Of Birds and Viruses

I have officially been retired since Saturday 1st January, or perhaps, to be pedantic, since midnight on 31st December 2021. I must confess to feeling a little uncertain as to what the future holds. There needs to be a plan, budget, and cash flow projection, all but the first can be done quickly. The Covid crisis has made planning difficult. I really want to do some travelling, but it is hard to book tickets with any confidence. This is changing slowly though. It is hard to believe that the world began this seismic shift just two years ago. I became aware of this new disease in January 2020. I had no idea how rapidly and far it would spread, or the incredible disruption it would cause. More on this later.

One thing I am really enjoying is the birdlife in the garden in Norwich. I did not realise how having a cat and a dog reduced the visits from the birds, even though they (the cat and dog) were not hunters and chasers. Both have been gone for over two years. While they are greatly missed, there are some benefits in terms of the other creatures we are seeing. The most common visitors are blackbirds, up to 15 at peak, all squabbling individuals. Second are blue tits who feed from the hanging feeders. The other regulars are gold finches, magpies, robins, dunnocks and the occasional jay. The pigeons are ubiquitous, they are large bullies and, in my eyes, don’t count. Sadly, although there are delicate doves in the suburb, we are not on their feeding route.

To encourage the birds, we have bird feeders; spread seed on the garden every morning; and have fat balls hanging on the bushes and on the ground (in metal cages). To my amusement a couple of the blackbirds try to act like hummingbirds. They attempt to hover in front of the feeders, flapping and pecking furiously. They do not have any comparative advantage in this activity. We are not surprised to see the squirrels getting chubby, despite having to get the food through the mesh.

About once a week a sparrowhawk makes a pass over the suburb, much to the alarm of the rest of the gang. Today, though, it was perched in a tall tree at the end of the garden waiting for the food to be spread. Perhaps it saw this as a breakfast buffet, not the seed but the birds! It was spotted because of the unusual behaviour of the blackbirds; they were perched nervously in one of the bushes, unwilling to go down to the ground.

I won’t turn into a ‘twitcher’, but I love seeing and hearing the birds. Just one more bird related observation. While the garden has a rich variety of birds, there are sparrows and starlings living on our road, perhaps 200 yards away. They do not ever seem to come to our end. Are we in the ‘better’ or ‘worse’ neighbourhood? Is there no space for them in the micro-environment? I would love to see sparrows in our hedges, they are such cheerful little creatures.

In 2013 I left Durban, cleared out my office and kept some papers and books, shipping them to Canada. After 30 years it was a herculean task. Earlier this year I did the same for my office and my flat in Waterloo, this time shipping boxes to Norwich. Over the next few weeks, I will go through my home office and attempt to rationalise it. The criteria: will I ever read this again? If the answer is no it can go. There are whole canons of papers and books that have little relevance now. The best place to donate books of all types is Oxfam. They seem to sort out and deliver to places where most obscure material can be sold or recycled, and this includes academic material.

The books are relatively easy to deal with. As I work though my office it is apparent that papers and reports will be more problematic. I have a considerable stack of these too, and they can be kept or recycled. There is also the question of confidentiality, some are sensitive and should be destroyed rather than put in a wastepaper bin. At the end of this process, which might take another month, since I am doing it in phases, I will need to deep clean and perhaps refit. And then there are still the CDs to be sorted out, and there must be 200+ of these.

Covid: an incomplete update (4th January 2022)

This month marks an important anniversary of the pandemic. It has been two years since it emerged and swept across the world. In March 2020 I began blogging on Covid-19. The first blog stated:

“I am expected to know something about epidemics and pandemics, and their causes and consequences. Many friends and colleagues have been asking me about Covid-19. Here is a quick ‘fact sheet’ as of 4 March – what we know, what we don’t know, and what we need to know”.

The blog was initially published every week then in 2021 less frequently. By the middle of 2021 I was unable to keep going. The reasons for ending it were:

“it was surprisingly time consuming; the situation with regard to the science, numbers and response is increasingly complex; and it was getting too depressing to keep going.”

The last blog was on 11th August 2021. Before Christmas I sat down to write an update but did not get very far, so let me try again.

The numbers and epidemiology

There are excellent, accessible data websites.1 As of 4th January there had been 292,567,808 cases and 5,449,575 deaths globally. There had been 9,214,046,229 vaccine doses administered. At the end of 2021 and in early 2022 the number of new cases had risen from about 5 million per week to over 10 million. At the peak, a year ago, there were just over 100,000 deaths per week, currently there are about 42,000. Vaccination rate stands at over 250 million per week.

The top three countries on 4th January were the US with 56,191,733 cases and 827,749 deaths; United Kingdom with 13,497,515 cases and 149,367 deaths; and France with 6,667,511 cases and 89,573 deaths. The OECD countries dominate the pandemic. In Africa, South Africa leads the pack at 3,475,512 cases and 91,312 deaths. In South America Argentina has the most cases, 5,739,326 and deaths, 117,245. In Asia it is India that leads with 34,960,261 cases and 482,017 deaths. China – where this all began has recorded 115,597 cases and 4,849 deaths, with new outbreaks being reported over the past few days. The Chinese data seem remarkably low.

The take home message is that waves of infection are inevitable and seemingly unstoppable. The UK is in its third (or possibly fourth wave), the USA is in the third major wave. In South Africa, at the beginning of January, the Cabinet stated:

“All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level.”2

However, these are waves of infections, the numbers of hospitalisations and deaths, while following the same pattern with lags, are very much lower. There is consensus that prevention messages have been heard and populations have adopted and maintained these without governments necessarily forcing them to do so. Vaccinations have given a measure of immunity, although these have not been made available equitably. In addition, the idea of herd immunity seems to have come back into play in some settings, simply because so many people have been infected. The surge may appear contradictory, but it can be primarily attributed to Omicron. The fall in illness and death is due to vaccination and advances in medicine.

Over the past two months a new variant has come to dominate. Omicron, as it is officially named, was first identified in Southern Africa. It spread with amazing rapidity across the world and quickly overtook Delta as the dominant strain. There is much that is not known about this variant and scientists are generally unwilling to commit themselves. Early indications are that it is very much more infectious than any other variant. It seems consequent illness is generally mild. The problem is that if under normal circumstances 100 people are infected and five percent need medical attention, only 5 patients need care. With Omicron, 1,000 people are infected and only one percent need care, that is 10 patients. Nonetheless there is cautious optimism that the Covid crisis will be over soon.

Vaccines

The incredible advances in science meant vaccines had been developed within the first year and could be rolled out in the second year. There was not just one vaccine, but three from the OECD countries (Oxford-AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Moderna), two from China and one from Russia. Progress continues with potential additional vaccines being developed and being trialled. Existing ones are being improved. There may be new variants but there is optimism that vaccination will keep pace with this. Vaccines are however highly political at many levels.

There has been a great deal of coverage on the inequity of vaccine distribution and administration. The wealthy countries were able to make vaccinations available to most of their populations very quickly. In many poorer countries governments have been unable to acquire the necessary doses, despite numerous grandiose sounding proclamations about ‘leaving no one behind’.

The consensus is that three doses are required to provide immunity. Originally two doses of most vaccines were prescribed, then a booster dose was added. It would be more honest to simply say it is a three-dose course. What we do not know is how quickly the immunity will decay.

“Now Sir Andrew, the head of Britain’s vaccine body, has warned that fourth Covid jabs should not be offered until there is more evidence they are effective, as he said giving boosters to the whole population every six months was “not sustainable”.”3

I believe Covid will be like with a shot needed every year.

A challenge in the OECD countries is vaccine hesitancy, people who are not willing to be vaccinated. Some news programmes have featured doctors expressing frustration. To paraphrase:

“Of course we will treat everyone who needs it, but when you have a Covid patient who has not been vaccinated and now says they wish they had, then we wonder.”

All the evidence is that vaccination makes a huge difference and prevents adverse outcomes, data can be found in the footnoted article.4 However vaccination alone will not halt the pandemic. It might happen that, where resources are scarce, access will be rationed by willingness of people to come forward. It makes some sense but is probably impossible to operationalise for equity and ethical reasons.

Treatment5

At the beginning of the pandemic there were no drugs specifically available for Covid. This is not surprising as the disease was new. Initially some drugs were repurposed, some successfully. By January 2022 the New York Times reported there were 33 drugs: one with FDA approval, seven widely, and five with promising evidence. One potential bottleneck is that drugs must go through an approval process which may differ from country to country. One of the advantages of the European Union is centralised drug approval.6 Vaccines will mean fewer people are infected, develop serious illness, need hospitalisation and die of Covid. Drugs mean some can be treated at home and won’t need in-patient care while, for those unlucky enough to be admitted, the prognosis is much better.

Consequences

Since Covid appeared I have warned of the economic, social, psychological and political effects. They are still unfolding and need more time and space if I am to do them justice. I can talk from the OECD perspective. The 5th January was the first day of the new school term in the UK. The news has been dominated by the fears of educationalists that they will not be able to provide education because of staff absences. The National Health Service (NHS) is in a similar position as so many staff are absent. These people are generally not sick but have had a positive Covid test or been in close contact with an infected person.

It is not just the public sector that is facing these challenges. British commuters have been warned that staff absences mean services on many trains to and from London (and other cities) have been cancelled.

“Around 8,000 flights were cancelled worldwide between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day – approximately 3,000 of which were due to go to or from the US.”7

“Public sector leaders have been asked to prepare for “worst case scenarios” of 10%, 20% and 25% absence rates, the Cabinet Office said.”8

The ‘Consequences of Covid’ may be the research project I take up in retirement. It needs people I can work with, and ideally some funding for them. If anyone has ideas let us talk.

We should not underestimate the divisiveness of this issue. The BBC reported French MPs as saying they received death threats when they debated a Covid-19 pass. The law would require people to show proof of vaccination to access public venues and transport.

“On Sunday Agnès Firmin Le Bodo of the centre-right Agir party tweeted an email she received containing graphic threats to kill her over her support for the vaccination pass. “Our democracy is in danger,” wrote Ms Firmin Le Bodo, who is also a pharmacist and vaccinates people against Covid.”9

What to watch out for10

Increasingly the discourse is that we cannot eliminate Covid so will have to learn to live with it. Despite the astonishingly high case rates reported in a number of countries at the moment, it is generally believed they will not turn into unmanageable hospitalisation and death rates. I am prepared to stick my neck out and predict that in OECD countries the pandemic will be under control by the end of 2022. There may be continued restrictions to life such as facemasks on public transport, but these will be limited and not too invasive. The situation in poorer countries will probably be more Covid, but the demographics will remain protective.

The rules change and it may be for political reasons. The advisors in England have been keen to stress they ‘advise’ not instruct. It is up to the government to set rules and make decisions. At the moment in England a person must self-isolate if they develop symptoms or receive a positive test result. The period has been reduced from ten to seven days. Two negative lateral flow tests (LFTs) are required to end self-isolation.11 We need to monitor the restriction of liberty and not be afraid to challenge it, but as David Spiegelhalter and Anthony Masters said in an Observer column “beware of people who use the line: ‘I have done my own research’.”12

Above all we need to ask how to help those who have been disadvantaged by the events of the past two years, this includes material and mental impact. Along with the climate crisis, Covid shows it can not be business as usual.


  1. https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html and https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/31/omicron-fuelled-fourth-covid-wave-has-passed-says-south-africa-as-it-eases-restrictions
  3. The Telegraph, ‘Vaccine expert says jabs will need to be restricted’, 4th January 2022 http://m.email3.telegraph.co.uk/nl/jsp/m.jsp
  4. https://www.medscape.co.uk/viewarticle/hospitalisation-risk-omicron-variant-around-third-delta-2022a10000kc
  5. New York Times, Coronavirus Drug and Treatment Tracker, accessed 3rd January 2022 https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/science/coronavirus-drugs-treatments.html
  6. Although this blog is primarily about Covid this is yet another reason to rue the day the referendum voted for Brexit. It is painful to realise how much the UK lost.
  7. https://news.sky.com/story/covid-19-christmas-travel-disruption-as-omicron-hits-rail-and-airline-staffing-12504644
  8. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-59848109
  9. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-59860058
  10. Nature, COMMENT, “Two years of COVID-19 in Africa: lessons for the world”, 03 January 2022 https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-03821-8
  11. BBC News, ‘What are the Covid self-isolation rules now?’ 31 December 2021 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-54239922
  12. David Spiegelhalter and Anthony Masters, “Can you capture the complex reality of the pandemic with numbers? Well we tried…”. The Observer 2nd January 2022

Lovely Lisbon and Demonstrating in Norwich

I went to my first conference in nearly two years last month. It was fantastic for many reasons: a chance to get out of the UK; visit a new country and city; meet with colleagues; catch up with developments in the field; and above all be reminded of what we had lost. My word I enjoyed myself. The primary purpose of the trip was to attend the International Association of Providers in AIDS Care’s (IAPAC) Fast-Track Cities 2021 Conference.

To their credit the conference organizers included Covid-19 in the programme. My presentation, which I shared with Corey Prachniak-Rincon, an IAPAC staffer, was on ‘Exploring Legal, Public Policy, and Finance Dimensions of Health Responses.’ The take-home messages were not encouraging, until Covid is on the decline, HIV will not be a priority, even though it (HIV) is not going away. The number of HIV infections continues to rise.

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The clock ticks

I was shocked to see it has been over a month since I last posted. I have two countdowns going on in my life. The first, at the end of 2021 I will get my last salary cheque. Apart from a few short ‘student type’ jobs, since 1980 I have always had someone paying me a regular income. The short jobs in Swaziland included working for a school book supplier one holiday, and a week as a ‘hanger round’ at the Central News Agency in Mbabane. In the UK I spent a week packing bulbs (tulips and daffodils) etc. in a warehouse, ironically in the industrial site near where we live. I was fired for being too bolshy. I also spent three summer months as a warehouseman in Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. The second milestone is, in March 2022, on my 66th birthday, I become eligible for a British State pension.

Most young people, certainly those under 40, see people aged 50 to 80 here as an exceptionally fortunate generation. This is true for a high proportion of us. We had access to free university education, jobs, and many will get a state pension that, while not hugely generous, is significant. We were able to travel widely. We only became aware of the appalling damage we have wrought on the world, in terms of over exploitation and environmental damage, as we were doing it.

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What’s next, I ask?

Welcome to the first of my monthly, meandering blogs, put on my website, and emailed to everyone who signed up to receive my news. Let me begin with a warning, this is not primarily about Covid, so you may wish to take yourself off the list. Obviously, I am still following Covid, but no longer closely, and certainly not enough to write regular posts. Having said that here is something everyone should read – “How the risk of side effects could change with Covid-19 vaccine boosters” – we are all, probably going to offered these soon.

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Warning: mostly not about Covid-19, but On Operations and Lockdowns

This is not a Covid-19 communique but rather a standard blog post. Don’t feel you have to read on. The reason for the change in emphasis this week is that Covid-19 events simply passed me by. The explanation is that I was engaged with the National Health Service (NHS), finally having elective surgery for an umbilical hernia. It has been a long road to get here, I am relieved to have it sorted.

I have always considered myself fit (but overweight), playing squash, touch rugby and running. A few years ago, I noticed I was developing bulge in my belly button. It was confirmed as an umbilical hernia. All the sources of advice: doctors and the internet recommend these occurrences need to be dealt with, and that means surgery. Two years ago, I arranged to have the hernia operation in Durban. It could have been a day surgery but, stupidly, I decided to spend the night after the operation in the hospital. It was that or go back to the flat. The surgery was straightforward, the hospital experience was not great. Unbelievably the morning began, at 05h30 am, with inappropriately cheerful nurses. I was on a men’s ward where all had more serious conditions and concerns, and felt somewhat fraudulent.

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Covid-19 Continues

For the past two months I have not written my usual personal blog for my website. There is a reason for this, the Covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 is the greatest global challenge I have seen. It could be outstripped by a climate catastrophe, but for now it is all consuming. Given the work I have done on HIV and AIDS I am supposed to know a bit about pandemic diseases. It is worth remembering that like AIDS, Covid-19 is a retrovirus that transferred across the species barrier into humans. AIDS was recognised as a new disease in 1981. There were scares with SARS, Ebola, Zika and MERS, but none developed into a major pandemic.

In four short months Covid-19 has claimed over 250,000 lives and infected more than 3,500,000 million people. I began posting a weekly communique on Covid-19 to share what we know and need to know. This replaced the personal monthly blog I have written for more than 10 years. You have, along with several other hundred people, signed up for the communique and now you are getting this additional piece, so please feel free to delete it.

I originally wrote the monthly offering because I had something to say and share. It was just two sides of an A4 sheet when printed, and the reason was to keep the price of postage down.

“Ah ha”, I hear, “But it is on the website and sent electronically, so what is this postage business?”

Well, several of my elderly relatives are either self-confessed luddites or just lack technological skills, and don’t have email, so it was printed and posted to them. Yes, in an envelope with stamps on.

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Family and Travel

March should mark the end of winter in England. There are clear signs that spring is approaching. Some of the trees are covered with blossom. The daffodils in our garden are almost all in full bloom. However, despite the signs that nature is stirring, the weather has been rotten. We experienced periods of sustained strong winds and rain for nearly two weeks at the end of February. The western part of the country has had flood after flood, houses and homes have been wrecked. I find it quite confusing to see car roofs protruding from the middle of floods, surely you can drive a car out of harm’s way.

Of course, the serious floods over the past fifteen or so years meant defenses have been built, and in many cases they have worked. It could have been so much worse. The problem is that there are just too many houses built in vulnerable places (unbelievably on floodplains), and the nature of these storms is that they are ever more intense, a month’s rain in 24 hours. Yes, global warming is real, and it is affecting us in the UK in clear and measurable ways.

I had been organising a lunch in London with our extended family in mid-February. It turned out to be the wildest and windiest weekend of the month and public transport was greatly disrupted. As my sister and her husband are not youthful, canceling the gathering seemed appropriate, and indeed this turned out to be prescient. Fortunately, we made the call to postpone before I finalised the restaurant booking.

My brother, Derek, was passing through London for a day on his way back from the United States to Cape Town, and so we decided to have a smaller lunch the following weekend, on Saturday, 22 February. The plan was for Douglas and I to take the train down to London and meet up with the family at a restaurant they had booked near Notting Hill Gate. This was a central location and gave easy access to and from Heathrow for Derek as he had a limited amount of time.

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Month One of English Living

Now that I am in Norwich for a spell I am in the process of organising my office and activities. This involves something of a clear out. I have been going through huge quantities of paper. Many printed papers have been recycled, the realisation is that I am neither going to reread or refer to them.

Books get appraised for their usefulness now and in the future, and there is a high bar if they are to remain. I probably have 300 CDs and they too need to be gone through. Anything that I am uncertain about is being put on the player. If there are scratches on the disc, or it is something I will never listen to, it either goes in the bin or the charity pile. In a few months I expect to have a very much more habitable and organised office.

Since London is where so many interesting things happen, I anticipate going down reasonably regularly. This is made easier because the ‘over 60’ railcard I have makes travel more affordable. In addition, to my surprise on looking at the train timetable, I discovered there is now a train that has cut 30 minutes off the two-hour journey, a few times a day. That does make it a great deal easier to travel down. I went at the end of January for the day – leaving Norwich at 9.30 and getting back at 10.30, not sadly, on the fast train.

Decades ago, I joined the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS). This was a club on Northumberland Avenue, very close to Trafalgar Square and only about 100 yards from the Embankment station on the Circle Line. When I first joined it was a bit dusty and old fashioned, but the club had a library, meeting rooms, a restaurant, lounge, bar and bedrooms. It was a great place to hang out and meet people. I organised meetings, seminars and dinners there and even, occasionally, stayed overnight. Unfortunately, over a period the offering dwindled, first the bedrooms, then the meeting rooms, until the club finally closed in 2013. I had been pondering what to do to get a London base and came up with a solution earlier this year.

In 2009 I was appointed as a Senior Research Fellow for the British Department of International Development. I held this fractional post for several years. It was great fun and I really enjoyed the experience of working in the Civil Service. This means I will get a small British Government Civil Service pension. It also meant, I realised, that I was eligible to join the Civil Service Club, very close to where the RCS was. The address is ‘Great Scotland Yard’! I applied and was accepted. The fees are modest, which is a real plus. Towards the end of January, I had occasion to visit London. I went to the club for the first time and got my membership card sorted out. I would not describe it as modern or flashy, but it has all the amenities one could want, and it is a place one can meet people, hangout and relax without feeling pressure to consume. There is a very nice patio for the summer and the street is extraordinarily quiet.

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New Decade! New Life?

The 1st January 2020 marks the start of a new decade as well as a New Year. I am aware that some purists (or pedants) think that the decade does not actually officially start until 1st January 2021, I am not part of that group. This is it! A new decade!

The next year will be interesting, I need to adapt my lifestyle. The first order of business will be getting used to living full time in Norwich. At the moment I have absolutely no travel planned for the next calendar year. As I am on sabbatical I don’t have to think about teaching but I am ‘on the books’ to the end of 2021. What should I do? This will become clearer in the next few months.

I returned to the UK on the 23rd December, just ahead of Christmas. My last few weeks in Waterloo were crammed with wrapping up the term and students and seeing and saying goodbye to friends. I also had to pack up the apartment for rental. Fortunately, I had help. The estate agent who is handling it for me, Dave McIntyre, is hopeful it can be let furnished. This means crockery, cutlery, furniture, linen and books were left out, but could be packed away if necessary. Dave is the chap who sold me the place originally and who will take care of the sale in due course. He is not just an estate agent but a decent and trustworthy person.

I did not write about this in my last post (not enough room), but at the end of November I went, with my friend Dana, to the event Dining with the Dead! This was held at the Kitchener Museum which had a themed exhibition on the afterlife. The way it was advertised was as a

“one of a kind dining experience! To coincide with the Exhibition at THEMUSEUM, we’re hosting Psychic Medium Kerrilynn Shellhorn (who) will utilize her strong connection to the other side to bring messages from lost loved ones while you dine on a delicious 3 course dinner.”

The food was excellent and the service great. The séance was, well, medium. There were about 35 diners. Only a few were given messages from the departed. I was not convinced but will chalk it up as an interesting experience.

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The end is nigh

It is many years since I included a ‘round robin’ in with Christmas cards and this, lazily, also constitutes my blog post for December. There is a good reason this year. I have significant news and don’t want to leave people out, or have to write it in all the cards I send.

You may recall in January 2014 I joined the Balsillie School in Waterloo, Ontario as a full time member of faculty. It is complicated appointment. My salary is paid by Wilfrid Laurier University, but I work at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. Here I was, according to my letter of appointment, employed to teach two courses per year, and carry out the other responsibilities of a senior academic, including researching, writing and publishing.

About two years ago the University unilaterally, and with very little consultation, decided to change the conditions of service. They were, of course, made less favourable for academics. Of particular concern was the doubling of our teaching commitment. I came here because I had not, in 30 years as an academic, taught (two years of teaching one course at the University of Natal on Southern African Development in 1984 and 1985 had receded to a distant memory). I wanted to see what it would be like to work with and teach MA and PhD students. The idea of supervising a thesis from start to finish was intriguing, and I am happy to report that I did manage to do that with one student.

This new demand regarding teaching made staying in Waterloo problematic in the long term. I neither had courses prepared, nor much guidance on what to do. In addition to more teaching being mandatory my academic cohort was assured, when we signed up in 2012 and 2013, there would be research money available to us, without too many hoops to leap through. This promise evaporated like the dew in the Kalahari in January, although it was not entirely the fault of the university but rather the shocking behaviour of one of the other ‘partners’. In addition to this moving the goalposts, a part of the university bureaucracy was irrational to me. I have every intention of writing about this in due course.

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