Covid, Brexit, and a nice cup of tea

Silver Lining Department: Pain researchers have noticed that Covid can block pain receptors, fooling people into thinking they’re not sick. I’d explain that in more detail, but between the first few paragraphs of the article and the last ones all I managed to scrape off the page was an impressive-sounding buzz. 

What I can tell you is that understanding this (as I so clearly don’t) opens up two possibilities: 1, By blocking something called neuropilin-1, doctors could limit Covid’s entry into the body. 2, By blocking neuropilin-1, they could limit the body’s experience of pain. 

In other words, a new approach to pain control may come out of this mess, as well as another possible way to tackle Covid. Take heart, my friends. Every silver lining hides a cloud.

Or vice versa. I keep forgetting.

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Tragically, that line about silver linings isn’t my own. I stole it from a song by Brian Bedford, “I Hear the Sky Is Falling,” sung by Artisan. It’s a lovely little paranoia song. I recommend it, because we all need a paranoia song to fall back on from time to time. 

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Irrelevant photo: pears on our tree.

Early research says that Covid doesn’t spread easily among kids under ten. They don’t catch the bug as easily as adults, and when they do they don’t get symptoms as often, which means they don’t cough and sneeze it into other people’s breathing spaces.

That was the silver lining. The (small) cloud is that infected kids do spread it, but at a lower rate. 

After kids turn ten, though, every cell their bodies wakes up, showers, and puts on big-boy pants and a bad attitude, and from then on kids spread it more easily–possibly as easily as adults.

But again, that’s all based on early and limited research. Like so much about this mess, it’s not certain.

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On Tuesday, when he was announcing a new, improved, world-beating set of Covid restrictions in England, Boris Johnson called for togetherness. Or, to be completely accurate, “a spirit of togetherness.” 

I don’t want to misquote a man whose public statements mean so little.

So what does this one mean? We’re all going to virtually join our sanitized hands, keep two meters apart, and sing “Kumbaya” as we beat the virus by not doing half the things he told us–told us? hell, begged us; harassed us– to do just six weeks ago. 

I support a lot of the changes–the country opened up too quickly, with minimal planning and a screwed-up testing system–but I don’t know how seriously people are going to take them. The government’s blown whatever credibility it back when lockdown started. So even though some of their own scientists (that means the ones they’re willing to listen to, sort of) say the restrictions are late and not enough, getting people to follow them may be like rolling a dead horse uphill in an ice storm. 

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About a 20% of people in Britain say they’d be likely to refuse a Covid vaccine and 78% said they’d be likely to get it. The missing 2% may be covered by the about at the beginning of the paragraph. Or they may be on break, having a nice cup of tea. It’s a British thing–not drinking the tea but attaching a nice cup of to it. It makes such a difference when you raise it to your lips. Your blood pressure falls. You expect–well, if not exactly wonders, at least niceness. And as a rule, you get it. 

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A post or three ago, I wrote about younger women forming a larger part of hospitalized Covid patients, and I’ve found a bit more detail: The study was based on hospital admissions and it noticed a rise in serious cases among women between twenty and forty. Between January and September, 44% of hospitalized cases were women. Since August (yes, you noticed: they overlap), it’s been 48%, driven by a rise in the twenty-to-forty age group, with no matching rise in admissions of men in that group. 

So it’s not a huge rise, but it is an increase. The best guess is that it’s because the work women in that age group do leaves them more exposed to the virus than the work men do. It should remind us, though, that no age group is invulnerable.

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Hospitalized Covid patients who also had the flu were more than twice as likely to die as those who didn’t (43% as opposed to 26.9%). 

Those numbers don’t actually look like one’s more than twice the other, do they? I’m trusting an article in the Medical Express. Maybe they were in too much of a hurry to check their figures. 

Either way, it was a small study but the findings line up neatly with preliminary findings from another study that’s in progress. To be on the safe side, get your flu shot, okay?

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The Helsinki airport has started to use sniffer dogs to detect travelers with Covid, and they’re close to 100% accurate. Plus they have lovely soft fur and it only takes then ten seconds to make their judgements, although the process itself somehow takes a minute, probably because humans are slower on the uptake than dogs are.

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Meanwhile, with the Brexit transition period ending on January 1, we’re told that a reasonable worst-case scenario would involve lines of 7,000 trucks waiting to use the Channel Tunnel. They count on delays of two days and 30% to 60% of the trucks not having the right paperwork. 

And then there’s the possibility that a Covid spike could mean a shortage of port staff and border officials slowing things down a bit more.

And then we have to talk about disruptions to imports. Only we won’t. I’ve exceeded my dire warning limit for the day.

And did I mention that truck drivers will need a Kent access permit if they plan to use the tunnel or ferry to France? 

“We want to make sure that people use a relatively simple process,” Michael Gove said. 

Gove? He’s the minister for the cabinet office, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and the only human being I’ve ever seen who looks like a balloon wearing a bow tie. Even when he’s not wearing a bow tie. 

When Johnson’s government tell you the process is going to be simple, you’ll want to sit down and make sure you’re comfortable.

The head of the Road Haulage Association said, “How on earth can [trucking firms] prepare when there is still no clarity as to what they need us to do?” 

We’re looking forward to another interesting year.

Restrictions, conspiracy theories, & sewage: It’s the pandemic update from Britain

Britain’s Covid alert level has gone from 3 to 4, meaning infections are high or rising exponentially, and if nothing changes we could be looking at 50,000 new cases a day by mid-October. 

What are we doing in response? Well, weddings in England are now limited to fifteen people but funerals can have thirty. If you like a big party, I recommend dying.

People who work in stores now have to wear masks. Customers have had to wear them for some time, but who knew that staff members breathe as well? We learn something new about this disease every week.

Pubs and restaurants will close at 10 pm, because the virus is a creature of the night and we need to be tucked safe in our little beds when it prowls. 

People who can work from home should. Again. They were mostly doing that until the government sent out the virtual sheepdogs to round up as many of them as possible, sending them off to work from work. It would be fine, the government told them. They wouldn’t even need to wear masks, because their employers would make the workplace safe (stop laughing when someone’s typing, people; it’s rude) and besides the virus doesn’t have the attention span for eight hours in an office. Besides, the economy needed them to be out there buying a sandwich for lunch, a coffee to reward themselves for showing up, and a pen with metallic green ink to bring home for a seven-year-old.

No, I don’t know why we’ve had this upsurge either. 

Irrelevant photo: Watching the sea. It’s from last winter.

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Hospital admissions are also going up, although not as sharply as infections. They do lag behind, so that may or may not mark a change in the way Covid’s affecting people. Stick around long enough and we’ll find out.

What is new is that the rise includes women between the ages of twenty and forty who work in hospitality, in the care sector, or who have kids in school. In other words, women who are at higher risk of exposure than the general population. They’re not in the age groups we’ve all considered vulnerable, but they seem to be vulnerable anyway. 

As far as I can tell, from my highly unscientific seat on the couch, this is a change, and a worrying one.

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An experiment that involves testing sewage sludge for Covid (some people get to have all the fun) has not only tracked the virus accurately but spotted trends in the local infection rate five days ahead of the time when individual testing did. If they start using the system where you live, you can feel civic minded every time you use the toilet.

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What crazy theories about the virus are getting enough circulation that the BBC feels a need to debunk them? 

  • That a Covid vaccine will turn us all into genetically modified creatures and  “hook us all up to an artificial intelligence interface.” That one got 300,000 views on YouTube.
  • That a Covid vaccine will implant us with microchips so the Gates Foundation can track our locations.
  • That the vaccine used during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 was responsible for 50 million deaths. 

That last one’s my favorite. There was no vaccine during the Spanish flu epidemic. Scientists did try to find one, but they were looking at bacteria and it was caused by a virus. At that point, no one had a clue. 

Be careful where you get  your news, friends. It’s crazy out there.

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Can we check in with a bit of real science, just to lift our spirits, not to mention the tone of the blog?

An experimental cancer drug may keep Covid from infecting cells and replicating itself–in other words, it would effectively kill the little bastard. It’s called AR-12, and it works by inhibiting cellular chaperones.

Yes, chaperones. They don’t follow the coronaviruses around at dances to keep them from getting too familiar with the boys. Nope, these chaperones are proteins that run around after the cells and keep them from getting bent out of shape. 

Well, more or less–probably a bit less, given that I’m the one interpreting this–but they do help the cells maintain their shape. Mess around with their shape and the little virii don’t reproduce themselves, and the whole purpose of a virus’s life is to reproduce. 

Earlier trials have shown the drug to be safe and tolerable. Now they need trials to show that it distracts the chaperones, allowing the viruses to get themselves into all kinds of trouble.

Other approaches are in the works–lots of them–but I try to limit myself to the ones I can explain, at least marginally well. Or failing that, make fun of. 

Still disinfecting the groceries? News on how Covid’s spread, plus other sciency stuff

A new study reports that most Covid infections are spread by aerosols–in other words, by the awkward fact that we breathe, a process that leads us to trade both air and germs with those we love, not to mention those we don’t. Earlier studies measured how long the virus could survive on objects and speculated about that as a route of transmission, but this one didn’t find much evidence that transmission happens that way in the real world. 

So the good news is that you can stop boiling the toilet paper when you bring it home from the store. Also that those masks really do make a difference–possibly to you, but definitely to the people around you. And that keeping your distance from other people is good protection.

But anytime you say, “The good news is,” you have to follow it with parallel bad news. So the bad news, if we’re to believe the rumor I heard yesterday, is that people are expecting Britain to go into another lockdown and already they’re panic buying. Because the country’s semi-officially in the second wave of the pandemic. Cases are doubling every week. The test and trace system that was supposed to let us control the spread is demented, broken, and–forgive the technical language here–completely fucked. The people who purport to govern the country say they want to avoid a lockdown, and the more they say it, the more inevitable it looks. So stock up on toilet paper. Also flour. And if you’re British, baked beans. 

Everything else you can do without. Unless you have pet food. Stock up on pet food.

Irrelevant photo: Erigeron. Really. That’s what they’re called.

But forget rumor. Let’s go back to science and the study I was talking about. It also reports that Covid transmission is highest about a day before the symptoms show up, making complete nonsense of the idea that we should limit tests to people with symptoms. 

No transmission has been documented after a patient’s had symptoms for a week. That doesn’t completely rule it out, but it does kind of point us in that direction.

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A new study of Covid and singing–more bad news; sorry, everyone–pretty much contradicts the last study of aerosols and singing that I told you about. That earlier one measured the aerosols and droplets sprayed into the air by individual singers and by individual speakers and reported that quiet singing doesn’t spread aerosols much more than quiet speaking does. Turn up the volume on either and you up the Covid spread.

But.

This latest study looked at a superspreader event involving one choir rehearsal that caused over fifty cases of Covid and two deaths. It broke down people’s interactions at the rehearsal, concluding that the combination of poor ventilation, many people, a long rehearsal, and body heat led to a buildup of aerosols that circulated with the air in the room.

No one was wearing masks. This was well before masks were recommended, and although I haven’t tried singing through one I have trouble imagining that it’d work well. 

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A third study reports that most homemade masks work just fine, even when we sneeze. Emphasis on most. I still see the occasional online photo of or pattern for crocheted masks. What are people thinking? They might as well take chalk and draw a mask on their faces.

Or magic marker if they want a longer-lasting useless gesture.

Sorry about the lack of a link here. I cleverly linked it to this post. By the time I figured that out, I’d lost the actual article.

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One more study and then I’ll shut about about science and we can go back to the glorious and multicolored ignorance that marks public life these days. This one comes from Dublin, was presented at a conference involving many initials, and shows that about half the people who get ill with Covid have persistent fatigue ten weeks after they recover, even if they had mild cases. The fatigue hits women more often than men.

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A man coming back from traveling abroad was told to isolate himself for two weeks. Instead he went on a pub crawl with some friends. They hit a number of pubs, then two days later the returned traveler tested positive. 

The area went from 12 cases per 100,000 to 212 cases per 100,000 in less than three weeks. 

See? I told you we’d stop talking about science.

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Spain is developing a test that will allow people to test themselves and get a result in thirty minutes. It works like the gizmos that diabetics use to measure their blood sugar, meaning a person could use it and reuse it, and it gives no false positives.

Does it give any false negatives? Good question, and wasn’t I clever to ask it? I’m not sure. I could only find one reasonably up-to-date article on the thing and it didn’t say. 

The test is called the Convat and it’s “very advanced” and “almost at a pre-commercial level,” whatever that means. It sounds good unless you slow down, at which point you notice how little you understand it. 

It may be available to the public in December or January. Emphasis on may.

Now the fine print: They’re talking about the public in Spain. The project manager, Laura Lechuga, talked about the importance of having Spanish technology, since what’s available in one country may not become available in another. In other words, this is Spain trying to make sure they can handle their problems, not ours.

Sorry to tease you with that. We really need to all be in this together, but at the moment we don’t seem to be.

Covid, the brain, and the toffs: The pandemic update from Britain

The Covid targets targets that we hear most about are the lungs, the liver, the kidneys, and the blood vessels, but some Covid patients also have neurological symptoms, ranging from headaches to confusion to full-out delirium, and evidence is mounting that Covid can attack the brain. 

That’s according to a study posted online and–like most Covid studies in this crisis–not yet peer reviewed. 

Covid isn’t the only virus that does some breaking and entering inside the brain. Zika did, but the body mounted an immune response. Covid, though, is a sneaky little s.o.b., and the body doesn’t seem to notice what it’s doing up there, which is making copies of itself and leaving a trail of destruction. The study found no evidence of an immune response to its presence in the brain.

“Days after infection, and we already see a dramatic reduction in the amount of synapses,” Dr. Alysson Muotri of the University of California said. “We don’t know yet if that is reversible or not.”

Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Researchers will need to analyze brain samples from autopsies to see if it’s present in people with milder versions of the disease and in the people who are being called long-haulers, the people whose symptoms hang on and on. A lot of them have a range of neurological symptoms. 

Some 40% to 60% of hospitalized patients have neurological and psychiatric symptoms, but they may not all come from brain infections. Some may come from inflammations throughout the body. So: autopsies.

The problem, though, is that autopsies need people to die first, so this all depends on the right categories of people conveniently keeling over.

Everybody seems to be saying this, but it bears repeating: So much about this disease is still unknown.

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So what do you do about a disease like that? Well, at a town hall event hosted by the ABC network (that’s a TV channel), Donald Trump told the world that Covid will disappear when everyone develops a herd mentality. 

Conform, people. It’ll save us all.

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At least in the absence of a vaccine and a herd mentality, testing is the most likely thing to save us, and a new Covid test that’s still in the development stage sounds promising enough to lift even my gloomy spirits. 

Gloomy spirits? Well, I keep telling people that it’s going to be a long winter, then I have an impulse to slap myself silly. I’m sure the other people in question feel the same way. To date, everyone’s good manners have kept the situation from spinning out of control.

But back to the Covid test: Researchers wanted to come up with a quick, accurate test that would be cheap enough for people to test themselves at home every day, and it’s looking promising. 

The test is called STOPCovid, which probably stands for something, since half of it is in caps, and the researchers come from enough U.S. universities that I won’t bother to list them all.

The details of the test involve RNA, magnetic beads, and a high sensitivity, meaning it correctly identifies a lots o’ positive cases. The details are also over my head and I’m going to arbitrarily decide that they’re over yours too, but hey, I’m giving you a link so you can go prove me wrong. 

Actually, it didn’t seem that complicated until I realized that I understood the sentences but not their content. A lot of my life is like that. What I did understand is that it’s promising and that it’s designed to be cheap, fast, and usable. 

Also that it’s not ready yet.

Stay tuned. 

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The STOPCovid test can’t come fast enough for Britain, because the government’s taken what was already an expensive privatized mess of a testing program and made it worse.

It’s good that in these dark days we’re led by damn fools. 

What’s wrong with the testing program? People are being sent hundreds of miles from home for tests. People with symptoms can’t find tests, meaning they’re left not knowing if they can safely go back to work or if their kids can safely go back to school. 

The head of the test and trace program, Dido Harding (whose background is in business, not public health), explained the disaster by saying that nobody “was expecting to see the really sizable increase in demand.”

Of course not. No one knew schools were reopening or thought that might mean more people being exposed ans needing tests. No one noticed when Boris Johnson nagged everyone who was working from home to go back into the office, which would mean more people getting exposed and needing–yeah, you can see where this is going.

Meanwhile, Jacob Rees Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, is hailing the testing program as a phenomenal success and telling us all to stop carping about it. 

Me, I’m not carping. I’m a vegetarian. But I will say that the demand for tests is four times greater than the testing capacity.  

All hail the wondrous testing program.

You have to love these people. They have absolutely no shame and minimal contact with reality. Or any desire to contact reality. They caught a glimpse of it once. It involved a lot of people with accents they didn’t like and clothes that cost less than theirs. Not to mention with infinitely less money than they have. It was all very unpleasant and why go through that again?

Anyway, the problems with testing seem to involve a shortage of lab capacity. The labs are also privatized, not that I’m trying to make a point here or anything. 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-54163226

Meanwhile the number of cases is rising in parts of Britain and people are facing increased localized restrictions. 

Contact tracing’s going well too. Some people working in the system report–anonymously–that by the time they contact people who’ve been exposed to Covid and tell them to isolate themselves for two weeks, more than two weeks have gone by since they were exposed. And this past week, the tracing firm’s software was too embarrassed to go on and some tracers had to be told not to refresh their screens too often. Some of the people they called got so frustrated with how long the calls took that they hung up. 

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Shall we be completely fair here? The full quote from Jacob Rees-Mogg is, “The issue of testing is one where we have gone from a disease that nobody knew about a few months ago to one where nearly a quarter of a million people a day can be tested, and the prime minister is expecting that to go up to half a million people a day by the end of October.

“And instead of this endless capring, saying it’s difficult to get them, we should actually celebrate this phenomenal success of the British nation.”

All hail the British aristocracy. They either manage to believe this shit or don’t care what they say. 

And somehow or other, they stay in office. No, I can’t explain it either.

Oh, no you won’t: A quick history of the British panto

Nothing except the curry is as British as the panto. 

I’ve made that claim about a lot of things, and it’s true of every last one of them. And I didn’t even make up the comparison, so lots of people have made the claim about lots of things.

Nothing is as unoriginal as comparing an British / English whatever to a curry.

But if I’ve destroyed my own opening thoroughly enough, let’s move on and talk about the panto. Having grown up in the US, I thought pantomime meant silent acting. You know: Marcel Marceau. That kind of thing. We call it mime for short.

But for the British–well, they grabbed the opposite end of the word, we hung onto ours and between us we broke the thing. So forget mime. What they do is panto, and it’s full of words.

How British is it? Exactly as British as the curry: In other words, it came from someplace else–in the case of the panto, Italy and from there, France–and embedded itself deeply in British culture.

Irrelevant photo: No fall–or autumn, if I’m pretending to be British–is complete without a photo of gorse and heather. They’re everywhere. They’re behind you, probably.

It started as sixteenth-century Italian Commedia dell’arte, which was traveling street theater, although the better troupes weren’t above performing in a palace if one wandered past. The shows involved music, dance, dialogue, and a heavy dose of mayhem. 

Italy wasn’t a united country at this point, and it had many very different dialects. So how did they handle dialogue when the troupes traveled? According to one source, they made a virtue of the differences. One character spoke Spanish (no, that’s not Italian or a dialect, but somehow it’s on the list). One spoke Bolognese. One spoke gibberish. And so on. What pulled it all together was the physical communication–clowning, acrobatics, dance, music. One character, Arlecchino (are-lay-KEY-no–he’s the origin of our word harlequin), had two sticks that were tied together so they’d make a loud noise and he whacked everything available with them, including the scenery and the other characters. And that, children, is the origin of our word slapstick

The women’s roles were played by women, and since the European tradition had banned women from the stage, this was radical.

The sets were basic–they had to travel–and many elements were predictable, including the characters, which were fixed types, recognizable from play to play, from troupe to troupe. A lot of them were played in masks. (The lovers–because what’s a play without lovers?–weren’t.) So forget deep characterization. What mattered were the tumbles, the slapstick, the chases, and the jokes, which were also recognizable from play to play. 

All of that, though, was scaffolding for the improvisation. The actors played off each other and the audience, so the play would never be quite the same twice. 

From Italy, the form moved to France, and from France it moved to England, and from the sixteenth century time moved to the seventeenth. In England, Commedia dell’arte collided with masques, which had started in the 14th century as musical, mimed, or spoken dramas put on in grand houses. By the seventeenth century–or so says one source–they were basically an excuse for a theme party. 

Commedia d’etc. may also have had a small collision with a medieval (or Tudor, depending on who you want to believe) Christmas tradition, the Feast of Fools, which was run by the Lord of Misrule, because before too many centuries had passed the panto became as tightly connected to Christmas as brussels sprouts (don’t ask–it won’t get us anywhere). 

In the eighteenth century, the word pantomime took hold and the form began gobbling up existing stories–Aladdin, Robinson Crusoe, Cinderella, you name it. 

By the Victorian era, the principal boy’s role was played by a woman. In the Victorian era, that would’ve been pretty racy stuff, involving ankles and legs and all sorts of body parts no one knew women had. The dame was enthusiastically overplayed by a man. If you were inclined to take anything too seriously, that would knock the idea out of your head.

Then they added some dancers and an audience, which got to yell out some stock phrases: He’s behind you. Oh, no you won’t

It’s an odd thing, but after you repeat those a few dozen times, they begin to be funny. In fact, they’ve cut loose from the panto and become free-floating punchlines in real life.  

In some stories, they got to add a pantomime horse–two people in a horse costume. Hold onto that thought.

These days–or before the pandemic, anyway–pantos were performed in grand theaters with professional or semi-professional actors and in village halls with hangdog ten-year-olds who delivered their lines as if they’d been strong-armed into taking part because they had been.

Many theaters relied on pantos for a heavy portion of their year’s income. The could reliably fill the seats.

By the time a panto ends, good has conquered evil and the lovers have been united. And where I live, until there’s been a raffle. You don’t get to leave a village event until you buy a ticket, and if you win something you want look happy with your prize, no matter how odd it is.

Why am I writing about this in September? In part because the British government’s running like a badly written panto:

“We will get control of the corona virus.” 

“Oh, no you won’t.”

“Oh, yes we will.”

“Oh, not unless you get your act together you won’t.”

But also because a bit of the panto has broken loose, abandoned the Christmas season, and become the panto horse race: pairs of people in horse costumes in a race. Ask Lord Google about it and he’ll tell you they take place (at the very least) in Colchester and in Catterick. Here’s one that was won by a cow. 

The London panto horse race seems to be the same as the Greenwich one, and it goes from pub to pub, stopping at each one. By the end, the horses are looking a little the worse for wear. Or possibly for beer. The front end of one horse was having a drinking problem that had to do with the length of a horse’s muzzle and the size of a pint glass of beer.

For the best of the videos, I couldn’t find anything outside of Twitter or Facebook, but if you enjoy pictures of people falling over, horses coming apart, and scenery being destroyed, it’s very funny. 

Go on, click the links. You know you want to.

Oh, yes you do.

The vulnerabilities of younger people: It’s the pandemic update from Britain

England’s world-beating Covid test and trace system has people beating their heads against the wall. Anyone can mistake a wall for the world. It’s natural enough. Even in pandemic hot spots, symptomatic people are being turned away. The government’s labs had a backlog of 185,000 tests that were sent abroad over the weekend. But if test samples sit around too long, they’re useless. So, um, yeah. I’m not sure how that’s going to work. But let’s not be silly and hold out for competence.

English schools are warning that they’ll grind to a halt if students and staff can’t get tested, because people who might test negative will have to isolate.

Wales says it’s going to process its own tests. Scotland accused England of trying to limit its access to tests. Northern Ireland doesn’t seem to be taking part in the conversation, and nobody ever listens to Cornwall.  

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Screamingly irrelevant flowers. Whatsit flowers–probably osteospermum. In bloom. In our yard. They’re wonderful–the slugs don’t eat them.

Meanwhile, Doug Jaquier sent me a bit of wisdom from a Facebook site called Puns, One Liners & Clever Wordplay

“Due to the success of Covid testing the Government has taken over pregnancy testing too. The waiting list is currently 10 months.”

The capitalization is not mine. Neither, sadly, is the inventive mind that thought of that. If they’d waited another lifetime, I would’ve come up with it. I just know I would’ve.

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China has announced that it may have a vaccine ready for use by the public in November or December. It’s currently in phase 3 trials–the ones where they test it on a large number of people to see if it’s both safe and effective.

Britain’s Oxford vaccine phase 3 trials were interrupted when one of the test subjects got sick. They’ve resumed now. Presumably her illness was unrelated. Not that anyone’s actually said that. Confidentiality and discretion absolutely ruin a good bit of gossip. 

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An advisor to the British government said that details of the new rules limiting how many people can gather in what circumstances are irrational–you can get a larger group of people together for a sports event but a family of five can’t have two grandparents visit them at home. 

“It is on the other hand very simple,” he said.

And it is simple until you try to sort through the who, what, when, where, and how.

In case you were worried, you can gather in groups of up to thirty to shoot grouse. So don’t feel too bad about the grandparents. At least no one (that we know of) is hunting them.

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A lot of Britain’s recent Covid cases are among younger people, so let’s talk about the people who it’s hitting like a sledgehammer. The reason I want to focus on them is that we have the illusion that Covid’s only a danger to people over sixty. Or seventy. Or eighty. Younger people are immune. 

Okay, most of us have that illusion. You probably know better, but the rest of us can be pretty dumb sometimes.

At Mount Sinai Health System, in New York, doctors treated five Covid stroke patients in two weeks, all under fifty. Normally they’d see one every three weeks. Four of them were relatively healthy beforehand. Two were in their thirties and had no risk factors. 

That’s a lot of numbers in one paragraph. Five in two weeks instead of one every three. Hold onto that. It’s not a huge number, but it reminds us that the danger to younger people is real. If you have to draw a card out of the Covid deck, you have no way to know what card it’ll be. 

Dr. Adam Dmytriw, a University of Toronto radiologist, says, “We’re seeing a startling number of young people who had a minor cough, or no recollection of viral symptoms at all . . . and they have a sudden stroke.” 

How many is a startling number? Enough to startle a doctor. That’s the best I can do, because the article didn’t say. Some of them had underlying medical conditions, but none had risks that should have increased their chance of having a stroke. For some, the stroke was the first sign that they had the coronavirus because they had the mild cases we all expect them to have.

In the U.S., the number of hospitalizations among 18- to 29-year-olds quadrupled in just a couple months. From the week ending April 18 to the one ending June 27, it went from just under 9 for every 100,000 to roughly 35 per 100,000. It’s not a huge number, but it’s a big jump for a short stretch of time.

One study, again of Americans, says a third of all younger people have at least one risk factor for severe Covid. 

Other younger people end up with some version of post-Covid syndrome, which can include exhaustion, chest pains, migraines, breathlessness, dizziness. About 600,000 people (I think that’s in Britain, and it seems to include all ages, but don’t take my word for that) have some version of post-Covid syndrome as measured by the app Covid Tracker. Around 12% of them have had it for more than a month and one in two hundred for more than 90 days.

Something close to 100% of British publications (at least the ones I read) don’t bother to translate their statistics into comparable categories. I think that would be .5%, but I’m not going to crawl too far out on that limb.

The initial belief that Covid risk rises with age still seems to hold true, but even so the evidence is increasing that younger people aren’t immune. A retrospective Chinese study of Covid in children counts 2,143 cases. More than 90% of them were mild or moderate, but 6% of pediatric cases were severe and even critical, compared to 19% of adult cases. 

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Isn’t it just fun to spend time with me? Doom, gloom, and after that I’m out of relevant rhymes.

Zoom.

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A paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine floated an unproven theory about Covid: that mask wearing may be immunizing people. The idea is that masks may cut down on the number of viruses that a person breathes in, so the body’s able to mount an immune response instead of getting overwhelmed. 

It’s the same process that made variolation–the early form of inoculation against smallpox–work. A person was deliberately exposed to a small amount of the disease and the body probably mounted an immune response. Emphasis on probably. You couldn’t be sure who would become immune and who would get sick and quite possibly die. 

The mask theory rests on two unproven assumptions: that exposure to a lower dose results in a milder case and that mild or asymptomatic cases confer some immunity. More than that, the only way to directly prove it is through clinical trials that would expose people, some wearing masks and some not, to the coronavirus. Which is unethical. So at this point it’s basically an interesting thought.

Moonshots and international law: It’s the news from Britain 

We all just love good news, which is why we’ll try not to gag when we discuss Boris Johnson’s moonshot plan to test everybody in Britain for Covid all day every day, including when they’re asleep, working in their pajamas, or breaking and entering because they want to wear someone else’s pajamas for a change.

I know, but you do need to let me exaggerate now and then. It prevents explosions.

The moonshot plan is about ramping up Covid testing from 200,000 tests a day to 10 million a day by early next year. It would cost, at a wild and irresponsible guess (sorry–at a sober but preliminary estimate), £10 billion plus. 

Plus how much? At those levels, who cares? By way of comparison, that’s roughly equal to the UK’s education budget, but since the alternative, at least in the scenario posed by the prime minister, is a second lockdown, it’s a bargain at twice the price. 

Or something along those lines. 

Completely relevant photo: Have I mentioned that we’re going to the dogs?

It’ll involve lots of private companies–some of them the same ones who are screwing up the current test and trace program–so I could see where we’d end up paying twice the price. For half the product.

Given that the current testing program is short of something–probably lab capacity but who really knows?–and is therefore suggesting that people drive to hell and back if they seriously want to get tested because Britain’s a small island and when I was a kid we walked to school. Through the snow. We didn’t stand around waiting for a bus to pick us up and moaning about a little rain–

Let’s start that over. Why do you people keep leaving me in charge? 

The moonshot tests, or at least some of them, will give results in minutes. 

The problem is–

No, one of the problems is that the technology to make this work doesn’t exist yet. Another problem is the public health leaders are screaming for more control of the current testing program because the companies running it are making such a mess. 

This time, though, they’ll get it right. And I’ll be twenty again, only much smarter than I was the first time around. 

Also taller.

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Want another problem with the moonshot program? The government’s advisors weren’t called upon to advise before it was shot at the press. The National Screening Committee was sidelined on the grounds that the moonshot is a testing program, not screening. 

“Mass testing is screening,” according to Allyson Pollock, the director of something very impressive at Newcastle University. I’d give her full title but we need to move on. Sorry.

See how British I’ve gotten in fourteen years? I apologize all the time. I don’t mean it, but I do apologize. 

If I were Britishly British, though I’d write “I’ve got” instead of “I’ve gotten.” Don’t ask me to explain it, but I’ve discovered that the American version annoys the hell out of someone in the village who’s well worth annoying. I’d use it anyway–my speech pattern, c’est moi–but it does add joy to the words.

Where were we? 

If the committee had been involved, it could consider the impact of false positives and false negatives and the social and economic impact of a large number of people being told to self-isolate. 

John Deeks, a professor of something equally impressive at the University of Birmingham said, “There is a massive cause for concern that there is no screening expertise evident in the documents. They are written by management consultants. . . . Before you start, you have to make sure you do less harm than good.”

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If a massive testing program really happens, is anyone talking about paying people enough that they can afford to stay home if they test positive? 

Don’t be silly. It would set a bad precedent and make people lazy. 

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While the official testing program limps along, running short of whatever it’s running short of, the University of Exeter is buying its own tests for students and staff–saliva tests that promise results either the same day or the next. They’re made by an outfit called Halo, which says they’re wonderful. As they may well be, but I’d like to hear that from an unbiased source and so far I haven’t found one. With a different test, people who actually understand these things complained that although the company making the test reported that it registered very few false negatives or false positives, it’s possible to game the data and unless companies make their testing process transparent, no one will know if they have. 

I don’t know if Halo’s transparent. 

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Covid cases have been  rising in Britain, but the number of deaths has stayed low, presumably because the infections are concentrated among younger people, who are less likely to die or be hospitalized. A fair number of fingers have been wagged at them for getting sick. They’ve been out seeing friends, drinking in pubs, eating in cafes, attending illegal raves. 

Of course, the government’s been dangling vouchers in front of them–and the rest of us–to lure us into pubs and cafes so we could support the economy, as well as telling everyone working at home to get out of their bathrobes (which could use a good wash by now anyway) and relocate their hind ends to whatever office it is they used to work in. The economy can’t deal with this many people working from home.

That says something about how much sheer uselessness it takes to keep the economy rolling.

Now that more people are testing positive for Covid, though, it’s their own fault for listening to the government. They should’ve known better. 

Why are younger people really picking up the disease? A combination of factors, probably. Many of them have jobs that put them into contact with the public, and with all the viruses the public carries. Some of them are careless. They’ve been told they’re unlikely to get seriously sick. The police have broken up some illegal raves, but the entire younger population of the country wasn’t at them, 

You also have to figure that a lot of us who are retired are still in hiding, or semi-hiding, so we’re a little harder for the germs to find. Opportunists that they are, they jump into whoever they find.

What’s the government’s advice to  keep young people on the straight and narrow? “Don’t kill granny.”

Seriously.

There’s something unnerving about that as a way of mobilizing a nation.

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No news from Britain is complete without a mention of Brexit: 

Rod McKenzie of Britain’s Road Haulage Association warns us, or warns the government, or warns anyone who’s listening, which may not be anyone at all since the government listens only to itself, I don’t really exist, and we’re not so sure about you–

Can we start that over?

Rod McKenzie, of Britain’s Road Haulage Association, warns us that we’re “sleepwalking to a disaster with the border preparations that we have, whether it is a deal or no-deal Brexit at the end of December.”

He’s worried about supply chains being interrupted, especially on the heels of the Covid crisis. 

“The difference here is between a disaster area and a disaster area with rocket boosters on.”

Remember the beginning of lockdown, when everyone was stocking up on toilet paper and bread flour (or hoarding it, depending on whether we were talking about ourselves or our neighbors)? If you’re in Britain, it might be worth doing that again. I have a recipe that calls for both if you want it.

Annie Besant does Cristianity, secularism, socialism, and Theosophy

Annie Besant was, in more or less this order, an intensely religious child, a minister’s wife, a campaigning secularist, a brilliant public speaker, a writer, a socialist, a champion of everything from trade unions to birth control to feminism, a Theosophist, a Briton in colonial India, and a campaigner for Indian home rule. She adopted (sort of) an Indian son who she promoted as a new messiah and the incarnation of Buddha.

Along the way, she won exactly zero awards for consistency, so maybe we’ll want to slow that down a bit.

Irrelevant photo: a day lily.

She was born in 1847 (her birth name was Annie Wood) and she got, for a woman of her time, a good education. She married a clergyman, Frank Besant, who’s described by the only article I found that bothered to describe him at all as stiff-necked and charmless. He’s basically a prelude to her story and most articles drop his name in and move on. She married him because he proposed and she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. She wouldn’t be the first woman who married someone because she couldn’t think of anything else to do that afternoon. We can inch out on a thin limb and say that the relationship didn’t get off to a good start.  

They had two kids, and both were difficult births. When she suggested doing the limited things that were possible then to keep from having a third, he beat her. Which was perfectly acceptable at the time, at least to the world at large if not to her. Whether that was the first time I don’t know, but it wasn’t the only one.

At some point, she began to question her religious beliefs and in 1872 she heard  Charles Voysey preach. He was a dissenter who challenged the authority of the Bible and the perfection of Jesus. Through him, she met Thomas Scott, whose beliefs were even more radical and who encouraged her to write a pamphlet on what she believed, which he then published as On the Deity of Jesus of Nazareth: An Inquiry into the Nature of Jesus.

All hell broke loose at home and Frank presented her with two choices: Take communion publicly and regularly at his church or leave home.

She chose, as she put it, expulsion over hypocrisy. 

She moved to London with one of their kids, a girl, and continued to write pamphlets for Scott. Frank stayed in Wherever with their other child, a boy. 

In the 1870s, Besant joined the National Secular Society, and here we need to stop and make sense of why secularism was a thing:

The Church of England, as the established church, had the power of the state behind it. It didn’t rule as many aspects of life as it once had, but it still ruled plenty of them. Divorce had only been taken away from church courts in 1857. Paying church rates–basically a tax you owed to the church–had been made voluntary in 1868. It wasn’t until 1871 that religion stopped being a requirement for university admittance. A non-believer still couldn’t be an MP unless he–and he had to be a he at this point–was willing to put his beliefs in his back pocket and swear a religious oath. In 1888, atheists and people whose religions didn’t allow them to take oaths were first allowed to solemnly affirm instead of swearing a religious oath. But church doctrine still influenced a wide assortment of laws, including one forbidding cremation, which didn’t become legal until 1902. And, of course, it influenced people’s thoughts and assumptions. Didn’t the Bible say the man was the head of the household? Didn’t it give him permission to beat his wife? 

All this meant that being a campaigning secularist wasn’t just for those pains-in-the-ass who couldn’t pass up the chance for a philosophical fight over dinner. It was for people who wanted to change society. Until you uncoupled religion from law and everyday life, any change you proposed could be challenged on religious grounds. Cremation? Birth control? Women’s right to own property and keep their own wages? It wasn’t enough that a change was harmless or life saving or entirely sugar free. If you could throw it out on religious grounds, it wasn’t valid. 

Being a campaigning secularist was also for people who couldn’t make themselves pretend to hold beliefs that didn’t come in their size or style. And it was for scientists, who couldn’t use the Bible was the one and only authority. They had to explore the world on its own terms. This was an intellectually fertile time, and secularism was a necessary ingredient.

Besant began to write for the Secular Society’s paper and to speak in public, and forget what she had to say, a woman speaking in public was in itself shocking. She was by all accounts a brilliant speaker, and it didn’t hurt that she was small and pretty. Yeah, you can speak as a feminist and call for equality, but a certain number of people will go right on judging you by the old standards. 

What number? Something along the lines of 99.7% back then. In today’s enlightened world, we’ve gotten it down to 99.4%. 

You could argue that she was using the patriarchy’s weapons against it: You think I look like a woman should look? Good. Now listen while I set your brain on fire.  

Of course, you can make an argument for just about anything. I haven’t a clue what her attitude toward her looks was, but they didn’t give her a free pass in any case. Beatrice Webb–who broke a few taboos herself–said that to “see her speaking made me shudder, it is not womanly to thrust yourself before the world.”

Besant quickly became a key figure in the Secular Society, denouncing religion as a force that kept women down and writing on the contentious issue of birth control. One of her arguments in its defense was, “We think it more moral to prevent the conception of children than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food, air, and clothing. . . . The wage which would support the parents and two or three children in comfort and decency is utterly insufficient to maintain a family of twelve or fourteen, and we consider it a crime to bring into the world human beings doomed to misery or to premature death.”

After she had a hand in publishing a pamphlet on birth control, her husband went to court, challenging her right to have custody of their daughter, and won. 

In 1887, she joined the Fabian Society, a socialist group, where again she quickly became a powerful force, co-founding a weekly newspaper, the Link. At a Fabian Society event, she learned about the working conditions of the women who made Bryant & May matches. They worked fourteen hour days, faced fines that could cost them as much as half a day’s pay (and their pay was already miserable), and worked with phosphorus, which caused bone cancer and killed them by horrible stages. Sweden and the U.S. had banned its use, but the British–holding out, nobly, for free trade–declined to.

I do so admire politicians with principles.

Besant wrote about their conditions in the Link, and the company demanded that workers sign a statement saying they were happy with their working conditions. When one group refused, they were fired and 1,400 women went out on strike. The Link campaigned in their support, calling their conditions white slavery.

Have you ever noticed how white slavery shocks polite (and, yea, even impolite) society in an entirely different way than black slavery? That can even be true of people who you’d expect to know better. But let’s acknowledge Besant’s limits and remember that she was a person of her time and place. Being an idiot in one way (or several ways, come to think of it) doesn’t take away the wisdom she showed in others.

Crucially, the Link also raised money to support the strikers.

After three weeks, the company agreed to end the system of fines and met several of the strikers’ other demands. The women went back to work, forming the Union of Women Match Makers and electing Besant as its first secretary. The union soon opened to men as well and continued until 1903, inspiring the unions to organize the lowest paid workers, not just skilled craftsmen.

In 1889, Besant was elected to the Tower Hamlets school board with 15,000 votes more than the next highest candidate. She initiated reforms that included free meals for undernourished students and free medical exams for all students.

In the 1890s, atheism be damned, she started to be influenced by Theosophy, a religious movement based on the Hindu ideas of karma and reincarnation, and again became prominent, serving as its international president from 1907 until her death in 1933.

She moved to India and from 1913 on she became active in the struggle for independence, running a campaigning newspaper, New India, and starting the Home Rule League and the Women’s Indian Association. She drew back from Gandhi’s passive resistance campaign, though–he was  breaking the law and she couldn’t go that far–and her popularity waned.

And here we drop into the seedier side of her life

A Theosophist, C.W. Leadbeater, spotted two young boys in Chennai and announced that one of them had an aura that would make him the World Teacher–the person who would bring enlightenment to the world–and he convinced Besant to take the boys in. She eventually gained custody from their father. (Yes, they had a father. She didn’t rescue them off the streets.)

It ‘s not irrelevant that the Theosophical Society had expelled Leadbeater over a sexual scandal involving adolescent boys and had only just reinstated him. More than that I can’t tell you. People didn’t talk about those things then. 

Yeah, I think so too, but we don’t actually know.

Whatever did or didn’t happen behind the scenes, the Theosophists raised one of the boys, Jiddu Krishnamurti, to be the World Teacher, and the money rolled in. And Hindu-influenced as Theosophy may have been and supportive of home rule as Besant may have been, they raised the boys to dress and behave in the European style. 

Krishnamurti and his brother, NItya, remained close to each other. They both studied law in England, where Nitya passed with honors and Jiddu didn’t pass at all. Nitya died of tuberculosis in 1925.

In some of his early talks, Krishnamurti claimed to be the reincarnation of the Buddha, in others, the vehicle for the messiah, and in others still the messiah himself. But in 1929 he broke with Besant, the Theosophical Society, and the idea of being a World Leader. He returned the gifts he had control over to the people who’d given them. There’d been plenty of them, but the Society had control of the majority. 

He did become a teacher as well as a writer and lecturer and he promoted, among other things, the need for spiritual freedom, including freedom from teachers–something he knew a bit about.

Besant went on to promote Rukmini Arundale, a dancer and the daughter of a Theosophist, who took a style of traditional dance, bharata natyam, that was practiced by lower-class temple servants whose role included prostitution, and turned it into something to perform on stage, making it a respectable form for upper-class women.

Whether that satisfied Besant I can’t tell you. One article about Kristnamurti and Besant says she died heartbroken. Others just say she died. 

We all do, sooner or later.

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My thanks to Bee Halton, of The Bee Writes, for bringing Besant to my attention. 

Brexit, Covid spikes, and lies: It’s the news from Britain

Britain is gearing up to break international law in “a very limited and specific way,” according to Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary. 

Last October, Boris Johnson’s government negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the European Union that would avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, something everyone with half a brain and no political advisors with the initials D.C. considers important because a hard border threatens to reignite the Troubles in Northern Ireland. We’ll skip the background there because it’s long and complicated. If you’re not up on it, just nod sagely and pretend you know what I’m talking about. 

It was a patched-together agreement and even at the time it looked unworkable because if Britain left the EU there had to be a hard border somewhere, and if it wasn’t going to be between Ireland and Northern Ireland, then it was going to be in the middle of the Irish Sea, pushing Northern Ireland away from the rest of the UK. 

Wave bye-bye to the nice island, Boris. 

Look! It’s waving back. 

Or maybe that’s Northern Ireland waving hello to the Irish Republic. Either way, aren’t the Irish friendly?

Irrelevant photo: a red hot poker.Not an actual one, you understand. A flower that goes by that name.

Anyway, it was all going to be okay, we were told, because they–they being some unnamed genius in a governmental office somewhere, whose initials were probably D.C.–would figure out a way to make it work.

So what have they figured out? Well, um, nothing. Which is why we’re gearing up for that limited and specific little law-break, Your Honor. See, we were painting the floor. And then we realized we were in a corner and surrounded by wet paint. And we really needed a beer, and on top of that, we had to pee.

Sorry, did I just say pee? We needed to visit the loo and drive to Barnard Castle to test our eyesight. But you understand the difficulty, right?

Sorry: British political in joke implanted there. I couldn’t help myself. It all has to do with a prime ministerial advisor who doesn’t believe laws apply to him.

The former prime minister Theresa May asked how the government planned to “reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreement.” And you know what, no one answered her. Because she’s the former prime minister, not the current one.

Somewhat more noticeably, the most senior legal civil servant resigned over it, and that seems to be creating a few shock waves. He’d advised ministers–or so Westminster gossip (which I get by way of the newspapers) holds–that the changes would be illegal, and since civil servants are required to stay within the law, he quit.

That raises the question of whether the justice secretary and attorney general, who take oaths to uphold the rule of law, will find themselves in deep shit at some point over this.

The government’s said to have asked for independent legal advice and when they didn’t like what the advice advised are said to have ignored it. 

Senior Tories are urging the government to perform yet another U-turn–a maneuver the government does well. The question is, how many senior Tories are we talking about, and how many junior ones? The Tories have a majority of 80, so it’ll take more than a handful to have an impact.

Please ensure that your seat belts are securely fastened. We’re headed for turbulence.

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Britain’s had a spike in Covid cases and is imposing new restrictions to try to stop it. Or to slow it down. Or to be seen to be doing something while still trying to get people who’ve been working at home back into the office so they can support the economy by buying sandwiches and expensive coffees and those sparkly notebooks that eight-year-olds like. Without those sales, the economy’s sinking.

Whatever. We now have new restrictions. 

In England, starting on Monday, social gatherings of more than six people or from more than two households will be illegal. Unless they’re weddings or funerals or organized team sports. Or schools or work, which aren’t exactly social but the health secretary Matt Hancock mentioned them anyway because he was trying to make the point that the ”the rule is really simple.” 

“What,” a friend asked me as I was explaining how simple this is, “about my brother, who has six kids?”

“Well,” I said, “he should’ve thought of that before he had them.” 

And just so I’d sound all British about this, I added, “Shouldn’t he?”

As it turns out, it really is simple. It’s either six people from any number of households (two households, six households, thousands of households if you can make the numbers work) or any number of people from any two households. Plus either a dessert or an appetizer.

Fizzy drinks and alcohol cost extra. And my friend’s brother can keep all his kids. 

Of course, the rules are different if you’re in one of the cities and towns that have local lockdowns or the restrictions that are an attempt to avoid a full-out lockdown. No two local rules seem to be the same. In some, restrictions involve venues–however the hell they’re defining that–having to close between 10 pm and 5 am, which is when the virus is known to come out and play. In others, you can’t have people over, indoors or in your garden, which in American is called a yard, unless you’ve formed a support bubble, which is created when a household with one adult joins another household and when they add soap to a dishpan of water (glycerine helps) and have a bubble pipe or wand. 

It’s best to do this outdoors, because it’s messy.

With the emphasis on gardens, it sounds like you could get together if you put a fence between one household and the other as long as no more than six people are inside the fence.

Anyway, it’s really very simple. 

I’ve always considered the mess an art form. I should idolize Hancock, but somehow he just doesn’t do it for me. 

All of that, of course, only applies to England. What about in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (if it hasn’t floated out of sight yet)?

It’s simple, so I’ll quote the BBC to be sure I get it right:

  • In Scotland, up to 15 people from five different households can meet outdoors.
  • In Wales, up to 30 people are allowed to see each other outdoors.
  • In Northern Ireland, the maximum number of people who can meet outdoors has been reduced from 30 to 15.

However, if we’re talking about being indoors, either at your place or in a pub, the rules alllow:

  • In Scotland, up to eight people from three different households
  • In Northern Ireland, up to six people from two households
  • In Wales, up to four households can form an “extended household.”

I don’t know how it can get any clearer than that. But keep in mind that the distance you’re supposed to keep from other people will vary depending on whether you’re in England, Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland. Because the virus behaves differently depending on the accent it hears.

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I can’t think why I’m so tired.

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Last week sometime, I told you my tale about trying to get one of Britain’s world-beating Covid tests and being advised to go from Cornwall to Wales. I’m used to being told where to go, and it doesn’t usually involve anyplace as nice as Wales, so I didn’t get my feelings hurt. 

But now it turns out that I’m the reasons Britain is short of Covid testing materials, and that does hurt my feelings. 

Matt Hancock, our secretary of state for health, social care, and public excuses, tells us the shortage of Covid tests is the fault of people getting tested when they don’t need a test. A full 25% of the people asking for tests turn out to be this sort of me-too-ers. They don’t have the symptoms, so what are they up to? 

We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about symptoms. The government web site gives you a choice of three, but if you bump around the internet, limiting yourself to entirely responsible sites, you’ll find that the virus is more generous than that. You can have five symptoms if you want them. You can probably have more than that, but I’m prone to dizziness when I work with higher numbers so I stopped there.

But even if the government could count to five, it shouldn’t matter whether you have symptoms. One of the things that makes the virus so damn hard to stamp out is that asymptomatic people can and do transmit it. Any chance of controlling it rests on (a) a highly effective vaccine, (b) magic, or (c) testing–lots and lots of testing, including testing people who don’t have any symptoms so they can find out if they’re carrying it and then isolate themselves and not pass it on. 

Let’s pause here for some advice: If you have an off-brand symptom and want to get tested, you should lie. Don’t worry. This is a government that understands lying. 

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Trials for the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine hit Pause when a participant was hospitalized with what may be a serious reaction to the vaccine and may be something unrelated. You know, the kind of thing that happens when a satellite flies over your house just as you’re chewing bubble gum and the cat’s litter tray needs cleaning and you’ve got Billie Holiday playing on whatever on earth it is you use to play recorded music these days. And–I almost forgot–you breathe in a virus that isn’t the one we’re concerned about but does still make you very, very sick.

These things do happen and you can’t know in advance what effect they’ll have. Researchers are trying (frantically, I’d think, but we all know I’m not there, so let’s not take me too seriously) to figure out if the participant’s illness is related to the vaccine or not. It may not be, but this is why political pressure to shorten the testing process is really very stupid.

Gender, sex, Welsh, and wildfires: It’s the news roundup from the UK and the US

The London Zoo has a baby two-toed sloth to introduce to the world. Truffle was born in August. Nothing I’ve read says whether Truffle’s a male or a female, and I don’t think Truffle cares yet. Two-toed sloths move so slowly that algae grows on their fur, so I’m guessing the parents are in no hurry to announce Truffle’s sex. 

In the meantime, no pronouns were injured in the making of this news item.

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Irrelevant photo: We don’t have any two-toed sloths in the house right now, so I asked Fast Eddie to fill in. You can see where he got his name.

And with that, we slip briefly and so seamlessly you’ll barely notice to the U.S., where some human parents make a production out of announcing their forthcoming child’s sex. They not only want their kid to set the world on fire, even before it’s born the revelation of its sex has to happen with a bang. 

Or so I’ve been reading. Gender-reveal parties, for whatever reason, are having a moment–and that moment pays no attention to the difference between gender and sex. But let’s not go into that. I only tossed it into the conversation because I couldn’t resist complicating it.

I could see the point of staging a show if the possibilities were truly exciting, but at the stage where people first find out what they’ve got in there, the choices are limited. It’s either a girl or it’s a boy. They won’t know for years if it’s actually a girl who’s actually a boy or actually a boy who’s actually a girl or actually someone who’s actually a bit of both. 

Like it or not, for that they have to wait.

In the meantime, what they’ve got is a partially formed human being who’s developing along one of two predictable lines. No wonder parents sometimes feel the need to drum up a little drama. Nine months is a long time. They’re bored. Friends are thinking about other things.

And here, finally, I’m getting to my point: A couple in California looked for that bit of drama by setting off fireworks (or “a smoke generating pyrotechnic device,” as I’ve seen it described) and ended up starting a brush fire that burned more than 7,000 acres of dry, dry land and forced the evacuation of several communities. As I write this on Monday, the fire’s still burning and has involved 500 firefighters, who don’t see any humor in it. I can only write about it because I’ve got an ocean and a continent sited conveniently between me and them. 

The state’s had 900 wildfires since mid-August, and they’ve burned 1.5 million acres, killing eight people and destroying some 3,300 buildings. And if that isn’t enough, there’s a heatwave. Temperatures on Monday were expected to be in the hundreds. That’s Fahrenheit; in Celsius, it translates to very damn hot.

Against that backdrop, the drama of boy or girl? Nyeh. It’ll be one of the two. If you wait long enough, you’ll find out which. And algae will probably not grow on your fur.

*

But enough about the U.S. 

In Britain, the Met Office, which tracks the weather and sometimes gets itself confused with the Met, who are the London police–

Could we start that over? Thanks.

The Met Office announced the list of upcoming storm names for 2020-2021 and got itself caught in the high winds of the Welsh language. In an effort to be inclusive, it chose a Welsh name for storm H. If we get that deep into the alphabet, it’ll be Heulwen. And the Met swears it looked up the meaning before adding it to the list, but that hasn’t lowered the raised eyebrows of Welsh speakers. Heulwen means blessed by the sun. Or sun-blessed. Or just plain sunshine. It depends on who you ask.

A comment on social media said, “‘Heulwen’ means sunshine, so I’m looking forward to that one. And attempts by British newsreaders to say it.”

You will not find a pronunciation guide here. I know just enough about Welsh not to be that silly.

*

In another great moment in English educational policy (there’ve been a lot lately), the catch-up tutoring that was promised for last summer won’t reach students until this winter. Or in some schools, next spring. (“And in others, never,” she said in her sunniest voice.)

The £350 million national tutoring program depends on schools being able to cough up 25% of the cost of an academic mentor, who may be a newly qualified teacher or a graduate who’s not a teacher at all and never planned to be but who got two weeks of training to be a mentor. Because jobs are hard to come by right now and you can’t blame a person for grabbing what’s available and become and mentor.

Y’know, I’ve come to hate the word mentor. If you spot it in a program description, it signals an onslaught of meaningless verbiage. Run.

But we’re off the subject, aren’t we? 

After the school spends money to bring this golden-tinged individual through its doors, it will pull “disadvantaged” students out of class to meet with this person who’s less qualified than the teacher whose classroom they got pulled out of. And I know individual attention’s good, but there’s something awkward about that arrangement.

As far as I can figure out, the mentors come to the school compliments of–yes, you guessed it!–a privatized program. Because what’s a program without a private contractor?

When the schools were closed, students whose parents are poor in money, time, and education (choose as many as you like) have fallen behind students whose parents are well stocked in all or some of the above, so catching kids up is an important issue. Trust this government to blow it.

A spokesperson for the teachers’ union asked, basically, why they couldn’t just give the money to the schools. But where’s the fun in that?

*

That depressed me. Let’s drop in on France. A French academic has put herself into the running to be the next Catholic archbishop of Lyon

Can people nominate themselves to be archbishops? I don’t think so, but since the Church doesn’t allow women priests, never mind archbishops, it doesn’t matter. She’s not expecting to get accepted. She’s making a point. 

Anna Soupa is 73, a theologian, and a biblical scholar, and seven other French women had followed her lead, applying for ministries that are closed to them. A petition supporting her has 17,000 signatures. 

“To exclude half of humanity is not only contrary to the message of Jesus Christ, but is also harmful to the church,” she said.

*

[Here’s our virtual quarantine. Don’t cough or we’ll never get out of here.]

*

Amazon’s now making a wristband, Halo, that not only monitors your fitness but also your emotions. Are you happy? Halo can let you know in case you don’t recognize that state. Sad? You probably won’t have noticed, so Halo will tell you.  

It can also tell you if you’re hopeful, elated, or hesitant, all based on your tone of voice. 

That’ll be $3.99 a month, please, on top of the $99 you spent for the Halo itself. Or £3 a month, since we’re pretending that most of this is British news.

Halo also invites you to send bare nekked selfies (or possibly underwear-wearing selfies–I’m not sure), in return for which is won’t sweet-talk you but tell you your percent of body fat.

I knew someone who went out with a guy like that once. He did wonders for her self-esteem.

Amazon swears the voice recordings and selfies are all deleted once they’ve been analyzed. But then they all say that.

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British banks have a new way to prevent fraud, which is to make bank transfers so difficult that people will go back to paying in that stuff I’m old enough to remember as cash. It’s called Confirmation of Payee, or CoP to its friends. The idea is that you don’t just enter a string of numbers into the bank website and trust that it’s going to the person you think you’re paying, you (along with the bank’s computers) also check the name on the account.

And with that “along with the bank’s computers” bit, the trouble enters. Computers aren’t known for their flexibility. Left out someone’s middle name? Sorry, not a match. Used the middle name but the account only uses the initial? You’re out. Entered a space between initials? You lose again.

The bank for a business called BowWowMiaow Doggy Day Care will only accept payments to BowWowMiaow Doggy Day Care Ltd T/A BowWowMiaow Dog.

Which is what they get for thinking dogs say miaow. 

People with joint accounts have found that only one name gets recognized–usually (are you surprised?) the man’s if there’s a male/female split. 

Ampersands and hyphenated names send the system into meltdown. 

When the name isn’t a match, the person making the transfer is told they can go ahead at their own risk, but if the money goes a-wandering, they can’t blame the bank. Or expect to ever see their money again.

And we’re all much safer and happier because of it. 

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Speaking of improved service, thanks to everyone who offered advice on how to go back to WordPress’s classic editor and escape the clutches of the evil Gutenberg block editor. I’m no long sure what I did or who told me how to do it, but I’ve located a door to the past and all is happiness and light once again. I really do appreciate the help and the sympathy.