Sunday, December 30, 2012

I read Ozymandias

        Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

       I met a traveller from an antique land
       Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
       Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
       Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
       And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
       Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
       Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
       The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
       And on the pedestal these words appear:
       ' My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
       Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! '
       Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
       Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
       The lone and level sands stretch far away".

Recorded with my new microphone. Thanks Alb!

The ultimate Romantic poem.  For the Romantics the wilderness symbolised spiritual freedom whilst ancient ruins declared the triumph of time and nature over human tyranny.

Shelley’s inspiration was the news of the excavation of a colossal head of Rameses II, for whom Ozymandias is an alternative name. This head would later be shipped to the British Museum, but Shelley never saw it. The ancient Egyptian king reigned 1279-1212 BC.

There are three characters: the traveller who gives the eyewitness account of the ruined sculpture - a kind of Ancient Mariner, though one gifted with brevity; Ozymandias; and the sculptor, whose work outlives the pharaoh. Russian poets, Carol Rumens tells us in a Guardian blog, used to have a saying that the poet outlives the tsar.

Shelley took "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" and the name Ozymandias from a well-known ancient Greek source, Diodorus Siculus. This information comes from John Rodenbeck “Travelers from an antique land: Shelley's inspiration for Ozymandias."

The poem’s haphazard rhyme scheme tends to conceal the fact it's a sonnet. Once you recognise it as one however, it's finality is even more final.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Seasonal cheer for Christmas anglers

Brasserie Sixty6, Georges St, Dublin
My tale of seasonal good cheer comes from the pages of the Irish Examiner and concerns a lucrative fishing expedition and a fine Christmas dinner at a top Dublin restaurant, all provided gratis to four burglars.

On Christmas Eve 2005, two men broke into Brasserie Sixty6 through the back door, and left with some drinks, leaving the door "on the latch" in order to come back for more.

On Christmas Day, two homeless men, walking in a laneway behind the restaurant, and noticing the back door ajar,  pushed their way in and spent the day in the restaurant, drinking wine and eating food.  On Christmas night, the two original burglars returned and amicably joined the homeless pair, afterwards leaving with electronic equipment, paintings and a "takeaway" of food.

Using fishing rods, they also "fished out" €8,000 in notes from the restaurant’s drop safe.

The intruders were prosecuted and pleaded guilty to their crime.

The foregoing is from a court report dated Wednesday, January 18, 2012. The case reported on was not the prosecution of the burglars, but a civil action between the restaurant and an alarm company, Safe and Secure Ltd.  The court learned that when the company had installed the alarm, they failed to fit wire connectors at the back door. This oversight enabled the unauthorised angling and dining.

The case was settled for €27,400 damages.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Limerick Soviet 1919 - preserving the workers' heritage

5 shilling banknote issued by Limerick Soviet, 1919
This banknote was issued by the Limerick Soviet that existed from 15 to 27 April 1919.  "Soviet" (meaning a self-governing committee) had become a popular term after 1917 from the workers’ soviets that had taken over factories in St Petersburg and Moscow and had formed the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic.

At the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, a general strike was organised by the Limerick Trades and Labour Council, as a protest against the British army's declaration of a "Special Military Area" covering most of Limerick city and a part of the county. The soviet ran the city for the period, printed its own money and organised the supply of food.

According to labour historian Liam Cahill, the Limerick Soviet and general strike was one of the most important events in modern Irish history. It was the only occasion that organised Labour challenged Sinn Féin and the IRA for leadership of the increasingly powerful movement for Irish independence from Britain.  He claims “It held within its momentous events the prospect that the coming revolution in Ireland would be not merely political, but economic and social as well.”

For sale: the workers' heritage

Last week a banknote similar to the one illustrated was lot 418 in an auction in Limerick, provoking trade union members to threaten to picket the auction house to prevent it being sold out of the city. John Douglas, vice president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, told the Irish Examiner that the note should be kept in Limerick, and any sale to an outside bidder would be seen as disrespectful to the workers who ran the Limerick Soviet for two weeks in 1919.

The following day, 13th December, the Limerick Leader reported that Limerick Trades Council had secured the banknote for €1,400. Trades council president Mike McNamara revealed to the paper after the auction that they were prepared to bid as high as €3,500.

Seamus Quinn, president of the Mechanics Institute, and Mike McNamara, president of the Limerick Trades Council, display the banknote after the auction. Picture: Michael Cowhey
The note has now been taken home to the Mechanics Institute on Hartstonge Street.

Mike McNamara told the Limerick Leader:  “It’s a fantastic day for the workers and the trade union movement. It means so much to us. It’s our history and you can’t put a price on history. I think we did the workers of 1919 a great service here today. Most of the Labour politicians in Limerick were borne out of the trade union movement, so it’s a big day for us. We would ask people not to put a price on our heritage, and to come to us with any materials they may have.”


More about the soviet

Two articles worth reading:

•   Remember the Limerick Soviet! from The Red Phoenix, online paper of the American Party of Labor.   (Two of the photos require comment. The funeral of Robert Byrne (first photo) took place in Limerick. The second photo looking like an old school reunion with jackets and ties, is a group shot of the strike committee.)

•  In The Old Limerick Journal, March 1980, by Jim Kemmy, a Limerick stonemason, trade unionist, politician and historian. Thanks to my friend James for this one.  

Jim Kemmy
Both explore the reasons for the demise of the short-lived but powerful Limerick Soviet. There was little support from the rest of the labour movement. One factor discussed is the attitude of Sinn Féin and its affiliated armed wing, the IRA, and divergent accounts of this are on offer. 

According to the Red Phoenix, whilst these organisations offered critical support to the soviet, the party was over-eager to preserve unity between classes and as a result to a degree betrayed the soviet. Sinn Féin founder Arthur Griffith is quoted, who in January 1919, three months before the strike, wrote: “The General Strike is a weapon that might injure as much as serve. It would be injudicious at present and might be injudicious at any time, unless under extreme circumstances …”.

Jim Kemmy, without mentioning Arthur Griffith’s views, reports on the contrary that Sinn Féin wanted the strike continued and condemned the strike committee for caving in.

The role of the clergy was important too. But of this more another time perhaps.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Keaveney defection: Irish politics gets interesting

On Thursday night, despite days of agonising about the austerity budget amongst backbenchers, only one coalition TD voted against it, and has been expelled from the Labour Parliamentary Party.   But it wasn’t any old backbench TD.  It was Colm Keaveney, Labour Party chair. According to party leader and deputy leader Eamon Gilmore and Pat Rabbitte, being outside the Parliamentary Party is incompatible with being party chairman, and Keaveney should resign from his position.

Left, Colm Keaveney. Right, Labour leader and deputy prime minister Eamon Gilmore.  The Keaveney photo is outside the Dáil Thursday night after he had voted against the Social Welfare Bill. Irish Times correspondent Miriam Lord said he looked shell-shocked. (Credit: Brenda Fitzsimons)
But this is where it gets interesting.
Keaveney was elected by Conference, and is challenging Gilmore to call a special conference to unseat him.  The Irish Times quotes him:

“The graceful thing to do is to honour the mandate I was given by the grassroots of the Labour Party and I said I would honour Labour values. It is a gift of the members of the Labour Party and not of the leader. I will put myself in front of a conference if Eamon Gilmore believes that we need an early conference to talk about the chair. I think we need an early conference on the direction of the Labour Party.”

The specific clause Keaveney voted against seems to have been the reduction in respite care grants.

A selection of tweets during the past few hours:-

> I'm ordinary member who is not normally rebellious but any attempt to force out Colm Keaveney as Chair would lead to members revolt

> After shamelessly lying to the electorate, Pat Rabbitte has some nerve to be abusing and belittling Colm Keaveney over his stance

> Colm Keaveney SHOULD NOT RESIGN Emmet Stag of ALL ppl has a nerve talking about ANYONE embarrassing Labour Party! (Emmet Stag is Labour Party whip, but sorry I don't know his particular misdeeds)

> Absolutely absurd suggestion that Colm Keaveney might not stay on as labour party chairperson. He is democratically elected by the members (this from Patrick Nulty, a left Labour TD who is one of 5 now excluded from the whip)

So ... special conference yes or no?

One thing you can be sure of, Gilmore won't be calling a special conference if he can help it. The question is, will Colm Keaveney? Or will his supporters?

Read: Keaveney “determined” to remain Labour party chairman in, and Row breaks out over Colm Keaveney's future as Labour Party chairman (RTÉ)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Life thrives in one of Earth's most extreme environments

Lake Vida in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, in East Antarctica
Here's another story about an ice-entombed Antarctic lake, which I found in New Scientist, 26 November.

It's Lake Vida in East Antarctica, which has been buried for 2,800 years under 20 metres of ice.  (But no snow ... weird ... I never knew Antarctica looked like this.)  Those figures are negligible compared to much older, deeper lakes under investigation in Antarctica, most notably lakes Vostok and Ellsworth, which I wrote about a couple of days ago.  Those are 3 kilometres down and may have been isolated for millions rather than thousands of years. 

But here's the interesting bit.
Lake Vida is one of the most extreme environments on Earth. It's seven times as salty as the sea, pitch dark, and 13 degrees below freezing, yet despite all this it teems with life.

We were pondering the chance that extraterrestrial life might exist on planets such as Mars, or icy moons such as Jupiter's Europa.
The discovery of strange, abundant bacteria in a completely sealed, sunless, salty, icebound lake must strengthen this possibility.

New Scientist quotes Peter Doran of the University of Illinois saying "Lake Vida is a model of what happens when you try to freeze a lake solid, and this is the same fate that any lakes on Mars would have gone through as the planet turned colder from a watery past.  Any Martian water bodies that did form would have gone through this Vida stage before freezing solid, entombing the evidence of the past ecosystem."  Doran is co-leader of a team working in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica where Vida is situated.

Energy from
chemicals not sunlight?

The Vida bacteria belong to previously unknown species. It's thought they probably survive by metabolising the abundant hydrogen and oxides of nitrogen that Vida's salty, oxygen-free water has been found to contain. It seems researchers were surprised to find such high concentrations of hydrogen, nitrous oxide and carbon in the water. They speculate that these chemicals might originate from reactions between salt and nitrogen-containing minerals in the surrounding rock. Over the centuries, bacteria denied sunlight may have evolved to be completely reliant on these chemicals for energy.

Some of the extracted cells are being grown in a lab, in order to better understand the physical or chemical extremes they can tolerate.  

Here's how the researchers think the lake got so salty. As the top and edges of the lake progressively froze, all the salt became concentrated in the remaining water, which as a result can stay liquid below -13 °C.

More on US Antarctic Programme website.

There are other extreme environments on Earth where life thrives. Beside hot deep ocean vents, for example. But more of them another day perhaps.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

I find an optimistic comment about pharao Morsi

President Morsi - “pharaonic” decree
Haven't said anything abut the Arab Spring recently because I'm a bit down in the mouth about the whole thing. But for a dose of optimism, read Mehdi Hasan in the New Statesman, on 29 November.  

Hasan says we should ignore the neocons, he refuses to give up on Egypt, or the Arab spring.  Despite the murmurs about Morsi’s “pharaonic” decree and the Syrian bloodbath, he refuses to lose faith in the people of the Arab world.  For a start, we should all be celebrating the backlash against Morsi’s decree and how instant it was.

One point I need to take issue with him though.

Pointing out that revolutions are measured in years and decades, not weeks and months, he quotes Chinese premier Zhou Enlai’s remark “It is too soon to say” made in 1971, when asked for his view on the success of the French Revolution of 1789.

That one, sad to say, has been nailed.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Manhattan Project: Celebrating? Or commemorating?

A Quonset hut on the grounds of the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico where "Fat Man" (atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945) was assembled. The hut would be part of a new Manhattan Project National Park.

Historical photograph courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory. I'm not sure if this caption means this was the actual hut, or just one like it.
A US congressman has condemned a bill to make a national park out of three top-secret sites which housed the Manhattan Project.

"We're talking about the devastation of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — hundreds of thousands killed, $10 trillion Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, tens of thousands of nuclear weapons which today threaten the existence of the world — and this is something we should celebrate?"

The words of Democrat congressman Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), reported by NPR.

The contrary position is put by director of the Los Alamos Historical Society, Heather McClenahan. A park would be a commemoration, not a celebration. And the US already has national parks commemorating slavery, Civil War battles and American Indian massacres.

"It's a chance to say, 'Why did we do this? What were the good things that happened? What were the bad? How do we learn lessons from the past? How do we not ever have to use an atomic bomb in warfare again?' "

That’s history.

Read it on the NPR website where you can also download an audio clip, 3 min 38 sec.

The congressman and the history woman are both right of course.  But of the two, the history woman is the righter.

Extraterrestrial life? Keep your eye on Lake Ellsworth

The sun is shining night and day in the Antarctic right now, but the temperatures remain far below freezing. Photograph: British Antarctic Survey
A search for life is beginning in a lake entombed under Antarctic ice. Lake Ellsworth is buried under three kilometres of solid ice, and is the size of Lake Windermere. Keep an eye on this story. A drilling operation is now reaching its climax and the actual lake water ought to be reached between 12th and 15th December. 

Here's why it's important. Should life be found lurking in the depths, it will have evolved in isolation for at least 100,000 years, but probably much longer. I've seen millions mentioned. Scientists want to know whether life can endure such harsh environments. If it can, the next question is how. Any organisms that live here are cut off from the air above, and must contend with subzero conditions, few nutrients, complete darkness, and intense pressure.

The answers will further our understanding of life on Earth, and inform searches for life elsewhere in the solar system, such as in the ice-capped ocean of Jupiter's moon Europa.

Mike Bentley, a geologist, was quoted in yesterday’s Guardian: "Extreme environments tell you what constraints there are on life. If we find a particular set of environments where life can't exist, that creates some bookends: it tells you about the limits of life."

Another buried Antarctic lake, Lake Vostok, is being probed by Russian scientists. It's even deeper and more challenging, and the project has been criticised due to concerns that the Russians may contaminate the lake with microbes from the surface that would nullify any discovery of life there. The British team will use a sterile hot water drill to bore down. According to Nature,  this method would be impractical at Lake Vostok due to the thicker glacier.

New Scientist reported in October that no sign of life has been discovered in the first Lake Vostok samples but microbes may lurk deeper in the lake.

The more life is found in buried Antarctic lakes the better the prospects for life on Jupiter's icy moon Europa.

Beneath Europa's icy shell, it is thought a liquid ocean exists, potentially supporting complex organisms
I need to check what missions are planned to Europa and Jupiter's other icy moons.  ESA has or had a project known as JUICE - the Jupiter Icy moons Explorer, to be launched in 2022. And NASA has the Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM). But I have a feeling one or other of these has been cancelled or they have been merged or something. Who knows what damage austerity will do between now and 2022. 

For more see this Guardian link: British Antarctic Survey in pictures

Isolated for millions of years

One thing puzzles me in all the commentary on these Antarctic lakes. That’s the emphasis on their being isolated from all other life for perhaps millions of years. Even if this turns out to be so, millions of years doesn't strike me as long enough to be interesting. Some comments on this theme in a post I wrote about Lake Vostok in February 2011.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Climate change comes to Glenduff

22 Nov 2012. Top, our drive torn up by the flood. Bottom Cork County Council fixing it.
We woke 3 o’clock on Thursday morning to find water cascading into the yard with such force that it completely broke up our yard and driveway, exposing electric cables. Only a little came into the house thankfully.

Before and after the repairs.  Exposed electric cable in foreground of left hand picture.
Full praise to Cork County Council who sent a gang to fix everything up again, all done within less than 12 hours of the flood.  They had to attend to a lot of other local damage as well.

This sort of thing has never happened before, and the talk is, is this climate change in action? You can't point to a single event of course, floods in Glenduff or Hurricane Sandy, and say “that’s climate change”. But it's the second time in 6 weeks our drive and the nearby borheen (mountain road) have been torn up; and the best way to describe what's going on is that climate change loads the dice in favour of extreme events such as this.  More on the way I fear. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fracking: this issue is huge. I didn't realise how huge

Here's a story that’s crept up on me unawares. Fracking for shale gas.  Until a Guardian feature last Thursday I thought this was just the latest get rich quick scheme for oil companies, and that a few well aimed protests about ground water pollution would hopefully see it off. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I've clearly not been paying close enough attention.

An attack on a pipeline during the Iraq war. Photograph: Jamal Nasrallah/EPA
It seems the US is predicted to become the world's largest oil producer by 2035. Cheap energy from shale oil and gas is being touted as the dawn of a new US golden age. I had no idea. With all that at stake, deep pessimism beckons. The photo of an attack on a pipeline during the Iraq war is used by The Guardian to illustrate its argument that shale oil will end a 30-year preoccupation with ensuring enough energy to meet the US economy's needs. 

"Gazprom feels the chill as its dominance is weakened" tells that shale oil and shale gas are so plentiful in North America, that they offer the US self-sufficiency in energy which could end American reliance on despotic Gulf regimes and pull the rug from under Russia’s Gazprom.  This is a massive prize.

The point is that not only is the extraction process environmentally destructive in itself, but the burning of all this shale gas and oil entails greenhouse gas emissions that will far outstrip our ability to adapt to the climate change they will cause. See Friends of the Earth briefing “Shale gas: energy solution or fracking hell?” and another Guardian feature Shale offers freedom and security – but it could be a trap.

In his victory speech Barack Obama used the expression "the destructive power of a warming planet" and thereby raised expectations of climate change action in his second term.  But other indicators all point the other way. In his first term he made a strategic decision to downplay climate change; he avoided the issue during the recent campaign; and the Republicans continue to control the House of Representatives.  

If the prize for shale oil extraction is as massive as the Guardian article says it is, then it's going to be like a gale blowing on a reed.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Savita Halappanavar case – some links

These are worth following:-

(1) Pro-Choice Campaign Ireland Facebook page. I haven't yet seen details of any follow-up demonstrations. Last night's, by the way, was reported by RTE as around a thousand, and there was one in Cork too.

(2) Irish Times today "Tragic case demonstrates moral minefield faced by doctors"

Paul Cullen says that the current legal framework forces doctors to make life-and-death decisions affecting both mother and foetus, knowing that a wrong call may feed into the fevered debate on abortion.  Even the Medical Council guidelines seem contradictory, saying that every effort to preserve the life of the mother should be made in exceptional circumstances, where “there may be little or no hope of the baby surviving”.

(3) Irish Times
today's editorial - An avoidable tragedy?

Argues that it's not possible to say categorically that earlier medical intervention to end Savita Halappanavar’s pregnancy by “expediting delivery” of her miscarrying foetus would definitely have saved her life.

But profound questions arise for the hospital. Also for the Medical Council about the ambiguity of its guidelines or its failure to ensure that they are fully understood. The current legal position is a morass, and there is an unarguable imperative on the Government to clarify it.

(4) Did Irish Catholic law or malpractice kill Savita Halappanavar?

A blog posted by Dr. Jen Gunter, a Canadian who says she knows these scenarios backwards and forwards as an OB/GYN,  and moreover had ruptured membranes in her own pregnancy.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why the sad death of a pregnant woman has caused a stir in Ireland

Hundreds of pro-choice protesters gathered at short notice outside the Dáil to call on the Government to legislate for abortion when the mother’s life is at risk, following the death of Savita Halappanavar. She was found to be miscarrying when admitted to University Hospital Galway last month, and died of septicaemia. It's the big talking point in Ireland tonight.  I expect there'll be a massive demo in Dublin on Saturday.

For the background see Irish Times  Woman 'denied a termination' dies in hospital.

The trigger for the protest came this morning when Savita Halappanavar's husband spoke out.
The Irish Times reporters say Mr Halappanavar has claimed that following several requests by his late wife for a termination, they were told: "This is a Catholic country."
A tweet from ‏@k_tten asks "Were any of Savita Halappanavar's doctors involved in this Pro-Life symposium 2 months ago?"

Savita Halappanavar died of septicaemia at University Hospital Galway. Tonight several hundred protesters gathered outside the Dáil.
(Photo: Brenda Fitzsimons/The
Irish Times)
The questions

The questions about this case, which various enquiries will need to answer, are:

(1) Would a termination have saved Savita Halappanavar's life?

(2) If yes, which of the following three scenarios applies?

      (a)    Medical error - doctors didn't realise this until too late

      (b)    The doctors did know it; and failed to follow hospital protocols due to personal religious or ethical scruples

      (c)    The doctors did know it; but hospital protocols were unclear and the doctors were prevented by uncertainty as to the law and fear of prosecution


Mr Halappanavar is a credible witness, I heard him on the radio today, and tonight's demonstrators clearly believe him, and think they know the answer: it's either 2(b) or 2(c). 

Listen to him on this RTÉ page. Search for “Praveen Halappanavar”.

But the Pro-Life Campaign claims it's “deplorable” that this tragic death is being used to promote a change in abortion legislation, and that Medical Council Guidelines are clear that women in pregnancy must be given all necessary medical treatment.  See Irish Catholic.

Catholics benefit from my advice

As it happens I read this paper every week. It gives extensive coverage to the pro life campaign and opposition to introducing any abortion legislation. A recurring theme is that research shows Ireland to be the safest place in the world for women to give birth; and that availability of abortion causes, rather than prevents, harm to women. 

Another recurring theme is deploring the trend to a secular society.

There's an irony here. The “safest place in the world for women to give birth” argument is secular, not religious.  What if the Savita Halappanavar case undermines it?

Catholics would be better advised, in my humble opinion, to abandon prudential reasoning based on scientific research, and stick instead to the sanctity of life, sin, ethics and church teaching. 

Last March, the editor of The Irish Catholic was good enough to publish a letter from me along these lines. I suggested they may find that adopting secular arguments, when they happen to be opportune, is a short-sighted policy.

In case you need it, I've made a short note on why abortion legislation is on the agenda in Ireland. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

I read "The Collar" by George Herbert

My Metaphysical poets book. A bit grubby as I had it at school.  We studied these poets for A-level.  It's the Penguin Poets edition (reprinted 1964), price 5/-. That’s pronounced 5 shillings. And now a reading of my favourite poem from it.  I perfected reading it aloud - but only in an empty room if I recall. Now 47 years later I've made this recording which is, I think, a faithful rendering of my 17-year old self in 1965.

If the SoundCloud widget doesn't show below, click here. If it shows but without a play button at top left, then hit the SoundCloud link at bottom right.

The Collar by George Herbert (1593-1633)

   I Struck the board, and cry’d, No more.
                       I will abroad.
       What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
   My lines and life are free; free as the rode,
      Loose as the winde, as large as store.
               Shall I be still in suit?
         Have I no harvest but a thorn
       To let me bloud, and not restore
   What I have lost with cordiall fruit?
                Sure there was wine
   Before my sighs did drie it: there was corn
           Before my tears did drown it.
           Is the yeare onely lost to me?
           Have I no bayes to crown it?
   No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?
                       All wasted?
        Not so, my heart: but there is fruit,
                And thou hast hands.
          Recover all thy sigh-blown age
   On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute
     Of what is fit, and not. Forsake thy cage,
                   Thy rope of sands,
   Which pettie thoughts have made, and made to thee
             Good cable, to enforce and draw,
                   And be thy law,
   While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
                   Away; take heed:
                      I will abroad.
   Call in thy deaths head there: tie up thy fears.
                    He that forbears
           To suit and serve his need,
                  Deserves his load.
   But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde
                    At every word,
     Me thoughts I heard one calling, Childe:
               And I reply’d, My Lord.

Another Metaphysical Poet was John Donne, perhaps the best known, and like Herbert an Anglican priest.  What are we to make of the poem’s title, The Collar? I've a feeling that in the early 17th century “collar” was not yet being applied to clothing. The original audience would have thought of a horse’s collar used to restrain the animal and force it to work; and they would also have been on the look-out for a pun and would have thought of “choler”. Tempting as it is to picture a clerical dog collar, this was not yet used, neither the expression nor the thing itself, which is Victorian.   

Additional note: The term metaphysical poets came into being a long time after the poets to whom it applies were dead. Samuel Johnson who coined it, did so with the consciousness that he was giving a kind of nickname (I'm quoting from the introduction to my Penguin Poets edition).  A quote our English teacher (oh that I could remember his name) advised us to learn was that Samuel Johnson said of these poets that “if they frequently threw away their wit upon false conceits, they, likewise, sometimes struck out unexpected truth; if their conceits were far-fetched, they were often worth the carriage”.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Putative archbishop claims relgious views muzzled

Rt. Revd. Justin Welby Bishop of Durham
So the Rt. Revd. Justin Welby will be Archbishop of Canterbury.  The Daily Telegraph, which knows a thing or two about these things, calls him a worldly capitalist looking to spread the Word of the Lord.

Next Wednesday 14th November Welby is due to give a lecture called "Seen but not Heard – Should Believers have a Voice in the Polis?"  at Durham University.

He will claim that those who hold to religion are increasingly barred from airing their views in the public square. 

The advance publicity says the Bishop of Durham (as he still is) will explore the increasing tendency to suggest that those who hold faith based world views are disqualified from expressing any opinion in political life; or at the very least must excise such a world view from their minds when acting in public life. “To put it crudely” he will argue, the rule is “hold to any religion you like but don't let it affect your deeds.”

I think he exaggerates. Who says these things?  Church voices frequently assert that this is said, but is it said?  When? By whom? I wish I could be at the lecture to hear his case.

Admittedly the Irish politician Pat Rabbitte did say something like this not long ago. But he got scant support.

A word about that mitre thing

By the way the history of that mitre he’s wearing is instructive. It derives from a cap worn by officials of the Imperial Byzantine court. Or according to other sources, it's modelled on the ancient Byzantine imperial crown. More in Wikipedia. Or this website on Byzantine iconography (search for mitre.)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Planet with 4 suns? Asimov got there first

Nightfall 1990 edition
A couple of weeks ago I pondered how far astronomy could progress on a planet bathed in perpetual daylight, and now Denis has directed me to Isaac Asimov’s 1941 science fiction short story "Nightfall". It features the coming of darkness to the people of a planet ordinarily illuminated at all times on all sides. They have even more suns than the four which grace the recently discovered planet PH1. Asimov’s planet has six.

Total darkness is unknown, and as a result so are stars outside the 6-star system. Their scientists predict that once every 2049 years a brief “night” will occur. Since the current population has never experienced universal darkness, the scientists conclude that the darkness itself would traumatize the people, and that the inhabitants of the planet must prepare accordingly.

But when night falls the scientists themselves get a surprise. Together with the rest of the population they are presented with the spectacle of a black sky filled with hitherto-invisible stars. The short story does not dramatize subsequent events, but in 1990 Asimov (with Robert Silverberg) adapted it into a novel, in which civil disorder breaks out, cities are destroyed in massive fires, competing groups try to seize control, and civilization collapses.

I've taken this from the plot summary in Wikipedia. I must get hold of this story.

Friday, October 26, 2012

NASA's latest polar sea ice images, north and south

Sea ice September 2012. Arctic summer, Antarctic winter. Yellow outlines indicate previous averages.
Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio and NASA Earth Observatory/ Jesse Allen
NASA doesn't only explore the solar system, it has an Earth monitoring programme and employs climate scientists. A few days ago they issued two striking images of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice.  Enlarged images available on NASA Earth page.

September 2012 witnessed two opposite records.

Left: the Arctic Ocean's ice cap experienced an all-time summertime low for the satellite era.

Right: Two weeks later, Antarctic sea ice reached a record winter maximum. (In extent, though not thickness.) 

The yellow outlines are for comparison, indicating recent averages. In the Arctic image, average sea ice minimum extent from 1979 to 2010. In the Antarctic image, median sea ice extent in September from 1979 to 2000.

Dr James E. Hansen
NASA says that sea ice in the Arctic has melted at a much faster rate than it has expanded in the Southern Ocean, as can be seen in this image by comparing the 2012 sea ice levels with the yellow outline.

Dr Claire Parkinson, a climate scientist with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is quoted saying : "There's been an overall increase in the sea ice cover in the Antarctic, which is the opposite of what is happening in the Arctic. However, this growth rate is not nearly as large as the decrease in the Arctic.”

Lest we take the Antarctic image as a hopeful sign, she cautions that
some areas of the Southern Ocean cooling and producing more sea ice does not disprove a warming climate.

"Climate does not change uniformly: The Earth is very large and the expectation definitely would be that there would be different changes in different regions of the world.  That's true even if overall the system is warming.”

Another recent NASA study showed that Antarctic sea ice slightly thinned from 2003 to 2008, but increases in the extent of the ice balanced the loss in thickness and led to an overall volume gain.

NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies is led by James Hansen, a noted climatologist who has become a hate figure for oil companies due to his warnings about human-induced climate change.  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

6 years for seismologists? What about economists?

The earthquake in L'Aquila destroyed the city and
killed more than 300 people in 2009. (Irish Times)
Let’s talk about the six Italian seismologists and a civil servant who this week face 6 years jail for failing to give adequate warning of a deadly earthquake. 

Best tweet so far is from Ursula ‏@UrsulaWJ :

what, seriously, they've sentenced scientists to jail for failing to predict an earthquake? I'm off to round up the economists.

Yet defence of the convictions - if not the sentences - is coming in from surprising quarters. (For a catch-up on the story so far, see foot of this post.)

New Scientist says that whilst it's easy to feel outrage at the jail terms - how could anyone hope to have predicted the earthquake? – the fact is that failure to predict is not what the seven men have been convicted of. The prosecution case was about poor risk communication; it was built on an accusation of giving out "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information".

Likewise Stuart Clark in a Guardian blog asks: was this trial about science or communication? Whilst the media is filled with stories about science being on trial, claiming that the scientists have been convicted of failing to predict the earthquake, he says the conviction was actually for errors in communication.

Still and all, I think we ought to contribute to the defence fund, which I haven't seen notice of yet, but I'm sure we shall very soon.

I'm not a seismologist but I think it's a fair bet that “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” would pretty well describe the state of that science. The lesson: they ought to have issued a statement saying WE CAN’T PREDICT EARTHQUAKES, submitted their expenses claims, and gone home.

Italian science on trial again?

Stuart Clark draws a parallel with the Galileo trial and says that, too, has been misinterpreted: the Vatican wasn’t against astronomy, just about the way Galileo communicated it.  Galileo was arraigned for communicating too much, the seismologists for too little.

To digress, Stuart illustrates his blog with the famous picture by Cristiano Banti  "Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition" (1857):

This is 19th century romanticisation, I fear. Galileo’s demeanour at his trial was very far from the defiance depicted here. More like grovelling actually.

The story so far

The controversial earthquake sentence was handed down Monday by an Italian court sitting in L’Aquila, the city destroyed on April 6th, 2009, with more than 1,000 people injured, and hundreds of others killed in their sleep.

The seven, all members of an official body called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, were accused of negligence and malpractice in their evaluation of the danger of an earthquake and their duty to keep the city informed of the risks.

The case has drawn wide condemnation from international bodies including the American Geophysical Union, which said the risk of litigation may deter scientists from advising governments or even working to assess seismic risk.

According to today's Irish Times, the speaker of the Italian senate, Renato Schifani, commented: “This is a strange and embarrassing sentence. In future, [experts] asked to serve on committees like this will simply refuse.”

And one of those sentenced, Prof Enzo Boschi, said he was “desperate”, claiming he had been expecting to be acquitted. “I don’t even understand what I have been accused of, I never issued any reassurance to anyone, not I. All I said was that earthquakes are unpredictable .... I would never have excluded the possibility of a major quake in the Abruzzo, I’d have to be mad to do that.”

At the heart of the case (says Reuters) was whether the government-appointed experts gave an overly reassuring picture of the risks facing the town, which contained many ancient and fragile buildings and which had been partially destroyed three times by earthquakes over the centuries.

The case focused in particular on a series of low-level tremors which hit the region in the months preceding the earthquake and which prosecutors said should have warned experts not to underestimate the risk of a major shock.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Planet with four suns – can they do astronomy there?

A discovery of a planet with four suns. It orbits one of a pair of stars and is in turn circled by a second pair.  Also in the news this week, an Earth-like planet discovered around the nearest star to our own Sun.

But it's the planet with four suns that interests me more. A pair of stars is called a binary star, and here's a graphic. It shows the two stars orbiting around their common center of mass.

In this case we have two binary stars, so four stars in all. Imagine each dot is itself a binary star. The recently discovered planet is a gas giant orbiting one of the stars. It's been called PH1.

So four suns light up its skies. 

Graphic showing planet PH1 in foreground and a binary star (two suns) in the distance. Pity it doesn't show all four suns.  The suns are imagined as rather feeble, permitting the sky to be full of stars. But what if the suns were stronger and blotted out all stars?   
Can they do astronomy?

Suppose beings inhabited this planet PH1. Which they can't as it's a gas giant, but lets suppose.  Would they experience night?  Perhaps never.  Perhaps there would always be at least one sun in the sky. Imagining this to be so, can we speculate what sort of astronomy the inhabitants of PH1 can do?  They would think the universe consisted of their planet and four suns. If there were one or more moons, they would be dimly aware of them perhaps, if on rare occasions they showed up in the perpetual daylight.

But the stars – these they would never see. Though the four suns might have numerous planets besides PH1, they would be unaware of these too.  Unless, like Venus, a planet occasionally showed up in the daylight sky.

Or suppose the PH1 beings experience an occasional brief night when all four suns happen to line up on the other side of their world. What an amazing spectacle for them!  Then they would briefly see the stars as pricks of light in a dark blanket and say to each other “what on PH1 is that?!”

But would the stars stay around long enough to prompt any investigation?  That's the question I'm posing.  Would they have time to notice that some of the stars behaved oddly and were planets?

Astronomy was born, I think, when sky watchers, having studied the heavens night after night, distinguished the wandering planets from the fixed stars, and charted the planets' courses.  And it came of age when Copernicus realised that the Earth is itself a planet.

So astronomy on PH1 would be depressingly limited.

No night sky, no Copernicus

If they had a Ptolemy, he would devise a fearsomely complicated scheme of spheres and epicycles to account for the movements of the four suns. If they had a Copernicus he would propose it would be so much simpler to imagine the suns orbiting each other and their planet orbiting one of the suns.

But wait! … could they have a Copernicus? I don't think so.

First Copernicus (our Copernicus I mean) had to know about planets. Then he was able make the leap that the Earth itself is one. But a Copernicus on PH1 could know nothing of planets. So how could he make that leap.

No. I fear PH1 astronomy would stop with Ptolemy.

No Copernicus, no Galileo, no Newton, no Einstein.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Barcelona: and a Roman aqueduct I nearly missed

The aqueduct at Badalona, Spain, with location map
To Barcelona last week. We stayed in Badalona, and there I walked a short way along a Roman aqueduct. It's underground now but the archaeologist at the local museum tells me that originally it was partially embedded in the natural clay, meaning I imagine that the roof was above ground.  I imagine this photo of an aqueduct in Germany possibly gives an idea of it:

Left: The Eifel aqueduct near Cologne showing vaulted roof and inspection manhole. Right: cross section of typical aqueduct at Lyon showing vaulted roof, foundations and cement lining of channel. Illustrations from Roman Aqueducts & Water Supply by A. Trevor Hodge (1992).
There’s a 38m stretch you can visit but I wasn’t comfortable crouching so I didn't venture far along, which is a pity, as at the far end I should have found a manhole in the roof for cleaning and maintenance. 

From the archaeologist I also have the following information. That no conservation work has been done – the duct’s perfect state of preservation is exactly as it was at the time of its discovery in the 1970’s. That it was located under one of the streets that ran from north to south (known as cardines). That it is presumed to have brought water to the town of Baetulo from the lower part of the Coastal Range. (Not sure what that makes the total distance - 25km perhaps.) That it was built in the early years of the reign of Tiberius and in use until the end of the first century AD. (So that's from c. 20 AD to c.100 AD. How do they know these things with such precision I wonder? Moreover it struck me as a remarkably brief period of use, requiring some sort of explanation, though the archaeologist didn't actually agree.)

Due to the steepness of the streets, the duct had a 7% fall, but a pavement of opus signinum (a tough type of mortar) prevented erosion of the duct. (According to Trevor Hodge, 1.5% to 3% was the usual gradient, anything steeper causing excessive erosion.)

They know about a stretch of 96 meters in all, the rest of the duct having disappeared due to modern construction work.

The duct has a width of 1.30 m and its maximum height is 1.50 m. The roofing system is a barrel vault with identical construction to the walls. Pepita Padrós is the archaeologist who has supplied all this information and many thanks for her trouble.

I very nearly missed the whole thing. The signage is poor. Not to put too fine a point on it, it's nonexistent. I was pondering a manhole in the street and a scruffy looking garage door when a man approached me, asked if I wanted to see the aqueduct and opened it up for me and led me down some steps.

Gaining access to the aqueduct
I have Trevor Hodge's aqueducts book (where the black and white illustrations come from) and one day if I have time I'll tell you more about what it has to say. It's fascinating stuff.

I'll need to visit this aqueduct again, and I think there's a good chance. Badalona where we stayed is a suburb just north of Barcelona, with a good metro link, hotel right next to the beach, perfect in every way. Can give recommendations if you ask. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

I recommend "Democracy Now!"

Democracy Now! is a left wing American daily news program. I download the audio and listen to it as often as I can which isn't often enough sadly. It's also available as video.  I highly recommend it.

Taking a recent episode more or less at random, here's the one sent out on 13th September. (From this you can tell how behind I am with my listening!).

Anti-U.S. protests prompted by the Youtube clip defaming Islam were spreading across the Middle East. Tariq Ramadan, professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University was on the show. (For many years he was barred from entering the United States by President George W. Bush, but that’s really a testament to Bush’s stupidity, as Tariq Ramadan isn't quite that dangerous!)

Populism is everywhere, he said. There is religious populism in the Muslim-majority countries as much as populism in the USA.  Political parties in the Middle East had to condemn the film, or risk being outflanked but the Salafists, the literalists. In Egypt the Nour Party is the largest Salafi party.

The United Nations resolution on a no-fly zone for Libya was taken as permission for NATO to go there and intervene.  But the motive wasn’t saving Libyans, rather it was economic and “It’s quite clear now that all the economic interest and the access to resources is secured between four countries” namely the US, France, Britain and Qatar. The reaction of Russia and China to Syria should be understood in the light of what happened in Libya, he says,  because Russia and China lost out in their access to the oil resources there.

Another in-depth interview in the same episode was with anti poverty campaigners scholar Cornel West and broadcaster Tavis Smiley (pictured). They are launching a “Poverty Tour 2.0”.

Data from the Census Bureau, a US government agency, shows economic inequality continued to widen in the United States last year. The wealthiest Americans increased their share of total wealth by 4.9 percent, while the median income reached its lowest level since 1995. Some 46.2 million Americans were classified as living in poverty.

Smiley and West think that Obama would like to sweep poverty under the rug in the presidential election campaign - they claim this is what he did in 2008 - and they hope by their campaign to ensure this can't happen again.

Democracy Now! Is presented by Juan González & Amy Goodman (pictured). It's funded entirely through contributions from listeners, viewers, and foundations, and every episode ends with an appeal for donations. 

On their website they say they maintain their independence by refusing to accept advertisers, corporate underwriting, or government funding.

Give it a try.

Today’s edition has an interview Alice Walker on the 30th Anniversary of The Color Purple. Racism and violence against women are global issues. She is also a longtime advocate for the rights of Palestinians, whose conditions are "more brutal" than in the US South of 50 years ago, she says.