Still disinfecting the groceries? News on how Covid’s spread, plus other sciency stuff

A new study reports that most Covid infections are spread by aerosols–in other words, by the awkward fact that we breathe, a process that leads us to trade both air and germs with those we love, not to mention those we don’t. Earlier studies measured how long the virus could survive on objects and speculated about that as a route of transmission, but this one didn’t find much evidence that transmission happens that way in the real world. 

So the good news is that you can stop boiling the toilet paper when you bring it home from the store. Also that those masks really do make a difference–possibly to you, but definitely to the people around you. And that keeping your distance from other people is good protection.

But anytime you say, “The good news is,” you have to follow it with parallel bad news. So the bad news, if we’re to believe the rumor I heard yesterday, is that people are expecting Britain to go into another lockdown and already they’re panic buying. Because the country’s semi-officially in the second wave of the pandemic. Cases are doubling every week. The test and trace system that was supposed to let us control the spread is demented, broken, and–forgive the technical language here–completely fucked. The people who purport to govern the country say they want to avoid a lockdown, and the more they say it, the more inevitable it looks. So stock up on toilet paper. Also flour. And if you’re British, baked beans. 

Everything else you can do without. Unless you have pet food. Stock up on pet food.

Irrelevant photo: Erigeron. Really. That’s what they’re called.

But forget rumor. Let’s go back to science and the study I was talking about. It also reports that Covid transmission is highest about a day before the symptoms show up, making complete nonsense of the idea that we should limit tests to people with symptoms. 

No transmission has been documented after a patient’s had symptoms for a week. That doesn’t completely rule it out, but it does kind of point us in that direction.

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A new study of Covid and singing–more bad news; sorry, everyone–pretty much contradicts the last study of aerosols and singing that I told you about. That earlier one measured the aerosols and droplets sprayed into the air by individual singers and by individual speakers and reported that quiet singing doesn’t spread aerosols much more than quiet speaking does. Turn up the volume on either and you up the Covid spread.

But.

This latest study looked at a superspreader event involving one choir rehearsal that caused over fifty cases of Covid and two deaths. It broke down people’s interactions at the rehearsal, concluding that the combination of poor ventilation, many people, a long rehearsal, and body heat led to a buildup of aerosols that circulated with the air in the room.

No one was wearing masks. This was well before masks were recommended, and although I haven’t tried singing through one I have trouble imagining that it’d work well. 

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A third study reports that most homemade masks work just fine, even when we sneeze. Emphasis on most. I still see the occasional online photo of or pattern for crocheted masks. What are people thinking? They might as well take chalk and draw a mask on their faces.

Or magic marker if they want a longer-lasting useless gesture.

Sorry about the lack of a link here. I cleverly linked it to this post. By the time I figured that out, I’d lost the actual article.

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One more study and then I’ll shut about about science and we can go back to the glorious and multicolored ignorance that marks public life these days. This one comes from Dublin, was presented at a conference involving many initials, and shows that about half the people who get ill with Covid have persistent fatigue ten weeks after they recover, even if they had mild cases. The fatigue hits women more often than men.

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A man coming back from traveling abroad was told to isolate himself for two weeks. Instead he went on a pub crawl with some friends. They hit a number of pubs, then two days later the returned traveler tested positive. 

The area went from 12 cases per 100,000 to 212 cases per 100,000 in less than three weeks. 

See? I told you we’d stop talking about science.

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Spain is developing a test that will allow people to test themselves and get a result in thirty minutes. It works like the gizmos that diabetics use to measure their blood sugar, meaning a person could use it and reuse it, and it gives no false positives.

Does it give any false negatives? Good question, and wasn’t I clever to ask it? I’m not sure. I could only find one reasonably up-to-date article on the thing and it didn’t say. 

The test is called the Convat and it’s “very advanced” and “almost at a pre-commercial level,” whatever that means. It sounds good unless you slow down, at which point you notice how little you understand it. 

It may be available to the public in December or January. Emphasis on may.

Now the fine print: They’re talking about the public in Spain. The project manager, Laura Lechuga, talked about the importance of having Spanish technology, since what’s available in one country may not become available in another. In other words, this is Spain trying to make sure they can handle their problems, not ours.

Sorry to tease you with that. We really need to all be in this together, but at the moment we don’t seem to be.

Brexit, Covid spikes, and lies: It’s the news from Britain

Britain is gearing up to break international law in “a very limited and specific way,” according to Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary. 

Last October, Boris Johnson’s government negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the European Union that would avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, something everyone with half a brain and no political advisors with the initials D.C. considers important because a hard border threatens to reignite the Troubles in Northern Ireland. We’ll skip the background there because it’s long and complicated. If you’re not up on it, just nod sagely and pretend you know what I’m talking about. 

It was a patched-together agreement and even at the time it looked unworkable because if Britain left the EU there had to be a hard border somewhere, and if it wasn’t going to be between Ireland and Northern Ireland, then it was going to be in the middle of the Irish Sea, pushing Northern Ireland away from the rest of the UK. 

Wave bye-bye to the nice island, Boris. 

Look! It’s waving back. 

Or maybe that’s Northern Ireland waving hello to the Irish Republic. Either way, aren’t the Irish friendly?

Irrelevant photo: a red hot poker.Not an actual one, you understand. A flower that goes by that name.

Anyway, it was all going to be okay, we were told, because they–they being some unnamed genius in a governmental office somewhere, whose initials were probably D.C.–would figure out a way to make it work.

So what have they figured out? Well, um, nothing. Which is why we’re gearing up for that limited and specific little law-break, Your Honor. See, we were painting the floor. And then we realized we were in a corner and surrounded by wet paint. And we really needed a beer, and on top of that, we had to pee.

Sorry, did I just say pee? We needed to visit the loo and drive to Barnard Castle to test our eyesight. But you understand the difficulty, right?

Sorry: British political in joke implanted there. I couldn’t help myself. It all has to do with a prime ministerial advisor who doesn’t believe laws apply to him.

The former prime minister Theresa May asked how the government planned to “reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreement.” And you know what, no one answered her. Because she’s the former prime minister, not the current one.

Somewhat more noticeably, the most senior legal civil servant resigned over it, and that seems to be creating a few shock waves. He’d advised ministers–or so Westminster gossip (which I get by way of the newspapers) holds–that the changes would be illegal, and since civil servants are required to stay within the law, he quit.

That raises the question of whether the justice secretary and attorney general, who take oaths to uphold the rule of law, will find themselves in deep shit at some point over this.

The government’s said to have asked for independent legal advice and when they didn’t like what the advice advised are said to have ignored it. 

Senior Tories are urging the government to perform yet another U-turn–a maneuver the government does well. The question is, how many senior Tories are we talking about, and how many junior ones? The Tories have a majority of 80, so it’ll take more than a handful to have an impact.

Please ensure that your seat belts are securely fastened. We’re headed for turbulence.

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Britain’s had a spike in Covid cases and is imposing new restrictions to try to stop it. Or to slow it down. Or to be seen to be doing something while still trying to get people who’ve been working at home back into the office so they can support the economy by buying sandwiches and expensive coffees and those sparkly notebooks that eight-year-olds like. Without those sales, the economy’s sinking.

Whatever. We now have new restrictions. 

In England, starting on Monday, social gatherings of more than six people or from more than two households will be illegal. Unless they’re weddings or funerals or organized team sports. Or schools or work, which aren’t exactly social but the health secretary Matt Hancock mentioned them anyway because he was trying to make the point that the ”the rule is really simple.” 

“What,” a friend asked me as I was explaining how simple this is, “about my brother, who has six kids?”

“Well,” I said, “he should’ve thought of that before he had them.” 

And just so I’d sound all British about this, I added, “Shouldn’t he?”

As it turns out, it really is simple. It’s either six people from any number of households (two households, six households, thousands of households if you can make the numbers work) or any number of people from any two households. Plus either a dessert or an appetizer.

Fizzy drinks and alcohol cost extra. And my friend’s brother can keep all his kids. 

Of course, the rules are different if you’re in one of the cities and towns that have local lockdowns or the restrictions that are an attempt to avoid a full-out lockdown. No two local rules seem to be the same. In some, restrictions involve venues–however the hell they’re defining that–having to close between 10 pm and 5 am, which is when the virus is known to come out and play. In others, you can’t have people over, indoors or in your garden, which in American is called a yard, unless you’ve formed a support bubble, which is created when a household with one adult joins another household and when they add soap to a dishpan of water (glycerine helps) and have a bubble pipe or wand. 

It’s best to do this outdoors, because it’s messy.

With the emphasis on gardens, it sounds like you could get together if you put a fence between one household and the other as long as no more than six people are inside the fence.

Anyway, it’s really very simple. 

I’ve always considered the mess an art form. I should idolize Hancock, but somehow he just doesn’t do it for me. 

All of that, of course, only applies to England. What about in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (if it hasn’t floated out of sight yet)?

It’s simple, so I’ll quote the BBC to be sure I get it right:

  • In Scotland, up to 15 people from five different households can meet outdoors.
  • In Wales, up to 30 people are allowed to see each other outdoors.
  • In Northern Ireland, the maximum number of people who can meet outdoors has been reduced from 30 to 15.

However, if we’re talking about being indoors, either at your place or in a pub, the rules alllow:

  • In Scotland, up to eight people from three different households
  • In Northern Ireland, up to six people from two households
  • In Wales, up to four households can form an “extended household.”

I don’t know how it can get any clearer than that. But keep in mind that the distance you’re supposed to keep from other people will vary depending on whether you’re in England, Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland. Because the virus behaves differently depending on the accent it hears.

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I can’t think why I’m so tired.

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Last week sometime, I told you my tale about trying to get one of Britain’s world-beating Covid tests and being advised to go from Cornwall to Wales. I’m used to being told where to go, and it doesn’t usually involve anyplace as nice as Wales, so I didn’t get my feelings hurt. 

But now it turns out that I’m the reasons Britain is short of Covid testing materials, and that does hurt my feelings. 

Matt Hancock, our secretary of state for health, social care, and public excuses, tells us the shortage of Covid tests is the fault of people getting tested when they don’t need a test. A full 25% of the people asking for tests turn out to be this sort of me-too-ers. They don’t have the symptoms, so what are they up to? 

We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about symptoms. The government web site gives you a choice of three, but if you bump around the internet, limiting yourself to entirely responsible sites, you’ll find that the virus is more generous than that. You can have five symptoms if you want them. You can probably have more than that, but I’m prone to dizziness when I work with higher numbers so I stopped there.

But even if the government could count to five, it shouldn’t matter whether you have symptoms. One of the things that makes the virus so damn hard to stamp out is that asymptomatic people can and do transmit it. Any chance of controlling it rests on (a) a highly effective vaccine, (b) magic, or (c) testing–lots and lots of testing, including testing people who don’t have any symptoms so they can find out if they’re carrying it and then isolate themselves and not pass it on. 

Let’s pause here for some advice: If you have an off-brand symptom and want to get tested, you should lie. Don’t worry. This is a government that understands lying. 

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Trials for the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine hit Pause when a participant was hospitalized with what may be a serious reaction to the vaccine and may be something unrelated. You know, the kind of thing that happens when a satellite flies over your house just as you’re chewing bubble gum and the cat’s litter tray needs cleaning and you’ve got Billie Holiday playing on whatever on earth it is you use to play recorded music these days. And–I almost forgot–you breathe in a virus that isn’t the one we’re concerned about but does still make you very, very sick.

These things do happen and you can’t know in advance what effect they’ll have. Researchers are trying (frantically, I’d think, but we all know I’m not there, so let’s not take me too seriously) to figure out if the participant’s illness is related to the vaccine or not. It may not be, but this is why political pressure to shorten the testing process is really very stupid.

Flags and rust: It’s the pandemic update from Britain

The government tells us we have a great system of Covid testing. World beating. So let’s check in on it. Again.

If you live someplace that’s not a hotspot and want a test, you’ll be chasing all over the country to get one. Take, as a purely random example, me. The website where you register for a test wanted me to drive 86 point something miles to I’ve forgotten where. And back, although that wasn’t their problem but mine. It didn’t sound like a great idea, so I followed a link that took me to a page that promised I’d have a test in the mail the next day. 

The next day came and went, along with many of its friends, who followed in a line, as days will. I still haven’t had a test in the mail and have stopped expecting one. Fortunately, I’m fine. I had a sore throat–not the most Covid common symptom but not an impossible one–and a fit of paranoia collided with a sense of civic responsibility. It’s possible that I got downgraded because I had the wrong symptom. It’s also possible that they dumped everyone into electronic limbo. I have no way to know.  

What I do know is that the priority is being given to high-risk areas. That makes a kind of sense, but it also leaves clusters to build up, unspotted, in new areas. It also means the people allegedly in charge of the country have once again let us run short of tests–the number of people requesting them has gone up–leading them to set up a kind of triage-by-determination system. If you’re willing to drive 65 point something miles, you can have your test. If you’re too sick to do it, you can’t. 

You can also (or so the radio tells me–and yes, it was on at the time) log back into the website later and you might be offered a perfectly sane location for a test. Or you might not. Nothing is guaranteed.

In calculating the distances between the person using the website and the nearest testing center, they seem to have assumed that they’re dealing with crows rather than drivers. According to a BBC calculation, a 109-mile trip would’ve involved 206 miles of driving. I suspect mine would’ve as well, because I think they wanted to send me to Wales, and I’m not much of a swimmer.

This is happening just as the schools reopen. So will there be testing to make sure the kids don’t all infect each other and bring the bug home? Of course not. It’s not a priority.

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The Notting Hill Carnival–usually the largest street party in Europe–went online this year. It’s director, Matthew Phillip, said, “For more than 50 years, carnival has been a statement that black lives matter. That’s normal practice for us, it’s not something that we’re just jumping on now because of the current global climate and what’s going on. Carnival has been making these statements for 50 years.”

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The Edinburgh festivals–that includes the International Festival, the Fringe, and the Book Festival–also went online. This was the first time they’d been canceled since 1947, and that was done–touchingly–in honor of my birth, even if they were a few months late. 

As far as I can figure out, its offerings ended in August, but if you want to mess around and see if I’m wrong (it happens), start here.

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In another heartwarming sign of unity among the four nations that make up the United Kingdom, England and Northern Ireland are telling travelers from Greece and Portugal that they don’t have to quarantine after they arrive in Britain but Scotland and Wales are (sort of) telling them that they do.

The sort of is because it’s not that simple. It involves parts of Greece, mainland Portugal, and–oh–Gibraltar. Have we mentioned Gibraltar? But that’s only for Wales. Scotland’s list is a little different. It’s complicated.

Complicated enough that a BBC TV show used a graphic with four flags to show who had to do what if they were landing where–or going there after they landed. Only instead of Northern Ireland’s flag, they substituted the Republic of Ireland’s. It’s easy to do. Northern Ireland doesn’t have a flag. All that symbolism and passion that people pour into their flags is too explosive for a divided nation and they’ve (probably wisely) decided to live without one. They’re stuck with the Union Jack.

The BBC made the appropriate straight-faced apology, but I can’t help thinking that someone’s giggling uncontrollably behind a closed door somewhere. 

Or maybe normal people don’t react to embarrassing mistakes that way.

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Since schools have opened, this might be a good time to announce that vomiting and diarrhea may be key signs of Covid-19 in kids

I almost reported that as “voting and diarrhoea.” It was a typo, but they might do better than we adults have lately.

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Tony Abbott, Australia’s former prime minister, is being considered for the position of UK trade envoy. He’s a man of great compassion, having argued that since Covid meant it cost the Australian government up to $200,000 for an extra year in an elderly person’s life, families should be able to let their eldery relatives die of the virus the natural (not to mention cheaper) way if they want to. 

I’m happy to report that Mr. Abbott is not one of my relatives.

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After that, we need something that isn’t about the pandemic: The earth is making the moon rust.

The problem with that is that rust only happens in the presence of oxygen, and the moon doesn’t have an atmosphere. It spent it all when it was a kid, buying candy and sugary drinks. 

Ah, but it does have trace amounts of oxygen hidden away, and it’s all due to Earth’s magnetic field. Oxygen molecules, it turns out, can hitch a 385,000 kilometers ride on the magnetic field and land on the moon, needing a shower and a change of clothes but otherwise none the worse for their travels. 

It’s also possible, although less fun, that the oxygen got there when the moon and the Earth were closer together. Or that it’s released when dust particles hit the ice hidden under lunar craters. 

How does dust hit something hidden under a crater? Dunno. There’s a third theory, but I understood even less of that. It has to do with hydrogen and solar winds. You’re on your own. I really should stick to topics I understand, but I couldn’t resist the idea of the moon rusting.

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And finally for the heartening spectacle of someone who understands social media less than I do: A Scottish member of parliament, Annie Wells, has two Twitter accounts. One is her own and the other is Women2Win Scotland (“Leading the campaign to elect more Conservative women to Parliament”). 

Using her own account, she tweeted something snotty about a political opponent. Then, thinking she’d changed accounts, she tweeted, “Spot on@AnniewellsMSP,” adding a thumbs up, a Union flag, and a Saltire to make the celebration complete. 

Only she hadn’t switched accounts. She was praising herself from her own account. She deleted it, tweeted it from her other account, and hoped no one had noticed.

They had. Of course they had. They always do.

The Saltire, in case I lost you back there a ways, is Scotland’s flag. It’s not to be confused with Ireland’s. Or Northern Irelands. Or, most especially, England’s. Or Britain’s. You probably won’t confuse it with the Welsh flag, because that has a dragon.

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WP in its wisdom dumped me into its glorious new editing experience–which of course I hate. Anyone know how to resize photos or add captions?

Nanobodies and jellyfish: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The optimists among us have been counting to see how many horsemen the current apocalypse has brought, and they’ve been able to chalk them up at an impressive rate as long as no one insists that they all ride through in the same place at the same time. We’ve got war, we’ve got famine, we’ve got plague, and now–ah, yes, the satisfaction of getting the complete set–we’ve got jellyfish.

Yes, friends, the fourth horseman looks sloppy on a horse but makes up for with his powerful ick factor.

He–that’s the fourth horseman–also stings, so horses aren’t crazy about carrying him, but that’s the thing about apocalypses, they don’t care what anyone thinks of the arrangements. They don’t even care about the proper plural of their key word, which may be apocalii or apocalump.  

Britain’s (and Ireland’s–let’s not be selfish) seas have been warm and calm this summer, and that’s brought jellyfish blooms–a mile-long cluster of compass jellyfish off Devon, although admittedly that was an estimate; masses of lion’s mane jellyfish off the Isle of Lewis and off Galway. And, presumably, others. The Marine Conservation Society said, “Already, some areas of the UK’s seas resemble a ‘jellyfish soup.’ ”

Which also sounds pretty apocalyptic.

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Semi-relevant photo: What’s the best place to face down an apocalypse? Bed. Minnie the Moocher is ready to face anything.

From Australia comes the news that alpacas (along with other relatives of the camel) make two types of antibodies, the usual kind and a kind called nanobodies, which aren’t (or so they claim) escapees from a trashy science fiction series but an, um, you know, alternative antibody by a different name.

Okay, it’s a single-domain antibody, which makes it sounds like the expensive version of a plain old antibody but is actually an antibody fragment. They can be easier to mass produce. Or so says WikiWhatsia. I don’t know a thing about this myself and we can only hope WikiWhatsia wasn’t deep in one of its occasional bouts of madness when it told me that.

The reason I mention this is that researchers are trying to convince an alpaca to produce a nanobody that attacks Covid-19, then test it (the nanobody not the alpaca) to see if it’s safe and effective enough to turn into a vaccine. 

Don’t be in any hurry for this to happen, but don’t rule it out either. 

My thanks to Doug Jacquier for putting me onto this. I now know that not only do alpacas spit, they make nanobodies in their spare time.

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Thursday’s papers brought more news on why scientists are worried about the Russian vaccine:

Once upon a time, in the long-ago year of 1977 (is anyone other than me old enough to think that’s recent?), a virologist named Scott Halstead was studying dengue fever and he discovered that if you caught dengue fever once and it left with antibodies, the antibodies not only wouldn’t protect you from a second bout, they’d help you get sicker. 

Thank you, antibodies.

That’s called antibody-dependent enhancement, or ADE, and one worry about the Russian vaccine is that Covid might behave like dengue fever. Why shouldn’t it? It’s outsmarted us at every other turn. 

ADE’s one of the things researchers look for in phase III trials of a vaccine–the phase the Russian vaccine skipped over. 

Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology, said the work behind the Russian vaccine has been opaque.

“I don’t think the Russian researchers have done anything wrong, but I think they’ve jumped the gun. If we’re talking about safety, then you have to be looking at issues like ADE, which was a concern that scuppered some efforts to develop a Sars vaccine, where it exacerbated an asthma-like response in the lungs.”

Ideally, he said, scientists would be able to compare all the vaccine candidates being worked on around the world, using the same criteria, and find the best vaccine, not the first.

“No two of these candidates is going to be alike in terms of safety, how effective they are or how cheap they are to produce. . . . There have been too many debacles in this pandemic. This is not another occasion to blunder in. You want to line up the candidates side by side.”

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England has quietly subtracted 1.3 million from the number of Covid tests it claims to have carried out.

Or–wait–not carried out. Made available. 

What does made available mean? Less than it sounds like it means, but don’t worry about it. They’re discontinuing the category anyway.

Are we clear about everything now?

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New countries have been added to Britain’s Oops List. That’s the list of countries we were told, with lots of celebration, that it was safe to travel to. Then some of us traveled to them and they turned out not to be safe after all because, oops, the rate at which the pandemic spreads isn’t static, it spikes and forms second and (if it gets a chance) third waves. So the people who traveled to those countries will come home to a 14-day quarantine that they didn’t count on.

A spike of Covid cases in France saw it become an Oops Country and anyone coming to Britain from France now has to quarantine for 14 days unless they touched their feet on British soil before4 a.m. on Saturday, August 15. 

It strikes me as counterproductive, if you’re genuinely worried about people importing the virus, to give them a few days to rush home so they can beat the quarantine. If the germ’s circulating where they’ve been, it’s circulating. Germs don’t own calendars and don’t care what day it is. 

Isn’t it lucky I’m not in charge here?

Headlines reported a rush of people trying to beat the deadline. Sort of like Cinderella running from the palace with the clock madly striking midnight. 

Larry the Cat (@Nnumber10cat) reported on Twitter that Grant Shapps, the transport secretary (who unlike Larry claims to be human), thinks that 4 a.m. Saturday falls on Sunday, and reproduced Shapps’ tweet to prove it.

Shapps did not introduce the Cinderella image and neither did Larry, but has anyone ever wondered why her dress turned to rags but her shoe continued to be its fine and fancy self? Not to mention how she got her foot into a rigid crystal shoe and how she danced in it?

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Someone in New Zealand went on Trade Me, “The news of Level 2 lockdown came as shock to me. During my unnecessary panic, I decided to get a test. After testing negative, I figured I’d share my gift of Covid free air with the world.

“Enjoy this free range, gluten free bag of air from the lungs of a 100% New Zealand made boy lol.”

The top bid when I checked, on Saturday night, August 15, was $80,200 NZ. Whether the seller will ever collect that is beyond me. 

Surely not.

Small changes in the world of pandemic Britain

How is our world changing with the onset of the pandemic? Well, the International Football Association, which sets the rules for international competition, has added a new offense: deliberately coughing at another player. The referee gets to decide what’s deliberate and what’s close enough to be offense-worthy, and the player who’s on the wrong side of the decision can be sent off the field.

If you’re American, you should understand that football is soccer but that coughing is still coughing.

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A company in Taiwan has developed a robot that can swab noses to test for the coronavirus. It sounds silly, but it’s one of those jobs that puts health care workers at risk. And you might as well admit it: You’ve always wished automation would swab your nose for you. 

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Vaguely relevant photo: Fast Eddie, who can’t be bothered opening doors. He has people who do that for him.

When Britain was still in lockdown, adults went from watching an average of 34 minutes a day of streaming services in April 2019 to an average of 71 minutes a day in April 2020. Those are the Netflix-type shows that you pay for. But that’s nothing. They also went from watching 4 hours and 53 minutes of TV and online video a day to 6 hours and 25 minutes. 

If I understand this correctly, that’s 6 hours and 25 minutes of TV shows, online pornography, and videos clips of cats opening doors and performing brain surgery. Per day. 

Who says lockdown is destroying our cultural life?

Okay, I only know about the cats because I sneak a peek now and then. You can also find videos of bears sitting in blow-up wading pools or canoodling with cats.

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How are we, as a nation, doing for money? About a third of Britain’s biggest companies have cut their top execs’ salaries in the face of the pandemic. 

Impressed? Don’t be. Top execs make as much or more from bonuses and share schemes as they do from their salaries.

What kind of money are we talking about? The head of Ocado–a grocery delivery outfit–made £58.7 million in 2018-2019–1,935 times the median salary of a full-time UK worker. To put that another way, it would take the average worker eight years to earn what he earns in a day. If that doesn’t add up, don’t blame me. I stole the statistic. See the link above if you want to argue. Or argue with me, but don’t expect a decent opponent. I’m a word person.

I don’t know if Ocado cut his pay–probably not, since food delivery businesses have been making out like (excuse the language) bandits–but I can’t see where he’d have a whole lot of trouble getting by if they did.

Back in the real world, there’s a ban at the moment on landlords evicting tenants who’ve fallen behind on their rent, but when the ban ends (as it’s scheduled to) they’ll owe a huge whackin’ amount of rent and no one who makes the decisions is talking, at least in public, about how they’ll to pay it off.

And a quarter of all adults are struggling with what’s being called food insecurity. That’s not exactly hunger. It’s hunger and being susceptible to hunger and to malnutrition. Almost a quarter have eaten less so they can feed their kids. 

In case anyone’s in danger of forgetting.

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Like the rest of the world, we live in the shadow of the disease–some of us more immediately and some of us less so.

My partner and I got tested for Covid-19 yesterday. Not because we have symptoms but because a friend whose husband died of the virus really, really wanted us to. And because every country should be testing asymptomatic people on a mass scale. It’s the only way to identify clueless carriers, and until we do that they’ll keep spreading the virus. 

I was reluctant. To work, testing has to be on a mass scale and we’re only two people. We could test negative and be exposed tomorrow, so what does a test tell us, really? And the British government isn’t doing mass asymptomatic testing. It’s pushing testing for people with symptoms. But, as our friend reminded me, I didn’t have any overwhelming amount of respect for the way the government’s handling the pandemic, so why did I suddenly want to respect their decision on this? 

We signed up.

So here’s the report on testing: The website where you book the test got stuck in a loop when Ida signed up, repeatedly asking for her date of birth, so that she wasn’t just born again but again and again and again. But it did eventually let us schedule the tests.

Okay, Ida booked both tests while I sat on the couch and kibbitzed.

The system only wanted my date of birth once. 

The testing was well organized. We found a variety of ways to screw up, but the people who worked there were patient and got us through it. Then we came home to go online and register the tests, because if you don’t, you don’t get your results and the whole thing’s pointless. 

Ida couldn’t get past the screen that asked for her post code. It didn’t believe her. Or it didn’t like her neighborhood.  

Whatever. She gave up and called the phone number that the form gave as a backup option.

I got past the post code with no problem. We live in the same house but my half is in a better neighborhood than hers. I was getting all ready to feel  smug when I realized that the page the form had sent us to exists to book a test, not to register a test you just took. 

When do you want to book your test? it asks. 

Two hours ago, please. 

I picked up the phone and called.

*

I can’t leave you without a word or six about the government’s world-beating test and trace system. Because contact tracing is–or at least needs to be–a part of our lives these days.

Some of the people who’ve been hired as contact tracers still report–as they have from the beginning–having nothing to do. They’re supposed to call people who’ve tested positive, ask who they’ve been around, and then call them. And talk to them all about quarantining themselves. 

Some contact tracers report only making a handful of calls a month, including the ones to nonexistent numbers. Team leaders are keeping them busy with quizzes and offering prizes for the most calls made. 

One company subcontracting from the outsourcing giant Serco had 471 agents and made 135 calls in two days. That includes calls to wrong numbers, calls to voicemail, and multiple calls to a single person. The tales go on, but you get the drift. 

In early July, the system was reported to cost £10 billion.

That’s in addition to the contract tracing app that failed. That cost £11.8 billion