‘Selfie’ has just taken on a new meaning . . .

Self isolation—the new ‘selfie’! Social distancing. New words to add to our vocabularies. How our lives have changed in just two weeks.

These are indeed extraordinary times, unlike most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. And all due to the emergence in central China and subsequent pandemic spread of a previously unknown zoonotic coronavirus, now named SARS-CoV-2, that is causing an acute (and deadly for vulnerable individuals) respiratory infection, Covid-19. And while I am a biologist, this blog post is NOT about the virus and its biology. Rather, I’m focusing on some of the issues around and consequences of this pandemic.

I was born in 1948, three years after the end of World War II. I never personally experienced the horrors of that man-made conflict nor indeed any conflict. I find it offensive that politicians, some journalists, and others on social media make comparisons to a conflict that most were born after. I’m not the only one to feel this way. I just came across this opinion piece in yesterday’s The Guardian by Simon Tisdall.

I remember (just) the exigencies of rationing that continued for many years after the end of the war. Also, the difficulties endured during the petrol rationing of the 1956 Suez Crisis. Since then we have not experienced any serious rationing in the UK that I can recall.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic is on a different scale. It’s not that the total number of patients infected with the virus has yet come anywhere near the 1918 flu pandemic, for example. But this virus is new, it’s very infectious, and lethality apparently high. The worry is that without appropriate control, the pandemic will outrun the capacity of health services to provide care for those who suffer from an acute infection. Whole countries are closing down. And while some ‘draconian’ measures (including curfews) have been introduced in some countries, these have yet to be imposed in the UK. ‘Yet’ being the appropriate word.

Having seen the shortages of some products in the supermarkets such as rice and pasta, hand sanitizers, cleaning products, and, inexplicably, toilet paper, I do wonder when rationing across the board will become the norm. How this pandemic pans out, everyone will have to become accustomed to a changed world. I’ll return to that theme later on.


Cometh the hour, cometh the man . . .

Or woman for that matter.

[Disclaimer: My politics are center left. If I’d had the chance (I didn’t as I was working overseas), I would have voted for Tony Blair’s New Labour. So any criticism of politicians below is not aimed at them because of their right wing political stance (which is anathema to me), but simply because I do not believe they are the right people in this time of crisis.]

As President Franklin D Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address on 4 March 1933, ‘. . . the only thing we have to fear is . . . fear itself‘. It’s apt to remember this under the present circumstances. We fear the unknown. In times of crisis, everyone needs reassurance. And, as Simon Tisdall commented in his opinion piece that I referred to above, the war and wartime analogies only stoke fear.

Step up to the plate our political leaders. Or not, as the case may be.

It’s really unfortunate that in these trying times that the governments of both the UK and USA are led by insincere populists, men who are more concerned about their own image.

Sound-bite Boris Johnson (Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done) is resorting to the same sort of rhetoric in his daily Covid-19 briefings (with the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientist often standing either side) as he did during the Brexit campaign. Making claims he cannot substantiate, such as we’d defeat the disease in the next 12 weeks. Evidence? That doesn’t seem to matter to this charlatan, whose attention span and lack of interest are legendary. It doesn’t help that at critical points in any press conference and the like his body language betrays his insecurity. Such as rubbing his hand through his shaggy hair. Not the most reassuring action.

As a question from ITV correspondent Robert Peston unfolded just the other day at a No. 10 briefing, Johnson’s habitual smirk evaporated to be replaced by various degrees of alarm, bewilderment, fear even, and not the look of a Prime Minister at the top of his game. This is not what he expected after his December electoral victory giving him an insurmountable 80 seat majority, and the opportunity, he must have believed, to do just whatever his fancy lighted on.

Here is a damning opinion piece from The Guardian by Marina Hyde on 20 March, who writes ‘We are being asked to put our trust – our lives – in the hands of a man whose entire career, journalistic and political, has been built on a series of lies.’

It seems to me that the UK government has not developed a coherent Covid-19 communications strategy. Have a read of this 21 March piece from BuzzFeed about the behind-the-scenes debates, arguments even, between politicians and experts. At the beginning of the outbreak in the UK, Johnson used his press briefing to suggest, albeit perhaps by accident rather than design, that the old and vulnerable were ‘collateral damage’ during the epidemic. “It is going to spread further“, he said, “and I must level with you, I must level with the British public, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” Yes, that’s indeed a strong possibility. But emanating from the mouth of a politician who is widely mistrusted, and who comes across as callous and self-centered, whatever issue he addresses, it was a communications disaster.

What a message to send out to an already fearful population. Read about that press conference here.

And this appeared in the Sunday Times today.

Dominic Cummings

If true, this is an appalling perspective from the Prime Minister’s Chief Adviser Dominic Cummings (whose credibility among a large swathe of the population has already taken a dive).

And, I’m afraid, Johnson’s often blustering delivery, and lack of clarity on issues that should be unambiguous (his classical references, his use of language that most never use or at the very least understand) have probably exacerbated a situation that was rapidly spiralling out of control.

Communications strategies should deliver straightforward messages in plain language. No ifs or buts. Johnson has catastrophically failed in this respect.

Take the issue of social distancing and whether pubs, clubs and other venues should remain open (until last Friday night when the government finally enforced closure). Clearly millennials (and men in particular) had heard the message that they would be less impacted by Covid-19. They ignored the social distancing advice. And it hasn’t helped that Tim Martin, CEO of pub chain Wetherspoons (arch-Brexiteer and now self-proclaimed ‘epidemiologist’ apparently) could see no reason for pubs to close and went public with his criticism of the decision.

But if I think that the situation is grave here in the UK, just take a look at what is happening on the other side of the Atlantic, a country without a public healthcare system that takes care of the sick, elderly and vulnerable, come what may. Given the behavior and responses of POTUS #45, Donald J Trump, it’s surely time to seriously consider invoking Section 4 of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. Why he is still in power is the question asked in this article on the Slate website.

Here is a leader (a term I use very lightly indeed) who has ‘hunches’ or ‘feels good’ about the situation, ignoring facts, scientific advice and stating things that are palpably false, claiming originally that coronavirus was a hoax dreamed up by the Democrats, and then later stating, once the situation had deteriorated, that he knew all along that it was a pandemic. No change in behavior there. Every press briefing becomes a campaign opportunity. And when challenged, even by the simplest and most straightforward of questions, Trump’s reaction is unbelievable. Just watch him throw a tantrum and verbally attack a journalist a couple of days ago when asked how he would reassure the American people, following a comment from Trump recommending the use of chloroquine against the virus. Extraordinary!

And so, here is another piece from Rolling Stone (from 20 March) that Trump’s live briefings are a danger to public health.

And now, Trump is being hailed as a ‘wartime President’, hoping that it will boost his electability in November’s election — assuming that goes ahead as expected. For heaven’s sake! Just read this article from today’s The Guardian.

But if you want to see how any leader should behave, just take a look at this address to the people of Scotland by First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on 20 March. What a contrast from Johnson and Trump. I’m no particular fan of Nicola Sturgeon, but she got this just right.


It’s interesting—but also concerning—to think what a changed world will look like. Already, a group of 34 ‘big thinkers’ have waxed lyrical on this very topic just a couple of days ago in the Politico Magazine online.

Just click this link to read their predictions.


At the beginning of this post I suggested that ‘selfie’ had taken on a new meaning: self isolation. Here’s me, taking a selfie while taking a selfie.

Steph and I are self isolating since we are in that elderly, over 70 demographic. But if the weather is fine (like earlier today) we have gone out for a walk. We need the fresh air. So we went along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal a few miles from home, and encountered only one or two other walkers while maintaining the necessary social distance.


I came across this the other day. Maybe our antipodean friends will soon be evolving some pandemic language variants.


Stay safe everyone. WASH YOUR HANDS – repeatedly, and thoroughly. Here’s the best demo I’ve yet seen on how to wash your hands properly, using black ink in place of soap to illustrate just how it should be done. Never mind that the commentary is in Spanish. That’s not needed.


 

There’s beauty in numbers . . .

Now, what I want is, facts . . . Stick to the facts, sir!

Thus spoke businessman, MP, and school superintendent Thomas Gradgrind in the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ tenth novel, Hard Times, first published in 1854.

Increasingly however, especially on the right of the political spectrum, facts have become a debased currency. ‘Alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ have become an ‘alternative religion’, faith-based and not susceptible to the norms of scientific scrutiny. Fake data are also be used as a ‘weapon’.

I am a scientist. I deal with facts. Hypotheses, observations, numbers, data, analysis, patterns, interpretation, conclusions: that’s what science is all about.

There really is a beauty in numbers, my stock-in-trade for the past 40 years: describing the diversity of crop plants and their wild relatives; understanding how they are adapted to different environments; how one type resists disease better than another; or how they can contribute genetically to breed higher-yielding varieties. The numbers are the building blocks, so to speak. Interpreting those blocks is another thing altogether.

Statistical analysis was part and parcel of my scientific toolbox. Actually, the application of statistics, since I do not have the mathematical skills to work my way through the various statistical methods from first principles. This is not surprising considering that I was very weak in mathematics during my high school years. Having passed the necessary examination, I intended to put maths to one side forever, but that was not to be since I’ve had to use statistics during my university education and throughout my career. And playing around with numbers, looking for patterns, and attempting to interpret those patterns was no longer a chore but something to look forward to.

So why my current obsession with numbers?

First of all, since Donald Trump took up residence in the White House (and during his campaign) numbers and ‘alternative facts’ featured prominently. Trump does not respect numbers. However, more of this later.

Second, I recently came across a scientific paper about waterlogging tolerance in lentils by a friend of mine, Willie Erskine, who is a professor at the University of Western Australia (although I first knew him through his work at ICARDA, a CGIAR center that originally had its headquarters in Aleppo, Syria). The paper was published last month in Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. Willie and his co-authors showed that lentil lines did not respond in the same way to different waterlogging regimes, and that waterlogging tolerance was a trait that could be selected for in lentil breeding.

A personal data experience
While out on my daily walk a couple of days later, I mulling over in my mind some ideas from that lentil paper, and it reminded me of an MSc dissertation I supervised at The University of Birmingham in the 1980s. My student, Shibin Cai, came from the Institute of Food Crops, Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences, China where he worked as a wheat scientist.

Cai was interested to evaluate how wheat varieties responded to waterlogging. So, having obtained several wheat lines from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico, we designed a robust experiment to evaluate how plants grew with waterlogging that was precisely applied at different critical stages in the wheat plant’s life cycle: at germination, at booting, and at flowering, as far as I remember. I won’t describe the experiment in detail, suffice to say that we used a randomized complete block design with at least five replicates per variety per treatment and control (i.e. no waterlogging whatsoever). Waterlogging was achieved by placing pots inside a larger pot lined with a polythene bag and filled with water for a definite length of time. Cai carefully measured the rate of growth of the wheat plants, as well as the final yield of grains from each.

After which we had a large database of numbers. Observations. Data. Facts!

Applying appropriate statistical tests to the data, Cai clearly showed that the varieties did indeed respond differently to waterlogging, and we interpreted this to indicate genetic variation for this trait in wheat that could be exploited to improve wheat varieties for waterlogging-prone areas. I encouraged Cai to prepare a manuscript for publication. After all, I was confident with the quality of his research.

We submitted his manuscript to the well-known agricultural research journal Euphytica. After due process, the paper was rejected—not the first time this has happened to me I should add. But I was taken aback at the comments from one of the anonymous referees, who did not accept our results—the observations, the data—claiming that there was no evidence that waterlogging was a verifiable trait in wheat, and especially in the lines we had studied. Which flew in the face of the data we had presented. We hadn’t pulled the numbers like a rabbit out of a hat. I did then wonder whether the referee was a wheat expert from CIMMYT. Not wishing to be paranoid, of course, but was the referee biased? I never did get an opportunity to take another look at the manuscript to determine if it could be revised in any way. As I said, we were confident in the experimental approach, the data were solid, the analysis sound—and confirmed by one of my geneticist colleagues who had a much better grasp of statistics than either Cai or me. Result? The paper was never published, something I have regretted for many years.

So you can see that there were several elements to our work, as in much of science. We had a hypothesis about waterlogging tolerance in wheat. We could test this hypothesis by designing an experiment to measure the response of wheat to waterlogging. But then we had to interpret the results.

Now if we had measured just one plant per variety per treatment all we could have said is that these plants were different. It’s like measuring the height say of a single plant of two wheat varieties grown in different soils. All we can state is the height we measured. We can make no inference about any varietal differences or responses. For that we need several measurements—numbers, data—that allow us to state whether if any observed differences are ‘real’ or due to chance. That’s what we do all time in science. We want to know if what we measure is a true reflection of nature. It’s not possible to measure everything, so we use a sample, and then interpret the data using appropriate statistical analyses. But we have to be careful as this interesting article on the perils of statistical interpretation highlights.

Back to The Donald
One of the most important and current data relationships is based in climate science. And this brings me back to The Donald. There is an overwhelming consensus among scientists that relationship between increased CO2 levels and increases in global temperatures is the result of human activity. The positive relationship between the two sets of data is unequivocal. But does that mean a cause and effect relationship? The majority of scientists say yes; climate deniers do not. That makes the appointment of arch-denier Scott Pruitt as head of the Environment Protection Agency in the US so worrying.

Donald Trump does not like facts. He doesn’t like numbers either unless he can misappropriate them in his favor (such as the jobs or productivity data that clearly relate to the policies under Mr 44). He certainly did not like the lack of GOP numbers to pass his repeal of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare).

He regularly dismisses the verifiable information in front of his eyes, preferring ‘alternative facts’ and often inflated numbers to boot, instead. Just remember his sensitivity and his absurd claims that the 20 January National Mall crowds were largest for any presidential inauguration. The photographic evidence does not support this Trumpian claim; maybe fantasy would be a better description.

Time magazine has just published an excellent article, Is Truth Dead? based on an interview with The Donald, and to back it up, Time also published a transcript of the interview. This not only proves what Mr 45 said, but once again demonstrates his complete lack of ability to string more than a couple of coherent words together. Just take a look for yourselves.

Part of Trump’s rhetoric (or slow death by Tweet) is often based on assertions that can be verified: the biggest, the longest, the most, etc. Things can measured accurately, the very thing he seems to abhor. His aim to Make America Great Again cannot be measured in the same way. What is great? Compared to what or when? It’s an interpretation which can be easily contradicted or at the very least debated.

That’s what so disconcerting about the Trump Administration. The USA is a scientific powerhouse, but for how much longer if the proposed agency budget cuts that The Donald has promised really bite (unless related to the military, of course). There’s an increasing and worrying disdain for science among Republican politicians (and here in the UK as well); the focus on climate change data is the prime expression of that right now.

 

Narcissus was an amateur compared to The Donald

Do any of these words describe the new resident in the White House? All of them? That would surely be a burden for anyone to carry. Not so, it seems, Donald J Trump, who has made a career out of being the High Priest of Narcissism.

narcissist-acts

It’s just two weeks since The Donald was inaugurated as the 45th POTUS. Good grief! It seems like a lifetime. Now that I’m retired, I often wonder to my wife where time has flown to. When considering all that’s happening right now in the USA, and the profound polarizing impact of this dysfunctional administration, it seems as though we are wading through molasses.

The next four years stretch out endlessly ahead of us (if DJT survives that long), because whatever His Orangeness says or does, affects everyone, not just the USA. He sneezes; we catch a cold.

Following his unbelievable (for all the wrong reasons) Inaugural Address from the steps of the Capitol in Washington, DC on 20 January, The Donald has ratcheted up his invective and vitriol. His minions on the White House staff (Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway come immediately to mind) have stepped into the fray and revealed themselves to be unthinking and deluded acolytes, following the Donald line without question. The GOP in both Houses of Congress appears to have rolled over to have its collective tummy tickled.

Yes. Donald Trump is a narcissist. It’s all about him. He’s playing at being President. It’s the ultimate reality show, only the stakes are much higher, and he’s the apprentice. I think he was in love with the idea of being President. That’s why he ran. He liked the attention he would receive, the fawning, the center stage. Now, everything he does will be scrutinised, and I have great faith in political cartoonists on both sides of the Atlantic to pull him down more than just a peg or two. I signed up for Facebook page called Editorial & Political Cartoons; it’s a great resource.

And because he is so notoriously thin-skinned, this will eventually get to him. Expect a YUMONGOUS reaction before too long, especially when they insinuate that he is just a puppet. Take this cartoon distributed by Pia Guerra on Twitter just five days ago. As the narcissist sans pareil, The Donald won’t stand for this.

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Cartoonists are already focusing on Trumpian characteristics, such as:

  • his remarkable hairstyle;
  • the kaleidoscope of facial expressions (the snarl, the pursed lips);
  • his hands and fingers (small as they are) and exaggerated gestures; and
  • the over-long tie (more like an extended loin-cloth).

He has to be the center of attention, referring to all his ‘achievements’ (but not his multiple bankruptcies) as ‘great’, ‘YUGE’, ‘the best’, etc., while disparaging others. His disrespectful comments are too numerous to list.

His speeches—if you can call them such—are mostly incoherent ramblings often punctuated by his two favourite words: ‘I’ and ‘Me’. Here’s a good example, made at a breakfast recently in the White House to commemorate Black History month. It’s also hard to believe he made these comments at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this week. And talk about disrespect. During his visit to the CIA a short while after his inauguration, and speaking to an invited (and ‘packed’?) audience in front of the CIA Memorial Wall, he couldn’t resist boasting about the number of times he had appeared on the front cover of Time, as well the unprecedented record crowds who had turned up to his inauguration. He was certainly obsessed with those ‘alternative facts’. It just galls him that he simply is NOT the best.

Anyway, to get back to my original theme of Trump’s narcissism. I posted this simple comment on my Facebook page a couple of days ago or so: Narcissus was an amateur compared to Trump. And that’s why I decided to elaborate on that here.

I also posted the famous Caravaggio painting of Narcissus, painted between 1597 and 1599. Then, lying in bed this morning, thinking about today’s blog post, I wondered if I could superimpose Trump’s head in the painting. However, Google came to the rescue, and I found someone had been there before me.

Furthermore, the author of Poppa’s Cottage had already visited the theme of Trump’s dangerous narcissism in August 2016, and who has written more eloquently than I ever could.

I guess we can all hope that Congress will regain its senses and tell The Donald in no uncertain terms: YOU’RE FIRED!

 

 

America the Beautiful, Donald the Ugly!

I probably wasted a couple of hours yesterday afternoon watching the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. I couldn’t help myself. I just wanted to see how Trump would behave. I wasn’t disappointed. I even posted on Facebook while he was delivering his Inaugural Speech that he sounded like he was still on the campaign trail. It must continue to rankle, being such a narcissus I guess, that he won the election by a landslide loss to Hillary Clinton of almost three million votes.

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I bet he had his fingers secretly crossed . . . 

How depressing the spectacle was, for many reasons (and it seems that despite whatever spin Trump puts on it, his Inauguration was decidedly low-key) I was left at the end with a profound sense of unease, depressed even. It was the same feeling I had (and continue to have) after the EU referendum last June, and the UK voted (by the smallest of margins for such a social, economic, and constitutional—and irrevocable—change) for Brexit.

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Is Barron Trump thinking about all the stick he is going to take when he goes back to school in New York on Monday?

After Trump had taken the oath, the former President and Mrs Obama left Washington, DC on board a helicopter bound for the Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, en route to a well-deserved vacation (and period for reflection) in California. The BBC live broadcast captured an image of the helicopter flying northwest over Washington carrying the former president and his wife away.

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And I had this feeling that going with them was their dignity, decency, cordiality, ethical behaviour, and vision. Nature abhors a vacuum. It’s now filled with the mean-spiritedness of the Trump Administration, and the crass ostentation that The Donald personifies.

Welcome to the USA – about to become an extension of Trump, Inc. That’s certainly the impression seeing The Donald surrounded by his family. And the photo of him sitting at his desk in the Oval Office later on in the day, with Vice President Pence beside him (how soon will he fade from the limelight?), and Trump’s son-in-law and now Senior Adviser to the President, Jared Kushner (now there’s a prime case of nepotism).

As for Trump’s tie, I found this apt descriptionRed is an aggressive color that can make us feel passionate, angry, or hungry. The candidates in red ties want you to think they are decisive, bold, assertive, and powerful. Candidates accused of flip-flopping often roll out the red ties. Sound familiar?

We have a personal connection to the USA. Our elder daughter completed much of her education there, in St Paul, Minnesota, where she met her husband Michael, and where she continues to live and work, with children Callum and Zoë. We have visited the USA many times over the past 25 years,and have travelled extensively. Everywhere we went we have been met with warmth, courtesy and cordiality. I don’t recognise that in Trump’s take on America in his Inaugural Speech. No, I don’t deny that there is deprivation in swathes across many states, sites of former heavy industry that has been lost to competition elsewhere, or been overtaken by technology. These folks feel they have been neglected (just as those who voted to Leave the EU last June here in the UK), and Trump tapped into that sense of isolation.

He’s a multiple bankrupt billionaire businessman who is focused on one thing, and one thing only: himself (and his business opportunities of course). It’s unlikely to be America First! Trump First! Just like his branding franchises, will it soon be TRUMP USA?

What interest will he have in the common man and woman. Indeed one of his first Executive Orders, signed just hours after taking the oath of office, was to begin the process of rolling-back the Affordable Care Act. And that will directly affect the very constituency that expect him to perform miracles for them. And then any reference to climate change was removed from the White House website.

Trump has also surrounded himself with like-minded and very rich sycophants in his cabinet (if they are confirmed). Just like Pence, what influence will they actually have? The Tweet is mightier than the sword!

You know, Trump could found his own church (just like a number of fundamentalist preachers in the USA), and become the High Priest. After all, religion is faith, belief. Not fact. His invocation of God several times towards the end of his speech was, by the way, the depth of hypocrisy.

And as a Brit, it sickens me to see all our Conservative politicians wetting themselves over their future relationships with the Trump Administration. Also, deluding themselves that the UK will be ‘at the front of the queue’ when it comes to relations and trade deals with the USA (on American terms, of course). Trump is about to screw us. After all, Trump declared it would be America First! (after him, of course).

Then there’s the spectacle of UKIP former leader and self-proclaimed non-entity Nigel Farage almost orgasmic now that the bust of Winston S Churchill has been restored to its ‘rightful’ place in the Oval Office.

Don’t get me wrong. The UK needs to develop a solid relationship with whatever administration resides in the White House. But Trump has clearly signalled where his priorities lie. And that should give us all pause to consider what the next fours years hold in store, not only for the USA, but for all of us. A scary thought indeed.