The Grandmother Hypothesis


The grandmother hypothesis of evolution has been knocking around for a while now.  It posits the theory that human development was aided by the existence of grandparents in tribal groups.  Grandmothers are post-menopausal and reduce tribal stress around sexual competition.  At the same time they are active in the care of infants and young children, freeing up parents for productive work.  Grandmothers and Grandfathers are oracles of tribal experience and pass on skills long after they are physically capable of doing physical exertion themselves.

A new string to the grandmother hypothesis has recently emerged, and it might be called the “Poor sleeper grandparent hypothesis”.  It ask the question: why do teenagers never get out of bed in the morning?  It also raises a valid evolutionary advantage why old people rattle around the house at 5 in the morning.

If you live as a tribal group in the wild it’s unhealthy for the tribe if everyone is sound asleep at the same time.  That represents a risk to the tribe of attack by other tribal groups, or from wild animals or natural disasters.  It is healthy for the tribe if the teenagers talking around the fire at two in the morning notice that the river is in flood.  It is healthy for the tribe if granddad is relieving his bladder at five in the morning and notices a pride of lions stalking the cattle pen.

It is long known that our association with Dogs, going back over 300,000 years, arose from a symbiosis.  Their acute senses of smell and hearing complimented human sight.  Dogs rapidly became our guard dogs.  But there is no point in having a good guard dog if everyone is fast asleep.  Dogs won’t assess the danger of the river rising in flood the way a human can.  Sometimes the dog needs the guard human.

Any new parents recognise the value of having someone who is awake at six in the morning who can pick up the baby and stop it from crying, letting them get much needed rest.  Granny being awake early is a further reinforcement of the Grandmother Hypothesis.

Link to a New Scientist article on the theory -> HERE






In 2012 I was in Vienna for a four day business conference.  Gustav Klimt was born there on July 14th 1862 so everywhere you went they were celebrating his 150th birthday.  Any building with even a fleeting association with Klimt was open to the public.

I could have seen the greatest assembled volume of the works of this Symbolist, and frankly erotic painter.  He was criticized in his lifetime for work considered pornographic.

But I had to work, so I saw all the ads but never got to attend any of the exhibitions.  Now that I look back I realise I should have taken a half day sick.  Food poisoning, or a quick stomach bug, very believable.  Carpe Diem, why didn’t I carpe the flipping diem?




Burning the Books


Diego de Landa was a Fransiscan Friar and Archbishop of Yucatán during the initial phase of conquest by Spain.  He appears to have been a scholarly man and did his best to document Mayan culture.  Sadly his original works were lost over time and what remains to us are fragments of copies pieced together.  He had royal scribes decipher the Maya script and tried to produce a Maya to Spanish translator by simple substitution of Maya Characters with Spanish letters.  Anyone who played with Google Translate for more than five minutes can see the flaws in this approach.

Unfortunately well over 90% of what we now know about the Maya comes from this priest.

In 1562 he learned that some of his Catholic Converts were continuing to observe Mayan practices, in particular Idol worship.  He also claimed to have uncovered evidence of ritual human sacrifice.  But this was in response to contemporary criticism of his subsequent actions which ran counter to Crown policy and Inquisition procedure.  His apologists were his own priests.

Bishop de Landa rounded up as many idols as he could find and held an act of faith – “Auto de fé” – the famous public expression of faith of the Spanish Inquisition.

Hundreds of Mayan nobles were tortured by the Spaniards by hoisting, also called La Corda or Strappado.  They were interrogated while suspended in a manner that causes the shoulders to dislocate.  The process is helped along by beating the victim, tying weights to their feet and by repeatedly raising and dropping them.  In this way the Maya were brought into the loving arms of Jesus.

On July 12th 1562 the Archbishop set fire to a pile of about 5,000 Maya idols.  He also then committed the greatest sin in the history of scholarship.  He burned every Maya holy book he could find.  He claimed to have burned 27 Mayan Codices on that day.  He then sent his priests out across the land to copy his example, and burn every Maya Codex they could find.

To give perspective on this act we now have three Mayan Codices and 10 pages of a fourth remaining today.  Nobody knows how many were destroyed.

This being a Sunday let’s say a Hail Mary for the eternal soul of Bishop Diego de Landa, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19)

Hogging and Sagging


July 10th 1405 is the supposed date of departure for the first of the “discovery” voyages of Admiral Zheng He.  There is a lot of hyperbole given out about these voyages and many Chinese compare them to the European voyages of discovery.  There is also a lot of boasting about the size of the ships involved.

Zheng He was a Muslim eunuch, scion of a famous Persian lineage which served the Mongol Empire.

The notion that he “discovered” anything is a little silly.  The Arabs had been sailing the seven seas since Sinbad was a boy in the 9th century and by the 15th Century when Zheng He weighed anchor their trade routes were well documented.  All he did was follow the Arabic trade routes to establish the bona fides of the Chinese Court from Africa to the far East.

The other great claim is that he built the largest wooden ships in the world.  It may be true that they were the largest when they were sailing, but it is debatable if they were as big as claimed.  There are limits to the size of vessels imposed by physics.  The largest documented wooden sailing ship, the Wyoming at 137 metres, was a six masted schooner built in 1909 in Maine, USA.  She suffered horribly from hogging and sagging in heavy seas.

Hogging occurs when a ship is on top of a wave supported by the middle section.  A very long ship can bend down at the fore and aft sections, since they are unsupported.  The opposite, sagging, occurs when the fore and aft are supported on two waves, leaving the mid-ship suspended, causing the vessel to sag in the middle.

The cumulative effect of hogging and sagging over time is to twist the planking in the hull, causing leaky seams.  Wyoming needed constant work at the pumps to keep her from flooding.  She eventually sank in heavy seas in 1924.

The Chinese claim Zheng He’s flagships, his nine masted treasure ships, were even longer and much wider than the Wyoming.  They probably employed a very different type of construction, far bulkier and more rigid.  Also the nine masts were likely far shorter than those of an American Schooner.  Chinese Junk Rigs use shorter masts with fully battened sails.  It would be no surprise that a ship the length of Wyoming would need more, shorter masts to drive it.

The fleet of 317 ships carrying 30,000 men was undoubtedly impressive and you get the sense that these voyages were intended to leave the world in awe of the power of the Ming dynasty.  The intention may have been to exert Chinese control over the Indian Ocean trade.

Ultimately it was not the Chinese who subdued the Indian Ocean.  Vasco da Gama returned to Portugal from India in 1499, just scraping in as the 15th Century voyager who had the most significant impact on world history.  He set out with 4 ships, none longer than 30 metres, and 170 men.  Sometimes size is not everything.

Happy Birthday David Hockney

Blue Guitar

David Hockney, one of the most important British Artists and a leading light of Pop Art, was born on this day in 1937.

The still life above is a beautiful example of how he used photography.  Armed with nothing more sophisticated than a Polaroid Instamatic he converts a still life into a symphony of movement with his “Joiners”.  By taking multiple shots from slightly different angles he introduces a cubist three dimensional aspect to a two dimensional motif.

The guitar in the blue case, the bowl of fruit and the vase of flowers are nods to the long history of still life composition.

Initially he felt that “Photography is all right if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralysed cyclops-for a split second.”

But after some experimentation with the medium he found how to harness photography to capture the essence of movement.


Bread Basket


Egypt was the most valuable province of Rome for two reasons.  The first is obvious, in a time when any food surplus was highly valued Egypt was the bread basket of the Mediterranean world, churning out a regular, highly dependable surplus of wheat.

Secondly it operated out of step with the Northern summer season.  The monsoons hit Ethiopia in the Summer causing the Nile flood, so the Egyptians were planting when the Italians and Greeks were harvesting.  This allowed the Empire to stagger the deployment of transport.  Ships that transported grain from Sicily and Africa in Autumn could switch to the Egyptian trade in Spring.

When Rome lost Italy, Sicily, North Africa, Sardinia and ruled from Constantinople Egypt gained in importance.

As a result the 6th of July was a black day for the Romans when, in 640 AD a small force of Arabs under the brilliant general Amr ibn al-As al-Sahmi routed the Byzantines at the battle of Heliopolis on the outskirts of Cairo.

The Romans had, after a lifetime of war by Emperor Heraclius, defeated their arch nemesis, the Sassanid Empire, in 622.  As the two punch-drunk empires reeled away from each other the newly unified Arabs exploded out of the Arabian Peninsula and overran the Sassanid lands; the ancient Persian Empire.

The Romans believed themselves safe for at least a generation as the Arabs assimilated the feuding elements of the Persian empire.  They met the Arabs properly for the first time at the battle of Yarmouk in Syria in a battle that lasted for six days.  Rome lost Syria, but that was not a complete disaster.  Rome could survive without troublesome Syria.

But Egypt was another matter.  The loss of Egypt was a near deathblow to the Roman Empire.  Ultimately the Byzantine Empire could only survive by re-organisation of the entire economy.  The grain dole that marked out the highs of Roman Civilization had to cease when Egypt was lost.  Roman dominance of Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean Sea ended as the Arabs gained a coastline with well defended harbours.

The Arabs by contrast, were unleashed.  Their cavalry thundered across the North African Deserts to Morocco and Spain.  Where horses and camels galloped the ships followed.  The failings of the Byzantines at Heliopolis were felt by Christians across the entire Western World.


The Northern Penguin


The final confirmed sighting of a nesting pair of Great Auks was off Iceland on July 3rd, 1844 when a pair were killed.  The Auk became a victim of it’s increasing rarity.  As the species dwindled museums and collectors across Europe competed with each other to secure specimens of the birds and their eggs.  As the prices rose the collectors stepped up the hunt until the last birds were found and killed.

Icelandic sailors Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson strangled the adults and Ketill Ketilsson accidentally cracked the last egg of the species with his boot during the struggle on the island of Eldey.

The Great Auk was the only “modern” bird in the genus Pinguinus.  None of the Antarctic Penguins alive today are related to the Auk and none of them belong to the genus pinguinus.  But it was the resemblance of southern penguin species to the Great Auk that led to them being called Penguins.

An important source of food for humans since neanderthals walked the earth they provided much needed winter protein for native american tribes.  But it was their downy feathers that doomed them.  They were harvested widely for feathers.  They were also used as a convenient source of fresh food by explorers and fishermen, who would herd flocks of them on to their ships for provisions.

The feather collectors used the oily birds as fuel for cooking fires on the desolate rocks on which they lived.

Ah, but those were different times, you say.  We wouldn’t do that these days.  Would we?

Man is still wiping the planet clean of species after species in our pursuance of depletion economics.  Every  business targets growth, and few of them ever pause to consider how this growth impacts the planet.  How much is too much?  How much is enough.  When will we begin to live on this planet within our means?

Because if mankind cannot live within our means, we will go the way of the Auk.

A caution to everybody by Ogden Nash

Consider the auk;
becoming extinct because he forgot how to fly, and could only walk.
Consider man, who may well become extinct
because he forgot how to walk and learned how to fly before he thinked.





A skerry is a small islet or rocky reef, generally uninhabitable because they are washed by the sea in storms.  The word skerry derives from the Norse sker which is a rock in the sea.  It derives from the older proto-indo-european word sker meaning to cut.

Some say this refers to the fact that a skerry is a rock cut off from the mainland.  As a sailor I wonder if it refers to the result should you cross a skerry by accident.  It cuts a hole in your hull.

The SS Norge did exactly that on the Hasselwood rock, on the 24th of June 1904.  A Danish liner, she sank for the loss of 635 people.  Hasselwood rock is a skerry that lies just to the north of the contested Rockall, which lies far out in the North Atlantic between Ireland, Scotland, Faroe and Iceland.

Rockall has been claimed by the UK for many years, but the claim is contested because the rock is uninhabitable.  The huge Atlantic storm waves regularly break over the entire rock.  They officially claimed the rock in 1955, which would have made it the last imperial acquisition of the UK, if anyone had accepted it.  Nobody does.  But they did stick a plaque on the rock.

In 1971 the Royal Engineers and Royal Marines were dropped onto the rock by helicopter.  They used explosives to level a pad on the top of the rock, and this level base was the site for installation of a beacon.  They also installed another plaque to establish that the British owned the rock.

In 1978 the members of the Dangerous Sports Club held a cocktail party on the rock, and stole the 1971 plaque.

In 1985 survival expert Tom McClean lived on the rock for the month of June, and a little bit of May and July.  His occupation record was expunged when Greenpeace spent 42 days on the rock in 1997.  They wanted to protest any attempt to exploit the waters for fossil fuels.  It was around this time that the 1955 plaque seems to have disappeared.

Nick Hancock holds the current record at 45 days.

Visiting and claiming ownership of the rock has become something of a standing joke at the expense of the British Crown.  But Rockall will never become an “Insta” prize.  It is not an easy place to reach and a harder place to stay.  Still, I guess it’s only a matter of time before some intrepid instagrammer loses their life for the shot of a lifetime.


The Rock in the Sea; by Archibald MacLeish

Think of our blindness where the water burned!
Are we so certain that those wings, returned
and turning, we had half discerned
before our dazzled eyes had surely seen
the bird aloft there, did not mean? —
Our hearts so seized upon the sign!

Think how we sailed up-wind, the brine
tasting of daphne, the enormous wave
thundering in the water cave —
thunder in stone. And how we beached the skiff
and climbed the coral of that iron cliff
and found what only in our hearts we’d heard —
the silver screaming of that one, white bird:
The fabulous wings, the crimson beak
that opened, red as blood, to shriek
and clamor in that world of stone,
no voice to answer but its own.

What certainty, hidden in our hearts before,
found in the bird its metaphor?


30 year wait


Last time Liverpool won the top title in the English League was the 1989/90 season under Kenny Dalglish.  Irish star John Aldridge lost his place to an on form Ian Rush.  John Barnes was the top goal scorer.

Jürgen Klopp and myself were in University.  I was playing fully amateur rugby in Dublin City University while he was playing non-professional soccer in Goethe University of Frankfurt.  Klopp’s headmaster said he hoped football worked out for the young Jürgen because he didn’t fancy his chances of getting a medical degree.

He played most of his career in Mainz 05, starting as a striker but moving back to defence.  He felt himself that he had “4th division feet and a 1st division head”.  A pretty fair assessment given his record since.

He successfully managed Mainz – 05 on a shoestring budget, landing him the job with Borussia Dortmund where he secured their first ever Domestic Double.

His football philosophy is gegenpressing which is described alternatively as a counter-attacking or a forward defending style.  It is a development of the Johan Cruyff style of total football that defined the glory days of Ajax and made Barcelona such as formidable side.  Attackers become defenders the instant the ball is lost.  It stresses control of the ball, and is reflected in the possession statistics.

Klopp is a team builder.  He was the longest serving manager for both Mainz 05 and Borussia Dortmund.  In Liverpool he took his time to craft the side, continuing to build on the exciting forward attacking style of his predecessors, but fixing the back to seal up porous goal mouths.  He found great defenders and a brilliant goal keeper to secure the leads built by the strikers.

The last time Liverpool won the title it was the 1990 First Division.  The Premier League was formed in 1992 and this year is the first time Liverpool have lifted that trophy.

It’s taken 30 years but has been worth the wait.  Along the way we have had some good days and some great days.  Few football fans have ever experienced the single match highs and lows of the greatest European Final in history, the Miracle of Istanbul, the 2005 UEFA Champions League Final against favourites A.C. Milan.

I started supporting Liverpool in the early 1970’s when Bill Shankly was the manger who brought them to 1st Division Champions and UEFA Cup Winners in 1973.  That makes quite an impression on a 10 year old kid.  The names of that team remain in my memory.  Kevin Keegan at the front, Ray Clemence at the back.  Irishman Steve Heighway.  Welshman John Toshak.  Emlyn Hughes, Roy Evans, Tommy Smith, Peter & Phil Thompson and a trio of Scotsmen, Cormack, Ross and Hall.

I always thought it was a terrible shame that George Best played for the wrong team.




Mad Mann

Gérard Dicks Pellerin 

Canadian author Elizabeth Smart was introduced to the English poet George Barker by Lawrence Durrell at a writers colony in Big Sur in California.  After an affair Smart became pregnant and returned to Ottawa to have the baby.  The married Barker tried to visit her but her father, a prominent lawyer, notified the American authorities who arrested Barker under the Mann act in 1940.

The Mann act, passed on this day in 1910, is an interesting piece of nominative determinism.  Also called the “White-Slave Traffic Act” it was designed to prevent the for-commerce transportation of female prostitutes.  The act was famously misused by authorities it its lifetime.  Jack Johnson the black boxer was arrested twice and convicted under the act for travelling with a white woman.  She later became his wife.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Chuck Berry, Charles Manson and Charlie Chaplin were also arrested under the act.

When the act was employed to frustrate the affair of two writers it spawned novels by both Smart and Barker.  Smart wrote the poetry prose novel  “By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept”, published in 1945.  Barker published “The Dead Seagull” in 1950.  The couple went on to have 4 of Barker’s 15 children together.

In a bizarre coincidence another Elizabeth Smart, a Mormon from Salt Lake City,  was abducted by Brian David Mitchell and  his wife Wanda Ileen Barzee in 2002.  Smart escaped nine months later and Mitchell was charged and convicted under the Mann act.

To my Mother; by George Barker

Most near, most dear, most loved and most far,
under the window where I often found her
sitting as huge as Asia, seismic with laughter,
gin and chicken helpless in her Irish hand,
irresistible as Rabelais, but most tender for
the lame dogs and hurt birds that surround her –
She is a procession no one can follow after
but be like a little dog following a brass band.

She will not glance up at the bomber, or condescend
to drop her gin and scuttle to a cellar,
but lean on the mahogany table like a mountain
whom only faith can move, and so I send
O all my faith, and all my love to tell her
that she will move from mourning into morning.