What people really want to know about Britain

How do I find out what people want to know about Britain? I scrape the floor of the search engine room and see what questions were stuck there. It’s completely scientific.

The questions appear in italics and in all their original oddity. The answers are in Roman type, which although almost no one knows it is the opposite of italic type. And in case you’re worried that I’m insulting the people who were kind enough to leave me their questions, I’m pretty sure they fled long ago, leaving me a free hand.

 

So what’s your country called anyway?

why is england named great britain

Have you ever noticed that when you start with the wrong question you end up with the wrong answer? Gravity’s to blame here. There’s no escaping it. 

I blame England for the confusion. Or possibly Britain or the United Kingdom. Or someone, because it’s important to have someone to blame. Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are innocent bystanders in this. They got pulled in by the gravity (see? I came back to that) of a larger neighbor.

In the interest of saving space: England’s part of Britain. Britain’s not really a country, that’s the United Kingdom. It’s just–well, think of Britain and the UK’s nickname. It’s all very confusing. The good news is that with Britain having left the European Union, the UK’s likely to come un-united, in which case the question of what to call it will be simplified.

Even if nothing else it.

hy are we called great britain

Hi. Yes, we are. 

Irrelevant photo: potted violas.

Important questions about British culture and history

Why are British roads so narrow?

It keeps out the riffraff.

did the tudors have chimneys

No, but some of their houses did. 

what does british understatement mean

It’s when you understate something. In Britain. Or elsewhere if you are British and like to carry a national stereotype (or characteristic; take your choice) around the world with you. 

I do hope that helps.

is uk beer stonger then american

This is such a regular question (although it usually comes with another R mashed in somewhere, and a few other spelling changes) that I’ve started to ignore it, but it’s time to say greet to an old friend again. This is what the world wants to know about Britain: How much beer do I have to pour down my throat before I get shitfaced?

I always did say that travel broadens the mind.

anglo saxon hunting

The Anglo-Saxons came, they stayed, they hunted. And did a few other things while they were at it, including contributing some lovely swear words to the language. Allegedly.

One important difference between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans, who took the country from them, is that under the Normans hunting and fishing were tightly restricted. And these weren’t sports for most people but an important part of how they managed to eat. The Norman aristocracy not only owned the land but every wild beast and weed that grew, ran, or slithered thereupon. And also the water and its fish. Hunt the lord’s whatever and you could end up getting killed for it–quite legally. 

I’d love to know more about the Anglo-Saxon laws and traditions about hunting and land ownership. If anyone wants to point me at a good source, I’d be grateful.

in the times when people wore wigs did mice get into them

Contrary to popular opinion and in spite of how popular wigs were among the upper classes, the fashion was limited to humans, British mice never wore them. This supports the argument that they had better sense than the upper class humans.

emmit website cornwall prank

In Cornwall, emmits are tourists if you speak American and holidaymakers if you speak British. But they don’t call themselves emmits, because that’s Cornish. It means ants. So if they start a website, they’re not likely to call themselves emmits.

Presumably that’s where the prank part comes in.  

That’s an extended way of saying that I don’t know anything useful about this.

medieaval attitudes to male homosexuality the church

Short answer, they didn’t approve of it. Longer answer, they weren’t obsessed with it in the way that so many later churches were (and that some still are). Homosexuality was just one sin on a long list of thou-shalt-nots. And the idea that homosexuals formed a category? That doesn’t seem to have figured into the way people thought about either themselves or each other. 

 

Pandemic questions

will the uk go into a full lockdown

I’m late answering this. Sorry, but it does mean that I don’t have to speculate. Yes, we did, but we waited for the virus to get a head start. Never say that sportspersonship is dead. 

eek and kent varients

Eek indeed.

Most people will want to spell variant with an A, but language changes and maybe we’re looking, appropriately enough, at a variant spelling.

 

Why questions

why does sensus ask if someone has stayed overbight?

Because it’s useful to know about the dental health of the population. How many people in your household have an overbite? Did it stay or did it leave with a visitor?

why do cars look like they are going faster on narrow road

Because of the natural reaction of human beings, when watching a car drive too fast for the conditions, to think, Oh, shit, that doesn’t look good. Narrow road. Relatively high speed. Ergh. 

Why did I get this question? Because I wrote a couple of posts about narrow roads. I am now an expert. 

why do americans have post boxes

To hold our letters.

why don’t american houses have letterboxes

Our letters are free range. We sit around waiting for them to mosey down the street and lasso them as they come past. If we get a lot of them, we herd them into the corral. It brings neighbors together to exchange letters so that they get to the right houses. Sometimes they stampede, though, which can get dangerous.

Why do I get questions asking why we do and don’t do the same thing? Because a lot of people start with their conclusions and look for the evidence. This protects them, at least to an extent, from finding contradictory evidence. This is why the world continues spinning.

 

Questions I can’t explain, never mind answer

note all.siftay

Now this one was interesting. I referred the question to Lord Google, who referred me to an Urdu grammar site, a site that’s partially in Hebrew, an auction site (23% commission),  and a Board of Management meeting of Perth College.

Best guess? The meeting would be more interesting than your average management meeting. Or at least stranger.

brexit and good from ietnam

Lord Google and I both inserted a V into this, giving us Vietnam. Vietnam and Britain did reach a trade deal when the Brexit deadline was looming. Was this particularly good news for either of them? No idea.I don’t think either country is a major trading partner for the other. 

jenny mollica atemkurs

As should already be clear, I often ask Lord Google about questions I can’t make sense of, since it was Lord G. who sent the questions to me in the first place. Some turn out to be about a person I mentioned once and forgot. Checking allows me to pretend that I still remember them. Other times, the questions turn out to be about someone I never heard of, but at least I’m reassured that we’re all operating in consensual virtual reality. 

But when I typed in “Jenny Mollica Atemkurs,” Lord G. told me that there weren’t many great matches for my search. That’s a first. He’s never held out for great before, probably because he considers his suggestions wondrous, however strange they seem to me.

But not this time. The world may be full of Jennys, but he held out for the Mollica Atemkurs kind and found none.

Why the question ended up with me remains unknown.

 

The fill-in-the-blank challenge

this meant that rotten borough _____ represented a tiny number of people in ______.

Ooh, we’re playing MadLibs with somebody’s term paper. 

I’m not in love with my offering, but that’s okay, it’ll give you the satisfaction of being funnier: “This meant that rotten borough X represented a tiny number of people in Y.” Hand that to your algebra teacher. They’ll  be so impressed.

*

For those of you who enjoy the history posts: I will get back to them. In theory, I post something non-news related on Fridays. Ideally, it’s about English (or possibly British) history or culture (using an expansive definition of culture). But I got seduced by too much news this week, not to mention by some good weather, and didn’t leave myself enough time. Stay with me. I’ll get back to it. 

The herd immunity debates

Professors at University College London grabbed some headlines with the news that Britain’s almost achieved herd immunity.

Should we celebrate? 

Nope. The small print said we can’t ease restrictions yet. “If we let up, that threshold will go up again and we will find ourselves below the threshold and it will explode again,” Karl Friston said.

This makes it sound like we’ve probably misunderstood what herd immunity means. Or else that the people who wrote the study have. I thought it marked the point where we could all wander back to whatever we can reconstruct of our normal lives, trusting that the virus will stay in retreat. Apparently not, though–at least not by this definition. 

Irrelevant photo: a rose. Indoors. It’s too early in the year for them outdoors yet.

In a rare moment when the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and I agree (I’m sure that upsets him as much as it does me; sorry Matt; it won’t happen often), he’s dismissed the suggestion of herd immunity, although his comments are oblique enough to be unquotable. They’re not incoherent but they’re not exactly to the point either. Never mind, though. I have agreed with him. It’s a rare moment. We need to mark the occasion.

Cup of tea, anyone?

Another estimate of herd immunity, this one from Airfinity (it “provides real time life science intelligence as a subscription service” and as part of that tracks vaccination programs around the world), sets it at the point where 75% of the population is vaccinated. The U.K.’s expected to reach that point in August, shortly after the U.S. and a few weeks before Europe.

Sorry about the rest of the world. It seems to have dropped off the map the article I found was using. 

There will, of course, still be a need to booster vaccines to keep up with the variants, at least until those countries that fell off the map get access to vaccines so are species can stop producing variants so prolifically. 

 

Creeping out of lockdown

As Covid deaths go down, Britain’s taken another step toward ending its lockdown, opening gyms, shops, pubs and cafes with outdoor seating, assorted other businesses. Internal tourism is causing traffic jams in all the usual places. 

About half the population has at least one dose of a vaccine. Will that be enough to keep the virus from rebounding? I wish I knew. Chile has an impressive vaccination program and unlocked too early, giving the virus the gift of a trampoline. Cases there have spiked. 

Optimist that I am, my mind snags on Britain’s remaining virus hotspots and on the two London boroughs where the government’s chasing cases of the South African variant. I expect they’ll do better with the variant than with the hotspots, because one of the things the government resolutely refuses to do is pay people a workable amount of money to self-isolate, and if you’re broke you’ll go to work, regardless of what the test says. Because you have to. 

On the other hand–and before I go on I should issue an Unimportant Personal Story Warning–I’m grateful to have stores open. I have a battery-operated watch whose battery stopped operating a while ago. (Whose idea was it to run watches on batteries, anyway? I seem to remember winding my watch every day without feeling unduly burdened. I didn’t even break a sweat.) 

How long ago did the battery run out? No idea. We were in lockdown. Who needs a watch? But eventually I did need a watch and I noticed that mine was no longer in touch with consensual reality. So I got a battery (thanks, Tony). I opened up the back (thanks, Ellen), took out the old battery, put in the new one, put the innards back together, and was just starting to congratulate myself when I found that I couldn’t fit the back on, making the whole project pointless. I put a rubber band around the thing and left it alone.

I still didn’t have a watch.

On Monday, the first day that unimportant stores were open, I took it to a jeweler. Jewelers have a little gizmo to hold the back in place while they thump it shut. I now have a working watch.

I don’t need it more than once a week. We’re still halfway locked down. 

So yes, it’s nice to be able to do that sort of small thing. It also makes me nervous–and it should.

 

Lockdown and the economy

Britain’s economy’s now in the worst recession it’s had in 300 years. Worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s? Apparently. To find one that was worse, you have to go back to the great frost of 1709, when Britain was an agricultural country.

On the other hand, having shrunk 9.9%, the economy then grew by 1% in the last quarter of (I believe) 2020. Household savings during the pandemic reached £140 billion–16.3% of people’s disposable income. That’s compared to 6.8% in 2019. Predictably, that’s unevenly distributed, with some people building up savings while others struggle to hold onto their homes and food banks struggle to keep up with need. 

It’s a lovely way to organize a world. 

 

The Covid risk indoors and out

Want to figure out the Covid risk people face indoors? Measure the carbon dioxide level

This works because–well, the thing about infectious people is that they exhale. Admittedly, uninfected people do too. You probably do it yourself. And all that exhaled carbon dioxide joins together and either stays in the room or doesn’t. The Covid virus does exactly the same thing: It either stays in the room or if the room has enough ventilation it wanders out into the world, where it poses next to no danger.

The thing is that carbon dioxide levels can be monitored cheaply. If you see them rise, you still won’t know if anyone infectious is breathing into the mix, but you will know that the ventilation isn’t what it needs to be and it’s a risky place to stand around inhaling. At that point you can (a) limit yourself to exhaling, (b) leave, or (c) improve the ventilation. Preferably (b), since that will help everyone.

*

An Irish study reports that roughly one Covid case out of a thousand is caught out of doors. 

Professor Orla Hegarty said, “During Spanish flu people were advised to talk side by side, rather than face to face, and this is borne out by how viral particles have been measured moving in the air when people breath and speak.

“The risk of infection is low outdoors because unless you are up close to someone infected, most of the virus will likely be blown away and diluted in the breeze, like cigarette smoke.”

News of international Lego thieves, plus monarchists in mourning

In case you don’t think the world’s strange enough, an international ring of toy thieves is stealing Legos. Not that jumble of Lego’s you stashed behind the couch to pacify the kids from down the block when they stop by. Sure, those are useful. They keep the kids from tipping over the refrigerator, but the thieves are a more discerning bunch. What they want are Lego sets.

We can blame Lego itself for this if we’re in the mood. They started producing limited edition sets aimed at collectors. 

And there you were, thinking toys were something kids played with and dripped chocolate ice cream on. Shows what you know. Toys are something you leave in the box and collect, thank you. If you never open the package, they’re worth more than if you crack the lid just to breathe the rarified air inside. A set that sold for $150 in 2007 (this is allegedly a kids’ toy, remember, selling for $150) can now go for $3,000. If and only if it hasn’t been opened.

Irrelevant photo: A neighbor’s camellia peeping out from behind the stone wall.

Can we agree that collecting them makes no sense at all? It’s so easy to get wrong. You can get in on the right trend at the wrong moment, when the price isn’t going up anymore, or just before it drops. You can misread the trends and collect the wrong thing, ending up with something you can’t eat, can’t wear, can’t live in, and can’t even play with because, who knows?, the damned thing might be collectible in another year or three.. 

Which may be why people steal them. It takes all the uncertainty out of collecting. And as long as you don’t get caught, it’s an economically viable plan.

 

Home, digital home

A digital home–in other words, a house that doesn’t really exist–has sold for $500,000. Or if you count in ethers, for 288 of them.

What’s an ether? A cryptocurrency. 

Can you buy anything other than imaginary houses with it? Probably, but listen, this really isn’t my area of expertise.

What is my area of expertise? Well, I’m not a bad baker and I passed myself off as a competent editor when I was working. And I wasn’t bad as a cab driver either. 

So–final question–what can you do with a very expensive imaginary house? Explore it. In 3D. Or explore it–and I’m going to have to quote here, because I haven’t a clue what this means and don’t necessarily want to–“using virtual reality (a digital world) or, in future, augmented reality (where digital elements added to a view of the real world).”

At the moment, it’s set in a Mars-like landscape. I think that quote means  you can move it if you want to.

 

Life and death in a monarchy

As I write this, on March 9, all news has been suspended because Prince Philip died. You know Prince P: the queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. 

The first news bulletin announced that the Duke of Edinburgh had died.

The second news bulletin announced that the Duke of Edinburgh was still dead.

The third news bulletin told us in detail that he always appeared in public wearing two shoes, both on his feet.

A later news bulletin detailed the however-many-gun salutes that were set off.

After that, everybody who’d ever seen a picture of him or could spell his name was interviewed live on radio or television, or not-quite-live by the print media. When the interviews ended, the news outlets all traded sources and started over.

This has edged out everything except the weather. Those loyalist kids in Northern Ireland protesting the Brexit border that now separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK? They’ll have to do more than set fire to a bus and roll it downhill to make the news for the few nights. (If I’m wrong about that, I apologize. I wrote this on Friday night and it won’t post till Sunday.)

I’m late in offering this, but I have a bit of advice for the kids: I’ve listened to enough folk songs to know that if you swim down below the waterline and take out your trusty little knife, you can sink an island by making holes and letting the water in. Now that would grab headlines.

Or maybe it only works on ships. I should’ve paid more attention.  

Anyway, the loyalists are the ones who want to stay with the United Kingdom. They’re not in a great position to complain when the queen’s husband bumps them out of the headlines.

As a mark of respect, the Labour Party suspended its campaign for the May elections. 

What? The Labour Party supports the monarchy? Let’s say it doesn’t oppose it. That would be like touching the third rail of British politics. The Green Party, the Scottish National Party, and Plaid Cymru (the Welsh nationalist party) also suspended campaigning, although the nationalist parties want to leave not just the union but also the queen and the rest of her family, and the Greens  have “a clear commitment to divesting the monarchy of its legislative, executive and judicial roles.”

That’s not quite the same as abolishing the monarchy. Or maybe it is–I can’t quite tell. Whatever it means, it’s very carefully worded.

The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have also suspended their campaigns, but I’d expect that. 

A friend assures me that life will go back to normal any day now, all I have to do is sit still and wait. In the meantime, we’ll all be pious, and I expect I will have offended more than one reader by making light of it. Sorry. People do die, and many of those deaths I regret deeply. This isn’t one of them. You’re welcome to your own reverence. Me, I’m trying to find the narrow footpath between respecting other people feelings and not censoring myself. 

Sorry, I think I just trampled somebody’s flowers. 

The weather, by the way, held its place in the evening newscasts. This is Britain. Princes may come and princes may go, but the weather goes on forever.

 

Your bit of redemptive news

After a spate of hate crimes against Asian Americans, a New Yorker, Maddy Park, found herself terrified on her thirty-minute subway ride home. No one attacked her and no one called her names, but the strain was enough to get her thinking: She could afford a cab, but not everyone could. So with some friends and $2,000 of her own money, she started an Instagram account to pay for other people’s cab rides. “I just said look, I have $2,000, if you need a ride, just charge me on Venmo,” Park said.

What’s Venmo? A digital wallet. If you have to ask, you’re at least as old as I am. Now be nice and don’t ask me how it works.

Within 48 hours, she’d raised $100,000.

The Instagram text invites Asian women and elderly Asians in New York to charge up to $40 for an Uber or a Lyft to @CafeMaddyCab. A later addition includes Asian LGBTQ people. At last call, she was planning to expand the program since not many seniors know how to use 

Tell me about it. 

“People who are donating are people from all across the nation, across all races, ethnicities,” Park said, “and they just sent me messages saying, listen, we really want you guys to be safe too and we’re donating so that more people can take rides in the city. It really opened my eyes to how many people are actually supporting the Asian community in New York City.”

Archeological finds and treasure from a country knee deep in history

The last few years have been good ones for British detectorists.

For British whats?

Detectorists. Those people who wander around with glazed eyes, waving metal detectors above the ground and listening to them beep. They’re looking for buried treasure. Or the tops that people break off aluminum cans. The metal detectors, as opposed to the detectorists who wave them, aren’t discriminating. They’re like gun dogs that point not just at game birds but also at feathered hats, feather dusters, and feathers tattooed on people’s arms. Metal is metal. Let the humans sort it out.

Irrelevant photo: camellia buds.

More people have turned to metal detecting in recent years and they’re uncovering some serious archeological finds, which are making their way into museums. The increasing interest is due in part to–of course–a sitcom. Reality limps along behind the representation of reality. And that, my friends, is what passes for real life. 

In 2018, 96% of the treasure dug out of the British earth was found by people with glazed eyes and metal detectors.

Okay, they don’t necessarily have glazed eyes. It just sounds better that way. And treasure has a narrow official definition–coins; precious metals; that sort of stuff–so archeologists have found plenty of other stuff, but it appears in a different column on the sreadsheet.

A 1996 law that required finders to report treasure also allowed them to split any profits with the landowner, and that’s meant that they’re likely to actually report their finds instead of squirreling them away somewhere or selling them through shady antiquities dealers in back alleys.

Sorry. I don’t know any antiquities dealers, shady or otherwise, so I’m falling back on cheesy stereotypes there.

So when we count up the reasons new people are being drawn to metal detecting, the sitcom isn’t the only one. We can add potential profit. 

A very small and random selection of what’s been found lately: 

  • More than a thousand silver coins in a field behind a pub in Suffolk. The best guess is that they were buried there during the Civil War. 
  • And 69,347 Iron Age coins in a field in Jersey. They date back to 50 B.C., give or take a few months. 

But enough about treasure. It’s the smaller part of the historical riches waiting to be discovered. Let’s talk about archeology.

 

The neolithic era

In Yorkshire, archeologists have uncovered a saltern–an industrial-scale salt-making site–that dates back 6,000 years. Or to put that another way, it predates Stonehenge. It’s the earliest one that’s been found in Britain.

The pottery that’s been found there shows traces of milk, indicating that the people who built it were settled, growing crops and raising animals. And the scale of the saltern says that they were selling salt, not just making it for themselves. 

“It changes how these people are seen,” said Steve Sherlock, the archeologist who led the dig. They were “people who are undertaking a level of industrial processing and distributing.” 

Because of salt’s use in preserving food, the people who produced and distributed it would have been among the wealthier groups of their time. 

Neolithic salterns have been found in Europe–especially Poland and the Balkans–but this is the first found neolithic one found in Britain, possibly because rising sea levels and coastal erosion have swallowed the others. They have a habit of being coastal, since seawater has a habit of being salty.

The pottery found at the site matches a type introduced by people who migrated from what’s now northern France at around 4000 BC. The saltern technology may well have come with them.

 

The bronze age

With the old stuff out of the way, let’s move south to Stonehenge

A major road, the A303, runs alongside Stonehenge, and for years there’s been a fight over whether to dig a two-mile tunnel and run the road through it. Opponents argue that it will do lasting damage to a world heritage site and that millions of artifacts will be lost. On the other hand, once the tunnel’s built, you’ll be able to take a selfie at Stonehenge without a big red bread truck showing up in the background. Which makes it all worthwhile.

After an assortment of court challenges and the use of a lot of newsprint, the opponents lost and the work’s been started. The current stage involves 1,800 test pits, 400 trial trenches, 150 archeologists, 18 months, and some uncounted amount of mud. Construction on the tunnel itself won’t start until 2023. 

Is the tunnel a good idea? Probably not, but what do I know? As long as they’re digging, though, they’re finding some interesting stuff. Let’s not ignore it just because we’re sulking. They’ve found graves, pottery, burnt flint that suggests metal or leather working. (No, I don’t know what the connection is either.) It’s probably too early to know what this tells them about the site or the people. 

 

The iron age and the Roman era

In Oxfordshire, the excavation of a hillfort turned up an iron age settlement that dates from 400 to 100 BCE, not to mention a Roman villa built at the end of the third century CE or the beginning of the fourth. They were found when the Earth Trust, which cares for the hillfort, decided to redevelop its visitor center.

Because no place that welcomes visitors is complete without a visitor center. Where else will people spend their money?

The site was occupied from the bronze age through the Roman era, so the trust hadn’t just planned to just plow through with heavy equipment–they figured they’d find something interesting–but they also hadn’t expected anything quite so rich. What they found included well-preserved iron age pots, Roman bone combs, surgical instruments, and lots of pottery shards. It seems like pottery shards are always in there somewhere.

Chris Casswell, the dig’s head, said, “It’s a substantial iron age settlement. It’s probably no surprise because we’re right at the foot of Wittenham Clumps, an enormous hillfort. The settlement probably continues well into the landscape beyond where we’ve looked.

“Normally we go out and do geophysics, which gives an image of what might be under the ground. But on this site, it didn’t show up any of this. . . . So it’s completely unexpected.”

The Roman villa is still partially buried, and there are at least two Roman cemeteries and stone-built ovens for drying grain.

And in case you’re wondering, the bronze age came before the iron age because copper and tin, which make bronze, melt at lower temperatures than iron. It took humans a while to pull together the technology to melt iron. I had to look it up too.

 

The medieval period

King’s College in Cambridge tore down some 1930s-era student housing and found an early medieval graveyard

According to Bede’s Ecclessiastical History, which was written in the eighth century, Cambridge was abandoned in the fifth century, when the Romans left. A lot of Roman towns were. But take that with a grain of salt. Dr. Caroline Goodson, a professor of medieval history, said, “We already know that Cambridge wasn’t fully abandoned. But what we’re seeing now is a greater and clearer picture of life in the post-Roman settlements.” 

They’re finding lots of goodies in the graves: bead necklaces, swords, pottery, glass, bronze brooches, short blades, mostly from the early Anglo-Saxon period–say 400 to 650 C.E. And because the soil’s alkaline, the bodies are well preserved, so they may be able to extract information about people’s diets and DNA, which should give them information on migration patterns. 

Goodson’s best guess at the moment is that the people were the descendants of Roman Britons along with more recent migrants from Europe. 

“They are no longer living as the Romans did,” she said. “They’re eating differently, dressing differently, and finding different ways of exploiting the land.”

Home brew Covid research meets Goldilocks

When Vittorio Saggiomo, a scientist in the Netherlands, couldn’t work in his lab during lockdown, he invented a rapid Covid test using the materials he had at home: coffee pods. You know, those pretty, nonrecyclable things that–well, if you use them at all, you have plenty of them.

The reason he wanted to do this is because Covid tests give you a choice between a slow but accurate one and a fast but inaccurate one. The slow ones take time because–

Oh, hell, do you really want to know this? They take time because tiny scientists have to take the swab you jammed up your nose, extract the DNA you left on it, and multiply it until they have enough to work with. And it’s not easy to find tiny scientists–they have to be small enough to fit inside a test tube. 

The fast one is inaccurate because it bypasses the tiny scientists and works with just that bit of DNA you left on the swab. 

Irrelevant photo: These are either what you think they are–dandelions–or one of the half dozen or so flowers that look just like them but aren’t. Damned if I can tell them apart.

Listen, if you want a serious explanation, you should follow the link. I didn’t flunk high school science, but that was only because I was hiding behind the bunsen burner when they handed out grades.

Onward. There’s a third way of testing, a process called Lamp, which stands for, um, loop-mediated isothermal amplification.

You just had to ask, didn’t you?

It does the same thing as the PCR test, multiplying that stingy bit of DNA you sacrificed, but unlike the PCR test it doesn’t have to be done at a bunch of different temperatures. One will do.

So Saggiomo’s problem was how to create the right temperature at home. He found a wax that would melt at the right temperature, so that would keep the DNA at a constant temperature. Next he needed something to put it in. At this point, he turned to the coffee pods. 

The final problem was finding a way to heat the pods. In the dishwasher, they got lost. In the microwave, they overheated and the lids popped off. Cups of hot water didn’t control the temperature well enough and the porridge was too cold. Or possibly too hot. The bears got hungry. 

A pan of water simmering on the stove was perfect, though, and Goldilocks and the three bears sat at the table together and said, “Yeah, but where’s our coffee?”

“Shut up,” the scientist said. “I’m on the verge of a breakthrough and all you can think of is caffeine.”

They ate him.

The tests can be made for .20 euros each (don’t miss the decimal point on the left), but whether anyone’s actually going to produce it is up for grabs. 

Anyone ready for porridge?

[For anyone visiting from a culture with a different set of folk tales, the references are to Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If I have to explain them, they won’t be remotely funny, but Lord Google will be happy to help you find the tale if you’re interested.]

 

 

More at-home research

From the start of the pandemic, a professor’s thirteen-year-old son watched his father disinfect the groceries and afte a while he questioned whether it really needed to be done. 

“I just told Anand, ‘If you want to do a science project, this is a perfect one,'” the father, Vishal Shah, said.

They took the project seriously enough to quarantine for fourteen days so they wouldn’t contaminate the test subjects, then gathered produce from ten stores in the Philadelphia area, where high levels of community Covid spread were reported, and they went at peak times. They took produce that people touch a lot–apples, avocados, bananas, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, lettuce–and swabbed them five times.

“One of the first things I realized once I told my dad I wanted to do this project was that I had no means of testing for the virus on my own,” Anand said. “My dad’s lab was closed, so I contacted labs across the country and gave presentations that discussed what the project was.”

He found one  in Tennessee that would do his testing. Of the 140 pieces of produce it tested, only one apple had traces of the virus on its surface. 

The study has been published in ACS Food Science and Technology.

Not bad for a thirteen-year-old, even if he did have help.

 

A bit about long Covid

At the beginning of March, the Office for National Statistics estimated that 1.1 million people in Britain had long Covid.

So gets long Covid? It was most common among people between 35 and 49 and more common in women than men. It followed Covid’s pattern of hitting hardest in the poorest areas, and health and social care workers are the most likely occupational group to have it. That could be because they–like people who live in the poorest parts of the country–are more likely to be exposed to the virus. 

People with preexisting health conditions were also more likely to get long Covid.

In round numbers, out of seven people who test positive for Covid, one will still have symptoms three months later. 

But there’s still no official definition of long Covid, and that leaves a lot of questions about what happens to people who get it, financially speaking. If they use up their sick leave and lose their jobs, do they have a medically recognized condition so they can apply for support? How is long Covid diagnosed when there’s no definition and no diagnostic code? 

You’ll notice I’m asking more questions than I’m answering, so here’s one I can answer: What’s a diagnostic code? It’s something terribly important that you put into a little blank square. If you don’t have one, please apply to the Department of Diagnostic Codes. As soon as you get it, your life will become more fulfilling.

So are people who get long Covid disabled? In practical terms, some are and some aren’t. Some will be able to work full time, some only part time, and some not at all. Are they officially disabled, though? Gray zone. The short answer is that it’s too early to tell, and figuring it out is going to be messy. If they become officially disabled, an employer’s expected to make “reasonable adjustments” for them. If not–

Gray zone. 

Among those 1.1 million people in Britain with long Covid are 122,000 people who work for the NHS, 114,000 teachers, and 30,000 social workers. I didn’t find statistics on what percentage of teachers that is, but it’s close to 4% of the NHS staff, and their illness is hitting the NHS hard. 

It’s also hitting the people with long Covid hard. Some haven’t been able to go back to work and have lost their jobs. 

Or I think that’s what the article I read is saying. The exact quote is about losing their “roles.” Maybe they’re talking about being downgraded to other roles, but I wouldn’t count on that. If you take enough sick leave–even if it’s your job that exposed you to the sickness–most employers will find a way to show you where the door is. 

One MP is trying to get long Covid recognized as an occupational disease, and to compensate and support workers in health care, social care, and key public services who catch it. I wouldn’t hold your breath, but it would be the right thing to do.

I should also mention the thousands of people who caught Covid in less prestigious jobs in transportation and meat packing and supermarkets–all those people who used to be cheered as key workers and who’ve now been officially reclassified as Remind-me-why-we-cared-about-you.

 

How not to break lockdown rules

An unnamed man broke the Covid rules by traveling from England into Scotland for no better reason than to camp out on Inchtavannach, an island in Loch Lomond. Once there, he didn’t sing “By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes” (as far as anyone knows, anyway). Instead, he lost his paddle and got his silly self stranded. 

(Again, if you’ve visiting from a culture with a different set of overused songs, that’s from “Loch Lomond.”)

What happened to the unnamed man isn’t quite the same as, in the famous American phrase, up shit crick without a paddle, but it’s close enough. (That phrase, by the way, is said to date back to the 1860s. You can take it back half a century or so to the days of Admiral Nelson, but you might or might not have to sacrifice the word shit. You needed to know that.)  

It’s not clear what happened to the paddle. The man went for a walk and when he came back he discovered that it had gone for a walk of its own. He and his true love never met again, and someone called the cops–probably him but the article I found doesn’t commit itself. A rescue boat picked him up. I don’t know if he was fined, but I’m reasonably sure that he was teased within an inch of his life.

Do vaccines keep us from transmitting Covid?

One of the endless unanswered Covid questions has been whether people who’ve been vaccinated will still spread the disease, and evidence is piling up that they’ll spread it less. 

During their early trials, Pfizer didn’t test for asymptomatic cases, but AstraZeneca did and they fell by 50%. That matters, because asymptomatic people can still spread the disease, so fewer cases means less spread. Not to be outdone, Pfizer did its own study and reported that one dose of vaccine cut the risk of transmission by 70% and two doses by 85%. 

Don’t put too much weight on the differences in those numbers. They were measuring different things.

In Scotland, people living with vaccinated NHS staff were considerably less likely to catch the virus than people living with unvaccinated NHS staff. 

How much less likely? Considerably. Will you stop asking awkward questions?

Irrelevant photo: More daffodils.

Hospital workers in Cambridge showed a 75% decrease in asymptomatic infections, and an Israeli study showed that when vaccinated people did have infections they had lower viral loads, which would make them less infectious than people with higher viral loads. 

So if we’ve been vaccinated, can we throw a party for a few hundred of our closest friends as long as they’ve also been vaccinated? ‘Fraid not. The British government’s advice is that “the full impact on infection rates will not become clear until a large number of people have been vaccinated” and we should please keep our heads on straight and be cautious. 

Why? Well, consider what’s happened in Chile. 

 

Okay, what has happened in Chile?

It’s vaccinated about a third of its population with at least one dose–it’s vaccination program has been impressive–and even so it’s going into another wave of the pandemic. Both deaths and case numbers are rising and they’re threatening to overwhelm the health system. Some 20% to 30% of the country’s medical professionals have gone on leave because they’re exhausted, wrestling with health problems of their own and with thoughts of suicide.

“When transmission rates are high, the vaccine does not rein in new infections right away,” said Dr. Denise Garrett, an epidemiologist at the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington. “And with the new variants, which are more contagious, we’re not likely to see a big impact until the vast majority of the population is vaccinated.”

According to Dr. Francisca Crispi of the Chilean medical association, the government unlocked the country too quickly. It reopened its borders and loosened restrictions on businesses. It introduced a permit system that let people go on summer vacations–or holidays, if you speak British. So people came into the country. People went out of the country. People traveled around the country. Gyms, churches, malls, restaurants, and casinos reopened. Experts fretted, but the government stuck with it, reopening the schools at the beginning of March. 

Nobody traced anybody.

And it all felt so good.

So no. No parties for the time being. Sorry.

 

The mass testing report

A study of mass Covid testing in British universities and colleges reports that it was haphazard, expensive, and a lost opportunity.

The BMJ–a medical journal–sent freedom of information requests to 216 schools and got full information from only 16, leading me to think that information may be free but it’s still elusive. But never mind that. They got partial information from others and it was enough to draw some tentative conclusions.

The testing was part of the government’s Operation Moonshot, which was going to make the country Covid safe and avoid a second lockdown by testing people–lots of people–whether they had symptoms or not. Since it started, we’ve had not just a second lockdown but also a third.

Never mind, though. It’s been a good use of £100 billion. 

The university and college testing was just a small part of Op Moonshot, and the study estimates that every positive test result cost £3,000. It also says that’s likely to be a massive underestimate because it doesn’t include the staffing of test sites and whatever other costs are hidden under the rug. 

You’d noticed that the rug was lumpy? I tripped on it just this morning.

Angela Raffle, consultant in Public Health and honorary senior lecturer at Bristol University, said the testing program was “a desperate exercise in trying to get favourable publicity for number 10, trying to get rid of the Innova test mountain, and trying to change the culture in this country so that we start to think that regular tests for everybody is a worthwhile use of public resources, which it isn’t.”

Number 10? That’s the center of the British government.

And the Innova test mountain? It’s made up of £1 billion (as far as I could figure out) worth of quick-result Covid tests that the government bought and which turn out to work best on people who have a high viral load. In other words, they’re exactly what you don’t want to use on asymptomatic people–the program’s target audience. 

And they’re even less accurate in the hands of non-experts. 

So who’s using them? Non-experts. 

We’ll skip the most confusing of the numbers involved in this and settle for these: Let’s say you use them to test 100,000 people and get 630 positives. Of those, 400 of those will be false positives, and you will have missed half the positive cases (that should, I think, be 230) in your sample. If that isn’t worth £1 billion, I don’t know what is. Or even £100 billion. Because what’s £99 billion between friends? 

Regular testing of secondary school students was rolled out this spring, although it’s too early for anyone to have statistics on how effective or expensive that will be. The program was sold to us as a way to reopen the schools safely. 

Stephen Reicher, a member of Sage, the government’s science advisory group, said, “The government keeps on seeking quick fixes based on one intervention. What they consistently fail to do is build a system in which all the parts work together to contain the virus.” 

 

Vaccine passports vs. mass testing 

All of this is particularly relevant because Boris Johnson–our prime minister when he’s working, which he does sometimes do–just backed off his plan to introduce vaccine passports and announced that we’ll use mass testing instead. But only in England. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are doing whatever the hell they want because that’s how it works around here. 

Are you confused? Then you understand the situation.

The vaccine passports were supposed to allow people into crowded events, but MPs from across the political spectrum opposed them, including a good number from his own party, and they were joined by an assortment of civil liberties groups he wouldn’t normally listen to but what the hell, let’s mention them anyway. They’re particularly problematic because not everyone’s eligible for the vaccine yet. 

So instead of vaccination passports, everyone in Britain is going to be offered two rapid Covid tests a week. 

How many of us will use them? My best guess is not many, given the odds of coming up with a false positive and having to self-isolate. For someone who’s retired, that’s a minor inconvenience. For someone who’s working and can’t afford to miss a paycheck, that’s a disaster. 

The usual suspects are saying this would work better if people were paid enough to live on when they can’t work. And if the contacts of anyone who tests positive were traced effectively.

The usual suspects will be ignored. 

*

Last weekend, the government announced a pilot program of nine events to try out Covid passports. Presumably that was before it abandoned the idea, who your guess is as good as mine, which is roughly as good as theirs. Five of the nine venues said they had nothing to do with the program. 

You have to love this government. It’s a gift to satirists everywhere. If only it wasn’t supposed to run the country as well.

 

Other vaccine news

Russia has announced a Covid vaccine for animals, Carnivak-Cov. The idea is to prevent the virus circulating in dense animal populations, where it can mutate and spread back to humans. 

And Pfizer reports that its vaccine is effective in kids between 12 and 15. It’s still testing kids between 5 and 11 and any minute now will begin tests with kids between 2 and 5. All of that’s important because although kids are less susceptible to Covid, they can sometimes get very sick indeed and can less rarely get long Covid after a mild bout of the disease. 

They can also form a nice reservoir where the disease can sit and breed before returning to the more susceptible adult population.

 

And your light relief for the day is…

An art director, David Marriott, was stuck in Australian quarantine after flying back from his father’s funeral and was going ever so slightly nuts with boredom, so he made himself a cowboy outfit out of the brown bags that his meals came in when they were left at his door.

Then–as anyone would do–he realized that any serious cowboy needs a horse, so he made one, also from brown paper, but plus the ironing board and a lamp. Its–or, I guess, his–name is Russell, and Marriott’s asked for a pet walking service.

The photos are worth clicking through for–not just Marriott brushing Russell’s teeth, but Russell lined up to use the toilet since the management turned down the pet walking request. Russell’s in quarantine too.

Marriott’s thinking about adding a cat and a dog next. 

The overpriced Easter egg report

It’s almost Easter, so let’s check in on the most absurdly expensive Easter eggs I could find online. I do this every year. I still haven’t figured out why.

Low end? An extra-thick dark chocolate egg filled with individual truffles. They’re made with gin, wine, rum, and–

No, sorry. I was going to write opiates, but they’re not listed. My mistake. 

Putting filled chocolates, or in this case, truffles, inside an egg is a British thing at this time of year. I never saw that done in the U.S. So there’s your vague gesture in the direction of intercultural education.

That’s from Hotel Chocolat for £29. With that, you get five paragraphs of prose, a generous side of adjectives, and a warning that the truffles aren’t for children. 

Marginally relevant photo: This is your Easter periwinkle. If you don’t celebrate Easter, don’t worry about it–I don’t either. As far as I know, it’s not an Easter flower.

 

Yeah, but surely we can waste more money than that 

Hotel Chocolat also has a £55 two-tier box of chocolates. It’s not actually an egg, but why should we follow the rules when I’m the one who made them? Since it’s expensive enough to be called a cabinet, not a box, it fits right in here. 

Yeah, it looks like a box to me too. Shows you what we know. 

The money must’ve gone into the packaging here, because you only get four paragraphs of prose, and they’re shorter than the ones that come with the £29 egg.

Cheapskates.

At Fornum & Mason’s you can find a £45 milk chocolate egg that Glamour Magazine tells us is a work of art with a flawless shine and tercentenary-blend chocolate. A centenary or so back, I worked in a candy factory and I never once heard of a tercentenary blend. But then we weren’t making high-end chocolates. And they wouldn’t have told me what was going on anyway.

Each egg’s handcrafted to make sure it’s a little different from all the others. And every last one of them is better than all the others. They’re all guaranteed to rot your teeth. 

Enjoy.

Glamour also wedges in a Fortum & Mason’s spring hamper, which is cheating but the prices haven’t gotten absurd enough yet, so let’s go with it. It costs £125 and whoever wrote their article swears that Glamour readers are snapping up F & M hampers. 

Uh huh.

The hamper includes biscuits, which are cookies if you’re American, and–oh, other stuff, including a rosé sparkling tea that’s 0% ABV. That means alcohol by volume. Most tea is 0% alcohol by volume–it’s one reason you drink it to stay awake–but you don’t usually pay enough for that to be mentioned. 

On the other hand, most tea isn’t sparkling. Or rosé

No, I haven’t the faintest idea what the stuff is. But do you really care what’s in the hamper? It’s from Fortnum & Mason’s. It comes in a wicker basket that’s called a hamper because that’s how they do things over here.

Where I come from, the only thing we called a hamper was the whatsit we threw our dirty clothes in. We kept our cookies somewhere else. We’d have kept our tea somewhere else too but we didn’t drink tea.

And yes, of course I read Glamour Magazine. Once a year, just before Easter. They helped me develop the look you can admire in the photo at the top right of Notes’ home page.

 

Onward

For £80, you can get 200 grams of boring looking chocolate egg, in milk or dark, from Marchesi. Except for the price, this is minimalism–one paragraph of low-key prose, muted colors, and not much in the way of decoration on the egg itself. 

For reasons they don’t bother to explain, it’s called Girl, even though it’s pretty clearly not a girl but a chocolate egg.

You can also get one called Boy, which is not a boy any more than Girl is a girl. When I worked at the candy factory, no one ever talked about the chocolate having either a gender or a sex, but maybe we were missing the obvious.

If you go up to £85, you get 300 grams of gender-free chocolate. 

The Hotel de Crillon, which unlike Hotel Chocolat seems to be a real hotel, offers a chocolate egg with a car driving out of it.

Sorry, did I say a car? “The famous D.S, the Palace’s iconic car,” and it doesn’t drive out, it “seems to emerge.” Which sort of implies that it doesn’t really emerge, it just fools you into thinking it does while it’s actually still in bed. But you’ll have to spend £70 to find out for sure.

Spend £100 and you can buy a kilo–that’s 2.2 pounds–of milk chocolate and hazelnuts from Venchi. It comes with almost no prose, but the photos dance around a bit, whether you want them to or not.

 

Eggs we’ve probably missed out on

For £150, Harrod’s has an egg that as far as I can tell is mostly air. (Ever wonder why the rich are thin?) It’s made of anorexic slabs of chocolate finished with gold leaf and separated by layers of luxury air. They only made fifty, so we’ve probably missed our chance.

For £140, you can get a ceramic egg with ears from Harvey Nichols. It comes with truffles inside. Only thirty were made, so we’re probably too late, but I’ve got a £1 bag of chocolate eggs in the other room and I’d be happy to share. When I was working in the candy factory, I lost my taste for candy anyway.

 

And at the top of the obscenity scale

The most expensive egg comes from Choccywoccydoodah (I had to cut and paste that) and costs–yes indeed–£25,000. Or possibly £10,000. I’ve found both prices quoted. I put it down to journalists going comatose in the presence of high numbers, but really, at a certain point, who cares? So what if it all get a little murky when we get to the cash register?   

Each egg weighs 220 pounds, or 100 kilos, and wrecks my explanation of why the rich are thin. More to the point, each one also has an intricately detailed scene inside, featuring dragons, or ducks, or hares, or whatever. And each one takes three weeks to make. 

And then, presumably, some barbarian comes along and eats the thing. Or doesn’t eat it and you end up with cockroaches. 

How is it possible to sell a chocolate egg for that kind of money? Well, as it happen yesterday morning’s paper let me know that in 2020 one of the directors of a gambling website was paid £48,000 per hour for every hour of every day–working, sleeping, and otherwise–that could be scratched out of the year. 

That may explain why a very few people lose their sense of proportion.

The Covid update for Britain

Between lockdown and vaccination, Britain has fewer people dying of Covid on any given day than in–well, let’s say anytime in the last three months because I found some very pretty graphs that use that as a reference point. We also have fewer Covid cases (as opposed to deaths) than we did three months ago, but the downward slanting line has flattened out. Maybe because the schools have reopened, but that’s guesswork. You’ll find other possible reasons below.

By mid-March, half of Britain’s population had antibodies, some from vaccination, others from having had Covid. 

Okay, not half: 54.7%. Most of us who’ve been vaccinated have only had one dose and are waiting nervously for the second. At least my partner and I are nervous. We’re coming up toward twelve weeks and haven’t heard a memory of an echo of a whisper of a date. 

The main thing, though, is that case numbers and deaths are both down and we’re breathing a bit easier. The country’s coming out of lockdown in stages, peeping its head over the parapet to see if the virus is still shooting at us.  

Irrelevant photo: Blackthorn

Should people be working from home?

So what would any sober, sensible prime minister do in that situation?

Damned if we know, because we don’t have one. We’ve got Boris Johnson, and he’s told us that people who’ve been working at home should go back to–

What do you call that place? The office. They should go back and start working from their offices. They’ve had enough days off, he told the Conservative Party spring conference.

The exact quote is, “The general view is people have had quite a few days off, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office.” Making it not exactly his idea, but one that originated elsewhere and meandered into his head because there isn’t much in there to stop it. 

That followed on the heels of the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, saying that people are likely to quit their jobs if they’re not allowed to go back to the office and businesses had better open up if they want to keep them.

Are office workers really desperate to start working from work again? It seems to depend when you ask, and who, so we’ll skip the numbers and say that some want to keep working from home, at least until they can count on the workplace being Covid-free, and some would love to go back because they’ve been calling one square foot of kitchen table an office and they’ve had to share that with a cup of tea and the toast crumbs from breakfast. Not to mention until recently a small kid or three who they were supposed to be homeschooling. And the cat, whose spelling is terrible.

Recruitment agencies expect that a lot of people will want to work remotely after the pandemic ends. 

So working from home isn’t a simple yes/no question. It involves a lot of ifs and no answer will be unanimous. But offhand I’d say Johnson may have had his own work habits in mind when he assumed people were sitting around with their feet up, drinking wine and contemplating how to get someone who isn’t himself to pay for new wallpaper

Okay, it’s more than wallpaper. It’s also furniture. To the tune of £200,000. Which is, at least, more than the £2.6 million spent on a new briefing room.

But forget all that. How safe are workplaces?

A strike’s pending at the Swansea Department of Vehicle and Licensing Agency over workplace safety after 560 workers tested positive for Covid. That’s out of, as far as I can tell, something in the neighborhood of 2,000, so let’s say a quarter of the workforce. 

The union says the building’s too overcrowded for pandemic working. 

Britain’s had 4,500 workplace Covid outbreaks. 

What are businesses doing to make workplaces safe? Half of them have done Covid risk assessments. Others have done none or have outdated assessments. A quarter of them have been inspected during the pandemic. My world-beating mathematical skills tell me that means three-quarters of them haven’t been inspected. No employers have been prosecuted for violating Covid regulations.

That’s not to say that workplace outbreaks are due only to violations of the regulations, or that the regulations are up to the job of keeping people safe, only that they’re the measure we have at hand. 

If you want to read the guidelines, they’re here.  

At least part of what’s driving the push to get office workers back into the office–and this isn’t my speculation but that of genuine journalists (I only play one on the internet)–is that the businesses that feed on office workers need to be fed, and what they need to be fed is money. That can only happen when people work in central locations, then go out for lunch, stop in for coffee, and buy a pair of shoes on their way home. 

Office workers, put on your high heels and your ties (pick one, please; if you wear both you’ll draw too much attention to yourself) and get back into the office. Your nation needs you. 

Your nation needs your money.

 

So why isn’t the number of cases dropping?

I can’t give you a definitive answer on that, but I can toss a few possibilities at you. If we practice this long enough, you’ll know when to duck.

I mentioned that the schools have reopened. That’s one factor. Another is that fewer than one person in five requests a Covid test when they have symptoms and only half self-isolate when they have symptoms. That’s from a large study by the British Medical Journal

The people least likely to self-isolate are men, younger people, the parents of young kids, people from working-class backgrounds, people working in key sectors, and people with money problems.

One of the (many) glaring gaps in the government handling of the pandemic has been not giving low-income people who have to self-isolate enough money to live on while they’re off work. 

The reasons people don’t self-isolate range from the compelling, including the need to buy groceries and pay the rent, to the self-indulgent. The self-indulgent ones include exercising, meeting people, and having only mild symptoms so what the hell.

The study took place in waves, over a good stretch of time, and it did see some improvement as time went on, from 43% self-isolating to 52%. The study’s authors said greater practical and financial help would improve the numbers and messages addressed specifically to men, younger people, and key workers might also help.

In the meantime, the country’s budgeted £37 billion for a test and trace system that hasn’t shown any clear impact. The Public Accounts Committee said it was set up with the goal of preventing lockdowns, but the country’s had two since then. It also said the spending was “unimaginable” and that the taxpayer shouldn’t be treated like an ATM machine.

Some of the test and trace system’s consultants are paid more than £6,600 per day.

In a pinch, a person could live on that. 

 

The elusive Covid inquiry

Assorted troublemakers have called for an inquiry into the way Britain’s handled the pandemic. You know the sort of troublemaker we’re talking about. The doctors publication the BMJ wanted one as far back as last September. A group called Bereaved Families for Justice, whose name pretty much explains what they’re about. Health workers. Minority ethnic organizations, whose communities have been hit particularly hard by the virus. A small bouquet of academics. The children’s book writer Michael Rosen, who recovered from Covid after a long (long, long) hospitalization and has written movingly about the experience, so he’s able, for the moment, to grab some lines of newsprint. Your basic troublemaking pick-and-mix.

Some of them want a wide-ranging inquiry into what went wrong and others want a tightly focused inquiry into what should be done in the future, but that division’s in the background right now. They can argue over it later.

And then there’s Boris Johnson, who says he wishes he’d done some things differently but he’ll keep all that between himself and his pillow at 3 a.m. In the meantime, sorry, but no inquiry–not to not to figure out how to do better in the future and not to figure out what went wrong–and a horrifying amount has, both stuff you can chalk up to incompetence and stuff you can chalk up to corruption, not to mention stuff that embraces both with enthusiasm.

Other ways of holding public inquiries are possible, though, and they’re outside the prime minister’s grasp. Ian Boyd, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, better known as Sage (Boyd’s a sir, but I never can bring myself to attach that sort of nonsense to people’s names), suggested a royal commission–basically a committee of experts pulled together to investigate an issue. It wouldn’t have as much power to gather evidence as an inquiry form with the prime minister’s blessing and that of his pillow, but it could get some work done–probably with less political interference.

How dangerous is Covid to kids?

With Britain’s schools having only recently reopened, this is a disturbing time for me to mention a British Office for National Statistics report that says kids are getting long Covid. So I offer all the usual apologies for bringing it up, but ignorance of the real world is no protection against snake bites or traffic accidents. That means we might as well open the report and see what sort of snakes or car wrecks it mentions. 

It’s well established that kids are less likely than adults to get sick if they catch Covid, and that if they do catch it their symptoms are likely to be mild. Beyond that, an uneasy-making number of unknowns are running loose. If you follow the literature, you’ll find all sorts of contradictory studies on how likely kids are or aren’t to pass Covid on, either to each other or to adults. If you’re sitting on a couch in Britain and ask Lord Google “Are children at risk of getting sick with coronavirus?” he’ll take you to some withdrawn but still available government advice to schools: “Children are likely to become infected with coronavirus (COVID-19) at roughly the same rate as adults, but the infection is usually mild.” So, basically, it’s all fine, go back to sleep.

Irrelevant photo: Primroses. The yellow ones are wild and the pink are what happens when domesticated ones go out on their own and cross-pollinate. And many thanks to Cat9984 for finding me a way to size photos in spite of the WordPress’s dreaded new editing program.

The government may have posted updated advice, but Lord G. isn’t aware of it. They haven’t taken the old advice down.

The mantra that kids who show symptoms are likely to have mild ones has left a lot of us meditating serenely on the safety of children in these dangerous times. So England, at least, has reopened the schools without any real discussion of what it’ll take to make them safe, because, hey, kids are resilient little bugs, they need to get back to school, and they’ll be fine. 

Teachers? Toss a coin. Some have been vaccinated. The ones who haven’t are statistically likely to be fine. 

Probably.

But evidence is starting to form a more worrying picture. The Centers for Disease Control in the US estimate that in 13% to 15% of kids who do show Covid symptoms, at least one symptom hangs on for more than 5 weeks. That’s more or less the definition of long Covid. (The more or less is there because no fixed definition of long Covid exists yet. A quick check with Lord G. also brought me 12 weeks.)

An Italian study shows that more than half the kids who get symptomatic Covid still have at least one symptom 17 weeks after they were diagnosed. In 43% of them, the symptoms are enough to cause them problems in their daily lives. 

A separate study found long Covid symptoms that included tiredness; weakness; headaches; abdominal, muscle, and joint pain; gastrointestinal symptoms; and skin complaints such as rashes. 

If you’re not worried yet, they also list trouble concentrating, trouble remembering and processing information, and trouble finding the right word. Also unexplained irritability, although those symptoms would be enough to explain anyone’s irritability. 

The first two studies are preprints, meaning they haven’t been peer reviewed yet. A lot of papers have been released that way this past year. I’m reasonably sure preprint is one of the words tha pandemic’s given us. Thank you, Covid. The language was poorer before we had that.

 

Would you get vaccinated if someone offered you for free donuts?

How do you convince reluctant people to get vaccinated? You offer them donuts. Also beer and popcorn. Preferably not all in one meal. The British have an odd–at least to an American–habit of mixing alcohol and sweet stuff, but I’ve never seen anyone take it as far as mixing beer and donuts. And the offers were made in the US anyway.

To be fair, I think those offers were made less by way of inducement and more by way of thanks, or possibly marketing, but I’m not inside the minds that made those decisions, so I can’t know. 

For whatever reasons, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts is offering one free donut a day to anyone who brings  proof that they’ve been vaccinated. Chagrin Cinemas (that’s not a typo; they’re in the oddly named Chagrin Falls, Ohio) are offering free popcorn, but only through April. Market Garden Brewery (no note on where that is) is offering ten-cent beers, but there’s fine print: You have to be an adult.  

I know. Someone always wants to spoil the fun.

In Walled Lake, Michigan, the Greenhouse is offering one pre-rolled joint. That’s called Pot for Shots. 

Employers are itchy to get their businesses back to what we so casually call normal, and in the U.S. a number of companies are offering workers cash, gift cards, store credit, and time off. 

Will any of that work? You’re damn right it will–not necessarily the donuts, but the money. According to one survey, almost a quarter of employed Americans who either probably or definitely wouldn’t get vaccinated would reconsider if they were offered money.

In Britain, Boris Johnson took another approach, floating the idea of allowing only people with vaccine certificates into the pub. 

Which pub is that? All pubs are the pub to someone. If they’re not, they go broke quickly. 

The pub and restaurant industry shot back that it would be unworkable, unnecessary, inappropriate, and a very bad idea. Johnson promptly backtracked. Which doesn’t mean the idea’s dead. Johnson does U-turns for a living.

 

Do women leaders kill Covid?

Any number of people argue that since countries led by women have done well during the pandemic, women’s leadership is responsible for those outcomes. But a worldwide survey argues that a nation’s culture matters more than its leader’s gender.

The study looked at 175 countries (hands up everyone who knew the planet had so many), 16 of which were led by women. They didn’t find a statistical difference in death rates based on the leaders’ gender. 

What they did find was that success in dealing with Covid depends on how egalitarian the country is and on how much it prioritizes the wellbeing of society in general. Or to put that another way, it depends on two cultural factors, individualism and power distance, which is a measure of the power differences among the country’s citizens. 

More egalitarian and less individualistic countries have done better in the pandemic.

I’m reading between the lines, but part of the study looks like it’s based on actual data and part of it looks like they’ve used that data for statistical modeling. I’ve been hesitant about statistical modeling, but its prediction that the British Covid variant spread more easily than earlier variants has been borne out by lab work, so maybe I should shut up and accept that statistical modeling might just be useful.

Anyway, it’s up to you. Take the study for whatever you think it’s worth: It says that when both individualism and power distance are high (as they are in, for example, the U.S.), the average death rate is predicted to be 28.79 per 100,000 people. 

Where both are extremely low (as they are, for example, in Trinidad and Tobago and in New Zealand), the predicted average is 1.89 per 100,000.

Countries that value collective action have been more open to wearing masks and enforcing lockdowns. And egalitarian societies tend to have universal healthcare systems in place, along with paid sick leave and policies that make it possible for people to stay at home. 

So why are women leading so many of the countries that have done well? Because egalitarian countries are more likely to elect women as leaders. That gives us a correlation between women in leadership and success in handling  the pandemic, but with only 16 women leaders there’s not enough evidence to say that women leaders are better at it.

Sorry.

If you want a triumphant feminist note, though, the study does note that the pandemic’s messed with the world’s usual way of dismissing women leaders. In normal times, they’re criticized either for being too masculine and aggressive or for being too feminine and weak, which doesn’t leave much of a zone where they’re not shredded. During the pandemic, though, they’ve been praised for their decisiveness.

The world will never stop surprising us.

 

Vaccine news

Brazil has developed a vaccine, ButanVac, that’s expected to be approved in April and to start trials in July. Plans are to produce it in both Brazil and Thailand and distribute it to poorer countries.

Brazil’s short on vaccines and has a record number of cases, not to mention a president, Jair Bolsonaro, who opposes masks and lockdowns, downplays the virus’s danger, and has been publicly skeptical about ButanVac’s effectiveness.

Sao Paulo state’s governor, Joao Doria, said the vaccine, “is the response to those that deny the science and life.” It may be entirely coincidental that Doria’s expected to run against Bolsonaro next year.

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A group in Germany are working on a Covid vaccine that would come in the form of a pill, making it easy to transport and store and relatively cheap to produce. This isn’t a new technology. Typhoid vaccine is already delivered that way.

The plan is for it to produce two antigens rather than one, giving it a bit of a jump on the virus’s mutations. But it’s still in the early stages, so don’t get excited about it yet.

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Cuba’s also working on its own vaccine–multiple versions, and one of them, Soberana 2, looks promising and is in stage 3 trials. If it makes it through the trials and is authorized, they expect to have enough doses for all Cubans by the end of summer. Plans are to export them initially to Mexico, Iran, and Venezuela, and after that to the world–and to offer them to tourists.

The island’s kept the number of Covid cases low for much of 2020–some days just one or two cases a day–but in November, needing the cash, it reopened to tourists, which sent numbers up.