Modest Expectations – Stereo on the Mountain

I have written this story before, but the proposal to increase the travel allowances of patients living in country areas of NSW reminds me of a story which appeared in my 1988 book “Portraits in Australian Health” released in the Bicentenary year, to my knowledge the only book which the Federal Department of Community Services and Health sponsored to honour this occasion.

It related to a long time general practitioner in a northern country town in NSW who, among his diverse interests and skills, was an expert in diseases of the eyes. On one occasion, one of his patients came to see him for advice. Apparently, the advice did not suit this person, and so he sought a second opinion. This meant travelling to Sydney by train, which took about eight hours, in order to consult the eye specialist.  This meant no mean effort.

Days later, he arrives at the specialist’s rooms in Macquarie Street only to find, as he entered the consulting room, there was his own country doctor who, at the time, was undertaking a locum for the specialist.

This is highly unlikely to happen today, but emphasised that just because one may prefer to practise medicine in a rural setting it is in any way different from practising in the city, apart from the technology. It just means getting the skill sets and the incentives right. But I admit that technology has in some areas supplanted a need for the same level of clinical skills, but that generality hides a much deeper discussion on its truth.

The doctor in the anecdote never lost his links with the city. When a doctor practises in a country town, he or she does so as an everyday member of the community and as the repository of the knowledge of the community’s health status, each person by person.  In attracting a doctor to country practice, the community must realise that the doctor must have his or her own space, his or her own privacy – the interaction between the doctor and community, which I once termed “tolerance” – a recognition of the importance of both sides of this interaction played out beyond the doctor’s rooms.

In so doing, another element of potential dysfunction is broached – that of professional isolation. Post graduate education is offered but availability is not the same as uptake. What worried me when I served as Director of Clinical Training was to get the professionals to interact with one another, even within the one practice. I have found collegiality helps in diminishing isolation, because sometimes I think many of my colleagues would prefer a sub-specialty of one.

Over years working in rural areas, it is tragic that I have seen the same mistakes being repeated over and over again. The classic conundrum is that of the doctor who complains about his workload, but when offered another doctor, recoils because of an unsubstantiated threat to income and as a threat to the power structure these long term doctors have created in their town. As a result there is a dearth of succession planning.

The other cultural problem, for which doctors are not to blame, is that the closer one town is to another the greater the rivalry and animosity, often demonstrated in the regional sporting rivalries

Awareness of the dysfunctions of rural life is papered over by the vision of an Acadian life, but despite the attempts at regionalisation, it is always the major regional city which collects the spoils and the rest of the region is left to its own devices. There are success stories; but always it seems there is a time when former patterns of dysfunctional behaviour re-emerge.

Having the will of successive generations of administration to maintain an open co-operative system requires the steely resolve of people like the Mayo Brothers, and how they achieved their success should be studied in every institution where health administration is taught.

“Tasting the winds, that are footless,
Waist-deep in history.”
 

I love trees as obviously does Sylvia Plath from this above quote.

One of my most enjoyable times was driving between Bourke and Goodooga in Northern NSW with Stuart Gordon and Nick Mersiades. Stuart Gordon then was moving from growing cotton into the community services sector. He asked whether he could cadge a lift to Brewarrina, as Nick and I were going onto Goodooga to stay the night before proceeding to Hebel just over the NSW border in Queensland the next day.

Brigalow trees

What was unforgettable about this drive was the level of knowledge of the countryside those two blokes had. The bush was varied. At one point we would be driving through predominantly brigalow scrub but at other times gidgee scrub.

Gidgee trees are stockier than brigalow and have dark trunks, which, when they are cut, yield a yellow sapwood corona surrounding an umber core. Brigalow trees are taller. In the dry area, the green brigalow foliage becomes increasingly silvery, and in a breeze I thought it to be almost feathery like giant dowager boas.

Gidgee trees
Leopard gum

Interspersed among these stands of acacia were mallee eucalypts, and the incredibly beautiful leopard and salmon gum trees. The trunks of the latter were smooth salmon in colour and the leopard gum mimicked the spotted hide of the eponymous carnivore.

To me, crushing a gum leaf and smelling the eucalyptus oil is the most tangible reminder of who I am. Although I have been eligible for both British and Irish citizenship, however tempted, I can only be loyal to one country – Australia. Sometimes over the past decade it has been very difficult to assert such loyalty, but the sun always rises.

Some years ago, Thomas Pakenham, who is incidentally the 8th Earl of Longford, a disestablished Irish peerage, authored a number of books, among them extravagant pictorials highlighting the trees of greatest significance to the author. In the first of these, “Remarkable Trees” was an impressive arboreal array, including the oldest tree in the world, a bristlecone pine about 4,600 years old growing at an altitude of 3,000 metres in the White Mountains in California among other aged trunks in the aptly named Methuselah Grove.

Apparently there was an even older tree in which an enthusiastic geography student inserted and then broke a tree corer in trying to ascertain the age of a similar tree. The corer was valuable enough for the tree to be cut down to rescue the corer. The tree turned out to be 4,900 years old at the time of its axing.  It could be said that these trees have been dying for two thousand years, but none had been beheaded in search of an instrument. Two thousand dollars for the oldest tree – a question of priorities.

Yet there were Australian trees among his remarkable trees. One was the famous prison baobab near Derby in the Kimberley.  Another was the bunya pine next to a grand castle in Northern Portugal.  The height of this pine is comparable to the castle’s campanile tower. In our garden here in Sydney we have had a number of bunya pines which we once bought in the Bunya Mountains south-west of the Queensland town of Kingaroy.

Fortunately the remaining one still grows in a pot, saving us from worrying about a putative 45 metre tree overshadowing the whole of our front garden. Australia is thought of as being gum and wattle trees, but Australia is also home to many of the Araucaria relatives of the bunya pine, the most recent member of this genus being the Wollemi pine, named for the wilderness area in the Blue Mountains where it was first discovered.

This book was followed by “Australia’s Remarkable Trees” – another impressive pictorial. I once wrote to its authors Richard Allen and Kimbal Baker, pointing out that there was this remarkable tree at the corner of Punt Road and Alexandra Avenue in Melbourne. It is a huge golden elm at the intersection of these two very busy roads on the banks of the Yarra River.

The amazing element which I found as I entered the dense canopy, seeking an unmarked specimen of leaf, at a time when I was collecting the various glabrous leaves of these trees, was that when you were under the canopy your vision was only of the foliage. The outside world was blotted out. Branches nearly touch the ground, and others are propped up. Here, there was a tranquillity, and even though close by, the traffic noise was muted, although the smell of the dusty, dirty city does penetrate through the foliage.

Most of the foliage bore the scars of insects – it was mid-summer and cool under the foliage. Close up the imperfections in the leaves were very evident. But that is life. The tree appears in the book, and the authors suggest the best time to view the tree is in spring when the foliage is unmarked, a lighter shade of green than its companion elms. Given in Europe that the English elm has been almost wiped out by Dutch elm disease, Melbourne and also other places like Ballarat are major remaining strongholds on Earth of this remarkable tree.

All such books as I describe are based on informed subjectivity. However there is one thing binding all these trees and that is of a deep appreciation, if not awe, of the permanent diverse planet upon which we move about. Thus, when one hears of destruction, it is often a time when I mourn for this lost heritage, as if one has lost a member of the family.

Fire is an ever-present risk to our forests. For some slow growing trees like snow gums it is a ghastly fate, but for others such as banksia it is important for the generation of new stock. The greater danger is overlogging, which has dogged Australia throughout our history. It seems that if you are born Tasmanian, you are born an instinctive forester. A forester is OK; but an indiscriminate logger is a vandal. The stories abound of such destruction in Tasmania, which continually change the undoubted resilience of trees such as the trio of its indigenous pines – the Huon, king billy and celery.

Trees deserve our attention. They are part of us. The introduction of the deciduous exotica, which provide Australia with all the autumnal colour, is probably one of the positive contributions from the colonial Heritage.

Thus, many of us take trees for granted, and when we talk about trees, the appreciation of diversity is unfortunately limited to whether the tree is obstructing my view or not.

 A Virus in the Sand

At a time when the rise in the number of cases of Covid in Australia has been dramatic, the following article from the NYR shows a thoughtful perspective as it describes what the new medical graduate must expect. Much of the clinical experience of all these young health professional graduates would have been in a period when the COVID-19 pandemic dominated health care and the resultant priorities arising. I have read these thoughts, and the stark manner in which ICU practice has been affected in modern medical practice with the advent of a contagious disease dominating the acute patient load.

At the same time, there are the challenges presented by its persistence as the chronic disease in all its manifestations; such as the phenomena of active long COVID or dormant COVID reappearing decades later.

This is a virus which is both deadly and seemingly innocuous, depending on the particular individual response. Whether it creates a deep ravine in medical practice, between infectious and non-infectious disease will ultimately depend on how the organisation of the health care system changes both now and after the pandemic has waned– the resurrection of infectious disease hospitals for instance.

An illustration of the growth in COVID cases

Paradoxically, Australia has spent a considerable amount of money on health institutions, often driven by clever marketing of sub-specialities, with an advocacy group of those affected by the particular condition and their relatives, especially if the affected person has a strong public profile.

The level of sub-specialisation and the disproportionate incentives for this to occur only serves to magnify the cost of health care. Children are an irresistible magnet for funding; and beware any attempt to interfere. Try a review of funding for childhood cancer – impossible to review objectively as to cost effectiveness because of the emotional halo.

A subspecialty exists because, through skill or advocacy, it has carved itself away from a perceived drudgery of general practice. This view has been increasingly encouraged by the various deans of health sciences in universities, where excellence is determined by the amount of research funding and by the number of citations, notoriously subject to gaming.

This obsession with rankings based on the alleged quality of research has been increasingly dissociated from the prime reason for universities to exist – and that is to teach each generation of students in the best available environment. Plus, may I add, not to have half the Faculty away on overseas conferences, on sabbaticals and/or time spent in private practice and outside consultancy work. This state of affairs is hardly conducive to healthy pedagogy.

The doctors who are finishing residency now have completed most of their training in a world without robust family presence. They learned to become doctors to patients who are intubated and under deep sedation, behind closed doors, in a world of masks and alongside the fear that if they are not careful, their patients could make them sick.

Back in my own training, we used deep sedation and paralysing medications infrequently, as we knew that these decisions came with a cost: delirium, long-term brain dysfunction, profound weakness. But today’s doctors in training have learned on Covid patients. When we were uncertain what to do, particularly early on, we reflexively jumped to deep sedation as the answer for them. These are patterns that are hard to unlearn.

And beneath it all is the continued spectre of the virus. Though I did not have a single patient with Covid-19 during my recent weeks in the unit, from time to time, we would receive a message alerting us that one of our patients had a Covid exposure from a staff member who had tested positive and would have to be on precautions as a result. Patients and families were once terrified by this news, but now they are largely used to it and seem reassured that the staff are masked and so any meaningful exposure is unlikely. This is another aspect of our new reality.

To think that a possible Covid exposure would not cause panic is itself a sign of great progress. But at the same time, we are so far from where we thought we might be by now. When I walked through the halls of the Covid intensive care unit back in the spring of 2020, I told myself, as did so many of us in health care, that we would improve care for those who were disproportionately impacted by this virus. The systems to which we had become accustomed would be dismantled, and we would find ourselves somewhere better.

But those sorts of promises are naïve and empty without a plan for how to make and sustain real change to protect the vulnerable among us. So here I am, back in the unit, caring for a patient with severe cerebral palsy, who had aspirated his own secretions and developed a life-threatening pneumonia. His aging parents had done the best they could despite limited resources, making sure to turn their adult son on his side multiple times a day to help him cough, but his muscles were too weak. And now he would require a tracheotomy tube for the rest of his life. I know, talking to his parents, that it is possible that their adult son will not go home, that they will not be able to afford the kinds of services he needs. When and if another virus comes, the son they cared for at home for three decades might be living in precisely the kind of nursing facility that will be decimated by it. It’s easy to feel that the tragedy only repeats.

But then again, in just a few weeks, a group of newly minted doctors begin their internships. Medicine is strange like that, a new generation every three years, and with it a chance for reinvention. They will find themselves in a hospital in transition, in a country that has suffered more than a million deaths. We will teach them about all of it, about how to manage sepsis and heart failure and trauma, about the pandemic and how it was before. And for a moment, maybe, we can step back and see it all through their eyes — the nervousness and the excitement and, more than anything, the hope for what is to come.

Oolong or Earl Grey?

In a previous blog, I worried about the many deficiencies in our approach to the other nations of the South Pacific.

The Chinese might have the money, but Australia has the advantage of Foreign Minister, Senator Penny Wong, who has turned disdain to genuine respect for our South Pacific community. This has been coupled with a change in the Government’s attitude to climate change, to make it easier for the Australian government to adopt a primus inter pares role in the South Pacific area.

Every nation in the South Pacific has been victim of colonisation. China in its entry into the South Pacific is just another coloniser, although the gunboat may be muted, the offered funding comes clutched in a mailed fist.

Therefore, the European countries have been a major factor in the sometimes idiotic distribution of their colonies. Does it make sense that the Western part of New Guinea has been hived off into Indonesia just because it was once the furthest outpost of Dutch colonisation.

One remnant of Portugal’s worldwide speckled colonisation is the Republic of Timor-Leste, whose isolation in a region of muted hostility makes it not unexpectedly seek a powerful ally, such as China. Previously East Timor, as it was before Independence, has always presented an anomaly. Whitlam was worried that East Timor, if it received such independence, would present a risk of an Arafura Cuba.

However any hidden intervention then has been well and truly trumped by the disgraceful behaviour of the Australian Government, as described in the Crikey newsletter namely the bugging of the Timor-Leste cabinet, the motives of the Howard government in its tactics towards the fledgling state, the subsequent decisions of the then foreign minister and then DFAT secretary to take jobs with the biggest beneficiary, the abuse of intelligence agencies for corporate espionage, the attempts to cover up the truth of the bugging and the vexatious attempts to punish those who exposed that truth, amount to the greatest scandal of recent decades.

Cristo Rei, Dili, Timor-Leste

Successive Australian governments have concealed such chicanery that will make any long term relationship between the Republic and ourselves very shaky. Australia has a substantial Timorese population in Darwin, and having been there just before the pandemic, it was to me clear how much the Chinese were investing in the Timor-Leste infrastructure. While the Republic shares the island with Indonesia, it is also a short boat ride from Dili across to the Indonesian island of Alor, part of the extended archipelago of the Southern Sunda islands, one of which Bali is 1,600 kilometres to the west of Alor.

Setting Timor-Leste aside for a moment is not to ignore its importance in a cohesive Australian South Pacific strategy lacking up to now.

Apart from a perception of the Chinese being a new colonial power, one of the points of differentiation is for Australian government ministers to cease to act as colonial masters. The Chinese have difficulty in hiding their sense of superiority, which grates, and in the end makes their presence in the South Pacific unpalatable. Nevertheless, mate, money takes away any distaste.

As I wrote about Andrew Peacock’s actions when he inherited the Ministry of External Territories, he immediately treated the New Guineans as equals, so evident in his relationship with Michael Somare. His predecessor was an old school Country Party politician, who viewed coloured people as inferior. After all, we’ve lived through a long term White Australia policy, and it is testimony to countervailing factors which have assured our role among out neighbours – not the least of which was our generation in speaking out against such a policy.

One of these factors binding us together undoubtedly is rugby; and with that New Zealand and its indigenous Maori population provide a vital bridge to Polynesia. This the Chinese do not have,

Our mutual Anglo-Celtic background provides a deceptive similarity of Australia with New Zealand. Yet it is in part mirage. As one who has headed a hybrid Australian and New Zealand organisation, I found the countries to be very different; the two nations respond differently to external stimuli. As with all neighbours, there is an accumulation of negative factors, which will intrude into all the positive aspects, unless we both recognise and deal with the differences immediately. Recently in her new role, Penny Wong has ably demonstrated with her embrace of the NZ Foreign Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, with her facial moko, her ability to confront the cultural differences. Whatever may be unstated, facial tattoos are confrontational for a country not steeped in Polynesian culture as New Zealand is.

Melanesia, as shown by the Solomon Islands treaty with China, exhibits our vulnerability; this is intertwined in our relationship with Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea is a nation borne out of strong colonial links with Australia, both direct with Papua and by the acquisition of a mandate of the German colony of New Guinea after WW1.

Our indigenous Aboriginal people are represented in some of the Southern Sunda islands but more as an anthropological curiosity than as any cohesive force.

There are the Torres Strait People and here the Australian border with PNG provides a problematic divide. Then there is the collection of South Seas islanders – the descendants from the nineteenth century kanaka trade. Predominantly men from Vanuatu, they were press-ganged to work the cane fields of Northern Queensland, and Mackay is where many of the descendants remain. They have their identity, their flag but are not recognised in the same way Torres Strait Islanders are recognised. Only a small fraction of white Australia has ever met a Torres Strait islander. Yet some of the greatest rugby league players have come from both Torres Strait and South Seas Islanders.

On the other hand, the Solomon Islands were always a British colony before independence in 1978; and the Republic of Vanuatu was born from the New Hebrides condominium arrangement between Britain and France in 1980.

France remains the only European power left in the South Pacific and there is no indication that it will leave soon. One of the lessons was our ability to mobilise against the common enemy – this was the French when they were conducting nuclear testing in the South Pacific. We ran a meticulous campaign against the French and, given its modest funding, was very successful if judged by its impact among some of the South Pacific nations, remembering I was fronting an Australian and New Zealand organisation.

One area of which both our nations are guilty is still the magnetism  of Great Britain, even though despite some Whitehall protestations, Britain has long since vacated the South Pacific. The AUKUS arrangement  is redolent of a backward looking, nostalgic stream of thought.

Hopefully  as an early priority Wong will not rush over to the “old Country” to tug the forelock or have tea at Windsor. Fortunately, she seems to have left that to the emissary of the old huntin’ and shootin’ brigade, garbed as an Edwardian remnant of Albion humankind, a man whose name conveniently rhymes with dandy. Leave the UK to these people and let’s get on with dealing with the actual challenges of our region.

We marshalled the forces against one form of climate change 25 years ago. The challenge presented by climate change is far more serious and instead of AUKUS, how about a South Pacific alliance against the great polluter, China. Unfair characterisation? Fairness is not a major constituent in Chinese foreign policy. I am sure that matter is foremost in the Penny Wong mind.

Some are advocating Australia enact a form of the Monroe Doctrine. Next blog I shall discuss this proposal, given it seems to have some currency.

Mouse Whisper

Have you noted those advertisements, where the dentist has his back to the viewer, brandishing what is ostensibly a tooth brush. If you look in the mirror, there is no reflection of the dentist.

Now what a subtle advertisement. Toothbrushes and garlic toothpaste?

As some other rodent has said: “Real vampires do exist – they are life sucking people that are narcissistic, greedy, selfish and vain. They take from you as much as they can. They “seem” to be friends and offer you pleasure and beauty but they take your life. They cannot see their reflections because they portray someone other than their true self.”

In the end, as they say, there is no reflection on anybody.

Modest Expectations – Grand Final Action

What do you do the day after an election when there has been a realignment of the Australian electorate? Suddenly a majority of Australians are voting to address climate change, for integrity and for now, time is being called on the Paul Hogan vision of the normal Australian – the end of The Australian Sheila – a dutiful object of the male frustration, where sexual violence masquerades as consensual behaviour.

Dargo

We went to Dargo. Dargo is a bush town, where the legend of the mountain is evident. As with so much of settlement in Victoria, it was the pursuit of gold which drove settlement at the foot of the Great Dividing Range where the Dargo River and Crooked Creek flow into the Mitchell River. Here there was alluvial gold and also deeper lead (lode) mining, which is so much the history of Victoria. However the gold did not last long around Dargo; it petered out to the extent that at one point Dargo verged on being a ghost town.

After you leave Dargo, you wind your way into the forested Great Dividing Range and the road eventually ends near the ski resort of Mount Hotham. It is a tortuous trip, a challenge to those prone to car sickness, through that other great resource of Eastern Victoria – timber. Cutting down old forest, which covers much of the land, has become as unfashionable as would tipping all the tailings from mineral mining down the Dargo River, and yet we are told that VicForests continues to actively log right through this area.

Dargo therefore embodies the myth of the rugged hard-riding horsemen of the bush ballad, but in reality these are the stuff of pub myths. The general laidback attitudes of the people belie the scrabble existence.

The day is beautiful; the air is clear. There is neither wind nor cloud. The deciduous trees are all vivid in a mixture of crimson, scarlet, bronze and yellow along the roads and in the Dargo township as it is basking in the late autumn sunshine. Yet much of the background for the mountain man myths are the hills covered in eucalypts. There are none of the variegated colours of the deciduous exotics on the mountainsides. There are these forests of messmate, with its stringy bark, the lofty mountain and alpine ash with their paler trunks. In the end, what is a deep green mountainside as it drifts away through the gorges and takes on the steely blue-green appearance so characteristic of the eucalypt forests. We wonder how much of these mountains has been traversed by white man; and then one of the group pointed out the electric power lines. The area is riddled with deer, which attracts the hunter.  The rivers attract the angler in search of wild trout.

This area has not been burnt for a long time, although to the east there have been devastating bush fires, which razed the settlements of Genoa and Mallacoota two years ago. Today, bush fire season is so far away – and yet Dargo has been threatened and will be again. As we drive through it, the endless expanse of blackened trunks is wreathed with new growth and mingle with white forest skeletons that will never to regenerate.

But today with a bottle of beer I am contemplating a beautiful landscape, where the fire did not come; where there is not a ballot box nor hoarding spruiking some far-off candidate who may never have stepped in the town. This is bliss. We do not see the tears of the vanquished nor the victory speeches nauseating in the myriad of fleeting acknowledgements – only Australian beauty, where only recently in a major coup, back down the valley towards Bairnsdale, a sand mining proposal on the Mitchell River, which would have ripped the guts out of this area has been refused by the local people.

The silt jetties

When we come down from Dargo to the Coast, before we return to where we are staying, we are driven down this long spit of land – the Mitchell River Silt Jetties, which divide the Mitchell River from Lake King.  This narrow tongue of land, which has been built up over thousands of years, is the longest of its type in the world. The river flows into Lake King at the end of this long tongue of silt and sand.

The river shimmers in the twilight, protected from the lake where its waters are now ruffled by the wind coming in from the south-west. Yet despite the buffeting, black swans glide past. What a day to spend; what sights to be seen – and yet another place on the bucket list to be crossed off – or more properly committed to my bank of memories – of places seen, places experienced; a pity I can no longer tramp around as I used to do.

But a memorable election day. Australia has been voted in.

What can I say about the Member for Longman!

They say bad generals always fight the last war, and the Liberal campaign fell into the same trap. Morrison won a surprise victory in 2019 through a negative campaign in which he depicted then-Labor leader Bill Shorten as a dangerous radical. Labor, wary of giving Morrison a second victory, changed its strategy. It matched many of Morrison’s policies and was cautious in its own offerings. Labor was like an echidna, the spiky Australian animal that rolls into a ball when attacked. Morrison kept attacking, as if he knew no other mode, even though Labor’s small-target strategy gave him so few opportunities.

Our own Richard Glover in The Washington Post ascribed ten reasons why Morrison lost government. You cannot disagree with his list, but the reason printed above is the one which went to the heart of Morrison’s failure.

Morrison was the classic flim-flam man who perfected his techniques through his association with Pentecostalism. It enabled him to surf his waves of personal impotence right to the end. His problem was that the spotlight became so intense that the greasepaint melted and he was exposed as an aggressive peddler of untruths. Morrison’s entrails will be barbecued on the fires of Hybris ignited by the fire-starter of “hubris”.

When Whitlam ended 23 years of Coalition rule, the Liberal Party voted for a new leader on the resignation of McMahon, himself a very divisive unpleasant character. The choice made was for Bill Snedden, who had been McMahon’s Treasurer; considered to be a nice guy, but lightweight. He beat Nigel Bowen on the fifth ballot by one vote.

Bowen, who was a distinguished jurist, had replaced Garfield Barwick as the member for Parramatta in 1964, (which indicates that the seat does not have to be held by a local). The current high-flying wealthy young banker, Andrew Charlton, lived in Bellevue Hill at the time of his parachute pre-selection; he not only won, but achieved a one per cent swing towards him. This is by way of a parenthetic comment about what has been occurring for some time, namely that any electorate increasingly cannot be taken for granted – a theme in Australian politics which will cause traditional shifts in alignments. Now back to the main narrative.

Billy Snedden

Malcolm Fraser did badly in this ballot, because he was seen as disruptive and had at that stage an enemy/friend ratio well in the positive. So Snedden, who had grown up in Perth but represented the outer Melbourne suburban seat of Bruce, became Opposition leader and Philip Lynch, the member for Flinders, his deputy. He inherited a divided party and over the course of his two-year stewardship, he was able to reconcile the differences to such an extent that Fraser, pictured as the tough guy, became viable. Nevertheless, bringing the Opposition together as Snedden had done, paradoxically projected him as not being tough enough, namely, in the long term, unfit – and of course the lightweight tag became featherweight if not flyweight among the Fraser acolytes. A member of these acolytes was the newly-minted John Howard.

Thus, the tough guy persona, despite the rants from the “Murdochrinaires”, is not the way to heal a party divided. These people are screaming for the anointment of Peter Dutton. Dutton is an ex-Queensland copper made good. The Queensland police force has been shown on many occasions to be wanting, and to stigmatise Peter Dutton is as much to stigmatise me for being a product of a school that had produced its fair share of “shonks”.

The second reservation is that Queensland has never produced a Liberal Party Prime Minister. Arthur Fadden was the nearest, a Country party stalwart, who was Prime Minister in his own right for 40 days in 1941. However ne’er a Liberal; only fleetingly the Country Party member for Darling Downs, who later was to be Menzies’ Deputy Prime Minister.

One of the results of a major loss is that the Senate representation remains and contains many of the most dysfunctional members of the Party. They remind one of the Calwell stewardship of the Labor Party – as totally unelectable on the left as these jokers are on the right. If one is familiar with the writings of Georges Sorel, one can recognise the similarity in the authoritarian attitudes and behaviour of these people, who live on the extremes. If you viewed the post-election rant of Rowan Dean, it gives a terrifying view of the world of the extreme authoritarian hatred. These people are backing Dutton.

The West Australian Premier dismisses Dutton as a dullard, and his form of strident form of dogmatism and fear mongering will not run well in the southern states, if reliance can be placed on the current voting patterns

Morrison, Abbott, Dutton – mocking climate change

Anybody who said, as he did in 2015: (sic) Noting that today’s meeting on Syrian refugees was running a bit late, Mr Dutton remarked that it was running to “Cape York time”, to which Mr Abbott replied, “we had a bit of that up in Port Moresby”.

Mr Dutton then added, “time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door”.

That exchange alone should disqualify him from the leadership at this time; it was outrageous then, but now, has he demonstrated any change for the better?

The Liberal Party needs to purge itself, not play to a diminishing gallery of misfits. I well remember one of my contemporaries describing the Young Liberals as “five per cent of lawyers leading ninety-five per cent misfits.” This assessment may remain partially true now. These days the misfits are just absorbed in a politician’s office to develop their consigliere profiles. Thankfully, at last the true results of such a generation of these types are being brutally exposed.

The Liberal party needs a healer and one who can reach across Australia, including regional Australia – and that includes humouring the Queenslanders. Snedden had the guts to do so almost 50 years ago. I severely doubt that Dutton has that ability to do that – reach across Australia.

Tell me what is a pharmacist?

From the days of gentlemanly pharmacy

In 1961 I sat down to undertake the last Materia Medica examination for medical students. It was then part of the medical course that we learnt to make pills, lotions and ointment – and the last memory of this immersion in the world of the apothecary was a brush with male extract of fern. That herbalism epitomises “the alchemist” struggling to be accepted. It exemplified the quaintness of the village chemist, with carboys in the windows and the apprenticeship system of pestle and mortar. Our teacher, an old gentleman with a medical degree and a nineteenth century demeanour, passed into folklore that year with the change of the medical course to substitute pharmacology, and the advance of science into the education of the apothecary.

I remember The University of Melbourne rejecting the idea of having a faculty of pharmacy, even though the Pharmacy College was just up the road. Instead, Monash University took on the education of pharmacists. I think The University of Melbourne hierarchy at the time thought that Pharmacy should use the tradesman’s entrance. In fact, the Monash Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences is now labelled number one in world

In a recent statement, the Dean, Professor Arthur Christopoulos, said: “The pandemic has certainly reinforced the crucial and frontline role that pharmacists and pharmaceutical scientists play in society. Over and above their normal services, we’ve seen the whole sector step up and play a huge role in vaccine rollout.”

The Faculty, known for its high profile research through Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS), is responsible for the development of Australia’s first mRNA vaccine candidate for COVID-19 and in 2021 launched the Neuromedicines Discovery Centre. The NDC is an end-to-end academic enterprise for the discovery, development, evaluation, manufacture, and clinical rollout of 21st-century medicines to treat mental health disorders, as well as the Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre, which supports Victorian biotech and pharma companies to develop a competitive edge and retain jobs within the state.

The Australian Pharmacy Research Centre was one of the first steps in trying to develop a research program in community pharmacy, and illustrated the dichotomy of the academic pursuit between laboratory and community pharmacy, of which the hospital pharmacist is a subset of the latter.

The problem with community pharmacy, because it is dependent on reimbursement of drugs under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, has meant the merchant pharmacist, through the Pharmacy Guild, has become a powerful lobby, with the merchant aspect well to the front. Pharmacists have been very strong on restrictive trade practices, and because they have been seen by a succession of Coalition governments as political “blue” outposts, they have done very well out of government largesse. Even the big retailers have been unable to establish pharmacies within their walls, despite having a prominent Liberal Party politician to lobby for them.

The residual problem is that these large chain pharmacies have arisen presumably through a loophole of benefit to the entrepreneurial pharmacist. This is a licence to promote quackery, and not unsurprisingly the Government has done nothing despite having the regulatory power. But then the Pharmacy Guild has been a major donor.

… everything you could want, and then some

Personally, I have a very good local pharmacist, and her pharmacy is not a sterile dispensary but a place where the pharmacist is a source of good advice. Nevertheless, it sticks in the craw to be confronted by television images, usually of young healthy people with children, with shopping baskets overflowing with bottles of vitamins and potions; the implicit message is that it is good, even compulsory, to take all this crap in order “to keep well”.

Further, when these co-called pharmacies move into the cosmetic industry it challenges the definition of what is a pharmacy? What are the professional priorities?

It is one area which must be a priority in any review – whether a health review or as a matter for an Integrity Commission – and I have yet to address the role of the pharmaceutical industry in listing drugs for government subsidy without the need to say “bingo”.

COVID Bare Foot

Guest sufferer: Janine Sargeant

COVID has been blamed for many things, including COVID toe, but COVID ankle? While the “dress shirt above the waist Zoom dressing” and styling your Zoom background may have been entertaining for a while, the accompanying tracksuit pants and bare feet or slippers have resulted in a raft of unexpected injuries. As many of us have spent time working from home in lockdown or avoiding the busy office environment, it has also meant not wearing supportive footwear. For the barefooted and be-slippered, this has delivered up a nasty surprise (particularly for those who normally do wear orthotics).

Nice to wear … just not for too long

Essentially, extended periods in bare feet or slippers plus a lack of regular “normal” exercise have left many with posterior tibial tendonitis (inflamed or stretched tendon that supports the arch of the foot) which can lead to arch collapse and permanent foot problems.

Similarly, the Achilles tendons of the working-from-home brigade have also taken a beating, again with what one expert described as “neglectful footwear”, a few extra COVID kilos, a lack of exercise, the change to treadmill running, prolonged closure of gyms and loss of exercise programs – in other words, the complete change in physical routine brought about by COVID lockdowns.

As one podiatrist commented: he couldn’t believe the number of people who have come to see him with Achilles problems or posterior tibial tendonitis. Such people now need orthotics to help them restore function to their feet; no doubt the physios are seeing the same unintended consequence of working at home. For this author’s painful ankle, the road to resolution is paved with new orthotics and months of exercises designed to strengthen the offending tendon – and a long break from “neglectful footwear”.

Requiem for a Light Welterweight

Really Schadenfreude is not a nice word. I am sure that one Andrew Peacock (or perhaps the ghost of the colt galloping the streets of Hawthorn) would have appreciated finally the final exit of John Howard, a person who started the fashion of a Liberal Prime Minister losing or abruptly vacating their seat.

From the time Howard entered politics in 1974, behind that mild-mannered courteous exterior has dwelt a wellspring of relentless hatred. Do not get me wrong; in his early years as Prime Minister, he made a reasonable fist of it, and he had members of his staff who provided a counterbalance to his instincts which helped preserve his public persona – no more so than Arthur Sinodinos, the long-term moderate who ran his office. For a short period in the early noughties, I was privy to the workings of him as the Prime Minister.

He achieved the shift of the Liberal Party power base to New South Wales, and left the Hamer Liberals in his wake, while detesting Kennett in this latter’s brief flame of power. I remember being at the Adelaide Airport on one occasion when Howard and I were retrieving our luggage. It was the time that Howard was out in the long grass in the early 90s. The initial exchange was inconsequential, when something I said triggered a vituperative response that he would get “them”. Apart from not being one of “them”, before I could ask him who the “them” was, he had rushed off. He disliked Costello, and there was something visceral about his approach to Victoria. I have always wondered whether the “them” were the Victorian Liberals. Paul Keating also was surely one of “them”; Howard was always expansive in his hatreds.  Whether or not it can be attributed to him, Victoria had become more and more toxic for the Liberal Party.

John Howard

But all this is a long time ago, and rather than just advise from the background, Howard still allowed himself to be pushed around in this election campaign. Why? It seems that even 15 years later he still cannot perceive the tsunami coming.

In a way, as a contemporary old buffer, I feel sorry for him. However, the imagery of an old age person with antiquated views campaigning provided a view of the Liberal Party where men wore morning suits and badges, and women made pumpkin scones. The image was painful and did not win any votes.

Bit of gratuitous advice John, write a blog about improving the treatment of the aged and then imagine anybody is reading it. It helps endure life in the gloaming – it is certainly better than just being plonked in front of TV set or wheeled around in a metaphorical Zimmer frame watching your legacy trampled.

Mouse Whisper

If I hear the new Prime Minister mention his rags to riches commentary once again, I doubt if I will be able to hold down my Emmenthaler.

However, I loved the comment which said that the Prime Minister must be happy to be back in public housing again after so many years. Maybe though he could flog off Kirribilli and take over Admiralty House.  Then build public housing on site, except even a mouse could imagine the potential homo sapiens rorts with such a project.

In any event, Governors-General don’t need summer palaces at the cost to the taxpayer. The hunting lodge at Yarralumla should more than do.

The Yarralumla Hunting Lodge – rabbit stew anyone?

Modest Expectations – Romeo, Romeo, where art thou?

Overlooking wild surf beaches, through rolling forested areas, past marae on the road between Russell and Whangerei was the sign in Ukrainian colours “Stop Putin – Stop War”.

Yes, this week we are in New Zealand. The only readily available news is sport, and the Sky sport channels provide one with the luxury of tuning into any of the popular football codes. However, in regard to news there is BBC, Al-Jazeera and CNN, together with the Murdoch propaganda channels – and Ukraine is there with all the Putrid reminders.

The wonderful feature of New Zealand is how varied yet peaceful is the countryside. Nevertheless, New Zealand lives on the edge, and its nickname of “The Shaky Isles” is well-earned. New Zealand lies on fault line; here the Pacific and Australian tectonic plates meet in a complicated manner. The edges of these plates, which meet under New Zealand, are not straight lines so the collision zone does not behave the same way along its whole length. Also, the convergence is not perpendicular to the plate boundary and there is rotation of the plates, hence an addition to this complex boundary.

New Zealand’s volcanoes and earthquakes happen because it is in this collision zone where the edges of two plates converge and moreover to the east of the North Island the heavy, oceanic Pacific Plate is sinking below the lighter, continental Australian Plate. This is called subduction.

When major earthquakes and volcanoes are plotted worldwide they reveal that New Zealand is part of a huge “ring” of volcanic and earthquake activity. The plate boundaries around the Pacific Ocean are the most active in the world and this area is often referred to as the “Ring of Fire”. Although the Pacific Plate is the world’s largest tectonic plate, the South Island is the only significant area of New Zealand on the whole plate, thus making it a truly oceanic plate.

The upshot of this long description is that the further north one travels, the less likely there will be a major earthquake. To me, if I were to migrate to New Zealand as I have been sorely tempted to do, given the state of Australian turpitude, I would thus prefer to live in these upper reaches of the North Island. As I remarked before, when staying a little further north, there were bananas ripening and the flowers are distinctly tropically flamboyant. In this motel outside our door is a rhododendron with delicate tangerine flowers. Opening the local newspaper there is a double page spread about coffee growing up here in the Northland.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Hawkes Bay area, but the beautiful Art Deco architecture is a reminder of the massive 1931 earthquake, which effectively levelled both Napier and Hastings; hence the characteristic architecture of the rebuilt towns. I remember the story of the earth movement raising the floor of the lagoon to such an extent during that earthquake that the water drained away leaving a huge number of fish literally out of water. The image of people scurrying across the floor of the lagoon grabbing as many fish as they could, while all round was trembling and 256 people have just died is somewhat Brueghelesque.

That is enough incentive to move to Northland.

Bay of Islands

However, enough of this rhapsodising, for in this new world of COVID-19 before you leave Australia and enter New Zealand, you need to have a COVID test – either a PCR or a supervised RAT (Rapid Antigen Test). Now we all know that you can test yourself; but not if you are going to New Zealand, you have to go to a “certified testing site” for this supervised test.

Ah, Australia – the land of neoliberal gouging! We got off lightly – $110 for two. However, elsewhere the gouge was on – over $100 for one. Try one of the multi-national pathology companies which repatriate our Medicare money overseas. The unintended consequences of government indifference to what was once an excellent scheme called Medicare – now MediCarruptus!

However, I digress.

Get to New Zealand where neoliberalism lingers in the ghost of Rogernomics. Concern for the Virus is sustained more than in Australia. On entry to the country the New Zealand authorities gave us three RATs each, for free, for self-testing on day one and day five/six. An extra test was provided in the event of the test needing to be repeated. Self-administered; self-reported – at no cost. Day one RATs went without a hitch, as did RATs on Day 5.

Higgins 2019 as writ by The Guardian

“The people of Higgins — a compassionate community that wants to see a transition to a renewable economy to tackle climate change — see that the Liberals don’t represent their values anymore.”

Ms O’Dwyer joins a string of Liberal women who are departing at this year’s election. (describing in other media she wanted to be with her family and wistfully wanting a third child even though she was already over 40)

Queensland MP Jane Prentice was dumped by preselectors, South Australian Lucy Gichuhi was relegated to an unwinnable spot on the party’s Senate ticket, and Ann Sudmalis blamed “branch-stacking, undermining and leaks” for her decision not to recontest the New South Wales seat of Gilmore.

Julia Banks also abandoned the Liberal Party late last year and moved to the crossbench, describing the treatment of women in Parliament as “years behind” the business world.

The usual suspects?

Less than one quarter of Government MPs are women, while nearly half of all federal ALP MPs are women.

The Liberal Party has a goal for women to make up half of its party room by 2025

Higgins 2022 as writ by Katie

Kelly O’Dwyer having resigned, the Liberal Party preselected a woman, a paediatrician with impeccable credentials in allergy – particularly peanuts.

Katie Allen – wow Katie – not Katherine or even Kate but Katie. She must be a radical.

Alas no; if the opinion piece she recently ventilated is any guide.

After all, what was such an educated person doing in a party where misogyny is rife, where its ministers allegedly bash their partners, where funding for universities, health and research is routinely sacrificed to satisfy the coal fetishists lurking in the denizens.

Perhaps Higgins is perceived as a safe seat. Harold Holt held it for decades.

After the former leader of the Greens, Dr Di Natale, boasted before the 2019 election that Higgins was up for grabs, it was retained by the Coalition.  Thus, in the end he was wrong. Katie Allen sneaked over the line with a six per cent swing against her.

Given she is a woman, with substantial credibility from her career achievements, her electorate stretches from South Yarra and Toorak, (her comfortable stamping ground) to Murrumbeena and Carnegie – less so. She is a classical Liberal lady in the Margaret Guilfoyle tradition – very self-contained – only showing her real hand rarely.

Yet here we have an opinion piece which is just arrant nonsense.

I suspect if she were not a female she would have a Teal candidate added to the Rouge et Verde already confronting her.

I read her piece and thought here we go again. I was working for the Liberal Party leader when little Katie was a six year old and the only difference is that it is a woman allegedly saying the same old “broad church” crap – the apologia of a conservative person, who has been caught up in the brutish rural socialism and plutocracy of the National Party; wedged among the kleptomaniac remnant of the Liberal Party. Whether she authored the piece would be the subject of a statutory declaration saying that she had actually written it.

Dr Allen as reflected in her pronouncements is deeply embedded in the Liberal Party, and once stood for the seat of Prahran. Her electorate at one end represents the environment in which she has lived for her 40 years. Her electorate encompasses the dilemma of once being safe, now redistributed to include areas which traditionally are more Labor in orientation.

Over the years Higgins has stretched out to include areas that somebody inured to living in Higgins for 40 years would find unfamiliar. The image she projects in her advertisements is that of wholesome privilege; many photos of her with children from private schools, but then they have traditionally been the backbone of the future voters in Higgins. After all, she herself was a student at Merton Hall, which is now just outside her electorate – a matter of a few streets.

So here is the member of Higgins defending a party that is deeply misogynistic, deeply embedded in financial miscreance, opposed to an anti-corruption commission with real power, and moreover a former paediatrician who should be voicing opposition to the internment of refugee children including the “Biloela Four”. She bleats that she has actually crossed the floor once – and is that the face of the moderate Liberals?  Once, surely not!

Then she has the temerity to rhetorically ask: “But what does he (Fred Chaney) think will happen after the election if any of my moderate colleagues, who sit inside the party room, have been replaced by teal independents who aren’t inside the tent?”

What indeed.

I hesitate to say it but if she survives this election, she should use her expertise in peanut allergy to reform the Coalition. Otherwise she had better leave the tent flap open.

The Big Question

What does a breakout company like Moderna do for an encore? More than a decade after its founding, the Cambridge biotech rolled out its first commercial product last year. And what a debut it was: a cutting-edge COVID-19 vaccine that helped to save thousands ― if not millions ― of lives around the world.

It was also a massive money maker for Moderna, which up until then had been unprofitable. With more than $38 billion in total COVID-19 vaccine sales expected by the end of this year ― many of the doses paid for by governments ― investors are wondering what the company plans to do with that windfall. Despite Moderna’s spectacular success, the question of what’s next looms large, and the pressure is on to avoid becoming a one-hit wonder.

The same profit is expected for Pfizer and their vaccine. While there are accusations of excessive profits floating about, it is noted that Moderna is not seeking any payment for its vaccine being copied in South Africa.

Teal – the added colour of Port Adelaide

When Port Adelaide were admitted to the AFL the colour card was held at their head. Collingwood were the true Magpies – and their colours (even though neither is technically a colour) would remain black and white. The interlopers with their Prison Bar black and white jersey would henceforth have teal added to their colours and be forever “Power” not “Magpies.”

After all, this was a proud group of Croweaters, who at various times have been Cockledivers, Seaside Men, Seasiders, Magentas, Portonians, Ports. So switching onto the Power should have not been too much of a “big Teal”.

The colour “teal” comes from the green flash on the side of the teal duck’s head (teal comes the old Dutch word for this bird). Well, the colour is not actually green but a shade of blue admixed. To me the colour of the bird’s head is more a metallic green sometimes seen as the colour of souped up Holdens. However, those who have appropriated the colour for political purposes as was attempted in New Zealand in an aborted attempt to form  an alliance between the Greens and the conservative blue Nationals left the colour as its legacy.

Interestingly it was in the Italian town of Comaccio in the Po Delta where I encountered a cooked teal. We had arrived at this restaurant famous for its eels, as was the whole area, located as it was so close to the sea – in an environment of both fresh and salt water. I naturally ordered the eel, and immediately met resistance from mine host because the time that would be taken to cook it.  It was after four. They wanted to close by five pm – and we were offered an alternative.

“Alzavole” was the offer, and that was how I had a meal of roast teal. It was excellent – a fitting replacement.  The Italian word for “teal” in Italian literally means “get up and fly.”

How fitting for this group of Independents seeking election.

Success is always the result of timing.  A group of women provoked by the appalling record of the government on climate change and the failure of  placement of women on the same societal level as men, should enter the political arena. Some years ago at a lunch with a journalist of about my vintage I said that this country needed a group of candidates, independents of the three major parties to get together to prosecute a centrist role. My luncheon companion was sceptical because it was 2019 before the pandemic, and he was right. The time was not yet right although the saffron cauldron was bubbling. Then enter Simon Holmes a’Court.

My experience of student politics came before the student electorate became factionalised. You were voted for as an individual not on a party slate. Mistakenly I believed that one could weave a path through politics where issues were the subject of debate not of maximising self indulgence and corruption, in all its forms. Ideals burnt with the books.

These women are all articulate and counterpoint the shallow ugliness of some of their opponents, where lurk allegations, which if true, reveal a disgusting degeneracy in those who purport to be our leaders. What currently exists in the Coalition is akin to a cancer, which keeps metastasising. On the sidelines there are, among others, Fred Chaney, a former Coalition Minister, who represented the Liberal Party I once knew, where there was a balance within the conservative ranks, but where radicals were generally on the left of the conservative element, not on the right.

The whiff of the fascist has always been there, but with the demise of the Democratic Labor Party, the Falangist element drifted into the Liberal Party. This has been coupled to this heretical mob of creationists that used to be confined to Sunday morning ranting but unfortunately given a legitimacy by one Billy Graham, has now become a suffocating legacy of humbug in the Liberal Party.

If the Teal women can exert their influence by getting elected and restoring some secular order, then Australia can look forward to moving from the current situation with some hope. What is also very important is David Pocock winning a Senate seat in the ACT under its banner. An all woman faux-Party does have a certain political vulnerability, as Maxine McKew found out when she drifted far too close to the Sun (and probably the Daily Telegraph). Some say the cause was more a defective Rudder.

Nevertheless, the accession of the Teals will mean one positive effect – the gradual removal of the Murdoch influence to another place – the sporting pages. Then they can remember that Collingwood are still the black and white; and well, Teal was a compromise.    

To Chris Brook – with considerable help from W.H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, 
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, 
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum 
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. 

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead 
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead, 
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves, 
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. 

W.H. Auden’s beautiful poem is so eloquent in setting  aside that time to mourn but Chris was not for me

… my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday rest,  My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song.

Instead, in my own words without Auden’s genius to guide my hand,

He was my irritant
My collaborator
That solitary polymath thinker
That unleashed gregarious drinker
He was stoical
He was not
He was rude
He was generous
He was Quixote
But also Voltaire
Above all he was my mate Christopher, flaws and all. 
And I shall miss him dearly

The last time we had an exchange of emails was on the morning of his death. It was about Aspen Medical. Just a normal day. Then we went to New Zealand. And Chris went to God knows where.

Então meu amigo não Adeus; apenas Até logo.

Tilting at Windmills … God knows where

It is always Caos in Italy

Prince Rupert is always “banging on” about correctness of language, syntax, constantly worrying about splitting his infinity and when to appropriately use the colon and the semicolon when expressing opinion. Journalism is notably attracting the barely literate, he moans. Take the example of the football writer for an Opposition Roundhead publication who talked about “zealousness”. The word is “zeal” or perhaps “zealotry”, but not “zealousness”.

It is a small sign of where journalism is headed – to the bottom.

Yes, my dear journalist who confuses “tortuous” with “tortured” and struggles with “disinterest” and “uninterest”. And spells “chaos” with either a “K” or without the “h”.

What does make sense if these bottom feeding journalists want to play “Gotcha”, then journalists themselves are fair game. After all they rank just above politicians in community ranking. Prince Rupert did not say that!  The community did.

The smart arse journalist is always trying to find the electoral tipping point so that it is sufficient for an intrinsically lazy pack to pile in and attribute failure to this one tipping point.

The 1993 election is always mentioned in the context of the birthday cake episode in which Mike Willesee in interviewing John Hewson asked him the effect of GST on the price of a birthday cake. Hewson gave a qualified reply, as any honest politician should give, but his answer was transposed into a triumphant fourth estate “gotcha”.

As John Hewson said later, after his defeat in the 1993 election and subsequent ousting from leadership and retirement from Parliament, he should have told Willesee to get stuffed. Increasingly, the smart arse journalist should receive what should be known as this “Hewson Solution”. Adam Bandt recently demonstrated its application in one of his Press Conferences.

Finally, that hesitant young journalist recently reading a very stupid irrelevant question from her phone, obviously planted by some other journalist higher up in the Albanesegotcha phylum, will live long in the annals of rank idiotic desperation. As for the young journalist, my advice is: “Get a brain and not to rely on another person’s Offal.”

Mouse Whisper

This is an Iranian puzzle – not that difficult.

What is blue in the field, red in the market, yellow on the table?

Answer in above text.

Modest Expectation – Land across the Water

I am a pilgrim with a P/C, a bag of hessian straggling along the cyber pathway, lined by an array of “punitive cybresses”.

So many blogs – such a cacophony of blogs, one may ruminate surveying the clouds of opinions hanging low.

Why write a blog then?  Because I want you to know what I think too, and I may have less time along this pathway strewn with birds twittering and on the horizon a musk fragrance which may soon overwhelm.

I love the metaphor.  Pushing it to extremes.

Take Parliament. Some may say it is more like an 18th century bareknuckle fight that went to the 80th round, as two bare-chested blokes bashed each other to pulp for the edification of a crowd inured to cockfighting, bearbaiting, and an afternoon watching a melange of hanging, drawing and quartering.

But rather than a “cacophony of blogs”, I prefer to engage in orchestral imagery. The imagery of brutality is overdone in politics because the image creators often are obsessed with such imagery.

Here I invoke the music makers – whether composing, conducting or playing an instrument – as a more civilised metaphor, (although to my knowledge nobody has invoked it) the orchestra as a metaphor for Parliament.

I envy music makers since I have not a jot of a score in my brain. These composers are accustomed to transposing noise into a melody, which can resonate, which has a recognisable pitch and can be played in the policy orchestras which are currently tuning up for a major concert this month.

The problem for policy songwriters is whether the orchestras can go beyond that tuning phase or will the conductors be more concerned with ensuring that the only instrument that plays is the loudest and most discordant, and the baton used in a frenzied assault on other conductors who refuse to play the same tune, whether the lyrics are a version of ours or most probably not.

The end point of an orchestra is working in unison for the best outcome. Seems trite, but have you ever seen an orchestra behaving like politicians when they actually play.

On another level, there is an elegant metaphor for politics in the various houses of parliament to be courteous – gavottes or quadrilles in the pattern of an eighteenth-century drawing room. Cerebral serenades across a Molonglo terrace – but it does not happen. Politics will never be a cultured room of perukes and perfume, the musical metaphor remains as it was at the start, even though hypocrisy is rife.

The problem is that life is full of mixed metaphors. Politicians fall foul of the three donkeys of the apocalypse – sleeplessness, isolation and boredom.

Donkeys are associated with a serenade by a faux-Mexican and “Donkey Riding”, a Canadian traditional work song, was sung by sailors as they loaded timber onto ships, perhaps because the loading was assisted by the donkey engine. The donkey metaphor is not refinement.

However, when in relation to “donkeys of the apocalypse” I am invoking policy music, past, present and future for those who never learn and for whom the “donkey” is a more fitting metaphor.  They are stubborn; they don’t learn; they sleep for 3 hours in 24. What an entry to the dysfunctional habits of politicians.

Defining the physiological consequences of the politician swiftly descends into consideration of pathology due to lack of sleep.  Such lack is intrinsically assumed to be pervasive, but like so much in politics it is ignored. Lack of sleep does not enhance anything, yet the herd instinct of always being awake is a sign of toughness of leadership in what one writer once ironically stated: “To spend a third of one’s life in unproductive idleness seems a demented waste to some people and now they decide the slothful practice for evermore. No one has yet succeeded.” Margaret Thatcher gave it a good shot, always telling people how little sleep she needed. She ended up demented.

By contrast, it was remarkable how refreshed Albanese appeared after a week “off”. Normally, the media would be berating a leader if he took a week off during an election campaign, but COVID infection is akin to a sacred time of true isolation and being able to relax and sleep, without an equally sleepless media badgering one for being a slacker.

When I first wrote about this matter, I was fond of quoting from The Goshawk” by T.H.White:

“…in teaching a hawk it was useless to bludgeon the creature into submission…so the old hawk masters had invented a method of training them which offered no visible cruelty and whose secret cruelty had to be borne by the trainer as well as by the bird. They kept the bird awake. Not by nudging it or by mechanical means but by walking about with their (the falcon’s) pupil on their fist and staying awake themselves. The hawk was “watched”, as deprived of sleep by a sleepless man, day and night, for the space of two, three or as much as nine nights together. It was the stupid teachers who could go as far as nine nights; the genius could do with two, and the average man, three.”

As I wrote then, “Falconry obviously has a lesson for practitioners of politics.”

And as a postscript, the other donkeys, Isolation and Boredom, remain untethered and I shall continue the discussion of the pathophysiology of these apocalyptic beasts. Yet the practitioners in the political arts do not want to know about them.

Worried. Not me. Just a silly little cough…

This article in the Washington Post, slightly edited, epitomises so eloquently the fears I have about venturing out into crowds, or situations where one is forced into “cocktail party” contact. Even though I have been double boosted and inoculated against influenza, I have memories of my last bout of influenza, which was highly unpleasant and took months of recovery time.

Frankly I find masks uncomfortable, but given a bout of upper respiratory infection where breathing becomes difficult and coughing does nothing but aggravate the chest pain, there is no alternative. Nevertheless, there are three areas of hygiene to observe. Social distancing means avoiding crowds and venues which are poorly ventilated. Oh, do I remember the low ceilings of the jazz clubs and the atmosphere of cigarette smoke, and how such scenes were twisted into those of romance and elegance. Remember, Casablanca – the imagery of Bogart and Bergman and Rick’s Bar!

I find it very interesting how resistant people are to handwashing, even though as a child I was socialised into washing my hands before meals and after going to the toilet. Often the hand sanitiser is completely ignored – a lonely sentinel mocked by the pervasive Virus as its victims pass by, failing to use it. It is all very strange.  What grubs we are – particularly men!

Now to the Washington Post take on the subject of the end of mask wearing as mandated by Trump appointee Kimball Mizelle to a Florida District Court. Rated as “not qualified” by the American Bar Association. Nevertheless, this lawyer at the age of 33 has a lifetime ahead of her to wreak further havoc. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is appealing her decision , but the horse seems to have bolted, because the intrinsic American way is to look after numero uno, not the Public Good – it is called Freedom apparently.

After a Federal judge’s April 18 decision to overturn the transportation mask mandate, a JetBlue flight attendant celebrated mid-flight, holding up her mask and chanting over the public address system, “Wave ’em in the air like you just don’t care.”

When I saw that clip — and other videos of airline passengers gleefully discarding their masks — I couldn’t help thinking of the people on those planes who had counted on general masking to reduce the risk of travel. “Just don’t care” seemed an apt description of the way their neighbours were behaving — the way Americans are behaving in general.

Yes, people have expressed concern about the sudden and seemingly arbitrary lifting of the mask mandate.

For almost two years, the right wing has framed the mask issue as one of personal liberty. And many of the rest of us think of masking in terms of personal risk: If we’re not at risk, we’re thrilled to dispense with the discomfort and inconvenience of an N95. 

Either way, we’re thinking of masking as something we do for ourselves, rather than as something we do for the common good. 

It wasn’t always this way. The common good was why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first told us not to wear masks — out of fear that first responders wouldn’t have enough. And when the agency changed course, in July 2020, the common good was how it framed its first masking recommendation: “CDC calls on Americans to wear masks to prevent covid-19 spread.”

Now, it appears the agency is more likely to tell people to mask to protect themselves. Today, it says, “Wear a mask with the best fit, protection and comfort for you.”

You have no idea who’s on a plane.

You have no idea whether you’re carrying the virus. You could be pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. You could be symptomatic and not recognize the symptoms.

That’s what happened to me. I had a stomach ache and, after a bad night of sleep, went out the next day swearing off red wine once again. But the next day, a rapid test showed that the offending varietal was, in fact, covid.

I reported my case to the county and took to my bedroom. Three days later, five days after the start of (what I now knew to be) my covid symptoms, I received a call from the health department officially releasing me from quarantine.

“But I’m still coughing!” I said to the staffer. “I’m still testing positive!” She said, if I wanted, I could request to have my quarantine officially extended.

She declined to answer the question I thought should have mattered most, with local cases up and nearly a million Americans dead: Am I a danger to others or am I not?

A month before I got Covid, I wrote that Covid was over for me. Because I was vaccinated and boosted and my mother had gotten covid to little effect, I would no longer organize my life around fear of catching the virus. But I still planned to wear a mask while covid circulated in my community because I was afraid of spreading the virus to vulnerable people. Surely we can personally be “done” with this pandemic while respecting the fact that others are not. 

When I told the health official who released me from quarantine that I was worried about my potential to infect others, she sighed and said, “Use your conscience.” I wish I didn’t have to. But without a mandate to make us act out of concern for others, conscience is all we’ve got.

Surströmming

The discussion on the Swedish fermented fish – surströmming – Atlantic salmon, continues. The fish is allowed to ferment for six months with enough added salt to prevent rotting. Notwithstanding this, it produces a variety of compounds which have an offensive odour, including hydrogen sulphide.

Apparently it is popular in the north especially among older folk. The can must be opened under water, and you can smell it when you drive past. Cans are known to explode and hence it cannot be sold at airports any longer, and there used to be a law which marked out what time of the year cans could be opened.

One of my friends has a daughter living in Sweden, who tried it once, swallowed a small piece and then started dry retching. She seemed to have overcome the challenge of not vomiting before you taste it.

She described as like eating dog poo, which is a curious response where we confuse smell with taste. I am sure that she had not eaten dog’s poo, but it is a common reaction to compare taste with something it is highly unlikely we have eaten. But to other senses the comparison is revolting enough to bear comparison.

She did make another comparison that is more within the realms of a rational comparison. Her comment was “imagine the stinkiest cheese you can eat and multiply that 100-fold!” Not quite what John Lennon would have sung, but I tried to think about what is the aforementioned cheese, my taste buds have not stored a taste that I could imagine 100-fold. Again, such cheeses are compared to the worst of smelly socks.  I have never sat down to a meal of socks, even though the bacterium used to ripen these particular cheeses is the same as can be found between toes.

The only time when I experienced gastric reflux from ingesting something that met the next gulp coming down was when, at a dinner party, cold beetroot borsch was served. The commotion caused was somewhat comical if viewed as one waiting on table, but not for the consumer.  I have safely consumed borsch since, but only when warm. Ice cold beetroot borsch is too much of a shock to the unwary stomach.

It is extraordinary how adaptable taste buds are. Those who were not brought up on Vegemite have similar reaction I understand, but I have never heard of a Vegemite container exploding despite the fact that it is a yeast extract.

Smell is one cranial nerve, a short nerve that goes only a short distance before it reaches the brain. As I once wrote, taste is a trinity of three cranial nerves. Yet the inter-relationship is much more complex. Taste signals travel first to the base of the brain where some signals are processed. Signals are then sent along to higher brain areas. Some signals go to the ventral forebrain where they may trigger areas that control emotions and memories. Other signals go the dorsal region, the relayed sensory signals that cause you to crave certain flavours. In the reverse situation, for years I avoided satay because I got bad food poisoning after eating a meal of satay; and even the smell acted as an emetic for a while. I could not eat it for years. Yet the last time I had a severe bout of food poisoning was in Cuba, and the memory of the fish hung around for a short while, and for me allergy is a different response. It is pain in the gut; not pain in the perception.

If you assume offal as the periphery of acceptable food, I once ate heart in Riga at a posh nouvelle cuisine restaurant. It was OK, so cutely prepared how could I not satisfy my curiosity?

Lung, I have never tried; tripe – only once, enjoyed it; sweetbreads – avoided them but must try; brain I won’t eat (afraid of slow viruses, although at my age somewhat academic); and I love kidneys and lamb’s fry.

But prejudice has funny twists. Even though I consider myself omnivorous, I would not touch mussels until I had them thrust upon me in a wonderful family restaurant in Cesenatico on the Italian Adriatic coast; similarly resisted scallops, until I was presented with large succulent ones in South Carolina from the Gay Fish Company. Refusal to eat them was just a silly illogical fad. To complete my culinary idiosyncrasies, I am allergic to crayfish (acquired) but not Atlantic lobster; also some deep sea white fish (particularly swordfish).

The worst food I have eaten is seal in Newfoundland. It was like eating rubber; and as with the dog poo above, I have never been guilty of chewing on a tyre. It is just one of the instinctive analogies in which more than one of senses is involves when trying to articulate “taste”.

Finally drum roll; food that I want to taste: witchety grub.

Wonderful in these latter years, there are always questions about dietary idiosyncrasies wherever you are invited out. When one was young, you ate what you were given – swedes, watery marrow and overcooked pork forever irrigated through my memory.

A worry.

What Australia needs at this point in time is a Savonarola who thinks like Macchiavelli. A national cleanser who has a fine feel for the dorsal stiletto.

Suddenly Bill Shorten has been let loose – at least to some degree – on the campaign. Shorten is a hater; and according to many of his contemporaries, a nasty piece of work. Nevertheless, he gives Australia hope that if the vanilla Albanese is elected, there is a far more formidable force to wreak vengeance on those who have been gorging on government largesse at the expense of the “Powerless Australians” – those who cannot ring up their local politician and do a deal – maximising the personal gain at the expense of the rest of us.

Having been there I know the game. Some years ago, while I was being eulogised by several politicians publicly, some guy sidled up to me and said: “I have never heard of you. You must be important.” I was not sure whether that was a question or a statement. I replied, saying that I had had my place in the sun at various times, but inevitably if one pokes one’s head above the parapet, the greater the exposure and the more likely you will be to becoming a target – the inverse relationship of autonomy of action to controversy generated. Thus, I was destined to fall from grace – it was inevitable.

Some aggressive people like Shorten who have the equivalent of a rotten borough (or is it more truly burrow?) have a longer “shelf life” to ply their trade. The current government has left an incredible trail of corruption, some criminal but mostly moral – with the consequence that Australia is on the cusp of kleptocracy.

Purity of motive thus becomes one of relativity. Shorten, the scholarship boy from Murrumbeena, married first into the Melbourne establishment, then married under Vice-Regal patronage and, as he clambered up the holy mountain of Canberra, had the backing of Dick Pratt; therefore to some of his erstwhile colleagues he had enough political strikes against him to be consigned to the Maribyrnong Anabranch until it runs dry. But that is his strength.

One of my concerns is that Albanese is intrinsically a weak individual who looks for the soft option and shies away from personal confrontation. For instance, the Murdochs. They can be charming just like the ‘Ndrangheta, but when you do get in their way, beware. Having experienced the latter when charm in the smile is combined with menace in the eyes, it is important for Australia to minimise the pervasive influence of the Rupert Legacy, no matter how ambrosia and nectar ridden the boardroom lunch may be.

I suspect that Shorten is now approaching the same level of hatred which burns within Murdoch, because significant fortitude is required to prosecute the scoundrels who have profited during the Morrison reign and before. However, the Labor Party have form and for the National Party which begat the Queensland bush defiler, Joh Bjelke Petersen, it is often considered the norm by some in this Party. Not many political parties have two former Health Ministers in prison at the one time.  Then there are the outliers, the rock wallaby bandits, who seduce the Microcosm to elect them to the Senate.

Let us see, if Labor gets elected, whether it is prepared to follow through with the promise of an anti-corruption body. Bill Shorten awaits.

Scarry’s Law

I love this reference in The Economist to Scarry’s Law:

Scarry’s Law, formulated over a decade ago by this newspaper and named after Richard Scarry, a children’s illustrator, states that politicians mess at their peril with groups that feature in children’s books—farmers, fishermen, train drivers, and suchlike.

The implication of the Law devised by this American, who wrote 300 children’s books and illustrated many of them was that if you denigrated any of these people, the populace at large would take a dim view.

Yet none of these jobs appear on the list of respected professionals where medical practitioners are rated first, lawyers 21st and politicians and journalists the two last at 29 and 30.  Doctors closely followed by nurses and paramedics had received a boost because of the pandemic. In the list, firefighters and police rated in the top six.

These polls are extremely subjective and one suspects so is the wonderfully named Scarry Law. Nevertheless, the warning contains a more subtle message, which at a time when “change” is a word increasingly used to associate with climate and hence is of deep concern to farmers and fishermen. These are deeply conservative people, rather than reactionary. They will adopt change not because of political popularity, but only if they see it as a means of improving their livelihood and hence income.

The level of rural subsidies has always been a major concern – shoring up ancient practices without regard to actual environmental change. I always like hearing about farmer driven innovation, where conservatism is overcome by a realisation that the change is beneficial. It is a slow process, but undoubtedly miners would be sheltering on the Scarry list.

Mouse Whisper

Everybody in the blogs seems to be into odours, and cheese is where odour and taste are dissociated. We mice are very particular about the cheese we eat. Now, a few cheeses use the same bacteria which thrive in the salty sweaty environment found between the human toes, hence the association in the smell with the use of the same bacteria in the ripening process, as was mentioned earlier. We mice have to negotiate human socks casually strewn around the floor, and these do affect our appreciation of cheeses we have heard of, but never tasted.

But everybody talks about smelly cheeses as though it is a matter of pride to have cheeses with a putrid smell.

As for us mice, the worst cheese that can fall from the table is an old cheap Camembert cheese, which has become a cesspit of ammonia and the associated vapours. But they say some humans will still eat it. It is literally the worst of cheese, and that for a mouse who is used to whispering, SOMETHING!

Modest Expectations – Jeffrey O’Brien

We had a bushfire the other day up the road at Tullah. It seems not to have been deliberately started, but a stray cigarette or a spark from an exhaust would suffice as explanation.

Tullah

Next minute, fire crews were working on the outskirt of the Tullah village through the night and had the blaze on the nearby Mackintosh Dam Road contained by Sunday morning. In the meantime it burnt down one vacant property and a number of sheds. It was contained, but the resources that were thrown at the fire early were spectacular, drawn from all over Tasmania. The fear was that it would get in the pine forests and then it would have rivalled the mainland fires of two years ago. The other danger was fire getting into the peat, which lies at the base of the button grass meadows that constitute so much of the West Coast. Then it could burn for a very long time.

Tullah, by way of explanation, describes itself as a village on Lake Rosebery. It was a settlement built by the Hydroelectric Commission when one of their schemes was to dam the Tasmanian West Coast (or was it damn?). It would have culminated in the Franklin River being dammed, which would have had a great impact on the region.

Returning to Tullah, the older part of this township lies directly on the Murchison Highway. An old silver lead mining area, it consists of a pub and a few houses and displays one of those famous locomotives now cast onto an Australian coin – Wee Georgie Wood. It was used to transport the ore before there were any roads and was in that part of the township threatened by the fire.

Having had experience some years ago of a fire initiated as a “burning-off” exercise by the Department of Parks and Wildlife (laughingly referred to then as that of Sparks and Wildfire) on the ridge behind our house in which we lost a shed containing most of our stored linen, it was great to read how much the fire fighting service has picked up its game.

One of the newer residents of Tullah, who runs a microscopically-sized café with excellent coffee (and a resident alpaca), was obviously relieved when the fire was halted on the outskirts.

Tullah is on the edge of the West Coast wilderness area, which has some of the most undefiled temperate rain forest in the world. Because of the high   rainfall, an average of 240cm a year, it has been thought of as somewhat protected from fires.  Ironically the wettest place is actually Tullah, with an average annual rainfall of 280cm. So this recent blaze serves as a warning. Climate change is coming – I’m not clever enough to calculate how quickly and how selective will be the change. Yet the forests of the West Coast and South-west are vulnerable. Whether one believes that the forested wilderness is little changed since the time when the dinosaurs walked the earth, it becomes all so academic if this part of Australia catches alight as has occurred periodically in NSW and Victoria.

Ubertas et Fidelitas

An interesting datum. The state which has the highest identification of its inhabitants as Aboriginal people is Tasmania (close to five per cent). As a person who grew up believing the last Tasmanian was Truganini, as I have grown older, I have been surprised by the number of Tasmanian Aborigines who emerged from “among the Huon pine”.

A Dulcie Greeno maireener shell necklace

We have purchased several traditional Aboriginal Maireener shell necklaces, with their characteristic iridescence. Much of this art form is concentrated on the Flinders Island in Bass Strait. We have other cleverly executed pieces of Aboriginal art with a Tasmanian tag – but seemingly made in the last 20 years. My problem is connecting them to a tradition that shows areas of petroglyphs and middens on the shore which have survived the often violent storms which characterised that part of Tasmania for millennia.

To celebrate Tasmania Day in 1986, a collection of papers from the early days of Tasmania was published, including that of Captain James Kelly’s voyage, which commenced on 27 December 1815.

Then James Kelly sailed out of Hobart in a five-oared whale boat, with four men, John Griffiths and George Briggs, who were described as native to the colony and two others described as “European” William Jones and Thomas Toombs, the last named’s previous occupation being listed as“bushranger”.  King’s aim was to circumnavigate Tasmania and, as part of this voyage, he discovered Macquarie Harbour. This harbour, the third largest in Australia, has a treacherous entrance, which was later christened Hell’s Gate. The weather was very compliant as they came into the Harbour under the smokescreen from the Aboriginal fires at the Heads. They reckoned that enabled them not to be seen initially.  They spent some time and made contact with a number of Aborigines, warriors with whom they developed an uneasy relationship.

However, when leaving the newly discovered Harbour, which Kelly named after the then Governor Lachlan Macquarie, (whose territory then incorporated both NSW and Tasmania), the fury of Hell’s Gate kicked in and they were lucky to survive.

The insights into Aboriginal life and the interaction with the whitefellas is expressly discussed under the heading of “female sealing”. Seeing how they went about harvesting the seals obviously astonished the diarist. The women showed a distinctive methodology, as though they had to commune before killing the seals. It shows how important the description of Aboriginal life, when the only chroniclers of the day-to-day activity came from these early reported interactions, at a time before extermination became government policy with the inevitable destruction of the social fabric.

The recent literature trying to show that the Aboriginal tradition progressed from the hunter-gatherer society to one of adopting the tenets of the agricultural revolution as its origin is promoted by a number of Australians who claim Aboriginal descent and are clustered around the University of Melbourne. From what I have read, I do not believe it to be so. Take this excerpt.

The description of female sealing in the Bass Strait islands is a prime example. No mention of herbs and spices in cooking the young seal. Having personally been one of those who have tasted seal, I would suggest it is not among my top ten gustatory phenomena.

“We gave, says the journal of the exploring party, the women each a club that we had used to kill the seals with. They went to the water’s edge and wet themselves all over their heads and bodies, which operation they said would keep the seals from smelling them as they walked along the rocks. They were very cautious not to go to windward of them, as they said “a seal would sooner believe his nose than his eyes when a man or woman came near him.” The women all were about nine or ten seals upon each rock. Lying apparently asleep. Two women went to each rock with their clubs in hand, crept closely up to a seal each, and lay down with their clubs alongside. Some of the seals lifted their heads up to inspect their new visitors and smell them. The seals scratched themselves and lay down again.

The women went through the same motions as the seal, holding up their left elbow and scratching themselves with their left hand, taking and keeping the club firm in their right ready for the attack. The seals seemed very cautious, now and then lifting up their heads and looking round, scratching themselves as before and lying down again; the women still imitating every movement as nearly as possible. After they had lain upon the rocks for nearly an hour, the sea occasionally washing over them (as they were quite naked, we could not tell the meaning of their remaining so long) all of a sudden the women rose up on their seats, their clubs lifted up at arms length, each struck a seal on the nose and killed him; in an instant they all jumped up as if by magic and killed one more each. After giving the seals several blows on the head, and securing them, they commenced laughing aloud and began dancing. They each dragged a seal into the water and swam with it to the rock upon which we were standing, and then went back and brought another each, making twelve seals, the skins of which were worth one pound each in Hobart Town. This was not a bad beginning for the black lakes (sic), who now ascended to the top of a small hill, and made smokes as signals to the natives on the main that they had taken some seals. The smokes were soon answered by smokes on the beach. We skinned the seals and pegged them out to dry. The women then commenced to cook their supper, each cutting a shoulder off the young seals weighing three or four pounds. They simply threw them on the fire to cook, and when about half done commenced devouring them, and rubbed the oil on their skins, remarking that they had a glorious meal.

As I said above, food for thought! 

Reflection in the Pool of the Land of the Anziani

I suspect that the aged care portfolio has caught up with the politicians because when it is part of the health portfolio, it tends to be cast into “the too hard basket”.  Yet with the increase in longevity and the growth of the private nursing home sector as a lucrative business for the owners, government responsibility should have increased not lessened in maintaining our aged through the time of life when a person becomes increasingly dependent on others. Once into the nursing home it is very much one way, but it should not be a nightmare.

When I had my 70th birthday, I half believed the axiom “that 70 was the new 50”. Three years later and that concept went into the rubbish bin.

For myself, the acute phase of the disease took a long time to settle into a chronic burn, and as the years have passed the co-morbidities have accumulated until now I can no longer live independently. In previous times, there may have been an array or servants, but in the modern world this not feasible without wealth.

I had two aunts who entered nursing homes in their nineties, wealthy women who were able to afford a nursing home where all the “creature comforts” were available and provided. What struck me was the number of Filipino and Nepalese nurses, both male and female, and feeling of optimism in this establishment. But it was at the high end. They were both dead before the Virus struck and surveying the conditions in that nursing home gave no reason for me to worry about their care, even as one increasingly succumbed to fronto-temporal dementia.

The Virus has taken a toll in other ways. I used to go to hydrotherapy twice a week. The hydrotherapy pools where there are supervised programs have vanished, as the pools have closed because of the Virus. This gets no coverage, but when one depends essentially on allied health professional services, the Virus has curtailed them, and with any such program, once they cease so too do the levels of personal fitness and social interaction decline.  Gyms get all the publicity, but circumstances for the aged are probably worse once you lock people in their rooms with staff barely having the requisite nursing skills let alone those of allied health professionals.

Some of the drugs required for my treatment, such as the corticosteroids are essential but impose complications. I had the rapid development of drug induced cataracts, both of which have resulted in new improved lens (no longer any astigmatism). Otherwise I have eschewed operative intervention. Some of the operations had the potential to make life worse, and I value the fact that I can still communicate.  The bottom line is that if I did not have my wife, who is a very caring individual, I would be facing institutionalisation and all the uncertainty that entails.

My sleeping arrangements have been modified, so I am close  to the toilets.  I still have been negotiating stairs.  My fall a few months ago emphasised the line between having my immediate daily care and then having to wait face down for someone to come after nearly two hours. I have learnt to curb my impetuosity, since change is now a one way trek, but the nursing home looms as a prison, with the likelihood of solitary confinement.

And a Minister in charge of this crisis who goes to the cricket for three days! He has either given up, or else needs a cognitive test to assess whether he needs the pity for a person with early dementia. Or is he just callously insensitive? I cannot believe that this man is functioning normally; but then the last people who are considered to have such pathology are those with the public relations machinery of denial. Morrison has demonstrated himself to be a Prime Minister with zero human relations skills but with a formidable expenditure on public relations.

Having experienced Bronwyn Bishop’s hair-raising approach to any portfolio in which she was put, I thought that disclosure of kerosene baths in nursing homes under her watch would have elicited a positive reaction for reform. There was the predictable furore and then nothing. Even Royal Commissions do not move the dial, because the people trapped in nursing homes have virtually no say.

The idea of little children mingling with the elderly as gleaned from the ABC TV program has long since been suspended because of the Virus, but it is ironic to see a photograph of myself at two years of age with the wide gait; and realise that I am not that much different now because of loss of proprioception.

I remember a child staring at me from a stroller; I was in a wheelchair.

“Don’t worry son, you’ll be here soon enough.” He was too young to understand, but it certainly brought home to me the irony of existence. His parents did hear me, and laughed. Vulnerability is the product of the child in the stroller and the guy in the wheelchair.

The role of government intervention in both areas has demonstrated the difficulty, because childcare and care of the aged have both been exploited, and over a long period. The failure of the religious institutions in these areas has been shown, and in many areas, disgraceful exploitation has emerged – yet these institutions keep their charitable status in regard to taxation

The whole failure of government intervention has been compounded by the laissez-faire approach to looking after the elderly – maximising profits by exploiting the elderly is a spreading stain on the Australian community.

I can only watch the stain come closer because I have no confidence in the area being afforded the priority it needs and which one only realises as 80 is the new 80.

Yet during my professional life I have sought solutions, but many of the schemes in which I have invested myself have reverted after I have gone. Some have survived.

Is there a solution?

Over my professional life, one way or another, I have had considerable contact with care for the aged in its various forms. The problem with being old as described above is that nevertheless it is not a homogeneous product. People age with different disabilities and hence needs.

The problem with age is that it comes at a point when nothing more can be done for you, but to ensure you are comfortable, pain free, not isolated, able to use the toilet facilities, and that your medications are regularly reviewed, and you have enough to eat and drink and to operate at the higher end of your residual competency.

To accomplish this properly requires both a high level of management skills and continuity of these skills; thus the competency of a clinical manager of each facility should be recognised and rewarded appropriately and succession planning encouraged.

I am a great believer that credentialing and privileging should be undertaken not only in health services but also in nursing homes. I am a purist as I have retained “credentialing and privileging”, whereas others have replaced “privileging” with “scope of practice”. In fact, the process has four stages –

(a)   Credentialing is self-evident as it is based around the qualification.

(b)   “The scope of practice” is what is requested by the health professional, but

(c)    privileging depends on the capability of the health service and confidence of the director of clinical services (or equivalent) that the requested scope of practice is appropriate and safe given the resources of the health service.

(d)   approval of the board on the recommendation of the credentialing and privileging Committee

All recommendations to the Board must involve the director of clinical services and if the terminology is correct, the nursing home manager who should be a nurse.

To me that is a very simple statement of intent, and I was able to successfully implement such a process among a number of small health services over a decade. To me, it satisfied the requirement of the clinician and the administrator and it made those involved take it seriously. In the private sector, that includes the owner (or representative).  In my health service experience the hospital board was very visible, but in the nursing home sector, who knows in the tangled web of business resulting in the lack of oversight in this sector. And with the obscenity of some of the owners with more concern with having the latest Lamborghini, it is a massive task to permanently change the culture when the government is basically uninterested.

When I suggested that the nursing homes be included in the regional credentialing and privileging scheme, the pushback from the Commonwealth Department of Health was fierce. The nursing home was the person’s home; it was not a quasi-health institution, it was said. The residents could have whomsoever they wanted as carers, without interference from government, and certainly by such a scheme which attempted to codify standards. God, no.

Yet there is an unfortunate strain of authoritarian behaviour which I have seen in the transition stage between hospital and nursing home. In the acute hospital, for some of the staff, an old person admitted is an old person to be get rid of, because of his or her occupancy of an expensive acute bed.

As the hospitals move from metropolitan teaching hospitals, the pressure on the bed is not as great. Nevertheless I once was faced with an officious nurse who was attempting to threaten me because I believed my father-in-law needed more time in the acute bed before being sent to a so-called “sub-acute care” environment. She attempted to stand over me by threatening to have him placed in a nursing home in a far-off town where he would have no-one able to visit him easily. After a strong word, that option was removed and he stayed in the hospital for some further period until he was well enough to be transferred. Nevertheless influence, like information, is asymmetric.

The fiction that a nursing home is a domestic situation is nonsense, because of the nature of the residents, who need personalised care but which is often left wanting because staff levels are squeezed for a number of reasons – profit margins, COVID-19 restrictions, poor pay and conditions.

Some nursing homes are attached to the public hospital. Therefore, I was in a position to influence the rules for visiting doctors. My initial approach was to look at the drug charts of each resident as this gives one an idea of how often the resident is reviewed by a doctor. The need for documentation is as essential as regular visits by the local general practitioner, and each nursing home should have access to a consultant geriatrician or specialist in rehabilitation medicine (and ensure one or the other visits regularly).

The requirement for allied health cascades from this overall need to ensure that in a world of specialisation and constantly improving technology, the aged are not deprived of the benefits of these advances.

In the health area where there is increasing specialisation, the pool of generalists in all fields becomes limited. The concept of nursing staff in rural areas acquiring some of the basic skills of allied health professionals has been regularly canvassed. Whatever the current state of this move to develop generalists should accommodate that some of the generalists will develop special area on interest and hence expertise.

The suggestion of “care finders” adds another layer without any improvement. To establish a new professional group is to establish a new bureaucracy, not necessarily improve care of the aged.

I well remember the country hospital which was converted from a general practice procedural hospital to one concentrating on geriatric treatment. The “driver” was a doctor who persuaded the staff to re-train from the theatre to treating the aged. He was successful and well-liked but did not want any limelight – and presumably this pilot program died with him.

However, successful models abound. The problem is each requires a certain discipline, dedication and time to implement and maintain. To change the culture is not just taking a pill. Governments, when pressed, can be reasonable at getting the input right through the multitude of ways enquiries can be organised.

Government falls down in the implementation. Many of the ministers and the bureaucrats think that fussing over the nature of enquiry is enough, and unfortunately too much of the intellectual capital is invested in the initial enquiry and its report. In fact, the report is only the start; but too often it is the end point, gathering dust with so many others.

In the end it is the clinical management standard that counts.

One question, what is the best private nursing home in Australia; and what is the best public nursing home?

In such a search, the common feature I postulate will be the ongoing standard of the clinical management team. Appropriate credentialling and privileging should be able to validate that approach.

In the end I want to know what works; and what has worked over a generation at least. Imprecise, but once you see success, you know what it is. To achieve this insight, experience helps.

Mouse Whisper

Just two items for Trivial Squeaksuit (obviously in a cat-free environment – pur is a palavra proibida).

  • Who is Dorothy Gale?
  • Who is Barbara Millicent Roberts?

Dorothy, the heroine in the Wizard of Oz.

Barbie doll.

Simple really.

Modest expectations – Man with a Tail

I have always liked writing. I was encouraged to write by Alister Brass. He was very much my mentor.  He died of AIDs in 1986. He was a great guy. I have kept writing. He had taught me a lot about myself, and how someone who was a little older than myself could have lived a fuller life than mine.  I miss him every day.

I always wonder where Murdoch fits in all this. Alister’s father, Douglas, was one of Murdoch’s first editors. I think he had a big effect on Murdoch, in the days when his world may have been that of the idealist.

 However, I worry about all this technology that has sprung up in an unregulated space and where the forces of good and evil are constantly doing battle. Can I, for whom my first written words required an inkwell – when even the biro did not exist – adapt.

I find myself living in a world in a space which is getting smaller because the demands for instant everything have become the norm – money and fame are generally high on the instant agenda. Words are airbrushed away.

So, why bother to write? Because I want to, and I have little time left. So here goes.

I wrote my first blog at the end of March 2019.

Now this is the sesquicentenary of that first blog, which has been written every week for 150 weeks. That means that in six blogs’ time I will have reached three years of essentially vanity press. Perhaps I have ten people who regularly read it, but unless you hover over your statistics, who really knows. But it soon occurred to me that I like writing – in fact these are my memoirs, one way or another. My attitudes are on show. As I started serious writing under the tutelage of Alister Brass, that relationship enabled me to enjoy the company of a polymath before his life tragically was cut short.

The first blog praised Jacinda Ardern, and I received the rounds of the contumely by a mate, who saw her as a fraud. Thinking about what has happened since that time, I was closer to the mark.

In the last blog I, who once was a tall poppy but tried to dance with the “wolverines”, gave some advice based on this experience. I once knew a person who, like Grace Tame, had a strong profile (at one stage being pictured on every evening edition of the Melbourne Herald depicting the successful beautiful young professional) and saw later at firsthand what she endured.

As for my advice to Grace Tame, another friend expressed with disdain from his Araratic heights why would I bother. Well, I did and hope she ends up more Eleanor de Aquitaine than Jean d’Arc, with that antagonistic segment of our population either repentant or neutered.

Opinion or opinionated. Well, a blog is a legacy. I notice over time I have altered the blog; by and large I have dispensed with guest writers, become more prolix and recognised how technology has enabled me to dip into the international media. The downside is that those magazines, the delivery of which depended on the US Postal Service, have virtually dried up in COVID times.  The Guardian Weekly and The Economist subscriptions fortunately have not been interrupted, although I also receive them online.

Exhaustion

The problem with the persistence of coronavirus in one form or another is that the Australian population is exhausted and, despite their bluster, governments have given up, except Western Australia which remains defiant.

Lockdown indicated that the governments of the Federation were prepared to fight the virus, the fear of which prompted a strong vaccination response in the adult community. In the first wave before vaccination was available, there was an appreciation across the community of the need to lock down, with a ban on almost every movement. At that time, there was a high rate of acceptance of this strategy by the community. Thus, when the Virus spread to nursing homes, the media swooped on the relatives waiting outside with their plaintive complaints.

How life has changed, with daily deaths mostly no longer getting even the perfunctory acknowledgement which they once got at the daily news conference. Borders were a weapon in illustrating how much one State was performing better than another. The only consistency through all this has been the complete ineptitude of the Commonwealth Government, which refused to accept that Constitutional responsibility for quarantine was its – and its alone. That is one reason there should not be any electoral forgiveness.

It allowed that stupid sophistry about personal responsibility to be let out of the Pirouette’s ideological kitbag. Underlying such a statement is a belief that information in the health sector is symmetric – time and time again this has been shown not to be so.

The various responses, whether to children’s vaccination, boosters, wearing of masks, social distancing and the use of hand sanitisers, show differences depending on demographics.

What is the present state of play?  Personal responsibility has degenerated into a fervent wish that Australia must have passed the peak – however that is defined – of the pandemic.  Booster and child vaccination are lagging because there is no spur.

Another variant …

Pity that another variant has appeared.

The Canoe Tree                         

Canoe tree

There are many canoe trees scattered throughout Victoria, South Australia and NSW and one wonders, given the revival of many old traditions, why more bark canoes are not being made and the craft celebrated. After all, the popular smoking ceremonies were adopted from the American Indians who were here during the Year of the Indigenous.

One area in Southern Australia where there do not seem to be canoe trees is Tasmania, although there has been publicity surrounding bark canoes recently being made with intention that they be part of the biennial wooden boat festival. It is one thing to mimic the past, but the construction should demonstrate the authenticity of being able to float an agreed distance, bearing a person using a spear as a paddle, especially down the D’Entrecasteux Channel.

In 2011 Major “Moogy” Sumner, a Ngarrindjeri and Kauma man, crafted a bark canoe on Ngarrindjeri land, the first recorded in over 100 years. These people live at Raukkan on Lake Alexandrina and move between there and Port Pierce on the Yorke Peninsula. Major Sumner has been photographed standing on the canoe with the spear/ paddle, and therefore the assumption was that the canoe was waterproof and navigable, at least on the lake. His people are river people and before “trouser time” they existed on a diet of littoral birds, eggs and vegetation such as samphire.

Moogy’s bark canoe

Sumner later said that creating his canoe reconnected his communities with the traditional art of canoe-building. There does not seem to be much evidence of modern bark canoe manufacture beyond this effort. In such a riverine culture a bark canoe was an essential item, and as such it is surprising that revival of the art has not received more attention.

It may be argued that stripping trees of bark would have severe consequences, particularly on the river red gum and stringybark population. The Aboriginal people live in harmony with their environment, as we all know and thus this would not be a problem.

In his book about Australian Aborigines, Thomas Worsnop describes the construction of the bark canoe in Southern Australia:

In constructing a bark canoe a suitable tree, generally a large red gum, is selected, and always one that was bent, or that had an outward bulge on one side. On that side the bark is marked out or cut by painted dots, or by notches in the shape of an elongated ellipse, approximating as nearly as possible to the shape of the canoe itself, after which by pressing the wooden handle of a tomahawk and a pole between the bark and the wood the sheet is carefully removed. The outside roughnesses of the bark then are pared off, leaving the thin, hard, and woody inside shell, and the sheet is placed over a fire of red hot ashes to cause the ends and sides to be gathered up and brought together.

These canoes are of very light draught. With one or even two blackfellows, the draught is seldom above 3in or 4 in. Some that I have seen on the River Murray will carry a considerable load; but, being quite round on the bottom and without any keel, they overturn with the greatest ease imaginable.

Later he describes the Montagu Island canoe:

Bark canoes were used by the coast natives of New South Wales; they were from 6ft. to 10ft. long, and 2ft wide. A sheet of bark of the desired length and breadth was stripped from a straight stem and the two ends scraped until they tapered to a very thin edge. These thin ends were then raised by being creased into ridges, and gradually pressed close together. A peg was then driven through the folds at each end, and the bark twisted round to keep the sheet from slipping back. The sides were kept apart by sticks sharpened at each end and placed across the canoe, and it was ready for use. It was propelled by sticks used like paddles, or by small sheets of bark held in the hand; the largest of these canoes would carry five or six natives safely across the strait, about two miles wide, which separated Montagu Island from the mainland.

Ironically, the best recent depiction of a bark canoe construction was shown in the 2006 film, appropriately named “Ten Canoes”.  “Ten Canoes” was inspired by a photograph shown to film director Rolf de Heer by David Gulpilil. The picture was of group of ten native men in their bark canoes on the Arafura swamp in East Arnhem Land. The photo was taken by anthropologist Dr Donald Thomson, who worked in central and north-eastern Arnhem Land 70 years earlier, during the mid-1930s.

Among the old men of the tribe, the film makers found some who remembered the craft and were able to make the canoes. There is no mention of whether the canoes were made with stone tools or with more modern equipment. Nevertheless, in the film they seem to be very functional. Again, this film seems an isolated tribute to the bark canoe.

Canoe in the Arafura Swamp

Yet the canoes made in the Northern Australia were generally dugouts, either in the manner of their Melanesian neighbours or were seen to have prows fashioned after the Macassar canoes. So, the bark canoes that were featured in the film negotiating the Arafura Swamp would seem unusual.

It seems difficult to work out why the Aboriginal people are loath to make bark canoes in the manner of their ancestors Thus there is one challenge in Tasmania – build a bark canoe that can reach Montagu Island as your forefathers did. Go to it. If a whitefella like Thomas Worsnop in 1897 has set down clear signposts, so should the tradition be still handed down among the Aboriginal people, rather than exist in a few isolated pockets.

Maus

A guy called Art Spiegelman has written a children’s book about the Holocaust called “Maus”.  My Swedish friend has pointed this piece of censorship out to me.

To ensure the book will be a best seller, the McMinns County Board in Eastern Tennessee, known as the Midge State after its Senator, has banned the book.

The Board said by way of explanation (sic):

“One of the most important roles of an elected board of education is to reflect the values of the community it serves. The McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove the graphic novel Maus from McMinn County Schools because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide. Taken as a whole, the Board felt this work was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools.  

We do not diminish the value of Maus as an impactful and meaningful piece of literature, nor do we dispute the importance of teaching our children the historical and moral lessons and realities of the Holocaust. To the contrary, we have asked our administrators to find other works that accomplish the same educational goals in a more age-appropriate fashion. The atrocities of the Holocaust were shameful beyond description, and we all have an obligation to ensure that younger generations learn of its horrors to ensure that such an event is never repeated. 

We simply do not believe that this work is an appropriate text for our students to study.”

I have published the whole piece, including the last paragraph written by the resident weasel. “Maus” is about the Holocaust – it depicts violence and suicide. Well, your forefathers were very fortunate in settling in the shadow of the beautiful Smoky Mountains. And as for profanity – eight words; and nudity – a naked mouse!

To be fair I have not read the book, but I have ordered it to see what the fuss is all about. I am not a fan of censorship, except in the case of demonstrated sedition.

By the way, the county seat is Athens, somewhat ironically named.

The Nickname

Michael Rowland from ABC Breakfast has done us all a service by refusing to refer to either the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition by their nicknames. This is not to say that these names will not still have general usage in the bar at the Kembla Grange races. Even Menzies had a nickname – “Ming” – but it was not in common usage when discussing his everyday activities in the public media. His enemies dubbed him “Pig Iron Bob” because of his unfortunate advocacy of iron being exported to Japan before the Pacific War. But in the political commentary it was Menzies and successively Chifley, Evatt and Calwell – maybe first names were used – but not Mingo; Chifo, Evo or Caldie.

It’s all a matter of perspective. I find it confronting when a youngster calls me by my first name because for me the divide in how I’m addressed should reside within myself. A Christian name implies a degree of licence, not to be used by all and sundry.

Thoughts on a coaster …

However, if the Honourable Antony Norman Albanese or the Honourable Scott John Morrison want to dispense with any of their given names or titles and be known as Scomo and Albo, no wonder some may think that they write their policies on the back of a beer coaster or a tithe receipt.

As a postscript, I read the comments of a journalist attempting to devise a smart comment about “Albo”. Obviously, as a child, the journalist had done a couple of lessons in Latin and equated “alb” with white, since the Latin (and incidentally also the Romanian word) for white is “albus”. However, in Italian “bianco” is white, “alba” is dawn and Albanese “Albanian”; in Latin “aurora” and “Ilyrii” respectively.

There is a strong link between Albania and Italy which goes back to Roman times, but I seem to have drifted a long way from Michael Rowland’s timely comments. Still, the association between Albania and Italy is worthy of another blog.

The Virtuous Cycle

Over the next four years, the Morrison Government will invest more than $13 billion through the Education portfolio alone to support research in Australia, including $8 billion in research block grant funding. 

“This includes the Trailblazer Universities program recently announced by the Prime Minister. Trailblazer gives four universities access to more than $240 million to build world-class research commercialisation capability.”

So runs the media release from Minister Robert this week. It came at a time when the Boston Globe has produced a comprehensive article on the biotechnology research around Boston, which I have reproduced in an abridged version without distorting the content of the original article. It should be remembered that, in the context of the article, New England has a population of 15 million, so it provides a significant comparison with this country, where all the biotechnology expertise has also been concentrated in a select number of institutions.

I participated in the Wills Medical Research Strategic Review, which Michael Wooldridge commissioned in 1998 and which resulted in a report with the optimistic title of the Virtuous Cycle. One of the areas of recommendation was the commercialisation of research – and with a somewhat wry smile, I note the new jargon, the Trailblazer Program. Back in early 2002 it was the Flagship program launched by the CSIRO, as if in response to the Will’s Report. I’m not sure “what oceans the Flagships are now plying”, but perhaps the trailblazers will find out.

Now back to New England and what the Boston Globe has to say about the matter. No flagship has been reported off Cape Cod, but perhaps nobody was looking, except that “Flagship” is part of the title of Moderna’s venture capital offshoot.

An electronic billboard along Route 128 in Norwood advertised for jobs at Moderna in May 2021

It’s almost like Massachusetts has too many biotechs.

The industry is hotter than ever, with companies routinely raising millions of dollars in venture capital, startups blooming on a weekly basis, and developers planning more lab space seemingly by the day. But the pipeline of qualified workers to fill all of the added jobs can’t keep up with the burgeoning demand.

The market for biotech talent in Massachusetts has long been robust, but lately the crunch has turned critical. That’s causing some in the industry to worry that it will not only inhibit growth, but also affect the quality of work as key positions become harder to fill and lower-level workers jump from company to company in search of a better compensation package.

Hiring “is definitely more competitive than it was a few years ago, there’s just no question about it,” said Michael Gilman, chief executive of Waltham-based Arrakis Therapeutics, which more than doubled its staff during the pandemic.

The surplus of startups reflects investors’ desire to pour more money into the world’s leading biotech hub. But with every new company that comes out of stealth mode or a mega-funding round that comes with mega-hiring goals, the people problem has gotten worse.

According to the latest report from industry association MassBio, nearly 85,000 people work in the state’s life sciences sector, up 55 percent from 2008.

Most of the hiring is happening in Cambridge, where companies posted more than 2,630 biotech job listings

Large companies, such as Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Takeda Pharmaceutical, as well as Moderna Therapeutics and its venture capital backer Flagship Pioneering, were seeking the most workers during that period.

Turnover is on the rise, too. About 16.5 percent of life sciences employees in Massachusetts voluntarily quit their jobs last year, a recent survey from research firm Radford found, up from 13 percent in 2018. Both figures are high enough to affect a company’s effort to grow.

Naturally, one way to recruit and retain people is to keep paying them more.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary in Massachusetts for chemists and scientists was about $100,000 in May 2020. But biotechs are finding that historical data and closely watched benchmark surveys from Radford quickly become outdated.

“One of my companies realized they had fallen behind in some positions by more than 10 percent,” said Tony Mullin, a biotech human resources executive. “They offered $130,000 and were losing candidates because they were getting $145,000 or $150,000 from other companies.”

Executives said some firms seem to be aggressively outbidding each other for candidates, though most agreed it isn’t a sound strategy.

There’s also a sense that employees are easily swayed by “title inflation,” a phenomenon that occurs when people climb the corporate ladder faster by bouncing around.

There’s a short-term satisfaction with getting a bigger title, but then along with it comes expectations of success.

Beyond compensation, biotech firms are also paying close attention to perks and benefits. It’s not uncommon for companies to have ping-pong tables in their offices or to provide catered lunches Silicon Valley-style.

Dyno Therapeutics’ new office will have a rock climbing wall. Relay recently began offering employees free diapers for the first year of a child’s life. Pet insurance is becoming more common.

One option in expanding the talent pool beyond Massachusetts is an “easy way to kind of simplify the problem for yourself” in a tight labor market. But hiring too many remote employees to fill job openings could be a quick fix that forever changes what it means to work in the biotech epicenter of the world.

When it comes to culture and career development, it has been found that being local is really important, both for the company and the employee.”

Adam Koppel, managing director of Bain Capital Life Sciences, said he often gets asked about what could slow the momentum of the Cambridge-Boston biotech ecosystem.

“The proliferation of new companies has created somewhat of a supply and demand mismatch in the marketplace for skilled managers,” he said.

Koppel said the talent pool has not matured enough to fill key areas from the C-suite and clinical development, all the way through to the commercial launch of products. And, he said, there is increasingly competitive intensity in the industry due to many “copycats” that are “going after the same targets.”

“The ecosystem could benefit from a certain degree of consolidation,” he added.

At least for now, though, executives seem to believe that the biotechnology business in Massachusetts will keep expanding, regardless of its hiring and retention problems.

“It is conceivable that all the capital dries up in our industry, companies shut down, lay off scientists, and they have no place to go,”  Gilman said. “I don’t see that happening anytime soon, honest.”

Mouse Whisper

Welcome to the Year of the Tiger. Watching the Cincinnati Bengals reaching the Superbowl reminded me of a discussion I overheard while I was tucking into a piece of manchego that one of them had dropped on the floor.

It concerned a blind tiger, and apparently my Mäuseherrin has a T-shirt with a blind tiger featured on it. She acquired it in a downtown Cincinnati tavern from the owner, who had an Australian boyfriend and given they had wandered into her joint about midday when business was slow, she had time for a chat and told the Australians about the name of the tavern. “Blind tiger” is one of the nicknames for a speakeasy, during Prohibition. The joke was that you paid to get in to see the blind tiger – and the drinks were free.

I wonder how long that ruse lasted before the police moved in.

Modest Expectation – Corinth & Carthage

We are introducing a new section of aphorisms called “what would Prince Rupert of the Strine have said?”

“Again, I admire Morrison because he has shown himself to be a man intent on currying flavours from the electorate – even if they seem to be a trifle pelagic judging by his stylish ‘barramundi and I’ tweet.”

Decamping

Well, we are taking our own advice. We are decamping to the West Coast of Tasmania in Mid-January until the end of February. It is time to get out of the Pirouette miasma and head for the temperate rain forest in which the town of Strahan, the largest fishing port on the West Coast, will be our base. We are among the privileged few who can flee the pandemic, and although we must travel by car to Melbourne to catch the ferry, we can do that while being in control of our social environment, at least on the basis we can assure our hygiene and maintain social distancing. I have had the three shots; but my wife must wait until probably February for her booster, but the eligibility times keep bouncing around.

Mask up for all your parties

Not that we live in a suburb where the COVID virus is raging; or being of the age when nightclubbing or pub parties will enhance our recreational COVID embrace.

A few years ago, I had a dose of influenza which nearly killed me, a year when I neglected to have an influenza shot. Remember those days when we were jammed on planes and one could hear the congested coughing in the row in front you. We lampooned the few Asians who wore masks in the street; and hand sanitiser was a hot towel in business class, and a mingy alcohol soaked so-called “towelette” in “cattle class”.

Now, two years on, the politicians have given up, except in Western Australia, although I don’t know whether McGowan has charted a course out of his isolation – but then, he doesn’t have to do so. A change in the Federal Government would give him more say. One obvious way out of this mess is selective segregation – banning crowds from those venues where the virus is most likely to appear; and developing a code of behaviour which acknowledges the sedition provisions of the Crimes Act.

The major reason for maintaining a strong public health response is that Australia has not controlled the virus; and though the new vaccines are adaptable, the current state of play is a booster shot at a time after the initial vaccination. This is currently available after the second inoculation at three or four months. There is evidence from Israel which suggests that the effect of the booster is more short term than expected and a fourth injection is being made available there to a limited cohort.

Having such a situation may be adaptable to the disciplined Israeli society, but not elsewhere where the level of coverage in some countries is still very low through choice, hesitancy or simply lack of vaccines. This situation is one where Australia needs to have a clear-eyed view, and perhaps once we get the Federal election out of the way, then a serious attempt to confront the Virus will occur.

Currently it’s a mess; especially with children’s vaccinations anticipated to have begun this week. I do not buy the Omicron variant being less lethal as an excuse to take our collective foot off the accelerator; there are ominous signs emanating from Brazil, where corona and influenza are conspiring together for a new round of buggery.

First, as I have written before, we need a policy on the unvaccinated; some of the anti-vaccination protests are clearly seditious, and therefore there is a need for a public discussion. Remarkably, after almost two years, a clear and understandable public health response is still not embedded in policy, nor is the action of protestors whose actions threaten the health of the public.  The powers are there in the Crimes Act, but this will be an election with the politicians spooked by this group of insane conspiracy theorists.

At the same time, while the community dislikes government-enforced lockdowns, voluntary quarantining is occurring, as instanced by our desire to escape to Tasmania, having effectively home-quarantined for most of the past five weeks in Sydney. The smaller crowds at the various festivities with which the community is infested at this time of the year also demonstrate that many people are voting with their feet and those feet are staying at home. The problem for this neoliberal collection of politicians where government responsibility is totally abrogated is that there is now total chaos.

Secondly, this Virus mutates and it seems that the Omicron version is less virulent but more transmissible than the Delta. It also seems to have an unacceptably high level of morbidity.  The lesson should still not be to reassure ourselves of the “good aspects”, but rather to develop a policy which accepts that while vaccination is in a state of flux, the Virus is liable to mutate; and who knows whether the next strain will be more deadly and kill all the children or the elderly in a day or so. Therefore, Australia needs an adaptive strategy, where “catch-up” – apparently the Federal Government’s preferred option – is not a viable option.

While we may have to live with the Virus, I prefer not to be enslaved. The problem with the politicians is they have no concept of living with the Virus, apart from getting it off the front page.

Leaving on Jet Airplane

From The Washington Post this week:

The decision by federal health officials to cut in half the number of days for people to quarantine if infected with covid-19 says less about our understanding of how the coronavirus spreads than the influence of airline lobbyists.

Air carriers clamoured for the changes as they cancelled thousands of flights over the holidays amid a staffing shortage caused by crews who needed to self-isolate for 10 days after testing positive. The guidance issued on Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which suggests five days of quarantine instead of 10 — shows a new willingness to avert crippling disruptions across society during the busiest travel period in years.

Delta approaching New York

It’s all the more remarkable because airlines have for months successfully thwarted a push by public health experts to require passengers to show proof of vaccination when they fly. This is maybe the most important lever that President Biden could pull — and has so far refused to pull — that might increase the country’s vaccination rate so that hospitals won’t routinely be overwhelmed with unvaccinated patients.

The same authority that allows Biden to require passengers to wear masks on domestic flights, which he has extended to March 18 2022, also allows him to require vaccinations. He told ABC News last Wednesday that he has considered doing so but has been told by staff that it’s not necessary. “Even with omicron,” Biden said. “That’s the recommendation I got so far from the team.”

This is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worst. Public health experts inside and outside government have favoured requiring vaccinations to fly since the summer. In September, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said that a vaccine mandate for flying might be unnecessary because the administration’s mandates for employers to require vaccination would be a more effective way to achieve the same result. But that rule has been put on hold pending Supreme Court review.

Biden should stop pretending his resistance to a vax-to-fly rule is about public health — and not politics. The truth is that requiring vaccines to fly, even with a testing opt-out, would provoke a backlash. Those who are vaccinated would be only minimally inconvenienced, if at all. But there would be horror stories about sympathetic-seeming holdouts who couldn’t, for example, fly across the country to see their dying parent because they won’t get the jab. Fox News would have a field day.

And that is true even though only about 62 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated. It’s understandable that airlines don’t want to get squeezed into the middle seat between the feds and unvaccinated customers, but the stakes are too high for the president to capitulate to CEOs.

Lest we forget: The 10 major passenger airlines have received $50 billion from federal government bailouts during the pandemic, including $13 billion in the stimulus package Biden himself signed in March.

The companies and their trade associations say checking vaccine cards would be onerous and logistically difficult and cause delays. But if small restaurants have figured out how to do it, big airlines — which already do so for international travellers — certainly can as well. TSA agents could glance at vaccine cards as they check IDs and boarding passes. Airports can set up stations right by security for unvaccinated passengers to get inoculated.

So much of life in Covid America turns on facts people don’t want to talk about. To wit: What the CDC’s new guidance doesn’t tell people who get infected is that they should take another coronavirus test after five days of isolation before returning to social settings. The unfortunate reason this wasn’t included is because there are not enough tests available. That is another consequence of the Biden administration’s tendency to hope for the best and plan for the best — rather than preparing for the foreseeable contingencies caused by the delta and omicron variants.

Biden sounded determined in his address to the nation last week to avoid using the word “mandate” as he discussed his efforts to increase vaccination. He prefers gentler words that have softer connotations, such as “requirements.” The other term Biden has stopped regularly using is “wartime footing,” which was a staple of his speeches early in the year.

It’s an unfortunate reflection of his desire to move on and not have his tenure defined by the pandemic. But the virus isn’t done with us.

An average of more than 1,400  Americans continue to die every day from Covid. Preventable as most of these deaths would have been with vaccines, as many Americans have died from covid during Biden’s presidency as Donald Trump’s.

That’s why we still need a wartime footing. And more vaccinations. And more tests. World War II took four years and required a draft to conscript enough troops to win. We’re two years into another global war. To prevail, we need to compel all Americans to join the war effort.

I have reproduced this article from The Washington Post which attests to the gutlessness that Biden showed three decades ago when he assisted the confirmation of the unspeakable Clarence Thomas, in the face of Anita Hall’s accusations of sexual predation. I had hoped that he would do better after a promising start, but he has unfortunately retreated to his default position.

It also suggests that it is not only the Republicans that bow to big business, and that is the concern I have with Anthony Albanese. Has he any anti-pandemic strategy where the options are laid out in order to to cover all contingencies, their likelihood and the resources needed to effect each option? Who is your Essington Lewis, Mr Albanese?

By the way, what a pathetic spectacle he cast in promoting a fast train from Sydney to Newcastle so as not to miss the night NRL game. Mate, we have a War on at present, and we ain’t winning – and you want a high speed night train for the football? Did you actually say: “You’ll be able to jump on the train at 6.30pm and be at Sydney Olympic Park for the start of the Knights game”?

Thus, if the Prime Minister is a Sharkie; does this proposal of yours make you a kNightie?

Brain Drain

Back in the mists of June 1998, Peter Doherty bemoaned the brain drain from Australia of “our best and brightest” researchers overseas. He instanced one Vladimir Brusic, who at the time was moving from Melbourne to Singapore. For almost a decade he had been senior programmer at WEHI. Brusic, a Serbian by birth, had been involved in the application of computer power to complex medical problems, the field of bioinformatics. His alleged genius was being able to distil huge amounts of data into a usable amount for laboratories, thus saving hours and hours of “tedious experiments”. Maybe. Anyway, that was the theory.

So, what did happen to Dr Brusic? Has he been lost to Australia?  In fact he has caromed around in the past 20 plus years and is currently the Li Dak Sum Chair Professor in Computer Science at the Ningbo campus of the University of Nottingham. The Ningbo campus is near Shanghai.

Dr Vladimir Brusic

After his stint in Singapore, which lasted seven years, he moved back to be Professor of Bioinformatics and Data Management at the University of Queensland. Then he was off again to the Dana-Farber Institute in Boston where he stayed for eight years as the Director of Informatics (concurrently also having a professorial post at Boston University) and then back to the Gold Coast Campus of Griffith University for three years, before taking up his Chinese appointment.

I am not sure what he has achieved by the peripatetic existence. It is one of the paradoxes of these gurus in information that when they communicate it is so arcane that only their own coterie know what they are really saying to one another.

I noted a paper he co-authored on vaccines, where he seemed to be concentrating on informing the world about the intricacies of the old vaccine technology. Only he can tell us in simple terms whether his work is adaptable to the new vaccines, or whether anybody is interested.

However, the point should be made, but not over generalised that 20 plus years ago, Doherty was regretful of his loss to Australia. Well, he did come back to Australia twice, confounding the Doherty forecast. And perhaps, it would be instructive to see his rating by students at Boston University, when you review this lamentation in 1998 and Australia’s deprivation with Dr Brusic being in Shanghai at an English University, which incidentally seems not to rank very highly, even in the Chinese rankings.

Liz, don’t worry, Nick Coatsworth, the Seer from Garran, says it will be all over this year

A year ago around Christmas, Liz Mover began to feel some hope. The ICU nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital had received her first dose of COVID vaccine. Soon, she thought, everyone will be vaccinated and this terrible pandemic will end.

Liz Mover, ICU nurse, Massachusetts General Hospital

But in the medical intensive care unit where Mover works treating the hospital’s sickest patients, 15 of the 18 beds were occupied last week by people critically ill with COVID. Almost all of them were unvaccinated.

As the pandemic stretches on and cases climb again, a depleted battalion of health care workers is battling yet another big surge of COVID. Despite the widespread availability of vaccines, hospitalisations have approached last winter’s levels. And for many health care workers on the front lines still fighting COVID, hope has evaporated.

The problem with people like Nick Coatsworth, even if you strip them from their political aspirations and, for me personally in relation to Coatsworth a sense of disappointment in his emergent arrogance, is that once you embark on an ideological pathway, there is no turning. Evidence is an inconvenience.

The experience of Ms Mover, the attending nurse in the Blake 7 Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU), can be found in the midst of the tasks she has become accustomed to in her 15 years at Massachusetts General Hospital.

She highlights a problem that the Virus is presenting. It has not gone away, and while people like Coatsworth and the media editorialists cling to the notion that it will go away and anyway this Omicron variant is not that serious, the problem is that it is neither – it is not going away and for those who contract the disease it can be very serious.

The problem is that it is indeed serious since its very insidious nature is compromising the whole health system.

An airliner crashes and all are killed. A terrible tragedy, but not an ongoing health care problem as is a pandemic which kills everyone in short order.

But that does not often happen; even the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing had a horrible aftermath for those who survived.

Then I well remember the AIDS epidemic, but the annual numbers never exceeded 2,500 and hospitalisation generally came in the form of end-of-life hospice care.

AIDS infection was described as a pandemic when it appeared in the 1980s (and curiously, again in the media at the end of 2020 when talking about its 40th anniversary). However, despite all the horrendous warnings as epitomised by the “Grim Reaper” advertisement, it has been very selective.

Influenza has been the disease where the parallels between the current pandemic and that the post-war WWI so-called Spanish flu are mostly made. The difference is that now the health system has developed technology in the health care system where there are high expectations, and where the politicians take for granted the high level of skill and care – but the coping is not endless and it has its limits. Irrespective of who you are, you must have a break – the cute use of “furlough” has become the signature.

In conventional war, if you were in the front line, the expectation of the politicians was that a large number would be permanently furloughed – that is, killed. Nevertheless, there was recognition that survivors needed to be given a break from the frontline, especially if you were inconveniently wounded. Even so, there were inevitable long term mental health problems among these survivors.

Thus, Liz Mover’s experience should merit a response because this pandemic, like those of influenza, will have a long tail. After all, while the pandemic of 1918 has been well aired, there were three influenza pandemics in the twentieth century – adding 1957 and 1968. I spent time in the infectious diseases hospital with the 1957 variant in my last year at school. Not pleasant.

At the very least, government should continue to stress improved hygiene both in relation to: (a) the personal – hand washing and mask wearing; and (b) the social – maintaining appropriate distance and, if the Government does not ban them, avoiding locations where the Virus is liable to lurk in numbers. We all have personal space which should be respected – I hate mine being invaded at the best of times. The community should respect this – even when traditions require one to slobber over one another whether male or female; or embrace one another just because our cave dweller ancestors did so.

Come to think of it. Have you seen the Prime Minister or the Pirouette visit a hospital recently? The problem is that to enhance the photo-opportunity of showing Morrison on the front line (with Pirouette a fuzzy background image), the security detail must make way for him, as occurred at the scene of the Devonport tragedy. The security detail may have to clear the staff away as he searches for a patient’s hand to clasp. Prime Minister, it may be a photo-opportunity of your love and compassion, but you need not bring your wife and leave a bunch of flowers at the entrance of the hospital ICU unit.

Backroads

I went to Boulia a number of times 20 years ago when I was spending a considerable amount of time working at Mount Isa. Putting Boulia into context, it is about three hundred kilometres south of Mount Isa. This is virtually the same distance as Mildura to Broken Hill. There is one intermediate settlement at Dajarra where there is also a hospital. Today, I understand the road has been paved between Mount Isa and Birdsville, but in my days in this Channel country it was not.

My memory of this time was jogged by the Boulia Shire sign, which appears in the opening credits of the ABC’s Backroads program. Not that I watch this very popular program much. I, like the ABC presenters, have visited many of the places they have gone to see, and they have their own perspective.

Bit too much giggling for me. I also grew up with the radio serial “Blue Hills”, the unending bush saga which sustained a huge audience among country people when it ran for nearly 6,000 episodes.

The formula of an unpretentious conservative country serial that both mirrored and confirmed people’s prejudices and, with a dollop of smugness, lasted not unsurprisingly for a long time.

As a microcosm of this smugness on a local level, Backroads goes a long way as the child of “Blue Hills”, never challenging, but in general reinforcing the stereotypes. The only difference in Backroads is there is mostly an Aboriginal segment, a situation very much downplayed in the long running serial.  I remember when miscegenation was dealt with in a number of “Blue Hills” episodes, and everybody in the serial was relieved to know that there would be no “throwback” in the child to be born.

But setting my basic distaste for Backroads aside (although there are a few good episodes since I have started watching it to see how it corresponds with my own bush experience of the place) this is my memory of Boulia.

This is a tribute to the late Jude Sticher.

When we met her, she was in charge of the health services in this tiny settlement on the Diamantina Developmental Road.  Because here we were in the Channel Country. She and her husband, Peter, came to Boulia on the last day of October 1995.

Boulia has a mixed Aboriginal and whitefella population.  Staying at the pub and mixing with the locals, we were confronted with one of the biggest steaks you can ever eat,

But then Boulia had space.  The streets were wide enough to turn a camel train around, and one of Boulia’s main attractions is the camel races in July.

Then there are Min Min lights, which allegedly appear as oval lights in the bush. Driving along the roads, they apparently dance along the horizon. Nothing like unexplained lights in the sky to bring out the juices.

Jude Sticher was a very matter of fact real person. She was a light in that community. She had trained at St Vincent’s Hospital Lismore, in northern NSW and did the triple certificate – general, midwifery, child health. Then she undertook some nursing, married Peter, had a daughter and bought a caravan park in Sarina, south of Mackay. They still had property at Sarina, and so they continued to connect with the sea, but they did not feel displaced; at least, not when I met them.

Reflecting on her being in Boulia, Jude said she nearly tossed it in during the first three months. The cultural and professional isolation had to be overcome. She persisted. There is a term “Boulia blow-throughs”. In three years, she ticked off two police officers, three school principals – and, as an afterthought, four electricians.

Her husband Peter had been a police officer in the police rescue and a Senior Constable for 15 years. In Boulia he was the ambulance driver and the “security detail” when Jude had to go on a night call. There had been a plane in the backyard, for when they went south. In the garage had been the fire engine, the motorbike (recently sold) and the four-wheel drive ambulance. The outback toy shop!

The hospital was very basic, but it served as both hospital and a clinic. One of the reasons that Jude stayed was because the community had learnt not to give her “a hard time”. This community came to know her tolerance levels.

Out of hours demands from those who had simply drunk too much were discouraged, and her “security detail” could be of assistance in reinforcing any definition of unacceptable behaviour from potential patients.

There was good cooperation with Jude’s counterparts at Dajarra, enabling people to have time off; this link was essential for stopping burn-out. There was less contact with the nurse down the road at Bedourie, as there were different employers and there appeared to be less stability in the staff. Bedourie was part of the Frontier Services, John Flynn’s original outfit, but still then with centres inter alia at Bedourie and Birdsville.

Jude was able to deal with emergencies and had the skills to stabilise patients; no different from those of any primary care practitioner working in a town. The RFDS service was there for advice and for evacuating those that needed it. It had worked over a period. Jude was the nurse practitioner with a spouse who has adapted.

Donohue’s Emporium 1920

That time has passed; if the Backroads visited Boulia, would Jude Sticher receive a mention? Or the Donohue’s emporium, which had opened in Boulia in 1920, but shut down there some years later.  I had bought a checked purple shirt there. That shirt lasted longer than the Boulia store.

One of my fondest memories was some years after I first went to Boulia, when one of my closest friends and his wife “rocked up” to the clinic. Jude Sticher answered their knock in the door, looking quizzical and asked what they wanted. My friends then mentioned my name, and Jude’s attitude relaxed. “Come on in. Any friend of Jack Best is a friend of ours”, she said.

I have not been back to Boulia for years, but now that the road is paved the whole way to Birdsville I may well do so. One of the positives about the Queensland Government is that they maintain their developmental roads in Western Queensland.  From Birdsville the road veers east to Beetoota and Windorah.  If you want to venture over the border into South Australia, their desert tracks are a bit of challenge.

Corroboree tree

I hope that the corroboree tree, the last known of the Pitta Pitta people, still exists behind the health centre. As for lasting memorabilia, I do have one of their conical head dresses of woven grass around which are wrapped coils of human hair and topped with emu feathers; the men used to wear them in their ceremonies. Boulia was an important place for such gatherings; for me it still remains an important nidus along the travelled bush roads of my Country.

And I hope they still remember Jude Sticher in Boulia.

Mouse Whisper

Sometime a twitter is so opaque for a simple mouse. Who, for Heaven’s sake, was this twitterata talking about? It led to an exchange.

Very happy our current POTUS didn’t party with Epstein and Maxwell, didn’t fly in Epstein’s plane, didn’t go to Epstein’s Island, didn’t have Maxwell at his daughter’s wedding, and didn’t appoint scumbag US attorney, who gave Epstein a sweetheart deal, to his damn Cabinet.

Hey, who was the Cabinet Member?

Name of Rene Acosta, Secretary of Labour

Who was this POTUS? I’ll give you a clue. In 2002 in the New York magazine article this future POTUS was quoted as saying that Epstein “was a ‘terrific guy’ who enjoyed women ‘on the younger side’.”

Rene Acosta, Secretary of Labour

 

Modest Expectations – At Last Michael Bowlby

Kizzmeika Corbett

Have you heard the name Kizzmeika Corbett? Well, this 35-year old immunologist is a very significant person. A leading researcher on coronavirus spike proteins and mRNA vaccine technology long before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Corbett’s work proved critical to developing a coronavirus vaccine in record time. For a year and a half, she worked around-the-clock alongside her team at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where they developed the vaccine in collaboration with Moderna.

A native of North Carolina, she early showed her innovative scientific mind. It should be added that although it is very rural, part of the tobacco road mythology where the leaf was king, North Carolina is a powerhouse in medical and health-related research, particularly at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Duke University in Durham.

After a period working on dengue fever at Chapel Hill (with field work in Sri Lanka) and her PhD having distilled immunology research into that virus in 2014, she went to work at the NIH.

Here she attracted the attention of the Head of Faculty, Barney Graham, and was appointed to lead the coronavirus research team, meaning that years before the Virus became a pandemic, Corbett was laying the foundation that would one day allow immunologists, herself among them, to quickly formulate a vaccine against the ever-changing coronavirus.

She has become one of just a handful of scientists around the world with expertise in the viruses’ distinctive spike proteins and antibody responses — knowledge that made it possible to quickly develop and deploy vaccines.

It should be noted that the use of mRNA in making vaccines had been around for 40 years, but the breakthrough came when a protective coating for the mRNA was discovered, since injected mRNA without such protection was destroyed in the body.

In her matter of fact way, Dr Corbett describes her work.

My contribution was helping to design the vaccine, leading the preclinical studies that informed the Phase I clinical trial and designing assays used for testing of clinical trial samples.

The quest in early January 2020 was to gear up. We started ordering all the things that we needed around animal experiments. We mapped out a plan. I started assigning roles to team members.

If you want to go fast in a pandemic, then messenger RNA (mRNA) is a shoo-in. It can be manufactured very quickly in very vast quantities, and you can essentially just swap out the protein once you have the system down. We collaborated with Moderna so we could get the system down pat.

Recently she decamped to Harvard as an assistant professor at T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Assistant” is not far up the academic ladder, but like many who wish not to be overburdened with administration nor become what we used to call in Australia “Qantas professors” because they flew from conference to conference wringing as much as they could from their research.

She is therefore still the epitome of the researcher working long hours with a partner who is the assistant dean in the same school. It is not an uncommon set up, with two people intensely committed to research developing deep personal relationships to compensate for the long hours in the laboratory which research imposes. Having a partner able to share the language in which your research is couched – to understand what drives you, in this case someone who is really changing “the shopfront of society”, and not just moving the manikins around to provide an appearance, rather than effecting true change.

A year ago or more, who of the general public had heard of mRNA technology. On December 8 last year, the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine outside a clinical trial was given. We’ve moved a long way scientifically in combatting the Virus but it is clear that our social structures have not been so successful.

Dr Corbett had already tried to change that situation, and in so doing, she fell foul of former President Trump. However, it is clear that within Dr Corbett there is more than one messenger RNA.

Such a little disease…

Rubella

Once, rubella was a scourge of pregnant women. It was a very mild disease. In fact, rubella wreaked havoc in the first trimester of pregnancy. It was very transmissible . It was also known as “German measles”, because of its fascination for German physicians in the 19th century, and measles because it caused a rash. Measles comes unremarkably from the Old English, meaning “many spots”.

An Australian ophthalmologist, Norman Gregg, first described the association between rubella and birth defects.  As reported in the Australian Dictionary of Biography: His alert clinical observations and inquiring mind enabled him to make his outstanding discovery about rubella. On 15 October 1941 in Melbourne he delivered a paper on ‘Congenital Cataract following German Measles in the Mother’ to the Ophthalmological Society of Australia which was published in its Transactions. 

My clash with the Virus came twice, in 1964 and 1966. I cannot remember having had rubella, but as happens when you least want it to happen (sound familiar), I was exposed each time to a patient with rubella.

It was a time when a rubella epidemic was sweeping Europe and the United States. During that short period in the USA there were 12.5 million cases of rubella. In the USA, 20,000 children were born with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS)). Of these 11,000 were deaf, 3,500 blind, and 1,800 intellectually disabled. There were 2,100 neonatal deaths and more than 11,000 abortions – some spontaneous miscarriages, and others “performed surgically” after women were informed of “the serious risks of rubella exposure during their pregnancy”.

It so happened that in each of the years, 1964 and 1966, I was exposed to rubella in the course of my medical practice – as a first year intern and then as a pathology registrar. I also did a number of locums during those years.

Prophylaxis against rubella was injection of gamma-globulin. In the case of rubella, one was not spared – 10 mls into each buttock and five into the right arm. Being injected with a needle of a gauge that you could probably run a train through, left me with a painful legacy. However, two boys born normal was a no-brainer in terms of receiving the gamma-globulin injection during my wife’s first trimester.

The rubella virus had been isolated in 1962, and a vaccine followed in 1969, which was incorporated in the vaccination schedule a year later; and the virus has all but vanished now.

I do remember that one of the members of the Students’ Representative Council Executive probably had been a victim of CRS. Her sight was compromised, but we never talked about it, and although she fell into what some would say, the FLK basket, in retrospect her sheer ability, her doggedness in getting things done, yet her innate kindness belied her disability. In retrospect, with all my other colleagues on the Executive, I was a medical student. The other males were law, engineering and architectural students, in those days when men were kings and women were not, she earned respect. And for God’s sake, she was a social studies student!

I lost contact with her after university. She has long since died. Yet when I starting writing this piece, I suddenly realised how much we took for granted about this remarkable women. But then I muse alone. All the other members of that Executive, whose memory I treasure, are dead also.

However, my sons, I still remember the injections, well worth it, but hardly a treasured memory. 

Snottites

As I probably mentioned in a previous blog, I accumulated New Scientist magazines, even though I never had time to read them.  After I started writing the blog, as the magazines were conveniently stacked in the office, they served as a source of some of my material, even though some were 20 or more years old. Most of the issues came in an era before the modern technologies, and therefore there was a certain quaintness.  Having fulfilled this purpose of providing source material, I broke the link which bound me in this state of habituation and threw them out.

Now I am down to my last few. One of which highlights the snottite. If there were a word which immediately disgusts, “snottite” would be a major contender.

Let me put it in context: This place stinks. The rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulphide hits before you even enter the mouth of the cave. Acid drips from the walls and ceiling. Slime coats the rock with coloured blotches like ghastly gelatinous wallpaper. And then there are the “snottites”, white, wobbling versions of stalactites with the consistency of phlegm.

The snottite is a mixture of gypsum and sulphur, with bacterial activity within them which ensures a stalactite appearance stretching as far as half a metre from the ceiling of these caves. This is the sulphurous environment of the underground where even Orpheus and Eurydice wore gas masks.

The bacteria cause a coating of slime to develop over these calcareous formations. The slime forms curtains and loops that some liken to mozzarella cheese. Some slime is red in colour; some white or black. At the tip of these snottites drops sulphuric acid with a pH of 0.5. This is a hazard for cavers, where a drip on the t-shirt can burn a hole, not to mention the damage if a drip directly hits one in the eye. The skin is bad enough. Just as a comparison, battery acid is 0.8 pH; thus, snottite sulphuric acid is twice as strong.

These snottites exist in a set of caves where life is perpetuated through the metabolism of sulphur. The original cave where they were discovered in the Mexican State of Tabasco was the Cueva de Villa Luz (The Lighthouse Cave). Its name came from holes in the roof of this cave which let the light in; it was a traditional place for religious ceremonies, at least at the mouth of cave.

Lechuguila Cave

Then a guy called Jim Pisarowicz, a caver from South Dakota, explored deep into the cave in 1987 and found the snottites. That cave system is two kilometres long. However, the simultaneous discovery of the Lechuguila Cave in New Mexico, stretching 140 kilometres in length and at a depth of 500 metres, in one word dwarfed the original discovery of life in a cauldron of sulphur. Recently these sulphurous caves have also been found in Wales and elsewhere.

Under the microscope a snottite contains a dense mesh of fine bacterial filaments embedded in a mess of sticky polysaccharides that form sulphur crystals. Many of the bacteria oxidise the sulphur, but others devour these organic compounds. There are also higher organisms which consume the bacteria. One researcher has distilled the observations into a “consortium based on sulphur metabolism”.

There are fish called mollies which survive in this extremely acidic environment, even though the mollies deep in the cave were somewhat different from those at the mouth of the cave.

What does it all mean?  One supposition is that if there is such subterranean activity on Earth, why not on Mars. Not sure where it gets you – except to make sure your t-shirt on Mars can withstand acid burns.

What I find amazing is that we humans co-exist with a world where sulphur is the essential ingredient. But then, what is Hell?

Personal Irresponsibility

Janine Sargeant MPH

“Just off phone to Aussie friend who visited Germany. Testing station on every corner: takes five minutes, walk in, no line, results in 3 hours at the most. And they can do 80 million daily.  A twitter observation

 On December 12th I wrote the following email. I didn’t send it and have just found it saved in my “drafts” folder:

  • Did you see today’s numbers by the way – bloody awful – 800 in NSW? Perrottet better get onto this PDQ or we’ll have thousands of cases a day and be locked out of the rest of Australia again.

I looked at this draft email on the 26th, just two weeks later. On the 26th, the case numbers were 6,310. What happened in those two weeks? It was two weeks of Perrottet’s Christmas gift to NSW; throwing public health caution in the bin along with the used Christmas wrappings. No abundance of caution, just an abundance of Omicron, although he can’t sheet home all the blame to that variant. Masks off, QR codes gone, social distancing ditched – packed nightclubs, parties and raves in!

Today is the 30th, there are 70,928 active cases in NSW and the new cases up to 8.00 pm on the 29th are 12,226. That’s exponential growth in anyone’s book.

However, the Premier has told us not to worry about case numbers anymore; worry about hospitalisations instead (and those numbers are also now increasing exponentially). Sure, but what about all those people linked to cases who are now in isolation. If you assume a ludicrously low average of one per case, that’s over 140,000 in isolation; assume half a dozen, that’s getting up towards half a million people in isolation; where do you stop? That’s a lot of people who can’t leave their houses, who can’t work – perhaps in one of those hospitals with burgeoning numbers of COVID cases – and a lot of people sitting at home and wondering just what happened in the past two weeks.

Further, the time now taken to be advised of proximity to a “case”, courtesy the recently ceased and more recently-partly reinstated QR code, has blown out to 4-5 days. By which time you may have been out and about with COVID, given that omicron has a median incubation period of 3 days.

The “testing debacle” means that people in isolation who have needed tests on day 1 or 2 and then day 6, were likely to end up having their day 6 test before they even got the results from their first test. What a waste of time and resources. The most modest of Christmas arrangements were thrown into disarray with hosts packing up the Christmas fare and taking to the road to deliver “care packages” around the city to isolating family members. One of our family members recently turned up to a testing centre at 7.30 am and was told there was already a six hour wait – and that was in Melbourne, not Sydney. Have we demonstrated that with 6,000 plus daily cases (and who knows how many people wanting a test so they can go to Queensland), we have effectively broken the NSW Government’s testing capacity? All we can say now is thank heavens Queensland and Tasmania have just announced the removal of the PCR requirement from 1 January otherwise testing in NSW would be completely crippled. Although replacing these tests with Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) is presenting its own difficulties with supply.

Endless testing queues

At 6,000 cases a day and with State border crossing PCR requirements, the collection centres have been overrun and pathology labs are days behind despite working round the clock; inevitably, errors have crept in. Positive results require double checking which significantly slows down the test processing so as case numbers grow, the pathology response inexorably slows down. No matter how meticulous a laboratory’s quality control, systems and people under extreme pressure inevitably result in human error. So nearly 1,500 people have received wrong results in the past week; of these around 900 have now had their negative results rescinded, having been out in the community for days.

Happy Christmas NSW from Uncle Dominic

Did anyone foresee this? Where are our public health experts? Go forth and multiply the cases, says the Premier; go on holidays, go to your parties, and that’s exactly what has happened. The younger citizens have partied and raved into the night on the back of their vaxxed status and we’ve seen some spectacular superspreader events. Next, we have New Year’s Eve and then an Ashes Test; mercifully, if the Melbourne test is anything to go by, that game will be mercifully short, but just long enough to fill the new year’s COVID coffers to overflowing.

Twenty thousand cases a day and half a million in isolation in NSW by New Year’s Eve? Not beyond the realms of possibility. Happy New Year from the NSW Government. According to Premier Perrottet “it’s all going according to plan” as long as you don’t disappear into the shifting quicksand of Government COVID policy. Plans are meant to prevent chaos, not create it.

On the 30th we have now seen a change in the rules of isolation and the Prime Minister telling us we have no right to line up for a COVID test if we don’t have symptoms. Hopefully all those industries requiring employees who have been in isolation to have negative PCRs are changing their policies now as well.

And what about those RATs that you can’t find for love nor money? It’s the only time in my life I’ve gone into a pharmacy and asked if they have any RATs for sale. COVID – a whole new world.

Hazzard with two “Z” – The Alchemist from Wakehurst

Unlike the previous writer, I had been going to let the stupidity of the NSW government in relation to the Virus go through to the keeper. There are enough satirists, with an eye to the ridiculous – the antics of the Premier Pirouette. Coupled with those of Morrison, Australia potentially has a marvellous export – the Fountainhead Circus.

Thinking through what Minister Hazzard had said, what would have happened if a State Health Minister had said during the polio pandemic – “It’s inevitable that everybody’s going to get it?” You could barely hear this Metaphor through the swishing of iron lungs and the clanking of braces attached to children’s limbs.

What do you think vaccination is for, you chump?

The idea that it is a good idea to let epidemics “rip” so we can get the illusory herd immunity, is arrant nonsense. The one thing you and I share, Minister Hazzard, is that our ancestors survived among other things the Black Death. However, there were many other perils our forebears weathered so that you and I could walk on this dry and dusty land.

Even in the time of our forebears, they went to the country from the city to evade the plague bacteria that lived in the flea that lived on the rat that the sailor jacks bought from the city seaports. As you sat on that estate balcony, oh God that dreadful Pirouette is coming up the drive, fresh from sailing back from the Levant. He calls out – “no worries, I have perfumed the air in which I travelled to rid us all of the miasma.”

“Must not stand in the way of unlimited travel”, he adds.

Our parents dodged the Spanish flu, and even the worst estimate at a time when there was no vaccine defence against the Virus but people wore masks was only 5 per cent of the population. The influenza virus comes and goes as a pandemic, and I know I have had it. But according to the Hazzard dictum, why bother vaccinating – we’ll all get it. Nevertheless, there is a new vaccine annually tailored to the particular influenza strain which provides partial immunity. I will take it anytime to avoid the Hazzard spread.

So, Minister Hazzard, let us also dismiss that little reported diphtheria epidemic that your parents dodged in the twenties, to be saved by the arrival of a vaccine in the early 1930s. Of course, your parents were lucky to dodge Spanish flu. Both Spanish flu and diphtheria wreaked havoc, especially among children, as your parents were probably then.

But they are different (diphtheria caused by bacteria and flu a virus), even though both have vaccines to control their spread and hence confound the Hazzard Rule of “everybody will get it”. Diphtheria is caused by a bacterium, and the arrival of antibiotics in the 1940s has curbed a bacterial pandemic taking hold.

The population gave up on flu pandemic measures because they were “tired of them”, and paid a heavy price

Influenza continues to present a hazard, as I suspect coronavirus will be, also requiring a new vaccine variant annually, although frequency for such vaccine administration remains unclear.

And there is also the matter of “long COVID”. If I had lost my sense of smell and taste, if I were young, I would be looking at my future with trepidation, because the nerve fibres of the olfactory cranial nerve enters the olfactory part of the brain near the optic chiasma. Therefore, the virus is very close to the brain when it infects the olfactory nerve, and the course of post-viral brain syndromes is well recorded. I have personally had a family member with such a syndrome with devastating, life shortening effects.

I shudder when Hazzard’s comments echo down his corridor of ignorance.

Thus, the voice of Minister Hazzard may also reflect a politician overwhelmed by bad news and in effect surrendering. Time for you to do the right thing and take a rest, murmuring herd immunity as you drift off into stress-related sleep.

I’m sorry, but you are just not capable for whichever of the above reasons, but then some politicians never get it! I suspect you are one of them.

On the other hand, this seems sensible…

Reprinted from the Boston Globe with thanks.

With cases of Omicron surging nationwide, you may be wondering if that runny nose or aching throat is a dreaded case of COVID-19 that’s finally tracked you down, or if it’s merely a symptom of the common cold.

On top of that, the flu virus, which had all but vanished last year as the pandemic gripped the nation, appears to be making a comeback, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Distinguishing between it all can be hard, and finding a COVID-19 test can be harder. Here we try to break down what we know about Omicron symptoms so far (remember, much is unknown this early in the outbreak) and how they may differ from the common cold and flu, or even from the previous variant, Delta.

Omicron is now the dominant variant in the USA and is spreading at a rapid rate, with cases rising about 23 percent in the past two weeks or so alone, according to data from the CDC. The variant has an unusually high number of mutations, some of which may be enabling it to evade immune protection. And early data has demonstrated that it is about two to three times more transmissible than the Delta variant. As a result, many, including those who are vaccinated, are likely to test positive for the virus.

Because the variant is a relatively new discovery, scientists are still studying the severity of illness and what symptoms it will bring — and if they vary from other strains. Some hopeful news arrived this week, with three teams of scientists, who studied the course Omicron took in South Africa, Scotland, and England, releasing preliminary results that showed infections more often resulted in mild illness compared to those from the Delta variant before it. The findings suggested those infected were less likely to be hospitalised, but there were caveats.

Preliminary reports indicate that those infected with the variant generally display similar symptoms to those who have been infected with either Delta or the original coronavirus. 

Data scientists with the health company Zoe used the most recent data from London, where the prevalence of Omicron is higher than in other regions throughout the United Kingdom, to analyse symptom data and compare it with data recorded in early October when Delta was dominant. The analysis found no clear difference between the two — and only about half of people experienced “the classic three symptoms of fever, cough, or loss of sense of smell or taste.” The top five recorded symptoms in both periods were a runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing, and sore throat. They tended to be “mostly mild” and “cold-like.”

In the United States, possible symptoms of the coronavirus listed by the CDC include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, the new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, and diarrhoea.

When Delta became the dominant variant and led to an uptick in cases, cold-like symptoms became more common, as the lead scientist in the ZOE COVID Study noted last week. It appears to be the same case with Omicron, and some of the key symptoms first seen earlier in the pandemic — namely a loss of taste and smell — are not as typical.

An analysis published by researchers in Norway following a small Omicron outbreak among “fully vaccinated” people found that only 23 percent of patients reported a loss of taste, and only 12 percent reported a loss of smell. Meanwhile, a runny or stuffy nose, fatigue, cough, and a sore throat were the most common symptoms.

Early evidence also suggests that Omicron is less likely to spread deep into the lung tissue, despite it replicating in the upper airway quickly, which could help to explain why infections may appear milder. A study undertaken by Hong Kong University researchers found that replication of the variant in deeper lung tissue was more than ten times lower than the original of the virus.

It should also be noted that, according to data collected by ZOE, the symptoms one experiences can vary depending on vaccination status. 

Both the flu and the common cold are contagious respiratory illnesses that share similar symptoms despite being caused by different viruses, according to the CDC. In general, flu symptoms are more intense and begin more abruptly, while colds are usually milder and do not typically result in serious health problems.

The symptoms of the flu, according to the health protection agency, can include muscle or body aches and “fever or feeling feverish/chills.” It can have associated complications. Meanwhile, people who have a cold tend to have a runny or stuffy nose.

Compared to the flu, COVID-19 can cause more serious illnesses in some people, according to the CDC. It can also take longer for people to experience symptoms and they can be contagious for a greater period of time.

The CDC also stressed that because some of the symptoms of both the flu, the coronavirus, and other respiratory illnesses are so similar, testing is required to “tell what the illness is and to confirm a diagnosis,” especially because people can be infected with both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.

In short, for those looking to determine what they are sick with for travel or planning purposes, public health experts recommend getting tested for the coronavirus beforehand.

Mouse Whisper

As I was slouching towards Mousehole these words came out of the ether and flattened my nose. 

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

Rest in peace, Joan Didion. For there will be no more 4.00 am calls, but I know what you meant. Life is indeed complicated.

Joan Didion

 

Modest Expectations – Gross

All vaccines approved in the United States and European Union still seem to provide a significant degree of protection against serious illness from Omicron, which is the most crucial goal. But only the Pfizer and Moderna shots, when reinforced by a booster, appear to have success at stopping infections, and these vaccines are unavailable in most of the world.

The other shots — including those from AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and vaccines manufactured in China and Russia — do little to nothing to stop the spread of Omicron, early research shows. And because most countries have built their inoculation programs around these vaccines, the gap could have a profound impact on the course of the pandemic.

A global surge of infections in a world where billions of people remain unvaccinated not only threatens the health of vulnerable individuals but also increases the opportunity for the emergence of yet more variants. The disparity in the ability of countries to weather the pandemic will almost certainly deepen. And the news about limited vaccine efficacy against Omicron infection could depress demand for vaccination throughout the developing world, where many people are already hesitant or preoccupied with other health problems. 

Most evidence so far is based on laboratory experiments, which do not capture the full range of the body’s immune response, and not from tracking the effect on real-world populations. The results are striking, however.

The Pfizer and Moderna shots use the new mRNA technology, which has consistently offered the best protection against infection with every variant. All the other vaccines are based on older methods of triggering an immune response.

The Chinese vaccines Sinopharm and Sinovac — which make up almost half of all shots delivered globally —  offer almost zero protection from Omicron infection (as shown by Hong Kong results. China seems to be responding but with the normal response that the Chinese can do no wrong – as of Dec. 10, 120 million people in China have had a third vaccine dose, far short of the 1.16 billion who have had two, according to State media.)

The great majority of people in China have received these shots, which are also widely used in low-and middle-income countries such as Mexico and Brazil.

A preliminary effectiveness study in Britain found that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine showed no ability to stop Omicron infection six months after vaccination. Ninety per cent of vaccinated people in India received this shot, under the brand name Covishield; it has also been widely used across much of sub-Saharan Africa, where Covax, the global Covid vaccine program, has distributed 67 million doses of it to 44 countries.

Researchers predict that Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, which is also being used in Africa and Latin America, will show similarly dismal rates of protection against Omicron.

Demand for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had been surging in Africa, because its single-shot delivery regimen makes it easy to deliver in low-resource settings. But it too has shown a negligible ability to block Omicron infection

This excerpt from the New York Times this week says it all – at least for me. I have become sick and tired of politicians with little scientific knowledge and without any understanding of science – let alone public health – pontificating, when they are way out of their depth. The default position for ignorance is “personal responsibility”.

In other words, stay strong, stand up, shut your eyes tight and the good fairy will wash all the nasty virus way. Here is where our Opus Dei indoctrinated at last comes together into a rapturous relationship with a Pentecostal creationist. As a result, the mob is permitted to rule – that ragtag group of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and downright seditionists.

The problem is the definition of “personal responsibility” – the mob does not shriek “personal responsibility” but rather “freedom” as their catchcry.

The NYT article is clear. Without the booster, AZ vaccine is useless in the face of omicron – the Moderna booster seems to be stronger than Pfizer. However, the difference between the efficacy of the various mRNA vaccines is somewhat academic against this rise of a new variant, as it does sounding time to ditch the old technology upon which AZ and the other vaccines are based.

The problem is that there should be any argument about when to give the booster, when one realises that perhaps six million plus of those vaccinated in Australia have had the AZ vaccine. If omicron is spreading as rapidly as has been foreshadowed overseas, then Australia is facing the same situation as it did when the vaccination rates were low or non-existent. It is estimated that about seven per cent of the population have had a booster; might I include Morrison?

It is useless to point at any one piece of data and claim that Australia is not vulnerable, especially when the governments are doing everything wrong in stopping the spread. Remember when the volume of testing was used as the talisman of success; now the same statistic is being demonised. Have any of the politicians thought, from their privileged position riding in a government car at our expense, how buggered the health workforce is, with an even more contagious invasion of the Virus?

The root problem of Australia’s plight is that a basically unintelligent Prime Minister, who is hooked on the media release, in effect shirked his quarantine responsibility from the onset, and allowed each State to set their own rules. Morrison’s instincts are to wedge, divide and in this case he has been very successful. It was only the efforts of some of the public health doctors that have kept Australia from succumbing to a Boris-blathering shamble.

No mandates, Prime Minister. Well let us extend your now more confident stance – for instance, no need to wear seat belts, no need to have any rules in relation to car maintenance, no traffic lights, no pedestrian crossings, no speed limits, no need to bother about which side of the road you drive on, no limits on alcohol consumption while driving. They are just matters for personal responsibility!

As the you say, Prime Minister, it is a matter of personal responsibility. No mandates – let’s roll back the years of public health skills and experience. Why not in road safety as well – and, for that matter, in child entertainment facilities?

His recent comparison of the pandemic with sunburn is risible. For one thing sunburn, when I last read about it, is not infectious. If you burn yourself in the sun, it is one’s responsibility – alone.

As you say, “brothers and sisters do whatever you like – but do it responsibly – like my mate Boris!”

But you will excuse me if I repeat what Leo Amery said, pointing at Neville Chamberlain in the House of Commons: “In the name of God, go”. It was 7th May 1940. The evacuation from Dunkirk was less than three weeks later. By that time there was a new Prime Minister.

The Narcissist in the Pork Barrel with a mark of the Ear

Jair Bolsonaro

I have wondered what life would be like living under Jair Bolsonaro, one of the most active facilitators of COVID-19 spread, indicative of deeply narcissistic personality coupled with a profound suspicion of anyone more intelligent than himself. From afar it looked like a nightmare, where the leader of the nation was so convinced of his own thinking that it excluded any contrary view. Translated is that the “Bolsonaros” do not come to terms with loss of power and will do anything to maintain that power.

On the other hand, the conventional political wisdom is consistent with Mayhew’s analysis: both constituents and members of US Congress excoriate earmarks (a.k.a. Pork Barrel) as pork only when they are in someone else’s district.  If that is true, anti-pork campaigns might result in a variation on Richard Fenno’s familiar paradox: we hate Congress for being so wasteful but love our own representatives for meeting our district’s needs so effectively.  If that is the case, then the politicians receive electoral benefits from the earmarks, a.k.a. pork barrel, for which they claim public credit.

Mayhew and Levinger argued that the size of individuals’ networks affects the amount of time individuals interact with each member of their network, because humans have limited time and resources. Individuals in larger networks, such as urban centres, are in contact with more individuals than individuals in smaller networks. Consequently, they may devote less time to each interaction or forgo interactions that are less important. The pork barrel process acts as a lubricant for such constituents.

Yet Andrew Leigh, an Australian politician, the ALP member for Fenner in Melbourne, has studied the effect of pork barrelling on electorate behaviour. He found that the sporting rorts affair did not materially affect voting behaviour.

However, in reconciling the American sociologists with Leigh, I wonder whether he has looked at the recent allocation of Federal government funding to the outer Sydney electorate of Lindsay, centred on Penrith. What is clear is that while there are some large grants, there are many small grants there, each attracting an inner glow in a small cohort of people until the number of grants accumulates a degree of rosiness abut the government handing out freely the money of us “mug taxpayers” as its largesse.

When does the grant have to be small enough to just constitute a bribe, because that is what most of these grants are? Obviously small grants have a multiplier effect far in excess of large grants given to big companies. The large grants to “the big end of town” are often reflective of the same level of corruption, these grants often resulting in grateful kickbacks to the particular political party to sustain electoral viability.

Thus, it is a different order of magnitude and, may I suggest, serves the same  purpose as the local PNG politician shelling out ten kina notes. Where is the difference between the politicians in Papua New Guinea and those in Australia? After all, the PNG politician could easily write a brief justification for “the horticultural developmental project to grow betel nut … or whatever”. But they don’t bother – just hand out cash in exchange for your vote. No humbug there. Bribery is bribery.

But then I don’t think of Melanesians as narcissists.

Out of Africa

Taiohae, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas

Christmas comes in various places. For a number of years, Christmas for us was always a different place in the world. Once we were in Taiohae in the Marquesas, where Christmas dinner was a pig cooked in an umu, Christmas in London in a suite at the Savoy, gazing down the twinkling Thames; yet another in Santa Fe with the farolitos and luminaria guiding us through snow-strewn streets, with a temperature well below zero, to attend a Navaho Mass.

Most of them are associated with an anecdote, but the strangest Christmas morning occurred in Kenya. As part of a search for Africa, we first went to Africa in the late 80s. It was a time when South Africa was still out of bounds and Australian flights terminated in Harare. Then we travelled round East Africa with our last port of call which I mentioned in a recent blog being the Seychelles, before a flight to Singapore; thence back to Australia.

Little did we know that this was to herald many trips to the African continent over the next three decades. However, at that Christmas we had gone to stay at Little Governors camp in the Masai Mara, a national park about 2,000 metres above sea level. We were there at a time of the “short rains” in December, and it was very wet underfoot. The streams filled with hippopotami were overflowing, and in the camp it was hard to keep dry. Even when they are characterised as “short”, they are significant downpours, and one such was on Christmas morning. We soon found after all the exchanges of Seasons’ Greetings that we had been invited to visit a Masai village that morning.

During our stay, the local Masai guarded our camp, tall silent men with spears, ostensibly there to protect visitors when the elephants walk through the camp, really to stop idiot visitors wandering out into the path of the elephants – you don’t stop elephants. As we found out on a later African visit, when we were awakened by our tent being vigorously shaken by a young bull elephant wanting to tuck into the leaves on the tree which served as a strut for our tent. No Masai warriors there.

The Masai are very tall and have a spiritual belief about ownership of cattle being a responsibility which has been given to them, although I was never clear how far that mandate extends. Their villages consist of a cluster of circular huts with a shallow thatched roof. The walls are mudbrick, discoloured a brown from cow dung in the mud. Cow dung seems to constitute an unescapable factor of Masai life, as we got out of the vehicle into a slurry of dung, which threatened to engulf our boots. This was not high heel country where you could be a dashing figure in safari suit with cravat and bush hat. I mention that because the regal Masai away from the reality of existence has, in the pages of a Vogue spread, become the model of the noble savage.

In this case we, the visitors, were treated with dancing; the men with the two-dimensional jumping up and down brandishing spears; the women dancing to accentuate the beadwork which festooned their throats and wrists in the main. Some singing, although I cannot remember whether the women actually ululated that morning. Anyway, we were not burdened by holly and ivy encrusted carols.

The shuka is the caftan-like robe the Masai all wear. It is essentially a rough cotton. In fact, as one source puts it, the word “traditional” must be taken with a grain of salt. Before the colonisation of Africa, the Masai wore leather garments. They only began to replace calf hides and sheep skin with commercial cotton cloth in the 1960s.

Maasi warriors

But how and why they chose shuka cloth is still unclear today. There are a few schools of thought. One of them is traced back through centuries — fabrics were used as a means of payment during the slave trade and landed in East Africa, while black, blue, and red natural dyes were obtained from Madagascar. There are records of red-and-blue checked “guinea cloth” becoming very popular in West Africa during the 18th century. Some of the cloth resembles tartan, and the incursion of Scottish missionaries into the Masai lands is said to be the culprit.

Whatever the source, it was all very colourful; and the Masai are not shy in coming forward flogging their beads inter alia. Thus, we come back with an assortment of beaded geegaws; and I wondered why we hadn’t bought any axes and mirrors.

Did not see this visit reported in the Australian Media

Indonesia is our closest Asian neighbour. It is a cultural rendang – so many ingredients, yet the Australian perspective is of Bali as an offshore resort where Australians just carry on their lifestyle – but more clearly. The Australian personality easily accommodates the beachcomber, surfer or not. I have a son who, in his younger years, would go surfing around Indonesia, mostly off Sumatra.

Yet Indonesia the country may as well be in a different galaxy, so little the normal Australian knows about it. For some reason the rapidly irrelevant Great Britain gets extensive media coverage, yet Indonesia, only when there is a disaster. It may be attributed to the fact that we neither share common language, culture nor, as is increasingly important, common sporting activities. Indonesians see us as an educational destination, but otherwise as reported, the average Indonesian shows little interest in Australia (except when rent-a-crowd is assembled outside the Australian Embassy when we are perceived to have insulted somebody or something sacred).

Yet looking at the content of the recent Blinken visit, I would have thought it would have aroused interest in Australia, especially since our government has been a strident supporter of the USA. His visit to Indonesia came days after that of a senior diplomat from Russia. Yet the Blinken visit is designed to begin winning back American support which lay fallow under Trump, while the Chinese pressed ahead. One chink in the aid program from China has been the use of the relatively ineffective Chinese vaccines, where the availability of a booster will be all important for those already vaccinated with the Chinese vaccine.

At least when the Blinken entourage inevitably became infected with COVID and aborted its visit, the West Australian reported it.  Will that be the harbinger of things to come – half-built relationship eroded by the virus of libertarian hogwash and conspiracy theory?

Unless a significant cohort of Indonesians or, more importantly their children, are welcomed to Australia to embed the culture and the ability to communicate effectively, with correspondents who have their roots in Australia, then Indonesia will still continue to be Bali – offset by the burning threat of terrorism.

But Indonesia and, for that matter, the other Malay countries are so much more.

As I write, my eyes are fixed on the lively presenters on ABC breakfast television, Fauziah Ibrahim and Iskander Razak, obviously of Malay heritage with the name suggesting a Muslim upbringing. Yet where do they come from?  Singapore, probably the country closest to a European way of doing things.

Food fad

I wonder whether they are conversant with the Malay language, including Bahasa. I still remember baik baik saja from a tentative period when learning Bahasa and eating nasi goreng was quite a fad. Then the ABC actually ran programs teaching the language; not having it sequestered in SBS where the aim is a self-conscious “multi-culturalism”, not necessarily enhancing multi-cultural communication.

But as reported…

Downplaying direct confrontation between the United States and China, Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday pledged to strengthen relations with Indo-Pacific nations through billions of dollars in US investment and aid and, in doing so, counter Beijing’s regional pull.

That soft-power pitch was delivered at Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta, the country’s capital, and continued with a series of agreements on maritime cooperation and education and Peace Corps exchanges. The university was also the site of a speech nearly 60 years ago by Robert F. Kennedy, who spoke then of open relations among states, so long as one did not threaten the rights of others.

Secretary of State, Antony Blinken

Blinken called it remarkable that the broader goal had changed so little for a region that now accounts for 60 percent of the global economy and is growing faster than anywhere else in the world. The Indo-Pacific covers countries primarily in the Indian Ocean region, including India, Australia, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.

“We all have a stake in ensuring that the world’s most dynamic region is free from coercion and accessible to all,” he said. “This is good for people across the region, and it’s good for Americans, because history shows that when this vast region is free and open, America is more secure and more prosperous.”

But China, the regional heavyweight, overshadows US trade in nearly every country in the Indo-Pacific. In Southeast Asia alone, two-way trade with China reached $685 billion in 2020, more than double that of the region’s trade with the United States.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is aimed at building infrastructure like ports, railway lines, and roads around the world, has continued to make inroads in Southeast Asia even during the pandemic. This month, Laos completed its first high-speed railway, a $6 billion project backed by China. A few weeks before that, Vietnam opened its first metro line in Hanoi, also thanks to China. And in Indonesia, China has spent billions of dollars to build high-speed rail lines, power plants, dams, and highways.

“The Achilles’ heel of US policy remains economic engagement, with China far outpacing the US in trade and infrastructure investment,” said Jonathan Stromseth, a Southeast Asia expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Unlike his predecessor, President Biden has avoided directly pressuring other nations to choose between partnering with either the United States or China on a host of issues. Still, Stromseth said, parallel efforts by China and the United States to outdo each other risks “that a bipolar divide is hardening for the long term, with potentially serious consequences for regional stability and development.”

China has stepped up its military operations in the Indo-Pacific, with warplanes flying over parts of Taiwan and staking claims over disputed territory in the South China Sea. These actions, among others, have put the Pentagon on alert.

Blinken said bluntly, “We don’t want conflict in the Indo-Pacific.” Yet he also described “much concern” in the region over Beijing’s actions, which he said has distorted open markets with state-subsidized products, limited trade by its adversaries and engaged in illegal fishing.

“Countries across the region want this behaviour to change,” Blinken said. “We do too.”

Blinken’s main message was that the United States is a better bet as a partner than China.

He said the United States had donated 300 million coronavirus vaccines — one-third of its worldwide contribution — to the Indo-Pacific and would continue to invest billions of dollars in its public health systems.

The vaccines, which Blinken said were given “with no strings attached,” may prove to be the United States’ main leverage in Southeast Asia, as hundreds of millions of doses sent by Chinese companies have been found to be largely ineffective against the delta variant.

On climate, Blinken noted a $500 million commitment to help finance a solar manufacturing facility in India as among efforts to help the region stave off environmental crises without disrupting economies. He pledged to pursue agreements to bolster data privacy and secure technology used in economic transactions, “because if we don’t shape them, others will.”

And he said the Biden administration would work to ease snarls in the global goods supply chain in a region that buys nearly one-third of all US exports.

Across Southeast Asia, private investments by the United States amounted to $328.5 billion in 2020, outpacing China.

“The region has told us loud and clear that it wants us to do more,” Blinken said. “We’ll meet that call.”

Blinken’s visit to Indonesia, the largest country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, was viewed as overdue: Neither Vice President Kamala Harris nor Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stopped here in recent travels to the region. In a fresh reminder of the nation’s strategic value, Blinken arrived only a few hours after Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council; their planes were parked next to each other at Jakarta’s airport.

Blinken’s speech was well received by some within Indonesia. Tom Lembong, who was Indonesia’s trade minister from 2015 to 2016, said it “hit the bull’s-eye on what policy makers across ASEAN want, which is concrete and practical solutions, and less of the soaring rhetoric that has dominated American official engagement with Southeast Asia over the last two decades.”

“I would argue that at this time, the Biden administration is succeeding in Southeast Asia — they’re regaining lost ground and making up for lost time,” Lembong said in an e-mail.

Many countries in Southeast Asia remain wary of being drawn into a Cold-War standoff between the United States and China. In November, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore indicated that he was uncomfortable with Biden’s calls to persuade leaders from democracies to present a more unified front against China.

“We all want to work together with the US,” Lee said in a November interview with Bloomberg News. But, he added, “I think not very many countries would like to join a coalition against those who have been excluded, chief of whom would be China.”

The region is split between countries that are friendlier with China, like Cambodia and Laos, and others that are more hard-line, such as Vietnam. In previous years, the bloc of Southeast Asian states has been torn about how to address the dispute in the South China Sea, with some nations not wanting to offend Beijing.

“The sin of China is undermining and breaking up ASEAN,” said Kasit Piromya, who was Thailand’s foreign minister from 2008 to 2011. “China has the money, they are rich and have their projects and initiatives. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be their doormat. I think we are terrified of China, but this is not based on reality.

Finally, from us all here with Blinken, Wynken and Nod, Selamat Hari Natal.”

Mouse Whisper

A sidelight of “Holiday Inn”, the 1942 version of a White Christmas. For snow, it used chrysotile asbestos. As Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas”, the asbestos was falling all around … “like the one I used to know.”

Modest Expectations – Make Haste to Chiswick, Young Whyman

It is the winter of 1942. The streets of Melbourne are full of people in strange garb marching up and down the streets. Why, because the Japanese invasion is a hoax, they yell.  They want their freedoms back.  The so-called picture of Australian soldiers standing in the sun in Singapore was a film set, jigged to appear that they were Australian whereas if you looked closely, they all had native Indian faces. Signs such as “Hang John Curtin” dotted the crowd as well as “Curtains for Curtin”, “Freedom from Rationing”. “Free” is associated with anything, I want.

“When do I want it?” The howl goes up. “Now.” The roaring response. Bugger the community or the Commonweal. The Eureka flag is limp.

A procession in front of Parliament House. Meanwhile Western Australia has declared neutrality. Then out of the winter sun comes a squadron of Zeros, that lay waste the protesters in the street. At least 40 members of the crowd were dead, strafed in the first run.

Fanciful. To make a point – or reinforce a point. Defence is a Commonwealth power. Once the Commonweal has been defined, then Defence is a Commonwealth responsibility. Before Federation, the States raised their own militia. For instance, the NSW Volunteer Contingent was raised to fight in the Sudan with the British Forces. Shortlived, the contingent of 700 men constituting infantry, artillery and ambulance went there and back with barely a scratch, although there are always casualties from exotic diseases.

What is instructive was how confused was the treatment of Boer War veterans and also of sailors who experienced the Boxer Rebellion when they fought overseas during the transition of Australia, the sovereign States, to Australia, the Federation.

The main impact of the Boxer Rebellion on the nascent Australia is the presence of Chinese “souvenirs in the drawing rooms of NSW, Victoria and South Australia”. (Britain accepted 200 men from the Victorian Navy, 262 from the New South Wales Navy and the South Australian gunboat Protector with its complement of 96 officers and men.).

Defence is a no brainer. No Commonwealth would countenance each of the States having its own army. But this was a time when responsibility was confused; it was a time before 1914 when a far-off conflict offered an opportunity for a “boy’s own” adventure.

So why now has this Federal Government shoved the responsibility for Quarantine to the States when it is a clear Commonwealth power enshrined as much as Defence in the Australian Constitution. I have mentioned this matter before. It is the only original exclusive Commonwealth head of power directly related to health. As a result of Morrison’s decision (or should it more accurately be described as indecision) there are mixed messages, when the message should be simple.

Counter the pandemic as a whole-of-nation responsibility. What has happened over the period before the pandemic has been the advance in the sophistication of vaccine development against a suite of “chameleon” viruses for the previous 20 years when they had made tentative raids, only to peter out.

The problem is that the policy option of “masterly inactivity” or else the less flattering “wishing the problem will just go away” creates a vacuum. “Living with the Virus” is a more ambiguous definition of doing nothing. This shift in responsibility when it is done in such a manner is a recipe for chaos.

Hence, we have had all the jurisdictions reacting differently and often, especially in the early phase, commenting with a degree of hubris. “I have fewer cases than you … my system is better than yours” sentiment. Added to this then we had the witch’s cauldron of “experts” brewing up their own cures and policy potions.

At least much of this debate was directed to improving the response. This mixture of ideas and theories has unfortunately allowed the growth of treasonous comments in the name of “freedom”. The person who cries “freedom” while carrying a Trump Flag can be seen to be akin to that mythical 1942 scenario of denial and conspiracy, where the villain at the heart of the conspiracy is the government not the invader.

It stands to reason that when a country identifies a common enemy it is essential to have a common plan – not one with a series of different defences dependent on a local district whim. Just imagine a World War 11 cabinet with the current prime Minister, not John Curtin at his head. Here the prime policy would be to ensure that the ostrich feathers in the plumed hat would be of the finest quality rather than directed towards the conflict. Public relations put ahead of anything, concentrated on making the feathered leader look good; and using fashioning of the wedges of discontent to ensure that each wedge would divide any national response by childishly praising political allies for just that reason. Meanwhile the enemy advances.

The problem is that in any declared war situation, there is a limit to dissension.  Between pacifism and sedition? Is there a line drawn between them?

For me, protests are legitimate to a point. Now is a procession in 2019 decrying coal mining wandering through Queensland coal country similar to the recent procession wandering through Ballarat carrying the Eureka flags of rebellious gold miners of the 19th century?

In the first, the invective is coming from the bystanders; in the second, the invective is coming from within the procession. One can always discern the level of legitimacy by interpreting the legitimacy of the contents of the message of the banners being carried. The banners of the latter – those where the invective is coming from within – have been clearly of the latter variety.

Therefore, clearly there are insurrectionists loose in the country aping their counterparts in USA. The politicians are wary; they are not sure that they have convinced the population of the serious situation because, as with any aggression, the majority of the population wants freedom from the invader not the government. Hence the level of vaccination.

Only comparatively recently has government understood this. The initial picture was clouded by the quality of our original weapons. The problem with the early response to the Virus was the Federal government’s shirking of its responsibility allowed a serious public health matter to be reduced to party politics. With politicisation came a false legitimacy for all protests in the name of freedom, however defined, even though the invading force showed that it can manacle the state by closing borders and instilling fear and anxiety in the population. Western Australia has put itself in that situation, where there is only one way out.

However, despite all that, Australia has achieved a remarkable degree of vaccination; the population is now armed against the invader. This situation can be attributed to the fact that the strategic and tactical arms are now being led by a highly competent Chief Health Officer. One of the weakest links in the public health armoury has been given a vice-regal chariot to play round in, and the other State public health grandees have been suitably boxed.

Isolation is a solution to the acute situation where there is a new virus, but not when the situation becomes chronic and all the strategies have been rolled out. Therefore, there should be isolation facilities to match the requirement as best as possible. With almost two years of data, the preferred option for isolation yielding the most effective outcome should be clear, and not be reliant on the superficial excuse for a report that Jane Halton wrote. There is a need for a report that examines objectively how the various quarantine facilities have worked and also examines the effectiveness of shorter isolation periods and how that approach would be best managed.

The problem with the plan to open a community and the actual opening has dissonance, more related to community restlessness than a public health response, and the understandable but nevertheless important distinction between an acute and a chronic situation, especially when the various arms of government disagree, as continues to be the case in Australia.

As one voice has put it bluntly: “If we don’t develop systems to immunise the whole world in three months, instead of three years, we are not going to be successful against these kinds of pandemic threats.  Viruses adapt and they change, and unless we develop generalised global immunity more readily, we will always be faced with chasing our tail.”

More so if we tolerate sedition cloaked as freedom and continue to allow public health to be considered as some form of Fabian discourse covered with the sauces of alienation, angst and racist scapegoating.

I hate the word “summit”. Nevertheless, there is room to have collective reflection to determine what happens when omicron is followed by omega; and at the same time have a fringe festival run by somebody seriously zany such as members of the comedic diaspora mingling with those of the conspiracy “comedians” – a dangerous strategy but one where the truly comedic are mingled with the accidental form where the sinister meets the dextrous.

I have a feeling that if these fringe elements attract the vote of those unvaccinated, then perhaps after the elections the politicians will be emboldened to start assembling the charge sheets of these characters, and carefully read what constitutes “sedition” rather than some ephemeral apologia in the name of “free speech”. The scenario depicted in the preface could have occurred if Australia at that time had been submerged in public relations releases.

Things to Watch Over

The other day, the conversation turned to what are the places where you can sit and look out at the image in front of yourself, and never tire of it. I am one of those people, where sitting in an art gallery and contemplating one picture for a long time is not my “go”. Most museums just overwhelm anybody with their volume even though the eclectic nature of the contents often means that one can concentrate on a particular item or items.

This is different. It is the item that you want to sit and gaze at for as long as it takes to absorb the whole visual spectacle – it is where these works of humankind reached ex terra ad caelum.

The problem with many of the items is that the crowd is always moving past the object, or you do not have the time to linger. This was the dilemma of my first encounter with the Amber Room. This has been reconstructed in the Summer Palace outside St Petersburg. It was lost when the Germans removed it during the 872-day siege of the then Leningrad from 1942. However, the Summer Palace was outside the Siege perimeter and thus was captured. The Amber Room, as with many other artefacts, was looted by the kleptomaniac Nazis and transported away, and in the case of the Amber Room, never found.

The Amber Room

The Amber Room is a series of panels crafted from six tonnes of amber mounted on gold-leaf walls and adorned with mosaics and mirrors. It was a paean to the material’s beauty and status, originally a gift from Prussia to Russia in 1701. To the Russians’ credit, after World War 11 Leningrad, now returned to its former name of St Petersburg to commemorate Peter the Great’s contribution of turning a swampland into one of the most magnificent cities in the world, largely rebuilt the Summer Palace as it was.

Included in the reconstruction was the Amber Room. The reconstruction based on original images is a sight where the orange spectral range explodes into so many subsets of a solar flare. This is not surprising since Phaëton, the son of the Sun-God Helios, was permitted by his father to drive the Sun chariot. But he lost control, apparently sabotaged by Zeus, and plunged to earth. The short story, as I am not going to recount Ovid’s eye-witness account, as part of their particular “sorry business”, Phaëton’s sisters turned into poplar trees to forever weep golden tears of amber.

Amber is warm to the touch; amber has the property of being magnetised, which was demonstrated to me as a child. Amber is a biological residue of pine resin, resin which stopped flowing and entrapping the feasting insect for all time. The most valuable amber is that which tends to the red edge of the spectrum – the russet colours of autumn as distinct from the yellow of the caged canary. However, when the tableau of mirrors of gilded walls, and amber, amber everywhere, there is time to wonder – and then despite everything, you are moved on in a shuffling queue, despite attempts to linger.

My other visual feast is a place which has not changed for sixteen centuries. St Petersburg, despite a far shorter history, is full of multiple treasures, many of which have been restored by the Russian Government after World War 11. On the other hand, Ravenna, in central Italy, was the centre of the Western Roman Empire for most of the fifth and sixth centuries after Rome was sacked, when the emperor moved from Rome. The lines of succession were confused by the appearance of the Goths invading Spain (Visigoths) and Italy (Ostrogoths). Despite their thrashing the Roman army, it seems that they absorbed the trappings of Rome.

In Ravenna the Ostrogoths under Theodoric established their seat of government in the name of the Roman Empire. It was a somewhat confused line of succession especially as Theodoric was an Arian, a heretical branch of the mainstream Christianity, whose interpretation of a unitary God was at odds with both Orthodox and Western Christendom’s interpretation of the Trinity.

One of the many treasures of Ravenna is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the wife of the Emperor Honorius, who preceded the advent of the Goths. She was never buried there, but for a visitor from the 21st century sitting and gazing at the wonderful decoration of this burial chamber, I wondered why not. Such an explosion of starlight with seemingly the creator’s intention of merging terra and caelum, this burial chamber belies its small size. No superlative thought can adequately describe the sight when one is ushered through the narrow doorway into one of the four transepts centred under the Mausoleum’s dome.

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

On the ceiling, the night sky is Ravenna blue, a colour unique in the same way the glass in Chartres Cathedral windows is known as Chartres Blue. Here in the Mausoleum, there is a shallow dome depicting a sky in this vivid blue mosaic with white and golden stars. A golden cross is placed at dome’s centre, signalling human redemption, through the Sacrifice on the Cross. The symbols of the four evangelists hover around the cross. This artist was no Arian.

I was supposed to move on after 10 minutes. I stayed for over an hour.

The images of day and night are so intensified in each of these places – one in amber; the another in glass mosaics. No wonder that lyrical genius, Cole Porter, was supposed to have written his song “Night and Day” after visiting the Mausoleum. What would he have written if he had also seen the Amber Room?

Omicron – What is in a Letter?

An appreciation of a recent Boston Globe wit which distils down why we have a WHO.

Perhaps that is bit harsh, but the naming rights for the Virus as it shifts its calling card through the bodies of humankind have raised a few wry smiles, even chuckles elsewhere. This I thought was the best ramble through the alphabetical jungle that I’ve read.

It’s probably safe to assume that classicists are as upset as the general population about the emergence of this latest threat.

But they, at least, can distract themselves with pronunciation debates. “I am not a technical ancient linguist,” the British celebrity historian Mary Beard tweeted: “But I do find it a bit odd that the BBC news is saying omicron with the stress on the first syllable.” Later in the Twitter thread, she revealed that she prefers the stress on the middle syllable — the “mic” part.

“I made a joke early on that we didn’t want to get to ‘Theta’,” One classicist professor joked.

Theta — the eighth letter of the Greek alphabet — is short for Thanatos, in Greek mythology the personification of death. “I might have tweeted about it,” the professor allowed.

Then he started riffing about upcoming alphabet-related naming challenges.

The next letter up, he noted, is Pi. “Do we want to go after geometry?” he asked, quickly moving on to the letter Rho, which would be tricky because “some people will want to trill it,” and as for Sigma, it takes so many written forms that it, too, could be a challenge.

“There’s madness all the way down,” he said cheerfully.

For people not following the lesser dramas of the World Health Organization,(WHO) it might come as a surprise to learn that the decision to identify the variants with Greek letters was not a simple administrative matter, but in fact decided upon after “wide consultation” and a review of “many potential naming systems,” according to a May 2021 announcement.

“WHO convened an expert group of partners from around the world to do so, including experts who are part of existing naming systems, nomenclature and virus taxonomic experts, researchers and national authorities.”

WHO turned to the Greek alphabet to make the names easy to say and remember, and to get away from geographic stigma and discrimination.

But of course, nothing is simple. Considering that the most recent named variant before Omicron was Mu, the letter Nu should have been next, followed by Xi, and then Omicron.

But there was no Nu because it sounds like “new,” naming experts feared we’d end up in some crazy “Who’s On First? Type” situation:

“What’s the new variant called?”

” Nu.”

“That’s what I’m asking — what’s the new one called?”

“Nu.”

Using the letter Xi would probably have landed the WHO squarely in the fraught situation it was trying to avoid by using Greek letters in the first place. Not only is it a common last name, it’s the name of China’s president, Xi Jinping.

So Omicron it was. But Omicron feels sketchy. How come no one had ever heard of it before? Maybe it’s one of those Clinton-Kamala Harris-Nancy Pelosi-Anthony Fauci-Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-Lame Stream Media hoaxes.

The meme machine has been cranking overtime, likening Omicron to an evil Transformer villain (sample Tweet: “He will do whatever is necessary to further the Decepticon’s conquest of the Universe, even if it costs him personal harm.”)

The name sounds like a drug in heavy advertisement rotation on cable news: “Ask your doctor about Omicron (warning: Omicron may cause death and despair).” Or maybe a minor cryptocurrency (oh, wait, it is one, and of course its value briefly soared).

From an educational perspective, Omicron is giving people a skewed idea of the Greek alphabet. As far as many people know, Omicron comes right after the last variant to get a lot of attention, which was Delta.

“Someone said this is the worst way to teach the public the Greek alphabet,” said David Goldstein, an associate professor of linguistics, Indo-European studies, and classics at UCLA.

But at the rate things are going, this isn’t even a problem we’ll have for that much longer. The Greek alphabet has 24 letters, and we’ve already blown our way to number 15.

In June, the journal Nature urged WHO to get ahead of the name game and “consider alphabets from other languages” to have at the ready. “The WHO system’s authors will be aware that theirs is a temporary solution,” the journal intoned.

But alphabets are finite and this pandemic is endless. We need an ever-replenishing source of monikers. Disgraced public officials, maybe?

Swedish Winter

Accompanying a photo which came the other day from Sweden was the following message:

Black ice such as this is a “fairly rare” occurrence. Necessary conditions include the Greenland blockage, high pressure, rapid drop in temperature and no wind. The result is magic ice as though looking through glass and which provides extremely smooth skating. Our local mare is very reliable in providing solid ice but often not as smooth as this. Hopefully the incoming snowstorm will bypass us so that we can skate for some weeks to come (on the same magic ice).

Now here in Australia in winter we curse black ice, because it cannot be seen on a bitumen tarmac, especially in the early morning, when driving on it. A real hazard, unless you are skating on the local lake

But in Sweden, black ice is a boon as my Swedish correspondent has told me. The “Greenland blockage” was an unfamiliar term to a non-weather person such as myself. Apparently, it is the result of a high-pressure zone over Greenland, often referred to as a “blocking” pattern because it slows the flow of weather systems circulating around the Northern Hemisphere. When present, weather extremes can affect the same areas for extended periods.

Scientists evaluate the presence of a Greenland block and its intensity and duration through an index known as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). A negative NAO is often an indicator of a Greenland block. A positive NAO signals low pressure over Greenland and generally less extreme weather over the Northern Hemisphere continents. So, there it is, Greenland blocked – despite what was said above it seems it has enabled a Swedish upside.

The only question “mare” – not a female horse; not Swedish for lake; or not a Latin “sea”. May be just a “mere” mistake.  I am thus not sure.

Mouse Whisper

This item is taken from a 15 year old issue of New Scientist. Apparently a letter arrived from a bank addressed to this woman, which she described as a self-contained communication with no further information required.

Except…on the back of the sheet was written: “This page is left blank deliberately.”

Subtle but self-falsifying proposition? Anything really changed?