Saturday 31 August 2019

Tales of Flaxen Hall

Flaxen Hall, in all its majesty
On the 7th June, I posted about my predicament one year into retirement. I mentioned that I had decided to drink deep from the font of the Airbnb franchise. After 11 weeks of partaking of the scheme, I feel qualified and entitled to comment on this modest money-making opportunity.

Our property has turned out to be remarkably popular. This is probably due to the way we ‘market’ the stay as an opportunity to feed the alpacas and take part in an ‘Archery Experience’. Also, we are on the main route north and south on the North Island of New Zealand. As expected, we have attracted the European backpacker fraternity plus assorted tourists. In less than 3 months, 15 bookings have been amassed at ‘Flaxen Saxon Halls’. On the whole, it has been an interesting and pleasant experience. The folks spending time in our humble abode have been universally engaging and pleasant. I’d just like to share some of the highs and admittedly rare, lows.

Of particular note was a middle-aged German chap (don’t mention the war). He had travelled to NZ for a conference and afterwards decided to spend a few days exploring this fair country. He arrived at 3pm and as the day was sunny I offered the visitor the opportunity to partake in the pursuit of casting a few yard shafts at a suitably placed target. Satiated by our archery experience, we retreated to the inner sanctum to quaff a few foaming flagons of fine ale. My new acquired German friend was ex-army and was currently employed as a munition disposal specialist. His job involved identifying and disposing of caches of explosives deposited off the coast of Belgium and France. After the Great War, French and Belgium fishermen were paid to dump artillery shells and explosives. The plan was to ditch the munitions in deep water far out to sea. However, it seems that some of the fishermen decided that it would be more economically viable to dump the load quickly and therefore a goodly proportion of the munitions ended up in shallow water close to the coast: naughty fisher folk. Tis nice to note that people were just as lazy 100 years ago as people today- warms the cockles of your heart. Anyway, after 100 years, the shells were deteriorating spreading picric acid, and other nasties, unto the waters of the north sea, thus discombobulating fisherfolk of today. Due to the sheer amount of explosives deposited it is likely that my Teutonic visitor will be employed for a while.

As my regular readers know, I have an interest in matters military and so as the beer flowed our conversation veered to war, especially the first and second world war (yes, I did mention the war). My guest was particularly knowledgeable and we discussed matters concerning the merits of various second world war tanks long into the night…….   

My next anecdote concerns a young Dutch couple. They stayed but just one night and I have to say they were truly delightful. But for some reason which will forever remain cloaked in mystery, the young Dutch lady appeared to have a tenuous grasp on her underwear. When Mrs S went to strip and remake the bed (we have a clear demarcation of duties) she found a pair of discarded panties. Not particularly strange to find in a young couple’s bed you say. However, when cleaning their designated bathroom she found another pair of panties on the floor (why is it a pair when the item is singular?) and furthermore a third pair was espied casually discarded in our hallway. To lose one pair is an accident to lose three is just very, very, odd. And before you ask: no I didn’t.

My last story is more gripe than anecdote and related to toilet hygiene. Mrs S has a particular aversion and hate: she abhors males who cannot aim correctly when pissing thus spreading their tepid effluence far and wide. To prevent displeasure, calling on my well apportioned and lovely bonce, I have taken to piss sitting down, like a whipped cur. This unpleasantness has occurred on three separate occasions and Mrs S is nonplussed and not very pleased. Perhaps I could put a humourless plaque in the toilet area reminding guests that urinating on the floor is not particularly nice? I petition my readers to come up with a suitably funny but pointed reminder to our future guests about the importance of keeping their flowing waste strictly in the designated receptacle. The best entry wins a bag of alpaca poo to be collected at the winner's convenience. Toodly pip, for now.    

Mrs S feeding Rowan
Jack waiting for a treat


Tuesday 27 August 2019

McNamara's Morons

Today’s post is a little different to my usual fodder. For today I’m going to consider an almost forgotten aspect of the Vietnam war. This post is not about an evaluation of the war in terms of geopolitics, its military effectiveness or its impact on American society of the time. All these aspects of the war are worthy of commentary- but this not what this post aspires to be.

At the war’s height during 1966, the then incumbent Minister of Defense, Robert McNamara, implemented a policy of inducting citizens into the military who previously would have been below the required mental standards (Project 100,000). It may seem a surprise to some folk but most militaries throughout the world implement some form of cutoff concerning the military usefulness of its citizens. For the general soldier, historically at least, the bar has been placed rather low with regard to educational and intellectual attainment. It could be argued that modern soldiers are judged by higher standards due to the highly technical nature of modern munitions. However, in the instance under discussion, men who were fundamentally illiterate were deemed acceptable. Previous to the implementation of the project, men who did not reach the basic levels of literacy would have been excluded from service. In addition, other categories of human flotsam were added to this disparate/desperate category including the physically unfit and those unable to speak English. It is estimated that 345,000 men, of this designation, were drafted into the military- many of this number going on to fulfil an active combat role. Project men who failed basic training were assigned to Special Training Units, with all the horror that the designation ‘Special’ entailed.

Ostensively, the project was peddled to the public as a means to provide men at society's margins with training and the opportunity to obtain skills that would be denied to them in civilian life. Thus once their period of service was completed they could reintegrate into society to perform useful productive roles. But this was just a subterfuge. At this stage of the war, the US was struggling to fulfil their draft quotas and this project was envisaged as a rather cynical means of injecting men into the military to fight in the Vietnam war.

The men partaking of the project soon became known to the regular soldiers as ‘McNamara’s Morons’. Many of these soldiers struggled with initial basic training. Stories abound of men unable to fire a rifle or discharge a hand grenade correctly. The completely untrainable were eventually assigned to menial non-combat duties while those that ‘passed’ muster were sent on to active combat duty in Vietnam. The US government were interested in how this group of men would perform in the field and consequently the project was audited throughout. The project would later be criticised as a government state experiment using its most vulnerable citizens as guinea pigs (no shit, Flaxen).

What the audit discovered was not particularly edifying. Men ‘assigned’ to the project were wounded and killed in disproportionate numbers in comparison to their non-project peers. This difference was not trivial and project soldiers were three times more likely to be killed in combat. They also faired badly concerning metrics such as remedial training (x9 more likely than their peers) and being arrested on duty. On release from service they integrated poorly into civilian life and did not do as well as comparable men (cf morons in civilian life), who did not serve, in terms of earnings and divorce rates. What the Lord taketh away he does so in spades.     

Let us hear the testimony of woe as related by a US Combat Officer of the time: “I saw Robert McNamara when he resigned from the World Bank, crying about the poor children of the world. But he didn’t cry at all for any of those men he took in under Project 100,000 then he really doesn’t know what crying is all about. Many under me weren’t even on the 5th-grade level. I found out that they could not read; no skills before; no skills after. The army was supposed to teach them a trade in something- only they didn’t”.

I think this officer’s statement summarises the situation extremely well. These poor wretches were the no-hopers of society. Without the requisite skills to fit into a modern world they existed and subsisted in a society they were woefully unfit to fully take part in. Their problem was not one of opportunity- opportunities cannot be grasped by nerveless hands. This may seem a rather stark and gloomy analysis, but is one born out by general experience and hard data. In this instance, the government had a problem and contemptuously applied a fix. They wrapped the ‘Project 100,000’ as a social program for the disenfranchised and unskilled. What they achieved was basic ‘cannon fodder’. In terms of personal and social benefit, the net gain was nil. Indeed, it can be argued that the military did scant service to the survivors and skills accrued was negligible at best. The simple reality: the US government cynically exploited a vulnerable sector of society to fulfil military quotas.        

 It will come as no surprise to my readers that governments care little about those they govern and supposedly serve: wise folk know different. Regardless of epoch and country, the self-serving elite continues to perpetuate their dominance on society without remorse or remittance. Most folk are so befuddled by life’s trivialities and Sky tele that they care not or cannot see. For those who can see, there is a reality beyond the lies promulgated by our so-called leaders. Those possessed of imagination can retreat into our own world of peace, tranquillity and cynical appraisal.           

Thursday 22 August 2019

Prince Andy of Tipton

Randy Andy
Shock breaking news from the sleepy kingdom of Tipton. For today it can be revealed, by this esteemed chronicle: ‘The Daily Chain Mail’ that Prinze Andy Pandy has been implicated associating with young maidens, not yet nubile, for rumpy-pumpy.

A vivid sketch (in delicate pastel shades) has come to light showing the Prince in congress with maidens, multiple. Furthermore, the exalted Prince has been shown to be an intimate associate of Jeffried Epstein-Barr Virus, a notorious procurer of wenches below the age of consent. Numerous sources attest that the unsullied Prince spent much time with Jeffried on his expansive/expensive longboat. Rumours, of known provenance, suggest much feasting and carousing with the whole proceedings adorned with serving bints, unknown to man (allegedly).

Out of Touch
Queen Dotage and her consort, Fillip, The Philanderer, have issued a parchment, stating thusly: ‘My husband and I can categorically state that Andy Dandy has never set foot on Jeffried’s longboat or has ever been in the vicinity of Jeffried and his assorted under age concubines. The Prince is appalled, agape and nonplussed that he has been found out'. (surely some mistake??).

Shot Unto Death
Sadly, it can also be revealed that Epstein-Barr virus was slain during a hunt, yesterday. Unfortunately, Virus did wander into a glade and was immediately riddled with a hundred yard shafts. The palace is treating the incident as a calamitous mishap (mayhap?). As is the case with this sort of thing, more unforeseen accidents are predicted. It is estimated that the resultant accidental death toll will be copious. This is in keeping with a noisome miasma which coats the land, at this time of year, and is well known for laying low the peasantry and thegns but not the nobility who are protected from the fall out from the tangible ordure and fetor. Arse.

Buggering off and Laying Low
In response, the Duke has characteristically decided to decamp to a luxury resort situated in the neighbouring principality of ‘Dudley on Canal’. He is accompanied by his ex-consort, Ferglander, The Useless, Wretched, Money-Sucking Bag of Dog Poo. Andy has eschewed the right to comment on the unfolding proceedings and is likely to hold out in divers strongholds until the wind doth change direction. Double Arse.

To be continued………             


Tuesday 20 August 2019


I’d like to introduce my readers to a thought experiment. Imagine you are lying on your death bed. You are not dying in pain or suffering; isn’t modern medicine wonderful? Your family surrounds you and mayhap a few friends if you have them. Not me, I’m the ultimate loner. A doctor attends; white coat and dignified white hair. I’m sure you know the type. And he says: “Flaxen I have a nostrum which contains a billion nanobots. If you assent I will inject them into one of your collapsed veins, with difficulty of course. Within hours you will feel rejuvenated as nanomachines pick and renew every cell in your body. You will be decrepit and ill no longer and your body and mind will be transported to when you were about 25 years of age, or so. And remember, your own thoughts will remain together with your accumulated wisdom." What would you do? Now that is a dilemma worthy of deliberation……….

It is said that humans are the only animal species endowed with knowledge of their mortality. Life ultimately ends in death. Entropy can only be placated for so long. But here is the rub: death is not part of life as death resides outside the demarkation of existence. We cannot relate our existence to the nonexistence to come. No one can look directly at the sun or death. Some folk, of religious sensibilities, aver that death is just the start of a new wondrous beginning. They envisage an eternal existence communing with the deity of their choice, in paradise; sounds boring to me. Even so, very few seem keen to relinquish this world for the ecstasy of the next. Mayhap, deep in their heart (?or soul), they realise that heaven is but a fantasy/fantasm born of more primitive times and tis best to cling to this world which they know to be real. And what happened to hell?

Modern medicine seems keen to delay the moment of oblivion. Too keen perhaps? Doctors take heroic measures to keep the guttering, flickering flame of life alight within failing breasts. Physicians are driven to wring the last drop of life from a dried-out husk of humanity riddled with disease. But before we castigate doctors too harshly we must appreciate that their training allows no other course. And in truth, death is seen as a failure of modern medicine even though our mortality is manifest and death inevitable. Doctors like politicians, ultimately fail.

Death can be viewed as a leap into the unknown void. But is it really? Is Socrate’s dreamless sleep to be feared? If the universe is over 13 billion years old, then our sojourn unto consciousness is but a brief hiccup in the vast morass of time (what is time?). We have always been dead. We should not fear death. What we should fear is the dying process itself especially if that process is protracted and veiled in suffering and pain. That said, modern medicine is very good at managing pain and distress. A mass of rot can be kept insensible to agony. A good death, if there is such a thing, surely invites instantaneous demise before the degenerative debilitating signs become palpable.  But if we are honest, few will be so blessed. Most will linger under death’s fetid breath, even if it be for a little while.

And so we return to the question penned at the beginning: would you accept the gift/curse of immortality? There is much to reflect upon here, especially as we may be close, at least according to some respected authorities, to achieving immortality by regenerating the human body forever. Well, at least until physical misadventure ultimately intervenes; banana skins are everywhere. Optimistic heads predict that there are mortals alive today that will eat from the tree of everlasting life. I am not of this opinion- but I may be wrong. I have previously discussed the implications: scientific, practical, psychological and ethical, elsewhere- read and weep, here. There can be no definitive answer to this final question. Our decision in our last lucid moments may not be the one we would make today. Think about it, if you can. My provisional decision (subject to change) would be nay. My three score and ten is enough. My dreamless sleep is something to be embraced, my prize for being mortal. And anyway, what do we become if we achieve immortality? I suspect we will succumb to be less than human.

I will leave the immortal Bard to have the last word on the subject. He certainly had a way with words.

By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once; we owe God a death.                    



Thursday 15 August 2019

Animal Doppelgangers: Convergent Evolution

This is an example of retrograde evolution

In today’s post, I’ve decided to address another evolutionary topic: ‘Convergent Evolution’ (homoplasy). In principle, the concept is relatively simple. Organisms in similar ecological environments (niches) evolve independently to form similar body morphologies and/or analogous body parts, physiology or biochemistry. Or in other words, similar problems yield similar answers. A good example would be a comparison between sharks and dolphins. Sharks and dolphins are not closely related in reference to phylogeny. However, their body habitus is remarkably similar. Thus, both are streamlined and their respective skins have a particularly low coefficient of friction. Also, both species are endowed with a fin configuration that is essentially the same. A key difference relates to the tail fins. The shark has a tail fin with a vertical aspect while the dolphin’s fin is distinctly horizontal. These similarities exist in spite of the fact that dolphins are more closely related to humans than they are to sharks. Of course, a shark’s body shape can vary according to individual species and the various lifestyles pursued. However, this does not detract from the main thrust of the thesis especially when we compare classic pelagic sharks such as the great white (Carcharodon Carcharias), with the dolphin. Both species have evolved as fast-swimming predators. Evolution, over aeons, has honed the shark and dolphin body shape to suit the open sea environment and cement their role as top predators. From a behavioural perspective, there are marked differences between these species. The great white is essentially a solitary hunter while the dolphin hunts within a cooperative pack (pod).

Clearly, the torpedo body shape has evolved under evolutionary pressures and constraints to maximise the efficiency of these two very successful predatory species. Indeed, if we look to the remote evolutionary past we can observe the fossil remains of the long-extinct ichthyosaur (fish-lizard). Again this common and distinctive body shape is resplendent and replicated in the ichthyosaur, although this creature is designated a reptile.

I’ve added images of the great white shark, dolphin and ichthyosaur for comparison: note the similarity in musculature and body form.

As an aside and a point of clarity: the dolphin’s horizontal tail fin is a consequence of anatomical/economical constraints. Evolution often reworks existing structures and moulds them into different anatomical formulations conducive to their new functional role(s). It is to be remembered that dolphins originally evolved from land-dwelling mammals that ‘decided’ to return to the sea. The tail fin evolved from bipedal (is there any other sort?) legs and feet and therefore evolution had to fashion a tail from these existing structures, therefore, resulting in a horizontal fin.

Another good example concerns the convergent evolution of eutherian mammals (classic mammals) and marsupials. Marsupials evolved in wonderful geographical isolation from standard eutherian mammals and these fundamentally distinct 'mammal types' are not closely related. Even so, we observe, once again, that species occupying coinciding ecological niches are spectacularly similar in anatomical and morphological form. Consider the wolf and the recently extinct, marsupial, thylacine (Tasmanian wolf). Both species evolved as pack animals to take on large herbivorous prey and their physical resemblance is marked. As a digression: it is quite difficult to distinguish the skulls of wild dogs and thylacines from each other on gross anatomical inspection.

Convergent evolutionary pressure is yet another example of evolution in wondrous action. I have cited just two main examples and these solely relate to morphology or body form. Other important examples would include the independent evolution of flight in bats, birds and insects. Our vegetative cousins (twice removed) are not exempt from this fascinating aspect of evolutionary force. The independent and repeated evolution of C4 photosynthesis represents an important representation of convergent evolution in plants and algae.   

It is probably a good idea, at this stage in the proceedings, to address and dispel a major misconception concerning the evolutionary process. Detractors (more fool them) often view evolution as a 'purposeful' process. By this I mean that evolution is wrongly envisaged as being part of a master plan or template which is to be followed with intent. Let me be clear: there is no prospective plan to follow. Evolution is a blind force which shapes individual variation through selective environmental forces. From this 'perspective' evolution is not predictable in any grand sense. Environmental selective pressures can change rapidly and in some instances catastrophically. Nothing is certain: chance and circumstance determine all. One of the reasons for the misconception, I think, lies with the normal use of written language and our tendency to invoke metaphor to express complex ideas. Thus our written expression may wax (but not wain) lyrical and provide an erroneous impression/expression of the evolutionary concept.  

Friday 9 August 2019

Evolutionary Evidence Easily Discerned by Those That Can See

Time for something sensible
Flaxen banging on about evolution, again......

Fundamentalist Christians would do well to acknowledge the theory of evolution, but they won't/can’t due to an adherence to anachronistic religious dogma. The evidence for evolutionary theory is overwhelming and evidence is present in a bewildering array of disciplines (nay, plethora).

For today’s post, I’d like to look at one aspect of the evidence. The cited example is one I’ve had the professional privilege to personally observe.

Over the course of many years as a cytogeneticist, I've examined human chromosomes athwart the light microscope. Humans are endowed with 46 chromosomes or 22 pairs of autosomes plus the two sex chromosomes: the presence of two X chromosomes determines the female sex while the presence of an X and Y chromosome denotes maleness. Each pair of chromosomes can be distinguished from other chromosome pairs on the basis of size, centromeric position and their unique banding pattern. A transverse chromosome banding pattern can be induced by a variety of techniques. A common technique utilises a proteolytic enzyme, trypsin, that extracts proteins from the chromosomes. After staining, a series of light and dark bands stretching across the chromosomes can be observed. The banding pattern aids chromosome analysis and enables the detection of rearrangements of the balanced and unbalanced variety.

The above represents a normal human female karyotype: note the two X chromosomes and differences in the banding pattern between chromosomes (x1,000 magnification). 

During analysis, we sometimes observe ‘fragile sites’. Fragile sites are regions within chromosomes which show a minor discontinuity. This discontinuity can be likened to a hinge and clearly reflects a structural change present at the DNA level. These fragile sites are not randomly distributed throughout the genome but appear in particular regions of particular chromosomes. Of interest is a fragile site present on the short arm of chromosome 2. Tis a fragile site which manifests in all us humans, albeit at a low level of about 2% of cells. So what, you say? A none staining gap type thingy sometimes observed does not appear particularly profound in a  discussion about evolution- but read on gentle readers and be amazed (more likely informed, a bit)!

Our close animal relatives, the Great Apes ( gorillas, chimpanzees) are replete with 48 chromosomes and therefore are blessed with two extra chromosomes in comparison to their human cousins. I’ve added the karyotypes of humans and chimpanzees for comparison. It is estimated that 4.5 million years ago a chromosome fusion event occurred in a common ancestor to humans and apes. This event reduced the genome to a modest 46 chromosomes. The fusion resulted in the formation of what came to be human chromosome 2. At the point of union, the  ‘join’ appears as a fragile site. Therefore, this structural anomaly stands as a stark and mute testament to our hereditary lineage and shared evolutionary pathway with our cousins, the Great Apes. Indeed, it has been speculated that this random evolutionary event may have caused the reproductive isolation of a small population of our ancestors thus preventing successful breeding with the original non-mutated population and therefore facilitating divergent evolution between ancestral humans and apes. 

              Chimp Female
The above chimp karyotype exhibits a great deal of similarity to the corresponding human genome. For instance, consider chimp chromosome 6 and human chromosome 7: their gross morphology is virtually identical. Again compare chimp chromosome 10 with its human counterpart, chromosome 12. 

A cursory glance at the respective chimpanzee and human karyotypes will reveal a great deal of similarity between their respective chromosomes with regard to morphology and banding patterns. Again, this points to a common evolutionary pathway for the two species.

These observations do not require a great deal of biological and evolutionary knowledge to understand. A simple demonstration can be set up in any standard genetics laboratory for all to see and appreciate the evolutionary implications. To ignore these salient points is to belong to a class of intellectual dissonance that only religious fervour can foster. Nuff said, for now.                                    

Saturday 3 August 2019

Jesus of Tipton or Dudley Depending on Perspective

Tipton Jesus, perhaps?

Mind-boggling news from the sleepy hamlet of Tipton. Professor Teapot Mugumbo of the Tipton Institute of Hard Stuff and Difficult Sums announced that contrary to the Gospel writings, Jesus of Nazareth did not die nailed to a piece of wood in Jerusalem. Now, it can be revealed that when Jesus realised that Judas was about to dob him he thought it prudent to bugger off swiftly catching the 9.15am chariot to pastures new (stopping at the Decapolis, Bethsaida, Phillipi and terminating at the coastal city of Tyre). Thereafter, he caught a swift trireme to Dover, England. Hence, he travelled the byways and canals of England finally ending up in  9th century, Tipton (twas a long journey). At the time Tipton was ruled by the mad Saxon king, Adelbert the Anchorite. Furthermore, once Mary Magdeline caught wind of Jesus’ decamp she followed a similar route, stopping at Wolverhampton and Dudley South before alighting in Tipton. It is known that Mary and Jesus went on to have two children, Loshranda and Gary.  

Once in Tipton, Jesus preached a bit- as was his wont. However, as the Tiptonites did not understand Aramaic they treated the itinerant preacher with utter disdain. It was only after learning West Saxon that Jesus managed to reach the filthy heathen Tiptonites. Often Jesus would climb to the top of the midden heap and deliver his words of solace and wisdom to the lost, smelly and diseased.
Jesus: "Verily I say to you, that before the sun sets on Michaelmas Wednesday there will be a plague of ferrets and the knee caps of the just shall wobble a bit and the fluff in the belly buttons of the righteous shall burn bright with a light that shall not be extinguished. Also, I say to you that you must visit Mr Patel’s Emporium of Cheap Shit and Assorted Crap for all your sundry needs. Today’s special consists of a knocked up paper mache statuette of yours truly buggering off with alacrity moments before the Romans attend the scene accompanied with that twat, Judas. And if you are looking for a true bargain, check out Mr Patel’s rendition of the penultimate supper. In this interpretation in diamante, I appear in repose on a mauve settee resplendent in a robe of finest nylon. This masterpiece is yours for thirty groats or two for fifty groats. A free ferret with purchases over a hundred groats!. Hurry this item is a hot seller and sure to shift off the shelves faster than a gypo covered in goose grease slipping orwf a lead roof".

Not all are convinced by Professor Mugumbo’s revelations. Dr Ipod Mugumbo-Mugumbo (no relation) of the rival academic institute: Dudley University for the very Thick and Hard of Learning, believes this is just a cunning ruse concocted by the professor, of dubious provenance, and Mr Patel to offload a load of cheap tawdry tat that was accumulating a motley patina and a bewildering array of divers detritus in a shed in Netherton North. Mugumbo-Mugumbo cites contrary evidence thusly: “There is scant evidence that England of the 9th century had the necessary infrastructure to support an extensive canal system required for large-scale travel throughout the land. And anyway, I have evidence that Jesus was whisked off by time-travelling teleporting aliens from the first-century AD. After being extensively and exhaustively anally probed, Jesus was deposited in a garret in Dudley, circa 1922. To celebrate and commemorate this implausible event Mr Khan of Mr Khan’s Boutique of Undeniably Shoddy and Sordidly Crafted Crap has knocked up Sharon of Magdala. In addition, you can purchase a piece of the ‘True Dross’ cunningly fashioned in plywood for a meagre and mere, half a quid".   

Professor Ipod Mugumbo-Mugumbo’s research is funded by an endowment furnished by the ‘Khan Foundation’.  

Flaxen is off to collect his medication- it is well overdue..........