Are the expiration dates on Covid tests for real?

I raise this question because I’m an expiration date-denier, at least in most situations. I’ll bake with flour that’s older than I am. I don’t toss food out until it reeks or evolves new life forms. I don’t take orders from the small print on food packaging. 

To my lasting disappointment, though, test kits do get to boss us around. When they pass their use-by date, they start returning false negatives. And the worst of it is, they expect us to be at least a little sympathetic about it. Wouldn’t we get tired of sitting on a shelf and waiting for someone to decide they might have a use for us? And don’t we also turn a little negative with all that passivity and waiting? 

So apologies, but we really do need to pay attention. 

When do the ones on my shelf expire? Haven’t a clue. I should go look but I think I’ll wait and go into a panic about it when I need one.

Irrelevant photo: a poppy

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Remember everything hopeful I’ve written about the possibility of universal Covid vaccines? 

Of course you do. You memorize every word I write. Which is good, because I don’t.

I ask because we’ve got some new Omicron subvariants working their way into the pandemic pipeline, and although they don’t seem to be any more vicious than the old versions, they do seem to be better at immunities. 

The one spreading in the US is called BA.2.12.1, which as far as I can tell means it’s a variant on Omicron 2.0. The others were spotted in South Africa and are called BA.4 and BA.5, which are, at least, easier to remember.

Is it time to panic? Nah. There’s always time for that later. 

The new subvariants are able to infect people who had the first version of Omicron–the one that came out before Elon Musk bought the entire genome. They can also infect people who’ve been vaccinated. But the picture isn’t simple. A lot of vaccines are out there and the study couldn’t cover them all. They may provide greater protection. And in case that doesn’t introduce enough unknown quantities, the variants’ ability to slither past people’s immunities could be, in part, because people’s immunity was starting to wane. It could also be because so many people spell Musk’s first name wrong. So don’t jump to conclusions.

What does it all mean for the fight against Covid? A lot of experts are asking that, including the vaccine makers, who could tweak their vaccines to target Omicron and find themselves, yet again, three steps behind a virus that knows the Greek alphabet better than they do. Translation: We don’t know what the next variants will look like (never mind what letter it will be named after), but we do know that a new variant will appear. And experience tells us that Covid’s good at finding ways to dodge our immune systems.

The obvious solution is a vaccine that targets all forms of Covid, and possibly its coronavirus friends and relations as well, and any number of scientists are chasing after that. But they haven’t caught it yet. It’s fast, it’s clever, and it’s small enough to hide in the undergrowth.

Another possibility is to use a mix of monoclonal antibodies that target various strains of Covid. 

A mix of what? A brew made from antibodies created in response to assorted forms of Covid. Pour the mix into an infected person’s system and it can get to work on whatever it finds.

The problem is cost. One dose currently costs $1,000 per patient, so at best it would have to be limited to the most vulnerable people, and only in countries that can afford it. Or if you’re in the US, it would be limited to individuals who can afford it.But if the brew could be gotten down to $50 or $100 per dose, it would be cheaper than constantly updating vaccines.

What does seem to be certain–at least to observers who haven’t drunk the KoolAid labeled “What the Hell, Let’s Say It’s Endemic and Move On”–is that letting the virus spread and mutate while we shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves to live with it is a recipe for trouble.

Sorry–make that more trouble than we already have, since we’re hardly trouble-free just now.

 

Studies, updates, and patent pools on the spread of Covid

According to one study, you’re a thousand times less likely to catch Covid from touching stuff than you are from breathing in its presence. That’s true not only of you, but also of your friends, your relatives, and your enemies (if you have any, and if you don’t please substitute a few people you never managed to like. And also of me. So if you’re still trying to find that pack of disinfectant wipes you lost at the back of your cupboard (or your neighbors’ cupboard–who knows how these things happen?), relax. You may not need them.

Emphasis, as usual, on may.

Details? Oh, you fussy people. The study was done when lots of antibacterial cleaning was going on and crowds were nonexistent, so let’s not go off the deep end and decide it translates completely to the world we’re living in now. Still, it’s information and it’s worth reading:

The riskiest places, in terms of both air and surface samples, were gyms, with gym drinking fountains rating high on the list of things to avoid. The exercise equipment itself didn’t turn up any positive samples. 

In offices, the study found few positive samples on keyboards, light switches, tables, microwaves, or refrigerator handles. In schools, the same was true of desks.

The survey estimates that the chances of getting Covid after airborne exposure are one in a hundred. From a contaminated surface, it’s one in a hundred thousand–factoring in, of course, that a lot of cleaning was going on at the time, so you might want to move a zero or a decimal point in some random direction to make up for that.

The study didn’t look at the surfaces in people’s homes, dorms, or other places where people live together. I’m not sure how useful any of it is, but I thought I’d mention it.

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A different study looked at the effect of what it called layered controls–basically, masks, distance, and ventilation–and found that the three used together would reduce Covid transmission by 98% in 95% of the scenarios it studied. The study involved the gloriously named atmospheric scientist Laura Fierce. She gets a mention solely on the basis of her last name. 

Ventilation alone doesn’t do much to reduce transmission, although if you add in a distance of six feet it does, and masks reduce the safe distance from six feet to three. 

This is all wonderfully sensible, but are we going to do it? Hell no. The pandemic’s over, hadn’t you heard? If you get sick, it’s your own silly fault.

It’s infuriating. Allow me to refer you to the scientist mentioned above. We need to clone her. 

*

A research team in Japan is developing a decoy virus receptor that promises to keep the virus so entranced that it never finds the human cells it set out to infect.This is in the early stages yet, so we don’t know if it’ll keep its promises, but if it does it should stand up to Covid’s shape-shifting ways, at least for a decent interval. 

It doesn’t sound like the decoy would completely neutralize the virus. They’re still talking about less severe infection and increased chances of survival. But staying a step ahead of the virus’s evolution would be good.

*

And finally, a bit of good news: The US has put the licenses for eleven Covid-related technologies into a patent pool so that low- and middle-income countries can access them. 

I gather that we don’t have poor countries anymore. We have low-income ones. 

Never mind. The patents include vaccines, drugs, research tools, and diagnostic whatsits. 

The bad news? In some cases, this only gets rid of one roadblock. Countries that want to work with these technologies would still need to negotiate with other patent holders, since nothing about this disease is simple, including who owns what. Nonetheless, it could help pressure companies to do the decent thing, and it could also increase the odds of the World Health Organization making medicines and vaccines available more quickly in the future.

Or so I read. It’s not as if I actually know this stuff.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” according to James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, which pushes (reckless radicals that they are) for intellectual property to be shared so it benefits the public. 

Sexism and tractor porn in British politics

You’ve gotta love British politics. Not for what it does or how it works but for its sheer insanity.

At the end of April, Neil Parish, a Conservative MP, was looking at porn sites in the House of Commons–so that’s during working hours and in public–when a couple of his fellow MPs couldn’t help noticing. 

A couple of female fellow MPs, wording that calls attention to the underlying fuckedupedness of the English language, since the word fellow tells us we’re talking about the male of the species, although we’re not. The language doesn’t offer us a parallel word for females or for humans of both or unspecified genders. But never mind that. It’s the language we have, so let’s work with it. We can argue about fixing it when we have the time. In, say, a few hundred years if the species (not to mention the language) is still functioning.

My spellcheck program (since we’ve taken a break to talk about wording) doesn’t stub its toe on fuckedupedness. It just smiles and continues across the kitchen to pick up the mouse parts the cat left in the night. So let’s assume it’s a word English relies on heavily.

At long last, I bring you a relevant photo: This lovely flower is called honesty. What could be more appropriate?

But back to our friend Neil: The aforesaid fellow MPs went public about him watching porn at work and all hell broke loose. And since the incident followed on the heels of another public incident of sexism in the House of Commons, it all turned into a particularly shit-filled shitstorm. (Spell check also accepts shitstorm. Don’t you love the way language evolves?) 

The earlier incident? One of our trashier national newspapers quoted an unnamed MP as saying that Angela Raynor, a leader of the Opposition (that’s the Labour Party), made a point of crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract the prime minister (who’s from the Conservative Party and male) when he was speaking. 

The nerve of her. Any decent woman would have wrapped said legs in burlap. (That’s hessian in British.) Honestly, none of this would be necessary if women would stop showing their ankles in public. How are men supposed to concentrate on running the country with women’s body parts on display everywhere they look?

Where were we before I indulged in that fit of decency? All hell had already broken loose about sexism in Parliament, and in rode Neil Parish and his (I assume) smart phone, although for all I know it could’ve been a laptop, with a bigger screen showing bigger pictures of improbably enlarged body parts.

After a bit of unconvincing waffle (he might have looked at porn, but it might have been by accident), he admitted that he’d watched porn in the Commons twice, but the first time it really did happen by accident. See, he’d been looking for pictures of tractors when up popped (so to speak) this porn site.  

It could happen to anyone. And to be fair, it’s no sillier than the excuse someone offered for one of Boris Johnson’s breaches of his own lockdown rules: He was ambushed by a birthday cake.

Which might or might not have been on a tractor.

*

All of this opened the door to a public discussion of sexism in Parliament, and (refreshingly) it’s not just the opposition parties doing the talking. Women in the Conservative Party–again, that’s the party in power–have waded in, with one suggesting that male MPs should all keep their hands in their pockets, because there isn’t a woman in Parliament who hadn’t been subjected to “wandering hands.” 

What the suggestion lacks in effectiveness it makes up for in evocativeness.

I’ll spare you the specific examples. You’ve heard it all before, and if you’re of the female persuasion you’ve experienced it, but last I heard 56 MPs had been accused of sexual misconduct in one form or another.

To demonstrate how thoroughly the government doesn’t get it, the business minister announced that although there were some bad apples, “that doesn’t mean the entire culture is extremely misogynistic or full of male entitlement.”

If you’re ever following a recipe that calls for a half pound of entitlement and you don’t have one in the refrigerator, you’re welcome to dump that one into the frying pan: The person who doesn’t experience the problem tells the people who do that it’s not as extensive as their silly little minds let them think it is. Because he understands the situation better they possibly could.

*

Not entirely unrelated to this is a 2020 survey reporting that MPs drink more heavily than the general population, with 29% of the ones who answered the survey falling into the risky drinking category. The survey doesn’t seem to have looked at whether they drink at work or after, but the building that houses Parliament is full of bars, and the booze is comparatively cheap. My money’s on a lot of it happening during working hours.

The business secretary (remember him?) said closing the bars would be an “excessively puritanical” response to the problem of sexism in Parliament.

At least he didn’t say “boys will be boys.” At least not in public.

 

The role of traffic cones in British politics

The combination of Tractorgate, Partygate (that’s Boris Johnson breaking his own lockdown rules), and epidemic government incompetence led me to learn a new political phrase: a cones hotline moment. It came into existence when John Major’s government had lost its way in the dark and decided it could generate light by launching a proposal so spectacularly lightless that it became Westminster shorthand for the moment when (warning: metaphor shift ahead) the rising water reaches the governmental nostrils and the only thing anyone can think to do is spend money on a phone line so people can complain about something they know won’t change. In Major’s case, the subject was roadworks. Which is disappointing. Based on the name, I was hoping it was about rogue traffic cones.

I owe thanks to Gaby Hinsliff, writing in the Guardian, for that information.

Has the Johnson government reached its cones hotline moment? Possibly. As the cost of living soars and increasing numbers of people struggle to pay the rent, stay warm, and feed themselves (choose two, or in some cases one and a half), what does the government offer by way of help? Well, if you own a ride-on mower or a golf cart (called a golf buggy in British), it will save you some £50 a year by scrapping a European Union requirement that you insure it as if it was a car. 

Then it called on us to admire the glories Brexit has brought us.

Embarrassingly, the EU’s already scrapped the requirement. And it did so before Britain got around to it. But if the initiative appeals to you, I have a traffic cone hotline that I’d be happy to sell you. If you hurry, you can get it for 30% off.

*

As people struggle to keep up with inflation and the government reorganizes the traffic cones on the Titanic, another Conservative MP delivered his informed opinion about food banks: The only reason people are using food banks is that they don’t know how to cook cheap, nutritious meals from scratch. And they can’t budget, the silly creatures.

The best answer came from Jack Monroe, a food poverty campaigner and a single mother who actually made a career out of recipes using cheap food:

“You can’t cook meals from scratch with nothing. You can’t buy cheap food with nothing. The issue is not ‘skills,’ it’s 12 years of Conservative cuts to social support. The square root of fuck all is ALWAYS going to be fuck all.”

 

In the US, Sarah Palin faces off with someone she’d have thought was an ally

From there, it’s only a small step to American politics:

Remember Sarah Palin? John McCain picked her as his running mate in a presidential election and a lot of silly people–I was one of them–thought US politics could sink no lower. 

Yeah, some jokes aren’t funny but I keep trying.

Sarah’s running for the House of Representatives, hoping to complete the term of someone who died in office, possibly of embarrassment. One of the people running against her is Santa Claus. He lives in North Pole, Alaska, possesses a luxuriant white beard, and changed his name from Tom O’Connor in 2005.

Yes, now that you ask, the new name has caused him problems with airport security once or twice. 

He used to work in law enforcement and although he’s politically unaffiliated his politics have more in common with Bernie Sanders’ than with Palin’s.

This is where I should insert something approximating a punchline but I haven’t come up with one. Sorry.

*

In other US news, three former US officials–all unnamed, although presumably they had names soon after birth–told Rolling Stone that Donald Trump asked his aides, repeatedly, if China wasn’t maybe, please, using a “hurricane gun” to create hurricanes and send them to the US. And could the US retaliate militarily.

Maybe, he suggested, they could destroy the storms with nuclear weapons.

One of his press secretaris, Stephanie Grisham, said, “Stuff like that was not unusual for him. He would blurt out crazy things all the time, and tell aides to look into it or do something about it. His staff would say they’d look into, knowing that more often than not, he’d forget about it quickly – much like a toddler.”

 

Vigilantes face down the vigilantes

Remember Canada’s convoy of honking trucks protesting Covid restrictions? Well, a similar convoy gathered, complete  with bullhorns, outside a California lawmaker’s home to protest her work on a bill that would end coroner investigations of still births and require state businesses to mandate Covid vaccines for their employees.

That’s one bill? Apparently. Or maybe they’re two separate bills these guys objected to. Don’t ask me.

This convoy was run out of town by the legislator’s neighbors, who threw eggs and jumped onto the trucks to go nose to nose with the drivers. 

That’s the annoying thing about threatening, vigilante-type behavior: It’s only fun when you’re winning. 

 

And from the world of conspiracy theories

Have you heard of the claim that birds aren’t real? It occupies an uncomfortable space between conspiracy theory and satire. It started right after Trump was elected, when a guy named Peter McIndoe was watching the women’s march in Memphis and noticed some counterprotesters, who he described as “older, bigger white men, . . . aggravators .  . . encroaching on something that was not their event.”

He made a placard saying, “Birds aren’t real,” and joined them. The idea was to make an absurdist statement. When people asked what it meant, he ad libbed, saying he was part of a movement that had been around for fifty years and had tried and failed to save American birds, which were destroyed by the deep state and replaced with feathered surveillance drones.

Someone filmed him and put it on Facebook, where it went viral. Then it became a movement. People have chanted it at high school football games and shown up here and there with banners and signs. Admittedly, it didn’t spread all on its own. Once he saw what was happening, he gave it a fair bit of encouragement and some organizational structure. 

So how many people get the joke? 

Some. 

McIndoe gives interviews in character as a conspiracy believer, and some of his interviewers–the shock jocks of the world–treat him not quite as if he’s bringing the truth down from Mount Whatever but not as an obvious nutburger. They don’t say, “You do know that’s bonkers, right?” They’re noncommittal. They say things like, “Huh. That’s bad.”

“Real conspiracy theorists will approach me like I’m their brother,” McIndoe said, “like I’m part of their team. They will start spouting hateful rhetoric and racist ideas, because they feel as if I’m safe.” 

It sounds like that’s evolving, though. Now “they think Birds Aren’t Real is a CIA psy-op. They think that we are the CIA, we’re put out there as a weapon against conspiracy theorists.”

For the people who do get the joke, though, “It is a collective role-playing experiment. There is true community found through this, it breaks down political barriers. We have taken pictures of a car park at a Birds Aren’t Real rally. There are people who will show up with a US flag on their car, Republican, patriotic, and a car right next to them with Bernie Sanders stickers. I was a Bernie guy myself. You see these people marching together, unified.”

I wouldn’t count on it to heal the fractured country, but it might offer us a short vacation from focusing on the conflict.

 

And unrelated to any of that

I just discovered that Yahoo, in its wisdom, has been dumping several categories of WordPress notifications into my spam folder, which I haven’t checked since our older dog was a kitten. I thought it had gotten quiet out there, but I’ve been stretched thin enough that I didn’t give it much thought. On top of that, WordPress itself has indulged in a badly judged fit of self-improvement and most of its notifications no longer let me drop in on the blogs of the people who send them, which I enjoyed doing before WP tripped over its own feet and made that somewhere between difficult and impossible. So if you’ve noticed my absence (I wouldn’t have, so I’m not expecting you to be moping over it), we have two entities to blame–and neither of them are me.

The British government conquers whatever century this is

To demonstrate that Britain’s a thoroughly modern country, the Treasury has asked the Royal Mint to create a non-fungible token, better known as an NFT or a cryptoasset.

Nothing I’ve read says whether anyone involved understands what an NFT is–I sure as hell don’t, no matter how many times people explain it to me. The closest I can come is that it’s something that doesn’t exist but that people are willing to pay money for. Sometimes large amounts of it.

Fair enough. If you can get people to part with their money for questionable stuff–well, that’s the world we live in these days. Let the buyer beware. And you can see why the government would want to get in on the act. Hell, they sold us Brexit, didn’t they?

The Treasury tweeted that “this decision shows the forward-looking approach we are determined to take towards cryptoassets in the UK.” 

That sounds almost as convincing as me claiming to be on the cutting edge of technology. Or of anything else. People who actually are on the cutting edge don’t bother mentioning it, although they do occasionally bleed a bit. Or at least, that’s my impression from back here in the cheap seats.

Irrelevant photo: A neighbor’s maple doesn’t care if there’s a fence in the way.

What non-fungible token is the government selling? We don’t know yet. Or I don’t, although as you can imagine I’m just panting after one so I can do whatever it is people do with them once they’ve parted with their money. I’ve been looking online for recipes, but whatever it is doesn’t seem to involve cooking.

Stick around. I’ll let you know all about it as soon as I figure it out.

*

Britain’s other Great Leap Forward into the–

Remind me. What century is this?

Twenty-first. Thanks.

–into the twenty-first century involves appointing Michael Grade as the new chair of Ofcom, which regulates the country’s media. Grade doesn’t use Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok, all of which he’s now supposed to regulate. That makes him the obvious person for the job. He’s also a Conservative, making him an even more obvious choice. And he has heard rumors about the internet and has kids–three of them–who use all of the above, so he’s more than prepared to deal with online safety and, you know, whatever the other issues are. I’m sure some aide will get him up to speed if his kids don’t.

Or an officeful of lobbyists. They’ll know what’s needed. 

*

Another recent high point in British politics involves the defense secretary getting scammed into a video call with someone he thought was the Ukrainian prime minister, Denys Shmyhal.

No, I never heard of Shmyhal either. I’m guessing the defense secretary was roughly as well informed. 

While we’re at it, do you know who Britain’s defense secretary is? Why, it’s Ben Wallace, of course. 

Sheesh. The ignorance level around here is shocking.

So Ben told the alleged prime minister that Britain was running out of anti-tank missiles to send to Ukraine. Sometime after that he got suspicious, but by then he’d given the hoaxer, who turned out to be a Russian prankster, enough to make an embarrassing clip up on YouTube.

Whether or not he knew what YouTube was before, he does now.

 

Reports from the world of libraries

Some twenty years ago, two Charles Darwin manuscripts wandered out of the Cambridge University Library, presumably with a bit of human help. They’d been taken out of storage to be photographed and, um, yeah, they somehow disappeared. The assumption was that they’d been misfiled, and I hope you’ll join me in imagining the library’s entire staff tearing the place apart in mounting levels of panic. 

Eventually, the library reported them as stolen, a worldwide appeal went out, and nothing more happened. 

The manuscripts were worth millions of pounds. Or else they’re worth that now. Take your pick. It doesn’t matter since we’re not in the market, but I do have a nice non-fungible token you could buy for considerably less. And a bridge in Brooklyn.

Anyway, twenty years passed, as they will if you give them enough time, and then in early March a pink gift bag showed up outside the head librarian’s door, along with a typed note wishing her a happy Easter. The manuscripts were inside

They’re in good condition and the librarian is in even better condition, and the area outside her door isn’t covered by CCTV. So far, we don’t know whodunnit.

*

On February 6, when New Zealand celebrated Waitangi Day–that’s a national holiday which among other things closes libraries–a programming glitch meant that the doors of the Turanga Library opened up as if it was a working day, and 380 people came in, browsed, read, returned books, and did whatever else people do in a library, including borrowing 147 books using the automatic book-borrowing thingy, which also thought it was a working day. What they don’t seem to have done is steal anything. Or for that matter, damage anything. 

They did leave messages about the lack of staff on social media and somebody sent in a security guard to shoo everyone out and lock up.

 

Meanwhile, from the car world…

Police in Spain stopped a driver for zigzagging across the road and using his mobile phone–that thing you folks in the US know as a cell phone–while driving. When they asked him for identification, he showed them a card issued by the Errant Republic of Menda Lerenda and said he was a member of its sovereign diplomatic service.

To which they said, “Uh huh. If you’ll just come with us–”

He didn’t invent Menda Lerenda. It exists in the same way that a non-fungible token exists, which is to say only online.

Sorry. This non-fungible thing has turned into a kind of unplanned theme. 

The republic claims a physical existence by defining each person who buys its i.d. as an independent republic whose national territory is the place they occupy at any given moment.

That makes it, it says, a micronation, “an individual and mobile sovereignty recognised by other states capable of acting with complete independence in strict compliance with international law.” 

Uh huh. 

The driver turned out to be higher’n a kite. He was fined for a variety of offenses and ended up with nine naughty points on his driver’s license. 

*

In San Francisco, the police pulled a car over for driving without headlights and found nobody inside. Then the car left, only to pull over on the other side of the intersection.

Welcome to the world of driverless cars. An outfit called Cruise is testing out what the article I read calls technology for ride-hailing purposes. I’m reasonably sure ride-hailing purposes are usually called cabs, but we’ve already established that I’m not at the bleeding edge of new technology. If they need to call a cab a ride-hailing purpose, what can I do but make twentieth-century fun of them for it? 

They’re offering free rides at night. (Here, kid, the first one’s free.) The local cab drivers all hate them. I know that without having to look for a source. I’ve been a cab driver. 

Cruise later took to both Twitter and human communication forms to explain that the thing with the lights was due to human error and that the car left because it didn’t consider the place it had stopped to be safe.

If someone Black had been driving, she or he could’ve been shot for that. 

No, I don’t think that’s funny either, but I did think it might keep things in perspective. 

The car wasn’t ticketed, and neither was the company.

*

Meanwhile, back in Britain, the best brains in government–or at least some that are still relatively unaddled by Covid–are wrestling with the issues that driverless cars present. How will the Highway Code change to accommodate them if, as proposed, they’re allowed to operate at slow speeds on jammed motorways?

Motorways? If you life in the US, you call them highways or interstates.

Well, the non-drivers will (if the proposals go through) be able to watch movies and TV on the cars’ built-in screens but they won’t be able to use their phones. (Sorry. No idea. It made sense to someone.) They’ll have to be ready to take control of the car when it tells them to–for instance, when they’re coming to an exit.

And who gets the blame if something goes wrong? If the car’s in charge, then it’s not the driver, since the driver wasn’t driving. Financially, it would be the insurance company. For dangerous driving, it would be “the company that obtained the authorisation.”

You’re welcome to unravel the bureaucracy implied in that bit of verbiage if you have nothing better to do.  Me, I’d rather vacuum the rug.

Shreds of hope in the pandemic

A Covid vaccine that’s in development could, potentially, create sterilizing immunity.

Sterilizing immunity? That’s the kind that prevents infection, which means a disease not only can’t get you sick, it also can’t use you to pass itself along to anyone else. If we could get enough people vaccinated with a sterilizing vaccine, we could stop this sumbitch in its tracks.

The snag, of course, is hidden in that word potentially. The thing’s still in development. But if all goes well, it could work on both the existing variants and any new ones and could create immunity even in people whose immune systems sleep through the current vaccines, through bouts of Covid itself, and through math class.

How does it work

The SARS-CoV-2 subunit vaccine (PreS-RBD) developed at MedUni Vienna is based on a structurally folded fusion protein consisting of two receptor binding domains (RBD) of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the PreS antigen from hepatitis B, which serve as immunological carriers for each other, thereby strengthening the immune response.”

Allow me to translate that for you: It’s magic. Don’t worry about it. Although you might want to know that it involves a series of shots to build up to full immunity, and the first trials could start this year. But that depends on funding. 

Irrelevant photo: an ornamental cherry tree. Or I think it’s a cherry.

What doesn’t depend on funding?

Hmm. Dunno. As society’s organized, not much.

Why do I ask so many questions? They’re a cheap and easy way to organize a piece of writing. 

See? Even that depends on funding.

*

A second shred of hope is that researchers have found a monoclonal antibody that could potentially be a treatment for all Covid variants as well as for SARS and MERS (if they reappear), and for some versions of the common cold. But there’s that word potentially again. So far, it’s gone through animal studies. Next they have to capture some humans and test it on them.

It’s being combined with another monoclonal antibody, and the two together are going by the name AR-701 cocktail right now, but before they’re released into the wild someone will have to give them a less pronounceable name to make them sound more scientific. 

The plan is for people to inhale it, and it could–again, that word–potentially last for a year. 

Covid and male fertility

A very (very) small study raises the possibility that catching Covid could have long-term effects on male fertility. 

Long-term effects? When someone says that,they’re never talking about  good long-term effects. In this case, it means that men who had recovered from Covid had lower sperm counts, more misshapen sperm, and sperm with lower motility than the comparison group. 

Again, it was a small study, so don’t go off the deep end with it. But I can’t help thinking that if you want to discombobulate someone who’s pounding the table about vaccines messing with women’s fertility–

Nah. I’m not going to suggest that. I’ll leave it to you to sink that low.  

News about Covid tests

Two rapid, accurate Covid tests are in development. I’ve written that sentence so many times before, changing only the number at the beginning, that I’m not even going to give you the details. But testing’s another area where–out of sight of the general public–work’s going on that could have an impact on the way this mess plays out.

 

Covid and the sense of smell 

Omicron’s less likely than the Delta variant to mess up the senses of smell and taste, but a failed attempt to lower people’s viral load–that’s how much Covid they carry around–turned out to protect patients’ sense of smell and taste. It also left them less tired than the patients who got a placebo.

They were using a drug called camostat mesylate, and it’s not clear yet whether it would help restore smell and taste to people who’ve lost them. You can live without both of them, but taste and smell are not minor losses.

The drug will need more testing–which in turn means more time, not to mention more money–before it can be used this way. 

An update on Covid in Africa

One of the mysteries of an already pretty weird disease has been its impact on Africa. According to a World Health Organization’s estimate, 65% of people in Africa have been infected by Covid. That’s something like 100 times more cases than have been reported. Covid cases are undercounted everywhere, and more so in Africa, because so many people have no symptoms. 

When they say “estimated,” they’re not talking about an educated hunch. They’re basing it on blood samples from around the continent. It’s not as accurate as counting every head, but it’s not pulling numbers out of thin air either. 

Earlier in the pandemic, the fear was that Covid would devastate Africa, but it’s turned out to be one of the least affected parts of the world. Multiple explanations are on offer. It has a low percentage of people with risk factors like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. It has a relatively young population. And some studies suggest that having been infected with other diseases, including malaria, may be protective, but that hasn’t been confirmed and rushing out to buy yourself a case of malaria is not recommended.

But being one of the least affected parts of the world doesn’t mean Africa’s unaffected. It’s had 250,000 Covid deaths. Or known Covid deaths–they also tend to be underreported worldwide. Only 15% of Africa’s population has been vaccinated, and that may mean only one vaccination, since the article doesn’t say “fully vaccinated,” which is the phrase that usually pops up.

Updates on the fight against Covid: from far-UVC to nasal sprays

Studies showing that far-UVC light kills coronaviruses started circulating fairly early in the pandemic, but they were small studies and the whole project seemed marginal–one of those promising possibilities doomed to be ignored by the folks who know best. A new study might be changing that. 

Might, mind you. As Yogi Berra might or might not have said, “It’s tough to make predictions. Especially about the future.” *

But first, let’s talk about UVC light: It’s short for ultraviolet light, and it kills germs, which (you may remember) we have reason to think is a good idea these days. But UVC has some bad habits. Basically, it doesn’t like people. It can burn the skin and damage the eyes, so if you want to disinfect a room with it, you have to figure out how to keep the light and the people apart. 

That’s awkward, what with Covid’s habit of circulating through the people’s lungs.

Far-UVC, though, doesn’t have those bad habits. It has a shorter wavelength, so it doesn’t penetrate skin or eye cells. But it still slaughters viruses and bacteria, since they’re smaller than the cells humans are interested in protecting.

Irrelevant photo: primroses with violet

So we now have UVC, far-UVC, and a bunch of dead viruses. 

The earlier studies demonstrating far-UVC’s usefulness and safety were conducted in small experimental chambers, and that left open the question of whether it would work in less controlled situations. Now someone’s done a demonstration in real-world conditions–a fairly ordinary room with roughly the same ventilation as a home or office, which is about three air changes per hour.

Does your home change air three times an hour? Does mine? Haven’t a clue, so let’s take their word for it. 

Under those conditions, far-UVC slaughtered 98% of the test microbes within five minutes. Compared to other ways of cleaning air, that’s–to quote someone involved in the project–spectacular. 

I know that, gentle vegetarian that I am, I’m not supposed to be cheering mass slaughter, but nobody ever accused the human race of consistency, and I am, to the best of my knowledge, predominantly human. 

If you want more detail of the experiment, you’ll have to follow the link. It involves numbers, although not many of them. But it doesn’t take many to send me running. Before I left, I did take in that the approach works with viruses, bacteria, and any additional infectious beasties that I’ve forgotten, none of which can mutate to develop a resistance to it.

So in the interest of public health, will far-UVC be coming to all indoor spaces near you? I’d love to think so; it only makes sense. The problem is that it not only makes sense, it costs money. Granted, it would also save money by making indoor air 98% safe, keeping us healthy, and quite possibly getting the pandemic (and assorted other diseases) under control, but we’ve all lived long enough to know that logic doesn’t necessarily apply. It’ll depend on who would be saving the money, who would be spending, and who would be making it it–not to mention who can see half an inch in front of their nose.

In the UK, I predict far-UVC will be adopted only if someone with strong ties to the Conservative Party–preferably a huge fuckin’ donor–goes into the business. At that point, it will become the savior of the nation and we’ll have a world-beating promise to install it everywhere. Some huge amount of money will then be spent and it will be installed in nowhere near as many places as we were promised.

But it’s hard to make predictions. Especially about the future.

*

UV can also be used to clean N95 masks, a new study demonstrates. Early in the pandemic, when protective gear was in short supply, people in medical settings tried pretty much everything to make the gear they had last longer, including disinfecting it with UV, since they had the equipment on hand for other uses. The masks were only meant for a single use, but they were desperate enough to stretch that.

Dianne Poster, a co-author of the study, said, “Right now, UV technologies are really in their infancy with respect to the healthcare environment.” And I’m quoting that because it strikes me as relevant–at least vaguely–to the use of far-UVC as well.

*

And while we’re in UVC mode, researchers have come up with a system that can alternate between plain ol’ white LED light to, you know, see by and UVC light to decontaminate an indoor space. The drawback is that it depends on motion-sensors to let it know when the room’s empty. So you wouldn’t want to fall asleep at your desk or be in the sensors’ blind spot.

The lights work in standard lighting fixtures, which should keep the cost down.

 

Other new developments

A nasal spray that promises to prevent Covid infection for 12 hours or treat the early stages of infection has passed mouse studies with flying colors and a company is trying to raise money for human studies, development, marketing, and all the uproar necessary (or at least expected) to get a product to market. 

Is this the same anti-Covid nasal spray I wrote about a few weeks ago? Possibly. At the moment, this one’s called N-0385, so you can see why the name didn’t stay in my mind. But who cares? I want this stuff badly enough to risk writing about it twice.

*

For the first time, doctors have used a vaccine to clear Covid from the body of an immune-suppressed patient who tested positive for seven months after first catching the virus.

This wasn’t long Covid, where symptoms keep dancing long after the viral band has packed up its instruments and gone home.The patient tested positive through that whole time. 

*

Assorted other tests and treatments and vaccines are also in the works. The new tests are faster and more accurate than what we’re currently using. Some of the treatments hold the promise of working against mutated forms of Covid by targeting a part of the virus that can’t mutate–the virus dies if it plays around with that spot. One vaccine would be highly tweakable when not just new variants but new diseases emerge, and I think we’ve learned by now that new diseases will emerge, although whether we’ll act on that knowledge is a whole ‘nother question.

I mention all this to say, Hang in there, folks. We will get through this.

 

Omicron BA.2

How dangerous is the new omicron variant, omicron point two? (It’s actually called BA.2, but never mind that.) For starters–and forgive me if you already know this–it’s no tougher than omicron point one. It can’t lift heavier weights, can’t run faster, and to date hasn’t stolen lunch money from any more kids than point one has. 

It is more contagious, but according to one measurement not by that much. You can tell that by how long it’s taking to become the dominant strain.

So if this study’s right, it kind of fooled us there. Early reports were that it was much more contagious.

The bad news–isn’t there always bad news?–-is that the people studying it expect people to get reinfected. You already knew that too, right? It’s a coronavirus. People do tend to get reinfected by them. So you have my encouragement to deck the next person who mentions herd immunity to you. Or you can ask me to do it if you’re not in the mood. I’m five foot not very much, 75 years old, and terrifying in a fight. 

And I need the exercise.

The article I stole all this from reminds us that “we’re entering a different phase of the pandemic,” and “need to now assess whether [a new variant is] a risk to the general population, . . . a risk to an individual person” or a risk to a specific group such as the elderly or the immune compromised.

Which is an interesting way of seeing the problem and I can’t help wondering if it’s an invitation to write off a few inconvenient groups in the presumed interest of the general population and to stop looking at Covid as a public health issue and start looking at it as a personal problem. 

But maybe that’s just me being cynical. 

The article ends with a call for people to wear masks when they’re sick, even if what they have isn’t Covid, because they’ll protect other people from whatever they have. It’s a radical thought: inconvenience yourself marginally to help other people significantly. 

There’s got to be something wrong with that.

*

In the meantime, the World Health Organization says omicron point 2 is 30% more transmissible than omicron point one. I can’t compare that estimate to the one above since their measuring tapes are marked differently. Make what you can of it.

WHO also says the European countries that have dismantled their anti-~Covid measures have done it too “brutally,” going from too many restrictions to too few. It reminds us that cases are rising.

In Britain, they’re rising significantly, and deaths are also going up. Not the way they did at the start of the pandemic, but the trend is up all the same, and the people who are dying of it are still dead. We don’t seem to be treating Covid as a public health problem anymore, just a personal one. If we see a coronavirus coming at us, we’re advised to either duck or dodge to the left. 

It’s a fantastically effective strategy.

 

* Yogi Berra is also supposed to have said, “I never said half the things I said.” So you want to approach his quotes with caution. They’re likely to explode on contact with a human brain.

British government contributes toward environmental protesters’ fines

Just when you decide that humans have thought of every possible way to protest, the environmental campaign group Insulate Britain bought environment secretary George Eustace’s office and they’re donating his rent to a legal fund for activists who’ve been arrested. 

Eustace has spoken against the group. The group has spoken against Eustace. He has more power, but for the moment at least, they’ve gotten the last word.

*

But as innovative political statements go, that’s nothing. It only got the top position because I’m still pretending to focus on Britain.

A Danish conceptual artist, Jens Haaning, sent two crates to a museum that was expecting a recreation of his 2007 work, An Average Danish Annual Income, but when they unpacked them they found two empty frames. They’re an artwork called Take the Money and Run.

Which he seems to have done. He was paid–not enough, he says–and on top of that was lent some money to use as part of the artwork. That’s as much of the story as I can untangle. 

So is he in breach of contract? The museum says he is. He says he isn’t. 

“It’s not theft. It is breach of contract, and breach of contract is part of the work.”

Well, fair enough, sort of. Haaning’s work is artistic commentary on modern capitalism. Even a moderately competent lawyer could argue that. Pretty much anything a conceptual artist does counts as art. 

Or so they tell us. 

Irrelevant photo: a camellia

 

News of the human brain

In the US, someone broke into a truck in early March and is now the proud owner of a box of human heads

Last I heard, no arrests had been made. If you have them, please send them back. They were meant for medical research.

*

Meanwhile, a study of data from more than a million people makes it look like we’ve been wrong to believe the human brain starts slowing down after we reach 20–which is to say, before most of us have even figured out what our brains are for.

But no. According to this study, the speed stays nearly constant until we’re 60. After that we remember what our brains are for but can’t remember where we left them. 

The study suggests that at 20 (and at 14 and at 16) people’s responses to the study’s questions were faster than older people’s, but they were trading accuracy for speed. And a cow for a handful of magic beans.

No, sorry. Wrong study. 

Mental processing speed peaked at 30 and declined only very slightly until people were 60. 

I’m 140–possibly more, but by now it’s all a blur–and it’s taken me weeks to write this post. 

*

What happens to the human brain on music festivals? It goes a little fuzzy, something we can deduce based on a sampling of the river that runs through the site of the Glastonbury Festival. Researchers compared the water upstream and downstream and–you’ll be shocked, I know–found that downstream was heavy with MDMA and cocaine. And probably other things, but that’s all they tested for.

So far, so mildly amusing, but it made the eels hyperactive, impaired their gills, and left them with some muscle wastage. 

The festival hasn’t been held since 2019, The eels are looking for new dealers. Being amphibious is not a requirement but is a plus. 

*

And the human brain when it contemplates going on vacation? I’m not sure, but Spain’s tourism minister, Maria Reyes Maroto, has a low opinion of its judgment. When a volcano forced the evacuation of 5,500 people on La Palma, Reyes Maroto pitched it as a tourist attraction. 

“We’re providing information so that tourists can travel to the island and witness something undoubtedly unprecedented for themselves,” she said.

After all hell broke loose, she clarified her statement by saying, “Today we stand with the victims and those affected and we’re thinking about how best to get back to that normality that nature’s changed.”

We’re also thinking about how to get out of this press conference without having to outright grovel.

*

But forget about the human brain for a line or two. What about the kea’s brain?

The kea? It’s a New Zealand alpine parrot that’s both endangered and very smart, which tells us that being smart isn’t the solution to all life’s problems. 

The kea is smart enough to use a touch screen but not so smart that it can tell virtual reality and real reality apart.

Kind of like humans, then.

Finding Covid’s weak spot

Researchers have found a vulnerable spot at the base of Covid’s spike protein. This is the medical equivalent of the moment when you found that spot right by your older sister or brother’s knee. You know the one: All you had to do was squeeze it and they were helpless. Instantly. Whatever they were doing to you (unless they were homicidal, in which case you needed something more than this trick), they stopped.

The problem–then and now–is how to reach that spot and (the knee image breaks down here) what to do when you get there.

The good part is that most beta coronaviruses, not just on Covid, have that same weak spot.

What’s a beta coronavirus? It’s a category of virus that causes everything from a cold to Covid. It includes diseases that could jump from animals to humans at some point in the future, starting the next pandemic.

Why is this a weak spot? Because it either doesn’t mutate or mutates slowly. I’m going out on a limb here (put that saw away, please), but I seem to remember reading that when a site doesn’t mutate it’s because the virus can’t function without it. Random mutations will change it, but those versions don’t survive.  

So let’s go back to the question of what to do once we find that spot. We create either a vaccine that targets it or an antiviral that does the same. And by we, of course, I mean scientists. People who–unlike me–actually know how to do this stuff. 

It won’t happen next week, but knowing where the weak spot is? It’s a step.

Irrelevant photo: “Allow me to explain why we need to keep this box.”

Speaking of antivirals 

The bark of the neem tree seems to hold promise as a Covid treatment. 

The tree’s native to India and it’s been used as a treatment for parasites, viruses, and bacteria for much longer than those categories were around to sort diseases into. 

Scientists fooling around in their labs see the bark extract as promising. The next step is to isolate the useful components, then figure out dosage and test the stuff.

Here’s wishing them–and us–luck. In the meantime, it’s probably not wise to test neem bark on yourself, although it is for sale on the internet and recommended for an assortment of ills by the (I’m guessing here) deeply alternative. 

It’s not the only antiviral being explored, just the one I happen to have landed on this week. 

I also found articles on a few new testing methods that are, or promise to be, cheaper and faster than the current ones. Now that so many countries are abandoning testing, though, I’m not sure whether they’ll be commercially viable, no matter how useful they might be.

 

Remember social distancing?

You remember the advice we got from the start of the pandemic that six feet (or two meters if your mind’s metric) is enough distance to keep you from catching (or spreading) Covid? It turns out to have been based on a 1934 model (by  William Firth Wells, if anybody asks) of how respiratory infections spread.

Just how dated is the model? Well, two meters hasn’t changed its length, and neither has two feet–at least to the best of my knowledge, although when you leave the metric system measurements can be unreliable, and if you want to take a side trip into non-metric mayhem, allow me to push you in this direction. It’s not at all relevant, but if you have nothing better to do with yourself and you enjoy a mess, it should be fun.

Back to social distancing, though: A recent study says the 1934 model was oversimplified. The new study looks not just at distance but also at temperature, humidity, viral load, and whether people were coughing, sneezing, or talking. A person talking without a mask can project droplets for one meter. If they cough, make that three meters. If they sneeze? Seven meters. 

Add a surgical, FFP2, or N95 mask, though, and ” ”the risk of infection is reduced to such an extent that it is practically negligible—even if you’re only standing one meter away from an infected person,” according to Gaetano Sardina, one of the researchers behind the study.

 

Vaccines in Africa

Six African countries–Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia–will be getting the technology to produce Covid vaccines through a World Health Organization program

Only 11% of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated. That compares with a global average of around 50%. And Africa  currently produces just 1% of coronavirus vaccines. An earlier program to get vaccines to poorer countries, COVAX, has missed target after target and only 10% of people in its targeted countries have received at least one dose. 

The current program replicates commercially available vaccines, somehow dodging the patent issues. Don’t ask me. I know roughly as much about patent law as I do about science. Maybe they’re just producing the stuff anyway and daring the companies to sue.

Although Doctors Without Borders welcomed the program, it pointed out that it’ll be a lot of work to recreate the vaccines and called instead on the original producers to help.

“The fastest way to start vaccine production in African countries and other regions with limited vaccine production is still through full and transparent transfer of vaccine know-how of already-approved mRNA technologies to able companies,” a spokesperson said.

 

A Report from the Department of Shell Games

A research company that Pfizer contracted with to test its vaccine has been accused of messing with the data. According to the BMJ, a whistleblower reported that “the company falsified data, unblinded patients, employed inadequately trained vaccinators, and was slow to follow up on adverse events reported in Pfizer’s pivotal phase III trial. Staff who conducted quality control checks were overwhelmed by the volume of problems they were finding.”

After more than once notifying the company, Ventavia, of the problems, the whistleblower got hold of the FDA–the US Food and Drug Administration.

She was promptly fired.

Other former employees that the BMJ talked to generally backed her claims. 

I’m printing this not in support of anti-vax arguments but because it’s from a legitimate source and seems to be true. The vaccine’s been widely used with minimal problems. But if you had any faith left in for-profit medicine, this might rattle it a bit.

 

A quick feel-good story

The Mask Nerd of Minneapolis has set up a lab in his bathroom and for the past 18 months has been testing masks there to see which ones are most effective. He’s got an air compressor on the bathroom sink and an I-don’t-know-what-but-it’s-impressive on the windowsill. 

Aaron Collins is a mechanical engineer with a background in aerosol science. 

“I just want better masks on more faces,” he said. “If you know the secret—if you know a piece of information that could help people—it’s your moral obligation to make sure that people are aware of that.”

You can find him on Twitter under the handle @masknerd. He also posts videos on YouTube.

“This is why we’re scientists,” he said. “This is why we’re engineers. We’re not in it for the money. … We’re in it because we have a passion for changing the world in positive ways.”

 

And on an unrelated topic

An unimportant and bizarre effect of the invasion of Ukraine is that a post of mine, “Is Berwick on Tweed at War with Russia?” is getting an absurd number of hits, going from 3 on a day at the end of January to 249 on a day in the first week of March, and then 74 the next day.

To be clear, I’m all for people educating themselves on the background of this war, but the Berwick on Tweed story? This is the kind of research that convinces people that Hilary Clinton was the head of a pedophile ring operating out of the basement of a pizza parlor that didn’t even have a basement.

But never mind the pizza. Berwick is not at war with Russia. It has no connection to Ukraine. 

Go study some real history.

I’m happy to report that, on the third day, hits on the post settled back to 3. 

News of Britain’s Royal Mail & some advice about social media 

A package with no return address that was addressed to an empty house sat around a London post office for a month, and since it was marked “Edibles,” someone opened it and found brownies. And you pretty well know what happened next: People ate them. 

Okay, full disclosure: It wasn’t just marked, “Edibles,” it was marked, “Edibles by Pablo Chocobar,” and in hindsight maybe someone should’ve guessed what that meant. Or maybe they did. Either way, everyone involved got high, especially the guy who ate four. 

Someone made a video of what happened next, and it went viral, which must’ve been satisfying. Then the people involved in the incident were suspended–reportedly–which must’ve been less satisfying. 

The Royal Mail said it would be reminding everyone of how to handle mail with no address for delivery or return. It promised to scold everyone involved thoroughly, just as soon as they stopped giggling.

Would you forgive me if I offer a bit of advice here? I know this isn’t an advice blog. I won’t tell you how to clean your house, your skin, your gut, or your mind. But we’ve stumbled into a subject I know something about, so here you go, kiddies, learn from me: When you just have to break the law or commit a fireable offense at work, don’t video it. Don’t take selfies. And if someone else videos it, stay out of the picture. Don’t grin woozily into the lens and say, “I ate four.” I know all of that is what people do these days, but it’s still incriminating evidence. 

Sheesh, the younger generation. You have to tell them everything.

Irrelevant photo: One of the first wild primroses of the year.

*

On a more sober note,the Royal Mail is trying, maybe a little desperately, to be cutting edge and exciting (or at least that’s my interpretation), so it’s adding barcodes to its stamps. That’ll let people scan them and watch videos, messages, and information online.

How thrilling is that?

What kind of videos and information? Sadly, not videos of stoned postal workers wandering around London trying to remember what to do with all this paper stuff they’re lugging around. Instead, they’re offering exciting information about postal services, and when all the pieces of the new program are in place the sender will be able to choose a video for the recipient to watch, or even record a greeting. So far, though, only one video’s available. It features Shaun the Sheep. 

Will anyone care when it’s quicker, easier, and often free to send a video or a recorded message without the stamp? I’m doubtful. 

 

The queen’s jubbly

Some as-yet-unidentified business decided to cash in on Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee by ordering 10,800 cups, mugs, and plates with a hideous picture of the queen and a bit of jubilee wording. 

So far, so boring. But when they were delivered, the wording was, “To commemorate the Platinum Jubbly of Queen Elizabeth II.”

Proofreaders of the world, unite. 

All the merchandise ended up on a clearance website, and if you’d been fast enough you could’ve bought the whole mess for £32,400, but they’ve probably sold by now. Why? Because the word jubbly was made popular by a sitcom character whose catchphrase was “lovely jubbly.” That and the sheer absurdity of the stuff are probably enough to make it saleable.

Now let’s backtrack: The queen’s what

Jubilee, and to explain it I’ll lift a quote from the royal website, which takes the whole thing seriously and is maintained (I assure you, based on no insider knowledge whatsoever) by someone who’s roughly as royal as I am: “On 6th February this year Her Majesty The Queen will become the first British Monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years of service to the people of the United Kingdom, the Realms and the Commonwealth.”

You’ll notice that they not only award the queen a capital Q, they also capitalize the T in the, since it’s close enough to the Q of Queen to pick up a bit of royal fairy dust. According to the convoluted rules of English-language capitalization, the T should be lowercase. 

Of course, they also capitalize just about every other noun in the sentence. Because, see, they’re really, really excited about this. And it’s all so very important. 

So important that the country’s getting an extra four-day weekend and a lot of encouragement to hold celebrations. The country’s also getting a royal jubilee pudding competition. (Sorry, the deadline’s past in case you were thinking about sending in a recipe.)

What’s a pudding? Um, yeah. Basically, a dessert, but the word’s hazy enough, even in British English, that the royal website needs two paragraphs to define it and ends up saying that, other than being sweet, it’s open to interpretation.

Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey reports that an awful lot of people are taking all this royal hoopla seriously.

 

Geography, soup, and general incompetence news from all over

Can we shift to politics for a minute? Britain’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, who’s supposed to be in charge of, you know, dealing with the rest of the world, wherever it may be, publicly mixed up the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. The exact quote is, “We are supplying and offering extra support into our Baltic allies across the Black Sea.” 

That gave a Russian official the opportunity to point out that the Baltic nations are called the Baltic nations because they’re on the Baltic Sea. Still, it’s an understandable mistake. The Baltic and Black seas are 700 miles apart, but they’re both full of water, start with a B, and are somehow or other associated with a highly fraught region, or possibly two, so what the hell. 

But setting aside all that annoying geography stuff, it’s reassuring to know that we’re both supplying and offering support. And that it’s going into our allies, not just bouncing off their outer shells.

You can see how helpful our support’s turning out to be.

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Meanwhile, in the U.S., Georgia’s Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene denounced Democratic speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi’s  “gazpacho police” for “spying on members of Congress, spying on the legislative work that we do, spying on our staff and spying on American citizens.” 

If she’s issued a clarifying statement, I haven’t found it, but the going theory is that she was worrying about being spied on by something along the lines of Nazi Germany’s Gestapo, not by bowls of cold vegetable soup. Although these days, you can’t rule anything out.

*

If you think being spied on by cold vegetable soup is too silly for anyone to believe, consider the survey showing that one in every four Americans thinks the sun orbits the earth. Less surprisingly, almost half of them–48%–don’t believe humans evolved from other animals.

The survey was conducted by the National Science Foundation and included more than 2,200 participants. But before anyone starts drawing wide-ranging conclusions about the U.S., one in three residents of the European Union got the earth/sun question wrong. 

The small print: In most cases, one in three is more than one in four, even though it involves smaller numbers.

You’re welcome.

*

In cheerier news, Northern Powergrid sent compensation checks to tens of thousands of customers who’d been left without power after a storm last November. So far, so ho hum, but 74 of them got checks for trillions of pounds. 

Unfortunately, Northern Powergrid blocked payment before the checks could be cashed. 

How’d they find out? Someone tweeted a photo of his check and asked if the company was sure it could afford it. The tweet went–you guessed it–viral, and he got a lot of attention, but you could argue that he tweeted himself out one or two trillion pounds.

The company’s mumbling about a clerical error and an electricity meter reference number being dropped into the slot where the refund amount belonged. 

It’s the kind of mistake that could happen to anyone.

 

The freedom of speech report

Last fall a Conservative member of parliament, Jonathan Gullis, suggested that anyone who uses the phrase white privilege should be reported to the Home Office’s anti-extremism program. He also said teachers who criticize the Conservative Party to their students should be fired.

“We need to start sacking people who are pushing their political ideology,” he said.

He, of course, is not pushing a political ideology. He’s just saying what everybody knows is right.

 

And finally, a report from Britain’s grocery store aisles

The pandemic increased the number of people ordering groceries online, and although it’s nice not to have to wander the aisles yourself (or some people think it is anyway), it does leave customers at the mercy of computer algorithms. 

What are people getting in place of the things they ordered? These examples come from the oddly named British consumer group Which? (The question mark is theirs, not mine. I deny all responsibility. Have you ever wondered how to make a possessive out of a name that carries its own punctuation?)

Two in five people who answered Which?’s survey had gotten odd replacements, including:

  • Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream instead of fish filets
  • Eggs from an actual chicken instead of a candy called Creme Eggs
  • Duck paste instead of duct tape
  • Scouring sponges instead of a victoria sponge cake
  • Sausage rolls instead of toilet paper (that’s not quite as insane as it sounds: they’re called toilet rolls; still, you don’t want to think about that one too much)

And more mysteriously

  • Cooking oil instead of milk
  • Tampons instead of shaving cream
  • Bleach instead of orange squash–a kind of dilute-it-yourself soft drink
  • And dog food instead of bread sticks

The people who pick the groceries off the shelves can override computer substitutions, but they’re being chased down the aisles by time targets and can’t always spare the minute it would take to dig into what’s happening, so they grab what they’re told and move on. 

Customers do have the right to reject substitutions, but if they’re like me they’ll sometimes agree to them before they’ve taken in the full insanity involved. 

What do we know about the new Omicron variant?

Well, on its wanted poster, it’s called BA.2, so let’s call it that. We don’t know what it calls itself. It’s estimated to be 1½ times as infectious as its relative BA.1.

What kind of relatives are they? They’re being called sister viruses, since .2 isn’t a descendant of .1, although why it’s a sister instead of a brother I don’t know. Viruses never allow themselves to be shoved into little pink or blue baby suits.

Never mind. If they want to be sisters, they can be sisters. Kids, you can be anything you want to be. 

Within limits. We’ll discuss the fine print when you’re older.

Let’s set that aside, okay? We’ve got some good news for a change: BA.2 doesn’t seem to be any more dangerous as BA.1, and the vaccines seem to be as effective against .2 as they are against BA.1.

Irrelevant photo: The first celandine are out. They’re looking a little bruised, as if they’ve gone nine rounds with King Winter, which they have, but they’re in bloom.

End of good news. Dr. Gregory Poland, of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, said that variants will “continue to happen and infect every unvaccinated person until people are vaccinated and until they’re wearing a mask. You can choose to ignore these facts―these clear data―but the virus could care less what we think. The virus is going to find people who do not have protective immunity and infect them.”

That should be “couldn’t care less,” but you know what he means.

 

So what should we be doing?

According to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyeus, “We are concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that because of vaccines—and because of omicron’s high transmissibility and lower severity—preventing transmission is no longer possible and no longer necessary. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s premature for any country either to surrender or to declare victory. This virus is dangerous and it continues to evolve before our very eyes.”

That quote’s a few weeks old, but we’re not listening. Many countries are undoing their Covid restrictions because, hey, they know better. And it’s over. 

Meanwhile, Covid’s overwhelming Hong Kong and desperate hospitals were setting up beds outside.

How much of Hong Kong’s population’s vaccinated? The closest I could come to an answer is this: If you compare the number of doses delivered to the population, 78.9% of the people could have had two doses. 

 

Vaccine news

Scientists at the Wistar Institute are working on a vaccine that, at least in animal studies, creates a stronger, broader, and more durable protection than the current vaccines, and does it with a single, low dose that can be stored at room temperature. If that’s not enough, it can also be adjusted quickly as new variants arise.

And it makes a decent cup of tea if you ask politely.

It uses three technologies: immune focusing, self-assembling nanoparticles, and DNA delivery. Now let’s see if I can explain what those are.

Well, no, I can’t quite, but I can throw some language at you to make it sound like I understand a bit of this. 

The vaccine shoots you some naturally self-assembling proteins (whatever they may be), and they then form nanoparticles that arrange themselves–oh, hell, I’m lost, so I’ll quote: “By arranging themselves into structures that resemble an actual virus, the nanoparticles are more easily recognized by the immune system and transported to the germinal centers, where they activate B cells which produce protective antibodies.”

To translate that, they use long words to activate your immune system, creating “stronger levels of protective, neutralizing antibodies.” 

If I understand this correctly, all this convinces the body to produce things that would normally be produced in high-tech factories.

They’re at the animal-test stage, and so far it’s producing a stronger, longer-lasting immune response than the existing vaccines. With that data in their pockets, they’re scrambling around, trying to raise the money for human trials. 

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Another set of trials is using a nasal spray to deliver a booster vaccine, focusing the immune system on the areas Covid attacks first, the nose and lungs. It depends on the recipient having already had an mRNA vaccine or possibly a previous infection.

The idea, since this focuses the protection on the nose and lungs, that it would prevent both infection and transmission. 

They’ve run tests on mice and will test the approach on larger animals, then hope to start human trials.

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Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have worked out a way to inject RNA and DNA into the stomach lining by way of a capsule the size of a blueberry, allowing it to reach the digestive tract directly. 

Other than driving anti-vaxxers nuts, what’s the purpose? It would let you–or, ideally, someone who knows what they’re doing if you’re no more skilled at this than I am–deliver medicine for gastrointestinal problems directly to the gastrointestinal work site. It might (or might not–it hasn’t been fully tested yet) also let you deliver an RNA vaccine in a new and interesting way, one that would be easy on needlephobes and wouldn’t make small children scream, although that last possibility depends on someone getting them to swallow the blueberry. 

And, of course, it would drive the anti-vaxxers nuts. 

 

Do masks work?

A California study reports that wearing an N95 mask or its equivalent reduces the chances of becoming infected with Covid. In Europe, the N95 is called an FFP2; both are also called KN95 masks or just plain ol’ respirators.

These aren’t the blue disposable masks that blow around the parking lots of this and many other fair lands. They’re also not your average cloth masks. They’re the more expensive ones made of I have no idea what but designed not just to keep you-the-wearer from sharing your germs but also to protect you-the-wearer from stealing other people’s.

That’s other people’s germs, not their masks, and that’s a huge and important difference. As mask mandates are reduced and as some people insist on their right to breathe in other people’s faces, they become a form of self-defense. 

Some N95s are disposable. Others are reusable–up to a point, estimated at about 40 hours of use. 

The study involved 3,000 Californians, and it’s a less than perfect study. For one thing, it relies on what people say they’ve done, with no reality check built in. That’s always dicey. You know what humans are like. It was also limited to people who chose to get tested for Covid. Still, it might give us a hint or two about what’s happening out there.

So with all that out of the way, would I please tell you what the damn thing said?

Why yes, I’d be glad to: 

People who said they always wore masks (any kind of masks) in public indoor settings were 56% less likely to test positive for Covid than people who didn’t wear masks. That went up to 83% for people who wore N95 masks. People who wore surgical masks were 66 percent less likely to test positive.

A more controlled study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tested the rate of transmission when an infected person talked for an hour to an uninfected person. When the person who wasn’t infected wore a well-fitting mask N95 or its European equivalent, the FFP2 mask, the risk of infection was 20 percent. 

If both people wore surgical masks, the risk of infection went up to just under 30 percent. When both N95 masks or their equivalent, though, it dropped to 0.4 percent. 

The two studies reported their findings differently, so we can’t compare the results–or I can’t anyway–but the second one does tell us that two people wearing good masks present less of a risk than one person doing the same. 

Should we do the howevers now?

To work most effectively, the N95 mask has to be fit tested, which is something they do at hospitals and in hazardous workplaces. It’s complicated enough that no one does it at home. Or in the supermarket, or on the bus. Most people who put them on without fit testing them don’t get a complete seal between the mask and their face, even if it feels like a good fit. 

So they’re less than perfect protection, but even if they’re not fit tested they’re still decent.

How decent? Sorry, I sank, but you’re welcome to dig around in here and figure it out yourself. I warn you, it involves numbers. Also words. Don’t say you weren’t warned. In layperson’s terms, I think the answer would be not enough to make someone with a compromised immune system safe but more decent than a cloth or disposable mask. 

I haven’t looked into how the second study was set up, but I did wonder. Did they actually use an infected person, putting the uninfected person at risk? Dunno. How many of the people being talked at expired from sheer desperation before the hour was up? Dunno that either. I’m sure it depended on the talker. With some people I’ve known, I wilt after fifteen minutes of listening.

How to get a license for your goldfish, and other news from Britain 

We all know how romantic Britain is, right? Ruined castles, foggy moors, illegal waste disposal. Yes, folks, we’ve got it all. 

Back in–hang on. How long has this article been kicking around my coffee table? Back in December 2020–in fact, just in time for Christmas–a Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, got exercised about criminal networks working in waste disposal, and (what with being criminals and all) dumping and burning large amounts of the stuff they were supposed to dispose of in the approved (if not necessarily planet-friendly) way. 

Some of it, he wrote, is hazardous.  

How could that be allowed to happen? 

He set out to demonstrate that the government has lost control of the licensing process so thoroughly that anyone can get licensed to dispose of waste. And they can use false information if they want, because it won’t be checked. 

To demonstrate, he registered his long-dead goldfish as an upper-tier carrier, broker, and dealer in waste. The fish appeared on the form as Algernon Goldfish of 49 Fishtank Close, Ohlooka Castle, Derby. 

A month later, Algernon had his license. Or to be entirely accurate, Monbiot had Algernon’s license. Algernon never opened his own mail, even when he was alive. 

Irrelevant photo: a lily

But let’s be even more than entirely accurate: Algernon may not have been male. To the casual human observer, male and female goldfish look nonbinary, which is to say, we can’t tell the difference. But the culture being what it is, most people will decide their fish is male. 

I know. But a female goldfish applying for a license might have snagged some official’s attention the way a male goldfish wouldn’t, after which they might have asked Lord Google where Ohlooka Castle is, and the whole thing would’ve fallen apart. So it was important that Algernon stay putatively male. 

As the cynical among us used to say in the–was it the seventies? Or as I think of it, last week? Yeah, it probably was. We said, “Make sexism work for you.”

It never did, really, but it sometimes kept us from throwing things.

 

What else makes Britain romantic?

Well, tea, of course. Or if it doesn’t make the place romantic, at least it makes up a huge part of people’s image of Britain. Which is a problem, because the British are buying less tea than they used to. And if they’re buying less, it follows as the night the day that they’re drinking less. 

What’s going on? 

The world’s ending, that’s what. 

On top of which Britons are switching to coffee, herbal tea, iced tea, energy drinks, and for all I know cocaine. 

Not everything on that list is available from your local supermarket, but with the exception of herbal tea all of it will wake you up.

According to Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, which is based on conversations with at least three people who still speak to me, the British consider coffee fancier than tea. 

To be clear: I’m not talking about instant coffee here, and maybe not about the stuff I learned to drink in the U.S. as a young adult, at great cost to my taste buds and ability to sleep. I’m talking about the kind you buy at a coffee shop. The kind that comes from a machine the size of a Volkswagen. Or the kind people make at home using a non-recyclable pod that they slot into a machine the size of a small short-haired dog.

Semi-relevantly, people don’t talk about having coffee here, they talk about having a coffee, as in “I stopped in for a coffee.” I’ve lived outside the U.S. too long to remember what Americans would say, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that. A cup of coffee? Probably. But I do remember that tea’s the fancier drink in the U.S.. Or at least the one that marks you as a bit of a weirdo.  

To prove that tea isn’t the fancier drink in Britain, some whole category of people talk about builder’s tea, meaning the tea people who work in the building trades drink to fuel themselves through the damp and the wind and the hard work. I’m not sure how to describe that category of people who say call it builder’s tea, but I seem to have joined it. They didn’t do a background check before accepting me and I didn’t ask what I was signing up to. 

If that isn’t proof enough of tea’s un-fancyness–and I can’t think why it would be–there’s this: 96% of the tea that Britons slug down is made with a teabag, not from the more up-market leaf teas. 

How did they measure that 96%? By the cuppa, a non-standardized metric that can be found, in spite of the slow shift away from tea, in pretty much every household. The language has preserved a place for the question, “Would you like a cuppa?”

Or maybe that’s, “Do you want a cuppa?” I don’t really speak British. I speak something that’s vaguely related but it doesn’t allow me to write convincing dialogue. 

All comments and corrections and explanations of British English are welcome. Also all marginally appropriate mockery.

 

What else can we learn about British culture?

Why, we can learn what people leave behind at hotels. The Travelodge chain reported on that very topic, because they understand its cultural importance. The past year’s finds include:

  • A pair of feathered angel wings, six feet across
  • A dog named Beyoncé 
  • A dress made out of postcards
  • A horsebox, with the horse inside
  • A drum kit
  • A Jimmy Choo Cinderella shoe 
  • A suitcase full of Blackpool rock

Okay, a couple of those items need explanations. Blackpool rock doesn’t mean stones. Rock’s a stick-shaped hard candy with, in this case, the word Blackpool written all the way through the center. I can understand forgetting it. What I can’t understand is having a suitcase of it, but never mind, the human race is far stranger than any one mind can take in.

As for the shoe, all I can tell you is that Jimmy Choo shoes are ridiculously expensive and that Cinderella’s known for losing a shoe, so pouring that kind of money into two of them seems like a bad investment. But what do I know? I wear running shoes.

But 2021 was a pandemic year. Let’s go back to 2019, before the pandemic got its claws into us, and see what people left:

  • A five-foot unicorn made of flowers
  • A gallon of water from Loch Ness
  • Two alpacas
  • The best man from a wedding party (and that was before the wedding)
  • A dissertation (topic not specified)
  • An urn with someone’s father’s ashes
  • The deed to a shop
  • An Aston Martin
  • A cat
  • A 75-inch color TV (just try finding a black and white one these days)
  • A blood pressure monitor
  • And in a come-down from 2021, a set of angel wings that are only four feet wide

 

Meanwhile in British politics

We could learn a few things here too if we try.

With the shine having gone off the prime minister, a few people in his government are appealing to the we-don’t-like foreigners strand of the culture to see if they can’t shine him back up again. Or at least shine themselves up in case his position suddenly goes vacant.

Appealing to anti-immigrant sentiment is hardly new, but it went into bold-face type earlier this year, with the home secretary, Priti Patel, calling for asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats to be forced back to France, which France insisted would put their lives at risk.

Will not, Patel said.

Will so too, France said.

Don’t care, Patel may have whispered once the microphone was turned off.

Patel introduced a bill that, until public outrage forced her to modify it, looked like it would make a criminal out of anyone saving an asylum seeker’s life at sea. 

All this activated Brexiteer Nigel Farage and some of the rightest wing of the media to accuse the Royal National Lifeboat Institution of being woke. Not woke as in having had too much fancy coffee but woke as in being someone they disagree with. 

Anything can be turned into an insult if you say it in the right tone of voice.

Why was the RNLI having the evil finger pointd at it? Because it was dedicated to saving lives at sea. Anyone’s life. Lots of ink was spilled onto newsprint, and lots of vitriol was spilled onto the internet. One group of fishermen apparently tried to block a lifeboat, presumably when it wasn’t trying to save a fisherman’s life.

So how well did that work for the anti-woke, no-caffeine campaigners? The RNLI ended 2020 on track to raise the largest amount of money in its almost 200-year history. Online donations went up 50%. 

 

 

And in economics

By 9 a.m. on January 7–the year’s fourth working day in Britain–the average head of the country’s biggest companies had made more money (if you figure it on an hourly basis, which they don’t but never mind) than the average British worker will make by the end of the year. Unless of course the spaceships land before the year ends and seriously reconfigure the economic system.

To put that a different way and for a different year, in 2020 FTSE 100 chief execs were paid an average of 86 times more than the average full-time British worker made. I wouldn’t say it adds to the romance of the country, but it does tell us a lot about the culture.

 

And in other countries…

The Dutch government has put out a warning about pendants that are supposed to protect people from frequencies 5G masts emit: The pendants are radioactive, the government says. And (in case this wasn’t obvious as soon as you hit the word radioactive), they’re dangerous. 

In Canada, cats have put out a warning that Elon Musk’s satellite dishes are nice and warm when it snows. Not very warm, but warmer than snow, because they have a self-heating feature that’s supposed to melt the snow off them. It does do that. It also attracts cats.

This was reported by a customer who said his cats have a heated house of their own but they prefer the satellite dish, at least while the sun’s up. 

The cats slow his reception way down, but hey, if kitty’s happy, everyone’s happy. Or so my cats tell me.

And finally, in the United States, an eight-year-old, Dillon Helbig, slipped a hand-drawn book onto a shelf in the children’s-book section of his local library.

“I wanted to put my book in the library center since I was five, and I always had a love for books and libraries,” he said. “I’ve been going to libraries a lot since I was a baby.”

The book is The Adventures of Dillon Helbig’s Crismis, and it’s by “Dillon His Self.”  

Library staff found the book and moved it to the graphic novel section, so it can be borrowed. When last heard of, it had a waiting list of 55. The library awarded Dillon the first Whoodini Award for best young novelist. The award was named after the library’s owl mascot and the category was created for Dillon. Who’s working on a sequel.

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My thanks to Jane Whitledge for pushing me in the direction of that last story.