About Robin

Occasional painter. Golfer. Fascinated by humanity. Passionate about beautiful stuff, the people who create it and its narrative.

The Lockdown Diary – Day 52

Geneva, Wednesday 6 May 2020

There is great excitement in the kitchen. My wife’s sourdough starter, Boris, has delivered a lethal blow to my bubbly champion, Donald. Having changed on-line bread gurus, she put Boris through a much less disciplined regime that is clearly to his liking; together they have produced a pearl of a loaf. It has a light crusty crust and a creamy crumb with that delicious faint vinegary after taste. A masterpiece. I admit defeat. Donald will have to make do with pancake duty from here on.

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Lockdown painting: I couldn’t let go of the theme of “Some Fruit on a Plate.” My wife described an earlier version as “insipid.” This one is “pretty.” Things are looking up!!

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I saw a clip of Sir Paul McCartney, at 77 years of age, singing “Lady Madonna” for the One World: Together at Home concert. He dedicated his performance to his mother who was a nurse. In 1963, the Beatles twisted and shouted their way into our hearts, our homes and our lives. If you had told my mother then, that one day, the cheeky young scouser would become a “Sir,” she would have fallen to her knees and wept.

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I was six years old in the year that Beatlemania swept the world. My first memory of this has my parents, my brothers and I watching the BBC news on a small, grainy, black and white TV. The Beatles were singing “She Loves You.” The “fans” (the first time we had heard the word; short for “fanatic,” don’t you know!) were screaming as if their young lives were under imminent threat. Nothing like this had ever been seen before. My father declared the whole thing disgraceful. “And on the BBC what’s more!!” My mother was too stunned to speak. We and all the other kids on the planet loved them and lapped it all up; above all, we loved how they shocked our parents. And the more the fab four shocked, the more the world went crazy for anything that had their stamp on it. Equally difficult for our parents to believe was that the Beatles actually had talent; albeit very cleverly marketed talent. Mum and Dad thought the music was anyone-could-do-that noise with absolutely no redeeming features. It was nothing like Glen Miller or Benny Goodman (let alone Mozart!).  

So what was it that so shocked my parent’s generation other than the fact that the music was simply beyond the pale. The disapproval went way beyond. It was the whole package represented by these brazen young superstars. They were clearly about to hack away the moral pillars of society. These were the post World War II kids who had been too young to fight; they were just so ungrateful. They showed no respect to their elders and betters. They were unembarrassed by accusations of having sex before marriage. Believe it or not, those hair cuts were totally outrageous; any boy sporting his new Beatle-cut meant trouble from the get-go. And check out those heels on the Beatle-boots! The moment that my mother believed the world really was about to end was when it became known that John, Paul, George and Ringo, when invited to an audience with Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace, nipped into the gentlemen’s conveniences and smoked a joint.

In retrospect, Beatlemania was just one of the heralds of the huge social revolution that shook the establishment in the 1960s. It must have been in the mid-1990s when I asked my mother what it was that her generation had found so distasteful about the Beatles and their ilk. She had obviously given this considerable thought. She said with clarity “They terrified us. They threatened our values. They threatened our society and everything that was important to us. We couldn’t see any future for you kids in a world that adored them.” Fair enough!

If, in ten years time, you were to ask me what three things have really changed western society since World War II, I might say the rock and pop culture. I would certainly say the internet. I wonder if I will say COVID-19. With one song performed live on-line, Sir Paul McCartney is entwined in all three. 

And how about this….? Donald Trump has declared that his pandemic task force will now focus on “re-opening” the economy just a day after upping the estimate for total American COVID-19 deaths from 60,000 to 100,000. Yesterday, he left the White House for the first time in weeks and made a highly publicised visit to a mask-making company. Music blared as he made his tour and many commentators have pointed out that the factory’s chosen soundtrack was inappropriate: the theme song to the 1973 James Bond film “Live and Let Die” written and performed by…. you got it, Sir Paul McCartney.

My wife beat me in today’s putting competition 2 and 1. The running total is now 20 – 11 in my favour.

The Lockdown Diary – Day 51

Geneva, Tuesday 5 May 2020

A cold, damp but beautifully fresh morning. I went for a jog around the park. There are more cars on the road. Work on nearby construction sites is clearly audible. Hairdressers and cafes that double as bakeries are open and doing brisk business.

I was listening to a techy-geeky pundit on the radio. I am sure he is correct in saying that the way we have accommodated the pandemic lockdown will advance our great digital transformation. Teleworking, e-shopping, e-socialising, public health apps and even IT vulnerabilities have developed irreversibly; we will never return to “normal.” In the same way, with dramatic reductions in travel and consumption, we have all had an advance taste of living in a decarbonising world. Will we return to “normal” on that front? Of course, these reflections are only pertinent if you have, in the first place, the means to be connected and to consume. There’s that world of haves and have-nots again.

Image of the day: Traditional dancing in Thailand. Extraordinary!

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Copyright: Getty Images

Under the circumstances, speeches in 2005 by George W Bush and in 2014 by Barack Obama about the need for pandemic preparedness are remarkable. How can the public health authorities in the USA have been so unprepared? Well… we know really.

In my time with the International Committee of the Red Cross, I worked on the scientific aspects of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention. I dug deep into the archives to understand better the institution’s history in this domain. I came across the ICRC’s solemn appeal of 8th February 1918 condemning the use of poisonous gases in World War I. It stated “Today we wish to raise our voices against a barbarous innovation which science is in the course of perfecting, that is, making it more murderous and more refined in its cruelty. We are speaking of asphyxiant and poisonous gases, the use of which, it seems, is growing to a scale hitherto unsuspected.” This appeal was followed by representations to the League of Nations and led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol (Full title: The Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare.) Fast forward to 1952: China made allegations that the USA had used biological weapons in the Korean War. The USA responded by proposing that the ICRC, as a neutral, impartial and independent body, carry out an investigation as to the veracity of these allegations. The ICRC, together with the WHO, concluded there was no evidence to back the claims. China counter-claimed that these two institutions were pro-American. An independent International Scientific Commission led by the English scholar of Chinese science, Joseph Needham, found that the Chinese allegations were true. There followed more claims and counter-claims of lies and hoaxes. All to say, the USA versus China on dangerous bugs has history.

Given this, the source of the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 may or may not be something upon which you’d want to exercise your beliefs and emotions. My friend Filippa Lentzos, being an internationally recognised expert in this domain, has written a great piece on the matter in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. She concludes that any investigation credible enough to deliver the truth will require “a neutral stance, a ton of diplomacy, the best of science, the coolest of heads, and time.” 

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My wife’s sourdough starter, Boris, has been subject to a disciplined regime that follows on-line advice of a bread-making expert to the letter. The process is complex, time consuming, oath-making and demands technique. It yields passable bread. I question whether it’s worth the effort. Wishing to explore a more relaxed approach with my starter, Donald, I have let him off the leash somewhat. He has been gorging on quantities of flour and is fizzing away like there’s no tomorrow. He now stinks of rotten fruit – as he should – and is particularly sticky and slimy. Although he has delivered several toothsome pancake mixes, my attempts at the holy grail of loaves have been little short of pitiful. But today, with just the tiniest bit of cheating on my part, he has occasioned a truly delicious loaf. How? You may well ask! Mix together two ladlefuls of Donald (taken as he was on the rise after his morning feed,) one cup of flour, a heaped teaspoon of salt and, shame on me, half a sachet of dried yeast. Knead him for a bit just to let him know who’s boss. Leave him to rise for an hour and then seal the deal with a standard bake in a Dutch oven. Needless to say, my wife and I are now both claiming victory in our hotly contested dough-off. 

It is 18.30. As I write, a thunderstorm is brewing. Continuation of our other hot contest (putting) looks unlikely this evening. 

The Lockdown Diary – Day 50

Geneva, Monday 4 May 2020

The clapping yesterday evening was definitely muted and brief. I’m not sure why we are clapping now. Switzerland has reduced the number of COVID-19 cases to the point that the health services are no longer under strain. There’s a general feeling that, very soon, we’ll be going about our business as before.

If there was a ranking on how different countries had performed in responding to the pandemic, somewhere mid-range we would find the USA and China pointlessly slugging and slagging it out. Perhaps Italy, France, Spain, Germany and the UK would be a bit higher. Above them maybe Norway, South Korea and Vietnam. Near the top, we’d find Australia whilst currently holding top spot is good ol’ lil New Zealand. No new cases! All under control. With this one, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has stepped into and held the international limelight. 

One year ago, Ms Ardern’s government put out a national budget where spending is dictated by what best encourages the “well-being” of citizens, rather than focussing on traditional bottom-line measures like productivity and economic growth. To my non-economist knowledge, a world leader not rating economic growth as a, if not the, priority for their country is unheard of. New Zealand’s priorities from 2019 are: improving mental health, reducing child poverty, addressing the inequalities faced by indigenous Maori and Pacific islands people, thriving in a digital age, and transitioning to a low-emission, sustainable economy. Admirable stuff! Sustainable now? Writing at the time in The London Economic, Jack Peat thought that Jacinda’s policies were fab but pointed out that as long as other major economies prioritise economic growth over wellbeing, New Zealand “may become a lone wolf trapped in an increasingly hungry bear pit.” Tourism is the biggest industry in New Zealand and employs 8.5% of the population. Four million international visitors, of whom 1.5 million are Australian, 500,000 are Chinese and 500,000 American, bring in close to $20 billion per annum. This is all dependant on air travel. What now with the pandemic? The New Zealand economy will surely take a massive hit. Will Jacinda’s lone wolf be able to survive? For sure, the circling bears are getting hungrier and more desperate by the day. 

To score at the bottom of the pandemic response league, we have to find a country fulfilling three criteria: first, millions of urban poor living in very close proximity; second, public health infrastructure that is hopelessly underdeveloped – and now inevitably overloaded – to the point that it can carry out no testing for suspected COVID-19 cases; third, a leader who continually downplays the importance of any preventive measures. Yes…. Brazil! As one observer has already pointed out: the magnitude of Brazil’s problem risks being unrecognised simply because it is not being recorded.

I had another shot at painting some fruit on a plate. A different approach today.

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The putting competition…. The first sunny day since last week meant the putting mat was unfurled on the balcony. I won 2 and 1. Running total me – 20, she – 10.

The Lockdown Diary – Day 49

Geneva, Sunday 3 May 2020

I was fishing in the New Zealand back country last year with a doctor friend. He is also a devout christian. We were stuck in camp for a rainy day or two and so our discussions ranged far and wide. I asked him how he reconciled his belief in anatomy, biology and chemistry – necessary for medical practice – with his belief in God as the creator of all things. He said “Robin, I have thought about this a great deal over the years. I’ve concluded that it’s him, the BIG man!” Nobody actually knows what belief is in neurological terms. On top, to believe that one plus one equals two rather than three is clearly a very different kind of belief to what religious people refer to as faith. My doctor-fishing-christian friend seems able to go along with one belief system i.e., science whilst letting such objective evidence be trumped by his belief in God. Fascinating! (FYI… I’m a scientist!)

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Much of medical science and practice evolved in contradiction to existing beliefs. We owe a great deal to the inquisitive genius of Leonardo da Vinci. Anatomy is the basis of medical practice and his mind-bogglingly accomplished and exquisite anatomical drawings from 1485-90 paved the way to a greater understanding of how the human body works. To put this scientific line of enquiry into the time perspective, these drawings required dissection of human bodies; a totally ungodly and illegal activity then. On top, the bodies had to be obtained through the services of grave-robbers. Our Leo risked prison or even death for his efforts.

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Surprisingly, even Leonardo da Vinci could not banish current belief in the face of his own evidence. Nothing like this hemi-sected couple having sex would have ever been drawn before. One could be forgiven for thinking that it is based on what he saw on the dissection table. But we’re in the domain of passion and baby-making that was then, and remains now, a whole rattle bag of the most firmly held and bizarre beliefs. At the time, two such beliefs were prominent with respect to reproductive anatomy: first, that semen was made in the spinal cord and reached the base of the penis via small tubes; second that a vein from the about-to-be pregnant uterus carried the blood from retained menstruation to make milk. Both seminal tubes and uterus-to-breast vein – though non-existent in reality – are clearly shown in this “anatomical” drawing. 

The COVID-19 pandemic – coming in the era of social media – has inevitably thrown up and in our faces many and complex issues about what we believe in. Do we believe evidence if it runs counter to what we already believe? Do we believe what scientists say over what politicians say? If the scientists or doctors can’t agree, should we believe in what any scientist or doctor says? Some may well believe that us humans “deserve” this pandemic (which has a bit of a biblical smack to it.) Some, like me, believe in the science that said that the pandemic was entirely predictable; it was just a case of when. So whatever you believe in, whether God, Trump or voodoo, here’s my advice. Go with the science. It may not always be correct. The evidence may change. How we interpret that evidence may change. The evidence may not always be well presented. The evidence may be manipulated for political gain or media hoo-ha. But… at a time like this, we have no choice but to depend on it. In brief, science is not a perfect basis of belief; but as a school of thought underpinning “what we understand,” it is by far the best thing we have. 

On Day 32 of the Lockdown Diary, I included – to the amusement of some – a picture of my childhood home, Calthorphe House. Here it is deconstructed and reconstructed. Some readers of this Diary might remember the wild teenage parties that nearly took that old roof off.

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Note: The anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are taken from a catalogue of the Royal Collection. Yes, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II owns no less than 600!

The Lockdown Diary – Day 48

Geneva, Saturday 2 May 2020

There is a park between us and downtown Geneva. I must have cycled through it a thousand times. In one corner by the main gate is an area dedicated to big outdoor public chess. Normally, on a Saturday morning, it would be heaving with enthusiasts locking intellectual horns. This morning, here it is in lockdown. 

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One thing I have noticed over the years is how very rare it is to see women playing chess here. I often wondered why this might be. I’ve had a look around on-line. Women represent less than 5% of registered tournament players worldwide and only 1% of the world’s grand masters. There are several theories behind why chess attracts so many more men than women. 1) Women always rank higher than men on an “agreeableness” factor. This means that when confronted by another person, women – unlike men – tend not to try immediately to outsmart the other person. 2) Testosterone… yes, the T-dog!! That hormone that drives, among other things, competition – both physical and non-physical – and aggression. Normal testosterone levels in men lie between 280 and 1,100 ng/dL and for women between 15 and 70 ng/dL. Men tend to have and enjoy a rush of testosterone before an important chess tournament. 3) Gender stereotyping leads to boys starting chess earlier in life and girls being less welcome in chess clubs at school. 4) Young women who play chess at a high level tend to stop competing when they have children. As with so many other aspects of human behaviour, the correct answer will comprise genetic components and social / environmental components. 

My on-line research led me to some other fascinating gender-related chess issues. A study by Dreber, Gerdes and Gransmark reported in a 2013 edition of the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation found that “attractiveness” of the opponent influenced game strategy. The 626 participants in a tournament had been rated for attractiveness as part of  a large marketing survey. The researchers found that male players choose riskier strategies when playing against attractive female opponents. Their riskier play did not improve performance. Women’s strategies and performance were unaffected by the attractiveness of their opponent. In another study reported in a 2007 edition of the European Journal of Social Psychology, Maass, D’Ettloe and Cadinu found that gender stereotyping is a factor behind women’s underperformance in chess. They pitched 42 men and 42 women in an on-line chess tournament. When players were unaware of the sex of their opponent (the control), females played as well as males. In the experiment, when women knowingly played against men, they showed a dramatic drop in performance. When they played against men but were made to believe they were against women, they performed as well as their male opponents.

While we’re on gender differences, a report in Science News on 23 April, reported different COVID-19 mortality rates for men (around 60%) and women (around 40%.) This also has yet to be fully explained and there are certainly genetic and environmental factors at play. Purportedly, women mount a stronger immune response than males and so are likely to be less susceptible to viral infections. This is thought to be due to the immune response being driven by a gene or genes on the X chromosome of which women have two copies while men have one. Extrinsic factors will include the higher rate of heart disease and hypertension in men that, in turn, is associated with their higher levels of obesity and smoking. 

I have been wondering when to stop writing the Lockdown Diary; probably on 11 May. This is the date on which we should be able to play golf; a pastime not really compatible with the notion of lockdown. However, need I remind you, dear reader, that on a global scale this pandemic is far from over. Many countries are still booming. Here’s the hard truth.

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Wishing you a peaceful weekend and hoping you are safe and well.