In Praise of Walking

Friday, 23 August, 2019

Weekend reading is In Praise Of Walking by Shane O’Mara, thanks to Noel Donnelly, a true friend.

Snippet: “Humans are not especially fast runners — we can easily be outrun over short(ish) distances by lots of other species (think tigers and gazelles) — but we are exceptional walkers, possibly the best walkers of all species. And this has been the secret underlying our far-flung dispersion across the face of the earth. We humans are the most dispersed of all animal species, living in the northern and southern extremes of our planet, and at virtually every land point in between. Walking allowed us to probe and extend the edges of our world and then undertake risky journeys by boat,travelling to the next island — which we then explored on foot.”

Our boats



Delivering the news

Friday, 5 July, 2019

“The question is not how to get cured, but how to live.” — Joseph Conrad

The Ward

Kerry Kefir

Thursday, 30 May, 2019

It is earthy, but not pungent. It is creamy, but not sweet. It is natural and it “encourages metabolism”. It is kefir made in Kerry using yeast, “many strains of beneficial bacteria” and, of course, pasteurized milk from cows in Kerry. Hat tip: Mary and Niamh.

Kerry Kefir

Butterfly iQ: ultrasound for all

Tuesday, 23 April, 2019

Medical imaging creates visuals of the inside of a human body for analysis and treatment. It includes radiography, ultrasound, endoscopy, magnetic resonance imaging and nuclear medicine techniques such as positron emission tomography. Sadly, 4.7 billion people around the world don’t have access to medical imaging, and even in the developed world, the cost of an MRI or a CT scan can be prohibitive.

Enter the Butterfly iQ, an invention that may yet revolutionize global medicine. As portable as a stethoscope and costing $2,000, it’s a hand-held ultrasound scanner that generates clinical-quality images on a smartphone. These are then uploaded to the cloud, where any medical expert can analyze them. “A fusion of semiconductors, artificial intelligence, and cloud technology has made it possible to create a ubiquitous imaging solution that is clinically significant and category defining,” say Butterfly Network, the US company that developed the device.

The Butterfly iQ scanner could play a critical role in rural Africa, Asia and Latin America, where the nearest X-ray machine might be days away and the only CT and MRI scanners may be in the major cities. Jonathan Rothberg, Butterfly’s founder, had the idea because one of his daughters had a disease that caused kidney cysts needing regular scans, and he has now donated iQs to medical charities working in more than a dozen poor countries. Example: Several have gone to Bridge to Health, a Canadian group that works closely with Kihefo, which is based in Uganda.

At the cider vinegar farm

Wednesday, 20 February, 2019

Ballyhoura Apple Farm’s orchard is located on the outskirts of Kilfinane in Limerick.

Ballyhoura Apple Farm

Time to hit the gym?

Wednesday, 6 February, 2019

From Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich:

“And why should the mind want to subdue the body systematically, repeatedly, day after day? Many gym-goers will tell you cheerfully that it makes them feel better, at least when the workout is over. But there’s a darker, more menacing side to the preoccupation with fitness, and this is the widespread suspicion that if you can’t control your own body, you’re not fit, in any sense, to control anyone else, and in their work lives that is a large part of what typical gym-goers do. We are talking here about a relative elite of people who are more likely to give orders than to take them — managers and professionals. In this class, there are steep penalties for being overweight or in any other way apparently unhealthy. Flabby people are less likely to be hired or promoted; they may even be reprimanded and obliged to undergo the company’s ‘wellness’ program, probably consisting of exercise (on- or off-site), nutritional counseling to promote weight loss, and, if indicated, lessons in smoking cessation.”

Natural Causes

Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies

Monday, 4 February, 2019

Today is World Cancer Day. A good day, then, to delve into The Emperor of All Maladies, the great “biography” of cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Snippets:

“That this seemingly simple mechanism — cell growth without barriers — can lie at the heart of this grotesque and multifaceted illness is a testament to the unfathomable power of cell growth. Cell division allows us as organisms to grow, to adapt, to recover, to repair — to live. And distorted and unleashed, it allows cancer cells to grow, to flourish, to adapt, to recover, and to repair — to live at the cost of our living. Cancer cells can grow faster, adapt better. They are more perfect versions of ourselves.”

The Emperor of All Maladies

“It lives desperately, inventively, fiercely, territorially, cannily, and defensively — at times, as if teaching us how to survive. To confront cancer is to encounter a parallel species, one perhaps more adapted to survival than even we are.”

He caught the fever that reaped a harvest

Saturday, 2 February, 2019

Poetry provides visions and so does fever. The great C.P. Cavafy combines the two here.

Kleitos’s Illness

Kleitos, a likeable young man,
about twenty-three years old—
with an excellent upbringing, a rare knowledge of Greek—
is seriously ill. He caught the fever
that reaped a harvest this year in Alexandria.

The fever found him already worn out morally
by the pain of knowing that his friend, a young actor,
had stopped loving and wanting him.

He’s seriously ill, and his parents are terribly worried.

An old servant who brought him up
is also full of fear for Kleitos’ life;
and in her terrible anxiety
she remembers an idol she used to worship
when she was young, before she came there as a maid,
to the house of distinguished Christians, and turned Christian herself.
She secretly brings some votive cake, some wine and honey,
and places them before the idol. She chants whatever phrases
she remembers from old prayers: odds and ends. The fool
doesn’t realize that the black demon couldn’t care less
whether a Christian gets well or not.

C.P. Cavafy (29 April 1863 – 29 April 1933)

*Translated from Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

Wheezles and Sneezles

Wednesday, 30 January, 2019

“Christopher Robin had wheezles and sneezles,
they bundled him into his bed.
They gave him what goes with a cold in the nose,
and some more for a cold in the head.”


Christopher Robin

The madness and eclipse of King Lear

Sunday, 20 January, 2019

Tonight, the moon will noticeably, progressively get darker as the sun, the Earth and the moon converge in an instance of perfect cosmic alignment to create a lunar eclipse. This only total lunar eclipse of 2019 will be visible in North America, South America, Western Europe and North-western Africa.

There were many superstitions in the Elizabethan period, one being that an eclipse was an omen of evil. Shakespeare may have witnessed the partial lunar eclipse of 27 September 1605 and the total solar eclipse of 12 October that year, and both may have influenced his King Lear, which was first staged on St. Stephen’s day 1606. “Nothing will come of nothing,” goes Lear’s warning. The raging monarch has endured so many indignities — doomed by his vanity, deceived by sycophants, abandoned to madness… The Bard’s tragedy is a bleak depiction of family and state breakdown.

“These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend
no good to us: though the wisdom of nature can
reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself
scourged by the sequent effects: love cools,
friendship falls off, brothers divide: in
cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in
palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son
and father. This villain of mine comes under the
prediction; there’s son against father: the king
falls from bias of nature; there’s father against
child. We have seen the best of our time:
machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all
ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our
graves. Find out this villain, Edmund; it shall
lose thee nothing; do it carefully.”

William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act I, Scene 2

King Lear

How “checkpoint therapy” changes cancer treatment

Tuesday, 11 December, 2018

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their work on cancer therapy “by the inhibition of negative immune regulation.” Their discoveries mark a milestone in our understanding of cancer because they reveal that the immune system can be recruited to fight malignant tumours.

Cancer is one of humanity’s greatest health challenges. It kills millions every year and casts a huge shadow over the lives of their families and friends. But relief is on the horizon. By stimulating our immune system to attack tumour cells, Allison and Honjo have established an entirely new therapy principle.

Allison studied a protein that acts as a brake on the immune system and realized the potential of releasing the brake and thereby freeing immune cells to attack tumours. He has developed this concept into a new approach for treating victims. Meanwhile, Honjo discovered a protein in immune cells and demonstrated that it also operates as a brake. Therapies based on his discovery have proved impressively effective. The new “checkpoint therapy” based on work of Allison and Honjo promises to change fundamentally the way cancer is managed.

Here, James P. Allison from Alice, Texas, cancer scientist and part-time harmonica player with Willie Nelson’s touring group, the Family, delivers his Nobel Lecture at the Aula Medica, Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.