the IT people agane, Des retired to Kennedy's Bar on Westland Row and thought about the problem. The war-story is that he wrote the solution on a beer mat in the back room at Kennedy's but that's a metaphor. What he actually did was break down the MSA problem into 4 chunks, each of which was small enough to be solved by a desktop PC. Coming up with a clever name? Now that could be done on a beer-mat. They named Des's working kludge [cf non-working ICL kludge] Clustal for Clustered Alignment.

To solve a MSA problem you ran the data sequentially through Clustal I then Clustal II then Clustal III then Clustal IV. When I came on the scene a tuthree years later, Des had clagged the four modules into all singing all dancing ClustalV. Later, waggishly treating V [roman 5] as an alphabetical letter, the next version included weighting and was named V . . W  = ClustalW then . . X ClustalX with an X-graphics interface. The current [and probably last] version is Clustal-omega [as in alpha and omega = beginning and end]. It won't have escaped your classical notice that reads clustalω although it is usually written as ClustalΩ. Actually-actually it is usually written clustalo b/c QWERTY keyboard. [probably the last] because Des retired, a bit early, a couple of years ago and there are a gazillion other options for doing MSA: some of which were on Des' watch [T-COFFEE with Cedric Notredame] and others not [MUSCLE, MAFFT, Kalign].

But for many in the field Clustal is Original and Best. Because it was written for personal computers rather than implemented on a  million-dollar mainframe it became the tool of choice for Everyman. The several Higgins et al. Clustal papers have been collectively cited an eye-watering number of times. If ICL had delivered a computer that was reliable and fit-for-purpose, none of this would have happened.

Tuesday 16 January 2024

Lá Fhéile Fursa!

Calloo callay,
St Fursey's Day

Same as every year, the 16th of January is the Feast of St Fursey, a second tier Irish saint, whose cult I am propagandizing2022 - 2023. We have weather in Ireland rather than climate, so the cloud-cover on any day in January is a crap-shoot. But if the previous night has been really cold, that's because there was no heat-retaining cloud cover and it's good odds that the sky will be clear at 08:27 local time, whc is when the sun rises behind Clorogue More. And it was so:

The mental distortion which makes the sun-at-the-horizon look so boiling big is nixxed by the cold logical eye of the camera. You'll have to take my word for it that sunrise between two bands of low-lying stratus was bloomin' marvellous this morning. I am sorry that there was only me to share the traditional feast-day foods of barley bannocks, honey and a horn of mead laid out on The Giant's Table aka St. Fursey's Altar. About 170m lower down, close to the lane that snakes across the heathland, the sceagh-of-the-forest remains after the conifers were clear felled behind it:

In the distant past we used to decorate this tree with little wrapped Celebrations candy on St Stephen's Day 24/Dec because we knew a family that was in the habit of walking off Christmas Dinner up our hill. Cripes, the youngest of those kids is now in college. Poor tree is going clean now and looks better for being unlittered. 

For the record: a yomp of 1700m horizontal and 170 vertical takes [me] a brisk 35 minutes. So next year, we really need to leave the house by 07:45.

Monday 15 January 2024


Kefermarkt is a town between Linz and Freistadt in Upper Austria whose church has a spectacular +500 year old wooden altarpiece [St Christopher pictured R with his trad burdens] carved in the 1490s. More pics: there's A Lot of detail. Like the survival of only fragments [7/120ths] of the works of Σοφοκλῆς = Sophocles - whose output rivalled that of Wm Shagsper born 2,060 years later - most of the religious artwork of Central Europe from Late Medieval times has gone to smoke and rubble. 

At about the same time:

  • notSaint Christopher Columbus was initiating the sack and pillage of the civilizations of the New World
  • Perkin Warbeck was sailing from Cork to France as part of making his end run for the English throne.  
  • Leonardo da Vinci was painting La Belle Ferronnière in Milan. 
  • In the North, Sweden successfully defended >!BOOM!< the fortress of Vyborg / Выборг / Viipuri against an army of besieging Russians.

This wood-carving is pretty and pretty amazing. It is clearly part of the inspiration for Hermann Hesse's Narziss and Goldmund [whc prev]. Goldmund, the scape-grace white-headed boy of his teacher Narziss, as well as a serial shagger across medieval Europe, becomes an accomplished carver of wood. In those days, magnates secular and clerical would commission 3-D art pieces as well as paintings and other bling. In the case of Kefermarkt, of which we treat, (despite the derails) we know that the sponsor was local laird Christoph von Zelking, advisor and confidant of The Emperor, who died in 1491. The will contained a clause to make the altarpiece to grace the church which C v. Z had ordered built 20 years prior. Of the artist who won the commission we know nothing. In the patchy nature of medieval evidence [whc prev], you need a notname to attribute similar works to a single source. Even if that source is a team from the same atelier. The journeymen roughed things out and carved the boilerplate; the apprentices made tea and were sent in search of a glass hammer; the Master finished the work in his own inimitable style. So here, we acknowledge the hand of The Master of the Kefermarkt Altarpiece or indeed Meister des Kefermarkter Altars.

This obvs reminds us of the classic tale of bamboozlement by anonymity in which Odysseus introduces himself to the one-eyed giant Πολύφημος = Polyphemus as Οὖτις = Noman, Nobody. When wily Odysseus blinds his host and escapes with those of his crew who haven't been eaten, Polyphemus calls out to his monster neighbours that he has been assaulted and dispossessed (of his dinner), they roar back "who has thus injured you?" Polyphemus has to reply ὦ φίλοι, Οὖτίς με κτείνει δόλῳ οὐδὲ βίηφιν = Noman has injured me and the neighbours huff a bit about the noise and then go about their own business. A right shit-heel, that Odysseus.

Sunday 14 January 2024

Bawo = father etc.

Very Misc

It's my Dad's anniversary tonight. He died "suddenly" in hospital in the wee hours of 15 Jan 2001. My mother waited until "it was decent" [0800 hrs] to call their children with the news. The hospital "lost his records" when his death seemed so unexpected as to warrant an enquiry. He knew Bannow Bay, Co Wexford rather well: his own father is buried just over the headland on the right of this picture. He used to paint views such as this: being rather better at clouds than at people.

Saturday 13 January 2024

We launch from Porlock Weir

That was the decision of Coxswain Jack Crocombe on the night of 12th Jan 1899. The Lynmouth Lifeboat Station had received a telegram to say that the Forrest Hall, a 1,900 ton full rigged sailing ship was rudderless in the Bristol Channel and had just broken her tow-line. The crew, 20 horses, and 80 volunteers hauled the 10 tonne, 10m long Louisa [pictured below] for 20 km across the fringe of Exmoor. Commentary on MetaFilter which casts doubt on the 10 tonnes, which is widely reported - including from the RNLI.  BBC news at the 1999 re-enactment claims 3½ tons. Sources are fuzzy about whether the weight includes carriage. Thames tonnage measurement is a volume to carrying capacity estimate used for yachts and other small boats:

TT = ((len - beam) x beam x beam/2)/94
((34 - 8) x 8 x 4)/94  = 8.9 tons

The journey (along today's A39) included a 300m-vertical climb up Countisbury Hill and a complementary 1-in-4 descent down Porlock Hill. It required the demolition of the corner of a cottage in Porlock as well as sundry temporary road-widening along the highway. And one of the carriage-wheels fell off. They arrived 11 hours later.

The Louisa launched immediately upon arrival and was rowed through the storm for an hour to the, now anchored, vessel; then stood by until two steam tugs arrived and towed the Forrest Hall to safety across the Channel at Barry Dock in Wales.

Mr. Fry, owner of the Forrest Hall, donated £75 towards the costs of presenting silver watches&chains and £5 cash to each crew member of the Louisa Lifeboat. Coxswain Jack Crocombe and Second-Coxswain George Richards got gold watches with gold chains. The costs for repairing the Exmoor stone walls, and the corner of Porlock cottage, plus flood damage caused to the Lynmouth lifeboat station totalled £27-5s-6d.

In 1999, there was a re-enactment - with tractor [2 min news item]. Another re-enactment this morning "A welcome party will be held at Porlock Weir in conjunction with The Bottom Ship Pub, featuring shanty punk group Skinny Lister [2½ min ♬ ♪ ♫], Bridgwater Sea Cadet band and Lynmouth Shanty Crew"

Full crew that night: Jack Crocombe (coxswain), George Richards (second coxswain), Richard Ridler (bowman), Richard Moore (signalman), Richard Burgess, Charles Crick, David Crocombe, William Jarvis, Bertram Pennicott, Thomas Pugsley, George Rawle, John Ridler, John Ward, William Richards (age 16). Sou'westers Off!

Bicentennial alert. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution RNLI was founded on 4th March 1824 by Sir William Hillary and others in a London pub.After Hillary uttered a pamphlet: An Appeal To The British Navy On The Humanity And Policy Of Forming A National Institution For The Preservation Of Lives And Property From Shipwreck.

Friday 12 January 2024

Murder Most Florid

Let's hear it for diatoms! They are microscopic, unicellular algae fantastically abundant in wet places across the world. Not a patch on Prochlorococcus abundant, mind, but that's a prokaryote. One interesting thing about diatoms is that they have silica, rather than calcium carbonate, shells. This material is rather more resistant to degradation; perhaps because everyone else is avid for calcium. The other diatom 'fact' is their remarkable diversity of form - as sampled above from the Nat Hist Museum in London.

With their diversity, you can imagine that diatoms might be useful in forensics but TIL that they are particularly useful in cases of drowning. The smaller members of the tribe can be forced across the alveolar membrane when water under pressure floods the lungs and finish up embedded in various tissues including the liver. One standard forensic technique is to "ash" a necropsy sample from such tissues and then wash out the impervious-to-fire silica skeletons to determine if the drowning occurred at sea or in a lake or in a bathtub. Each of those habitats hosting different varieties of diatoms.

This is not all I learned from reading Murder Most Florid: Inside the Mind of a Forensic Botanist (2019) by Dr Mark Spencer. I won't link to the publisher because, a) the book is basically out of print because Quadrille under-estimated the take-up b) the book has been published with two missing pages. Check your library, though, because it's worth a leaf through (see wot I did there?). Spencer's work is adjacent to that of Patricia Wiltshire, who works in the same arena as a forensic palynologist (pollen-boffin). They have both been free-lancing = scrabbling for work on zero hours non contracts from police-services across the UK. Between 1991 and 2012, there was a UK state-owned FSS Forensic Science Service. It was available as a service to the several police forces . . . but also coroners, the Revenue, prosecutors. Then is was shuttered because it was costing money and half the staff went free-lance. I'm sure that the created competition is great for Das Kapital.

Most crime (Forensics:the application of scientific methods and techniques to the investigation of crime) happens in houses, or on the mean streets. Forensics in this world is about glass fragments, gunshot residues, blood-spatter, exit wounds. Most coppers never get out in the countryside and are a bit at a loss when scene-of-crime hinges on bending of grass-stems, the length of bramble arches, leaf-frags in trouser-cuffs. They are more inclined to call up a boys-toys back-hoe, than a fastidious botanist in wellies. A back-hoe will dig up the body if it's there, Yes,  but with a lot of extra metal-on-bone marks to bamboozle the forensic pathologist like Richard Shepherd. Cripes, I've been reading too much about dead-body science.

Who knew that a really experienced botanist can name a plant species from a 1cm2 fragment of leaf stuck to a muddy boot-heel? For most of us, beyond ash Fraxinus excelsior and daisies Bellis perennis, we'd be hard-put to dredge up common name, let alone a Linnaean binomer, for a whole in situ random plant from the neighbourhood - even if it was in flower. Quiz-time [L]: under what species of tree was the bludgeoned Together For Yes activist having a picnic? A: at page bottom.

It's true that police services have long ago given up on the ideal of solving all crime. They probably won't bother to call by if you phone-in a burglary: "Just call your insurance, Sir". They have a budget and a set of priorities and nailing a perp to a particular place through botanical trace-work is a) alien e) expensive, so it's not done. Drs Spencer, Shepherd and Wiltshire think that justice is a missing a trick there; but perhaps everything looks like a nail to a hammer and they would say that wouldn't they? If you read either of the forensic botanist memoirs, you'll be in a better position to judge whether "we" need that expertise. Nobody has made a convincing case that "we" need synonymous codon usage analysis, however much fun I had working in that field for a decade.

Mark Spencer addresses the Linnaean Society on his book and work.
A: Acer pseudoplatanus, sycamore Seicmar

Wednesday 10 January 2024

The Triv of Hist

Q. After all, who wouldn't want Napoleon's penis in a display cabinet?

I had a life-time working in science; amazingly, getting paid (to have fun) for most of it. I was a second-rate player - but not as low as third-rate . . . fair with failings. Principal of those failings being lack of finish: the ideas came readily enough; I enjoyed gathering data and processing them; but copper-bottoming the ship for launching was too much like hard work and my desk-drawer was full of unpublished manuscripts. What I could do was write a book-review! 700 words giving the gist of a book, a mild crit of how well it was put together and a sentence or two of original content to add something to the intellectual history of humanity. The Blob is an extension of this business model: not limited to books but still 700 rambling words about something specific that has floated up over my horizon. There are still rather more typos and clunky phrasing than I'd like. But if there's a copy deadline, the type must be set and printed and done.

Suzie Edge surfaced on Metafilter because of her line in medical-historical tales. That's my jam and so I ordered her book from the library: Vital Organs: A History of The World's Most Famous Body Parts.  Edge started life as a molecular biologist; shifted to medicine (infection, haematology, surgery); then took an MLitt in Modern History; more recently has gone mad on TikTok. It's a bit like The Blob, I guess: getting inspiration from whatever floats past in the media stream.  Someone suggested that the subset of stories about [named] human body parts could be clagged together into a book-length manuscript and waft this past some publishers.

The Q. at the top of this piece refers to one such member.
A. No thanks. It's quite enough to handle my own penis, don't need another.
Seemingly, someone nicked Napoleon's penis before the Emperor was buried and after some peculiar travelling it is now at rest in New Jersey. Most of Albert Einstein's brain is likewise now lodged in a jar in Hamilton Ontario. In neither case was the macabre shipment across multiple state lines authorized by informed consent! We've both 'done' Alexis St. Martin's visible digestive system. Galileo's middle finger is on display [R] in Firenze. If there is going to be a second volume of Vital Organs (and there must be a "second eleven" out there), I've already written Captain Danjou's hand.

Suzie Edge has retailed the [standard story] of Douglas Bader’s legs. These prostheses were defo part of my cultural background when I was a schoolboy in short pants, pretending to be a Hawker Hurricane [neeowwww, budda budda budda] in 1960s England. Bader was a POW in WWII and vowed to be “a plain, bloody nuisance to the Germans”. One example was refusing to attend appel /roll-call in the snow because his feet would get cold. Hilarious stick-it-to-the-man anecdote. Except that, several years after tween me hoovering up Reach For The Sky, his biography by Paul Brickhill, I heard about the POV of his fellow POWs who had been required to parade in the snow until all prisoners were present and accounted for.

This is a peculiar book. Comprehensive history it ain't. It's basically a series of reasonably well-informed cocktail-party anecdotes; not a haiku, but not a critical reading of the several sources, either. I hope it does well because we all need to be less squeamish about dead bodies.  It is written in a jaunty, not to say racy, style with a liberal smattering of dark doctory insider jokes. Rather too many, in my prudish all-grown-up opinion. A lot of water under my bridge since I was sharing Lockerbie jokes with the lads.

Monday 8 January 2024

I'm boilin' so I am

My grandfather is buried in Co Wexford. His grandmother owned 13,330 acres of the county (that's +2% of the dry-land area - the mean holding per head being 5 acres!) in the 1870s shortly before The Ganfer was born. For that or some other reason, I'm signed up to an e-mail feed from Wexford CoCo Arts Department. Round about Epiphany they sent out a call to arms:


Funding will be available through the scheme to support a number of short films. We are seeking entries from narrative film, documentary and animation.
A fund of €10,000 will be shared between a selection of a maximum of 3 successful applicants. This will cover genres of drama,documentary and animation.
The award also consists of mentorship from leading industry professionals, as well as some in kind support of  lighting equipment hire  and film equipment hire.

At the beginning of December, I coughed up some folding money to GoFundMe a film being built by a young team of my acquaintance, based in Dublin, and invited y'all to do the same. Their fund-raiser has ground to a halt [last donation 7 days ago] at €2,305 of a €3,000 goal. I deduce that offering €10K to support max 3x short films is within the normal range of expectations. Who knew? €3,000 is a lot to spend on Mars Bars; but reasonable for a reliable car? 

What had me chewing my beard in vicarious frustration is that the award appears to be limited to a) consultancy fees b) equipment hire. The also in the third sentence of the announcement is porting a lot of water if there is another interpretation. The CoCo Arts Department seem to think it is okay for the creatives in their care to be part of the voluntariat and/or independently wealthy like my Grampa's Grannie. Thus:

  • It is okay to funnel money to established "mentors" who have presumably made it financially. 
  • It is okay for HireAll companies to generate some turn-over. 
  • But it is not okay for the actual creatives to buy food or clothing or pay the rent with the money

That all is not okay. Many of my oldest friends have been making Art for their entire adult lives. This funding model is absolutely standard practice in the Arts world. What happens is that, as established authors big each other up in blurb-rings of mutual back-scratching, so artists ladle the money into each other's bowls: My contract allows me to employ someone else to film my dance; your contract allows you to give a per diem to extras; their contract allows them to buy paint from her supply shop; her contract allows her to have a dancer launch a new product-line by Rowney. None of them can use the money, which they win in competitions, to stave off the wolf or put shoes on their kids' feet.

+30 years ago, before the launch of Science Foundation Ireland SFI at the turn of the century, science funding could be a bit like that. In the early 90s I knew a couple of chemists who were completing PhDs, generating copy and kudos for their supervisors, while working as a barkeep to live: they got no salary. My first three research grants (from the Donegal Historical Society; BU Sigma Xi and the Nuffield Foundation) assumed I had a regular income and provided the money for travel and reagents. That assumption was only true the third time round.

IF the Arts Council and parallel Arts funding bodies really want to get more artistic creation out there, THEN they need to crank up the funding and pay salary to successful applicants. For science funding I've long asserted that piffling the money out too thin does not serve Science well. It means underfunded small sample sizes, inadequate to answer any of the research questions posed. The €10,000 films fund should be a €10,000 FILM fund: €4K to make the film; €5K for rent; €1K for groceries including a bottle of old red biddy for Saturday night after a hard week chasing the Key Grip and Best Boy round the camera dolly.

Sunday 7 January 2024

Piper greets the year

Rich and famous


Friday 5 January 2024

Form un function

Private Eye summarized the recent UK Coronation: Man in Hat Sits on Chair. I was lamenting how samey and genre'd so much nature writing is: Person (usually bloke) shrugs self into rain-gear and walks somewhere, talks inconsequentially to random people along the way, takes notes, sees birbs, takes bus occasionally because is weak not purist, flies home, writes up, job done. 

There are some exceptions: go deep with Louis Agassiz: talk to nobody but beetles and worms and work your way slowly over your back yard over the summer. Or you can take a small mountain range as your back garden like Nan Shepherd: talk to nobody and keep going back and be quiet in place until the birbs come and talk to you. But having an agenda / trope / theme, even if added post-hoc: that doesn't count as being true to your own-self voice. It is rather a construct: Round Ireland with a fridge; Dervlaing thru Ethiopia on a mule; In the Footsteps of Stevenson: A Journey Through the Cevennes; or 11 Wild Atlantic Way Women . . . those are marketing gimmicks. y'have to quiet the monkey mind if you want to hear the truth.

I was stalking one of the more thoughtful MeFi Regulars who is an Icelandic poet living in Finland: immersed in minority languages but fluent in Englanninkielinen. His interconnect with nature falls far outside my peevish complaining. Watchunder, I sample the title and a single stanza, but please please take the full immersion plunge of "Entropic Nature": it's an experience. On the left the original by Karí Tulinius  the right translated by Larissa Kyzer. Be sure to open the "translator's note" window where Larissa sets out the task.

loft loft fugl loft      blue blue bird blue
sjór sjór sjór svif      wave wave wave fish
botn þang botn botn      seab edse awee dsea
eðja eðja flak eðja      silt silt hull silt

You don't have to know Icelandic to see that the translation is not a dogged word for word by Google Translate but work by a poet who is determined to be true to the constraints of English while respecting the different constraints of Icelandic and catch the poet's peculiar particular voice.

There was a little tinkle of resonance with that four word only poem. In my I'm so a poet days as a teenager, I developed a neat fast cursive hand but I also had my mother's old Olivetti portable typewriter. Remember them? The font many not have been Courier but it was defo fixed-width. It didn't take me long to see that I could make blocks of text of a defined shape - better with CAPS ONLY - which provided a constraint on the verse. Similar to obeying the rhythm and rhyme scheme of a Petrachan sonnet: ABBAABBA+CDCCDC although I did them too. I figured IF Sir Philip Sidney could knock off a verse or two while dying from his wounds in Gelderland in 1586, THEN I could try hammer one out in my garrett the caravan at the bottom of our garden. All that pretentious tosh went up in flames after I sent them to RS "Real Poet" Thomas: and he found them wanting. 

On the subject of pleasing but unnecessary constraints, for the last several years, every Blob gets at least a thumbnail to leaven the relentless text. It would be yer havin' a larf disrespect to attempt to illustrate Karí's blocky voice so I'll go full-metal non sequitur. Over the last tuthree years, I've taken to doing Guardian Sudoku with my custom-made spreadsheet grid; in colour trying to ensure that neither adjacent cells nor their neighbours are the same hue. Monochrome? Sonnet? sooo boring.

Poet prev: Antonio Machado -- Jan Celliers -- Dickinson -- e.e. cummings -- Ferlinghetti

Wednesday 3 January 2024

Wild Atlantic Women

Writing is easy, getting published is hard. In the old days, the actual mechanics of getting words down on the page were onerous. It wasn't so much pushing the pen or banging away on your Olivetti typewriter (altho both will give you a case of R.S.I.); it was the drafts, the revisions, the fair-copy, the final final manuscript. With MS-Word or similar, all that rewriting, correcting, re-ordering is taken care of with ctlr-C ctrl-V. As the mechanics have gotten easier, more and more people have notions of authoring. The poor bloody commissioning editors are deluged with unsolicited mss. Which means less time available for finding a truly original, different, engaging, voice.

The Blob is now more than 2 million words in extent: I can and do write. But I refuse to go to a writing workshop fearing that will knock the corners of my authentic voice and reduce it to something samey. My experience with professional copy editors was informative and interesting. Re-ordering my narrative from time-sequential to bring a Hook up to the first paragraph undoubtedly made it a better product in keep-eyes-on-page terms. But every damned article in that, and every, issue of Natural History used the first para is hook trope as taught in journalism school.

I'm after reading Wild Atlantic Women - walking Ireland's West coast by Gráinne Lyons. It has a chapter on Maude Delap, and has a good bit of walking, so it's basically my jam. Old Maude has gotten a much bigger profile since I wrote about her ten years ago. The publisher's blurb tropes the book up a bit: "At a crossroads in her life, Gráinne Lyons set out to travel Ireland’s west coast on foot. She set a simple intention: to walk in the footsteps of eleven pioneering Irish women deeply rooted in this coastal landscape and explore their lives and work along the way. As a Londoner born to Irish parents, she also sought answers in her own identity". Which is fair enough, except for the hook At a crossroads in her life,  which is lazy and rather first world problemy. The walks in the drizzle which wash through the book were carried out over several years as Lyons bounced between making money in London [in television] and passing it to Ryanair and many B&Bs between Cork and Donegal. The genesis of the book as A cross-roads, is true only in the sense that every set of traffic-lights is a crossroads.

My hot-take is that the blurb quoted above is a post-hoc rationalization by publisher, editor, author and sounding-board pals to hammer the text into marketable shape. Adjacent to this is PB Medawar's essay about the scientific paper which, in all its magisterial data gathering and relentless logic, is a big fib. The process which a paper describes often starts with an Aha! result; and then goes back and makes it seem like the paper's suprising-coz-novel finding was part of a cunning plan which started forming way-back-when in the PI's rational mind.

Lyons works with words and images. She went to visit Cape Clear because an ancestor made lace there, [an ancestor was rector there etc etc] and, as a writer, she wondered how the essence of that windy wet visit could be captured and presented to an audience. There's not enough stand-alone meat in the story of Ellen Cotter, Lyons great-grandmother . . . but it could make a convincing chapter in a longer book. That required some legwork, on paths and in archives so that more tales of horizontal rain in the present moment could be chopped fine and inter-saladed with personal back-story and something about each chapter's star. It's a bit of a scrabble to find enough interesting women more-or-less associated with the West Coast to fill 200+ pages that can be printed, bound, distributed, marketed and sold. Not even a round dozen - eleven (11) will have to do. But that's all sour-puss carping: my book Barrowomen of Science so far only has one chapter - about Yvonne [Epstein] Barr [Virus].

But those 11 women are, indeed, all interesting in their own way. Some already famous to be point of being cliché - like Peig Sayers and Pirate Queen Gráinne Ní Mháille. But the list includes others who really deserve to be drug up and recognised by us moderns - like scientist Maude Delap and philanthropist of the dispossessed Charlotte Grace O'Brien. There are two more mná Uí Bhriain: Edna "Tuamgraney Co Clare" O'Brien and Kate "Roundstone, Co Galway" O'Brien. The latter's two cats - Kelly and La Grise -  feature above L with the village in the background.

Wild Atlantic Women is a professional piece of work in a particular genre [walking with meditation and a hook] and it reads easy. We await the telly-series‽ It took me months to start-and-finish it, but that's because I owned a copy (tnx Dau.I), while library books need to be returned, so they got more of my eyes and attention. I don't need to keep this book, though; and I'll happily pass it free-to-good-home on.

Monday 1 January 2024

Niche experts

30 and more years ago, in a fit of indignant lamp-post pissing, certain alpha-males in the man-and-boy department of my Alma Mater created a new Experimental Officer position with a special expertise in Clinical Genetics. As the One and Only Genetics Department in the country, they felt entitled to own that patronage. For many years previous to this adventure, Clinical Genetics testing had been carried out with quiet competence by Prof James Houghton at University College Galway UCG . . . on the other side of the country. It's a nice little earner: even before DNA sequencing started to deliver A Lot of tests for the differing clinical conditions. ~1 in 500 births in Ireland have The Down's = trisomy 21, for example. Take Tay-Sachs, for example, it's a journey which families tend not to want to repeat and Jewish communities where the condition is prevalent have implemented a scheme to minimize the likelihood. For any heritable condition, it's better to get an accurate diagnosis if available - to target therapy if available.

Anyway Alma Mater duly appointed the new E.O. who came qualified in cytogenetics, so he could, at a minimum, count human chromosomes in human cells and determine whether there was an extra Chr21 in the mix. If you think that's as easy as falling off a log, remember that up until Tjio and Levan (1956) Everybody Knew, erroneously that, like gorilla and chimpanzee, humans had 48 chromosomes! The new E.O. had no particular aptitude for business, so the Clinical Genetics Testing Unit (which was supposed to tap a market several multiples of an E.O. salary) was still-born. The E.O. was a permanent position, and the incumbent contributed a good deal to the intellectual life of the college - notably in poetry and a rigorously defended Catholicism. The alpha-males just had to chew their beards in frustration at the ruins of their imperial ambitions.

A few years later in the mid-1990s, that E.O. salary was dangled in front of me when I was aspiring to provide another sort of niche infra-structural service aka INCBI for the country. The salary was also dangled in front of at least two, smart but salary-challenged, friends of mine who are now full-professors rather than E.Os. My business sense, not to mention my killer instinct and alpha-maleness was equally deficient. As dierector and sole-employee of INCBI, I was presented with a challenge "IF, as you claim, your infra-structural expertise is so valuable to Irish science, THEN you should be able to persuade your salary from the numerous beneficial clients". That never happened, and the alphas were unable to Lady Macbeth me into, like, murdering my colleague for his job. Accordingly I slipped sideways into a, not particularly effective, research role until the money ran out after the crash in 2012 and then I started Bloggin' for The Institute.  The E.O. trundled on until, eventually, in due course, in the fullness of his years, he retired. I'm delighted that, as well as an E.O. there is now a Senior the department who is doing more or less exactly what I should have been doing 25 years ago . . . and doing it was a lot more drive, talent and engagement than I could ever manage.

I guess my point is that, whatever your talents [borned] and toolkit [learned], you need a bit of luck and timing to make it. 'make it' should therefore be own-self defined broadly or most of us gonna fail.