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.

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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. 

A woman artist in Afghanistan dreams of letting her hair fly free

This isn’t what I normally post, but I hope you’ll give it a bit of your time. A young Afghan artist, Hafiza Qasimi, whose work and studio were destroyed by the Taliban, is trying to leave Afghanistan for Germany, where her brother lives, so she can work freely, and after seeing an article about her in the German press a group of German artists and feminists have rallied to her cause–which is how I heard about it.

At this point, I’ll get out of the way and let Qasimi speak for herself, as she did in the German publication Chrismon (which I offer  you with the help of a bit of AI magic, which Englished the German in its own slightly odd way):

 “Before the Taliban took power, I had a gallery where I exhibited my paintings. I had students that I taught drawing. I earned my own money, I could live from my work as an artist. If I needed something, I could buy it. Now I have to ask my brother, with whom I live in Kabul, for money. I wanted to go to art school, get better, get really good. All of that is now completely out of reach. 

“My brother in Germany, Anosh, encouraged me to paint my feelings and thoughts about life under the Taliban. Almost intoxicated, I painted 13 pictures in February. A photographer friend of mine took pictures of them and sent them to my brother. I immediately burned the originals. Just in time, because in March the Taliban came to search our house. If they had seen the pictures, they would have killed me. I painted women without veils, as dreaming, strong people.

“Since then I’ve felt paralyzed. To continue painting would be life-threatening. This morning I made breakfast for everyone, washed the dishes, what you do as a housewife. It’s hard for me to describe how terrifying I find the idea of ​​having to do this my whole life. I’m an artist, I have all these things in my head that I want to express. And now I do housework and take care of the children – who knows for how long, maybe forever.”

Right now, “Kabul is my prison and . . . my pictures in Germany dream for me.”

From a painting by Hafiza Qasimi.

The photos have not only been dreaming in Germany, they’ve been speaking there at exhibits, and what  stands between Qasimi and joining them there is a visa, and to get one she needs a German bank account of 10,000 euros, which the government requires as proof that she can support herself. When I checked, her supporters had raised over half the amount. Small donations are welcome. Large donations are welcome. It all helps.

Her supporters are also working to get her an art school scholarship.

Of course I hope you’ll donate, but no guilt, please. People have their own struggles with money, and I respect that. Others simply won’t want to. I’m only free to ask if you’re free to say no. 

If you do want to donate, though? The donation website starts out in German and doesn’t offer a translation, but you can see by the painting of the woman with long black hair flying free that you’re in the right place. To donate, press the button that says “spenden,” which is German for spenden. Then fill in the amount and the means of payment (credit card, debit card, or Klarna). 

What’s a Klarna? Something that translates as Klarna and seems to be as untranslatably mysterious in German as it is in (don’t ask me to explain this) Swedish. When I made our donation, I decided to give Klarna a miss and use a credit card. At some point it noticed how befuddled I was and switched to English. Don’t ask me to explain that either.

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Update: Since I wrote this, I’ve learned that Qasimi has left Afghanistan for a central Asian country, where she is safe and can apply for a German visa. Exactly how she got out is unclear. All I know is that it was risky, and that a woman is not allowed to travel within the country or to leave it unless she has a male chaperone. She is safe, but she still needs our support.

Oops

If an email caused you to go chasing my last post and you discovered that nothing’s there, nothing weird is going on. I hit Publish when I meant to schedule it for Friday. It wasn’t ready to go and took it down within seconds, leaving me just enough time for some extensive swearing.

In the meantime, enjoy the meltdown of Boris Johnson’s government.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Are England’s Home Counties?

If you spend much time reading about England, sooner or later you’ll stub your toe on the phrase Home Counties. That’s what you get for reading in the dark.

But what are they?

No one’s sure. Or lots of people are sure, but they don’t agree with each other, which is what makes the question interesting. A lot of the sources I’ve found say they’re the counties around London, and that’s safe enough but doesn’t tell us which ones, so whatever consensus we pretended to have falls apart.

 

The boundless wisdom of public opinion

A polling company, YouGov, tried to shed light on the issue (someone must’ve paid them to do that) and succeeded mainly in highlighting how dark it is out there. Because although it’s easy to come up with wrong answers (Wales not only is in the wrong part of Britain, it’s not a county), no one can say what the right answer is. So let’s look for the most common candidates. 

Irrelevant photo: wild sweet peas.

The most widely recognized in the poll were Buckinghamshire, Surrey, and Berkshire. For whatever that’s worth, which I suspect is not much, especially since none of them gathered any impressive amount of support. 

Historically, YouGov says, Sussex is usually included, but only 30% of the people in their sample included West Sussex, and only 29% included East Sussex. (East and West Sussex were divided into separate counties in 1974, although no one told me until today. Which is unforgivably rude.) 

By other definitions,  the Home Counties include Bedfordshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, and Cambridgeshire, although only a third to a quarter of YouGov’s sample were convinced of it. You could also make a case for Hertfordshire, Kent, and Essex, which got 36%. 

 

Forget polling. What else do we know?

The simplest definition of the Home Counties is that they’re the six counties surrounding London: Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Berkshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, and Kent. (I’m taking someone else’s word for that, but I have verified that the list has six entries. You can check for yourself if you need more certainty than that.) But you could also toss in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, and Sussex (or the two halves of Sussex) and not be wrong. 

And although London’s the reference point for all of this, London isn’t one of the Home Counties. It’s–well, it’s London. 

 

Does any of this matter?

No. And also yes. The Home Counties aren’t an administrative entity. They’re not a governmental division. No one runs for office to represent them or sets out parking regulations for them and only them, although the phrase does show up sometimes in official usage. Or so says WikiWhatsia, which I fall back on only in desperation. That I’m leaning on it now tells you how little information I could find anywhere else.

That covers the no, it doesn’t matter part of the answer. What about the yes, it does part? It matters as a reflection of reality and as a cultural reference reinforcing that reality.

London is Britain’s economic and cultural heavyweight. It’s where the wealth and the power and the glitz come together–along with a lot of the grit and the poverty and the problems, although in fairness those last three are pretty widely distributed. But let’s stay with the wealth and the et cetera. When you concentrate enough of that stuff in a small space, it forms a gravity well, drawing everything nearby into its orbit. So whatever the hell they are, the Home Countries matter because London’s sitting there in their middle.

In fact, London’s not just sitting there, it’s been nibbling away at the  surrounding counties and by now has swallowed MIddlesex almost completely.

The broad-brush image of the Home Counties (that’s a nice way of saying “the stereotype”) is that they’re comfortable, conformist,conservative, and consumerist. Also suburban and expensive to live in, but those don’t start with C.

 

History

According to WikiWhatsia (at the moment; you never know when it’ll change), the origin of the phrase Home Counties can be traced–unreliably–back to several periods. One is Tudor times, when they were the counties close enough for a London-based functionary to have a country home and still rush back to London when needed. Another is the 18th century (more or less), which  had the “Home Counties Circuit of courts.”

A third is the Anglo-Saxon period, although the entry doesn’t offer anything to justify that, but it’s true that many English counties were originally Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, so what the hell, we’re close. Let’s move on before anyone notices how little we know about this.

Again, according to WikiWhatsia, the first mention of the phrase is from 1695, when Charles Davenant wrote “An essay upon ways and means of supplying the war,” arguing that the Home Counties were thought to pay a disproportionate amount in land taxes. 

Davenant included eleven counties. 

 

Yeah, but what about the shires

As long as we’re wandering around with an edgeless topic, and as long as counties with the word -shire in their names have come up, let’s talk about what the shires are:

They’re English counties that end in -shire. 

I  took the romance out of that, didn’t I?

The word’s roots are Anglo-Saxon–that language we call Old English and that modern English speakers couldn’t understand even if someone offered them a chocolate pie as a reward for deciphering a single sentence. Shire’s basically the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the French-based county. 

Talking about the shires will set off some cultural resonances, although I’m not the best-placed person to tell you what they are. What I can do is tell you that the Collins Dictionary says they’re in the Midlands and famous for hunting. 

Do what you can with that.

What will it mean if Covid stops being a pandemic?

The talk these days is that Covid will eventually lose its pandemic status and turn into an ordinary, house-trained endemic disease–the kind of disease that circulates in a population and gets us sick but doesn’t give us nightmares, overwhelm hospitals, or kill huge numbers of people. And (they say) this will happen because of two factors: vaccination and the natural immunity that people who’ve been exposed and survived gain. 

What are the odds, though, that Covid will pull a fast one and evade our immunities

Not that high, according to a study that tried to replicate Covid’s mutation pattern using a harmless virus. To completely outrun the immunity we gain from either exposure or vaccination, the virus would have to draw twenty of the right cards out of the mutation deck. 

How many cards are we playing with? I’m not sure. As far as I can figure out, the rules of the game keep shifting. But the scientists–the people who study this stuff, as opposed to the people who read one lone article and call themselves experts–say it would be one hell of a trick for it to pick all twenty.

Irrelevant photo: The north Cornish coast.

On top of that, the virus isn’t the only thing that evolves. So does the human immune system. After it’s met the virus, either in the form of an infection or a vaccine, it sits down and plays with its antibodies. Think of it as a kid with a Lego set. It spends months working out shapes that bind ever more tightly to Covid’s spike proteins. 

People who’ve gotten an mRNA vaccine and also have naturally occurring immunity to Covid have the strongest defense. It’s possible that booster shots will create the same flexible immunity, although that hasn’t been demonstrated yet.

So as surely as the virus doesn’t keep one single form, neither does the human immune system. We will, eventually, get through this mess, although the question is at what cost. 

 

How can we measure Covid’s impact?

In the US, Covid has now killed as many people as the 1918-19 flu epidemic. I’d love to give you comparisons for other countries, but that’s all I’ve found.

To put that into perspective, in 1918 the population of the US was a third of what it is now, so it killed a larger percentage of people. On the other hand, if we’re comparing the inherent danger of the two diseases, massive advances in medicine have kept the death toll lower than it would otherwise have been. 

There must be a dozen ways to measure Covid’s impact, but one of them is cold, hard cash. Again in the US, it’s cost almost $6 billion to hospitalize the unvaccianted in just three months, from June through August 2021

The study’s authors say that’s probably an underestimate.

Yet another study says that by March of 2021, Covid had taken 9 million years of life from the U.S. population. Instead of measuring excess deaths, it looked at the mortality burden of the pandemic. 

What the hell does that mean? You would have to ask, wouldn’t you? The study looked at QALYs, or quality adjusted life years, using them to measure the length of time people would have lived if they hadn’t, um, died. It says that people between 25 and 64 lost 4.67 million years of life, and Black and Hispanic communities were hit hardest, especially men in those groups who were 65 and older.

I know, I know, I’m supposed to be writing about Britain. What can I tell you? Bloggers are irresponsible cheats.

 

Question: If you’re not vaccinated against Covid, will gargling with iodine help? 

Answer: In a test tube, povidone-iodine kills the Covid virus. 

Further information about that answer: Humans aren’t test tubes. 

What happens in a human, then? There haven’t been many studies, but what few there are hint that iodine can inactivate Covid in the mouth for a time, but not for a long one. What happens after that? The same thing that was happening before. If you breathe in the virus, there’ll be nothing there to stop it. If you’re incubating the virus, it’ll move back into your throat and ditto–there’ll be nothing there to stop it. It’s like wiping your kitchen counters with antiseptic wipes. You kill 99 point something percent of the germs that are present in that moment. Then you and your antiseptic wipes go away and wherever the germs came from, they come back. 

In other words, unless you’re going to spend your days and nights gargling with whatsidone-iodine, this isn’t going to work. 

And have I mentioned that the stuff tastes disgusting and smells just as bad?

Other than that, is there any reason not to use it? Well, it can cause skin irritation–sometimes severe, although not necessarily. It can (rarely) cause your thyroid gland to become inactive, especially if you’re pregnant. And especially if you’re both pregnant and a woman.

The most likely side effect, though, is that it will make you think you’re done something to protect either yourself or the people around you when you haven’t. 

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On Fridays I usually post something about English or British history or culture. This week I’m doing well to do post anything at all. I hope to be back to full speed eventually. In the meantime, bear with me.

A short history of the 1918 flu pandemic

Now that we know at first hand what a pandemic is, this might be a sensible time to learn more about the 1918 flu–that thing most of us know as the Spanish flu. 

Spain’s connection was minimal. The disease first got public recognition there and that’s about it. World War I was still being fought, and newspapers were still censored in Germany, Britain, France, and the US–and possibly in assorted other countries that don’t get a mention. They weren’t allowed to mention the flu. You couldn’t publish anything that might lower morale.

Epidemics, you might have noticed, do lower morale.

Spain, though, sat on the sidelines in World War I. It didn’t censor its papers–at least not for any mention of morale-lowering diseases, although I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of censorship on other issues. So Spain broke the story and its reward was that the world blamed it for the disease it had mentioned. 

Irrelevant photo: a peony

Recent epidemiological research hints that the virus might have been circulating for two years before reaching pandemic levels, and US troops could have been–well, I don’t know if calling them the source of the epidemic would be correct, but the first known cases were in Fort Riley, Kansas, and they didn’t stop the US from shipping soldiers to fight in Europe. So you could make an argument that the US was the source. 

Alternative theories, on the other hand, point to China, Britain, and France. 

 

Numbers

Although a lot of us learned to call the 1918 flu an epidemic, it was a full-blown international pandemic. (Hands up: How many of us even knew the word before last year?) The only part of the world that didn’t report an outbreak was Marajo, which I never heard of until I started researching this post. It’s an island in Brazil’s Amazon Delta. 

The pandemic ran from 1918 to 1919 and killed over 50 million people worldwide. Or possibly 100 million. No one was keeping count, so we’ll have to settle for guesswork. And to confuse the picture further, even if folks had been counting, the symptoms were easy to confuse with other diseases. 

An estimated 500 million people were infected–a third of the world’s population.

In Britain, 228,000 people died of the flu; 1918 was the first year on record in which deaths outnumbered births. And Britain got off more lightly than many countries.

By way of comparison, worldwide Covid deaths are currently just under 4 million, although that’s generally agreed to be an underestimate. Britain’s had 128,000 Covid deaths.. 

The flu pandemic killed between 10% and 20% of the people who became infected, and more people died of it in a single year than died of the Black Death between 1347 and 1351. I believe that’s in Britain. Or in England. Or somewhere. Who cares? It’s a sobering comparison.

It hit young adults particularly hard–people between 20 and 40, who you’d expect to have the most resistance–but it also hit children under 5 and people over 65. Most of us, though, will have heard about  the 20-to-40 age group because it’s unusual for a disease to zero in on them.

 

Spreading the flu

The flu spread both through the air on droplets–those things that people breathe, sneeze, coughe, or talk into the air. It also spread on surfaces. You’d touch a surface that had germs on it, give them a ride to your face, and have yourself a nice little bout of the flu. 

Soldiers returning home from northern France get a special mention in any discussion of how the virus spread. In France, they’d been coming down with la grippe, which consisted of sore throats, headaches, loss of appetite, and the cramped trenches it circulated merrily. But they tended to recover quickly. Doctors called it a three-day fever. 

From that, though, the disease evolved into something deadly. We’ll come back to that. In the meantime, let’s go back to those British soldiers returning home on cramped troop transports and trains. Following their path, the flu spread from railroad stations to city centers, from city centers to suburbs, and from suburbs to the countryside. 

 

The pandemic’s waves

The first wave of the pandemic hit in the spring of 1918 and was relatively mild. The second came in the winter and was the most deadly. In the past, when I’ve read that the second wave was worse than the first, I assumed that meant only that more people got sick. No such luck. The disease itself had changed. In the second wave, you could be fine at breakfast and dead by nighttime. 

Let’s go to Historic UK for the gory details: “Within hours of feeling the first symptoms of fatigue, fever and headache, some victims would rapidly develop pneumonia and start turning blue, signalling a shortage of oxygen. They would then struggle for air until they suffocated to death.”  

The third wave hit in the early spring of 1919, and was somewhere between the first and third in its virulence. Smaller, localized outbreaks went on into the mid ‘20s. But in August 1918, an observer could reasonably have thought that the disease had ended, and since the government still had a war to fight it kept its attention on that. 

For the most part, pubs stayed open. The Football League and FA Cup had been canceled because of the war, but men’s regional tennis competitions went ahead and so did women’s football, which in the absence of men’s games attracted big crowds.  

Hospitals were overwhelmed, and it didn’t help that medical personnel had been vacuumed up by the war. Medical students were brought in to help fill the gaps. Doctors and nurses worked themselves to the point of exhaustion. 

Graveyards were also overwhelmed. Think of them as the kind of high-end restaurants where you need advance bookings. The draft meant the country had a shortage of grave diggers, of funeral workers, of coffin builders. Horses had been drafted as well, so even getting the dead picked up was a problem. In Sunderland at one point, 200 bodies were left unburied for over a week. 

When the war ended (November 11, 1918, in case anyone asks, at 11 a.m.), crowds turned out to celebrate, helping to spread the disease. There just might be a lesson hidden in there for us.

 

The expert advice

Sir Arthur Newsholme, the chief medical officer of the Local Government Board, wrote a memorandum in July 1918 advising people to stay home if they were sick and to avoid large gatherings. It wasn’t bad advice, and he promptly buried it. Britain had that war to fight.

Looking back on it in 1919, he said it could have saved many lives, but “there are national circumstances in which the major duty is to ‘carry on’, even when risk to health and life is involved.”

Keep smiling. Keep morale up. If you have to die, do it off stage.

The cabinet never discussed the epidemic. No lockdown was imposed, and I’m not sure the concept was available to be discussed. In 1917, it talked about forming a ministry of health to prevent disease and coordinate health care, but it did nothing about it until 1919, leaving localities to respond to the pandemic as well or badly as they could. 

In places, theaters, dance halls, movie theaters, and churches were closed for varying lengths of time, and in some places streets were sprayed with disinfectant. Some people wore masks. Some didn’t. Whatever happened, happened locally.

Public health messages ranged from the vaguely useful to the batty. Some factories relaxed no-smoking rules because cigarettes were known to prevent infection–or at least some people knew about it and probably thought the ones who didn’t were idiots or deliberately suppressing information.

But that’s just a guess.

In a Commons debate, M.P. Claude Lowther asked, “Is it a fact that a sure preventative against influenza is cocoa taken three times a day?”

The News of the World told people to “wash inside nose with soap and water each night and morning; force yourself to sneeze night and morning, then breathe deeply. Do not wear a muffler; take sharp walks regularly and walk home from work; eat plenty of porridge.”

Cleaning your teeth was also recommended. It might not keep you alive, but at least you’d die with clean teeth. Brandy and whisky were popular preventatives. So was ventilation, which would have actually helped, along with warm clothes. Worrying about your health, on the other hand, would make you more vulnerable. Besides, it could interfere with the war effort.

Predictably, in the absence of solid information, individuals were often blamed–for catching the disease; for spreading it; for taking risks that no sensible person would take, like passing up that third cup of cocoa.

People rushed to chemists to buy quinine, which was useful against malaria but roughly as helpful against the flu as turkey feathers. 

We can–and we might as well–laugh, but remember that there weren’t any antibiotics yet, which could have been useful against flu’s secondary infections. And there were no antivirals. The first vaccine for the flu wasn’t licensed until 1940. 

Many doctors prescribed what they had available: aspirin. Its patent had expired in 1917, so new companies moved in to produce it–I’d assume cheaply. Patients were told to take up to 30 grams a day, which is now considered a toxic dose. If you take anything above four grams these days, red lights start flashing and sirens go off. 

The symptoms of aspirin poisoning include hyperventilation and pulmonary edema, which is a buildup of fluid in the lungs. Some flu deaths may have been either caused or speeded up by aspirin poisoning.

To be fair, some of the recommended public health measures were useful, including ventilation, disinfection, limiting or banning large gatherings, quarantine, and isolation of patients, but they were applied unevenly. 

 

The pandemic’s legacy

Industrialized countries went into the pandemic with atomized health systems. Doctors worked for themselves or for charities or religious institutions. Public health policies–and this isn’t particularly about Britain–were colored by eugenics, a theory that, to simplify wildly and irresponsibly, managed to show that the people at the top of society were there because they were better genetic specimens and the people at the bottom were degenerate and a mess. So public health policy–or so the Smithsonian tells me–tended to be about protecting the elites from the diseases of the poor. 

When the pandemic died down and they had some space to think, the lesson many countries took from it was that healthcare had to be available to all, and free, although the moves in that direction weren’t universal or, at first, complete. Public health embraced the idea of not just treating disease but preventing it. Epidemiology–the study of diseases’ patterns, causes, and effects–came into its own, and epidemiology demands data, which governments, or some of them anyway, began to gather. One of the problems that article after article mentions about the flu pandemic is that it wasn’t a reportable disease, so doctors weren’t required to report cases to the government and wouldn’t have had a bureau to report them to if they’d been inclined that way. That meant no one knew the size or shape of the crisis.

In 1919, the forerunner of the World Health Organization was founded–an international bureau to fight pandemics.

The herd immunity debates

Professors at University College London grabbed some headlines with the news that Britain’s almost achieved herd immunity.

Should we celebrate? 

Nope. The small print said we can’t ease restrictions yet. “If we let up, that threshold will go up again and we will find ourselves below the threshold and it will explode again,” Karl Friston said.

This makes it sound like we’ve probably misunderstood what herd immunity means. Or else that the people who wrote the study have. I thought it marked the point where we could all wander back to whatever we can reconstruct of our normal lives, trusting that the virus will stay in retreat. Apparently not, though–at least not by this definition. 

Irrelevant photo: a rose. Indoors. It’s too early in the year for them outdoors yet.

In a rare moment when the health secretary, Matt Hancock, and I agree (I’m sure that upsets him as much as it does me; sorry Matt; it won’t happen often), he’s dismissed the suggestion of herd immunity, although his comments are oblique enough to be unquotable. They’re not incoherent but they’re not exactly to the point either. Never mind, though. I have agreed with him. It’s a rare moment. We need to mark the occasion.

Cup of tea, anyone?

Another estimate of herd immunity, this one from Airfinity (it “provides real time life science intelligence as a subscription service” and as part of that tracks vaccination programs around the world), sets it at the point where 75% of the population is vaccinated. The U.K.’s expected to reach that point in August, shortly after the U.S. and a few weeks before Europe.

Sorry about the rest of the world. It seems to have dropped off the map the article I found was using. 

There will, of course, still be a need to booster vaccines to keep up with the variants, at least until those countries that fell off the map get access to vaccines so are species can stop producing variants so prolifically. 

 

Creeping out of lockdown

As Covid deaths go down, Britain’s taken another step toward ending its lockdown, opening gyms, shops, pubs and cafes with outdoor seating, assorted other businesses. Internal tourism is causing traffic jams in all the usual places. 

About half the population has at least one dose of a vaccine. Will that be enough to keep the virus from rebounding? I wish I knew. Chile has an impressive vaccination program and unlocked too early, giving the virus the gift of a trampoline. Cases there have spiked. 

Optimist that I am, my mind snags on Britain’s remaining virus hotspots and on the two London boroughs where the government’s chasing cases of the South African variant. I expect they’ll do better with the variant than with the hotspots, because one of the things the government resolutely refuses to do is pay people a workable amount of money to self-isolate, and if you’re broke you’ll go to work, regardless of what the test says. Because you have to. 

On the other hand–and before I go on I should issue an Unimportant Personal Story Warning–I’m grateful to have stores open. I have a battery-operated watch whose battery stopped operating a while ago. (Whose idea was it to run watches on batteries, anyway? I seem to remember winding my watch every day without feeling unduly burdened. I didn’t even break a sweat.) 

How long ago did the battery run out? No idea. We were in lockdown. Who needs a watch? But eventually I did need a watch and I noticed that mine was no longer in touch with consensual reality. So I got a battery (thanks, Tony). I opened up the back (thanks, Ellen), took out the old battery, put in the new one, put the innards back together, and was just starting to congratulate myself when I found that I couldn’t fit the back on, making the whole project pointless. I put a rubber band around the thing and left it alone.

I still didn’t have a watch.

On Monday, the first day that unimportant stores were open, I took it to a jeweler. Jewelers have a little gizmo to hold the back in place while they thump it shut. I now have a working watch.

I don’t need it more than once a week. We’re still halfway locked down. 

So yes, it’s nice to be able to do that sort of small thing. It also makes me nervous–and it should.

 

Lockdown and the economy

Britain’s economy’s now in the worst recession it’s had in 300 years. Worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s? Apparently. To find one that was worse, you have to go back to the great frost of 1709, when Britain was an agricultural country.

On the other hand, having shrunk 9.9%, the economy then grew by 1% in the last quarter of (I believe) 2020. Household savings during the pandemic reached £140 billion–16.3% of people’s disposable income. That’s compared to 6.8% in 2019. Predictably, that’s unevenly distributed, with some people building up savings while others struggle to hold onto their homes and food banks struggle to keep up with need. 

It’s a lovely way to organize a world. 

 

The Covid risk indoors and out

Want to figure out the Covid risk people face indoors? Measure the carbon dioxide level

This works because–well, the thing about infectious people is that they exhale. Admittedly, uninfected people do too. You probably do it yourself. And all that exhaled carbon dioxide joins together and either stays in the room or doesn’t. The Covid virus does exactly the same thing: It either stays in the room or if the room has enough ventilation it wanders out into the world, where it poses next to no danger.

The thing is that carbon dioxide levels can be monitored cheaply. If you see them rise, you still won’t know if anyone infectious is breathing into the mix, but you will know that the ventilation isn’t what it needs to be and it’s a risky place to stand around inhaling. At that point you can (a) limit yourself to exhaling, (b) leave, or (c) improve the ventilation. Preferably (b), since that will help everyone.

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An Irish study reports that roughly one Covid case out of a thousand is caught out of doors. 

Professor Orla Hegarty said, “During Spanish flu people were advised to talk side by side, rather than face to face, and this is borne out by how viral particles have been measured moving in the air when people breath and speak.

“The risk of infection is low outdoors because unless you are up close to someone infected, most of the virus will likely be blown away and diluted in the breeze, like cigarette smoke.”