The idea that those who criticize Fauci are inherently on the right is insane and really makes the left look like a bunch of baboons, frankly, and you know, we're not—not all of us.

I think both left and right can smile at that. It is one of my favorite quotes in this excerpt from DarkHorse Podcast #143, though it's just one small part. The larger topic is the capture of our most venerable institutions, such as journalism, academia, and science, by ... Something. Bret and Heather don't have a name for it, but find it has become too obvious to be ignored. They leave out government, but maybe that goes without saying.  (20 minutes)

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, October 11, 2022 at 8:36 am | Edit
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Something unusual happened in our water aerobics class.

I had fun. I had fun participating in something resembling a sport.

So what? Well, here's the big deal: I don't think that has happened since elementary school.

I loved physical activity back then. Sports, even. Soccer, kickball, dodge ball, volley ball, gymnastics, trampoline. I even enjoyed the since-much-maligned Presidents Physical Fitness test. I was one of the best in school at swarming up a rope to the ceiling. After school, the neighborhood kids played active games, usually until dark. I was reasonably strong and fit—most children were, in those days—and loved active play.

What happened? Don't say I got old, or busy, though of course I did both. Don't blame it on phones or computers; this was long before these became part of my life.

Physical activity changed. Sports changed. Most people adapted; I didn't.

Back in my day, soccer wasn't the organized sport it is today for even the youngest. We had goals, we had a ball, we had a few basic rules (e.g. "no hands"), and we had a gaggle of kids roughly organized into two "teams." What we did, what I loved, was to run madly up and down the field, trying to kick the ball into the goal. Except for goalie, there were no assigned positions; it was literally a free-for-all. No one today would deign to call it soccer. But it sure was fun.

Volleyball was similar. Again, we had two teams—their composition always changing—a net, a ball, and a few basic rules. But no assigned positions. Serving, but little setting. Just a madcap "let's hit the ball over the net." And I loved it.

For many other people, the eventual organization of sports, honing of skills, multiplication of rules and tactics, and emphasis on competition made the games more fun. The rest of us, I guess, simply dropped out, to the detriment of both our physical and our mental health.

Which is why I was so excited when our instructor suddenly decided that Thursdays would be play days. She gave us small beach balls, and paddles, and organized us very loosely in games of no recognizable sport, but which—in groups, in pairs, and individually—challenged us to use our muscles in ways we hadn't used in a long time: reaching, jumping, running; increasing our strength, agility, and hand-eye coordination—all those things that sports are good for.

Perhaps best of all, when we played together, we became people to each other, not just a group of individuals gathered for healthful exercise. We looked at each other, we made eye contact, we worked together to make sure everyone was included and benefitting.

I was a kid again.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, October 8, 2022 at 6:14 am | Edit
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The following is a Dark Horse clip about the significant increase in myopia in children, as reported in this Atlantic article. Bret and Heather have issues with the article, but confirm the myopia problem and have their own theories about it. And, at the end, about orthodontia. It's 30 minutes long—and there's a section in the middle where they spend maybe too much time on the concept of "heritability"—so if you can stand it, you may want to speed up the playback. But I highly recommend watching the video, particularly to parents who are concerned about their children's eyes and teeth. I guess that would be all parents....

As I've said before, Bret and Heather are not always right, and sometimes dangerously wrong. But they are always interesting, and impressive in their quest for truth and their willingness to follow where it leads them, regardless of the popularity of their opinions.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, October 5, 2022 at 10:29 am | Edit
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Since COVID isn't so much of a problem in New York City anymore, Mayor Eric Adams and New York City Health & Hospitals CEO Dr. Mitchell Katz have come up with a new way to terrorize those who must be admitted to a Big Apple hospital. At the moment, it's just three facilities: H+H/Lincoln, Metropolitan, and Woodhull Hospitals, but it's feared the contagion may spread.

If you're unfortunate enough to be admitted to one of those hospitals, keep an eye on your dinner plate.

Culturally diverse plant-based meals are now the primary dinner options for inpatients.

Don't panic, NYC residents and visitors. I'm here to reassure you that this problem is not actually new, and there are ways around it.

Back in the mid-1980's, when we moved to Florida, we were warned that our local hospital was run by Seventh-Day Adventists, and consequently meat was never on the menu. The solution, we were told, was to be sure that your doctor provided you with a prescription for meat. I have no idea if making it a prescription increased the cost of meals fifty-fold, or if any insurance plans covered it. But we were assured that the hospital honored the doctors' orders, and the kitchen staff even did a better-than-usual job of preparing the special meals.

Apparently the same work-around will be honored in New York.

 Non-plant-based options continue to be available and are offered in accordance with a patient’s prescribed diet.

Choose your doctor well.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, October 1, 2022 at 6:38 pm | Edit
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Some people are fascinated by large numbers; others just tune out when they see them.

Many people don't trust the statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. Me? I don't trust their proofreaders. How else to explain this, from one of their vaccine safety updates:

CDC has verified 131 myocarditis case reports to VAERS in people ages ≥5 years after 123,362,627 million mRNA COVID-19 booster vaccinations

In case you are one of those whose minds go on strike in the presence of large numbers, that's over 123 trillion vaccine boosters. More than 15,000 boosters for every person on the planet. Put another way, if, instead of getting a shot, each person boosted "according to the CDC" contributed twenty-five cents, a mere quarter, the entire national debt of the United States would be paid off.

Foolish speculations over an "obvious" error? I don't think so. If we don't pay attention to numbers, we will make mistakes, some of them fatal. Bridges will collapse. People will be killed by medications that should be life-saving. Bombs will land in the wrong places. Citizens will be misled. Disastrous policy decisions will be made.

If I can't trust the "123,362,627 million" part of the sentence, what makes me think I can trust the "131" part?

Numbers matter. Accuracy matters.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, September 17, 2022 at 6:03 am | Edit
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The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (Skyhorse Publishing, 2021)

As a teenager, I flirted with the Kennedy adulation so common among my peers. I was too young to know much about John F. Kennedy, though I vivdly remember proudly carrying a note from my mother explaining that I was late coming back to school from lunch because I had been watching Kennedy's inauguration on television. (We walked home from school for lunch every day; to some people, that probably makes me seem old enough for it to have been George Washington's inauguration—were it not for the television reference.) I barely even remember JFK's assassination, since I was at the eye doctor's at the time and thus missed the reactions of my classmates. However, I spent hours glued to the television during Robert F. Kennedy's funeral in 1968, and genuinely grieved. But that was then; the subsequent years gradually took the shine off both the Democratic Party and the Kennedy family for me. Our two years of living in the Boston area and hearing from the common people their stories of oppression at the hands of Kennedys sealed the deal.

So why would I choose to read a book by Robert F. Kennedy's own son and namesake? Why would I wade through a book that castigates Republicans and has nothing but admiration for his famous family? Why would I spend my two weeks at the beach reading a book of nearly 1000 pages without even the excuse of it being a Brandon Sanderson novel? (There's a confusing difference in number of pages between the Kindle version and the hardcover, with the former being nearly twice the latter. Whatever—it's long.)

Two reasons, maybe. It was recommended by someone whose opinions I respect, and although the book costs $20 in hardcover, it is only $2.99 in Kindle form.

I'll state upfront that the book is controversial. My first reaction was, "If this is true, why is Dr. Fauci not in jail? If it's not true, why isn't he suing Kennedy for libel?" Speaking of libel, feel free to read Kennedy's Wikipedia entry, which is a pretty good example of the way controversial topics are handled these days. You don't like what someone says? Why bother to refute his arguments when you can brand him a conspiracy theorist, a purveyor of false information, and shut him down? But go ahead, read the accusations. Then read the book.

Despite the seriousness of the subject, it is somewhat amusing and even encouraging to find a die-hard Democrat who is willing to skewer not just Republicans but much of his own party as well (though not the Kennedys themselves), while admitting that the hated Republicans have sometimes been closer to the truth, and revealing that presidents of both parties have been helpless in the hands of the bureaucrats whom they have been forced to trust.

Don't let the number of pages in this book dissuade you. Reading it went surprisingly quickly, not only because it is interesting, but because so much of it is pages and pages and pages of footnotes. If it's misinformation, it's certainly well-documented misinformation.

It did take me a while to get into the book. The first section, which is about COVID-19, is over-long and harder to read than the rest of the book. Perhaps because this problem is new and ongoing, Kennedy is not at his best, sometimes overly polemic. He's still angry in the rest of the book, but handles it better. Maybe I just got used to it. Or maybe I got angry, myself.

This is not a book to take my word for. Much of its value comes in its extensive documentation, its references and endnotes—not that you need to read them all, even if you could, but that you need to know the documentation is there. Kennedy is not just some politician spouting off his baseless opinions. In addition, he makes an effort to update both information and references online.

I will not provide here my usual selection of quotations. (That's not to say I won't produce a few in subsequent posts.) Instead you get my own very brief and inadequate summary, the table of contents, and a subset of the questions swirling in my mind—some I have been asking for decades, others generated through reading The Real Anthony Fauci.

The Précis

The health and safety of America's people, along with that of much of the rest of the world, has for decades been held hostage by the iron grip of an unholy alliance among the federal agencies charged with that responsibility, the pharmaceutical industry, our research universities, a few quasi-charitable organizations (such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), and—come late to the table but enormously powerful—the gate-keepers of information (from CNN to Google). There's no reason to call it a conspiracy; "cartel" and "oligarchy" are the words that spring more readily to mind. The combination of good intentions (to put the best face on it), a great deal of hubris, and the power to acquire and control unimaginably vast sums of money qualifies as a man-made disaster of the highest magnitude. During my five-year tenure as a researcher at a major university medical center, I saw only the tiniest slice of the world of government grants and the network that controls academic publishing, but it was quite enough to make Kennedy's revelations believable.

The Contents

  1. Mismanaging a Pandemic
    • Arbitrary Decrees: Science-Free Medicine
    • Killing Hydroxychloroquine
    • Ivermectin
    • Remdesivir
    • Final Solution: Vaccines or Bust
  2. Pharma Profits over Public Health
  3. The HIV Pandemic Template for Pharma Profiteering
  4. The Pandemic Template: AIDS and AZT
  5. The HIV Heresies
  6. Burning the HIV Heretics
  7. Dr. Fauci, Mr. Hyde: NIAID's Barbaric and Illegal Experiments on Children
  8. White Mischief: Dr. Fauci's African Atrocities
  9. The White Man's Burden
  10. More Harm Than Good
  11. Hyping Phony Epidemics: "Crying Wolf"
  12. Germ Games

The Questions

  • Why has there been so little attention given to discerning why disorders such as autism, ADHD, asthma and other autoimmune diseases, allergies, and a variety of mental health issues have become so rampant? 
  • Why are we more concerned with selling highly profitable drug treatments and permanent surgical alterations instead of asking ourselves what might be in our water, our air, our food, our medical treatments, or our society that has caused so many boys to decide they need to be girls, and vice versa?
  • Why do we quietly accept the marked deterioration in the health of our people after over a century of astonishing improvement?
  • Why are those in our federal government who hold the solemn duty of safeguarding the nation's health allowed to reap huge personal profits (or any profit at all, for that matter) from vaccines and other products of the pharmaceutical industry? How is it not an infernal conflict of interest that the authorities responsible for declaring a new drug "safe and effective" stand to make a great deal of money if they give it their stamp of approval?
  • Why was so much effort—and an unimaginable amount of money and other resources—put into developing and distributing COVID-19 vaccines, while the most obvious and most important question was ignored: How do we treat this disease?
  • In the early months of the pandemic, boots-on-the-ground physicians successfully treated COVID-19 patients by repurposing inexpensive, already-approved drugs. Why were these doctors first ignored, then demonized, and their remedies (legal, with a long record of safety) pulled off the market by underhanded means?
  • Why did we repeat with COVID-19 so many of the mistakes we made when struggling with AIDS in the 1980's?
  • Why was the AIDS picture so different between America and Africa?
  • Why are pharmaceutical companies, and charities such as the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, allowed to dump on Africa, at significant profit, drugs and vaccines that have been deemed too dangerous for Americans?
  • Why does much of our drug and vaccine testing take place in Africa, where the rules of proper research, record keeping, and informed consent can be ignored, and adverse events conveniently buried?
  • Malaria used to be prevalent in the United States. Why has so much effort been spent on developing a still-mostly-ineffective malaria vaccine and so little on simple public health measures that might help eradicate it in Africa?
  • Why has the United States government been sponsoring the development of biological warfare agents, through a loophole in international treaties?
  • Why is our government outsourcing this biological warfare work to China, where regulations are lax and procedures known to be sloppy? Not to mention that China is known for industrial espionage and theft of intellectual property. Whoever imagined that it might be a good thing to avoid America's rules of legitimate research procedures while in all likelihood handing deadly technology over to a powerful country with whom our relations are uncertain at best?
  • Why have we allowed our medical institutions and research universities to become so completely dependent on federal and industrial funding that their work is controlled and compromised?
  • Why and when did we give up on the practice of scientific inquiry that has served so well in the past, and enshrine Science as a religion, wherein disagreement and debate, once necessary to the process, have become unspeakable heresy?
  • Why did our COVID response appear to be so experimental and bumbling at the start—I remember saying, "Give them a break; they are doing the best they can with too little data"—when the strategies the government employed had actually been designed, simulated, planned for, and practiced for years, through multiple presidencies?
  • And perhaps the most important question of all: Qui bono? How did the COVID-19 pandemic become the vehicle for a record transfer of wealth to the super-rich? Follow the money. Power corrupts; power over money corrupts exponentially.

There's more. Much more. Considering what Kennedy has discovered, the book turns out to be far more logical, documented, and measured than one has a right to expect. It's not everyone who can report rationally on something so shocking. This would be me:

 

Whatever your party affiliation or lack thereof, you owe it to yourself (and if you have children, especially to them) to invest $2.99 and a few hours in The Real Anthony Fauci. I'm at a loss as to how to confront the problems it reveals, but shedding some ignorance and blind trust is a start.

Turns out I'm admiring a Kennedy again. It only took me half a century.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, August 27, 2022 at 6:29 am | Edit
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I took a COVID test this week.

I try to avoid those things as much as possible: I hadn't taken one since April, when I needed it to get back into the United States. But I picked up a mild cold in Connecticut, and as sometimes happens I have a cough that is still hanging on. I never seriously thought it might be COVID, especially since our grandson (who was hit harder than the rest of us), had tested negative.

However, I couldn't deny that the symptoms I experienced were exactly the same as when I genuinely had COVID-19, back in April. When I sing with them on Sunday, my fellow choir members will be happier if I can assure them that my cough is not due to the Dread Disease. So I took the test.

No surprises. It was negative.

Apparently, getting random colds is a thing again. I suppose we could go back to dropping all contact with the outside world—which gave us two years totally free of such annoyances. But I'm sure our immune systems are much better for the stimulation.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, August 6, 2022 at 7:48 am | Edit
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I've been writing these essays for more than 20 years. As with all writers (and other artists), I often look back on my work and shudder. Sometimes, however, I'm okay with what I've written. But how often does someone see a blog post from 2010? Current events may not be relevant anymore and can reasonably be forgotten, and most people don't care about our everyday lives. But I've also said a lot that I think bears repeating; book reviews, for example, are almost always just as useful now as they were then. So I'm going to start to bring back some of my favorites, not only because I believe they'll be useful to what is mostly a whole new audience, but also because I need to be reminded of the content myself.

I'll begin with the fascinating, and important, idea of neuroplasticity, which I first wrote about on May 18, 2010.


altThe Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge (Penguin, New York, 2007)

Neuroplasticity.

The idea that our brains are fixed, hard-wired machines was (and in many cases still is) so deeply entrenched in the scientific establishment that evidence to the contrary was not only suppressed, but often not even seen because the minds of even respectable scientists could not absorb what they were certain was impossible. Having been familiar since the 1960s with the work of Glenn Doman and the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, the idea that the human brain is continually changing itself and can recover from injury in astonishing ways did not surprise me. In fact, the only shock was that in a 400 page book on neuroplasticity and the persecution of its early pioneers I found not one mention of Doman's name. But the stories are none the less astonishing for that.

In Chapter 1 we meet a woman whose vestibular system was destroyed by antibiotic side-effects. She is freed by a sensor held on her tongue and a computerized helmet from the severely disabling feeling that she is falling all the time, even when lying flat. That's the stuff of science fiction, but what's most astounding is that the effect lingers for a few minutes after she removes the apparatus the first time, and after several sessions she no longer needs the device.

Chapter 3, "Redesigning the Brain," on the work of Michael Merzenich, including the ground-breaking Fast ForWord learning program, is worth the cost of the book all by itself.

Sensitive readers may want to steer clear of Chapter 4, "Acquiring Tastes and Loves," or risk being left with unwanted, disturbing mental images. But it is a must read for anyone who wants to believe that pornography is harmless, or that our personal, private mental fantasies do not adversely affect the very structure of our brains.

The book is less impressive when it gets away from hard science and into psychotherapy, as the ideas become more speculative, but the stories are still impressive.

Phantom pain, learning disabilities, autism, stroke recovery, obsessions and compulsions, age-related mental decline, and much more: the discovery of neuroplasticity shatters misconceptions and offers hope. The Brain that Changes Itself is an appetizer plate; bring on the main course!

For those who want a sampling of the appetizer itself, I'm including an extensive quotation section. Even so, it doesn't come close to doing justice to the depth and especially the breadth of the book. I've pulled quotes from all over, so understand that they are out of context, and don't expect them to move smoothly from one section to another.

Neuro is for "neuron," the nerve cells in our brains and nervous systems. Plastic is for "changeable, malleable, modifiable." At first many of the scientists didn't dare use the word "neuroplasticity" in their publications, and their peers belittled them for promoting a fanciful notions. Yet they persisted, slowly overturning the doctrine of the unchanging brain. They showed that children are not always stuck with the mental abilities they are born with; that the damaged brain can often reorganize itself so that when one part fails, another can often substitute; that if brain cells die, they can at times be replaced; that many "circuits" and even basic reflexes that we think are hardwired are not. One of these scientists even showed that thinking, learning, and acting can turn our genes on or off, thus shaping our brain anatomy and our behavior—surely one of the most extraordinary discoveries of the twentieth century.

In the course of my travels I met a scientist who enabled people who had been blind since birth to begin to see, another who enabled the deaf to hear; I spoke with people who had had strokes decades before and had been declared incurable, who were helped to recover with neuroplastic treatments; I met people whose learning disorders were cured and whose IQs were raised; I saw evidence that it is possible for eighty-year-olds to sharpen their memories to function the way they did when they were fifty-five. I saw people rewire their brains with their thoughts, to cure previously incurable obsessions and traumas. I spoke with Nobel laureates who were hotly debating how we must re-think our model of the brain now that we know it is ever changing. ... The idea that the brain can change its own structure and function through thought and activity is, I believe, the most important alteration in our view of the brain since we first sketched out its basic anatomy and the workings of its basic component, the neuron.

In Chapter 2, Building Herself a Better Brain, a woman with such a severe imbalance of brain function that she was labelled mentally retarded put her own experiences together with the work of other researchers to design brain exercises that fixed the weaknesses in her own brain ... and went on to develop similar diagnostic procedures and exercises for others.

The irony of this new discovery is that for hundreds of years educators did seem to sense that children's brains had to be built up through exercises of increasing difficulty that strengthened brain functions. Up through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a classical education often included rote memorization of long poems in foreign languages, which strengthened the auditory memory (hence thinking in language) and an almost fanatical attention to handwriting, which probably helped strengthen motor capacities and thus not only helped handwriting but added speed and fluency to reading and speaking. Often a great deal of attention was paid to exact elocution and to perfecting the pronunciation of words. Then in the 1960s educators dropped such traditional exercises from the curriculum, because they were too rigid, boring, and "not relevant." But the loss of these drills has been costly; they may have been the only opportunity that many students had to systematically exercise the brain function that gives us fluency and grace with symbols. For the rest of us, their disappearance may have contributed to the general decline of eloquence, which requires memory and a level of auditory brainpower unfamiliar to us now. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 the debaters would comfortably speak for an hour or more without notes, in extended memorized paragraphs; today many of the most learned among us, raised in our most elite schools since the 1960s, prefer the omnipresent PowerPoint presentation—the ultimate compensation for a weak premotor cortex.

Here are several (but not enough!) from my favorite chapter, "Redesigning the Brain."

[As] they trained an animal at a skill, not only did its neurons fire faster, but because they were faster their signals were clearer. Faster neurons were more likely to fire in sync with each other—becoming better team players—wiring together more and forming groups of neurons that gave off clearer and more powerful signals. This is a crucial point, because a powerful signal has greater impact on the brain. When we want to remember something we have heard we must hear it clearly, because a memory can be only as clear as its original signal.

Paying close attention is essential to long-term plastic change. ... When the animals performed tasks automatically, without paying attention, they changed their brain maps, but the changes did not last. We often praise "the ability to multitask." While you can learn when you divide your attention, divided attention doesn't lead to abiding change in your brain maps.

Somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of preschool children have a language disability that makes it difficult for them to read, write, or even follow instructions. ... [C]hildren with language disabilities have auditory processing problems with common consonant-vowel combinations that are spoken quickly and are called "the fast parts of speech." The children have trouble hearing them accurately and, as a result, reproducing them accurately. Merzenich believed that these children's auditory cortex neurons were firing too slowly, so they couldn't distinguish between two very similar sounds or be certain, if two sounds occurred close together, which was first and which was second. Often they didn't hear the beginnings of syllables or the sound changes within syllables. Normally neurons, after they have processed a sound, are ready to fire again after about a 30-millisecond rest. Eighty percent of language-impaired children took at least three times that long, so that they lost large amounts of language information. When their neuron-firing patterns were examined, the signals weren't clear. ... Improper hearing lead to weaknesses in all the language tasks, so they were weak in vocabulary, comprehension, speech, reading, and writing. Because they spent so much energy decoding words, they tended to use shorter sentences and failed to exercise their memory for longer sentences.

[Five hundred children at 35 sites] were given standardized language tests before and after Fast ForWord training. The study showed that most children's ability to understand language normalized after Fast ForWord. In many cases, their comprehension rose above normal. The average child who took the program moved ahead 1.8 years of language development in six weeks. ... A Stanford group did brain scans of twenty dyslexic children, before and after Fast ForWord. The opening scans showed that the children used different parts of their brains for reading than normal children do. After Fast ForWord new scans showed that their brains had begun to normalize.

Merzenich's team started hearing that Fast ForWord was having a number of spillover effects. Children's handwriting improved. Parents reported that many of the students were starting to show sustained attention and focus. Merzenich thought these surprising benefits were occurring because Fast ForWord led to some general improvements in mental processing.

"You know," [Merzenich] says, "IQ goes up. We used the matrix test, which is a visual-based measurement of IQ—and IQ goes up."

The fact that a visual component of the IQ went up meant that the IQ improvements were not caused simply because Fast ForWord improved the children's ability to read verbal test questions. Their mental processing was being improved in a general way.

This is just a sample of the benefits that made me want to rush right out and buy Fast ForWord, even if it were to cost as much as the insanely-expensive Rosetta Stone German software I'm also tempted to buy. From the description, it sounds like something everyone could benefit from for mental tune-ups. Unfortunately, the makers of Fast ForWord are even worse than the Rosetta Stone folks about keeping tight control over their product: as far as I've been able to determine, you can only use it under the direction of a therapist (making it too expensive for ordinary use), and even then you don't own the software but are only licensed to use it for a short period of time. :( It works, though. We know someone for whom it made all the difference in the world, even late in her school career.

Merzenich began wondering about the role of a new environmental risk factor that might affect everyone but have a more damaging effect on genetically predisposed children: the continuous background noise from machines, sometimes called white noise. White noise consists of many frequencies and is very stimulating to the auditory cortex.

"Infants are reared in continuously more noisy environments. There is always a din," he says. White noise is everywhere now, coming from fans in our electronics, air conditioners, heaters, and car engines.

To test this hypothesis, his group exposed rat pups to pulses of white noise throughout their critical period and found that the pups' cortices were devastated.

Psychologically, middle age is often an appealing time because, all else being equal, it can be a relatively placid period compared with what has come before. ... We still regard ourselves as active, but we have a tendency to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are learning as we were before. We rarely engage in tasks in which we must focus our attention as closely as we did when we were younger. Such activities as reading the newspaper, practicing a profession of many years, and speaking our own language are mostly the replay of mastered skills, not learning. By the time we hit our seventies, we may not have systematically engaged the systems in the brain that regulate plasticity for fifty years.

That's why learning a new language in old age is so good for improving and maintaining the memory generally. Because it requires intense focus, studying a new language turns on the control system for plasticity and keeps it in good shape for laying down sharp memories of all kinds. No doubt Fast ForWord is responsible for so many general improvements in thinking, in part because it stimulates the control system for plasticity to keep up its production of acetylcholine and dopamine. Anything that requires highly focused attention will help that system—learning new physical activities that require concentration, solving challenging puzzles, or making a career change that requires that you master new skills and material. Merzenich himself is an advocate of learning a new language in old age. "You will gradually sharpen everything up again and that will be very highly beneficial to you."

The same applies to mobility. Just doing the dances you learned years ago won't help your brain's motor cortex stay in shape. To keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus. That is what will allow you to both lay down new memories and have a system that can easily access and preserve the older ones.

This work opens up the possibility of high-speed learning later in life. The nucleus basalis [always on for young children, but in adulthood only with sustained, close attention] could be turned on by an electrode, by microinjections of certain chemicals, or by drugs. It is hard to imagine that people will not ... be drawn to a technology that would make it relatively effortless to master the facts of science, history, or a profession, merely by being exposed to them briefly. ... Such techniques would no doubt be used by high school and university students in their studies and in competitive entrance exams. (Already many students who do not have attention deficit disorder use stimulants to study.) Of course, such aggressive interventions might have unanticipated, adverse effects on the brain—not to mention our ability to discipline ourselves—but they would likely be pioneered in cases of dire medical need, where people are willing to take the risk. Turning on the nucleus basalis might help brain-injured patients, so many of whom cannot relearn the lost functions of reading, writing, speaking, or walking because they can't pay close enough attention.

[Gross motor control is] a function that declines as we age, leading to loss of balance, the tendency to fall, and difficulties with mobility. Aside from the failure of vestibular processing, this decline is caused by the decrease in sensory feedback from our feet. According to Merzenich, shoes, worn for decades, limit the sensory feedback from our feet to our brain. If we went barefoot, our brains would receive many different kinds of input as we went over uneven surfaces. Shoes are a relatively flat platform that spreads out the stimuli, and the surfaces we walk on are increasingly artificial and perfectly flat. This leads us to dedifferentiate the maps for the soles of our feet and limit how touch guides our foot control. Then we may start to use canes, walkers, or crutches or rely on other senses to steady ourselves. By resorting to these compensations instead of exercising our failing brain systems, we hasten their decline.

As we age, we want to look down at our feet while walking down stairs or on slightly challenging terrain, because we're not getting much information from our feet. As Merzenich escorted his mother-in-law down the stairs of the villa, he urged her to stop looking down and start feeling her way, so that she would maintain, and develop, the sensory map for her foot, rather than letting it waste away.

Brain plasticity and psychological disorders:

Each time [people with obsessive-compulsive disorder] try to shift gears, they begin ... growing new circuits and altering the caudate. By refocusing the patient is learning not to get sucked in by the content of an obsession but to work around it. I suggest to my patients that they think of the use-it-or-lose-it principle. Each moment they spend thinking of the symptom ... they deepen the obsessive circuit. By bypassing it, they are on the road to losing it. With obsessions and compulsions, the more you do it, the more you want to do it; the less you do it, the less you want to do it ... [I]t is not what you feel while applying the technique that counts, it is what you do. "The struggle is not to make the feeling go away; the struggle is not to give in to the feeling"—by acting out a compulsion, or thinking about the obsession. This technique won't give immediate relief because lasting neuroplastic change takes time, but it does lay the groundwork for change by exercising the brain in a new way. ... The goal is to "change the channel" to some new activity for fifteen to thirty minutes when one has an OCD symptom. (If one can't resist that long, any time spent resisting is beneficial, even if it is only for a minute. That resistance, that effort, is what appears to lay down new circuits.)

Mental practice with physical results:

Pascual-Leone taught two groups of people, who had never studied piano, a sequence of notes, showing them which fingers to move and letting them hear the notes as they were played. Then members of one group, the "mental practice" group, sat in front of an electric piano keyboard, two hours a day, for five days, and imagined both playing the sequence and hearing it played. A second "physical practice" group actually played the music two hours a day for five days. Both groups had their brains mapped before the experiment, each day during it, and afterward. Then both groups were asked to play the sequence, and a computer measured the accuracy of their performances.

Pascual-Leoone found that both groups learned to play the sequence, and both showed similar brain map changes. Remarkably, mental practice alone produced the same physical changes in the motor system as actually playing the piece. By the end of the fifth day, the changes in motor signals to the muscles were the same in both groups, and the imagining players were as accurate as the actual players were on their third day.

The level of improvement at five days in the mental practice group, however substantial, was not as great as in those who did physical practice. But when the mental practice group finished its mental training and was given a single two-hour physical practice session, its overall performance improved to the level of the physical practice group's performance at five days. Clearly mental practice is an effective way to prepare for learning a physical skill with minimal physical practice.

In an experiment that is as hard to believe as it is simple, Drs. Guang Yue and Kelly Cole showed that imagining one is using one's muscles actually strengthens them. The study looked at two groups, one that did physical exercise and one that imagined doing exercise. ... At the end of the study the subjects who had done physical exercise increased their muscular strength by 30 percent, as one might expect. Those who only imagined doing the exercise, for the same period, increased their muscle strength by 22 percent. The explanation lies in the motor neurons of the brain that "program" movements. During these imaginary contractions, the neurons responsible for stringing together sequences of instructions for movements are activated and strengthened, resulting in increased strength when the muscles are contracted.

Talk about unbelievable.

The Sea Gypsies are nomadic people who live in a cluster of tropical islands in the Burmese archipelago and off the west coast of Thailand. A wandering water tribe, they learn to swim before they learn to walk and live over half their lives in boats on the open sea. ... Their children dive down, often thirty feet beneath the water's surface, and pluck up their food ... and have done so for centuries. By learning to lower their heart rate, they can stay under water twice as long as most swimmers. They do this without any diving equipment.

But what distinguishes these children, for our purposes, is that they can see clearly at these great depths, without goggles. Most human beings cannot see clearly under water because as sunlight passes through water, it is bent ... so that light doesn't land where it should on the retina.

Anna Gislén, a Swedish researcher, studied the Sea Gypsies' ability to read placards under water and found that they were more than twice as skillful as European children. The Gypsies learned to control the shape of their lenses and, more significantly, to control the size of their pupils, constricting them 22 percent. This is a remarkable finding, because human pupils reflexively get larger under water, and pupil adjustment has been thought to be a fixed, innate reflex, controlled by the brain and nervous system.

This ability of the Sea Gypsies to see under water isn't the product of a unique genetic endowment. Gislén has since taught Swedish children to constrict their pupils to see under water.

The fact that cultures differ in perception is not proof that one perceptual act is a good as the next, or that "everything is relative" when it comes to perception. Clearly some contexts call for a more narrow angle of view, and some for more wide-angle, holistic perception. The Sea Gypsies have survived using a combination of their experience of the sea and holistic perception. So attuned are they to the moods of the sea that when the tsunami of December 26, 2004, hit the Indian Ocean, killing hundreds of thousands, they all survived. They saw that the sea had begun to recede in a strange way, and this drawing back was followed by an unusually small wave; they saw dolphins begin to swim for deeper water, while the elephants started stampeding to higher ground, and they heard the cicadas fall silent. ... Long before modern science put this all together, they had either fled the sea to the shore, seeking the highest ground, or gone into very deep waters, where they also survived.

Music makes extraordinary demands on the brain. A pianist performing the eleventh variation of the Sixth Paganini etude by Franz Liszt must play a staggering eighteen hundred notes per minute. Studies by Taub and others of musicians who play stringed instruments have shown that the more these musicians practice, the larger the brain maps for their active left hands become, and the neurons and maps that respond to string timbres increase; in trumpeters the neurons and maps that respond to "brassy" sounds enlarge. Brain imaging shows that musicians have several areas of their brains—the motor cortex and the cerebellum, among others—that differ from those of nonmusicians. Imaging also shows that musicians who begin playing before the age of seven have larger brain areas connecting the two hemispheres.

It is not just "highly cultured" activities that rewire the brain. Brain scans of London taxi drivers show that the more years a cabbie spends navigating London streets, the larger the volume of his hippocampus, that part of the brain that stores spatial representations. Even leisure activities change our brain; meditators and meditation teachers have a thicker insula, a part of the cortex activated by paying close attention.

Here's something completely different, and frightening.

[T]otalitarian regimes seem to have an intuitive awareness that it becomes hard for people to change after a certain age, which is why so much effort is made to indoctrinate the young from an early age. For instance, North Korea, the most thoroughgoing totalitarian regime in existence, places children in school from ages two and a half to four years; they spend almost every waking hour being immersed in a cult of adoration for dictator Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung. They can see their parents only on weekends. Practically every story read to them is about the leader. Forty percent of the primary school textbooks are devoted wholly to describing the two Kims. This continues all the way through school. Hatred of the enemy is drilled in with massed practice as well, so that a brain circuit forms linking the perception of "the enemy" with negative emotions automatically. A typical math quiz asks, "Three soldiers from the Korean People's Army killed thirty American soldiers. How many American soldiers were killed by each of them, if they all killed an equal number of enemy soldiers?" Such perceptual emotional networks, once established in an indoctrinated people, do not lead only to mere "differences of opinion" between them and their adversaries, but to plasticity-based anatomical differences, which are much harder to bridge or overcome than ordinary persuasion.

Think the North Koreans are the only ones whose brains are being re-programed?

"The Internet is just one of those things that contemporary humans can spend millions of 'practice' events at, that the average human a thousand years ago had absolutely no exposure to. Our brains are massively remodeled by this exposure—but so, too, by reading, by television, by video games, by modern electronics, by contemporary music, by contemporary 'tools,' etc." — Michael Merzenich, 2005

Erica Michael and Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University did a brain scan study to test whether the medium is indeed the message. They showed that different brain areas are involved in hearing speech and reading it, and different comprehension centers in hearing words and reading them. As Just put it, "The brain constructs the message ... differently for reading and listening. ... Listening to an audio book leaves a different set of memories than reading does. A newscast heard on the radio is processed differently from the same words read in a newspaper." This finding refutes the conventional theory of comprehension, which argues that a single center in the brain understands words, and it doesn't really matter how ... information enters the brain.

Television, music videos, and video games, all of which use television techniques, unfold at a much faster pace than real life, and they are getting faster, which causes people to develop an increased appetite for high-speed transitions in those media. It is the form of the television medium—cuts, edits, zooms, pans, and sudden noises—that alters the brain, by activating what Pavlov called the "orienting response," which occurs whenever we sense a sudden change in the world around us, especially a sudden movement. We instinctively interrupt whatever we are doing to turn, pay attention, and get our bearings. ... Television triggers this response at a far more rapid rate than we experience it in life, which is why we can't keep our eyes off the TV screen, even in the middle of an intimate conversation, and why people watch TV a lot longer than they intend. Because typical music videos, action sequences, and commercials trigger orientating responses at a rate of one per second, watching them puts us into continuous orienting response with no recovery. No wonder people report feeling drained from watching TV. Yet we acquire a taste for it and find slower changes boring. The cost is that such activities as reading, complex conversation, and listening to lectures become more difficult.

All electronic devices rewire the brain. People who write on a computer are often at a loss when they have to write by hand or dictate, because their brains are not wired to translate thoughts into cursive writing or speech at high speed. When computers crash and people have mini-nervous breakdowns, there is more than a little truth in their cry, "I feel like I've lost my mind!" As we use an electronic medium, our nervous system extends outward, and the medium extends inward.

Ouch!

"Use it or lose it" is a common refrain in The Brain that Changes Itself, whether talking about specific knowledge and abilities, or the capacity for learning and the very plasticity of the brain itself. (There is some hope given, however, that knowledge apparently lost is recoverable, even if its brain "map" has subsequently been taken over for another use.) Do you worry, as I did, that these new discoveries mean that it really is possible to learn too much, that we need to save our brains for that which is most important? That learning German will drive away what little I know of French? Relax; that doesn't need to happen, although I must be sure to keep the French fresh in my mind or it will get shelved.

As the scientist Gerald Edelman has pointed out, the human cortex alone has 30 billion neurons and is capable of making 1 million billion synaptic connections. Edelman writes, "If we considered the number of possible neural circuits, we would be dealing with hyper-astronomical numbers: 10 followed by at least a million zeros. (There are 10 followed by 79 zeros, give or take a few, of particles in the known universe.)" These staggering numbers explain why the human brain can be described as the most complex known object in the universe, and why it is capable of ongoing, massive microstructural change, and capable of performing so many different mental functions and behaviors.

I'm tired of typing. Get the book.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, July 24, 2022 at 8:33 am | Edit
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I prefer not to post twice in one day, but this just came to my attention and it can't wait.

YouTube's ostensibly well-intentioned censorship of the Marketplace of Ideas is no doubt creating a large number of undesirable, secondary effects. (See the definition of bad economics in my previous post, "Inflation and Health Care.") But because these are less visible, or even invisible at present, it's hard for many people to be concerned—especially when the primary effect of that censorship is to suppress ideas they don't like anyway.

But this is something entirely different. The primary effect of YouTube's censorship of this warning about the dangers of fractal wood burning—from Ann Reardon of How to Cook That—ought to be concerning to everyone: People are going to die.

This video is not, obviously, the one YouTube took down. But Ann is re-posting the relevant parts from the banned video, putting her livelihood on the line should she further incense the YouTube gods, because it's that important. Here's the short version, but do watch the video—before it disappears. It's only 12 minutes long.

A popular internet "hack" called fractal wood burning because of the beautiful patterns made in the wood, is extremely dangerous and has maimed or killed a number of people who thought it would be cool to try. It's a process that involves ramping household current up to 2000 volts using a scavenged microwave transformer, jumper cables, metal spikes, and a liquid-soaked piece of wood, all done in a home environment by people who haven't a clue what they're doing—what could possibly go wrong?

Ann's video will show you what, clearly and graphically. Her warning had been building momentum (#3 spot when searching for "fractal woodburning") and undoubtedly saved lives, but that's now been lost, and even if YouTube restores the video on appeal, experience has shown it unlikely to be recovered.  I'm doing my part to get the word out.

Why YouTube took this warning down for violating its safety concerns, yet leaves the how-to videos up, is beyond even my conspiracy theories to explain.

 


I reviewed Ann's How to Cook That site, and it eventually became the inspiration for many of the creations featured in our grandson's Daley Delights business, but I have no financial stake in either of them. I do, however, get an occasional sample of the Daley Delights. :)

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, July 1, 2022 at 12:40 pm | Edit
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When my economist husband tells me an modern article is both consistent with everything he learned about economics in college and in life, and has also taught him something new, I take notice. The article in question is Inflation Reaches Unicorns, by John Mauldin, and should be accessible at that link.

It truly is about economics: investments, venture capitalists, inflation, and yes, even unicorns ("large, well-known companies [which] are choosing to stay private long past the point where they would once have gone public"). It's a cogent and interesting analysis of how we got where we are and where we might be going.

However, what really made me perk up was some excerpts from a forthcoming book by Edward Chancellor, entitled, The Price of Time: The Real Story of Interest. Here Chancellor is actually quoting "Bastiat"—probably French economist Frédéric Bastiat—and it's not clear to me where one ends and the other begins. It's the thought that counts.

In the sphere of economics, a habit, an institution, or a law engenders not just one effect but a series of effects. Of these effects only the first is immediate; it is revealed simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The others merely occur successively; they are not seen; we are lucky if we foresee them. The entire difference between a bad and a good Economist is apparent here. A bad one relies on the visible effect, while the good one takes account of both the effect one can see and of those one must foresee.

The bad economist, says Bastiat, pursues a small current benefit that is followed by a large disadvantage in the future, while the good economist pursues a large benefit in the future at the risk of suffering a small disadvantage in the near term. The American journalist Henry Hazlitt elaborated ... in his bestselling book Economics in One Lesson (1946). Like Bastiat, Hazlitt lamented the "… persistent tendency of men to see only the immediate effects of any given policy, or its effects on only a special group, and to neglect to inquire what the long-run effects of that policy will be not only on the special group but on all groups. It is the fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences."

As I read this, what struck me was its applicability to much more than economics. In particular, read the above paragraphs with an eye to the response of our leaders to the COVID-19 crisis, and you'll see a stunningly accurate description of "bad economics." A more obvious example can hardly be imagined of considering only the immediate effects of a policy, and its potential effects on only a special group, while not only neglecting, but actively suppressing, any thoughts about what might be the long-run effects of that policy on the community as a whole.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, June 28, 2022 at 5:25 am | Edit
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Back in another life, I worked for the University of Rochester Medical Center. However, that was not how I met David H. Smith, the discoverer and developer of the now-common vaccine against Hemophilus influenzae b. That relationship began when my gynecologist suggested that I might want to help Dr. Smith out with his latest research project.

The following quotes are from the URMC article linked above, which recently came to my attention and inspired this post.

After training in pediatrics at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston, Dr. Smith served as a captain in the US Army in Japan. While a medical officer, he became the first to link chronic granulomatous disease to a deficiency in white cells. Back at Harvard, he continued his postdoctoral research in molecular genetics and bacteriology and served as chief of lnfectious Diseases at Children's Hospital from 1965 to 1976.

Harvard's legendary professor, Charles Janeway, an early researcher on the human immune system, became Smith's role model and mentor. At a time when much research focused on antibiotics, Janeway challenged his young doctors to expand their vision. At the bedside of a child enduring the agony of meningitis, Janeway said, One of you should try to find a vaccine to prevent this terrible disease. David Smith took up that challenge, and a I5-year quest was begun.

While at Harvard, he continued studying the biology and epidemiology of bacterial drug resistance factors and in 1968 began the search for a vaccine to protect against Hemophilus influenzae b., the cause of bacterial meningitis. Working in close partnership with Dr. Smith was his research colleague Porter W. Anderson, Ph.D.

In 1976, Dr. Smith was called back to the University of Rochester to chair the Department of Pediatrics. ... Dr. Smith and his research team worked flat out on the search for a Hib vaccine. By the early 1980s, the first Hib vaccine had been tested, licensed, and was being produced in a small laboratory within the medical school.

When I entered the scene, in early 1978, Smith and Anderson had a vaccine that worked for older children, but nothing to protect infants and very young children, a critical, dangerous gap. The research project that I joined was working to address the problem by vaccinating women who were hoping to become pregnant, and following their immune responses, through testing for antibodies in the mothers' blood during pregnancy, the babies' blood after birth, and also in breast milk.

It worked! I had a proper immune response, as did our child, who gained further protection through my milk.

I don't know what steps led from that study to the eventual development and acceptance of the H flu b vaccine in use today (it's now called Hib), but even though it was not yet publicly available, they—at my request—very kindly provided it to our second child, born in 1982.

Stung by the resistance of any major pharmaceutical company to buy rights to the vaccine, Dr. Smith decided to create his own pharmaceutical firm. In 1983, he resigned his chairmanship and founded Praxis Biologics. ... By 1989, Praxis had the largest number of new vaccines in clinical trials and one of the finest manufacturing facilities in North America. The initial Hib vaccine (1990) was the first vaccine to be licensed in the U.S. in a decade. The second, a conjugate vaccine, was the first to be licensed for universal use with infants since the rubella vaccine for measles and mumps.

("The rubella vaccine for measles and mumps"? Okay, we all know what they mean, but the article could have benefitted from a proofreader.)

The following is from Dr. Smith's obituary in the New York Times:

In the early 1980's, about 20,000 cases of Hib invasive disease in preschool children were reported to the Federal Centers for Disease Control. In about 12,000 of those cases, the children had meningitis, an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord membranes that can be fatal or cause permanent brain damage. In 1997, a few years after the vaccine became available for infants, 258 cases were reported.

It was a privilege to be part of that work.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, June 19, 2022 at 12:23 am | Edit
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From the official travel.state.gov website:

The CDC order from December 2, 2021, requiring persons aged two and above to show a negative COVID-19 test result or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 before boarding a flight to the United States, is rescinded, effective June 12, 2022, at 12:01AM ET. This means that starting at 12:01AM ET on June 12, 2022, air passengers will not need to get tested and show a negative COVID-19 test result or show documentation of recovery from COVID-19 prior to boarding a flight to the United States regardless of vaccination status or citizenship.

Hallelujah! I expect a large jump in foreign travel now, because as we know from vivid personal experience, the threat of finding yourself stranded in a foreign country for an indeterminate period of time is a big deterrent to travel.

The news is not quite so good for tourist destinations in America, as the order is still in effect requiring foreign visitors to be vaccinated. We haven't quite caught up to countries like Switzerland, which officially states,

There are currently no entry restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. No proof of vaccination, recovery or testing is required for entry into Switzerland.

But we have made a very good, if overdue, start.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, June 12, 2022 at 3:20 pm | Edit
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Ever since my daughter gave birth to her first child in Switzerland, I have been amazed and amused at how different "this is the way it must be done" can be between American and European standard medical care for children (vaccine recommendations, for example). It gives one perspective.

Our recent experience with COVID while we were in Europe have made me more sensitive to similar differences between American and European medical recommendations in that area, too. For example, here's the European recommendation about getting a second vaccine booster:

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and EMA’s COVID-19 task force (ETF) have concluded that it is too early to consider using a fourth dose of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines ... in the general population.

However, both agencies agreed that a fourth dose (or second booster) can be given to adults 80 years of age and above after reviewing data on the higher risk of severe COVID-19 in this age group and the protection provided by a fourth dose.

ECDC and EMA also noted that there is currently no clear evidence in the EU that vaccine protection against severe disease is waning substantially in adults with normal immune systems aged 60 to 79 years and thus no clear evidence to support the immediate use of a fourth dose. [emphasis mine]

Thus, although we jumped fairly quickly on the bandwagon of vaccination—being, you know, "old"—I feel free to ignore the pressure from American authorities to rush out and get a second booster. Besides, even the CDC acknowledges I have good reasons for at least postponing another shot.

Even if you are eligible for a second booster, you may consider waiting to get a second booster if you:

  • Had COVID-19 within the past 3 months
  • Feel that getting a second booster now would make you not want to get another booster in the future (a second booster may be more important in fall of 2022, or if a new vaccine for a future COVID-19 variant becomes available)

So, no hurry. I'm good with that. If the immune response of Europeans my age is still good, I'm pretty sure mine is also.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 17, 2022 at 5:50 am | Edit
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What does extended coercion do to common sense and courtesy?

I think about our drug laws. While I understand the reasoning of those—including friends who have been state prosecutors—who say that we'd be better off legalizing most drugs, I also understand the fears of others—especially parents—who know that removing a prohibition leads people to believe that what was once illegal is suddenly now harmless.

Note also how, when "right turn on red after stop" became legal, it took very little time for drivers to act as if it were mandatory, and to cheat on the "stop" part of the equation.

Our recent flight home from Europe took place only days after the mask mandates for airline passengers were lifted. Now don't get me wrong; I'm all for it. Not only does the combination of mask and altitude make my blood oxygen plunge, but putting the mask back on "in between sips and bites" gets old really fast (and fouls up the inside of the mask).

And yet, we and the people around us wore our masks for most of the transatlantic journey.

Why? Because seated just behind Porter was a lady with a very nasty-sounding, persistent cough. Who neither wore a mask nor covered her mouth, despite the urgings of the flight attendant. ("Please cover your mouth when you cough; you're scaring the other passengers.") This flight was also a lesson in the difficulties of a flight attendant's job; he was remarkably patient with this person, who was difficult in other ways as well.

Obviously at this point we were not worried about COVID, but that didn't mean we were eager to catch some other virus. I'm also well aware that, especially in elderly people, there are many non-contagious conditions that cause coughing. But we wore our masks.

Making a drug legal doesn't make it safe to experiment with. Allowing cars to turn right against a red light doesn't give someone the right to lean on his horn when the person in front of him is more cautious than he would be. And lifting mask mandates for the general population does not mean we should throw out common sense, and courtesy to our fellow passengers.

But when we have been constrained for so long by the letter of the law, it's easy to forget the spirit.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, May 1, 2022 at 8:44 am | Edit
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I think I will tell the story of our recent trip to Europe in topical segments rather than strictly chronologically. The COVID pandemic, being so intimately woven throughout, seems a good place to start.

Our last trip to Europe before the pandemic shut down travel had been in September 2019—to Switzerland (of course) with a side trip to Rome. Then 2020 and 2021 broke our 13-year streak of annual (sometimes more frequently) international travel to visit our international daughter and her family.

Our planned Viking river cruise of 2020 was postponed twice—and then drastically altered thanks to the fact that one of the stops was to have been St. Petersburg (not the city on the west coast of Florida). As part of Viking's compensation for the inconvenience, we acquired along the way a one-week cruise up the Rhône River in France, with an extension that gave us two weeks in Switzerland. Much to my surprise, that one survived.

It seemed fitting to remove, at least temporarily, my Facebook profile picture, which prolaimed—in response to Facbook's pressure to brag about having received the COVID-19 vaccine—that "My vaccination status is none of your business." Because suddenly my vaccination status had become everyone's business. First it was Chicago, where we couldn't attend a concert, visit a museum, or eat in a restaurant without out photo ID and proof of vaccination. This time it was international travel.

I've said many times that I deplore the division of our society into the "clean" (vaccinated) and the "unclean" (unvaccinated), with its harmful (sometimes hateful) discrimination against the latter. I've also admitted that my scruples only go so far. I may willingly cut back on my restaurant meals and museum visits, but seeing friends and family is another issue. We were willing to go through all sorts of bureaucratic hoops to make that happen.

The problem was that those hoops kept changing. Europe started opening up drastically, and so did some of our states. But America's rules regarding international travel remained stuck where they were the first week in December. And Viking chose to keep its own rules very strict. (Wisely, I think, much as I hated them, because how were they to know when the countries involved would change their minds again?) Plus, as we all know, websites are not always kept up-to-date, and we found that one page on a given informational site would contradict another.

But finally, with tests taken, documentation in multiple formats, and unwanted apps installed on our phones, we thought we were ready. The most stressful part was the required pre-travel COVID testing: there's nothing like knowing all your plans could be so easily trashed at the last minute to bring home, once again, the sub conditione jacobaea warning.

Our results were negative, and we boarded the plane for the first leg of our journey, to Montreal. All looked to be going well, as they pronounced all our paperwork to be in order as we waited to board the next flight, this time to Brussels. But at the very last minute (boarding had already started), they decided that our European Union forms were not sufficient, and that we needed special forms for Belgium. (Which, last I knew, was still in the EU.) These had to be filled out online (one for each of us) and we had to wait for e-mail confirmation of approval. Miraculously, both our e-mails came through in time and we were able to board the plane.

As it turned out, neither the form for Belgium nor the original EU form were ever looked at.

Masks, by the way, were required at every stage of the journey. We had been told that ordinary masks would not suffice, and that we had to acquire and use N-95 masks—another requirement that turned out to be false.

The rest of the journey, from Brussels to Marseille to the awaiting Viking ship, went smoothly. Once on board we were subjected to another COVID test, as we would be daily for the rest of the cruise. Once this was confirmed as negative, we were allowed to remove our masks. The one guest whose test came back positive was quietly "disappeared."

The cruise up the Rhône was lovely; I'll save the details for another post. Only two things bothered me: The substantial dinners never started till after 7 p.m. and lasted till 9, perfect conditions to provoke reflux; thus I soon developed a mild sore throat and post-nasal drip. This was made worse by the plane trees, which were in bloom everywhere, shedding pollen in blizzards and creating "snowdrifts" that we shuffled through on our frequent city walks. This, of course, exacerbated my symptoms, and added itchy eyes to the mix. Still, it wasn't that bad, and I could somewhat mitigate the problem by wearing a mask when we were outside. (France has done away with masking rules, but wearing one helped with the pollen and additionally kept my face warm in the brisk mornings.)

At least, I assured myself, I knew for a fact that what was bothering me was allergies, not COVID. Not if testing means anything, since every one of my daily tests came back negative.

Until one didn't.

On the very last evening of the cruise, as we were packing and preparing to disembark at 4 a.m. the following day for our flight to Zurich, there came a knock on the door.

"Mrs. Wightman? Are you all right?"

"Yes, of course. Why do you ask?"

"Because you have tested positive for COVID."

Porter's test had come back negative, but that made no difference: we would both be whisked off to an unnamed hotel for isolation and quarantine.

It's a pity that we had already filled out and turned in our customer satisfaction surveys, because at that point our very happy experience with Viking turned into somewhat of a nightmare of unanswered questions. Since Janet & family were expecting us the next day, we had to start making plans, but Viking could not or would not tell us anything. Not where we were going, not what would happen, not how long we'd have to stay isolated. Their best guess was 10-14 days. Once we arrived at the hotel, we were told, a Viking representative would explain all of that to us. Could we please have that person's phone number so we could explain our specific situation and include our waiting family in the plans? No, we could not. Nothing could happen till we were settled into the hotel. Finally, they promised to give us the phone number as we were leaving the ship. Which for some reason took until after noon the next day (at least they served us breakfast).

At that point we were treated to a 350-euro taxi ride (paid for by Viking) from Lyon, where we were berthed, to ... wait for it ... Geneva, Switzerland! To the InterContinental Hotel, to be precise. My guess is that Viking, headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, has some sort of relationship with the InterContinental. The name of the hotel only matters in that it turns out that I had stayed there once before, in 1969, when for reasons I never knew, our Girl Scout troop, which otherwise lived as cheaply as possible during our European tour—i.e. sleeping at youth hostels, convents, and the like—spent our last night before flying home at this incredible luxury hotel. It wasn't the least bit familiar to me, but then again, a lot would have changed in more than half a century, and besides, we weren't allowed to leave our room.

During the long taxi ride, Porter had called the number Viking had finally provided for our contact, only to find out that it was some other Viking representative's number, not that of the person dealing with our problem. They wouldn't give out the number of the right person, but assured us she would be waiting for us at the hotel.

She wasn't. Our taxi driver checked us in and walked us up to our room.

We were in some sort of hotel "isolation ward," with at least 18 rooms filled with people from our ship. Considering there were only some 145 passengers on the cruise, and most of the hotel rooms probably housed two people, that's a pretty impressive percentage. And to think that if I could have held off for just one more day we'd never have known. I'm pretty sure that if there had been one more day of testing, Porter would have been positive as well, as it seems he was no more than a day or two behind me.

As prisons go, it could hardly have been better. We were required to stay in our rooms and get our meals via room service. The room service prices were absolutely sky high, but as we were told we had an allowance of 140 francs per person per day, that was okay. (Or so we thought.) If we hadn't been so busy trying to pry information out of Viking, we could have enjoyed it.

To shorten the story, in the end it was the "wrong number" person who eventually helped us the most. The official contact had finally called, much later; she refused to give us her phone number, and would only say that she'd be by the next morning to deal with us. By now you are sensing the pattern: We never heard from her again, despite having told her that we needed to let our family know our status before 9 a.m.

There was no reason for them to keep us in isolation. Switzerland now has no isolation/quarantine requirements, so they couldn't hold us. As far as I can tell, most people in Switzerland either have already had COVID or consider it nothing to worry about.

The only thing holding us back was the need to fulfill Viking's requirements, since they held us hostage by virtue of being the ones who were taking care of our flights back to the U.S. Finally, the "wrong number" Viking contact faxed the hotel a paper for me to sign releasing Viking from all responsibility for my medical care, and Stephan generously made the three-hour drive to Geneva to rescue us.

There was one more unpleasant surprise: just as we were leaving, a hotel employee came running up to inform us that Viking required us to pay the hotel bill in full. We didn't hesitate, though it was over $400 for the few hours we were there. (So much for the food allowance we thought we had!) Porter will be seeing what he can do about reimbursement through either Viking or our travel insurance, but at the time the only thing we were thinking of was getting where we belonged: with family.

And finally we were, having lost only one day of our planned, very busy, schedule. Again, that's material for another post.

From that point on, our only COVID worry was getting the negative test results needed to fly home. Before we left, there had been some speculation that the U. S. would lift the requirement before our return, but alas that did not happen. Our chief concern was that some people continue to test positive long after they've recovered. In hindsight, we probably should have gotten Porter's positive status diagnosed officially, so that we could both get the "recovered from COVID" documentation, but at the time it seemed like an unnecessary expense and, more importantly, disruption to our schedule.

Fortunately, a good collection of at-home tests was available to us. Our first tests, taken 10 days after my initial positive result, came back still positive for both of us. Mine was a little lighter than Porter's, giving me hope that we were progressing in the right direction.

Four days after that, we tested again.

One down, one to go.

Two days later, Porter followed.

Of course, this was not good enough for the U.S. government, which requires tests to be properly documented by an official medical facility, but Stephan found us a place for that purpose and graciously accompanied us for testing. The price was very reasonable, and in less than an hour we had our coveted paperwork, and could pack in earnest. We flew out early the next day, as originally scheduled. The timing was a little too close for comfort, but all's well that ends well.

As much as we love visiting our family, the prospect of an indefinite stay wasn't pleasant for any of us, and the thought that our government could suddenly decide we were not permitted to come home was disconcerting and disorienting. I haven't been so glad to be back on U. S. soil since returning from Venezuela years ago.

As for COVID itself, what was our experience? I'm not certain. The only reason we know we had it is that we were tested. If we'd been at home, we wouldn't have had a clue. For me, the symptoms were very mild and indistinguishable from normal seasonal allergies. Porter's were much milder than an ordinary cold. Neither of us had a fever, lost sense of taste/smell, or had any hint of difficulty breathing.

In hindsight, the day after my positive test was the worst for me. (I didn't know I had COVID at the time.) That was Palm Sunday, our most strenuous day of the cruise: over 16,000 steps (according to my phone), up and down hills, at a pace so brisk I could not stop to take photos without falling significantly behind. I was exhausted by dinnertime, and left the table before dessert was served. (Perhaps the latter should have been a clue.) After that, I found I tired more easily (not uncommon when visiting grandchildren!) and experienced occasional light-headedness. Then one day I suddenly realized I had more energy—and later that day I tested negative. Porter's lingering symptom was a sore throat and tiredness—not that that stopped him from repeatedly playing soccer with our grandsons.

It took us ten to fourteen days to test negative; could we have shortened that by taking to our beds and resting? Maybe. I'm not convinced—though had we been at home I wouldn't have minded a few days of lounging around with a book and copious cups of tea. I'm just so grateful that we were not slowed down either on the cruise or in our family activities. If we had to catch COVID while on vacation and out of the country, it's hard to imagine the timing and course of infection working out better than they did. I'm told the French healthcare system is very good, but I'm happy not to have put that to the test.

Now my vaccination status is once again no one's business but my own. Maybe I'll put back my Facebook profile picture to that effect. Nonetheless, I'm reveling in what I call my super-vaccination: three shots, and recovery from the disease itself. The protection may be temporary, but for now, no one can ask for more. 

And no one can blame Florida's relaxed COVID restrictions for our illnesses. This was no ordinary Southern-style virus, but the high-class, COVID-française. Nothing but the best pour nous!

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, April 28, 2022 at 6:52 pm | Edit
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