May 2016

May 2016 letter

It is still a fairly wet spring although it is starting to warm. It didn’t get over 20 until the third week of May. The grass grows like mad and insects are getting thick and active. For some reason the magpie family which was quite a few birds and ruled the skies around us, have just disappeared over night. We found one body but no sign of the rest – it is a mystery. With them gone the pigeons are back of the wire, the crows are about, a small hawk is sometimes around, but there are many, many little birds of all shapes and colours. The wild orchids are growing.


(photo of a little patch of asters that have been braving the weather since Feb – I go around them with the mower because I can’t bring myself to cut them)

At the end of April we had a day with Paul and Pam. There was a great meal at Villabon and a good talk before and after. They were off to Belgium and UK in the morning.

I miss TV sometimes – the snooker from Sheffield is one of those times. This year one of my favourites won, Mark Selby from Leicester. But I was not sorry to miss the UK local elections on TV. At least Labour held their own and Corbyn gets some breathing space.

The first part of May had three big holidays in France: May Day, Ascension and Victory in Europe Day. VE Day is when France celebrates its liberation and it is a big deal. We celebrated with a great big mowing on May Day, then the mower stopped and we had to wait to get it fixed. We also bought a hedge trimmer to get at some the the overgrown areas cut back. It seems to do the job.

Harry’s medication is still not right. On top of that he fell and got a big bruise. Things are slightly better and seem to be slowly improving, but he is not a happy camper. I am OK and so is Ginger.

I was doing more of the driving for a while. But it was Harry that made a bad move and put a hole in the new car. It doesn’t interfere with us using the car. The joke was (Harry did not laugh but I did) he was showing me how to safely turn the car around in a limited area in our yard when he hit something.


Ciara is a lawyer now and a member of the Sask Bar (photo of her signing ‘the book’). She is planning to visit the 14th June for a few days. I hope the strikes are over by then and the government has backed down. How many French governments, for how many years have tried to do this and it is always the same, there is chaos and the government backs down.

Two cousins died this month. Evie Wight and Lenore Barmby. I was the wrong age to know Evie well but I always admired her. She was a talented, competent and assertive woman. She was uncle Gaylord’s second daughter. Lenore was married to my double cousin Harold, and was such a great source of happiness for him. I only talked to Lenore a few times – liked her and thought Harold was lucky to find her and her children. Harold is the same age as Marjorie and me.

This month we have: May letter; (there is no garage progress to report); May 24 a very Canadian holiday; Is the fault the speaker or the listener? – language intolerance; Mildred’s pie – baked in a paper bag; Common ancestors – genealogy statistics; Science reporting– why so bad; Tipping points – what are climate tipping points; May picture – from the book of hours.

May 24 a very Canadian holiday

You might think that Canada Day (July 1) was Canada’s oldest holiday, but no, May 24 holiday is older than Canada, and celebrated in the separate colonies before confederation. It was made a holiday in 1845 on Queen Victoria’s 35 birthday. Over time it has more or less disappeared from the UK and her former colonies but not from Canada. It was the Queens Birthday, Victoria Day, Empire Day, various French names as they wanted the holiday but not the English connection, May Long Weekend, May Two Four, and is now the permanent official birthday of who ever is the monarch of Canada. Monarchs have no choice in the matter. But its real meaning is the beginning of summer!!!! Now days it is not usually on the 24th but is the last Monday before May 25 – May 23 this year.

So what happens of May Long Weekend. It is the day that parks, campsites, tours, outdoor restaurants etc. open. People who have summer cottages go and take them out of winter ‘moth balls’ and set them up for the summer. People put in gardens. They change their wardrobes to summer fashions. The insect repellent comes out for the mosquitoes, blackflies and other pests. School work starts its run down towards the exams in June – all is revision, projects, games and other interesting things. But there is a new tradition – buying and drinking (outdoors) a case of 24 beer, known as a ‘two four’. From that weekend on it is summer no matter what others say and no matter what the weather is.

When I was a kid I learned the little verse:

The twenty-fourth of May

is the Queen’s birthday.

If we don’t get a holiday,

we will all run away.

Mom would always say that many times on the day – because it was also her birthday. (May was her name and sadly she was buried on the May 24 as well as born on it.) I can not think of May 24 without the little rhyme playing in my head along with mother’s smile.

Is it the fault of the speaker or listener?

Here is part of a language log post. “Consider this sentence from the blurb for Garner’s book:

Garner liberates English from two extremes: both from the hidebound “purists” who mistakenly believe that split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions are malfeasances and from the linguistic relativists who believe that whatever people say or write must necessarily be accepted.

This is parallel to Geoff Pullum’s point in ‘Everything is Correct’ vs. ‘Nothing is Relevant’, where he objects to a writer who

cannot see any possibility of a position other than two extremes: on the left, that all honest efforts at uttering sentences are ipso facto correct; and on the right, that rules of grammar have an authority that derives from something independent of what any users of the language actually do.

But there had better be a third position, because these two extreme ones are both utterly insane.

And then there’s this:

Garner: I find Bernie Sanders’s dialect to be very unpleasant to listen to. I could also understand why so many people in New England considered George W. Bush to be unlistenable, because he overdid the Texas twang. And in fact even to a Texan — it made this Texan cringe. But Bernie Sanders is very difficult to listen to because one doesn’t expect an educated American to have that kind of accent.

It’s not surprising that Bryan Garner has this kind of reaction to regional varieties of English. Shaw wrote in the preface to Pygmalion, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”. And despite the Atlantic ocean and the intervening 100 years, most Americans still have similar visceral responses to the speech patterns of some Others.

What’s surprising, at least to me, is that Garner sees this reaction not as a prejudice that he ought to try to overcome, but as a fault for Sanders and Bush to remedy. Of course, Shaw’s position was similar: It never seems to have occurred to him to make Cockney or Birmingham accents acceptable, rather than train their speakers to imitate “the noble English of Forbes Robertson”.

Aunt Mildred’s pie direction from Everett Maroon’s facebook page


I made this crust today, from my grandmother Mildred, but I made a strawberry-rhubarb pie.

Grandma Mildred’s brown bag apple pie
This pie, while particularly tasty, used to stress me out when I was making it because I was certain the bag was going to catch on fire in the oven and burn the house down, and really, is any pie worth it? After making it for something like 32 times now, I am happy to report that all of the kitchens that hosted this pie are all well and intact. Just put the rack near the bottom of the oven so there’s room for the bag.

Do note that the crust recipe makes two pie shells, and we’ll only be needing one for this pie. Sometimes I roll out both and fold one up and freeze it for later.

1/3 cup lard, chilled
2 tablespoons butter, chilled
2 cups flour, sifted
1 teaspoon salt
Small bowl of ice water

7 cups (2 1/2 lbs) of apples, peeled, cored, and sliced very thin (1/8”)
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 lemon

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1 stick butter, cold

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Farenheit (220 Celsius). With a pastry blender, mix together the chilled lard and chilled butter, cutting this into the flour until pea-sized. Into this, sprinkle 4 tablespoons of cold water. Working quickly, ball the dough, and try not to get it too warm. Cut the ball in half, roll out onto a floured surface, flip and roll again until it’s 1/4 of an inch thick. Put the dough in the pie pan and wet your fingers with the ice water if you need to mend any rips in the dough.

I like to squirt a little lemon juice on the apples as I’m prepping them. Once they’re ready, put the apples, sugar, flour, nutmeg, and cinnamon in a bowl. Mix everything with your hands. Lay the apple mixture in the pie shell and drizzle 2 T lemon juice on top.

For the topping, use a pastry blender to cut in the butter with the sugar and flour. Sprinkle this on top of the pie, packing it down a little so it sticks. Put pie in a grocery paper bag and paper clip it. Put the whole thing on a cookie sheet and bake for 60 minutes.

Mildred won many awards for her pie, you know!

Common Ancestors

Parts of an article in National Geographic (from Carl Zimmer’s Loom blog)

Chang was not a genealogist who had decided to make me his personal project. Instead, he is a statistician at Yale who likes to think of genealogy as a mathematical problem. When you draw your genealogy, you make two lines from yourself back to each of your parents. Then you have to draw two lines for each of them, back to your four grandparents. And then eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents, and so on. But not so on for very long. If you go back to the time of Charlemagne, forty generations or so, you should get to a generation of a trillion ancestors. That’s about two thousand times more people than existed on Earth when Charlemagne was alive.

The only way out of this paradox is to assume that our ancestors are not independent of one another. That is, if you trace their ancestry back, you loop back to a common ancestor. We’re not talking about first-cousin stuff here–more like twentieth-cousin. This means that instead of drawing a tree that fans out exponentially, we need to draw a web-like tapestry.

In a paper he published in 1999, Chang analyzed this tapestry mathematically. If you look at the ancestry of a living population of people, he concluded, you’ll eventually find a common ancestor of all of them. That’s not to say that a single mythical woman somehow produced every European by magically laying a clutch of eggs. All this means is that as you move back through time, sooner or later some of the lines in the genealogy will cross, meeting at a single person.

As you go back further in time, more of those lines cross as you encounter more common ancestors of the living population. And then something really interesting happens. There comes a point at which, Chang wrote, “all individuals who have any descendants among the present-day individuals are actually ancestors of all present-day individuals.

The most recent common ancestor of every European today (except for recent immigrants to the Continent) was someone who lived in Europe in the surprisingly recent past—only about 600 years ago. In other words, all Europeans alive today have among their ancestors the same man or woman who lived around 1400. Before that date, according to Chang’s model, the number of ancestors common to all Europeans today increased, until, about a thousand years ago, a peculiar situation prevailed: 20 percent of the adult Europeans alive in 1000 would turn out to be the ancestors of no one living today (that is, they had no children or all their descendants eventually died childless); each of the remaining 80 percent would turn out to be a direct ancestor of every European living today. – Steven Olson

Suddenly, my pedigree looked classier: I am a descendant of Charlemagne. Of course, so is every other European. By the way, I’m also a descendant of Nefertiti. And so are you, and everyone else on Earth today. Chang figured that out by expanding his model from living Europeans to living humans, and getting an estimate of 3400 years instead of a thousand for the all-ancestor generation.

Things have changed a lot in the fourteen years since Chang published his first paper on ancestry. Scientists have amassed huge databases of genetic information about people all over the world. These may not be the same thing as a complete genealogy of the human race, but geneticists can still use them to tackle some of the same questions that intrigued Chang.

Recently, two geneticists, Peter Ralph of the University of Southern California and Graham Coop of the University of California at Davis, decided to look at the ancestry of Europe. They took advantage of a compilation of information about 2257 people from across the continent. Scientists had examined half a million sites in each person’s DNA, creating a distinctive list of genetic markers for each of them… This means that if you compare two people’s DNA, you will find some chunks that are identical in sequence. The more closely related people are, the bigger the chunks you’ll find. Ralph and Coop identified 1.9 million of these long shared segments of DNA shared by at least two people in their study. They then used the length of each segment to estimate how long ago it arose from a common ancestor of the living Europeans. Their results both confirm Chang’s mathematical approach and enrich it. … In fact, as Chang suspected, the only way to explain the DNA is to conclude that everyone who lived a thousand years ago who has any descendants today is an ancestor of every European.

Science reporting

Every once in a while there is real anger from scientists at a piece of science reporting and in between those events, we just have to take what we read in newspapers and magazines with a large grain of salt. What is at the root of the bad reporting of science (and other things too for that matter)?

Journalists have this silly code: always report something with two sides, and balance them; don’t try to get as close as possible to the truth because that is not the point; never let an old argument rest even if one side died long ago; entertain rather than inform readers; good writing is more important than good information.

Is this just postmodernism coming out? It may or may not have been fine in the humanities but it is not OK in science. All truths are not equal and they should not get equal billing. There are standards and criteria for trustworthiness. Controversies that have been settled do not need to be trotted out like the living dead.

There is a lot of junk being printed as science news by people who know better or should know better. Surely you should have a degree in a science to be a reporter on that science. Especially annoying to me is the explanations that are so cutzy, simplistic and incomplete that they end up being so misleading that they are just plain wrong.

Tipping points

When I was a kid, in wet springs, we played a game of trying to walk deeper and deeper into the water so that we could reach the point of being in water up to the top of our rubber boots without getting our feet wet. This is impossible because near the top of the boot there is nothing to stop the rim from buckling in and immediately letting the boot fill with water to the top. There was no time to retreat because it always happened very fast.

Today man-made carbon dioxide is raising the temperature. And the world is playing with models to see how slowly we can lower our emissions and still not fry. But there is a danger – systems are not always linear and can suddenly change to very different systems. These events are called tipping points. For example, there are now stable ocean currents, like the Gulf Stream. The circulation of the Gulf Stream depends on gradients of temperature and saltiness. If enough fresh, unsalty water enters the Atlantic from the melting of Greenland ice, it could flip the current and change all of the climates along both sides of the Atlantic. It could happen very quickly, going from stable, to chaotic, to gone, within a short time period. That is just one ocean current and there are others. There are wind patterns as well like the monsoon that could lose their stability. Other possible tipping points are: the acidification of the oceans and loss of much of the life there, forest die-back of both tropical and boreal forests, uncovering of the Arctic Ocean, release of methane from melting permafrost and warming oceans. There are probably many that will be surprises because they were never dreamed of. These will make life difficult for us but they are not necessarily the BIG TIPPING POINT.

The big one may be anything or a lot of things together. If we raise the temperature enough for other sources of green house gases to take over driving climate change, then we could lower our emission to zero and not stop the rise in green house gases, the rise in temperature, and our planet’s death (like the sorcerer’s apprentice). There would be a self-sustaining positive feed back system that we started but cannot control or stop. We have then the final tipping point, the point of no return, a catastrophe.

We may have already passed that point but if not, it is coming up soon. The lack of urgency in doing something to stop emission is dangerous and suicidally inappropriate.

Tres riches heures du duc de Berry – mai



About Janet Kwasniak

Retired pensioner, raised in Canada but UK citizen living in France, interested in Science and many other things.
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