I need to stop replying with "Oh, I'm doing okay" when people ask me how I am these days, because I'm beginning to realise that it's just not true. My physical health has taken a bit of a knock this week. But no, I have no symptoms of COVID-19 that I'm aware of. I don't know if it's because I'm drinking more fluids and this is having an effect on my kidney function, but over the last few days the stone that I have on my left kidney has been reminding me that it's still there. I've not been getting the vicious stabbing pains that made my childhood such a misery, but the occasional bursts of throbbing discomfort I have been getting have been much too easy to recognise as their precursor. This has made it difficult to get to sleep, because it's been difficult to find a position to lie in that doesn't become uncomfortable after a couple of minutes. So I feel exhausted when I wake up in the morning. The resulting temptation to take compensatory naps in the afternoon has been much too strong, and I've succumbed to it more than once. In times as stressful as these, it's all resulted in my mental health taking quite a battering. This morning I lay in bed wondering whether it was worth getting up at all (the siren call of my coffee machine in the kitchen won out in the end, and after a large latte I'm feeling a little more human right now; caffeine always seems to help). But in the last few days I appear to have run out of my stock of things like resilience or optimism or fortitude. I'll admit that I'm feeling very low at the moment.
Yesterday I went to the shops for the first time in over a week. Since the lockdown started I don't normally go shopping on Fridays because the local supermarkets have been much busier. I wouldn't contemplate going anywhere near them at weekends even before this all started, because things could get manic, so I dread to think what they're like these days on a Saturday afternoon. This week I'd put off making my regular Thursday shopping trip because I didn't feel up to it. But I have learned my lesson. After yesterday's experience I will be sticking to my routine.
I had to queue up to get in the store—which I'd been expecting, so that was no big deal, especially as I could listen to the first chiffchaff I've heard this year calling in the trees next to the car park—but inside the store, people were just wandering around in a world of their own, or standing in the middle of the aisle, motionless, just staring vacantly at the shelves and blocking anyone wanting to get past. Nobody seemed to have grasped the concept of social distancing at all, despite areas being marked out on the floor with hazard tape and footprint stickers. Come on, folks, it's not hard to stay two metres apart. Even pigeons can manage it! Several times, people barged past me while I waited for the person in front of me to move on. Others were ignoring what everyone else was doing and moving down aisles in the opposite direction.
Surprise: all of this turns out to be a major stress trigger for me. I didn't see that coming in my list of personal discoveries for 2020. By the time I got home, I was literally shaking. It took me several hours, and a large mug of tea, before I was able to calm down. However, the good news is that I now have reassuring quantities of coffee, milk, fresh limes, tonic water, and gin in the house.
But even when I've been safe at home this week, I've noticed that I no longer have any enthusiasm for doing much of anything. I struggle to read more than ten pages of any book I'm reading at a time. I've completely lost interest in watching the TV; I bought a couple of 4K Blu-Ray discs last week and I have yet to watch them. Netflix and Amazon Prime have not been accessed once. I haven't even been listening to music, either my own or anyone else's. I did some work on my new album on Wednesday, but I haven't touched it since then because I don't think my judgment on any creative decisions I need to make right now would be up to the task. This month, then, I now realise that I have gradually become a bit of a mess.
It's taken me a while to recognise the fact, but this week it's become pretty clear that I'm now sliding, quite rapidly, back into a fairly serious bout of depression. Don't worry: if my mood doesn't improve in the next week, I will be getting in touch with my doctor.
The village Facebook group went nuts last night. People had gone outside to watch for meteors from the Lyrid meteor shower which reaches a peak later this week, but instead they had witnessed something else entirely: a line of satellites launched recently by Elon Musk's company SpaceX as part of Starlink, a mobile internet and telecommunications network that is intended to deliver a global WiFi service. The train of sixty small satellites will gradually spread out over the next few days, but it will be making another pass from west to east over the UK tonight, starting at 21:56 and passing almost directly overhead. It should be well worth seeing and judging by the weather forecast, viewing conditions should be perfect.
After I blogged about how good the weather was in my last post, I was half expecting to have jinxed things, but although it rained over the weekend the weather forecast for the coming week is for clear skies at night and continuous sunshine during the day. We're having a quite extraordinary run of lovely days.
Despite my anecdotal evidence of improved air quality here, it seems that recent stories about reduced levels of pollution were based on flawed data and as far as I can tell now, it's much too early to tell exactly what effect the lockdown will have on weather patterns around the world. The fact that carbon emissions have only fallen by an estimated 5% as a result of a global shutdown—and will no doubt bounce back with a vengeance once this is over—means that we mustn't get complacent about combating climate change.
It would appear that I spoke too soon; I just checked what my BOINC manager was up to, and was amazed to discover my computer is presently crunching through a new batch of SETI@Home workunits and my total computing credit for the project has already crept above 8,230,000 cobblestones. However, the bulk of my spare computing capacity is now dedicated to assisting the fight against COVID-19 that is being conducted by the Rosetta at Home project, and my stats there have been growing nicely. Knowing that in some tiny way I am helping to combat this wretched, cruel disease makes me happy. And in these increasingly strange and challenging days, we need all the happiness that we can find.
On this day back in 2010 I was working as a consultant at NATS in Hampshire. When I got to work at just after 7 am, I was bemused to discover that the car park was full of television news crews. When I sat down at my desk and logged on to the company's network, I soon found out why. A volcano had erupted under the Eyjafjallajökull glacier in Iceland, throwing an immense plume of ash into the upper atmosphere, and all air traffic across the North Atlantic had been halted. Over the next few days the ash plume also shut down air travel across much of Europe, and although I saw no evidence of ash falls here in my neighbourhood, on the blog I marvelled at evening skies that were completely free of contrails.
That same sense of suspension has not only returned over the last couple of weeks, it is now far stronger than it was a decade ago. Even to the naked eye, it's obvious that the air has become much clearer and across the world people have been enjoying versions of a view that hasn't been seen since the age of the automobile began. Nicole Chapman posted a stunning photo of her distant view of San Francisco, where levels of black carbon in the atmosphere have dropped by a staggering 29%. In India, long-distance shots of the Himalayas have been doing the rounds, along with unsubstantiated claims that the views haven't been this good for thirty years. The improved visibility photo has already become a very funny Internet meme, demonstrating how noticeable and widespread the effects are. The skies here have been beautifully clear. My view of the stars has seldom been better in the 25 years I've lived here and the days have been unusually and consistently good; I walked to the local shop yesterday afternoon in unbroken sunshine. I very much enjoyed getting out in the fresh air for the first time in a week, strolling along under a spectacularly cloudless blue sky. The roads were empty, and the skies were as quiet as they were ten years ago. I haven't seen a light aircraft around here for weeks, although I have heard the local NPAS helicopter once or twice. Yesterday there wasn't a contrail to be seen until I started on my way home, when I saw a single aircraft fly overhead; it was such an unusual sight that I stopped to watch it (it was a Boeing 747 up high and heading south, which would have been out of the ordinary on a normal day, because most high-altitude traffic that flies over here is travelling east or west on the run across the Atlantic.) When I got back to the house and looked online to see just what effect COVID-19 is having on aircraft movements, it immediately became clear that most planes are staying on the ground. According to FlightRadar the number of commercial flights that took place yesterday was 30,148. Ninety days ago, there were 116,101 and as early as last month, the International Air Transport Association was forecasting that airlines would experience losses of $250 billion as a result of the pandemic. Unlike the the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, the airlines aren't still earning money from elsewhere on the planet. This isn't a just regional shutdown, it's a global one and the effects of the current crisis are being seen right around the world.
The sky is the same clear, spectacular blue again this morning. But tempted as I may be to go out and enjoy the sunshine, I will be staying indoors and keeping myself (and others) safe from infection.
During the warm weather last week I switched the central heating timer from automatic back to manual, but those clear skies have meant that the temperature still gets quite low overnight. It dropped to -1°C last night, so I put the heating on for half an hour when I got up. The weather display on the kitchen windowsill needed a new battery yesterday and I noticed this morning that rather than picking up the outdoor sensor in the back garden it had picked up someone else's sensor instead which was reading 14°C outside, which it very definitely wasn't. I wonder: what are the odds of there being another compatible sensor not just in range of my device, but one that is sending a signal strong enough to be picked up in preference to the one in my garden?
This week it has become clear that the UK's lethargic response to the COVID-19 outbreak, driven in large part by eugenics fanboy Dominic Cummings's crazed obsession with herd immunity, has cost thousands of lives and will continue to do so over the coming weeks and months. As Lainey Doyle explained in an excellent Twitter thread yesterday, Boris's resulting "take it on the chin" attitude prevented the cancellation of the Cheltenham Festival (which had an estimated attendance of 250,000) or a Stereophonics show in Cardiff (which had an audience of 20,000), despite there being clear evidence that this would put people at risk. And with no coherent government communication strategy in place, people continued to behave as they normally do and attended the events; how many of them, I wonder, have now spread the illness around the country?
Well, it turns out that we can get a very good idea of just how poor the UK government's response has been in controlling the spread of the virus, because like all good scientists, we have a classic A/B experiment taking place right in front of us: we can see exactly what would have happened if the government HAD acted sensibly and stopped major events taking place in a country very similar to our own—our next door neighbours, in fact. Ireland started off in almost exactly the same situation at the same time. But the Irish government took things seriously. The Irish cancelled their Saint Patrick's Day festivities (and just think about that, compared to the continuing deluge of news reports about people failing to maintain social distancing that we're seeing in the UK.) Their communications team did their job so well that there was almost no push-back on this at all. People stayed at home.
And the difference in the results is stark. As of yesterday, Ireland has seen 6.5 deaths per 100,000 people and the UK has recorded 14.81 deaths per 100,000 people. That's more than twice the mortality rate, in a country with very similar resources that had exactly the same information about risk and infection rates that Ireland had. Oh, and the UK figure has probably been carefully massaged downwards by our government, too; it turns out that hundreds of recent deaths of people suspected of having COVID-19 in care homes have not been included in the official figures.
You would think by now that a cynical old git like me couldn't possibly get more outraged by the contemptuous disregard that the Conservative party have demonstrated for the British public over the last ten years, but it seems that I continue to underestimate the level of callousness and disconnect that they possess. Because when the home secretary was finally put under enough pressure to come out of hiding yesterday and give the daily press briefing on the pandemic, she "apologised", not for the level of incompetence that the government has shown so far, not for the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that is putting NHS workers at risk, and not even for Matt Hancock's recent, grotesque suggestion that nurses and doctors were wasting PPE. No, instead she said that she was " sorry if people felt that there have been failings" which—as I'm sure you have already figured out—is not an apology at all. It sounds more like the sort of thing a psychopath would say when they are finally caught out. As an example of just how out of touch the Tories are, it's jaw-dropping in its absolute and utter lack of both a willingness to assume responsibility or even to demonstrate basic human empathy.
We need to make sure that nobody forgets this the next time there's an election, because these people aren't fit to run a lemonade stand. Let me take a moment or two to explain just why Boris and his cronies aren't up to the job:
I sincerely hope that when this is all over we are able to change the culture of government away from the current practice of deciding who gets to be in charge through old-boy networks, cronyism, and an unwillingness to challenge those more senior in the organization. Because this country is having its own Korean Air moment, thanks to COVID-19.
On August 6th 1997, Korean Airlines flight 801 from Seoul to Guam crashed into the ground (the technical term is Controlled Flight Into Terrain, or CFIT) as it made its final approach to the runway in bad weather. The captain had elected to fly a non-precision approach, something he had never done at the airport before (in fact he'd only ever flown this type of approach on the ground, in a simulator). He was relying on instruments that the Guam tower had just told him weren't working, but it was the early hours of the morning for him and as the transcript from the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) showed, he had already complained of feeling sleepy. As a result, he failed to acknowledge what the air traffic controller had told him and started his descent using the glideslope indicator, which—as the ground component of the system was broken— wasn't giving correct information about the aircraft's position. The CVR transcript also showed that the rest of the flight crew clearly knew he was putting them at risk, but because he was the most senior person on board, their cultural practices and tendencies prevented them from challenging him directly. Instead, they desperately dropped hints, giving him nudges to help him to recognise that he was in error. But the captain was too tired to notice what they were getting at; he took their comments literally, rather than noticing the implication behind what was being said. It was a fatal mistake.
The aircraft flew into Nimitz Hill, a couple of miles short of the runway. Of the 254 people on board, 228 died. The resulting enquiry found many contributing factors, but it threw a spotlight on Korean Air's safety record, which at the time was little short of appalling.
Clearly, something had to be done. Korean Air brought in an external consultant, David Greenberg, who was a retired vice-president of Delta Airlines. He made a number of changes to company culture, the most relevant of which for our purposes were the introduction of rigorous new training and testing standards, sweeping reforms to the company's promotion and transfer practices, and a halt on placements based on connections and friendships rather than ability. The changes that he achieved by killing off the "old-boy network" way of doing things subsequently turned the company into an airline with an exemplary safety record.
We need something similar to happen over here, because it's clear that our ruling class, riddled with Old Etonians and other networks of schoolfriends who operate on a "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" basis aren't up to the task of running things for the benefit of lowly plebs like me and you. We're viewed as an inconvenience rather than a responsibility. They'd rather we just died.
This afternoon I completed the initial mix and running order for my next album of prog rock, which will be called Oneiric Tulpas. The running time clocked in at fifty-seven and a half minutes, and as there are only ten tracks on the album you can tell that I have been maintaining prog standards when it comes to track length. I have also been following prog traditions when it comes to time signatures; there is one track in 5/4 and several in 7/8. Much to my surprise, I can now make 7 beats to the bar sound remarkably funky!
The next step is to listen to the current mixes all the way through on headphones to make sure I haven't missed anything too egregious and check that the track order makes sense. Then I'll burn a CD to listen to the album on as many different systems as I can get my hands on; it might sound fine on my monitors, but what about in the car, for example? When I'm happy that everything works, it'll be time to release it into the wild. I don't have a date in mind yet, but I'll announce it here when it's ready for your ears.
Meanwhile, I am going to turn my attentions to more ambient themes. I already have an album title; now I just have to write the music to go with it...
This afternoon both my main machine and the studio computer finished crunching their last work units for the SETI at Home project that I run with the BOINC screensaver. I was surprised how sad this has made me feel. I've been running the screensaver in one form and another for more than a decade and I will miss seeing it pop up on my screen.
But I'm not going to let my computers sit idle while they're er, sitting idle, so I have now joined the Lancaster University team taking part in the Rosetta at Home Project. My computer is now helping to model the ways in which different protein molecules are likely to fold up; this information will be used to predict the structure of proteins important to COVID-19 as well as to produce new, stable mini-proteins to be used as potential therapeutics and diagnostics. It feels good to be doing my bit to help the present situation.
A big lump of high pressure has been sitting over the UK this week, and as it moves off to the east, it's drawn a plume of very warm air up from Spain; winds move clockwise around a high. After a week in which the overnight temperatures in the back garden dropped below freezing, I think spring may finally have arrived. And not before time. This morning I have the windows open in an attempt to let some fresh air into the house. Outside right now, it's 15°C, although it's not as sunny as it was yesterday when I finally gave the lawn its first cut of the year and tried to make the back garden look less like a jungle. But thanks to the current pandemic, garden waste collections have been suspended so I have resorted to starting a compost heap; I really should get round to emptying the compost bin I bought years ago, as I discovered yesterday that it was full to the brim.
The arrival of spring means that the local birds have become much more active. The blue tit family that have used the nest box on the garage every year for the last five years have been very busy, and I've heard great tit calls from the garden as well. Someone on the village forum mentioned that they'd heard skylarks this week. I haven't been that lucky yet, but I have heard the local buzzards calling several times in the last few days. It's one of my favourite sounds from round here.
Before I came indoors from yesterday's gardening session, I used the hosepipe to wash out the bird baths on the patio and then restocked the bird table with suet pellets and mealworms. As I sat at the computer an hour later, I was entertained by a corvid tea party outside. The bird table looks remarkably small when it has four jackdaws sitting on it. The local magpie can be very skittish, as there are a lot of cats in the neighbourhood, but even it joined in the fun. It was there again this morning, sitting on the corner of the conservatory roof and clattering loudly at something or other that was annoying it. Self isolation doesn't seem as bad when there are things like this going on around me.
Yesterday turned out to be a day for forcing myself to handle all the domestic duties that I will normally put off for days. Aside from doing the gardening, I ironed all the laundry and did a bunch of tidying up. The heap of clothes lurking at the bottom of my wardrobe was pulled out, sorted into different categories, folded neatly, and put back in place. And I even cooked; I had home made potato skins for tea (made because I needed to finish off some blue cheese, bacon, and cream cheese that was getting close to its use-by date). They turned out nicely.
I kept myself busy all day, and resisted any temptation to just sit and read or take a nap. So I should have slept well last night, going to bed with a full stomach and satisfied with a productive day. Instead I found myself tossing and turning until after three o'clock. This morning, the data my watch sent to the sleep tracker app on my phone generated an utterly dismal score. All the bad things that I could do, I'd done: there were multiple interruptions, a lack of deep sleep, and a total duration of well under seven hours. I'm not sure exactly why I got myself in such a state, but I suspect that discomfort was the main reason. Aside from my grumbling kidneys, I had plenty of aches and pains from all that gardening—my watch also revealed that yesterday was the most active I've been since the first half of February. The final interruption to my sleep last night was when I got up and went to the kitchen to take a couple of ibuprofen tablets. After that, it seems that I finally got comfortable enough to drift off into some semblance of sleep, although when I woke this morning the duvet was half hanging off the bed, and the blanket I have on top of it had fallen to the floor.
I really struggle when my sleep quality deteriorates. I'm going to take things easy today and see how it goes tonight.
...was a Wednesday. I arrived back home after flying from Tampa, where I had just finished up a project I was working on for the Australian Air Force. It was not one of my better days. In fact it put me off international business travel for life.
To start with, the flight was delayed for two hours. There are few things more stultifying than hanging around in an airport departure lounge. I bought a slew of books and had got most of the way through a Greg Bear novel before the flight was finally called. When I landed at Heathrow I'd had enough; I drove all the way home without stopping, figuring I could get a nice cold drink when I arrived at the house. No such luck; when I popped the lid on a can of Diet Coke and took a swig, it was warm. I opened the fridge again and realised that everything else in it was warm as well. And that was when I noticed the smell: while I was away, the thing had stopped working and everything in the fridge and the freezer had gone off. I spent the next hour mopping up the kitchen and chucking all my spoiled food in the bin. Then I drove down to the Mall at Cribbs Causeway to buy a new one (twenty years later, it's still going) and then called in at the cattery to pick up my cat, Tribble.
When I unpacked, I discovered that at some point on my Virgin Airlines flight, somebody had opened my suitcase and relieved me of all the DVDs I'd bought during my trip, as well as a stack of AA batteries I'd taken with me for my Discman (fortunately the Discman itself—and all the CDs I had with me—had been in my hand baggage in the cabin.) In the end, I retired disconsolately to bed with a book and my cat, who was very pleased to see me.
Another month of lockdown is under way, and as people begin to realise that we're in for the long haul on this, the predominant mood is sombre, rather than outright grim. I am relieved to report that most of the big organisations seem to have recognised that levity is not really what's needed at the moment and called off any planned April fools jokes.
Things are looking a little better than they were last week. The commercial world is starting to develop a more organised response, and although many businesses have closed down for the moment (including my local takeaway, which is a bit of a low blow) food supplies are beginning to look more like they normally do; the only major shortage at the moment is of flour and supermarkets have organised the shopping experience to cut the risk of customers being infected. Needless to say the government is nowhere near as well organised. After a shambolic press conference by Michael Gove yesterday, ITV's political editor Robert Peston politely accused him of lying his ass off. This seems to be the default approach that the Prime Minister's team have adopted; when the UK's decision not to take part in a joint procurement exercise with the EU in buying COVID-19 testing kits became public last week, the health minister's initial claim that "We didn't get the email about it" was rapidly demolished. Meanwhile, after testing positive for the virus, the prime minister has put himself into isolation. We can only hope he stays there for as long as possible.
As the lockdown continues, there's been a lot of creative sharing happening online; on Saturday night I took part in a virtual FAWM Over Party (referred to universally as a FOP) on Facebook Live and I even got my performance anxiety levels low enough to kick off the proceedings by playing some ambient guitar. Last night, I watched Al Murray and Jakko Jakszyk discuss their recent musical collaboration (Al has his own home studio complete with an acoustic drum kit and a very nice collection of guitars) and talk about their favourite albums. The show was hosted by Robin Ince and Michael Legge as part of the Stay At Home Festival and proceedings concluded with a stirring acoustic rendition of Cher's song "Believe" by Grace Petrie and her flatmate Ben. It was better than the original! After that stream concluded, I headed over to Twitch TV to watch a glorious broadcast from Devin Townsend that was, as ever, a delight to watch. Tonight synth guru Martyn Greenwood will be performing a half-hour set as Concept Devices from his home studio at 21:30 BST, and I will be watching. I now have Twitch up and running on the TV and connected to the home audio system, and while it's not the same as attending a live show, it's still a great way to experience performances without leaving the house.
I am still working on new music of my own, although since I upgraded to the latest version of iZotope's Music Production Suite (which was on offer for registered users at a bargain price last month) rather than recording more tracks, I've been digging more deeply into the mixing process and spending an inordinate amount of time getting things I've already recorded to sound as good as I can get them. Fortunately I have an inordinate amount of time available to do this at the moment. The results are sounding very good indeed, at least to my somewhat biased ears.
At the moment the next album—and the one after that, which will be another ambient album—will be more than enough to keep me occupied for the rest of the month. After that, I have plenty of other creative activities I want to work on including a return to both writing and drawing. And now is very much the time to put those plans into action, because when am I going to have a better opportunity than this?