Bonsai in the national botanical garden of Tokyo

When traveling to foreign countries I always attempt to find a few attractions off the beaten track. Botanical gardens are such a spot; as a biologist by I have visited gardens in places such as Paris, London, New Mexico, Hawaii … and now in Kyoto.

In a corner of the Kyoto Garden is an absolutely impressive collection of bonsais. In fact, it has inspired me to start growing a bonsai myself. I’m still in the information stage, so very little progress to report except that growing a bonsai  doesn’t seem to be trivial. I will keep you posted!

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The Corona Pandemic. A View from the Edge.

As a biologist with virology experience (obtained at a large pharma company during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s) and as an author of the 2010 corona-pandemic novel TWO JOURNEYS, I can claim to know more about epidemics than most… yet definitely not enough to call myself an expert. Nevertheless, I’ve come to the realization that this is a lonely situation: I seem to be surrounded by virologists and economists, literally EVERYBODY suddenly seems to have deep insights into Corona and its effects. I already hinted at this phenomenon in my previous blogpost “The Corona Crisis and how it will affect all of us.”

I read about Corona on a daily basis, and have found some trustworthy and good resources too (within the hyperlink above). I have also been reading up on Corona on social media. Mildly put, this is an unwise decision, as the average post or comment on e.g. Facebook has as much value as a fart at a funeral. It seems that every Hans, Fred and Harry, who in the past would blurt out their skewed view of the world in a neighborhood speakeasy, now knows how to use highly efficient social platforms to create considerable reach. People talk about herd immunity without understanding the true issue with that approach. People start to confuse result and cause: „corona isn’t a dramatic disease, because nothing much happened.“ Yeah… but perhaps that is because of the measures that most countries implemented, dumbhead? And, yes at least 100,000s if not millions will die because of this pandemic. Throw into this mix a limited knowledge of data and data interpretation, some conspiracy theories and strong personal opinions, and bingo: suddenly any government or official advice on how to deal with the pandemic does not sound so sensible anymore.

Not that any alternative is offered; it is just criticism. 

Bluntly criticizing without offering alternatives – in any setting a poor show. I talked to a neighbor next, a gentleman over 70, who, due to a previous lung disease, clearly belongs to the COVID-19 risk group. An intriguing conversation, mildly put. First, the whole “panic about corona is a complete exaggeration” (this was probably the reason why he kept moving closer, forcing me to step back to keep a safe distance). Second, “They will make us pay the bill for this”. He said this in a way as if the “others” are yet again forcing him to pay something; as if this is a ploy by our (democratically elected) government to get his money. Again, criticism against ‘others’ without any constructive idea on what the alternative could be.

Some pundits on social media do this in a very clever way, by overloading their arguments with factlets and selective information – but in the end, again no proposal on how tor resolve the issue. Obviously, populists and extremists are very good at this. Some are conspicuously quiet at the moment, although I can guess why: most of them never talk about SOLUTIONS, but only about PROBLEMS. And in the current situation, what we need most are solutions. But don’t worry, once the virus has been defeated, they will come out of the wood works with full energy.

The issue is that if a catastrophe happens, society as a whole will need to pay the bill. This happens after every storm, every explosion, every war and every pandemic. And society is made up of citizens, which means that this pandemic will cost US money, yes: YOU. It will also cost ME money, if that offers any comfort. Economic crises happen every seven years or so (the old testament already mentioned this), and every fifth crisis is probably a real big one, so get used to the idea that you will encounter a financial crash several times during your life time (see my blogpost “Getting Started as an Investor. Six Straightforward Steps.” You can’t blame the government (that you may have elected into office?) or anyone else. This virus is bigger than all of us together. You can criticize officials for how they handle the pandemic, but what does the alternative that you suggest look like? Is it really better? What is your evidence, or is it conjecture? What actually is your personal contribution to improving the situation? And did you vote this government into office, and why? Would your favorite party or politician be able to do a better job?

My corona-pandemic novel TWO JOURNEYS sets off in Japan, a country that I was privileged to visit a dozen times. We can learn a lot from Asian countries in this crisis. I am sure that Japanese also have grievances with their governments and fellow countrymen; but what is obvious in Japan is that when the government communicates advice on how to behave in a pandemic, the Japanese seemingly do a better job at simply following the guidance. Now, you may argue that Asian people are much less critical and outspoken. However, my impression is that the Japanese do this because they have respect for other people. That is why, even in times when no pandemic is about, many people in Japan keep their distance to other people, or wear face masks when they have a cold. This respect is something that we should try to adopt, as it makes coping with this situation much easier. 

We, in the west, are all critical of our government, any government. By itself this is laudable, but in case of this pandemic, this has lead to many of us being slow in adopting any official guidelines – and with possibly dramatic consequences (the postmortem on this pandemic will provide interesting insights). This starts out by a certain stubbornness, for instance the refusal to keep any distance, or the refusal to wash hands properly. Several people told me: “I always wash my hands. I don’t understand this guidance. My mama taught me so.” My answer: “What? Your mother taught you to wash your hands for 25 seconds, to also scrub the inside and back of your hands, each single finger, and 5-10 times each day – and you already did that BEFORE the pandemic? NO WAY!” This stubbornness goes all the way to partying on the beach or in the park, going out even if infected, or even purposefully sneezing in the face of policemen (an incident that occurred in the Netherlands. The culprit was sent to jail). For a long time, governments were afraid to say that face masks are a good thing to stop the spread – I presume that one of the reasons was that all face masks would be hoarded and that none would be left for the hospitals. Like with the bogroll: you can’t make this up.

What my neighbor doesn’t understand is that sometimes it is best to just shut up and follow the rules. If the rubber hits the road, pause the discussion. Our democratically elected governments, the hospital staffs and the “real” virologists and epidemiologists (yes, the actual experts that we ourselves think we are) bring considerable experience to the table, and they seem (from where I am sitting) to be conscientiously evaluating the situation day-by-day, if not hour by hour. And the guidance that we have is simple: avoid crowds, keep 6 feet distance to strangers, wear a mask, and wash your hands. That isn’t asking too much: in China they spy on their people through mobile phones, no wonder they can claim that the infections go down (whether that is really the case at the rates they suggest is another matter). And the beauty is that if we all do this, very stringently, we will in the end flatten the curve, save lives and be able to return to work again.
More food for thought in my blogpost: Corona. How you can help stop this Pandemic in its tracks

Stay healthy and help kill this thing.

The Author with a anti-corona (non-medical) mask, made out of a clean handkerchief and two rubber bands.

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From Tokyo to Kyoto – travels in Japan. Highlights of Shibuya.

No trip to Tokyo is complete without a visit to the Meiji shrine. Below the iris garden created for the Meiji empress at the start of the 20th Century. A beautiful, well balanced park, you can see a lot of gardening effort goes into the maintenance.

Visitors leave their wishes at the temple, which are later burned by the priests.

In Shibuya there’s a cafe where you can stroke cats! It costs a few hundred yen for an hour or so. You can just see a white cat at the top of the arrow. We didn’t go in, the idea made us feel a bit guilty.

You think that’s weird? How about a cafe where you can stroke hedgehogs? The lady holds up the sign to invite you in.

Or would you rather pet an owl?!

Then again, Shibuya is a wild place, heavily frequented by hipsters and tourists, and full of weird stuff (which is not typical for mainstream Japan).

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Tokyo, Japan. Backdrop for TWO JOURNEYS, the Corona Pandemic novel.

Arguably, Tokyo is the most populated city in the world, with 36 million inhabitants during the day and 22 million at night. It is impressive how this city runs so smoothly with that many inhabitants. What would happen if it would come to a sudden standstill? The opening chapters of TWO JOURNEYS (my 2011 CORONA PANDEMIC novel) describe just that.
Below some pictures that I took in Tokyo during past visits and that inspired me to place my post apocalyptic work in this mega city.

Highrises in Tokyo. The sheer bulk of these buildings is overwhelming.

Alan, the hero of Two Journeys visits Tokyo around Christmas time.

Should an epidemic of the proportions described in Two Journeys strike, the lights (above) would extinguish rapidly, the trains such as the one below (famously overfilled) would halt.

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