About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

Yet another game changer: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The British government’s buying two new Covid tests that take only 90 minutes to cough out a result. As usual, they’re going to be game changing. I can’t remember how many times we’ve been told that, and here we are, still whacking the same old volleyball over the same old weary net. Or in my case, into the same old weary net. 

The reason I’m expressing just the slightest touch of cynicism about the tests–other than experience and generalized characterological weaknesses–is that next to nothing is known about the tests. How many false negatives do they produce? How many false positives? Dunno and dunno. No data’s been published.

That’s not a good sign. And the government has a track record of leaping in to buy pandemic goodies that then turned out to be somewhere between useless and not much better than.

Every last one of them was going to be either game changing or world beating. And no, we’re not competitive about this. We just don’t see the point of breathing if we’re not better than you lot.

Irrelevant photo: Yes, it’s a dandelion, doing its bit to help its species take over the world. Let’s be grateful it’s not a virus.

Okay, when I say “every last one of them” I’m exaggerating. The swabs they bought and then had to toss in the dumpster didn’t get much fanfare, but the useless personal protective gear that they sent planes to Turkey for? The fraction of it that reached Britain was practically greeted with confetti and marching bands.

The new tests are called DnaNudge and LamPORE. And they detect flu and other viruses and well as Covid-19.

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Watching how the press responded to the announcement of the new tests was interesting. On Monday–that was yesterday as I write this–they made front-page, huge-type, game-changing headlines in the sleazier papers and I wondered why the more responsible ones were either silent or downplaying the news. On Tuesday–today–they ran longer articles with a bit of analysis and skepticism. 

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Meanwhile, a group of not quite 70 virologists publicly criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic, especially the test and trace system, saying virologists are being bypassed.

One of the group, Deenan Pillay, said, “There’s always new tests being developed. And it’s almost as if they’re being pushed as a sort of magic bullet.” But what really needs to be done, he said, is “the more boring but really hard work of doing proper contact tracing.” 

Part of the problem is that the testing that is being done–much of it by private contractors –isn’t feeding data to the National Health Service or local public health officials, who would be able to follow up on it. 

The link for that is the same one as the one in the volleyball paragraph.

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The British government has told drug suppliers that they should have six weeks’ worth of drugs stockpiled before the Brexit cut-off date of December 31. In case the supply chain gets disrupted, what with this little pandemic we’re experiencing and all. Because there isn’t going to be an extension, no matter what. 

During  the Brexit referendum, Remainers warned that this sort of thing would happen. Brexiteers–a.k.a. the people who are now in government–called it Project Fear.

I wouldn’t say I’m afraid exactly, although maybe I should be. But I’d be a damn fool not to take notice. Excuse me while I go check our stash of omeprazole. It doesn’t get you high, but it does control acid reflux.

If that doesn’t tell you my age, nothing will.

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Russia says it will start production on a Covid vaccine in September and begin mass immunizations by October. Non-Russian experts are waving a few caution flags, though. The trials have been rushed, they say. 

Not much is known about the development process, but there’ve been rumors that Russia’s elite got a prototype vaccine in July. Emphasis on rumors. The Russian media reports that doctors and teachers will be among the first people to be immunized.

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A family went to a drive-in Covid testing center in a London parking lot, got tested without leaving the car, and were sent a notice that they owed a £90 fine for not paying for parking. 

The company that issued the ticket is canceling it. I’m not sure if the driver managed to get that done before the press got involved–they don’t make that easy–or if it was the publicity that magicked it away.

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A few more possible Covid risk factors and symptoms are being reported–still somewhat tentatively. 

Possible symptoms are hair loss, rashes, and hearing loss.  

Possible new risk factors might include being tall and being bald. Emphasis on might, but as a short, hairy woman I’m doing my best not to gloat.

The study on tall people has been criticized for not being well designed. It’s working theory, however, is that being tall exposes people to more of the aerosols that carry the virus. In other words, it’s nothing personal.

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According to a study by the Office of National Statistics, less than half of British adults are keeping to the distancing guidelines when they see family and friends, and 8% never keep to the guidelines.

The survey was based on people’s own estimates of their behavior, which is notoriously faulty. In an earlier survey, 79% of the people surveyed thought they were doing better than average on keeping to the guidelines. So we can probably figure the true figure is less than less-than-half. 

Speaking of notoriously faulty, I’m pulling that 79% figure from a notoriously unreliable memory–mine–so it may be off by a percentage point or two. But the original was well over the 50% you might reasonably expect.

Lockdowns and communication problems: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Cynics claim the British government has a communication problem. To demonstrate that this is a lie and a slander, I offer you the following statement from Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health and social care. He’s explaining why a local semi-lockdown was imposed in Manchester. 

“We know that from the contact tracing information so whenever anybody tests positive the vast majority of them, unmm, we manage to speak to and we ask which contacts they’ve had who they– we been in contact with and that’s shown that the vast majority of contacts of people who have the virus are pe– are from other than people in their own household of course, unmm, who have to self isolate– anyway– is is is from households visiting and them visiting friends and relatives uhh err and and those two are bigger than the impact– the number of contacts that people have say at work or visiting ehm visiting shops and and and that means that we’re– because we have that information from the NHS test and trace system it means that we’re able to take this action which is more targeted at uhm erm controlling the spread of the virus.”

I hope that clarifies the situation. If the punctuation’s a bit unorthodox, I know you’ll understand. 

My thanks to the inimitable Bear Humphries, from Scribblans, who managed to extract the text from the internet and who is not responsible for anyplace it deviates from the spoken original. He tried to convince me to double check but it’s hard, when you’re looking at this level of iron-bound logic to imagine that anything could possibly have gone wrong. 

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Irrelevant photo: Pears on our tree last year. This year’s aren’t quite this far along yet.

Since we’re talking about communications, the Manchester lockdown was announced just after 9 pm on Thursday and went into effect at midnight. Guidance on what was and wasn’t permitted was published well ahead of time, at 11 pm. Eid al Adha, an important Muslim holiday when families gather together, began on Thursday night, making the issue of what can and can’t be done under the guidelines particularly fraught.

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You’re dying to know how I do my research, right? If you (or at least if I) toss Lord Google the phrase “new lockdown manchester,” the first link Lord G. suggests reads, “Seven simple tricks to fix a noisy washing machine in lockdown.” The second one said, “Doet het aantal stappen tijdens de lockdown er echt toe? – myprotein.com” 

I do, in fact, have lockdown toe. I don’t know how Lord G. knew that, since I hadn’t googled it yet, but I won’t be fixing my washing machine, no matter how noisy it gets. I once turned a 29-cent leak in the toilet into a $250 repair job, plus I took out the kitchen ceiling. When anything involves more water than fits in the dog bowl, it’s cheaper to call a professional.

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And now it’s time to sit at your desks and settle down, people, because we’re going to talk about serious stuff.

Yes, you too, Bear.

The number of Covid-19 infections in England has risen slightly. Or seems to have risen slightly. That’s based on a weekly random sample, so it won’t have been skewed by either more or less testing of the population. The estimate is that 36,000 people are now infected, with 4,200 new infections per day, up from 28,000 with 2,800 new infections per day last week. 

Restrictions were supposed to be eased on August 1, with essential services like, um, casinos and bowling alleys reopening. That’s now on hold, and you’ll have to wear a mask if you go to a movie, a museum, or an assortment of other indoor places.

On the other hand, 2.2 million extremely vulnerable who’ve been advised to stay home up to now can go back to work if they can’t work from home and if the place they work is Covid-secure. 

What’s Covid-secure? You got me.

Is this a good idea? We’ll get back to you about that when someone dies.

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I am endlessly indebted to Boris Johnson’s government for keeping me supplied with blog fodder. A new scheme to make Britain slim, Covid-resistant, and bike-addicted opened as farce this week. 

Picking up on a link between obesity and dying from Covid-19, Johnson launched a program to make Britain lose weight, saying it wouldn’t be “excessively bossy or nannying.”

These people who grew up with nannies. They’ve got a thing about them.

The program hits out at a few of the predictable targets: no more junk food ads on the TV before 9 pm. Information about calories visible on menus (or somewhere–I haven’t read the fine print; possibly in the back office). No junk food displays by the checkout. 

But the bit that’s getting the most press is the offer of a £50 bike repair voucher to anyone (up to some limit–it doesn’t matter just now what it is) stubborn and clever enough to survive its website. That eliminates anyone who doesn’t have a computer, an internet connection, or a bike–in other words, anyone who’s poor. Because the problem with poor people is that they don’t have enough money. And a shortage of money leads to a shortage of bikes, internet connections, and computers. Not to mention other stuff, like good food. So we can discount them.

We can also discount old people (that’s defined as older than me, and I’m upwards of 300), who also may not have computers, internet connections, or bikes, and who therefore aren’t really part of our culture and don’t matter.

But plenty of people wanted–and quite possibly needed–those vouchers enough that they hurled themselves at the website as soon as it went live.

Which crashed the thing. Twitter was alight with comments. The one that interested me most said, “Since when did the govmt use a one man band in Doncaster who has a £30k company with £455 of assets to develop WordPress websites for their national schemes??”

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that claim and I’m too clueless to follow it up myself, but I thought I’d toss it into the conversation and see if anyone knows more about it than I do. The government has a habit of handing out contracts like that. They once, famously, gave a ferry contract to a company with no ships. 

Another tweet reported an improvement in the site: It had gone from not letting him in to crashing once he’d entered his information. 

Will any of it make the nation thinner? Governments have been trying to slenderize Britain for twenty years without any noticeable success. But it does give everyone the satisfying impression that Steps Are Being Taken. 

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And now let’s drop in on the U.S of infectious A. Congressman Louie Gohmert has tested positive for Coronavirus and said in an interview, “I can’t help but wonder if by keeping a mask on and keeping it in place, I might have put some germs–some virus–on to the mask and breathed it in.” 

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But that’s amateur hour. Donald Trump promoted a tweet by Dr. Stella Immanuel which sung the praises of hydroxycloroquine. She has an impressive medical track record that includes warning people that alien DNA shows up in various medicines and that having sex with demons and witches in your dreams has a terrible impact on your health.

She also mentioned a vaccine that will prevent people catching religion. It doesn’t seem to be working, but maybe we don’t have herd immunity yet.

The caption on one of her videos asks, “How long are we going to allow the gay agenda, secular humanism, Illuminati and the demonic New World Order to destroy our homes, families and the social fibre of America.”

The quote didn’t come with a question mark at the end, and as far as I can figure out it didn’t have one in the original. I shouldn’t get snotty about punctuation, but “Get snotty about punctuation” is on the gay agenda for today at 2:50 pm, and I’m helpless in its grip.

I’d like to be better than that. Really I would.

I’d end by telling you to stay sane, because it’s crazy out there, but I worry that you’ll stop reading Notes. Stay only mildly crazy. Don’t get sick.

Everything we don’t know about Aphra Behn

The first English woman to make her living entirely as a writer was Aphra Behn. She’s known to have been born, to have been a spy, to have been a writer, and to have died. After that, information about her ranges from the sketchy to the questionable. 

What could be more fun than writing about someone nobody knows much about?

She was born in 1640. Her father might have been a barber and her mother might have been a wet nurse. They might also not have been. 

Her last name might have been Johnson. She might have been adopted. 

Since we can’t sketch in her family, let’s sketch in the times she lived in: The English Civil Wars ran from 1642 to 1651. In 1660, the Stuart kings settled their hind ends back on the throne they’d been lusting after. So she grew up in turbulent times and was twenty at the start of the Restoration, which is a fancy name for the aforesaid Stuart hind end settling back on that throne.

Irrelevant photo: This is one of about a dozen big, flat wildflowers that don’t look alike but are similar enough that I doubt I’ll ever learn their names.

She may or may not have spent some time in Surinam.

Suri-what? A small country in South America. It was an English colony until 1667, when it became Dutch. Under the English, it evolved into a place of sugar plantations and slave labor, which gets an early mention because it feeds into one of Behn’s books. 

(It’s irrelevant but interesting to note that the Parliamentarians–the folks who threw out the Stuart kings–were no more opposed to slavery than the Royalists were. That won’t be on the test. In fact, there won’t be a test. This is a blog. You can stop reading right here if the mood takes you.) 

If Behn had been a man, an aristocrat, or a religious nonconformist, she’d have left more information behind, or so say Abigail Williams and Kate O’Connor in an essay. The surprise in that, for me, is the nonconformists. They were prone, both the men and the women, to keeping spiritual journals. 

In 1664, Behn married a merchant named Johan Behn, although the marriage might not have lasted long. He might have died the next year. He might not have. Either way, that’s the last we’ll hear of him. 

She was a royalist spy in Antwerp during the Anglo-Dutch War. If she was in Surinam, she might have been there as a spy. 

Of course, she also might not have been in Surinam as a spy. 

She might not have been in Surinam at all. 

Don’t you love history?

Spying wasn’t a good way to get rich. According to one source, she wasn’t paid at all and had to borrow money to get home from Antwerp.

That leads to our next questionable statement: She ended up in debtors prison, according to one source (a different one this time) for “debts she incurred in service to the crown.” None of the other sources I’ve found mention the reason for her debts. In fact, the British Library entry on her says there’s no documentation that she was ever in debtors prison.

If she was, though, either somebody ponied up the money needed to break her loose or she started writing as a way to get herself out. Either way, write she did, and back then it was a better way to make money than it is today. Writing was still the hot new medium. You know how parents yell at their kids to get off their phones and turn off their computers? “Go read a book and learn something,” they say. Well, back then parents yelled at their kids to put down their books, get out in the fresh air, and be ignorant.

Yes, every last parent. Every last kid. That’s how you can tell what the hot new medium is: Parents are appalled by it.

Now we’ll take a quick step back. Bear with me. Before the Restoration, the theaters were closed. They were frivolous and led to perdition and fun. Then the king sashayed back to London, the party began, and theater companies were licensed. It wasn’t exactly a new medium, but it was hot all the same.

Behn started working for two of the theater companies that had started up, first as a scribe, then as a playwright. Fittingly, the timelines I’ve seen are contradictory, but her first plays either were or weren’t commercial successes, but either a later or the first one was. But forget which play it was, one of them ran for six nights, and that counted as a smash hit. The income from the third day (and the sixth if there was one, and the ninth if miracles should occur) of a run went to the author, so she got the income from two nights. 

She went on to write and publish an assortment of other plays, some successful, some not, and one–now lost–a complete disaster, involving an arrest for an abusive prologue (or epilogue–take your pick) attacking the Duke of Monmouth. She was (probably) let off with a warning. 

Nope, I have no idea what it said. It’s lost. Sorry. 

Some of her plays were definitely her plays. Others might have been her plays but might have been someone else’s. During her lifetime, a lot of her work was published anonymously, which helps explain the murkiness over what was her work and what wasn’t.

She also published novels and poetry. 

She had a couple of lovers. One of them, John Hoyle, is believed to have written the epitaph (not to be confused with that troublesome epilogue) that’s on her tombstone: “Here lies a proof that wit can never be Defence enough against mortality.”

She died in 1689, at forty-nine. 

So what did she have to say? Well, in her novel Oroonoko, the narrator swears the story’s true, that she either saw everything in it  or was told it by its hero, thus muddying the autobiographical waters by pouring fiction into alleged fact. The book’s unusual in English literature in its choice of hero, an African prince sold into slavery in Surinam. Behn wasn’t not free from the prejudices of her time and place–who is?–but she allowed him his humanity, something it took European writers and their descendants centuries to find their way back to.

She also wrote about sex–about women enjoying sex and about men sometimes failing to enjoy it, much as they would have liked to. “The Disappointment” is full of seventeenth century roundaboutness, but it’s also frank: The man couldn’t get it up. 

 

      . . . In vain th’ enraged Youth assaid

      To call his fleeting Vigour back. . . .

      In vain he Toils, in vain Commands,

      Th’ Insensible fell weeping in his Hands.

 

After Behn died, Memoirs on the Life of Mrs Behn. By a Gentlewoman of her Acquaintance was published, further blurring the line between fact and fiction. The gentlewoman was probably a man named Charles Gildon, who drew heavily on her fiction, along with her letters, to piece together a life, leaning heavily on sex to sell the story.

Behn went out of fashion in more prudish centuries and–well, Restoration literature doesn’t draw a mass audience anymore, but feminists since Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf have been rediscovering her, reinterpreting her, re-appreciating her, and in Sackville-West’s case reimagining her from the ground up. 

Which given the gaps in her story is easy to do. You have no facts to lean on but you also have none to contradict you. 

Quarantine, sunburn, and interplanetary theology: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Since Britain can’t get on the sun’s schedule more than once a measly month, going abroad in the summer is a Big Deal here. Preferably to places with sun, pools, and German tourists to be outraged by. So opening the doors and letting the British public go abroad looks like a measure of success to a government overwhelmed by the bad pandemic choices it’s made,

So the government made a list of countries Britons could visit safely, then it opened the doors and it said, “Have fun, kiddies. Don’t get sunburned.”

Of course they got sunburned. They’re British. 

Irrelevant photo: A rose.

So far, so good, but Spain went and had a spike of Covid cases and Britain’s announced that anyone coming home from Spain will have to isolate themselves for fourteen days. That did three things: It made the government look like it was protecting us; it made the tourists already in Spain, along with the travel and aviation industries, furious; and it encouraged people who’d planned to go to Spain to cancel their plans.

Spain was and is (predictably, given how much of its economy depends on tourism) mad enough to spit tacks. The spikes, it said–

Okay, it didn’t say. Countries don’t really talk. The spikes, its spokefolks said, are regional. Travelers who’ve been visiting spikeless parts of Spain shouldn’t be quarantined. Heroically resisting any urge to be catty, Spain’s prime minister pointed out that most of the country has a lower infection rate than the U.K. 

“It would be safer to be in [parts of Spain] than in the United Kingdom,” he said.

If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, Spain’s also implying that the spike is at least in part a result of increased testing, which catches asymptomatic cases–something the UK would do well to look for. 

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Except that, stop the press, Britain’s been giving this quarantine business some thought and you know what? We might just cut it from fourteen days to ten. Because we’ve got, you know, testing. And we could use that, couldn’t we, to see if people are carrying the virus?

Why, yes we could. 

Could we have thought of this earlier? Possibly, but we didn’t take the time.

We’ll get back to you about this ASAP. As soon as we know what our plans really are.

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Figuring out what it means that a country has a certain number of cases is, genuinely, a problem. If you test more–and that’s still the best way to control the virus–you find more cases. If you find more cases, you look like the thing’s gone out of control, although what it may mean is that you’re getting it under control. If, being a headline-based government, you resist the urge to test more, the thing really is likely to get–or stay–out of control, and that doesn’t look good either.

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One thing Britain hasn’t bungled is its work on medical responses to the coronavirus. The UK Recovery Trial is conducting randomized tests on a variety of medicines you can’t pronounce– and neither can I in case I made you feel bad for a moment there. 

They started work when Wuhan’s lockdown meant that Chinese researchers had so few enough cases to work with that drug trials came to a halt, and with the virus clearly headed for Britain they worked at high speed, taking nine days to do work that would normally take nine months, from drafting protocols to enrolling patients. 

Large trials need more patients than any single hospital can supply, and the existence of the National Health Service made it easy for them to enroll patients from multiple hospitals. Even better, the UK’s high death rates meant that at the beginning they had plenty of available cases. 

Every cloud has a silver lining, not to mention a cough and a fever. And sometimes a headache.

To date, they’ve shown that neither hydroxychloroquine or a combination of two drugs used for HIV help with the virus but that the steroid dexamethasone does.  They’re currently testing an antibiotic called azithromycin; an antibody called tocilizumab, and convalescent plasma–blood plasma from people who’ve recovered from the disease. 

I can pronounce convalescent plasma. Forget the rest of them.

The bad news is that because fewer people are being hospitalized in Britain (yes, every silver lining has a cloud as well), they have a smaller group of patients to recruit from, so research is moving more slowly.

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The New York Times has been tracking Covid-related medical trials. One that’s been in the news lately is work on monoclonal antibodies, which is satisfyingly easy to type. 

These are, more or less, a designer form of convalescent plasma. Instead of taking the whole range of a recovering patient’s antibodies, some of which will be as irrelevant to Covid as my photos are to my posts, they isolate the ones that look most potent, then replicate them synthetically and inject them into a patient.

Safety trials–the earliest stage of testing–have only just started.  

The Times also has a vaccine tracker if you want to take a look. Their Covid coverage isn’t behind a paywall.

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Can we abandon both the virus and the UK for a minute? A Texas state legislator, Jonathan Stickland, read a report about the Pentagon having an Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon Task Force and felt the need to tweet, “IF aliens are real, salvation through Jesus Christ is the only way they enter Heaven.”

And you’re telling us this why, Jon? In case they read Twitter? In case their sat-navs (in American, those are their GPSs) aren’t working?

It does raise the question of whether, if Christian beliefs (pick any strand you like) are correct, other planets couldn’t expect to get their own saviours or would have to ride on ours. And whether they’d be prone to different evils, which for the sake of simplicity I’ll agree to call sins. 

Interplanetary theology is going to be complicated.

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Want your feelgood story of the day? A family made up of parents, kids, and a huge honkin’ St. Bernard dog named (well, of course) Daisy climbed Scafell Pike–England’s highest mountain–and Daisy collapsed and couldn’t walk down. 

Daisy weighs 8 stone 9 pounds, or to put that in European, 55 kilos. Or in American, 121.25 pounds. You might be happy to carry that much weight down a mountain if it was neatly bundled into a backpack, but you’d struggle to even pick it up if it was distributed into the shape of a large, floppy dog.

The family called the Mountain Rescue Team, and two hours later a team of sixteen appeared, carrying a stretcher but not the cask of–was it supposed to be rum that St. Bernards carried around their necks when they were the ones doing mountain rescue? Or was that brandy?  

It took the team five hours to carry her down.

A long-time rescue team member said, “The team rescues canine casualties around a dozen times every year but this was the first time a St Bernard breed has been rescued by the team.

“Some might ask: ‘why rescue a dog?’ but our mission is to save life and alleviate distress. You can’t leave a dog on a mountain.”

C’mon, admit it, you tough old thing: You feel better, don’t you?

Non-pandemic news from Britain: wallabies, archeology, and poetry

Let’s take a break from the pandemic. An island in Loch Lomond is for sale, and it comes complete with woods, rocks, and a mob of wallabies.

Yes, the collective noun for wallabies does seem to be mob. Or possibly a troupe. Or a court. They were brought there by Lady Someoneorother–Arran: Lady Arran; I have a British passport now and I’m supposed to take this stuff seriously–in the 1920s (or ‘40s, depending on who you want to believe) from the family’s estate in southern England. Where, you may have guessed, they also weren’t a native species. 

The place is a steal at £500,000. Such a deal that you might want to buy two. The catch? The only building is a 1920s ruin and anyone living there is limited to sixty days a year. 

Buyer must like wallabies.

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Irrelevant photo. This, dear friends, is a flower.

Bristol’s science and culture center asked city residents what questions they really, really wanted answered. The plan is to pick seven questions and address them in an exhibition. They got more than 10,000 questions, including a predictable amount about “poo and wee,” but others that ranged from the nature of time and the universe to whether god lives “in heaven because he’s scared of what he’d created.”

The science and cultural center doesn’t wander through the world without capital letters. Its real name is We The Curious, although I’d have gone for a lower case T.

Just sayin’, guys, in case you want to reconsider. Or explore that in an exhibition.

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A four-year-old has gotten a book contract for his poems. I mention this in case you’d managed not to feel bad about your own writing career (assuming, of course, that you’re a writer). The particularly annoying thing about it is that they’re definitely a kid’s poems, but they aren’t easy to dismiss.

One that was quoted runs:

   Take our gloves off.

   Take our shoes off.

   Put them where they’re supposed to go.

   You take off your brave feelings

   Because there’s nothing

   To be scared of in the house.

His name is Nadim Shamma-Sourgen and he dictates his poetry to his mother. He’s still learning to read. 

How has he responded to the fuss being made over his poetry? 

“When my poems are in a book,” he said, “can I please have a copy?”

And what has he learned?

“Don’t put your finger up your nose on live telly.”

Would that all writers were so wise.

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Okay, we can’t ignore the pandemic completely. Lockdown drove a lot of Britons to work in their gardens, and Britain having a long history of lost stuff, they’ve been finding things: A medieval silver coin. A medieval belt hook shaped like a snake. A rock with writing on it, probably from the fourth century. Roman pottery. 

It reinforces my belief that anywhere you put a shovel into British soil (except outside our house) you can find something of historical significance. 

All we find at our house is slate. And a couple of plastic toys left by the last owner’s kids.

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An archeological find in a cave in Mexico may end up changing the theory of when humans first reached the Americas. The going theory is that they arrived 13,500 years ago. The new finds argue that they may have arrived 30,000 years ago. That would have been before the last ice age ended, when the area would’ve had a climate a bit like Oregon or British Columbia.

Now get out of the way, because the archeologists are going to argue about it. Probably for a long time. 

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And one more pandemic story: Just after masks became compulsory in England, a man strolled down London’s Oxford Street wearing one. This is news because that’s all he was wearing, although it wasn’t covering his face.

If he was making a political point, no one cared what it was.

Tea, biscuits, and sewage: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

How did the  Great British Public cope with lockdown? By spending an extra £24m on tea and coffee in the last three months, and they splurged an extra £19m on biscuits–or to put that in American, on cookies. 

Alcohol? Sales were up by 41% this month. And people are reading more, although based on the alcohol sales they can’t remember a word of it come morning.

A number of readers have written that they look for something upbeat in these posts. I hope that qualifies. I’m vain enough that I want people to remember what I write, but let’s face it, I’ve written–yea, and published–some stuff that if they couldn’t remember it by morning they’d be doing me a favor.

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

By the end of October, the Great British Government will have some Great British Walk-In Testing Centers open in the hope that they’ll persuade more people to get tested. According to Great Government Estimates, the current testing program is picking up only a third of the estimated 1,700 Great New Infections per day.

Why? For starters, they’re testing either primarily or only people with symptoms. That leaves the symptomless carriers walking around shedding their germs. The rumor mill insists that if you go deeply enough into the small print of the government website you’ll find that symptomless people can be tested, but the font must be too small for my aging eyes. I haven’t found it. 

Of course, you can also just lie about having symptoms, and if I thought I’d been exposed I’d do it with no hesitation, but most people aren’t as [fill in your choice of adjective(s) here] as I am, and counting on people lying when it’s necessary isn’t the best way to set up a program.

Meanwhile, the centralized Test and Trace system is missing 45% of infected people’s close contacts. Or according to a different source, 20%. (Those may cover different areas. They may not. Go figure.)Local teams miss 2%, but we can’t rely on them because it’s important to privatize the service so someone can make a profit.

Does my writing look bitter in this?

*

With twelve hours to go before face masks became compulsory in some places in England but not in others, the government released details on who-what-when-where-how. 

Okay, less than twelve hours, but I like round numbers.

We won’t do all the details. If you need them, go someplace sensible. But to give you a sense of how well thought out the guidelines are, if you’re a shop worker, you don’t have to wear a mask but if you’re a shop customer you do. However, they’re strongly recommended for shop workers. Where appropriate. 

What’s appropriate? The shop has to figure that out.

You do have to wear a mask in a bank. You don’t have to wear one in a movie theater. The virus is highly distractible. Give it a good shoot-em-up and it forgets its goal, which is to spread. Money, on the other hand, bores it shitless, so in a bank it continues to methodically infect your cells and spew forth its colleagues to infect new people.

Assuming, of course, that you’re a carrier. Which I don’t wish on any of us, but we can’t cover all the possible variations here. We’ll sink under the weight of verbiage. It’s bad enough as it is.

You do have to wear a mask when you go into a sandwich shop or cafe, but when you sit down to eat you can take it off. There’s no need to liquidize your sandwich and infuse through the layers or shove the mask into your mouth as you bite into your sandwich. If there’s table service, though, the virus getss lazy, so again, no mask.

Cabinet Minister Brandon Lewis explained that this is all “clear, good common sense.” 

I hope he and I have cleared things up.

Some chains have announced that they won’t be enforcing the rules. The police have said they can’t be bothered. 

Thanks, everyone. Speaking only for myself and a few hundred of my closest friends, we appreciate everything you’re doing to keep us safe. We’ll have to rely on the Great British Institutions of quiet social pressure and tutting. According to Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, they work. My partner stopped at the store today and everyone was wearing a mask except for one man. He looked around uneasily and tied a sweatshirt around his face. So that’s 100% out of a sample of one.

*

Early studies in several countries make it look like sewage sampling will give an early warning of local coronavirus flare ups, even before people notice any symptoms. That bit of news comes from the most romantic of cities, Paris. From Eau de Paris, in fact, which sounds like something ladies dabbed behind their ears and on their wrists when I was a kid but is, in fact, the water and sewage company.

Who said the virus hasn’t brought us anything to enjoy?

*

As long as we’re in France, a hospital in Lyon is running trials on a breathalyzer-like Covid detector that gives a result in seconds. They hope to have it up and running by the end of the year so they can test patients as they come in. If it gets through the early tests, the next hurdle will be making it affordable. At the moment, it’s too expensive to distribute widely.

*

An international team has identified what seem to be the most powerful anti-Covid antibodies. Some of them, they think, hold promise as treatments. You may be able to get more out of the article than I could, so I’ll give  you a link. I didn’t even understand enough to make jokes. What little I’m telling you comes from a dumbed-down summary. What I do understand–or think I understand–is that the antibodies could be reproduced on a large scale and work as a treatment. 

Potentially.

*

And finally, 84 of the world’s richest people have called for governments to tax the world’s wealthiest people–including them–more heavily to fund the world’s recovery from the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic’s economic impact, they say, could last for decades and “push half a billion more people into poverty” while they–the world’s wealthiest–have money and it’s desperately needed. 

The City of London: Where medieval silliness meets modern finance 

English place names strew confusion with all the restraint of a four-year-old trapped in a confetti barrel, so let’s start by sorting out what we’re talking about: The City of London isn’t the same as the city of London. Give city a small first letter and you’re talking about the place the world (sillly thing that it is) knows as London. Give it a capital letter and it’s not London but a square mile of high finance, non-resident voting, and that all-around oddity that the English do so gloriously. 

That capital-letter City calls itself the City, as if it was the only city the world ever knew. It’s also called the Square Mile because it’s not a square mile, it’s 1.2 square miles.

Follow me through the looking glass, kiddies. Let’s find out about the City of London. I’ll tell you everything I know. And much more. The sign that I’m telling you more than I know is that I quote big chunks of text from people who do know. Trust them. Ignore me.

Irrelevant photo: I have no idea what we’re looking at here, but I do know it’s a wildflower.

History

We pick up our tale in Anglo-Saxon England, at a time when London was England’s biggest city. It wasn’t the capital, but it was a center of trade and commerce. Which are the same thing but doesn’t it sound more important when I use both words? 

The city was important enough that Edward the Confessor–the almost-last of the Anglo-Saxon kings–thought it would be a good place to build a castle, not to mention a church that became known as Westminster so it wouldn’t get itself confused with the east minster, a.k.a. St. Paul’s. 

Then the Normans invaded, and even though William upended the box that was England and gave it a good hard shake, rattling everything and breaking some of it, he was careful not to break London. He granted it a charter and promised its citizens that they’d live under the same laws they’d had under Ed the almost-last Anglo-Saxon king. 

That’s important, because its special status continued under his successors and London grew to be wealthy, self-governing, self-taxing, self-judging, and surprisingly independent of the crown. It had its own militias, called the trained bands, which played a pivotal role at assorted turning points in the country’s history.

Fascinating as that is, though, it’s a tale for another post. I tried to work it into this one but it’s a rabbit hole. It was when I found a bottle labeled “Drink Me” that I realized how much trouble I was in. 

In 1100, London had a population of 18,000. By 1300, that had grown to 80,000. (That’s from the Britannica. WikiWhatsia says it was 100,000. Fair enough. Nobody was counting noses.)

Nearby Westminster had also grown, but not as much. Westminster was for the bean counters and administrators. You wouldn’t have wanted to move there. London was where the action was.

Within London, guilds formed and gained charters from the king. Their role was to defend the interests of their members, set prices and standards in their industries, settle disputes, control apprenticeships, and limit their membership (which just happened to limit competition). By 1400, the City had 100 guilds, and at least some of them were powerful beasts indeed. When a monarch needed money–and rich as they were, monarchs always needed money–the guilds could bow a few times, then finance a war or two and buy themselves and their city increased freedom from royal meddling.

Some of the guilds took to wearing livery–basically uniforms for their trades–and called themselves livery companies. Make a note of that. It’ll be on the test.

With all that history, though, there’s no piece of paper we can turn to that marks the City’s beginning. According to an article by Nicholas Shaxson in the New Statesman, “No charter constitutes [the City] as a corporate body. It grew up beside parliament and the crown, not directly subordinate to either but intertwined with both.”

 

More History

Around London, a patchwork of settlements grew up. In 1550, three-quarters of Londoners lived in the City. Among other things, this means the definition of a Londoner is getting hazy already. By 1700, only a quarter of them did. By 1800, that was down to a tenth. 

Even so, the City was crowded–enough so that at one point the Court of Common Council (that’s a fancy phrase for the City government) tried to stop houses from being subdivided into smaller, even more crowded units in a process called pestering. That doesn’t have much to do with our tale, but I had to sneak it in. It’s a very shallow rabbit hole. We’ll climb back out now.

In the seventeenth century, the crown asked the Corporation–that’s also the City government, and please don’t ask me to explain why it needs two names–to extend its jurisdiction to the new settlements. If it had said yes, London would be one city, but it refused. That’s called the great refusal of 1637 and it set up the odd, two-city structure London still has. Inside the large city that we naive fools think of as London sits the City of London, like the pit inside a peach. It left the sprawling settlements outside to solve their own problems so it could continue as it always had.

This decision eventually turned around and bit it on the ass. The guilds that had controlled competition by limiting their membership? They had no sway outside the City, and competitors were free to offer cheaper goods and services. 

Time passed, and we’ll let the Financial Times article provide a bridge to the present day: 

“Even as Parliament displaced the Crown as the fundamental unit of sovereignty and democracy displaced the Divine Right of Kings as the principle of legitimacy, the state still refused to subordinate the Corporation of London to national laws and practices. Its assets and its ancient privileges remained untouched. . . . The Corporation’s assets, its property inventory and financial portfolio remain unpublished.”

 

Government and Independence

So here we are in the modern City of London. How’s the place governed? 

The guilds have been central from the start, and they still are. The lord mayor, who heads the City of London Corporation, has to belong to one of the livery companies. And he or she has to have been a City sheriff. Both positions are elected by the senior members of the livery companies, who also elect bridge masters, auditors, and ale conners. 

Ale conners? They’re essential. They taste the ale. Also the beer. It was a fairly standard medieval position that most towns and cities have been happy to let sink into quiet obscurity. Not the City.

The livery companies also approve the candidates for alderman. 

After the livery companies have made sure the alder-candidates are acceptable, what happens? Why, the people get to vote, of course. It’s a democracy, isn’t it?

Who are the people? That’s where it gets interesting. Some 8,000 people live in the City, but almost 19,000 people vote there. And it’s all legal

How? If a business has up to nine staff members, it gets one vote. Up to fifty, it can appoint one voter for every five staff members. Above that, it gets ten voters plus one for every additional fifty. 

Anyone want to place bets on how independent those voters are?

The City has twenty-five wards, but the residents are concentrated in four of them, which limits resident impact even more.

As a City spokesperson explained,“The City is a democratic institution. All of its councillors are elected.” 

They pay people a lot of money to say things like that with a straight face.

The spokesperson also said, “As the local authority we provide public services to both 7,400 residents and 450,000 City workers. Therefore to reflect the needs of the workers who come to the City each day, businesses located in the City can appoint people to vote in our local elections.”

Okay, we now have an elected government. What’s its purpose? According to several non-radical sources, its purpose these days is to represent international finance.

An article in the New Statesman says, “By the 1980s, the City was at the centre of a great, secretive financial web cast across the globe, each of whose sections–the individual havens–trapped passing money and business from nearby jurisdictions and fed them up to the City: just as a spider catches insects. So, a complex cross-border merger involving a US multinational might, say, route a lot of the transaction through Caribbean havens, whose British firms will then send much of the heavy lifting work, and profits, up to the City. . . .

“Thus, the role of the City of London Corporation as a municipal authority is its least important attribute. This is a hugely resourced international offshore lobbying group pushing for international financial deregulation, tax-cutting and tax havenry around the world.” 

To make sense of how a city can be a tax haven when it’s inside a country that isn’t a tax haven, we have to go back to the City’s independence. Parliament (and I keep checking this because I can’t entirely believe I have it right) doesn’t have authority over the City. The City functions, basically, as an autonomous state within the U.K. International banks can do things within the City that the governments of their home countries don’t allow. Even if their home country is Britain.

According to a paper called “The City of London Corporation: The quasi-independent tax haven in the heart of London,” “Parliament has powers to make legislation affecting the City of London; however, any suggestion brought forth to the Corporation of London falls within its discretion, without liability of enactment. [No, I didn’t get that the first or third time around either. It has to do with parliament not having authority over the City.] To keep a watchful eye on all legislation passing through Parliament, and to safeguard its exclusive rights and privileges, the City of London has a permanent representative, called the City Remembrancer, who sits in Parliament beneath the Speaker’s chair to observe House of Commons proceedings. The Remembrancer is the City of London’s envoy. Should Parliament contemplate any legislation against the City’s interests, the Remembrancer is duty-bound to communicate such matters to his peers, whereupon it shall lie within the Guildhall’s purview to engage a City Sheriff to petition Parliament against any unsavoury bill.”

To explain how this happened, the New Statesman article says, “Over centuries, sovereigns and governments have sought City loans, and in exchange the City has extracted privileges and freedoms from rules and laws to which the rest of Britain must submit. The City does have a noble tradition of standing up for citizens’ freedoms against despotic sovereigns, but this has morphed into freedom for money.”

Britain being Britain, the City’s independence plays out in outdated costumes and obscure ceremonies that everyone performs as if they made sense. Again, the New Statesman:

Whenever the Queen makes a state entry to the City, she meets a red cord raised by City police [the City has its own police force; London’s police have no authority there unless they’re invited] at Temple Bar, and then engages in a col­ourful ceremony involving the lord mayor, his sword, assorted aldermen and sheriffs, and a character called the Remembrancer.” 

The surviving livery companies include the Worshipful Company of Mercers (its coat of arms looks like it was drawn by a twelve-year-old obsessed with blond-haired princesses; I looked for a unicorn but didn’t find one), the Worshipful Company of Tax Advisers, and the Worshipful Company of International Bankers.

No, I didn’t make any of that up. 

More than one government has tried to democratize the City. So far, they’ve all failed.

Masks, anti-masks, treatments, and vaccines: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

I shouldn’t keep telling you about small, promising trials of one thing or another that’ll prevent or cure  Covid-19, should I? Or the ones that will–it they work–roll time backward so humanity wiped the virus out before it sank its teeth into our immune systems. Because most of them, inevitably, won’t come to anything.

But you know what? I will anyway. Because I can’t help myself. Because one just might work. And because we need some hope, no matter how badly shredded it is these days. As long as it’s not total bullshit.

A company in Britain has run a small trial on a protein called interferon beta, which patients inhale through a nebuliser–one of those things that people with serious asthma use when it gets particularly bad. That puts the protein deep into the lung, where–apologies for using heavy-duty scientific language–it gives the immune system a swift kick in the pants and tells it to get back to work. 

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline.

Interferon beta was tried on hospitalized patients and they were 79% less likely to develop severe disease. Their hospital stays were shorter, and (better yet) they were two or three times more likely to recover well enough to handle everyday activities.

One of the particularly frightening things about Covid-19 is that not everyone who survives can go back to handling everyday activities. 

Interferon beta may be even more effective on patients who aren’t as sick. It’s on its way to a larger trial. 

And an early trial of an Oxford University vaccine shows that it makes both antibodies and white blood cells that fight the coronavirus. It appears to be safe. The question, though, is how well it will work in the real world. 

The answer is a resounding we dunno. Now they need to set volunteers loose to toddle through the real world, some with the real vaccine in their systems and some with a placebo, and then wait to see how many get infected. 

Let’s hope it does, because Britain’s ordered 100 million doses. Plus 90 million doses split between two other vaccines that are still in development. 

Do they pay for those in advance? Or do they pony up some small amount of money to prove they know where their wallets are and promise the rest if the things works out? They pay in advance.

All told, 163 vaccines are in various stages of testing. They may be as promising as the Oxford one, or more so, but Oxford’s the one getting a lot of ink in Britain just now.

C’mon, admit it: You’re glad to know some of that, aren’t you?

*

A hundred or so people gathered in London for an anti-mask rally. They hugged each other. They posed for photos. They carried signs saying things like “Flu world order” and “Spread love, not fear.” 

They spread fear all the way down here to me in Cornwall. In the most loving possible way.

One of the organizers said they were “campaigning for the return of our rights and liberties.” 

Ah, yes, those traditional rights and liberties set out in the  Magna Carta. You know, the part where it says, “No Briton shall be compelled to wear a mask, or even shamed into it, yea, even during a plague year. Even if it would save another person’s life.”

Except that since the Magna C. was written when spelling was still a liquid, nothing except  the word a was spelled the way you’d expect. Which is why no one’s ever drawn attention to that clause before.

You won’t find news like that in the press. What are they covering up? Have you ever asked yourself that?

*

In spite of the many ways Britain has mishandled the pandemic, the number of infections is, generally, falling. Speaking for myself and several thousand of my closest friends, we’d feel more confident about those numbers if the test and trace program was testing everyone it could convince to stick a swab up their nose instead of concentrating on people with symptoms. But even if we don’t know how many cases we really have, fewer people are dying. That can only be a good thing. 

*

However. 

An assortment of doctors are basically (and I’m doing just the tiniest bit of paraphrasing here) giving up on government leadership and hoping the public stays (or in some cases, becomes) sane, understanding “that [the virus] has certainly not disappeared and could come back and cause even more suffering.”

That’s Carrie MacEwen that I’m quoting, the chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. Try typing that three times quickly. She expects a second surge in the winter, which could be larger than the first.

“The public has begun to think we are free of this,” she said, “but we are not.”

Why are they giving up on the government?

On the one hand, it’s finally telling people they have to wear masks in shops and on public transportation when on the other hand they’re saying people don’t have to wear one at work because “when you’re in close proximity with somebody that you have to work closely to, if you’re there for a long time with them, then a mask doesn’t offer that protection.”

That incisive bit of explanation comes from our health secretary, Matt Hancock, and if you followed his logic you might be eligible for a cabinet post yourself, because not many people could. 

In case you can’t, it works like this: Masks keep people from spreading the virus, but if you share a workplace with someone for eight hours a day, they stop offering any protection because familiarity breeds contempt. Even in the virus world. Once you and I get to know each other, my germs lose interest in you. And yours–it’s dismaying but it’s true–see right through me and look for someone more exciting to infect.

I might be eligible for a cabinet post myself, and may all the gods I don’t believe in protect us.

The noises coming from government ministers haven’t consistently supported even the government’s half-hearted policy on wearing masks in shops. Michael Gove, the cabinet minister, said it was best to “trust people’s common sense” on mask wearing instead of mandating it. 

Indeed. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, common sensically posed for one of those press photos where he pretended to serve food to restaurant customers, with his naked face smiling over two plates of food. I like to think the customers got up and fled, but they may not have been real, in which case they didn’t.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, wore a mask out of doors when she met her French counterpart and then took it off for their indoor meeting.

Well, of course she did. It’s a workplace. Germs got bored during meetings. 

Conservative MP Desmond Swayne called masks a “monstrous imposition.”

All of which helps explain why Chaand Nagpaul of the British Medical Association said, “There needs to be clear, concise public messaging. To introduce measures for shops but not other situations where physical distancing is not possible–including some workplaces –is illogical and adds to confusion and the risk of the virus spreading.”

A poll shows that 71% of the public support making masks mandatory in shops. Another 13% oppose it. The remaining 16%? (It is 16%, isn’t it?) They’re still trying to work out which part of the face a mask is supposed to cover and haven’t formed an opinion yet. 

*

I keep reading King-Kong-meets-Godzilla warnings about what will happen when the current pandemic meets the upcoming flu season, and I finally found an explanation of what that’s about. The worry goes like this:

There’s this thing called viral interference. It happens when you (or an entire population) get one virus and it keeps you (or that same population) from getting a second one at the same time. 

Yes, that really happens. Think of it as professional courtesy. But it doesn’t happen with all viruses. Some of them don’t play nice. They push other viruses off the monkey bars. They steal their lunch money.

What no one knows for sure is what kind of virus Covid is. In one early case from China, it infected a man who also had the flu. Beyond that, not much is known. In Australia, lockdown short-circuited the winter flu season, so we didn’t get any information from it. 

It’s not impossible that when kids go back to school in the fall (assuming they do) and start trading all their usual seasonal colds, they’ll short-circuit the coronavirus. It’s also possible that they won’t. 

It’s not clear what the effect of having the flu and Covid-19 at the same time would be, but the assumption is that it wouldn’t be good. The worst scenario would be if this winter’s flu turns out to be a pandemic in its own right and, to pick up our opening metaphor, if Godzilla and King Kong join forces. Who made the rule that they have to fight each other? They don’t. 

And that, at long last, brings us to another bit of good news: For years, researchers–unrealistic souls that they are–have been working on a universal flu vaccine. The idea behind it is to target the viral bits shared by all versions of the flu. It’s good science but, in the current system, bad economics. The researchers haven’t been able to run the expensive trials that are needed to show that it’s safe and effective so it can be marketed. Because where’s the profit in selling people a vaccine they’ll only need once or twice in their lives when you can sell them one every damn year?

All of a sudden, though, a universal flu vaccine looks profitable, and one is being tested. Expect results by the end of the year.

Hope, despair, and statistical glitches: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A couple of scientists discovered that Public Health England may be overcounting coronavirus deaths–or as they put it, overexaggerating them. They’re numbers people, not word people. I’d underexaggerate an equation if you were silly enough to let me near one.

Having heard about this, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, is calling for an urgent review of England’s coronavirus deaths.

Why’s this urgent? Because Britain has the highest Covid death rate in Europe, and England has the highest rate in Britain. And that doesn’t look good. So that sense of urgency that was missing when front-line workers were catching the virus (and, some of them, dying) because they couldn’t get protective gear? The one that was missing when an early lockdown could have prevented ten thousand or so deaths? It’s come out of quarantine feeling reinvigorated, partially exaggerated, and raring to go. Dissect those numbers, kids, because we need a better result.

*

Irrelevant photo: a rose

The statistical glitch that may be overexaggerating the numbers is this: Anyone who tested positive for the virus and later died is counted as a virus death, although they could, for all we know, have been killed by a meteor or a health secretary falling from the sky. Fair enough. But it’s also true that many people, especially in the early stages of the pandemic, never got tested at all. I’m not sure how many of them were counted as Covid deaths. The person I know who died of it of wasn’t counted as a virus death. That’s one out of one, so 100% of my sample went uncounted.

There’s no accepted standard for untangling coronavirus deaths from other deaths, and given the complexity of the situation we’re in, that’s not surprising. Different countries are using different standards. The best measure is probably a count of excess deaths, which compares the deaths of, say, June 2020 with those in June 2019. 

*

I read recently that Australian researchers have developed a new coronavirus test which can spot both current and past infections using a blood sample. It takes only 20 minutes to get a result. They’ve filed for a patent and are trying to gather both government and commercial support (that means money in case you were about to offer them a nice letter) so they can ramp up production.

It sounds hopeful, and it reminds me that I’ve posted news about a variety of other tests that also sound promising. I’d see and article about them, drop the news into a post, and then never hear of them again. Britain’s still using the same-old, same-old–the test with a false negative rate of 30%. 

So I asked Lord Google about other Covid tests, hoping to find updates on at least one or two of the ones I’d mentioned. Instead, I found one being developed in Canada that promises a 15-minute turnaround and the possibility that it could be done at home. It’s not one of the tests I’ve written about before, but what the hell, it’s a nice shred of hope.

And we do need shreds of hope. This one’s being developed by Sona Nanotech and doesn’t have approval yet. It sounds like it still relies on sticking something long and unpleasant up your nose or down your throat. 

You may be able to untangle the explanations better than I could. I found the article hard going. 

A saliva test had a trial run in Britain–and this is one I wrote about–but it turns out to miss more cases than testing mucus does. So we’re back to sticking something long and uncomfortable up your nose and down your throat. It’s better than no test at all and could be useful for people who can’t or won’t put up with the other, but it doesn’t seem like the solution to our problems. What is clear is that testing’s crucial in controlling the spread of the disease. 

*

The government set itself a target of June 33 to get all covid tests back to people in 24 hours, but at the beginning of July and 50% of the tests still weren’t being returned in time. During the first week of July, they actually managed to get fewer results back to people on time than during the week before.

It’s okay, though, because we went right into July without passing June 33. 

And our world-beating test and trace system is managing not to trace the contacts of 21% of the people who test positive. Russian hackers may be interested in the vaccines being developed here, but they are, very wisely, passing on the opportunity to steal and replicate our test and trace system.

*

In the meantime, Britain’s chief scientific advisor, Patrick Vallance, announced on July 16 that he didn’t see any reason to change the advice that people who can work from home should. 

The next day, Boris Johnson–he is, somehow or other, our prime minister–said that starting on August 1 employers would be given “more discretion” on calling employees back.

*

Johnson told us recently the pandemic will all be over “in time for Christmas.” He did, at least, add “hopefully,” but to anyone who knows the history of World War I it has an ominous sound. When the first volunteers marched off to the sound of brass bands and cheering, that was the prediction: It would all be over by Christmas.

The war went on for four years and, arguably, destroyed a generation of young men.

What people really want to know about Britain, part 20ish

The currents of the internet wash search engine questions to all shores, but here at Notes we (and by we, of course, I mean I) read them through to divine what it is that people really want to know about Britain. 

What do you need to know about these questions? Most of them are boring and repetitious. We’ll skip those. A few aren’t boring but are repetitious. If I can find some new way to answer them, I will. I don’t guarantee accuracy. I don’t even guarantee sanity. Enter at your own risk.

I assume that the people who ask these things don’t stick around to find out what I have to say, so I won’t hurt their feelings if I’m a wiseass. If they do, I’m going to gamble that they won’t remember what they asked so they’ll think I’m being a wiseass about someone else’s question. And if I’m wrong about both those things, I apologize. I type equally odd things into search engines and wash up on different shores.

I’ve reproduced the questions in all their oddity.

 

Britain and England

why do people call britain england

Because when England got married to Scotland it changed its last name. That was the tradition back then, and this was before anyone now alive was born, so don’t feel bad about not being invited to the wedding. I didn’t get to go either.

But England had mixed feelings about the name change and used England prominently as a middle name, as people sometimes do when they don’t want to outright challenge tradition but do want to make a vague gesture in the direction of maintaining their own identity. The result has been all sorts of confusion. Quid est demonstrandum, which is Latin for I’m going to the demonstration. Do you have a quid so I can put some petrol in the car?

A quid is British for a buck, which is American for a dollar, only the British are talking about a pound, even though no one measures petrol in pounds and ounces, only in gallons or liters.

And petrol is British for gas. Gas is British for–

Never mind. 

You can tell how old that translation is by its assumption that you can get anywhere on a quid’s worth of petrol. 

I hope I’ve cleared things up.

when was england called great britain

If the search engine questions that wash ashore here are anything to judge by, just about daily, so that’ll take the present tense, please.

reson of great britain being called

Need of its attention gotten being. 

 

Debtors prisons

why were people sent to debtors prison in 1600 england

Well, it’s complicated, so let’s simplify it: They were in debt. And couldn’t pay. And whoever they owed money to got touchy about it. And the law allowed them to have people tossed into prison for debt, so they did.

debtors prison jobs

You’re too late. This is no longer a viable career option.

 

The mysteries of British culture and history

why is it offensive to put 2 fingers up

That depends in large part on what you put them up. Please send details and I’ll explain.

free printable notes for king alfred the great

King Alred the Great is dead. He’s no longer accepting notes–free, paid, printed, or hand lettered on vellum. If you read the fine print of the handbook Once You’re Dead, it explains all this. And, oh, so much more. 

If, however, we’re talking about notes in the British sense, as in paper money, you should understand that they’re free and printable because they’re not legal tender. In other words, you can’t buy anything with them–no cigarettes, no ice cream, no face masks. But as long as we’re clear on that, I’m sure we can find some washing around the internet. You can find everything on the internet.

Finally, if we’re talking about notes as in what you should’ve written down in class so you could pass the test, then (a) you should’ve written them down in class and (b) you might want to break with tradition and find a decent book (or even a decent encyclopedia entry) instead of gamblling on someone else’s notes. 

why are we called great britain

Because we have (somewhere, although I haven’t gone looking for any lately) free printable notes for King Alfred the Great. It doesn’t get any greater than that. 

why do british have dogs

So they don’t have to bark themselves. 

Or is this a trick question? 

how to develop a british sense of humor

If you have to ask, you can’t.

britain went metric

It did. And froggy went a-courtin’. Is there a connection? A lot of people out there would like you to think there isn’t, but it looks awfully convenient to me. 

king john hawley

He wasn’t a relative. Sorry. My father changed his name from Hurwitz twenty-some years after an immigration official on Ellis Island changed his father’s from Gurievich. That’s as far back as I can trace the sequence, but I’m sure it made other twists and turns without ever getting us close enough to a king for us to have given him Covid-19, or whatever its era-appropriate equivalent was.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that there never has been a king named John Hawley. Anywhere. 

how to be an aristocrat

Get born in the right family.

upper class people don’t drink coffee

For all I know this could be true, although I doubt it. Either way, I’m proud to say they don’t hang out with the likes of me. Or vice versa.

how did the catholic church feel about women in medieval england

It had a built-in problem with women. On the one hand, it wasn’t crazy about them. They were (almost) everything the (theoretically) celibate males who ran the church weren’t supposed to think about. The rest of what they weren’t supposed to think about? Men. Children. Animals. Footwear. Anything else their hormones might suggest in an appealing way.

But it was women who officially represented sex, which–forget my earlier list–is really what the (theoretically) celibate males who ran the church weren’t supposed to think about. So when the (theoretically) celibate males sang “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things,” women weren’t low on the list, they didn’t get onto the list at all. Because it would mean they were thinking about them.

But according to the church’s holy book, god told humans to go make more humans, and the male half of humanity couldn’t do that without the female half. And just to complicate things, their god’s mother had been a female. 

So yeah, they had a hard time with this.  

 

Brussels sprouts

from what country did brussel sprouts originate

The one that plays host to Brussels.

+where did brussell sprouts get it’s name from?

Brussels.

brussel sprouts and christianity as a religion

Christianity is a religion. Brussels sprouts are not a religion. Next question.

 

Etc.

how do us mailboxes work

Well, you drop a letter in and someone comes along in a truck and picks it up, along with all the new friends it’s made, and they all get carried to a sorting station. As long as your letter has a stamp and an address, it gets separated from its friends, who are going other places, and gets sent on its way. This is sad, but it makes new friends on the journey, so it’s not too sad.

Or did I misunderstand the question? I answered how do U.S. mailboxes work? but maybe this was a mailbox asking how do us mailboxes work? Apologies. Everything you need to know is in Section 41B, subsections iii through xvi of the Mailbox Handbook

Technically, though, that should be, how do we mailboxes work? 

Have you ever wondered whose bright idea it was to name a country us? It’s as bad as naming a newspaper i–which someone has–so that to quote it you have to write, “i says,” or, “According to i.” 

Anyway, since you’d say “we work,” not “us work,” you’re supposed to say how do we mailboxes work? not how do us mailboxes work?

You’re welcome.

tulpan i kruka

I didn’t recognize the language here–in fact, I wasn’t sure it was language, as opposed to gibberish–so in my relentless search for blog fodder I asked Lord Google about it and he told me it’s Swedish and means tulip in a pot. 

Well, of course it does. We talk about that all the time here.

Interestingly enough, when I typed in the phrase that led some hapless soul to Notes, Lord G. didn’t refer me to myself. That’s not unreasonable, since I never used the phrase, don’t speak Swedish, had just failed the do-you-recognize-Swedish? test, and don’t have much to say about tulips in pots, so I rank low on the list of experts. 

About many things.

Still , Lord G. did refer someone here using that key phrase. I have no explanation to offer. 

birds speaking english

No matter where birds are born, human speech is at best a second language for them. Mostly, they speak bird.

birds speaking english for sale

Oh, hell. This is starting to sound ominous.