Hello again

After writing the previous posting here, about how BMNB dot come is now being wound down, from a daily to an occasional blog, I was determined that my next piece of bloggage would be for Samizdata, and it was. It’s a piece about this book by Stephen Davies. It took me a week to get my posting about this from two thirds first drafted to finished, but that just proves how limited my energy is just now, and how right I was to stop doing something here every day. Even that had become about all I could manage, and that was not what I now want to be managing.

But, as this posting demonstrates, there will be occasional bits here, still, even if only because I have been urged to link from here to all future Samizdata pieces that I manage to do.

It matters a lot to me that in this latest Samizdata piece, I make no mention at all of my medical disappointments. Writing pieces like this is, for me, now, the difference between still being alive, and just existing from one day to the next, in a state of slow but detectably steady, undignified and demoralising physical disintegration.

That and communicating with my nearest and dearest. To all those n+ds and other friends who have taken the trouble to visit me for chats, my deepest thanks. But, if I wasn’t still attempting to say stuff a bit more publicly than that, even those chats would mean a lot less. I blog therefore I am. It wasn’t always so, but it feels like that now.

To all those who commented on the previous posting, thanks for all the kind words. It felt a bit like I was hearing some of the eulogies at my own funeral.

This Blog was fun while it lasted – but now it is approaching its end

First I got diagnosed with lung cancer, and that was bad. And then I started taking the pills, and that was good. The cancer got no worse, and I got better.

But now the side effects, if that’s what they are, are starting to pile up, the worst of these being a loss of appetite, and consequent loss of energy. So – to cut a long and medically very dreary and off-putting story short – the time has come for me to stop fretting at all about this little blog every day, and concentrate on writing stuff for Samizdata, of the sort that really matters to me, even if not necessarily mattering that much to anyone else.

I thought I’d be able to do daily stuff here, and go on making headway with the more serious stuff, but it hasn’t worked out that way, and something has to give. Basically I am now back staring death in the face, and there are still things I want to say of a Samizdata sort. Anything that gets in the way of that has to stop.

It’s not that everything here will necessarily stop, although it may well. I just don’t know. What I do know is that all of the limited energy that I have left has to be spent on saying what to me are big things, now. This Blog has been more about accumulating half-baked small thoughts, with a view to fully baked and bigger thoughts suggesting themselves to me in the fullness of time. But I now have no “fullness of time” that I can rely on. So, postings here will happen whenever they happen and when they’re no bother to do, which will not mean every day.

It was fun while it lasted. For me, and I hope for lots of you.

Some surprises at the Royal Marsden today

Now that the weather is good and Lockdown seems to be easing, I am doing a lot more getting out, but am in a physical state where properly thoughtful blogging is hard to do on a day when I will be doing or have been doing much else. And today was very busy, by my standards. A complicated and prolonged visit to the bank. Then a haircut. Then a trip to the Marsden and the usual waiting around for blood tests, doctor consultation, and prescriptions. After all that I am no state to say very much here.

So I will content myself, and you, with this photo:

On the face of it, this is a photo of a Royal Marsden Hospital bannister. But that was the law of perfectly focused intervening objects asserting itself. What I was trying to photo was what is going on in the background. That’s right. Not just the Royal Marsden piano. A pianist playing the Royal Marsden piano. Chopin? Mozart? Sadly not. Generic improvised jazz, which is not my favourite. Even so, actual piano playing going on. Could it be that this is a regular occurrence, interrupted by Lockdown, but now resuming? Maybe.

I was going to end this there, but there were two other oddities at the Marsden today that I might as well mention, now that I have actually got started with this posting.

There was also this:

That being a photo taken by my Senior Designated Friend, who was with me at the Marsden today, now that they are getting more relaxed about such things.

What that is of is of an old grey-haired geezer who has presumably been up to no good, handcuffed to a police lady, in the Marsden Outpatients Department, presumably getting treatment. Despite the handcuffs, he seemed like a very well-behaved sort of a guy, but I guess cancer will do that to you.

I have never seen such a thing before in a hospital. That almost certainly being because the Marsden is the only hospital I have much experience of.

And finally, another Royal Marsden first, in the form of a less that totally obliging Marsden member of staff. This was the lady who was doing my blood tests. This hurt a bit more than usual. But worse, I got the distinct impression that she neglected to do the tests for the people doing research into the impact of Covid jabs on cancer patients, which I have been contributing to. I brought in some paperwork, but also mentioned this research, and that the usual routine was quite a large number of blood samples. That would usually mean the person I said such a thing to checking this out in some way, to see if more blood was indeed needed. But this lady just took the one sample and mumbled something about “I just do what I’m told” and the paperwork I brought in only said do one sample. That I said do several, and that I might be worrying about this, didn’t seem to bother her.

Later, we happened to ask the same lady how to get to the pharmacy, and for the very first time, I got directions from a Marsden worker that were hurried and unhelpful, and giving off a bit of a “don’t bother me now I’m busy” vibe. We had to ask someone else as well.

As I say, such has been the hitherto amazing level of Marsden staff helpfulness that these items of less than totally obliging patient service came as a surprise. I wonder if Lockdown easing has meant people coming in to work at the Marsden who are not totally indoctrinated into the Marsden Way, so to speak. Again, as with the visiting pianist, it could well be.

It’s not that the Marsden service is absolutely perfect. But what stands out for me about this place his how kind and patient the Marsden people (almost) all of them are with any difficulties that arise. So today, for instance, I had a rather longer wait for medical attention than has been usual, and I queried this at the desk. A medic then came out to tell me that they were waiting for some test results, hence the delay. This was not a brusque phone message to the desk. This was a full explanation and a courteous apology for the really quite short wait I was having to put up with. I’m guessing the delay getting those test results may have been something to do with the bank holiday weekend, which only ended today. Whatever, the point was they knew I was starting to fret and the medic went out of her way to put my mind at rest.

The test results, by the way, continue to be very good. My cancer continues to be in retreat in the face of the Osimertinib pills I have been taking. Although the side effects of these pills are starting to pile up, the pills are working spectacularly well. The doctors do not promise that these this will continue. Apparently the cancer could mutate, or something. But, so far so good. Wish me luck.

Compared to that, a somewhat brusque blood tester is hardly worth mentioning, and I only do mention this because, such is the overall standard of Marsden care for and kindness to patients, that it stuck out like a slightly dim bulb in an otherwise totally dazzling chandelier. In many a bog standard NHS place, such a person would fit right in.

Now I’m even more knackered. And tomorrow looks like it will be just as strenuous. I blame the perfect weather.

BMNB quote of the day: If you feel something is missing …

Here we go:

It’s been a quiet day here at BMNB, which is not surprising given how wonderful the weather has been. Just the right amount of warm. Not a cloud in the sky. Perfect. Who, on a day like this, spends their time looking at a mere blog? Well, a few of you did, but fewer even than usual, and that’s absolutely fine by me given how fine the weather was today.

I journeyed out into south London to visit friends, the above photo being of a big biscuit tin they showed me, which provoked a brief discussion of the decidedly odd role played by biscuits in Roman Catholicism. I had not seen these friends face-to-face since the Plague struck, and it was a hugely enjoyable day, not least because of the chance I had to get to know the young son of the household. I was awake for at least half of last night fretting about whether I’d wake up in time, so was severely sleep deprived this morning. But the company from lunchtime onwards, to say nothing of the lunch itself, was so good that it had me completely forgetting that, and even though it is now nearly midnight I’m still wide awake. Nothing like reconnecting with friends to wake you up, by which I mean wake me up, especially when that company includes a boisterous boy.

As for the weather, well, I seriously doubt whether weather this year will ever be any better than it was today:

1: View from my friends’ garden; 2: Kent House Railway Station, a station whose platform clutter is particularly noticeable; 3: The towers of Vauxhall, as seen through the window of the train back to Victoria, which also reflects the view out of the train window opposite; 4: The same towers through the same window, this time with Brixtonian graffiti in the foreground: 5: More Quite Big Things, this time those surrounding the now dwarfed US Embassy and the newly redeveloped Battersea Power Station. Total number of clouds to be seen: zero.

What has actually been missing from my life in recent months is not biscuits. It has been the chance to meet up with more than only a tiny few good friends. An Osimertinib a day is still way out in front as the best way for my lung cancer to be kept at bay. But, if how today felt is anything to go by, then a very creditable second in that contest is: the best sort of company in the best sort of weather.

Artificial brain-controlled limbs as brain therapy to reactivate real limbs

About a week ago now, I did a posting here about a monkey that had learned to play pong using only its brain, with no merely physical contrivance whatever. Well, the other day (which other day is of no consequence) I had a most pleasing conversation with someone called Paolo, who had been reading my blog, pleasing because it’s great to get feedback from such persons. And he referred in particular to this monkey plays pong posting.

He mentioned that, of course, one of the obvious applications of such wizardry is to help crippled people by equipping them with artificial limbs, which they control with pure brain power.

But Paolo then added a tweak to this story, by telling me that the mere process of enabling people to control a piece of machinery with their brains was actually getting them back in control of their own limbs, again. The reason being that if the brain gets no results from sending out body control messages, it in due course simply gives up and forgets how to do it. But if those same messages produce visible results with a piece of machinery, like a some kind of artificial arm which can, I don’t know, get food out of a cupboard or some such thing, then the brain’s enthusiasm for sending out these messages is rewarded and reinforced, in a positive feedback loop. And that can have the effect of the brain eventually getting control of its own body back again, because eventually the messages it sends out get through to the original limb, which has by now begun to recover. Usually, by the time such recovery has begun, the brain has lost interest. But by giving the relevant bit of the brain another reason to be doing it, in a way that’s very visible to the brain, the brain continues with the messages, and the messages eventually get through to their original destination.

So, installing a piece of useful brain-controlled machinery can have the effect not only of replacing immobilised limbs, but of actually bringing those same limbs back to life again.

Remarkable. Again, I’m very possibly telling you things you already know. But even if you did know this, I think you may agree that this is a remarkable development, worth celebrating.

Comments are rare at this blog. Paolo himself said he had thought about commenting along the lines stated above, but had not got around to it. But, if anyone can comment with a link to some detail concerning the above – Paolo himself maybe? – then that would be most welcome.

Patrick posted our conversation about Steve Stewart-Williams and evolution ( and I’m glad he did)

I am starting to take exercise by doing exercises, which I have not done since my school days, which put me right off the whole idea. I am being supervised and guided and advised and encouraged by a physiotherapist attached to the Royal Marsden. This morning I attended (virtually) one of his group exercise sessions, and it was a real effort, lasting more than half an hour. Then, after only brief lie-down, I went out on a big shopping expedition, and of course bought too much stuff for me to carry in comfort and am now totally knackered. But, I still owed this blog its daily feed.

Luckily, however, an email from Patrick Crozier has now arrived saying that our latest recorded conversation is now up and listenable to, so here’s my posting here alerting you to that.

Our conversation was based on and revolved around the book by Steve Stewart-Williams entitled The Ape That Understood The Universe, which regular visitors to this blog will know that I like a lot.

Patrick and I have already fixed that the next of our conversations will be about how World War One started, which Patrick knows a lot more about than I do.

“587 tall buildings in the pipeline in London …”

This fake photo appears at the top of a piece about new building in London, this being how Nine Elms is about to look:

If you regularly travel by helicopter anyway.

Also adorning the same piece is this next view looking upstream at the same point in London, also including the now rather small looking box that seems to have sparked all this building excitement, the recently relocated US Embassy:

The style is incoherent modernism, i.e. the effect you get when you design your tower to be modernistic, and quite tall, and functional in shape rather than weird (which is rather too expensive to always be doing) but in no other way in harmony with the nearby designs. Many hate this non-style, but to me it seems all of a piece with London’s ruling ethos, to the effect that when in London I pursue my business and you pursue your business, and there is no boss of the two of us telling us to do our business is the same way, even though we are right next to each other.

I never trust these fake photos of buildings. This is one of those times when the fact that the internet never forgets can get a bit confusing, because the internet remembers all the various shapes each future building takes as it ducks and weaves its way from initial idea to planning permission to actually getting built. Rather than spending lots of time trying to guess exactly what will be built, I prefer simply to wait and see.

And as it happens I have been recently seeing some of these towers as they rise up, without me making any great effort like going to the river or even crossing the river and seeing it all close-up. My now regular journey back from the Royal Marsden typically sees me getting off the tube at Victoria and doing a bit of shopping, by walking south along Wilton Road to Sainsbury’s.

Looking back towards Victoria, I see Nova, with its weird-style red shape spiking upwards. This is the Carbuncle Cup style that I so relish, …:

… a style that is now being superseded in Nine Elms by a reversion to the more functional verticality of, for example, Docklands (although in Docklands there has been a tad more harmonisation of style between different towers).

Here is what I see when I look south from the same spot:

Which is a bit boring, but as I walk towards Sainsbury’s, things start to liven up, especially when the sky looks the way it did that particular day:

I only photo what is there to be seen. So, that bit of London at any rate continues to build, and continues to contain busy cranes.

And according to this report, that’s about to be the story all over London:

Love them or loathe them, it looks like despite a significant slowdown in building skyscrapers during the spring and summer in 2020, there was not the downturn feared because of the pandemic.

According to New London Architecture’s annual review of skyscrapers over 20 storeys or more, there are 587 tall buildings in the pipeline in London – with 310 granted full planning permission and 127 under consideration. A total of 35 tower blocks were finished last year.

That’s some pipeline. Although I wouldn’t call these new Things skyscrapers, exactly. The sky can sleep unscraped in its bed. More like Things of a Certain Size.

Nevertheless, I love all this. Not because the buildings will be much good to look at. They won’t be, although sometimes in combination they may add up to something quite dramatic. What I like is what they mean: lots and lots of people all living and working right next to each other, and gathering in restaurants and bars to schmooze with each other and to contrive new ventures and adventures, as befits a great city that is still growing as fast as ever it has.

Eat your pretty little heart out, Paris.

Death matters and so does Surrey doing well

Earlier today I had a really serious phone conversation with my Designated Best Friend about palliative care, being kept alive with scary electric shock machines (which my DBF said actually work very rarely and are far more likely to inflict painful and permanent damage like a busted rib). In short, it was a conversation about my death. And I entirely saw the point of this conversation and was very grateful to my DBF for having it with me. I need to say what sort of death I would like, before it actually starts seriously happening and I become incapable of saying anything coherent about what I want. So, important stuff.

Problem was, I had been keeping half an eye on the county cricket, and in particular on this game between Hampshire and Surrey. Surrey have had a wretched season so far, and Hampshire have been doing really well, so that was going to start badly for Surrey and get worse and worse as the next few days went by. But I was paying attention anyway, because, you know, you never know.

So, Surrey had won the toss and had put Hampshire in to bat. But then, after nearly an hour of further Surrey underachievement, and for the first time this season after three dud games, Surrey suddenly started doing really, really well. Right in the middle of the serious phone conversation, this is what I observed, on Cricinfo, being done by two Surrey bowlers called Clark and Clarke to the hitherto formidable Hampshire middle order:

For non-cricket people, that is very successful bowling by Surrey and very unsuccessful batting by Hampshire, who, in the space of thirteen deliveries, went from 44 for 2 to 44 for 6. Until this exact moment, Surrey had not been taking nearly enough wickets or taking them nearly soon enough. Then, in a blink, all that completely changed.

I want to insist that I never lost the thread of the serious conversation I was having with DBF: No please don’t resuscitate me if I have a heart attack in a hospital, but yes indeed, I’d rather die at home but how much might that end up costing, given that professional care will surely be needed?, and no you’re right it’s important to discuss all this beforehand so thanks for doing this. But also, strictly inside my head you understand, I was screaming to myself: Hey look, Surrey are doing really well!!! Look at that!!! Four wickets for no runs!!! On the first morning!!! Wow!!! Yeah yeah, I’m going to be dying soon and I know I have to get that sorted, but … wow!!! I even managed to do the above screen capture, without at any time failing to be conversationally coherent and serious with DBF about my death.

This is what I love about following sport, especially the way I have done for the last decade and a half, at a distance, via The Internet. Great moments in sport, like this moment when Surrey Actually Started Doing Well in 2021, intersect with how your life was at the time. I still remember that 1981 miracle Ashes test match fondly, and listening to it on the radio in a van with which I was (very happily) delivering number plates, a radio which only worked when the van’s engine was not running, which complicated things in a delightful way that I’ll never forget for as long as I live. Well, now, here’s another of these classic sport-meets-real-life moments. Life doesn’t get much more real than when you’ve been told that “for as long as I live” isn’t actually going to be that long, and sport doesn’t get much better than when your team has been firing blanks for a month and then suddenly does something like what’s in the picture above.

By the end of the day Surrey were totally on top. Surrey’s bowlers, particularly Clark and Clarke (there were even three Hampshire batters who got out caught Clarke bowled Clark), were unstoppable, and Hampshire’s first innings total came to a mere 92. Hampshire’s much feared foreign pace men, Abbot and Abbas, then had to bowl in quite different conditions after lunch and achieved only the one Surrey wicket in the whole of the rest of the day. Surrey are already ahead on first innings and should – should – now win comfortably. Even Hashim Amla, who got 0 and 0 in the previous game, got some runs, along with Burns, and both could make more tomorrow.

All my life people have been telling me stories of old men dying with smiles on their faces, merely because their sports team was doing well when they died. Would I still feel that way about sport when death stared me in the face? So far: yes.

An exercise lesson on Zoom

I can remember when e-mail became a necessity for me. I got a phone call from someone who asked: “What’s your email?” and I said “I don’t do email”. It was the way she then said “Oh” that made me realise that something had happened.

There hasn’t been a single moment like this for me with Zoom, but it has become made clear to me that making easy and regular use of Zoom has now become part of everyday life for all civilised people. Stage 4 lung cancer means you get cut some slack on these sorts of things, or you do by the people who are treating you. Nevertheless, I got, and get, the message.

And today I got an exercise lesson on Zoom from an exercise coach at the Royal Marsden. For some reason or other, the audio aspect wasn’t perfect, there being a slight delay, like the Royal Marsden was in India. But the job got done very satisfactorily nevertheless, and it’s hard to see how this could have been done by any other means than me being at the Marsden in person. Like all good teachers, he wasn’t content with showing me what he wanted me to do. He wanted also to see me doing it. Not only did Zoom enable him to show me what exercises he wanted me to do, he was also able to see that I was doing them the way I should be doing them.

All of which will be very old news to almost everyone reading this. I am well aware that when it comes to Zoom I am the ultimate late adopter, just as I was with email. Nevertheless, this posting is definite Zoom information for you, even if you’ve been using Zoom for the last two years minimum. And the information is that everyone is now using Zoom, the proof of this being that I am now using it.

Pfaith

Seen recently at a Facebook Friend’s page:

While searching for more about this, I came upon this recent story:

A single pill home cure for Covid could be available by the end of the year, according to reports.

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, whose coronavirus vaccine has been successfully rolled out around the world, has begun human trials of the first pill specifically designed to stop the virus at its buildings in the United States and the European manufacturers’ base in Belgium.

The company, which brought the first US-approved Covid-19 vaccine to market, is conducting the stage one clinical trial on an oral antiviral therapy that a patient could take when they first develop symptoms, which would make it the first oral antiviral treatment of its kind in the world for coronavirus.

My take on Covid as of now (guess (reserve the right to change mind without embarrassment)) is: Lockdown CROSS, Treatment TICK, Vaccines TICK. Most of “They” were wrong to obsess about Lockdown, wrong that treatment wouldn’t work, and right about vaccines being something worth throwing a ton of money at. Good that the treatment error seems now to be being corrected.

Alas, Lockdown, is something that many now love, for quasi-religious reasons, and want to continue with.