06 June 2021

Sunday reading and herd immunity

You'd be surprised how quickly 2 kg of blueberries can be consumed in and by a small household. In other words, there is very little left. We are now stuffed and have restocked our storage  of antioxidants or whatever beneficial ingredients blueberries surely must provide.

June has become sticky and close with short heavy showers. The garden is happy.

The roses have made their spectacular entrance to this year's season.

My favourite virologist has given another interview explaining his hypothesis of the origin of the Sars-2 virus and explaining why herd immunity is not what we need to look at. My rough translation (for the original click here):

In 2003, a doctor in Singapore contracted an unknown virus. Then he flew to New York, and there he got sick. It was known that he had been in contact with seriously ill patients in Singapore. On the return flight, the plane landed in Frankfurt for a refueling stop. The man was taken off board and placed in an isolation ward. At that time I was working in Hamburg at the Tropical Institute, which looks after imported infectious diseases, and had just developed a laboratory method that can identify viruses that had never been seen before. That's how I got involved in this detective story. At that time it was already epidemiologically clear that something was happening, something new, transmissible and triggering pneumonia, but nobody knew what kind of virus that was.

I applied the new method, and it turned out that there were sequences in this patient's virus from a coronavirus that were not yet known.

At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta had additional sample material from a second patient, a WHO doctor who had died of this disease in the intensive care unit in Bangkok. We were able to show through a joint investigation: two patients who have never met, but who both had an indirect epidemiological connection became ill in the same way from the same virus.

It is not that bats bring such a virus directly to humans. In my field work, I examined Sars-like coronaviruses in bats. In the laboratory, we could show that these Sars viruses in bat populations are not easily transferred to humans. So which animal is the in-between carrier? Often these are farm animals that are crammed together under conditions where the virus can boil up. Humans interact with these animals differently than with distant wild animals such as bats. Take fur animals. Raccoon dogs and viverrid cats have their fur pulled over their ears while they are still alive. They let out death screams and roar, and aerosols are emitted in the process. Humans can then become infected with the virus. These animals were shown in the early 2000s to be the source of Sars-1. And now Sars has come back, as Sars-2.

For me the source is the fur industry. The laboratory hypothesis, that Sars-2 is man-made, does exist. If you look at it from a purely technical point of view, if you just look at the genome, that's within the realms of possibility. But I know the techniques very well that you would need to change a virus in this way. If someone had developed Sars-2 in this way, I would say they chose pretty awkward method.

There are actually two laboratory hypotheses. One, that it is malice, that someone intentionally constructed such a virus. The other, that it was a research accident, that in spite of good intentions and curiosity, an experiment went wrong. The malicious thing, to be honest: you have to talk to intelligence officers about it. As a scientist, I cannot judge that.

You can't just put a virus in a Petri dish and do some kind of experiment with it. Building a DNA clone like this from a virus takes two to three years of molecular biological work. By the way, researchers actually have made such clones from the original Sars-1 virus. So if you had wanted to develop a kind of Sars-2 in the laboratory, you would have added changes to a Sars-1 clone to find out if this adaptation makes the Sars virus more contagious. But that is not the case here. The whole backbone of the virus is different: Sars-2 is full of deviations from the original Sars-1 virus.

Let me explain it with a picture: To check, for example, whether adjustments make the virus more contagious, I would take an existing system, incorporate the change and then compare it with the old system. If I want to know whether a new car radio improves the sound, I take an existing car and replace the radio there. Then I compare. I'm not building a completely new car for it. But that's exactly how it was with Sars-2: The whole car is different.

This idea of a research accident is extremely unlikely for me because it would be far too cumbersome. So the most plausible source is carnivore breeding. The fur industry.

I have no evidence for this, except for the clearly proven origin of Sars-1, and this is a virus of the same species. Viruses of the same species do the same things and often come from the same source. In Sars-1, this is scientifically documented, the transitional hosts were raccoon dogs and viverrid cats. It is also a fact that raccoon dogs are used extensively in the fur industry in China. If you buy a jacket with a fur collar anywhere in the world, it is from the Chinese raccoon dog, almost without exception. 

Fur animals are predators. They eat small mammals. They also chase bats in the wild. And bats only have one short window a year where they all have their young at the same time. A lot of newborns fall from where they are hanging during day time onto the ground. And these wild cats know that. They go into bat caves and eat their fill. And they can catch such viruses in the process. Often, the fur farms add wild animals to their stock. That’s why it’s easy to imagine how such viruses were introduced into these breeds. This is an industry with close contact with people, where they can become infected.

Fifty or sixty years ago, when an intercontinental flight was the exception and only diplomats flew to China and trade with Asia was carried out via shipping containers - at that time such a virus would not have spread so easily. Travel makes it easier for a local epidemic to turn into a pandemic. We humans use more and more land from the wild animal area and intensify livestock husbandry. We eat more meat. The richer people get, the more they use animals. The denser and larger the animal population, the greater the chances that a virus, once it is introduced into the population, will explode and mutate like Sars-2. 

The concept of herd immunity was a misunderstanding from the start, to think that 70 percent will become immune - regardless of whether through vaccination or infection - and the remaining 30 percent will no longer have any contact with the virus from then on. It's just not the case with this virus. Anyone who does not get vaccinated will contract Sars-2. The term herd immunity comes from veterinary medicine, from the cattle plague virus, the measles virus of cattle. Highly transmissible, but can be prevented for life by vaccination. There you can really do such calculations: We have a livestock population that is self-contained - how many of the animals do we have to vaccinate now so that the virus cannot circulate? That's where this term comes from. 

But we humans are not a closed herd. We travel and we exchange goods, and even without traveling there is the neighboring village, and that has a neighboring village and so on, all around the world. And this is how viruses spread. In a few years, one hundred percent of the population will either have been vaccinated or infected. Even after that, Sars-2 will still infect people, but then it will no longer be like the initial infection. The initial infection is the stupid thing, after that the disease that causes it is less bad. It will probably be some kind of cold.






03 June 2021

bear with me

It's very late at night or early in the morning, take your pick, and I am sitting here with the whole interwebs because my digestive system is in crampy and colicky disarray. I am so used to it, you have no idea. I know it will take between four and six hours since my last bite and we are almost there. Also, the messaging app from the insurance keeps bleeping about heavy rain and thunder to come.

So far, I have watched the last episode of Mare of Easttown and I did cry a little bit. I recommend this series to all, you may not cry. Then I watched The Mauritanian which is pretty much as expected when you have read the book. In between, I edited some boring stuff on end-stage liver disease. You know the drill, surely, alcohol is No Good. The liver is the diva of our organs. One glass of bubbly and all else falls to the wayside. Sorry, if this sounds disrespectful of divas. Not all divas are into drink the way the liver is.

It's summer, I am serious! After a cold and wet spring, at last. We have been told by those who have the authority, including my father, that this year's spring was close to what a normal spring used to be before climate change, we had forgotten or rather, we got so used to early heat waves and drought by mid May.

Look, clustering iris with buttercups at their feet:

and fancy clematis:

So all is gorgeously pleasant, we are picking strawberries for breakfast and pull up those cute little red radish for dinner and so on. The spuds and the brassica are coming along nicely:

white and purple allium this year:

 incredibly interesting fact:

 this quote describes my current state of mind.

I think of my brain as a dog whose owner is asked politely to leave obedience school because the dog is hopeless and is causing problems for the other dogs.

 Evie Ebert

Yesterday, we received an elaborately cooled parcel by post all the way from the coast near Huelva in Spain containing two kilos of freshly picked blueberries, fat and round and deepest purple-blue deliciousness. I put half in the freezer and the other half is sitting in the fridge, from where R has been gulping handfuls. This evening I prepared a pile of last year's almonds (soak in hot water and slip off the skin) and ground them up so that by tomorrow, once my intestine cramps have gone, I can make Ottolenghi's blueberry, lemon and almond cake. Because, tomorrow is that other holy Thursday, corpus christi, when all is shut and so on. Actually, it's already tomorrow. I can smell some rain.

25 May 2021

rainy garden

there has been so much rain that the three big barrels collecting the rain from the small roof area of the bike shed are full for the first time in years
my darling little trellis apricot tree

buttercup takeover

lots of woodruff under the little pear tree, should make some May wine
and this is the birthday letter from Michael D. Higgins, president of Ireland (and published poet) to Bob Dylan

21 May 2021

Friday selection

We are heading into the long Whit weekend, or Pentecost for some, with Monday a holy holiday. We have many holy days here in agnostic Germany, especially now, in May and June. Just past, there was Ascension Thursday, now Whit Monday coming up and next week Corpus Christi. On these days, everything is shut. If you forgot to buy food, you can try the petrol station and maybe find some old stuff deep down in your freezer. I remember my surprise when I first came to live in catholic Ireland where these days are not observed. Also, the amazed reactions when I explained about holy days in Germany. What, they exclaimed, in a country that has divorce and protestant churches?

Anyway, we have been informed that this year the local Corpus Christy procession will take place, albeit with distancing, which means it will be twice as long, snaking past our house, white and yellow flags and the rosary through a megaphone. One year, a long time ago, we were hosting a small group of African scientists attending an international conference (there is a private network in our city supporting people/countries who cannot afford the hotel fees) and they loved the display of this strange and mysterious local custom.

Anyway, long weekend. Time to recharge.

So for today, a few snippets only:

This excerpt is slightly edited and translated by me from a podcast script by Christian Drosten, virologist who identified the first SARS-associated coronavirus in 2003 and who developed the diagnostic test (PCR) used world wide.

Talking about herd immunity is pretty irrelevant, because everyone will become immune. 100 per cent, not 70 or 80 per cent, but 100 per cent in the population will inevitably become immune in, give or take, a year and a half. Either through vaccination or through natural infection. This virus will become endemic, it will not go away. Anyone who actively decides against getting vaccinated now will inevitably become infected. There is nothing you can do about it. Because, of course, the lockdown and distancing and masking measures will be cut back at some point. Then the virus will circulate in the population. It will circulate in the throats of people who have been vaccinated, who will not even notice that they are carrying the virus. It will circulate, of course, in the throats of children under twelve who cannot be vaccinated at the moment. The virus will spread in an undetected way under a blanket of immune protection. Then it will hit people who are not immunised by vaccination, who are fully susceptible. Those who are then infected, of course, may possibly end up in intensive care and many will die.

After the summer and in the autumn, people will have the opportunity to reconsider and say: Do I want to be vaccinated instead of getting infected naturally? If they don't get vaccinated, then of course they will get infected. This has nothing to do with political debates or compulsory vaccination or any kind of ethical debate. It is a free decision that people ultimately make. But I believe that those who actively decide against vaccination must know that they are also actively deciding in favour of natural infection.

And this music, oh how good is that! I have been listening to it for the last couple of days, the entire album is on youtube. There is a story behind it, click here for more. This is my favourite track.

and this is also my favourite track

18 May 2021


In illness .... We float with the sticks on the stream, helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time in years, to look round, to look up--to look, for example, at the sky.

Virgina Woolf

If it were not for my never ending monotonous litany of symptoms, which with predictable regularity is calling on me, my patience, my stamina, my stoic self - where would I be these days? Theoretically I am all for remaining stoic, after all it supposedly involves an indifference to high flying emotions, but in reality, that has never been my strong point, so it is hard work. Asking me to recollect myself - but as what? To reorient - but towards where?

Also, I consider one of my major achievements that - after much tossing and turning and chaotic thinking in the early, early hours - I finally allow myself to just lie there and Observe What Happens Next. I feel very Zen writing this down. Mostly, I am so tired by then that I fall asleep but it's the thought that counts, surely.

So yes, I have now managed the art of stepping back, mentally (having long since stepped back physically) from the ordinary claims of the world. But somehow, I still find myself walking on eggshells waiting for things to get worse, especially with the novelty set of side effects a new medication brings, the way it messes with the nerves along my legs and the - as yet - moderate hair loss. I am not so sure whether I am ready to swap my thankfully thick hair and the full sensory faculties of my legs for - what? I quite forget. Maybe a longer life? 

Next year R will turn 70, which makes him older than his mother ever was and almost the age his father was when he died. He is a picture of health and fitness and unlike his father was never a smoker and unlike his mother did not have multiple pregnancies and a massive traumatic car accident. Everything is stacked in his favour. 

When the first medical expert mentioned to me that my life expectancy will be somewhat reduced, I cried while waiting for R to pick me up. That expert was a piece of shit, really, because he urged me to get on the liver transplant list as, in his words, my liver had five years, max. But my daughter hasn't even finished school, I replied. (He was wrong. My liver recovered, while other bits have since packed it in. I don't think about it much.)

On Sunday, during my duty phone call my father in his nonchalant way mentioned that he has accepted to be locked up in this care home until his death. I almost replied, maybe that won't be long now. But I held my tongue. Whereas he felt it appropriate to add, you with all your health issues and medications, you'll probably die before me anyway. I politely changed the subject.

It is disappointingly cold outside, so that on these long bright evenings, we sit wrapped in blankets and watch the rain showers blowing across the lawn. Everything is lush and soggy and colourful to look at, the garden is enough. Almost.

14 May 2021

 We are at the end of the tulip season and just before the roses, with lilac everywhere. This is what I picked yesterday walking through the garden, one blossom each, excluding anything that will become a fruit and flowers on trees, because: too high.

Cannot remember where I read this, but this week has served as an example that any idiot can weather a crisis, it’s the day-to-day living that wears you out.  

I could list now that this week, I washed the windows, baked bread (of the no-knead variety) twice and apple crumble once,  roasted miso glazed aubergines, cooked asparagus risotto, made jam with the last frozen strawberries from last year, finished the latest knitting project (and now I am at a bit of a loss), cycled 64 km in total, read two novels*, ate the first juice apricots from France, went to the physiotherapist twice to unclench my aching joints, drank gallons of tea and spent 25 hours being gainfully employed.

Worn out doesn't quite cover it. But still:

*We run the tides, by Vendeal Vida and My phantoms, by Gwendoline Riley

08 May 2021

There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.


So, I am amazed that I have arrived at another Saturday in one piece and upright, that I did loads of work, clearing my inbox, fat and full last Monday morning, step by step or rather manuscript by manuscript before falling asleep before dinner last night.  

The garden is all tulips still, what usually is a week at most before they collapse under the sun, has stretched for another and another cold week, there's also lilac everywhere and a tiny show of wisteria, but for the rest, we are weeks behind or maybe we used to be weeks ahead for years. It will, no doubt, all explode soon enough, the garden blossoms I mean. My baby apricots are coming along nicely, at least that.

This is a picture I took a few years ago, but the same tulips are flowering right now.

I have been immersed in Jack by Marilynne Robinson, forcing myself to read slowly because, well to me it's a gem. And this morning I actually did a google search for Jack Boughton, hoping against hope to find a hidden picture. In the movie version of the book, which I have directed in my mind, he is played by Sam Shepard, a disheveled Sam Shepard and Della is played by, maybe, Lupita Nyong'o. Only their age doesn't match and I do have a problem with movies where older male actors are paired with much younger female ones. So I had to develop a kind of time shift in my mind, bringing a younger Sam Shepard back to life and so on. 

Reading Marilynne Robinson is a unique experience, as I am not the slightest bit religious and this book, just as her novels Gilead and Home and Lila, is at times a sermon, a prayer, a hymn book, albeit with an observed distance, nothing preachy. Often, I have to think of the Dutch Calvinist outlook that to this day is reflected by the uncurtained large and sparkling clean front windows of Dutch houses, allowing anybody to have a good look inside, as a metaphor for the honest soul that has nothing to hide.

I read out this bit to R (and he, the good catholic boy he once was, got a bit of a fright, asking, what have I done wrong now?):

You are not good for your own sake. That probably isn't even possible. You are good as a courtesy to everyone around you.

Other than that, I work hard ignoring the ongoing low level aches and super high level exhaustion. Had a nice chat with our GP about ageing and chronic illness. I told her, it first happened so gradually, without me noticing until one day when I could not remember what being healthy felt like. And how I should have known this was going to happen, should have paid attention. But she just shook her head and said, nothing stays the same for anybody.



27 April 2021

Let's start with an image from the garden. It's dated, more than a week old and we all know how spring races on.  Anyway, these beauties (wild tulips) are still flowering all over the place.

I am having a rough old time. What with side effects of this new biological while waiting for it to kick in to show me its promised glorious powers. (I am beginning to have doubts. My inner hypochondriac is having a field day.) But just for the record, four weeks of cortisone therapy, starting high and tapering down to almost nothing, have not only revealed glimpses of my former self - free of all the aches and filled with energy, I was in best form - but also confirmed once again the inflammatory nature of this autoimmune disease. Isn't it a pity that cortisone is such a toxic agent. I could get addicted to it. But for now and following doctor's orders, it's almost gone, I am down to 2.5 mg for another couple of days and the old stiff and tired woman has come shuffling back into my life. And that's not even mentioning the gruesome inflammatory bowel scenario.

Wisely , I postponed my appointment with HR until last week. Any day earlier and I would have thrown any offers of earlier retirement out the window. Me? I would have laughed, look at me, I am in great shape. 

Whereas now, I am stuck with the same old same old. Should I, will I, can I, etc. and on days like today, how much longer, and even louder: when?

 . . . the morality of illness is about seeking to do the right thing, but no single right thing is usually available. Thus 'rising to the occasion' involves living with a combination of uncertainty about what is being done and necessity to do something, since even inaction is a form of doing. The morality of illness means responding to the question: "How do I become the sort of person who has to live with a decision that I never should have had to make?"

Arthur W. Frank, Illness as moral occasion: restoring agency to ill people (in: Health, Vol. 1, No.2, Oct. 1997, pp. 131-148, to read the entire essay, click here)

Anyway, I have a bit of a time to think and throw the dice. A few more consultations with experts. 

Lovely music helps.

18 April 2021

All this is history now.

This week, we finalised my father's exit from his childhood home. It was a complicated affair. 

This was the house where he grew up in from when he was five years old. After he had walked away from his marriage and with the golden handshake he had received at the end of his career, he moved back there. He lived there with my grandmother for a while, but only until he got her safely removed to a care facility. It also was a complicated affair.

He sold the house about twenty years ago securing what in English is called usufruct, a legal right given by an owner to someone who is not the owner, to use the owner's property for a certain period, usually for the remainder of that person's life. This was in fact not at all a complicated affair. Usufruct has been applied since the Middle Ages, especially in rural Germany.

Here he is, the kid on the right watching his uncles and cousins digging the basement foundations.

And this is what it looked like after completion in front.


And here I am (on the right) with my sister (2nd from left) and cousins on an Easter Sunday visit.

This is what his sitting room looked like before he moved to the care home last summer.  The woman in the painting is my great grandmother.

. . . and here he is, in the same room, maybe six/seven years old, my sister sold the sideboard today. He is with his first model railway on xmas. All through his and our childhood the model railway was set up for the holidays, with many new additions, which meant that he and we spent a good deal of the xmas holidays gluing together models of this and that and by the time I was about 10 years old, it had become an elaborate affair with tunnels and mountains, churches, cities, motorways, light and sound and all the trimmings you can imagine. It lives now in its own room in my oldest nephew's house.

11 April 2021

As of today, no frosty nights and the two days of snow storms have not fazed the fruit trees! 

The tiny apricots are growing, the greengage and mirabelle plum trees are still flowering with abandon, the rhubarb has shot up and the borders are a colourful tulip, forget-me-knot and grape hyacinth wonderland. The method of frost protection Ellen suggested (spraying the trees with water) is used here by the big commercial orchards and I briefly wondered whether we should get out the sprinkler. I also contemplated the heat methods used by the vine growers in France, which are basically huge candles lit between the rows.

But in the end, we have been lucky and keep our fingers crossed for the next couple of nights and then we should be all clear.

It's a year now since I stopped going to work every day, a year since I have been inside a super market, a restaurant, or anywhere indoors in one room with people. Not a single coffee-to-go cup or take-out sandwich. Not a single trip anywhere except for necessary appointments. Seriously, I don't miss any of it. We have developed ways and means to stay in touch with friends and family and that's the only aspect I will welcome back.

I think the pandemic invites me to take stock. It opens up the opportunity for me to carefully sift through our way of life, piece by piece - and to consider what can go and what we will need in the future. I am making plans. My physical energy is limited and I have found this to be a bonus, strange as it may seem. I have not grown tired of cycling along the same river, through the same forest, around the same suburb.

While many just think about how they want to get back to what was their (seemingly) "normal" before the pandemic, and other are still pretending that nothing really is different, I am convinced that we are at a crossroads in our coexistence with other creatures, and I am certain that most of us feel like that, consciously or unconsciously, in fully formed thoughts or vague notions. And I mean our way of inhabiting this earth as living beings and the way we are sharing it with each other.

This pandemic will not be the last, there will be more in the future. Zoonoses are diseases that jump from animals to humans and some animals carry viruses to which we are not immune. Some of the reasons why this happens are deforestation and factory farming. Both are man-made. The future pandemics will be man-made. There is much to think about, much to get involved in.

I can already hear the whispers and shouts about how we humans cannot help ourselves, how we are going to hell anyway because we are unable to do anything about anything anyway and so on. We have been fed this line of doomsday thinking with climate change. And to an extent, I agree. But I am also deeply hopeful and for that, I don't need all of humanity to understand what is going on and what needs to be done. As with herd immunity, all it takes is a certain percentage, let the rest continue to moan and blame human inabilities. 

It's a handy narrative, doomism, it goes hand in hand with science denial, as explained here:


I realise, too, how so much easier this is, if I give up/in, at least I can get on with my comfortable life for the next decade or so before I kick the bucket. And whenever I have a sleepless night about my grandchild's future, I can pull out the handy arguments about humanity being unable and that it's all downhill anyway and that there is nothing I can do.

This from a recent interview with climatologist Michael Mann (to read all of it click here):

Any time you are told a problem is your fault because you are not behaving responsibly, there is a good chance that you are being deflected from systemic solutions and policies. Blaming the individual is a tried and trusted playbook that we have seen in the past with other industries. In the 1970s, Coca Cola and the beverage industry did this very effectively to convince us we don’t need regulations on waste disposal . . .  look at (the fossil fuel industry), which gave us the world’s first individual carbon footprint calculator. Why did they do that? Because (they) wanted us looking at our carbon footprint not theirs.

Doom-mongering has overtaken denial as a threat and as a tactic. . . . if people believe there is nothing you can do, they are led down a path of disengagement. They unwittingly do the bidding of fossil fuel interests by giving up.

But “too late” narratives are invariably based on a misunderstanding of science. Many of the prominent doomist narratives - . . . - can be traced back to a false notion that an Arctic methane bomb will cause runaway warming and extinguish all life on earth within 10 years. This is completely wrong. There is no science to support that.

Good people fall victim to doomism. I do too sometimes. It can be enabling and empowering as long as you don’t get stuck there.





04 April 2021

here goes the sun


( artist: Tom Gauld )

Here we are, in fear of the coming polar vortex, hoping that the flowering fruit trees will be able to handle maybe/hopefully just the one very cold night. I just went and told the little apricots to hang on in there and that they are my personal favourites. Also, earlier this afternoon I cycled against the freezing northerly wind pretending to be fit and healthy. It was nice for a while, only I fell asleep the minute I got home and sat down, which was a bit of an embarrassment because you really look like an old geezer when you snore sitting upright. Anyway, I am now recovering to some form of sanity, awaiting the evening entertainment and drinking tea. The birds are very noisy and busy in the hedge and the sunset is spectacular.

dailigone (Ulster* dialect): dusk; twilight. 

*Ulster is one of the four provinces of Ireland, it is made up of six counties, four of which are part of Northern Ireland.


26 March 2021

cold spring

We are waiting for warmth. So far this year, spring has been cold, mostly. Apart from the freak summer for three days in February. My brother, the family expert due to his geophysics degree, mentions the gulf stream tipping point effects, I try not to listen. (He actually manages a bookstore, has been for most of his working life, so much for geophysics. He is a clever man.)

Today, I am to start my new medication regimen. Yet another monoclonal antibody I will inject into my thigh muscle every two weeks on a Friday evening. I asked R to fold the instruction leaflet (it's actually a fat little booklet) in such a way that I can skip the pages and pages and pages with the possible side effects. He offered to rip them out and store them elsewhere. Yes, please. 

As always, I briefly ask myself, what if they're wrong, what if I'm overdiagnosed, what if I'm actually completely healthy?

Still, I have plans, I am so greedy, I want a really amazing life.

This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.

Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.

If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.

John O'Donohue


23 March 2021

One of the things I want to experience in real life and never have as yet, is to witness a murmuration. This one comes close to what I expect life has waiting for me somewhere. It'll do for the time being.


It was filmed earlier this month in Ireland, on Lough Ennell in Co Westmeath, by Colin Hogg and James Crombie. The story behind this video is here.

Like the fool I am most of the time, I went and got myself yet another vaccine. Yesterday, my GP called to remind me that I only had the first of two shingles vaccines and that this was almost six months ago and hence, time was of the essence. But, but, but, I said. Come in, she replied, it's two weeks since your second covid shot, all will be well. I want you to be covered.

I debated this with my inner idiot and decided that she, the GP, not only has a heart of gold but also that I want to be in her good books so R can get the covid vaccine asap and so I actually baked a tray of oatmeal cookies for her staff last night and this morning cycled over to her office after breakfast. 

After the shot, I sat for the required 15 mins and chatted through the open door with the receptionists about oatmeal cookies. I had no allergic reaction but the ground was somewhat wobbly which I ignored and cycled on to the farmer's market and back home whereupon I went to lie down and fell asleep for a bit few hours. And woke up to the same low bp I had after the covid vaccine. Only this time round, I am ever so cool about it. I even called my father as if I was on top of the world and we debated the failures of our government. We agreed on all points and in the end, he said, and I kid you not, your voice, which is very lively, frees me from some worries.  But he hung up before I could ask him to clarify "worries". 

My brother referes to this as the calendar wisdom replies when the hearing aid shuts down.

Other than that, spring is here. R is digging and potting and as of today, the potatoes are in the ground. I sit and watch the bees pollinating the almond trees. And the pear trees. And the peach trees. Also, the blueberry bushes. Very busy world out there.

21 March 2021


The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.

David Graeber

Over the last two weeks, I have watched the six part documentary by British journalist and film maker Adam Curtis: Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World  "that explores how modern society has arrived to the strange place it is today. The series traverses themes of love, power, money, corruption, the ghosts of empire, . . . it deals with the rise of individualism and populism throughout history, and the failures of a wide range of resistance movements throughout time and various countries, pointing to how revolution has been subsumed in various ways by spectacle and culture, because of the way power has been forgotten or given away." (it's available here)

It is overwhelming, ambitious, clever, creative, a rush of images, fragmented shots, music, portraits of strange anti-heroes, Black Panther, psychedelic dogs, Chinese opera, and all in all very very addictive and fun to watch.  Click here for background and the review from the New Yorker.

It starts with the quote above and it ends with the quote above. And thus it ends - at least for me - on a hopeful note because it refuses to accept that we as humans are unable to act transformatively in the world but that instead, political leaders have run out of ideas for what’s next.

Along the way, we learn that the Ku Klux Klan borrowed its emblematic costumes from D.W. Griffith's classic film Birth of a Nation.

We also learn that the first James Bond director made a propaganda film for Saddam Hussein. And we learn that Bob Geldof's "Live Aid" charity for the starving in Africa was hijacked by Ethiopian rulers to eliminate civil war rivals. 

And this:


 If almost seven hours is too much, just watch part one and part six.

No easy viewing, no easy answers maybe a whole lot of rubbish, but an experience I would not want to have missed.

With the pandemic, paranoia has accelerated but I don’t think it just came from that. People were so shocked by Brexit and Trump, that they started imagining all kinds of dark theories about Vladimir Putin, rather than facing the reality of politics in power – which is that actually you’ve got a shitty society at the moment and you should do something about it.

Adam Curtis


16 March 2021

not out of the woods or beware of the mutations

One week since the second vaccine. I just filled out the requested report on the side effects for the vaccination center which will be part of yet another study on this pandemic.

This is what happened: first six hours, i.e. Tuesday afternoon after the jab, tired and nauseous, nothing dramatic. During the night, shivers, sweating, no fever, more nausea, headache. Next morning massive vertigo, unable to walk straight, headache, nausea, shivers, slept mostly. Second night same story as first. Vertigo and headache stayed with me until Sunday, and by Thursday, that is day two post vaccine, my blood pressure had gone down well below 90/60 every time we checked and my GP ordered me to drink tea, lick some salt and walk around and upstairs when possible to get things going. That eventually did the trick, yesterday was the first fairly normal reading but bp is still dropping from time to time.

It all felt like hard work was going on. 

So, what else. My country has suspended the astra seneca vaccine for the time being, hopefully just for a matter of days. Here, there have been by now seven cases of a rare type of thrombosis, the so-called sinus vein thrombosis - usually there are less than 50 cases/annually.  Six of them were women of younger to middle age.  All cases occurred between 4 and 16 days after vaccination and three of the seven people have died.  In such a rare disease, seven cases within such a short time is significant and coincidence is highly unlikely. My uneducated guess is co-factors (possibly contraceptive pill plus smoking plus autoimmunity plus whatever) and/or vaccine batch related.

And now it's all down to risk assessment.

Then there is this from a brand new publication (read here) by a team of researchers from Harvard, Berlin and S. Africa, not yet completely peer-reviewed (the bold highlights are mine):

Vaccination elicits immune responses capable of potently neutralizing SARS-CoV-2. However, ongoing surveillance has revealed the emergence of variants harboring mutations in spike, the main target of neutralizing antibodies. To understand the impact of these variants, we evaluated the neutralization potency of 99 individuals that received one or two doses of either BNT162b2 or mRNA-1273 vaccines against pseudoviruses representing 10 globally circulating strains of SARS-CoV-2. Five of the 10 pseudoviruses, ..., were highly resistant to neutralization. Cross-neutralization of B.1.351 variants was comparable to SARS-CoV and bat-derived WIV1-CoV, suggesting that a relatively small number of mutations can mediate potent escape from vaccine responses. While the clinical impact of neutralization resistance remains uncertain, these results highlight the potential for variants to escape from neutralizing humoral immunity and emphasize the need to develop broadly protective interventions against the evolving pandemic.

In other words, the vaccine may not (immediately, eventually, yet) bring the desired salvation, "neutralization" means vaccine, "broadly protective interventions" could mean anything from vaccine boosters to ongoing mask wearing and distancing and oh well, have a think.

I went to the farmer's market today and distance-met with a friend in bad shape, someone working in the field of arts, freelance, successful, so busy, we rarely had time to meet. We recalled the years we each happily lived in far away tropical places with the ever present threat of debilitating illnesses. Her years were spent in places far more dangerous than where we lived.

Trying to remain level headed, we agreed that basically we are acting like angry spoiled kids because a virus is messing with our comfort zones. This actually cheered us both up. Go figure.

On a more cheerful note, here is Curt Smith, of the 1980s band Tears for Fears, and his daughter Diva with one of the big Tears for Fears songs that made me swing my toddler on my hips around the room.

15 March 2021

when you have raised a daughter

We women. We don’t have for ever. Some of us don’t have another week or another day to take time for you to discuss whatever it is that will enable you to go out into those streets and do something ... And I want one day of respite, one day off, one day in which no new bodies are piled up, one day in which no new agony is added to the old, and I am asking you to give it to me. And how could I ask you for less – it is so little. And how could you offer me less: it is so little.

Andrea Dworkin



11 March 2021

bear with me

My lovely GP called and ordered me to stay home and DO NOTHING until Sunday night. Just as I had put down the phone, I got an email from the top boss which I opened with the usual sense of resignation and duty only to read that his reaction to the second jab must have been even worse than mine, because, reader, he told me that he himself is staying home DOING NOTHING. 

The earth moved under my feet.

So what does it look like, doing nothing. I edited an urgent research grant application and read through a couple of first results from one of the research projects I have been assigned to. Then I went back to sleep for a while. 

R made lunch and decent coffee and I read all the news, incl. the stuff about the fairy tale people with the netflix deal. This is the stuff I usually read in waiting rooms and I just realised how I miss that kind of "news".

This is a good summary, from an Irish perspective - which I am unashamedly adopting just for a second now:

Having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and has daubed their house with clown murals, displays clown dolls in each window and has an insatiable desire to hear about and discuss clown-related news stories. More specifically, for the Irish, it’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.

Beyond this, it’s the stuff of children’s stories. Having a queen as head of state is like having a pirate or a mermaid or Ewok as head of state. What’s the logic? Bees have queens, but the queen bee lays all of the eggs in the hive. The queen of the Britons has laid just four British eggs, and one of those is the sweatless creep Prince Andrew, so it’s hardly deserving of applause.

I  vaguely remember a debate in secondary school about the pros and cons of monarchy and although we had to do this in English (a foreign language I was more or less unable to handle at the time), there was a lot of derision and mentioning of colonialism and slavery. We were pretty awake at the time.

immune response at work

Got the second vaccine jab yesterday after lunch. This is nothing, I said to myself about three hours later and cycled for a short while through the rain. 

Little did she know . . . 

At around dinner time, I got the shivers and the headache.  Went to sleep. 

Woke up today with massive vertigo, more headache, nausea and possibly every other side effect in the book for the Moderna vaccine. R kindly read them all out to me in a show of concern or possibly because he's mad that he - who is so much older than me - has yet to wait for his appointment.  This is where a rare chronic illness comes up a treat for once. Not that we are competing here.

Called in sick and found out that almost all of my colleagues who got the jab yesterday are out sick as well. 

So I tried the distraction method.  It sort of worked, I continued the ongoing argument with my sister via email and tried to listen to a podcast but found it to blown up, lots of fillers and repeats, how about some editing, I shouted. 

I then tried to fall asleep listening to Colum McCann reading his latest novel Apeirogon. But no possible with this book. It sinks into your mind. Soon I was almost sobbing. 

Next, I sat down with my knitting project and spent the best part of the remaining day unraveling mistakes because, vertigo and headache. Then the nausea took over. 

Also, I got to sign this memo from the vaccine people:

If a vaccinated person comes into contact with the virus, there is a high probability that they will not get ill. At the moment, however, it is still uncertain to what extent people who have been vaccinated can still temporarily carry the virus after contact with it and infect other people. 

In such a case, a person would temporarily carry the virus, but not get sick and it is assumed that the transmission is reduced due to a lower and / or less long-lasting viral load in the nasal / throat area. 

It is also assumed that vaccination has an effect on community protection, i.e. the more people are vaccinated, the less virus circulates in the population (herd immunity). 

In this way, people could also be protected who cannot be vaccinated themselves. 

Ultimately, however, to date there is a lack of scientific knowledge to assess the extent to which the vaccination reduces transmission. As long as the infection process is as dynamic as it is at the moment, all measures should be observed to push back the pandemic and to protect all people as best as possible from infection. 

Therefore, as a precautionary measure - until further study data are available - vaccinated persons should continue to observe the infection protection measures.



09 March 2021

where women rule

Yesterday was International Women's Day.  In my younger trade union days, this was usually celebrated - rowdy and cheerful and exclusively female.  We enjoyed it when the big boss would traipse up with a couple of roses, doling them out like diamonds. What a laugh we had and how he would blush in anger - especially when we found out that his wife had bought the bouquet for him.

Silly. Meaningless.

This year, I found out about these islands in the Baltic sea where women rule. The two islands Khinu and Manija. Wikipedia tells me: As the men of Kihnu have been frequently away to sea, women have run everyday life on the island and became the guardians of the island's cultural heritage, which includes handicrafts, dances, games and music. Music is an especially important part of the island's traditions, and accompanies handicrafts, religious feasts and other celebrations. Ancient runo-styled songs are also important, as is traditional clothing adorned with decorations and bright colours. 

These are such magnificent pictures. I borrowed them from here. There are many more to admire. The photographer is Anne Helene Gjelstad. These images have been published in many media outlets.


 the men have to wait outside for their turn at funerals

this could be is me knitting for the grandchild

and this is for Mary Moon

03 March 2021

In difficult times you should always carry something beautiful in your mind. 


Blaise Pascal

The speed reader in me completed this sentence with "with you" instead of "in your mind". So, yes, it came as a relief to realise it's just in my mind and I don't have to lug around any of the nice trinkets or whatnots that go for beautiful in my life right now.

Difficult times, yes and no. Repetitive, boring times more so for us. Slightly cabin feverish. But seriously, nothing to get worked up about. I had a bit of a row with a friend who lamented the trauma that #thecurrentsituation is inflicting on us. Really? I am not traumatised. Not by a long stretch. But the children, she cried out. Missing school, their career prospects, their social contacts, who will employ them in later life and so on.

Here is what I think. My father missed out on five years of school due to WWII. (Without internet access.) Instead, he was sent to dig air fields, harvest grains, bake bread and clean out stables. He stole stuff, he was often cold and food supply was poor. He also raised chickens in a broken shed, grew tobacco to sell on the black market and discovered his love for agriculture. After the war, he had to wait another year before school could start again. (Without internet access.) And without libraries or any teaching materials because all had been confiscated by the US army to check for nazi content - and why not. By the time he graduated from high school, he had to wait another two years before he could go to university because the returning war prisoners and refugees etc. were first in line. He spent these two years travelling from farm to farm, working and learning. He had a brilliant career as an agricultural scientist, a somewhat patchy one as a father and husband. He had his share of trauma but nothing compared to my mother, who also was an excellent scientist but a most disastrous mother.

When I asked him how his experience compares with what kids are living through right now, he was quiet for a while. I think, he said, I think we must always search for the lessons. There is always something to discover. Don't waste your time feeling sorry. And with that he put down the phone.

Don't get me wrong. I don't want to belittle anybody's fears and worries. I lie awake at night, too. I worry, I fret, I get angry. I am an expert at that. So here is my offer, try to carry something beautiful in my mind.

28 February 2021

Sunday morning perusals

It was Johnny Cash's birthday last week. I have been a fan from early teenage years after I had stumbled on that recording of the concert in Folsom prison late one night when I had sneaked down to watch tv after everybody had gone to bed. In the 1970s, surrounded by serious Genesis, King Crimson, Led Zeppelin etc. fans, that infatuation was not something to share in public.

Oh. What we considered as troublesome then.

Whereas these days . . .

There's the vaccines, which seem to provide immunity of sorts - very hopeful first data - as well as mild disease course if infected and the potential - highly likely but too early to call - of limited or even halted transmission.

And then there's treatment options. Here is my brief and unskilled summary of a brand new publication on promising drugs to help those infected to recover.

For the full article click here.

SARS-CoV-2 is a novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, in which acute respiratory infections are associated with high socio-economic burden.

As a complement to the safe and effective vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the repurposing of existing drugs represents a pragmatic strategy for the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Drug repurposing (drug repositioning) is advantageous in the face of rapidly-spreading emerging diseases.

Multiple ... clinical trials have been initiated in the search for effective treatments against SARS-CoV-2. The individual drugs or combination treatments for these studies have often been selected based on known activities against SARS-CoV, Ebola virus, HIV or Plasmodium spp. ... However, the search for effective drugs against SARS-CoV-2 could extend beyond known antivirals and anti-infectives ...

 A team of virologists, microbiologist, pharmacologists, infectiologists etc.

... applied high-content screening to a well-defined collection of 5632 compounds including 3488 that have undergone previous clinical investigations across 600 indications. The compounds were screened by microscopy for their ability to inhibit SARS-CoV-2 cytopathicity in the human epithelial colorectal adenocarcinoma cell line, Caco-2. 

Cytopathicity is the ability of a virus to produce detrimental changes in cells. So here, over five thousand established drugs (compounds) that have been used and investigated for their efficacy in six hundred diseases were introduced, separately, to a specific human cell line. This cell line has been used in many drug investigation as it shows how and how fast a drug may enter the body via the small intestine. Basically, the Caco-2 cells are our stand-in in drug trials.

If you are not put off by detailed method descriptions of drug testing and the specifics of testing assays and all the technical stuff, this article reads like a thriller where step by step the villain is surrounded by the good guys.

First, anti malarial drugs:

Among the first group of drugs initially reported to show activity against SARS-CoV were anti-malarial compounds such as chloroquine and its close relative hydroxychloroquine, although larger ...  trials indicated they were largely ineffective. We found that ... other anti-malarial compounds ... were inactive ... whereas the chloroquine analog mefloquine showed concentration-dependent activity at the highest compound concentrations.

Next, anti fungal drugs:

 Our hits also included ... anti fungal compounds  all showing ... effective concentrations ...

Then the HIV drugs: 

Several drugs .. developed for the treatment of HIV ... suggesting a possible mechanism for inhibiting viral replication.

Then a couple of others: 

(drugs used) ... for heart disease, impotence, and psychosis, which also inhibit multiple strains of influenza virus (and those) ... with anti cancer activity (and those) ... developed as oral drugs for the treatment of cancer or inflammation.

And, with stubborn dedication (my interpretation) they came closer and closer and - tada! -

...identified 258 hits that inhibited cytopathicity by more than 75%, most of which were not previously known to be active against SARS-CoV-2 ...

I don't have the first clue about what and how they did all this but I am beginning to love science. 

As a side note, the promising drugs may include viagra. Not that it matters to me.


24 February 2021


Not yet.

21 February 2021

Sunday morning reading

Here is my short version of this peer-reviewed review on immunity, vaccines and the covid. 

(for full article with Figures click here)

Any virus that can cause disease in humans must have at least one immune evasion mechanism—at least one immune evasion “trick.” Without the ability to evade the immune system, a virus is usually harmless. Understanding immune evasion by a virus is frequently important for understanding the (...) virus, as well as understanding challenges faced by the adaptive immune system and any candidate vaccine. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, the virus is clearly unusually effective at evading the triggering of early (...)immune responses (...). It is plausible that much of the nature of COVID-19 as an illness is a consequence of this one big trick of SARS-CoV-2.

In an idealized example of a (...) viral infection, the (...) immune system rapidly recognizes the infection and triggers  “alarm bells”(...). This can occur within a couple of hours of infection.

In a SARS-CoV-2 infection, the virus is particularly effective at avoiding or delaying triggering (...) immune responses (...)  enough to result in asymptomatic infection (...) or clinically mild disease (“mild” is a COVID-19 clinical definition meaning not requiring hospitalization).

If the innate immune response delay is too long—because of particularly efficient evasion by the virus, defective innate immunity, or a combination of both—then the virus (1) gets a large head start in replication in the upper respiratory tract (URT) and lungs, and (2) fails to prime an adaptive immune response for a long time, resulting in conditions that lead to severe enough lung disease for hospitalization (...). These factors can be amplified by challenges of age, as elderly individuals (...) struggle to make a (...) response quickly that can recognize this new virus.

Although lung infection is a major component of severe COVID-19 (and relatively slow), upper respiratory tract (URT) infection is important for transmission. Notably, a vaccine that can prevent severe disease, or even most URT symptomatic diseases, would not necessarily prevent transmission of virus. 

The elderly present particular and important challenges for COVID-19 vaccines. Older individuals are at much higher risk for severe COVID-19. 

One key feature of vaccines is that immunization occurs well in advance of infection, giving the adaptive immune system time to respond, expand, and mature. 

Overall, the interim results from the two COVID-19 RNA vaccine trials were virtually identical, with 94% and 95% efficacy and similar other outcomes. The safety profile of the two vaccines is also excellent, with a combined >70,000 doses administered and no serious adverse events. 

. . . the biggest unknown now is probably the durability of the vaccine-induced immunity. Because there is no licensed RNA vaccine, no clear reference point exists for how durable immunity will be for this vaccine. Are the antibodies durable? Is the T cell memory durable? Is the B cell memory durable? Those are all important questions, and it will take time to answer them.

20 February 2021

so many reasons to be cheerful



And all of a sudden, spring. The blackbirds are singing their hearts out before sunrise and the woodpeckers are screeching and hammering. And there's what my father-in-law would call that good stretch in the evenings now

All week the cranes have been returning and it's such a welcome sight and sound. This year more so than ever. When I heard the first flock, late afternoon on Monday, we ran outside to watch the enormous flocks high above in their V-shaped formations flying in from the southwest and I noticed that all the neighbours were out there with us and we all were gazing up and clapping and waving. I got on my bicycle and cycled along with them for a while. It was just the best thing.

In the garden it is winter aconite week. I found just the one snowdrop struggling between the thyme bushes, the last of hundreds which, according to the gardener, is due to shrews eating the bulbs and, according to my own humble opinion - which I wisely keep to myself -, due to the gardener digging up the bulbs because he is not fond of them, their messy green leaves taking up space after too short of a bloom. The gardener hates waste. We disagree.

There's just a bit left to harvest, like these fat fellows, which I roasted (cubed) with a bit of miso butter and honey.

Next will be crocus and grape hyacinth week and before we can take a  breath, the full flowering orgy will be upon us. I have been reading about mast years and now have great hopes for the hazel and various plum trees this year after last summer's dismal harvest.

Meanwhile seed propagation is getting out of hand, we transplanted the first batches and they are now happy in the cold frame and the greenhouse but as always, there's more and even more and soon I will have to do a ring-a-round for takers.

The grandchild asked this morning, can you come to my house granny and granddad? And people, we laughed and held our breath for while.

18 February 2021


I keep trying to remember that all pandemics are finite. I wonder whether that's a consolation. So history shows that each pandemic ends one way or another. The Spanish flu ended in 1918, as WW I ended, because it was the war that got it going in the first place.

But it's a bit different with the covid. I read and try to understand and what I can figure out is that, yes, we need the vaccines, all of them, but we shouldn't put our hopes on that with a vaccine all will be well.

It doesn't help anyone in the wealthy North/West if we are all vaccinated and the mutations then come to us from Africa because there is a lack of vaccines there.

Most new infectious diseases are transmitted from animals to humans. In recent years alone: Ebola, Sars, Mers,  Zika. You don't need to be an expert to see how this is due to the ongoing destruction of nature, climate change, extinction of species, factory farming. 

We humans penetrate ever deeper into the natural habitat of wild animal populations. This increases the likelihood that new viral diseases will pass from animals to humans. Even if the fight against this pandemic is currently overshadowing everything, we have to face the larger ecological crisis behind it at the same time.

This is a long-term epidemic, after 12 months, obviously so and it has and will continue to change society and daily life. That's a good thing. I read that the bubonic plague which killed at least a third of the population of Europe in the 14th century (??) is responsible for our concept of public health. Pandemic as formative event, so to speak.

People ask me what I miss most and I am at a loss. Travel, eating out, going to a bookshop, a museum, it all sounds so trivial and vain when I hear of terrible cases of long covid, of family members dying within hours of each other. Of course, I want to visit my daughter, my grandchild. But for much longer than this pandemic, we have been talking about how things were spiralling out of control, have been plotting ways and campaigns and actions to enable our children's and grandchildren's future on a livable planet away from the old destructive normal. 

Because the old normal has put us here, I want to shout. Our silly arrogance, our superiority complex. Let's be a tad more humble here and take our place, our teeny tiny place on the planet with care and responsibility.