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?

Modest expectations – The Physical Basis of Personality

Friday, April 13, 2029, will be a showtime for asteroid Apophis, for the general public and astronomers alike. Apophis will come so close that it’ll be visible to the unaided eye alone; something that almost never happens with asteroids. It will appear first in the Southern skies and seem to streak across the Pacific Ocean and America before orbiting off to outer space. During this time the Earth’s motion will cause the asteroid to shake if not stir.

Apophis

Apophis is 320 metres across and if it struck the Earth it would have a circumferential destructive effect of several hundred kilometres from where it hit.  Instead, it is predicted to miss by the predicted 13,000 kilometres.

The asteroid first attracted community attention in 2004 when its orbit, in relation that of Earth, became a matter of controversy. It should be noted that Easter day in 2029 falls on April 1.

Endangered Elements

The idea that there are endangered elements that could face a severe shortage in 100 years does not warrant the interest of other “endangered species”. There are nine listed as “endangered”, which sounds quaint when the world is failing because of the atmospheric pollution due to other elements – notably the products of the ubiquitous carbon and nitrogen.

In any event, the “endangered” nine are arsenic, gallium, germanium, gold, hafnium, helium, indium, tellurium and zinc.

Indium was an elusive element and it was not separated from other metals until 1863. It was named indium because examination of it spectroscopically showed a very prominent indigo spectral line.

In May 2007, the New Scientist reported that a material chemist at the University of Augsberg in Germany reported that the world would run out of indium within ten years. The price was over $1000 per kg at the time.

Fourteen years on, and the world has not run out of indium. Most of the indium is stored in China. Its price does not appear on most stock markets as only about 800 tonnes is produced each year. A particular platform underwritten by the Chinese government tried to corner the market, by stockpiling tons of the stuff – and then despite an artificially created shortage found that the price which had soared to its highest level in 2005, fell which is not what it was supposed to do.

Indium is alloyed with tin and oxygen to form the transparent, conductive oxide that coats the screens of TVs, mobiles and laptops. The element is also used in infrared lasers that transmit data down optical fibres that enable the Internet. In combination with gallium, it is used to make the LEDs that backlight screens and are increasingly used for domestic lighting.

Indium (atomic no 49) has the unusual property when molten of clinging to (wetting) clean glass and other surfaces; this makes it valuable for producing hermetic seals between glass, metals, quartz, ceramics and marble. Its use has given it an aura of indispensability, but as with the 1972 MIT thesis adopted by the Club of Rome that the world would soon run out of crucial resources, this did not eventuate. The world is now more concerned not with quantity but with the quality of the output. Indium as the elemental metal is toxic if ingested; left in the ground it remains locked up, even if it is becoming an “endangered species”.

Predictions of it becoming an extinct species have been revised upwards and the new prediction is now 2025. However, indium is being recycled and even other elements such as silver which are more plentiful have been substituted in manufacturing. Thus, all the world can breathe a collective sigh (at least among the cognoscenti). Indium may remain endangered but is not a metallic dodo.

I should hasten to add that does not imply that the endangered elements will disappear from the Earth completely. It means that there will come a point when the supply of these elements will be limited or when it is no longer economically viable to extract or use these elements. At such a juncture, we will have to seek alternatives, as has occurred with indium.

Arsenic always gets a bad press. A beloved poison of the mystery writers, yet once used as a medication for syphilis, it is also a contaminant of waterways because it is used in the production of gold. I find it somewhat surprising that arsenic which has been used as a pesticide, especially in treating wood in particular – rather than rats – is endangered. Arsenic is very toxic, yet I find it difficult to believe it is considered an endangered element, given how many rivers and wells are contaminated around the world – just ask those living in rural Bangladesh and Taiwan.

Arsenic is often used as a doping agent for solid-state devices such as transistors. Doping is the intentional introduction of impurities into an intrinsic semiconductor for the purpose of modifying its electrical, optical and structural properties. It seems to me the new alchemy, but it seems also that there is a degree of elemental interchangeability. It is not the inflexibility of turning lead into gold.

Some time ago, I wrote a blog on another endangered element, hafnium. Australia has some of the biggest deposits of this rare element, which is found as the junior partner in zirconium ore. Purification is very costly and, by its nature, potentially detrimental to the environment. As I have written, hafnium is used in the manufacture of nuclear reactor rods, and a pilot project employing hafnium was set up over a decade ago at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

Where is this all going? It’s elementary, dear Watson. But only if the world lasts another century in its current form with so just many cowboys and indiums.

Remembering Latvia

I have previously written about touring the Baltic countries, and at this time when there is disturbance in the region again, Latvia has a special significance. It has more Russian-speaking inhabitants than the other two Baltic countries. Hence, it is regarded with some caution by the other two – the object of the sidelong glance.

The whole area again has attracted attention because of the current confrontation on a Byelorussian border and Poland in particular, but also Lithuania.

Latvia sits on the sidelines. Prior to COVID-19 we travelled to the Baltic countries. Below is a snapshot of Latvia, pre-COVID-19.

We arrived in Latvia and headed for the capital, Riga. One of the most noticeable aspects of this whole drive is the fact that the border changes everything. Estonia does not blend with Latvia nor does Lithuania blend with Latvia; nor Estonia with Lithuania. It is as though there is a cultural crevasse between the three countries. The Estonians relate to the Finns; the Lithuanians to the Poles. And the Latvians? They sit between the two with, as I have noted above, a significant proportion of the population Russian-speaking.

The hotel where we stay in Riga lies at the confluence of roads and away from the city.

In the park across from the hotel are tearooms. My companion looks over the variety of teas. Exotic teas? No, she will have coffee. I order a cute bowl of “rabbit food” – everything including the beans are in miniature in an appropriately small bowl. What a healthy lunch for a dwarf. As we walked away, I am reminded of the true meaning of “famished”.

There are several areas of Riga where these old wooden houses also survive. The wooden house is a characteristic feature of Latvia and I wonder how they survived the wars. They would be so easy to torch, but there are streets of wooden houses, with various degrees of decoration –mostly in brown, but blue is a favourite alternative colour – sky blue to steely blue to presumably match the changing climate.

The House of Blackheads, Riga

Latvia is the home of amber, and from the selection in a shop inside the wonderfully named House of Blackheads, I purchased a couple of pieces of yellow amber. Amber has always attracted me from the time I was a small boy on first seeing an insect caught in the fossilised pine resin.  I remember my mother had a necklace of red amber; amber is always so warm and my mother showed me that after rubbing amber with fur, the amber could attract tiny scraps of paper. It was magic to a small boy. Later I would learn that stroking amber with cloth provided for human curiosity the earliest demonstration of an electrical charge.

One interesting impression of the Baltic countries is even as their existence is threatened by Russian invasion, the whole feeling is one of a fantastical past – a surrogate home for the Pre-Raphaelite movement, where Arthurian Knights would be invited for a guest appearance at some Baltic Armageddon in a joust with a company of Blackheads.

Everywhere there seems to be evidence of mediaeval valour, varlets and knaves, clattering armour, and unmerciful treatment of the vanquished. The House of Blackheads, with its huge façade, draws on all sorts of architecture. It has its curlicues and statues on a bright terracotta coloured façade; and to honour the Blackhead name – an effigy of Saint Maurice, the black saint revered by this coterie of Knights, stands on one side of the front doorway.

The building has been razed several times, the last after the Russians destroyed what the Nazis had missed. The rebuilding program is a tribute to Latvian doggedness. Yet Latvia remains vulnerable to invasion, even though its border with Russia is not as long as the Estonian-Russian border, the latter has a better defence being mostly swamp and marshes. Even so the Estonians are threatening to build a 110 kilometres long fence.

Riga Cathedral

However, Russian influence remains in Latvia. Yet the Riga Cathedral epitomised the strong Lutheran influence and the informality of a kindergarten being located in its precincts.

One morning we journeyed to Jurmala, a seaside resort near Riga, recommended not to be missed.

Our guide pays the toll to reach this littoral enclave. Here is the Russian embassy, a quietly luxurious residence set back from the road. My companion jumps out of the car to photograph it. Our guide looks concerned. But she is back without any fusillade of bullets. It is only the camera that winks at us.

During the Russian occupation, Jurmala was a popular resort with senior officials from the Kremlin. Even now our guide says much of the property in Jurmala is owned by Russian oligarchs.

Our guide, who has an uncanny resemblance to Radar in M.A.S.H., steers us into a wooded area known as the Ragakapa nature park. Here in this reclaimed dune area, we peer through the wire fence at a fishing village which has been created complete with long boats.  The exhibit is closed –and that was that. Jurmala was yet to wake up from its winter hibernation. It is a summer resort on the Baltic with a beach, 33 kilometres long –and there are sanatoria, spas, buckets and spades.

Radar is a multi-faceted personality. He talks with the high-pitched voice of his TV twin. He tells he does this job part-time. He is Jewish and he spends his time researching the genealogy of Latvian families, Jews in particular. It keeps him busy particular at the times of the year when there are no tourists. He also claims other ancestors – a very defined group with a long history but now in serious decline.

They are the pure Livonians who are a small group now, but he like many Latvians is proud to claim Livonian heritage, given their long history as Teutonic knights. Its language is akin to Estonian and is classified as “dormant” since the last fluent speaker died two years ago. The Livonians suffered badly under the Russian occupation. Their land is where the Germans made their last stand in Latvia at the end of World War II. Retribution followed.

The Baltic States have been the stage for almost continuous conflict. Yet what cannot be denied is the beauty of the Jurmala setting with its beach, its dunes, its forested environment. And there is something both romantic and nostalgic about places where there are wooden houses.

Yet there, in all this quaintness back in the capital, there is Restorans 3. This restaurant is in Old Riga, itself a convolution of narrow cobbled streets where negotiating them is only for the expert – but eventually the taxi driver finds his way around the tangle of one-way streets and drops us off at this restaurant with its wide picture windows and a kitchen open for customers to see the virtuoso preparation.

We sit by the window. There is only one other customer, a nattily dressed Chinese man, who seems only to be drinking coffee, and soon leaves. For a time we are the only diners as we face the formidable gustatory menu. She avoids the tongue and the ox heart items. She hates tongue; and ox heart is a meat too far. While ostensibly there were five or seven on the tasting menu, by the time we have worked our way through the meal, there were three other courses –including a sorbet intermission.

As with all Baltic countries, Latvians love beer. However, there is a Riga drink – balzam. It is a black liqueur. Having been required on a few occasions when as a post-graduate research scholar to take iodine after inadvertently labelling myself with radioactive iodine, I taste the balzam. I am transported back to my heady iodine days.  It tastes just as bitter and unpalatable as iodine.

End of story: my first and last drink of balzam. Extreme bitterness is not that quaint.  Radar is back next morning; time to move on to Lithuania.

A Road past Gundagai

I first drove to Sydney at Christmas 1957. My mother had died the previous year and my father had a one-off job as a ship’s doctor on the SS Lakemba going to America. I had recently got my driver’s licence, and thus with nothing to keep me in Melbourne, I decided to go and see my cousins in Sydney. I took the old man’s Peugeot and my dog, the wonderfully frisky blue roan pedigreed springer spaniel called Smokey and a few other essentials. We made good time stopping off only for petrol and Smokey to have a No 2. He was a well-disciplined dog, nonetheless, and once was enough, he assured me.

We left early and made very good time out of Melbourne. The problem was once you got to Goulburn it was still a four-hour drive over the Razorback to Sydney no matter how many chances you took. The Hume Highway then was two lanes, and as a result of it being the busiest country road in Australia, it was where there were numerous horrendous accidents inciting lurid newspaper coverage.

Since then, I have travelled back and forth innumerable times.

I was reminded of an incident much later, when I was driving along the highway, which was still largely two-way, with still a number of difficult sections to negotiate on the way to Sydney. It was 1968 or 1969, my wife alongside me in the front and our two young children were in the back of the car.  There were no seat belts then.

On a rise some 20 kms from Gundagai, there had been an accident.  A car had left the road and struck a tree. There were several people clustered around something. When we got out of the car, we saw that there was a young woman lying on the verge. She was deeply unconscious, with terminal Cheyne Stoke breathing, and moreover there was brain visible through the fractured skull. She was near death, but there was also a child, restless and crying out, obviously cerebrally irritated. An ambulance had come and taken away somebody who one of the onlookers said to us appeared dead. The other two had been left, God knows why!

There was nothing much one could do for the woman, but the child was another matter.  There was a guy who volunteered his station wagon, and so we lifted the child into the back, and my wife who was also a doctor climbed in to look after the child. We left the dying woman. There was nothing we could do for her, but we hoped that at some stage another ambulance would turn up. Out on the highway, we had no means of communication then.

The old wooden railway bridge from the 19th century in Gundagai

So, there we were. I was in the car with the boys; my wife in the back of a Good Samaritan’s station wagon with the unconscious child. It was raining but I took a robust approach in speeding towards Gundagai. Then we came to the long wooden bridge across the Murrumbidgee River and flood plain. For some reason there was a long line of cars queuing to cross the bridge. I took a chance and with horn blaring dashed down the wrong side. For some reason there were no cars daring to cross, but right near the end of the bridge my car skidded on the slippery wooden surface. It is a situation where the sub-cerebral instincts kick in, and for some miraculous reason I did not fly off the bridge. It is a long way down to the Murrumbidgee River flood plain.

Anyway, we arrived at the hospital. Gundagai, at that time, had a strong procedural base, and our appearance caused the general practitioners at the hospital preparing for their operating theatre list to pause.

The child was bought in, and we handed his care over to the Gundagai practice. To them it seemed all in the day’s work – no fuss – just a slight annoyance of having their routine upset – we were waved away.  As for me, irresponsible, driving as I did with two unrestrained children. It was a sign of the times; I do not sweat when I remember the incident.

In any event, that was the last we heard of it, apart from me telephoning the hospital next day and being told that the child was still there, and there were no concerns. For a while I scanned the papers for a coroner’s report. There was nothing, or I missed it.

Twenty-five years later, when I was reviewing the NSW Ambulance Service, the transition from ambulance driver to allied health care professional had begun. Change is a slow process, especially in inward-looking uniformed services.

I was reminded of that escapade this week when I saw images of this 800 metre long wooden Prince Alfred bridge being dismantled, its boarded heritage clattering to the ground with a promise to retain the section which actually crossed the river. The extensive flood plain now has not only a sweeping four lane highway bypassing the town, but also, for some reason, a large dead gum tree poking above the road parapet, painted in a garish blue. Why?

By the way, I picked up my first speeding fine on my way back from Sydney in early 1958. Five pounds for fanging through Albury. The police motor cyclist caught me after I had entered Victoria. Those were the days. I did not protest, Smokey said I deserved it.

The Use of the Car as a Weapon

Iowa is one of three states, along with Oklahoma and Florida, to enact laws this year giving drivers some degree of legal immunity if they use their vehicles to hurt protesters, part of a wave of “hit and kill” bills introduced in 13 other states by Republican legislators since 2017 (as shown in the figure below). Most of those proposals came after one of the most sustained periods of demonstrations in US history following George Floyd’s murder, and the effort to crack down on protesters has sent a chilling message to activists, who believe it will encourage violence against them. – Boston Globe.

Yet another example of the reversion of America to the glorification of violence – the staple diet of American fantasy.

Marching along streets and roads has been a characteristic of protests in particular of African-Americans but not exclusively.

In the year after the George Floyd incident, The Boston Globe found across America 139 cases of cars being deliberately rammed into people. Only 65 of these have been taken to court, with only four convicted of a felony. One hundred people have been injured and four killed.   Not a huge number, some would say; but wait a minute, deliberately using the car as a weapon!

Yet the legislators in essentially very Republican states run the line of driver being surrounded by violent rioters and in trying to get away, some of the pedestrians may be hit by the car, where the driver at risk feels his or her life in danger. The thesis plays the white audience which spawned a person like James Field who, well before the George Floyd murder, in 2017 ploughed his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of demonstrators in Charlottesville, South Carolina, only stopping when he struck a white Camry, which was pushed in turn into a maroon minivan.

As was described, this young man had driven nine hours from his home south of Toledo in Ohio to be there to kill – this person was described by one of the victims, as she lay half under the car with a smashed leg, as having lifeless eyes. Fields was later convicted and given two life sentences. Would legislation to protect the driver have made any difference to the outcome for the victims? I doubt it.

Yet despite this crime, these States are endeavouring to twist the narrative to the protesters not the driver being the villains. As such, it would be somewhat ironic if such a law protected protesters at a far right rally with its pronounced anti-vaccination bias, such as those who surrounded vehicles on the Bolte Bridge in Melbourne and deliberately caused damage to them.

The problem with this legislation is perspective and from any perspective this legislation is wrong-headed.

Mouse whisper

As recounted in Harper’s Magazine February 2005

A story headlined “Syria seeks our help to woo U.S.” in Saturday’s Weekend Australian misquoted National Party senator Sandy Macdonald. The quote stated, “Syria is a country that has been a bastard state for nearly forty years,” but should have read, “Syria is a country that has been a Baathist state for nearly forty years.”

The Australian regrets any embarrassment caused by the error.

I doubt there would be any apology forthcoming now – defence in truth.

Palmyra, Syria … then

 

Modest Expectations – Gay Crusader

I have always given an association with the number of the blog, which this week is the 137th in a row. Apart from my first one, each blog has a label associated. The words “Gay Crusader” would evoke a great number of associations in the modern day.

Gay Crusader

I thought I was being suitably obscure. Not true, if you Google “Gay Crusader”, there is the answer at the top of the pile. Gay Crusader was a horse, and a very good one at galloping one mile, four furlongs and six yards. Unfortunately, there are no rods, no poles nor perches; no links nor chains, not to mention the lack of leagues and fathoms – nor, for that matter, inches in this meticulous description of aristocratic length.

O Hail Caesar

I have been accused of being too easy on the Premier of Victoria, but this latest manoeuvre to usurp the power of the Chief Health Officer is fraught with all the dangers of a politician assuming control over an area in which he does not have the expertise.

The Australian public, particularly in Victoria, has become sick of lockdown. It is difficult when one cannot see the enemy. Just as Victoria thought it was free of COVID-19 it was imported from NSW, due to the attitude of the then Premier, disregarding her Chief Medical Officer’s advice.

The Chief Health Officer is appointed for his skill in providing the Government of the day with public health advice. Up to the time of COVID it has been a very dozy job in Victoria – a recent Chief Health Officer was virtually invisible during his tenure. However, the Chief Health Officer has delegated powers for a reason, and in the event of a serious public health matter such as a pandemic, it is important to designate single point responsibility for the execution of legislative orders, but with a clear outcome for such execution.

A place for the Oracles

Clearly Chief Health Officers are no Delphic oracles, but they portray their expertise in both their attitude and behaviour – running the gamut between the laissez-faire and the interventionist.  Some are more risk averse than others. Yet their powers are circumscribed and, unlike the Premier, they don’t have powers outside health to proscribe under the guise of a health emergency.

Premier Andrews’ current intention to usurp these Chief Health Officer powers is a vast overreach, and in this instance was prompted by his disagreement with the Chief Health Officer’s eliminationist strategy, or should I say demand for an unconditional surrender by the Virus, rather than an uneasy armistice.

The past two years have catapulted previously obscure Chief Health Officers into media stardom, with the unfortunate consequence of having to compete with the associated epi-babble. Yet if last year there had not been Chief Health Officers with that power, would it have taken the politicians a longer time to declare an emergency?

Memories are short. Remember, Premier Andrews at the start of the pandemic without experience or indeed knowledge  was very hesitant in cancelling the Grand Prix in 2020 – and also the Prime Minister was inclined to go to the football rather than take the incipient crisis seriously.

Politicians hesitate. This legislation in Victoria throws the normal sop of having an advisory committee. In most of my experience these committees attract people with the gift of the gab – and the ability to obfuscate and confuse the politician who has, prima facie, not that much knowledge, apart from knowing their constituency and not liking unpopularity.

There is a flagrant example in NSW of this political interference, brushing aside public health guidelines designed to protect the community because they interfere with those popular pirouette steps – harks back to March 2020. The impulsive decision to retain popularity – forget about the Government’s public health rule. You know the one which reads:

Until you receive a negative result from your day 7 test you must not go to any:

  • high-risk settings, such as childcare, aged care, disability care, healthcare, schools, education and correctional facilities
  • large gatherings (e.g. concerts, football matches)
  • hospitality venues, except to pick up take-away food or beverages.

This does not include accessing medical care, or aged or disability care services.

How inconvenient for the impatient unthinking incoming Australian. You drop your guard, how inconvenient that the West Hoxton, sorry West Epping party, just can’t be missed.

Premier Andrews, as an example for your Brother Premier, I implore you to leave well alone – but you won’t because although you generally have reasonable judgement, you have been a control freak, with the thinness of your dermis still being a matter of conjecture. The solution is definitely not to set up a tangle of bureaucracy as proposed because that will just introduce more uncertainty, especially when there are other variants in the offing.

Maine Stream

The Supreme Court has rejected an emergency appeal from health care workers in Maine to block a vaccine mandate that went into effect Friday.

Three conservative justices noted their dissents. The state is not offering a religious exemption to hospital and nursing home workers who risk losing their jobs if they are not vaccinated.

Only New York and Rhode Island also have vaccine mandates for health care workers that lack religious exemptions. Both are the subject of court fights. On Friday, a federal appeals court panel upheld New York state’s vaccine mandate for health care workers, rejecting arguments by lawyers for doctors, nurses and other professionals that it did not adequately protect those with religious objections.

As is typical in emergency appeals, the Supreme Court did not explain its action. But Justice Neil Gorsuch joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito said in a dissent for himself and two fellow conservatives, that he would have agreed to the health care workers’ request.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett noted in a short statement agreeing with the court’s decision not to intervene that the justices were being asked to “grant extraordinary relief” in a case that is the first of its kind. She was joined by a fellow conservative, Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Democratic Gov. Janet Mills said she was gratified that the mandate was upheld, saying it’s imperative for hospitals to “take every precaution to protect their workers and patients against this deadly virus.”

“This rule protects health care workers, their patients, and the stability of our health care system in the face of this dangerous virus,” she said in a statement. “Just as vaccination defeated smallpox and vaccination defeated polio, vaccination is the way to defeat COVID-19.”

Maine’s requirement was put in place by the governor. A federal judge in Maine declined to stop the mandate, concluding that the lawsuit was unlikely to succeed. The Oct. 13 decision prompted a flurry of appeals that landed, for a second time, in the Supreme Court.

Dozens of health care workers have opted to quit, and a hospital in Maine’s second-largest city already curtailed some admissions because of an “acute shortage” of nurses.

But most health workers have complied, and Maine residents in general have been supportive of the vaccine. The Maine Hospital Association and other health care groups support the requirement.

We have holidayed in Maine, the Pine Tree State, on more than one occasion. We nearly bought a house in Maine in that brief window when the Australian dollar approximated the US dollar in value.

Bordering Canada, it’s only US State border is with Massachusetts, of which it was once part. It has been a traditionally conservative Yankee State, where slavery was outlawed in 1783. Yet this State has a serious ambivalence.

In 1820, the year Maine became a State of the Union on the anti-slavery slate, the U.S. passed an act that made participation in the slave trade an act of piracy. Yet, dozens of Maine vessels engaged in the slave trade illegally during this period. Thousands of enslaved people were transported and traded, leading to huge profits for slave traders – some of whom were Maine sea captains who are remembered as leading citizens of the day. Much of the millions of dollars from the slave trade funded the growth of New England’s economy.

Amistad, slave ship

Thus, Maine has tucked away this heritage; and now in the forefront of COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, it is increasingly leaning towards becoming a permanent “blue” State.  Yet it still has a very prominent Republican Senator, Susan Collins, who has been one of the incumbents since 1996. The other Senator is a Democratic-leaning Independent. In line with the population, the State is only entitled to two representatives in the US Congress – both Democratic.

For a population of just over one million people the Capital, Augusta, is home to 154 members of its house of representatives and 31 state senators, both houses dominated by the Democrats and with a Democratic Governor. That is the profile of a State that has mandated all health workers, without exception, be vaccinated against COVID-19 – and the Supreme Court of the USA, not known for its liberalism, has upheld the decision.

So, what are you waiting for Australia?  Mandate!

By the way the Maine politicians get bugger all remuneration, probably all up less annually than a Darryl Maguire consultancy demand.

Be quiet. Eyjafjallajökull is capturing carbon.

I was browsing through an old New Scientist and I came upon a mention of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which erupted in 2010 in Iceland. It is a forgotten fact that the emission then from the volcano of between 150,000 and 300,000 tonnes a day was less than the grounded airlines would have emitted if they had been able to fly. That was 2010.

I went to Iceland three years later. Driving around this volcano, it was very quiet and the sky was cloudless and very blue. The planes were back flying.

Iceland is a geothermal hotspot, with many volcanoes. A boundary between two tectonic plate runs through the country, and it is strange knowing that the shifting of the plates beneath your feet is the fault line ready to quake.

The gap between Iceland’s tectonic plates …

Iceland is thus unusual. It belies its name. None of the country is within the Arctic Circle. From the airport to Reykjavik, there is a plain of basalt – it is a bare landscape. Yet in this plain is the famous tourist attraction, the geothermal pool known as the Blue Lagoon, a heated oasis full of tourists. I stand on a bare spot on the South Coast and look out to the North Sea; I had been told there was not a skerrick of land between where I was standing and the Antarctic Continent. There are many of these instances – “nowhere else”…

The Hotel Ranga is about an hour’s drive from Reykjavik and, as proved, it was an ideal place to see the Aurora Borealis, although it would have been preferable to have a room on the north side of the hotel to view the phenomenon, as I found out.  In many ways, Iceland is very important as viewing the Aurora here is very convenient. One does not have to struggle through the snow to see it. Here at this isolated Hotel, it is just a matter of stepping outside.

Then one afternoon going down the road to the nearby village of Hella, drifting on whim around 2.00 pm into an empty café about to close, the owner hospitably cooked me a magnificent cod pie while I waited. That seemed to be the Icelander way. The land was full of more friendly surprises.

What has happened in relation to climate change in Iceland has been reflected by the unique geology of this country where the uptake of carbon capture and storage has been adapted to its predominant basalt rock structure.

As a result, Iceland has several high-temperature geologic zones, where the underground temperature reaches 250c within 1km depth, and in its so-called “low-temperature” zones, the temperature reaches up to 150c at the same depth. Permeability, the porous nature of such rock, also plays a role in how fast mineralisation of CO2 can happen here. Basalt is such porous rock and assists this faster reaction; elsewhere in this favourable rock formation the mineralisation of CO2 may take thousands of years.

In Iceland, the dissolved gas is injected into the rock formations at a depth of about 500m, where the CO2 can rapidly turn into minerals.  In Iceland it takes about two years for 95% of the CO2 to be mineralised. The process can take more or less time at other sites, depending on a few factors. One is the depth at which the carbon is injected, and another is the temperature of the rock formation – the rate of the mineralisation process is generally faster at higher temperatures. Bedrock still must contain sufficient amounts of calcium, magnesium and iron. These metals are necessary because they react with  CO2 to form carbonate minerals needed to permanently store the CO2.

This year, the Orca plant, 40 kilometres south-east of Rejkavik, designed to capture carbon capture, is now online and is said to extract annually 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, equal to the emissions of 790 cars. Not much. Thus, it is still essentially an experimental facility.

Despite all the potential advantages of Iceland, this is a salutary piece of advice as our Australian government still waves this technology around as a solution to climate change.

As I have pointed out previously, carbon capture overall is a dud. The extent of its usage in Iceland only says that it has the geology can make minor difference, which may at most offset the carbon dioxide emitted by Iceland’s heavy industry, in particular its aluminium smelting.

Just a few of the 85 …

The lesson here is very clear. When the annual amount of carbon dioxide to be removed needs to be 33 billion tonnes for an effective technology, this facility in one of the most advantageous positions on the planet removes in a year about 3,600 metric tonnes, probably the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as emitted by all the limousines of those attending the Glasgow conference. After all, the US President is reported to have had a cavalcade of 85 cars because of COVID-19 restrictions. It seems a matter of what you lose on the…oh, I forget the rest of that aphorism. It must be the nitrous oxide fumes affecting me.

You want a Sharkies jumper, Manny?

Australia has a major embarrassment. You let a dolt in a baseball cap run the country, and then watch aghast at what happens next.

In Rome, the Prime Minister, with his private photographer in tow, interrupts a private discussion President Macron is having with someone else. Macron is civil; he does not take off his mask, but his eyes say it all. An uncivil person appealing to a redneck constituency – unapologetically. Boy, were we impressed?

Then there was Morrison’s speech – the normal meaningless aggressive diatribe in an empty auditorium.  Donald Trump would have applauded. Nobody in Glasgow was listening.

The image of him sitting at the G20 table in Rome, sniggering with the Brazilian President Bolsonaro, has not yet made it to our local media. Macron is in the distance. Trying to muscle in on the photo-opportunity next to Boris Johnson, Morrison actually ends up next to Angela Merkel, who turns away from him as soon as the photoshoot is over. On this occasion, he did not move forward as Macron walked past, neither acknowledging one another. So much for meeting and greeting each other.

Macron has then made the last devastating remark, namely that Morrison lied. If he lied to the French President, who else?

She’ll be right mate!

In any event, the stoush continued along the kerbsides of the Gorbals, with the Baseball Cap saying he would not have his country sledged. I was bewildered, as President Macron had very carefully separated the country from The Baseball Cap – very pointed in his accusation. No sledging of Australia by Mannie, only a pointed reference to you, mate. Julie Bishop, on your selective leak of private government correspondence, has commented: “I’m concerned that the rest of the world will look at Australia and say: Nah. Can Australia be trusted on contracts not to leak private messages?”

What can we expect next? I think he is coming home, concentrating on his political loom trying to spin a jacket of credibility to replace the shreds and tatters of his current international reputation. Meanwhile Glasgow proceeds. Photo-opportunities with the remnant military force still overseas.

Meanwhile, Biden and Macron are getting together, Biden incidentally throwing Morrison under the 2CV while promising Macron that Kamala Harris will visit Paris soon. Back here in Oz, it is increasingly apparent that the nuclear submarine program is just the heading of a media release and will it ever happen?

Advances in technology, as you still glibly spout, Prime Minister, will ensure that it will never happen. Any US body of significance visiting Australia in the wake of this dustup?  I’d doubt it; maybe the odd silver-haired chap in braid sent to keep Dutton and Abetz and the other sabre-rattlers happy.

But back to the Road to Glasgow; Macron seems more interested in Africa where its Francophone countries are increasingly under threat from al-Quaeda type insurgencies – the fundamentalist Islamist force. Biden wants to assist. This seems to be the immediate battleground, not the South Pacific as we were led to believe when AUKUS was at its most raucous. The French will bide their time until after the Australian election.

China and America are now in conversation, and the likelihood of an imminent invasion of Taiwan is increasingly unlikely. The Chinese have done their sums on the cost of invading Taiwan. Nevertheless, keep the cauldron boiling, it keeps the normal suspects here in Australia suitably frothing.

The Taiwanese are adept in providing all expenses paid trips to foreigners who they think may be able to push the Taiwanese barrow at the least cost, and who can still rattle a cage in Australia. I have experienced such extravagant hospitality when the Taiwanese mistakenly thought me able to rattle a cage or two – in my case a birdcage.

As for Biden discussing anything substantial with Morrison, fat chance. Biden seems more concerned with Recep Erdogan and him threatening to buy Russian, rather than  American fighters for Turkey.

Mentioning Turkey reminds one of the Boris, the one of Turkish heritage. He still seems willing to talk to Morrison, but if Morrison clumsily helps wreck the Glasgow meeting, another “dear friend” bites the dust. Did you see the Prince of Wales turn to glass as Morrison talked.

So, there we are with Morrison in Glasgow, the pipe band leader for India, Saudi Arabia, Russia and our old ally China – all coal fellows well met.

The problem is that inevitably, at some stage, the gaseous products of coal will overwhelm the planet, using the Morrison approach. What does it matter if we return to an age where the world was indeed warmer than it has ever been?

Maybe in 2022, it may change … but unfortunately Albanese is such a weak reed – the stuff of Arthur Calwell Revisited. His vision is that of a student politician; it’s all about factional deals. No, it is not, Mr Albanese, given the perilous position of this planet, a factional deal is a puff of dust.

But by 2025, the election after this when I have well gone, let us have a leader by then to navigate Australia out of this climate mess.

Perhaps an insight provided by Rebecca Sykes in her recent book Kindred -Neanderthal – Life, Love and Death will increase the sense of urgency:

What’s happening is unprecedented. Over the next millennium – roughly 30 generations – we are heading into a world hotter and more dangerous than any previous hominin survived. The Eemian 120,000 years ago was on average just a degree or two warmer than today, yet along with hippos in the Thames, sea levels were 5 to 7m (15 to 22ft) higher. Coasts where picturesque cottages and teeming cities now stand were swamped. And that’s with far lower CO2 levels than we’ve already reached.

In the absence of immediate, drastic action, the most up-to-date climate models put us on track for a terrifying future. Polar ice caps are at genuine risk of disappearing, and if so, oceans would rise by 20m (65ft) or more. In the past year the Great Barrier Reef has withered, the Arctic, Amazon and Australia have all been ablaze, and heat records have been breaking like waves, one after the other.

I could not have said it better.

Roaming in the Romantics

I enjoyed Latin at school and obtained second class honours in my Matriculation year. For a few years I attended the University of Sydney’s Latin Summer School, and one year my eldest granddaughter joined me for this one week of concentrated experience.

It kindled my interest in the living languages which owed their syntax to Latin. I learnt French at school, at the time when foreign languages were either French or German. Then I went to France in 1980, travelling around and realising how little French was left in my cranial library.  So, on my return I started French at the Alliance Française. The facilities were superb but undertaking learning French at the end of a working day was too much for me to persist beyond a couple of years. The one word which sticks in my memory driving through the South of France was “vignoble”. It had such an obvious meaning, but I did not immediately get it and was teased unmercifully.

In the past decade we discovered Ravenna and thought how it would be a good idea to learn some Italian.  We embarked on learning Italian, and gradually moved through the grades. I’m glad there are no examinations; and in addition, my accent is foul. Nevertheless, the comprehension has improved and with learning languages on a long-term basis, then you can absorb some of the culture. Funnily, I once lived for many years in Italian cultural Melbourne, but it didn’t encourage me to learn Italian.

However, before going to Romania a few years ago, I tried to acquaint myself with Romanian and while I did acquire a smattering of the language, it vanished very quickly after I returned to Australia. It is reputed to have much in common with Italian. You mean “grazie mille” and “mulțumesc foarte mult”. Thank you very much! Such a similar language!

Mulțumesc mult pentru amintiri

Then we determined, or rather she wanted to go up the Amazon, and so we joined a class of Portuguese for the Traveller which, like so many of those crammed courses, is totally useless, especially if you don’t have an ear for languages. Yet I have persisted through a Portuguese teacher and now a Brazilian, and my love of the language and the diverse culture not only between the two countries, but within, has soared.

In many ways, Portuguese resembles French more than Spanish; but that is a contentious proposition. French monks were indeed the first people to write down the Portuguese language and linguists argue that the common tortuous grammar, especially the irregular verbs, have French “tendencies”. Secondly, extensive French immigration during the first decades of XII century most of the western coastal region around nowadays Torres Vedras, Caldas da Rainha and Alcobaça were colonised by French from Burgundy. And as an afterthought, the two languages share the cedilla (ç).

Needless to say, Brazilian Portuguese is different.

May I say, even though I have driven through the Swiss canton of Grisons on the way to Liechtenstein, I never heard the least known member of the Romantic language, Romansch, spoken. Although it is one of the national languages of Switzerland (which is a story in itself) and a remnant of the time the Romans occupied the territory, I suspect it has survived due to the isolation of the community in the Alps.  For someone who lives in Sydney, the repeated references to Engadine in the Romansch exchanges was disconcerting. Engadine is a suburb of Sydney, but also Engadine is a long high Alpine valley region in the eastern Swiss Alps.  Romansh is vaguely akin to Italian and French but its speakers sound German. Guttural and Romantic are strange bedfellows. As one said, it sounds like Italian with a German accent.

There you are – rambling through a field of mild obsession which unfortunately my Topo has picked up in his whispering below.

Laura

Sometimes you read something trivial; prosaic, but it strikes a chord.

However, let’s begin by writing that some years ago, I bought a book second-hand. It had come from the collection of David Raksin. It was a name I was not familiar with, but anybody who shared my taste in books at least was worth investigating.

He wrote the tune “Laura”, his most memorable work, which was the theme woven into the film of the same name, a film noir in the traditions then of Hollywood. It starred Gene Tierney as Laura. She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman at least on the celluloid. The film still is worth watching, and the theme has endured, recorded by a large number of artists. It always reminds me of waiting for someone to come – but who never did. Some might characterise it as “haunting”. During his life, it was the second most recorded work after “Stardust”.

Charlie “Bird” Parker, one of the great saxophonists, recorded “Laura” and this comment below was attached to his “Bird” version of the tune. As they say in the cliches of our time, the comment has resonated with me.

I met a Laura once, way back in 1964. I met her at a party, we were teenagers but grown up in the way kids were back in Philly of the 1960’s. She was so perfect. Beautiful, smart, engaging, and she liked me. I fell madly in love with her, right there and then. We danced and she fit into my entire spirit. And then the party was over and we all had to connect with our various rides. She chose to ride with me and my friends and we drove her home. She sat next to me, both of us breathless. And standing on the porch was her father, who looked like he would kill me – or any other boy!!! I wasn’t able to get her telephone number and I never saw her again. All these years later, I can still feel her… 

I know how he felt. Our universe then was full of fumbling uncertainty. In my case, her father was a civil educated man. Her name was not Laura, but I persisted.

Mouse Whisper

It’s pretty much clearly Romantic – here it’s in black and white

NIGER

Noir               nero              negro           preto            negru           nair  

ALBUS

Blanc             bianco           blanco           branco          alb                  alv

Modest Expectations – Vile Bodies

If you are writing a sermon, it is good to have a text, in this case from The Gospel of The Boston Globe.

At a time when climate change and those who fight it demand that coal be treated like tobacco, as a danger everywhere it is burned, Australia is increasingly seen as the guy at the end of the bar selling cheap cigarettes and promising to bring more tomorrow.

Along with koalas, kangaroos, and beaches, the country — the world’s third-largest exporter of fossil fuels — is becoming known for refusing to clean up its act.

With just days to go before a major UN climate conference in Scotland, Australia is one of the last holdouts among developed nations in committing to net-zero emissions by 2050, and it has refused to strengthen its 2030 target or make plans for transitioning away from its deep commitment.

Coal-o-phile Dundee

The country’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, only recently agreed to attend the climate summit after criticism from Queen Elizabeth II and a crowdfunded billboard in Times Square that mocked his reluctance to address climate change, calling him “Coal-o-phile Dundee.”

Australia’s inertia points to a pressing challenge for the world: how to get places that profit from a dangerous product to transition before it becomes too late. With the threat of even more damaging storms and fires looming if temperatures keep rising, a combine-and-conquer approach is required — fossil fuel users and producers both need to kick the habit.

The kings of carbon are not in a rush. A UN report recently released found that coal, oil, and gas production will keep growing at least until 2040, reaching levels more than double what is needed to prevent a catastrophic rise in global temperatures.

Australia is a major contributor to the problem. In energy terms, the continent is essentially a bigger version of West Virginia: Coal is still king, natural gas is celebrated, and the conservative government has a lot in common with Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, who has blocked President Biden’s sweeping plan to shift the country toward renewable energy.

In May, the International Energy Agency released a detailed overview of what it would take to cut carbon dioxide emissions to net-zero by 2050 and keep the average global temperature from increasing by 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels — the threshold beyond which the Earth faces irreversible damage.

Near the top of the list: end investment in new sources of fossil fuels.

Australia’s response? Yeah, nah.

The federal government still revels in Australia’s role as the world’s largest coal exporter. A report from the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources last month used a medal icon in denoting the country’s status as the world’s coal leader, expected to ship out 439 million tons this year, up from 400 million tons last year.

In the last month alone, three new coal mining projects have been approved. In New South Wales, a production hub for the thermal coal burned in power plants — some of the biggest contributors to global emissions — proposals for 20 new coal mines are under review. And that does not include a giant project in the state of Queensland, where the Indian industrial giant Adani is trying to build the largest coal mine in the world.

Nor does it include Australia’s expansion of natural gas. The government plans to open at least five new gas fields, including the giant Beetaloo Basin project in the Northern Territory, which has been granted subsidies of around $170 million. The tax breaks given to the fossil fuel industry last year alone were worth more than what Australia spends on its army — and the federal resources minister, Keith Pitt, said this month that the government should spend even more to protect coal and gas.

Critics argue that it is all the product of a warped political and media culture that has spent decades doing the industry’s bidding while deceiving the public, exaggerating coal employment, and understating the need to reverse course. Federal elections are often won or lost in the coal areas of Queensland, and with another contest due next year, the coalition government’s junior partner, the National Party, which represents regional areas, is playing a familiar hand.

“For at least 10 years, they’ve been telling people that climate change is rubbish, that it doesn’t exist, that we can continue digging up and burning coal forever and a day,” said Zali Steggall, an independent member of Parliament who unseated a former prime minister, Tony Abbott, in 2019 with a campaign focused on climate. “They have a difficult job now in turning around to those communities and saying we were wrong or misleading you and we need to do this.”

Until the devastating bush fires of two years ago, Australians might not have blinked at their government’s continued support for fossil fuels. The country is responsible for less than 2% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

But the Australian public has become increasingly concerned. Polls show that a strong majority of Australians want climate action even if the costs are significant and want the government to stop approving new coal mines.

There is some momentum at the local level. Several states, including New South Wales, have committed to net-zero by 2050 and more immediate emission reductions that go beyond the 26%-28% cut that Australia promised with the Paris climate agreement.

Thanks also to changes in farming practices and solar panels on people’s homes, Australia’s emissions are now projected to fall by around 34% by the end of this decade compared to 2005 levels. But that decline is still weak by international standards, with the United States promising cuts of 50%-52% by 2030, Britain agreeing to a 78% decline by 2035, and Japan pledging a reduction of 46% by 2030.

I remember the first weeks of Whitlam’s reign. I also remember the treachery and traducery of McMahon’s last year where the Government refused to confront the obvious reforms needed. And with the decay, the government leaked continually rather than made a splash, with McMahon himself the master of the watering can.

When Whitlam won the 1972 election, there was no leisurely transfer of power. He brushed the inept McMahon aside and, with Lance Barnard, with the blessing of the then Governor General Paul Hasluck, set up a temporary duumvirate.

This enabled Whitlam to immediately abolish conscription, end Australian military participation in South Vietnam and release Vietnam draft resisters from prison. He recognised Communist China and warned the United States against renewed bombing in North Vietnam.

Whitlam had a degree of courage, which I have found in only one other major politician in my experience.

I only hope that when the next Government comes to power, the person who becomes the Prime Minister acknowledges the matters relating to climate, as so clearly set out above, and sets about a clear remedy.

It should be possible through those who have paid the Porter legal bills to identify the biggest polluters in this country, not only in terms of climate change but also of the social fabric of the nation …

… and stop this disgraceful persecution of people, who are universally of colour as the modern version of non-white is now called, by releasing them from the various concentration camps, if you want to be brutally frank, imprisoning these persecuted refugees who have come by sea.

And finally, let us judge those who would loot the Treasury, and release their names. Strip away the black tape of redaction and coverup.

The overriding lesson for Australia at this very difficult time for the future of not only ourselves but also the planet – those determining the nation’s policy are just not up to the challenge. Brown nosing is no substitute for policy.

An Eloquent Statement on leaving Kinross Wolaroi School, Orange

… I believe that each and every one of us in the graduating class of 2020 has something special to offer to our friends, our family and to our community so long as we persevere. After 13 years of schooling, we will finally enter into the wider world and go our separate ways. They say that smooth seas do not make skilful sailors. This year has been anything but smooth sailing and I know that wherever we end up, we will all be well equipped to face and overcome the challenges that life throws at us. I hope that you find happiness wherever you may go in life and I wish you all the best for the future. – Edward Taylor Year 12.

In explanation, I was looking for something else and came across the magazine of this hybrid Presbyterian/Methodist co-educational boarding school located in Orange New South Wales. I don’t know whether I had ever heard of the school, but casually reading it, I came upon the valedictory address given by this young man. I wished I had been able to articulate my future at his age as well he did at the end of a difficult year. He will need all that resilience while the present clowns of climate change control his generation’s destiny and will be headstones by the time this young man will fulfill his own expectations.

George Repin

George died a week ago at 3.30pm. He was 93, and thus he had a life well lived. He was a Russian émigré from Shanghai, whose family started Repin’s coffee inns in Sydney in 1930. These were very successful, and the name Repin became a household name for a place to have a cup of tea as well as coffee. During the Depression, hard-up businessmen used the coffee shops to run their ailing businesses. American servicemen during WWII, unused to tea, found access to coffee through Repin’s – a boon. Repin’s in the fifties were the places the Push literati frequented in the afternoon to discuss how many angels were on certain pinheads.

George Repin’s father died suddenly in 1949 and George, recently graduated doctor, was midway through his residency at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He abandoned his medical career for the moment and took control of the family business.

Despite being a household name in Sydney, the name Repin meant nothing to me because I was born in Melbourne, and there was a large social gulf between the two cities. I cannot remember any Sydneysider who holidayed in Melbourne. We had family in Sydney, but although we were frequent visitors, my father loving Manly and my mother having a close friend who lived in Point Piper, I can never remember Repin being mentioned. It would have been easier if I had known this when I moved to Sydney in 1979.

After the family coffee business closed in 1966, George joined the AMA and after a period became Secretary General, just in time for the negotiations to commence on the shape of the health care system following the report of the Nimmo Inquiry in 1969. The Ludecke Inquiry was where George became blooded in dealing with the Federal Government. Then the Whitlam government came to power in 1972, with its stated intent of introducing a universal health scheme.

George was an avowed opponent of governmental control of medical practice. He was also very skilled in preserving the interests of doctors, including medical incomes, while ensuring that he never confused the Federal government’s constitutional power to provide a range of health patient benefits – but not doctor’s fees. The word  “fee for medical benefit” was the mantra one used when discussing medical benefits and beware the glittering eye if you strayed into saying that the Commonwealth government had the power to set doctors’ fees.

It was not riveting stuff, but the meticulous way that George controlled such syntax meant the AMA countered the Commonwealth Health Department from implying it determined doctors’ fees. Yet I believe it was a deliberate ploy to imply, falsely, that if doctors did not charge a fee equivalent to the patient benefit, they were flouting the law.

Doctors could charge what they considered to be fair and reasonable. Incomes and prices were the responsibility of the States and I was closely associated with the referendum that Whitlam initiated late in 1973 where the intent of a “yes” vote was to transfer these State powers over incomes and prices to the Commonwealth. The referendum was soundly defeated, but it meant I was well acquainted with this division in Commonwealth powers.

The disciplined Repin approach meant that, for a long period until the destructive Shepherd influence, the power of the AMA over medical incomes was due to this one man, paradoxically through the way he handled the periodic government-initiated reviews of the patient fees for medical benefits.

As such he had a major stabilising influence on the profession at a time when there was a diffusion of medical specialties into subspecialist groups. Much of this could be attributed to the adherence to the relativities which had been built into the medical benefits system but owed somewhat to the way the various existing specialties in 1970 valued themselves. This resulted in distortions of the actual value, but it was the genius of Repin that maintained acceptance of relativities – in one word some of the profession were more knowledgeable and skilled than others in the initial phase. This self-valuation created distortions.  Yet George always maintained that a doctor could do anything, given circumstances, and somehow he was able to assure the relativities in the fees for medical benefit – no mean feat.

His resilience was tested by a severe bout of Guillain-Barre syndrome, but in true Repin style he overcame this disease, which almost paralysed him for a time, and went back to full-time work..

For most of the time during the Repin stewardship, government accepted the AMA as the sole legitimate representative of the profession. George had to juggle  differences, such as between the NSW Branch, which was essentially an employer’s organisation, and the Victorian branch with very much an industrial approach negotiating terms and conditions with the Victorian State in a number of landmark cases.

For five years from 1979 I was his Deputy at the Australian Medical Association. We were two very different individuals; he did not support my appointment, but just after I commenced, George went overseas and on return he seemed satisfied with the way I handled the preparation of the AMA submission to government, where I had the opportunity to work with one of the most highly respected and able Sydney lawyers of the time, Bob Stephens.

This gave me an early insight into how organised and meticulous George Repin was. Despite his distaste for government control, his strength in negotiation and ability to coalesce the profession around the importance of medical benefits (whether Medibank or Medicare) paradoxically ensured that his legacy was woven into both schemes. In turn, this has assured the ongoing system Australia has today, despite it having become somewhat tattered over the past decades.

Not long after I started, in early 1980, he agreed that I should take the lead secretariat role in the preparation of the AMA submission to the Jamison Inquiry (the Commission of Inquiry into the Efficiency and Administration of Hospitals). This enabled me to travel around the AMA branches and receive an early valuable lesson on how organised medicine worked around Australia. The AMA agreed to the appointment of Robert Wilson, an excellent economist and cost accountant, to assist me.

The submission was highly regarded by the bulk of the AMA grandees and more importantly for myself was that I achieved an independence within the organisation, which forged the basis of our ongoing relationship.

My relationship with George was totally professional. I do not remember having any social interaction with him. I was never invited to his home; I never even had a social drink in his office or elsewhere. He only told me one thing about his boyhood. It has stuck with me. On one occasion when at Scot’s College, after being bullied, he hid behind a fence and threw rocks at his tormentors. I bet he was accurate, but I didn’t quiz him.

Always combative though our relationship was, he imposed a way of handling circumstances which proved very valuable. I wish I had had him as a tutor as a young man as he would have imposed an intellectual discipline, foreign to my instincts but I suspect very Russian. Our politics were so far apart, but only rarely did they disturb our relationship, and as someone commented if we happened to be on the one side, which occasionally happened, nobody could stop us.

At the outset I said I would work there for at least five years, as the superannuation arrangements were second best only to Qantas then. In five years and one month after beginning the job, I left to set up a consultancy business. I remember George firmly shaking my hand as his last gesture. George was to work for another three years before relinquishing the post. Having negotiated the move, understandably he himself did not want to move to Canberra.

The one thing I did wonder about was why, after 1984, the periodic reviews between the Government and the AMA were abandoned with his say-so; that was George’s source of power and authority. It may be that, after supporting their abandonment, he missed them. Maybe he just got tired of Bruce Shepherd.

As for me, I had experienced one of the most productive five year periods of my life; George taught me a lot; yet I never asked his advice.  After I left the AMA I never talked more than a dozen words to him.

It was a pity because reading his regular column in the “Pittwater News” only after his death, I realised what an underlying affinity I had for George. As with everything he did, he did not waste a word.

When I heard he was terminally ill, I sent a short message thanking him. I hope he read it. I meant what I wrote.

Monterey

The challenge came. What about canneries? You’ve spent enough time in northern Victoria to know all about them. Mentioning canneries reminded me of what has been one of my favourite places to visit in the world. Previously, in one of my earlier blogs, I had mentioned the junction of the Darling and Murray Rivers as my favourite place in Australia.

After my blog, last week, on tanneries and stannaries, she had said “What about canneries and for that matter granaries!” Monterey, an easy choice!

Lying south of San Francisco, Monterey was written about by John Steinbeck. The canneries that line the waterfront are now stylish reminders of an era long gone when the run of sardines was such down the Pacific coast that catching and canning sardines became the sustenance living of many, especially during the Depression. But like so many profitable fishing industries, it died when the fish were no more – overfished in an era where the notion of conservation did not exist.

Cannery Row

We amble down Cannery Row, made famous by Steinbeck. It retains some of the old atmosphere, if not the smells of what it was. Monterey has its own “rialto”, structures bridging the road now announcing that this is Monterey Canning Row, but yet prosaically this “rialto” was only a place for offices rather than being vibrant walkways above the street.

This was one of Steinbeck’s haunts and he was very friendly with Ed Ricketts, the pioneering marine biologist whose work, particularly on tidal flows, established his reputation. Ricketts was not unlike Steinbeck in appearance, politics and living a full life, whatever that means. He was killed on the edge of Cannery Row in 1948 when hit by a train. He was only 50.

The cannery façade thus still exists, punctuated by hotels and stores selling memorabilia, but what is the most memorable at the end of the Row is the three-storied Hewlett Packard Aquarium, with the three-storied kelp forest as the first sight of this structure.

The one area where the child in me emerged was the interactive pond where one could handle the various sea creatures, the starfish and the gooey sea anemones. I don’t remember any sea urchins, but given their spikes and the care taken to ensure kids like me still had a hand after removing my arm from the water, there probably weren’t any; yet it was a tactile experience so important in tuning the senses.

Sea otters

Staying at the Monterey Plaza Hotel enabled us to see the sea otters, frolicking in the sea in the lee of the hotel, with its deck acting as a viewing platform. The sea otter’s fur, unlike that of the seals is not waterproof. Therefore, the otters have to eat a large amount of fish and shellfish daily. One’s sleep can be disturbed by the sound of those animals cracking open the shellfish as they float on their backs in the sea. One of the reasons for them becoming an endangered series was that their voracious appetites provided competition for the fishermen – and the otter pelts could also command a good price.

Like many of the places I have visited, I suspect Monterey has become one of those tourist destinations, and therefore I probably will never go back, if only to retain memories of a less tourist-infested age.

The Age of Confusion

The advent of vaccination has shown a course of action where there have been both positive and negative aspects, but moreover it has provided a window on what works and what does not.

One of the prime movers in vaccination, when the national levels of vaccination had started lagging in the mid 1990s, was Michael Wooldridge when he became the Federal Minister of Health in 1996. One of the most vocal advocates of the campaign was the late Gay Davidson, whose daughter, Kiri, had died of a complication of measles. Gay was both an influential Canberra journalist and a mother who had first hand experience of the horrific decline of her daughter from a beautiful vibrant child to a helpless vegetative state because of this rare late complication of measles.

The message was clear. Vaccinate! Now another campaign.  What has been encouraging, after a very hesitant start, is how vaccination against COVID-19 has progressed. The problem is that the early ambivalence, aided by the social media, allowed all the misinformation to gather momentum.  Fortunately, the momentum for universal vaccination that may have been slower at the outset has at last been far greater recently. The rare complications from the vaccine administration, which fuelled the initial hesitancy seem now to have been mostly cast aside as witness the successful introduction of vaccination in school children above the age of 11.

The other complication of the early hesitancy was the failure of the Commonwealth government to effectively lead the response, because it had not ordered enough of the mRNA vaccines , banking on both the Queensland version and the licensed AZ vaccine to do the job. The Queensland vaccine was a flop, and those academics who promoted it so vigorously should have been more roundly condemned than they were for their flagrant self-publicity. As for the AZ vaccine, once the production line was sorted it has been effective, if less popular than Pfizer and now Moderna.

What has been done in NSW and Victoria emphasises the desire of people to get out of prison – to be paroled – except each Premier has a huge number on parole, including a substantial number who should continue to be locked up because of their flagrant disregard of the rules. Separating this unvaccinated group for re-incarceration would be a challenge, and currently the appetite for any such action is not strong.

It is time to change reporting the number vaccinated to a more correct number by incorporating the 12 years plus age group. Presumably this is not being done because of the lesser level of vaccination of this age group. This number has been increasing rapidly and will soon not be different from the adult population.

This will be further complicated by the extension of vaccination to children aged five to 11. The White House announced (and since confirmed by the FDA) that they will soon be able to get a COVID-19 shot from paediatricians, the local pharmacy and potentially even from their schools. The detailed plans for the expected authorisation of the Pfizer shot for these younger children are expected shortly, after lengthy studies to test vaccine safety. The recommended dose will be about one-third of the adult dose. It will be interesting to see whether the TGA delays approval in Australia until just before the school year starts next year.

United States regulators have also signed off on extending COVID-19 boosters to Americans who received the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines and anyone eligible for an extra dose can now receive a brand different from the one they received initially.

From our point of view, there is a need to assure the same level of vaccination in every State (and that includes Western Australia); and the challenge of assuring the first double dose vaccination, monitoring the teenage vaccination, introduction into children and assuring an ordered booster regime needs to be answered – as does the need to factor in additional variants, such as the emerging new Delta AY.4.2 variant identified in the UK and USA. It would be useful to obtain details of the vaccination program – the assumption being we have enough vaccines and identification of recipients nationally is assured, and I mean assured, not waved away into some contract deal among mates.

May I suggest somebody think of Jeroen Weimar for the task, even if he doesn’t bob up in a general’s uniform (but look out for the coffee cups).

Congratulations, Minister Hunt, you seem to be adopting aphorisms from The Prince, in particular when the news is good: release it unto the multitude in small amounts deliberately and progressively. Apparently this ploy helps maintain the applause.

Mouse Whisper

I was talking the other day to my one of bandicoot cousins, Bullum, and the topic turned to this Virus, the one we are hopping to avoid.  I thought it was a good test of the efficacy for each of the Commonwealth funded Aboriginal Medical Services (AMS) to see how well they vaccinated their particular mob. Bandicoot Bullum said he was a bit nonplussed by those who seemed to speak for the various AMS complaining about the Government not vaccinating their mob.

He thought that it would be one of the key jobs for each AMS to get to as close to 100 per cent vaccination as possible, and only complain if they were not supplied with enough vaccine. He thought there was no shortage of supply; yet doses have been reported as going to waste. But maybe the bush telegraph would tell him something else.

He seemed to have a good point. This is now a time when the strength of the AMS can be tested, rather just being at the mercy of our brother rhetorical advocates.

Modest Expectations – West of Liverpool

I have just watched Dr Paul Kelly, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, again on television this week. As we stagger out of this two year spotlight on this bloody virus, Australia will eventually realise how much it owes to this guy, whose calmness among the brouhaha of scientific advice has always known where the horizon is. I hope he can pass on this undoubted skill in his stewardship of public health. 

Nowhere to Hide in Unalloyed Comfort

Tannery

I was reading a text about pollution of a river in Brazil, the Rio Tiete, which runs through São Paulo, and is very polluted in places. One of the words even my young language teacher was unfamiliar with was “curtumes” – the word for tanneries.

I thought how familiar would the average young punter be with the word tannery. There would be some who might believe a tannery is where you go to lie on a tanning bed and stimulate the growth of your malignant melanomas.

How many young people would know what a tannery is?

Tanning animal hides was undertaken as far back as Neanderthal man, and  involves turning animal hides, particularly deer, into leather. Neanderthal man learnt to soften the hides by recognising the efficacy of animal fat, particularly bear, as well as bone marrow and brain. Thus, tanning has always been a messy business. Surplus skin was boiled together with other animal parts into glue.  A totally unpleasant process perpetuated for eons.

However, in the city of my youth, if there was a distinctive unpleasant smell, generally there would be an abattoir around. Tanning hides also involves the use of arsenic, formaldehyde and other pollutants that used to be dumped in a nearby river.

The importance of leather was never more emphasised to me than in the following anecdote. I  remember some years ago a vegan said the only animal product for which he, the vegan, had not found an adequate substitute was shoe leather. However, today it seems mushroom mycelia, banana and pineapple leaves, paper and cork are apparently now favoured as plasticised replacements. The petrochemical industry seems to have pushed the tannery aside.

As a result of all the pressures, there are few tanneries left in this country and the export market for hides has fallen away over the past decade. China, as it does with most polluting industries, leads in tanning, but the biggest exporter of leather is Italy.  It was the link through the leather trade (China to Italy) that facilitated COVID-19’s invasion of Europe via Chinese leather workers who had been brought in to work on the production of shoes and other leather accessories in Northern Italy – and the rest is history.

The tannery is a declining industry; but the stannary represents an even more distant industry. My ancestors came from one of three stannary towns in Devon – Ashburton. This place name is my great-grandparent’s headstone. Tin was first mined in Mesopotamia and there is much speculation as to the origin of tin mining.  The history books assure us the Ascent of Humankind passed from stone to bronze age, which means that tin was a very early metal discovered and used, alloyed with copper to form bronze.

An extensive examination of tin mining in Cornwall and Devon, published in 1908, summed up the plight of the stannary: The smelters are still at the present day the purchasers of the ore of the stannaries, and the antiquated and in some respects apparently unjust business relations between smelter and tinner are responsible for a share of the depression which has rested for a number of years on the tin mines of Cornwall.

The stannary, even in primitive form, was where tin was smelted and thus had played an important part of our early ancestors’ existence. Here, for many centuries, Devon and Cornwall were extremely important revenue producing vehicles, and it is not by chance that the Prince of Wales holds the purse strings of the Duchy of Cornwall. The towns, both in Devon and Cornwall, where the most important centres of tin mining were located; they were called Stannary Towns, a quaint appellation that still exists today. We are reminded of them by the increasing number of minor celebrities who ramble around Britain in TV docos – the remains of tin mining in these two counties always scores a mention.

The Duchy Palace which housed Cornwall’s Stannary Parliament

As for stannary, well it apparently comes from a Cornish word “steyn”, corrupted from the Latin word “stannum”. It should be noted that although we have one of the largest underground tin mines in the world on the West Coast of Tasmania, there are no stannaries, or re-named as tin smelters, in Australia. Our stannic concentrates have to be shipped to Indonesia, Malaysia – and, wait for it, China – to be refined. China has the largest tin deposits in the world, in an industry which, a decade or so ago, was nearly destroyed by the formation of an unsustainable cartel.

So, what’s in a name – tannery or stannary? Progress?

The Premier Pirouette

Pirouettes may be executed singly or as multiple rotations; the latter is commonly performed in the adagio part of a grand pas de deux.

There are many variations of pirouettes.

Watching the flourish of the new NSW Premier with the curious name is to watch an anarchist without the black flag. Unlike that anarchic atavar Tolstoy, he may not yet believe that following the teachings of Jesus and practising non-violence would lead to the collapse of the state and the capitalist economy, but perhaps he would subscribe to the first part.

Now an anarchic mind at work.  I applaud his decision to abandon hotel quarantine.

Hotel quarantine was a stratagem to tide the hotel industry over during the pandemic, but it has lasted longer than expected and the longer the hotel quarantine has been used, the more its frailty has emerged. Only the decision to limit to a dribble the number of people coming to Australia has masked the inadequacy of hotel quarantine.

I applaud his decision to abandon sign language at media conferences. This American import is a means of communication for less than 20,000. For many viewers, it is irritating pantomime, and there is the particularly objectionable sight at Queensland Government press conference where this hulking figure overpowers the conference with his flamboyant gesturing. Just read the subtitles.

I believe that the NSW Premier’s decision to open the borders is consistent with this anarchic progress; but we shall see. The border closure has been peppered with such phrases as “fortress” and “freedom” and “hermit” and the jargon of follow-the-leader journalism”, all words within the anarchist’s lexicon.

As one anarchist has written, freedom is a slippery character. Individual freedoms are tempered by exercising the freedom of one’s will over that of others. Here anarchy of individual freedom runs up against the authoritarian view of imposing their definition of freedom on others. Here the Pirouette, while mouthing the desire to ensure that no one can use institutional structures to deny individual freedoms, exercises absolute authority.

Pirouette or Whirling Dervish

He has pirouetted away from the public health physicians as his soothsayers. He perceives their academic, often contradictory discourse  is increasingly bamboozling the healthy illiterate. The Chief Health Officer now may read the daily COVID figures as though she were reading the Landline weather report, without any media one day and then let loose with her own media conference on another day.

It was interesting to see the Governor-elect of Queensland, in response to the NSW announcement of opening of international borders, shrilly shroud-waving for perhaps the last time. Everybody in Queensland will get the Virus was her dire prediction. For the Queensland Premier, everybody will get vaccinated; something the departing Chief Health Officer has left in her “To Do” basket.

The danger in all this pirouetting is that the importance of public health maybe downgraded. Fortunately, if the media loses interest in providing all and sundry with a microphone, Australia will settle down.

The importance of therapeutic agents has meant that Australia is creating a backup drug stockpile – the efficacy of their actions presumably titrated against the actual need (rather than that of the pharmaceutical companies needing to flog these cures), cost and ease of administration.

The therapeutic agents are no replacement for vaccination. The danger of this approach is exemplified by a well-to-do architect, unvaccinated as is the Texan way, who contracted a severe form of the Virus and was treated by a cocktail of these drugs and survived. He had been very sick and was now, at the time of interview, recovered and considering whether he should be vaccinated. Still ambivalent, despite the severity of his disease.

The problem, as pointed out to him, was that these drugs may assist your recovery from one infection, but they do not prevent you from succumbing to the Virus again. Even having recovered from COVID-19, vaccination is still the ideal choice since it provides a significant boost to antibody levels and hence a more consistent immunity.

Fortunately, we do not have any of our leaders beholden to Trump, and so vaccination hesitancy is not a component of our recovery. Nevertheless, the introduction of drugs which do work should assist in pushing aside the quackery as exemplified by advocacy of hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin and zinc.

The ongoing problem is the requirement for suitable quarantine facilities although this raises the whole question of the number of quarantine places needed, especially if home quarantine is found wanting. The facilities in Victoria and Queensland are being constructed. They will be built in order to reduce the claustrophobia of the current hotel quarantine. At the same time, access to open air should be much better than the artificiality and variability of  air conditioned environments.

These facilities provide a reserve power for each State where quarantine is still required. After all, the troubling yet not unexpected appearance of a variant on the Delta variant reinforces the need for such facilities now and into the future.

Five rapid antigen tests (two saliva and three nasal) have been approved by the TGA for use from 1 November (although with no information yet about how they may be used). Rapid antigen tests are already being used in a variety of settings, including aged care facilities, for film and TV production and at the Howard Springs quarantine facility when it was run by the Commonwealth government.  Responsible use of these testing kits (meaning you don’t hide positive tests) will assist in quarantine and the ability to travel in accord with the rules being imposed by the various State jurisdictions. That’s the theory anyway.

Such an approach works when there is a sense of responsibility and not the selfishness and ignorance, particularly rampant among that cohort of young men with a high level of these two qualities. Youth is bullet proof until death occurs, and then there is the spectacle of tears and flowers and roadside crosses – until the bulletproof vest of youth corrodes with age. Then it is government’s responsibility to pick up the pieces.

Until the sense of community responsibility evens out, then the community must have quarantine facilities to provide a place to curb this restlessness and self-indulgence. I wonder whether anybody in the youthful NSW government has thought this requirement through.

There are other problems, the first is how to deal with waning immunity. This is the next frontier. Fortunately, the question of the appropriate time for a booster after double dose vaccination, is being addressed and appears to have been agreed as six months.

In the long term, any time less than a year for a booster will become tiresome.  The whole inconvenience of being vaccinated in the first place may have been overcome for now. Regular vaccination should become part of assuring the public health of the community. The addition of boosters should continue the same mixture of incentives, including fear, which have shown to be successful in the current rate of vaccination in Australia, although maintaining the 80-90 per cent vaccination rate beyond this year will be a significant challenge – hence, the current discussion about retaining mandated vaccination.

Similarly, there is consideration of immunisation for children from five years to 12 years; what is the plan if the Pfizer application is approved by the FDA in America? Does the Therapeutic Goods Administration then provide approval without delay, followed by the blessing of ATAGI? In other words, there are strands of policy coursing through the veins of the Commonwealth Health Department, without any obvious connection to the various State’s programs on vaccination rates, as though that is the end point rather than an important interim stage.

The main problem with pirouetting, it does not necessarily mean progress, however extravagant, graceful and flamboyant.  And once the pirouetting stops then what is next for the unresolved challenges broached above.

It did not take long for the pirouette to resume. At the end of the week, I have been confounded and am now agog – the proposal for funding towards the manufacture of mRNA vaccines in NSW.  Just out of the Ether?

Building Links in Northern Ireland is better without Bunkers

Let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, until other times, and other men, can do justice to my character; when my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written. I have done. – Robert Emmet from the Dock 1803.

To me, it will always be Derry. I remember walking the ramparts of Derry, being watched by security cameras. It was one of those drizzly grey days – the ramparts are grey and the view over Derry is grey, except for the wall murals, the futurist slashes of colour, the stark black and white merging in the greyness of Bloody Sunday.  This is the tapestry of the Troubles. I was here well after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement had brought an uneasy truce to Northern Ireland.

Derry mural

Walking round, overlooking the Bogside, here was I, an Irish Nationalist sympathiser who had never had the courage of my convictions to ever voice them. Like myself, Robert Emmet was not a Roman Catholic but passionate about the Irish being a free nation, even with all its gross imperfections. At various stages, I have thought about obtaining Irish citizenship, because my grandfather was born in Ireland, which made me eligible. In the end, although I have sung the Irish national anthem many times, you can only owe allegiance to one country, and that – for better or for worse – is Australia.

My first encounter with The Troubles was in the eighties when I travelled across the border from Donegal into Fermanagh to the border town of Belleek, famous for its porcelain. Crossing the border I passed by these sentry boxes manned by British troops. I showed my passport and was asked what I was doing. “Tourist” can be difficult to sustain as an excuse, given that I was driving an uncommon route for tourists and, as I learnt later, this was a road used by the IRA to travel between the two countries.

Belleek porcelain is not to my taste. Wandering around the factory was interesting.  It was only later when I drove down the deserted road after leaving Belleek, with Lough Erne below, that I started to feel distinctly uneasy. Even though the clouds were low, the view was superb.  Despite the niggling anxiety, I stopped to take photos, and every time I did so, I had this feeling of being watched. Yet, looking around, there was nothing to see.

Even then, the roads in Northern Ireland were far better than on the other side of the border. It is strange that I noticed this, but I needed to pass through Enniskillen. I remembered I filled up the petrol tank here. As I recall, it was the time between the first and second Enniskillen bomb attacks. On each occasion many were killed, both soldiers and civilians. Needless to say, I did not take in the sights of Enniskillen.

I suppose looking back, I was glad to find refuge over the border back in the Republic in Co Cavan, where I stopped to buy Cavan crystal glasses and a crystal bear. I had traversed Co Fermanagh and nothing had happened, but then most of the time nothing does happen. Nevertheless, there is always the apprehension that something may happen, even when you are sympathetic, as I have been, even siding with the Republican cause. Yet irrespective of my sympathies if it had been the IRA operatives who stopped me on the road, demanding to know my business – they would have, in all probability, enacted their version of Jedburgh justice – shoot me first, try me later.

But then there was a still small voice, which said, “pull yourself together, don’t be so dramatic, boyo, you’re not on the stage of the Abbey Theatre.”

Donald Trump’s Bizarre Obsession

In 2016, presidential candidate Trump challenged a critic, Mayor Sadiq Khan of London: “Let’s do an IQ test,” as if intelligence testing were a board game, or an arm wrestling match.

Lately, Trump has been tossing around his crazy epithet “low IQ,” as in “very low-IQ individual Robert De Niro” or “low-IQ Mika Brzezinski.” I wonder if anyone other than De Niro’s mother has ever fretted about her son’s being “mentally” challenged. He’s a great actor; does he need great board scores too?

Trump is not the first politician to ply these waters. In 1987, then-Presidential candidate Joe Biden lashed out at a questioner, saying, “I think I have a much higher I.Q. than you do.” Biden then proceeded to make Trumpian, i.e. false, claims about finishing in the top half of his law school class.

I suppose most people want to be thought of as intelligent, and we know Trump is manically insecure about almost everything. Anyone who has to boast that he is “really smart” and “a very stable genius” calls attention to his intellectual vulnerability.

Why? There’s no evidence that Trump is an idiot; indeed, quite the contrary. He’s obviously lazy, preferring the intellectual slurry of television to the written word. He may have suffered the expected mental erosion of a 72-year-old (Sic)*, but he’s not slow.

*Trump was born in 1946 and thus is 75.

This above extract from The Boston Globe was somewhat ruminative; it is as though one of the senior staff at The Boston Globe had a space to fill and wrote this piece, while at the same time reminding us of Biden’s mental frailty (a situation which has always troubled me).

The analysis of Trump reminds us of the fact that mental deterioration afflicts everybody to some degree, and whether IQ is a valid measurement or not when you age; it is still there to check some level of functioning. As such it may give some solace to Trump if he wanted to demonstrate his mental prowess.

Trump is such a narcissistic personality that I doubt that he would submit himself to an IQ test.  Even if he did and the test did not validate his boast, then he would say that those administering the test had falsified the results or stolen his brain or anything that came into the confabulating gap in his 75 year old cerebrum.

I did an online IQ test, finishing the 20 questions well within the allotted time. My score was 108.  So, I am just average Giacomo, but I do have visual perception in the top one per cent. That’s great because I can perceive the light at the end of the tunnel as that hooded chap with a sickle waving a lantern. The problem is that I am not smart enough to calculate the length of the tunnel.

Mouse Whisper

A Liverpool merchant called John Bellingham shot dead the UK Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, in the halls of the Houses of Parliament on 11 May 1812.  Bellingham was summarily executed a week later at Newgate Prison.

As written, after Perceval’s death, the Parliament made generous provisions for his widow and children and approved the erection of a monument in Westminster Abbey.

Thereafter his ministry was soon forgotten, his policies reversed; there was no hand wringing by Parliamentarians and consequent acts of government to enhance security to further alienate their constituents by the erection of portcullises and attendance by armed guards. He was, after all, the Prime Minister when there was not a hungry security industry to feed and community fear to be cynically provoked.

As for us rodents, Mouseilini was the last of ours to be drowned in a vat of warfarin – or rather in a rat sack.

Modest Expectations – Calling the Cayman Islands

There are certain misuses of words, some of which make me shudder. I once wrote an essay abut the misuse of “disinterest”, frequently used wrongly to express “uninterest”, rather than used in its true meaning of being unbiassed. “Uninterest” admittedly is an ugly word.  “Disinterest” has bounced around in the English lexicon, at various stages indeed meaning lack of interest and, given the way the word is now being used, we are destined for another period of change in the meaning of disinterest back to a lack of interest. The transition of such a change in meaning may only generate uninterest if any disinterested observer can be bothered.

My word of the moment is “visitation”. I was reminded of the dubious use of the word by Dom, the new NSW Premier. From behind his glittering glasses, he announced that he would be making visitations. Now you and I are mere mortals and thus make visits. “Visitations” are somewhat different. I have never made a visitation. Why?

A visitation: The Embrace of Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary

“Visitation” was first defined in about 1300 (sic), “a visit by an ecclesiastical representative to examine the condition of a parish or abbey” It was derived from Anglo-French visitacioun, based on the Latin visitatio. The supernatural sense of “a sight, apparition, a coming of God to a mortal” arises the middle of the 14th century.

On second thoughts, given his proclivities, maybe it did mean “visitation”. The ghosts (or spirits) must conform to social distancing even though they’ve all been wearing masks for years.

Avoca Hotel

Now who would have thought it?

Avoca Hotel has been included in a pilot scheme on “opening up” Victoria for the fully vaccinated in the wake of the COVID-19 virus pandemic.

My association with the pub started when I was rung up by my cousin and informed that Uncle Frank had died. It was the summer of ‘72. Frank, one of my mother’s seven brothers, had died and the funeral service would be at Redbank in Central Victoria. Would I like to join him and go to the funeral?

Redbank Cemetery

The service and burial would be at Redbank, near Avoca near the graveyard. Avoca was the main township in the then Pyrenees Shire, which was the only local government area in Victoria to have a mountain range to itself. That was not quite true because this line of hills was only a spur of the Great Dividing Range.

Frank lived in Avoca and on his small property in the township he kept a flock of sheep.  Since he needed to feed them, he used the Long Paddock which, in this context, was all the roadside vegetation across the Shire and beyond. As a consequence it was affectionately known – through gritted teeth – as Egan’s Paddock. So, we went first to Avoca to pay our respects to his widow, who was too frail to attend the service.

After his funeral, everybody stood around, every now and again peering into the grave, as if they wanted to make sure there was nobody knocking to get out. My cousin’s black humour; not mine. Someone said that it was good to see how many people had turned up for Frank’s funeral, because there wouldn’t be a funeral for 60 miles around that Frank would not have attended.

I remember his youngest brother, Charlie, turned up, with braces over his collarless shirt, looking as if he had just come from shearing sheep on the family property. Charlie said he had problems with his eyes. I did not connect that with why he hadn’t donned normal funeral clobber.

The yarning would have gone on endlessly if the fire bell hadn’t sounded. There was smoke over the hill, and anyway we close relatives wanted to get down to the Avoca pub for a drink. I had never met Uncle Frank, but his son-in-law, known as “Webbie” still touched me for a tenner so he could buy a slab of beer.

When I reflect on that, we were drinking at the pub, so why the extra booze?

There was a great deal of merriment remembering the Frankish eccentricities. Uncle Gordon, who was the eldest brother, a great bloke and a WW1 digger, distinguished himself by drinking one too many and slipping off the bar stool. Fortunately he was caught by us before he hit the floor.

That was my memory of the Avoca pub – the wake for Frank; and of course I never saw my tenner again.

Since that time the area has become well-known for its wines. I remember the first vintages including the brilliant Warrenmang red, with the peppermint taste.

As for the Avoca pub, it has gone a bit upmarket since that summer day so long ago when we buried Frank Egan and drank to his memory.

The Two-Edged Chief Health Officer Role

Continuing on a theme that I have maintained, but undoubtedly one that is difficult to put in place now that two States have been exhausted by the lockdowns – namely selected segregation … quarantine is another word for segregation; imprisonment is another.

It is noteworthy that of all the States, Queensland is building a custom-made quarantine facility at Toowoomba. Queensland has survived by imposing a series of mini-lockdowns, yet neither NSW nor Victoria has dedicated quarantine facilities. Victoria is ostensibly building one, but it has not got much media attention. Of course, NSW has done nothing.

The problem is that politicians are consumed by the short term, and their advisers only reinforce the views of their political masters. Increasingly health policy should be concerned with the preventative aspects of the burden of disease but as I have mentioned many times before, health language is a barrier for most, as is fluency in any language the older one gets. This virus pandemic is not the only public health problem – if not pandemic – that the community will be confronted with in the future.

One of the keystones of inhibiting the spread of disease is to enhance social distancing, and somebody ought to tell the world if there is a better way than segregation. Segregation demands disciplined structuring; hence adequate funding and staffing.

Like many services, where prevention is geared to an anticipated emergency such as police, ambulance and fire brigade, there is potentially substantial downtime. When I reviewed ambulance services some years ago, there was substantial (and, at that time, unproductive) downtime.  As a side but important issue, it is the duty of those responsible for downtime from attending emergencies to assure useful engagement of staff.

However, when downtime is translated as being in an hour long queue to discharge a patient for admission to hospital, that is only as profitable as the use of ambulance officers working as supernumerary carers can be construed. Deficiencies in the hospital admission process being covered up by using the ambulance as a ward on wheels is not the most profitable use of the ambulance service.

Staff in new dedicated quarantine facilities will face the same problem of integration into a wider public health service. Once there were infectious diseases hospitals, but with the rise of economic rationalist vandalism in the eighties and nineties, infectious disease hospitals were one casualty, even despite there being a concurrent AIDS pandemic.   Now the need for dedicated facilities indicates the rebirth of a public health service where care becomes an integral part of the health care system, rather than being reflected as a Greek chorus of epidemiologists where the patient is a scrap of data.

Unfortunately in Australia, for everybody with the merest public health experience and even – or especially – those without any formal training, commentary has become a free-for-all. It is just another of the consequences of the news cycle. People have shifted their position, and as the public health bureaucracy has been sucked into advocacy and prophecy, then it is not surprising that politicians have become irritated.

There is resentment in political circles towards the power accorded to chief health officers – not all, but where the chief health officers have garnered too much attention, albeit becoming cult figures. Generally, they have stuck around for too long – in the spotlight. As a model for balancing the science and the spotlight, Dr Paul Kelly appears to have demonstrated an appropriate mixture, where he chooses his appearance adroitly and leaves the less important public utterances to others. He makes sure that he is conservative in the true sense – of having to be convinced that the course advocated is well-founded to make the change. He stays away from daily pontification.

The Americans consider public health to be a uniformed service; and it is not uncommon to see the US Surgeon-General kitted out thus.

If I were Premier, having made a statement interpreting health policy and the opening up of the State, and a journalist then asked me, as occurred the other day: “What does Dr Chant think…”, I know what I would do. Not immediately, but don’t look now Dr Chant.

Queensland has sent its Chief Health Officer to be Governor, where she can be important without being important. It should be recognised inter alia that a whole Queensland strawberry crop was trashed in 2018 at the cost of $160m, where Dr Young’s advice played a prominent role. As one commentator noted recently on this situation, where needles were found in in strawberries at three sites: “However, in a way, it’s actually kind of quaint to be reminded that a public health scare with three reported instances led to a major national response while the largest COVID outbreak and death toll in the country is followed with talk of how soon we can get the pubs back open.”

There is talk of the Chief Health Officer’s power being curtailed in Victoria, being downgraded; and as for Dr Chant, I would be sure that a promotion awaits her – or her being absorbed as a consultant somewhere.

If the senior positions are downgraded the problem I see is that public health may suffer. Politicians very quickly forget the lessons of the past because in this world the uncertainty of the word “pandemic” has yet to be incorporated into personal ambition and the uncontrollable search for post-political recognition. Another dangerous pandemic.

Nevertheless, whether the power of the senior health officials is downgraded or not, the need for dedicated quarantine facilities or some other effective means of segregating the ill or potentially ill should not be allowed to slip off the policy agenda into a limbo of uninterest.

A Randomised Controlled Trial of One

Voltaran Osteo-Gel is the alias for diclofenac diethylamine – to be rubbed on affected joints 12 hourly. It is one of those potions that bobs up on the television screen where there she is, one moment limping in pain, then next soothingly rubbing the gel on her knee and then nossa running the City to Surf or part thereof. No longer the grimace, now wreathed in smiles with the obligatory male handbag running alongside her, a trail of blue and saffron gossamer dust in her wake.

I have osteoarthritis badly, and also polymyalgia rheumatica – and as such I am a randomised controlled trial of one – it doesn’t work for me this way. For years I have been in pain, sometimes agonising, and I assure the punters topical gels don’t work for my big joints.

However, small joints, particularly finger joints are a different matter. I have found when I get arthritic pain in these small joints, application of Voltaran works. The reason I have written this piece now is that I developed acute pain in my right little finger the other day, the hand with which I use the mouse.  So, I started to apply the Voltaran and the finger has improved, at least the pain has lessened and the functionality has improved.

I found a review of the efficacy of these gels in the BMJ which in part concluded:

… after excluding industry-funded/sponsored trials, only diclofenac patch was statistically superior to placebo for pain relief and none of the topical NSAIDs was better than placebo for functional improvement. This suggests that the efficacy of topical NSAIDs may be inflated by industry involvement. However, the limited number of remaining non-industry-funded/sponsored trials (only 12 trials for pain relief and 11 trials for functional improvement) may be too small to detect the difference, as these trials were small (ranging from 31 to 179 participants, median size 100). Further non-industry-funded/sponsored trials for topical NSAIDs are still needed, as this is a group of drugs with greater contextual effect than their oral counterparts and it is more difficult to blind participants in trials and hence very easy to inflate their treatment benefits over placebo.

Concentrating on my little finger, what objective evidence have I got for this gel helping. It may be just a self-limiting acute arthritis, part of the joys of having a chronic autoimmune disease. I have not had any trauma, because although I struck my hand on the balustrade which caused an ugly bruise on the back of my hand, my adjacent finger is not bruised.

My other fingers are fine, although at the outset of my encounter with PMR, I did develop a swollen middle finger on the same hand, which improved with application of the gel.

I suppose it could be gout, but no family history, and none of the drugs that I am taking predisposes to gout – well, not in the fine print paper that comes in the drug package.

This conceals a far bigger problem –

Namely the privileged place pharmacists have in our society. Having been for a time closely associated with the pharmacists for part of my professional life, I consider they are a very much the curate’s egg.

Pharmacists are, in the main, shopkeepers. Yet as result of a concerted effort to strengthen an academic basis for pharmacy from just a cohort of those working in hospitals and who believed that pharmacy had moved from apothecary status, learning in a university environment replaced the apprentice structure of the profession.

My year of medicine was the last year where we were taught materia medica – the fancy name for compounding pills, potions, unguenta and tonics. I always remember “extract of male fern” as the quaint talisman for this ancient art of sorcery. The next year, materia medica was replaced by “pharmacology”. This change encapsulated the change in the teaching of pharmacy students towards a firm evidential basis.

Yet while this expanded the academic profile of pharmacy, the cornerstone of pharmacy remained the shopfront. Pharmacists have been a protected species; I remember when Ipana toothpaste was only sold by pharmacists. Yet in those days pharmacies still sold cigarettes.

The advent of modern pharmacology, heralded by the development of antibiotics – a major influence – changed the whole face of therapy. Not that certain plant-derived substances, like digitalis, did not work; many of the other medicaments in the pharmacy operated on their placebo effect. This still holds true in so much of the goods being peddled these days, often with outrageous and erroneous claims. The vitamin industry is one such area where the legitimate role of these substances has been subverted into some magical beneficence, to say nothing of serious profits. What I find particularly objectionable is the advertisements depicting whole families, their shopping carts laden with an array of placebo, gaily trotting off to a world of drug habituation and advertisements promoting “chewy vitamins” for children, as if pill popping – or gummy chewing – should be a normal part of growing up.

The pernicious influence extends to the growth of addictive drugs, as witness the use of OxyContin and other similar drugs, another disgrace shared across the whole of the health professions. I believe the excesses of some of the community pharmacies should be trimmed, especially among the warehouse chains where professional ethics can seem very threadbare. Any claims about these arrays of so-called natural remedies should be evidence-based and not some exercise of necromancy, dressed up as beautiful young women.

The Pharmacy Guild has lobbied hard and successfully for the maintenance of their position in the community. The periodic Pharmacy Agreements between the Federal Government and the Guild in relation to reimbursement under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) have always been generous.

At the same time, community pharmacies have continued to sell all these peripheral placebos, as well as cosmetics, toys, sweets – in fact almost anything that can vaguely be associated with perceived wellbeing. Inevitably this has led to the growth of the pharmacy warehouse; and I wonder why the advertisements peddled by some of these outlets have not been curtailed by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). But then organised pharmacy has strong buying power – particularly of political parties where the industry has been and remains a significant donor.

The community pharmacy, despite its lobbying power and probably over-privileged and over-subsidised place in the community, should not be underestimated as being perceived as the true community health centre for much of the community. The fact that there have been those in the Liberal Party who see them as outpost of the Party because of the innate business conservatism of many of the pharmacists should not be used to deny its important role in community health.

Another conservative force, the medical profession, is always paranoid when they perceive pharmacists creeping onto what the profession considers its territory. I always took a lead from my father who, even more than 60 years ago, had the pharmacy next door where he could pop in and get advice, where “out the back” he could discuss the appropriate course of action for patients with complex or difficult conditions. As my father and the pharmacist, Jim Beovich, demonstrated over many years, it was such a rich symbiotic relationship.

The community pharmacy’s involvement with the national vaccination program has been a success. Hence the apparent success of this public health intervention should be written up as evidence of what succeeds and what does not, so it can be incorporated into a policy framework which is not lost. So much corporate memory has been lost, as I can well attest, with the unnecessary need to re-invent the process because of the lack of corporate memory, a common and disastrous fault of modern bureaucracy.

Individual pharmacists are influential in their community. The community pays a price for the Pharmacy Guild’s easy access to that. What is important is to ensure that the methodology for setting prices being paid for prescription pharmaceuticals is transparent and not obfuscated so the community pays more than is reasonable.  Influence through lobbying for political gain is always an essential part of the curate’s egg’s yolk, no matter the standing of the profession, even at a time of beatification of the profession, which inevitably will occur with the success of the vaccination program. Just because the Gorgon, Big Pharma is standing behind you with an outrageous price schedule is no excuse for just passing it in without protest to us punters.

The musical instrument called “hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica”

I could not resist heading a piece with the longest name for any musical instrument currently being played somewhere in the world.

Playing the Hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica

I am no muso. I remember someone mentioned that I could have made a bass if I had not been totally tone deaf. I tried playing the recorder as we all did; and even moved to the clarinet. Mercifully, this was a very small affliction on Australian ears.

Knowledge of this headline word had come from my being apprised of the town of Castelfidardo in Le Marche, one of the lesser known regions of Italy south of Emilio-Romagna on the Adriatic Coast.  Castelfildardo is a town where piano accordions are made and have been made since the beginning of the 19th century, whether in mahogany or maple. They also have dabbled in the manufacture of “armonice” of which the above longest word for a musical instrument – the glass harmonica – is a subset.

Now this is apparently the only reliable place in the world to get this instrument repaired, and it takes three months. Added to this the creatori di fisarmoniche are a dying breed because it is an Italian trait to take your skill to your grave without telling anybody. It does have an effect!

Years ago, I can remember the accordion was a common instrument and, in my youth, Lou Toppano was both its virtuoso and its public face within Australia with his TV appearances. Piano accordions were associated with various ethnic groups. Toppano tried to project the sophisticated sleekness of the Latin amante.  But the invariable characteristic was the smile, the smile when you had this lump of wood and metal weighing between 5 and 14 kilograms on your chest – and you were expected to play it! The accordion fell out of favour with rock n roll; it is said that the bass electric guitar was the instrument that often replaced the accordion in the band.

Somebody who I hold dear admitted she played it when she was young but said that if I wanted to shame her, I would not further identify her. Such a reaction shows how the accordion player has become somewhat of a caricature.

Thus, I was intrigued by an article in the Boston Globe by a young professional accordionist. By and large optimistic in tone, she nevertheless commented on how difficult it was to maintain the accordion in working condition, but she had been lucky to find a repairer in New Jersey.

She indicated in her article how specialised was repair of accordions, which would probably be a disincentive for those who found their grandparents’ accordion as a dusty relic. It is one of the most difficult instruments to play.

But if you think that playing the instrument is difficult, don’t step on it or throw it against the wall or fall over and be pinned by it. Here is an annotated repair requirement, according to the author of the article, with that unsurprising name of Madonna.

A job for Castelfidardo …

First is the know-how; second is spare parts such as keys, reed valves (usually leather strips), and metal rods; and third is tools, though most of these can’t be found at your average hardware store. Tools like a set of bellows to test reeds without having to put the whole instrument back together again; a setup to melt wax at a low enough temperature to set reeds without burning them; maintenance and tuning tools that look like what a dentist might use to scrape plaque off someone’s teeth; even a tray that indexes bass buttons (so there is no confusion of removal order). 

So, there you are – a trip through the Accordion Keys; intriguing when you realise that there had been the demise of an instrument that you never really missed – except that when the strolling accordion player, with the risus sardonicus, is headed for your restaurant table, you knew it was time for a toilet break.

Blue on Blue

Giuliano Cecchinelli is busy these days, as is everyone at Buttura & Gherardi Granite Artisans in Barre, Vt., one of about 20 manufacturers of headstones and other memorials in and near this city of 9,000, which styles itself the “granite center of the world.” 

The pandemic’s staggering death toll, now approaching 700,000 nationwide, is only part of the reason for the rising demand. It’s also driven by baby boomers who are looking ahead, ordering monuments, and deciding how they and their families will be commemorated after death, Gherardi said

The Boston Globe often has these little vignettes. What is it with the Italians and cemeteries? When I read this, I remember the bluestone quarry which, like all bluestone quarries, is memorable for just that – the blueness, especially when the first of these quarries that I ever saw was in Vermont, a closed quarry, the stone left there in all its sombre yet striking solitude, water slowly filling it up.

When I decided that my late parents should have some recognition and a High Celtic Cross was beyond my means and a tad over-the-top anyway – apart from which, I found those traditional grey monumental slabs so cold and depressing – I decided that I would place a bluestone rock as the headstone.

After all, if Victoria ever decided to have a State rock, it would surely be bluestone. My school was a bluestone pile, but it was only one of many buildings built in the latter part of the 19th century.  Other buildings used it for the foundations and for the many cobbled streets, lanes and alleyways were laid out in bluestone. This rock allows for water drainage and prevents the growth of weeds.

So, we went out to one of Italian stone masons whose sites dot the outer northern suburbs of Melbourne. The headstone we chose was a lump of bluestone rock, neither sculpted nor moulded in any way. Just a simple recognition of this stone which forms much of olivine basalt rock which covers the ancient volcanic Victorian plains, one of the biggest in the World. The prevalence of bluestone gives Victoria that image of a conservative sobriety with architecture distinguished by its blue-black stone buildings.

From the beginning of Melbourne, bluestone quarries were opened throughout what is now Melbourne suburbia. Most of these had closed well before I was born. Out of curiosity I eventually went to see one remaining bluestone quarry near Tylden in Central Victoria, I was impressed by the majestic slabs of blue rock, I suppose because it was so much a part of my life for 12 years from first grade.  Recent pictures are disappointing because the quarry no longer has that air of a familiar majesty, but now resembles just any open cut mine.

Nevertheless, what’s in a name? Victorian bluestone is completely different geologically from that of Vermont or indeed that of Eastern USA, which is basically a residue of glaciers namely schist, but not the basalt from an ancient volcanic origin. My eye being attracted to the article of Giuliano Cecchinelli only goes to show what a little vignette can do.

I’m still learning; and that is the real vignette.

Mouse Whisper

O trava-linguas

Eu

Não Quero

O Queijo

No meu Queixo                  … Que, zero?

 

Modest Expectation – An Item for Long Review

Ideas for a scrapbook?

When this blog was commenced 133 weeks ago, it was a different world. I didn’t expect that I would create a rod for my back by labelling each blog with a numerical connection to the name of the blog without being repetitive. When I started the blog, it was just by way of a scrapbook of ideas, and I was lucky to have a number of guest writers. They provided some leavening given that writing on a weekly basis is a serious business. One person caught in the middle of a pandemic with an irregular shuttered existence has a challenge to report usefully when the country’s leadership has been so uneven and where the principle of uncertainty has played into disturbance of the collective mind where the enemy is never “a tangible there” but “an intangible everywhere”.

I remember reading Erving Goffman on “Asylum” and “Stigma” when I was a young man. These books elaborated the concept of total institutions and the relationship between the inmates and those in supervisory positions of the inmates.

Goffman’s “total institutions” concept can be traced back to the establishment of the Hôpital Général in Paris in 1656 by Louis XIV. Once an arsenal, a rest home for war veterans, and several hospitals, the Hôpital Général served as a house of confinement for the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, prisoners and the insane – those who sought assistance and those who were sent there by royal or judicial decree. In the space of several months, one out of every hundred inhabitants of Paris would find themselves confined in these institutions indiscriminately.

Australia is in various stages of lockdown; a euphemistic way of describing imprisonment–lite.

Goffman set out his rules for the game. How relevant are they to our current society after such a period of intermittent lockdowns?

Goffman’s inmate is subject to three rule sets. The first are “house rules”, which should be “relatively” explicit both prescriptively and proscriptively.

In exchange, secondly there are clearly defined rewards and privileges for obedience. Bound up with this system is the nature of release. The third element is the nature of punishment, when the rules are broken.

Does Goffman give any clue as to how the inmate should respond? No, he does not. His analysis of various responses to lockdown is well catalogued whether monastery or mental hospital. The concept of a prolonged imprisonment was not seen as the consequence when the Virus first appeared early last year. Then a selection of politicians from both sides of politics participated in light-hearted advertisements to encourage hand washing. It was as though it was similar to the mood at the outbreak of WW1 when the early prediction was of the conflict being over by Christmas 1914.

With imprisonment, the length of sentence is known; in the asylum, this is less certain, when translated to a whole community locked down.

In the early phase of the pandemic, the conspiracy theorists and the anarchists, the libertarian-authoritarians and anti-vaxxers were yet to form their confederacy.  Rather it was the doomsayers. After initial hesitation, a strong advocacy time for improved hygiene, social distancing leading on to community isolation and, belatedly, masks  and hope improved the compliance of the community.

Unfortunately, Trump and the mad assortment of the above consolidated the COVID nonsense. It should not be forgotten that this activity was unconsciously aided and abetted by elements of the research community scrabbling for funding and prepared to participate in studies, on, for instance, hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

The race for a useful vaccine commenced. Over the previous 20 years, there had been much preliminary research on vaccines into these viruses, which was translated into an accelerated pathway for developing an effective vaccine. The nature of the coronavirus, with its chameleon quality, presented a problem, but the value of the previous work became clear with the mRNA vaccines demonstrating efficacy and able to have an accelerated introduction this year.

Last year showed the impressive use of the lockdown – but turning much of Australia into a prison until the Virus was apparently conquered. Unfortunately, the Virus changed into a more virulent form.

The Federal Government refused to develop dedicated quarantine facilities and if it were not from some robust medical advice, a nascent mixture of the above toxic creatures some of which already existed within the Parliament  exhibited the same Trumpian irresponsibility which plunged the World into the pandemic crisis.

The successful suppression of the Virus lulled Australia into a period of self-satisfaction, not recognising that armistice is necessarily unconditional surrender.

The problem has been that, despite enhanced vaccination, the second wave lockdown in NSW has not been as effective once the Delta variant got into the community. The delay in Berejiklian’s response let the Virus loose. It reached Victoria before any lockdown measures were in place. Even the swift lockdown there was insufficient, and the lack of compliance in Victoria has been poor in traditional working class areas, when the Federal government failed to restore sufficient income support to offset not being able to go to work.

“House rules” had not been explicitly stated to the effect that, if the virus appeared again, you, the community would be imprisoned again even when you had been granted both the privileges of vaccination and some income support. The first round had generated sufficient anger, assuaged by Job Keeper and Job Seeker; a second lockdown term in both NSW and Victoria (and the ACT) was not brief, there was little income support and the severity of the lockdown varied according to the particular whim of the government.

However, this lockdown has been resisted by a group of “ex-prisoners” who have set up an urban guerrilla operation designed not only to burn down “the prison” but also to institute a Trotskyist state of permanent revolution. The State has no way of collecting these guerrillas who have become carriers of the virus, the frontline shock troops for the Virus, except by reacting to the rioters. The more strident they become the more the resentment builds up in the rest of the community, made worse because of no improvement. At the same time, the Murdoch media has inflamed the situation by encouraging this resentment without advocating a solution.

Is there one?

In the post WWII community, democracies have paradoxically increased the number incarcerated. Now, what about the vaccine refuseniks and those infected. Prisons are acceptable for the first, but what of the second? Bespoke quarantine arrangements – infectious diseases sanitoria – all linked to a healthy outcome, may be acceptable. But for God’s sake, do not use the words “lock hospitals” or “concentration camps”.

However, all such facilities must have a degree of humanity; but all imply selective isolation.  Our society will have to develop a system of temporary standardised isolation facilities, where those infected are well treated but there is suitable surveillance. Otherwise, as has been shown, this, and future viruses, will spread like wildfire, vaccination or not such facilities need to be integrated into the health system.

Opening up the community becomes a meaningless term while a significant group in the community remains defiant, refusing vaccination, and in fact enhancing the pandemic, replete with the images once invoked by Erving Goffman.  

A small endeavour 

This is the story about how the pandemic has disrupted a small program in Malawi – but first, the background.

Mustapha drove us in the Toyota Land Cruiser from Majete, in the south of Malawi, to Pumulani on Lake Malawi.  It took seven hours, during which time we left the wildlife reserve for a front row seat of rural Malawi and then, contrasting that view, with that of the commercial hub of Blantyre with its profusion of modern buildings, cars and men in suits and ties. Blantyre is the toilet break stopover. Even the posh hotel does not have sufficient toilet paper and the spare toilet paper had been left in the truck. To paraphrase the saying about chooks: “don’t count your rolls until they are attached”.

Mustapha is a Sunni Moslem. He prays five times a day, observes Ramadan and his food is halal. He is a ranger at the wildlife reserve and lives three hours away in a village where he goes home for four days a month. Home is a two-room brick house with separate cooking and washing facilities. In the language of the Chichewa people, he is bambo; his wife mai and they have two ana – one is four years; the other, a ten month old baby. Both are boys.

Most of the rangers are Christian; his village is mixed, like his workplace.  This is reflected in the countryside through which we pass, where church and mosque co-exist in the one village. The Muslim influence spread from the north under Arab influence and there are concentrations of Muslims along the Lake. However, Malawians are predominantly Christian.

The camp we have left lies on the Shire River, which we cross twice more on our trip across Malawi. The riverbank is lined by elephant grass but behind this natural stockade are cultivated rows of corn and squares of green vegetable garden – maize, beans, tomato plants, sweet potatoes and onions are common crops – the abundance of these vegetables is evident in the markets of the various townships we pass through.

Outside Blantyre, rural Malawi is people walking – women and children, water containers or packages on their heads; children in brightly coloured uniforms straggling home from school.  Rural Malawi is also oxcarts being driven and bicycles, mostly ridden by men. Bicycles are loaded down with charcoal or straw-coloured thatching grass or wooden staves. Bags of charcoals standing like sentinels abut the road, ready for sale. Stooks of thatching grass also line the roadside for sale.

Police roadblocks are everywhere, but only once are we asked where we are going.

As we go further north and towards the central Malawi plain the country becomes drier. Baobab trees appear in profusion. Flashes of yellow, red and pink signify the profusion of bougainvillea. It vaguely resembles the Australian Kimberley with the rocky outcrops, the red earth and vegetation dominated by acacia interspersed by villages with signature mango trees. Here lies the difference between this part of Malawi and the Kimberley.

The Kimberley is sparsely populated, unlike Malawi where the villages tumble against one another so that walking between villages is feasible. So much of the traffic is pedestrian, despite two large buses destined for Lilongwe passing us at a breakneck speed. There are minibuses and mitolos clustered in the larger townships overloading themselves with people and goods. We pass a bicycle, one of many, a youth hunched over the handlebars. The message on his violet T-shirt is memorable: “Jesus is my hero.”

Surprisingly at no stage have we seen evidence of the major cash crop of Malawi, tobacco. Hereby hangs another dilemma that Malawi faces. Malawi is recognised as the source of superior tobacco. Yet increasingly in the Western world tobacco is a pariah crop. World opinion is closing in on tobacco usage because of its undeniable link with cancer and a host of other diseases.  It is a matter which cannot be swept as cigarette ash under the carpet of government inertia worldwide.

We reach our destination after seven hours. Lake Malawi extends for 500 kilometres and we’re at the southern end. It looks like a giant sea and it is little wonder that the early Australian explorers, aware of what was happening in Africa, searched for an inland sea. In parts the Lake is 400 m deep and 52 km wide. The Shire River is the only river that flows out of Lake Malawi, joining the Zambezi River in Mozambique. The Lake extends north to the Tanzanian border; and a small part lies within the Mozambican border. This is the Southern end of the Great Rift Valley, where the tectonic plates are inching apart. The Great Rift Valley runs from Mozambique, through the Lake, to Tanzania, where it splits into two.

The Eastern flank runs through Kenya and the West through Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, before joining again in Ethiopia, running into and along the Red Sea, turning northward to end in the far reaches of Syria. I cannot help thinking that the Great Rift Valley is a metaphor for Africa – a tectonic plate moving its 48 component countries apart. Perhaps the metaphor is too cute and exaggerated, but it is surprising nobody seems to have traversed these jagged faults to find, in documentary terms, the “Real Africa” to see how long the rift really is. Michael Palin has crisscrossed the world; Stephen Fry has landed glancing blows in encompassing the 50 states of America; and David Attenborough has “terrorised” the fauna in his “pan-world”exploration of why and who and what we are.

Life is tranquil – so different from the above intrepid world travellers. The only excitement is the female baboon bounding towards me across the patio and seizing my morning tea biscuits. One into the mouth; and knowing that she has the advantage of surprise, seizing a second. The plate clatters onto the tiles and breaks into pieces. She has gone, chased by the staff.

I sit as a speck on the edge of this enormous freshwater pond. We are eating fish – the chambo – a white-fleshed, elegant tasting fish – drawn from the lake. We sailed around in a dhow and watched the fish eagles circling and the silent men in their canoes, each searching for fish. We sailed past a pod of hippopotami lounging just off the shoreline. A ribbon of villages lines the beach. They could be on a desert island. Except that when the dhow heads back to shore there is this rocky escarpment so reminiscent of north-west Australia.

But there is another facet of the camp where we are staying. They are acting as protection for a dozen albino children living in the nearby villages – the eldest being 18. Albinos are constantly at risk of being kidnapped, slaughtered, and dismembered for their body parts. The superstition in several East African countries that possession of albino remains will provide luck is a grotesque reflection on our human condition; and in the last two years before we went 18 children had been reported killed in Malawi. The real number? Who knows! Family members have been known to be complicit in such barbarity.

We rightly worry about rhinoceros being killed for a lump of inert keratin; we should also express our abhorrence of this human trade for what – a person with a congenital lack of melanin pigment.

There are practical requirements for albinos living in this part of Africa, beside expressing outrage – sunscreen, UV protective clothing, sun hats, sunglasses – and there is a need for eye testing facilities.

The camp where we stayed had set up a project to support albino children in three local villages; this involved their staff and also donations from guests from time to time.  Easy to just hand over some notes and move on, however we decided to become involved in the longer term by providing bulk supplies of sunscreen and sun protective gear that was not easy to obtain in Malawi and other East African countries. However, that plan struck a snag early on – the cost of getting a large amount of sunscreen from Australia to Malawi was prohibitive – $40 to post just one litre and more than three months on the road! A different solution was needed and no assistance was forthcoming from courier companies.

For a number of years one of us had been going to Africa each year so instead of sending supplies, I took packages with me – with more than 50 kgs of sunscreen and 50 pairs of sunglasses.  This was still cheaper for me to take it and pay for a return flight from Johannesburg to Malawi (including a night in Lilongwe) than to freight the stuff from Australia! I would give it to a contact in Malawi who delivered it to the camp from where it was then distributed. Customs in Malawi were bemused by the exercise, seemingly concerned I was planning to set up shop there and long discussions were usually involved with the customs officers about the exercise.

However, COVID put paid to those plans. By the time I can get another large supply to Malawi it will likely be three to four years since the last delivery without outside assistance, just one of the many impacts of COVID on African people. The health devastation wrought by COVID upon African countries and the lack of vaccines for all but a small percentage of the population makes me so sad, given for someone like myself who loves southern Africa and its people.  For the many local people who have relied on tourism for their livelihoods, the sudden and extended cessation of travel to African countries has left many struggling to survive.

Affluent western countries may now be opening up for travel but the acute shortage of COVID vaccines across Africa means day to day living as well as tourism will not return to anything like normal for years.

Armenians in Ireland

I was intrigued when seeing the Armenian Cross, the so-call khachkar, which are still being constructed in that country. I thought how much these khachkars resembled the Celtic cross, particularly the high crosses. Apparently there were Armenian monks in Ireland in around the 8th century, refugees from Islam. The two High Crosses, one at Durrow in Co Offaly and the other at Muiredach in Co Lough are suggestive of the traditional Armenian khachkars.

Ruins of Rahan Church

The one at Durrow is close to the village of Rahan, where there was a monastery dating from the 5th century. The first monastery was established in the 5th century BCE and then extended 100 years later by St Carthage. The site consists of two churches and the ruin of a mediaeval tower house, and therefore existed four centuries before the Armenians are said to have come.

The Armenians may have been housed in the monastery. The Armenian churches have pointed domes to mimic the cone of Mt Ararat, and high vaulting with the height of the church matching the length of the church. There is enough remaining of the Rahan church to strongly hint at the association. The stonework and pitched roof line resemble that of contemporary 9th century surviving Armenian architecture. The other association which may have relevance is that it is known Charlemagne used Armenians as his architects.

However, so much is lost in speculation as the dots joining them have been pulverised in the passage of unrecorded time.

Gտեսություն, ցտեսություն, Գլեդիս

What is going on in Australian politics in terms of corruption is as old as the First Fleet. Gary Sturgess, while Director-General of the Premier’s Office, was once the genius behind Nick Greiner who, as Premier, introduced the Bill creating the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) when Premier in 1988 (sic):

In recent years, in New South Wales we have seen: a Minister of the Crown gaoled for bribery; an inquiry into a second, and indeed a third, former Minister for alleged corruption; the former Chief Stipendiary Magistrate gaoled for perverting the course of justice; a former Commissioner of Police in the courts on a criminal charge; the former Deputy Commissioner of Police charged with bribery; a series of investigations and court cases involving judicial figures including a High Court Judge; and a disturbing number of dismissals, retirements and convictions of senior police officers for offences involving corrupt conduct… No government can maintain its claim to legitimacy while there remains the cloud of suspicion and doubt that has hung over government in New South Wales.

The charge sheet Greiner listed was long.  Later, Greiner was himself a casualty, when supporting one of his Ministers. These actions were referred to the newly-formed ICAC and he resigned when the four independent parliamentarians would not support him.  He was replaced by John Fahey.

What sticks in the craw is the outrage that this Government body, which has done its homework obviously painstakingly and interviewed the former Premier, should be pilloried. The former Premier knows that the game is up, because if ICAC had got it wrong, well somebody as well-versed as her would have invoked the “force field” with anecdotes of the poor little migrant, who has triumphed against the odds.

The concealment of the Deal, which the politicians want to shovel under the carpet, using privacy as the cleaning agent, was not helped by the ambivalent response from Mark Dreyfus. He, the Shadow Federal Attorney-General on one hand indicated that an incoming Labor government would introduce a meaningful ICAC. Yet on the other hand he had the qualification suggesting that there should be more secrecy to enshroud the preliminary investigation, aka “wriggle room”, which suggests that there are a number of sidelong glances towards certain colleagues, given the Labor Party itself is not “squeaky clean”.

Yet recently I received in the mail one of those unsolicited letters sent to his “million closest friends” from Albanese. The letter announced in bold that “An Albanese Labor Government will establish a powerful transparent and independent National Anti-Corruption Commission.” There was no detail, but it seemed more robust than the utterance of Dreyfus. One favourable Dreyfus action was that unlike some of his other Labor colleagues, he did not fall for the trap of effusively praising a disgraced departing Premier.

I suspect Berejiklian has no other life apart from politics; she was coddled by the media, unlike Julia Gillard. It should be remembered that Niki Savva conducted a relentless war against Gillard in the media, with that deadly efficiency women have when they want to bring down another woman. Berejiklian had none of that criticism; she “ascended” to the top unlike the messy way Gillard did.

The requirement for a National ICAC will be advanced if the next election produces a raft of intelligent independents not bound to the mindless obedience that the factional system of both parties imposes. The need for robust debate should be freed from those politicians, often influential, who have been compromised, as has been clearly shown by this Federal Government’s record of thinly-veiled corruption.

Has somebody lost the lock on the Pandora’s Box?

Pandora with her box

It seems that there is a virus of resignation sweeping the NSW Parliament. The one thing I admired in John Barilaro’s resignation was his refusal to criticise ICAC, because the reasons for his resignation are still unclear.

His comment was most unlike that of his Federal National leader, Barnaby Joyce who has likened ICAC to the Spanish Inquisition. I am surprised that Barnaby believes ICAC is thus run by Dominicans obsessed with Jewish and Muslim apostasy.  The Spanish connection on the other hand seems to have formed an important part of Mr Perrottet’s life through his membership of Opus Dei, which was the brainchild of Josemaria Escrivá, a Spanish priest with close links to Franco’s rule. Therefore, if one believes Joyce, Dominic Perrottet with his Spanish connection should be a strong supporter of ICAC.

And you think I’m being ironic!

As well, for those interested in what happens to seats vacated by NSW Premiers requiring a by-election, the Liberals should remember when they picked up Premier Wran’s seat of Bass Hill in 1986. Narrow victory it may have been, but there was a 22 per cent swing. Yet the Labor Party does not seem to have the appetite for such a course in relation to Gladys’ seat; but nevertheless the Liberal Party should call a by-election as soon as possible to stymie any independent candidature.

Now NSW is faced with a trifecta of by-elections, and the more politicians protest about an organisation dedicated to rooting out corruption, the more they lose whatever shred of trust remains within the community,

Yet Jesuit-trained Barnaby can’t shut up. His antics remind me of that old joke (and here I am indebted to The Guardian) about a Franciscan, a Dominican and a Jesuit who are arrested during the Russian revolution for spreading the Christian gospel and thrown into a dark prison cell. In a bid to restore the light, each man reflects on the traditions of his own order.

The Franciscan decides to wear sackcloth and ashes and pray for light. Nothing happens. The Dominican prepares and delivers an hour-long lecture on the virtue of light. Nothing happens. Then the Jesuit gets up and mends the fuse. The light comes on.

Really, you don’t say, Barnaby was taught by the Jesuits. Perhaps he only heard the words, “light” and “fuse” – and made the wrong connection.

“Volere Volare o Vogare Qualsiasi”

Letter from New York City

October 2021

Dear Readers,

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—that is, if you enjoy the spookier things in life. There are more than a few scary tales on our October roster, including Edith Wharton’s own selection of her best ghost stories, a new paperback of the Edward Gorey-illustrated edition of the H.G. Wells classic The War of the Worlds, and another selection of supernatural stories from our friends at Notting Hill Editions. Below you’ll find some fun, spine-tingling readings, as well as a peek inside the latest title in the New York Review Comics series and a little bit of the story behind the cover of Mr. Beethoven, Paul Griffiths’s inventive novel about the eponymous composer.

If you are a local or visiting New York City this weekend, consider coming by the NYRB booths at the Brooklyn Book Festival. We will be at booth 12 for Children’s Day on Saturday, October 2, and at booth 405 and 406 for the Main Day on Sunday, October 3. We will be selling books and, on the Main Day, giving copies of The New York Review of Books away. We would love to see you there. 

— An email received from the New York Review of Books.

Sorry.  Hope to see you next year; but thanks for the invitation. Saturday and Sunday were a bit cloudy, otherwise the weather in this past week has been a bit variable – rain and all, but New York is New York, Virus or Not!

The question I bet nobody will ask Dom Perrottet

Do you wear or have ever worn a cilice?

Do you know of anybody who wears a cilice?

If the reply is no, you, the investigative journalist should then approach his brother who is Dean of Warrane College and ask what is its policy in relation to the wearing of the cilice.

I would be mortified if any of you, the fourth estate, dared to ask, but may do so; but Morrison is not a valid reply.

Mouse Whisper

It is acceptable for the political leader to stand before his or her constituency to make a sweeping gesture and say “I have a vision for the country…”

Often it would be more truthful if the same political leader would rather have said, “I have a hallucination for the country…”

But how acceptable would that be?

I have a hallucination for the country…