If you’re looking for that very special gift or the coolest of wall features for your office, take a look at the fabulous Qlocktwo. You’ll find it at Gregoire’s bijouterie in Geneva’s Old Town.
Geneva, 1 May, 2021
How I miss our annual golfing holiday in Scotland! We took a cold, wet Sunday stroll on the Old Course at Saint Andrew’s a couple of years back. That’s me on the edge of the appropriately named “Hell Bunker” on the 14th “Long” hole. Most non-golfers will know that to find your ball in a bunker is never good news. And there’s a saying: “If you think your ball might be in the bunker, it probably is.” This observation is simply based on the laws of physics. Gravity dictates that the ball will settle at the lowest possible point. (If bunkers were mounds of sand, the ball would be much less likely to settle on one!)
You may ask what this has to do with “these times;” by that I mean the current global crisis that is absorbing all our thoughts and energies. Well, one year ago we were all about washing hands, buying packs of pasta and, inexplicably, hoarding toilet paper. We started to bump fists or tap elbows instead of shaking hands. (Fist bumps seem to have won the day.) Keeping our distance from others, staying at home, teleworking and face coverings soon kicked in. The case numbers fell quite rapidly; surprising in retrospect. It was in about June last year that I first heard an expert say that the only way out of this crisis ultimately was the v-injection. Look at us now! There is talk of third and even fourth waves in a number of countries despite all the measures taken. The v-injection roll-out in different countries and the Asian origins of the little tinker (from now on in these chronicles known as the “LT”) are highly and dangerously politicised. Despite the uncontested efficacy of the current v-injections we are, quite simply, caught in a race between, on one hand, the human ability to innovate, communicate and organise, and on the other, the LT’s extraordinary ability – despite our best efforts – to continue to leap from person to person with increasing ease by clever spontaneous variations in its genetic code. The full implications of those genetic variations are unknown and most experts are preparing us for the long haul. One thing is sure: relaxing those awful measures that we have come to hate is likely to boost case numbers again. More case numbers mean a higher likelihood of variations; getting on flights makes the spread of these variations likely. And so on. I can’t help thinking this dangerous scenario is dictated by some as yet unrecognised law of biology. In brief, I’m worried about where the ball is going. And if you think the ball may be in the bunker, it probably is! I hope I am wrong and wish I could be less pessimistic. And, yes. I lose sleep over it.
One surprising source of joy in “these times” is that we have a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers (Dendrocopos major) busily preparing a nesting site in a dead tree right in front of our balcony. On-line sources say that the male does most of the pecking away at the hole of the nest-to-be and that the female comes along and pecks around the hole, goes into it as if to inspect it and then flies away. What I’ve not found reference to is that these guys seem to be working on three holes at the same time. Anyway, we are excited beyond reason by the thought that we may, in the weeks to come, see some young Woodies coming out of their nest-hole. The first Red Kites have arrived from African skies and circle overhead emitting their sad shrieks. And of course, the Pigeons are paring up and doing their Pigeon stuff… just as they did last year at this time.
I have my first v-injection next week. Watch this space!
I am standing on a bluff looking out over the Missouri River in North Dakota. There is a stillness and quiet here, only broken by the sound of Red-wing Blackbird song, Chorus Frog call and the distant sound of Canada Geese. Tears roll down my cheeks; I am here at last. A lifetime of reading, studying and dreaming about this place is fulfilled. This is a highpoint of my Western American road trip in the Spring of 2015.
Although now empty of human activity, on this very spot in 1832 stood the rough and ready, wooden-pallisaded trading post, Fort Clarke. Close by was the Mandan village of Mih-Tutta-Hang-Kush. The lives of the Mandan people was chronicled by two artists. George Catlin visited them in 1832 and Karl Bodmer travelled in the Prince Maximillian expedition of the Upper Missouri River in the winter of 1833-4. Prince Maximillian was an explorer and chronicler. His ethnologic notes with Bodmer’s watercolours made up his treatise on the Mandans, supplementing and corroborating the relevant parts of Catlin’s vast work on North American indians. These men brought to the outside world a visual picture of the native peoples of this region before white influence changed their culture and appearance for ever. They anticipated the tragic future of the Indians. I first saw their drawings and pictures when I was eight years old. They left me with a fascination for everything and anything to do with North American indians.
Mah-to-toh-pa (Four Bears), was a Mandan hero and head man. He was also a veteran of the O-kee-pa torture ritual that was witnessed by Catlin. In 1832 Catlin wrote “Oh! “horribile visu – et mirabile dictu!” Thank God, it is over, that I have seen it, and am able to tell it to the world”. He was the only white man ever to witness the O-kee-pa ritual of the Mandan. As a boy, I soaked up accounts of these horrors; they served only to deepen my interest in a people and a culture that was so far removed from anything I knew.
Bodmer was a watercolourist in the Victorian style and painted the landscapes that the expedition traversed, the wildlife and the peoples of the Missouri River. Catlin painted in oils and rendered fine drawings in pen and ink. He later painted many exquisite and historically important portraits of Indians from across America. His energy and his output was extraordinary. As you can imagine these guys were tough. They witnessed violence and murder and endured incredible hardships in order to feed their desire to discover and chronicle those discoveries. The journey up the Missouri by boat from St Louis to the Mandan country took three months! I just drove there, parked my car and wandered around to explore! We owe these men a great debt.
Artists who have also served as chroniclers include war artists, court artists and scientific illustrators. The reason for their creating is quite different from simply rendering a thing of beauty or an idea. They speak to us of the times and from the times in which they worked. Their work, unlike the written chronicle, has an inbuilt honesty to it. They are much less likely, or even able, to exaggerate or lie; for their reference sits before them and often with witnesses.
This portrait is a watercolour of a Minnetaree man, and friend of Mah-to-toh-pa, Pehriska-Ruhpa. He wears the ceremonial regalia of the Dog Band, the highest of the male orders. The Minnetarees had a shared culture with the Mandan and lived in villages further upstream. This portrait, later turned into an engraving, is considered to be the greatest ethnological rendering ever made. It accompanies a most detailed description of Pehriska-Ruhpa by Prince Maximillian.
At the time of the visits by Catlin and Bodmer, there existed only about 1,600 Mandan people. They had already been decimated by smallpox; a disease brought by white fur trappers and traders and to which the Mandans had no immunity. By 1836 the Mandan were all but extinct. Had these chroniclers got there just three years later one of the most extraordinary human cultures would be unknown today. And this brings me back to the O-kee-pa ritual.
In Letter No. 22 of his two volume work, Catlin chronicles, in full detail, the ritual where Mandan men voluntarily submitted to the most agonising tortures for the good of the people. It has to be among the most accomplished pieces of ethnologic observation and writing about the most bizarre ritual that our species has invented. It has changed how I think about mankind.
Bodmer pictures from: “People of the First Man. The first hand account of Prince maximillian’s expedition up the Missouri River, 1833-34.” Published by E.P. Dutton, New York, 1976.
Catlin pictures from: “Letters & Notes on the Manners, Customs & Conditions of North American Indians.” Published by Dover Publications Inc. New York, 1973.
Geneva, 13 March, 2021
I saw a news item about how the p*ndemic has run unchecked in a hot and sandy country that I had the mixed fortune to visit quite some years ago. At the time, I was working as a field surgeon for the International Committee of the Red Cross. One of the organisation’s neutral and impartial visiting cards was to host a surgical seminar about treating war wounds. We knew that this could open the door for “humanitarian” access in particularly difficult contexts. So, instead of heading to a field hospital – and long before we knew about powerpoint – a long and dusty drive took me to BBDland with a travel pack of videos and photographic slides (remember them?) I was to facilitate an exchange of ideas and experiences with BBDland’s military surgeons. The seminar had been given the go-ahead by the Big Bad Dictator himself.
We already knew that BBDland’s political elite and army were the only people who had access to the country’s health care system. Before leaving Geneva, I was advised against raising this issue. As a preliminary to the seminar, I met my surgical counterparts at the rather plush Central Military Hospital. I feared a me-against-them atmosphere for the days to come. This fear proved groundless; they were all charming and welcoming. Many had trained in Europe and North America and were now starved of contact with international colleagues. I am sure I could have discussed the inequity of BBDland’s health care with them. The only time a shadow passed over their faces was when any allusion to BBD was made.
The seminar itself was to be held in a modern, but barely used, conference centre. On arrival, I was surprised to see TV cameras at the door and realised that the ministry of information was going to squeeze as much positive PR for BBD out of this. The cameras rolled as I walked through the main door. Cheers went up. The Red Cross doctor had just walked over a massive and intricate floor mosaic that depicted the smiling face of the President of the USA with blood dribbling from his teeth. “Bush is a killer” the caption read. I hadn’t seen that one coming. One of my colleagues plucked up courage to say very quietly “We’re sorry!” I hoped there would no further political interference in our modest collegiate event. Like, yeah!
In the auditorium, I positioned the slide projector in the middle of the floor, carefully placed my slides in the carousel (reversed and upside down!) and clankity-clicked through them all in a quick trial run. Ready to go! The place started to fill. Not only were the surgeons present but also two hundred or so other doctors and nurses all in full uniform. Suddenly, the chatter stopped. Everyone took a seat and kept their eyes on the floor. The fear was palpable. I was told that the brother of BBD, the Minister of the Interior (a man known to have much blood on his hands) was about to arrive. He had decided to open the seminar. Could this ruin the whole event?
The doors crashed open. Fifty men charged in with AK47s at the ready. Immaculate uniforms and distinctive red berets signified an elite guard; they were checking the security of the place before the arrival of B-BBD. One of them clearly didn’t like the look of the slide projector with its long lens pointing up towards the podium. He unplugged it, picked the whole thing up and marched off. I watched in horror as my slides fell out on to the carpet one by one. I moved to pick them up. Unwise. In a language I didn’t know I was told to sit still; the command was quite understandable in tone and kalashni-gesture.
B-BBD swept in surrounded by flunkies. He neither smiled nor asked to meet me. He made a one-minute speech and then left. The red berets eventually left too; the last of them walked out backwards AKs still at the ready. After some minutes there were audible sighs but the chatter was subdued. Nobody wanted to tell me what B-BBD had said.
I followed the trail of slides that led to the discarded projector. Later than expected, we kicked off the seminar that happily proved to be congenial and informative for both sides. I later heard that the whole exercise did eventually open some doors for ICRC colleagues to visit prisoners and gain access to some displaced people. And so the “humanitarian” world turns.
BBD, B-BBD and the whole regime have long gone leaving only a poor, chaotic and dangerous country with no public health infrastructure. I often wonder what became of my surgical friends there. It is difficult to see how, in 2021, such a country will gather the necessary c*vid-19 data and the resources needed for a structured vaccination programme. It is also difficult to see how such a country being behind the vaccination curve will avoid a “natural” evolution of the p*ndemic with high case numbers and associated mortality. Such a country is also likely to become a source of further variants of the virus. I really hope I am wrong on this. Whatever, there is little doubt that this p*ndemic has on a global basis brought into stark relief the difference between the haves and the have-nots.
Another desert landscape! Isn’t the Perseverance landing on Mars just great? Isn’t this news so welcome when all we currently hear about is the vaccine – variant race against time and how this will determine the relaxation of social distancing measures? (And the postponed 2020 Olympic games in Japan will go ahead this year but without spectators.)
One of the great paradoxes of our time must be that the same country that has harnessed the power of science to put a vehicle on another planet elected and nearly re-elected a President who, during the c*vid-19 p*ndemic, refused to grasp even the most fundamental tenets of public health science. The same President whose Twitter and Facebook accounts were closed.
So, you may be wondering by now what links the p*ndemic, the daily news, propaganda, science and technology (largely American), the US President and why I have written “c*vid” and “p*ndemic.” It’s all about those algorithms that support the social media giants allowing them to promote or suppress posts that contain certain words. I have it on authority from someone who knows about these things that it’s quite possible some sneaky algorithm is suppressing the reach of posts and messages that contain the words “c*vid” and “p*ndemic” the idea being to foil the conspiracy theorists and the anti-vaxxers. Inevitably, I believe this is the reason why, up to now, these C*VID Chronicles have not gone viral. Ha!
On a lighter note, we are now beginning to see TV series that were produced in the time of c*vid-19. Social distancing rules dictated that for some series, all involved had to live in an isolation “bubble.” And so I recommend Channel 4’s Great Pottery Throwdown. During the making of this series the contestants, presenters and experts alike became great friends. I’ve never had a burning interest in pottery but this eclectic bunch produce a wide variety of truly beautiful stuff. There is something genuine and human about this series. What grips me through the enthusiasm, laughter and tears is how the different pottery challenges bring the potters’ lives to the fore and reveal such close bonds within the group.
The sun is shining. Spring is in the air. My wife and I are heading out to play golf. In our traditional and deadly serious competition that runs throughout the season, the score is 6 games each!
Go well. Be wise.
Geneva, 14 February, 2021
There is a basic principle of pharmacology: that the only difference between a drug and a poison is the dose. What better example than botulinum toxin. This bacterial poison causes botulism by paralysing muscles and is said to be the most toxic of all toxins. In tiny injected doses it is… you’ve got it…. botox! Now, it was said that in his day, the roguish Saddam Hussein had hidden in his sand-pit of mass destruction 1,000 litres of botulinum toxin. This was enough, according to one report, to kill the whole human population assuming that the contents of this microbial hobble-bubble could somehow be distributed throughout the whole human population.
Last week I took a stroll with a friend who is steeped in public health matters. We agreed that if we view the virus responsible for COVID-19 from its biological / evolutionary perspective, it is truly remarkable. This little tooled-up single strand of RNA, unlike botulinum toxin, has worked out its own distribution mechanism to poison the whole human population – and could still achieve this – by using…. da-da-daah… humans! Brilliant! That then got us thinking about what the total biomass of this virus might be. Would it fill a swimming pool? Or would it fill a beer glass? By surprising coincidence, I heard the following day that BBC science had set two scientists independantly the task of making precisely this calculation; one concluded a wine glass and the other a shot glass. Yes, were you to take all the viruses that are currently doing their pandemic round-the-world cruise, you could put them in a glass, swirl them around, sniff them and then take a sip. (Don’t try this at home.) This little tinker clearly out-does botulinum toxin on every front.
Staying with matters of the virus’s spread…. The Chinese authorities eventually permitted an international team from WHO access to Wuhan, the presumed site of origin of the COVID-19 coronavirus, on 14 January. Three weeks later the team is back in Geneva. Wow! That was quick! Their rather predictable, politically convenient but quite possibly correct conclusion is that the source of the virus was an unidentified animal or animals and that a leak from a laboratory is “extremely unlikely.” However, implying that laboratory leaks of important pathogenic organisms are “extremely rare” points a lack of historical perspective. Have Sverdlovsk, Janet Parker and the UK’s foot and mouth outbreak been forgotten? A good read on all this with its political implications was published yesterday by my full-of-common-sense friend Filippa Lentzos in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Filippa picks apart the WHO team’s report, points out that the WHO hierarchy may not agree with it and lays bare the political stakes.
As if to muddy the waters, a study, published last week in the European Journal of Epidemiology, concluded that the virus responsible for COVID 19 might have been circulating in France early in November 2019. It cites the findings of an earlier report that the virus could have been circulating in Italy in September 2019. All this of course will bring a smile to the test tube of any Chinese virologist. Could it be, though, that the virus was already on the wing in autumn of 2019 and one variant was first identified in Wuhan? I can just see the WHO from our balcony here in Geneva. Perhaps I should brave the snow, cross town and knock on the institution’s front door with a “Oi! Whats going on ‘ere then?” But then I have to remind myself that when it comes to a subject such as this, the political tactics and media scoops play out over days whilst reliable science takes months if not years but will, in the end, arrive at something resembling the truth.
Otherwise the COVID-19 news is dominated by uncertainties relating variants and vaccines. To what extent do the different vaccines reduce transmission of the virus and its UK, South African and Brazilian variants? Will the different COVID-19 vaccines be as effective (in terms or reducing severe infections) against the variants? If not, will the second vaccine dose make a difference? Can different vaccinations be used for the first and second dose? In relation to these variants, does the protective effect of the different vaccines vary according to age of the person being vaccinated? If your country plans to issue “vaccination certificates,” will they be worthless-until-proven-otherwise with the arrival of a new variant? Our best scientists will answer these questions and more over the months to come, but the cold reality is dawning; we will be playing variant – vaccine catch-up for rest of 2021 and maybe for years to come. On this, I realise my opinion is no more welcome than a vocal vegan at a Trump rally.