Death’s Dark Sieve – child mortality and the futurologists

 

One of the many Dance of Death pictures

I won’t name the two famous and wealthy futurologists who were telling us about the wonderful world of AI and self-driving cars due to hit us in 10 to 15 years. I’m being kind and saving their blushes because as they chatted on the video about how terrible everything was in 1000 AD (or CE), they were making an elementary and annoyingly common statistical mistake about history. I mean, I understand that they’re Futurologists and don’t care all that much about history before 2000 or know much about it that isn’t from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But still! I admired these guys and it was painful to hear them.

I forget which one repeated the old fictional chestnut about people dying at age 20 in AD 1000 and girls having babies at 13 and being old grannies at 26. I know they want to make the figures for modern life expectancy look even better than they in fact are by exaggerating the awfulness of medieval life. It’s an old trick, also used by Mark Twain. He just couldn’t be bothered to do any research (he admits it in the Forward to A CONNECTICUT YANKEE AT THE COURT OF KING ARTHUR). They were trying to reassure themselves that they could make it to immortality, which is, as always, about 30 years away.

I understand, really I do. But this is not good enough, chaps, and undermines everything you tell me about the wonderful future you’re hoping to live in.

OK, so was everyone old when they got to age 20 in AD 1000? No, of course not. According to the BBC, the average life expectancy for a male child born in the UK between 1276 and 1300 was 31.3 years. But even that was starting from birth. It included the enormously high (by our standards) infant and child mortality and that skewed the life expectancy.

Imagine a giant sieve, held by a nasty-looking skeleton with a scythe. Imagine 100 medieval babies falling into it, all wrapped in swaddling clothes. Come on, you can do it. Think Hieronymus Bosch.

Around one in four of the babies, 25%, died before the age of one, most of them around birth and the first six weeks. It was probably one in three babies, but let’s be optimistic and one in four is easier to calculate. So 75 babies slip through the sieve and Death goes off with an evil laff to tip out the 25 that died. According to Medieval theology, all these babies went straight to Heaven providing they had been christened into the Catholic church. If not, they went to Limbo along with all the heathens, pagans and Jews born before Christ.

They died of all sorts of things – infections, congenital problems and malnutrition (as in my book A CLASH OF SPHERES). Often a baby that died wouldn’t even be named or the cause of death noted – it died of being a baby.

After that, around one in five, 20%, of the remaining children died before they reached puberty. Death’s next sieve was a little better but of the 75 babies that got through the first one, 15 died and maybe went to Heaven. They died mainly of infections and violence and accidents.

So of the initial 100 babies, 60 were left by the age of 10, dancing Ring-a-ring-a-rosie in their cute tunics. 40% had been tipped away by Death, cackling and dancing. Do you think their parents didn’t care? They did, but at least the deaths could be blamed on God so there was none of the terrible guilt modern parents feel if their children die.

But that enormous child mortality means that the lifetime mortality figures were badly skewed. If you pull the child mortality figures out of the figures, men have an average life expectancy in AD 1000 of around 40-45 years (longer if you were an aristocrat). It was fairly similar by AD 1800 but after that date the child mortality slowly started to reduce. First came the smallpox vaccine and hygiene, then came more vaccines against diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, later, measles, mumps, rubella. Doctors were even able to help congenital problems. By the beginning of the 21st century global child mortality had dropped to under 5% and overall child mortality in the UK to 0.5% (one child in every 200). The death of a child has gone from being a normal part of life to a huge and horrifying surprise.

Child mortality has turned out to be the low hanging fruit. It’s comparatively easy to stop most children from dying of infections and accidents and violence. It’s going to be considerably harder to stop old people dying of old age.

Sorry, futurologists.

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How I found a 14th century supernova in a medieval Latin hymn.

This is of an 11th century supernova but gives you a feel.

I’m really excited! I think I’ve found the only historical reference to a supernova in c 1320. It’s in a Latin hymn to Mary, the mother of Jesus, also known to Catholics as the Blessed Virgin and Our Lady.

The hymn is called Stella splendens in monte and it’s from the Llibre Vermell of Montserrat which was written in 1399 near Barcelona, and is one of the earliest collections of written music ever. The hymn is quite well-known and has a very pretty tune – two tunes, actually, since it’s polyphony.

It’s a bit of a mystery, is the 14th century supernova. Nobody saw it. They saw the supernova in CE 1081 and two famous later supernovas in 1572 (Kepler’s star) and 1604 (Tycho’s star). And yet there was definitely another supernova in our galaxy in c 1320. The remnants have been found and there’s a spike in nitrates in an ice core from Antarctica, which shows when the ionising radiation arrived – along with three more spikes for the other supernovae. It happened in the constellation Vela, the star was about 15 times bigger than the sun and it was a type II supernova – and it was only 600 light years away which means it should have been brighter than all the other stars. Yet nobody has found a record of it anywhere in Europe. There is no reference in China or Japan either but this is less surprising because the supernova would have been on their horizon.

KABOOM! (I know, no sound in space.) This is what’s left.

It was the words that caught my attention. There we were in the Törökbálint church choir, near Budapest, singing this lovely Latin hymn (I adore singing Latin hymns and tend to break out into Salve Regina quite frequently.) Suddenly I noticed the words. “Stella splendens in monte, ut solis radium…”

My Latin has never been very good and there’s not a lot of it left, but I could make this out. Roughly the words mean “A star in splendour on the mountain, radiant like the sun.” Or more accurately (thank you, Adam Key, a Latin teacher and my cousin): “Star shining like a ray of sun in the mountain notched-by-miracles, hear the people!”

Eh?

Then there were lots of verses describing how everybody ran to see it, old and young, rich and poor, repenting of their sins, beating their breasts and singing Ave Maria. There’s a Latin pun in the first lines – monte and serrato – that refers to Montserrat near Barcelona, probably where the wonder was seen (and where the Llibre Vermell was written). Since the mountain of Montserrat was already sacred to the Virgin Mary, the star was obviously her doing. Later there’s a reference to her “jewelled shrine.”

It’s the enthusiasm of the people that stands out. The star is captured in a few lines – most of the hymn is about how absolutely everybody ran to see it and how they sang to the Virgin on their knees. You get the feeling that the writer of the hymn was actually in the crowds, singing “Ave Maria” to the amazing light in the sky.

Now when I first noticed the words I immediately thought of a supernova – but as I didn’t know of any 14th century stellar explosion, I assumed it was a comet or Venus low in the sky. The next day I hit Google – and there it was, an article in New Scientist [14 November 1998, by Hazel Muir] called “Medieval Mystery.” This wondered why nobody in Europe noticed the very bright supernova that would have appeared suddenly and faded in a short time – days to months – in the early 14th century.

Given the ice core evidence [On Ice by Robert Matthews New Scientist 18 Sept 1999] which puts the supernova around 1320 +/- 20 years, there’s a possible easy answer. 1315 and 1317 were notorious as years without summer, when it was cloudy and pouring with rain from May to October. Those two years were so bad, there was a serious pan-European famine afterwards that lasted until 1322. So the weather was probably just too terrible for Europeans to see it.

But I think they saw it near Barcelona where the weather might have been clearer. And I’ll bet that with so many people running to see the amazing star, there will be other mentions in the record that haven’t been properly understood. Sort of “Monday, saw Virgin Mary’s house above Montserrat. It was really bright and shiny and we had lentil stew for dinner.”

So send astronomers, send medieval historians to Barcelona! There may be other details about the supernova to be found there. I’m curious about the “jewelled shrine” for instance which might refer to colours. You might be able to narrow the date down a bit more. I’m betting on the rain-soaked year of 1317.

I did a little dance when I found the New Scientist article and sang Stella splendens very loudly. For a writer of historical novels, finding a supernova in a Latin hymn is just as exciting as finding the stellar remnants must have been for the astronomers.

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Climate Change March, Budapest, 29 November 2015

Well I went on the Climate Change March in Budapest.

I liked:

The friendly informal atmosphere, with everyone walking along and nobody trying to get in front of anyone else. There were leaders, mostly young students and the traditional mysterious Frenchman (Sartre? Camus?) but they weren’t too full of themselves. They pushed the sound system along on a bike and tried valiantly to get some chants started (but see below).

The organisation. At first I was worried we might be outnumbered by the cops, but in the end there was quite a respectable number of us, mostly youngsters and expats, with a few old hippies and punks (like me). I get a real thrill when they hold up the traffic for us as we walk past. Sorry, drivers, you must hate us… But it’s great!

I loved the samba drums – we could have done with more of them but the ones we had were great. I must get into samba drumming, it’s wonderful.

A beautiful final image – we were asked to pick up and carry autumn leaves and then at the end of the march, drop them in the Danube to symbolise the letters they’ve sent to the government (leaf and letter are the same word in Hungarian). Watching them fluttering down to land on the surface of the river was strangely satisfying, like playing Poohsticks.

I didn’t like:

The arguments I had with friends before the march – all saying, oh it’s not worth it, we’re doomed but not till I’m dead, what’s the point, one person can’t do anything, I’m sick of recycling, but I like eating meat… etc etc. I will get into the Competitive Austerity problem another time, but this really annoys me. The only thing that excuses you from a climate change march is having kids – and there were families with kids there. It’s important. Until we have sorted out the climate change problem, nothing else matters because climate change will KILL US ALL if we carry on ignoring it.

The speeches. Part of the problem was that they were mainly in Hungarian, valiantly translated into English as they went along. Now I’ve been here for two years, nearly, and even allowing 6 months off for having a stroke, I still don’t understand Hungarian very well. I can cope with a normal conversation, usually, but sooner or later the sentences will lengthen, the words will acquire a forest of endings and I will completely lose track. This despite a lot of work, may I say, so it depresses me. So bear that in mind when I say that I found the speeches too long and too complex, even when translated into English. Even worse were the points from an interminable pompous letter they had sent to the government. Honestly, I even felt sorry for Viktor Orban, though I’m sure he didn’t read it.

You need three points only, not ten. You need short punchy sentences. Like this. You need a poet’s ear for what people will actually hear.

When you’re shouting slogans, they need to be short and rhythmical, not long and well… lame. That’s why none of them really got going. Find a poet. There are lots of poets in Hungary, or there were. Chuck a rock into a kavezo and you’ll probably hit two. Even I can tell Hungarian poetry is wonderful, so I know you can do better.

See you next year!

A bit behind with things…

Really, this blog is about excuses. First I am being plagued by a gremlin: I lost my beloved battered Hungarian/English dictionary on the bus on Saturday morning, just left it on the seat and waltzed off and didn’t remember it until too late. Then the power cable for my laptop went missing: I still have a couple of places to look but I’m mystified as to where it went because I’m usually hypercareful about things like that.

And then on Saturday afternoon a glass of water was spilled All. Over. The. Keyboard. Of. My. Laptop.

It was an accident and at least partly my fault for allowing any container of any liquid to be on the same surface as the laptop because you know, and I know, and the Computer Gods know that eventually liquid and laptop will meet.

So we tipped it on its side and switched it off and patted it with paper towels and dried it with a hairdryer and I didn’t start it up again until I could get it to the Computer Guys on Monday morning. It seems OK. The laptop needed to see the Computer Guys anyway.

Plus I’m being plagued by a nasty cold and chest infection that seems to be clearing up but veeerrrryyy slooooowly. I spent the whole of Sunday in bed with a pile of snotty tissues and a brilliant book by Alice Hogge called “God’s Secret Agents” and dozing off in the hope my chest would have stopped making strange creaking noises when I woke up.

So this is it, I’m afraid. I had sort of plans to publish a taster of my peculiar SF story featuring a futuristic Robin Carey and Henry Dodd, but I haven’t got round to anything like that. Maybe next week.

Leonard Nimoy – lived long, prospered, now he’s dead.

I’ve been crying because of an actor one year younger than my father – I mean Leonard Nimoy, of course, star of the original Star Trek series, as Mr Spock the Science officer of USS Enterprise.

Funnily enough, in the hotbed of hormones that was the Upper Fourth of the Henrietta Barnett School for Girls, I wasn’t a Spock groupie. No, I (ahem, this is quite hard to admit to) loved Captain Kirk. In all his chunky male glory, I had the hots for the one who keeps going off at the deep end and behaving in a very emotional manner. Mr Spock was cool. I didn’t like that. I also fancied Dr McCoy which was remarkable because he was really quite ugly – I liked him for his crustiness and medical know how.

But Spock. No. That didn’t stop me from writing two mildly pornographic Star Trek scripts and then blaming them on a friend (sorry, Katy, I still feel embarassed about that.) There was a daughter of Spock’s called Spockina, I dimly recall, and quite a lot of orgying, written by someone who had been kissed but nothing else. It was obviously ghastly crap and let’s hope it never turns up.

A year later we were all faithlessly hot on the trail of Alias Smith & Jones which was a knock off of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I was after the dark-haired gambler, Smith whereas most of my friends were hot for Jones. I wrote stories for those too – slightly better fanfic as it’s now called and one or two stories were actually quite good. I learned that if anything at all, including wrathful teachers, stopped my friends reading the stories, there was something wrong with the story. One story had them all in tears, to my utter delight.

But although I lost the lovely melty feelings in my tummy for Captain James T Kirk, I kept an interest. I was particularly fascinated by some articles about Star Trek in the very excellent science fiction mag Analog SF. They explained that Star Trek had a proper set of blueprints for the Enterprise and that writers were expected to know what each of McCoy’s magic medical thingies did (they were futuristic salt shakers, by the way). Making sure that you have specifications and a full set of Lore for TV series, games and fantasy novels is now so routine as to be banal. But back in the 1960s, the normal thing for an sf producer to do when the action flagged was chuck in another alien and an explosion. Nothing was logical. Star Trek was the first series to do that thoroughly which was one reason why it worked so well, despite occasional dismal Monsters of the Week episodes. There was an underpinning logic that held it all together. Gene Roddenberry, the series devisor, had served in the US Navy and also had a feel for how Starfleet Command might operate – which JJ Abrams doesn’t. You got the sense of an actual Starfleet behind the USS Enterprise in the old series.

Also could I just say that it’s nice that nobody in the original series ever went near a gym. They’re all positively weedy compared with the pumped up kids in the Star Trek reprise. They looked like real people. Mr Spock in particular had arms like spaghetti.

And of course we all looked at what they had in the Star Trek universe and we wanted it: we wanted communicators and we wanted sliding doors and we got them. I love the delicious story of Roddenberry being rung by a major door manufacturer and asked how they got the sliding doors to slide in Star Trek. “Oh, we have scene hands behind the scenery moving them…” I believe it was only 18 months later that the first real sliding doors appeared, without the scene hands. I’m very annoyed that we still haven’t got the dilithium crystals sorted.

Spock I now realise was many fascinating symbols, but let’s remember one crucial thing: at a time when it was still against the law in some southern states for black and white people to marry and have babies, here was a half-alien, half-human hybrid being alien and human on primetime tv. That the man playing him was Jewish, just added to the delicious stew.

My one complaint – I never liked his greeting. The Vulcan salute was fine – but “Live long and prosper.”? How dull. How small-minded.

I much preferred (and still prefer) Captain Kirk’s clarion call, complete with split infinitive. “To boldly go where no man has gone before!” Ta DAH dah dah dah dah DAH…

Stroke tales – ghost arms and nappies

It was probably the same day I arrived in Honved hospital, though whether it was before or after my amazing friend Dora arrived, I’m not sure. It’s all a bit mixed up for me. What I’m sure of is that at some point on that exciting Thursday 20th March, I became aware of myself again, a person wearing quite a lot of medical clobber including electric stickies, wires, a line going into my arm, another line doing something else, possibly blood pressure measurement. And a nappy.

Oh, I thought, I’m wearing a nappy. How sensible.

The invisible cat had… er disappeared by then, but I was still in the middle of a fight between the two halves of my body. The left hand side was exasperated. The right hand side was in a dreamy thrill, exploring how much my ghost arm could do. Which, thanks to my stroke, was quite a lot.

Although it still seemed attached at the shoulder, it could whizz around and stretch out. I knew there was another arm in there somewhere, a physical arm, but it wasn’t doing much, just lying there inertly like my right leg.

The ghost arm was much more fun. And yet for some reason, the spoilsport left side of my body insisted I had to find the physical arm and make it move.

Where was it? I looked down and felt a kind of shock, because it was lying there instead of waving around in space as I felt it was. I tried to move it. Nothing happened which was a pity, because my ghost arm was  moving just fine.

Not good enough, growled the left side of my body.

OK, I thought, feel for a difference. There was one. My ghost arm felt lighter and larkier. Underneath it was something heavy and difficult.

Quickly, I tried the underneath arm. My hand moved, the physical one. Oh good, I thought, now can I go back to the fun one?

No, said the left side of my body. Try again.

I couldn’t move the physical arm, but I was now getting interested in the feeling of having two arms one of side of my body – the left side had the normal boring number of one, so could be ignored. I tried the lighter one. Wild gyrations happened above the bed. I tried the darker one, consciously fitting my thoughts into the limb as if into a glove.

Ahah! It moved again.

For a bit I swapped between them and then somehow lost interest in the ghost arm as my physical arm came back to life. It didn’t move much but it moved and so did the almost forgotten leg.

I lay back exausted and contemplated the nappy. Was I ready to let go? Maybe. I certainly needed to go and I was far too tired from all the arm complications to ask for anything, even if there had been anyone to ask. Just to show off I moved my right arm and leg together a tiny bit; it was satisfying because after all that ghost arm hadn’t actually achieved a lot. I concentrated just as I had with my arm and felt a warmth in the nappy that was not followed by sogginess as I expected.

Great, an immense improvement on towelling nappies, I thought, as I dozed off

Tales from the stroke.

This happened towards the end of the two weeks  I spent in hospital, mostly at Kutvolgy korhaz. So I was getting physically a bit stronger, though  the fact that the two older ladies I was sharing a room with both spoke no English meant I could only communicate with big smiles and a few Hungarian words. We bonded over the godawful food, though.

She came in the middle of the night, probably two or three in the morning. There was a sense that she was a nuisance, certainly the nurse who received her gave that impression, She couldn’t talk though sometimes she would make “mamama” noises and sometimes she would hide her face on the pillow and sometimes she would make violent unco-ordinated movements. These meant she fell out of bed which the nurses seemed to think was deliberate.

At the time she arrived, the nurse on duty immediately tried to attach bed-rails, neither of which were the right size, so she compromised by putting the little bedside table in the way. There were four full beds in a room just big enough for them.

Sometimes she would sleep, sometimes she’d stare impassively at me, or the other women. They set up a drip for her, into which another nurse came and injected a dose of something I suppose was a sedative.

They knew her name, she had a bag of street clothes, but there was a sense that she was in the wrong place, waiting for a bed on a more high-dependency ward which was currently full. Occasionally nurses would come and give her commands or suggestions in Hungarian (her native language) to no obvious effect.

Later that morning, she fell out of bed again, then sat there until a strapping lad could come and give us a hand to get her back again. They hauled her around disrespectfully to get her back to bed in the cramped space, but her expression never altered: there was nobody at home, as far as I could see.

I went off for another CT scan and when I came back she had gone. I caught one glimpse of her, sitting in a wheelchair, being trundled along by the two young men in white, wearing only a hospital gown, her bag of street clothes gone missing. There was no expression on her face at all.

I wish I had been kinder to her. I wish I had felt able to support her weight when she fell out of bed until help could come. Aggie, one of my other roomies, did that, the most able-bodied among us despite terminal cancer.

I wish I had sat beside her, maybe hummed to her, maybe got something out of her apart from “mamama”. I wish I had had the gumption to ask where she came from, what had happened to her, despite not knowing the language . Nobody had a moment of kindness for her except Aggie, who supported her while she sat there staring as if the last thing she could have expected was to end up on the floor.

Of course I was afraid of her, sullenly and unconsciously. She was what I could have been. Perhaps…perhaps she’d had a stroke like mine but one that robbed her of everything, not just words but sense as well. One that destroyed her as a person. I’ve no idea, only the bag of street clothes said something like that might have happened. She didn’t seem old – perhaps early 60s.

I wish I’d held her hand.

More on that stroke…

I left some things out of my description of a stroke. For a start I left out the CT scan which they did as soon as they got me to Honved hospital. I don’t remember much of the trip there which I think is a pity, because I love blues and twos, flashing red and blue lights, beebaah, beebaah.  It would have been fun: sadly I think I was preoccupied with ghost arms and invisible cats at the time. At any rate I don’t remember much about it.

There I was, on a stretcher, wrapped up with blankets so I couldn’t move at all. I felt rather cosy. I looked up at the curve of the machine above me and thought, ahah, a CT scanner, maybe I am having a stroke after all? I recognised it from TV though not the particular angle. I stayed very still, feeling smug because they hadn’t noticed the cat which was a tortoiseshell like the very cute cat at home in Budapest, Cuki by name (pr. Tsuki, by the way).

Machine noises went, and out I came again. They unwrapped me a bit and moved me to a different kind of bed, wheeled me off. I did my best to help with the move. It was kind of exciting to be the centre of so much attention.

Which brings me to the point of this piece: at no time in the entire proceedings did the thought occur to me: ohshitohshit, I might die. Not once. The whole thing took place in a sort of vaguely benevolent puzzlement. I don’t think this was some kind of last ditch psychological defence: more the calmness of someone who’s been through this sort of thing and knows it will all be OK in the end.

Which when you think about it dispassionately was not at all true. It was a major physical disaster which could have killed me, though it didn’t (as far as I can tell.)

I still  feel remarkably calm about it. Yeah yeah, I had a stroke, what’s the big fat hairy deal? I’ll be better in a couple of weeks. I have completely irrational confidence in my continuing existence. Even nasty thoughts like “What if there’s an aneurysm in my brain and it goes again?” leave me unmoved, except in the rational sense. Rationally I know it’s a possibility; far more powerful is my feeling that I’ll be fine.

I assume it’s probably something to do with the haemorrhagic stroke being on the left side of my brain, traditionally the site of rational gloom and doom. And that accordingly my optimistic fun-loving right brain is doing most of the thinking work.

It’s rather nice though.

What it feels like to have a stroke.

There I was, teaching up a storm at a business in Budapest when I started to feel funny. Sort of not quite there. The English words that had been so easy to say fifteen minutes earlier, suddenly got difficult. I could hear it in my voice, a sort of mushiness. Then my right arm and right leg stopped obeying me. I didn\’t have a headache, could see perfectly well – but something odd was definitely happening.

Could I be having a stroke, I wondered.  I\’d seen the public service announcements that seemed quite hot on things like one arm and one leg having their own ideas about what would be fun to do. I\’d read a brilliant book called \”My Stroke of Insight\” by Jill Bolte Taylor which seemed to be saying the same things.

Nah, I thought. I\’m fine. This is just… a bit odd.

A deeper part seemed to be trying to get my attention. You are having a stroke, you twerp, it said.

Around then my relationship with words seemed to break down. \”I\’m very sorry,\” I explained to my round eyed students, \”I\’ll have to stop the lesson. I\’m having a stroke.\” I think I said more but I don\’t remember what, the words had gone.

I then spent a lot of time putting my pen in my bag. It took about eight goes to get my right hand to pick up my pen and put it in my bag. My right side sagged. I wonder what\’s going to happen next? asked a perkily independent part of me.

Ambulance men arrived and strapped me into a chair, then a stretcher. Interesting, said the perky part. They did things with tubes and needles.

I was much more concerned with what was going on inside. The right side of my field of vision was full of fascinating hallucinations: golden lists of words swirled by, numbers, splendid geometric shapes. In amongst it all, I felt a cat arrive and crawl along my right side.

Don\’t be bloody stupid, snarled my left side, it\’s just a hallucination.

The cat looked smug and curled deeper along my right side where a ghost arm had somehow liberated itself from its physical twin. The ghost arm took the chance to demonstrate some very interesting moves, the cat disappeared, while my left side told my right side to stop acting like a bloody fool.

I was in intensive care by now. Electric stickies decorated my chest and a snarl of wires, something went in a needle on my left side, my right side had decided not to work at all. At some stage while I had been concerned with ghost arms and cats they had taken all my clothes off and put me in a nappy.

I was quite happy. Ah look, I thought fondly as I blinked up at the vital signs moniter, I remember you when you were just a twinkle in a \”Star Trek\” designer\’s eye.

And then I went to sleep.