Can I be forgiven some cross posting?

This originally was posted on my other, more medically focused blog, A Medical Education, but i guess no one can stop me re-posting it here:


S J Perelman wrote a series of New Yorker articles titled “Cloudland Revisited”, wherein he re-read or re-watched various books and movies of his youth. In what now seems a slightly grating way , he invariably finds them ludicrous pulp. Anyhow, in “Doctor, What Big Green Eyes You Have”, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories come in for the treatment. In this, Perelman writes:

“Petrie, I have travelled from Burma not in the interests of the British Government merely, but in the interest of the entire white race, and I honestly believe – though I pray I may be wrong – that its survival depends largely on the success of my mission.” Can Petrie, demands Smith, spare a few days from his medical duties for “the strangest business, I can promise you, that ever was recorded in fact or fiction”? He gets the expected answer: “I agreed readily enough for, unfortunately, my professional duties were not onerous.” The alacrity with which doctors of that epoch deserted their practice has never ceased to impress me. Holmes had only to crook his finger and Watson went bowling away in a four wheeler, leaving his patients to fend for themselves. If the foregoing is at all indicative, the mortality rate of London in the nineteen-hundreds must have been appalling.


My understanding is that Arthur Conan Doyle had a quiet career as a private ophthalmologist before literary work overtook his medical efforts. Of course, the structure of medicine as a career was very different then. The medical student and junior doctor of popular and popular-ish fiction tends to have more free time than is the norm nowadays.

Conan Doyle’s short story The Beetle Hunter is very much in this mould. Perhaps this paragraph reflects more about Conan Doyle’s own view of the medical professional than strictly being a piece of social history, but there you go:

I had just become a medical man, but I had not started in practice, and I lived in rooms in Gower Street. The street has been renumbered since then, but it was in the only house which has a bow-window, upon the left-hand side as you go down from the Metropolitan Station. A widow named Murchison kept the house at that time, and she had three medical students and one engineer as lodgers. I occupied the top room, which was the cheapest, but cheap as it was it was more than I could afford. My small resources were dwindling away, and every week it became more necessary that I should find something to do. Yet I was very unwilling to go into general practice, for my tastes were all in the direction of science, and especially of zoology, towards which I had always a strong leaning. I had almost given the fight up and resigned myself to being a medical drudge for life, when the turning-point of my struggles came in a very extraordinary way.

A story in which a recent medical graduate now is immersed in idleness would be seen as fatally implausible. He or she would be doing pro bono work down the lab, sequencing some beetle genome or other. Of course, this striving means we are Much Better People than those of long ago. Doesn’t it?


Extinct in Ireland, September 30th, the crane

The final species I have selected for this month of Irish extinctions is the crane. The crane only went extinct in late medieval times, and features much in Irish poetry and song before this. This 2011 Irish Times piece by Lorna Siggins deals with a sighting of a flock in Castletownroche, Co Cork (home of labyrinths, dinosaurs and spies):

While there have been occasional sightings, cranes have not bred here since the early 18th century and were under severe pressure for several centuries before. The majestic bird breeds across northern Europe, Russia and the Ukraine.

Cranes were once so prevalent here that their Irish name “corr” is recorded in hundreds of place names – such as “Curragh” or “crane meadow” in Co Kildare.

“Few native birds can rival the widespread cultural footprint and the connections with Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the druids, St Colmcille and the Book of Kells,” said Mr O’Toole.

Druids believed in transmigration of the soul and the cranes were said to carry the spirits of the dead. They are best known for their migratory trumpeting and their predilection for display.

“Research by Prof Fergus Kelly suggests that the ‘peata corr’ was the third commonest pet after dogs and cats during the Brehon Law period,” said Mr O’Toole. “The crane bag was a well known magical container in our ancient folklore, which had associations with Manannán Mac Lir, the great sea god, Lúgh and Fionn Mac Cumhaill.”

Its familiar bald red patch on its crown is depicted in the Book of Kells, and St Colmcille was known as the “crane cleric”, he added.

Colonisers from Viking and Anglo-Norman times who had no qualms about eating the bird may have contributed to its demise, along with an increase in the fox population, said Mr O’Toole.

Here is a 2015 piece from The Argus (Co. Louth local paper) on a crane flock in Louth:

There was great excitement among local bird watchers last week when a flock nine Cranes were seen near the M1 at the turn off for Ardee just west of Dunleer. There has only been one verified sighting of a Crane previously in Louth on March 19 2012 in Drogheda.

This most recent sighting was by Billy Clarke and has led to speculation that the birds may be relocating somewhere in Louth.

Cranes are long distance migrants from southern Europe to north eastern Europe. They have also been reintroduced in the UK. in Somerset where there is a flock of around 50 birds with colour rings on legs so as to record their movements.

Cranes are a common sight in much of Europe and are famous for their spectacular dancing display.

It’s believed that these majestic birds have been extinct in Ireland for over 300 years. Sightings at various parts of Ireland in recent years has led to speculation that the European Crane might return to Ireland to breed thanks to a warming climate, just as little egret has done.

I have posted before about some ambivalence at the spread of Little Egret. It is on one level still a little exotic and a bit thrilling, on another it is a sign that the climate is changing, with all that implies. The fact that flocks of cranes are being sighted, albeit sporadically, in Ireland is perhaps another mixed blessing.

On that possibly uplifting, possibly not note, this is the last Extinct in Ireland post. It has been a rather saddening, albeit educational process. Sadly there was no shortage of species to choose from, and in the end it was more a question of what to leave out (for instance out of the three raptors which the Golden Eagle Trust have reintroduced, only focusing on the Golden Eagle)

I hope readers have taken something from this – for Irish readers particularly, I hope any complacency about Ireland being a wonderful place for wildlife is dissipated.

It is the feast of St Vincent de Paul. In Ireland St Vincent De Paul is best remembered by giving his name to the Society of St Vincent de Paul, which for those unfamiliar with it is a lay organisation working for social justice. In modern Ireland the need for the “V de P” is as great as ever.

The website Remembering Willie Doyle is devoted to the Irish Jesuit Willie Doyle, killed in action during World War 1. Most days the Remembering Willie Doyle blog is updated with an extract from Fr Doyle’s diaries or other writings.

The thoughts for September 27th lead into a consideration of St Vincent de Paul, the Jansenist heresy (which, when one reads about it, sounds with its emphasis on sin and damnation something close to an unfortunate strain in Irish Catholicism over the years) and  the state of the Church in France 350 years ago and parallels with today:

Fr Doyle isn’t the only great spiritual hero who felt he had much lukewarmness to account for. Today’s saint, Vincent de Paul, seems to have had very mixed motives during his early years. The desire to secure a prestigious ecclesiastical benefice and live in comfort seems to have been foremost in his mind when he was ordained a priest in his very early 20’s. In fact, he even had recourse to the courts to vindicate what he saw as his rights in the Church, and, so keen was he to protect his rights that he even chased a man who owed him money to Marseilles. It was on this expedition that he was kidnapped by Turkish pirates and sold as a slave. It is this experience, plus the importance of friendships like those with St Francis de Sales and Pierre de Berulle that gradually brought about his conversion.

There are other important similarities between St Vincent and Fr Doyle. Both were renowned for their charity. In Fr Doyle’s case this started very early in life – as a child he would take food from his family home and give it to the poor around Dalkey, his native village. He kept this habit all his life, often giving away his food and gifts to soldiers in the trenches.


You Are Not A Product: Johnny Ryan, Brave, GDPR and Ted Nelson’s dream

Readers may have recently seen news that the Brave browser has jointly filed complaints against Google relating to their sharing of personal data. Recently I posted a link to NIthin Coca’s guide to fully quitting Google. A friend of mine, Johnny Ryan, has been key to this in his role as Chief Policy & Industry Relations Officer at Brave.

A little before this complaint, Johnny participated in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) some highlights of which are featured here.

There is much to chew on on the wide range of policy issues and privacy issues that our internet usage enmeshes us in. I liked especially this exchange:

u/Niels001: What are your dreams for Brave and BAT? Why did you join Brave?

JR: Hypertext was invented by Ted Nelson in the 1960s. Part of his dream was that everybody who contributed to the interconnected latticework of hypertext documents would be rewarded by those who perused them. People would drop tiny “bread crumb” like payments behind them as they flitted from item to item. It is a beautiful vision.

But this aspect of Nelson’s great dream was never realized at scale because these tiny micro payments were not practical. This is why BAT excites me. It may finally allow us to realize part of Nelson’s vision.

I do not see a better place to work today.

BAT is the Basic Attention Token, an open source, decentralised ad exchange platform developed by Brendan Eich, founder of Brave and before that Mozilla.

The headline that Brave users may get up to $70 annually for looking at ads may sound a bit clickbaity, but it has a wider implication:

Brave’s BAT integration offers one of the easiest on-ramps to cryptocurrency markets that the industry has seen. Everyday web users who might be nervous about investing portions of their paychecks into crypto, now have the option of earning BAT for free, just for browsing the web as they normally do. Then they will have the choice of holding onto the BAT, cashing it out, or dumping it into an exchange to start trading other coins and tokens.

As Johnny’s quote above indicates, all this has – or should have – a deeper philosophical meaning than simple consumption and passive attention. There is an awful passivity to online culture now, relative to the early days. As the tagline of Brave’s site says, “You are not a product.” But if you don’t want to be a product, don’t act like one. I urge readers to install and use Brave for themselves.

Russian Modernism and Byzantine Iconography – another false dichotomy


A recurrent pattern in the history of ideas is a dominant narrative creating dichotomies that, at the time, did not exist. I have blogged about these before – false tension between the Christian and classical worlds in the time of Boethius Victor Watts debunked , or dichotomies between religion and science, much trumpeted by some commentators but which can often be contrasted with the beliefs of working scientists.

From the evergreen Eastern Christian Books blog of Adam deVille, news of a book which looks at another false dichotomy of a dominant historical narrative:

In The Icon and the Square, Maria Taroutina examines how the traditional interests of institutions such as the crown, the church, and the Imperial Academy of Arts temporarily aligned with the radical, leftist, and revolutionary avant-garde at the turn of the twentieth century through a shared interest in the Byzantine past, offering a counter-narrative to prevailing notions of Russian modernism.

Focusing on the works of four different artists—Mikhail Vrubel, Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Vladimir Tatlin — Taroutina shows how engagement with medieval pictorial traditions drove each artist to transform his own practice, pushing beyond the established boundaries of his respective artistic and intellectual milieu. She also contextualizes and complements her study of the work of these artists with an examination of the activities of a number of important cultural associations and institutions over the course of several decades. As a result, The Icon and the Square gives a more complete picture of Russian modernism: one that attends to the dialogue between generations of artists, curators, collectors, critics, and theorists.

The Icon and the Square retrieves a neglected but vital history that was deliberately suppressed by the atheist Soviet regime and subsequently ignored in favor of the secular formalism of mainstream modernist criticism. Taroutina’s timely study, which coincides with the centennial reassessments of Russian and Soviet modernism, is sure to invigorate conversation among scholars of art history, modernism, and Russian culture.

Adam deVille is good at pointing out the falseness of many oppositions conjured up by ignorance of history. He is especially strong on the pernicious influence of Christians failing to understand, or even try to understand, Marx and Freud.

September 14th 1869: the global celebrations of Alexander von Humboldt’s centenary

Alexander von Humbolt is not exactly obscure: he is much celebrated in the Germanic speaking world and is still commemorated by an eponymous current, mountains, a penguin and much else. Yet his fame is not nearly so widespread as it was in 1869, as this extract from Andrea Wulf’s Humboldt bio The Invention of Nature reveals. Sic transit gloria mundi.

On 14 September 1869, one hundred years after his birth, Alexander von Humboldt’s centennial was celebrated across the world. There were parties in Europe, Africa and Australia as well as the Americas. In Melbourne and Adelaide people came together to listen to speeches in honour of Humboldt, as did groups in Buenos Aires and Mexico City. There were festivities in Moscow where Humboldt was called the ‘Shakespeare of sciences’, and in Alexandria in Egypt where guests partied under a sky illuminated with fireworks. The greatest commemorations were in the United States, where from San Francisco to Philadelphia, and from Chicago to Charleston, the nation saw street parades, sumptuous dinners and concerts.

In Cleveland some 8,000 people took to the streets and in Syracuse another 15,000 joined a march that was more than a mile long. President Ulysses Grant attended the Humboldt celebrations in Pittsburgh together with 10,000 revellers who brought the city to a standstill. In New York City the cobbled streets were lined with flags. City Hall was veiled in banners, and entire houses had vanished behind huge posters bearing Humboldt’s face. Even the ships sailing by, out on the Hudson River, were garlanded in colourful bunting. In the morning thousands of people followed ten music bands, marching from the Bowery and along Broadway to Central Park to honour a man ‘whose fame no nation can claim’ as the New York Times’s front page reported. By early afternoon, 25,000 onlookers had assembled in Central Park to listen to the speeches as a large bronze bust of Humboldt was unveiled. In the evening as darkness settled, a torchlight procession of 15,000 people set out along the streets, walking beneath colourful Chinese lanterns. Let us imagine him, one speaker said, ‘as standing on the Andes’ with his mind soaring above all. Every speech across the world emphasized that Humboldt had seen an ‘inner correlation’ between all aspects of nature. In Boston, Emerson told the city’s grandees that Humboldt was ‘one of those wonders of the world’. His fame, the Daily News in London reported, was ‘in some sort bound up with the universe itself’. In Germany there were festivities in Cologne, Hamburg, Dresden, Frankfurt and many other cities. The greatest German celebrations were in Berlin, Humboldt’s hometown, where despite torrential rain 80,000 people assembled. The authorities had ordered offices and all government agencies to close for the day. As the rain poured down and gusts chilled the air, the speeches and singing nonetheless continued for hours

“The Forgotten Beasts in Medieval Britain: a study of extinct fauna in medieval sources” Ph.D thesis by Lee Raye

Over the course of my September posts on extinct species in Ireland, the importance of archaeology and literary scholarship in determining which species have been extant in Ireland is striking. I came across this in Kieran Hickey’s Wolves in Ireland, with its analysis of medieval trade records in pelts.

Via Medievalists.Net, I came across this 2016 Ph.D. thesis from Cardiff University by Lee Raye

Here is Raye’s summary:

This thesis identifies and discusses historical and literary sources describing four
species in the process of reintroduction: lynx (Lynx lynx), large whale (esp. Eubalena
glacialis), beaver (Castor fiber) and crane (Grus grus). The scope includes medieval and
early modern texts in English, Latin, and Welsh written in Britain before the species
went extinct. The aims for each species are: (i) to reconstruct the medieval cultural
memory; (ii) to contribute a cohesive extinction narrative; and (iii) to catalogue and
provide an eco-sensitive reading of the main historical and literary references. Each
chapter focuses on a different species:

1. The chapter on lynxes examines some new early references to the lynx and
argues that the species became extinct in south Britain c.900 AD. Some hardto-reconcile seventeenth century Scottish accounts are also explored.

2. The chapter on whales attributes the beginning of whale hunting to the ninth
century in Britain, corresponding with the fish event horizon; but suggests a
professional whaling industry only existed from the late medieval period.

3. The chapter on beavers identifies extinction dates based on the increasingly
confused literary references to the beaver after c.1300 in south Britain and
after c.1600 in Scotland, and the increase in fur importation.

4. The chapter on cranes emphasises the mixed perception of the crane
throughout the medieval and early modern period. Cranes were simultaneously
depicted as courtly falconers’ birds, greedy gluttons, and vigilant soldiers.

More generally, the thesis considers the levels of reliability between eyewitness accounts and animal metaphors. It examines the process of ‘redelimitation’ which is triggered by population decline, whereby nomenclature and concepts attached to one species become transferred to another. Finally, it emphasises geographical determinism: species generally become extinct in south Britain centuries before Scotland.