Friday 31 May 2024

Chicken Little goes EU

One of the absolute benefits of being in the EU is that the apparatchiks of Brussels force us to Do The Right Thing. Although successive Irish governments have been not doing the right thing on, say, water quality because it costs more than they believe Joe and Josie Poblacht will countenance. But an expert consultation or a Tribunal? That is something governments can get behind because a) the costs are finite, rather than an indefinite commitment b) there is patronage and nepotism prospects in filling the expert panel.

One of the EU requirements is that each member state is required to engage in future proofing by publishing a national risk assessment NRA every three years. This can be performative box-ticking, as when my binfo project students were obliged to cogitate on whether eye-strain or back-pain was more likely for screen-staring desk-johnnies. That's silly, but unless someone thinks about disasters, we're gonna be wrong-footed and under-prepared when something adverse occurs. On Sunday 19th May 33mm of rain fell on Cappoquin, Co Waterford causing flash flooding: that was a mess and the clean-up costly, but is it likely to happen again in our lifetimes? If so, "we" should do something about it; if not then not.

RTE reported on the 2023 National Risk Assessment NRA carried out by the Government Task Force GTF on Emergency Planning [full PDF] - go TLAs. Essentially the GTF was tasked to think what could possibly co wrong?. A bit like the DNR end of life issues which were codified by the Irish Council for Bioethics 20 years ago. Any risk assessment, National, or otherwise, usually tries to calculate relative risk as the product of an event's impact multiplied by its likelihood; usually on a 1-5 scale for each parameter. I've clipped [R] their assessment of Tech Risks: H Cyber Attack is rated more worrisome than I Undersea Infrastucture, J Gas/Elect outage or K Oil Supply. I guess we weathered the loss of Russian oil 2 years ago? 

impact is  assessed w.r.t. 

  • people [1 = less than 20 deaths to 5 = more than 250 deaths; with injuries in proportion]
  • environment [1 = local simple to 5 =  heavy widespread long-lasting]
  • economy [1 = <1% of annual budget i.e. less that €1bn up to  5 = >8% of the budget]
  • essential services [ 5 = Failure of services essential for society to work]
  • society [5 = Community unable to function without significant support]

likelihood is scored: 1 = 100 years between occurrences . . . 5 = happens at least once a year

For the GTF some things were No Worries on a national plan level: Volcanoes Fog RTA Rail-Crash Radiation Civil-Disorder Disinformation Drought Heatwaves Wildfires Hazmat-Accident Structural-Collapse. These events may be Cappoquin serious but are "most appropriately managed at departmental, agency or regional level".

As far as poss, the NRA was evidence driven which is different from headline driven.  Eee but the press do love a car crash and a gangland shooting. These events almost always make the [tut tut watch me be shocked] news and the rest of us have been trained like Pavlov's dogs to respond in like vein. Irish train crash takes precedence over any Indian train crash; unless (bridge-failure + precipice + dozens of dead) applies. Or I guess (train + bomb + dozens of dead) gets the RTE editorial juices going.

Nevertheless, the GTF did canvass public perception and cross-reference this to The Evidence. Which gave them an opportunity to use a coxcomb plot [bloboprev]:

Note that the scale is 0 (well 1 really) to 25: the latter scoring 5 for likelihood x 5 for impact. Mr & Mrs Poblacht are probably over-anxious about water supply and trawlers dredging up the internet but think plane crashes happen elsewhere and rarely. But it just needs one Kegworth on Irish soil and that will change public perception in line with reality.

The GTF identified "Emerging Risks" which they reckoned would make the cut when their successors were required to carry out another NRA in 3, 6, 9 years time: AI; AntiVaxx; Biodiversity loss; Climate change; Drones; Heatwaves; Invasive species; Lithium fires; Super-HGVs [bridge, precipice, I guess?]. The Public were also asked to submit their list of Future Horrors but that generated only 310 responses [clearly the GTF didn't work tooo hard to get the word out, because I would defo have sent in a list of cranky anxieties]. You can track down the 310 list at p.43 of the GTF NRA PDF.

Wednesday 29 May 2024

Demotic chemistry

Tim James and The Blob are in the same business - spreading Science to The People. When I worked at The Institute, I generally embraced classes with a performative joy; to convince first myself and then the students that science was fun as well as being important. I won't have won over everyone in the room all the time because humor is quirky and sometimes misses the mark. Also jokes fall flat if you try too hard, or become dull if the script gets repeated too often. 

Mr James was a secondary school science teacher in Ipswich UK with an internet presence, who has written an explanatory book El87 E10 Me49 N22 Ta5 L62 How the Periodic Table Can Now Explain (Nearly) Everything. It's okay, and might be an appropriate gift for a youngster who isn't in Mr James's 2nd Year Chem Class but is having the curiosity leeched from their soul by an earnest dullard. But it might be a better book with a more ruthless copy editor who knows when to leave a joke in and when to cut the casual "I'm down with the kids" language. I have a rush of empashame because I know I fall into being too clever-by-'arf too often. One arresting turn of phrase may be funny; two such in the same sentence is merely confusing.

You can see what poor authors have to deal with by noting the different covers for the UK and US editions. The publishing world is where graduates from The Arts Block go to make a living. The joke of making a mock periodic table on the cover was a bridge too far for the US publisher who has kept the squares, coloured them irrelevantly and added some stock photo thumb-nails to make it look relevant to the contents. And who oh why, did they allow N22 to do through when everyone knows nitrogen is N7

Thus Chapter 7 Things That Go Boom explains explosions by referring to quantum chemistry and the orbitals of electrons. It's hard to make explosions exciting on paper when The SlowMo Guys do it on camera. But it is the natural place to talk about Alfred Nobel and his Prizes. "The prize money is substantial, numbering in the millions, and it comes from Nobel's estate built entirely on dynamite. Not literally, obviously. That would be stupid." There's a good joke in there, but as written it clunks. A real stand-up for science [calling Dara Ó Briain or Eddie/Suzy Izzard] would work harder on their patter because fewer words makes bigger bang (boom-boom). Later on the same page " . . . one nitroglycerine particle will react with another to produce a bunch of gases, mostly carbon dioxide and water." That a bunch of is down with the kids speak and superfluous. Tighter is crisper. But what do I know? Mr James no longer has to teach science to spotty youth, because he's done well enough as an writer to leave England and make his living in America as author and screenwriter.

America? Not to be confused with Tim James of The Chemical Free Body a Portland-based Woo Movement to help Bowel Movement: We are a mission-based organization that is passionate about helping everybody ignite their highest excitement in life by putting themselves and their health first. Our goal is to rescue one gut at a time with honest, pure and natural ingredients that taste great, and absolutely no harmful man-made chemicals, no binders or fillers, just pure concentrated nature! poo to that!

Pedantic, obsessive me applauds the idea that every one of the 118 elements is mentioned at least once in the text. This is not a text-book, and makes no claims to being a comprehensive romp through the periodic table. But it's also scrappy with dangling anecdotes like the relating bones of Clara Immerwahr's 1915 suicide without giving her any background - luckily The Blob supplies that. But maybe that's okay. It may spark some curiosity, which will drive further reading, and maybe a critical comparison of sources and some skepticism about "Facts".

Sniping aside, I stand by my assessment that this book will help more 13 y.o. [girl]s think that science is interesting and amusing enough to keep on with chemistry and physics at school. Unless they roll their eyes right out of orbit at the punny Brittese language.

Monday 27 May 2024

modern women write

Reader's Log, stardate 15-05-24. I finished Charlie Stross's Dark State [his Empire Games prev] in a bit of a gallop just before a longish solo voyage by car. That's two down in a trilogy; but I'll need a while to recover from armageddon-anxiety before I put myself through Part Three = Invisible Sun.

Needing a new non-fiction earbook available now, I turned to Borrowbox and got a twofer. We'll Always Have Paris (9¾ hrs) by Emma Beddington (50 yrs) and The Hungover Games (5¾ hrs) by Sophie Heawood (45 yrs). If you read the Guardian, you will have read their earlier material, but as both are freelancers, you may have read their pieces in other media - not only print. These books are not entirely rom-com pink & fluffy but the troubles are bounded, normal.

I started with Paris not least because there was the promise of viennoiserie [L]. Bill Bryson realised as a youngster that he should have been born in Dusseldorf not DesMoines. Beddington reckoned that nothing she could buy in Betty's Tearoom in Yorkshire could hold a candle to a wobbly flan - pas trop cuit. She worked as a gap-year assistante in Normandie and read Modern History at University before starting work as a bilingual corporate lawyer. Along the way she fell in with a solid, reliable, lovable Norman, married him and had two children. They tried living in Paris. But she found Parisians cliquey, stand-offish, generally horrible and making no allowance for restless toddlers. Accordingly they retreated back to London but felt displaced and wrong-footed there. The collision of reality with romantic Casablancesque movie script caused poor Emma mental anguish requiring meds and almost destroyed their marriage. Even cakes couldn't make up for it. It didn't help that Beddington's resourceful supportive mother died in a freak accident at about that time. There is a happy ending which sees the family settled in . . . Bruxelles - which most would agree hasn't a patch on either London or Paris.

The Hungover Games is much funnier, perhaps because it is read by the author who knows when to play it for larfs. It is also a family story although one which is exactly half the size. Sophie Heawood moved to Los Angeles to interview celebs for the English press. It suited many publications to have an empathic body, down with popular culture, living at the heart of Celebristan. Much cheaper than flying a staffer out to the West Coast and finding on arrival that the target influencer had gone off the boil over the last 24 hours. Heawood had been in a long-term long-distance relationship with The Musician. Having just been told by her ObGyn that she'd never have children, the on-again couple had one free bonk too many (drink may have been involved) and she was pregnant.

Balking at the cost, emotional and financial, of delivery in Beverley Hills, she returned to a tiny house in the least fashionable sector of the East End of London, UK. Her family and friends are supportive, and as a free-lance she was able to WFH long before Covid opened that possibility to all-comers. The nicest parts of the book describe the close and teasing relationship between mother and daughter. 

A word of AITA advice to fellow patriarchs. If you have unprotected sex with your gfriend and she ends up preg, do not insist on a 3-way DNA test. It's disrespectful. For the rest, I am clearly not the demographic for reading articulate confessional autobiographies of much younger media women. So if I don't sound enthusiastic it's not really a useful datapoint.

Friday 24 May 2024

Probate woes

I think I've managed my transition from being a 👑subject to being a citizen without nationality-affirming surgery. It only took six years; six months on me getting my paper ducks in a row; 12 months on the Foreign Birth Registry FBR processing that stack; 54 months where my change in status failed to filter through to the other departments of state. My mother died during the journey which will simplify the journey for my sibs: I needed to bring her and her passport to a Notary Public to sware whom she was; the sibs can just send her Death Cert. 

Did I say my mother died, in the fullness of her years, . . . 52 months ago? I did. Because she was born in 1920, she did really well on property lottery. In 1967, my parents bought (as their first, late, step on the property ladder) a quaint 300 y.o. cottage [see R] 50km NE of Charing Cross for £13,000 and sold it in 1983 for £110,000. They had just retired, and parlayed their windfall into a larger, new, home 210 km WSW of Charing Cross. I think they paid £65,000 but I know that house was sold 38 years later for £500,000! That's a 7% ROI year-in-year-out for half a century. Without gaming the system, or even trying, my Mum had almost become a millionaire. It's impossible for her granddaughters to repeat that 🎩↪🐇prestidigitation. Life isn't fair when a majority go f⊗ll-metal capitalism and f⊗ck the future.

You may wonder why, given my mother couldn't take it with her, I haven't been standing rounds dahn the local to celebrate the Lotto-adjacent windfall. The answer is dahn the local not British no more and . . . Probate. The parental estate is still tied up in the clutches of HM Courts and Tribunals Service. which is responsible for the administration of criminal, civil and family courts, tribunals, and the probate registry in England and Wales. The Internet allows that there are extraordinary delays in the process "it is now taking anything from 8 weeks to 8 months to obtain a Grant of Probate". . . . or in our case more than halfway through eight years.

In 2008, there were 30 full time Probate Registrars scattered across the nation, each office with a staff of ~10. Then the crash, performative austerity and slashing cuts to services across the government. In 2017, there were only 3 Registrars and 150 people left to process the finances of death. The number of effectives have been creeping up but so has the UK population: 2008 = 62 million; 2023 = 68 million = 10% more people. Even ignoring what any excess deaths from Covid did to the backlog. "excess deaths"? depends whom you ask More or Less has one credible answer. The death rate in Western Democracies is about 1%/year. That's 680,000 wills to process. Apparently, like in a pharmacy, while Phram Techs do the grunt work, The Pharmacist has to sign off each script; so in Probate one of the Registrars has to approve each grant of probate = that's a frankly incredible ~600 a day every day for each of the Probate Top Guns.

In April 2024, the Justice Committee of the UK Parliament held an enquiry into the Probate slow down which is mildly entertaining and fairly informative but isn't going to light a fire-cracker under HMCTS let alone revisit the disastrous decisions made by Tory rich-boys Cameron and Osborne in 2008. But one point made by the witnesses is that counting probate employees is not good enough. The Effectives are few, the Noobs are many and the former must take time out from processing probates to training less experienced workers - institutional knowledge has been gutted. It's always fun to see who in the room [eg L] is bored-and-distracted while their boss is helping the enquiry. The camera is ON, your phone is OFF, do not pick your nose as displacement activity.

But I love being down in the weeds as a fly on the wall when experts thrash out the details of their magisteria. See my obsessive hangin' out with the UKSC. If you want to cross-check which Justice Committee members have the least kind attitudes to the bereaved, here is the members list -  Kieran Mullan looking at you. 

Current legislation w.r.t. wills in UK is still working off 19thC law. Will's now aren't written on parchment and witnessed by The Doctor and The Laird: an unsent txt msg has been granted probate elsewhere, as have video wills and paperless office wills with a digital signature, Far from being down with the digital present, the HMCTS can't even process a simple "I leave it all to my kids equally per stirpes" in a timely and predictable fashion.

Foot note: "A new online system, with new software was being trialled with a limited number of law firms before lockdown. Since lockdown the online system has become compulsory for anyone applying for a Grant to administer an Estate, however the online system does not deal with all situations, including many common ones, so paper applications still have had to be made in a number of instances." A new online system! This will cause a sinking feeling in anyone who has been following the Horizon Post Office story.

Wednesday 22 May 2024

Rory's MP Story

It is the greatest of all mistakes,
to do nothing because you can only do little.


I am a total fanboy for Rory Stewart [R as Minister for Flooding]. He prefers shank's mare to a ministerial car or a white [inside and out] aid-workers 4x4. You can't smell the drains from a car. And you definitely can't imagine Third World poverty from an office in London, let alone imagine solving it. Along with 200,000+ other people, I listen in to his TRIP podcast with Alastair Campbell on the regular. It's a footballer's sort of earner. But, for Stewart, it's not, and never has been, about the money . . . not least because he never lacked [Dragon, Eton, Balliol] for it growing up. Even a second tier patriarch like me [Titchfield, Canterbury, Dublin] knows that financial stablity in childhood does wonders for your assurance . . . and sense of entitlement.

Readers have walked a while with Rory along the Scots Borrrder (with Rory's aged Dad) and on his walk across Afghanistan (with Babur the enormous stray dog) which he wrote up as The Places In Between. That's one source of connexion [apart from the Patriarchy] for me because I've been on a couple of life defining long-walks.

I've just finished the third book in the Trilogy where Stewart walks the tightrope of party politics; from getting selected as Tory candidate for MP for "Penrith and the Borders" in 2009 to being drummed out of the party 10 years later for opposing the illegal antics of Boris Johnson in getting Brexit done. Parliamentary language and practice can be a lot more internecine and hostile than walking between villages in the Afghan winter. I don't read A Lot of books, but I almost always finish those I start. But 50 pages into Politics on the Edge, I almost had to stop because the political creatures with whom Stewart is forced to sup in Parliament are just such terrible people: ambitious, bullying, craven, dim, entitled, fibbing, greedy, hypocritical, indolent, joyless. But I soldiered on because that's what Rory Stewart would do and did. Because he was brought up in a tradition of service and wanted to make a difference. Alan Johnson MP in his Guardian review finds this book is a vital work of documentation: Orwell down the coal mine.

Stewart learned, the hard way, early on, that you can't fix all the World's woes in one session of parliament, so you have to pick your battles: for your constituents, for the country, even for foreign johnnies if you acquire a portfolio in the Department for International Development. You have to be prepared to fail: fighting The Man to make the A66 to Penrith safer by extending the dual-carriageway sections has achieved promises, plans and feasibility studies but still no tarmac despite 30 years of local asking. He took his local responsibilities [duty!!!] seriously and experienced suicidal ideation when red faced by a comment about baler twine holding up his constituent's trousers [bloboprev]. 

And he took his ministerial business seriously. Notably as Prisons Minister when he went out across his bailiwick visiting a different prison every week of his tenure. And maybe . . . a bit . . . turned around the appalling statistics on how prisons were not working: filthy, violent, under-resourced. But nobody can achieve much if butterfly politics keeps churning the briefs. Stewart held five [5!] different ministerial portfolios during his three years near the top of the political food-chain. Just when hapless ministers get the mettle of one crew of civil servants and start to implement policy, Kaos reshuffles everyone into different roles equally outside their competence and experience. Soldiers are sent to mete out Justice, while barristers take up arms in Defence in a musical chairs of performative amateurism.

Possibly alone of the 650 MPs arguing for the country's future, he read all 500+ pages of the Brexit Agreement negotiated by Theresa May's government. But detail and competence is not what modern politics requires. An expert's considered opinion can be trashed with a catchy soundbyte; a slogan can win an election. Because inertia, vested interest and money (lack of) prevent almost any change happening, few fault the empty sloganeer for failing to deliver. Pointing out that a No Deal Brexit would be a disaster for Britain and Ireland didn't butter any parsnips in the hustings for the Tory Leadership. Rory Stewart, honest, diligent, patriotic might be the Best 21stC British Prime Minister they never got. If you can't wait to get the book (I was +100th on the reserve list at the library), this book launch article in the Guardian covers much of the same ground.

Politics on The Edge won the British Book Awards non-fiction narrative award a week ago.

Monday 20 May 2024

Indentured servants

Goddamn but we really shouldn't be eating meat. Think of the methane plume - it's 30x to 80x worse for the planet than CO2. But we definitely shouldn't be insulating our conscience by buying meat in neat trays, wrapped in cling-film and having a BB date next to the price. You get a pass (or at least an annual quota) on meat which you have seen alive in a field and dismembered yourself. You get a passer's pass on the actual killing because you won't practice it often enough to be able to carry out the task humanely. 

20 years ago we were pushing the frontiers of science discovering how the chicken immune system worked. In particular how Campylobacter is tolerated in chicken guts but gets flushed from ours in distressing Niagara outfalls. The research was ultimately set to benefit the chicken production and processing industry. Over the years we met with a few of the players - policy wonks from Dept. AgFood&Fish; vets; meat packers. Over lunch with one of the latter we were informed that their Health & Safety notices were printed in thirty different languages.

That's because, at the price that Irish consumers are prepared to pay for meat, and under the conditions in which meat is 'processed', it is hard to persuade Irish people to work. I recently got a disturbing insight into the economics of running a meat-packing factory one county over from Chateau Blob. A palomino runs various evening classes in a community centre nearby and several of their clients work a long shift in the factory and stagger into class to learn some English and other skills. It must be nice just to sit down. It's possible that their living arrangements are sufficiently spartan that two hours in the warm on Tuesday and Thursday nights is a welcome break. You may be sure that these strainséirí are being paid minimum wage. It's hard work. The factory canteen offers them dinner for €19.95 including dessert. 

That's TWENTY YoYos for lunch in the works canteen!! When I worked in The Institute, lunch was €4.85 (two meat options, fish on Fridays) and €4.25 for vegetarianos. In the factory they give with the right hand and take with the left.

Unintentionally funny marketing literature produced by the factory?

"Thin Flank is located in the abdominal region and consists of the muscles and fasciae integrating the abdominal wall. It can be prepared from a rear four to 3 ribs. the previous extraction of macabre, it is separated from the cuitril colita".
A short session with Auntie Google turned up the original eSpanish: Se puede preparar a partir de un cuarto trasero a 3 costillas, previa extracción del matambre, se lo separa de la colita de cuadril.
Which a more competent translator renders as: It can be prepared from a 3-rib hindquarter, prior to removing, the flank is separated from the tail of the rump.  

And while we're in the zone of exploiting foreign labour so that we can consume extras without having to agonize about the true costs, Peter Hebblethwaite [R], the CEO of P&O was back before the Business Committee of the UK Parliament last week. He was asked with rhetorical flourish how he could justify paying the crew of cross-channel ferries 25% of the UK national minimum wage. After establishing that "it was important to compare apples with apples" Hebblethwaite acknowledged that he couldn't live on £4.87/hr but that foreign johnnies were beating path to the gangway to work for P&O. The 'guaranteed' bonus and 'guaranteed' overtime (which is impossible to avoid while rostered at sea) brings the average weekly wage up to [drum-roll] 50% of the UK minimum wage.

You may recall that in 2022, P&O let all their unionized employees go and replaced them with eager and hungry mariners from India, the Philippines. And P&O don't employ any of these fire-and-rehire seafarers; they have out-contracted HR to an agency, who do the ugly part of of crewing and retention, so that P&O management don't have to see [metaphor alert] the sheep getting slaughtered for cheap fares/food while they rake in the C-suite Christmas bonus. 

Two days after Hebblethwaite's grilling, Natalie Elphicke, the MP for Dover, found that Rishi Sunak's Anglo-Rwandan government was insufficiently cruel and defected to Labour. You may recall that, in 2022, Elphicke voted in parliament to send P&O's unionized mariners down to the dole-office and then rocked up to lead a march protesting against P&O. Heckling ensues!! Elphicke's husband Charlie was the previous MP for Dover but at the time of the 2019 general election, he was on bail before being found guilty of multiple charges of sexually assaulting his staff. Terrible people, no shame. I was born in Dover, but left 3 months later and only returned to a) visit m'grannie b) catch a ferry to France. So I didn't vote for either Elphicke.

Sunday 19 May 2024

The Day After 18 May

Bits n bobs

Saturday 18 May 2024

Tramp tramp tramp

Today 18 May 2024 was the Saturday picked for The Blackstairs Challenge, an up hill and down dale yomp that has been an annual fixture at Castle Blob since our long-flown daughters were tots. They missed a few pandemic years, despite hill-walking being the least covidy social activity known to epidemiologists. Just like last year, I set out my stall, about ⅓ of the way along the 33 km route.

I set up Bobby Buoy Boy to make sure that nobody took too many flapjacks.

There are stewards at The Off between 07:30 and 08:30 and the challengeers have to be through the checkpoint at the bottom of our valley by 13:00. We usually expect people therefore between ~09:30 and ~12:30 . . . and it was so: the first pair trotted past the gate at 09:23 in full metal lycra. Such people have no time for water and it wasn't until an hour later that the first dehydratees pulled into the yard to fill water-bottles . . . and sample the flapjacks: of which there were ~3 kg.  I think Wayfarers limit participants to 300, so not everyone gets a flapjack. 

It started off overcast with the peaks lost in cloud and reports were that the ground was right soggy above us. That's what happens when the gods deliver 9 months of continual rain. There are reports that spuds may be rationed later this year because the weather has been so much agin potatoes. 

One of the ironies was that, having promised water to ~300 strangers, the water pressure went all feeble on us in the last week or so. Then providentially Roy the Plumb rocked up Thursday lunch time, presumably to settle accounts, exactly a month after installing a new submersible pump and hydro-accessories. I almost hugged him and he was quite happy to put in an hour's pro bono to keep a customer happy. Turned out the water filter was all gunked up with bedding-in sediment. All it needed was a nail-brush and a few buckets of cool clear water. Now that I know what the problem is, I can rinse and repeat if symptoms recur.

By 11:30 the sun peeked between the clouds and the day shaped up for being a lot brighter. Not enough to dry out the ground for the walkers, but enough to put a spring in their step. The self-styled Roll Up came down the lane at 12:30 and that was it for another year.  Income: €5.60 [half the take for last year], one water-bottle with a 15c deposit, a half-used tube of lip balm. Zero tinkle-tissue, so that's a Win.

STOP PRESS: . . . and [14:00] a bottle of whiskey from Wayfarers. This is getting to be a tradition.

Update 15:30: Zero tinkle-tissue, so that's a Win one tinkle tissue, behind a dwarf wall in my yard. FFS: is there anything else I can do for these people? wash out their garbage bin? change their infant's nappies? Next year there will be signage to our compost heap, then I won't need to clean up after "adults".

Friday 17 May 2024


The Blob's Waterford Correspondent - and a communicator in his own right - alerted me to the midMay edition of Ireland's Own which bills itself as "Ireland's Favourite Family Magazine" but is rarely read by anyone younger than 60. But what do I know? We don't even buy the local paper - that's how blow-in and out of touch we are. The reason why I should buy a copy of IO-IFFM is apparent from this pic of the front page

I paused in the local Supervalu and discovered that it's quite difficult to purchase Ireland's Own because if gets lost in a wide array of dead-tree publications in colour. I wasn't about to do a consumer report on Irish magazines, so I don't know the titles, or the pitch, or the audience of these other pubs. But there were A Lot. I do remember being in Eason's Newsagents+ in Dublin 30 years ago and reflecting that there were regular publications catering for every imaginable niche interest: angling, beauty, cars, dancing, early music, food, gardening. The digital revolution will have done for many of these as advertisers fell away. But Ireland's Own is still going, perhaps because it's general interest is never short of copy.

Turns out there is data supporting my pensionable readership hypothesis on the inside back cover where there is a section called "Penfriends". Here lonely or bereaved readers can put a Free! small Ad, hoping to pull. The sex-ratio is exactly 50F:50M because the calls to are edited MFMFMFMF interleaved.  The men (ave. = 66) are slightly older than the women (ave. = 63½]. Nobody is looking for BLT. Nobody is looking for VGSOH; being content with GSOH. Nobody in this cohort is looking for CW (they must all be dead, now?) but one requires OHAC (own house and car): but really what's not to love about going on a date on the free travel for Olds?

Wednesday 15 May 2024

washer needs washer

In the early days, when internal combustion engines were a minority sport, drivers would purchase gas /petroleum / l'essence from pharmacies. Pharmacies would carry a wide range of products including olive oil in tiny bottles for the treatment of earache; laudanum for any old pain; dill water at 4% ethanol for tired and/or tiresome babies. Soon enough however there was enough traffic to justify setting up 'garages' as specialist ventures dealing with all aspects of car maintenance and repair and even 'petrol stations' which couldn't replace a fan-belt or fix a puncture but did sell fuel to keep folk motoring along.

Recently the wheel has come full-circle as petrol stations extend their inventory to include breakfast rolls, Red bull, Werner's toffees, crap coffee at riotous mark-up; cigarettes. Not only goods, but also services. Car wash is a natural extension and they have been attached to service stations for decades now. We were tickled last year to see a couple making a sudsy mess with their cocker spaniel at the far end of Pickardstown Service Station outside Tramore. Dau.II was driving and said that if her Rashers was still alive, she would SO be down at Barks & Bubbles on the regular.

I was down in Pickardstown, for reasons, over the May bank holiday weekend and had time to walk over to read the small print of what B&B offered and how much it cost. Q. Would it cost more, or less, to suds your mutt or your wheels? What I saw close up:

. . . nipped that research project in the bud! The machine's waist-level for easy handling wash-trough was filled with clots of hair and other matter. Call me sensitive but the thought of it put me off my dinner later that day and ensured that no dog of mine would be using the patient zero facilities at Pickardstown. ugh!

The reason I had time to hang out among the robots of NE Tramore was that I was delegated to mind an emergency duvet wash. Thankfully the dog-bath was not involved in the project. It was rather the Laverie Libre Service laundrette:

I was leery about going inside because the signage was all in French, and I didn't want it to suddenly relocate itself Tardis-like to the docks of Marseille at the height of the 1968 strikes and marches. If it's fine you can sit on the CocaCola bench looking at the car-wash and the traffic coursing by on the road out of Dodge. If [more likely] it's raining there a three little seats facing the machines. Someone else had started the process, I was merely instructed to transfer the said duvet to the drier when it was clean. For sure, I would have balked at paying for a cleaning project which involved starting with this

as the detergent input unit. The centre right orifice was actually pulsing with life, the other three merely filthy. The French have a word for it: dégueulasse. The washing machine finished its cycle but was showing an error message Error 5: tilt high sp. which I felt morally obliged to report the company's Service Line. Some poor family in Tramore might need to use that big machine, and not have the option of buying a new duvet. At least the drier was clean to my cursory inspection and had our duvet dry and toasty warm 30 minutes and €7.00 later. 

I spent several months sudsing the family laundry in the bath of our rental flat in 1983, before choosing to load everything into an enormous hand-sewn laundry bag and draping it over the back-carrier of my bike. What I did when I got to the laundrette wasn't my shiniest moment. So [clothes] washing-machines are IMO one of the benefits and boons of late-stage capitalism. Having one at home, at the ready, 24/365,  has some downside for the planet because clothes which have been merely worn are put through their cycles at some cost to the planet and water-table.

Making a machine to wash a dog is just a stupid exploitative idea. And IMO car-washes are not far behind as an idea that sounds good but is actually a redundant layer of extractive capitalism. I wash the car occasionally. I use a bucket, a soft broom, and a smidge of detergent. 15 minutes later, the car is clean enough for the poor fellers who have to carry out the NCT test. And I get a moderate work out. While waiting for the duvet to dry, I watched a succession of cars pull up beside the self-service car-wash and apply soapy water with a wand on the end of a hose. A few minutes later, they waved a power-washer at it to rinse off the soap. But they still had to scrub at their wheels with a water blurfing brush. It therefore costs them €5 to get their work-out - I bet they're members of a gym [€350/year!] too. 

While I was duvet waiting I noticed that one of the car-wash hoses was making a poor connexion [you can't see the fine mist on top of the steady stream] and went, wearing my best civic duty uniform, to tell the STAFF in the shop. A few minutes later, a young feller came out and untangled the hoses which was a wrong-wrong-almost-right not-a-solution. In contrast to the other extractive robots on the site, which badly needed a Wash, this one only needed a Washer [Har har, Bob, a waggish quip forsooth!]. Something needs to be done to minimize the consumption of clean, fluoride-treated drinking water to . . . wash cars. Wot are we like?

Literal me also likes the generously expansive statement IF IN ANY DIFFICULTY PLEASE SEE A MEMBER OF STAFF FOR ASSISTANCE. ANY DIFFICULTY? my corns need cutting . . . the lawn wants mowing . . . I have 3 sticks of celery and half a cabbage in the fridge . . . 

Monday 13 May 2024

Stranger meeting

Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell. 

We're last farmlet in the County and the last [only] still inhabited home up the scruffy, bucketty, grass-centred, bohereen on which we live. Car traffic up the lane is either determined . . . or lost. I was on the stoop surveying the yard hmmm, far too wet to mow, I'll sit down again, when I heard a very quiet car. The driver was reversing s l o o w l y down again having met the gate above us beside the ruined cottage. He turned out to be both lost and determined.

Young chap sprang out of the car with a glittering eye [but no grey beard] and announced that he was a) 24 b) from Ballinabranagh [=almost Kilkenny] c) Fianna Fáil d) running for the CoCo elections in June. It was mid afternoon at the tail end of lambing, so I daresay he'd knocked on the doors of a lot of empty houses, and he was determined to talk. I R retire, it wasn't actively raining, so I was prepared to accommodate his needs. Three planks of Young Dan's platform are a) mental health b) rural buses c) housing for young ppl like him and Dau.I. Here he is [L], with his future empire as backdrop.

The links say that The Blob has had rather a lot to say about all three of these topics and I was happy to give him both barrels of my exec summ. I suggested that, if we had a society rather than an economy, rural transport could be solved by the local community. The public health nurse and the postie could do something for the mental health fallout of loneliness and isolation, and someone could take Old Colm in for his doctor's appointment. The trouble with the ubiquity of personal cars is that it sets the baseline of being able to get anywhere at a moment's notice. Even if few folks over the age of 25 actually want to spring in their car to get more butter, let alone go for spin

It's not for nothing that my mother held onto her own wheels long into her pension and called her car SS Independence. She also did a good bit of heavy community lifting taking the old or infirm into town. In her younger, "married woman" kids-at-school, days she'd been a cog in the Meals-on-Wheels machine in Plymouth, Hazelmere and Harlow. Old Sonny, across our valley, benefitted from a volunteer driver service getting him in for dialysis. I guess I'm saying that, with planning and fore-thought, having a bus service once or twice a week might make carless rural living sustainable and kinder to the community carbon footprint. We're still mullocking along with one car now that I have no work to go to even it means one or other of us being marooned for a few days up the hill or in town on Costa na Déise.

Mental health is another matter entirely. It's easier for an old chap like me to get a triple by-pass than for a young fella to get adequate help for his despair and suicidal ideation. But a hanging in the garage is just as fatal as a myocardial infarction. Good luck with that, young Dan. As for housing, that doesn't seem to be solvable without a revolution. My neighbour, TD, and very briefly cabinet minister, Mary White was a County Councillor for a number of years. Her experience was that you had to focus on One Achievable Goal. As a Green she pushed to keep recreational vehicles off the county uplands . . . with limited success before retiring from active politics. A word from the wise to young Dan: (mental health OR housing OR rural buses) NOT (mental health AND housing AND rural buses).

Sunday 12 May 2024

Sunday MiscellaMay

In(troit) Saturday's wee hours, my Irish Nuclear Family were trudging towards Dawn [above] for the 2024 Darkness Into Light event in Phoenix Park, Dublin. It's the 15th such annual event organized by Pieta House which holds the brief for reducing suicide in Ireland. There's a trade-off. If they walked to sunrise in January on St Fursey's Day the event could kick off at 07:07 and people could get to The Off by public transport. On 11th May otoh, with a start at 03:48, it's hardly worth going to bed the night before.  otoh-otoh, yesterday the weather was perfick and such an outcome is more likely in May than Jan.

More on the Do Good Front

Saturday 11 May 2024

Subverting the glitterati

I really don't give two shakes of a rat's arse about the Eurovision Snog Contest. I would no more spend this evening in Malmö, than I'd watch the Budapest F1 Grand Prix or I'm A Celebrity Eating This Beetle. And it's not just because we don't own a telly. Occasionally, The Blob will have an offhand swipe at Eurovision if someone subverts the smugness of the corporate glitz. Like 2014 when drag-queen Conchita Wurst won for Austria.

Now we read that Bambie Thug, the non-binary, queer, entry from the  People's Republic of Cork  has been told [shock!] to remove some of her temporary tatts. Thug and their team thought that writing Saoirse don Phalistín in Ogham upside their face would show they were “pro-justice” and “pro-peace” in Gaza. The apparatchiks of the Euro Broadcast Union EBU insisted that cold cream be poured on the sentiment because Eurovision is not political. So not political that they continued to include Israel in the 2024 shenanigans. Although the EBU climbed on the barricades in 2022 and banned Russia - and then voted the glittering prize to Ukraine.

Thug has agreed to be silenced, on this matter, in this context, and tonight will be sporting "crown the queen" in Ogham instead. The "queen" in this case being something something Wicca. I love this nonsense: writing messages that can only be understood by Adepts; épater les bougies; the perfick little triscael on their forehead. 

More Ogham including write yer own.

Friday 10 May 2024

Express Irony

Gorra a letter 10 days ago from An Post . . . so meta for the Post Office to be sending its own post. And not without irony also, because it has been sent Express but is their response to a query / complaint about a parcel which I sent in September last year! My beef was about paying a premium to send a package of Bob's Famous Flapjacks to Gdau.I when she was feeling under the weather in England. The choice was €12.50 for "Standard Post 2 -3 working days Convenient service for non urgent post" or €19.00 for "Express Post 2 days Tracking Fastest delivery option Delivery confirmation". Of course, we wanted to get cookies to the poor wee petal ASAP, so naturally we ante-upped the premium.

Well, damned if it didn't take nine [9!] days, seven of them working days, to get there. At least they did arrive, though. My Boston correspondent P sent me a book in 2020 and it is still in limbo [maybe dropped behind a counter in a warehouse at Logan Airport, maybe going the rounds in Iran] . The USPS service swore that it had been delivered to Ireland, AnPost denied they had received it. There is no way to resolve this without lawyering up.

But really . . . corporations can't charge a premium and then not meet even the bog-standard service aspirations. AnPost makes it complicated by having a third slow-but-insure option "Registered Post 3 - €17.50 5 days Tracking Insurance included to protect your valuable items". There is no option for Full Monty, Bells&Whistles Fast&Insured. Because we'd paid for "Tracking" I had a number (LK887225965IE) and AnPost has a webform for complaints, so I contacted the Customer Service Team CST. And forgot about it. After all, the goods did arrive eventually, they weren't too furry. But it's important to flag when corporate things go wrong; else they may never get better.

Exactly 7 months later, I got the letter, in the Post, shown above. I imagine, that without the Express sticker, we'd have to wait until my birthday or, like,  Christmas. " . . . I must advise that the service used to mail the item is a non-insured product and as such we are not in a position to grant your request for compensation, however you will find enclosed a refund order for 15.00 euros, the amount being paid as a gesture of goodwill as we failed to respond to you within the stated time-frame for dealing with international investigations I am sorry for the loss and inconvenience you have experienced in this matter . . . David Hickey".  Phew! and pause for breath. My PhD mentor chid and chid me again "don't use run on sentences" and I proffer the same advice to Mr Hickey at AnPost CST. 

Also, and for heavens sake, we've all been using the Euro since 1st Jan 2002! When will AnPost CST find the € symbol on their keyboards? [hint: AltGr+4 or ctrl+alt+4] But whatevs - when a written-off compo claim comes through, it's found money and that's me on the batter tonight a handy addition to the Cookies By Post sinking fund.

Wednesday 8 May 2024


It was a surprise, though it shouldn't have been, when it was revealed that our latest plumber is also a certified electrician. You really have to be, he said, otherwise how would immersion heaters get installed?. The thing with tradesppl is that they often have to work together all hugger-mugger and sometimes the 'prentice calls in sick. Who's going to hold the far end of the carpenters snap-line? The sparkie! Soon enough, if they pay attention, are respectfully curious and make really strong tea, youngsters can learn how to cut a 2 x 4 into 3 equal parts; lay a row of bricks not too shabby; snake a wire and connect the socket. All building contractors started in one trade and became competent in the others. At least so that they could recognise crap workmanship.

One of the most important things I learned in University was how to hold a handsaw: use your index finger to point, you'll cut straighter. I was helping make flats for the lunchtime theatre club and the college carpenter kindly came to lend a hand supervise the gilded youth. I've made tables, chairs, boxes from unlikely materials but my standards are low on aesthetics if adequate on engineering.

I've given up browsing in the library. My reading list works heavily on recommendation, so my library trips are confined to when books I've reserved come in. That and Borrowbox which delivers [earbooks] to the sofa. The Beloved operates more old-style and throws herself on the mercy of the shelves. Last week she took a punt on a book for me, by and about a philosophical carpenter from NYC. I romped through this memoir of a life dealing with flawed [aren't we all] people and the  material world. It's like Lewis "LOTC" Thomas and Robert "ZAMM" Pirsig mentored Ernest "Fighty" Hemingway.

The book = How to Build Impossible Things: Lessons in Life and Carpentry. A carpenter's notes on life and the art of good work (2023) by Mark Ellison The title subtitle subsubtitle is quite meta because, like the interminable The End of the LOTR film, there is Final Chapter, then an Epilogue, then a Further Thoughts before we get to the Acknowledgments . . . there is no index. Random House produced a Editor for the book who might have been tighter, hmmm? Ellison produced the illustrator - his son Martin Ellison.

Typical of the f[l]ights found in the book is this: "One and a half trillion dollars [for the F-35 fighter plane program] is coincidentally enough money to send every high school senior in the country to MIT for four years. Now, MIT wouldn't take them: it's highly selective, and most seniors wouldn't go anyway, having lost interest in education way back in grade school when the teachers couldn't even come up with serviceable blackboard erasers. But it's interesting to imagine what might occur if we lived in a country that put as much value in educating its populace as it did on eliminating the perceived threat that foreign populations represent".

Ellison is a skilled carpenter and is no more qualified to opine about government spending than my cat any other chippy from the Rust Belt. Yeah, well, that's just, like, your opinion, man. That paragraph in a book about design, materials and shitty clients smacks of Dunning-Kruger and poor editorial control. But then again, Nobel Prize winners do this alll the time [looking at you Vitamin Linus], so why not master carpenters? . . . and my cat says miaaow. I can't resist having a snipe at another unintentionally funny editorial lapse. One of Ellison's perfectly designed spaces is "The Knave of Chartres Cathedral" - you can see his foot [R].

If you've ever been in the midst of a renovation project [like us for 8 months 1996-1997] you know that the chaos mounts as the deadline approaches. A week out and the client sees wires blurfing out of the walls, the kitchen sink still in its packing, a hole where the stairs should be and believes their agree move-in date is shot. But six days later at tea-time the lads are sweeping the last of the wood-shavings and wire-strippings into a dustbin as they knock off for their final day on site. Proper craftsmen work fast and well: figuring it's easier to do it right as make a weeping hames of it.

Comparisons are made [during an interview in Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, no less]  between carpentry and orthopedic surgery: each trade works with organic material and requires microscopic tolerance but not perfection. Because organic, finishing the project can be dynamic - doors warp, joints go osteoporotic after the fix has been signed off. I've cited this article because it gives a flavor of Ellison's voice, without having to buy the book.

The most disturbing aspect of this memoir is that, for decades, Ellison's clients were comically wealthy dot-com billionaires and hedge-fund managers with a sprinkling of pop and film stars. The material waste is colossal. Mistakes are made and fashions change and perfectly serviceable kit is ripped out and sent to the dump. The apparatchiks of power [architects, project managers, designers, decorators] are [not all] lazy and incompetent make-weights. It's unfair to be finding a wall for the super-rich when the revolution comes without making room for their enablers and parasites.

Monday 6 May 2024

of sheep and fleece

I was in Hodges Figgis at the back end of 2023 with money in my pocket with a clatter of birthdays and Christmas coming up. Ten minutes later I came out with a short handful of books including A Short History of the World According to Sheep by Sally Coulthard. It's a better man than me who would buy a book-as-gift in which he has no interest whatsoever. And sure enough the same book found itself in the modest stack of books on my To Be Read TBR list.

One bonus for getting a dead-tree book is the set of chapter-heading linocuts by Sarah Price [example R]. If you want to commission a book-plate, this might be the place to go.

It's pretty good: easy to read and informative. Maybe not get signed by author and keep forever but good edutainment. One of the later chapters, waggishly titled Mills and Boom deals with the rise and rise of Yorkshire (esp Bradford) woollen mills in the late 1700s. Wool was spun into yarn and then woven or knitted into an alphabet of different fabrics: baise, cheviot, delaine, fearnought, flannel, gaberdine, jacquard, melton, petersham, serge, tweed, worsted. Each having its own properties and price point.

Ranging back and forth across space and time from the first ovine domestication event, there are loadsa nuggets and quotes. Like this advice to medieval shepherds: Let him provide himself with a good barkable dog and lie nightly with his sheep. ahem‽ I've done my share of lying with the sheep and I don't think that medieval shepherds were being encouraged to by-pass Leviticus 18v23. It's not about the snuggles so much as being aware of rustlers and wolves.

Coulthard offers the Lincolnshire version of Brythonic sheep-counting: Yan Tan Tethera Pethera Pimp Sethera Lethera Hovera Covera Dik [10]  Ya-a-dik Tan-a-dik . . . Bumfit [15] Yan-a-bumfit . . . Figgot [20]. Stan Carey reports some of the many regional variants. Wikipedia has a more extensive list. If you have more than 20 sheep, you have to tally up the "score" by shifting a token from one pocket to the other. Easy for me, we've only got bumfit ewes. On the etymology front, note that 4 is pedwar in Welsh but ceathair in Irish which is an example of the consonant shift that separated P-Celts from Q-Celts, 3000 years ago.

Friday 3 May 2024

The Work of Human Hands

[R.C.] Benedíctus es, Dómine, Deus univérsi, quia de tua largitáte accépimus vinum, quod tibi offérimus, fructum vitis et óperis mánuum hóminum . . . [CofE] Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation: through your goodness we have this wine to set before you, fruit of the vine and work of human hands.

We've been down in Tramore for the week, minding my venerable FiL, Pat The Salt. He'll be 99 - and I don't mean the ice-cream - at the beginning of June; and is getting increasingly frail. At one stage even, the priest came, but the trajectory is still bouncing up and down. Accordingly, a number of his friends, relations, previous carers and neighbours have been in to visit. It's been fine mulling over the past and having inconsequential disagreements about the timeline of distant events. One of his old pals (not that old! = my age) came out from town on the bus. He's quite shook himself [f*&% Parkinson's!] and I gave him a lift home in The Grape. As old buffers do, we fell to chatting about what three-score-and-ten even means. Whatever about us being dots in the immensity of the universe [his trope], I reflected on the immensity of human achievement, exemplified by the construction of ocean liners a million times larger than any of the engineers and rivetters who made them . . . the work of human hands.

The next day, I woke up early to prepare The Blob . . . coursing over the Interweb for copy. Which is my contribution to The Work of Human Hands and was presented with a stunning picture of Castel del Monte an octagonal castle in Apulia. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, originally built 800 years ago and carefully restored by the Italian government in the 20thC. The eight octagonal towers at each corner are 3m = 10ft in diameter so, as castles go, this one is kinda cosy. You could imagine building it yourself - so long as you had a clever stonemason, 100 pals and some sort of crane to lift the blocks . . . and 20 years. You may be sure that Federico II, The Money commissioning Holy Roman Emperor didn't get off his horse to help in the construction. Unlike a lot of medieval building projects, Castel de Monte is all of a piece rather than an accretion of cunning plans and clever ideas for improvement. One reason for that is that the castle really didn't get a lot of use being more in the nature of a vanity project to show what emperors can do.

It turns out that the red soil in the neighbourhood was caused by the metabolic presence of Streptomyces peucetius a species of Actinomycetota = Actinobacteria - not to be confused with Ascomycetes one of two major sub-divisions of Fungi. Streptomyces are found everywhere - they are responsible for the smell of damp soil after rain - and each one has to fight its corner in a busy competitive microscopic world. Rather than spears or cruise missiles, microbes tend to use an array of biochemical assault weapons - chemicals that will do a number on the replication of competing species. Anything will do, so long as it unlevels the playing field for rivals. In the 1950s Italian scientists from Farmitalia discovered that Streptomyces peucetius isolated near Fred's Chateau produced an anti-cancer drug which they called Daunorubicin.  We've been at dirt-derived Streptomyces cures before with Eleftheria terrae in Co. Fermanagh.

Farmitalia were actively looking for biologically active compounds and Daunorubicin turned out to be a potent knocker-on-the-head of rapidly growing cancer cells from mice. It's the topo-isomerase innit? In order to grow, cells need to replicate their DNA and that requires unravelling a l o o o o n g helical string. Any beachcomber will tell you that unravelling rope only moves the tangle along. Topo-isomerase allows controlled breaks in the DNA strands to relieve this tangle-tension. Daunorubicin is an inhibitor of topo-isomerase and so replication grind to a halt. No replication in the competition gives Streptomyces peucetius the edge. Farmitalia mobilised this effect and started to market Daunorubicin in the 1960s as a therapeutic against lymphoma and leukaemia. By 1967, however, the side-effects (fatal cardiac toxicity etc.) started to pile up and researchers dug up (literally) a related compound Doxorubicin which did less damage to the heart while still being effective against a wider range of cancers. Big Pharma doesn't do this sort of blue skies soil-grubbing anymore, the ROI [return on investment] doesn't satisfy the shareholders. Odd that the build unit in organic chemistry is so often hexagonal [thanks Kathleen Lonsdale!] while big boy builders prefer things square or, on Sundays, octagonal.

The Work of Human Hands doesn't have to be Big to be impressive /useful. 

Because we love each other very much y coincidence, yesterday Dau.I sent me a Postcard with Stieglitz' The Hand of Man on the picture side. It's another take on this theme.