In The Blood

My leisure reading tonight was about Toxoplasma gondii, a unicellular parasite which infects mammals. It can replicate asexually in any mammal, but can only mate and reproduce sexually inside a cat.

Cats usually become infected by eating a prey animal in which T. gondii has spread into muscle tissue and formed dormant tissue cysts. The parasite then reproduces in the cat and is shed in its feces in the form of oocysts. If another mammal ingests the oocysts, the cycle starts again.

Alternately, non-feline carnivores can become infected directly by eating the tissue cysts.

Humans can acquire the parasite from exposure to cat feces. (Oocytes are shed mainly when the cat has first become infected, for about the first week or two, so kitten poop is more dangerous.) As omnivores, humans can also ingest tissue cysts in the muscle of another infected animal. Pork and lamb have the worst safety record.

But it was the story of an experiment which astounded me. In a Paris orphanage, 10% of the children had detectable T. gondii. After being fed rare steak and horsemeat for a year, the infection rate went up to 50%. Then rare lamb was added to the diet, which brought the infection rate up to 100%. The old, dark days of experimenting on orphans. It was 1965.

In most cases, there are no obvious symptoms of an infection, but sometimes people can have a severe reaction, called toxoplasmosis, which can be like a bad dose of the flu lasting four months.

Heating to 65 celsius will fairly reliably kill the parasites in their tissue cyst state, but cooking a steak “medium rare” or less usually means that the centre stays below 60 celsius. You might as well rub your steak with cat shit.

It has been found that rats with the parasite behave differently to non-infected rats. They have less fear and less aversion to the smell of cat urine. T. gondii achieves this by manipulating the epigenetics of their neurons, obviously an evolutionary adaption which makes the rat more likely to be eaten and the parasite passed on. It hasn’t been shown definitively yet, but some studies indicate that there are psychological effects in humans as well.

Earthquakes in Umbria

I’m always wasting time looking at webcams. There’s one (solar powered) which has been watching Castelluccio di Norcia for years. When I visited last, in 2012, I walked up to the camera site so that I could take a photo from the same vantage point.

Castelluccio was a curious place full of eccentric people. It’s probably the thin air at that altitude. But the village was devastated by last year’s earthquakes and had to be evacuated. The villagers are campaigning to get the roads reopened to regain access, but it will be years before their homes can be rebuilt.

Here are my photo from Summer 2012 and today’s webcam view.





(Here is what the webcam installation looked like in 2012.)



Sad Day Indeed

I’ve been using Firefox since before it was Firefox, and having checked up on Wikipedia just now, that would have been around 2002.

ffOver the years, the developers have made some decisions which I disagreed with, although often there were user-developed extensions which restored lost functionality or appearance. Probably the worst faux pas was dropping the universally-familiar search dialog box for the unergonomic bottom bar.

Being paranoid cautious about internet security, I’d installed blocking extensions and rules, so that my Firefox was very tightly tied down. That meant that some sites didn’t work until I fiddled with the rules, or sometimes didn’t work at all. For the latter case, I always had an alternate browser I could run up, rather than waste time debugging a site I probably wouldn’t visit again.

I’m also a fussy old bugger, and I like web sites to look the way I want them, not the way the idiot designers did. For this, uBlock Origin, the ad-blocker, has “cosmetic filtering” where it will suppress display of some elements of the page. I also installed Greasemonkey, which can actually rearrange the page via CSS.

Google’s Chrome browser now has, by far, the largest “market share” in desktop browser software — about a factor of three over Firefox in second place. But Chrome is a notorious snooper, reporting everything you do back to Google. I would never use it.

Chromium, the open-source core of Chrome, is somewhat less intrusive, but still “phones home” with some data. The derivative I have installed as my alternative browser is Iron: Chromium with the spying ripped out.

But I still stuck to Firefox for most browsing. Some stuff is just easier to do, compared to the Chrome family.

That was up until yesterday, when I installed the latest Firefox release, 52.0, and found that it had a problem. The Linux version no longer supports the native Linux sound subsystem. Instead, the developer has decided to route sound from the browser to a third-party sound application called PulseAudio.

Now, a lot of Linux systems come with PulseAudio pre-installed, so it may not be a problem for many users, perhaps the majority. Applications, such as movie players, usually try PulseAudio first, and if it’s not running, fall back to the native sound subsystem, ALSA, and everything works fine. Firefox used to do that too, but although the code is still there, the developer has disabled it. He says it’s “too hard” to maintain.

I don’t have PulseAudio on my systems, for a couple of reasons. One; it’s designed badly: it’s architecturally wrong. And two; it doesn’t do anything useful.

The original concept for PulseAudio was that it would be a totally new sound architecture for Linux, from the user’s software to the hardware. It never happened. When they found out that sound drivers were difficult to write, and that there was a huge diversity of hardware, and that there were hundreds of working ALSA drivers anyway, the decision was made to put PulseAudio “on top of” ALSA, with PulseAudio interfacing to the software, but ALSA driving the hardware.

Supposedly a temporary measure, it’s actually stayed that way for years. To have a working PulseAudio, you have to have a working ALSA subsystem, so in my opinion, you might as well use ALSA directly.

It’s a long time since I even tried to get PulseAudio working, but I’ve heard that some people have had problems, from no sound at all to stuttering, to unacceptable latency. (PulseAudio has a solution for applications which only work with ALSA: they’ve written a translation layer which translates the ALSA API to PulseAudio. Then PulseAudio translates it back to ALSA and sends it to the device drivers. Latency? – there’s your problem.)

As is often the case when people make a stupid decision, the Firefox developers have closed ranks and become stubborn, and it looks as though ALSA support is gone for good. Imagine if they did the same in Firefox for Windows: dropping support for native Windows sound in favour of a third-party product. “Most people have it installed, and if not, they can install it, and if they can’t… well, tough.”

I’m typing this into WordPress via the Vivaldi browser. I’ve only been trying it for about half a day, but it seems all right. I’ve installed uBlock Origin and Tampermonkey and have imported my blocking rules and my scripts from Firefox. And Vivaldi was able to import all my settings from Firefox itself. I think it’s going to be OK.

(My blog titles are often song titles. It’s Leatherface this time.)


Power Trip

I often pretend I’m besotted with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in “The Avengers”, but it’s just an affectation really. I just like the retro-ness of the programmes.

Rigg’s replacement, Linda Thorson as Tara King, doesn’t have the same dedicated cult following, but I think she did a great job. Her character was slightly sabotaged by the writers, who made her a naive ex-trainee who is infatuated with John Steed. That left no scope for the ambiguous kind of relationship which Peel and Steed had shown, but as the series developed, Tara King came to be as independent as resourceful and Emma Peel. And, to use the modern terminology, just as “kick-ass”.

The story goes that producer John Bryce considered 200 actresses to find a replacement for Diana Rigg, and in a completely fair and unbiased process, selected his current girlfriend, Linda Thorson. He then started work on filming three new episodes. Work fell behind schedule, and ABC were unsatisfied with the shows Bryce had made. He was “let go” and Clemens and Fennell, executive producers of the Emma Peel episodes, were brought back to start again.

Under pressure to generate the amount of material which had been sold to the Americans, Clemens and Fennell didn’t discard Bryce’s rejected episodes, they cut and diced them and shot additional footage, and tried to cobble up three acceptable shows. None was very good, but the absolute turkey of the three is the car crash which is “Homicide and Old Lace”, a re-hash of Bryce’s lost “The Great Great Britain Crime”.

In the episodes with Bryce’s material, you can get an idea of where he was going wrong (mainly by being very, very dull) but you also get an uncomfortable insight into his relationship with Linda Thorson. For one thing, she was told to lose weight: charming. But he also decided that she’d be better off blonde. There’s a story that an attempt to bleach her hair ruined it, leading to the use of a wig instead.
Tara King
True or not, in all three Bryce attempts, Linda Thorson wears an unconvincing blonde wig, as you can see in the re-used footage. But having authority over his partner’s appearance, Bryce must have sleazily pushed it a little bit further along the fetish route. In “The Great Great Britain Crime” Tara King wears black rubber hold-ups (and matching gloves).

In the illustration here, it’s all action with machine guns, and at least Tara, initially unarmed, ends up with both guns and leaves two dead villains.



Is there no end to the degradation of the Trivago woman?

The first time I saw her, I thought she was remarkably pretty, but felt that it was a pity that she was so badly green-screened onto an image of a hotel room. I also wondered if it was effective advertising. I don’t think people generally like to be lectured at.

Incidentally, the company has made many country-specific versions of the advertising. I’ve seen the German and Italian ones, both presented by men. Perhaps they thought that Germans and Italians would especially resent being lectured at by a woman. Although the Germans have had a lot of experience of it. I haven’t seen the American version — also male — but I hear that it’s widely loathed.

Anyway, for the UK one they’ve had her do several versions of basically the same ad, but dressed differently. I can’t say for sure, but I’ll be they don’t make the male actors do that. Then there was one where there was a mosaic of her repeating the ad in about 30 different costumes.

But now there’s one where they’ve dressed her like Shirley Temple and made her tap dance. A grown woman.

(Incidentally, I’ve tried their website and never found a better hotel deal than on the main booking ones.)

The Wheeled Avenger

Steed's BentleyJohn Steed is forever linked to his vintage Bentleys and Rolls Royces, at least in the classic period of The Avengers. In one very early episode he drove a Triumph Herald, and at the end, in the New Avengers, he had a number of contemporary cars; that is, late 1970s ones. But let’s not think about that.

Emma Peel drove a Lotus Elan, the quintessential small, British sports car. Or to be more Emma's Elanaccurate, two Elans, the first white; and the second grey in the black-and-white episodes and light blue in the later colour ones. Apparently, Diana Rigg had to learn to drive for the part, but she always seems very competent, although some chase sequences are obviously speeded up.

When Diana Rigg left the show, new producer John Bryce made three new programmes with Tara King, conveniently played by his girlfriend, Linda Thorson. The programmes were rejected by the company and never shown, although some footage was salvaged to make a later episode. In that one, Tara drives a Lotus Elan +2, which was a derivative of the original Elan as driven by Emma Peel, but stretched to fit in two useless rear seats and remodelled (uglified) at the front.
In that episode, Steed’s elegant vintage vehicles were inexplicably replaced by a modern AC 428. That car was built on a modified AC Cobra chassis, with the Cobra’s huge 7-litre Ford engine, and an angular GT body, designed and built by Frua in Italy. Only a few dozen were ever made. It must have been a monster: an American muscle car built in Britain and Italy.
Tara's AC
When John Bryce was sacked and the original producers called back to restore order, they shot a hand-over episode with both Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson. In this one, Emma Peel didn’t drive, but Tara King got the AC, and sanity was restored by giving Steed back his 1926 Bentley.

But part way through the series, the AC was retired (or sold perhaps, it was probably very valuable) and Tara got a Lotus Europa; I think it must have been the ugliest Lotus ever made. I particularly dislike the ‘solid’ rear of the cabin: makes it look like a van.

Tara in the Lotus Europa

If I could choose any Avengers vehicle, I’d be tempted by the big AC 428, but I think I’d pick the Lotus Elan. Preferably with Emma Peel in it.

Badly Bred

For some years now, I’ve holidayed, self-catering, in Italy. The first time, in 2002, I was in the centre of Florence for ten days, and mostly ate out and only bought a few basics for home-cooking. But as time has gone on I’ve become more self-reliant.

Although I confess that I usually use self-service supermarkets rather than shops where you have to ask for what you want. Somehow, my Italian seems to evaporate under pressure. So I tour the shelves and fill a trolley or a basket, and when I get to the checkout, all I have to do is hand over the money or card.

I do always have the nagging feeling that my choice of goods marks me out as a foreigner, but then I have that same feeling in a supermarket at home.

Italian supermarkets, as you might expect, tend to have a different and better range of goods than your Tesco or Sainsbury’s. More, higher-quality fruit and vegetables, for example. Lots of cheeses. Premium olive oil. Local wines.

But they also sell a lot of crap. It’s Italy’s guilty secret perhaps; they’re famed for love of good food, but they also have big industries making mass-produced, “convenience” foods.

That’s what’s mostly promoted in television advertising as well, and one of the prominent names is ‘Mulino Bianco’ — White Mill — part of the huge Barilla group. There’s a large range of Mulino Bianco products: cakes, biscuits, bread and crackers; that sort of thing. I hadn’t seen any outside Italy until recently, when I came upon “Focaccelle” on the bargain shelf of Tesco in Craigavon.
Mulino Bianco
They were reduced to a fraction of their former price because they were approaching their “best-before” date, but here’s the thing: I know that Mulino Bianco products don’t go off or get mouldy because they aren’t real food. All artificial. And anyway, “focaccelle” isn’t even a real word. It’s supposed to make you think of “focaccia” and that’s what the product vaguely resembles.

Yes, I did try them. It was only a few pence, and I was certain that they wouldn’t be disgusting, just doughy and bland. And so they were.

But I had forgotten that I should not have bought anything made by a Barilla company. In 2013, Guido Barilla, chairman of the company, made some stupid, prejudiced and offensive remarks about gay families. And then issued a “clairification” which simply dug himself deeper into the hole. Some people in Italy advocated a boycott, and Barilla’s competitor Bertolli began to advertise “Bertolli welcomes everyone, especially those with an empty stomach”.