Thursday, March 04, 2021

Panic revisited

 One year ago the great toilet paper panic began in the UK. Australia had already seen extraordinary scenes of shoppers overloading their trolleys, now it spread here. Our social media had pictures of empty shelves and the inevitable comments "What is wrong with people", and the heart-wrenching images of health workers unable to find food, after a very long day's work grappling with the first of the corona virus victims, were about to make headlines.

There was nothing "wrong" with people - that's the trouble. For individuals to try to protect their own position at a time of great uncertainty is rational. The problem is that what works for some does not work when everybody does the same, as economists have known for a long time whilst studying the workings of markets. I am currently reading a book about the South Sea Bubble of 1720, an amazing time in English history, when sophisticated financial products were snapped up by the upper and middle classes on the grounds that if someone else was doing it, then it must be the right thing to do. As with Bitcoin today, the rationale is always that there is no risk because you can sell out, when necessary, to others willing to buy. The notion that there might be nobody willing to buy, because everybody is aware that it is time to sell, always comes too late.

Anyway, those days of queues and rumour seem a very long time ago. We shopped this morning as normal, and the shelves were full and all was placid. Everybody was wearing masks and making spaces for others as they passed in the aisles; other than that one could barely distinguish the scene from that of normal times. Even the traffic around beautiful Ruislip was about as busy as it used to be.

We have reached a key moment in the vaccination campaign. Everyone over the age of 65 has been vaccinated, bar those who do not wish it or for whom it is not advised. This has been the main group of those admitted to hospital with severe breathing difficulties. The risk of the health services being unable to cope with those needing emergency treatment has therefore receded and continues to diminish.

Next week schools go back and then we face an agonising time to see if this pushes the infection rate back up to dangerous levels; if not, then the rest of the return to normality can continue.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021


 At a time when our news is dominated by stories of people receiving vaccination against covid-19, why should this column be different? Let it be herein recorded that last week, not only did I extend a bare arm to the ministrations of a very nice young lady in a local pharmacy, but Mrs Commuter had a similar experience in the local Youth Centre.

We had both been wondering when our turn would come. Curiously, whilst I received both a letter from the NHS and a text from my GP, the wife got only the second. Which is why we were treated at different locations.  

Within a day or so we were told that the vaccine we had both been given, the Astra Zeneca version, was not suitable for people of our age group, was ineffective against a new South African strain, might need to be boosted in the autumn, might be better if the second shot due in 12 weeks was the Pfizer vaccine ... but it's OK folks, really, because world-renowned virologist and medical researcher B. Johnson (also our local MP and Prime Minister) opines that it's all going to be fine. 

Not that it will make much difference. Until the level of infections is really very small (much below today's figure of some 12,000 new cases) our lifestyle will remain as it has been for the past 11 months - avoiding contact with people and staying almost entirely at home.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

A Fitting Legacy

 I met a traveller from the New World,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand near a long abandoned golf course. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And sneering lip, and bulging cheeks
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
that filled and corrupted his subject's mind.
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
'I am the greatest President
My reign shall last 1000 years and my name be for ever remembered!'
But no name is there inscribed and none can say
Who this puffed and bloated boaster was.
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The bunkers and the ruined greens stretch far away.”

With thanks to Percy Bysshe Shelley, author of 'Ozymandias'

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Civil Servants and the Time Warp

 Those of us of a certain age and with particular interests in popular software have been having a quiet chuckle as some of the details buried within the UK-EU Brexit trade deal come to light. It appears that the civil servants who drafted it have been locked in a cupboard for the past twenty years, for the document makes explicit reference to Netscape, Mozilla Mail and Outlook as leading technologies. The kindest commentators have suggested that it was getting very late, there was pressure to complete a section on security in IT and someone did what they always do in such circumstances, dig out the previous file and copy the most likely looking bits.

It's funny because, of course, if they had applied this to other sections of the document, then it would been noticed and edited before being released to an incredulous public. Let me give you some examples of errors that would, one hopes, have never seen the light of day.

Transport: - Heavier than Air Flight
Hot-air Balloon stations shall be maintained at the frontiers of each contracting party with adequate supplies of heated air so as to facilitate the onward journeys of the aeronauts.

Fishing: - Whaling
Supplies of sperm oil, baleen and blubber are to be zero rated for tariffs

Alcoholic Beverages:- Tariffs
A maximum import tariff of 10% of the net landed cost may be applied for Mead, Sack, Finest Rhenish and the true, the blushful Hippocrene. Beakers of the Warm South must not exceed 15ltrs. Libations poured to the gods before commencing a journey are exempt.

Opiates and similar controlled drugs: - Sale conditions
Opium, morphine, laudanum, cocaine and related narcotics may be sold freely provided that
a) They are sold in bottles  with labels showing reassuring, full-bearded, gentlemen drinking them.
b) They are branded as "Dr Fields' Essential Remedy for all Household Ills" or similar.
c) They are labelled as "Absolutely harmless"

Computers and electronic equipment: - Security
Babbage Calculating Engines are of strategic significance to the British Empire UK and to the High Contracting Parties of the Congress of Vienna EU  and the export of same is forbidden.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Better late ...?

 Within the past hour it has been announced that a trade deal between the UK and the EU has been concluded. I say 'concluded' but of course all we have is agreement at the top level, and ratification by the governments must follow. Nonetheless, it enables all of us who believe in the benefits of trade, co-operation and friendship between nations to breathe a huge sigh of relief. The alternative - trading on WTO rules, tariffs and quotas and endless red tape (though there will be plenty of that anyway) and enormous scope for arguments, bans, blockades etc - was regarded by pretty well everyone as unthinkable. Not that this prevented a hard core of nutters from desiring it and no doubt the conspiracy theorists will be hard at work linking the deal with covid-19 and arguing that any deal at all which entails a British prime minister signing the same document as a foreigner must be a betrayal of our sovereignty.

The Brexit referendum was held in the summer of 2016. Here we are, four and half years later and on the verge of completing the exit procedure and only now do we have a trade deal that establishes how business is to take place from 1st January. It is truly staggering that it has taken so long to bring about something that everyone (bar the nutters) profoundly wished. Imagine if this lackadaisical approach had applied to other great events in history, such as this one ...

Scene: The Forum in Ancient Rome. Around lunchtime. Enter a group of senators gingerly testing the sharpness of their daggers and wincing a bit.

Brutus: We agreed, are we not? Today, the Ides of March, we strike at tyranny and bring down Caesar!
Cassius: All of us have sworn to act without hesitation for the good of Rome! Only death can stop us! It must be now! It shall be now!
Decimus Brutus: Death to Caesar and glory to the Roman republic!
Cinna: Er, hold on a second chaps, we still haven't agreed on what colour our flag should be. I still say it should be green.
Casca: Red. My constituents will accept nothing less.
Trebonius: Only if it has a yellow diagonal.
Cassius: Yellow with grey spots. My final offer.
Casca: Impossible. I've been utterly reasonable so far about the order of stabbing and who gets to stand next to Brutus at the press conference afterwards but yellow is a step too far. I'm sorry, I'm withdrawing back to Pompeii.
Trebonius: Then I too withdraw to my estates in Sicily.
Brutus: Ok, alright, let's calm down. I'll send out for some pizzas and we can have a rethink. Ides of March next year alright for everyone?