Modest expectations – Man with a Tail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exhaustion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another variant …

Pity that another variant has appeared.

The Canoe Tree                         

Canoe tree

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

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

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

Moogy’s bark canoe

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

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

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

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

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

Later he describes the Montagu Island canoe:

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

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

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

Canoe in the Arafura Swamp

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

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

Maus

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

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

The Board said by way of explanation (sic):

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nickname

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

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

Thoughts on a coaster …

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

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

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

The Virtuous Cycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s almost like Massachusetts has too many biotechs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

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

Modest Expectation – Corinth & Carthage

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

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

Decamping

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

Mask up for all your parties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving on Jet Airplane

From The Washington Post this week:

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

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

Delta approaching New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brain Drain

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

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

Dr Vladimir Brusic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz Mover, ICU nurse, Massachusetts General Hospital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backroads

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a tribute to the late Jude Sticher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donohue’s Emporium 1920

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

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

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

Corroboree tree

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

And I hope they still remember Jude Sticher in Boulia.

Mouse Whisper

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

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

Hey, who was the Cabinet Member?

Name of Rene Acosta, Secretary of Labour

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

Rene Acosta, Secretary of Labour

 

Modest Expectations – 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 Expectations – The Hawke has Landed

After managing the responses to the Christchurch terrorist attacks, the White Island volcano and a pandemic — not to mention the birth of her first child — (Jacinda Ardern) has become a global standard-bearer for a progressive politics that defines itself as compassionate and competent in crisis.

So spoke the New York Times after Jacinda Ahern’s landslide election win last Saturday. Let’s face it, she was a refreshing breeze at a time when there had been some dodgy females hogging the headlines in Australia.  I get sick and tired of the mantra that women do not get a fair go. These women have demonstrated that they are no different from men. The one qualification is that I have never seen women politicians flogging stuff out of their parliamentary office. However, Darryl Maguire is not on his pat as a male if the species in running a two-dollar store out of his parliamentary office

The current problem is that having convenient attacks of amnesia seems to be the most valued commodity in public life whether it be female or male.

In my first blog, which I wrote 83 weeks ago before all that was recounted above occurred, I wrote: “Yet Jacinda Ardern gives me hope. Her words – her demeanour of grace, compassion, resolve, her ability to call out the bully – the courage of making herself a target for all the “unspeakables”. She is indeed a paragon.”

However, there is a squad of chaps who do not like her. I was criticised for blind adoration. Yet one of her great assets is a supportive partner, a person with presumably “selective” adoration.

The brutality of politics is reflected in that her hapless opponent was nick-named “Crusher”, and yet the woman seemed to revel in being called that.

Now the New Zealand election is out of the way, there is the opportunity for our horse-drawn politicians to recognise – as the rest of the world has done – what a contemporary and significant stateswoman she is. She has been the equivalent of a wartime leader in her approach to disasters which would have defeated a lesser person.

The laughable attacks on her last week by an alleged apologist for the Australian security service and the political remnant of Mary Knoll makes one ashamed to admit to the same nationality as those other elderly jokers.

Now, Ardern can get down to work to try and transfer her qualities into the deeply corrupt Australian society. I thought I would never say that we could ever learn from a Kiwi.

As one commentator has written, the liquidity has caused a surge in real estate market prices in New Zealand, particularly Auckland.  Hopefully, this will encourage her to abandon the KiwiBuild scheme, which seems to be a remnant of “Rogernomics”, and spend the money directly on much-needed social housing.

Improved contact, whatever you call it, with Australia is also essential. How the two countries deal with the South Pacific and the incursions from the Northern Hemisphere countries will be a critical test. However, before that there will be wool.

All that superficial crap highlighting tearful family reunions around “the bubble” hides the fact, which I noticed driving around NSW this week, that there are a lot of sheep that need to be shorn. With a shortfall in our shearing workforce, Australia needs shearers. The shortfall is generally made up by 500 New Zealand shearers. Until the TransTasman bubble was developed in the last couple of weeks, there was a deterrent in the high price New Zealand shearers had to pay for working in Australia, with their own fares and quarantine arrangements estimated at A$10,000.

A gun shearer can earn $150,000 in Australia if they average 200 sheep a day. New Zealand shearers are considered high quality and readily employed by shearing contractors so it should be attractive for them to work in Australia, especially now they are able to enter Australia freely.

Let’s hope that we adapt now to developing a better collective arrangement, instead of a perpetual Bledisloe Cup attitude between the two countries. It is time in the aftermath of COVID-19 to lay down our scrums and get to work. I am sure Ardern is up for the challenge. Not sure about the Australian Prime Minister, but then November 3 may change him – or not.

It Could be a Lot of Rot

There is extensive fruit and vegetable picking work available in Australia. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates about 140,000 people are employed in this industry every year. In fact, many people travel the country working the ‘harvest trail’ which sees them in employment all year round. This is because they know when and where the harvests are and move from one harvest to the next.  

For many years, I worked in North-east Victoria right in the heart of the orchards and fruit picking. I witnessed changes in the industry during my time.

There is no doubt one of the most tranquil moments is walking along the lines of pear and apple tree with the emerging fruit. There is a calmness in the ordered lines of greenery and the rilled earth and grass along which you walk.

It was sad to see the tree pulling, which left that Acadian stroll of my first years an empty paddock.

During that time there were changes in the industry. The rise of the farmers’ market meant that there was a new appreciation of fresh fruit. The decline of canned fruit as a major component of the Australian diet meant that apricots had already fallen out of favour with the orchardists before I arrived there. The cling peaches beloved of the canners are far from being the best eating variety.

The then chair of the local health service came from a line of orchardists and the family enterprise was a major economic driver in the town, together with tourism and the now defunct milk processor. His view of the workforce was that he had the itinerant pickers who worked from harvest to harvest. They came year after year – fruit picking generally commenced in November with cherries and apricots, but the major fruit were first, the stone fruit – nectarines and peaches followed by pears and apples until late April to early May.

This was a separate cohort from those employed to pick grapes as the region is a substantial wine producer with the grape picking reaching a peak in February.

My expert friend was not particularly positive about backpackers, because they would come and leave after a few days. The problem is that the media generally turn up on day one rather than, say, day 70 to photograph the “happy campers”. The attrition rate was high, he said. The orchardists need a steady work force not a group of young people flitting from place to place.

When I was young I myself did a variety of vacation jobs – working in a wool store, reading electric light meters, working as a storeman, a guard on armoured cars, gardening, pathology laboratory assistant, working as a clerk among first and second war veterans in the then Repatriation department, spotlight worker. There may be others that I forget, but I know I never went fruit picking, which I regret.

One of the strengths of working in these jobs is you learned the vernacular of being an Australian worker, essentially at a time when unionism was strong. This was important when you were a doctor and your patients were essentially working class, as those of my father were.

There is a growing complexity in the horticultural industry, because one business model does not necessarily encompass the whole of horticultural harvesting.

Some politicians who undertook compulsory national service (or more likely received an exemption) in a different era now champion putting “these young blighters” to work in some sort of revived “Nasho”. However, there will be some smart young person, who will see a place for a scheme which harnesses the workforce in the gig economy to perform this kind of work.  Yet the politicians have allowed a generation of young workers to be pushed into the gig economy, whether they wanted to be there or not, and now may be the time for those in the gig economy to organise themselves – they have the means to do so.

It is a fallacy to believe that the young are not entrepreneurs.

Given the appropriate incentives they could develop business models for efficient fruit picking or for that matter the whole area of horticulture.

In forming the business plan, there are a number of hurdles to address. How do you marshal a workforce with tertiary aspirations, yet where the vacation coincides in substantial part with the fruit-picking season; and yet where the delights of the flesh and the necessity to work are in conflict.

Fruit picking as a business exercise should not be left to the labour contract companies, which the COVID-19 pandemic has shown to be both predatory and incompetent.

Fruit picking as a youthful enterprise, with the instincts of a co-operative work force, requires consideration in that balance between government subsidy and impost on one’s future career. Therefore, the business must ask the question of how much and whether in the end it fills the gap between the two.

The female and male workforce, price, availability, reliability, capacity needs to be assessed and negotiated. In the end are there enough young people prepared to pick fruit effectively and efficiently?

There are a number of reservations, and that is the sustainability of the industry, and because it is so varied and seasonal to develop the flexibility. I remember my orchardist friend pulled a substantial number of trees and replaced them with freezing storage units, because there was a significant demand for such facilities. That was business.

Tastes change.

When I was young, one of the treats was having snow apples. They grew in cold climates and I last had them about 15 years ago; they were growing in a vineyard in the Victorian Pyrenees. Once grown commercially, they suffered from a lack of reliability and resilience, which gave them a short season and besides, they did not store well.

For the growers, profitability is aided if the need for manual harvesting is removed. One industry which has completely removed the need for manual labour is the sugar cane industry. That has occurred in my lifetime.

Almond Trees

As another instance, the number of almond trees that have appeared where once there was only a dried fruit industry along the Murray river has meant that with the rise of the almond and with mechanisation of their harvesting there is no need for a labour force. Similarly, just outside Leeton there is huge acreage being given over to walnut trees. Again, no manual harvesting.  It highlights the need for a workforce that is both agile and responsive.

I know if I were younger and had lived in a “horticulture”, I may have tackled this task, but I am not. Still, it is a challenge because, as I said, tastes change. I remember when I was reviewing a small health service on the Victorian border, I innocently mentioned that I was growing pomegranates. The response I elicited was somewhat comical. The man was about to invest in “serious” pomegranate tree planting. It was a time when Australia had just discovered the delights of the pomegranate, and he immediately thought I was there to “case” the place for pomegranate investment rather than reviewing the health service. When I said I was only planting a couple in my back garden in Sydney, he visibly relaxed.

As an epilogue, pomegranates must be removed from the tree using clippers or secateurs, from March to May. The stem of the tree is strong and thick; fruit cannot be pulled from the tree without damaging the fruit and/or tree. There are no mechanical harvesters. Some of the growers have small acreage and have banded together to form de facto co-operatives to avoid employing pickers. However, as the southern hemisphere only supplies one per cent of the world’s production, the potential should be large for out-of-season export to the northern hemisphere. Ramping up production will require a workforce to pick the pomegranates as they are not the easiest to harvest.

Over to you guys.

մոգ pronounced mog

Armenia

Armenians, it was once said to me, are the shrewdest business people after the Bengalis. Armenians can weave beautiful intricate carpets. Armenians have been Turkish punching bags. Armenians, if nothing else, are survivors. One of my favourite songs is linked to that great Armenian troubadour Charles Aznavour. The song? “She”.

She, Gladys Berejiklian, also has strong and proud Armenian heritage, clear in the retention of her surname. She has cultivated an image of saintliness trying to emulate the many Armenian saints within the Armenian Orthodox Church that as reported she attends regularly.

My encounter with Gladys was when she was the newly-elected member for Willoughby. She came to a dinner where I was the guest of honour. She was late and was brought along by the host of the dinner to be introduced to me. Before that could occur, she saw somebody who must have been so important that she was totally discourteous and totally ignored me, despite being brought to specifically meet me.

I was surprised but then the Italian have a word for it –menefregismo. The barista not looking at you as he pushes the coffee in your direction while talking to a mate at the bar is an example. When it is combined with furbo, which has many interpretations but suggests a person on the make, then it perfectly described Berekjikian that night – except she is a furba to acknowledge her gender. After all – fare la furba – is to jump the queue.

Despite that first impression, if I thought about her which was not often in the intervening period, she seemed superficially to be assiduous and competent.

This year, however, you could not get away from her, because of the series of incidents. I noticed a characteristic, which underpins her authority. She can talk for long periods without saying: “um” or “ah” or any hint of hesitation. It was a trait that I remember a certain English teacher trying to instil into us boys, and for years, there was a BBC radio show called “Just a Minute” where the panellists were given a subject and had to talk for a minute without hesitation, repetition – a variation of not saying “um or “ah”.

It became clear that even when she was very wrong, as with the Ruby Princess, this ability to talk without hesitation gave her an air of authority and her escape hatch from admitting error.

It is amazing how a one trick pony has gone so far, but it may be argued when coupled with that of her immaculate conceived persona that she has been very important to her Party when underneath her feet is a swamp of indeterminate depth inhabited by all sorts of creatures, those that grate and those that appal.

The immaculate sparkle has gone. Yet one of her Ministers, in a stumbling defence, said she was married to NSW. Needless to say, how that could be interpreted in the current soap opera obviously escaped him.

At least, NSW has been spared that agonisingly ambiguous statement of the politician under stress: “I am going nowhere.”

I await the first hint of hesitation in her voice, but maybe that occurred with Kyle Sandilands. Then some may be said to have standards which do not include parsing his utterances and her replies.

I have to admit she did sign the gift I received at the dinner and still treasure – a magnificent book on Aboriginal Art.

Chloroquine studies are alive and well in Parkville

There is still one study in Australia into whether taking hydroxychloroquine can help prevent health care workers getting COVID-19 in the first place. And the jury is still out on that one.

What an interesting take by the intrepid Paul Barry. He had spent extensive time in his “Media Watch” two weeks ago bagging that comedy duo, Bolt and Dean, for their advocacy of the use of hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of COVID-19.

I expressed concerns months ago that funding had been provided to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) to test the prophylactic use of this drug for health workers. The hypothesis I thought threadbare, and subsequently, the evidence against its use has become overwhelming. Barry interviewed Steven Tong from The Doherty Institute who had stopped a trial on the drug’s usage, and used the word “rubbish” in defining the further investigation in the use of the drug.

Even Donald Trump has disavowed its usage, and Barry played an excerpt of recent footage of the President to back up that contention.

So why his curious form of words suggesting that health workers are a separate entity, otherwise why in Barry’s words is the jury out, when he had just demonstrated that the jury had well and truly delivered the verdict of it having not only no effect but also potentially dangerous.

I sent an email to Mr Barry, but he seems to have learnt from his usual quarry of spivs. Just ignore and hope I would go away. However, over my long life in which I have been exposed to many journalists – their worse outcome is to lose objectivity and begin to be believe in their self-beatification.

For the record, I’ve published below my last letter to WEHI, after I had a very swift response to my first letter. Note that I have had no response in the interim 3 months plus, when much has happened to further discredit the use of the drug.

The problem is this drug can potentially kill, for what? WEHI had assembled a cheer squad asserting the worthiness of this study. I was assured that the funding was totally derived from government, although WEHI had admitted accepting money for COVID-19 from a Chinese company, which has been under governmental investigation for business malfeasance.

I made sure that copies of my correspondence were sent to both Brendan Murphy and Anne Kelso, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of NHMRC. Needless to say, they have shown no interest.

I have published that letter, unabridged below. I hope that community and peer pressure will stop this pointless exercise. I canvassed the study with certain sources outside the WEHI claque, and one comment was telling – how concerned he was in the decay of a once great Institute. Not my view as yet.

Perhaps, Mr Barry, you could clarify further why you made that comment, when you were so definite in criticising it elsewhere in you program. Have you an undeclared link with WEHI? Unfortunately I don’t have my own “Media Watch” to keep you up to the mark.

I’m sorry, but at this stage, I am disappointed. Below, my last letter of 27 June 2020 to Prof Doug Hilton AO, Director, WEHI:

Dear Professor Hilton,

Thank you for your very prompt email. Your direct response in relation to the source of funding for the study is instructional for those who obfuscate, however unintentional.

I am very sympathetic to the plight of research institutions in raising funds, but raising expectations, as you would realise, is two-edged. I am somewhat concerned by some of the reports emanating about putative cures because there is already a scepticism in the community about science, which has led the dark fringes of society exploiting anti-science attitudes in the community. This situation is always aggravated when expectations fall short.

You are very disappointed by my linking the Trump support for hydroxychloroquine, but the message received is as equally important as that sent. I do not question that Pellegrini and Wicks had constructed a hypothesis, but its construction when there is already controversy as to its use obviously raises question of whether the publicity created did not play a part in the government making available funding.

I’m alarmed, as you must be, by the apparent renewed support by Trump for its usage even after the FDA’s July warning on its safe use, on the advice provided by Dr Stella Immanuel, whose other ideas are bizarre to give the most generous interpretation. Given how increasingly difficult the situation is becoming you may wish to reconsider the WEHI position, given any association with this Dr Immanuel’s idea would not benefit WEHI.

It is for you as Director to determine its priority in the overall research program if MRFF funding had not been made available. That the availability of funding was not influenced by political considerations, at the time when hydroxychloroquine as a cure was being so widely promoted, was at the tie partially answered in your response.

I note that the study is subject to interim analysis and look forward to its release.

I note that the study has rheumatologists and other lines of support, I am not sure whether my requests have been answered so that I am not personally reassured, in particular concerning the safety of the study. However, for the time being I shall accept your assurances.

In relation to your final paragraph, I have read your annual reports and periodic bulletins – and I understand you have had some spectacular results that have resulted in profitable collaboration with the private sector. However, may I make a couple of points: you refer to my being a medical doctor, but I also suffer from a chronic autoimmune disease, and therefore mine is not a detached interest.

Also in relation to the therapeutic effect of hydroxychloroquine, as I have written elsewhere, the drug was essential in treating the malaria that I contracted in Madagascar over 30 years ago. It was a nasty experience; fortunately I have never had a second attack. But that was malaria, a recognised use for hydroxychloroquine!

From your response you are far from the “the simple protein chemist” as you describe yourself. Your response is impeccably drafted, apart from your use of “principle”. My principal committee I assure you was principled.

My kind regards

Jack Best

As someone said, the first death of a health worker in this study will see a scattering of support for the study, which would test even the best “Outback ringer” to catch.

Watch this space.

Mouse Whisper

Hickory Dickory Dock

The way he kisses dictators’ butts. I mean, the way he ignores the Uighurs, our literal concentration camps in Xinjiang. Right now, he hasn’t lifted a finger on behalf of the Hong-Kongers,”.

“The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership, the way he treats women, spends like a drunken sailor. The ways I criticize President Obama for that kind of spending; I’ve criticized President Trump for as well. He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He’s flirted with white supremacists.” …

“But the reality is that the President careened from curb to curb. First, he ignored Covid. And then he went into full economic shutdown mode. He was the one who said 10 to 14 days of shutdown would fix this. And that was always wrong. I mean, and so I don’t think the way he’s led through Covid has been reasonable or responsible, or right.”

The author of these statements?  Senator Bernie Sanders? Any other Democrat?

No, it was the junior Republican senator for Nebraska, the anti-abortion, anti-Affordable Care Act, pro-gun, anti-impeachment Senator Bill Sasse.

Yes, he may have said it in a whisper, but let me say it was a courageous whisper across the Pawnee National Grasslands of Nebraska.

Senator Bill Sasse

Modest Expectations – Vince Gair

What I wrote about Biden in May holds in my view, but but for one thing…

The most disturbing vision of Biden is his rear view – essentially that of an old doddering man. Then turn him around and there is that ever-engaging smile – as if he has a giant axon inside his skull that is connected to all the facial muscles, which make him smile on cue when somebody rings the metaphorical bell. 

Biden is a plagiarist, discovery of which aborted his 1988 Presidential campaign. Plagiarism is a mixture of deceit and intellectual laziness – or underlying dumbness. This flaw resurfaced in certain dealings last year.

… Nevertheless, one positive sign that he is a good man is how he has handled grief and he has much to grieve about in his life.

America is in a mess; no matter when the change is made there is a White House reduced to the political nursery of the Baby Trump, and there will need to be someone very focused to clear out the rattles, the dolls, the bucket and spade, and other geegaws fondled and thrown around in the past four years.

I fear Biden just doesn’t have the ability – no fire, only embers. My earlier comments about him have not changed, and my support for Bloomberg would still hold had it not been for this entry of Obama into the frame.

Kamala Harris

He is still a fake, but fortunately Kamala Harris is authentic. I had not been paying enough attention to this very smart lawyer from California because I thought Biden would choose from the talented pool of Democratic women from the Midwestern States, even given that he was colour conscious. The residual influence of the Clintons would have been tested; the accident-prone Susan Rice in the forefront of Hilary’s list.

However, the Obama imago prevailed.

Biden is not adventurous and at 78 he has the habits of a lifetime printed in his electrical circuits. Prejudices such as showed in relation to Anita Hill bubble below the surface, despite all the meae culpae he has given. I never trust a plagiarist – it shows a level  of dishonesty, subterranean it may be.

However, that pales before Trump, a person whose inability to tell the truth is well documented.

When Trump immediately attacked Kamala Harris and called her “nasty” (how pathetic can you be), he starts on the eligibility nonsense that he tried to perpetuate with Barack Obama. He is now repeating the same with Kamala Harris. In so doing, he emphasises the essential similarity between the two. One is the son of a Kenyan and white American union; the other the daughter of a Jamaican and Indian union. Coincidentally both unions broke up soon after the children were born and both had an absent father.

Trump would have preferred the traditional Tobacco Road Afro-American upon which it is easier to spew racial division and hatred.

He has a pathological antipathy to Barack. He cannot stand being mocked, his inferior intellect put to the test, his demonstrable cowardice – all in all, a vicious, corrupt guttersnipe. To put it in simple terms, he cannot bully either Harris or Obama – unlike Biden whom he has shown that he can.

There are two reasons that could be conjectured as to why Biden delayed his choice. One is that he is a natural ditherer (not a good sign in a President with so much to rectify) and the second is that he simply did not want Ms Harris. One may suspect that she is the Obama surrogate. That is not to denigrate her, but it will not be too much trouble for her to “clean up” Pence – and then unleashed she will so clearly become the President-in-waiting.

Two Vice-Presidential reactions when the President became “infirm” are relevant contrasts.

Eisenhower was 67 when he had a stroke in 1957; Woodrow Wilson was 63 when he too had a stroke in 1919. Eisenhower had nearly three years to go; Wilson the best part of two years. Richard Nixon, whom Eisenhower had foisted on him and whom really did not like much, became more prominent directly in policy decisions after 1957.

Trump is 74 and has been rushed to Walter Reed Hospital at least once; Biden is 78. Both probably are testimony to the availability of health care now in modern America, for the affluent at least, particularly in the treatment of cardiac disease and high blood pressure.

Thomas Marshall, Wilson’s Vice-President and who somewhat eerily had been the 27th Governor of Indiana (the current Vice-President Pence was the 50th), followed a different path. Again, although as with Nixon he served two terms, Marshall was disliked by Wilson and particularly by Wilson’s wife so that he was blocked from much of the day-to-day management. However, Marshall was very much his own man with seemingly a misplaced sense of noblesse oblige in refusing to take over as acting President because he feared the precedent that this action would have created.

In other words, even at an age when infirmity can strike suddenly, Biden can be tolerated because (a) Trump is so bad, probably more senile and (b) Biden has a strong deputy. However even the sight of the indecisive Biden face to face with Trump still fills me with trepidation, whereas Harris I suspect could eat Trump for breakfast and still ask for more waffles.

Is Australia prepared for the next Pandemic?

The above is the title of a paper published in April 2017 that had, as one of its authors, Brendan Murphy, whose address was given as Office of Health Protection, Australian Department of Health, Canberra.

It was published in the MJA under Perspectives and begins with the statement “infectious diseases continue to threaten global health security, despite decades of advances in hygiene, vaccination and antimicrobial therapies”. How very true!

It was a paper, which has a table of four Committees with very long names, and because they are labelled current NHMRC Centres of Excellence the assumption is that they are just that. The problem is that much of health research is encased in the gossamer of self-congratulation.

Angels dancing on a pinhead?

Much of medical research is somewhat like exquisite Chinese ceramics in the seventeenth century, refining the tools of the past to render more and complicated dexterity, but not advancing the human condition – defining how many angels you can fit on a pinhead – wonderful feats but of what utilitarian value?

The Murphy paper does not explicitly mention three people who have provided Australia with a buffer in the battle against infectious diseases.

The first was the emphasis by Michael Wooldridge, when he was Minister of Health, on raising the vaccination rates of Australia in the face of criminal behaviour by the anti-vaxxer brigade. Wooldridge had a strong base being close to Prime Minister Howard and being a member of the Expenditure Review Committee. Wooldridge retired and since then Federal Ministers for Health excluding Hunt have been an indifferent bunch in relation to their influence and interest (although at times Abbott showed he was across the portfolio).

The second was Dr Brian McNamee who, on assuming the role of CEO of the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL) in 1990, turned it from being a “basket case” into a world leader in the development of vaccines and blood product. As a bonus CSL is now very profitable. In so doing, McNamee cultivated Australia’s research capacity. He had a keen eye for the very best.

The third is Lindsay Grayson, whose crusade for people to wash their hands has provided a springboard for the community campaign to wash their hands. Men in particular are grubs and Grayson, first in hospitals then elsewhere, demonstrated how important hand washing is in minimising cross infection. His work has resulted in modification of health professional contact with patients.

On the flip side, governments had believed infectious disease hospitals were a thing of the past, and while HIV inpatients gave some of them a prolonged life, these hospitals dedicated to what was believed to be a relic of a past age were progressively closed down.

Fairfield Hospital

As I have written elsewhere I remember in the 1950s being admitted to Fairfield Hospital in Melbourne for a week for an unspecified infection, and as was the wont of the senior doctor at the time I was prescribed chloramphenicol, which was shown to have disastrous side effects. I was in isolation – quarantined – in a dedicated infectious diseases hospital, and did not escape being dosed with chloramphenicol. Nevertheless, I was well treated by a trained staff and still alive.

The New Zealand Chief Medical Officer has used the word “bespoke” in relation to quarantine facilities, especially tailored for the individual circumstance. Fairfield Hospital was just that, until it was closed by the then Premier Kennett in 1996 as a cost cutting measure, a familiar tune when it comes to public health expenditure.

The dilemma for Government now – as part of the grand exit strategy – is whether to invest in the construction of quarantine facilities. Those opposed, generally identified as central agencies, may argue there are quarantine facilities available, which were convenient when the early evacuations from China were occurring, but Christmas Island and Darwin are not the most convenient. Far more troubling for these bureaucrats is the prospect of a vaccine at a time when there is substantial hype about its prospect of success.

There are two points to keep in mind: the vaccine is far from a done deal, and there are plenty of other viruses at a time when the Climate is changing and when technology has conditioned the mood of the population to care only about Self, surrounded by Instagram or Facebook or Twitter or Tik Tok or Facetime or IsolationXbox.

However, investment in facilities now may be the price that needs to be paid to reassure Australians that our status of being a country with a low COVID-19 infection rate is preserved. It may be that the price to be paid from coming from a place of high infectivity to Australia means automatic isolation.

The paper by Murphy and his co-authors sets outs a number of Committees. Despite all the apparent impressive panoply of intellectual input set out in the paper, Australia was woefully underprepared when the Virus struck and was fortunate that our distance from the source of the original infection provided a buffer. Perhaps in hindsight, what was done there is the template for quarantine facilities to be established.

For Murphy the pamphlet of 2017 becomes the reality of 2020.

Australia just cannot be placed in permanent lockdown on the whim of some set of politicians. There is a need for a finer sieve than group punishment. If there is a lesson from this Victorian debacle it is that nobody should be allowed to visit a nursing home (or a prison) for 40 days or least a significant period after returning from abroad and not developing signs of infectious disease, then so be it. That is an obvious restriction to be put on the table, but there will be others.

The development of quarantine facilities to house the infected or those potentially infected should be near airports, and the further the airport is away from a high concentration of the people the better. There are those who wish for a vaccine, but given that viruses are coming in waves – and until this Virus struck, Australia has dodged the metaphorical bullet.

To get this whole response right is not just a case of consulting laboratory scientists whose ruminations have been effectively ignored by the community until the Virus struck. I have always taken issue with the Fabian approach of pamphleteering for change. As has been clearly demonstrated by Murphy et al in their paper, until the pandemic struck, there was no impact of these matters on the politicians. Now of course the airwaves are full of these same scientists unleashed, some able to communicate well, others not. They remain background noise while those in charge of containing the pandemic continue to work on in a social Darwinian bubble shedding the useless people whilst retaining the useful.

Wartime does not have the luxury of maintaining the idiots, just because they look good in suits. In other words, even though the cacophony of those who love show-boating remains, it is refreshing to see the “survivors”, who an observer thought from the start were competent and see some that you thought were initially incompetent improving. Hence Australia is still one of the best places to live in this Time of the Virus, even with the mistakes.

The danger is that some of the Premiers who have closed borders are caught in a competition to see who can close the longest. Closing borders becomes a mindless and sadly cruel obsession.

Now setting up, in the words of the New Zealander, a bespoke set of quarantine facilities may require less money being tossed to the other politicians-needs-a-legacy projects. I am sure the War Memorial renovations could be put on hold; and the sports stadia.

An evening looking down from the loggia

Just imagine in the Second World War John Curtin advocating for Parliament House to be transformed into the Palace of Versailles. To suggest that is so ridiculous, but Australia is in a similar crisis. The above point is to make everybody think of what is more important than the long-term health of the country – a football stadium for the inheritors of Versailles looking down from their exclusive loggia quaffing champagne and eating truffled lobster – or quarantine facilities where all the components of public health and infectious disease can be concentrated. I say again, this Virus will not be the last the infectious assault. 

The solution I propose is unashamedly simple in conception but difficult in the details of implementation. I know that; unlike the following, which is barely intelligible but it is not the only vapid advice which has been published: And we might do well to remember that the wisest and most effective course of action will more often be forged in the contest of ideas than distilled from unilateral decisions untested by scrutiny and tempered by no real debate.

However, one must not get angry, rather listen to that wise local florist who noted: “when my ability to smell the rose and the eucalypt return, so will I then contemplate the frivolous.” 

Once upon a time in Lithuania

In an earlier blog, I have written in some detail about our visit to the Baltic countries. However, a few comments may be relevant now that the hidden country of Belarus has emerged from behind its curtain. What is surprising is that when we drove from Estonia to Latvia and then to Lithuania we noted that there were no mountain ranges or marshes between the three countries – just nondescript borders. Yet, there are three distinct cultures, three distinct countries. All have struggled to maintain their independence, but with the breakdown of the old Soviet Union they all achieved their independence.

In 1989, to celebrate the independence from Russia on the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the people of those three countries formed a human chain stretching across all three countries from the Tikk Herman, a mediaeval Estonian fort in Tallinn, to the square in front of the Lithuanian cathedral in Vilnius.

In Vilnius, we were told that we would no longer need a visa to go to Belarus. Vilnius is close to the border and it was only a couple of hours drive to Minsk if it were not for the stringent border controls, which reflected that Belarus had never moved from its Soviet past. That was correct, we did not need a visa, but only if you flew into Minsk. It did not apply to land borders.

Belarus was once a client state of the Soviet Union and a founder member in 1945 of the United Nations as Byelorussia. Nobody talked about it and because it was translated as “White Russia” it was confused with the white Russians of the 1917 Revolution – those who opposed the Communist red Russians. So anybody who encountered the name shrugged their shoulders, “too complicated; little relevance” and turned to other matters. For Australia, there were very few migrants from there fleeing Soviet domination, unlike the Baltic Countries.

Protests in Belorussia

To most people Belarus (once Byelorussia) has meant nothing – a small landlocked nation of peat and farmlands, iron works and overflow Soviet manufacturing. To those who knew little, it was just a part of the Soviet Union, carved off, given a name, just to be another convenient rubber stamp, to provide another vote in the UN – to jump when the Soviets said so.

The Republic was not retained when the Soviet split up, and it was given its independence. However for Belarus, unlike their neighbours, this did not bring democracy.

So there was little surprise when a burly young former collective farm manager named Alexander Lukashenko seized power in 1994 and then, over time, consolidated his power over the population of nine million. While Yeltsin was there and in the early years of Putin, Lukashenko wanted to have his country re-absorbed into the new Russia, with himself as the Vice-President; that dream faded as Putin consolidated his personal power.

However, Byelorussia has its own language and while most people speak Russian, the country has certain differences. It is Slavic, but it has more than a pinch of Balt. It was an area, once Lithuanian as part of its empire with fortified towns. The Swedish army has tramped across it, as had the Poles. The people suffered greatly under the Soviet Union and in an article in the February 2000 Harper’s Magazine the author, who had decided to visit the Kurapaty Forest just North of Minsk, said:

“Shadows throughout the grove resolve themselves into crosses; the farther in you look the more crosses you see. Here lie the bodies of tens of thousands of Belarusians (estimates run from 30,000 to 900,000) who were executed by the Soviet authorities.” In the psyche of the Belarus people, this Soviet brutality has not been forgotten.

In 2000 Lukashenko, who had some pretensions to being an ice hockey player, was only 35 and had the support of the elderly and rural communities. His approach to government was well-defined as during that year (2000) four opposition leaders had simply disappeared.

But now in 2020 the population seems to have had enough. There is always a tipping point and Putin, if he invades, would be well aware of the cost of not only fighting but also garrisoning a hostile country, especially one where the President-in-exile is lodged in Lithuania. Furthermore, much of the countryside in the South and East has been contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident. Radioactive caesium is lodged in the soil.

Then there is the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast for Putin to think long and hard about if he moves on Belarus.

Kaliningrad

Kaliningrad, named after one of Stalin’s cronies, was formerly Konigsberg, the capital of Prussia. The oblast, the size of Northern Ireland, was annexed in the aftermath of World War II as a base at Baltiysk for the Russian navy, being its only ice-free port. The area is also essential for Russia’s ability to intercept and interfere with Allied communication networks – Russia’s spoiler.

Putin could move fast and send troops in to rescue Lukashenko, reckoning that his influence over Trump would stymie any Allied response involving Kaliningrad Oblast which, despite being heavily fortified, could be a risky proposition.

Currently Russia is separated from its exclave by both Belarus and Lithuania. An invasion of Belarus, unimpeded by Trump, could tempt Putin to demand a corridor across Lithuania in much the same way that Hitler demanded a corridor across Poland to the then Baltic free-port of Danzig, one of the precipitants for World War II in 1939. Lithuania is a member of the EU, and yet…there is this Manchurian candidate factor redux.

Fanciful? Better to call it out?

However, drawing breath and not wanting to wander into a nightmare more fitting of a video game, in which I am no expert; equally I am no expert in how to destroy the world to save a despot or two.

Mouse Whisper

Geraldine Ferraro was Walter Mondale’s Vice-Presidential choice in 1984. At the time, there were many ugly rumours about the Democratic New York congresswoman relating to unpaid taxes and family links to organised crime. After all, she was of Italian extraction and from Queens at a time when the Godfather series had stereotyped Italian America – guilt by association is a favourite ploy of the media.

She decided to confront the media and answer each and every question for as long as it took – by 80 minutes she had exhausted the media and when she had finished, according to a report in the Washington Post, many of the cameramen filming applauded her.

As the Washington Post recalled this week:

There was just one critic left to deal with — the conservative columnist George Will. He had sent her roses as a sort of apology, writing in a card that, “Has anyone told you that you are cute when you’re mad?”

Ferraro called Will to thank him for the roses… But there was something she needed to say. 

“Vice-Presidents aren’t cute,” Ferraro told him. And then she hung up.

Modest Expectations – Adelaide

I used to listen to his Letters from America – clever oral essays – the British gentleman reflecting on the mores of the day from his study in America. The author was Alistair Cooke, a remarkable figure in his adopted country, who wrote his observations in his weekly epistle until just before his death in 2004.

He had been in America since the early 1930s as a correspondent, but at the heart he was a film critic, and moreover mixing with the “stars”. One of the films he wrote about accepted the doomsday hypothesis of the last survivors of planetary nuclear war. The film was Stanley Kramer’s “On the Beach” adapted from an eponymous novel by a British expatriate who went under the non-de-plume, Neville Shute.

Melbourne was the chosen site for the film, and I remember being in the school quadrangle when Gregory Peck turned up with his son, presumably to enrol in the school while he made the film. I was struck by how much presence Gregory Peck had, without creating any fuss – just dad taking his son to school which, in 1958 was somewhat unusual, but I suppose my dad took me to school on my first day. In fact on reflection he did, found me being bullied by a future archdeacon and had me learn to box as a consequence.

Ava Gardner’s comment on Melbourne was cutting – she thought it a perfect place to make a film about the end of the world. After all, Melbourne pubs closed at six o’clock begetting the six o’clock swill where large glasses called “pots” were lined up to be consumed in the half-hour of grace before the doors were locked. Restaurants were sparse, and any place where you could drink required that alcohol to be bought in a brown paper bag and taken off the table if not drunk by nine o’clock. Men drank beer; women were segregated in the hotel lounge and God, it was not done to have a woman in the front bar. Women of refinement drank sherry; and Scotch whisky was the drink of the “top end of town”. Then, wine was consumed by the bohemian fringe of this apocalyptic maledom, as Ava Gardner viewed it.

In his review of the film, published in the Guardian 17 December 1959, about which Cooke is positive – “a story…as clean and unsentimental as a skull.” However, on the imagery reflecting on the future, Cooke is pessimistic. He quotes the collective wisdom of three think tanks to write:

They agree in approximate terms that nuclear war in the next decade is more likely than not. They warn us that the military decline of the United States in the short span of fifteen years has left it open to a devastating attack; that the disarmament at the United Nations and Geneva may blind the United States to the possibility that the Soviet union with a clear superiority in the arms’ race will use it to blackmail or attack its major opponent without warning. 

Neville Shute, the author, subscribed to the mutual annihilation theory rather than the above, (which seemed in accord with that of Cooke) since it mirrored the mindset of the late 1950s and 60s before the Vietnam War monopolised the headlines.

However, when Khrushchev engineered the Cuban missile crisis and failed, that was it – one episode of blackmail and the Russians withdrew to its reality. Competition with the United States in hindsight was illusory once the Americans got serious. However, it was not until Reagan called the Russians’ bluff and thus three decades later the Russian empire was in ruin.

Now we have Putin, the arch illusionist, at it again. Russia has divested itself of land, but they have been mindful that maintaining a number of satraps is important. Garrisoning countries is a costly exercise for a country with a GDP not much bigger than Australia’s. This time he wields his power by bullying his neighbours, which provides occupational therapy for his armed forces whether they be in the Ukraine or the Caucasus. Up to this time he has not manufactured a reason to march across Lithuania so that that exclave of Kaliningrad can be re-united with Mother Russia; but if he thought he could get away with it, who knows.

However, this illusion of the powerful strutting дуче also depends on his manipulation of Trump. Maybe I am only dazzled by the illusion of an image of a marionette with golden hair, on a wire, being paraded before a worldwide audience.

However, Prince Andrew was not the only person to be seen in the company of Mr Epstein – a figure who, in death, increasingly resembles The Tar Baby.

I wonder what Mr Cooke would have thought of this scenario which, in another context from the film “On the Beach”, could end up in mutual annihilation.

Another Alister – Another Time

There was another Alister, whom I admired greatly. His name was Alister Brass. “Alister” has a protean number of ways of being spelled.

Alister was the editor of the Medical Journal of Australia for a period in the mid 1980s – not only a doctor, a journalist, a war correspondent, but also a man of great innovation and integrity. He was lost prematurely to AIDS.

He did not have to adorn his ego with citations and references to his own achievements. He did not have the basic insecurity that often accompanies this display, and not to put a fine point on it, he viewed being editor as a full-time occupation, not a part-time bauble.

The Nobel laureate, Dr Barry Marshall wrote a telling piece about how Alister Brass helped him, reporting on self-administration of Helicobacter pylori to himself as part of fulfilling Koch’s postulates to prove that the bacillus caused peptic ulcer. Alister Brass had seen the original paper that Barry Marshall and Robin Warren had published in 1984 in The Lancet. Brass had encouraged Marshall to write an article for the MJA, which was duly submitted to “scrupulous referees” (Marshall’s words), who demanded a re-write and the final published article in 1985 became very influential in the recognition of Marshall and Warren’s work by a sceptical worldwide audience.

Marshall could not have been more clear about the value of Alister Brass’ role, as all great editors have, in ensuring the work, which eventually brought Marshall and Warren the Nobel Prize, was scrupulously refereed and then published. As Marshall himself concluded years later Re-reading that paper every few years, I am impressed by how far the MJA Editor was ‘sticking his neck out’ in allowing me to publish a hypothesis as to the cause of peptic ulcer. It was a further 5 years before journals allowed the word ‘cure’ to appear in articles about duodenal ulcer, and almost a decade before mainstream United States journals could accept it as proven.

Be that as it may, the point should be clearly made that two people who were outside the conventional medical establishment at that time (they were in Perth during the period of the research), Marshall and Warren, were nowhere near the major beneficiaries of medical research funding – Victoria or NSW.

The rush to citations as a sign of pumping out research papers has recently been criticised by the Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel. He mentions the “salami-slicing techniques” whereby, why have one paper when you could have three out of one piece of research? Then there is the multiple authorship where those who seem to be at the top-end of frequent flyer points appear on an article to which their input is negligible. I believe the citations record tallies over 5,000 authors. The emergence of a plethora of non peer-reviewed journals offering to publish articles in return for money, has just added to the proposition that “citations” are being discredited as a valid measurement of scientific worth.

Marshall and Warren were a temporary antidote to the accusation that so much of this form of research is trivial. The question remains: should the community reward funding submissions that emphasise process (of which parading a wealth of citations is one criterion and that insidious “proven track record” is another) rather than an outcome bestowing a tangible benefit on the community?

It is a pity that Alister Brass’s life was cut short, because we would not have to be reminded of the Journal’s worth by some obscure measurement. It would have been self-evident. He would clearly have made the above question irrelevant through the way he extracted the very best from authors and researchers in the same way Ingelfinger and Relman as Editors defined The New England Journal of Medicine.

A load of old cobblers

I sit and cobble at slippers and shoon, From the rise of sun to the set of moon; Cobble and cobble as best I may, Cobble all night and cobble all day.

In 1982 I invited David Owen, then at the height of his political powers, to give the address at the 50th anniversary of the Australian Institute of Political Science*.  Named in his honour, Sir Norman Cowper attended this inaugural Oration. Sir Norman had been among the founders of the Institute, although that is another story.  Dr Owen charged the Institute nothing. I was able to wrangle a first-class airfare London to Sydney return out of Qantas (in the days before business class and Irish parsimony).

These days politicians, after their retirements, have a habit of charging large amounts of money to perform while they garner a luscious pension for which we all pay. The current Treasurer, Minister Frydenberg, now aged 48, will in all probability be no exception. No need to retrain good ol’ Josh after the age of 60, except to identify the location of the amenities cabinet in whichever ambassadorship he has been awarded and later on retrained on how he stores his cash when there will be no banks left we can trust.

Politicians advocating this course for the elderly should not do so unless they are also serious about being role models, insisting on retiring on modest pensions and seeking retraining. Otherwise they could be subject to ridicule with a restive population calling for the re-introduction of the pillory.

Perhaps Abbot could resume his religious calling and be retrained as a Pentecostal minister; my favourite rent-seeker, Christopher Pyne because of his fixer obsession being retrained on reaching 60 as a paper hanger. However I jest – but if you think about it further, why not? Also, perhaps the word for this breed is “train” rather than “retrain”.

At my 70th birthday I was chirpy enough for people to exclaim that 70 was the new 50. It is seductive to believe that aphorism. However, when Frydenberg exhorts the elderly to retrain the answer is for what – and what time will be required for this mythical retraining and then, assuming anyone, anywhere would consider hiring this retrained person, one may only be able literally to work for a few years. Even though the average living age may have crept up to over 80, this increase in quantity cannot be necessarily equated to quality and ergo capacity to work.

Susan Ryan, Age Discrimination Commissioner from 2011-2016, used to bemoan the fact that there was age discrimination in Australia. Well, thank you for borrowing my pocket watch and telling me what I already know – if you’re over 40 and wanting a job, good luck. What did she do in her five years there? But then she was followed by another “retrained politician”, Dr Kay Paterson – and there is silence broken only by the chirping of crickets when the question is asked, what have you actually done to solve the problem of age discrimination for older Australians looking for work?

So what is the Frydenburg retraining all about? I worked until I was 75 years, and the only retraining I needed was to cope with my disease over my last 15 months, when I was deprived of independent living. However, with a carer for whom no government assistance was sought, I was enabled to ease into retirement. I had a few part-time “hangovers” from my previous jobs, which provided employment for another 18 months. Thus I was well into my 77th year when I finally finished.

Therefore it may be more about convincing employers of the worth of retaining the employees on, say, a contract for three to five years. On the other hand, I do not believe that the economy should be burdened with unproductive ageing staff. I can say that because – in the terms of the Italian calibration of age – I am about to pass from vecchio to anziano. 

Jokes aside, “working” and “ageing” provide a complex situation. I have had to deal with people who should have long since retired, and increasingly they had presented a hazard. It becomes a very difficult situation especially if they have accolades from their careers, which suddenly become more important to them when their livelihood and relevance are threatened.

I have one advantage. I have my marbles and I can look back over the past 20 years during which Treasury has put out a number of papers on this matter of ageing and the workforce – for what effect?

Just giving more benefits for a relatively small but vocal segment of the ageing population without the bother of setting up retraining scenarios, with only a marginal chance of success.

The “Golden Age” index is touted as a benchmark, but the index age range is 55-64. Fifty-five is a ludicrous age to retire, but was the basis of many public service plans with penalties imposed for working beyond that age. As a result, there has been the growth of so-called consultant work – doing what you were doing before, but at a higher rate of remuneration to top up that indexed pension, and stimulating the rise of the rent-seeker class.

Minister Frydenberg, can I hand you the last?

The Victorian TAFE sector says it takes a year to train to become a cobbler aka shoemaker. Another way of being the life and sole of the party when and if you get to 70!

*Now the Australian Institute of Policy and Science

Jesus the Leader

Now a rather sad case of a man when a post-graduate student who, when he was a student at the US Army War College, wrote a dissertation on Jesus Christ the Leader.

He described the Jesus model of leadership as love. His first criterion was that leaders traditionally sat at the top of the pile and issued orders, while Jesus “inverted the pyramid” and “he got down in the trenches and served the troops”. The rest of the “Jesus the Leader” dissertation proceeded from this statement.

Fast-forward 15 years and now Major General Gregg Martin faces his Jesus moment when as,

“The president of the National Defense University stepped down from his post last week following reports of an ongoing investigation into a poor command climate at the Defense Department-operated institution.

Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin officially relinquished the job last Monday…the move was approved by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey… Gen. Martin said he believed this was the right time for a new leader to guide the institution as NDU continued to prepare leaders for the challenges facing the U.S. Military.  

Martin was reported as having unilaterally ordered a series of sweeping structural changes at NDU without consulting its tenured faculty and other academic leaders, and that he threatened to fire anyone who challenged his plans. Martin responded that he was indeed seeking “transformational” change within the university, but that his comments were misinterpreted.”

Hardly a sign of mutual affection, but as Martin had written in his dissertation, “Jesus religiously took time away by himself, plug into his eternal power source – God’s Word – and recharge his battery. When things get extremely hectic, it may be time to consider taking an afternoon to play golf.”

Jesus thanks you for that advice. Some people may define the golf links as a wilderness but I think,

General, you are advising the wrong chap.

Jesus is the Palestinian chap on the right hand side.

In turn, Martin has languished in his own Pentagon wilderness for the past five years.

Mouse Whisper

Chevron ran an advertisement bemoaning the fact the United States reserves of natural gas were small compared to Russia, Iran and Qatar. In fact the United States and Turkmenistan vie for fourth place. This ranking has not interfered with the fact that the United States is the largest producer of natural gas ahead of Russia.

On contemplating this Chevron advertisement where ostensibly the message is that the USA has a smaller supply of one commodity than “shock horror” Russia and Iran, it struck my murine mind that how it was playing upon the fragile ego of the American people. Trump has also exploited the same fragility in his “Make America Great” mantra. Augmenting it with red dew drops of “Russia with Love” has led Trump supporters to wear T-shirts which say “I’d rather be Russian than Democrat”. You mean better be Stalin than Roosevelt?   I am really now mus confusus. People so insecure in themselves that they would compromise their country’s security. Maybe they should have a portrait of Benedict Arnold on their T-shirt as well.

Benedict Arnold

 

 

 

 

 

What Trump supporters are wearing this Fall.

Modest Expectations – Theodore R

I repeat what I said last week, eye gouging – or whatever euphemism is used in the charge – should result in the player being banned for life and the police called in.

Two weeks in a row – the one player. “Of no moment”, one cries, with a carefree flick of the polo stick. Is the AFL going to wait until a player is blinded?

At least despite pressure he has got a one week suspension. Hardly enough.

It is disappointing to say the least that the ophthalmologists of all people have not weighed in – at least it does not appear to be so on the web site.

They call it Molly

Back in the mists of time when the Neanderthals walked Australian soil I, as a male post-graduate researcher, had a regular task. I had to climb a ladder and, on the top of a long Sephadex column encased in lead bricks, had responsibility for the purification of two radioactive iodine isotopes – I125 and I131.

The first of these isotopes had a half-life of about a month but the second isotope that of about ten days. Therefore for the research work, I131 had to be made frequently because as it decayed it lost both strength and purity for the work the laboratory was undertaking. Over the period, since we needed to be checked after each procedure, I labelled myself as well twice, which meant I had to take a dose of iodine to wash my thyroid out. Let me say that there are few worse punishments for laboratory carelessness than a dose of iodine. It sure defines bitterness.

So when I look at the latest problem that ANSTO is having with the supply of radioactive molybdenum (Mo99) then I have great sympathy for when things go wrong.

For the community, nuclear reactors mean enriched uranium and the possibility of bombs and big power stations. But OPAL (Open-Pool Australian Lightwater Reactor) at Lucas Heights does none of those things. However, its role is equally important, as the low grade uranium fission in the reactor has been producing a significant supply of the world Mo99 which in turn generates technetium (Tc99m). If you to identify the most important function of the reactor, this is it.

The ANSTO reactor has been having production problems with Mo99 since June last year. First there was a problem with generation of the technetium, which meant Mo99 had to be sent to Boston for Tc99m generation, and given the half-life of the isotope and the turnaround time for the Tc99m there needed to be spot-on timing to minimise the loss through decay of Mo99 in transit.

Now it is a more serious problem. A faulty valve in the dissolution cell means that while Mo99 can be made, it cannot be extracted to produce the Tc99m. There is already a huge shortage around the world as a number of reactors that did make the isotopes have closed down in recent years.

Before you all shrug your shoulders and say reducing radiation is good thing, everyone has to realise that this isotope Tc99m is the mainstay of detection for cancer, bone disease and some cardiac conditions. Without it, this area is like a blank black TV screen. With the TV, you expect to be able to switch on, the screen to light up and you then settle in for a good night of relaxation. The same is true for the specialty of nuclear medicine and diagnostic imaging in general, you expect not have any interruption in the program.

Currently, the ANSTO boffins are scratching their heads about how best to proceed, given there is an great amount of highly radioactive material unable to be removed before the repairs can be started – the equivalent of how to stop Rome burning.

Elsewhere everybody in the industry and relevant parts of medical profession have got off their backsides to scour the world for any spare Mo99 (there apparently isn’t much) and thus realistically searching for substitute tracer material which is generally more expensive. This substitute material has to be priced so as to ensure the industry does not go down because Medicare cannot adjust to pay the real cost of using the substitute radiopharmaceuticals.

The Government is very conscious about price and that is reflected in the precise definition of MBS item descriptors. It is an exercise in keeping the smallest number of moving parts operational – and when the crisis is passed then there can be what the dreamy educators would say – a time for reflection.

However, this whole period with ANSTO and its cascading troubles may need a great amount of investment to correct – and to many, nuclear reactor is equated to Chernobyl. Therefore, politicians get nervous, and if we could call it “fluffy duck” they may then be prepared to immediately stump up the money to fix the source of last year’s problem.

Having said that, this year’s problem has occurred in ANSTO’s newest world-class production facility. It might be a one in 10 or 15 years’ problem, but it is a major one and it has occurred very early in that 10 to 15 years.

The sector has responded as well as it can with emergency provisions being put in place very early on and a cooperative approach being taken. It will be a challenge to keep a smile on the face of the specialty if the shortage drags on.

The Lucas Heights reactor is a vital cog in assuring the community’s health if for nothing more than the detection of the conditions named above. What happens if an unfriendly country corners the world market for Mo99 even by default because Australia can’t get Mo99 out of ANSTO?

Morrison – the Funambulist

Morrison is about to go and participate in one of those tawdry Trump events – called a State dinner with all the trappings of Mar-a-Casablanca chic. An Australian Prime Minister can hardly turn down what no other World leader except Macron has been afforded – Trump with full garnish. Morrison knows that as a middle order leader, he has to be able to genuflect to both the USA and China almost simultaneously without either getting the legs crossed or suffering from a case of morderte en el trasero.

To avoid the latter condition and given he has an electoral mandate until 2022, Morrison will be banking on either a Trump re-election or the aspiring Democrats not noticing or caring who is and what he has said. After all, “A gunboat short? No worries – just ring Australia.”

However, keeping sweet with the Chinese is a different matter. To counter any perception that he is a total American sycophant, Morrison has been very strong in the defense of the member for Chisholm, whose links to the Chinese government seem like a tapeworm – you can see the head but extracting the total worm is a tortuous, long drawn out task. An official Chinese publication has risen to the bait, by praising him, but there is a great deal of unraveling before the Prime Minister is invited to a banquet in Beijing.

At the same time the media are having a field day not just on the member for Chisholm, but also all the Chinese donations appearing in modern variations of the brown paper bags. What it tells me is that the Chinese never miss an opportunity. If they see a line of politicians and bureaucrats with their noses in the trough, why not feed them?

However the Chinese government cares not a jot about the media – they care about who is in government, and it is better to get your way without having to use brute force. As the Japanese found out, Australia was not the easy target to conquer that Malaya and the Dutch East Indies were. However, in the minds of some Australians there are still remnants of “White Australia” and the “Yellow Peril”; even now when over one million Australians have Chinese heritage. So for the Australian government, the Chinese government presents a problem, especially when you can hardly see the problem through a blizzard of bank notes.

However, one of the most interesting Morrison appointments which has not gone unnoticed is Graham Fletcher as the Ambassador to Beijing. As one of his predecessors noted, Fletcher is the most fluent Mandarin speaker sent in this role and has in fact lived for periods in China. Contrast him with the moustachioed Iowan Terry Bransted, the American Ambassador, lauded by Trump as a great friend of China because Bransted apparently casually met Xi Jinping many years ago when the latter was a minor official on an agricultural delegation to the Mid-west. Great credentials when placed against those of our new Ambassador. I think not.

However, whether the member for Chisholm is a Chinese Government operative or not, Morrison is showing a degree of solidarity with her that has not been lost on Beijing. It is hard to believe that the advice Turnbull received which made him shy away from the then candidate for Chisholm would differ from the advice received by Morrison about the member for Chisholm. And yet there is the Prime Minister unabashedly defending her.

The ALP missed their opportunity to send the Chisholm electorate result to the Court of Disputed returns, challenging the Liberal party’s advertising as scandalous and deceptive. Had they done so it is probable that this episode would have been played out in a more frosty, less emotionally charged atmosphere. However, the billy has been kept boiling by the maverick Oliver Yates, who has the member for Kooyong in his sights also in his appeal to the High Court.

Anyway, in amongst all the activity, the Prime Minister in his actions in relation to the member for Chisholm is addressing Beijing without appearing to genuflect. He has already a semaphore from the Chinese. It now depends on what he says in Washington – probably no “on the stump with Donald Trump” would be a good starter

As I said above I hope the Prime Minister will avoid treatment for a bad case of morderte en el trasero.

Jacques Miller

Very briefly: Congratulations to Jacques Miller on co-sharing the Lasker award this year with Max Cooper, although in its announcement, the NYT put the Yank’s name first. They really can’t help themselves, given that the research giant was Miller, then a 30 year old when he made his initial discovery about the role of the thymus, that gland in the neck which few of us have ever contemplated. His work was seminal to modern immunology. Miller is now 88.

For God’s sake, you Swedes, he has deserved the Nobel Prize for years. Gus Nossal’ s elegant panegyric written eight years ago says it all. How many of us have been touched by his work – his genius.

Let Professor Nossal’s succinctness remind you of the impact of the discovery:

Miller is the last person to discover the function of a human organ — the thymus — and not a single chapter of immunology has been untouched by the discovery.

T cells became even more prominent when it became clear that they were the chief target of the AIDS virus. Miller continued to make discoveries about the thymus and T cells for many decades, including gaining important insights into:

  • how the immune system discriminates between self and non-self;
  • how it goes wrong in autoimmune diseases; and
  • how the whole orchestra of the immune system is regulated.

Enough said.

Mouse Whisper

We all know about Shanghai Sam – he is the guy the Prime Minister did not name as such – 17 times.

Perhaps though, without reference to the black kettle, we can now call the Prime Minister “Chinese Morrison No 2.”

“Chinese Morrison No 1” was also famous in his time – an Australian born in Sydney. George Morrison was a journalist who, as a correspondent for the London Times in the then Peking, had an important role in the defense of the various legations during the 55-day siege of the Boxer Uprising in 1900, the year of the Rat. Then, as adviser to the fledgling Chinese Government, he was a pivotal figure in the fall of the last Emperor and the birth of the Chinese Republic.

“Chinese Morrison No 2” should remember that 2019 is the Year of Pig – to the Chinese a symbol of wealth not necessarily with its head in the trough.