About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

The overpriced Easter egg report

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Yeah, but surely we can waste more money than that 

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

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

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

Cheapskates.

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

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

Enjoy.

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

Uh huh.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Onward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Eggs we’ve probably missed out on

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

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

 

And at the top of the obscenity scale

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

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

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

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

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

The Covid update for Britain

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

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

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

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

Irrelevant photo: Blackthorn

Should people be working from home?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But forget all that. How safe are workplaces?

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

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

Britain’s had 4,500 workplace Covid outbreaks. 

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

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

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

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

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

Your nation needs your money.

 

So why isn’t the number of cases dropping?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a pinch, a person could live on that. 

 

The elusive Covid inquiry

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

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

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

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

How dangerous is Covid to kids?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

I know. Someone always wants to spoil the fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Do women leaders kill Covid?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry.

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

The world will never stop surprising us.

 

Vaccine news

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

Is a universal coronavirus vaccine a pipe dream?

Scientists are in the (very) early stages of working out a universal vaccine against coronaviruses–one that would block not only Covid’s existing and future variants but any new coronaviruses that emerge.

Okay, let’s call that a possible vaccine. It could easily not work out, but on the other hand no law of nature says that it can’t. Scientists have been doing the next-to-impossible a lot lately. I’ve started to take it for granted. 

IMG_0082 (1)

Irrelevant photo: A camellia bud, stolen from an old post because I’m trapped in WordPress’s horrible new editing program and haven’t found a way to drop in new photos at full size. I had a way to avoid the new system, but they’ve blocked it.  

They can approach the task in two ways. One is to make a mosaic vaccine. That has nothing to do with Moses–you know, the guy with the stone tablets. It’s from the word for those tiny pieces of colored tile that make up a picture. The vaccine takes particles from several Covid variants or other coronaviruses and sticks them onto a nanoparticle–a very tiny biological structure made up of proteins. Think of it as sticking some olives on a toothpick.

Or don’t. It’s your mind. I’ll never know. But if you do want to go out on that imaginary limb with me, watch while I saw it off behind us: We’re going to take that toothpick with its olives and drop it into the martini of your immune system.

Thwack. That was the sound of us hitting the ground, olives and all.

It would make a nice lullabye, don’t you think?

Now that we’ve dusted ourselves off, we can let our immune systems figure out what those bits of virus have in common and arm itself–and us–against that.

When this was tried in mice, their immune systems created a broad range of neutralizing antibodies. And creating neutralizing antibodies is the main goal of any vaccine.

Mice–as no doubt you already know–are not humans. They’re also not martinis, so this may not transfer seamlessly from them to us. But it holds some promise.

If you’ll let me brush those twigs out of your hair, we can go on.

The second approach has the scientists looking for features that are common to all coronaviruses. That could mean analyzing their genetic sequences to see where they overlap. It could also mean looking for immune cells that react to either all coronaviruses or to a number of variants, and then mapping the parts of the virus that they target. After that, all that’s left is to create a vaccine aimed at that spot.

Nothing to it.

Those of you who don’t drink will be relieved to know that no martinis are involved in this approach.

Now I’ll throw cold water on the whole project and tell you that scientists have been trying to come up with a universal flu vaccine and a universal HIV vaccine for years. The candidates have been safe but not impressively effective. Still, Covid doesn’t mutate as quickly as either HIV or the flu.

Yes, really. In spite of everything we’ve been reading about variants. This is what’s called slow mutation. 

So no one’s offering guarantees that this will work, but it’s a bright spot on the horizon. 

The horizon, unfortunately, is a good long way away.

Policy-type stuff

An international survey of how countries handled the pandemic shows that autocracies and democracies did equally well and equally badly, as did rich countries and poor countries and countries governed by populists and countries governed by technocrats. In other words, none of those were decisive factors.

Lockdowns of one sort or another do break the chain of infection, but they’re not universally successful. If the population doesn’t trust the government, they don’t seem to work. (I’m stretching the study’s conclusion a bit there. It sounds more tentative about it.) Economic support may make lockdowns more effective. (“May”? I can’t imagine the part of the world where making sure people who can’t work can still eat and pay their rent wouldn’t help. Never mind. It’s not my study. They’re not my conclusions.)

Some countries with strong scientific capacity and healthcare systems have responded badly, and some countries with far less (Mongolia, Thailand, Senegal) have both kept their people healthy and the economy running. 

Some countries (Taiwan, Vietnam, and New Zealand get a mention) did well in controlling the first wave and kept control from there on. Others did well in the first wave but the waves that followed swept over them. 

I’ll get out of the way now and let the people involved in the study have the last word:

“While our work has tracked individual governments’ responses, it is clear that exiting the pandemic will require global cooperation. Until transmission is curtailed throughout the world with restrictions and vaccinations, the risk of new variants sending us back to square one cannot be ignored.”

In other words, we’re all in this together. Even when we don’t act as if we are.

*

So let’s check in on a country that’s managed well and hasn’t gotten a lot of publicity. 

Before it had its first Covid case, Iceland had a testing system and a contact-tracing team, ready to go to work as soon as they found their first case. They put everyone who tested positive into isolation and traced their contacts. The word one of the people involved uses, with no apology, is aggressively.

Isolation–as least in Reykjavik–is in a hotel that was converted for the purpose. In response to which the staff walked out. The man in charge (I have no idea what his title is–sorry; let’s call him Gylfi Thor Thorsteinsson, since that’s his name) coaxed them back. They work in full protective gear. Thorsteinsson at least goes into people’s rooms to keep them company.  I assume many of the others go in as well, but the article I read didn’t say. In the past year, the hotel’s taken care of more patients than all the hospitals in Iceland rolled into one.

After Iceland got its first wave under control, they closed the hotel. Then they immediately had to reopen it when two tourists who’d tested positive went a-wandering. And by immediately, I do mean immediately. They just had a goodbye party for the staff when they had to say hello again. 

Now anyone who lands at the airport is tested and put into quarantine. As a result, Iceland is a country where people can go to bars, eat out, and generally wander the world without masks, as if life was normal. Not because they’re risking their lives and other people’s but because it’s safe.

At one point, someone carrying the UK Covid variant slipped through the net and spread it to a second person, who went to work in a hospital and in case that wasn’t bad enough went to a concert with 800 other people, who all crammed into the bar during the intermission. 

Whee. Viral playtime.

Within hours, the tracing system had contacted every one of them. Within days, they’d tested 1,000 people, finding two cases, and they were taken to the isolation hotel. 

And that was it. The virus was contained. 

Why has Iceland been so successful? Thorsteinsson said it’s because “it has been the scientists making up the rules, not the politicians. That matters. They know what they are talking about, the politicians do not.”

The prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, seconded that. 

I think it’s important for a politician to realize what is politics and what needs to be solved by scientific means. It’s my firm belief that we need to listen more to the experts.”

 

A short technical rant

WordPress in its wisdom has blocked the back road that once allowed me to use its manageable Classic Editor, so I’m now trapped in the new one. If anyone knows how to size photos (or knows a back road), pleasepleaseplease let me know. Thanks.

Who policed England before it had police? 

Let’s start in the sixteenth century, when merrie England was still mostly rural and maybe not 100% merrie, since–well, we’ll get to that later. In the meantime, the feudal system was breaking apart and parishes began taking charge of things that the lord of the manor would have done back when feudalism was fully functional and the peasant knew her or his place.

What was the peasant’s place? Why, firmly under the lord’s thumb, of course. Or else appearing as a defendant in the lord’s court, hoping he’d had a decent lunch and was in a forgiving mood. [See the correction from April Munday in the comments section below. I was trusting to memory here and shouldn’t do that. It’s the stuff we think we know that’ll trip us up.]

Irrelevant photo: primroses.

The breakdown of feudalism

Sorry, I threw a lot of things at you all at once. 

Under full-out feudalism, the lord of the manor not only owned the land that the serfs couldn’t leave without his permission, he also collected a portion of their crops, claimed some of their labor, and collected fees for everything from marrying off a kid to dying. He also dispensed what passed for justice. If peasants broke a law–even if in breaking the law they wronged him–he was the person who judged them.

Really, it’s only fair. 

So that system was breaking down, as systems will. 

Now let’s define a parish, since it was taking over some of the tasks the lord had once handled. The word came into use in the Catholic Church in the thirteenth century and a workable definition is an area that has one church which is cared for by one priest.

Or, if you like, it’s the church community in that area.

In seventeenth century England–because that’s later than the period we’ve slid into without me bothering to tell you–it came to mean the most local level of government. In other words, it went from being a purely churchy word to also being a civil one, and that happened because of the way the lines blurred in our first paragraph between the chuchy responsibilities of a parish and the civil ones.

Thanks, guys. As if the English language wasn’t messy enough without that. 

So we have the lord of the manor’s civil power fading and the local church organization moving into the opening. Because the church organization was there and what the hell, it worked. And possibly because some of the better-off parishioners were itching to get their hands on a bit of local power. 

The Tudors gave increasing amounts of responsibility–and power–to parishes. In 1555, they were responsible for maintaining the roads. In 1601, they were responsible for looking after the poor of the parish. (No one said they had to look after them well, but that’s another tale.) 

And in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they took on increasing responsibility for what we now think of as policing.

You knew we’d get to policing eventually.

In the towns, watchmen–also called bellmen–had been around since Edward I’s time, patrolling the streets at night. They were unpaid, and all men were expected to volunteer–unless of course you had enough money, in which case you could pay someone else to volunteer for you. 

Justices of the peace

At the same time as parishes took on a bigger role, so did justices of the peace. 

The JP was a medieval post–an unpaid one that local landowners generally took on for the prestige. And possibly the power. Never rule out the power. They organized road repairs, checked weights and measures, licensed ale houses, and supervised poor relief. 

They also held what were called petty sessions–courts that dealt with low-level crimes. 

For more serious stuff–you know, assault, rioting–a number of JPs would pass judgement jointly. But the truly big-league crimes–murder, witchcraft, or (again) rioting–went to the assize courts for the big kids to deal with. Because witchcraft isn’t something for the amateurs to take on. You need an established director, a big budget, and lots of special effects people. That’s more than your average local court can assemble.

The JPs also led and organised the parish constables or (in towns) the town watchmen, and here, at last, we get back to policing. After 1554, a JP could arrest someone and question them for three days.

The JP could also appoint a parish (or petty) constable. This was an unpaid job that a person–a local tradesman; a farmer; somebody who wasn’t rich but also wasn’t poor–would hold for a year, and the populace was expected (okay, required) to help out when they were called on. 

The constable kept order in the alehouses and inns, sent illegitimate children back to their original parishes (and here we get around to how merrie a place it was), impounded stray farm animals, arrested people who had (presumably) committed crimes, prevented poaching and trespassing, carried out punishments such as whipping vagabonds (did I mention merriness?), and rode herd on apprentices, who were considered (and may well have been) a rowdy lot.

Either the constable or someone who’d been wronged or who discovered a felony was responsible for raising the hue and cry. And everyone (whether that meant everyone or every man I’m not sure) who heard it was responsible for chasing and arresting the felon. This was, remember, long before the accused was considered innocent until proven guilty. If the accused had what the Britannica calls “apparent evidence of guilt on his person” or resisted capture, the crowd could kill them. Merrily.

The last elements of the hue and cry system weren’t repealed until the nineteenth century. 

And yes, the felon did change from being male to being plural as soon as the Britannica got out of my way. It’s an English-language thing. Either you inaccurately assume that everyone’s male or you inaccurately assume that all individuals are plural. Or you repeat “he or she” until you’re feeling a bit multiple yourself. Screw it. 

I mention that to point out that I’m in control of (at least some of) my mistakes here. I know you’d lose sleep over it if I wasn’t.

If you’ve been trying to find a clear dividing line between judging criminals and arresting them–or between what we’d now think of as the courts and the police–I don’t think you’ll find one yet. They were all tossed into the same pot and stirred vigorously.

Creeping professionalization

In the seventeenth century, Charles II (we’re into the Restoration if you keep track of these things) set up a (low-)paid force. This was a significant shift, and not just because the force was paid. The king was now involved in policing where in the past towns and villages had policed themselves. 

At least that’s what the BBC says, although I’d add that the towns and villages policed themselves according to laws they had no control over and under the watchful eye of their richest and most powerful residents. So even if the whole community was bound to help the constable, it wasn’t just to protect the average person’s safety and possessions, it was in large part to protect the powerful and the system itself. Catch those poachers, whip those vagrants, get rid of those illegitimate kids so they don’t sneak in from neighboring parishes. 

The members of Charles II’s new force were sometimes called Charlies. Or–English spelling still being a fluid instead of a solid–Charleys.

By the eighteenth century, the population of towns and cities had grown noticeably. According to one source, the crime rate was rising, although I doubt statistics were accurate enough to bear that out. Let’s say that at a minimum people felt it was rising, and for all we know they were right. If you get enough people in one place, the crime rate’s likely to go up. Cities lend people a certain anonymity. That’s a good thing if you want someone else’s lawn mower. Even if it hasn’t been invented yet.

Another factor driving up the crime rate–if it did go up–was that a hefty proportion of the people who migrated to the cities had been run off the land. They were poor and they were desperate. Unlike anonymity, desperation wasn’t something the cities lent them. It was a full-out gift, and they couldn’t give it back.

The patchwork system of unpaid and low-paid amateurs couldn’t keep up with this new reality. 

Having said that, let’s toss a bit of weight on the opposite side of the scales: History Extra says that evidence–that would probably be transcripts–from the Old Bailey (a criminal court) shows that a number of the watchmen and constables knew their law. Presumably, they were competent. It doesn’t, however, say that the system they worked in was up to the job it now had. 

Thief takers stepped into the gap. They’d capture a thief and negotiate with the loot’s original owners about getting it back, making sure they got a profit from the transaction. That worked well for the thief takers, but I doubt anyone else thought much of the system.  Jonathan Wild, called the Thief Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland, policed the London streets and handed criminals over to the authorities. He and his men were also, it turned out, behind most of the thefts in the area.

Which at least meant they knew who to sell stuff back to.

The Bow Street Runners

Midway through the century, Henry and John Fielding, magistrates at Bow Street, formed the Bow Street Runners, who were paid by the government. They started with six full-time officers and ended with sixty-eight. In addition to their base pay, they got rewards along the same lines as the thief takers, although probably not by doing their own robberies.

If you recognize Henry’s name, you’re right: He was also the novelist Henry Fielding.

The Fieldings carried over the tradition of the hue and cry, appealing to the public through newspapers, which were still a hot new technology, for help in solving crimes. After Henry’s death, John published a paper, The Quarterly Pursuit, later renamed The Public Hue and Cry, publicizing information on stolen property, on crimes, and on suspects. 

But the Bow Street Runners worked in a small part of London and the system wasn’t picked up elsewhere. People were skeptical. A police force would be expensive. People would lose freedoms. Their privacy would be invaded. 

Hell, they might even have to wear masks to keep from spreading a virus.

Sorry–wrong century. It’s interesting, though, to see things we take for granted treated as new and threatening developments.

Here and there, though, moves were being made in the direction of more organized policing. At the end of the century, the River Thames Police were formed to protect the port’s cargoes. (That was the first time the word police was used in England to mean, um, police.) In 1805, a horse patrol was set up and nicknamed the Robin Redbreasts because of their red uniforms. In Glasgow, watchmen and constables were organized into a single force to protect the city. 

The Peelers

And now, in the spirit of telling a story directly, let’s back up a bit. 

After soldiers were called in to put down the Gordon Riots in 1780, demand for a metropolitan police force rose among the middle and upper classes, but the City of London Corporation and the lord mayor (do you know how hard it is to type “lord mayor” without making a wisecrack?) opposed it. It might trample on their independence. They had their own institutions, even if they weren’t working. https://notesfromtheuk.com/2019/08/02/the-gordon-riots-religion-poverty-and-no-revolution/

We’ve all been there, in small ways and in large. The system may not work, but by god it’s ours and we’ll defend it.

Just to be clear: I’m not arguing that anyone was wrong (or right, for that matter) about the impact a police force would and later did have. And I’m not arguing that the best of all possible solutions was found. You don’t have to support the solution to poke holes in the objections.

Predictably, the French Revolution, which was the boogeyman of the era (at least in Britain), entered into the debate.Could England have a police force without it becoming like the French (or at least what he English thought the French police force was like)–political and militarized? 

In 1822, while that question was still being batted back and forth, Robert Peel (who would much prefer, even when he’s long dead, to be called Sir Robert Peel) became home secretary and by 1829 he’d established a unified London police force. 

Unified, that is, except that it only covered an area within a seven-mile radius of the center of London.  And unified except for the area the Bow Street Runners patrolled. And unified except for the City of London, which is separate  from the city (no capital letter) of London and even today has its own laws, police force, government, and silly clothes. 

This is a complicated country, and it’s in love with its own complications. It’s complicated enough that I’m referring you backward to several of my own posts here. The topic has an endless number of side stories and this is too long already. Apologies for a bit of self-serving vanity, but no one else on this couch is offering herself up to play expert so I’m afraid your choice is to consult me or Lord Google. 

One of the factors that weighed in Peel’s favor as he drove the police force through was the 1819 Peterloo Massacre–a demonstration that was broken up chaotically and bloodily by a somewhat random combination of soldiers and semi-professional local military units. Another factor was the demographic shifts of an industrializing country and the impression was that the crime rate was rising. And, although the BBC doesn’t say this, industrial unrest was an ever-present fear among the powerful.

Not everyone was happy with the unified system. (When is everyone happy?) Under the earlier system, every parish had its own constables and watchmen, and the richer tha parish the more of them it had. The Metropolitan Force meant that local control was lost. Richer parishes might now have fewer men on patrol. And they were paying taxes to support the Metropolitan Force, not their local one. 

When the wealthy complain, they tend to get heard, so in 1833 the government agreed to pick up a quarter of the cost of the Metropolitan Force. 

Ten years later, the radius the force patrolled was expanded to fifteen miles and the Bow Street Runners, the River Thames Police, and the Watchmen were incorporated into it. 

By 1882, the Metropolitan Police had 11,700 officers.But we haven’t arrived in 1882 yet. We need to stop in 1835, when a law gave towns outside of London the power to set up police forces, and in 1839, when counties got the same power. 

But those were powers, not an order to use the power. That didn’t come until 1856, when both towns and counties were told to get with it and set up paid, full-time forces with one officer for every 1,000 people. 

Inspectors of the Constabulary had to certify the new forces as acceptable, at which point the national government would pick up some of the cost and local taxes had to cover the rest. 

That leaves an odd situation where all police forces except London’s are still controlled by local governments but London’s is controlled by the home secretary, who’s part of Britain’s national government.

So what happened to the fear that the police would be militarized and the French Revolution would creep into Britain? I can’t swear that it’s the reason the police wear blue uniforms, but the choice of blue was made so that they could be distinguished from the military, which wore red. 

The AstraZeneca vaccine update

AstraZeneca’s vaccine is back in the news, and not happily. The company handed a group of US medical experts data on its effectiveness, but when the experts looked at it, they said, “Guys, this isn’t new data. This is the old stuff.”

Except that if they’d really used those words, they’d have said “aren’t new data,” because experts use the word enough to remember that data are plural. All experts. Even experts in knitting and basketball manufacturing. The word data is in a category that includes nonbinary people who prefer to be called they instead of he or she. Those of us who are over the age of a thousand struggle to get the pronouns and the verbs right. 

In case you’re interested, data is made up of lots of itty-bitty little datums.

No, sorry, that’s wrong too. A single datum has to have at least one friend before it become data.

Where were we?

Irrelevant photo: Blackthorn.

Basically, the experts were saying that AZ had cherry-picked its data to make the vaccine look like it was 79% effective. What the experts saw was between 69% and 74% effectiveness.

The craziness of all this is that a vaccine with 69% effectiveness is still damn good, and the advantage of AZ’s vaccine is that it’s easy to transport and store, so it doesn’t have to match the effectiveness of the fussier ones to be useful.

AZ said it had released interim data and that its later data (which rhymes if you pronounce your Rs the English-English way, like silent Hs) was consistent with it. Sorry: with them. It then released the lata data to the experts.

None of this is about the vaccine’s safety, but Dr. H. Cody Meissner, an infectious-disease expert at Tufts University School of Medicine who serves on a board that advises the US Food and Drug Administration on vaccine approvals, said, “You know the anti-vaccine community is going to use this as fodder to argue that pharmaceutical companies are always deceptive.” 

He said board members would be even more careful than usual to scrutinize AZ’s  data from here on, and “I will make sure I don’t skip a word.”

Which is probably not the response AZ was hoping for.

 

Yeah, but what about the AZ vaccine’s safety? 

A number of countries put the AstraZeneca vaccine on hold for fear that it was linked to a very rare blood clotting problem, cerebral venous sinus thrombosis. AZ’s recent US trial involved 21,000 people and turned up no safety concerns, although when a problem’s extremely rare it could easily not show up in a sample of that size. Or of ten times that size.

But even if the vaccine does, very rarely, cause cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, the risk of not using the vaccine is much greater than the risk of using it. Either all or most (or, hell, I’ve lost count; let’s just say many) countries that put it on hold have by now started to use it again. 

 

Magical Covid solutions that may turn out to be real

I try not to write about Covid solutions that are still in the trial stage, because we may never hear of them again, but every so often I can’t stop myself, so let’s talk about protease inhibitors. They’re antiviral treatments in pill form that can be used in the early stages of an infection to keep the virus from multiplying.

What’s a protease inhibitor? It’s a–

Would you mind if I duck that question? We can all live perfectly full lives (and pretend we understand this) without understanding this fully. So a protease inhibitor is a thing–probably one that inhibits proteases–and it’s already been used to treat other viruses, including HIV and hepatitis C. It’s also been used to treat Covid, but up to now it has to be delivered into the blood stream slowly, so its use has been fairly limited.

As someone or other said, “This is really a potential game changer.”

One of the unexpected side effects of the pandemic has been that experts and politicians are required to use the phrase game changer at least once a week. By now, we’ve changed games so often that we don’t know if we’re playing cards or jump rope, or possibly that game involving horses, mallets, and a the head of a dead goat. But as long as we’re changing games, I should mention that they’re exploring the possibility that the treatment could also be used in people who’ve been exposed to Covid but who haven’t yet developed it.

Folks, this really does sound–ack–game changing. Have you got your goat’s head? The price is only going to go up, so if there’s room in your freezer you might want to buy now.

Because Covid’s protease doesn’t mutate much (at the moment, anyway), this would work against all the current variants.

All this made me so happy that I made myself an extra cup of tea this morning. 

Yes, I live close to the edge.

 

The lockdown report

England’s current lockdown rules are scheduled to ease up on March 29. People will be able to get together outdoors in limited but larger groups. People will be allowed to leave home for non-essential reasons. (Hands up: How many of you remembered that we haven’t been allowed to do that? I just thought there wasn’t much non-essential to do.) 

But non-essential shops and services (barbers, hairdressers, that kind of thing) won’t reopen until April 12, along with bars and cafes that have outdoor seating. (No eating or drinking indoors yet.)

Why is April 12 safer than March 29? The virus is afraid of even numbers. It’s all been worked out by people who know what they’re doing. Unfortunately, they had to run their recommendations past Boris Johnson’s government, which threw all the cards in the air and picked them up in random order. Still, some semblance of sanity may still be in there.

Okay, I’ll admit: That was unfair. The idea is to take this thing in stages and only go to the next, more open, stage if Covid stays below some unspecified level. 

The travel industry had been hoping that foreign travel would get the green light, but it hasn’t–or at least overseas vacations haven’t. Or holidays, as you’d say if you’re British. You can’t “leave England to travel to a destination outside the United Kingdom, or travel to, or be present at, an embarkation point for the purpose of travelling from there to a destination outside the United Kingdom” without a reasonable excuse.

Is that clear enough? It means you can’t leave, travel to, be present at, or consider the possibility of thinking about getting ready to go somewhere else. And if that didn’t cover all the possibilities, it’s because I nodded off after one of the ors.

But in spite of all the repetition, there are exceptions, and they’re hidden in that bit about reasonable excuses, which in spite of being outside the quotation marks is a quotation, but one that went wandering and doesn’t belong in that particular spot. 

If you need to travel for work or study, to vote, or for legal obligations, you’re okay. If you need to be present at a birth. If you’re visiting a dying relative or close friend. If you’re getting married. If you have a medical appointment. If you–well, a few other things. 

The reasonable excuse that’s raising eyebrows is that you can travel to get a second home ready to sell or rent. Or you can travel if you just have to buy or rent one. Or to do a few other things with one. Because if you have the money to buy, sell, rent, or hand Christmas lights on a second home, you’re more important than someone who’s hoping to stay in a youth hostel in Spain for a week or two. And if you’re more important, you’ll have the sense not to import some new Covid variant.

That’s being called the Stanley Johnson clause, after the prime minister’s father, who traveled to his villa in Greece to make it, he said, Covid proof. I don’t think he’s told the rest of us how that’s possible. But no, it wasn’t so he could sit in the sun and drink himself senseless. 

Sorry–I suckered myself into a stereotype there. I have no knowledge of what Johnson Sr’s drinking or sunbathing habits are. 

What’s a villa? “1. A country estate. 2. The rural or suburban residence of a wealthy person.” Or in British real estate-speak, “3. A detached or semidetached urban residence with yard and garden space.”

For Stanley Johnson, we can, I think, rule out the real estate-speak definition.

I’m happy to report that protests will be exempt from the rules banning large gatherings, but the organizers will have to work out (or encourage, or some other vaguely related verb) social distancing and mask wearing. That sounds surprisingly reasonable, although it leaves a worrying gap that allows for breaking up spontaneous demonstrations, even if people wear masks and keep their distance. 

Some good news about Covid–and some bad

In some patients, vaccination can ease long Covid symptoms. A small study–44 patients–saw 23% of the participants showing some improvement compared to the unvaccinated group. But just so we don’t get too excited about this, 5.6% found that their symptoms got worse. It didn’t seem to matter whether they’d gotten the Pfizer or the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

Long Covid? It’s a weird range of symptoms that some percentage of people are left with after they get rid of the infection itself. In some people, the symptoms clear up in weeks and in others–well, it’s not clear how long they’ll last because they’re still hanging around. The symptoms can range from mild to pretty damn awful and they can follow either a severe infection or a mild one. 

An infectious disease specialist at Columbia University said that about a fifth of the patients he’s treated get long Covid. So anything that helps a quarter of them? We like that. 

Irrelevant photo: hyacinth

 

The bad news

With a bit of good news out of the way, let’s drop in on its old friend Bad News: In Brazil, Covid’s sending younger people to intensive care units–people who aren’t just youngish but who have no pre-existing medical problems. Younger in this case means between 30 and 60, so they’re not young-young, but that’s still an important shift in a disease that’s been known for targeting people over 60. 

This doesn’t seem to be because of a change in the disease itself, though. (Put that on the good news side of the scales.) Part of the shift may be coming from younger people’s belief that they can shrug the disease off. They’re making themselves available to get infected. Or the Brazilian government’s Covid denialism is putting them in harm’s way. Public transportation is packed. On crowded sidewalks, it’s not unusual to see people going maskless. And older people are getting vaccinated while younger people aren’t. 

Even though younger people are more likely to shrug the disease off, enough of them need hospitalization that hospitals are overwhelmed. It’s a reminder that none of us can count on being immune to this thing. 

 

The news you can interpret as good if you want to

Researchers estimate that the Covid virus was probably circulating undetected for a couple of months before it popped its nasty little head up in Wuhan at the end of 2019. This is based on modeling and I’m not going to take you through it because, let’s face it, I don’t understand it, but the researchers played out a series of scenarios and concluded that new viruses jump from animals to humans regularly but that most of them die out before they get a chance to create pandemics. Or even epidemics. 

Remember when epidemic sounded extreme? Yeah, me too. Now it’s just some kindergarten-style disaster–the kind where someone called you a bad name and you went home in tears. 

They figure that some 70% of the infections that jump from animals die out within 8 days of finding their way into the human race. If they get into an urban area, though, the odds tip further in their favor. 

So is that good news or bad? Both, I guess. It reminds us that a whole line of viruses is out there, just waiting to set up housekeeping in our bodies’ cells. On the other hand, it means that most of them, even when they find an entry point, won’t spread around the planet.

 

And a bit more good news

The unalloyed good news is that while Covid’s evolving, so are our antibodies

Let’s say you get Covid and count your antibodies just after you recover. You’ll have lots of them. (I’m writing the script, so of course you recover. I apologize for giving you the disease to begin with, but the plot demanded it. The sad truth about fiction writing is that if you don’t let anything bad happen, you don’t have a story.)

Then you count those antibodies again in six months and you don’t have as many. 

Why’s that good news? 

Because they won’t be the same naive little antibodies you had when you first got sick: 83% of them will now recognize Covid variants and be ready to kill them on sight. (It’s a nasty old world at the cellular level. Sorry.) They’ll even be learning to recognize related viruses, such as SARS. They’re sadder but wiser antibodies. If they go into a bar wanting nothing more than a drink and some virus sits down beside them and tries to chat, they won’t be flattered that it’s paying attention to them. They’ll kill it. 

I haven’t done that in bars, but believe me, I understand its appeal. 

How did they get to the point where they understood the game before the first moves were even played out? 

Let’s go back to that case of Covid I assigned you. After you got rid of the infection, you were left with some non-infectious bits of the virus scampering around your body, and they worked as reminders to your immune system: This is what the virus looks like. If this sounds like an ex who won’t stop calling–

Well, yeah, it is, but this isn’t a relationship or a breakup and the virus isn’t your ex. It’s a virus. And you aren’t you anymore, you’re an immune system, because I moved us into a different story without thinking to warn you. So it’s good that bits of the virus still have your phone number, and use it. It’s not universally true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but in this case they really are making you stronger.

The immune system has an evolutionary advantage over viruses. They mutate randomly and the ones that work well survive, which is a way of saying that the ones that survive, survive. But antibodies don’t mutate randomly. I’d love to explain that to you, but the best I can do is tell you that it has to do with B cells and activation-induced deaminase and somatic hypermutation. Or to put that more simply, I don’t understand a word of it but if I could pronounce it I’d have one hell of a snappy comeback next time some virus tries to chat me up.

What I did follow is that the lymph nodes notice which B cells make better antibodies and which ones don’t. They give the best B cells good grades and send the worst ones back to repeat the year with the same teacher who couldn’t get the lessons across the first time. 

The ones who got the top grades get to mass produce their new, improved antibodies. Which recognize variants of the virus they fought off, bringing us back to our starting point, sadder but wiser and ready to fight. 

 

Finally, a bit of Zoom news

Humans aren’t the only ones using Zoom during the pandemic. Two zoos in the Czech Republic set up a Zoom connection to let their chimpanzees watch each other’s lives on big screens while the zoos are closed. The chimps get bored without humans to watch. 

There’s no sound in their meetings (that would improve some I’ve been in), but after initially approaching the screens defensively or aggressively, they settled in to watch the show and it seems to be a great success.

All the news you don’t need to know

Patriotism has run away with us in ever-so-great Britain: Paul Scully, a minister at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, went on TV to promote offshore windfarms and bragged that a government program would create British jobs, using British manufacturing “and of course British wind.”

The plan at the moment is to surround windfarms with barbed wire and make sure foreign winds are kept out, but the plans could change if the political winds shift. The possibility of putting electric fans on the leeward side hasn’t been ruled out. 

Irrelevant photo: A Cornish stone wall. The plant is wall pennywort.

 

More political stuff

After Meghan Markle and Harry Whatsisname accused Britain’s tabloid press of being racist, Ian Murray, the executive director of Britain’s Society of Editors, responded by asking himself, “Are you a racist?” answering, “Don’t be silly,” and then issuing a statement saying that racism was never a factor in how the press treated Markle. M & H’s “attack,” he said, was “not acceptable.”

All hell broke loose, a great deal of huffing a puffing followed, and Murray has now resigned.

A particularly British way of thinking about racism is for a person (the person in question, in my experience, being white) to consult their intent and declare themselves free of it. Their impact on other people or the world in general doesn’t come into it and neither does anything that other people might contribute to the discussion. If they declare their intent to be pure, they are pure. 

 

The sciencey stuff they don’t want us to know

And now we come to the shocking revelation that on the equinox, which most of us were trusting enough to think is the moment when day and night are equal in length, day and not are not equal in length.

Yes, folks, deep forces are at work here and they do not have our best interests at heart. 

I’ll quote an explanation of what the equinox really is: “On a winter day, the Sun is low in the sky, whereas on a summer’s day the Sun lies considerably higher. But on a specific day in the spring or autumn, the Sun will be visible directly above the equator, somewhere in the middle of the two arcs traced by the Sun in the summer and winter.”

You mean all those people on the equator only get to see the sun twice a year? 

Um, probably not. It means–

Well, it means something else, okay? 

The unevenness of day and night has to do in part with sunrise being measured from the moment when the rim of the sun appears on the horizon and sundown being measured from the time that same rim disappears. That leaves a bit of time sloshing around when the rest of the sun is following the rim.

Did you follow that? Maybe it would be better if we skip over the sciencey stuff. All we need to know is that deep forces are at work and that we’ve been lied to. Don’t trust the forces of nature. Stay alert. Keep a clock by you at all times. Trust no one. And if you want an actual explanation, follow the link

 

The animal stuff

This is the year of cats and lawyers. 

Barrister Naz Hussain’s cat Colombo broke into a Zoom hearing in January. He had his eye on the headphone cable but then strolled across the keyboard until he was in range of the camera.

“The judge jokingly asked if he was my instructing solicitor,” Hussein said, “to which I said: ‘No, it’s my replacement junior.’ “

That is British legalspeak. Don’t worry about what it means. Just bask in how arcane and British it sounds and pretend you’re watching one of those law shows where half the actors have lambs curled up on their heads.

“Everyone laughed,” Hussain said, “and, sensing stardom, Columbo just kept coming back.”

I don’t know if the defendant was included in everyone, but he may have been because he was found innocent.  

Colombo now has his own Twitter account. And Hussain–having been repeatedly mistaken for a defendant and asked by other lawyers if he’s really a QC–has taken advantage of the moment when people are listening to him to say some serious things about diversity in the legal profession.

A QC? That’s a particularly high-powered breed of lawyer. They’re so important they’d wear two lambs on their heads if there was room.

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Somewhat less impressively, a sheriff’s deputy in Georgia got out of her patrol car to serve papers on someone, leaving the door open, and a goat jumped in. She–that’s the deputy, not the goat–recorded the whole thing on her head cam, which also recorded her saying, as she knocked on the door, “I hope that goat don’t get in my car.”

Be careful what you say around a goat. They’re very bright and highly suggestible. 

Leaving the car door open is standard practice, at least for her. If she has to get away from a bad-tempered dog, she wants the escape to be seamless. 

While it was in the car, the goat munched on her papers and spilled her drink. And when the deputy got to be enough of an annoyance, it head-butted her to the ground. 

She’ll never hear the end of it.

To the best of my knowledge, the goat hasn’t set up a Twitter account.

Yet.

 

The high-tech stuff

Gucci’s selling sneakers for $17.99, but since the brand’s shoes can sell for as much as $500, there’s a catch: They’re virtual sneakers. You can buy them for your imaginary self to wear in online games, which if I was even remotely with it I’d call virtual reality but I can’t be bothered to pretend. You can’t put them on real feet because they don’t actually exist. So if you buy a pair you just spent $17.99 on something imaginary.

The Guardian describes one of them as “a chunky slime green, bubble-gum pink and sky blue shoe that wouldn’t look out of place in a robot’s orthotics clinic.” I’m going to assume that the other one matches.  

Who could resist?

Policing, politics, and women’s safety in Britain

Our tale starts in London on March 3, when Sarah Everard was abducted and killed–apparently (the official word here is allegedly) by a cop, who has since been arrested. He–the cop–served in the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Command and had at some point in the past been reported for indecent exposure. Twice. In a fast-food joint. 

The reports don’t seem to have interfered with either his career or his freedom.

It’s worse that the events took place in a fast-food place, isn’t it? Hamburgers can be sensitive. The man clearly had no respect.

This history raises questions about whether the police force–as they say in the blandest of bureaceaucro-speak–responded appropriately. 

 

Irrelevant photo: a daffodil

Policing protests during a pandemic

Now we come to the part where I remind you that all this happened in the midst of a pandemic. Remember Covid? That pandemic. Because of it, a formal vigil was denied a permit, but people–especially women–poured out anyway, both to memorialize Everard and to highlight the everyday dangers women live with and the need for change. They left flowers. They brought candles. They came together spontaneously because to have organized the vigil would’ve meant organizers facing £10,000 fines, even though the pandemic rules allow (but don’t define) “reasonable excuses” to be outside. 

Screw the permit, though. People felt the need to be out there. No one had to organize it.

For a while, the cops didn’t interfere, but toward evening speeches began and the police moved in to break it up. The police said that people had packed in to hear the speakers, “posing a very real risk of easily transmitting Covid-19.”

The crowd–I’m basing this on photos–was almost entirely masked, a crowd in Scotland that had turned out to celebrate a football win wasn’t bothered, and last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations have not been linked to any Covid spikes, so if you’re going to taste the official explanation I’d suggest more than a grain of salt. Especially given various demonstrators’ descriptions of police getting right in their faces and yelling at them as well as forcing the crowd closer together than it had been. 

If you’re worried about a crowd spreading Covid, those aren’t the recommended crowd-control approaches.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, said the vigil had been hijacked by protestors.

I’m shocked,” she said, “that what started as a peaceful and important vigil turned into a protest with photographs showing ‘ACAB’ signs, which stands for ‘all cops are bastards.’ ”

Yeah, I’m shocked too. The virus is spread by bad language, signs that insult the police, and protest in general. It’s not spread by apolitical mourning. So leave a flower, girls, then go home and behave.

A photo from the demonstration has gone viral. It shows a young woman thrown to the ground and handcuffed by two cops, who are kneeling on her back. She describes herself as five-foot two and weighing nothing. Not irrelevantly in a protest about women’s safety on the streets, both were male. She had been simply standing there, she said, and that seems to be borne out by video footage.

 

The background 

Britain has a dismal track record on prosecuting rape and sexual assault. I’ve seen two figures and I don’t know which one’s correct, but honestly it doesn’t matter. According to one, only 1.4% of the rapes that are reported end up being prosecuted. According to another it’s 1 in 70. Take your choice. Both present a good argument for mourning and protest getting to know each other on a speed date and deciding that they have a lot in common.

Patel mentioned that the event involved some assaults on police and a broken mirror on a police car. Or van. Vehicle, if that’s not too bloodless a word. All of those, according to someone who trawled through videos of the event, were carried out by men. As far as I’ve been able to sort out, the four people who were arrested are of the female persuasion. 

The government has responded to Everard’s death by publicizing every quick and pointless solution that anyone thought of at a ten-minute brainstorming session involving donuts. (No, I don’t actually know where the ideas came from. They only read like they were thought up that way.) They propose more street lighting, more CCTV, more cops on the streets, undercover cops in pubs, and more other things that no one involved has called for. They haven’t called for any consideration of what’s going wrong with the way rape complaints are handled. They haven’t called for a national discussion of the pervasive, everyday harassment that women and girls face.

They haven’t even acknowledged it. 

 

The policing bill

In the midst of all this, the government is pushing through–and with an 80-seat majority, will pass–a policing bill that changes the balance between police and protesters, tipping it further in favor of the police. Protesters will face a fine of up to £2,500 for violating police directions that they should have known about, regardless of whether the police informed them. Creating a public nuisance will be an offense. Being noisy will be a reason to break up a demonstration. 

They’re setting the bar very close to the ground here. An eighty-year-old with two bad hips and a cane could get over it. And I’m close enough to eighty that I get to say that. They’re not talking about demonstrations that attack or threaten people. They’re not talking about threats to public health or safety. They’re talking about being a pain in the ass.

The police right to stop and search will also be expanded, although that’s used far more against young Black men than against white. The maximum penalty for damaging a memorial will be increased from three months to then years–longer, as may people have pointed out, than for attacking a woman. Rapists could (it’s complicated) get longer sentences under the bill, but given how few cases are even prosecuted that’s kind of beside the point.  

The parts of the bill that relate to demonstrations are a response to Extinction Rebellion, which was quite deliberate about creating a public nuisance. But then, the US civil rights movement also created a public nuisance, and by now it’s entered into public mythology in a defanged and respectable–almost sanctified–form. Sometimes being a damned nuisance is the only thing that works. When people try to make change and they run into a brick wall, they’ll stop business from being carried on as usual. It’s a law of physics. 

Is the bill a total crackdown on dissent? Probably not, although you shouldn’t take my word on that. I’m not a lawyer and my understanding of British law is spotty at best. A lot of organizations are seriously worried about it, and it does give the police a lot of leeway to crack down on dissent. And when they’re given that leeway, sooner or later they’ll take it.

I don’t suppose I should be surprised when governments do what they can to keep people from opposing them. Not all of them do that, but the temptation’s got to lie just under the surface. And when they give in to it, the cost is high. Not just to protesters but to any semblance of democracy, to the possibility of peaceful progress, and sooner or later to the government itself. Because you can shut up some of the people all of the time and you can–

Hell, you know how that goes. Sooner or later, you’ll hear from them and it won’t be a pleasant discussion. 

Will the bill make women safer in the streets and their homes? 

Are you kidding me? That’s not the priority.

More on why countries are pausing the AstraZeneca vaccine

The European Medicines Agency has reviewed its data on the AstraZeneca vaccine and reports that it finds no higher risk of blood clots but also says it will keep on studying the possibility that the vaccine has caused them. Thirteen countries in the European Union have suspended their use of the vaccine at a time when vaccine supplies are already short. Or maybe that’s twenty countries. I’ve seen both numbers and don’t much care. Take your choice.

The however-many countries haven’t gone off the deep end, even if at some point it becomes clear that they’ve made the wrong decision. At least thirteen people have developed a rare set of symptoms involving widespread blood clots, low platelet counts, and internal bleeding. These aren’t typical strokes or blood clots, and the people are between twenty and fifty years old and previously healthy. 

Seven of them have died. 

Steinar Madsen, the medical director of the Norwegian Medicines Agency, said, “Our leading hematologist said he had never seen anything quite like it.” 

On the other hand, Britain has had no clusters of unusual bleeding or clotting problems, in spite of having used 10 million doses of the vaccine by now–more than any other country. 

The question of how to read the evidence and what to do in response seems to have divided the public health experts from the medical people. On one side is the argument that Covid is the statistically greater risk, so keep vaccinating. On the other side is the argument that we don’t know what’s going on here and until we do we need to stop. Neither side is either crazy or irresponsible. It’s a question of emphasis and professional orientation. 

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Update: Four countries have announced that they’ll be resuming AstraZeneca’s use.

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My thanks to Sabine for sending me a link explaining the reasoning behind halting the use of AstraZeneca.