About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

Kids, Covid, and the Delta Variant

An article from the U.S. reports a sharp rise in the number of children hospitalized with Covid, especially in states with low vaccination rates. The article’s from September, although it’s still relevant. The U.S.–just to be clear–continues to exist even though September’s come and gone.  

The danger isn’t just that they’re at risk of dying, but that they’re also at risk of long Covid–the sometimes serious symptoms that drag on for no one knows how long after a percentage of people recover from Covid.. 

“These are children whose development and futures may be compromised,” said Dr. James Versalovic of Texas Children’s Hospital. “The collective impact when we look ahead is significant.”

In case anyone missed the point, he also said, “Children are our future adults.”

I’ve suspected that for a long time but I’m glad to have it confirmed by a medical professional. 

Irrelevant photo: Cut flowers at the village produce stall.

Are the numbers up because the Delta variant’s more dangerous to children? That’s not clear yet. Children are still less likely than adults to get severe Covid, even with Delta. But whatever we eventually learn about the percentages, the Delta variant is more contagious, so we’re dealing with a larger number of infections and from that a larger number of kids who draw the short straw in the great Covid lottery.  The doctors interviewed for the article called for more people to get vaccinated and for people to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

“What really protects children are the interventions directed at the rest of society,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai of the health policy department at Harvard University. 

If asked, I’m sure he would have confirmed that children are society’s future adults, but no one did him the courtesy of asking.

 

Long Covid and vaccination

The latest news on vaccination and long Covid–or at least the latest I’ve found–is that being doubly vaccinated slashes hell out of your odds of developing long Covid. 

First, vaccination makes you less likely to get infected. In a study of 2 million vaccinated people, 0.2% tested positive. What’s the comparison number for unvaccinated people? Um, yeah, I should have that, but the article I’m working from was making a different point, so it didn’t hand me a comparison group. But in a different study of a different group, vaccinated people were three times less likely to get infected than the unvaccinated. 

To point out the obvious, that means only that they test positive, not necessarily that they get sick. 

Second, if you take that first group of infected vaccinated people and compare it with a group of infected unvaccinated people, the vaccinated group are only half as likely to develop long Covid.

The vaccinated group is also 31% less likely to get acute Covid symptoms, 73% to end up in the hospital, and 16% less likely to have had liver for supper. 

Sorry. I wanted to see if anyone was still awake. That won’t be on the test.

The bad news is that older people and people from poorer areas (also known as poor people, but the study didn’t have income data for individuals so it extrapolated from where they lived)– 

Should we start that over? Those two groups aren’t as well protected by the vaccines, which argues that they should be priorities for booster shots. It also argues that raising people’s incomes would be a great public health measure. I’d recommend lowering peoples ages as well, but no one’s worked out the mechanics of that. 

If I hear that anyone’s making progress on that, I’ll let you know. Right after I inform my knees, which will be very excited about it. 

 

Scientists are being threatened

A poll of 321 scientists found that 15% had gotten death threats after speaking publicly about Covid, and 22% had been threatened with physical or sexual violence. 

Not that sexual violence isn’t physical, mind you, but I guess it’s best to be specific about how ugly things are getting.

The most common issues that triggered the threats were vaccination, masks, and the effectiveness of specific treatments.

It’s heartening that we’re handling a worldwide crisis like adults.

 

And speaking of specific treatments…

The Thai government gave an herb, green chiretta, known as the king of bitters, to 11,800 inmates with mild and asymptomatic Covid and claims that 99% of them recovered. 

Which sounds great, but the problem is that it doesn’t seem to have been a controlled study–you know, the kind with a control group that doesn’t get the treatment, so you can compare them.. 

If they reported how many of them were asymptomatic, I haven’t seen it. An asymptomatic person making a full recovery is hardly headline news.

The herb’s widely used in Thailand to treat colds and flu, 

Just to complicate the picture, it’s hard to calculate Covid recovery rates. Don’t ask–the article I’m working from just tossed that in and moved on, so let’s do the same. 

By way of comparison,” the article says, “the recovery rates announced by Thai officials are somewhat higher than overall Covid recovery rates in India (32%-83%) or Australia (96% recovered after 120 days).”

That doesn’t explain why they’re hard to calculate, but if we’re looking at a range from 32% to 83%, we might want to agree that it’s not an easy number to come up with.

Two controlled studies of green chiretta are underway, one in Thailand and the other in Georgia. That’s Georgia as in the country where you’ll find Tbilisi, not as in the state where you’ll find Atlanta. 

 

And a quick glance at Britain…

…since that’s what I allegedly write about here. Sorry. The pandemic’s taken me on a long side trip.

It’s done that to all of us, hasn’t it?

Covid infections in Britain went up by 60% in a month. Or to come at the numbers in a different way, we had almost 50,000 new cases in one recent day. That’s some 19,000 short of our all-time peak. 

Britain’s infection rates are higher than those of other European nations. Yay us! We’re winning!

No, wait. I got carried away. We don’t want to win this race. 

Why are we ahead? It’s not clear yet. The puzzle has a lot of pieces and it’ll take a while before anyone figures out where they go. How does testing compare to other countries? What about mask wearing, ventilation, vaccination, school rooms, work, transportation? But we can give a few of the pieces a good hard stare: Some of these bullet points will apply to Britain as a whole and some only to England. Apologies for putting them in the same bag and shaking them together before baking. It’s been that kind of week. 

  • The kids are back in school and not wearing masks.
  • Lots of people who were working from home are going back into–well, wherever it is they once worked. Whether they want to or not.
  • Not unrelated to that, the government has reopened everything it could get its hands on. 
  • Mask mandates have ended, although they’re recommended in public indoor spaces.
  • Kids between 12 and 15 are eligible for vaccination but it’s not happening quickly.
  • Booster shots for vulnerable adults aren’t happening quickly either.
  • Immunity from vaccines may be waning. Because Britain started its vaccination program earlier than most countries, waning immunity would show up earlier.
  • A new sub-variant of Delta has been spotted. That may well not be significant, but I thought I’d mention it. 

On top of that, one article I’ve seen brings the news that the unvaccinated could get reinfected an average of every 16 months, although reinfection doesn’t necessarily wait that long. It can happen soon after the first bout. So it’s not just the vaccines that (apparently) wane, so does natural immunity. Reports are coming in of people getting reinfected not just once but twice. 

People who’ve been vaccinated are also reporting reinfections. How often? I haven’t seen a number, and I’d be surprised if decisive numbers are in yet. What we can say is that the vaccinated will, at least, have some protection against the severest forms of the disease.

“We still don’t know much about the risk factors for reinfection,” Nisreen Alwan, associate professor of public health, said, “but the theoretical assumption that once all the young get it the pandemic will be over is becoming increasingly unlikely.” 

So much for herd immunity. 

Widespread vaccination has meant hospitalizations aren’t going up as quickly as infection rates, but even so we’ve got something like 869 admissions to hospital every day and some 8,000 people in hospital with Covid–around 10% of them on ventilators. So this increase in cases isn’t cost free. Leaders in the National Health Service are calling for mask mandates, working from home, and other restrictions to be brought back before we all find ourselves neck-deep in unpleasant brown stuff. And the health secretary, while refusing to do anything that useful, is at least asking Members of Parliament to set an example by wearing masks in crowded public places.

Should Christmas parties be canceled? Oh, hell no. Just take a lateral flow test first. 

The UK’s fairly highly vaccinated, and that’s keeping deaths and hospitalization rates from rising as quickly as they did in the early days of the pandemic, but they are rising and an already underfunded health care system is struggling. 

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To underline how complicated the picture is, Japan’s had an unexpected downturn in the number of cases, and it’s not clear why that’s happened either. No one’s complaining, but understanding it would be useful.

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A joint report from the House of Commons’ science and health committees rips into the British government’s early response to Covid, which amounted to, “Let’s all get sick, then we’ll have herd immunity. Yeah, som people will die, but doesn’t everyone die sooner or later?” 

The government caused thousands of deaths by delaying a lockdown, the report says.

“Decisions on lockdowns and social distancing during the early weeks of the pandemic–and the advice that led to them–rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced,” it says. 

Britain has had more than 137,000 recorded coronavirus deaths. That’s the second highest number in Europe. Only Russia has more–and it’s a hell of a lot bigger. 

We won’t get into how many unrecorded Covid deaths there were and are, or the varying ways a Covid death is defined, but let’s acknowledge that it’s not a number anyone can be accurate about. Still, the numbers we have give us a rough sketch of where things stand. 

 

The smoker’s paradox

Early in the pandemic, a small handful of studies reported that smokers seemed to be protected against Covid’s worst effects. Since that ran counter to everything we’d expect, it was reported widely as a man-bites-dog story.

You know about man-bites-dog stories? If a dog bites a man, it’s not news. If a man bites a dog, it is. This bit of wisdom came from the time before women were invented, hence their absence. 

I might as well admit that I don’t remember seeing articles about smokers being protected from Covid, but my memory’s more decorative than functional, so I may have known about it at the time.

Never mind. What was behind the stories? Less than meets the eye. A larger study has now shown more or less what we’d expect: that smokers are 80% more likely to be hospitalized with Covid than nonsmokers. 

If you’d like an interesting lesson on probability, do click through and read the article. It’s a great explanation of why science continually updates its conclusions. But I’m going to skip all that and tell you this instead: 

First, the initial studies were small and the more recent one is large, meaning it has a better chance of being accurate.

Second, some of the initial studies were funded by tobacco companies, which–oops–are still trying to sell cigarettes. So we might want to look for an element of bias. Which lead us to the next paragraph.

Third, the studies asked the wrong question. They looked at the number of people hospitalized with Covid and asked how many of them smoked.

It’d be more useful–if you want a scientifically useful answer, that is–to compare smokers and nonsmokers and ask how many in each group are hospitalized with Covid. 

If you approach the question the first way, you don’t take account of the people who die before being admitted or who are transferred to a hospice. 

My math’s terrible, but I suspect that if you have one category of people who die quickly and one of people who linger, the lingerers pile up, so there will be more of them when you count heads, making it look like the dead are protected. 

The larger, later study included a fuller range of the population, asked a better question, and got a more predictable result.

if COVID teaches us nothing else,” the article says, “it should teach us to hold extraordinary claims–about smoking, vitamin D, zinc, bleach, gargling iodine, or nebulising hydrogen peroxide–to high standards.”

So the Normans invaded England in 1066. What happened next?

Most people who know any English history know about the Norman invasion, that moment when Anglo-Saxon (and, um,yeah, somewhat Norse) England was taken over by French-speaking colonizers, guaranteeing that Frideswide and Aelfgifu no longer top the English list of popular baby names. But what happened after the conquest to make the country cohere?

More than I have space for, but let’s snatch a few stray bits of paper from history’s gale-force winds and see what we can do with them.

And by we, of course, I mean me, since you’re not actually here as I type this.

 

Obviously relevant photo: This is Li’l Red Cat, not William the Conqueror, but you can see why a person might get confused.

The replacement of the ruling class

Ten minutes before the Norman invasion, England’s old ruling class was Anglo-Saxon with a bit of Norse embroidery. By the time the conquerors solidified their hold, most of it had been replaced with Normans. William the Conqueror had followers to reward, and the thing about followers is that if you don’t keep them happy, they’ll turn on you. They’re big, they’re armed, and they can get nasty. And there are always more of them than there are of you. So he needed to hand them goodies, and we all know where goodies come from after a war: the people who lost. 

The land belonging to most of the Anglo-Saxon ruling class was confiscated and given to William’s followers. And since land and wealth were pretty much the same thing, we’re not talking about a new, Norman ruling class.

I’ll come back to that in a minute.

 

The non-replacement of the ruling class

But no story’s ever simple. William made efforts to keep the old ruling class on his side and pretty much limited his confiscations to the nobles who rose against him. So there was an Anglo-Saxon elite that collaborated with the Normans, kept their lands, and adopted the French language and culture. They became Frenchified and separated from the commoners. English was now the language of the peasants and French of the landlords.

 

Why didn’t England rise against the Normans?

The English outnumbered the Normans a hundred to one. So why didn’t they resist?

People who haven’t a clue what’s involved always seem to ask this about the conquered, and if you listen carefully you’ll hear a hint that it might be the conquered people’s own damn fault. They didn’t fight back, did they? They didn’t have the old warrior spirit. Or their weapons were too primitive. Or–well, you know, something.

The thing is, the Anglo-Saxons did rise against the Normans. Multiple times, and some of the uprisings presented serious threats. The thing is, they lost, and for multiple reasons. 

The leaders of all or most of the rebellions were the old aristocracy. At the time, there was an inevitability about that. The aristocrats weren’t just the governing class, they were also the warrior class. We’re still hundreds of years away from ordinary people leading their own rebellions. This was a hierarchical society. Soldiers fought. Peasants peasanted. Maybe their lords drafted them in to carry agricultural tools onto the battlefield and shout threatening slogans in front of the cameras, but they weren’t trained soldiers. So for the time being, the aristocrats are the people to keep your eye on. 

But after the Battle of Hastings, where the native English government was defeated, a big chunk of the aristocracy died. That was inconvenient, not just for them individually but for the chances of a successful rebellion, because there went its leadership. 

According to one theory, so many of them died because the Anglo-Saxons were behind the times militarily. The Normans swept into the Battle of Hastings using a new European tactic, the heavy cavalry charge, with the lances used for charging, not throwing. 

So although people did rise against the Normans, the rebellions were crushed. The leaders who didn’t die fled the country. 

Which was convenient for William, who handed their lands to Normans.

Another factor weighing against the rebels was that England was a country with a history not just of division but of outright warfare between the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse

Okay, not just warfare. They threw in a fair few massacres just to demonstrate how serious everyone was about this. So they wouldn’t have been an easy bunch to unite. And for many ordinary people, peace under a brutal leader who spoke a language no one understood might have looked better than more warfare.

The church would’ve been another place ordinary people looked for leadership, but it took the Normans’ side. So no help there.

Landscape may or may not have worked against the rebels. In some accounts,they melted into the woods, Robin Hood-like, emerging to fight a guerrilla war. In other accounts, southern England had no natural hiding places where a rebel army could base itself. I’m not sure how to reconcile those two accounts. It’s possible that the land could hide small bands, but not whole armies, but I wouldn’t take my word for that. It’s a reckless guess. I’ll leave it to you to resolve the contradiction.

Or not.

 

And those defeats led to what?

According to David Horspool, in The English Rebel, the risings against the Normans were persistent and serious, and one outcome was that William the Conqueror abandoned his early efforts to enlist the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy in a Norman government. 

“The top of England’s post-Conquest society, both lay and ecclesiastical, became almost entirely Norman,” he writes.

They also led to a longstanding mythology of English rebellions, which holds that before the Conquest England was a free land. Then the Normans came and all that freedom died. 

That the Normans brought extensive suffering is unquestionable. That Anglo-Saxon England was a land of freedom, though, is at best open to argument. Especially since slavery was deeply woven into the structure.

 

A note on sources and theories

I’m drawing from two books here: The English Rebel, by David Horspool, and The Shortest History of England, by James Hawes. It may not really be the shortest–I found one with a lighter page count, but it may have more words. I confess that I haven’t counted them. They’re both well worth reading. 

Hawes’ argues that intermarriage meant the English elite was more open to new members than any other elite in Europe. All you had to be was rich, fluent in French, and willing to speak it at all social and political occasions. 

Of course, you also had to start as part of an almost-parallel elite. Entry wasn’t open to a serf. Or even, say, a free glove maker.

In the long run, this relative openness had important ramifications, one of which was that the Anglo-Saxon elite separated itself from the Anglo-Saxon commoners, leaving them leaderless. Another was that culture became synonymous with Norman culture. The Anglo-Saxon culture and language were left to people who–in the eyes of their rulers–had no culture.

Hawes says this it was an unusual pattern in Europe until England grew up and visited it on its neighbors when it became their colonizers.

Hawes is the only historian I’ve found who talks about the Normans having a technological edge in battle. Everyone else talks about Harold–the king who lost at Hastings–having just marched from the  north, where he fought off one invasion, to the south coast to fight with exhausted troops. They talk about his decision not to rest before this second fight. 

I have no idea if Hawes is onto something there. Again, I’ll leave it to you to figure out who’s right.

The future of Covid, and some updates on the fight against it

A while back, I summarized a theory that the Covid virus is unlikely to pick up the number of mutations it would need if it’s going to evade the vaccines. I felt a lot better after reading that, but let’s look at an opposing theory so we can all get depressed together.

This theory raises the possibility that in addition to the virus picking up small mutations over time (that’s called antigenic drift), there’s the possibility of antigenic shift, which involves more dramatic changes caused by the virus recombining with other human coronaviruses. Viruses do that. Basically, they hold a swap meet. Or a bring and buy sale if you’re more used to them. They don’t actually use money–their evolution hasn’t brought them to that exalted stage–but they do trade strategies for making money-using creatures sick.

If they swap the right bits of knowledge, the current crop of vaccines will need to be re-engineered. We’ll all move back to Go and start the game over again.

It’s also possible that Covid will infect animals we share space with and then cross back to humans in some more powerful form. That’s reverse zoonosis.

Irrelevant photo: Japanese anemone, with a bite out of it. That’s to prove the beauty of imperfection and all that deep philosophical stuff.

As a general rule, long-term evolution favors viruses that don’t make their hosts too sick. The very sick tend to crawl away somewhere and keep their germs to themselves, which (seeing this from the germs’ point of view) isn’t an efficient use of a host. And the dead die, which also limits their opportunities to share. That’s even more inefficient. 

From that base, any number of people argue that (after a trail of death and destruction) epidemic diseases get milder over time. Everyone who doesn’t die lives happily ever after. They point to the 1918 flu epidemic (or the Black Death, or some other cheery moment in human history) and assure us that this is the natural order of things. 

According to this theory, that is indeed one possibility but it’s not the only one. 

The British government’s group of scientific advisors, SAGE, thinks the virus isn’t likely to become less virulent in the short term. (Virulence isn’t about a disease’s ability to spread–that’s transmissibility. It’s about how sick it makes a person.) SAGE considers that a long-term possibility, but it also considers it a realistic possibility that a more virulent strain will emerge. 

Sorry. I don’t create the possibilities, I just write about them.

So what direction will it evolve in? Basically, no one’s sure.  

However, all isn’t lost. A lot of work’s being done on how to cope with Covid.

 

The Covid-killing mask 

A group of researchers have created a surgical mask that deactivates not just the Covid virus but any enveloped virus (that includes the flu), plus some antibiotic-resistant bacteria like a couple of the staphylococci. 

What’s an enveloped virus? I’m so glad you asked, because I have an answer right here in my pocket. It’s “any virus in which a nucleoprotein core is surrounded by a lipoprotein envelope consisting of a closed bilayer of lipid derived from that of the host cell’s membrane(s), with glycoprotein.”

You’re welcome. I didn’t understand it either, but I’m glad to get it out of my pocket.

The masks are the first ones that don’t just protect both the rest of the world from the wearer but also protect the wearer from the rest of the world. 

Okay, not completely, but virus- and staphylococcuses-wise, it will. If someone’s trying to hit you on the head with a hammer, the masks are no help at all.

I’ve seen masks promoted as antiviral. Advertising copy for masks with a copper layer, for example, talks about copper’s antiviral properties without actually claiming that the masks will kill Covid. From what I’ve read, they don’t have enough copper to do more than provide carefully worded hype.

The new masks are called FFP Covid masks, they come in adult and child sizes, and according to the article I read they’re very affordable.

How affordable is very affordable? After bumping around the internet for a while, I found some on sale for one euro. That’s not bad, but whether it’s affordable depends on how much you have in your wallet, and how long it takes to renew itself once you pull some of it out to buy masks.

Not to mention how many other calls you have on it.

Are the masks reusable? That’ll affect people’s opinion of their affordability, and the definitive answer is, I’m not sure. They look disposable, but that’s strictly a guess. 

Another limiting factor for most of us–since this is an English-language site–is that the only place I could find them for sale is in Spain, which is where they were developed. Presumably they’ll make their way into the rest of the world at some point. 

Still, whatever the mask’s immediate impact, it’s an important step.

 

Quick updates

Multiple new Covid treatments and vaccines are in the works. Here’s a sampling:

An inhalable powder works against Covid, MERS, and one version of the flu. In animals. It has yet to be tried in  humans–at least in this form. As a pill, it’s used against leukemia, but when you turn it into a powder and inhale it, it becomes a whole ‘nother thing. In addition to landing in a different part of the body and possibly needing a different dose, it opens up the possibility of Covid treatment taking on some bad-boy chic: You roll up a hundred-dollar bill and snort your meds.  

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Repurposing a drug that’s already in use to treat a new disease isn’t, it turns out, as simple as it sounds. You may have to shift from a pill to a powder. You may need a dose so high that it turns toxic, at which point you may need to rethink the whole idea.

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Another drug that’s already in use, this one to treat fatty substances in the blood (no, don’t ask me), could reduce Covid infection by 70%. Could. So far, it’s worked only in human cells in the lab. Two clinical trials are underway, though.

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An antiviral called molnupiravir halves the chances of an infected, high-risk person needing hospitalization or dying from Covid, and Merck will be asking for emergency approval in the U.S. Molnupiravir doesn’t seem to be as effective as monoclonal antibodies, but because it’s a pill it can be used outside of hospital settings, so it’s much easier to use.. 

Down sides? It costs $700 for a five-day course of treatment, which makes it cheaper than and easier to type than monoclonal antibodies, but it’s still expensive. And some experts are warning about potential side effects. Plus it doesn’t seem to help patients who are already sick enough to be hospitalized. So although it’s gotten a lot of press coverage and is, without question, important, it’s not the answer to all problems.

Other antiviral pills are also in the works. 

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Vaccines? Why yes. A new vaccine in development uses only a single shot and can be stored at room temperature for up to a month. In trials with primates, it gave near-complete immunity that stayed at its peak level for eleven months.

It’s called an AAVCOVID vaccine, AAV being the vector the vaccine uses. 

What am I talking about? The vector’s the horse the vaccine rides in on. Or if you want to sound marginally more sensible, it’s the  strategy the developers use. I’m not going to try to explain this one, because I’m pretty sure I’ll get it wrong. Let’s just say that if this strategy works, it’ll help get the vaccine out to places where refrigeration’s a barrier. 

The team that’s developing it is also exploring needle-less delivery systems.

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Another vaccine in the works is using a new model that I’d love to explain but I’m not even close to understanding it, so let me quote: It combines “the advantages of the two types of traditional vaccines—virus-based vaccines and protein-based vaccines—by preparing a bacterial protein that self-assembles into a virus-like particle. By displaying a COVID-19 protein on the surface of this virus-like particle, researchers produced a novel vaccine that is well recognized by the mammalian immune system, but yet does not have any viral infectivity.”

If I understand that correctly, it behaves like one of those transformers kids used to play with, and for all I know still do. You introduce it into a body as a motorcycle, it clicks a few of its own pieces, turns green, and suddenly it’s the Hulk, chasing down unsuspecting Covid viruses.

Early tests show it being effective against the Covid variants and setting up a strong immune response.

Come to me anytime you need a high-grade scientific explanation.

 

Long Covid numbers

I’ve found some numbers on long Covid, finally: About a third of the people who come down with Covid get at least one long Covid  symptom. 

First question, who are we talking about when we say people who get Covid? As far as I can tell, it’s people who actually got sick, because the article talks about them recovering. So I think we can rule out anyone who gets infected but stays asymptomatic. 

We need all the good news we can get, so let’s play nice and say thanks for that.

Second question, how are they defining long Covid? You get to pick from nine core symptoms, and they have (or it has, if you only get one) to last at least 90 days. The most common ones are breathing problems, abdominal symptoms, fatigue, pain, and anxiety and depression.They’re more common in people who’ve been hospitalized and slightly more common in women than in men. The same symptoms occur after the flu, but they’re 1.5 times more common after Covid.

Next shred of good news? If long Covid symptoms are more common in people who’ve been hospitalized, less than a third of people with milder symptoms are likely to come down with it. 

The original Brexit, or when Doggerland sank

Before it sank, a tough neighborhood called Doggerland formed the highway between Europe and Britain. These days, when sea levels are rising and bits of Britain are falling into the sea, some of Doggerland’s secrets are coming to the surface. Not because they’re falling out of British cliffs, but because the Netherlands are (or possibly is*) dredging the seabed to build up artificial beaches as a protection against flooding. 

 

Doggerland 

Doggerland was inhabited for, oh, a million or so years before the lease ran out. Not just by modern humans but by Neanderthals before them and before that by an earlier version of our species that we call Homo antecessor.

Homo antecessor is Latin and translates very (very) loosely to the people who got here first, only since the name’s a carryover from the golden age of brainless sexism, it actually means the men who got here first. Because the folks in charge back then still hadn’t figured out that a species needs female participation if it’s going to last. 

Irrelevant photo: Fall is the season of red berries. I’m not sure what these are, but I’m pretty sure they’re inedible.

Glaciers grew and receded during this period, and as the climate got warmer Doggerland turned to grasslands, and that attracted animals, and later to it added forests and marshlands to its repertoire. 

What animals did it attract? Reindeer mammoths, wooly rhinoceroses, giant red deer, aurochs. And all the animals I had nightmares about as a kid: cave lions, sabre-toothed cats, cave hyenas, wolves. 

I’d have had nightmares about aurochs if only I’d known about them. Count it as a wasted opportunity

So it was a tough neighborhood, but it was also a rich one. The hunting was good and the gathering wasn’t bad, even if the nearest corner store was thousands of years away. 

 

The flood

When the Doggerland lease ran out, the eviction process was brutal: 8,200 years ago, a  tsunami swept over the land. That was on what would otherwise have been a lovely Wednesday afternoon, even though the week as we know it hadn’t been invented yet. 

Or the weekend. Hunter-gatherers, the experts tell us, worked far fewer hours than we do today, so they had no need for a weekend.

The tsunami was caused by the Storegga Slide, an underwater landslide off the coast of what wasn’t yet Norway. It probably killed thousands of people, destroying their settlements, but it didn’t come without warning–at least if you knew how to read the signs. The glaciers were melting, sea levels were rising, and Doggerland had already lost acreage to the sea. 

But, according to Claire Mellett, the chief marine geoarchaeologist for Wessex Archaeology, “The life span of the people at this time was about 30 years, so [even] if sea level was rising, they probably wouldn’t have been able to observe it. But in geological history, it’s one of the fastest-rising sea levels that we’ve ever experienced.”

Try not to be too snobbish about their short sightedness. These days, we’re reading all the signs of climate change and sea level rise, but so far we haven’t impressed anyone with our ability to take action.

In most versions of the tale, Doggerland sank and that was that: Britain had become an island. Brexit had happened, but without the vote, the negotiations, or the headlines.

But some evidence points to Doggerland surviving for a few centuries as a series of islands, where the neolithic settlers who are believed to have brought framing to Britain might have stopped over on their journey. They’d have beached their boats, bought a sandwich and an eccles cake, picked up a booklet of crossword puzzles, and then forgotten where they parked. But once they found their boats again, they felt all the stronger for their stopover and were ready to once more brave the waves and weather.

In a nice little piece of irony, the mapping of Doggerland has been aided by oil companies drilling in the North Sea. I’m reasonably sure they’d prefer it if we didn’t compare the two experiences of rising sea levels. 

The exploration also got some help from a company siting offshore wind farms. 

 

Could we go back to those secrets that are surfacing?

Of course we can. 

The Netherlands’ artificially created beaches have drawn amateur archaeologists, who search them for Doggerland artifacts that spent eons on the seabed, and the amateurs have worked with professionals to piece together a picture of the drowned land and its people. 

“We have a wonderful community of amateur archaeologists who almost daily walk these beaches and look for the fossils and artefacts, and we work with them to analyse and study them,” said Sasja Van der Vaart-Verschoof of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden. (That’s the National Museum of Antiquities to most of us.) “It is open to everyone, and anyone could find a hand axe, for example. Pretty much the entire toolkit that would have been used has been found by amateur archaeologists.”

The museum’s in the headlines because it’s hosting an exhibition of Doggerland objects, including fun stuff like petrified hyena droppings and mammoth molars. Also tools made from flint, bone, and antlers, arrowheads made of human bone, decorated animal bones, and jewelry made from amber and from boar tusk.

One find, a 50,000-year-old flint tool with a handle made from birch tar pitch, comes from the era when Neanderthals held the Doggerland lease and demonstrates that they made complex tools, with skill. Forget the pictures you saw when you were a kid that showed the Neanderthals as knuckle-dragging dimwits. We were sold a species-ist myth there. Neanderthals not only made tools, they made art. Some has been found in a cave in Spain and dated to a time when modern humans weren’t on the continent yet. It may not be great art, but it was deliberate, it was either decorative or symbolic, and it demonstrates thought, planning, and intention.

 

The exhibition

You can find the a webpage on the exhibit here.

______________

* I asked Lord Google if the Netherlands is singular or plural and found definitive answers saying singular and definitive ones saying plural. I could pick through that and consult a genuinely knowledgeable source–I used to be a copyeditor; we do that sort of thing–but it was too much fun to see people be so sure of themselves and in disagreement. I decided that I don’t need to know. You probably don’t either. 

What will it mean if Covid stops being a pandemic?

The talk these days is that Covid will eventually lose its pandemic status and turn into an ordinary, house-trained endemic disease–the kind of disease that circulates in a population and gets us sick but doesn’t give us nightmares, overwhelm hospitals, or kill huge numbers of people. And (they say) this will happen because of two factors: vaccination and the natural immunity that people who’ve been exposed and survived gain. 

What are the odds, though, that Covid will pull a fast one and evade our immunities

Not that high, according to a study that tried to replicate Covid’s mutation pattern using a harmless virus. To completely outrun the immunity we gain from either exposure or vaccination, the virus would have to draw twenty of the right cards out of the mutation deck. 

How many cards are we playing with? I’m not sure. As far as I can figure out, the rules of the game keep shifting. But the scientists–the people who study this stuff, as opposed to the people who read one lone article and call themselves experts–say it would be one hell of a trick for it to pick all twenty.

Irrelevant photo: The north Cornish coast.

On top of that, the virus isn’t the only thing that evolves. So does the human immune system. After it’s met the virus, either in the form of an infection or a vaccine, it sits down and plays with its antibodies. Think of it as a kid with a Lego set. It spends months working out shapes that bind ever more tightly to Covid’s spike proteins. 

People who’ve gotten an mRNA vaccine and also have naturally occurring immunity to Covid have the strongest defense. It’s possible that booster shots will create the same flexible immunity, although that hasn’t been demonstrated yet.

So as surely as the virus doesn’t keep one single form, neither does the human immune system. We will, eventually, get through this mess, although the question is at what cost. 

 

How can we measure Covid’s impact?

In the US, Covid has now killed as many people as the 1918-19 flu epidemic. I’d love to give you comparisons for other countries, but that’s all I’ve found.

To put that into perspective, in 1918 the population of the US was a third of what it is now, so it killed a larger percentage of people. On the other hand, if we’re comparing the inherent danger of the two diseases, massive advances in medicine have kept the death toll lower than it would otherwise have been. 

There must be a dozen ways to measure Covid’s impact, but one of them is cold, hard cash. Again in the US, it’s cost almost $6 billion to hospitalize the unvaccianted in just three months, from June through August 2021

The study’s authors say that’s probably an underestimate.

Yet another study says that by March of 2021, Covid had taken 9 million years of life from the U.S. population. Instead of measuring excess deaths, it looked at the mortality burden of the pandemic. 

What the hell does that mean? You would have to ask, wouldn’t you? The study looked at QALYs, or quality adjusted life years, using them to measure the length of time people would have lived if they hadn’t, um, died. It says that people between 25 and 64 lost 4.67 million years of life, and Black and Hispanic communities were hit hardest, especially men in those groups who were 65 and older.

I know, I know, I’m supposed to be writing about Britain. What can I tell you? Bloggers are irresponsible cheats.

 

Question: If you’re not vaccinated against Covid, will gargling with iodine help? 

Answer: In a test tube, povidone-iodine kills the Covid virus. 

Further information about that answer: Humans aren’t test tubes. 

What happens in a human, then? There haven’t been many studies, but what few there are hint that iodine can inactivate Covid in the mouth for a time, but not for a long one. What happens after that? The same thing that was happening before. If you breathe in the virus, there’ll be nothing there to stop it. If you’re incubating the virus, it’ll move back into your throat and ditto–there’ll be nothing there to stop it. It’s like wiping your kitchen counters with antiseptic wipes. You kill 99 point something percent of the germs that are present in that moment. Then you and your antiseptic wipes go away and wherever the germs came from, they come back. 

In other words, unless you’re going to spend your days and nights gargling with whatsidone-iodine, this isn’t going to work. 

And have I mentioned that the stuff tastes disgusting and smells just as bad?

Other than that, is there any reason not to use it? Well, it can cause skin irritation–sometimes severe, although not necessarily. It can (rarely) cause your thyroid gland to become inactive, especially if you’re pregnant. And especially if you’re both pregnant and a woman.

The most likely side effect, though, is that it will make you think you’re done something to protect either yourself or the people around you when you haven’t. 

*

On Fridays I usually post something about English or British history or culture. This week I’m doing well to do post anything at all. I hope to be back to full speed eventually. In the meantime, bear with me.

How the Victorians cleaned house 

Like so many other things, how you cleaned house in Victorian England depended on how much money you had. Money decided how much time you had, how much stuff you owned that demanded to be cleaned, and whether you cleaned it yourself or had other people do it for you. It decided how sooty your neighborhood was and how far you had to go to get water. But what people cleaned with didn’t vary that much.

It was heavy work, and all or almost all of it was done by women.

 

Baking soda

The Victorian era ran from 1837 to 1901, and baking soda was introduced in 1846. It was–well, the phrase I grew up with was that it was the aspirin of the its dayera, meaning you used it for just about anything, but aspirin isn’t the aspirin of our time anymore, so let’s say baking soda was the reboot of the age. It was the first thing you’d try, and it fixed a surprising number of problems..

Baking soda’s primary purpose was to raise your cakes, your quickbreads, and your scones, and it revolutionized baking   But it also cleaned your oven and your silverware.

True, most of us  wouldn’t have had silverware if we’d lived back then, but never mind that. It was so new and so amazing that it cleaned your imaginary silverware. All you had to do was set your imaginary silver in a mixture of baking soda and water and it would bubble away like some magic potion. You could also use it to clean copper pans or add it to dishwater, possibly because it made dishes easier to clean and possibly and possibly because everyone agreed that it did. What the hell. It was new, it was exciting, and so you’d toss it in..

How many times have you rebooted not because you knew it would work but because everyone knows it’s the place to start?

Irrelevant photo: This is Fast Eddie, Senior Cat of the Houeshold, who did not consent to bringing in a kitten and is not amused.

Vinegar and other acids

You could clean windows with white vinegar and rub them with newspaper. You could get burned food out of pans by soaking it in cider vinegar and boiling water. (I expect any vinegar would’ve worked, but I’m parroting what I read.)

You could also, bizarrely, get a stain out of an enamel pan by putting a stick of rhubarb and water in it and simmering it for ten minutes, then leaving it to cool for an hour or so. 

You could crush eggshells, mix them with lemon, and use them to scour pans. 

 

Tea

You could also clean your windows with weak tea that you’d left sitting around for a few days. (I have no idea why the sitting around mattered. Sorry. You’re on your own there.) You could also sprinkle the rug with tea leaves that you’d squeezed almost dry, then take it outside and beat the hell out of it. The tea leaves, according to one source, helped get rid of the smell of tobacco smoke.

Yes, of course anyone who smoked did it indoors back then. 

You could also sprinkle an ordinary hard floor with tea leaves before you swept it. The theory was that it would “lay the dust.”

 

The yucky stuff 

What would you do when you needed a heavy-duty degreaser for carpets and woolens? Well, you’d use stale urine–and yes, it does actually matter that it’s stale. It has ammonia, which neutralizes dirt and grease, which are slightly acidic. 

I asked Lord Google for more information on that and his top offering read, “Shop stale urine as a degreaser.” 

I didn’t bother. I can make my own and it’s free.

But let’s not stop there. The Victorians had more fun ways to clean  Got bed bugs? Mix four egg whites with an ounce of quicksilver–that’s mercury and it’s extremely fucking poisonous–and brush it onto the mattress. It’s as damaging to humans as it is to bed bugs, but we tend to be larger so it takes longer. The World Health Organization says:

“Neurological and behavioural disorders may be observed after inhalation, ingestion or dermal exposure of different mercury compounds. Symptoms include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction. Mild, subclinical signs of central nervous system toxicity can be seen in workers exposed to an elemental mercury level in the air of 20 μg/m3 or more for several years. Kidney effects have been reported, ranging from increased protein in the urine to kidney failure.”

You prefer the bed bugs? It’s your choice. The bites do itch.

 

Water

I can’t give you a solid date for the point when indoor plumbing was introduced–it’s not that simple–but it’s safe to say that almost no one had it. So unless you were wildly rich, you wouldn’t use any more water than you had to. In Ironbridge, Shropshire, some people had to walk a third of a mile for water–and then haul it back, preferably without spilling it. 

 

Feather dusters and cheaper alternatives

As the Victorian era rolled on, people further down the economic scale were able to afford some soft furnishings, some books, some knicknacks–little non-useful things that could be set on a shelf and admired. And they all of them collected dust. 

So you dusted. Feather dusters were best–they were made from ostrich feathers, which had barbs that caught the dust–but they were also too expensive for ordinary households. So you might use a soft cloth. 

You could also squidge white bread into any crevices that you couldn’t reach with a cloth or a fingernail.

 

Floors

I’m shifting categories here, from things people used to clean to the things they cleaned with them. Somewhere out there lurks a way to avoid that, but I can’t be bothered to hunt it. It’s a sly old beast, and I’m simply an old one. So pretend you don’t notice.

In working class homes, the floor would be a hard surface–tile, wood, stone–and you’d sprinkle it with tea leaves, sweep it, then get down on your hands and knees and scrub the beast, using soapy water or water and soda–but this isn’t baking soda, it’s something both stronger and harder on the hands. 

Let’s take Ironbridge as an example, because its museums have a good website. It was at the heart of the industrial revolution, a town full of factories, furnaces, and dirt, soot, and smoke (they went together). People heated with coal, which kicked out some more soot. So everyday cleaning was a battle. And the streets–at least in working class neighborhoods–weren’t paved, so when you came in your shoes would be muddy. 

This is Britain, remember.

One Ironbridge resident said, “I’ve seen my mother scrub ours twice a day, year in, year out sort of thing.  Because she used to do it in the morning.  Well then we used to come home from school, we used to be pittering and pattering, in and out, because there was no tarmac roads, you carried a lot of rubbish on your shoes.  And I’ve seen my mother set to and scrub the floor before my father come home from work.  And that was twice a day, and that was regular.” 

 

Laundry

This was one of the heaviest jobs and not technically housecleaning but if you were a housewife (and having gone through what housekeeping was about I begin to think women did marry the house) it was part of the deal.

First you’d collect your water (wherever it was–up to a third of a mile away, remember) and heat it on the stove, then add some soap flakes and toss in your first load of laundry, which you’d agitate by hand, using something called a dolly or a posser. (These days, you can buy a dolly tub online for £170 and use it as a lawn ornament. It’s good to know that irony isn’t dead.) 

You’d do that for, oh, say, half an hour. Then you’d run everything between the rollers of a mangle to force the soapy water out and put the laundry into fresh water to rinse.

Then you’d run it through the mangle again and rinse it again. And again. Then you’d add some blue dye to make everything look brighter. 

Then you’d run it through the mangle one last time and hang it out to dry, hoping to hell it wasn’t raining. If it was (this is Britain, remember), you’d have to hang it indoors.

Then you’d go back and do it all over again with the next load. And the one after that. And the one after that.

When everything was dry, you had to iron it, using a flat iron that you heated on the kitchen stove. 

If you wonder why mothers yelled at their kids about getting their clothes dirty, that’s why.

 

Spring Cleaning

But everyday cleaning wasn’t enough. You had to do spring cleaning as well.

You’d start, I expect, by getting the chimneys cleaned, because that knocked dirt from the chimney into the house. You wouldn’t want to do that after you’d cleaned, and you would want to skip  this step. You could burn the house down. 

After that, you’d get to work.

According to the Ironbridge Gorge Museums website, you’d start this at the top of the house and work down, moving all the furniture out of a room, taking the curtains down to wash, repainting the walls or cleaning the wallpaper, cleaning the floors and woodwork, cleaning and polishing the furniture.

This applies, of course, to people whose houses had multiple stories and multiple rooms, and all the stuff that went into them. Adapt it according to your circumstances.

You’d take your carpets outside and whack the hell out of them. Lighting fixtures? These would’ve been gas, oil, or candles and all involved open flames, which brought the gift of dirt as well as light. The fumes from oil lighting tarnished metal. Candles smoked. So clean all your lighting fixtures.

Be sure to polish all the wooden furniture. If you iron your polishing cloth, it will leave a better shine than an unironed one.

Have I missed anything? Take that out and clean it too.

Move everything back in and start on the next room.

 

What works and what doesn’t?

English Heritage–an organization that maintains historic buildings for the public to troop through and gawk at and charms money out of their pockets in the process–has been trying out Victorian cleaning methods. Here’s what they can tell us.

Cleaning tricks that work

  • Using white bread to clean wallpaper. Remember to clean up the crumbs.
  • Using milk to clean flagstone floors. Skim milk’s best,and you’ll need to get down on the floor and attack it with a scrub brush. They recommend trying it on a small corner first to make sure, because stone isn’t all alike.
  • Polishing waxed wood floors with a mix of beeswax and turpentine.
  • Dusting furniture and figurines (of course you have figurines) with a pony hair brush. (Of course you have a pony hair brush. And of course you know why this is different from a horse hair brush.)
  • Using chamois leather to polish your mirrors.

Clearing tricks to avoid

  • Sprinkling the carpet with damp tea leaves before sweeping. They don’t say why this isn’t recommended, but I’d guess it has something to do with the combination of carpets and brooms.
  • Cleaning oil paintings with a wet slice of potato, sponging it with lukewarm water, and drying it with an old silk handkerchief. 
  • Cleaning wallpaper by covering it with oatmeal, then sweeping it off with a feather duster or a soft broom.
  • Shining silver with salt and Worcestershire sauce.
  • Washing wooden floors with beer.
  • Cleaning copper pans with lemon and salt.

If they tried stale urine on anything, they haven’t mentioned it. 

 

A final word on Victorian cleaning

It seems only right to leave you with an abbreviated part of the lyrics to a traditional song, “The Housewife’s Lament.” Apologies for the formatting. I haven’t figured out how to set it as a poem.

One day I was walking, I heard a complaining

And saw an old woman the picture of gloom

She gazed at the mud on her doorstep (’twas raining)

And this was her song as she wielded her broom

Chorus

Oh, life is a toil and love is a trouble

Beauty will fade and riches will flee

Pleasures they dwindle and prices they double

And nothing is as I would wish it to be

In March it is mud, it is slush in December

The midsummer breezes are loaded with dust

In fall the leaves litter, in muddy September

The wall paper rots and the candlesticks rust

Chorus

With grease and with grime from corner to center

Forever at war and forever alert

No rest for a day lest the enemy enter

I spend my whole life in struggle with dirt.

You can listen to it here

How MI5 keeps Britain’s secrets safe-ish, and other news from Britain

MI5 has warned LinkedIn users that they’re at risk of spilling the nation’s secrets. 

Let’s take that apart, okay? What’s MI5? 

It’s the British domestic security service. MI6 does the overseas spookery. To quote its own website, “MI5’s mission is to keep the country safe. For more than a century we have worked to protect our people from danger whether it be from terrorism or damaging espionage by hostile states.” 

Some other agency gets to deal with non-damaging espionage. 

MI5 is also dedicated to keeping the nation safe from commas, both the necessary kind and, the, unnecessary, sort. 

Irrelevant photo: It’s red berry season. I have no idea what these are. They’re not edible, though, at least as far as I know.

Linguistic problems aside, though, they’re spies. Or counter-spies, but countering spies can involve doing a bit of spying, because otherwise how do you know what your presumed spies are up to? Every country has some, although it’s bad manners to say so. When Lord Google directed me to MI5’s website, I got a brief message saying the site wasn’t available and thought, Ooh, that really is secretive. Then, disappointingly, it loaded. 

Maybe they used the pause to snip out the commas.

Next question: What kind of secret is the great British public at risk of spilling? 

The sad truth is that not many of us hold secrets anyone cares about. The people MI5’s worried about work in government and key industries, and MI5 says some10,000 UK nationals have been approached by hostile states on LinkedIn (which they don’t mention by name–they’re good at keeping secrets) over the past five years.

How does that work? Your average hostile state sets up a non-hostile fake profile, connects with likely users, and offers them speaking gigs, travel, business deals, lollipops, whatever sounds enticing. It all looks legit, not to mention flattering and lucrative. Presumably, these lure the targets into flapping their gums about whatever they’re supposed to be keeping secret. 

People who’ve been working from home since the start of the pandemic are said to be more vulnerable to these approaches, possibly because they’re working on less secure home computers, but possibly because they’re bored out of their skulls and lonely. 

Or possibly not. Maybe MI5 just threw the pandemic into the explanation to make it newsworthy.

 

Meanwhile, in other countries

In the US–you may well know this–Texas passed a law making abortions illegal if you’ve been pregnant for more than six weeks. Even if the preganancy’s the result of rape or incest. Even if you didn’t know you were pregnant until you were 6.1 weeks along. It’s also now illegal to help anyone get an outlawed abortion, and the law creates an odd, and potentially threatening, situation where individuals, not the state, are supposed to enforce it. So an antiabortion group set up a whistleblower website, and TikTokers promptly flooded it with Shrek memes, pornography,, and fake reports. 

My favorite report is an accusation against the State of Texas for maintaining the highways people use to reach abortion centers, although the 742 accusations against Texas’s governor run a close second.All 742 were all sent by one woman. Anyone who was even vaguely interested could find information online about how to convince a computer to submit mass reports.

Shortly after that started, the site’s host, the ironically named GoDaddy, kicked the site off its platform. It’s not considered nice to collect private information about third parties. The site moved to another platform, Epik, which (I’ve read but not confirmed) hosts assorted ultra-right and outright fascist sites. Then Epik kicked them off for pretty much the same reason. 

It was kicked off a couple of other platforms and last I heard had dropped out of sight..

The law, however, has not.

*

A Spanish bishop, Xavier Novell, resigned after falling in love not just with another human being but with a divorced one who writes erotic fiction with satanic themes, Silvia Caballol. The blurb on one of her books describes it as a journey into sadism, madness, and lust. The plot, it says, will shake the reader’s values and religious beliefs.

Well, either the plot or something else seems to have shaken the ex-bishop’s. He was known for for carrying out exorcisms, as well as for backing “conversion therapy” for gay people.

I can’t help hoping that he falls in love with a man next, although I probably should wish this gem on anyone.

 

An important report from a non-existent department 

The Department of Reasonable Caution isn’t concerned with LinkedIn. Instead it urges us to be more careful than the Mid-Kent Planning Support Team was when it tested an online system.

The team took five real planning applications from the town of Swale, inserted assorted wise-assery where bland responses normally land, and then–oops–put them online. After that, Swale discovered that not only was the incident embarrassing, it was legally binding. They can’t just say, “Sorry. Now we’ll publish the real response.” Instead the phony ones have to be overturned in the courts, which will take two or three months at an expected cost of £8,000.

And that’s only if the process isn’t challenged.

The blame’s landing on the head of some junior officer. I’m not sure what junior officer means in this context, but I can’t help feeling for him or her. This is some ill-advised soul who was trying to stay awake (not to mention amused) at work one day. And, briefly, succeeded.

In fairness, a bit of blame may land on the heads of the people who made the test documents public.

What did the docs that shouldn’t have gone live say? One application was turned down because “your proposal is whack.” Another was approved with the comment, “The incy, wincy spider.” A third was approved with the comment, “Why am I doing this, am I the chosen one?”

Yes, dear, you are: the one chosen to catch 96.3% of the flak.

Some of the place names sound like they were made up by the incy, wincy spider author, but they’re real: Bobbing, near Sittingbourne, home to the Happy Pants animal sanctuary. 

Pants, in British, are underwear. What kind of animal sanctuary does that make it? Sorry, you’re on your own there. *

 

And a yet another caution warning

This past week, Britain’s education secretary, Gavin Williamson, demonstrated that he couldn’t tell one Black public figure from another by confusing Marcus Rashford and Maro Itoje. He told an interviewer he’d had a pleasant Zoom meeting with Rashford. He’d been talking to Itoje.

When it all blew up in his face, he explained that he’d made “a genuine mistake.”

And here we’d thought he was faking the mistake to fool us into thinking he’s the kind of clueless racist who can’t tell one Black person for another and doesn’t think that’s a problem. And I say that as someone who can’t tell most people apart–Black, White, or Anyone Else. But my problem is with faces. The difference between the names Rashford and Itoje might give me a clue that they’re different people. And if I had to invest enough time in one of them to hold a meeting, I might take the time to find out who he actually is. 

Williamson also got Itoje’s first name wrong. It’s Maro, not Mario.

 

 

How smart does a prime minister have to be?

One of the non-burning questions in British politics is whether the prime minister is, contrary to all appearances, intelligent or whether he’s the kind of dope whose overpriced education taught him to say dumb things in Latin. 

Why isn’t that a burning question? Because if he is smart, it’s his dumb act that’s leading the country, so the impact is pretty much the same.

Still, it’s something people talk about, and the only argument I’ve heard in favor of him being smarter than he acts is that he wrote a biography of Churchill. No one mentions his novels. Presumably any idiot can write one, although as a novelist I’d like to think that  depends on how low your standards are.

If the Churchill biography is our key evidence, then it matters, in a non-burning sort of way, that a few months ago an eminent (and unnamed) Shakespeare scholar was asked to help Johnson write a biography of Shakespeare

Why is a prime minister messing around with a project that’s even less burning than establishing whether he’s clever enough to be allowed out alone? Because in 2015 Johnson signed a £500,000 deal with the publisher Hodder & Staughton. How much of the advance has been paid is anyone’s guess. I’d assume not all, and the publisher will be glad of that because he hasn’t finished it. Possibly hasn’t started it–he’s been distracted by this silly country he’s supposed to be running–although for all I know all the ands and thes are in place and only the connecting words are missing. 

The scholar was contacted by an agent and asked if he or she would “supply Mr Johnson (and a dictaphone) with answers to questions about Shakespeare. . . . The originality and brilliance, his agent assured me, would lie in Mr Johnson’s choice of questions to ask and in the inimitable way in which he would write up the expert answers he received,” 

The expert was told Johnson wrote his Churchill biography using the same method. S/he told the agent to take a hike. And then, apparently, called the press.

That leaves the nation still debating the prime minister’s intelligence. I’m not sure anyone’s arguing about his character.

 

Talking ducks

A musk duck in Australia has been recorded saying, “You bloody fool.” It’s the first documented instance of a duck imitating human speech. You have to watch the video a few times before you catch the words, but once you do, yes, it really does sound like the duck’s saying, “You bloody fool.” Maybe it’s talking about the ways we waste our time on this planet.

I found it disconcerting to hear a creature talk when its lips aren’t moving. And disconcerting that something that talks doesn’t have lips.

The duck was–or so the article I read told me–hatched from an egg, which I would’ve thought was common enough not to need mentioning, but since we’re talking about a talking duck I don’t suppose we should take anything for granted. The duck was also hand reared. 

Whether any of that is relevant to its ability to insult the world at large is up for grabs, but I’m thinking the duck–he’s called Ripper–wouldn’t make a bad prime minister. I don’t know what Britain’s unwritten constitution has to say about non-citizens becoming prime ministers, but ducks aren’t specifically ruled out.

Even with an unwritten constitution, I’m sure of that.

*

  • My thanks to Bear Humphries for the tip about Swale. I’d have missed it without him. The link is to his photo blog, which is well worth a look.

What British swear word is going out of style? 

Britain’s internationally famous swear word, bloody, has dropped by 80% in the popularity rankings, landing in third place, behind fuck and shit.

Or as the Independent so delicately puts it, behind “the f-word” and “s***.”

No, I don’t know why they can’t use the same form to mask both words  They did spell out bloody, though, which helps those of us who aren’t British sort out how high it ranks on the forbiddenness list: Far enough down that all of its letters were left in plain view.

Having said that, the survey says that both bloody and fuck are being used less in casual conversation. 

How would you measure that? Do you ask people, “How many times in the past week did you use the following words?” Do you tap their phones or install a nanochip in the Covid vaccines that notifies Bill Gates every time you swear? 

Does Bill Gates care?

None of the above. Dr. Robbie Love trawled through twenty years of transcripts in the British National Corpus of Conversation, looking at how usage changed over time. That meant looking through 15 million words for mentions of 16 swear words.

It’s amazing what humans will do. 

Irrelevant photo: hydrangea with butterfly

What’s the British National Corpus of Conversation? It’s 100 million words of written and spoken language from the “later part of the 20th century”–90% of them written (“newspapers, academic books, essays, etc.”) and 10% informal conversations and radio shows.

Which surely means it underestimates people’s swearing. I used to host a radio show, all by my foul-mouthed self, and I didn’t swear once when I was on the air. Still, if he found a decline over twenty years, at least he’s comparing twenty-year-old apples to more modern apples.

Love thinks the word shit gets a boost from the handy way it can be tacked onto other words, like -head and -eating. And fuck? It gets a boost from the number of places it can be dropped into a sentence: 

I fuckin’ hate work days.

I hate fuckin’ work days.

I hate work fuckin’ days. 

I’m stretching it with that last one, but it’s not completely out of the question. If I’d given myself some longer words to work with, I could also have dropped it in mid-fuckin’-word. Count that as an opportunity lost.

Linguists (I’ve read) call this the fucking insertion. I asked Lord Google if he’d confirm that for me, but he thought I was interested in porn. I’ll pay for my intellectual curiosity by wading through an assortment of gross-out ads. In the meantime, you’ll have to take my unsupported word on the subject unless one of the linguists hidden hereabouts cares to wade in. 

I know you’re out there. 

Men still swear more than women, the survey reports, but the gap is narrowing, striking another blow for equality.

 

And since we’re in polite company

The Cerne Giant–one of Britain’s best-known chalk figures–has at long last been reliably dated

And when I say dated, I don’t mean romantically. I mention that because he’s clearly available. He’s naked, he’s anatomically correct (in an exaggerated way that I guess makes him overcorrect), and he’s visibly interested. But no, that’s not what we’re talking about. Cernie’s still single. We’re talking about dating the era when he was carved into the hillside. Experts have spent years debating that. He was Roman. He was Celtic. He was Cromwellian. 

Sorry, everyone, but none of those are right. The National Trust has brought in some high-tech equipment and pronounced him Anglo-Saxon, probably from the tenth century. That’s based on microscopic snails in the sediment.

No, I didn’t know microscopic snails existed either.

For whatever reasons, local documents have been no help in figuring out his origins. He’s not mentioned in the tenth century, in the sixteenth century, or in the seventeenth century. There he is, dominating the hillside, and no one mentioned him.

The best explanation for the figure belongs to Gordon Bishop, of the Cerne Historical Society. Asked if he had a theory, he said, “I don’t have one. . . . You can make up all sorts of stories. I don’t know why he is on the hill, . . . I can’t work it out. “

 

 

Who’s best at spotting fake news?

According to a US survey, people who are the most certain that they can spot fake news are the most likely to be taken in by it.

I’m still trying to figure out if that’s sobering or hysterically funny. You would think anything could hit both notes at once.

Nine out of ten people in the survey ranked themselves above average in their ability to tell the difference, which reminds me of Garrison Keillor’s line about Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, where all the children are above average. 

Two out of ten put themselves fifty or more percentiles higher than their actual scores. 

Americans do agree, for the most part, that fake news is everywhere. It’s the one thing uniting the country just now. Take that away and it all gets even worse.

The study’s author, Ben Lyons, said, “No matter what domain [I think he’s talking about countries and cultures here], people on average are overconfident. . . . But over 70% of people displaying overconfidence is just such a huge number.” 

Men–both in this study and in general–are more overconfident than women, and more vulnerable to false news. Another blow struck for feminism. The minute men stop undermining us and we stop undermining ourselves, we can be as vulnerable to fake news as they are.

Can I hear a few cheers for human progress, please?

 

And speaking of misinformation . . .

Somebody out there (including the Republican senator Rand Paul) is promoting ivermectin, an animal dewormer, as a treatment for Covid. In fact, a judge in Cincinnati ordered a hospital to treat a patient with it because his doctor ordered it.

Why doesn’t the hospital want to? Because the drug’s approved for humans only in limited ways–to treat head lice, scabies, river blindness, and assorted other problems caused by parasites. It has nothing to do with treating a virus. Clinical trials haven’t turned up enough evidence to use it against Covid. 

The patient’s doctor, though, says federal authorities and the media are in a conspiracy to cover up the drug’s effectiveness. He calls it genocride. Or he says we’d call it that if another country did it, which allows him to call it genocide without actually calling it genocide.

What does the US Food and Drug Administration say? 

I don’t think it’s commented on the specific case, but on the subject of ivermectin in general it tweeted, “You are not a horse. You are not a cow. Seriously, y’all. Stop it,” 

In a more sober mood, it also said, “Even the levels of ivermectin for approved uses can interact with other medications, like blood-thinners. You can also overdose on ivermectin, which can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hypotension (low blood pressure), allergic reactions (itching and hives), dizziness, ataxia (problems with balance), seizures, coma and even death.”

Seriously, y’all. Stop it.

 

An orchid comes back from extinction

An orchid that was thought to be extinct since 2009, the serapias parviflora, has turned up in (or should that be on?) a roof garden in London. And not just one orchid: fifteen of them, blooming away as happily as if the roof of an investment bank was its natural habitat.

Can I interrupt myself for a moment? I’ve just been handed a note from the Department of Small Print. It says the flower turns out to be extinct in the UK, not on the entire planet. It’s just that–well,  you know how countries are. They have a habit of thinking they are the entire planet. Or at least ones that have or used to have power do. 

How’d the flower get onto a bank’s roof? According to one theory, seedlings could’ve blown there with dust from the Sahara. The seedlings do travel that way. According to another, the seeds could’ve been in the soil when it was brought there, ten years ago, and have just now germinated.

The garden also has London’s biggest colony of green-winged orchids.

 

Your ten-minute history of the English courts

We can trace the history of English courts back to–well, it depends on who you read: the Anglo-Saxon moot courts, the medieval manor courts, Henry II, Richard I, a few other people with numbers after their names. Take your pick. Toss in a few others if you want to. And by way of truth in advertising, I haven’t timed the article. I have no idea how long it takes to read. But let’s start with the Anglo-Saxons, since they’re first in line.

 

The Anglo-Saxons

Since Anglo-Saxon England started life as a series of smallish kingdoms, it had a scattered mass of laws and customs, meaning that law and its enforcement depended on where you found yourself in its clutches, as well as when. 

Cases that directly involved the king went to the king’s court.  

And cases that didn’t? Well, below the king’s court were, on the basement level, the hundred courts. A hundred was an administrative, military, and judicial category. It was made up of enough land to sustain a hundred families. Above the hundred courts, on the ground floor, were  the shire courts, over which a sheriff presided.

We’ll leave it there, before the picture gets messy, but if you’re in need of serious Anglo-Saxon complications you can find a bit more on the subject in an earlier post.

Irrelevant photo: Li’l Red Cat

 

The Normans

Then the Normans invaded and complicated the picture in a different way, and I desperately hope that I’ve attached the right courts to the right time periods to the right kings.

That’s the problem with history: The pieces move around all the damn time. 

The king’s court continued, hearing important pleas and appeals. Below that, a mass of other courts sprang up, each one handling different issues: In Devon and Cornwall, anything involving mining went to the stannary courts. Anything involving the royal forests went someplace else that wasn’t named in the articles I read and I’m exhausted this week so we’ll pretend we don’t need to know. 

Then there were the manor courts, where tenants were judged by the feudal lords’ stand-ins. Since many of the offenses would’ve been against the lords’ rules and the fines imposed went into the lords’ pockets–

Why, of course a peasant could expect impartial judgement. 

The manor courts also had a more neutral function as places to register land transactions between tenants (the transactions first had to be allowed by the lord), or to surrender or take up holdings under the lord.

Above the manor courts were the honour courts (what the hell, I’ll spell them the English way, with that stray U, since after all they were English). They each covered a complex of estates. 

On top of all that, the church ran its own courts to deal with clerics. 

Clerics, though, even if they couldn’t be judged in a secular court, took on much of the business of secular law. They were an important part of the king’s circle, after all. And they were literate, they knew Latin–the common language of Europe and the language of education and government–and boy could they play politics. At the time, it would’ve seemed natural enough. 

 

Henry II

With Henry, we leave the Normans behind and–if you keep track of these things–are into the Plantagenets. It’s not the 12th century. 

Henry II set up a unified court system that was common to the whole country and that gives us the phrase common law.  It took local custom to the national level, ending local control, and according to a paper posted at OpenLearn, ended arbitrary remedies. 

It also, not so incidentally, centralized power in the king’s hands. In every hundred, twelve “lawful” men–and in every village, four of them–were to declare whether any local man (or presumably, woman) was a murderer or robber. So basically, they had the power to make an accusation, and Henry had a network of prisons built to hold the accused for trial. 

To deal with them,  Henry sent judges traveling on circuits called eyres, and if you heard a piece click into place as the former English majors and other book lovers read that, I heard it too. The judges were to base their judgments on the laws made in Westminster, which is where OpenLearn’s end to arbitrary remedies comes from.

The judges had no local roots, which at least in theory made them less susceptible to corruption. 

All this meant it was now the king’s right to deal with crime and disorder, not the local lords’.

A different set of courts dealt with usurpation–who had a right to what land and whose ancestor had a better claim to it, since damn near everything hinged on who your ancestors were. Disputes were settled, vendettas and violence were avoided, and (ever so incidentally) fees were collected and the treasury was enriched.

It took a while, but eventually the courts’ decisions were written down and published, setting precedents that could be cited in future cases.

The law was becoming professionalized. 

What else did Henry do? He set up a jury of twelve knights to settle land disputes, plus five members of his household–two from the clergy and three from the, um, non-clergy–“to hear all the complaints of the realm and to do right.” They were to be supervised by the king himself, in all his kingliness, and the “wise men” of the realm.

This involved the royal court in disputes between people who weren’t the king. (An awful lot of people, even then, weren’t the king.) In other words, these were cases where the crown wasn’t a party and cared only in the somewhat abstract interest of justice, power, and a peaceful kingdom.

That evolved eventually into the Court of Common Pleas, which was the middle ages’ most active court, for which it won a large plastic trophy. The court continued until the 19th century looked at the overlapping and competing jurisdictions of what was by then three common law courts and replaced them all.

And confiscated the trophy.

Sic transit gloria mundi, which is Latin for Plastic was rare and valuable back then.

One more word about common law: It’s marked by a reliance not just on statute but also on precedent. How anyone ever found their way through the snaking mass of precedents before the age of computers I can’t imagine, but they did. 

 

Richard I

A bit later  in the 12th century, Richard I commissioned a set of knights (it was cheaper to buy the full set than to buy them individually) to preserve the “king’s peace” in “unruly” areas. They were called keepers of the peace and were responsible to the king. By the 14th century, the phrase had evolved into justices of the peace, who are sometimes these days called magistrates.

If Richard contributed anything more than that, I haven’t figured out what it is. 

 

Justice incorruptible

At some point, judges began interpreting the 13th century Statute of Gloucester in a way that funneled cases involving more than 40 shillings to the royal courts. That increased their fees, since they were paid (a bit like cab drivers back in the days when I was one) on the basis of the business they did. 

Cab drivers are also incorruptible.

The site judiciary.uk says the justices in eyre were seen locally as tools of oppression.

An act from 1361 (that’s under Edward III) gave justices of the peace the power to “bind over unruly persons.” It’s still usable today, although these days they’re called magistrates.

Until the 19th century, magistrates were not just judges but local administrators. They set wages, built roads and bridges (not with their own hands, mind you; they were too important to get their hands dirty), and supervised local services. 

Manorial courts declined in the 17th century and were pretty much obsolete in the 18th century. But magistrates, on the other hand, were members of the landed gentry in the 18th century, which is one reason England was so hard on poachers. Poachers were people who hunted illegally on the gentry’s land. So with the end of manor courts the power hadn’t exactly shifted, it had just poured itself into a different form.

The first paid, professional magistrate was appointed in 1813.

 

Magistrates’ courts today

As the judiciary.uk puts it, “It’s doubtful that anyone asked to design a justice system would choose to copy the English and Welsh model. It’s contradictory in places, and rather confusing.”

Did you want an example of English understatement? See above: “rather confusing.” 

Most criminal cases start in a magistrates’ court, and some 95% will end there. Only the most serious ones get bumped up a level, to the crown court, where they get a judge and a jury and a full set of wigs. Magistrates’ courts function without any of those. 

They also function (for the most part) without a paid judge. Magistrates are “mostly unpaid, largely untrained volunteers,” according to Stig Abell in How Britain Really Works

Who’s trained and who’s untrained depends on how you want to define training. Magistrates do get some training before they’re thrown onto the bench, but they’re not lawyers and they are part timers. When they need advice on law and procedure they have to rely on clerks, who are their legal advisors. 

A small majority of the magistrates–56%–are women. You can read that as a victory for feminism if you like, but I’m inclined to think it’s a reminder that the job’s mostly unpaid.

 

Capital punishment

But let’s digress. I always do. It allows us to tackle the important questions, which are always off to one side. Do we capitalize magistrates’ court and crown court? The judiciary.uk website goes with Magistrates’ court, and so do some other sites. That’s moderately insane but looks worse when you zip around the website a bit and see that the more important court gets two capital letters instead of one: Crown Court. A couple of dictionaries go with magistrates’ court.

So what’s a frazzled blogger to do? Since the British have a habit of Capitalizing anything they think is Important, especially Nouns, I’ve sent the whole self-important lot of them packing and gone with lower-case letters. 

What does it mean that a Covid vaccine is, say, 70% effective?

Let’s start by talking about what it doesn’t mean. If a vaccine is 70% effective against a virus it doesn’t mean that 30% of the people who’ve been vaccinated will get infected. That’s an assumption that only people whose math is as bad as mine would make. The kind of people who juggle the numbers 70, 30, and 100 and come up with an answer that’s as likely looking as it is meaningless.

It turns out that the number doesn’t compare the vaccinated people who stay well to the  vaccinated people who get sick. Nay, verily, it compares the vaccinated people who get sick (or who stay well) to the unvaccinated people who get sick (or who stay well). To put that a different way (because I don’t know about you, but I’m struggling with this), it compares the risk vaccinated people run in the presence of Covid to the risk unvaccinated people run.

This matters because it leaves us with a much smaller pool of people who are vulnerable.

If you’d care to read about that with actual numbers and sensible writers, follow the link. I have a severe allergy to math and I know better than to attempt a full explanation. 

Irrelevant photo: Red clover. I’ll come back with more kitten photos soon.

 

Who gets sick with the Delta variant and can the vaccinated spread it?

In the US, 95% to 98% of the people hospitalized with Covid are unvaccinated, and 99.5% of the deaths are of the unvaccinated. Even with the Delta variant circulating, that seems to be holding true.

But some numbers have changed since the initial vaccine studies, and they have to do with what Dr. Robert Schooley, from the Department of Medicine at UC San Diego’s School of Medicine, calls “the asymptomatic shedding rate among vaccinated individuals,” which in human speech means how much of the virus is spread by vaccinated people who get infected but don’t get sick.

Or to push that one step further, how dangerous they are to the unvaccinated.

When the vaccines were tested, the Delta variant wasn’t around yet. They were dealing with a less infectious beast. On top of which, no one thought to investigate the odd sniffles and colds that people in the study cooked up. They were allergies. They were colds. They were flu. 

Remember the old days, when people caught colds? 

So the study didn’t track them.

Now, though, they’re realizing that those mild symptoms could be nearly asymptomatic Covid, and what’s known so far is that some fully vaccinated people who get infected carry enough of the virus to spread it, even though it’s not making them sick.

How do they compare with unvaccinated people as far as spreading the thing goes? The numbers aren’t in yet. I mean, they’re out there. Numbers always are. But nobody’s assembled them yet. On average, though, Schooley says the infected vaccinated person will shed less virus for a shorter time. And the odds that they’ll become infected are lower, so whatever the eventual picture turns out to be, vaccinating people does slow the spread of the disease.

 

Are the vaccines losing their effectiveness? 

As has become usual since the pandemic started, we’re not likely to find a definitive answer yet, but it does look like the number of breakthrough cases in vaccinated people is growing.

What’s a breakthrough case? A Covid case in someone who’s vaccinated. Getting one doesn’t mean you’re dead, hospitalized, or even necessarily sick. It just means you’re carrying the infection, when if the vaccines were 100% effective (very few are and no one expected these to be), you wouldn’t be. 

So if you’re fully vaccinated, it’s not time to panic yet. You can always do that later. 

Why’s this happening? The experts are still debating that, but it doesn’t look like the Delta variant is evading either the vaccines or immunity from earlier infections. 

That’s another reason to wait before you panic.

If Delta hasn’t broken through the vaccines’ protective lines, that leaves us with two possibilities. One, the vaccines’ effectiveness is fading, or two, Delta’s high transmissibility is responsible.

Several studies show what could be a waning in vaccine effectiveness, but it’s hard to know if the numbers really mean that. They could also mean that vaccinated people are taking more risks–going to bars or gyms or other Covid exchange sites–and giving themselves more chances to meet the virus.

And protection against getting so sick that you need to be hospitalized, though, is holding steady, which may mean effectiveness isn’t waning. All this will be perfectly clear in hindsight, but for now we have to make do with what we can see from where we are.

So do booster shots make sense? 

On the side of saying no are the many countries that the vaccines have barely reached. How can rich countries be talking about booster shots when initial doses are desperately needed elsewhere?

On the side of saying yes is that in people with weakened immune systems, because of either age or disease, they can make a difference, although the evidence on that is still preliminary.

 

Testing news

A new study shows that testing saliva for Covid is as reliable as testing nasal swabs. So at some point we may be able to stop puncturing our brain pans with sticks that are allegedly softened with cotton wool–or something that looks vaguely like cotton wool.

If Covid tests shift to using saliva, they won’t have to rely on patents’ willingness to make themselves uncomfortable, which will make them more reliable. And we won’t have to worry about a shortage of swabs.

If, in fact, worrying about that is one of the things that’s keeping you up at night.

*

Several times now, I’ve sworn off writing about newer, faster, cheaper Covid tests because although I keep reading about them, they never seem to be adopted–at least not anywhere I read about, and certainly not where I live. But you know how it is when you swear off something multiple times: It’s a sign that you keep breaking your word. So here we go again:

A newer, faster, cheaper Covid test has been developed. And it uses the same stuff that pencil lead is made from, which isn’t lead at all, it’s graphite. It cuts the cost to $1.50 per test, takes six and a half minutes, and is 100% accurate using a saliva sample and 88% using one of those evil nasal thingies.

The system can be adapted to test for other transmissible diseases. Now all we have to do is wait and see whether we hear of it again.