About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

The great Brexit cut-and-paste job

Parts of the Brexit deal have been so deeply thought out that they cover technology no one uses anymore.  On page 921 (of course you’ll want to look it up) it talks about “modern e-mail software packages” like Netscape Communicator. Netscape went belly up in 2003, leaving its Communicator in the back of the refrigerator. It’s grown an enthusiastic covering of green mold in the intervening years.

Another section of the agreement recommends encryption systems that are older than I am and even more open to cyber attacks.

Educated guesses attribute it to negotiators using the cut and paste feature when they ran short of time.

I feel better now about not having absorbed the contents of the deal.

And now that I’ve justified my headline, on to other news.

 

Irrelevant photo: This is a very strange geranium that only flowers after three years. Then it spreads seeds all over the place and you wonder if growing it was a good idea. 

Other news from Britain

London has drafted in its police horses to help create a wildflower garden. Not for their manure, but to trample in last autumn’s seeds. The horses walk around the garden for half an hour a day and their riders get to write it up as community engagement.

Grazing animals—not just horses but sheep and goats—create dips and furrows in the ground as they walk around, pushing seeds into the soil and creating microhabitats, which seems to be an impressive word for a hoofprint.

London’s short on sheep and goats, but it does have horses.

Every article on this that I found used “Call the cavalry!” in its headline, right down to the exclamation point. I expect they’re all dutifully reprinting someone’s press release. Not me. I don’t reprint press releases. I steal my news second hand, with pride.

*

Nottingham knows how to honor its heroes.

Most years, Nottingham tram drivers get a £25 voucher as a Christmas bonus. This year, since the drivers worked throughout the pandemic in direct contact with an infectious public, what did Nottingham Express Transit do? It gave them a voucher for a free baked potato or a roll from a food van that parks outside the depot. 

It had already thanked the staff, it explained, and anything more would be inappropriate. Those thank yous don’t come cheap, you know.

 

News from the U.S.

Something called the Air Company has figured out how to make vodka from carbon dioxide and water. That means each bottle takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and puts it first into the bottle and second into your very own self. This in turn means that if you dedicate yourself to it you can drink us all out of global warming by drinking 11 quadrillion martinis.

By way of full disclosure, 11 quadrillion martinis would make “a significant impact” on global warming but it’s not a complete solution. On the other hand, you won’t be in any shape to notice fine distinctions at that point, so let’s not worry about it.

So far, the Air Company’s capturing carbon dioxide from standard fuel alcohol fermentation, but it has its eye on power stations. Capture carbon dioxide there and you’ve got yourself a good headstart on those martinis.

It also has its eye on creating alcohol products other than vodka: ethanol, methanol, and propanol. From there (apparently—it’s not like I know anything about this) you can get to plastics, resins, fragrances, cleaners, sanitizers, and bio jet fuel.

They’re based in Brooklyn, which is not in Britain, but we all know I cheat. If I wedge one or two items about Britain into these roundups, I’ll call that good enough and hit Post.

News from other places

In November, a metal monolith was found in the Utah desert. Then a metal monolith disappeared from the Utah desert. Then a metal monolith appeared in Romania and a metal monolith disappeared from Romania..

Then some wiseacre pointed out that these weren’t monoliths, since they had several pieces and the root of monolith is mono, meaning one, but no one paid attention, so when a mysterious metal object appeared in Southern California, headline writers were still calling it a monolith. It sounds better than metal object or thing.

And again, when one appeared on the Isle of Wight, it was still being called a monolith, and ditto the ones in Belgium, Spain, Colombia, and Germany, along with a second one in Britain, on the new-agey Glastonbury Tor. 

It said, “Not Banksy.” Not literally. Someone had written that on it. Monoliths don’t speak. Even the ones made of many parts–you know, the multiliths.

Around Christmas, a gingerbread monolith appeared in a San Francisco park, and considering that it’s made of gingerbread, it’s huge–7 feet tall, held together with icing, and decorated with gumdrops. 

The park board has said it will stay up “until the cookie crumbles.” Which it did a few days later. 

What’s being called an anonymous collective called The Most Famous Artist claimed credit for the Utah and California metal monoliths. That doesn’t include the gingerbread one. 

The does it mean to be an anonymous collective? It has a name, it’s been made public, and  as a general rule having your name known conflicts with being anonymous. 

Or so I thought, but what do I know? I’m just some old bat sitting on her couch and typing.

Go to the collective’s anonymous website (it’s on the anonymous branch of the internet) and you’ll find pictures of people, which is also a bad idea if you’re anonymous. And a name, Matty Mo, who’s “building a community and working with brands.” Not to mention selling his work. 

Whether there really is a collective, or a community, is anyone’s guess, but either he or the collective is or are also selling replicas of the monolith for $45,000. Or at least offering them for sale. I can’t swear that anyone’s buying.

A British paper asked Matty Mo (assuming it was him) about the Isle of Wight monolith and he said, “The monolith is out of my control at this point. Godspeed to all the aliens working hard around the globe to propagate the myth.” 

What people really want to know about Britain, part twenty-something

What search engine questions has Lord Google sent my way lately? Why, how convenient that you should ask. We have, right here before us, the best of them, along with my answers, since I can explain everything.

That’s not to say I can explain it all correctly, but an explanation’s an explanation, as any politician who’s faced an interviewer can tell you. And everything is everything. And circular answers are useful, as Theresa May discovered when she so helpfully explained, as prime minister, that Brexit means Brexit.

It meant nothing and explained nothing, but we can all admit it was an answer.

No egos were bruised–I hope–in the making of this post. Let’s not kid ourselves that the people who drifted here in the wake of these questions fell in love with Notes and stuck around. They came, they saw, they drifted on, and they washed up on some other internet shore.

 

Irrelevant photo: A flower. One I don’t know the name of.

British History

who is berwick at war with

It’s at war with rumor and commonly held belief, which formed an  alliance years ago, leaving  poor old Berwick fighting on two poorly defined fronts. 

Or maybe I have that back to front and rumor and commonly held belief are Berwick’s allies. That would mean reality’s the enemy. It’s hard to tell in this post-truth era.

Either way, Berwick isn’t (at least in the reality I inhabit) at war with anyone, but judging from the flow of search engine questions about who it is at war with, we’ll never convince the world of that. 

why couldnt the normans hunt in the forest

They could. 

But of course it’s not that simple.

After the Normans invaded England, they seized about a third of the country, announced that it was theirs, and restricted hunting on it. Poaching (which is hunting where you’re not supposed to–in other words, on someone else’s land) became, for a long time, the kind of crime that could get you mutilated or killed. Since it was overwhelmingly the Normans and their descendants who owned the land or could pay for the privilege of hunting on it, let’s keep things simple and say that the Normans could hunt in the forest.

list the efects of the enclosure movement 

I got two copies of this question. I didn’t notice whether they both had the same typo, but my best guess is that someone was doing their homework on the enclosure movement. Sorry, kid, go write your own paper. It’s a complicated process, but basically you find a source of information, you make a few notes, you–

No, I shouldn’t take anything for granted. You find that source of information–preferably a reliable one, because there’s a lot of nut stuff out there. Then you read it. All by yourself. And you write down a few things that belong on the list you were asked to create. 

See? That wasn’t too hard, was it?

I despair.

why is england called britain

For the same reason that a salad is called lettuce, even if it has tomatoes, red cabbage, and one lonely black olive. In other words, because people focus on one of the ingredients and snub the others. 

Olives have feelings too, you know.

In fairness, England has always been the dominant bit of the salad–and that might [sorry, we’re stepping outside of the metaphor for a second here] come back to bite it soon. Scotland shows all the signs of feeling like an olive lately. Which would make Wales and Northern Ireland the tomato and red cabbage, and I understand that I haven’t given them their due in my answer. That’s an ongoing historical problem with the British salad. I also understand that the metaphor’s breaking down and that it’s time for me to get out while I can.

why was suffragists not a turning point in the ‘votes for women’ campaign.

Who says it weren’t?

 

So what’s Britain really like?

has england incorporated the metric system

You had to ask, didn’t you? If the whole let’s-not-go-metric campaign starts up again, I’ll know who to  blame. But yes, it has, mostly. With some exceptions, the most noticeable of which involve highway miles and the pint glasses used in pubs.

pre metric measurements

Pre-metric measurements are the bests argument for no country ever abandoning the metric system. 

informal judge wig

When my partner and I went to court to convince the British government not to toss us out of the country, we were told that the hearing was informal. The definition of informal–or at least the part of it that I understood–was that the judge didn’t wear a wig.

Hope that helps.

why did they used to make a guy at guyfawkes and sit in the street

To get money for fireworks.

I know, that only makes sense if you already understand the answer, so I’ll explain. Guy Fawkes and some friends tried to blow up Parliament. It was over religious issues, which were also political issues, and it must’ve seemed like a good idea at the time. They got caught before anything went ka-blooey, and every year on November 5 the country marks the occasion with bonfires and by burning a pretend version of Guy, now demoted to simply “the guy”–an effigy, sometimes of a very generic human being and sometimes an elaborate one of whatever political figure seems to need burning in effigy at the moment.  

Back in the day, kids hung out on the streets and asked passers-by to give them a penny for the guy. Then–or so my friend tells me–they’d buy fireworks with however much they had.

Parliament also marks the occasion by a thorough and ceremonious search of the cellars where Guy and his fireworks were hiding. Even though the cellars don’t exist anymore. Because it’s not right to let reality get in the way of a good tradition. 

 

Food and drink

what they call a can of beer in england

An American import? I don’t think they sell much canned beer here. It’s bottled or it’s on tap. I trust someone will correct me if I’m wrong here.

But where auxiliary verb go?

why do we eat red cabbage at xmas

Oooh, do we? I thought we (a category that excludes me, but never mind that) ate brussels sprouts at Christmas. 

when did brussel sprouts first come to the uk

Before the Home Office was created. The Home Office’s task is to defend Britain’s borders and deport people who (oops) often have every right to remain, destroying both their lives and Britain’s reputation. The Home Office would’ve taken one look at sprouts and sent back to their point of origin as undesirables. And what tradition would we be baffled by if we didn’t have them?

what do britiah call brownies

Brownies.

What do Britiah call themselves?

British.

What do Britiah call definite article?

Missing.

pandemic takeaway food success stories

for the most part, and we should grab our success stories where we can. I expect there are some of these, but I can’t say I know any. 

Stick with me, kids. I know how to do depressing. 

 

Inexplicable questions

however, _______________, i am going to spend most of the time today talking about why britain _____

I spent a fair bit of time filling in the blanks, convinced I could do something wondrous with this. I didn’t manage to make myself smile, never mind laugh. Gold stars to whoever can.

I have no idea why anyone would type this into a search engine, but if you’ve got nothing better to do I guess it would be interesting.

Will Britain go into full Covid lockdown?

Covid cases are rising across Britain, with ambulances backing up outside the hospital doors and hospitals reporting that the rivets are popping out of their metaphorical bluejeans. The Independent Sage group is calling for another national lockdown. 

What’s Independent Sage? It’s a scientific advisory group that the government doesn’t listen to because it’s independent. The government has its own fully domesticated Sage group, but I can’t guarantee that it listens to them either.

 

Current Covid restrictions

As I write, 40% of England is in the highest Covid restriction tier–that’s tier 4–with the devolved governments (Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland) setting assorted their own standards and if I had a shred of decency I’d cover them as well but it’s hard enough to keep this mess straight without taking in all its complications. I live in Cornwall, which legally speaking is part of England. That sets my focus. 

Apologies. I’m not a real newspaper, I just suffer from the occasional delusion that I should be. 

Irrelevant photo: A tree, pointing–as trees around here do–away from the coast and its winds.

One of the primary differences between tier 4 and the lockdown we had earlier in the year, when the government woke up and noticed that the pandemic hadn’t skipped merrily over Britain on its way to the US or Ireland, is that under tier 4 the schools stay open. 

The cabinet office minister, Michael Gove–a man who looks like a balloon wearing a bowtie–says England’s secondary schools will be safe to reopen after the holidays if the kids come back in stages instead of all at once. They’ll be protected by rapid-results Covid testing, which is roughly 50% accurate (not to mention 50% inaccurate, which sounds 51% more shocking than if you put it the other way around). 

Teachers unions and an organization of school governors say the testing can’t realistically be set up in the time they’ve been given. Other than those small problems, though, it’s a great plan.

As an aside, I agree that it’s cheesy to attack people for their looks, but you have to make an exception for some people. Not because of their looks. Because of their actions. 

Okay, it’s cheesy in all situations. What can I tell you? I’m not a good person. 

The cabinet is reported to be split over reopening the schools, and Independent Sage has called for schools to be reopened only when smaller classes, adequate ventilation, and free masks can be organized. That will all happen the minute someone locks the current government in a back room–I understand there’s a small one available underneath Big Ben–and launches a coup.

 

Assorted recommendations

A study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says the only way for the country not to exceed the levels of intensive care unit usage set during the first Covid peak is to impose nationwide tier 4 restrictions after Boxing Day (that was December 26, which has come and gone without the advice being followed); keep the schools closed throughout January; and vaccinate 2 million people a week. 

I can’t find any ongoing vaccination figures, but in the first week roughly 138,000 people were vaccinated. I’m not good with numbers, but I’m reasonably sure that’s less than 2 million.

 Independent Sage has called for: 

  • Covid tracing to be run by local public health staff, since contracting it out has been a staggeringly expensive disaster, and for it to trace not just who the identified carriers gave the disease to but also who they got it from. 
  • Practical support to be given to people who have to isolate. They cite New York as an example, where support can range from money to a hotel room to pet care.  In Britain, they say, less than 20% of people with symptoms self-isolate.
  • Workplaces to be adapted to prevent transmission. This would involve funding, inspection, and certification of all workplaces.
  • Financial support to be available to the public. Inequality, they say, plays a central role in the pandemic. 

 

Who gets the vaccine?

Tom Sasse, of the Institute for Government, has called for a public debate about vaccination priorities. National Health Service staff weren’t in the top priority group, although their work exposes them to the virus and staffing shortages are one of the reasons the hospitals’ rivets are popping out of place. 

They are in the second group, which is now being vaccinated, but they’re getting just 5% of the doses, which translates, in expert language, to nowhere near enough to go around. 

 

Life under lockdown 

A new report on what Britons did during the height of lockdown tells us that they spent 40% of their waking time watching TV–90 minutes a day more than in the comparable month last year. 

How much time is that? If 90 minutes leaves London traveling west at a speed of 65 miles per hour and Arabella British stays awake watching 40% of her TV from her couch–which she may call a sofa or a settee or a davenport, depending on what class she comes from or wants to sound like she comes from–

Sorry, where were we? All I have to do is catch a whiff of how class affects British word choice and I get disoriented. And extremely American.

The couch. I was trying to work out how much time, in absolute numbers, Arabella British spent watching TV during (or was it before?) lockdown, but I’m beginning to understand that I won’t come up with the number. Possibly not with the figures I’ve been given and definitely not the mind I so impulsively bought. She watched a lot of TV. Let’s leave it there. With a second full-scale lockdown looking possible, you have to wonder if we’ll keep in touch with reality at all or just give in and lose ourselves in our screens. 

*

A small group of Britons lurched into the cold brick wall of reality just hard enough to decide they didn’t like it, so they packed up and fled.

What am I talking about? A bunch of British tourists at a Swiss ski resort were told to quarantine for ten days from the date of their arrival to avoid spreading Britain’s new Covid variant all over Switzerland. 

Or maybe they were staying in several Swiss ski resorts, not one. It doesn’t matter. Swiss officials found about 420 British tourists, told them to stay in their rooms to avoid infecting anyone else, and about half of them packed up and snuck away in the night, leaving a trail of their possible germs all the way to the French border and from there back to Britain.

In case that doesn’t offend you sufficiently, I’ll add that once they got home some of them called the hotel to ask if they still had to pay for the nights they’d booked but not used. Or if I’m guessing right about the sort of people they are, they called not to ask but to demand a refund. 

 

Update

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has just been approved for use in Britain. It’s cheaper and easier to produce and store than the Pfizer vaccine, although the statistics on how effective it is are a bit on the murky side. It’s far better than nothing. Right now, that looks pretty good.

Brexit, royalty, and falling iguanas: it’s the news from Britain

Britain and the European Union now have a Brexit deal, so instead of complete chaos on January 1, we can only expect moderate chaos.

Moderate chaos looks good these days. 

Like 99.4% of the country–and quite possibly like the Members of Parliament who are expected to approve all 1,246 pages of it before their tea’s had time to cool down (some sources say it’s 2,000 pages; does it really matter)–I have only the more general idea of what the deal says or what it will mean for any of us, although the papers are starting to fill us in. 

Before the agreement was reached, a poll asked people first whether they thought we were wrong to leave the EU and then how they’d vote in a referendum to rejoin: 49% said we were wrong to leave and 39% said we were right. Then they took one chair away, restarted the music, and asked the next question. (Presumably that same) 49% said we should apply to rejoin while 51% said we shouldn’t.

So 10% had no opinion on leaving or staying but did on rejoining. I have no idea what that means. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: strawberry leaves after a frost.

The queen

Britain’s Channel Four showed a fake queen’s Christmas speech, timed to follow the real one on Christmas afternoon. 

The queen’s speech? It’s a British institution, and everywhere but here it gets capital letters. Every Christmas day, she addresses the nation and says something. I don’t know what because even during the brief moments when I haven’t been able to avoid listening all I heard was a faint buzz.

People take it very seriously, though. At various times, I’ve been asked if I was going to listen to the queen’s speech, if I did listen to the queen’s speech, if I do in general listen to the queen’s speech. It’s a measure of something, although I don’t know what. When I answer, I try to avoid expressions of horror and I try to avoid making jokes. A fair number of my fellow citizens–and even of my friends–take her seriously. And I’m an outsider here. It’s best not to walk into someone’s house and rearrange the furniture, although I might whisper quietly to a few thousand of my closest readers that I find the whole queen thing–not to mention the queen’s speech–odd.

So, yes, this Christmas we doubled down on oddity and had a real queen’s speech followed by a fake queen’s speech. Officially, the fake one was to send a “stark warning” about deep fakes and the possibility of fake news. Unofficially, I’m pretty sure lockdown was responsible. A bored mind is a dangerous thing. 

The fake speech has been criticized as not a very good fake, and it’s true that the queen looks rigid, but I watched a (very short) snippet of the real speech and the real queen was also rigid.

The fake includes  a TikvTok dance and the queen saying about Harry and Megan that it’s hurtful when someone tells you “they prefer the company of Canadians.” 

That was entirely realistic.

Yeah, go on and watch it.

*

Speaking of the queen, England and Wales are fighting the history of colonialism all over again.

To brush up on our British history: England’s bigger than Wales. England conquered Wales and did all the unpleasant things that conquerors do. That started centuries ago. It lasted until–

Um, yeah. We could argue about the end point, and also about whether there’s been one. But even if we agree that it’s all in the past (we won’t, but never mind that), I doubt anyone in Wales has forgotten the history.

That takes us up to the present day, when a few politicians on the English side of the Severn Bridge, which links England and Wales, proposed renaming it to mark the queen’s platinum jubilee

No, I don’t know how many years you have to put behind you to get a platinum jubilee and I don’t care enough to look it up. A lot. It’s not the point.

The proposal woke both residents and politicians on the Welsh side of the bridge, and they all sat up in bed to said–in unison, mind you–that if the bridge gets renamed it should be named after either the Welsh rugby hero Gareth Edwards or the Welsh politician Aneurin Bevan, who led the establishment of Britain’s National Health Service. That last idea is guaranteed to annoy the Conservative politicians who want to rename the bridge (and quite possibly the health service and also your back teeth) after the queen. 

The bridge is made up of several parts, and one of them both starts and ends on English soil, which is why the English politicians think they can pull this off, but the collection of bridge part-lets are maintained as a unit and up to now seem to have been named as a unit. 

In addition to offending the Welsh, the renaming would cost money–probably a lot of it, although no one’s mentioned a figure yet. It’s maintained by Highways England, which was itself renamed recently at a cost of £7 million after having been called–apparently quite happily–the Highways Agency.

 

Chilly weather and a chance of falling ignuanas

On December 23, the south Florida weather forecast included cold weather and the possibility of falling iguanas. 

I know. Florida’s not in Britain. I cheat. It’s your own fault for not keeping an eye on me.

Iguanas are cold blooded. At around 45 F., they go dormant and look like they’re dead. They’re not. Or at least the ones who don’t die aren’t. The larger they are, the more likely they are to be alive but dormant.

The problem is that they like to sleep in trees and if they go dormant up there they have a habit of falling out. Which doesn’t do them any good and can also be a problem for humans underneath. Iguanas can measure up to 5 feet long and weigh as much as 20 pounds. 

If you need to know the impact of a 20-pound iguana falling out of a tree–and who doesn’t?–the formula is W=PE=Fd=mghF=d [over–sorry, my computer skills aren’t up the finding the right symbols and this is too important to leave out] mgh

I have no idea what any of that means, but I do know that at some point you’ll need the height of the tree before it does you any good. After that it gets complicated–there’s a second step, where you have to plug in the results of the first step. You’ll be happier going to the website for the second formula without me. 

Iguanas aren’t native to Florida, but they have adapted. Some dig deep burrows to stay warm. Some live near water, where the air temperature’s higher. Some sleep in trees and fall out if it gets too cold. And some cry weee, weee, wee, all the way home.

It’s a brutal kind of personality test. 

Or maybe which way they face the cold doesn’t depend on their personalities but on what they find to work with–cement, water, tree, diggable dirt. We are all, to some extent, creatures of our environment.

How to eliminate Covid, and other pandemic news

 

Academics at the University of Otago studied New Zealand’s experience with Covid and say that the virus can be eliminated, not just contained. 

The emergence of an apparently more infectious virus variant is just another reason to eliminate this infection,” they said

Actually only one of them said it, but let’s pretend, for the sake of simplicity, that they spoke in unison. They do stuff like that in New Zealand. 

What you need if you’re going to eliminate the virus, they said, is informed input from scientists, political commitment, sufficient public health infrastructure, public engagement and trust, and a safety net to support vulnerable populations. 

Those will be easier to cobble together in some countries than in others. That’s me speaking in unison and not mentioning any countries by name. To protect the guilty. 

Irrelevant photo: Crocuses. They’ll be coming up soon, and they’re not afraid of the corona virus.

One of the barriers to eliminating the virus is the belief that hard measures will hurt the economy more than half measures, causing greater hardship, which (as advocates of half-measures reminded us at the start of this mess) has its own health impacts.

“Our preliminary analysis suggests that the opposite is true,” the academics said. “Countries following an elimination strategy—notably China, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand—have suffered less economically than countries with suppression goals.”

The introduction of vaccines should make elimination easier.

 

Antibody therapy

Scientists are testing an antibody therapy that could prevent someone who’s been exposed to Covid from going on to develop it. It could, at least initially, contain outbreaks–in nursing homes, hospitals, or universities, say–or protect people in households where one person is known to be infected. They’re also investigating the possibility that it could protect people with compromised immune systems. 

If all goes well–please notice the if in that sentence–it could be available in March or April.

The Pfizer and Oxford vaccines don’t confer immunity for about a month after injection. With this, the immunity would be immediate.

It goes by the snappy name of AZD7442. 

 

Mass testing evaluated

Britain tried a mass testing program in Liverpool, using rapid-result Covid tests, and managed to miss over half the cases. 

So was it worth doing?

A study went through the data and came back with a definitive maybe. In this corner, wearing the electric pink tee shirt that says No, is the danger presented by false negatives. People who test negative but in reality carry the virus may be prone to riskier behavior than people who haven’t been given any reassurance. They think they present no threat, so they may spread the disease more.

And in this other corner, wearing the soothing green tee shirt that says Yes, is the benefit that comes with spotting Covid cases that would have been missed and taking those people out of circulation. Assuming, of course, that they actually do take themselves out of circulation, which most of them will. 

I think.

The Liverpool data hint that the test may spot people with the highest viral load–in other words, people who may be the most infectious–while missing those least likely to be infectious. But you might want to notice how many tentative words wiggled their way into that sentence. It hasn’t been established that a light viral load means you’re less infectious. 

People who are asymptomatic, by the way, can still have a high viral load, and an estimated 40% to 45% of cases are asymptomatic.

So is mass testing with rapid tests worth doing? It’s a matter of weighing the possible gain (spotting cases that would otherwise have been invisible) against the possible harm (giving false reassurance to people who are in fact carriers). And it depends on that unknown: how contagious people with low viral loads turn out to be.

Whatever it is you come here for–and that’s still a mystery to me–it’s not rock-solid certainty, is it?

 

The compassion report

With a show of compassion worthy of the current American and British governments, Colombia’s president announced that the country will refuse Covid vaccines to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan refugees. The only refugees who’ll have access to the vaccine are those with dual citizenship or official status. That’s less than half of them, and more are crossing the border daily.

The idea that no one will be safe until we all are is a hard one to get across. As will that business the academics from Otago mentioned–political commitment. 

*

A bookstore in Trieste asked for volunteers to call people trapped at home by the virus and spend twenty minutes at a time reading to them over the phone and just generally chatting. They figured they’d be doing well if they found a few people to help out the three staff members who were already doing making calls during their breaks and on their days off.

They got 150 responses. Some were from Italians living abroad. Some came from a theater company that had itself been trapped by the pandemic–not at home but offstage. Some were I have no idea who–people who don’t fall into such neat categories. The plan was to have the calling run during Christmas, but with the response it’s gotten it now has no end date.

*

An Amsterdam museum that sold a Banksy work for £1.5 million so that it wouldn’t have to lay off staff had a bit of compassion and goodwill returned to it. The anonymous buyer emailed a few months later and offered to lend it to the museum for at least a year.

Starling murmurations

Whatever your holiday, if you have one just now, join me in celebrating the amazing things that starlings do at this time of year.

Photos by Ida Swearingen.

Starlings gather at dusk and if the conditions are right they create amazing airborne patterns before they settle into the trees and roost together. The roosting’s for safety, for warmth, and (the experts swear) to exchange information on where the good food is. The murmurations may be to confuse predators.

Starlings also gather for shorter times during the day, condensing onto power lines, where they pack themselves together wing to feather. So tightly, in fact, that they’ve caused the occasional power outage in the Scottish town of Airth. So many gathered on the lines, and they settled and took off in such a mass, that their weight made the wires bounce, shutting down the power, sometimes for seconds and sometimes longer.

The new Covid variant, plus what Britain does during lockdown

Newscasters and British government briefings are sounding increasingly sure that the new Covid strain is more contagious than earlier versions. And it may turn out to be, but not all scientists are ready to jump on the bandwagon–especially when it’s steered by a government that outsources navigation to companies with expertise in collecting overdue parking fines. 

An article in Science magazine says that getting definitive answers could take months. What we have right now are possibilities and probabilities.

 

What’s known so far

A couple of things are known at this point. One is that the new variant is out-spreading the old ones. That could be because it spreads more effectively but it could also be because it got lucky: It found a cooperative human host, who introduced it to another cooperative host, who introduced it to a few thousand of his or her closest friends, who and so-forth’d, and before anyone had time to roast the brussels sprouts for Christmas the new strain was all over southeastern England. 

Virology professor Mark Harris, of Leeds University, said. “Unfortunately, the new variant has also become a political football.  It is being blamed by this Government for the rapid spread of the virus in London and the South-East – this is a smokescreen to distract from the failure to put these areas into Tier 3 after the national lockdown. . . .  The potential . . . [for this virus to spread through] communal activities is enormous and the rapid increase in cases of the new variant are a direct consequence.  We need to learn from the lessons of the past year and recognise that by delaying and failing to act decisively our efforts to control the pandemic are less effective, and ultimately lives are at risk.”  

The other thing that’s known is that some of the changes in the new variant are worrying. Like all viruses, Covid evolves, but it’s been known for evolving fairly slowly, making one or two changes a month. Then along comes this new strain carrying seventeen mutations, and at least from where we stand they seem to have popped up all at once.

Irrelevant photo: A camellia. The earliest ones are just now coming out.

Not only do the number of changes worry the scientists, so do their locations. Eight of them are on the spike protein, which is the key the virus uses to break into the human apartment, raid the refrigerator, move the furniture, play loud music, and then raise a family. The changes look like they could make it easier for the virus to break in, but that needs to be confirmed. 

Or to use that famous American (I think) saying, the opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings, and she’s off in the wings, having a good sulk. She hasn’t even bothered to warm up yet.

 

What’s theorized

There’s speculation that the variant may be able to infect children, but that’s not clear yet. What we have at this point are hints, with no solid evidence. On the other hand, if you want to scare yourself shitless, this is good material. 

A theory on how the variant came to be holds that it could have evolved within a single patient who had a long infection, but at this point it’s just a guess.

As for where it was born, it didn’t necessarily originate in Britain. Britain’s one of a very few countries that sequences a lot of its viral samples. That translates to it being one of the countries most likely to spot a new variant, but it’s been found in other countries. One patient in the Netherlands had it in early December, and it’s been found in Denmark, Australia, and Italy. Belgium recorded four cases early in December. By the time I post this, it will probably have been spotted waiting for the train from Berne to, um, wherever trains from Berne go to. Let’s say Rome. All roads lead to Rome. Surely that includes railroads.

Finding a few (as opposed to many) cases in other countries may (or may not) be evidence that it doesn’t spread as rapidly as advertised. On the other hand, it may simply be evidence of what we (by which, of course, I mean I) already said, that Britain is ahead of most countries on identifying variants. 

Data’s a wonderful thing. Interpreting it is a bitch.

A similar variant seems to have evolved separately in South Africa. That gives some support to the possibility that the mutations give the virus a transmission advantage–or so I’ve read, although unfortunately the article didn’t explain why.

 

So what does it all mean, bartender?

I am emphatically not arguing that the new variant doesn’t spread more quickly or that any conspiracies are being built to claim that it does. (Was that a simple double negative or an implied triple one?) All I’m saying is that commonly held belief seems to have jumped ahead of the science. We have some numbers on infection rates and we have a spike protein with a fashionable new haircut. They’re worrying, especially in combination. But we don’t have the lab work to confirm the conclusions people are drawing.

I could wish the government and the scientists who appear at its briefings would say this, but I expect they think we need clarity. And since the government, at least, hasn’t been clear on anything else I can see why they might want to sink their teeth into this and shake it until it’s in shreds.

And if apparent certainty moves the government to react more decisively to the virus’s spread, that can only be a good thing. It’s a shock to find myself agreeing with anything this government does–I’ll try not to make a habit of it–but if we’re looking at even the possibility of a more aggressively spreading variant, I don’t want them sitting around saying, “Well, let’s wait and see what happens.” 

Call that one wrong and people die.

People die anyway. But I think we’d all like as few of them as possible, thanks.

 

What about vaccines?

So far, the virus hasn’t moved itself outside the reach of vaccines, but BioNTech says that if that happens it could tweak its vaccine within six weeks and catch up with a new strain. 

 

And irrelevantly but importantly . . .

Researchers in Australia have documented Covid immunity eight months after an infection. No one knows yet how long immunity lasts, but the documented time keeps getting longer. 

 

And even more irrelevantly, do you know what Britons did during the last lockdown?

Given the data we have–

You remember I said (more or less) that it’s all about how you interpret your data? Well, the data we have is about food and drink, and it says we can forget all those pre-pandemic trends toward plant-based eating and healthy whatevering. Britain spent an extra £2.5 billion buying beer, wine, hard liquor (in case you think the other kinds are soft), and meat. And also tobacco–both cigarettes and roll-your-owns. 

At the top of the list was lager, but Corona beer didn’t do badly either, from which we can infer, deduce, or at least allege that the virus hasn’t affected the famously skewed British sense of humor.

Some of the expenditure can be explained by people not being able to buy drinks at the pub or duty-free wine and tobacco on trips abroad, so they may or may not have consumed more of all those things but just bought it in different places. We don’t want to jump to conclusions–at least not when they’re not any fun (she said, reveling in another double negative).

On the other side of the scales, people spent less money on prefab meals. They were suddenly rich in time, so they cooked more. They bought less bottled water and chewing gum. They spent less on cosmetics, hairstyling products, toothbrushes, and deodorants. 

I fed all of that through the invisible data interpreter that I keep on the other end of my couch and it tells me that we’ve become a nation of hard-drinking, bad-smelling cooks.

 

And finally, things you didn’t know you need to know

A gene that some small number of people inherited from their Neanderthal ancestors may double or even quadruple their risk of serious Covid complications. The genetic risk, though, is much smaller than the risk that comes from social factors like poverty and poor access to health care, to name just two.

On the other hand, another bit of Neanderthal DNA may be protective. It just depends on which particular Neanderthal ancestors you might have had, and what particular bits of genetic material they left you. 

Assuming, of course, that had any Neanderthal ancestors. Most Europeans, Asians, and Native Americans do and walk around sporting some small amount of Neanderthal DNA. Anyone whose ancestors came from other places has none.

Make of that what you will. 

*

And finally, translator Peter Prowse has contributed a video to the worlds’ effort to stamp out the virus. He tells us to stop using those explosive consonants (called plosives–P, T, K, and their troublemaking friends) and replace them with softer ones.

He’s well worth a listen. 

Christmas 2020

The world needs a pandemic carol, and I’m convinced you do as well, and that everyone you know does too. Well, it just so happens that a friend wrote one. With her permission, here it is, direct to you from Duluth, Minnesota.

 

Christmas 2020
Bring on a brighter year

                        by Jane Whitledge

Hark! The herald angels sing,
We’re tired of social distancing!
What can I say of such a year,
Except “good riddance, disappear!”
Don’t come back with your virus
Now go away,  no more to tire us—
We’re weary of this isolation
Impatient for real celebration!

Each one of us now simply asks,
When will we be done with masks
And gobs of soap and sanitizer?!
Oh, bring good tidings, Moderna, Pfizer!
And though we love you, Dr. Fauci,
We’re really getting kind of grouchy
Standing here six feet apart.
When can the hugs and handshakes start?

Till then we’ll give to the food shelves
And may there be a lot of elves
To aid the little girls and boys                                                                                                  Who fear there won’t be any toys,
And save the fraught small businesses—
May they have future Christmases!
And as we sing bright carol verses
Bless the doctors and the nurses!

And to the scientists—goodwill!
Bless your work, bless your skill!
We’ll string the garland on our tree
With thoughts for others—empathy.
And in this troubled, cold December,
May hardship make us all remember
In pandemic’s darkest weather
That we are in this all together.

And though it be all you can handle,
Go ahead and light a candle.
Stay hopeful, cheerful kind, and clean.
Pretty soon the great vaccine!
So, “Merry Christmas one and all!”
Goodbye to bleach and alcohol
(except for wine, and, yes, champagne,
For when we meet—we will—again!)

May this two-thousand-twenty-one
Put the past year on the run!
And may your heart ring like a bell—
Happy new year! Please stay well!!
May this two-thousand-twenty-one
Put the past year on the run!
And may your heart ring like a bell—
Happy new year! Please stay well!!

© Jane Whitledge, 2020

Whatever you celebrate, I wish you a good one. And may the new year be kinder than this one has.

Santa Shih Tsu wishes you a happy holiday. She also wishes the photographer had moved the trash out of the background before taking her picture. It’s been a bad year when not even Santa gets what she wants.

The new Covid variant and other pandemic news

Remember when Boris Johnson promised Britain a world-beating Covid test system? Or a world-beating something else. It doesn’t matter what it was going to be exactly. What matters is that we were going to beat the world, so take that, world.

Well, we seem to have developed a world-beating new strain of Covid. Yay us! It may spread more rapidly than the old ones. Tell me we’re not the envy of the world.

Mind you, it also may not transmit more rapidly. That’s still up for grabs. The scientists say they have moderate certainty that it does. But the mutations affect a part of the virus that’s likely to matter. In the lab, it looks like it might set that world-beating speed record. 

Notice the multiple wiggle-words there: may, moderate certainty, likely, might. Scientists don’t like to commit themselves in the absence of evidence, bless their white-coated hearts. It’s not time to panic until they finish working on this. What it is is time to be cautious.

Irrelevant photo: heather

What’s known is that the new strain is out-performing other versions of the virus in the southeast of the country. That’s where the world-beating business comes in. Go, Virus!

But viruses get lucky sometimes. They’re in the right place at the right time, and it makes them look like champions, but only because they’ve latched onto a set of humans who are particularly helpful. So we don’t know yet if what’s happening is due to the virus or to human behavior. 

In the meantime, the sensible thing to do is assume we’ve got a world-beater on our hands and go into deeper lockdown.

Which we’re doing, sort of. As of Sunday, the southeast of the country went into lockdown, with socializing limited to Christmas day. I’m simplifying. If you need the details, you either have them already or need to get your news from some sensible source. As I remind myself often when I see some bit of important news that I just can’t wedge in here, I am not a newspaper, I just play one on the internet.

So: deeper local lockdown except for Christmas day, and Christmas day, fortunately, is safe: The virus does its celebrating on Christmas eve and it’s too hung over to spread on Christmas day.

The lockdown was announced some hours before it took effect, which set off a scramble to get out of London, bequeathing us pictures and videos of socially undistanced trains headed over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house, bearing tidings of comfort and infection. 

I do love a holiday.

There’s no evidence that the new strain is more deadly and no indication that the current vaccines won’t work against it, so it’s not time to panic completely. The dangers are that (a) it may spread more rapidly and (b) it may continue to mutate, requiring the vaccines to be tweaked regularly, the way flu vaccines are every year. 

But we’re not there yet. 

Again, don’t panic. There’s always time to do that later.

*

In the meantime, although it has nothing to do with Covid (except to complicate a bad situation), Santa’s bringing us Brexit, with or without a deal on January 1. The negotiators are still meeting and they’ve got to be sick of hearing each other’s voices by now. A couple of days ago, trucks were backed up for five miles in Kent, trying to reach the Eurotunnel, with similar lines on the other side. And that was not just before Brexit but before France halted freight from Britain in response to the Covid variant. 

Covid news snippets  from the rest of the world

In a survey, 71% of the US public said they’d either definitely or probably get a Covid vaccine. That’s up from 63% in September.

And Covid is now the leading cause of death in the US–equal to fifteen daily plane crashes, with each one carrying 150 people. 

Those two statistics might actually be related. But the second one doesn’t include excess deaths–the people who don’t get counted because of reporting delays, miscodings, and non-Covid deaths that are caused by the pandemic’s disruptions. Add those in and the numbers could be as much as 20% higher.

*

Latvia has introduced an automatic Covid testing booth. It eliminates the risk to medical workers who’d otherwise have to test people. A robot arm hands you your vial, you give it your sample, and it gets back to you within 24 hours.

I don’t think I ever used the word vial as much as I have this year.

*

A small US study says schools aren’t necessarily a big factor in the spread of Covid, but the small print is says that this depends on everyone wearing masks and keeping six feet apart, and on testing anyone who’s been in contact with anyone who might be infected. That would allow a school to stay open unless there’s an outbreak.

So yes, do read the small print.

*

A French study says that socializing, eating out, and going to bars and gyms seem to be more dangerous activities than using public transportation or shopping. 

That’s not absolute proof. All they can say is the statistically they’re associated with a greater risk. No one can spot the moment when the virus jumps from one person to the next. Still, it’s worth knowing.

*

A story on Covid and holiday events in Fredericksburg, Texas, included the following quote: “Everyone knows Covid is a risk, but if I want to go lick the handrails at the hospital, that is my God-given right.”

If someone could send me the relevant passage from the Bible, I’d be grateful. Not because I run my life by what it says in there, but I really would love to know.

Covid, Christmas, and other pandemic news

After a bit of four-nation arm wrestling, the British government decided to stand by its decision to loosen Covid restrictions for Christmas. Santa Claus, they told us a while back, was bringing everybody the chance to travel around the country and join three households together for up to five days. 

Don’t read the fine print, they said. It’s Christmas. 

Well, Santa hasn’t changed the present he’s bringing but some spoilsport enlarged the small print and now the government’s asking everyone not to actually do what they said we could look forward to doing. That is, we can still do it, they won’t tell us not to, but they’d really appreciate it if we didn’t.

Really, really appreciate it.

The tone of the press conferences has changed from a Santa-ish look-what-I-brought-you to a Pandora-ish don’t-look-inside-the-box.

Government guidance now says, “Think very carefully about the risks of forming a bubble. . . . [A bubble? That’s a  theoretically impermeable group of people that you seal yourself into, sharing love, germs, risk, and a commitment not to so much as turn your thoughts to anyone outside the bubble.] Everybody in a Christmas bubble is responsible for taking clear steps to prevent catching and spreading the virus.” 

If you’ll allow me to translate that for you, it means, If this bubble wheeze doesn’t work, it’s your own silly fault. We thought the British people had better sense than to do what we said would be safe.

Irrelevant photo: A gerbera daisy. Feel uplifted? Good. Now let’s get depressed again.

But we should go back to that four-nation arm wrestling: It’s a particularly British sport involving Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England. And whatever you’ve heard, four-way arm wrestling is not simple, either physically or politically. See, the British government doesn’t speak for Britain on this issue. It speaks for England, which doesn’t have its own dedicated government, although the other three pieces of the United Kingdom do.

Yeah, I know. It’s complicated, but never mind that for now. 

Wales, speaking for Wales, bailed out of the hoped-for four-nation love fest and issued a narrower set of guidelines. Even so, it expects to need tighter restrictions after the holidays. 

Scotland’s recommending that people stay home, but if they do mix it suggests they mix for only one day, not five. But it’s just a suggestion, not a rule and not a law. 

Northern Ireland’s expecting to tighten the rules after Christmas to make up for whatever Christmas unleashes. 

Assorted experts are holding their aching heads in their hands. For the sake of efficiency, we’ll quote just one, a (very rare) joint BMJ/Health Service Journal editorial, which said, “When the government devised the current plans to allow household mixing over Christmas it had assumed the Covid-19 demand on the NHS would be decreasing. But it is not, it is rising. . . . The government was too slow to introduce restrictions in the spring and again in the autumn. It should now reverse its rash decision to allow household mixing and instead extend the tiers over the five-day Christmas period in order to bring numbers down in the advance of a likely third wave.”

In case anyone wants to know, what I want for Christmas is for the people I love to be alive and well next Christmas. That’s not meant to exclude anyone. If I can be greedy, I’ll expand that to people I like and to people I don’t even know. 

I’d also like to include myself, if that’s okay. 

 

Vaccinations

In the first week of vaccinations, 137,000 people in Britain got the first shot of the vaccine.

It’s Americans who talk about getting a shot. The British call it a jab. Both of them are unpleasant words. I never heard the underlying aggression until I heard the act of sticking a needle in a person’s arm called by something that surprised me.

Anyway, only 8 million or so people are in line ahead of me–give or take a few hundred thousand.

*

Vaccinating all of Britain will cost something in the neighborhood of £12 billion according to a National Audit Office report, which also says the Public Health England (PHE) complained early on that it, along with its extensive experience in vaccination programs, were being locked out of key decisions. 

It was finally allowed through the door in September. 

Meg Hillier, who chairs the Commons public accounts committee, said (diplomatically) that although the government was right to bet on several different vaccines, the accountability arrangements involved were “highly unusual.” 

*

A study reports that a fifth of the world’s population is unlikely to get a chance at any Covid vaccine until 2022. And even that depends on how many of the vaccines in development turn out to work and on their manufacturers hitting maximum production

Back in November, assorted countries had reserved 7.48 billion vaccine doses from 13 manufacturers. Just over half of those doses will go to the 14% of the world’s population that lives in high income countries.

And the 85% of the population that lives in the rest of the world? 

Um, yeah.

True, those aren’t the only vaccines–48 are in clinical trials–but my best guess is that those are the ones that are furthest along in the process. 

*

An unprecedented attempt at global cooperation in the face of the pandemic saw a number of countries sign up to the COVAX initiative, which involves richer countries buying vaccines through COVAX so that some of the money goes to getting vaccines to poorer countries. By participating, richer countries would both get access to a portfolio of vaccines and also negotiate as a bloc, bringing the price down

Unfortunately, someone (or possibly everyone) seems to have snagged their toenails in the threads, and that could mean billions of people getting no vaccine until (new source, new date; sorry) 2024–or so says a leaked document, although the World Health Organization, one of the COVAX initiative’s backers, is still making optimistic sounds about it.

The problems in the initiative are complicated enough that if I try to explain them we’ll all sink, but they involve some of the cheaper and easier-to-transport vaccines making slower-than-ideal progress, richer countries prioritizing their own needs (which pushes the prices up), and a lack of money for the initiative.

Go back to the yellow flower. It’ll cheer you back up.

 

Testing

The much-promoted launch of what the British government calls a test and release scheme has been suitably chaotic. 

What’s test and release? 

Well, back when I worked as a copy editor for a hunting and fishing magazine, the phrase catch and release popped up in every third article. It’s the noble act of hauling a fish out of a water by its lip, pulling the hook out of the hole you’ve made, and putting the fish back in the river, all for your own damn amusement, since the fish doesn’t find the process at all amusing. Yes, the fish survives as long as you didn’t hook it too deep and if you didn’t exhaust it and if you remembered to wet your hands before you touched it. But the fish isn’t what you’d call a willing participant.

I agree: Every vegetarian should work for a hunting and fishing magazine for at least five minutes. I lasted until the magazine sank under the weight of its own advertising department, which rumor insisted was run by the owner’s sons.

Anyway, that’s not what test and release is. No hooks, no lines, not even any anglers. I only threw it in because I hear its echoes every time I read about test and release. And, of course, for its sheer irrelevance.

The test and release plan involves travelers arriving in Britain having a Covid test that would shorten their quarantine. 

Hooray. Everyone wins.

Except, it turns out, the people who gambled on it working. A man traveling from the Netherlands to see his mother–who, irrelevantly, has dementia–took the Eurotunnel to London and found himself stuck in a hotel room not for the five days he’d counted on but for what will be either the full quarantine period or damn close to it. 

First he couldn’t find the list of approved test providers. Then he found it but couldn’t book a test with any of them. Not one. The scheme, he said, was “just hot air.”

I know. You’re shocked. So am I. Who’d have expected such a thing from this government?

Eleven providers got government approval. Airports, which already had testing centers up and running, weren’t among them. Instead, you have to get hold of one of the approved providers (assuming that you can, and assuming they have the capacity to deal with you) and ask for a test to be mailed to you. Then you mail it back. (Does that mean breaking your quarantine? Probably. Don’t worry about it. It’s Christmas. It’ll all be fine.)

You’ll get your results within 48 hours–I think of the company receiving it, not of you sending it. That would probably cut your quarantine from ten days to eight, although the program was promoted as cutting it to five. 

An airport source said (with only mild incoherence but impressive accuracy), “The rapid test is not yet approved but would cut self-isolation to five days–that’s what we hoped would be the situation. Unfortunately, the government hasn’t even managed to get a list of who could do it in eight days. Given the small number of passengers traveling now, you’ve got to question the procurement.”

*

The U.S. has approved an over-the-counter Covid test. It costs around $30, uses a swab, and gives a result in twenty minutes. Initially, supplies will be limited. 

It’s most accurate in people who have symptoms but it’ll miss some cases in people who don’t. In other words, if it tells you that you don’t have Covid, you don’t get to run out and hug everyone, because, damn it, you could be either pre-symptomatic or an asymptomatic carrier. 

As I read recently, testing alone does nothing. It’s what you do with the information once you have it. I’m not sure quite what this test will contribute to the fight against Covid.

 

Triumphantly irrelevant news

In the spirit of irrelevance that animates us here at Notes, I offer you the following news item:

The mayor of Atlantic City, New Jersey, is auctioning off the chance to blow up a former Trump casino. The city hopes to raise upwards of $1 million and will donate it to the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City. 

The casino closed in 2014 and is already partially demolished. The auction’s winner will get to press the button that makes whatever’s left go ka-blooey.