COVID19 mini-update, April 9, 2021: Dr. John Campbell on Oxford/AstraZeneca rare side effects; Israel reopening further

(a) In response to rare (but clearly statistically significant) instances of thrombosis among younger patients dosed with the old-school Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, a number of European countries have limited its use to older patients (55+, 60+, 65+, depending). Dr. John Campbell covers this story in detail here:

In the course of his explanation, he points to infographics from a presentation by the Winton Centre at Cambridge University:

For comparison, among those who’ve gotten the Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs in the UK, just short of 80 thrombotic adverse events occurred. A bit more than half as many people got Pfizer jabs in the UK, for which… 2 (two) similar events were seen, statistically equivalent to the frequency in unvaccinated people. Dr. Campbell, incidentally, still advocates the O/AZ vaccine, especially in older people, but by chance he got Pfizer when he showed up for his jab.

Dr. Campbell points to something else that had escaped me, as I am not a nurse (he spent much of his career teaching nursing school and writing textbooks). Intramuscular vaccinations are not supposed to be given in a blood vessel — and a simple technique to ensure this isn’t happening is, after you jab into the deltoid muscle, to pull back the plunger a little and this aspirate a little bit of fluid into the syringe. If it’s red, you hit a blood vessel, and you should pull out and jab again. if it’s clear, you can safely push the plunger down. Danish health authorities, it seems, has issued instructions to nurses always aspirate: when Dr. Campbell was younger, this was still what he taught to all students.

(b) Israel continues to see further drops in COVID19 statistics: half a percent test positive; severe cases in hospitals have dropped to just 270 (i.e., below a quarter of peak levels), mortality has been in single digits for over a week now. Further lockdown relaxations have been issued, just short of full opening: it is rumored that the outdoor mask mandate will be rescinded next week. (Anecdotally, police have stopped enforcing it.) On my morning power walk and grocery shopping (I live in a dense ‘sub’urban area where it is often faster to get around on foot than by car), I noticed sidewalk cafés and eateries full to the brim, even inside the nearest indoor mall.

Yom HaShoah and the importance of recognizing when the rules of the game have changed

Many people have wondered (as did I, when I was younger) why Jewish communities under National Socialist tyranny didn’t react (sooner) with armed resistance. (Individuals and smaller Jewish groups did, of course.) Contrary to what some people mistakenly assume, Judaism is not a pacifist religion, and the idea of meekly accepting one’s fate at the hands of one’s killers is not some sort of Jewish ideal.

Raul Hilberg, the doyen of Shoah historians, sees this very differently in “The Destruction of the European Jews”, (3rd Edition, Yale University Press, 2003, pp. 25-27). In response to “garden variety” oppressors, the Jewish community developed and honed an adaptive response over many centuries that ultimately relied on the oppressor’s self-interest: make them “not slaughter the goose that lays the golden eggs for them”.

[…] The alleviation-compliance response dates, as we have seen, to pre-Christian times. It has its beginnings with the Jewish philosophers and historians Philo and Josephus, who bargained on behalf of Jewry with the Romans and who cautioned the Jews not to attack, in word or deed, any other people. The Jewish reaction pattern assured the survival of Jewry during the Church’s massive conversion drive. The Jewish policy once more assured to the embattled community a foothold and a chance for survival during the periods of expulsion and exclusion.

If, therefore, the Jews have always played along with an attacker, they have done so with deliberation and calculation, in the knowledge that their policy would result in least damage and least injury. The Jews knew that measures of destruction were self-financing or even profitable up to a certain point but that beyond that limit they could be costly. As one historian put it: ‘‘One does not kill the cow one wants to milk.’’ In the Middle Ages the Jews carried out vital economic functions. Precisely in the usury so much complained of by Luther and his contemporaries, there was an important catalyst for the development of a more complex economic system. In modern times, too, Jews have pioneered in trade, in the professions, and in the arts. Among some Jews the conviction grew that Jewry was ‘‘indispensable.’’

In the early 1920s Hugo Bettauer wrote a fantasy novel entitled Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City without Jews).50 This highly significant novel, published only eleven years before Hitler came to power, depicts an expulsion of the Jews from Vienna. The author shows how Vienna cannot get along without its Jews. Ultimately, the Jews are recalled. That was the mentality of Jewry, and of Jewish leadership, on the eve of the destruction process. When the Nazis took over in 1933, the old Jewish reaction pattern set in again, but this time the results were catastrophic. The German bureaucracy was not slowed by Jewish pleading; it was not stopped by Jewish indispensability. Without regard to cost, the bureaucratic machine, operating with accelerating speed and ever-widening destructive effect, proceeded to annihilate the European Jews. The Jewish community, unable to switch to resistance, increased its cooperation with the tempo of the German measures, thus hastening its own destruction.

In sum, both perpetrators and victims drew upon their age-old experience in dealing with each other. The [Nazis] did it with success. The Jews did it with disaster.

Outside the immediate context of the Shoah, in a broader sense, it boils down to the importance of recognizing when the rules of the game have fundamentally changed, and therefore the old, tried-and-true, approach not only no longer can be expected to work, but clinging to it will be disastrous.

UPDATE: Jeff Dunetz at “Yid With Lid” has Gen. Eisenhower’s historic responses to the horror he was witnessing during the liberation of the camps. https://lidblog.com/yom-hashoah-holocaust-remembrance/

Yom HaShoah

As every year on or near Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day, Yad Vashem shares stories of survivors. I am singling out two.

Zehava Gealel [clearly a postwar Hebrew surname, meaning ‘G-d redeemed’] and her mother and sisters initially avoided capture in Holland through feigning contagious disease, then obtained forged Romanian papers that ensured that (through the Byzantine workings of the Third Reich’s administrative apparatus) they were treated as political prisoners from an allied nation. Hence they ‘only’ got to deal with concentration camps rather than extermination camps.

After the war, she became a nurse, and in retirement a medical researcher. Two of her three children passed away early, but via a third she has 13 great-grandchildren.

Yossi Chen, who after the war had a career in both Military Intelligence and the Mossad, explains his miraculous survival thanks to a partially successful uprising in the small ghetto of Lakhva in Belarus. About half the population was able to escape; some reached the Partisans and were able to survive until the Red Army arrived.

NEVER AGAIN MEANS NEVER

לעולם לא עוד זאת אומרת לעולם לא

Israel coalition negotiations gridlock: Circus Netanyahu

After the latest elections in Israel gave neither the pro- nor the anti-Netanyahu camps a clear majority, it was up to the (largely ceremonial) President of Israel, Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin, to appoint somebody to try and form a coalition. Bickering between the bloc around Yesh Atid [There Is a Future, centrist] chairman Yair Lapid and the heads of the Yamina [Rightward] and Tikva Chadasha [New Hope] factions left Netantahu still with the largest number of MKs expressing confidence in him, 52, still 9 short of a majority in the 120-member Knesset.

Rivlin eventually charged Netanyahu with the formation task, but basically said he only did so because the law and jurisprudence gave him no other options; that he had grave misgivings about appointing somebody who was under indictments for corruption; that he wished he could turn the task over to the Knesset; etc. In an unprecedented (AFAIK) snub, he did not even invite Netanyahu to the announcement, and left the Knesset afterward rather than pose for the traditional photograph with the [caretaker] PM and the Chief Justice.

Is Ruby Rivlin some sort of postmodern woke leftist? Heck no. He’s a born-and-bred Likudnik himself who earned his spurs as first a Likud caucus chair, then as the longtime Speaker of the Knesset. He is actually in some important respects to Netanyahu’s political right — but he is also somebody who has always firmly believed in law and order, and like so many of us has gradually become alienated by Netanyahu’s egomania and increasingly desperate maneuvers. (Trying to assemble a coalition ranging from neo-Kahanists to Islamists sets a new benchmark in political absurd humor.)

Unlike many of my colleagues, I actually admire “Bibi” Netanyahu in many respects, and still believe he has done great things for the country (most recently the successful vaccination drive and the Abraham Accords). But lately, in his desperate clinging to his office when it is well past time to retire (rather than negotiating a graceful exit in return for closing or plea-bargaining down the corruption cases against him) he has tarnished what would otherwise be a great legacy.

Netanyahu is widely assumed to be henpecked by his insufferable spouse Sara Netanyahu, for whom I have heard quite colorful nicknames.

After Rivlin’s announcement that Netanyahu would form the coalition after all, Mrs. Arbel quipped that Sara Netanyahu would now “do a naked happy dance”.

Me: “I need brain bleach for that image.”

Mrs. Arbel: “The whole country needs brain bleach.”

We’re laughing at the circus unfolding in front of us, because it hurts too much to cry.

COVID19 mini-update, April 5, 2021: Dr. Campbell on the UK ‘single-shot first’ vaccination campaign and its effects; miscellaneous updates

(1) It appears that getting a single Pfizer shot after recovering from COVID19 gives about the same protection level as an uninfected person getting the two-dose regime:

Ebinger, J.E., Fert-Bober, J., Printsev, I. et al. Antibody responses to the BNT162b2 mRNA vaccine in individuals previously infected with SARS-CoV-2. Nat Med(2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-021-01325-6

(2) An Israeli study shows that people who are infected with COVID (asymptomatic or otherwise) despite a single vaccine shot are much less efficient ‘spreaders’ than unvaccinated infected people.

Levine-Tiefenbrun, M., Yelin, I., Katz, R. et al. Initial report of decreased SARS-CoV-2 viral load after inoculation with the BNT162b2 vaccine. Nat Med (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-021-01316-7

(For a popular write-up, see the Jerusalem Post.) See also this preliminary report concerning effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine when living with aCOVID-positive related.

(3) As reported in the Times of Israel and elsewhere, Hebrew U. microbiologist, Prof. Michal Linial, guesstimates that protection by the Pfizer jabs will be “at least one year, possibly two years”. This is, of course, impossible to prove except by observation. A colleague pointed out, however, that Pfizer’s followup from their clinical trials must approach one year for some of the subjects. (The trials having been published, the vaccine vs. placebo information can be “un-blinded”.)

(4) According to the Ministry of Health COVID19 dashboard, deaths, new severe cases, and total severe cases in hospital are all way down from their peak: we saw just 3 (three) dead yesterday (lowest level since June), compared to almost 80 at the peak of the 3rd wave. Just 16 new severe cases were hospitalized yesterday, compared to a few hundred at the peak of the wave.

(5) Dr. John Campbell reports at length from the UK, the large(r) country that has the highest percentage of (partial vaccinees. Note that the UK made the choice to give first jabs (and hence partial protection) to as many people as possible, reaching 59% of the total population and over 90% of the most vulnerable age groups. The 7-day average of daily deaths have dropped from over 1,200 on January 22 to the thirties (a drop by a factor of forty).

Consequently, UK PM Boris Johnson today is laying out the roadmap for exit from restrictions. All in all, this looks like a success for the controversial “single shots first” strategy.

Incidentally, Dr. Campbell points out that isolated cases of blood clots among Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccinees seem to occur primarily in younger women taking oral contraceptives.

ADDENDUM: lots of COVID interactive data visualizations about the UK here: http://data.spectator.co.uk

Attempt to embed one graph: https://www.datawrapper.de/_/SO1l8

https://www.datawrapper.de/_/SO1l8

https://www.datawrapper.de/_/SO1l8

Easter post: Bach’s Easter Oratorio, BWV 249

Happy Easter to Christian readers of the Western communion! Here is some Bach for the occasion: a cantata that’s now generally referred to as the Easter Oratorio.

Now that we’re on the subject of Bach and Easter: the librettos of the Mattheuspassion BWV 244, and especially the Johannispassion BWV 245, contain some statements blaming the death of Jesus on the Jews that were common currency in Bach’s time and place. (The libretto/text was not written by Bach but by his frequent collaborator Picander [pen name of Christian Friedrich Henrici, 1700-1764].) If anything, it seems that in the Johannispassion , Bach elided/skipped Picander’s most pungent anti-judaic statements.)

A music professor from the University of Erfurt (himself Jewish) has a few things to say (in German) that I cannot resist translating two statements from:

Interestingly, some of the initiators of this project [to ‘cleanse’ Bach’s Matthew- and John-Passions of judeophobia] are also known as anti-Israel activists. They want to abolish Israel as a Jewish state, but are bothered by Bach’s portrayal of Jews.

This is my shocked face 😉 In an exercise of utter “presentism” (judging people from the distant past according to present-day moral imperatives that would have been alien to them at their time and place), they point at the putative mote in Bach’s eye while ignoring the beam in their own.

These debates are expressions of a pseudo-resistance, a ‘retroactive civil courage’, that seeks to hide the indifference about contemporary forms of antisemitism. It is indeed much less dangerous to fight the trumped-up antisemitism of Bach, than to fight the utterly real antisemites and enemies of Israel of today.

Amen, brother.

Video of the month: Bari Weiss in dialogue with the Hoover Institute “Goodfellows” on “The Great Awokening”

Watch the whole thing

Seriously, watch the whole thing, if you’re only going to watch one extended video about the culture wars in the US. Note that Bari Weiss (born in 1984!) does not speak from a conservative perspective: she herself says “by rights, I should be a member in good standing of the progressive left”. This makes her indictment of wokeism more trenchant than that of yet another traditional conservative or libertarian.

Among the three goodfellows, all of whom are interesting, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson puts in very thoughtful responses.

Bach: Mattheuspassion/Matthew Passion BWV 244

Today is Good Friday for Christians of the Western communion (for us, this year, it’s the 6th day of Passover). In honor of the day, herewith Bach’s immortal musical setting of the Passion story from the Gospel according to Matthew.

Here is a historically informed performance in chamber tuning (A=415 Hz, a semitone down from modern concert pitch), with HD video:

While here is a powerful performance in modern concert pitch (audio only):

More than one Lutheran has been known to refer to J. S. Bach as the Fifth Evangelist. The music will make you understand why.

Check your (temporal) privilege!

“Check your privilege!” we are admonished left and right.

But as I have been deep-diving into the life and times of some historical figures, a stark truth was rammed home.

What about checking our privilege of living in the 21st century?!

Consider the following.

Johann Sebastian Bach buried his brother at age six, and both his parents at age nine. Fewer than half his own children survived into adulthood.

This was normal at the time.

Mind you, Bach wasn’t part of any oppressed ethnic or religious minority, nor did he grew up in poverty. By the standards of the time and place (Thuringia in the late 17th century), his parental home — that of Eisenach town piper Johann Ambrosius Bach — was solidly middle class, if not upper middle class.

Never mind that paupers today have luxuries at their fingertips no king or emperor in Bach’s day could have dreamed of, and that kings and princes alike died senseless early deaths from diseases we can routinely cure in a couple of days.

Such as Bach himself, who died at age 65 from complications of quack surgery for what appears to have been cataracts — today a 10-minute outpatient procedure. Never mind that he died, if not a rich man, a rather well-to-do man by 1750 Leipzig standards.

Yes, by all means, check your privilege.

Of being born in the richest and most developed era in history.

And celebrate it.

No, Bach did not “hate” the piano. Bonus: Happy Passover wishes from the Israel Philharmonic

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to defend pianists who play Bach on a modern piano against the more zealous adherents of the HIP (historically informed performance) community, I’d be able to afford a Feurich baby grand 🙂

András Schiff, one of the more prominent “sinners” in that regard, is asked about “the elephant in the room”. He quips, “yeah, it [a grand piano] is a big elephant, but a useful elephant”, and goes on to explain and demonstrate that, in skilled hands, the grand piano combines the best features of the clavichord (Bach’s favorite stringed keyboard instrument, which is velocity-sensitive but too quiet for even the most intimate performance venues) and the harpsichord (which packs a lot more volume but is not velocity-sensitive).

Jokes aside, a musicologist named Linda Shaver-Gleason (LSG) addresses this question in a blog post titled, “Did Bach hate pianos?” In addition, Christoph Wolff’s priceless Bach biography “J. S. Bach, The Learned Musician” devotes a section of Chapter 11 to Bach’s broader interest in musical instrument development, including his own invention of the viola d’amore (a miniature cello with an extra 5th string) and of the oboe da caccia (hunting oboe). This quite aside from Bach’s lifelong interest in organ building technology and his frequent moonlighting as a hired expert for evaluating church and chapel organs. (There was no better “organ test pilot” anywhere, his clients knew.)

One of the organ builders he often had professional dealings with was Gottfried Silbermann (GS) of Dresden. The Silbermann family (not Jewish, despite their last name :)) also built high-quality harpsichords — so when GS read an article describing Mr. Cristofori‘s newly invented “gravicembalo col piano e forte” (Italian: deep harpsichord with soft and loud), he decided to build an instrument like that on its own, then in 1736 asked Bach to evaluate it.

Wolff and LSG both quote a contemporary named Agricola (Latinization of the common German last name Bauer), who wrote:

One of [Silbermann’s pianofortes] was seen and played by the late Capellmeister, Mr. Joh. Sebastian Bach. He praised, indeed, admired, its tone; but he complained that it was too weak in the high register and too hard to play. This was taken greatly amiss by Mr. Silbermann, who could not bear to have any fault found in his handiworks. He was therefore angry at Mr. Bach for a long time. And yet his conscience told him that Mr. Bach was not wrong. He therefore decided—greatly to his credit, be it said—not to deliver any more of the instruments, but instead to think harder about how to eliminate the faults Mr. J.S. Bach had observed.

He therefore decided—greatly to his credit, be it said—not to deliver any more of these instruments, but instead to think all the harder about how to eliminate the faults Mr. J. S. Bach had observed. He worked for many years on this. And that this was the real cause of this postponement I have the less doubt since I myself heard it frankly acknowledged by Mr. Silbermann…. Mr. Silbermann also had the laudable ambition to show one ofthese instruments of his later workmanship to the late Capellmeister Bach, and have it examined by him; and he received, in turn, complete approval from him.

Wolff, Christoph. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (Norton Paperback) (Kindle Locations 8979-8983). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Christoph Wolff goes on:

Silbermann had developed his original model in the early 1730s, but withdrew it after it was not fully approved by Bach; he introduced his new and better version in the mid-1740s. Bach then played on the new fortepianos at the court of King Friedrich II of Prussia in 1747. Reportedly, the improved instruments manufactured by Silbermann—the kind Bach helped market at the Leipzig trade fair—“pleased the king so much that he resolved to buy them all up. He collected 15.” 75

In fact, we know which piece Bach improvised at the 1747 audience with Frederick II (and later wrote down as the first movement of what became The Musical Offering, BWV 1079): the Ricercar a 3. Here is the great Tatiana Nikolayeva (RIP) playing it live in Athens:

To my Jewish readers, a happy and wonderful Passover. Due to the first COVID lockdown, we celebrated the Seder at home last year, just the two of us with our daughter connecting from abroad via Zoom. Tonight most people here will have in-person seders again: we are doing the same with old friends. The video below is by the Israel Philharmonic, who are looking forward to performing for audiences again.

Chag cherut sameach/Happy festival of freedom!

Israel elections: how a small Islamist party suddenly finds itself a kingmaker

Who says life in Israel is boring? We went to our fourth election in two years. Nearly all “regular” votes have been counted: left to count are about 400,000 “double envelope” votes where people voted in person, but not at their designated polling place. (This includes IDF soldiers who voted on base, hospital patients, COVID19 patients in isolation, and people who flew in from abroad to vote – yes, some of us are crazy enough to fly home just to vote! — and hence voted at the airport before going into Corona isolation. We do not have any vote-by-fraud, er, mail, thank G-d.)

We elect our 120-seat unicameral parliament, the Knesset [=assembly in Hebrew; beit knesset=synagogue], through proportional representation with an electoral threshold of 3.25% (read: minimum 4 seats in the 120-seat Knesset). Seat allocation is done using the Belgian D’Hondt method (a.k.a. the Jefferson method, as D’Hondt’s system, first implemented in the 1900 Belgian elections, was based on US President Thomas Jefferson’s 1792 proposal).

The big shock overnight was that one of the two Arab lists, the moderate Islamist Ra`am, was projected not to make the electoral threshold. This would have reduced the Israeli Arab parties from the 15 seats of the Joint List to just 6. As it turned out, results from some Arab and Bedouin communities came in late, and at present Ra`am has a little over 4%.

PartyLeaderOutgoingPresentdifferenceblock differenceblock
LikudBenjamin Netanyahu3730-7-3Moderate right
New HopeGideon Sa’ar264
Yesh AtidYair Lapid16171-6Center
Blue and WhiteBenny Gantz128-4
TelemMoshe Ya’alon3withdrawn-3
Joint [Arab] ListAyman Odeh116-5-4 -5Arab
Ra’amMansour Abbas45 40
ShasAryeh Deri9900Chareidi
UTJMoshe Gafni770
Yisrael BeiteinuAvigdor Lieberman7700Russian
YaminaNaftali Bennett3744Right
LaborMerav Michaeli2755Left
MeretzNitzan Horowitz45 61 21 2Far left
Religious ZionistBezalel Smotrich2633Far right
Jewish HomeHagit Moshe1merged
KahanistsItamar Ben-Gvir0merged 

The results show a degree of polarization in that both left-wing and right-wing gained at the expense of the center bloc. Chareidi (“ultra-Orthodox”) and Russian immigrant blocs maintain their strength, and the Arab block loses 4 [update: 5] seats.

But the big story is of course that the pro-Netanyahu bloc, even if it joins with hitech exec Naftali Bennett’s Yamina (“Rightward”), has a minority. For its part, the anti-Netanyahu bloc can only get to 61 seats if both Arab parties join.

Now interestingly, Ra`am leader Mansour Abbas has not ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition.

Thus we find ourselves in the bizarre situation that a small Islamist party now finds itself the kingmaker in the Jewish state, thanks in no small part to Binyamin Netanyahu — already our longest-serving PM in history — “clinging to government like to the horns of the Altar”, as Avigdor Liberman picturesquely put it.

“I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours

But I think that G-d has a sick sense of humor

And when I die, I expect to find Him laughing…”

UPDATE: Times of Israel reports that overnight count changes nothing in above apportionment. The “Double Envelope” count over over 400,000 votes at other-than-assigned poll stations proceeds a bit more slowly, as each set of personal details on the outer envelope is cross-referenced to ensure the person has not also voted at another precinct. A final result is expected tomorrow morning.

UPDATE2: Final count is in: only change is one seat shifted from the Islamists to Meretz.

UPDATE3: https://www.timesofisrael.com/is-a-fifth-election-now-a-self-fulfilling-prophecy/

UPDATE3: Haviv Rettig Gur from the Times of Israel sees the election as “Brownian motion” hiding a steady-state:

Consider: Likud and Yamina together won 42 seats last year. Likud, Yamina and its offshoot Religious Zionism won 43 this time.

Blue and White won 33 seats last time. Yesh Atid and Gantz’s shrunken Blue and White, together with Sa’ar’s New Hope party whose voters mostly identified as centrists, now drew 31.

Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism won 16 seats between them in 2020; they won the same 16 on Tuesday.

The Arab parties and the left won 22 seats between them last time, 24 this time. Avigdor Liberman’s Russian-speaking hawkish-but-secularist party won seven then and seven now.

It’s as if someone had thrown half the parliament into the air in exasperation, only to watch them land in the exact same pattern. The parties may have changed, but the fundamental contours of the standoff did not.

Bach Baptism Day post: the curious tale of the “Zippelfagottist” (bell-end bassoonist) and Bach’s only sword fight

Today 336 years ago, on March 23, 1685, the youngest of eight children of Eisenach town piper Johann Ambrosius Bach was baptized in the city’s St. George church (Georgenkirche) and given the name Johann Sebastian Bach. “Sebastian” was the name he would later go by to relatives and friends.

In honor of the day (and perhaps to avoid talking about our elections?) an amusing anecdote from Bach’s early career.

After he had taken his first “real” job, as the town organist at Arnstadt, he for the first time had to assemble a cast of musicians to perform church music other than his own organ playing. Most scholars today assume that the very oldest surviving cantata by Bach, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich [freely: For Thee, O L-rd, I yearn], BWV 150, was written in Arnstadt, when Bach was maybe 20 years old. As John Eliot Gardiner pointed out and demonstrated here [go to timestamp 24:07 in the video if the link doesn’t already get you there] , the cantata includes an obbligato part for bassoon (Fagott in German) that in places requires considerable skill due to the rapid modulations involved.

Bach was used to the musical proficiency of his extended family, or to that of the prestigious Weimar court orchestra (where he had briefly temped as a violinist before coming to Arnstadt, and where he would later return as organist and then concertmaster). Arnstadt’s town musicians were of a much lower skill level, and Bach did not have the experience yet to customize parts to players’ abilities (a skill that is highly evident two decades later, in the educational works he would write for his children and keyboard students).

So the bassoonist — a man named Geyersbach, a few years older than Bach yet still in high school[*] — struggled with the part until an exasperated Bach threw up his hands and called him a Zippelfagottist. (More about this spicy insult below.)

An offended Geyersbach got together with his busking and drinking buddies, and lay in wait for Bach as he returned from a concert at the castle, accompanied by his cousin Barbara Catherina Bach. Geyersbach demanded an apology, and when that wasn’t forthcoming, cried out “you dirty dog!” and attacked him with his walking stick. Bach defended himself with his rapier until students separated the two, Geyersbach’s jacket having acquired a few ventilation holes.

Image from the Bach museum in Eisenach, excerpted from https://twitter.com/TeachMusic2001/status/889523666291224577

To Bach’s fury, the town council sided with Geyersbach, and demanded that Bach go easier on the town musicians — although they did not punish him. That was one of a number of reasons why Bach ended up leaving for another position in Mühlhausen: others were complaints that his organ accompaniment was too complex for the congregation to sing along; that his organ preludes were too long (at which point he passive-aggressively “complied” and got complaints they were too short); and, oy vey, that he’d “brought a strange maiden to the organ loft” (probably apparently not his fiancee, his second cousin Maria Barbara Bach, as commonly thought [**]). But from Bach’s side, the clincher must have been the much higher salary they were offering at Mühlhausen meant he could marry and start a household — which he would do promptly upon moving. (Both at Arnstadt and at Mühlhausen, he was paid well above his predecessors and successors.)

But being an amateur linguist, I became intrigued about what Zippelfagottist really meant. It’s usually translated as “nanny goat bassoonist” (implying that his playing sounded like the bleating of a nanny goat) but I couldn’t quite see the jump from Ziege (goat) to Zippel. Christoph Wolff translates it as “greenhorn bassoonist”. But it seems it’s actually something worse.

As a fellow amateur linguist points out in a discussion on Aryeh Oron’s priceless Bach Cantatas Website, Zippel was probably the local dialect pronunciation of Zipfel, “tip”. A Zipfelmütze is the kind of pointed cap that dwarves wore in fairy tales (or, closer to today, the Smurfs in the eponymous comic strip). Hence the insult would be more like “You dunce-capped bassoonist!” or “you dopey bassoonist”!

But it could also mean the end of a Wurst (sausage)… which would make it more like “weeny bassoonist”, “d*ckhead bassoonist”, or (UK English) “bell-end bassoonist”. I particularly like the latter translation, as it puns upon the instrument having a bell-end (not just on the player being one).

Bach, while a devout Lutheran, shared Martin Luther’s love for simple earthly pleasures[***] as well as for earthy “pardon my German” language. I can totally see an exasperated Bach calling Geyersbach a, well, “bell-end bassoonist”.

[*] The claim that Bach did poorly in school is a myth. He had middling grades in elementary school because he was absent so often, but graduated from the prestigious Latin high school at Lüneburg 2-3 years before his peers, at age 17.

[**] [Added:] “In any event, the incident […] must have involved an out-of-town singer and not, as often assumed, Bach’s distant cousin Maria Barbara, whom he married the following year. Maria Barbara had been living in Arnstadt for several years, so she could scarcely have been described as unfamiliar.” (Christoph Wolff, “J. S. Bach: The Learned Musician”, revised edition, Kindle location 2293.

[***] Bach loved to eat and drink well, wrote an ode to tobacco and pipe smoking (BWV 515), and liked coffee (then something of a novelty in Leipzig) well enough to write a secular cantata about it (BWV 211). Moreover, his having fathered twenty children suggests there were yet other pleasures he greatly enjoyed. (Only half of those children survived into adulthood — sadly, par for the course in Thuringia in the early 18th Century. Four of them became famous as musicians in their own right: W. Friedemann Bach, C. P. Emmanuel Bach, J. G. Friedrich Bach, and J. Christian Bach. A fifth also sought that career path but died at age 24, leaving no compositions behind.)

ADDENDUM: possibly the thing that got the Arnstadt town council the maddest at Bach was when he requested (and obtained) a leave of absence of 4 weeks to go visit the famous organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude (then already over 70) in the Hanseatic trading city of Lübeck (about 350 km on foot!) — and stayed away for 4 months. (To be fair, he had paid, out of his own pocket, his cousin as a substitute — eventually, said cousin would be hired as his successor, at a much reduced salary.) Bach was likely already familiar with some of Buxtehude’s organ music, but more formative were likely the Abendmusiken (“evening music”, a Lübeck tradition that survives to the present day) where Buxtehude staged what were effectively sacred cantatas under a different name.

A constant through Bach’s career was his ability and willingness to soak up the musical language of other composers like a sponge — cf., for example, the several Vivaldi concerti he transcribed for harpsichord or organ — then absorb the language into his own singular voice.

ADDENDUM 2: If you watch the entire John Eliot Gardiner BBC documentary, the enjoyable counterpoint of the conductor’s very incisive observations with Bach’s music is marred by a sour note: namely, the pop-psychological and “presentist” analysis by one Prof. Tamar Pincus, who tries to analyze a man whose shoes neither she nor I are fit to tie in terms of “trauma”, “bullying”, and “paranoid personality”. When I say ‘presentist’ (I forgot who invented this priceless neologism), I mean that she looks at Bach’s life outside its historical context (early 18th-century Middle Germany) and sees him through the lens of 21st century developed society.

Sadly, Bach’s early confrontation with deaths of siblings and even parents was nothing unusual then; unlike many of his (artisan) class, he had a fairly tightly-knit extended family as a support system to fall back upon (and remained on good terms with his family throughout his life); Bach’s lackluster school performance in Eisenach had zilch to do with bullying and everything with frequent absences to sing solo in various choir and small vocal ensemble performances and rehearsals, while at Ohrdruf and Lüneburg he was a choir scholar making music on a school schedule; and Bach was even more demanding of himself than he was of his musicians. Above all, as both Christoph Wolff (the revised edition of whose “J. S. Bach, The Learned Musician” I am now reading) and John Eliot Gardiner show at length, on many occasions Bach was not in a struggle with his employers so much as an unwilling (not necessarily unwitting) pawn in rivalries that transcended him: between rival Dukes; between what one might call “royalist internationalist” and “municipal autonomist” factions among the Leipzig burghers; between orthodox and “Pietistic” Lutherans;… there were plenty of material reasons for Bach’s behavior that defy “simple, elegant, and wrong” psychological models.

[AD-ADDENDUM: the Oxford English Dictionary has “presentism” first used in this sense in 1916, but it may actually have been used as early as the 1870s.]

COVID19 mini-update, March 22, 2021: an animated graph says more than a thousand words

This was tweeted by a student in Eran Segal’s group at the Weizmann Institute. Push the “play” button to run the animation.

This is an adjunct to the group’s updated preprint https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.02.08.21251325 “Patterns of COVID-19 pandemic dynamics following deployment of a broad national immunization program” by Ḥagai Rossman, Smadar Shilo, Tomer Meir, Malka Gorfine, Uri Shalit, and Eran Segal.

Post-Bach Day post: Was Bach’s last fugue truly unfinished?

Bach clearly saw his final large-scale work, Die Kunst der Fuga (The Art of Fugue) BWV 1080, as his musical testament. In an age where composition was starting to turn away from polyphony (simultaneous co-equal independent voices) to homophony (a leading melody voice with subordinate accompaniment voices), the world last and greatest [primarily] polyphonic composer wanted to show one final time “this is how it’s done”. Unusually for Bach, he made arrangements to have it printed during his lifetime (it was eventually published after his death under the aegis of his second surviving son C. P. E. Bach, himself then more famous than his father). 

I have been fascinated with the Art of Fugue since I first heard a version for string orchestra (arranged and conducted by Kurt Redel), and am continuing to collect performances. The score specifies no instruments, just four voices — but the entire work is playable on one keyboard with two hands (as in Tatiana Nikolayeva’s incomparable piano recording). A plethora of performances exist on organ, harpsichord, by string quartet, recorder quartet,…. and indeed full orchestrations by Hermann Scherchen, Rudolf Barshai, and others.

A long-standing mystery is the final, unfinished Contrapunctus XIV, (mis?)labeled “Fuga a 3 soggetti” by C. P. E. Bach. This marvelous triple fugue with three contrasting subjects — the third of which just the name B-A-C-H in German musical notation — ends seemingly in mid-air at bar 239. The original edition has C. P. E. Bach’s claim that J. S. Bach died while writing the last notes: this claim is dismissed by modern scholarship, as the handwriting is clearly Bach’s at a time he could still see tolerably well (hence not in his last few months). Supposedly, Bach dictated one more piece of music on his deathbed (to his amanuensis and son-in-law Altnickol), a chorale setting of “Before Thy Throne I Step Herewith” (BWV 668a). 

A couple dozen musicologists and performers have tried their hand at completing the final fugue, ranging from the wild “Fantasia Contrapuntistica” by Busoni to the short and tight completion by harpsichordist Davitt Moroney in his recording (and in his critical edition of the Art of Fugue’s score for Henle Publishers of Munich). 

Christoph Wolff, in his book “J. S. Bach, the learned musician”, hypothesizes Bach did complete it, but that the “Fragment X” with the completion went lost in the years between its writing and the first publication of the work. It was first noted in the late 19th century by a German musicologist named G. Nottebohm (1881; cited in Hughes, p. 27) that the three themes can be combined harmoniously with a fourth voice playing the opening theme of the cycle (the subject of Contrapunctus I, D—A—F—D—C#—D-E-F—-GFED). Wolff claims that Bach would have had to stop and work that contrapuntal puzzle out separately.

Today, I stumbled (again) upon the doctoral thesis of New Zealand organist Indra Hughes https://researchspace.auckland.ac.nz/handle/2292/392

He proffers a possibility I had never considered: that Bach deliberately left the fugue ‘unfinished’ as a contrapuntal puzzle, similar to his ‘riddle canons’. After reviewing Bach’s well-known use of number symbolism in his music (especially with numbers involving the Christian Trinity, Bach being a devout Lutheran), he points out that

Bach waited until he was the 14th member to be admitted to the [Mizler] society [of musical science],32 and to commemorate his admission he had his portrait painted with 14 buttons on his waistcoat; in the portrait he is holding the score of the 14th of a set of 14 enigmatic canons (the Goldberg canons BWV 1087).

(Hughes, p. 18)

Of course, B+A+C+H = 2+1+3+8 = 14.[*] And then:

The last bar in the manuscript of Contrapunctus 14 is bar 239. To my knowledge no other writers appear to have noticed the fact that 2+3+9 = 14. 
I have shown that there are many instances in which Bach associates his name, either through numbers or through musical notes, with something to which he wishes attention to be drawn (or to which he is ascribing significance in his own private way). In the light of the previous discussion, the hypothesis from which this thesis sprang was that it may not be a coincidence that The Art of Fugue ‘runs out’ in a bar whose number is the Bach number. The fact that the tenor part continues by itself, together with the fact that no rests are notated for the alto or bass (another fact that has drawn no comment from other writers) is a clear indication that the music is to continue – to be filled in.35

The final barline is drawn with as much confidence and deliberation as all the other bar lines in this score: the ‘unfinished’ score was not left without a barline. The fact that Bach has chosen this bar – a bar referring to the number 14 as clearly as many other instances of that number – to be the final bar he has written of this work suggests that Bach may be telling us, in his subtle coded way, that there is something significant about this bar. Through the use of the numbers, which refer gematrically to his own name, he is drawing our attention to this final bar.

(Hughes, p. 20)

Hughes then goes on to find arguments for this thesis (not all of them convincing), then the remainder of the dissertation mostly consists of a survey and analysis of such existing completions as he could lay hands on at the time of writing. In live performance, he himself uses the short completion by Swiss organist Lionel Rogg.

Perhaps it’s all a classic example of Francis Bacon’s first idol of the mind: the human tendency to see greater order in reality than there really is. But the idea of Bach deliberately doing the equivalent of “the completion is left as an exercise to the reader” not only rhymes with what we know of Bach’s personality, but actually has a precedent in BWV 1087. Se non e vero, e ben trovato. (Giordano Bruno. Freely: “[Even] if it is not true, it is well invented.” or “Even if it ain’t true, it’s a good story.”)

Let me end this post with three longer, but well-invented [ahem] completions:

Zoltán Göncz (completion starts at 10:32) with a rolling score. [NB: the organ is in choir pitch, about a semitone sharp from standard.]

Another, more uptempo, completion on organ, by Colin MacKnight (completion starts at 7:41)

And a pleasant surprise, Rudolf Barshai’s orchestral version (completion starts at 11:51):

Nicht Bach, sondern Meer, sollte er heissen! (Beethoven: “Not Brook [=Bach], but Ocean should have been his last name!”)

[*] Note that in Bach’s time, for gematria (numerology) with Latin letters, only numbers 1-24 were used, as I and J were considered two variants of the same letter, and likewise U and V. As Dr. Hughes points out, it then just also happens that J. S. Bach = 9 + 18 + 2 + 1 + 3 + 8 = 41, or 14 backwards 🙂 This has led some people who tried to complete Contrapunctus XIV to attempt doing it in 41 bars.

ADDENDUM: via German Wikipedia, I found an article by Thomas Wilhelmi, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bachs Avertissement über den Druck der »Kunst der Fuge«, Bach-Jahrbuch 1992, pp. 101–105 in which he describes a 1751 brochure by C. P. E. Bach in which he is trying to attract customers for the printed edition. So much for the claim that keyboard performances of this work are ahistorical 😉

„Da darinnen alle Stimmen durchgehends singen, und die eine mit so vieler Stärcke, als die andere ausgearbeitet ist: So ist iede Stimme besonders auf ihr eigenes Systema gebracht, und mit ihrem gehörigen Schlüssel in der Partitur versehen worden. […] Es ist aber dennoch alles zu gleicher Zeit zum Gebrauch des Claviers und der Orgel ausdrücklich eingerichtet.

[My translation: Since all the voices sing throughout, and each is worked out with as much strength as the others, each voice is placed on its own stave and given its own clef. […] Nevertheless, everything is expressly arranged at the same time for the use of the piano and the organ.]

Bach Day post: Encountering BACH (2+ hour documentary by Dr. David Chin); a few J. S. Bach “did you know”s

(1) March 21 is the vernal equinox, the first day of spring. It is also the conventional birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. (He was baptized two days later, on March 23 — this is mistaken by some people as his birthday.) In honor of the day, I am sharing this fascinating documentary by the musical director of Bachfest Malaysia, Curtis Institute of Music-trained conductor Dr. David Chin. He travels around Germany (mostly Thuringia and Saxony), exploring all the sites Bach lived and worked, and sharing his music and its context by the way. Highly recommended. Enjoy!

(2) A few details about Bach’s early life I found out recently (or remembered again):

  • his great-great-grandfather Veit[*] Bach, the patriarch of the extended Bach family of professional and semi-professional musicians, was a Protestant baker and keen amateur musician who fled his native Pressburg [present-day Bratislava, Slovakia] as a religious refugee and resettled in Thuringia, the birth-region of the Reformation.
  • JSB got his first musical instruction from his father, Eisenach town piper Johann Ambrosius Bach, who taught him the violin, and from his uncle Johann Christoph Bach the Elder, organist at the St. George church in Eisenach.
  • JSB became an orphan at age nine when his parents died within months of each other. He and his young brother were then taken in by their eldest brother, Johann Christoph Bach [the Younger], organist at the St. Michael’s church in Ohrdruf and a former student of Pachelbel’s. Contrary to the BS story that was peddled by imaginative biographers, JSB maintained friendly relations with his elder brother until the latter’s death in 1721, then returned the favor he’d been bestowed by taking JCB’s underage son into his own household at the Thomaskantorei in Leipzig
  • JSB attended the local Latin school as a choir scholarship student. When his voice changed and he could no longer participate in the boys’ choir, he and his lifelong friend Georg Erdmann (who was to have a diplomatic career) traveled to Lüneburg, and were accepted at the prestigious school there, again on singing scholarship (now with their adult voices)
  • Bach’s grades in school were only so-so, but he graduated high school at age 17 when other pupils often did so in their early twenties
  • More important than mingling with fellow students from the upper crust were Bach’s musical encounters with Georg Böhm, then a famous organist and composer for that instrument. (I remember sight-reading through some music by Böhm and wondering if I was playing misattributed Bach youth works.) In 2006, scholars apparently discovered Bach’s hand-written copies of music by Böhm on paper with Böhm’s watermark — which implies Bach studied either formally or informally with Böhm.
  • Bach applied for a vacant position as organist in Sangerhausen fresh out of high school. He gave a demonstration concert, was offered the job — and then the Duke of Saxony-Weissenfels twisted the arm of the town council to withdraw the appointment and give it to a former pupil of his own court music director.
  • Bach then worked an interim job of about six months as a violinist at the Weimar court (where he would later return) until the church in Arnstadt needed somebody to test-play their new organ, he showed up, and impressed the town council to such a degree with his playing that a few months later they offered him the now-vacant organist position. There begins Bach’s real career.

One more thing about the mature Bach: many people know he was not the first choice of the Leipzig town council for the position of Thomaskantor (musical director of the St. Thomas church and vice principal of the venerable high school attached to it). In fact, he was the third choice — but not for the reasons you might think. You see, Bach is the only Thomaskantor I know of since the 16th century who didn’t have a university degree. The town’s first choice, when the previous incumbent Kuhnau died, was G. F. Telemann — an “old boy” of both the high school and Leipzig University, then working as music director in Hamburg. However, Telemann went back to the Hamburg town council with the offer and they made it worth his while to stay with a hefty pay raise. (Telemann and JSB were on friendly terms — in fact, Telemann had been godfather of Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach — and may have tipped JSB off about the opening.) The second choice, Christoph Graupner, court music director of the Landgrave of Hessen-Darmstadt, was denied resignation by his employer. J. S. Bach was eager to take the job (despite its paying much less than his princely salary at Cöthen) for a variety of reasons, but his sons entering adolescence and the important city of Leipzig offering them much better educational opportunities than “cow-Cöthen” [**].

Let me leave the last word to Mauricio Kagel:

Es mag ja sein, dass nicht alle Musiker an G-tt glauben. Alle aber glauben an Bach.

It may well be that not all musicians believe in G-d. All, however, believe in Bach.

יתכן שלא כל מוסיקאי מאמין באלוקים, אך כולם מאמינים בבאך. (מוריסיו קגל)

Het is best mogelijk dat niet alle muzikanten aan G-d geloven. Ze geloven echter allemaal aan Bach.

C’est bien possible que pas tous les musiciens croient en D-eu. Tous, cependant, croient en Bach,

Può darsi che non tutti i musicisti credano in D-o. Tutti, però, credono in Bach.

[*] Veit is the German cognate of Vitus, Vivian, or Vital — of, for that matter, of Chaim in Hebrew

[**] Bach has a rather earthy sense of humor. “Kuh-Cöthen” is a German pun on “Kuh-Kot” (cow droppings)

Forget going ‘woke’: it is time to get ‘awake’

We are being bombarded from all sides with ‘woke’ theories about the USA (and by extension, Western civilization) being founded on oppression, about the continuing existence of systemic racism, and the like.

These are being used to justify policies that effectively are not so much ‘anti-racist’ as ‘reverse racist’. As Instapundit quipped today, today’s “anti-racism” is to racism what antimatter is to matter: same mass, reversed sign on the charges. https://pjmedia.com/instapundit/438663/

All of this is being defended by a woke inquisition that ‘cancels’ people with a zeal the Holy Office of yore could not have matched. I can’t keep up anymore with everybody to the right of Marx who has been ‘canceled’ (George Orwell would have called it ‘unpersoned’).  In fact, this has reached the point where even a hardcore liberal like Sarah Silverman is getting fed up with the zealotry and has quit the “Democraptastic” party.

“As foretold in the prophecy”, this is beginning to cause a backlash on the right — and a resurgence of the very thing the ‘anti-racists’ claim to be fighting, as alt-right ideas like Identitarianism start taking root in a small but growing number of people.

Both sides are asleep to the real story. It’s time to awaken. This is the real story: the coming of neo-feudalism.

The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class

Following a remarkable epoch of greater dispersion of wealth and opportunity, we are inexorably returning towards a more feudal era marked by greater concentration of wealth and property, reduced upward mobility, demographic stagnation, and increased dogmatism. If the last seventy years saw a massive expansion of the middle class, not only in America but in much of the developed world, today that class is declining and a new, more hierarchical society is emerging.

The new class structure resembles that of Medieval times. At the apex of the new order are two classes—a reborn clerical elite, the clerisy, which dominates the upper part of the professional ranks, universities, media and culture, and a new aristocracy led by tech oligarchs with unprecedented wealth and growing control of information. These two classes correspond to the old French First and Second Estates.

Below these two classes lies what was once called the Third Estate. This includes the yeomanry, which is made up largely of small businesspeople, minor property owners, skilled workers and private-sector oriented professionals. Ascendant for much of modern history, this class is in decline while those below them, the new Serfs, grow in numbers—a vast, expanding property-less population.

from the blurb of Joel Kotkin’s book

This neo-peerage will have — actually, already has — all of the sense of entitlement of the old peerage, and alas none of its sense of noblesse oblige.

I am the furthest thing from a conspiracy theorist — but I do not believe it is an accident that extreme “antimatter racism” has been amped up to 11 in the past several years, inevitably giving impetus to its nominal antithesis. The neo-oligarchic agenda cannot succeed, I believe, without setting brother against brother. Both the extreme wokeocrats and their nominal antithesis are part of this, in a mutually reinforcing folie à deux.

A small, but growing number of people on the left are waking up to this, and are realizing who the real common enemy is. Whatever else they and the populist right might disagree about, on this matter we have common ground. Because it is game over for both of us if the neo-peerage attains its goals.

Forget going woke: it is time to wake up.

COVID19 update, Ides of March Edition: the Oxford/AstraZeneca fustercluck redux

The EU’s medical head honchos, in their eagerness to contain costs, placed a lot of stock on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine because of its low per-unit cost — and now AstraZeneca is having trouble producing even a fraction of the promised doses. De Standaard (in Dutch) reports that on the continent, only one plant in Belgium is currently actually producing: other facilities are awaiting production approval from EU bureaucrats. (Two plants in the UK are rolling out doses for local use.)

As if this wasn’t enough of a disaster, following multiple isolated reports of blood clots following AstraZeneca shots, a total of twelve countries (including Germany, France, and Italy) have suspended the use of the AZ vaccines until the EMA (European Medicines Agency, the EU’s counterpart for the “D” in FDA) rules on the matter.

According to the Daily Telegraph’s liveblog at 5:37 pm:

The European Union’s medical regulator again insisted the benefits of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine outweigh the potential side effects.

A European Medicines Agency statement said: “Events involving blood clots, some with unusual features such as low numbers of platelets, have occurred in a very small number of people who received the vaccine.

“Many thousands of people develop blood clots annually in the EU for different reasons. The number of thromboembolic events overall in vaccinated people seems not to be higher than that seen in the general population.”

The regulator is working with UK counterparts at the MHRA, experts in blood disorders and AstraZeneca as part of a review.

The EMA’s safety committee (PRAC) will further review the information on Tuesday and has called an extraordinary meeting on Thursday to conclude on the information gathered and any further actions that may need to be taken.

This tweet from the Grauniad/the Daily W*nker/al-Guardian emphatically did not age well (via Instapundit):

In fact, as Dr. Campbell points out in his video, about one-third of people in the UK have gotten at least one shot so far, ten times as many as in much of Europe. Brexit was worth it for that alone.

On an amusing note, one British overseas territory unseated Israel as the holder of the highest vaccination percentage: the tiny population of Gibraltar.

Today is the middle of the month of March, what the Romans called the “Ides” of March. Famously, Julius Caesar met his nemesis on that day. “Et tu, Brute?” Some people may have heard of a funk band by that name, — the bassist had read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in school and thought it was a cool name. They had one big hit in 1970 with the song “Vehicle”: I cannot resist including this hi-res cover by Leonid Vorobyev and friends below. Enjoy, and stay healthy and safe!

ADDENDUM: here is Dr. Campbell again with an update

TL; DR: he went through the statistics on blood clots in the general population, and concluded that the number of thrombotic event among the vaccinated is comparable to, or less than, what the same number of people over the same amount of time would experience without a vaccine. “The signal does not exceed the background noise”, as I’d summarize it.

COVID19 update, March 13, 2021: interview with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla on Israeli vaccination drive/”Phase IV clinical field trial”

Dr. Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer, appears here in an interview on Israeli Channel 12 (in Greek-accented[*] English, with Hebrew subtitles). [Hat tip: Mrs. Arbel.]

He actually only got his own 2nd dose days ago, as he did not want to “jump the queue”. In fact, he was scheduled to visit Israel, but apparently was under mixed pressure from anti-Netanyahu Brahmandarins (who wanted to rob Bibi of his victory roll) and pro-Bibi elements who wanted him to come, and appears to have conveniently found “logistical constraints” why he couldn’t come. He says in the interview that he has no desire to engage in politics, especially not of a country he doesn’t live in — although he stressed his love for Israel as a Jew[*] — and that Pfizer will do business with any government agency regardless of who is in power.

He also intimated that Pfizer was eager to have a small country-sized test case, and that Israel was uniquely placed because of its confluence of comparative smallness, dense population, universal healthcare at a high level with digital record keeping (99% of the population is enrolled in one of the four licensed HMOs[**]), and good logistics. He also cites Israel’s general disaster preparedness (which is less than I’d like it to be). But what tipped the scales for him, he says, was the “obsessive” manner in which PM Netanyahu called him something like 30 times, and the detail-oriented manner of his questions — which convinced him “this guy is really on top of things”. (Friend and foe acknowledge Bibi’s intellect.)

A recent press release by Pfizer claims that the vaccine is 97% effective, which exceeded even the results of Pfizer’s clinical trial. I’d have preferred if they had “shown their work”, but I suspect a paper is currently undergoing peer review or being prepared for the same. At any rate, earlier a paper appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine with results for 600,000 vaccinated patients of the Clalit HMO (and a control group of 600,000 unvaccinated ones). As per well-established procedures in medical statistics: in order to eliminate “confounding factors”, the control group was sampled from a (then still) larger group of unvaccinated patients in such a way that it resembles the vaccinated group as closely as possible in terms of age distribution, (sub-)ethnicity, and pre-existing conditions.

The paper is Open Access (not paywalled): Dagan, N.; Barda, N.; Kepten, E.; Miron, O.; Perchik, S.; Katz, M. A.; Hernán, M. A.; Lipsitch, M.; Reis, B.; Balicer, R. D. BNT162b2 MRNA Covid-19 Vaccine in a Nationwide Mass Vaccination Setting. N. Engl. J. Med. 2021, NEJMoa2101765. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMoa2101765.
My short summary in table form of the main findings:

Endpoint1st doseboth doses
documented infection46% (40-51)92% (80-95)
symptomatic COVID57% (50-63)94% (87-98)
hospitalization74% (56-86)87% (55-100)
severe disease62% (39-80)92% (75-100)
deathtoo few for mean-ingful statistics
Table 1: Effectiveness relative to control group (95% confidence intervals in parentheses)




Note that the uncertainty intervals grow as the endpoint becomes more severe, as you are increasingly doing “statistics of small numbers” in the vaccine arm. Indeed, those for hospitalization and severe disease encompass 100%! The lead author on the paper is the head of the research division of Clalit (“General”, the largest of our four HMOs). Unpublished figures I’ve seen from competitor Maccabi are even better: presumably, because of a data-sharing agreement with Pfizer, the latter’s study will be aggregated from data of Clalit, Maccabi, Meuchedet (“United”), and niche player Leumit (“Nationalist”, which used to have a quasi-monopoly in the disputed territories).

What does “90% effective”, say, mean in such a trial? It means that, in equal and comparable “vaccinated” and “control” groups, the number of vaccinated people who got infected is one-tenth of the number in the control group who got infected.

Current statistics are available online at the Ministry of Health’s COVID dashboard to anyone who can read a little Hebrew. Let me give a few highlights of what we’re seeing now, despite exit from lockdown:

  • hospitalized severe cases are down from a peak of about 1,200 in mid-January to about 600, comparable to late December
  • daily verified infection have dropped from about 10,000 to about 3,000
  • the percentage of positive tests is at about 3%, compared to a maximum of 16% last September
  • the propagation coefficient R is down to 0.83 in spite of nearly-full unlock
  • out of a population of 9 million of which a bit of 6 million is eligible (the rest being either our 27% children under 16 or the 0.75 million who have recovered from previous COVID), 4.1 million have had both jabs and another million has had the first jab and is in its 3-week wait for the second

From Prof. Eran Segal’s twitter feed, this update:

Image

Israel kind-of has its own built-in control experiment. Allow me to explain. There are three major sectors (Hebrew: migzarim) in the population, largely self-segregated: the chareidi (“ultra-Orthodox”) sector, the Arab sector, and the “general sector” of everybody else (secular, traditional, Orthodox, and non-Jews who are not Arab). According to an internal report I was privy to, unvaccinated eligible people are currently below 10% in the general sector. (Uneligible are people under 16, and people who have had a documented COVID infection in the past, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Foreign workers were recently made eligible, although live-in caregivers had been informally vaccinated from the start, at the same time as their patients.)

In the chareidi sector, both the percentages of children under 16 and unvaccinated eligible adults are higher, but this is compensated in part by the unusually high level (20%) of people who got the disease and recovered (four times the 5% or so figure in the general and Arab sectors). As we know there is a Dunkelziffer of undocumented infections, the percentage of chareidim with some level of post-infection immunity may well be 40 or even 60%?

In the Arab sector, however, there has been the greatest reluctance to get vaccinated. According to an internal report I have seen, not only has morbidity continued to rise in the Arab sector, but Arabs now account for almost half of hospital admission with severe COVID (about 3x what is expected from their share in the population). Had it been a matter of “oh, this is going over on its own, the vaccines have nothing to do with it”, we would not have seen this in the Arab sector.

ADDENDUM: I forgot to mention the subject of a “booster shot” for mutations. Dr. Bourla says a trial is in progress for the South African and Brazilian mutations; the internal goal he said is 100 days from identification os a mutation of concern to production of a booster for the strain. The British mutation is a nonissue here, since the Israeli results (where 80% of the viral population was British mutation, meanwhile over 90%) clearly show the current vaccine is equally effective as for the original wild-type (“classic COVID”, pardon the macabre humor).

[*] Bourla was born in Thessaloniki, Greece’s 2nd city, to a family of Sephardic Jews. During the Ottoman Empire (of which Thessaloniki was the largest port), the city had the largest Jewish population of any city in the world.

[**] A large chunk of the remaining 1% is accounted for by the IDF, which of course has its own Medical Corps.

The emmerdization thesis

Part of orthodox Marxist derptheory is the “immiseration thesis” according to which

in proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse. […] Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, the torment of labour, slavery, ignorance, brutalization and moral degradation at the opposite pole, i.e. on the side of the class that produces its own product as capital.

Karl Marx, “Das Kapital”

In “tribute”, I now offer the “emmerdization thesis”. Emmerder quelqu’un, in French, literally means “pushing somebody into the sh*t” [merde]; idiomatically it’s the equivalent of “to p*ss somebody off”. This is the process going on in modern wokeocracy, as the Anointed Brahmandarins, as full of themselves as they are full of “merde”, push the Benighted rest of us ever deeper into the “merde” — and eventually will succeed in “emmerder” the Benighted to such a degree that an explosion of the whole cesspool becomes inevitable.

“let us not allow ourselves to be s**t upon by little c***s” (illustrative picture from a French Yellow Vests website)

The classical immiseration thesis, of course, hasn’t aged well in the 20th century. The process of emmerdization, however, is all around us.

We need a zombie Molière to write “Tartuffe 2021”

One of the oldest, and greatest, farces ever written about human hypocrisy is “Tartuffe, ou l’Imposteur” (Tartuffe, or the hypocrite) by the 17th-century French actor and playwright Molière (pen and stage name Jean-Baptiste Poquelin). The play was controversial in its day: king Louis XIV enjoyed it, but the archbishop of Paris convinced him to prohibit public performances as Molière’s skewering of fraudulent, manipulative piety might cause viewers to distrust all forms of religious piety. (The good archbishop was reincarnated, with a sex change, as Hyacinth Bucket.) Molière revised the play twice; the final version is a crowd favorite among classic French theater to this day.[*]

We need another Molière today, as the “woke Tartuffes” of the 21st century make the original look like a paragon of integrity. A few cases in point:

  • eBay bans the sale of some ‘problematic’ Dr. Seuss books, while at the same time Mein Kampf, various National Socialist and communist devotionalia, and the black supremacist racist ramblings of Louis Farrakhan are sold freely;
  • a supposed “$GROUP lives matter” anti-police movement leads to skyrocketing crime, of which the primary victims are law-abiding members of $GROUP;
  • in the name of “equity”, Asian-American applicants to elite colleges face a level of discrimination that rivals what my fellow Jews experienced before WW II;
  • the same media noise machine that is quick to accuse everyone of homophobia is completely silent when a Chinese court rules that calling homosexuality a mental illness is acceptable; or calls everybody wary of radical islamism an ‘islamophobe’ while having nary a word about the persecution of Uyghur Muslims by the CCP regime;
  • [I could go on for hours]
  • but the one that takes the cake is the Big Woke fog to cover what amounts to class warfare by the gentry class/Brahmandarins against the rest of us. Its endgame is what Joel Kotkin wrote a priceless book about: “The Coming Of Neo-Feudalism

It was another Frenchman, the consummate politician Talleyrand, who quipped that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. The 21st century kind, however, does not have even this mild redeeming value. There is nothing “redeeming” about destroying the lives of several long-time, low-wage workers to show off to fellow ‘competitive wokies’ by turning a simple misunderstanding into a bogus bias incident.

[*] Molière’s many plays contain some surprisingly bawdy material. One of my high school French teacher’s favorites is the scene in “Le malade imaginaire” (translated as The Hypochondriac, or The Imaginary Invalid) where a dimwitted suitor asks a woman’s father permission to “baiser votre fille”, literally to ‘kiss your daughter’ (un baiser=a kiss) but idiomatically, already in Molière’s day like in modern French, the verb baiser means “to f[ourletterword]”