Modest Expectations – At Last Michael Bowlby

Kizzmeika Corbett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Such a little disease…

Rubella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snottites

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lechuguila Cave

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Irresponsibility

Janine Sargeant MPH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endless testing queues

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

Happy Christmas NSW from Uncle Dominic

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

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

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

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

Hazzard with two “Z” – The Alchemist from Wakehurst

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

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

What do you think vaccination is for, you chump?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand, this seems sensible…

Reprinted from the Boston Globe with thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

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

Joan Didion

 

Modest Expectations – Gross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jair Bolsonaro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of Africa

Taiohae, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maasi warriors

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

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

Did not see this visit reported in the Australian Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food fad

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

But as reported…

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

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

Secretary of State, Antony Blinken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

Modest Expectations – Tomas Machac

In 1994, I bought the April edition of the Atlantic Monthly because it had an article entitled “What is Political Leadership?” The author was Garry Wills, a conservative Catholic historian, with whom I had become acquainted through reading his book reviews in the New York Review of Books. Increasingly he has taken positions in relation to civil rights and then Vietnam which, in conventional terms, would seem to belie his conservative Catholic stance, especially given William Buckley was an early mentor. However, to be socially progressive is not incompatible with conservatism.

When this article was published he was 60 years old and had been in the History Department at North Western University since 1980.

Eventually, now that I have read the piece, I believe he was probably recycling long held views given his concentration on Lincoln, Roosevelt and to a lesser degree Washington.  Interspersed are anecdotes about his relationship with his father, whom he resented when he left his mother to marry a much younger Hollywood model. The disdain drips, but nevertheless he worked for his father. As he says: “That is the way leadership works – reciprocally engaging two wills…”

He makes the obvious comment. A leader must have followers, but he describes the patriarchal society concept personified by Pericles in Athens as described by Thucydides, “enabled by the respect others had for him and his own wise policy, to hold the multitude in a voluntary restraint”.

There is no doubt that Pericles was a great orator and a competent general, initially prevailing over the Spartans. Yet Wills tends to dismiss Pericles as an applicable role model. As he does also with Dale Carnegie – with his “win friends and influence people” dicta as though the leadership is customer dependent.

Wills makes the simple fact that to be a leader, one must have followers. As such, it is not a quality that is proportional to the cleverness of any advertising campaign.

I have always wondered what constitutes leadership, as though there are rules. My own observations about leadership have relied on the tripartite Weberian definition, where there are “traditional leaders” who have been afforded this role by their inherited position. Many of this class have followers only as long as the dynasty survives, because of the many “grace and favour” positions which accompany such leadership. The various Arab desert States epitomise such leadership in the modern world where once it was European royalty or Asian emperors. Often there were religious tags built into such leadership.

Pericles

I have witnessed the second type, charismatic leadership as epitomised by Pericles. In my life I have followed one charismatic leader – someone whom I never met and who, since his death, has been revealed as a very flawed character. However, a leader elicits an emotional response from the followers wanting to aspire to a goal (or goals), irrespective of the actual nature of the man (or woman).

Wills makes a very insightful observation when he said that a leader needs to understand his followers more than they need to understand him. John F. Kennedy used rhetoric in a way that drew people like myself to ideals of service – to a better world. The idea of a Peace Corps appealed because it provided evidence of a shared goal, irrespective of whether or how obtainable it actually was. The concept implied concern and actual commitment to both communities or individuals in need.

Wills makes the point that Lincoln based his belief around the Declaration of Independence as a vital aspect of his leadership. Yet he fails to acknowledge that assorted charlatans, who have not only used the Declaration of Independence but also the Bible, to further their image. To my mind, invoking such texts provides no indication of the quality of leadership; it just suggests that the person has read a desk calendar or some such.

Lincoln was assassinated, as was Kennedy. Therefore, there will also be an expectancy in leadership unfulfilled. Roosevelt was a different person, a model of leadership that Wills attempts to define. Roosevelt went from a comparatively young man of privilege to the older man who faced and battled the legacy of poliomyelitis for the rest of his life.

Battling personal infirmity and that of the country (and the World for that matter) merged. He would not give up, and that resilience was translated into his leadership style. He was able to disguise his paralysis and yet develop an intimacy with his followers with his regular “Fireside Chats”; he gave hope to his followers with the provision of civic works such as the Tennessee Valley Authority.  Yet he did nothing about civil rights: the lynching of Southern blacks; the Ku Klux Klan, the Tuskegee experiments; as well as the isolationist foreign policy and early support for the anti-Semitic, pro-fascist Father Coughlin.

Roosevelt, who is so often used as a model of successful leadership, was flawed, got things wrong and eventually stayed too long, succumbing to a mixture of diseases associated with his long term disability. The whole product made him very vulnerable to the machinations of Stalin, whose home ground advantage at Yalta was never so evident as in the 1945 determination of spheres of influence.

In the end, Wills extensively explores these charismatic leaders yet has no more solution to the nature of ideal leadership beyond reference back to Pericles. It is as though he searched and found no better model.  Wills classified Roosevelt as Periclean, (and incidentally to reinforce the point Wills compared Roosevelt’s leadership with that of the fluffy failed Adlai Stevenson).

There is no exploration of where charismatic leadership continues through the third model, an incorruptible bureaucratic leadership even after the charismatic leader has moved on. Democracy depends on bureaucrats who have to be incorruptible; thus, if you outsource the work of bureaucracy without any apparent goal other than feathering the nest of the private consulting companies, then the leadership which competent bureaucrats could provide is compromised. I remember when bureaucratic leadership was very important, as when Sabine vaccine for polio was introduced and the country had to be transferred from believing that the initial spruiked Salk vaccine was not as good.

Wills did not analyse the qualities of bureaucratic leadership in effectively carrying out the government policy. Maybe series such as “Yes Minister”, caricaturing bureaucracy leadership, while immediately very funny, nevertheless have had an insidious effect on the credibility of bureaucratic leadership. This variability in the effects of bureaucratic leadership has been shown at various stages during the current pandemic.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear

As I was exploring this topic, I tuned into the Kentucky disaster, and noted immediately the decisive compassionate leadership being shown by the Governor, Andy Beshear. He so clearly demonstrates the qualities of the charismatic leader. It is hoped that he has the moral compass to keep going with it. His demonstration of charismatic leadership and his deft and rapid transfer of the reconstruction of his State to his relevant authorities will serve as a model.

My bias is that of a person who lived through the 60s, I believe Beshear will take a national leadership role at some point. He reminds me of Robert Kennedy. I hope his life is not cut short and he does not become a fallen idol, as a number of people of promise who have not been able to define a successful leadership style.

Always Disputin’

Putin often speaks of a “One Russia,” meaning Russia, Ukraine and Belarus — or “Big Russia” and “Little Russia,” Russia being the “big” and Ukraine the “little.” He argued in 2009 that “no one should be allowed to interfere in relations between us. They have always been the business of Russia itself.”

A few years ago, before the pandemic, I took a boat trip down to the mouth of the Danube – the enormous Danube delta, the point where the river enters the Black Sea which, for the sake of completeness, the boat nosed into before retreating back into the Delta.

Pelicans in the Danube Delta

On the Northern aspect of the delta, Romania, Moldova and the Ukraine villagers live on the sandy sediment which form islands amid the reeds and sedges above the waterline.

We stopped at one of these villages called St George, where port facilities had been constructed. Here the people in this tiny village tucked within the Romanian border are mostly Ukrainian speakers. All very quaint, with all the hallmarks of the community where time has rested, except to make itself accessible to a scant tourist trade but probably more importantly to help the villagers to get supplies from a post-feudal world which has invented vodka in bottles, tinned food and frozen fish fingers.

We pass Tulcea on our way into the Delta. This township serves as the gateway to the Delta, it is firmly in Romania but as the captain said for those who have a nose for countries, we had actually been in Moldova for a brief time – at least the bow of the boat had been.

So here we were at the intersection of three countries, with Russia not that far away looking over the shoulder of Ukraine. Russia has shown no interest in annexing Romania, although one may adduce there has been Russian mischief in the creation of the Romanian-speaking Moldova. The Russians want to keep Moldova apart from the EU, but even with a breakaway province, Transnistria, along its Ukrainian border, and even with its small population, Moldova maintains a separate identity from Romania.

It demonstrates what a jigsaw the whole area is. Both Moldova and Ukraine following the dissolution of the USSR have initially had pro-Russian governments, but that has changed. Both governments now are solidly pro-western.

Putin holds the levers of Soviet power internally through his labyrinthine security services. Having been a middle level operative at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, he has shown his genius in assembling it again. The fact that he has done so demonstrates the skill of the person, given that it is essential that he maintain internal discipline over Russia itself. After all, he is intoxicated with the glories of Russia, and therefore the old capital of the Russian diaspora, Kiev, is the capital of the modern Ukraine but to him a crucial part of Russian heritage.

Russia is not the power it once was and the only way to invade Ukraine successfully, in his eyes, would be to ensure that potential adversaries are confused. Therefore, chaos is always his solution and fomenting chaos is one mixture of feinting, lunging, retreating and infiltrating. After all, he has worked out that America is war-wearied, and Biden has said as much. So that leaves the other members of NATO, weakened by the Brexit machinations, to come to the aid of the Ukraine. Their preferred weapon is not military but economic. The Russian economy must stagnate and then contract, which in turn starves the money trail of the Putin kleptocracy, another arm of Putin’s power. That economic rationing is the theory.

Putin relies on State sanctioned mercenaries in companies like Wagner to keep up a diet of chaos by interfering in the politics of smaller counties. At the same time he uses the Orthodox Church to spread the message of Ukrainian oneness with Mother Russia, and it worked while there was a pro-Soviet government there. After all, he repossessed Crimea with pathetic protests emanating from the West, but his incursion into eastern Ukraine seems at least to have accelerated the modernisation of the Ukrainian armed forces.

There may have been excuses for those who knew the history of the Crimean annexation. Those who knew the background of the Ukrainian hold on Crimea would have known it was a move by Khrushchev to obtain the support of the then UkSSR in his battle to oust Malenkov in 1954, even though Crimea was predominantly Russian. Hence it did not evoke the same response from the West.

Thus, the assumption is that the Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine would be attracted to Putin. In Ukraine these speakers constitute 30 per cent of the population and, as would be expected, the area where Russian is least spoken lies along the western border area, with its history of Hapsburg rule. Nevertheless, the linguistic division is not sharp, and often Ukrainians use both Russian and Ukrainian in conversation, even within the one sentence. In contrast there has been a marked change in national sentiment with the pro-Soviet President, Viktor Yanukovych and his cronies being ousted in 2014.

As one commentary has said: “The prominent role played by Russian-speaking Ukrainians in repelling Putin’s hybrid invasion has done much to alter perceptions of language and identity in today’s Ukraine, leading to the rise of a civic national identity that goes beyond the narrow confines of language and ethnicity. Many saw the election of Jewish Russian-speaker Volodymyr Zelenskyy as Ukraine’s sixth president in 2019 as further confirmation of the country’s evolving linguistic politics.”

The Ukrainians would also be less than impressed by the support of the tyrannical regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus. Belarusian is one of two languages spoken in that country, together with Russian. Since 1917, there has been an attempt by the Russians to smother the Belarusian language and merge the cultural identity. The fact that Lukashenka is totally dependent on Putin is not lost on the Ukrainians, especially his use of Belarus bastardry to create chaos along the Polish border.

Yet Putin will continue to create brinkmanship as his weapon of chaos. If he invades, then as one knows from chess, order prevails, unless the players on the other side do not know who will make the next move. If they hesitate then Putin leans across the board and makes the move himself. More chaos as he has usurped the rules.

Wait a minute, where does Putin stop his incursion? Are the Russian people prepared to pursue the Putinic folly? If he sweeps across the country, then he has to garrison the land conquered.

His adversaries watch as Putin experiments his weaponisation of chaos in Belarus. Those familiar with chess know he will start the game with fewer pieces than his adversaries, and they soon stop him reaching over the Board to manipulate their pieces. Instead, they will line their surplus pieces along the border of his exclave, Kaliningrad, along the Baltic Sea.  Perhaps the NATO countries would be tempted to annex it, given that one can hypothesise that many of the weapons of chaos have been hatched there, designed to cause the maximum amount of “cyberpiracy” with the resultant “cyberpain”. I wonder why Kaliningrad has been tolerated for so long, given its strategic vulnerability.

I wonder what I have missed within Putin’s thinking. Conventional risk analysis would say no way, but how disjointed and craven are the members of NATO?

Kaliningrad, Russia

Tread warily

I had negotiated the same set of stairs hundreds of times. I have always made sure that I grabbed the rail when both climbing up and descending. Where there was originally no rail on the short rise, one was installed. However, that still left a metre of open landing between the two staircases where a rail was perhaps thought not necessary or at least problematic. Thus, there was no rail in this “no-man’s land.

So, the inevitable happened. Tired, I tripped on the last tread of the first set of stairs and reached out to grasp the railing along the side of the second set of stairs. I missed. I fell heavily, cracking my head where the tread meets the riser. My right side bore the brunt. I did not lose consciousness, but after the fall I was prone. My head was awkwardly placed on the tread with my legs sticking out over the landing edge.

At my age, there was no way I could move myself. As the ambulance took an hour arriving, the only solution to get a more tolerable position was to slide down the stairs on my stomach. Bumping one tread at a time, legs being pulled by my wife, my arms pushing against the stair rail. At last, I was laid prone at the bottom of the stair.

My head, which now revealed a transverse cut partially covered with hair matted with blood. My forehead was bruised; yet I had not lost consciousness.

There I lay on the floor, still unable to roll over. After an hour and half two ambulance officers turned up, despite repeated calls. The initial exchange was not the stuff of the milk of human kindness. Having reviewed two ambulance services professionally 30 years ago, I had been responsible in part for the establishment of paramedic courses in universities, leading to professional reciprocity between States. One can excuse the characteristics of the emergency workers. Ambulance officers must adjust to all kinds of situations – many very adversarial. Nevertheless, there is often a fine line between the assertive and the aggressive – an appropriate response to a situation is a function of a person’s adaptability to each situation.

First, the ambulance’s lifting device was found to have a flat battery, ergo useless. The tasks were now related to the officers’ and my wife’s strength. Rolling me on my side; then stacking cushions behind my back, then the sheet its two ends under my armpits being pulled up with my feet firmly planted, I am off the floor, standing. However, on my feet, I have to be convinced that there is a now a chair behind me. It takes more reassurance than would be expected to convince me that there was a seat behind me – it is now nearly two hours since I first fell.

It is a considerable time since I last fell, that time in the garden without damaging myself, and was able to be assisted to my feet. I am now older, and my balance more delicate.

The problem of being a doctor is that you can misdiagnose anything; but once sitting in the chair I made the decision not to go to hospital, and thus go through the gamut of the emergency department – I had had enough of waiting around, and then being tested, with all the associated pain.

I found I could limp, but ensured that it was not due to hip or pelvis fracture – it was somewhere in the gluteal and quadriceps muscles – maybe even the psoas – but what would they do at the hospital, besides giving me a range of precautionary tests, perhaps a shot of morphine – and then I would inevitably vomit.  And the pain would be still there. The papers associated with my admission to discharge would be a cascade of endless questions.

Besides, even though fully vaccinated, there is always the possibility of the Virus lurking in the hospital’s corridors.

I look at my badly bruised hand. I hope I’ve made the right decision. But it is too late now. I signed a disclaimer clearing the ambulance officers from any responsibility in the decision. A very insistent request; I noted they did not ask to examine my hips or pelvis. But then I was a know-it-all old doctor, wasn’t I?

I wonder how many elderly or disabled people who fall require assistance to get off the ground or floor. Over two hours of smelling the carpet is not the best fragrance. The NSW Ambulance service averages about 25 minutes for an inner suburban urgent call. But not mine; the ambulance was based in Paddington (7.8 kilometres or 14 minutes) from my home.

I know of a private outfit which provides a pendant to be worn with an alarm system that can be activated in the event of an emergency. The reviews have not been good; and anyway, given the prevalence of falls in the elderly, why should the government not be responsible for such a service linked to the other emergency services. Like so much of aged care, government has sloughed it off to the private sector.

Ten days later, I am still bruised; my head is clear, yet my proprioception is worse, but I am improving.

Nevertheless, I have had to reflect on the ambulance response. Maybe I shall write a letter.

Was the Hunchback Saved?

Notre-Dame Cathedral was never a favourite of mine, a gloomy edifice stuck in the middle of Paris. This article by a celebrated art historian, Elizabeth Lev, is beautifully written, and in her own words a lovely example of how to extract everything from a nuanced approach. However, unlike Old St Paul’s which was demolished after it was badly damaged by the Great Fire of 1666 and replaced by the Christopher Wren ‘s masterpiece, compared with the Basilica in the Vatican, this Cathedral is being restored to modern gothic glory.

What is it about a church renovation that convinces everyone that society is fast-bound for hell in a handbasket?

I’ve been asking myself this question in recent days because of the hubbub surrounding the proposed rebuilding of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral. On Thursday, plans for the renovation of its interior spaces will be presented to the commission nationale du patrimoine et de l’architecture for approval. In advance of the review, press coverage has sought to whip decisions over Notre Dame’s “wreckovation” into an epic battle between the sacred and profane. But as with most controversies surrounding Notre Dame — and historical sanctuaries more broadly — the performative outrage obscures a more benign reality.

A recent article electrified the otherwise tranquil proceedings of clearing wreckage and stabilizing support structures in the 858-year-old church. Parisian architect Maurice Culot sounded the alarm that the plan for the interior decoration would be as if “Disney were entering Notre Dame.” Other critics accused the church of bowing before the altar of “political correctness.” Panic buttons lit up throughout the Anglosphere, recalling previous fears that the church’s roof would become a swimming pool or a car park.

But what is the hair-pulling about, really? People wept as they watched the cathedral burn, but did they know what was inside? Was it the loss of the stained glass, the statues, or the paintings that they mourned? Not until Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris fire brigade, rushed out with the relic of Christ’s crown of thorns was there general awareness of what treasures the cathedral contained.

Now critics dread the potential introduction of “modern art objects” in the two dozen-plus side chapels. But how many people remember that, pre-fire, they were an ill-kept hodgepodge generally passed over by tourists in search of an Instagram-worthy shot of the windows?

Fewer hot takes and more studied responses would serve the ancient church better. Most reactions are based on the plan for the new interior presented in May by the Rev. Gille Drouin, installed last year as a canon of the cathedral to oversee the renovation. The design calls for a “catechetical path,” in which the church’s new point of entry would be the central portal confronting the viewer with the full majesty of the space. The reconfiguration would also make better use of the side chapels, each adapted to recount salvation history from Genesis to Christ’s resurrection to the life of the church today.

Celebrated monuments that miraculously escaped the fire — the bronze crucifix given by Napoleon III, the marble Notre Dame de Paris, the 14th-century carved choir stalls, and the crown of thorns entombed in the apse — would all feature in a single coherent itinerary.

Cathedral restorers hope to collaborate with the Louvre for the restoration of “the Mays,” 76 large paintings of the Acts of the Apostles donated between 1630 and 1707 by Parisian goldsmiths. Today, some are randomly placed in the side chapels and others are in museums. The plan would return them to the nave, so that visitors would see the witness of the apostles lining the main axis of the church.

Drouin hopes to transform the cathedral, which welcomed 12 million people annually pre-pandemic, into a space that is truly “catholic,” or universal. The plan proposes five chapels for five continents, in which Bible verses would be projected in local languages. Perhaps this is what spawned the Disney comparison, a kind of Catholic Epcot Center.

But for an international icon in a city where 20 percent of residents are immigrants, what’s the problem with spreading a message of hope to every person who crosses that venerable threshold? And while some have dubbed it “Christianity for Dummies,” in a world where many Catholics are shaky on scripture and many young people are raised without religion, some back-to-basics catechetics might be in order.

While the new designs might not be to everyone’s taste, it is helpful to recall the true horrors that this cathedral has survived: French revolutionaries who beheaded its facade statues and repurposed the high altar to host a scantily clad “goddess of reason,” Napoleon’s gutting of the interior for his self-coronation as emperor, the collective neglect that spurred Victor Hugo to write “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” as a cri du coeur to preserve the building.

It is also worth remembering that St. Peter’s Basilica was knocked down and rebuilt by Pope Julius II in 1506 to similar outcry, and the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, one of the oldest Catholic churches in the world, has been rebuilt half a dozen times, each reconstruction adding a piece of “contemporary” art. In these cases, novelty in the name of catechesis has proved its worth. Indeed, the opportunity to commission new art could even revitalize long-stagnant Catholic patronage.

Regardless of attempts to turn Notre Dame’s renovators into cartoon villains, the reality is more nuanced. But nuance, unfortunately, attracts little limelight. Thus topics as seemingly tame as repairing a church after a fire become cultural flash points: Whether praising or panning, everyone gets a thrill. 

Mouse Whisper

Did you know I have an Irish cousin? The Olive-backed Pocket Mouse (Wyoming Pocket Mouse a.k.a Caic Tarbh Mouse) has a silky fur olive-grey colour, with a top band of black and olive. A yellowish-buff line marks its sides and the patches of fur behind its ears are light yellow. It is buff to pure white below, but it has a tail in the shape of a shamrock with a curious phosphorescence useful for directions to the nearest mouse hostelry. The biological name for such a tail is lanteen trefoilias.

 

Olive-backed Pocket Mouse

Modest Expectations – Make Haste to Chiswick, Young Whyman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things to Watch Over

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

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

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

The Amber Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

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

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

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

Omicron – What is in a Letter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the new variant called?”

” Nu.”

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

“Nu.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swedish Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

Subtle but self-falsifying proposition? Anything really changed?

Modest expectation – Border on the Fly

When I was around politics, our office had a regular visitor called Emil Delins. He was a Latvian-born journalist who was a strong supporter of the exiled Baltic countries – Estonia and Lithuania – being joined to Latvia in his advocacy mix. He was very polite, always articulate and fiercely anti-communist (and certainly anti-Russian).

Delins had graduated from a French Lycée in Riga one week before the Soviet occupation of Latvia in June 1940. The Russians then went on a selective elimination of Latvians, concentrating on the armed forces.

A year later it was the Germans’ turn to occupy the country, and a section of the Latvian people welcomed these new invaders; in fact they were numerous enough to create of division in the German army. Latvian Auxiliary Police battalions were raised from volunteers, the first sent to the front was involved in heavy fighting in June 1942 and acquitted itself well. Latvia however wanted to raise a Latvian Legion, under the command of Latvian officers, offering to raise an army of 100,000. In January 1943, Hitler agreed to the creation of the 15th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Latvian). These Latvian police units were deeply implicated in the massacre of 90,000 Latvian Jews and 2,000 Roma people.

It was in the confused situation during the War, but Delins was able to spend time in university studies. Meanwhile, Latvia was occupied by the Germans, but then nearing 1945, the Russians were back, first occupying Estonia before moving towards Latvia. Along the coastline the German resistance, with Latvians involved, was successful in that it remained intact even on the day Germany surrendered, May 8th, 1945.

As such this battleground provided a conduit for Latvians fleeing the advancing Russians by enabling them to cross the Baltic to either Sweden or Germany. Presumably this was the route taken by the Delins family because he bobs up in Germany where there was a note that he undertook further graduate studies in politics. They were lucky in their choice; those who chose Sweden were deported back to the Russian or their Latvian communist allies.

The Delins family reached Australia in 1947.

Even though the number was relatively small, the impact of the Latvian immigrants on our country was vast. There was always the suspicion of migrants, especially the educated, that they were German sympathisers escaping the wrath of their now Russian-occupied country. As I had found out through personal contact, in any country which had been a battleground there was always a group of true believers in a free democratic country, but their problem was that they were the targets for both the committed communist and the committed national socialist.

I knew Delins was anti-Russian and passionately anti-communist. His advocacy did not convince Whitlam, whose government recognised that the three Baltic countries were legitimately part of Russia. Emil Delins’ advocacy outlasted the Whitlam decree, and the following year the new Fraser government reversed the decision of the then status quo.

One could detect the hidden hand of Emil Delins.

A further reflection

Despite his courtesy and surface good-naturedness, I always felt uncomfortable with anyone who was part of advocacy anti-communist groups. Delins detected that uneasiness in me, and on occasions he asked me questions designed to see how strong my sympathy was for his cause.

My problem with all these refugee groups, including those where the members had come from countries where there had been a strong collaboration with the Nazis, and especially those who were well spoken and articulate, was knowing to whom I was talking.

Mill Road, Corofin

Not that Delins gave any suggestion of that, but in one conversation I did mention the similarity with Ireland and the centuries of oppression we had to endure at the hands of the British. But then what would he have made of one schooled in the best public school tradition? In a way my Irish ancestors collaborated as they worked for the British landowners. I always remember the disdain of the lady in the Clare Heritage & Genealogy centre in Corofin, when told that my ancestors were Egans from Clare but of the Church of Ireland. Egans from Clare not Catholics? Not possible. Nevertheless, that was the end of the conversation as I slunk off. I still can’t go back on the Egan side beyond the late 18th century.  My great-great grandfather, John Egan, was a flour miller.

I have written about some of this Irish heritage before; the flour mill still stands on the river Inch. The Irish have been long oppressed; it has how I rationalised the advocacy of the Balts for their freedom.

The problem is that oppression is a very ambiguous word. 

Tolarno’s – where we used “to get Shot” on Fridays.

Mentioning Latvians. I have known quite a few. One was Andris Saltups, who was then cardiology registrar at Prince Henry’s Hospital.  He and myself, together with Jan Stockigt, who was a young doctor researching diabetes, regularly lunched together. Of these three blokes who went to lunch on Friday at the then recently-opened French restaurant Tolarno, I was the only one born in Australia – Jan/Jim in Germany with an Australian mother.  Both Jim and his mother were caught in the crossfire fleeing from the Russian advance to escape from Germany.

We were all three mates in those days, in those far-off days of conformity we had ties with cannons on them to acknowledge the guys who got “shot” on Fridays. Andris, who had become Andy, was correct in a suit, Jan now transformed to Jim with a blazer; and Jack, once known as John, in an ageing stained sports jacket. Probably a bit formal by today’s standards.

Tolarno had a whiff of the exotic, even if our semi-jock doctor image did not quite fit the bill. The plat de jour and the red wine did.

Mirka Mora murals at Tolarno, St Kilda

The walls were covered with distinctive murals – distinctive faces – bit spooky I thought.

The documentary on Mirka Mora reminded me of those days in the 60s when both the Moras were in full flight. There was something exotic about a French restaurant. Drinking wine for me had become a relatively recent habit, for I grew up in a world of sherry and whisky; with perhaps a touch of Drambuie, crème de menthe or chartreuse after dinner. What is so everyday was new, and the Moras were in the forefront.  Not that we fitted into the arty-crafty school. Georges would acknowledge us because we regulars were often engulfed in hilarity, but his loquacious wife Mirka had difficulty finding an opening to talk to us, but perhaps we were not interesting enough. Understandable.

Prince Henry’s hospital is no more. Georges and Mirka split. Tolarno survived under Leon Massoni, whose family had owned Florentino’s, then the posh signature restaurant in the City.

Eventually, Jim Stockigt went off to California to work with Ed Biglieri, a research scientist /clinician. I remember just before Jim went that he made sure that he had a very short haircut, because haircuts were reputed to be expensive in America. Jim came from a musical family and was a highly skilled bassoonist.

Andy Saltups was friendly with my wife, as both were refugees, and I think the parents knew one another somehow. We saw him socially quite often as he was, for a time, very close with one of my then wife’s friends.

The lunches at Tolarno were a tiny wedge in one’s life. After lunch we would occasionally go down the hall to the Gallery, but there was only so much to see, and it seemed an extension of the murals which adorned the restaurant.

Over the years, I saw Jim twice more after he came back from America, the last just before he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The promise to catch up was there, but in this case Fate intervened.

As for Andy, when I left Prince Henry’s the link was broken – too little remained common.  He stayed there as a specialist cardiologist. I have not seen him in 50 years. Prince Henry’s closed in 1991 and is now the “Melburnian”, a high-priced apartment building.

As I watched the Mirka Mora documentary, Tolarno was mentioned more in the context of the gallery and her paintings rather than the Moras’ influence on Melbourne’s dining habits. Understandable, given the bias of the documentary.

When we lunched at Tolarno, Mirka was always there. She had a dark uncommon beauty then, suggestive of Leslie Caron. I was disturbed by the documentary. What was presented in the documentary were people remembering their link with an elderly Mirka.  There is a fine line between description of idiosyncrasy and that of pathology.

What I found most disturbing was the story of this woman seeing Mirka in what was probably 2005, sitting at the far end of the Georges’ tearoom. Georges was a department store which epitomised the Melbourne couture, a magnet for the well-connected or those who wished to be. However, even such a beacon of detached privilege was on its last pegs at that time.

This woman, who knew Mirka, recounted staring at the solitary figure who had a giant éclair in front of her. Once Mirka knew she had an audience, she promptly stuffed the whole éclair into her mouth, so that cream smeared her cheeks and chin. One enormous ingestion.  The watcher thought it was a supreme example of Mirka’s humour; whereas I felt a sense of sadness. Had she come to this!  The documentary was riddled with stories of her artistic attainments, her generosity, her sense of the ridiculous, her love of children as she aged.  Yet that image of stuffing her mouth  with an éclair stuck.

Sometimes I wonder whether the sense of the ridiculous, playing the fool, should not be translated into self-loathing. I have no right in one way to make a judgement on Mirka Mora, but then the documentary watchers did not see her in a newly-opened Tolarno in 1967. The documentary brushed over that time, and once you document a person then there should be nowhere to hide such crucial subject matter.

But for good or ill, it provided me with an opportunity to remember an uncommon time, which would become all too common as Australia emerged from its wartime monochrome and we talked endlessly about “multi-cultural”.

The woman who should have been awarded two Nobel Prizes

Janine Sargeant.  Guest  Contributor

In the week when Kate Jenkins, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, released her report on the “frat house” culture (as described in The New York Times) of Australia’s Parliament House and the generally bad behaviour there, a revealing book on work culture and the treatment of women in another era has been reviewed in The Guardian Weekly.

For those of us who know Rosalind Franklin’s story, the book just serves to further highlight the appalling behaviour of her fellow researchers.  For those who don’t, we are talking about the discovery of DNA.

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin was a graduate of Cambridge University, a chemist and X-ray crystallographer. She discovered the key properties of DNA, which led to the correct description of its double helix. Specifically, it was her work on the X-ray diffraction images of DNA, particularly “Photo 51”, that led to the discovery of the double helix.

Her colleagues, Francis Crick and James Watson not only appropriated her research findings as their own but hogged the limelight without any attribution to Franklin.

The reason? Franklin’s “Photo 51” was handed to Watson by a colleague, which led Watson to redo his 3D modelling and it was another piece of Franklin’s work that similarly led Crick towards “their” scientific discovery of a lifetime.

The book, The Secret of Life, by Howard Markel, condemns all the men involved, but singled out Crick and Watson whose “lack of a formal citation (in their historic paper for Nature) of Franklin’s contribution … is the most egregious example of their negligence”. Negligence? No, that word implies omission; this was a sin of commission – they deliberately excluded Franklin. Watson has been described as having many strong prejudices, but perhaps Franklin’s greatest sin was simply to be a woman in a man’s laboratory.

In his book, Markel went on to paint a picture of a culture of misogyny and egotism that punished Franklin for personality flaws that in her male colleagues were tolerated.

Photo 51

Crick, Watson and Maurice Wilkins – who had given Franklin’s “Photograph 51” to Watson – shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for “their discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, which helped solve one of the most important of all biological riddles”.

Nobel rules now prohibit posthumous nominations (although this statute was not formally in effect until 1974) or splitting of the Prizes more than three ways, which perhaps makes the omission of Franklin all the more egregious. Easier to just ignore Franklin’s contribution.  Apparently in 2018, Watson still remained outraged at the suggestion that Franklin might have shared the Nobel Prize, although he acknowledged that his actions with regard to Franklin were “not exactly honourable”. Too little, too late.

But there’s more:  after a disagreement with colleague Watson and the Research Director, John Randall, in 1953 Franklin had moved to Birbeck College at the University of London, a public research institution and much of her work done on DNA, including her crystallographic calculations was then just handed over to Wilkins.

At Birbeck, again using X-ray crystallography, Franklin led pioneering work on the molecular structures of viruses. At that time her findings were in direct contradiction to the ideas of the then eminent virologist Norman Pirie – it was her observations that ultimately proved correct.

In 1958, on the day before Franklin was to unveil what would now be excitedly announced as “a significant research finding” on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus, an RNA virus, at an international fair in Brussels, she died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37. Her team member, Aaron Klug, continued her research and he went on to become the sole winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 “for his development of crystallographic electron microscopy and his structural elucidation of biologically important nucleic acid-protein complexes”. This work was exactly what Franklin had started and which she introduced to Klug; she should have shared that Nobel Prize too.

Rosalind Franklin was never nominated for a Nobel Prize. Her early death meant awkward decisions about including a woman as one of the nominees didn’t have to be made.

An interesting endnote: on 28 February 1953, Watson and Crick felt they had solved the problem of DNA enough for Crick to proclaim at The Eagle, a local pub in Cambridge, that they had “found the secret of life”.

Watson and Crick did not cite the X-ray diffraction work of Wilkins and Franklin in their original paper, although they apparently admitted having “been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr MHF Wilkins, Dr RE Franklin and their co-workers at King’s College London”. In fact, Watson and Crick cited no experimental data at all in support of their DNA model. Franklin and Gosling’s publication of the DNA X-ray image, in the same issue of Nature, served as the principal evidence. So just whose “secret of life” was it that Watson and Crick were announcing?

(In the past 25 years there has been a catch up, with a plethora of recognition and awards, including a TV movie, two documentaries and three plays; the Boat Club of Franklin’s alma mater Newnham College Cambridge launched a new racing VIII, naming it the Rosalind Franklin, and in 2005, the DNA sculpture (which was donated by James Watson) outside Clare College Cambridge, incorporates the words “The double helix model was supported by the work of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins” – elementary Dr Watson). James Watson is now 93 but it is not too late for him to acknowledge the actual role of Rosalind Franklin; he was absorbed into the same British research establishment mores that also distorted Alexander Fleming’s actual minimal contribution to penicillin research. This still did not impede Fleming sharing the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, whereas it should have gone to another.

Happy Hannukah

Latkes are deep-fried potato pancakes and are a traditional food of Hanukkah, but reporter Tamara Keith couldn’t figure out how to make them, even with the help of her mother-in-law’s recipe. After spending some time in the kitchen with her mother-in-law, she learned that the recipe was to blame

TAMARA: When I was converting to Judaism, my rabbi strongly recommended that I buy some cookbooks. It seems part of learning to be Jewish was learning to cook Jewish foods. Growing up Methodist in a small town, my first introduction to latkes was in college after I met my boyfriend, Ira. The potato pancakes Ira’s mom Andrea and sister Shannon made were terrific. Crispy and warm, dunked in apple sauce for that perfect balance of grease and fruit.

I asked for the recipe and Andrea photocopied a page from a paperback cookbook. The next year at Hanukkah, I followed the recipe exactly but the latkes came out all wrong, like over-crisp hash browns. Failure after failure led me to Manishevitz instant latkes. Just add eggs. It’s like defeat in a box. Ira and I are married now, so it finally seemed okay to go back to my now my mother-in-law and ask her what I had been doing wrong. The first step is easy, peeling the potatoes.

And then what comes next?

ANDREA, her Jewish Mother-in-Law: Next we have to grate the potatoes the proper amount of smoothness and roughness. They have to be smoother than hash browns, but we don’t want them to be completely mushy.

TAMARA: Which none of this is actually in the recipe.

ANDREA: No.

TAMARA: The whole consistency thing.

ANDREA: This is the magic of Jewish tradition and family tradition.

Hannukah occurs in December. In the second century BCE, against all odds, a small band of faithful but poorly-armed Jews, led by Judah the Maccabee, defeated their Syrian-Greek rulers, drove them from the Holy land, reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicated it to the service of Jehovah.

When they wanted to light the Temple’s Menorah (the seven-branched candelabrum), they found only a single pot of olive oil that had escaped contamination by the Greeks. Miraculously, they lit the menorah and this single pot of oil lasted for eight days, until new oil could be prepared with ritual purity.

To commemorate and publicise these miracles, the festival of Hannukah was begat.

There is thus no possible connection with the Christian Christmas apart from the timing, and in a season of presents, one tradition of Hannukah is giving money to children.  But once it arrives, the insidious euphoria of commercialism can overwhelm any religious significance.

Christians undertake an annual ritual engorgement around Christmas Day, presumably to counterpoint the meagre circumstances of the Bethlehem birth. Hannukah, because of the oil association, is a festival of the deep fried, as the description of Jewish potato cakes above attests.

Hannukah does not make the same impression on our community as it does in the United States. My attention nevertheless was directed to an article lamenting how Hannukah had been polluted by some of the impedimenta of Christmas.

This article in the Washington Post bemoaned the creeping tendency of Hannukah to be converted into a Jewish Christmas, where it is in fact one of the lesser Jewish holiday periods, and in the eyes of the author of this piece, acknowledging Hannukah could be as simple as lighting the menorah and let its light shine for eight days.

He describes a recent trip to a large retailer where he spotted the following abominations: a festive tray featuring four minuscule bearded dudes, their hats decorated with dreidels, above the phrase “Rollin’ With My Gnomies”; a throw pillow, in the blue-and-white color scheme of the Israeli flag, stitched with the phrase “Oy to the World”; an assortment of elves, sporting Jewish stars and looking like they belonged more in a Brooklyn yeshiva than anywhere near the North Pole; and a set of three kitchen towels with the truly baffling wording, “Peace Love & Latkes”. 

There is not much more to add, except for you, the reader to contemplate the Mouse’s Whisper this week. It is not only Hannukah, that Mammon defiles.

A Card from Our Seychellois Friends

This week we received a Christmas card from Michael and Heather Adams. Isn’t it so quaint to receive Christmas cards, especially from a family in the Seychelles.

The 2021 Christmas Card

We visited the Seychelles over 30 years ago, and it was the last leg of our African tour, which in that Apartheid period excluded South Africa. Qantas then flew to Harare in Zimbabwe, where we disembarked and roamed through a number of countries, including climbing Kilimanjaro and succumbing to malaria in Madagascar. Seychelles was the place to recuperate. We flew to the main island Mahé and stayed in the capital Victoria.

The Seychelles was once uninhabited and the first Europeans to sight the main island was Vasco da Gama. It later became a matter of disputed acquisition, between the United Kingdom and France. In this case, the UK were the winners, but there has remained a strong French influence. Once the Seychelles was settled, there inevitably were slaves, emancipated in 1835, from whom the Creole culture has emerged.

It should be recognised that Seychelles has a huge footprint across the Indian Ocean – 115 islands, of which only eight are inhabited, but it had to wait until 1903 to gain a separate existence from Mauritius.

At one stage during this stay, we ended up driving down this gravel roadway and coming up to a picture book wooden house set in this tropical backdrop, which spilt across the house itself. This was the home of Heather and Michael Adams. The home was on Anse des Poules Bleues and, it is said, true to the name of the Bay, the family had bluish hens which laid blue eggs.

Michael seems to have recently acquired a knighthood, which is not surprising given the high regard for his skill in silk screening, its composition and his depiction of his Idyll. He has been in Seychelles since 1972 and recently has said that he intended staying there. He had grown up in England and is said to have been inspired by the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, at a time when the garden was a wild unkempt neglected “lost garden”.

Heather had been in Kenya when they met after he left Uganda to get away from Idi Amin, and they married. They have two talented children, both artists, both having learnt the silk screening skills according to the latest Christmas card, all still in the Seychelles. Their names are Tristan and Alyssa.

When we stumbled upon his gallery, we were absolutely blown away by the complexity, yet a compelling simplicity of the lines of colours; colour which overwhelmed us when we entered his studio.

We bought some of Michael’s works, including a large screen print which adorns the wall, and required more than 20 screens. His works are so reflective of his perspective, of a person awash in the joy and yet serenity of his Seychellois life. No wonder that he has been likened to Paul Gauguin. One in French Polynesia; one in the French diaspora of the Indian Ocean.

I recently purchased one of his silk screens for one of our sons for his half-century, which has pride of place in his home in Melbourne.

Otherwise, the intention has always been to go back to the Seychelles, but we haven’t. For Australians it is off the beaten track. The Seychelles may be the playground of the wealthy Europeans; it may sit uneasily off the African coast where Somali pirates have recently roamed the archipelago. To see the giant Aldabra tortoises, reputedly the oldest one being about 190 years old, but apparently exiled to St Helena – a testudineous Bonaparte.

Yet every time the Adams family Christmas card arrives, it stirred the intention to return. But with the intervening years since 1990 when we were there, the intention has burned lower as age entangled us.

This year, the watercolour painting of copra workers of the Botanical Gardens reflects the time he and Heather had just arrived in the Seychelles – 1973.

But to emphasise how determined the continuation of this exchange has been with us and others, whether for such a period of time, on the bottom of the card is printed:

Apologies if you did not receive Christmas cards last year from us but due to Covid, our Post Office was closed for most of the year and no post was accepted to most countries.”

Our card to them this year will be emailed.

James Pindell has a few questions to answer

James Pindell is a bespectacled unremarkable looking graduate of the School of Journalism at Columbia University. He could be anybody’s journo at that Press Conference. Yet he is a political reporter for the Boston Globe, which lifts his ranking. He posed these questions on November 26.

He sets out three questions about Biden and provides commentary rather than answers.

Question 1: But why wouldn’t Biden run?

Very few American presidents have openly taken re-election off the table: One of them, James K. Polk, announced it the moment he received his party’s presidential nomination in 1844. His decision was part ideological — as a believer in limited government power — and practical: agreeing to only serve one term was likely the only way he could build a coalition of party power brokers to back him for the nomination.

Biden has different issues. The reason people talk about him serving only one term is largely due to his age. At 78, he was the oldest person ever elected to serve as president in 2020. He could break that record if he ran again in 2024 at age 82.

Mental and physical capacity to serve as the leader of the free world is something that voters must determine for themselves. While plenty of data is available from Biden’s doctors, it is still a subjective decision by every voter in how to read the data.

But lately, there is a second reason that people, including Democrats, are asking whether Biden will run: his poor poll numbers.

Now 10 months into his presidency, Biden’s approval ratings have never been this low. A Marist poll out on Wednesday showed him at just 42 percent, in line with other recent polls. This means Biden is the most unpopular president at this point in his presidency, other than Donald Trump.

Question 2: Can anyone other than Biden win?

Aides have already signalled in anonymous quotes to the press that if Biden does run it might be out of a sense of duty. The 2020 election turned out to be much closer than Democrats thought it would be. It is possible that among all the Democrats who ran in the 2020 primary — the most diverse field in history and one of the largest — only Biden could have defeated Trump for re-election.

With Trump looking more likely than not to run again, the Trump factor is not off the table. And the field of potential candidates is basically the same crew that ran in 2020.

And, yes, if Biden doesn’t run it likely would be a crew. The most obvious heir apparent to Biden, his vice president Kamala Harris, had a 28 percent approval rating in one recent poll.

This has led to open speculation, even this week, that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg could run. Buttigieg would not only be among the youngest people to be elected president, but also the first openly gay person.

Let’s be clear here: Even after winning the Iowa Caucuses and coming in a close second in the New Hampshire primary, the Democratic electorate didn’t think Buttigieg could win (or that he sufficiently understood the Black vote). It is unclear whether a stint as transportation secretary would change that.

Question 3: If Biden doesn’t run how badly will tensions within the party explode?

As anyone could see during the Democratic presidential primary season or witness this year during negotiations over infrastructure and “Build Back Better” legislation, there is a lot of tension within the party.

The party’s base has moved left and wants leaders who are not old white men. There is also an establishment, led by Biden and South Carolina Representative James Clyburn, who feel like they are more in tune with Democrats and the electorate as a whole.

That next year the Republicans could win big because of Biden, prompting Biden and his allies to say that only proves that Biden has to run, is the conundrum.

Amy Klobuchar

Having read the questions, let me answer them in my normal ‘umble way.

  1. When you get to 80, it is not the new 60.
  2. I doubt whether Kamala Harris has the firepower. I have always been a fan of Amy Klobucher, but the question is, will Biden survive 2022 (and for that matter will Trump)?
  3. Chissà!

The Pindell article could now be subject to the “Omicron-scope”. A great deal can happen in a day or two while the Virus stalks, changes its clothes and attacks again. After all, he did write this opinion piece in the Pre-Omicron Age.

Mouse Whisper

Black Friday 1939

Fire sale. Damaged goods at a generous discount.

Modest Expectations – California Chrome

The Federal election must be held by May. The Opposition parties should emphasise the need for a national anti-corruption commission, and it has a whole repast of corrupt actions to remind the electorate of what the Morrison Government has been doing. It seems a no-brainer.

Ideally money allocated, and therefore for every grant, should be able to provide evidence how closely “expected” matched “actual” outcome. There are a few outstanding rorters, but there is no need to use such a pejorative term; just detail what Morrison’s government has done in simple terms to tell the story to the electorate – of shameless conduct by this gaggle of mostly unattractive men.

In 1966, the Holt Government achieved a huge electoral win. Seats that had never been held by the Liberal Party fell to them and the most notorious of the elected was a 22-year old travel officer named Andrew Jones. He was a complete idiot and a harbinger of some of the current young members (and would-be members) of the Government. Yet, through his brashness, he actually touched on the truth of the matter, however clumsily. He made the fatal mistake of saying that half the members of Parliament were drunk at any one time and was made to apologise to the Parliament as a whole. His language of the religious jingoistic zealot then would be at peace with some of Morrison’s tribe, if not completely reflecting the happy clapper routine.

His arrival and demise reflected a time when Australia was convulsed by the Vietnam War and selective conscription. The streets were alive with protests and, when coupled with anti-South African sentiment over apartheid, one may have thought the people were consigning the conservative government – which Federally had been in power since 1949 – to electoral defeat.

I can remember watching the election results with a mate called John Douglas and, as the electoral landslide eventuated during the night, we got progressively drunk. As young doctors, we were witnessing electoral carnage. Nevertheless this was an election buoyed by protest from those who ultimately lost.

My mind turns to the current collection of protestors who are a grab-bag of the authoritarian dispossessed. My thesis is that in a democracy this type of perceived extremist behaviour makes the bulk of the population uneasy. When the Prime Minister seems to be lukewarm in his condemnation, then the uneasiness may well be translated into electoral defeat.

In countries where the implementation of democracy is fragile and electoral defeat imminent, the government often just simply cancels the election, or puts if off while it destroys the opposition in the manner that this band of extremist would like to occur. The most apposite example was Nazi Germany in recent times, but it is a frequent playbook throughout the World, used on every Continent – even in Australia when Queensland was ruled by Bjelke-Petersen.

The criminality of him and his cronies was revealed by the Fitzgerald Inquiry, and yet there were people in his Government who were considered clean. His successor Mike Ahern certainly was, but corruption is never far away in Queensland.

In Australia and particularly in the above-mentioned State there would be a great number of the politicians who would not be concerned if the inconvenience of democracy was brushed aside.  There is always the “unexpected expected” intervention, the obvious one being takeover by the armed forces, which has never occurred in Australia. Notwithstanding, in the thirties with Jack Lang in full flight, it was a close thing. Monash himself was an important figure in preventing such military intervention. However, the threat is always there; unexpected in the timing; expected in its ultimate execution.

The fate of this government is tied to whether most of the population wants people pushing makeshift gallows through the street, when we Australians as a nation have long since abandoned capital punishment. I think threatening to lynch the Premier of Victoria is a criminal offence, and yet there are those on the conservative side of politics who either sit on their hands or condone it.

The world has just survived the most egregious assault in democracy by the action of Trump in his illegitimate claim to have won the 2020 US election. People point to the fact that he garnered 70 million votes. He still lost. The fate of democracy hangs on its survival in America. Churchill’s greatest contribution to democracy was to show that it still worked in Europe; his landslide defeat in 1945 at the polls and his acceptance that, at his finest hour, the people voted “Out”. Two finest hours!

America, despite its impressive beginnings, has always had those who defile democracy, but probably not with the force that Trump exerted in his bid to destroy American democracy. I doubt where Trump would win if he stood again. Nevertheless, after his January 6 antics, he has galvanised his “lumpenproletariat” where, to my way of thinking, his toxic effect is overwhelming.

I wished that my generation had asked their parents which side they would have fought for in the Spanish Civil War – the Roman Catholic Church on one side with The Nazis and the Italian fascists; on the other side the Russians, communists and anarchists – and sandwiched in between, those who wanted Spain to shed its royal family and just become a democracy. The question is simple. I still wonder what my father and mother would have said. But I never asked them; perhaps they would been on the fence, perhaps not.

For me, born in the year Franco was triumphant, Homage to Catalonia has been one of the books which has coloured my political views. Now I read a lesser book, called Guernica, which centres around that cold-blooded massacre. Picasso’s representation of Guernica, which I first saw in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, just demonstrates how little we have travelled, to combat those would extinguish any shred of democracy.

In the end that is the reason that Morrison should be removed – and take the “Duttonbird” with him.

Abiden with the cardinal cuckoos

Marjorie Taylor Greene is unvaccinated, Lindsay Graham doesn’t think kids are entitled to a Kindergarten education, and America’s schools are being indoctrinated by the scary and totally real forces of critical race theory.

So that is one shade of America. Most people here would not know of these Republican cardinal red cuckoos.

I was very critical of Biden, sniping at him for more than a year in the run up to his election. My major beef was about his role in disgracefully discrediting Anita Hall which enabled one the worst Supreme Court judges in my lifetime, Clarence Thomas, to be confirmed. It is a stain that cannot be erased, but the people who remember the stain are fewer and fewer; and remembrance of this will be brushed away.

Biden has achieved a tipping point, and the problem is a substantial minority of Americans are blindly resisting. In his opposition a number of rich men, who have to make a decision – either resist change and the country goes down the Trump toilet. The others may go with the flow.

First Biden turned off the Afghanistan tap for the arms industry. He did it rapidly in accord with the Machiavellian dictum which says that if it is potentially painful and hence unpopular, act decisively and quickly – an acute transitory pain is far better than having a chronic pain over months or years to achieve the same outcome, even if the chronic pain become so dull one can forget the underlying cause of the pain which festers away.

The interstate highway system and all the accompanying infrastructure was the legacy of the Eisenhower administration. Eisenhower improved the road system as an adjunct to American defence. Johnson followed with his Great Society measures. Even then Johnson and then all his successors’ expenditure on infrastructure has been subordinated to expenditure on armaments for little if any results apart from disfigured and disabled countries and generations of chronic disfigured and disabled men and women who served in these conflicts.

The Americans and their Allies were cannon fodder in the destruction of so many countries in search of some mindless goal – or in the case of Iraq, loot in the form of black gold.  Useless conflict fomented by a coterie of self-pitying, inhumane and in the long term unsuccessful Americans, their role model being that distinguished conniving ghastly warmonger, Henry Kissinger. He is the person who once said – the illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a bit longer.

In other words, infrastructural regeneration has been subordinated to visions of Imperial America.

Biden has seemingly learnt from these foibles and may now be doing what he or his predecessors should have done years ago. Few people get the number of chances he has had. The most engaging quality he has displayed is a steely resolve to get on with his agenda, and not disappear down a trail of rhetorical flourish as Obama did when faced with a similar challenge.

We’ll watch with interest this infrastructure program which has the ability to reinvigorate America and drive out the dark side of Mr Hayek as interpreted particularly by Donald Trump.

The Louisville Slugger

Frankfort is one of the lesser-known places to visit in Kentucky. It is where the capital is, a straightlaced township of tidy wide streets surrounding the traditional wedding cake Capitol with a white cupola on top.

We drive around the quiet streets, because it’s a Saturday afternoon on the road to Louisville, the largest city in Kentucky which sprawls across the Ohio River into Indiana. We had friends living there at the time. Sally was working at Churchill Downs where, on the composite sand, fibre and rubber racetrack once a year the hooves of the best three year old thoroughbreds imprint themselves for one and a quarter miles in a bid to win the Kentucky Derby.

We were not there during the May bedlam which surrounds the Derby. We just had a quiet look around the course and then toured into the countryside – blue grass covered lush gently undulating studs. Kentucky is the “Blue Grass State. “Blue grass music” is a staple diet, but there is always the sentimentality of Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”.  The blue grass is so green it almost has a blue tinge; it may look good in a Kentucky meadow but it is shallow rooted and thus does not survive heat well.

Blue grass music is linked to Kentucky as it emerged from the Appalachian people. Hillbillies they are called and live in this range of mountains, which carves its way through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas. The alternate tinkling and then frenzy of the banjo, the fiddle, the bass and the guitar are nevertheless a long way from Louisville.

Sluggers

Louisville gave its name to the Louisville Lip – Muhammed Ali, but also to the Louisville Slugger. We were not given an effigy of yon fighter, but we were given two miniature Louisville Sluggers – the time-honoured baseball bat made from ash.

Nevertheless, the most memorable highlight for the ubriaco was being introduced to Maker’s Mark. It was well before it became a favourite brand of bourbon whiskey here in Australia, and my friends used to buy it, not by the bottle but by the jug, and were very liberal in the hospitality. Bourbon whiskey is only made in Kentucky, and Jack Daniels, for instance, calls itself sour mash because it is made in Tennessee.

We all went to the Makers Mark distillery in Loreto, about an hour’s drive from Louisville. Bourbon is corn derived I was so impressed that I decided to buy a bottle before we crossed the State line but learnt another fact about the bourbon and mint julep state. Some of the counties are dry, and I would have to try and buy a bottle in a dry county. So, empty-handed, I learnt another lesson in the tragedy of life as I left the shop. Never judge a Bourbon by its county.

Pre-COVID-19 Estonia – a Flag of Blue, Black and White

Korstnapühkija

We arrived by ferry from Helsinki and booked into the Savoy Hotel. Yesterday the hotel was the centre of attention when the Baltic “sweepdom” had gathered in front of the Hotel.  Apparently, the happy stout little chimney sweep statue out the front of the hotel draws the Estonian chimney sweeps annually to rub his buttons and nose. These have been so polished they stand out on this metal statue.

This Savoy Hotel is a Tallinn landmark and classifies itself as “boutique” but to the naked eye it looks more “Le Magasin” to me. It is that large.

Today although it is June, in Tallinn as in the rest of Estonia the weather is very cold. The wind chill factor has driven the temperature close to freezing. Despite this we make a short walk up the city hill. There are many streets leading from the square where our hotel is located. They are all quaint and bitterly cold. The cross streets give a terrace effect and the market stalls on the flat terrace provide only limited shelter against the cold. We soon abandon this foray.

Initially I had suggested that my companion find the oldest pharmacy in Europe a little further up the hill. I had been there some years before and for somebody interested in the evolution of therapeutic drugs, it was worth seeing. My vague gestures and the wind whipping at the map, so it is hard to hold flat let alone read, makes her abandon the search after 20 fruitless minutes. I have been frozen sitting on the granite wall. It is not really a voyage of discovery. We retreated to the warmth of the hotel bar.

The food has become more varied from the pig and potato fare that I remembered my last time in Estonia. This has been replaced by the dainty MEKK –Moodne Eesti Köögikunst cuisine at the Savoy. The salad is all miniature leaves interspersed with edible flowers – chew on a violet or viola or pansy – but the seafood, whether it be pike or perch or herring or salmon or other packed into a terrine, is very palatable and there is copious rye bread.

In the bar to drink she has a brandy and dry and I have a martini – vodka rather than gin. After all we are in Estonia. The Savoy bar is very long and we are perched on the end where the faux-granite resembles the prow of a boat. We settle in to wait the cold snap out. It does not improve, and the flowers in their boxes outside shiver.

The next day the weather does improve marginally – the sunlight struggling to prove that June has arrived.  We pay a visit to Saint Nicholas Church Museum.  Tallinn was carpet bombed by the Russians in May 1944, and the church – a beautiful reminder of mediaeval Hanseatic wealth – was destroyed in that raid. It has taken 30 years for it to be rebuilt into a semblance of its former self.

A tourist site can be so crowded that it becomes a forest of people concealing what you want to see – and I hate being moved on. It is understandable. You can’t stand in front a piece of art the whole day, pondering if it is limiting the number of people passing through, who may want to ape your stance. The other problem of course is that, as with airports, art galleries are long distance events, especially if the exhibits overwhelm that ability for the mind to process and after a time the mind gives up and they end up in a blur.

Now in this museum, the cabinet high altar which was constructed in the fifteenth century is a splendid masterpiece by Herman Rode.  It opens up to display the panels of brightly painted figures. He was a painter of that distinctive late mediaeval representation of the human form. The background depicts his native Lubeck in Northern Germany. The altar is a complexity as it opens in two stages; the first the painted narrative, the second a wooden hagiography where multiple wooden figures peer expressionless from their cell. One of the figures, St Barbara, the patron saint of the dying, is depicted holding what appears to be the mediaeval equivalent of an intercontinental missile. It is actually a tower, but it has an uncanny resemblance to a missile. As well as the patron saint of the dying, she is also coincidentally the patron saint of explosive manufacturers. True!

Herman Rode was a contemporary with Bernt Notke, the painter whose version of the Danse Macabre hangs in a dark alcove of this museum.  The photographs of this painting are always taken in a blaze of arc lights. In the natural gloom we need to be close to the canvas in order to identify the conga line of people and skeletons, with the skeleton wearing a turban up front playing what may have been a torupill – the Estonian bagpipe. It is confronting, because of the representation of the pope, the emperor, the fashion plate lady, the merchant prince all connected via grimacing skeletons and in between there is the cardinal in his wide brimmed scarlet hat, depicted as if he had been interrupted on his way to lunch. The painting fragment ends with a capering skeleton. Bit spooky, she said and in the shadows of the building the tableau seems to invite us to join the conga line. We escape through a narrow corridor lined with mops, buckets and bottles of cleaners through an open doorway, that is conveniently close to the exit.  All the massive doors of the museum are firmly locked.  Ours is the unconventional exit.

Out into the sunlight and gradually the weather has improved so that next day we are able to have lunch out in the open at the Olde Hansa restaurant. The waitresses are all attired in Brueghelesque brown working clothes – brown belted dresses and white or coloured linen bonnets. Sitting on the solid wooden benches one associates with wenches as we chew on the dried elk, I had flashbacks of the country’s Hanseatic past.

Like the Welsh, the Estonians are great singers, and they have a penchant for folk dances. Brooms are used as props, which may be hardly “PC”, but there is a simple refreshing optimism among the Estonians which you cannot help embracing. In our own country we tend to avoid these faux-mediaeval places, which dot the landscape as a means of indulging in nostalgia for a mythical past. In Tallinn Old Town the indulgence seems to be less fanciful – just a glance back to the past, if a more congenial one.

Saatse Boot

Estonia lives with Russia in an uneasy relationship. It is rare for this country ever to be functional as an independent State, and yet in the East there is an Estonian gravel road between two villages which crosses the border into a Russian territory protrusion called the Saatse Boot. This anomaly survives the separation of Estonia from Russia in 1991, and while theoretically this sliver of land should have been handed over in 2005, nothing has happened despite the agreement to do so being signed years ago.

Thankfully we could enter Latvia without having to go through Russia. There was a diversion to the seaside town of Parnu for lunch at MUM, a restaurant where she had duck and I had the Estonian version of schnitzel. Baltic Sea beaches are impressive. The beach at Parnu is no exception. It is long, pristine yet this day absolutely frigid, few people were wandering along it because early June was not yet summer. It was still “icumin-in”.

The Economist Produces an A-Serbic Volley Below

For more than 15 years, the “big three” of men’s tennis—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic—have had a stranglehold of the game. They have won 60 of the past 73 grand-slams, the sport’s most important tournaments, winning 20 each. All three have enjoyed periods as the undisputed champion. But in recent years, as injuries and age have ravaged Messrs Nadal and Federer, Mr Djokovic has surged ahead. In 2021, he was imperious, winning the first three grand-slams and securing the year-end number one ranking for a record seventh time. But while other elite players must find the dominance of the big three daunting, recent results offer them hope.

In September Daniil Medvedev won his first major tournament by beating Mr Djokovic in the final of the US Open, denying the Serb a historic “calendar grand-slam” (winning all four slams in a year). Then on November 20th Alexander Zverev beat Mr Djokovic in the semi-finals of the ATP Finals, the prestigious season-ending finale (and went on to defeat Mr Medvedev in the final one day later). Are these victories a harbinger of better times for them and others on the tour?

According to Elo, system which rates players by their performance and the quality of opponents they face, Mr Djokovic’s rating at the end of 2021 was 2,178 points, his lowest in a decade and just 19 points higher than the second-ranked Mr Medvedev. Last year the gap between the pair was 128 points.

These three players have been so dominant but now, with injuries and age, Federer and Nadal are close to retirement, and no longer in the elite. However, one never knows on the clay surface of Raymond Garros with Nadal.

The problem is Djokovic and his infuriatingly ambivalent view on COVID-19 vaccination. I have no knowledge of whether he has ever been inoculated, (there was a suggestion that he caught the disease whilst in Serbia at a tournament he organised) given that in parts of Eastern Europe, many of the diseases which mass vaccination programs have almost wiped out in Western society, persist. For instance, has Djokovic had a rabies shot – an exotic disease to us but not in Eastern Europe?

However, this background is superfluous because his truculence fuels the anti-vaxxers, and while he may be one of the biggest drawcards because of the number of tournaments he has won rather than his social graces, then the money people behind world tennis are liable to genuflect. However, as he slips in his rankings this current pandering in the name of box office receipts will fade. He probably is an over-rated commodity anyway.

I would hope that the short-term gain in World-Tennis being infected by the “brat-pack” with the McEnroe and Connors of the world has been abandoned.  Djokovic is more than a brat, because the others did not potentially challenge the health status of our Nation.

Mouse Whisper

Laconic me this week. Just one question.

If output is directly related to input, does that mean that income is directly related to outcome?

Modest expectations – The Physical Basis of Personality

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

Apophis

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

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

Endangered Elements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering Latvia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The House of Blackheads, Riga

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

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

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

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

Riga Cathedral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Road past Gundagai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Use of the Car as a Weapon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse whisper

As recounted in Harper’s Magazine February 2005

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

The Australian regrets any embarrassment caused by the error.

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

Palmyra, Syria … then

 

Modest Expectations – Ib puas peb caug yim

The most mispronounced word in the English language – geneAlogy. No, no, no, not geneology.

Greek γενεᾱλογία to Latin geneālogia to Old French genealogie to eventual English geneAlogy. Just repeating what I have read from a reliable geneAlogical etymological source.

The Land of the Hmong

When I was what in those days was the American acronym BMC, in the audience which often clustered around was a cheerful young Asian guy, who introduced himself as Mechai. Thus was my introduction to Mechai Viravaidya. Little did I know that he would parlay his name into fame through a nationwide contraceptive program with his name “Mechai” becoming the Thai word for “condom”.

Mechai, with a Mechai T-shirt

I never knew Mechai very well, although he was at the University of Melbourne and a resident of Trinity College. He was educated at Geelong Grammar School, as were a number of the Thai upper class and were laughingly known as the “Thai mafia”. In any event, he was younger than I, did commerce, and although our paths had crossed having mutual acquaintances, there was a particular time later when we were involved in developing a project which unfortunately never eventuated.

Working with him did give me some insight into how this remarkable man worked. I remember from the time undertaking political science where mention was made of how integrated and influential the Thai bureaucracy was with the royal family. I never completely worked out Mechai’s connection to the family, apart from the fact that his wife was on the staff of the late King Bhumibol. I feared any further prying would have crossed the etiquette line, but I was told he was close to the dowager queen, who died during one of my visits. The Thais are very cognisant of protocol and correctness. The link is only important in emphasising how connected royalty is to privilege.

Mechai parlayed this privilege in establishing a public health revolution to slow population growth in Thailand through contraception; his innovation was to link condoms to cabbages because it had been determined that the vegetable sellers would provide the most efficient means of distributing the free condoms, particularly in those rural areas of the country where there were no doctors.

Enough has been written about Mechai and how his contribution has been well recognised throughout the world. I fortunately have stayed in his apartment above his signature restaurant in Bangkok – Cabbages & Condoms. At one stage when my career had converged around public health and quality assurance in health care, it was proposed that a conference for each would be held in Thailand.

At that stage, the contraception program was reaching its maturity, and Mechai was looking around for a new challenge. At the time we renewed the contact, he was thinking about involving himself in a national AIDS program, a severe public health problem at that time in Thailand. An international conference focussing on the two intertwined issues of quality and public health improvement seemed a good option and, as part of finding a venue outside the capital, we went up to Chiang Rai, a city in the North of Thailand.

Mechai had an interest in what was essentially a hill settlement, where international schools had been or were proposed to be established. The Dowager Queen had been very interested, and from what Mechai said at that time, he was very interested in the Timbertop arrangement which Geelong Grammar School had established.  It could be said that a period at school in the Victorian mountains was a means of toughening the inherent noblesse oblige in its pupils. At that time in the mid-90s, I believe that there may been some interest in Geelong Grammar School being involved in a Thai extension of the concept.

What struck me was the variety of people living in Chiang Rai, and each of these hill tribes, as they were called generically to me, was identified by their clothing. Like so many whistle-stop tours, impressions are left, which fade with time. I cannot remember whether we ate any distinctively cooked “hill” food, except for some recollection of purple rice.

Hmong traditional textiles

I acquired some Hmong textiles, which are my reminder of that visit. The Hmong, originally from southern China, had spread through the Indochinese countries, and in the wake of the Vietnam war where many of them assisted the American forces, they had become a race of refugees. Sounds familiar for minorities who attempt to better their lot with the invader. Indeed, the Hmong community in America, especially in California and Minnesota, is big enough to be noticed, whereas in Australia it is barely 1,500.

In the end, the conference was held elsewhere; a consultancy with Dr Don Grimes, which was to have been carried out alongside such a conference, fizzled out with a change of Government.

Nevertheless, I have one memorable moment which I shall always remember. We travelled as far as the ferry would take us up the Chao Phraya River from the Oriental Hotel. We noted, not far from the wharf where we disembarked, a formidable structure which turned out to be the Bang Kwang Central Prison – the so-called Bangkok Hilton. We decided to have lunch near there in a café overlooking the river, but the menu was in Thai. So we looked over the shoulder of the next couple, pointed at what they were eating. A magic gustatory experience. It was fish, but the underlying whirlwind emanating from the food was garlic and chilli. That is an everlasting image of Thailand – an exotic location where your mouth is set on fire with a Scoville reading off the scale.

It was, in the end, a pity about the proposed venture with Mechai which came to nothing. But as they say, you win some – as Mechai had done before in spades with his contraception campaign and other public health ventures – and, in lower case, in whispered tones, you lose some.

The Virginian

Now that the dust has settled in Virginia, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the lessons we are taking from the McAuliffe loss and our roadmap moving forward.

In short, it exposed a major weakness in the Democratic establishment’s strategy – a weakness we at the Lincoln Project will be able to help solve.

Youngkin and family

What the establishment failed to do – and what time and time again has come back and bitten them – was define their opponent early. For months, Democrats let Glenn Youngkin skate by in his fleece vest and by the time everyone woke up and hit alarm bells, it was too late. Meanwhile, Republicans threw the kitchen sink at Terry McAuliffe and the Democrats and it worked.

There is a reason we tried to do everything we could to paint him as Glenn Trumpkin. There were hundreds of thousands of anti-Trump voters that needed to hear that message. Ultimately, we were swimming against the tide too late – and swimming alone.

Yes, there were other issues at stake in Virginia. Yes, the historical momentum was against Democrats from the beginning. If you look at exit polls (and take them with a grain of salt) Biden’s approval rating in a State he won by 10 was tanking. Education was the issue the most voters said mattered to them when making up their minds.

But how did we get that far – that Democrats were losing white women, suburban voters, and people caring about education? They got dragged into a battlefield the Republicans defined, which meant they had an uphill fight from the beginning.

Our opponents are more sophisticated and more well-funded than Democrats realize. Democrats can’t just turn on the small dollar money cannon and hope it helps them make up ground. They must get more proactive because the other side already is.

What we are up against is a well-coordinated message machine with built in channels to spread their disinformation and propaganda. If you turned on a TV or went online in Virginia anytime after Labor Day it was all education, education, education. Critical Race Theory freakouts. Virginia’s school board dramas made national news. Even the non-propaganda media fell into this trap. And it was all done by the Fox News-centred right-wing message machine, for which Democrats currently have no answer.

What they did was define a single issue to allow voters to look under the umbrella. Then they used the voters who came in to develop sophisticated models that they then used to target well beyond their usual base. See, most campaigns stay in their lane and talk to their people with the same tested taglines and codified language that have worked for years. They know that investing in ads to persuade people to switch sides in this polarized environment is akin to setting money on fire.  Remember, they’re not most people. This risk they took – hanging the campaign on an ambiguous non-issue that would go on to be developed in the imaginations of voters – and reaching out well beyond their base, and even running suppression campaigns against the Democratic base – that’s how you play hardball. And that’s how you win. 

What does this mean for us moving forward?

We know that our strategy works and that there is a lane that only we occupy. Until Democrats are willing to take the gloves off and define their opponents with a coordinated message that voters actually remember, we’re going to have to do it.

Because someone has to. It is why right now we are actively working against Abbott (Texas) and DeSantis (Florida) and will be launching similar campaigns to make sure the authoritarians can’t just put their sheep’s clothing on again and blend in with the pack. Voters will believe it if we are not careful.

The Lincoln Project is a group of former Republicans with a particular obsession about Trump. The Trumpians are continually running smear campaigns against the major Lincolnians. If you have a cohort of journalists working for the media who need an exclusive story, especially when it is spiced up, then they are readily available recipients.  Reasoned beliefs are incidental and superfluous, unless they can be translated into money. Thus the media are composed of ideologues, many with a tincture of the authoritarian fascist; the plain concrete-foot-in-the -door mercenaries and a sprinkle of those who are genuinely interested in policy matters, increasingly confined in the far off galaxy of Blogs.

Would-be mercenaries should remember that from the time of the Thirty Years’ War the Elector of Hesse, archetype of the mercenary industry, made large amounts of money from hiring out his subjects as infantry for the highest bidder, clothing them in a form of sackcloth to save money – the material now known as hessian. For the successful mercenary, the payment was potage and loot. The Elector also, unlike the modern media moguls, had no problem with retrenchment.

Having said that, losing the Virginia governorship when the party of the President has just assumed office has occurred on eight consecutive occasions. The doomsayers were harking back to 2009, the year that Obama assumed the Presidency, to highlight that loss in Virginia. Yet those same people failed to say that the Democrats also lost the governorship of New Jersey in 2009, which has not happened on this occasion, even though the winning margin was only about one percentage point.

The fallout seems to have galvanised the Democratic-controlled Congress to break their internal impasse and pass legislation designed to establish Biden’s version of the New Deal. The Republican knee jerk is to dart from policies which are based on a mixture of passive aggression and threatened violence to actively cower and starve the electorate of government support.

Yet both in the Senate and now the House, sufficient Republicans have had the gumption to vote in favour and thus enable passage of the Infrastructure Bill.  Thus, what was significant in the end in the House last Friday wasn’t the progressive Democrats but the 13 Republican key votes. The final vote count was 228 to 206, meaning if no Republicans had voted for the bill, it wouldn’t have passed.

Sistine Chapel

There are some Republicans who still believe in bipartisan behaviour. If you stop countries being democratically governable, then you revert to a feudalism where the Bezos, the Branson and the Zuckerberg can indulge in the modern day equivalent of rape and pillage of the environment. Maybe starving the peasants was a necessary prerequisite in the private underwriting of the cost of the Sistine Chapel, but not the passage of much-needed infrastructure measures. In this modern world it is the proportionate intervention of government into infrastructure renewal to enable the Sistine Chapel metaphor not to collapse.

As the Washington Post has concluded, the “Biden failure” narrative now appears alarmist and indeed downright wrong. Yet such conclusions are often premature, as the above analysis seems to suggest.

Hence, I suspect the importance of the continuing pressure from the Lincoln Project and its allies in blunting any return of Trump.  But as my Italian friend would say, chissá.

The Search for the Tassili Frescoes

Tassili fresco

I have recently been reading this book describing an expedition funded by French sources in 1956. Its leader, Henri Lhote, wrote the book – the title of this blog – of this arduous exploration of the Central Saharan plateau of Tassili-n-Ajjer. The expedition was in search of the frescoes, predominantly painted in that fragment of time from prehistoric to well into the period where the tribes of the Sahara co-existed alongside the Egyptian pharaohs. In fact some of the frescoes have images of Pharaonic boats and female figures that look decidedly Egyptian.

The wall paintings are reminiscent of the cave art discovered in Europe, and of the same period. I suppose that my interest was kindled by that extraordinary elegy on the Neanderthals titled “Kindred”.

These paintings are extensive, and the French expedition spent months mapping and tracing the rock art onto paper. The way these frescoes had been created was to minimise the damage from the elements, especially as the Sahara, in the era when these frescoes were painted, was lush and verdant. The varied wildlife depicted in the frescoes co-existed with the people there, the forerunners of the Tuareg, who now are the only residents left in this desert with its waterholes and some of the oldest trees in the world – the Sahara cypress. The wood is so hard that the prehistoric inhabitants did not have the tools to cut them down – the technology to completely deforest was not available to our prehistoric ancestors.

Tassili fresco

What caught my attention was the period when much of the wall art was of cattle – the so-called Bovidian period. Let me quote Henri Lhote explaining his interpretation of the desiccation of the Sahara:

Herdsman have ever been the great destroyers of vegetation and if we admit (as the evidence of the Tassili paintings suggests) that thousands of oxen wandered about in the Sahara for thousands of years, we may well assume their destructive action to have been so great that it contributed largely to the desiccation of the whole region. It would, of course, be absurd to regard cattle as solely responsible, climatic changes being the prime cause, but they played no small part.”

When I read this, I thought of the Joycean solution of reducing methane levels and hence improving the climate change agenda by shooting all the cattle. It was a little drastic, but these days there are no cattle roaming the Central Sahara, a few goats maybe – but not cattle. Yet cattle live on in these magnificent frescoes.

The discussion about reducing methane levels is about reducing the emissions of methane, predominantly from cattle. Methane is one of the main culprits and animal emissions are in the range of five per cent of all emissions. Methane is more potent than carbon dioxide – the consequence of cattle herding provides an interesting parallel between civilisations thousands of years apart. The Sahara then was the harbinger of what is happening now across Africa in terms of desertification; but more in its pernicious effect on the climate.

Toss another beetroot on the barbie …

Maybe, as a tribute to a Joycean Cenacolo, when our descendants – if any – are shuffling through the remains of our civilisation they will stumble upon the outcome of the Joycean fiat – images of mammoth Australian barbecues, Southern State cook-outs. Argentinian parilladas, Brazilian churrascos, South African braai.  Frescoes of coal or methane fired braziers on walls, and now food which could be cooked under the rays of the sun. But who came to eat?

Methane, 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, is released from a number of sources and its capture presents a particular problem because here one cannot point at coal as the major reason. In the agricultural sector there is research activity in Australia, less extreme than the Joycean solution directed towards methane reduction – and for that matter other pollutant gases inter alia hydrogen sulphide and the nitrogen gaseous by-products.

Here there is experimentation in mixing the grasses, so the roots of this “feedlot” are diverse in their length, and hence their ability to retain carbon.  There is literature about composting waste by minimising the amount of bacterial and fungal anaerobic activity, but like carbon capture, who of us can generalise the ultimate worldwide solution from a few pilot programs of variable effectiveness? I have disregarded the Joycean solution on the rounds that his aim is always faulty and the National Party would never be vegans.

A neo-Bovidian age beckons, I’m afraid.

Two Smiths

We live on a busy inner Sydney street, which is poorly cambered. The local Council also believes in the authenticity of potholes to preserve the roads in the pre-WWI condition when there also was a coal mine just behind our house, about a hundred years ago.

If you drive along our street at night, the front gate is clearly visible directly in the headlights. You will drive straight through the wall unless you turn as the street turns sharply right up the hill, or else career at the last moment along the wall of the house down the lane.

Only on one occasion over 30 years of living in such a potential target has a car come through the wall. The wall is over two metres high and brick. Thus, when the car came through the wall, it made a terrible mess, including the car.

The car managed to reverse and left a Volkswagen badge as a signature. The police were informed, but it was the mother with her son in tow who turned up several days later to apologise and offer to pay. No charges were laid. We all moved on in true Morrison tradition. The replaced wall is better; there is a tree in front of the wall now, and there is a front garden behind the wall, as well as a buffer of illegally parked vehicles often lining the kerb.

I was reminded of this when the politician Smith ploughed into a fence in Hawthorn at a corner of a street with which I am very familiar.

The remnants

On this occasion Entitlement Smith not only took out a wall, but also another car, but not the house wall fortunately, which separated his car from striking a child asleep in the room behind this second wall. An imperilled child.  A man with a bucolic face and dead eyes staggers away into the arms of a breathalyser and strikes the jackpot. I have a problem with dead eyes because they often provide an accurate window into the person’s soul or lack of same.

Across the continent, a child is found. Cleo Smith had been missing for 18 days. Alive, and able to answer: “My name is Cleo” – in a very firm four-year old voice.

As with most people when I heard that Cleo had been found, I had this overwhelming sense of relief and elation. For the parents the nightmare was over. For the child, I hoped that the nightmare had not been embedded into her psyche by the random counsellors and psychologists who feel obliged to make public commentary on how such a child should feel in these circumstances. So many children go missing, and a tragic number of these either are never found or are found dead. It is a terrible denominator.

In this case, the child had been the subject of a wide-ranging search; and the desperation was showing in the news that the police force was delving into every rubbish bin they could find. The two media reports seemed so disconnected, because there was no hint of her whereabouts.

Then in the night police were shown breaking down the door of a house in the Aboriginal section of Carnarvon. I have been to Carnarvon a few times.

It is unique in being a substantial settlement in the desert on the sea, and where the Gascoyne River runs underground. Carnarvon has a major indigenous population. With its banana plantations, it has a degree of colour; and to me it is not a bad town.

After my initial reaction, when images emerged in the media, I wondered at how well cared for she looked. Then it came out that she had been found alone playing with toys, and later it was revealed that in this house there was a room stuffed with dolls.

The alleged perpetrator was an Aboriginal man found some distance away. Since that time little about the man has emerged, but from that which has emerged he seems to be a sad lonely person. No, that is no excuse for “child-stealing”. However, the case seemed strange enough for the police to use this wording as the most appropriate course of action.

But then there was an underlying problem, with a one million dollar reward on offer. The pictures of the search were beginning to fade as the media became bored, and the reward was meant to be a stimulus.

Then the discovery, and all changed.  The spectacle became one of everybody claiming credit with even the WA Premier flying to Carnarvon for a photo-opportunity with stuffed toy props.

From being a wonderful tableau, it degenerated into a public relations exercise even to the extent of this man, shackled and in bare feet, being escorted to a plane by four riot police officers, to be placed in maximum security. Presumably to protect from those who allegedly bashed him in custody.

Yes, I’m a long way away, but a child has been returned to her parents, and the spotlights should be turned off. Enough is enough.

What if there had been the spectacle of a barefooted dishevelled Mr Entitlement Smith being marched off to a maximum security prison, bail refused? We can only speculate on how his colleagues would have reacted if the car had gone through the child’s bedroom wall, with him revving his car in a drunken state trying to reverse out of his mess into another mess without ever knowing the difference – without ever knowing there was a child in the room.

In the case of Cleo Smith, I hope the three parents are not subject to the normal reaction from the media trying to spin the story out into a “60 second special” – “by getting the story behind the story” as the lugubrious voiceover will say, or some such.

The pet jaguar

I also hope when all the vengeance and anger die down, Mr Kelly is cut the same sort of slack which has been afforded the current member for Kew, who is still loose in the community, even without a pet Jaguar.

Mouse Whisper

On looking into Niki Savva’s brain – as trephined by Golden Beauty called Orietta. I was attracted by her question and answer session; a common method we use in our Cheddar press when we interview a celebrity like Michael to get the latest on his relationship with Mistress Min.

But when journalists start interviewing other journalists you know the end of the world is nigh –a comment from a SMH sauce that spoke to me only on the condition of “an old enemy”.

Watch out for the barrelling pork!

Modest Expectations – Gay Crusader

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

Gay Crusader

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

O Hail Caesar

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

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

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

A place for the Oracles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maine Stream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amistad, slave ship

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

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

So, what are you waiting for Australia?  Mandate!

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

Be quiet. Eyjafjallajökull is capturing carbon.

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

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

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

The gap between Iceland’s tectonic plates …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a few of the 85 …

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

You want a Sharkies jumper, Manny?

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

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

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

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

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

She’ll be right mate!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could not have said it better.

Roaming in the Romantics

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

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

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

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

Mulțumesc mult pentru amintiri

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

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

Needless to say, Brazilian Portuguese is different.

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

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

Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

NIGER

Noir               nero              negro           preto            negru           nair  

ALBUS

Blanc             bianco           blanco           branco          alb                  alv

Modest Expectations – Vile Bodies

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

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

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

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

Coal-o-phile Dundee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia’s response? Yeah, nah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Eloquent Statement on leaving Kinross Wolaroi School, Orange

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

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

George Repin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monterey

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

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

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

Cannery Row

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

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

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

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

Sea otters

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

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

The Age of Confusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mouse Whisper

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

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

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