#120 Worrying about the Coronavirus

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This week has seen the first case of coronavirus identified in Sao paulo. The 61 year old man had recently returned from a business trip to Italy and is the first known case in Latin America.  Stock prices plunged in Brazil and Mexico amid fears that measures to slow the spread of the virus could cause delays in supply chains.

Health officials quickly rushed to trace the other passengers of the man’s flight from Italy and there are about 20 potential case with 12 having recently visited Italy.  There have been a growing number of cases in Italy but despite this, the upcoming European football championship there in June is planning to go ahead. As of yesterday, there were 81,397 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 2,770 deaths. 30,384 people have been confirmed to have recovered from the virus.

It is assumed that the virus spreads like other viruses via cough and sneeze droplets. These droplets can be inhaled or picked up through touch though there is uncertainty as to how long the virus can survive and whether it can be transmitted before symptoms develop.

Precautions for reducing the spread of the virus include washing hands, covering the mouth with a tissue or elbow when coughing or sneezing, wearing a face mask, seeking early medical help, avoiding contact with live animals in infected areas, avoiding under-cooked or raw meat and, if you have returned from in infected area, avoiding contact with people for 14 days.

At under 2%, the death rate for the virus is only slightly higher than influenza (1%), which kills around 400,000 people annually, and significantly lower than SARS (10%).

COVID-19 Fatality Rate by AGE:

AGE
DEATH RATE*
80+ years old
14.8%
70-79 years old
8.0%
60-69 years old
3.6%
50-59 years old
1.3%
40-49 years old
0.4%
30-39 years old
0.2%
20-29 years old
0.2%
10-19 years old
0.2%
0-9 years old
no fatalities

*Death Rate = (number of deaths / number of cases) = probability of dying if infected by the virus (%).

Of those infected by the virus, so far there have been no fatalities in the under 9 age range and out of those over 80, less than 15 out of every 100 have died. Those with no pre-existing conditions have a significantly lower chance of dying than those with.

PRE-EXISTING CONDITION
DEATH RATE*
Cardiovascular disease
10.5%
Diabetes
7.3%
Chronic respiratory disease
6.3%
Hypertension
6.0%
Cancer
5.6%
no pre-existing conditions
0.9%

*Death Rate = (number of deaths / number of cases) = probability of dying if infected by the virus (%).

We all love a good health scare and it certainly does the job of distracting me from my writing.

 

 

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#119 Watching Sao Paulo flood

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On Monday of this week it had rained all night and two of the largest rivers in Sao Paulo burst their banks.

Just over a hundred years ago, Sao Paulo evolved from what had been an indigenous settlement in between two rivers into a sprawling metropolis which now supports 20 million residents.

The indigenous community had built their settlement on top of a hill because the rivers had a tendency to flood and the first European settlers followed suit, essentially evicting the previous occupants from their land.

As demand for land increased, the poor were left with little option than to occupy the spaces on the flood plains and consequently were the victims when the rivers flooded.

The flooding of urban areas was an unsanitary process, so city planners decided to canalise what had previous been beautiful meandering rivers into straight channels, bordered by multi-lane highways.

Other cities such as Moscow, Vienna and Paris and created train, tram and subway networks encircling the city but in Sao Paulo the lobby of car manufacturers such as Fiat, GM, Ford and Volkswagon was very strong so mass transit systems were abandoned in favour of large avenues designed for car use which bordered and, in some cases, covered the rivers they followed.

As a result, many of the rivers in Sao Paulo have become invisible to the public, hiding the polution and waste which flows through them every day.

The rivers Pinhieros and Tiete and relatively slow flowing rivers and soon begin to smell very badly due to the effluent which accumulates.

When the rivers do inevitably flood, despite various attempts at flood prevention schemes, it understandably causes, not just chaos on the roads which border the rivers and occupy the flood plains, but also dangers to public health and sanitation.

Sao Paulo’s rivers have always flooded but the problems they cause are a consequence of urbanisation and poor planning based on the financial interests of the car manufacturers rather than the interests of the majority.

If you are interested in learning more, and you speak Portuguese, then there is and interesting documentary called Entre Rios which examines the issues surrounding the urbanisation of Sao Paulo.

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#118 Reading Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

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I found a copy of Anansi Boys in a bookstore in Sao Paulo and decided it was time to put an end to having to admit I hadn’t read any if Neil Gaiman’s books.

The admission was as surprising to me as to others given my love of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett.  When I first read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I thought the humour was completely original and unique and it wasn’t until many years later, when I read Dickens, that I realised it was just that Adams was an astute observer of life.

This same streak of humour can be found in Gaiman’s work and it was very refreshing to be enjoying such humour once more.

Most people are probably aware of Gaiman’s work through his previous novel, American Gods, which was adapted into a TV series. One of the key characters of Anansi Boys, Mr Nancy, an incarnation of the West African trickster god Anansi, also appears in American Gods.

After already establishing himself in the workd of comics, Gaiman completed his first novel, Good Omens, which he wrote with Terry Pratchett and which was later made into a TV series by Amazon and the BBC.

Anansi Boys, released in 2005, tells the story of Charles Nancy whose life is turned upside down after he travels to Florida to attend the funeral of his father. The book received enough votes for Hugo nomination in 2006 but Gaiman withdrew the book.

In his web based journal, he explained why: “I suppose partly I did it because I have three Hugos already, and I felt it was better to get more names on the ballot that weren’t mine, and partly because I think I feel more comfortable when the things of mine that get Hugo nominations are marginally closer to SF than to pure fantasy, but mostly because when they told me Anansi Boys was nominated it just felt right to say no thank you, this time. Obviously I’m grateful to everyone who voted for it, and happy for the other awards that it’s won and is nominated for, but on this one, well, it just felt right to say no.”

In 2007, the book was adapted by the BBC into a radio play. Gaiman stated that he was displeased with the BBC radio adaptation, because “budget cutbacks and less broadcasting time for drama [have caused BBC to decide] it would have to be an hour-long adaptation. And bad things happen when novels get cut down to an hour. So despite a really terrific cast and production and as solid a script as could be in the circumstances, I was not happy. It felt like one of those Readers’ Digest condensed books”.

One of the consequences of his disappointment with this adaptation was that he decided to write his own screen adaptation which he finished in 2010 around the time he was also wriying for Doctor Who.

In 2017 a six part adaptation was commissioned by Dirk Maggs. Dirk Maggs has adapted no fewer than five of Neil’s books for Radio, including Neverwhere and Good Omens. This adaptation of Anansi Boys is apparently Neil Gaiman’s favourite so far.

If, like me, to hadn’t read one of Neil Gaiman’s novels, you could do a lot worse than start with Anansi Boys which is an entertaining read full of entertaining characters and events. In relation to my own novels, the book has the same light hearted feel of my Mastery of the Stars series but is fantasy as opposed to science fiction.

Reading Anansi Boys is certainly a good way to avoid writing.

 

(all paid links)

 

 

 

 

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#117 What if the UK monarchy was abolished?

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According to a 2018 poll, most people in the UK are in favour of the monarchy with only a minority wishing to abolish it and these figures are only slightly different to a similar poll taken in 2012.

Recent scandals involving Prince Andrew and Harry and Meghan’s Megxit have been predicted as the end of the monarchy by some quarters of the media but, given that the abolition of the monarchy would require a clear majority in a referendum, it would require more than an annus horriblis to unseat the crown.

There are those who believe that the love for the monarchy is actually a love for the Queen and that, when the Queen dies, the monarchy might not enjoy the same support when Prince Charles becomes king. These people would do well to remember that King Edward VII was involved in many scandals while Queen Victoria was alive but that when she died he became a very popular monarch.

The popularity of the Queen in in part due to her refusal to get involved in politics, the very reason for criticism of Prince Charles. However, it is not impossible to imagine situations in which a monarch could be criticised for either meddling in politics or not meddling in politics. In any case, Charles insists that he will not meddle so one would have to assume a situation in which the Government attempted to pass a piece of legislation which was universally unpopular but which nevertheless had been passed by parluament and therefore, constitutionally, required Royal assent, the monarch, performing their constitutional duty could inadvertently align themselves with an unpopular Government and it is not unimaginable that both could then be removed, remember King Charles I. It would be ironic if the only times in British history a monarch was removed was under a monarch named Charles, though I do hope they don’t behead him this time.

Another factor in the likelihood of the UK becomming a republic is the monarchy’s willingness to fulfill their role. In 2017, Prince Harry told Newsweek: “Is there any one of the royal family who wants to be king or queen? I don’t think so, but we will carry out our duties at the right time.” George VI famously did not want to be King but had little option when his brother abdicated. This thrust the current Queen into the line of succession, something that she, no doubt, had not desired.

The difference between these previous monarchs performing their duties and potential future monarchs doing the same would be if there was an increasing sympathy with the republican cause, this has let to reveal itself.

A big barrier to republicanism is the thought of who might become president. Tony Blair? Nigel Farage? Another accelerant would be if Scotland or even Northern Ireland successfully devolved.

And then there is the question of the Commonwealth. Many members of the Commonwealth might welcome the abolition of the monarchy but there is also the possibility that the UK could vote to abolish the monarchy while some Commonwealth nations opt to retain the monarch as their head of state. What would happen in that situation?

In my current work in progress, a prequel to my dystopian novel, WHEN THE WELL RUNS DRY, an increasingly authoritarian government takes the death of the King as an opportunity to transfer the monarch’s powers to the Prime Minister who becomes defacto president. The move follows a decades long political slide to right but is not unimaginable.

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#116 Trying to get a Brazilian driving license

People from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are allowed to drive in Brazil using their UK driving license for 80 days, counting from the day they enter the country, as far as they have their original passport and original valid driving licence with them.

I’ve now been in Brazil for 8 years, around 2,920 days, give or take a leap year, and so I thought it might be prudent to get the appropriate permission to burn fossil fuels in a speeding hunk of metal, legally.

To be fair to myself, I had started the process a couple of years ago by getting my driving license translated into Portuguese by a notarised translator, as opposed to a notorious translator like Ronnie Biggs.

I did very little with the notarised translation except occasionally take it out of the envelope to admire it so, six months ago, I decided to do something about it and went along to DETRAN, the Sao Paulo department of transport, to put an end to this business once and for all.

Unfortunately, as I had just moved house, I had no proof of address and, they said, I would need either a toxicology report or a declaration to say I only wanted to drive category B vehicles – cars.

I spent six months searching the DETRAN website for a declaration template. This is not true, I actually spent six months doing nothing until my next holiday and then, following a brief and unsuccessful search of the site, I decided to try and create my own, or rather ask my wife to create one.

This proved unnecessary because, when I arrived for my new appointment at DETRAN, the clerk immediately handed me two forms which, had they been handed to me on my previous visit six months earlier, would have resolved my immediate issues and allowed me to proceed with my application.

Nevertheless, I had proceeded to the next square on the great DETRAN board game. The next steps were to supply my face and fingers for photo and fingerprint records and then pay the fee R$92 ($23). All that remained was a medical exam and Bob would be my uncle.

There are many medical exam suppliers surrounding DETRAN so I went to the nearest, parted with another $23 (R$92) and waited to be called. The doctor, being a bright spark, spotted I had a pair of glasses hanging around my neck and asked me what they were for. I told him I used them for reading so he asked me to sit on a chair at one side of the room and read three lines of letters on a poster on the other side. I always hesitate during this kind of exams, not because I can see the letters, but because I can’t remember what they are called in Portuguese.

He seemed satisfied with my answers and  I glanced around the room at a variety of medical apparatus which he was presumably going to deploy in the duration of the exam. What actually happened was that he thanked me for coming and his assistant printed off a medical report complete with blood pressure measurements he hadn’t taken but nevertheless pronounced me healthier than I probably am.

I thought that was it, but apparently, I had to go for a ‘psicotecnico’ test and should go to the medical exam place on the next corner. I asked them whether they were sure I needed this but they seemed insistent. The  place on the corner said they had reached their limit for these kinds of tests at the moment and that I should try another place across the road and down a side street.

I was about to cross the road, thinking I shouldn’t have my phone out texting on the street, when a man rushed up to me and asked if  I could help him. As he talked, I assumed he was just after commission from the testing centre for having taken me there. I agreed to be shown the way but always had the nagging fear in the back of my mind that he was leading me down a side street to mug me. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded and R$100 ($25) later I was sat in an exam room with a peculiar intelligence test in front of me.

The test had 40 multiple-choice questions. Question one, above, seems pretty simple, right? But, question 40 was beyond even my enormous intelligence. If anyone has the answer, please let me know.

In the second test, we had a limited amount of time to go through a sheet, similar to that above, and cross off every time a symbol in the little box at the top appeared.

The third test involved marking little…marks on a piece of paper until the examiner gave a signal at which point I was supposed to make a dash and then continue to make little marks. The most disturbing part of this test was the sound of the pencil of the woman next to me which was moving much faster than mine. Maybe that makes me a careful driver.

As far as I could tell, none of the tests was actually marked. I got the impression that as long as I could walk into the test centre, not make a complete fool of myself, and walk out again, then I had passed.

I returned to DETRAN with the completed test certificates and was told my license would be ready within 30 to 60 days.

I plan to go back at easter and see if it’s ready. Keeps me busy when I would only otherwise be writing.

 

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#115 Reading The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver

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Lionel Shriver  is probably best known for her novel We need to talk about Kevin which was adapted for film with Tilda Swinton playing the mother of Kevin. The Mandibles: A Family,  2029 – 2047 begins, unsurprisingly, in 2029 during the middle of a debt crisis which causes the collapse of the US economy. The Mandible family is particularly affected and must go to extraordinary lengths to survive.

As I was listening to the book, I imagined that Shriver must have used the example of what happened in Germany during the depression years in the 1920’s as a model for her ideas but I don’t think this is the case. The Mandibles is like a futuristic Grapes of Wrath and expounds Shriver’s economic politics.

The book started me thinking. I’m a firm believer that the past tends to repeat itself and that, given the evidence of humanity’s inability to deal with the challenges of climate change and resource depletion the prospect of this current civilisation going the same way as so many others through the ages as Jared Diamond explores in his book, A New Green History of the World.

I wrote WHEN THE WELL RUNS DRY with this idea in mind that as societies learn to deal with less energy and resources that, without proper management, they would regress to the same uncivilised states from which they emerged.

After listening to The Mandibles, after seeing the terrible state countries are getting themselves into voting for right wing governments in the UK, the US and Brazil, and contemplating the worst things that could happen following Brexit, the desire to write some kind of prequel to WHEN THE WELL RUNS DRY grabbed hold of me.

Still stimulated by this idea of history repeating itself, I decided to do some research into Germany in the first third of the 20th Century and the circumstances which led to the tragedies surrounding the Second World War.

One of the best diarists of the period was a German, Victor Klemperer. His books, Munich 1919 and I Will Bear Witness, give a valuable insight into the revolution at the end for the First World War and the build up to the Second World War, respectively. To fill the missing years in between I turned to Little Man, What Now? by Hans Fallada which is a great reflection of every day German life during this period.

If we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past then we must learn from history. However, judging by the knee jerk reactions in the US and Europe over what is a relatively small number of immigrants, imagine how these societies will react when the real climate and resource refugees start to arrive.

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#114 Why democracy does not work

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You must have heard the statistic that the wealth of the richest 1% in the world is equal to the combined wealth of the other 99%. It doesn’t sound very equitable does it?

Almost half the world’s population live in some form of democracy so why don’t they do something to change this inequitable situation? Well, unsurprisingly, the world’s media tends to be owned by the wealthy who, having become rich under the current system, would like to keep things that way, thank you very much.

It therefore makes perfect sense to assume that those in control of the media are going to favour candidates who are more likely to maintain the status quo. But how capable is the population at reading between the lines and understanding for themselves what is really going on? A study of world intelligence shows a not conclusive but arguable link between intelligence and the amount that country spends on education.

It makes sense why those parties of a right leaning are supported by big businesses and media giants and tend to be more reluctant to invest in education for the masses but it’s more insidious than that. The programming of these media giants glamorises the 1% making their lifestyles something to aspire to. So, there’s another reason why the 99% chose to maintain the status quo, it’s because they believe that if the system stays as it is they might one day become part of that elite.

Of course, this is not new. Back in 2011, the Occupy movement started in Wall Street and spread to over 951 cities across 82 countries, and in over 600 communities in the United States.

It’s time to destroy the myth that giving tax breaks to the rich will somehow help the poor. This video by Britain’s Labour Party explains why this simply is not the most effective way to stimulate an economy.

Come on. We are the 99%, let’s take back control of our lives.

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