Bits of good news about Covid

We’re talking about Covid again, so let’s grab some shreds of good news and pile them up like hamster bedding–only (if I remember my brother’s hamster correctly) not as stale smelling.

 

Shred number one

A study involving older, high-risk adults showed that nasal irrigation reduced the risk of hospitalization and death from Covid and helped people recover faster. 

What does “older” mean if we don’t have a comparison group? C’mon, we all know that in our culture it’s not nice to say someone’s old. They’re trying to be polite. My best guess is, older than the researchers.

Next question: What’s nasal irrigation? An inexpensive and low-tech way of clearing out your sinuses. You squirt a mild sterile saline solution up one nostril, tipping your head so it dribbles helplessly out the other, having found its way via satellite navigation. As the solution falls into the sink, you’ll hear a small voice saying, “You have reached your destination.” 

Irrelevant photo: It must be time for another cat photo. This is Fast Eddie, who doesn’t look like he was assembled correctly but was. Really.

Okay, I asked Lord Google what it involves, and I even tried doing it. It’s mildly off-putting but I’ve done worse things in the name of health. It’s entirely survivable.

But let’s go back to the study: Only 1.3% of the subjects were hospitalized, and none died. Compare that to the control group, where 9.47% were hospitalized and 1.5% died. Group one also got better faster and had fewer symptoms hanging on at the end of two weeks. 

The inspiration behind the study was 1) that saline decreases Covid’s ability to attach to cells–to the ACE2 receptor, in case you’re taking notes and 2) that the larger a person’s viral load is, the sicker they’re likely to be, so if within 24 hours of testing positive (the study’s designers reasonsed) some of the virus was rinsed out, that might reduce Covid’s damage. 

Nasal irrigation is a common practice in Southeast Asia, and interestingly enough death rates from Covid were lower there. That’s not definitive proof, but it’s intriguing enough to make a person design a study around it–if the aforesaid person happens to be in the right line of work, of course. 

Irrigation also helps with colds, postnasal drip,  sinus headaches, and all sorts of fun stuff. It’s said to improve people’s sense of taste and smell and the quality of their sleep. 

I’m starting to sound like a true believer, aren’t I? Sorry. I’ll recover in a minute or two, as soon as I stop this saline solution dribbling out of my left nostril. In the meantime, I can balance things out by admitting that it won’t make you taller or reverse aging.

 

Shred number two

A small study hints that vaccination may be decreasing the number of people who come down with long Covid. The study comes from the long Covid clinic at the Cambridge University Teaching Hospital, which treats people on the severe end of the spectrum. Between August 2021 and June 2022, it saw a 79% drop in referrals compared to August 2020 and July 2021.

That’s not proof that vaccination’s the cause–it’s only correlation–but it does suggest it.

Other studies also show a decrease, although the numbers have been all over the map. One showed a 15% reduction and another 50%. A third showed “eight of the ten most-commonly reported symptoms were reported between 50 and 80% less often.” I’d translate that into a format that parallels the other studies but somebody glued the pieces in place and I can’t. 

The reason the numbers vary so much is that the studies weren’t defining long Covid the same way or following people for the same length of time. 

So does catching Covid multiple times increase your odds of getting long Covid? The assumption has been that with each infection, you roll the dice again, taking the same risk each time. But one author of the study expects that previous infections will have more or less the same impact as vaccination and the risk will turn out to diminish after the first infection.

Probably.

 

Shred number three

The omicron variant may be 20% to 50% less likely to turn into long Covid than the delta variant, depending on a person’s age and how much time has passed since they were last vaccinated. 

But–and isn’t there always a but?–because more people caught the omicron variant than the delta, the absolute number of people in the UK who came down with long Covid as a result was higher. 

Sorry. That second paragraph was as welcome as a thorny old blackberry cane sneaking into the hamster bedding.

 

Shred number four

Allergies might offer some protection against Covid. Do you have hay fever, allergic rhinitis, eczema, dermatitis? Be grateful for your bad luck, because you may be 23% less likely to get infected . Got one of those plus asthma? Be grateful twice: It may have down by 38%. 

That’s not proof, but it’s an interesting possibility.

 

Shred number five

A study estimates that in the first year Covid vaccines were available, they prevented 19.8 million deaths worldwide. Unfortunately, though, because of how unevenly they were distributed, the advantage was heavily skewed toward the richest countries.

You knew it wouldn’t all be good news here, didn’t you? 

During the first Covid wave, before vaccines were available, shutting schools cut daily deaths by 1.23 per million over 24 days and shutting workplaces cut daily deaths by 0.26 per million over 24 days. (Kids were less likely to get sick but they’re generous little creatures and they do like to share their germs.) For a population of 67 million (which just happens to be Britain’s population), that translates to roughly 82 deaths avoided every 24 days by shutting schools and 17 by shutting workplaces.

Lockdowns and restrictions on public transportation didn’t have as significant an impact. The difference is at least partially attributable to vulnerable people not being able to avoid workplaces and schools.  

 

Shred number six

India and China have approved inhalable vaccines, and many medical manufacturers are chasing their own inhalable versions. Injected vaccines concentrate antibodies in our muscles, which is useful, but we catch Covid by inhaling it, so the theory goes that loading the nose and mouth with antibodies could potentially keep us from spreading it. In other words, it really could end the pandemic.

Potentially. I don’t think the data on either of the new vaccines have been made public yet, so keep watching.

 

And now your weekly quota of bad-to-ambiguous news

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, said, “Last week, one person died with Covid-19 every 44 seconds. Most of those deaths are avoidable.”

That quote’s from early September .

“You might be tired of hearing me say the pandemic is not over. But I will keep saying it until it is.”

A week later, he said “We have never been in a better position to end the pandemic. We are not there yet, but the end is in sight.”

However, “If we don’t take this opportunity now, we run the risk of more variants, more deaths, more disruption, and more uncertainty.”

WHO is urging countries to continue testing for the virus, to continue sequencing it, and to vaccinate 100% of the most at-risk groups, including health workers and the elderly.

Britain cancels all news out of respect for the queen

In case you managed not to notice, the queen died, but that’s not today’s topic. Let’s talk about Britain’s response, which–depending on your point of view–has been either moving and full of pageantry or expensive and over the top. 

Let’s go straight to the over-the-top stuff. 

News outlets more or less abandoned real news, giving us day after day after day of queen-is-dead coverage, and journalists were driven to such extremes in their efforts to find new angles that on the day of the funeral I found a headline that read, “Viewers left shocked after spider crawls across queen’s coffin during funeral.”

Yes, whatever else you can say, the country’s papers know breaking news when they see it.

Irrelevant photo: Nicotiana–and if it looks like I photoshopped a frowny face into the center, I didn’t. The flower grew that all by its glorious self.

The award for worst managed respectful gesture

Centre Parcs–a chain of holiday villages–first announced that they’d have to kick everyone out on the night of the queen’s funeral because they were closing down. When that got bad publicity, they changed their minds (“We recognise leaving the village for one night is an inconvenience”) but told guests they’d have to stay in their lodges, because the place was still closed. 

That led some denizens of social media to call it a hostage situation, which should also get an over-the-top award but we’ve run out. Sorry. Still, it was thoughtful of them to join Centre Parcs in that over-the-top space so they wouldn’t be lonesome.

The company later re-clarified the situation: Guests could walk around but the facilities would be closed. They offered a 17% discount. 

Your guess about how they came up with that figure is as good as mine. Given that people go there for the facilities, I’d have thought a 100% refund would be more fitting, but after that the story dropped out of the news. 

 

Gestures that didn’t win awards

From there, the stories get more mundane, but British Cycling–the national body for a sport that I never knew had a national body, or needed one–recommended that no one use their bikes on the day of the funeral.   

Cue bikers threatening to cancel their memberships. Then cue the organization backing down. And apologizing. And clarifying that  “no domestic events should take place on the day of the State Funeral,” whatever that means.

“Any clubs planning rides on the day of the State Funeral may want to consider adjusting their route or ride timings so they do not clash with those of the funeral service and associated processions.

“However, they are under no obligation to do so.”

In other words, please ignore this letter. 

Not to be outdone, the Norwich City Council closed two bike racks from September 9 to September 23, “during the Royal period of Mourning.” 

The British are big on capital Letters.

After a flap, the original sign was taken down and replaced with one explaining that the area would be used for “floral tributes.” But the bike racks are still closed.

In London, the overwhelmed Royal Parks Whatever asked people to please stop leaving Paddington Bears and marmalade sandwiches as tributes. Ditto balloons and candles. Flowers were okay, but without the wrappings, please.

The bears and sandwiches come out of a filmed sketch involving the queen, played by herself, having tea with Paddington Bear, who rumor has it was played by an actor.

The supermarket chain Morrisons showed its respect by turning the beeps on their self-service checkout scanners so low that customers couldn’t hear them and couldn’t tell if their purchases had been scanned or not.

On the day of the funeral, most of the big shops shut for at least part of the day. Most movie theaters also closed,  although a few screened the funeral for free but as a sign of respect weren’t selling popcorn. Or candy, although it’d be funnier to stop at popcorn. 

Cafes and restaurants were mostly closed, but pubs were mostly open. Draw your own conclusions. And Heathrow Airport adjusted its flight patterns and schedule to ensure quiet skies for the funeral. 

 

What happens next? 

Most significantly, Heinz ketchup will have to change its label, and so will hundreds of other food and drink brands. Why? Because they’ve carried the queen’s coat of arms on their packaging, which they can only do if they have a royal warrant, but royal warrants die when a monarch does.

A royal warrant? That doesn’t mean anyone’s getting arrested. Companies who supply “goods and services to the royals” can apply for them. So now they all have to apply to the new monarch and prove that the royal household uses their products regularly. 

Anytime you feel the need to remember the queen was human, just think of her pouring ketchup on her fries. 

Or maybe she had someone to do that for her.

Bank notes will also have to be changed, since they carry an image of the reigning whoever. That’ll take a couple of years. And coins will have to change, along with postage stamps and some flags–the ones outside police stations and in a few other places–since they have the queen’s initials on them. 

The royal arms, which are on many a government building as well as on government stationery, may change, but that’s up to the new king. And since MPs and members of the House of Lords swore an oath to the queen in order to take their seats, they’ll have to swear a new one, to the king this time.

How much will all this (plus the pageantry and its attendant security) cost? You know the old saying, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it?” I’m asking, as are a fair number of other people. The country’s in a cost-of-living crisis–11 million people are behind on their bills and 5 million have gone without food in an effort to keep up with them–and the government’s made it  plain that it would cost too much to offer any serious level of support. Besides, it doesn’t believe in that sort of thing.

It’s funny that the things governments don’t want to do are always too expensive but they find a way to manage the things they consider important.

 

But not everyone’s a monarchist

Mostly, small-R republicans seem to have kept their heads down and waited out the storm. But a handful of people were arrested for publicly protesting the monarchy, some by shouting and some  by holding up signs. One was threatened with arrest for holding up a blank piece of cardboard.

In fairness, one protester was later dearrested.

No, I never heard of it either. And at a protest where a number of people held up blank signs, no one was arrested.

But the arrests that were made, what law was that uncer? A recent one that allows the police to limit protests that they think are, or will be, noisy or disruptive, even if they’re peaceful. You could fit a lot of dissent under that leaky umbrella.

The good news is that, although calling for the abolition of the monarchy is technically still treason and carries a life sentence, the law hasn’t been used since 1879.

Prime ministers and oversize vegetables: It’s the news from Britain

Britain has a new prime minister, but before we get depressed let’s change the subject and talk about the man in Hampshire who grew the world’s longest cucumber–3’ 8”, or 1.12 meters if you prefer. It weighed 17 pounds, or 7.7 kilos. Or quite possibly both.

What’s the point of growing a vegetable that big? Well, you could make 400 cucumber sandwiches out of it, but only if you like cucumber sandwiches made with tasteless cukes and have a few hundred close friends who do. 

How do I know it’s tasteless? I don’t. It could be bitter. It could have the texture of cardboard packing material. What I do know (since the article I stole this from said so) is that it’s destined for the compost heap, not the table.

In the meantime, we still have that new prime minister. The last one’s been dumped on the compost heap, but only because we didn’t have the heart to deposit him where he belongs. The current one, I predict, will be as much use as a three-and-a-half-foot cucumber and do considerably more damage. Already she’s put someone who talks about “climate alarmism” in charge of energy and climate change. But then, to be fair, I don’t know that the job description specifies working against climate change. It may not. 

Okay, these are blackberries, not cucumbers, and they’re normal size, but this is as close as we get to a relevant photo around here.

 

What goes into a cucumber sandwich? 

Sliced cukes, preferably with the rind cut off. Butter (or cream cheese). Something herby or some black pepper. One recipe (not the one I’m linking to; it had too many popups) suggests a squeeze of lemon, which sounds like it’ll give you soggy bread, but hey, it’s your sandwich so do what you like. 

Put all that on white bread–lots of white bread–preferably with the crusts cut off so you don’t mistake your 400 sandwiches for anything colorful. Then cut them into triangles, giving you, um, 1,600 sandwich pieces, and you make a huge pot of tea.

If you arrange the triangles on tastefully bleak white plates, they will be practically invisible. 

 

But forget that. Let’s introduce the bike bus

Kids in a Glasgow primary school can ride the bike bus to school on Fridays.

A bike bus is basically a group of kids and parents moving through traffic like a school of fish. It was started by a parent who’d read about something similar in Barcelona. Because impatient drivers were becoming a problem, the lead bike is now rigged with a gizmo that changes the traffic light at a particularly messy intersection for long enough for 50 or so riders to cross. 

Interviews with the kids were predictably informative. One likes ringing his bell. Another likes talking to her friend on the way to school. And a third has a new bike and it’s red and orange. 

 

What’s happening in the rest of the world?

Well, researchers at the University of Michigan (which is not in Britain) have developed a wind turbine blade that can be recycled into gummy bears.

I’m tempted to stop there, leaving you with an image of gummy bears mysteriously falling from the sky in a disorganized gummy rainbow when the blades reach the end of their first life. But (however briefly) I’m having a responsible moment, so I’ll explain.

The blades are made from a mix of glass fibers, a plant-based polymer, and a synthetic polymer. When the blades are ready to be replaced, instead of joining that great wind turbine in the sky, they break down (with a little help from an alkaline solution) into their component parts, which can be used to make new turbine blades, or tail lights, or gummy bears, or sports drinks. To demonstrate how safe that is, one of the researchers, John Dorgan, publicly ate a gummy bear they’d made.

“A carbon atom derived from a plant, like corn or grass, is no different from a carbon atom that came from a fossil fuel,” he said. “It’s all part of the global carbon cycle, and we’ve shown that we can go from biomass in the field to durable plastic materials and back to foodstuffs.”

Turbine blades can be as much as half the length of a football field, making them an awkward addition to a landfill. 

Is that a US football field or what the rest of the world calls a football field and Americans insist is a soccer field? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure how the sizes of the two fields compare. What I do know is that the new blades can be recycled endlessly. Unless you eat them. 

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The urine of the Southeast Asian binturong smells like buttered popcorn. Why is that true? Because they both contain 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline, which smells the same whether it’s at the movies or being excreted onto dead leaves. 

Did you need to know that? Probably not, but now that you do you can’t unknow it–at least not unless memory does its loving job of erasing it for you.

You can thank the Encyclopedia Britannica’s “One Good Fact” email newsletter for that gem, and I can’t give you a link because it doesn’t work that way. You’ll just have to trust me on this.

 

Copyright news

The copyright’s expiring on some of the classic modern novels, and that means you can buy cheap editions online. 

What do you get for your money? Less than you’d expect, according to a recent (if February is recent) article. An edition of The Great Gatsby ends mid-paragraph and three pages before the author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, thought it did.

Another edition is dedicated not to Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, as the original was, but to “Logan and Olivia Barbrook / May your lives be filled with wonderful stories, great adventures and happily-ever-afters, Love Mummy.”

Which somehow doesn’t sound like Fitzgerald. 

One edition changes Fitzgeralds line “At any rate, Miss Baker’s lips fluttered” to “Anyway, Miss Baker’s lipped frizzed.”

Then there’s the cover. One edition showed a couple next to something that looks more or less like a 1980s Dodge Charger. That’s prescient for a book first published in 1925. It’s enough to make your lips frizz.

 

Let’s go back to oversize vegetables

In Nebraska, Duane Hansen paddled 38 miles down the Missouri River in the hollowed-out 846-pound pumpkin that he grew. 

“I probably won’t try this again,” he said, since it was a little cramped in there. However, no politicians were harmed in the setting of what is unquestionably a world record.

 

In which we see humanity at its best

Somewhere above Europe, two Air France pilots got in a fistfight in the cockpit. The cabin crew heard the noise, went in, and broke up the fight, with one of them staying in the cockpit until the plane landed to keep the pilots in their seats and flying the plane.

The BBC tells us that France’s air investigation body said the airline’s culture “lacked rigor when it came to safety procedures.”

Covid: It ain’t over till it’s over…

…as the endlessly quotable Yogi Berra may or may not have said.

But forget Berra. The World Health Organization, a.k.a. WHO, isn’t as much fun to quote but it knows how to do footnotes, and that makes it more impressive. In its opinion, the pandemic isn’t over. Between the beginning of 2022 and late August, at least a million people around the world died of Covid. 

Or if you want to start counting at the beginning of the pandemic, that’s 6.45 million. Both numbers undercount the damage, but never mind that. Let’s work with what we’ve got.

”We have the tools that can actually prevent these deaths,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid. “A lot of people are talking about living with COVID. But we need to live with this responsibly. A million deaths this year is not living with COVID. Having 15,000 deaths per week is not living with COVID-19 responsibly.”

In one recent week, more than 5.3 million new cases were reported worldwide, a number that doesn’t include people who registered positive only on a home test. Or who never tested.

“These are huge numbers, and that’s an underestimate,” said Van Kerkhove. “We do see this virus circulating really intensely around the world.”

Irrelevant photo: an orchid

*

That brings me to the question of why I keep banging on about Covid. Apologies if I’ve gotten boring–Notes isn’t supposed to be mindless, but it is supposed to be a fun read. The problem is that scientists keep coming up with new information. What I’m saying here is, Blame the scientists. If they weren’t so damn good at this, it wouldn’t end up in your inbox.

And if that isn’t a good enough reason, it’s because it still matters. Living with Covid doesn’t have to mean pretending it’s no danger.

 

Long Covid 

Let’s talk about long Covid. Again. Sorry to keep coming back to it, but not long ago someone challenged me on the extent of the problem (my thanks; it was an interesting discussion) and since long Covid’s hard to define and at least as hard to measure, I didn’t have great statistics to offer. But I have started to see some lately, so let’s play with numbers. They all involve money, since it can be counted, and when you’re dealing with something as hazy as long Covid that’s useful. Besides, as we all know, money matters more than life itself.

So let’s talk money: A report from the US estimates that 4 million people are out of work with long Covid, which could mean $170 billion in lost wages. In a year. The report’s author,  Katie Bach, said, “If this looks like other post-viral illnesses, some people will recover, but there will be this big stock of people who don’t, and it will just continue to grow over time.”

She called it “a shocking number.” 

In mid-2021, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis estimated that 26% of people with long Covid were out of work or had cut their working hoursAn international survey found that 22% of people with long Covid weren’t working and 45% had cut their hours, and a U.K. survey found 16% had reduced their hours and 20% were on paid sick leave. That was between April and May 2021.

Australia’s treasury reports that the country’s lost 3 million working days to long Covid. Or to put that another way, 31,000 people have missed work every day because of it. 

 

So how many people have long Covid? I’m not sure anybody has a reliable count, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimate that 19% of people who’ve had Covid get long Covid symptoms. Unfortunately, the number’s less helpful number than it sounds like, because long Covid’s symptoms range from relatively mild to completely hair-raising and the duration ranges from weeks to the possibility of a life sentence.  

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Are we having fun yet?

Evidence is growing that people who’ve had Covid face an increased risk of neurological and psychiatric problems as much as two years after their infection. That’s not the final word on the subject, but it comes from a study that followed 1.28 million cases over two years. It does seem to be a strong hint. 

The good news? Depression and anxiety are generally gone after two months and are no more common after Covid than after other respiratory infections. And kids are at the lowest risk for kids for later complications. 

End of good news.

Adults 64 and under showed an increased risk of brain fog–640 cases per 10,000 people vs 550 cases per. Over 65s? The number went up to 1,540 per compared to 1,230. For dementia (we’re still talking about the over 65s here) it was 450 instead of 330. Psychiatric disorders? That’s 85 instead of 60. 

Is there anything can we do about it? Hell yes. I’m going to petition the courts to lower my age.

Does the risk end after two years? We haven’t had enough time for anyone to find that out. 

*

A theory that’s loose on social media holds microclots responsible for long Covid, and some evidence does back that up, but (as one article says) hematologists worry that enthusiasm for the theory has gotten ahead of the data.

Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London, said, “We’ve now got little scattered of bits of evidence. We’re all scuttling to try and put it together in some kind of consensus. We’re so far away from that. It’s very unsatisfying.”

But that’s not stopping a few medical groups from offering treatment to remove the clots, and some people with long Covid are desperate enough to try anything, which I can understand. But at least some treatments to get rid of clots risk messing with the blood’s ability to clot, and that (she said, indulging in a mild understatement) would not be a good thing.

 

How Covid’s changing

Its incubation period—the time between when a person gets infected and when they’re shedding enough of the virus to infect other people—is getting shorter, and the shorter that time that period is, the harder it is for vaccines to keep the virus from spreading.  

Yeah, that was news to me too. Measles and rubella have a two-week incubation period, which allows time for a vaccinated person’s immune memory cells to crank out antibodies and keep the person from passing the bug to other people. So vaccines for those diseases stop the spread. In contrast, a Covid vaccine, although it protects the wearer, doesn’t protect the wearer’s friends. Or enemies. 

On the bright  side, the shorter incubation time means people who test positive might not have to isolate themselves for as long.

Every cloud has a silver lining, but the problem with that is that silver linings are too heavy to float. Watch out for falling silver linings.

 

Expired tests

You may (or may not) remember that a while back I wrote about the expiration dates on Covid tests. After they pass those dates, I led you to believe (if and only if you read it, of course), they start to call in sick and miss work. Well, I need to update that. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration set the expiration dates in the early days of the pandemic, on the basis of the limited information that was available at the time, but manufacturers are testing aging tests them and some turn out to be good beyond their expiration dates.

How do you know if yours still good?

“To check whether your test kit is still good beyond the printed expiration date, you can search on the FDA’s “At-Home OTC COVID-19 Diagnostic Tests” website.

“Type in the brand name on the FDA site, and a link will appear showing a list of updated expiration dates.

“You may have to check the lot number on your package. For instance, say you’re trying to look up an iHealth COVID-19 test kit with lot number 222CO20208. Scroll down the document to find your lot number, and you’ll find that the original expiration date of Aug. 7 has been extended to Feb. 7, 2023.”

Apologies.

 

An update on Hafiza Qasimi

In early August, I wrote about Hafiza Qasimi, a woman artist fleeing Afghanistan after the Taliban destroyed her paintings and left her unable to work. The campaign to raise the 10,000 euros she needed to apply for a German visa has reached its goal. This allows her to demonstrate that she can support herself for her first year in the country. (The amount will be raised to 11,208 in January.)

In the meantime, Qasimi has reached Tehran. I have no idea how she did that. In Afghanistan, women aren’t allowed to either travel or leave the country unless they’re with their husband or a male a relative. But she managed it, she’s safe, and she’s been offered a three-month residency at a German art gallery is she can get that visa.

The group supporting her is trying to raise more than the 10,000 euro minimum so that she can afford health insurance and other basics. They’re also working with her on a grant application that would allow her to study at art school.

“This,” they say, “will provide her with the space she needs, as a free woman, to renew and develop her artistic work. We are full of confidence and look forward with Hafiza to the future.”

Her brother, who lives in Germany, will be flying to Tehran to see her for the first time in eight years.

If you want to contribute to the fundraising campaign, any amount will be welcome. And if you don’t (or would love to but can’t), that’s okay. Do what you can where you can and wish her joy in her freedom.

How to enjoy British politics: Imaginary menu items, hard hats, and triple negatives

As Britain staggers unenthusiastically in the direction of its new prime minister, whoever that turns out to be, the two contenders are telling us how gloriously they’ll govern the country (if give the chance) while ignoring small things like the inflation crisis, the sewage crisis, the housing crisis, the drought crisis, the energy crisis, the environmental crisis, and the crisis crisis.

But one of them, Rishi Sunak, works harder at it. Because he’s ridiculously rich and people know it, he has to prove he could not only govern but is in touch with the real world. 

In pursuit of that image, he recently told the media that he likes McDonald’s breakfast wraps. Isn’t that the kind of thing the common people eat, after all? He and his daughter eat them regularly, he told the media.

Not anymore. Someone did some digging and found that McDonald’s hasn’t sold them for two years

His campaign team leapt to his defense by saying that, um, yeah, well, he ate them when they were on the menu but “he’s barely seen his kids in the last two and a half years.”

Thanks, folks. That really humanized your guy.

He’s also been spotted struggling to figure out how contactless card payments happen (he held the card in front of a barcode scanner) and filling up a car that turned out to be borrowed. His advisors must’ve told him common people do stuff like that. I don’t think he’s been spotted pretending to wash his clothes at a laundromat (called a launderette in Britain) or playing at being a food bank client, but there’s still time.

Irrelevant photo: a neighbor’s dahlia

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The strain between Sunak and his former boss, the multi-vacationing prime minister Boris Johnson, brought us a headline I can’t help but admire, since it manages a triple negative: “PM Refuses to Deny He Is Not Taking Sunak’s Calls.”

In the interests of complete transparency, that’s from the print edition. Once it went online, the PM failed to deny, but it’s still a triple negative.

*

But let’s talk about hard hats, because politicians just love to put them on their heads and pose for the press. It makes them look like they’re doing something real. Or at least like they might at any moment.

Knowing that, I asked Lord Google about hard hats and politicians and he led me to a Buzzfeed article that’s well worth a visit: “21 Photos of Politicians in Hard Hats Pointing at Things.”

Call me naive, but I hadn’t noticed what they did after putting on the hats, but I will from now on. So go ahead, follow the link. You know you want to.

I’d tell you what Sunak and Truss are doing and proposing about real-world issues, but it’s all too depressing. And in case it sounds like I think Truss would be less evil or even less absurd, I don’t. I’m damned if I know which will be worse. Both. Either. Sunak just happens to have been funnier lately. I struggle to find a laugh in the Truss stories.

 

The politics of blood

Scotland’s the first country on the planet to provide free universal access to period products, which is a great thing to do, and in that spirit the Tay region appointed someone to promote the dignity of menstruation. 

Who’d they choose

A man. 

Why? 

Because of his long experience of monthly bleeding, of course. And his background in tobacco sales and as a personal trainer. 

The man in question defended his appointment by saying, “I think being a man will help me to break down barriers, reduce stigma, and encourage more open discussions.”

I have little doubt that it also helped him rise up the list of nominees. It happens so quietly and so often, and we’re so used to it, that we barely notice. Until suddenly something like this comes along and we wonder how that happened.

 

The politics of swans

Rumor has it that all swans in Britain belong to the queen, but as so often happens rumor has it wrong. Or partially wrong. She owns the swans that aren’t marked as belonging to someone else, and that gives her the title seigneur of the swans. 

Is seigneur a masculine noun? I’m reasonably sure it is. My French was never impressive, but maybe we’d want to make her the seigneuse of the swans. Or maybe, being a queen and all, she’s above gender. 

That’ll upset the anti-woke warriors. Don’t tell Liz Truss. 

The queen’s staff includes a swan warden.

The tradition of marking–or for that matter, owning–swans goes back to the middle ages, when they were a status symbol and aristocrats wanted to have a pair or three paddling on their rivers and on grand occasions carried onto their dinner tables (to be clear: that’s as food, not as guests), but the right to own them could only be granted by the king and only went to the most important landowners, who marked their ownership by nicking the birds’ beaks in distinctive patterns, which wouldn’t have been a lot of fun for the birds. Or the people doing the nicking.

Owning swans is so deeply embedded in the monarchy that it observes a yearly swan upping. Or maybe it does a swan upping. Or, well, I’m not sure, since I’ve never upped a swan. It sounds like some disreputable thing you’d do in a back alley, not on a river. But I do know that the staff does/observes/whatevers it, not the queen herself. And it does happen on a stretch of the water, since that’s where the birds are.

If you want to learn about swan upping you’ll find an article about it in the Smithsonian magazine. 

 

The politics of money

Britain’s fastening its frayed seat belt and bracing itself for inflation to hit 18% or so, and people who aren’t in Rishi Sunak’s tax bracket are feeling the pinch already, since prices are up 10% from a year ago.  

An assortment of pointing fingers blame the war in Ukraine, Brexit, Covid, the energy crisis, and workers demanding pay increases. If you read enough explanations, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re blaming our current inflation on inflation. What’s the cause of inflation? Higher prices on goods from abroad, they answer. Increased cost of supplies. A shortage of workers willing to take low-paid jobs, etc. 

In other words, inflation.

The government–such as it is until we have a new prime minister or the outgoing one comes back from vacation and is jolted awake by his wallpaper, causing him to remember that he’s still the prime minister and is expected to pretend he cares–

Where were we? The government and the contestants in the pre-prime ministerial boxing ring are making a show of pretending they can stop the inflationary cycle by blocking the pay increases unions are demanding, in response to which the unions that aren’t already on strike are making noises that hint they could be soon.  

Which is why a headline saying the average pay of chief executives for Britain’s 100 biggest companies drew my eye went up by 39% last year. That gives them, on average, a take home pay of £3.4 million. Per year. Which is 109 times what the average British worker makes. 

In 2020 it was a modest 79 times the average. 

I don’t believe that includes bonuses. Or perks. And we won’t get into what shareholders make.

But it’s okay, because that doesn’t contribute to the inflationary spiral. 

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How does executive pay get set? Well, children, I’m glad you asked, because at least some of the time, and quite possibly all of it, the pay of one chief exec gets set by chief execs from other companies, who act as non-executive directors on the boards of companies where they’re not CEOs. And of course they get paid for that. 

This comes to light–bear with me while I take a step sideways–because Britain’s privatized water companies are in the news lately. We’re in a serious drought, drawing attention to the 3.2 billion liters of water that leak from the water companies’ pipes every day. That would fill 1,237 Olympic-sized swimming pools but first you’d have to convince the water to jump into them instead of running pointlessly down the nearest gutter.

The water companies have also been dumping raw sewage into the sea, winning the hearts of surfers and swimmers throughout this beshittened isle. Beaches do not have an exemption. So when, say, United Utilities, which is in charge of leaking northwest England’s water and sewage into places it’s not supposed to go, pays its CEO £3.2 million a year, that has a way of making headlines, and even more so when he also gets paid to sit on the remuneration committee at BAE systems. 

Other water company execs sit on other boards, and on the committees that set pay. One is paid £115,000 for sitting on the  International Airlines Group board and another a measly £93,000 for sitting on the Centrica board. 

Please be sympathetic. It’s not easy to live on just one CEO salary. A person needs those little extras.

 

What’s happening in the rest of the world?

The Japanese government wants people to drink more booze

That goes against the tide–most governments are discouraging drinking–but alcohol sales are linked to taxes, and taxes are linked to, um, you know, money. In 1980, alcohol accounted for 5% of tax income. In 2011, that was 3%, and in 2020, 1.7%.

Get out there and drink, people. It may not be good for you, but it’s patriotic.

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In New Zealand, a seal used the cat flap to break into a marine biologist’s house, traumatizing the cat but otherwise doing no damage. The marine biologist wasn’t home, though, leaving his cat, his wife, and his kids to deal with the seal.

This is really the only family emergency where it would be useful to have a marine biologist in the house,” he said. 

The seal was returned to the sea. The cat is receiving therapy and multiple cat treats and is lobbying for one of those high-tech cat flaps that keeps out unchipped intruders.

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Since we’re talking about water, let’s talk about the news that sponges sneeze.

No, not those plasticky things sold as sponges but the real ones that grow on the seabed. They clear their filtration systems of assorted gunk (sorry for the scientific terminology, but you’re tough; you can handle it), shooting it out through small pores called ostia. It takes anywhere between 20 and 50 minutes for a single sneeze, but what else has a sponge got to do with its time? It doesn’t have to punch a clock or catch a train, so why not luxuriate in a long, slow, cleansing sneeze.

The sponges coat the gunk in mucus before they expel it, which temps nearby fish to eat it, proving, in case you were even in doubt, that nature is disgusting.

 

Your heart-warming stories for the week

One: During the pandemic, a ransomware group called Maze promised not to attack health organizations. Sweet, right?

But between last April and the end of June, though, attacks on healthcare organizations rose by 90% compared to the same months the year before. Or I assume it’s the year before. A typo has that reading “compared to the same period in 2022.”

Somebody tell me this is still 2022, please. I’m starting to feel a little dizzy.

Anyway, that’s what you get for telling ransomware companies (and the rest of the population) that the pandemic’s over. They were playing nice for a while there. Really they were.

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That didn’t quite warm your heart? Okay.

Two: The Patmos library in Jamestown, Michigan, was the focus of a year-long campaign by the Jamestown Conservative group, which wanted LGBTQ books taken off its shelves. The books made up, after all, a whopping .015% of the collection. As measured in number of titles, I assume, not weight or word count or font size.

As the Jamestown group explained its objection, “They are trying to groom our children to believe that it’s OK to have these sinful desires. . . . . It’s not a political issue, it’s a Biblical issue.”

The library refused to get rid of the books and in a recent election lost its funding.

Someone or other asked the board president if it was a wake-up call.

“A wake-up call to what? To take LGBTQ books off the shelf and then they will give us money? What do you call that? Ransom? We stand behind the fact that our community is made up of a very diverse group of individuals, and we as a library cater to the diversity of our community.”

Two Jamestown residents responded by starting GoFundMe pages, which in four days raised $59,000 and $2,900, making a total of, um, something larger than either number alone. 

Last I looked, the larger campaign had raised just short of $156,000 and the smaller one had raised over $6,000. 

The tax money the library lost came to $245,000, but the money that’s been raised should keep it open until it can work out a plan, which will probably involve getting tax support on the ballot in a second election. 

BookRiot–a large online site dedicated to books–is calling on readers and writers to support the campaigns and “send a strong message that these tactics don’t work — that they can backfire and provide the library with more support and more funding. And hopefully, next time a book banning group considers defunding the library, they’ll remember Patmos Library.”

 

And from the Department of Gastronomical Karma…

…comes the news that the US pizza chain Domino’s thought it could challenge Italian pizza makers on their home turf. The theory was that people will eat anything–even American pizza–if it’s delivered to their door. This turned out not to be true. All its Italian branches have now closed and the company that held the franchise is filing for bankruptcy. 

What happens when you elect a pony as your mayor

Cockington, a village in Devon, has elected a shetland pony as its mayor. 

The pony’s name is Patrick, he’s four years old, he works as a therapy animal in hospitals and schools, and at some point after the pandemic started his person brought him to the local pub to help people who were struggling with–well, whatever the pandemic had them struggling with in the pub. 

As a logical outcome of all that, when the previous mayor–a human–died in 2019, 200 people signed a petition supporting Patrick’s candidacy on the grounds that he was “non judgemental and genuinely caring and supportive to all.”

His person–who doubled as his campaign manager–wrote the petition. 

Irrelevant photo: a sunflower–our neighbor’s.

Disappointingly (especially in view of my  misleading headline), the best the village could do was to make him the unofficial mayor, but he did have a very official-seeming ceremony and his own office. And all was well until someone complained about him being in the pub and the Torbay Council–that’s the local government–stuck its nose in and announced that the pub needed planning permission for Patrick’s pen and for animal grazing. 

That meant money, so the pub dismantled Patrick’s enclosure. (I think that was his office, but I can’t swear to it.)

Why did someone complain? One local suspects jealousy. “It’s someone who also thinks they are mayor of Cockington.”

On the other hand, the council hasn’t banned Patrick from visiting the pub. Which is good because he ‘s developed a taste for Guiness. 

 

Less upbeat political news

Liz Truss, one of the two remaining candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party and (ever so incidentally) the country, briefly proposed saving £11 billion by reducing the cost of the civil service. In headline-speak, that was going to be a War on Whitehall Waste, complete with capital letters.

Most of the savings were going to come through cutting civil servants’ pay and vacation time and it would save £8.8 billion.

Why is that £8.8 billion instead of £11 billion? No idea. I’m allergic to numbers. But it doesn’t matter, because according to Alex Thomas, program director for the Institute for Government, the total bill for the civil service comes to around £9 billion. 

What the proposal meant, he explained in a tweet, was not just cutting the pay of civil servants, who politicians love to attack, but also the pay of nurses, doctors, and all the important but less picturesque people who keep the National Health Service running, plus (while we’re at it) teachers.

Truss backed away from the proposal as soon as the bricks started flying, but if the local council orders the pub to tear down her enclosure, I’m not sure how many people will protest.

 

News from the art world

I don’t know why I think this next story follows from that, but what the hell, it’s about money, so let’s put it here: A New Zealand artist is asking $10,000 NZ for an artwork that (if you have an eye for art) you’ll recognize as the pickle slice from a McDonald’s cheeseburger that’s been thrown onto an art gallery ceiling.

That’s the pickle, not the whole cheeseburger. I do think it’s important to get these details right.

The rest of us, barbarians that we are, will probably think it came from some low-rent, cheeseless quarter-pounder. But no, this pickle slice not only comes from a cheeseburger, it’s classy enough to be a “provocative gesture” designed to question what has value–or so the gallery says. And since art-speak has lots of value, it must be so. At least until the bugs get to it.

The work is called  “Pickle.” If you buy it–and I know  you’d love to–you’ll get instructions on how to recreate it in your own space. But you’ll have to buy your own burger and remove the pickle, so that’ll cost you $4.44 NZ on top of the $10,000.

Or you can just paste a pickle to your ceiling and save yourself $10,000 NZ. If you need a bit of rhetoric to justify saving money on art, I’m happy to work with you on that. For free. Art-speak isn’t my specialty but I’m pretty sure we could, in combination, come up with something and then add art-speak to our CVs.

 

Can we go back to politics now?

…or at least to the corner where politics and money meet and where so many politicians aspire to live? 

The Summit of the Americas brought together both of the above in the interest of promoting investment and development and profit. Who could possibly object?

Yes, I know you could, but the question was rhetorical so please put your hand down. 

Since the people who attended have no need of free goodies, they were given expensive goodie bags, demonstrating yet again that to those who need not shall free stuff be given. And it was in that spirit that the US Chamber of Commerce (purpose? “We . . . fight for business growth and America’s success”) promoted US business by handing out goodie bags with  sunglasses and insulated drinking bottles stamped with the words “Made in China.” 

 

From the International Relations Desk

Denmark and Canada have ended the Whiskey War

The what?

A fifty-year squabble over the uninhabited Arctic rock called Hans Island,which is less than a square mile–and for reasons I’ll never wrap my head around that’s not the same as a mile square. You’re welcome to explain that to me as long as you don’t suffer from the illusion that it’ll help. 

The battle began with a boundary dispute over the Nares Channel, which separates Canada and Greenland. That was settled in 1973 but the two countries are close enough to Hans Island that under international law both had a legitimate claim to it. 

And who wouldn’t want to claim a small, uninhabited, and apparently useless rock if international law says you can? 

What does all this have to do with Denmark, you ask? Greenland’s an autonomous territory of Denmark, which means Denmark had a dog in that fight–or as a friend insists on putting it, an animal in that barn.

The two sides eventually came to an agreement about the unimportant stuff but had to postpone the contentious issue of Hans Island. Then in 1984, Canada landed, planted its flag, and buried a bottle of Canadian whiskey. Denmark responded by replacing the maple leaf with its own flag and leaving a bottle of schnapps, along with a note saying, “Welcome to Danish Island.”

And so it went back and forth for 49 years, through multiple flags and lots of booze, until in 2018 the two countries agreed to split the island. 

Why are we only hearing about this now? Is it one of those things the Deep State doesn’t want you to know? 

Well, no. Both countries needed parliamentary approval before they could commit themselves on anything this momentous, so it’s taken time. When the news broke in June, it looked like both sides were ready to declare peace. 

I don’t know who’s been opening all those bottles, but I’m sure they’ll miss the war.

 

And related to none of that…

The Encyclopedia Britannica’s One Good Fact email informs me that the first ever webcam was set up to monitor a pot of coffee “so scientists wouldn’t have to go check if it was empty.”

It’s variant day at the Covid Cafe

Welcome to the Covid Cafe, my friends. We have two variants on the menu today.

 

BA.5

Our first variant, BA.5, has gotten better than previous versions at evading both the vaccines and the immunity people acquired from earlier infections. But where previous omicron variants tended to stay in the upper respiratory tract, making it somewhat milder, BA.5 has picked up some mutations from the delta variant–that’s the most damaging variant to date–and it’s very pleased with them, thanks, and with itself for being so clever. 

They may be the reason it’s better at infecting cells than those respiratory-type omicron variants, and why it may be more serious. 

Seeing it circle back in this way doesn’t make me want to go out and celebrate. On the positive side, though, the current vaccines do still protect against its worst effects. But sensible people are recommending masks, ventilation, and distance–all those things governments and a lot of our fellow citizens have gotten bored with. 

 

Irrelevant photo: thistle with bee

BA.2.75

Are we having fun yet? 

Our second variant is BA.2.75. It seems to spread quickly and to evade immunity. How hard it hits people is yet to be determined. It’s also called Centaurus. I have no idea why and my brain isn’t willing to expend any bandwidth on it, but since it’s also possible that the thing has peaked, it has a second name: scariant. 

Come fall, updated vaccines are expected to target the omicron mutations. I’m in line already, and rolling my sleeve up.

 

However

Efforts to create a pan-coronavirus vaccine have slowed down for lack of funding, lack of any sense of pressure, and lack of even marginal good sense. The current vaccines are still keeping death and destruction to a minimum, and hey, that’s good enough. Let’s just stagger on.  I could toss in a quote or two here, but hell, you get the point. Follow the link if you like. It’s find-your-own-quote day here at the cafe.

In addition, testing candidate vaccines won’t be as easy it was at the beginning of the pandemic because Covid isn’t raging through populations the way it was. Pre-existing immunities make their effectiveness harder to measure.

 

Other mutations

A team that’s been analyzing millions of omicron samples in order to study its mutations reports that omicron alone has 130 sublineages. A member of the team, Kamlendra Singh, thinks vaccines might become less effective over time.  

“The ultimate solution,” he said, “will likely be the development of small molecule, antiviral drugs that target parts of the virus that do not mutate. While there is no vaccine for HIV, there are very effective antiviral drugs that help those infected live a healthy life, so hopefully the same can be true with COVID-19.” 

Singh helped develop CoroQuil-Zn, a supplement that infected people can take to help reduce their viral load. It’s currently being used in India, southeast Asia, and Great Britain and is waiting for FDA approval in the United States.

A virologist writing in the Conversation agrees, at least in part, saying that vaccines targeting recent variants will inevitably fall behind as the virus mutates. “Vaccines that generate antibodies against a broad range of SARS-CoV-2 variants and a cocktail of broad-ranging treatments, including monoclonal antibodies and antiviral drugs, will be critical in the fight against COVID-19.”

 

Long Covid news

Long Covid’s too stale for the cafe, but it’s not growing mold yet, so let’s have a nibble out here in the alley. 

The BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal) has summarized 15 studies showing that the vaccinated are less likely than the unvaxxed to end up with long Covid. That’s most true of people over 60 and least true of people between 19 and 35. 

Long covid can range from annoying to life changing (in a bad way, in case that’s not already clear; it won’t make you grow wings or develop superpowers). It also ranges from transient to no-end-in-sight. In the UK, 2% of the population has reported having it and in the US, that’s 7.5%. 

Or by another count, 2 million people in the UK have it. That may or may not work out 2%. Don’t worry about it.  

Why is the percentage in the UK so different from the one in the US and why don’t I care if the UK numbers match? Because no one’s tracking long Covid systematically. It can get pretty weird out there.  

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the important stuff: “hy did the British Medical Journal change its name? I don’t know, but since my father did the same thing, I shouldn’t roll my eyes about it.

Which is unlikely to stop me. Especially since my father didn’t change his name to an abbreviation,but to the last name I use although I have no deep-rooted claim to it.

On the positive side, that bit of history means I know for a fact the Josh Hawley isn’t a relative–even a distant one.

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In the absence of systematic tracking, a UK study compared a big whackin’ number of people’s medical records to see what they could learn about long Covid. 

Among other things, they were able to add 42 symptoms to the existing list. (Yeah, progress comes in some annoying colors.) The new ones include hair loss, reduced sex drive, erectile problems, swelling limbs, and bowel incontinence.

I did tell you it could be serious, didn’t I? You should listen to me. 

They also organized the symptoms into three categories: 80% of the people with long Covid symptoms had a broad spectrum of problems, from fatigue to pain; 15% had mental health and cognitive problems, from depression to brain fog; and 5% had respiratory problems.

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A small study treated long Covid patients with cognitive symptoms by using hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and the results were enough to give a person hope. The group that got the real treatment had “significant improvement in their global cognitive function and more cognitive improvement related to their specific damaged brain regions responsible for attention and executive function,” along with improvement in their energy, sleep, and psychiatric symptoms.

The patients who got the placebo treatment didn’t, although they did get a simpler sentence with no fancy language or quotation marks.

The treatment, unfortunately, isn’t something you can set up in your garage. It involves five treatments a week for two months in a machine that looks like a mid-size submarine. 

 

Protective actions you never thought of

Covid is less likely to kill or hospitalize people who fast at least one day a month than it is to do either of those things to those of us who think eating should be a daily practice. This may be because fasting reduces inflammation or it may be attributable to a couple of other reasons that you can look up yourself by following the link.

The bad news? The study involved people who’d been fasting intermittently for decades. It offers no information on people who took it up twenty minutes before becoming infected.

 

A bit more about vaccines

I’ve found enough shreds of good news that I can spare you one more piece: Vaccination, although it doesn’t prevent Covid, does seem to reduce the odds of infection. Not by as much as we’d all like, but I don’t know about you, I’ll take any percentage I can get.

You want details, though, right? Fine: In the second wave of the pandemic, vaccinated National Health Service employees who worked face to face with patients were 10% less likely to get infected than unvaccinated ones. And I’ll remind the assorted anti-vaxxers who pop up here periodically that the primary value of the vaccines lies in preventing death and serious illness, which (do you really need to be reminded?) is not a bad thing. They haven’t turned out to create sterilizing immunity, and that’s a damn shame but doesn’t mean the people who recommend them should be burned at the stake. 

No one’s offered to do exactly that to me yet, but the conversations do have a way of turning hostile. Or starting out that way. A recent comment opened with, “Stop lying, Ellen.”

And I appreciated the suggestion, since hadn’t thought of that myself. I also appreciated the generous and high-minded approach to discussion. Let it be a model for us all.

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But forget about me. Ben Neuman, a professor in the Department of Biology and chief virologist at the Texas A&M Global Health Research Complex, has another reason to get vaccinated: “to avoid the brain damage that often comes with COVID. During a natural infection, the immune response around your brain will starve cells of oxygen, and the effect is that you will lose a lot of gray matter—something like a stroke. Unlike a stroke, where usually only one part of the brain is affected, COVID seems to affect the entire brain, so you don’t necessarily lose one thing, like the ability to control nerves on one side of the face, you lose a bit from everywhere. COVID-associated brain damage only happens with infection, not with the vaccine, and having a strong set of white blood cells trained by the vaccine is likely to be helpful in preventing brain damage.” 

 

Okay, but what about monkeypox?

Let’s forget about whether monkeypox is a pandemic or an epidemic or just a damned nuisance. Those–especially damned nuisance–have technical definitions that, for a bunch of free-range blog readers, aren’t the most useful standards. The more pressing question is, How much of a problem is this likely to be?

After what sounds like a lot of internal argument, the World Health Organization declared it a global health emergency. The disagreement, as far as I understand it, comes from this: Diseases that spread on the air (think Covid or flu) are bigger worries. They’re easy to catch. Monkeypox is spreading through touch. That doesn’t make it fun and I don’t recommend rubbing up against anyone with a rash right now, but it does mean transmission’s slower and more difficult.

It’s also less deadly than Covid. 

If that’s not reassuring enough, existing vaccines can slow the spread–or they can once production catches up with the need.

On the other hand, it’s popping up in a wide range of countries and seems to have surprised the experts.

Monkeypox could (I’ve read) go in two directions: It could establish itself in many countries as a sexually (an also not-sexually) transmitted disease that people will have to deal with or it could be gotten under control. The first prospect isn’t fun, but it’s still not Covid all over again.

Who gets to vote on Britain’s next prime minister?

What’s the news from Britain? Well, the race for leadership of the Conservative Party–and incidentally of the country–is now down to two people, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. The winner will be decided by something like 160,000 members of the Conservative Party, 97% of them white, half of them over sixty, and most of them male. While we’re at it, a hefty number are from southern England. 

That’s based on the 2019 count. Statisticians tried to do a complete count but fell asleep before they could complete their work. 

What’s the population of Britain? Something in the neighborhood of 67 million. I’d give you a link to prove it but I fell asleep too. 

So yes, it’s all very democratic and representative and so forth. 

I can hardly wait to see what happens next.

Irrelevant photo: a hydrangea

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In other uplifting political news, the Nottinghamshire police and crime commissioner won her position (it’s an elected post) by promising to crack down on speeding, then went on to get caught speeding five times in twelve weeks, two of them near a primary school. She’s lost her license for six months and was fined £2,450. 

She asked to keep her license because losing it would cause her exceptional hardship, to which the judge did not say, “Are you kidding me?” 

Sh hasn’t said whether she’ll resign but it won’t surprise you to learn that she’s been asked.

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In what’s probably an unrelated story, wild European bison are roaming the country for the first time in 6,000 years. Three females were released in Kent this month and a male is set to join them in August, as soon as he gets through the backup at Heathrow’s passport control. 

I’m not sure how the three get to be the first in Britain, since one of them came from a herd in Scotland, but maybe it’s because they’re roaming in the woods as opposed to, um, you know, taking the tram up and down Princes Street in Edinburgh.

Listen, I don’t understand this stuff, I just report it. What does seem comprehensible is that they’re expected to strip the bark off of trees, thinning the forest canopy, creating paths, collecting seeds (bison like seeds), planting wildflowers, and generally rearranging the ecosystem and transforming the woods “into a lush, thriving, biodiverse environment once more.” Which will allow the trust that owns the land “to step back from hands-on management.”

I did say the bison were wild, right? 

I did, but what that means depends on how you define wild. They have tracking collars and are now fenced in a five-hectare area, which will eventually increase to two hundred hectares. But, yeah, within that, they’re wild as hell. 

They’ll soon be joined by ponies from Exmoor and iron-age pigs.

What’s an iron-age pig? For starters, it’s older than anyone you or I know.

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It turns out that if you switch off a neighborhood’s streetlights between midnight and 5 a.m., it will cut down on the number of things that get stolen from cars. By almost 50%. And crime overall will fall by 25%.

Why’s that? Because it’s hard to see. 

The bad news is that both will increase in nearby neighborhoods. 

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Have I slagged off the government enough lately? Sorry, I let myself get distracted.

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak (who now hate each other but used to work together and played nice in front of the TV cameras) spent £2.9 billion on the Restart program, a mandatory program that was supposed to get the long-term unemployed back to work. A mandatory program, meaning if you were referred to it you had to go. Because, hey, we’re trying to help you here.

How well did it work? Oh, gorgeously. Some 93% of its participants didn’t find work. That gives us with–wait, I need to consult Lord Google to be sure I get this right–a 7% success rate. 

It did, however, transfer a lot of money to the private contractors it was farmed out to. 

By way of accuracy, the program cost £2.9 billion in the headline but more than £2.5 billion in the text. Why the difference? Dunno, but even I will admit that £2.9 billion is more than £2.5 billion.

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No summary of the news would be complete without this one: A retired Church of England vicar was fined and added to the list of sex offenders after a member of the public (“who was attending a talk about Asperger’s syndrome) found him in church naked except for a pair of stockings and performing a sex act with a vacuum cleaner.

You thought you’d heard it all? Silly you. Human sexuality is infinite. You can never hear it all.

It’s true that this particular vacuum cleaner has a name–not the individual vacuum but the brand. They’re called Henry. All of them. And they have a face painted on the side. So it might be easier to personify them than it is your average back-of-the-mop-cupboard vacuum cleaner. But then, I could be misunderstanding the situation completely.

The newspaper article I stole this from notes that the vicar had, before this, a clean record. As he would, given his inclinations. 

 

But enough about Britain. What’s happening elsewhere?

Well, around the world, at any given time, one out of six people will have a headache.Maybe it’s why more people aren’t having sex with vacuum cleaners.

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According to a study in Japan, decisive people are no more likely to make the right choices than people who are full of doubt. 

“What we found is that confidence was the only thing that was different,” said the study’s first author, whose name is the Japanese equivalent of Smith: Zajkowski.

Hesitant people of the world, unite. 

Or not. You might want to think about it before you jump in. 

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A Belgian virologist and government Covid advisor, Marc Van Ranst, was threatened by an air force officer who got his hands on a submachine gun and four anti-tank missile launchers.

But that’s not our story. The story is that the head of an anti-vax group, who is not so incidentally a dance teacher, publicly said something approving about the death threat.

“When there’s a salsa pandemic,” the virologist tweeted, “I’ll listen to you with great pleasure. But at this moment, I don’t give a flying fuck what you have to say and nobody in the Netherlands should either.”

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In the US, Republican Senatorial candidate Herschel Walker impressed the hell out of everyone by explaining the climate change problem this way: “Since we don’t control the air, our good air decided to float over to China’s bad air. So when China gets our good air, their bad air got to move. So it moves over to our good air space. Then — now we got we to clean that back up.”

I can’t swear to it, but I think the shift from general incoherence to total incoherence there at the end is the actual quote, not a typo. 

Here’s what he had to say about gun control after the Uvalde shooting:

“Cain killed Abel and that’s a problem that we have. What we need to do is look into how we can stop those things. You know, you talked about doing a disinformation — what about getting a department that can look at young men that’s looking at women that’s looking at their social media. What about doing that? Looking into things like that and we can stop that that way. But yet they want to just continue to talk about taking away your constitutional rights. And I think there’s more things we need to look into. This has been happening for years and the way we stop it is putting money into the mental health field, by putting money into other departments rather than departments that want to take away your rights.”

There you go. A problem understood is a problem halfway solved. 

 

And a bit of history

Benjamin Franklin deliberately misspelled Pennsylvania when he printed the colony’s currency.And not just one wrong way but three different ones: Pensilvania, Pennsilvania, and Pensylvania. 

The state seems to have survived his efforts.

The plan was to foil counterfeiters, or so it’s generally believed.

What causes long Covid?

A lot of clever people are chasing the cause of long Covid, but so far the virus is outrunning them–and we’re talking about a virus, remember, that doesn’t have a degree in either science or medicine and that’s rumored to be illiterate.

Not that I’m making fun of those clever people. Long covid scares the bejeezus out of me and I’m grateful for the work they’re doing, but I’m also painfully aware that they haven’t even found all the puzzle pieces yet, never mind gotten them in the right place. 

Puzzle pieces? What happened to the chase metaphor? 

I couldn’t keep up with it and had to grab something else off the shelf where I store my cliches.

Irrelevant photos: Morning glories–or as the British call them, bindweed.

But back to our actual subject: The clever folk are at the stage where they have theories, but that’s not all bad. Theories open up possibilities and they’re a good place to start. Let’s check in with a few of them:

Pediatrician Danilo Buonsenso noticed that some of his patients–these are kids, remember, with their habit of showing up at pediatricians’ offices and licking their fingers before touching the toys–

Where were we? Some of his patients who’d had mild Covid cases were left short of breath, exhausted and sporting a variety of other symptoms. That’s not common in post-Covid kids, but what with him being a doctor and all, and one who specializes in infectious diseases (I know, I didn’t get around to mentioning that earlier)–well, the kids he’s most likely to see are the ones who are sick, which skews the sample.

As the article I stole this from explains it, “He now suspects that, in some of them, the cells and tissues that control blood flow are damaged and the blood’s tendency to clot is amplified. Minute blood clots, leftover from the viral assault or fueled by its aftermath, might be gumming up the body’s circulation, to disastrous effect from the brain to joints. ‘In some patients we have specific areas where no blood flow comes in’ or the flow is reduced, Buonsenso says. 

Another theory comes from  microbiologist Amy Proal: that the virus hangs on in the body after the acute stage of the infection is over. Studies show that “the virus is capable of persistence in a wide range of body sites,” she said. 

A third theory comes from Chansavath Phetsouphanh, who’s observed that the immune cells of long Covid patients are still on high alert as much as eight months after they first tested positive. 

A fourth theory comes from Nick Reynolds, who found amyloid clumps in the brains of people with the neurological symptoms of  long Covid. They’re similar to the clumps that cause Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. That doesn’t necessarily mean the patients will have lasting damage or that the drugs used to treat those diseases help in these different circumstances. On the other hand–well, who knows at this stage? It might.

Are any of the theories right? Are all of them showing us a small piece of a large picture? Tune in sometime later–possibly a lot later–for the next exciting episode of What’re We Going to Do to Get Out of This Mess? And keep in mind that once the clever people figure out what’s driving long Covid, they or some colleagues still need to figure out a treatment.

Don’t you just feel better after you hang around here? 

In the meantime, an assortment of studies are following up on the possibilities these theories raise. Wish them well, please. It won’t make any material difference, but it might make you feel like you contributed to the effort.

 

Numbers

How many people actually have long Covid? Answering that depends on how we define long Covid, but let’s set that aside. We’re not scientists–or most of us aren’t and anyone who is must be slumming. We can get away with being hazy when it suits us. 

In May, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rampaged through the medical records of some 2 million people and reported that at least 1 in 5 people who’d had Covid came away with long Covid symptoms. For some of them, that meant struggling but hanging onto their normal lives. For others, it meant struggling, only with nobut at the end of the sentence.  

In the UK, some 2 million people have long Covid according to the Office for National Statistics, which does have a definition of the thing but never mind what it is. We’re not scientists, remember? Or else we’re slumming and will have to put up with the way other people’s minds work. 

Proal (remember her?) said, “I consider Long Covid to be a massive emergency.”

 

Who’s most at risk of long Covid?

A small study from Japan found that being over 40 increased the odds. So did being over 60. Since I’m over both (it took a while, but I got there), this is not good news where I live. 

In contrast to other studies, it didn’t find sex to be a big factor, although long Covid seemed to have a harder psychological impact on women than on men. 

In contrast, a UK study found that being female, being in poor pre-pandemic mental and physical health, being obese, and having asthma all increased the odds of long Covid. 

Do the two studies contradict each other? Partially. The data they’re working from is sketchy, but the issue’s important enough to use it anyway. Take them for what they’re worth.

The UK study finds that between 7.8% and 17%of the people who reported having Covid also reported symptoms that lasted longer than longer than 12 weeks, and between 1.2% to 4.8% reported  that the symptoms were debilitating. 

Why the range? I haven’t a clue. I find numbers debilitating.

The numbers were lower when they worked from doctors’ records as opposed to self-reports, but that could be because doctors weren’t reporting long Covid before November 2020.

 

A shred of good news

The omicron variant may be less likely than delta to cause long Covid–20 to 50% lower. To put that another way, with omicron, 4.4% of cases turned into long Covid. With delta, that was 10.8%. But that’s still a shitload of people.

 

More numbers: What have vaccinations ever done for us?

Well, in the first year they were available, they prevented an estimated 19.8 million Covid deaths. That’s based on excess deaths in 185 countries and territories. 

Excess deaths? It’s the figure you use when you don’t have any other consistent or reliable way to count the pandemic’s impact. In rough terms, it compares deaths during the pandemic to deaths in some pre-pandemic year. It’s imperfect, but the other systems are even more so. If you don’t use it, you end up counting the number of people who (if they weren’t dead) could brag about having Covid listed on their death certificates. You miss a lot of people that way. You can also count the number who are known to have had Covid and who then went on to die, leaving you counting people who died because a brick fell on their head and missing some who died undiagnosed. Or you can count people who die within 28 days of a diagnosis and miss the ones who took too long to die as well as include a few who had unfortunate encounters with bricks.

The UK switched methods midway through the pandemic, probably because the government wanted it to look like fewer people had died and the new way yielded a lower number. 

Yeah, I have absolute faith in the people leading the country. They’ll do whatever works best for them and to hell with everything and everyone else.

Not only is none of the systems accurate, different countries rely on different definitions of a Covid death, raising hell with international studies. 

But let’s put death on the shelf for a minute and go back to vaccines and lives saved, which is what we’re pretending to talk about. The study estimates that 599,300 more lives would’ve been saved if the world, lower case, had met the World (upper case) Health Organization’s target of getting  two or more vaccine doses to 40% of the population of every country by the end of 2021

By now, 66% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of vaccine.

 

More numbers

In 2020 and 2021, Covid was the third leading cause of death in the United States, crossing the finish line after cancer and heart disease. So it gets a bronze medal and modest bragging rights, but not as much glory as it was hoping for. 

Celebrating the queen’s WTF jubilee

Let’s start with basics: The queen in question is Elizabeth, and she’s been on the throne since 1066 or thereabouts. Surely that calls for a party, so here in Britain we’ve been handed a spare holiday, a dessert recipe so simple that can be prepared in two days by half a dozen trained snipers, and lots of encouragement to hold our own street parties, band concerts, and whatever else sets our suggestible little hearts a-racing. 

It’s not easy, if you live in Britain right now, to ignore all that, but I had planned to until I realized how gloriously parts of it could go wrong. 

Let’s start with Wincanton, in Somerset, which is holding the Wincanton Town Festival. That comes with a logo showing a be-jeweled crown on a purple background with, as Dorset Live puts it, “a diamond-encrusted WTF welded to the top.”

You know the acronym WTF: Wincanton Town Festival. 

If you want to attend a WTF Jubilee (even I will give that a capital letter) garden party, it’s on June 3 so you’ll have to either hurry or time travel, but I’m sure you’ll be welcome.

Nothing could be more British. Just try to keep a straight face.

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English Heritage, which manages the Stonehenge site, is celebrating by projecting color images of the queen onto the stones. The effect is–

The word bizarre doesn’t begin to capture it. There stand these rough, prehistoric stones, in all their timeless majesty, and they’re being used as a screen to show photos of an old woman dressed in the colors of toy Easter chicks.

I’m not disparaging her for being an old woman, mind you. I’m not what you’d call young myself. But you won’t find me on an ancient monument dressed like an Easter chick.

But English Heritage is proud of their decision, and since nothing that happens really happens unless it’s on social media, they tweeted a photo, with the predictable results. And just to prove I don’t make this stuff up (who could?), here’s the tweet.

A few of my favorite comments are:

“Pointless, outdated, ancient monument to a bygone era. Projected onto Stonehenge.”

“Things Stonehenge and the Monarchy have in common? How the fuck did this get here?”

“Something ancient and now pointless that we keep under the guise of tourism, projected onto stone henge”

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But we’re not done yet. Boris Johnson–he’s our prime minister when he finds time between parties–wants to celebrate by bringing back imperial measures. Or at least letting shops use them if they’re in the mood.

Oh, c’mon, you know what imperial measures are. Generations of schoolkids sacrificed (cumulatively speaking) months of their lives memorizing that a foot is 12 inches long, a yard is 3 feet, and a mile is 1760 yards. Also that a cup holds 10 ounces if you’re in Britain but 8 if you’re in the US, and that a quart holds 4 cups while a gallon hold 4 quarts. In either country, although the cups won’t be the same size, so why should anything that follows from them?

Mind you, those ounces that make up the cup aren’t the same ounces that go into a pound. They’re liquid ounces and a pound is a measure of weight, so it uses different ounces. Unless that pound is measuring money, which it does as a second job. It doesn’t use ounces for that at all–it drops them off at home when it stops in for a quick bite to eat.

In case all that business with 4 cups and 4 quarts made you think the number 4 is magical when you work with liquid measures, a pint holds two cups. You can’t rely on anything.

We won’t get into hogsheads and firkins and bushels and furlongs, but oh, we could, my friends, and we’d have such fun. Still, it would be irresponsible to move on without telling you that a hundredweight is made up of 112 pounds and a pennyweight is 12 grains.

So you can see why imperial measures are simpler, more logical, easier to understand, and all-around better than the metric system: They keep out the riff-raff and the numerically challenged.

But silly as it may seem, Johnson’s proposal’s done wonders for my stats. An old post on Britain’s halfhearted adoption of the metric system and on the old system(s) of measuring has attracted some ridiculous number of hits lately.

That’s ridiculous given the scale I work on. We’re talking about hundreds, not thousands. If you want to read about rods and furlongs and apple gallons and Cornish miles, it’s all there. And if you think the past was a simpler place, I recommend it.

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What else happens dring the jubilee? Why, the queen’s jubilee-themed tree-planting program. This encourages people to plant a tree for the jubilee, which not only rhymes (if it hadn’t, what would they have come up with?) but is promoted as a way to reforest the country.

It’s been busted for having sponsors with links to deforestation. But in other countries. Ones with more forest. And less power. So that’s okay. 

According to a campaign group, the program’s platinum sponsors include McDonald’s, with beef linked to the deforestation of the Amazon, and the bank NatWest, with links to deforestation in Uruguay. And so forth.

Everyone involved says they have no links to deforestation or are committed to doing better or have planted a tree at midnight in a neighbor’s yard and we should all go mind our own business, thank you very much, so we’ll move on.

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Because that’s not all the queen’s doing. She’s giving Britain eight new cities

No, not like that. She doesn’t build them herself. What she does is wave her magic feather over someplace that already exists and declare that what used to be a town is now a city. This doesn’t make it any larger, although some research suggests that it may make it richer, since (and I’m quoting the BBC here, which doesn’t explain the mix of singular and plural but does give me someone to blame it on) “it put them on the international map as a place to do business.” Presumably, businesses ask Lord Google about a place, find out it’s a city, and get so excited they’d push little old ladies out of the way in their rush to do business there. Even little old ladies dressed like Easter chicks.

Listen, don’t ask me. I’m not the one making the argument. The survey seems to be based on a sample of one, the former town/now a city of Perth (it’s in Scotland), which for all we know grew richer for other reasons. But never mind, we can’t rule out the queen’s magic feather.

I should mention, in case you don’t already know this, that in Britain a town doesn’t become a city by democratic consensus–you know, by people noticing how big it is and calling it a city. It happens by decree and has precious little to do with size. The smallest British city has 1,600 residents. For all I know, the queen could make herself a city. Or make you one. You wouldn’t be any larger, and neither would she.

 

But speaking of democracy…

…jackdaws decide when to leave the roost in the most democratic possible way. Each bird literally has a voice. 

In the winter, jackdaws roost together overnight, and in the morning they take to the air in a mass. When a bird thinks it’s time to leave, it calls out, and each call is a vote. The noise level and the speed at which it increases both influence the flock’s decision to take off. 

As many as 40,000 of them can roost–and lift off–together. They don’t care if you call it a city or not.

 

Will everyone who isn’t Banksy please stand up?

We’re still talking politics here. William Gannon, a town councillor in Pembroke Dock, Wales, resigned in an attempt to squish a rumor that he’s the anonymous street artist Banksy. The rumor, he believes, was started by someone who wants his seat on the town council and, he said, it was “undermining my ability to do the work. . . . [People were] asking me to prove who I am not and that’s almost impossible to do.”

Gannon is an artist and does make street art, which his website describes as “Banksy-esque, not intentionally,” but that’s not the same thing as him being Banksy, and to prove that he’s handing out buttons saying “I am NOT Banksy.” He wears one himself, but then, as many people have pointed out, that’s exactly the sort of thing Banksy would do.

You can’t win this game.

 

And in unrelated clashes with the law…

…a pair of herring gulls have nested on a police car in Dorset and can’t be moved off because they’re members of a protected species. The car’s out of use until the chicks fledge. In the meantime, the adult birds are helping the police with their inquiries.

 

This one stayed out of court, but…

…the Star Inn at Vogue, which is in Vogue, Cornwall and known locally as the Vogue, was threatened with a lawsuit by the owners of Vogue magazine for using its name. The pub owners found that hilarious and wrote back to say the pub had been in place, under that name, for hundreds of years.

“I presume,” Mark Graham wrote, “that at the time when you chose the name Vogue in the capitalised version you didn’t seek permission from the villagers of the real Vogue. I also presume that Madonna did not seek your permission to use the word Vogue (again the capitalised version) for her 1990s song of the same name.”

The magazine wrote back with an apology, which is now framed and on display.

 

And finally, leaving the UK behind

A year ago, a two-day promotion by a restaurant chain in Taiwan offered free sushi–on an all-you-can-eat basis–to anyone with the Chinese characters for salmon in their name, and also to the people they brought with them. That led 331 people to change their names. It doesn’t cost much, at least when compared to the price of a tableful of sushi. So the country suddenly acquired a bunch of people named things like Salmon Dream and Dancing Salmon. Some of them built a social media following on that basis. (There’s no explaining social media.) Others started small (and short-lived) businesses, charging people to go out for sushi with them. 

It was called Salmon chaos, and the government was not amused by the administrative cost of it all. 

Most people changed their names back as soon as the promotion ended, but a few got trapped, because the government only allows a person to change their name three times. Last I heard, the government was debating a change in the law, but in the meantime a few salmon were still trapped as salmon.