Further musings on “rites of passage” and so on…

This is a sort of follow-up to my last post. I was obviously pretty emotional when I wrote it, so this is an attempt to explore the ideas from a slightly calmer and more detached perspective, as I do think this is something I need to understand.

Maybe I’ll never feel the way most people do about this stuff… but maybe that’s OK. Maybe I can find a way to thrive regardless. The situation with my past kind of sucks but it hasn’t prevented me from (eventually) finding love, finding amazing friends, succeeding at work, becoming a father to a lovely boy, finding activities that bring me genuine joy. There’s a lot to be thankful for, and next to all that the fact that I didn’t necessarily get here by the same path other people took seems kind of irrelevant.

But it still bothers me, at times anyway, and I’d like to understand why so that I can try to minimise it. I think a lot of the problem is the way these formative experiences are often framed when people talk about them. I wouldn’t mind so much if people were just saying “This is what my experience of being young was like”… it’s the fact that it often comes across as “This is what EVERYONE’s experience of being young was like”. Maybe that’s not the intention and it’s just careless wording, but I find it very alienating. It comes across as if either I’m in a miniscule minority for having had a different experience, or that I’m somehow not worthy of being included in the class of people being talked about at all.

Another issue is that age still seems to be viewed differently from other characteristics. I wrote a whole post about this years ago, and even now I still really don’t understand why we’re supposed to see someone acting atypically for their gender, race or sexuality as something to be celebrated and encouraged, yet someone who acts atypically for their age should have scorn and derision heaped on them until they get back in their box. Again this is pretty alienating for those of us who, for whatever reason, found ourselves out of step with the rest of our peer group – I think I could have coped with missing out on typical student experiences at university a lot better if having typical student experiences later on in life instead was seen as a normal and valid thing to do.

At this stage I don’t feel like I have a peer group anymore. There are individual people who I do feel a profound connection with, but I don’t feel I have much in common with my age group as a whole. It’s not that I dislike them; as with any demographic, many of them are good people. It’s just that I don’t feel a particular affinity for them any more than I do with people who are significantly older or younger than me. I guess people typically bond with those of their own age because they share the same formative experiences, or because they’re going through the same life stage at the same time, or because they became friends at school or university where most people were a similar age. None of those is true for me with my age group. By the time I took my first fumbling steps into the world of dating and relationships, many of my school and university peers were already married with kids. And by the time my son was born, their kids were already in their late teens.

But, returning to my earlier line of thought, how much does this really matter? I suspect maybe not as much as some people make out. We all know someone who likes to hold forth about the good old days, who talks as if they lived at the heart of some momentous and profound youth culture movement that defined a whole generation, with their finger on the pulse of the very zeitgeist itself. But I bet if you dug a bit deeper you’d find plenty of people from the same age group who don’t feel like that at all. People who either lived through similar experiences but didn’t see them as particularly meaningful, or people more like me whose experience was different in some major way. So yes, it’s annoying having to listen to those sort of people, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in the majority.

Life is complicated. Everyone’s path is different, and many of the experiences that people may assume were universal actually weren’t. In a way I’ve become the inverse of the person I described in the previous paragraph: just as obsessed with this idea of the One True Experience that “everyone” should have when they’re young, except that while he (because it usually is a he) sees himself as the insider who was shaped by it, I’m the outsider who missed out on it. I don’t think that’s who I want to be. If the reminiscing pub bores think their best days are behind them then that’s up to them, but I’d rather embrace the wonderful people and activities I’ve found for myself and live in the here and now.

A part of me wants to end this post with a plea for more understanding of people like me who didn’t necessarily fit the mould. But I’m not sure that’s even really required. It’s not like we’re some oppressed minority, not really. I’ve never been barred from getting a job, or rejected by a potential friend or partner, because I didn’t get pissed enough in Fresher’s Week. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever been treated differently in any meaningful way at all because of this. I’ve told various people over the years what my youth was like and their reaction was generally sympathy for how it was making me feel, but indifference towards the fact that it happened, as if they didn’t see it as a reason to treat me any differently. In one or two cases it turned out the other person had had an experience quite similar to mine and it actually made me feel closer to them.

(* Disclaimer: I know I sound calmer and more rational right now, but I reserve the right to sink back into the state I was in when I wrote the previous post at any future time my brain deems it necessary).

What happens if you miss a “rite of passage”?

Between the ages of about 15 and 25, I lived an isolated, unusual life. I missed out on just about all of the major social milestones people normally go through at that age. I didn’t move out of my parents’ house. I didn’t have any real friends for most of that time. I didn’t go on dates or have girlfriends. I didn’t travel. I barely even went on nights out. I’m now 43 and I still feel like I can’t escape from the legacy of those wasted years.

And I feel like I never get a straight answer as to what this means. Those things I missed are considered “rites of passage”. People talk about them as important life milestones that mark the transition to adulthood. They go misty eyed as they reminisce about what those times were like for them. They write endless songs, movies, books and other media glorifying that time of life. People bond over these things, even decades after they happened. But then if I mention to someone that I’m upset about having missed out on all that, usually they suddenly start to downplay it. Suddenly it doesn’t matter that I missed out, because all that stuff was no big deal anyway, and what I’m doing now is more important. So which is it? Are they important rites of passage, or are they no big deal? Because they can’t be both.

I did try to make it better, once I realised what a mess I’d got myself in, in fact I spent years trying. But by then it was already too late. Technically I did tick off all those things I listed above, but it wasn’t the same, even though I deluded myself for a while that maybe it could be. An older person hanging out with teens and early twenty somethings, trying to be a part of their peer group, desperate to be included so that they can have some scraps of normal youth before it disappears out of reach forever, isn’t the same as someone who really is that age and is going through that life stage naturally. Much as I wish it was.

When I tell people I’m unhappy about this, they often respond that I should put it behind me as it’s in the past now. The important thing is that I’m happy in my life now. But I’m not happy now. Every day I’m forced to go out and live in a world filled with people who aren’t like me, people who’ve been through the normal life stages and become fully fledged adults, while I stay stuck in whatever hellish limbo this is, unable to ever move on, but having to put on a front and pretend everything’s OK. There are reminders everywhere of what I’ve missed. I see it around me every day but I know I can never have it. It’s torture.

Here’s an example. A couple of weeks ago I unexpectedly went on a night out with people who I know reasonably well but wouldn’t class as close friends. After a few drinks, the conversation turned to reminiscing about university. It always bloody does and that’s the problem. I think what got to me the most was the general tone of the conversation, the way it was presented as “of course, this is what it was like for everyone”. Well, that wasn’t what it was like for me. I wonder what sort of weirdo they would have thought I was if I’d said that instead of keeping quiet like I always do. They’ll know if they read this, I guess.

I know this is largely my own fault. I made choices that resulted in me having an isolated life at a critical time. I should have been braver and faced up to reality sooner and made more of an effort to connect with people. But this feels like a very harsh punishment for a mistake that had no malice behind it and hurt no-one but me. Am I really destined to be an outcast forever? Or is there a way out? I just want another chance. I was young and stupid. Maybe not in the same way other people are, but young and stupid nonetheless. Does it have to end this way?

I wish I could tear down this wall

The wall that I guess I built between myself and everyone else for protection at some point. Almost every social situation I feel out of place, like an outsider, like I shouldn’t be there. It doesn’t matter how nice people are to me or how welcome they try to make me feel. It doesn’t matter how much I have in common with them on paper. I can’t get past this feeling.

The standard advice for overcoming it doesn’t seem to help in my case. It mostly boils down to “just keep putting yourself in social situations and you’ll feel better”, or for the next stage, “try sharing something more personal with people and you’ll find you have more in common with them than you think”. Trouble is, even after putting myself in social situations for over two decades, I still feel this way. And when I try sharing something more personal with someone and they seem to accept it and still treat me the same, my immediate thought is “they obviously didn’t grasp what a big deal that was, otherwise they wouldn’t still be talking to me”.

Beyond that, all you really get is fairly meaningless and vague stuff like “you have to be be open to it” and “you have to give people a chance”. Well, no offence to those who say that stuff, I’m sure they do mean well, but I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with that advice. I’m “open” to socialising in the sense that I keep putting myself in social situations, and I “give people a chance” insofar as I keep trying to talk to them, but that hasn’t worked and I don’t know what more I can do. I can’t directly control how these situations make me feel. If I feel alienated and out of place, I can’t force myself to not feel alienated and out of place. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Probably the most poignant example of this is that I’ve spent 20 years now working in a workplace that’s pretty friendly, that’s full of people who have loads in common with me in various different ways, some of whom have tried to reach out… and even there I still feel out of place. I’m a parent now too… but I feel horrendously out of place among other parents. I feel like to present yourself to the world as a parent, or as a senior software engineer or whatever, is to bestow yourself with some measure of authority, competence and validity, and in my case I feel that’s totally misplaced and undeserved.

Ah well. I suppose there’s one positive thing. You might notice that in the first paragraph I said I feel out of place in almost every social situation. That’s an improvement on a few years ago where I could have honestly said every social situation. Now I have a handful of people who I don’t feel out of place around, and I am massively grateful for that, more grateful than they’ll probably ever know. If I could spend all my time around those few people, there would be no issue… but sadly life isn’t as simple as that, and I’d rather not be spending the majority of my time feeling like an outsider.

Come on, brain. Tear down this wall. You built the fucking thing after all. I don’t think anyone else can do it but you. Please?

Computer Upgrade Time!

Back in 2012, in an early post on this blog, I documented the process of building my desktop computer, “Luna”. I have to say, back then I never expected it to be nearly 9 years before I did another major rebuild. The components I bought back then, which weren’t even high end ones at the time, have served me surprisingly well.

I have added and changed quite a lot since then, mind you. The original 2TB hard drive has been replaced by a 4TB drive plus a 500GB SSD. I’ve upgraded the graphics card several times, most recently to a GTX 1050Ti, and upped the RAM from 8GB to 16GB. I’ve replaced the TV I was originally using with two matching 21 inch LED monitors. And a few years ago I replaced the case, power supply and CPU cooler in the hope of making the system run cooler and quieter (which it did). But the core of the system, the motherboard and CPU, were until now still the same ones I put in in 2012. This felt like the right time to upgrade them, for several reasons:

  1. Most of the other stuff I enjoy is still off-limits for at least another few months due to covid restrictions, so having something fun to occupy me in the house seemed an appealing prospect.
  2. I inherited a bit of money from my dad and decided to set aside some of it to buy myself a treat.
  3. I decided it was time to switch from Linux Mint to Windows 10, and thought it would be easier to do a CPU upgrade at the same rather than upgrading the OS now and then making major hardware changes after a few months.

On that last point, Linux (like the original hardware) has served me well over the years, but just recently I’ve started to feel like it was holding me back a bit. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff with Unreal Engine 4 lately, and although Linux is a fully supported platform for running the Unreal Editor, it’s not without its problems. It runs much more slowly than on Windows and seems to crash more often as well. Plus, although the editor itself runs on Linux, some of the supporting software such as the asset marketplace doesn’t, so you have to jump through some hoops if you want to download content from there. I’ve also got more into playing games again, something else that’s way easier and better supported on Windows.

The CPU, RAM and Windows DVD waiting eagerly to be installed

In terms of the CPU, I decided to go for something quite high end this time, in the hope that it’ll speed up my 3D work, so I went for a 10th generation Intel i7. Only 16GB of RAM to start with, the same as I had before, but while the old board was maxed out with 16GB, the new one can take up to 128GB, so plenty of headroom for future expansion when it’s required. No new graphics card just yet for reasons that are probably obvious! For the moment I’m just using the stock Intel cooler (most of the “premium” models seem to be too big for my case even though it’s a reasonably spacious tower) and the 450W power supply I put in a few years ago, but I suspect those might turn out to be the weak points of the system and need to be upgraded before too long.

Installing the new motherboard

I was a little nervous about installing the hardware – having just spent the best part of £300 on a CPU I didn’t want to end up destroying it before I even got the chance to use it – but in fact that all went smoothly, and the only stumbling block was getting my files off the old system in a form that the new one would be able to read. My initial plan was to copy everything to a large NTFS-formatted external hard drive, but I hadn’t realised quite how bad the Linux NTFS driver was; it took literally days to copy less than 2 terabytes of data. Then when it was finally done and I plugged the drive into my Windows laptop to make sure it was readable, all kinds of errors came up. I’m sure it wasn’t this slow and flaky the last time I used it. In the end I gave up, reformatted the drive in Windows and SCPed all the files from Linux over the network, which was much faster and less painful.

Time to breathe a sigh of relief as the Windows installer runs

Setting up Windows 10 Professional also went smoothly. It took me a week or so to get everything installed and working as I wanted, but it was well worth it. Unreal Engine, the app I was mostly doing this for, is blazingly fast now! On the old system I would be sitting waiting several minutes for it to start up, or for shaders to compile or lighting to build. It’s now a matter of seconds in most cases. There are other advantages too. It’s nice to have my entire Steam library installed, and “real” Microsoft Office for work, and to know that if I see a game or application that appeals to me I won’t have to be looking anxiously to see if there’s a Linux version or a convoluted way to run it under emulation. (For things that are better done the Linux way I’ve got a choice of MSYS2, a Linux Mint virtual machine, and even a Raspberry Pi 4 for the handful of tasks I need an actual “bare metal” Linux machine for, so I won’t be missing out there).

It’s definitely been a worthwhile upgrade. I look forward to hopefully creating some cool stuff with it, and improving it further with a nice shiny new RTX GPU when the bloody Bitcoin mining bubble finally bursts.

(Oh, and it’s still called Luna, or rather “Luna-2021”. I tried to think of another name, partly because we’ve had another Luna* in the house for several years now, but I couldn’t think of anything I liked. Anyway I quite like the idea that it’s still the same machine in spirit, even if every component has now been replaced in a Trigger’s Broom-esque way).

*The other Luna

The halfway point… ?

It’s now six months since the UK went into lockdown due to Covid-19. One of the first things I did when I realised I would be in the house a lot more than planned this year was something I’d been meaning to do for a while… I got my old CD collection out, put it somewhere accessible and sorted the discs into alphabetical order.

Singles followed by albums, in alphabetical order
Classical CDs

A bit later on I also got hold of a nice new stand for my faithful hifi components (thanks Laura!).

Hifi on its new stand

The hifi has been a good investment. I think I spent about £400 on the main components soon after I started work, and nearly 20 years on they still work flawlessly and sound great. If I’d bought a cheap and nasty one instead I could easily have ended up spending more money in total replacing it every time it broke, plus it obviously wouldn’t have sounded as good.

As an aside, I feel a bit embarrassingly old fashioned to still be clinging to physical media and a bulky hifi component system in this day and age. Aren’t we all supposed to be listening to Spotify on our smart speakers by now? But to tell the truth, I’ve just never really got on with streaming services, though I did try them for a while. I think it’s the feeling that I no longer have control of my music collection… what if one of my favourite artists does something “bad” and Spotify decides to pull all their stuff as a result? It seems like there is already a precedent for this with, for example the Michael Jackson episode of the Simpsons being removed from streaming services and future DVD releases as a result of allegations against him. As someone who gets very emotionally invested in my music and TV, I feel safer having a physical copy, or at least a locally stored DRM-free copy that can’t be taken away from me on a whim.

(I think it also didn’t help that, soon after I first got Spotify, I boarded a long flight only to discover that it had picked that moment to delete all the music I’d downloaded).

More to the point, I just like my CDs and my hifi, damn it. I always dreamed of having a big CD collection and a nice good quality hifi when I was a teenager, and now that I have those things I should be enjoying them, not feeling ashamed of them.

The collection is certainly big. It currently runs to 121 singles, 261 pop/rock albums, 166 classical CDs, and 39 compilation CDs. And when I’d finished sorting them, I decided, “You know what, I’m going to listen to ALL of them”. So I did.

Or rather, I started listening to all of them, because nearly six months on I’m still nowhere near finished yet. I generally average about one or two discs per day while I’m working. I started off listening through both the singles and the classical CDs in alphabetical order, then when I finished the singles I started on the albums. At this point I have listened to 126 classical CDs, 121 singles and 28 albums, whilst I have 40 classical, 233 albums and 39 compilations still to go. In case you were wondering, I’m up to Tchaikovsky with the classical and The Bluetones with the rock/pop.

One of the reasons I wanted to start this was because I had a feeling we’d be out of lockdown again before I finished, and that was kind of a comforting thought. My brother was more pessimistic and thought I would finish all the CDs before that happened. I think I was at least half-right in the end… I wouldn’t class the current restrictions as a lockdown anymore, so the lockdown did end before I got to the end of my CDs. I’m now starting to wonder whether the pandemic will be over and we’ll be back to “full normal” before I’m done. Given what I’ve been reading lately about vaccines, and given that the UK authorities now seem to be hinting at about another 6 months of restrictions, it’s possible, though I don’t quite dare yet to believe it’s likely.

I decided at the start that I would make myself listen to every CD in full, the only exception being that I could skip a track if I’d already listened to exactly the same version of it on a previous disc. This made me a bit apprehensive, both because I knew some of them would bring back memories I’d rather not think about, and also because I suspected some of what I used to listen to in my teens wouldn’t have aged very well. So far, though, it’s been OK. Two songs did move me to tears (I won’t tell you what they were because you’ll think I’m mad), one of them because it must have been the first time I’d heard the original version in well over 20 years and I’d forgotten how nice it is compared to the blander album version I’ve heard many times since.

I discovered a handful of tracks that for some reason had never made it to being ripped and put on my phone, so of course I remedied that straight away. I think there were even a few whole CDs (presents and impulse buys) that I’ve never listened to at all until now. Mostly, though, the only new stuff I discovered was thumping, repetitive dance mixes on the B-sides of a lot of the singles that reminded me why I never bothered listening to them in the first place.

Anyway, it’s been something to do to mark the passage of these weird times, and a nice little trip down memory lane. I could have just listened to all the same music on my computer but it wouldn’t have been the same somehow. Getting the actual physical CDs out, seeing the covers and the booklets and the disc designs has been almost as much of a nostalgia hit as the music itself.

Why a Covid-19 vaccine is probably closer than you think

Since the pandemic started, I’ve spent way more time than is healthy reading about it on the internet. I’ve read numerous news articles and discussion threads on all aspects of the Covid situation, and to be honest most of it has been pretty depressing. Everyone wants things to get back to normal in a safe way, but even now that we’re out of the full lockdown, the prospect of that happening still seems quite remote.

A vaccine would obviously be a huge step towards that (maybe even the only realistic way of achieving it), but most of what I read let me feeling despondent about the chances of it happening any time soon. After all, vaccines always take years to develop, don’t they? And even if they manage to do it quicker than that, it’ll mean they’ve cut corners on the safety testing. Anyway, we don’t even know if a vaccine for Covid-19 is possible – there’s no vaccine for any other coronavirus, no vaccine for HIV or for the common cold, and they’ve been around a lot longer. And wasn’t there that story about the guy who got Covid twice? Surely that means it doesn’t induce immunity, in which case how’s a vaccine going to work? Even if we do get one, we probably won’t be able to wipe out Covid – after all, the only virus ever to be fully eradicated was Smallpox and that took decades.

But then, during one of my information-guzzling sessions online, I stumbled across some communities that were very different from what I’d seen before. Communities that were largely made up of medical experts and where posts were strictly moderated to prevent people posting claims that can’t be verified from reputable sources such as academic journals. What immediately jumped out at me was how much more positive they seemed about the chances of a vaccine than most of the general public seem to be. Interested, I kept on reading, and soon discovered that all the pessimistic claims I made in my second paragraph, claims that I’ve seen repeated ad nauseum for months now, are actually untrue (or at least not particularly relevant).

(Or at the very least, the scientists who know most about vaccine development regard them as untrue, which right now is good enough for me).

I thought I would write this post to discuss some of the main Covid-19 vaccine myths and, hopefully, convince you that the picture isn’t nearly as bleak as we’ve been led to believe by ill-informed journalists and commentators. I’m not by any means an expert on this, just an intelligent and interested person who’s done some research and listened to the real experts. As such, if you are an expert on this and I’ve said anything untrue or nonsensical, please get in touch to correct me. If you are interested in doing further, more in-depth reading on this subject, the r/COVID19 sub-reddit is a good place to start.

On with the myths…

Doesn’t it take years to develop a vaccine? And wouldn’t it be unsafe to try and do it in less time than that?

It often takes a long time to develop a vaccine, yes. But this is actually less to do with safety than people think, and more to do with two other factors:

  1. Most of the “easy” diseases have already had vaccines for decades now, so what’s left is the ones that are harder to vaccinate against, and those inevitably take longer.
  2. For the Phase III trials, you have to wait for enough people in your test group to be exposed to the virus you’re trying to vaccinate against, so that you can see whether the vaccine protects them or not. For a rare virus, it can take a very long time for this to happen.

Neither of these reasons applies to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19). The reason we didn’t already have a vaccine for it is because it’s new, not because it’s particularly difficult to protect against (based on our current knowledge it seems that it should, in fact, be reasonably easy to produce a vaccine for). And waiting for people to be exposed to the disease won’t take too long in the middle of a pandemic either, because there’s plenty of it going around (at least in some places).

It’s a common misconception that Phase III trials take a long time because scientists are waiting to see if their vaccine causes weird, unexpected side effects years after it’s been administered. In fact, this sort of effect is extremely rare – vaccines do cause side effects, but they typically happen on a timescale of days or weeks. There is not really a plausible biological mechanism for a seemingly safe vaccine to suddenly start causing problems years down the line.

It’s true that certain changes have been made to speed up the vaccine development process, but (at least in the west) these are not things that affect the safety. For example, starting to manufacture millions of doses of a vaccine before it’s been fully tested is obviously a big financial risk that’s only worthwhile because the financial impact of Covid-19 itself is so enormous, but it’s not a health risk at all.

It’s also worth remembering that developing a vaccine in a period of months isn’t actually completely unprecedented – a new flu vaccine is developed every year to target whichever strains seem likely to cause the most problems this season.

We still don’t have vaccines for HIV, the common cold or any other coronavirus. Doesn’t that mean we’re unlikely to find one for SARS-CoV-2 any time soon?

HIV is a particularly nasty virus. It does all sorts of tricks like mutating frequently, hiding within a patient’s own immune cells, and so on, and it can’t naturally be fought off by the immune system. A vaccine is therefore likely to be extremely difficult. SARS-CoV-2, on the other hand, doesn’t do any of that stuff. It’s just a bog standard ordinary virus and there’s no reason to think it’s particularly difficult to vaccinate against.

It’s not completely true to say that we don’t have a vaccine for any other coronavirus – we actually do have vaccines already for some animal coronaviruses. The reason we don’t have any for the other human coronaviruses is less to do with it being particularly difficult and more that it just hasn’t been necessary. The original SARS and MERS were both brought under control through other means before vaccines could be developed, and the common cold coronaviruses are not really dangerous enough to be worth putting in the effort to make vaccines.

Most vaccine candidates fail, so we shouldn’t get our hopes up over the Covid-19 vaccine research.

Most vaccine candidates (about two thirds) do indeed fail… but they mostly fail quite early on in the testing process. Several of the Covid-19 vaccines have already reached Phase III trials, and historically the eventual success rate for vaccines that make it this far is about 85%.

Of course, we can’t take anything for granted yet. It’s still possible that all those vaccines could fall at the final hurdle. But at this point it’s really quite unlikely, especially since they’re based on various different technologies, so a problem that trips up one of them may not affect the others at all.

But do we even know if it’s possible to develop immunity to Covid-19? There were a few people who tested positive twice…

Some people have indeed tested positive twice, but this doesn’t mean that catching Covid doesn’t give you any immunity, or that it’s not possible to induce immunity via a vaccine. Everyone’s immune system is a little different and it’s normal for there to be outliers – for example, most people are immune to chicken pox after they’ve had it, but a few can catch it again. It’s not at all surprising that it’s the same with Covid.

More to the point, although some people are confirmed to have tested positive with Covid twice, I’m not aware of anyone actually having got ill with it twice. This suggests that although the virus was detected in their system a second time, they had enough immunity to prevent it from causing symptoms the second time.

I think a lot of the hysteria about whether immunity is possible or not is due to people not understanding how scientists communicate (and conversely, scientists not understanding how they come across to the general public). We’ve had instances of high profile scientists saying things like “There is no evidence that people develop immunity after having this virus”, and a lot of people freaking out and interpreting this as meaning “People probably don’t become immune after having this virus”. In actual fact, it’s likely the scientists meant something more like “People probably DO become immune after having this virus, because that’s what happens with most diseases and there’s no particular reason to think this one is any different, we just haven’t directly observed it happening yet”. There’s also probably been an (understandable) element of wanting to discourage people who’ve had the virus from disregarding the social distancing restrictions in case it turns out that they (or at least some of them) can still spread the virus even after recovering from it.

Even if we get a vaccine soon, it’s likely to be imperfect, and we’ll still have to live with Covid-19.

Whilst this is true, even an imperfect vaccine could be a total game changer. Even if a vaccine only prevented 50% of infections that would otherwise have happened (either because it was relatively weak in its effects or because not everyone was able to receive it), that would immediately cut the infamous R number in half, making it far easier to control the virus without needing the kind of draconian measures we’ve seen over the past few months.

There’s been a lot of talk about how the Oxford vaccine (one of the current front runners, which could be approved within two or three months if all goes well) didn’t prevent monkeys from contracting the virus, it only stopped them from getting seriously ill with it. Whilst it would obviously be preferable to get complete “sterilising” immunity from a vaccine (i.e. completely preventing people both from getting infected by the virus and from passing it onto others), it’s worth bearing in mind that:

  1. Even a vaccine that “only” prevented people from getting seriously ill would put us in a much better position than we’re in now. It would prevent numerous deaths and hospitalisations and relieve a lot of the pressure the virus has put us under.
  2. It’s fairly likely that people with less severe symptoms would also be less infectious, so they might still spread the virus less than they would have without the vaccine.
  3. The monkeys in the trial were exposed to extremely high levels of the virus, far higher than any person could ever be expected to come into contact with in normal circumstances. It’s entirely possible that, given a more realistic level of exposure, this vaccine might prevent people from catching the virus at all. We just won’t know until the trials progress further.

Union Canal section 5: Calder Crescent to Hermiston

This was definitely the most miserable weather we’d had for one of these walks yet, but I decided I was going to do it anyway rather than be cooped up in the house, for the sake of my sanity. My 21 month old son, though, had the right idea; previously he’s been happy to toddle along on his reins at least for the first part of each walk, but this time he was having none of it and immediately demanded to be put in his cosy buggy with the waterproof cover over it.

We started from the car park at Calder Crescent and walked back a little way to the Westburn Footbridge where we finished the last walk, then set off back the other way for our main walk. Unlike the last, this stretch of canal hasn’t changed hugely since I first walked it 30 years ago, though there have been some additions. The first is the Bridge 8 Hub by the car park, where it’s now possible to hire canoes and kayaks for fun on the water. They’re closed at the moment due to Covid-19, but it’s still possible to admire the beautiful wildlife murals painted on some of their storage containers.

Colourful containers and pretty carvings at Bridge 8 Hub
Colourful containers and pretty carvings at Bridge 8 Hub

Bridge 8 itself is a bit to the north, now sandwiched between the two utilitarian concrete bridges that replaced it. Although the canal runs mainly east-to-west, a few hundred yards here runs north-to-south: the lack of locks on the Union Canal means that it tends to wiggle about more than most canals do in order to keep on the same level, as well as making heavy use of embankments, cuttings and aqueducts.

Bridge 8 from underneath its replacement
Bridge 8 from underneath its replacement

Speaking of aqueducts, there’s an interesting one just after the canal rounds the corner to head west again, a modern concrete one crossing over the very busy Edinburgh City Bypass. This road very nearly spelled disaster for the canal when it was first proposed in the 70s: the original plan was for it to cut across the then-derelict canal at water level, possibly putting an end to any hope of reopening the waterway into Edinburgh, or at least making this prohibitively expensive. But various canal users, enthusiasts and related organisations fought the proposals and won, the road authorities agreeing to put the road in a cutting so that it could pass under the canal instead.

Scott Russell Aqueduct
Top of Scott Russell Aqueduct with Edinburgh City Bypass down below

Originally the aqueduct was called the Hermiston Aqueduct after the nearby village, but it was later named the Scott Russell Aqueduct after an engineer called John Scott Russell. A quiet rural section of the Union Canal might seem an unlikely place for a major scientific discovery to happen, but he discovered the Solitary Wave here by observing the waves produced by passing boats soon after the canal opened. As well as the name plate on the aqueduct, there’s also a plaque on bridge 11 commemorating him.

Plaque on bridge 11
Plaque on bridge 11 commemorating John Scott Russell

The canal changes markedly in character once you cross the bypass. The houses and commercial buildings that have lined its banks since the beginning are replaced by open fields. The bridges are different too – while most of the original stone arched canal bridges within Edinburgh have gone, from here onwards almost all of them survive. There are also a few new ones – bridge 10A at Gogar Station Road is a bit nicer than most of these, with its stone cladding and arched deck.

Bridge 10A at Gogar Station Road
Bridge 10A at Gogar Station Road

While the canal itself looks much the same here as it did in 1990, it doesn’t sound the same – the M8 motorway was extended in the mid-1990s and runs almost parallel to the canal, getting particularly close at bridge 12, resulting in a constant roar of traffic on what was once a fairly tranquil walk or sail. This is where we turned back, having finally had enough of the rain for one day.

Union Canal section 4: Wester Hailes

For the first time in my current attempt to walk the whole length of the canal, I’m deviating from the sections we walked the first time, 30 years ago. In fact, we didn’t walk this section at all first time round, but in our defence we did have a very good reason… there was no canal there back then!

Here’s the view at the end of Hailes Park back in the early 1990s…

Blockage on Union Canal at Wester Hailes
The canal disappeared into the Dumbryden Road embankment

and here’s roughly the same view this morning. Better, huh?

Union Canal at Dumbryden Road
Union Canal at Dumbryden Road

Just over a mile of the canal was filled in here in the late 1960s to make way for the new housing scheme at Wester Hailes. The water flow was maintained through large underground pipes, with a pumping station to keep it flowing to the now-cut-off city section. (Contrary to popular belief, canals aren’t stagnant; a lot of water actually flows through them every day, so if you block one off, this water still has to go somewhere). I once read somewhere that the original plan for the housing estate was to keep the canal as a sort of linear park, but after some boys drowned in the nearby Murray Burn, the plan was changed and both canal and burn were culverted instead.

But by the end of the century, things were changing. There was increasing momentum behind the idea of reopening the canal and eventually its owners succeeded in obtaining a large grant from the National Lottery’s Millennium Fund that would (along with funding from other organisations) completely reopen both the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde Canal as well as linking them together with an impressive new rotating boat lift (which we’ll come to in another 28 miles or so). After two years of painstaking construction work and many millions of pounds spent, the pumps at Wester Hailes were switched off in the summer of 2001, the water flowing freely through a brand new canal channel instead.

Union Canal at Wester Hailes
Union Canal at Wester Hailes

Thankfully the canal mostly flowed under roads and green spaces rather than buildings, which made restoration easier and less disruptive than it might have been. The only demolition required was an internet cafe and, other than at the west end where it’s been diverted slightly to the south to avoid Wester Hailes Education Centre’s playing fields, the restored canal mostly follows the same line as the original canal did before it was filled in.

I seem to talk about bridges in all of these posts, and this one will be no exception, not least because there are loads of them on this stretch of canal – six road bridges and seven footbridges, far more than anywhere else. The road bridges are all the same design as the one at Kingsknowe, though number 7 is noticeably chunkier since it carries the Wester Hailes Road dual carriageway. My favourite one, though, is this one next to Dumbryden Road, because it has a interesting story behind it.

Bridge rescued from inside embankment
The bridge that was rescued from inside an embankment

This wasn’t one of the original 62 canal bridges (you can tell as it’s lacking a number on the keystone), but it’s built to the same design so I think it’s a pretty early one. It also survived being buried in a road embankment for about 30 years! During that time, the only clue to its existence was a low, slightly curved stone wall next to Dumbryden Road that looked suspiciously like a standard Union Canal bridge parapet. The bridge was dug out and patched up during the restoration work and doesn’t look much the worse for its ordeal. The parapet on the other side, which would have been right under the road surface, was missing and a new one had to be constructed, though time has made the difference in the colour of the stone less obvious than it was at first.

You see a lot of dog walkers along this stretch, not surprisingly considering how much housing surrounds it. At one of the road bridges it appears some of the dogs couldn’t wait until the concrete surface on the towpath had set before using it.

Paw prints in the concrete
Paw prints in the concrete

Overall, putting the canal back seems to have been a success. It’s a nice green space for local people, especially now that it’s been here long enough for the vegetation to grow a bit, and obviously essential for boats to get in and out of Edinburgh. If its presence has caused major safety problems I haven’t heard about them – the water is pretty shallow with gently sloping sides and there are generally plenty of people around to help if anyone did get into trouble.

We turned back at the Westburn Footbridge where the former filled in section comes to an end and the original canal takes over. You can still see the entrance to the old culvert on the north side (you can at the other end too), but otherwise there’s not much indication now that this is anything other than a normal stretch of canal. Well, except for the big display board telling you about it, of course.

Culvert entrance
The entrance to the culvert that used to take the canal underneath Wester Hailes before it was reopened

Union Canal section 3: Slateford to Dumbryden

This canal walk starts off on a high – literally – with the Slateford Aqueduct, soaring far above the valley of the Water of Leith on eight elegant stone arches. On most canals an aqueduct of this size would be the undisputed king, but the Union has more than its fair share of impressive aqueducts and Slateford clocks in at only the second longest and third tallest. Though famous engineer Thomas Telford apparently thought it was the best aqueduct in the country when he inspected it, so I guess that counts for something.

Slateford Aqueduct
Slateford Aqueduct, with the bowling club in front and the railway viaduct behind

Like the first two this is a rerun of a walk I did about 30 years ago. The aqueduct is still the same as it was back then, but there have been changes down below, in the form of a new section of the Water of Leith walkway suspended over the river, with some quite steep steps linking up to the canal towpath. (I had to carry my son up and down these steps in his “lightweight” buggy, and can now confirm that just because the buggy is lightweight doesn’t mean the occupant is). I think this was one of the last sections of the river walkway to be completed, probably because the lack of space on the bank here for a path made it a bit tricky. It now stretches almost uninterrupted from Balerno all the way to Leith. There’s also a little visitor centre between the aqueduct and the main road here, but that was of course closed when I passed (along with just about everything else right now).

Slateford Aqueduct top
Slateford Aqueduct top, with overflow sluice gate on the left

This was a very green walk with the vegetation on both banks looking a bit overgrown. I guess the recent hot and wet weather coupled with lack of maintenance during the Covid-19 restrictions has probably caused that, but I did pass the Scottish Canals dredger on my way back along today so maybe they are getting back on top of things now.

Scottish Canals dredger
Scottish Canals dredger working on a very green canal

Two railway bridges cross the canal west of Slateford. The first carried the Balerno branch line which is now a walkway leading towards Colinton. One of our regular dog walks when I was a child was to park at Slateford, walk along the canal towpath to this bridge, then along the railway path, down into Craiglockhart Dell, and back to Slateford along the river. The other railway bridge is still in use and carries the West Coast Mainline, whose viaduct runs parallel to the canal aqueduct but at a lower level.

Balerno Branch bridge
Balerno Branch bridge

There’s a tiny aqueduct under the canal at Redhall between the two railway bridges, just a pedestrian tunnel really. I’m sure it used to be possible to walk through it, but it was flooded when I went down for a look today.

Bigger changes have happened round the corner at Kingsknowe. After the canal was closed, bridge 5 by the station was taken away and replaced by a road embankment, completely blocking the canal (though with large pipes under the surface to maintain the water flow). Several bridges along the route suffered the same fate, though this damage was eventually repaired. Thirty years ago we had to climb up the embankment and cross the road to continue our walk, but today I was able to walk under the reinstated bridge 5 instead.

Kingsknowe Road blockage
The old blockage at Kingsknowe, taken in the 1990s

These new bridges are all of the same style, with an “arch and keystone” effect cast into the concrete of the deck as a nod to the canal’s original stone arched bridges, and “MM” engraved on some of the pilasters, recognising that the largest portion of the money used to build them came from the National Lottery Millennium Fund.

Kingsknowe Bridge
The new bridge 5 at Kingsknowe

The work that had to be done to reopen the canal for navigation at Kingsknowe Bridge pales into insignificance compared to what was at the other end of Hailes Park… but that’s where I turned back today, so it will have to wait til next time.

Union Canal section 2 (Harrison Park to Slateford)

I walked the second section of the Union Canal today, from Harrison Park to Slateford. (See my first post for background on what I’m doing and why). Again this corresponded exactly to a section we walked back in 1989. For some reason I thought this stretch was much longer than the first one, but in reality it’s almost exactly the same length (about a mile).

Flats at Meggetland
I remember when this was all fields. OK, playing fields… but still…

This part of the canal, a pleasant meander through the suburbs of south west Edinburgh, really hasn’t changed very much at all in the last thirty years. It’s still quiet and pleasant and green, though slightly less green than it was past the Meggetland playing fields where several new blocks of flats have been built on what was once open grass. On the plus side, at least they’re reasonably nice looking compared to most modern flats, with their round towers and multicoloured brickwork. Another change (which applies to the whole urban portion of the canal) is that the towpath, once just a rough track, is now tarmacked and has LED lighting embedded in it, making walking the canal after dark much safer than it used to be.

Bridge 4 at Meggetland

There are three bridges over the canal between Harrison Park and Slateford, two of which are worth mentioning. The first of the canal’s original stone arched bridges survives next to Meggetland. When the route first opened there were 62 of these, 50 of which still stand today, which is not bad really considering it’s now two centuries since they were built. The one at Meggetland is number 4, with a handy new sign on it saying “Bridge 4” just in case the large “4” that’s always been carved onto the keystone wasn’t obvious enough. This bridge is no longer in use, having been bypassed by a nondescript new concrete bridge on the east side; all of the canal’s original bridges are now listed structures, so the ones that have required upgrading since the 1980s or so have their replacements alongside like this (prior to then the old bridge would just have been unceremoniously demolished, as most of the others within Edinburgh have been).

Allan Park Footbridge
Allan Park Footbridge, originally built as a tram bridge

There’s also an unassuming metal footbridge at Craiglockhart, which I only found out recently has more of a history than I’d realised. It was actually built originally to carry a tramway to Redford Barracks, which perhaps explains why it looks more substantial than most footbridges. The tram line was never finished and it was only ever used to carry water mains, which you can still see attached to it in the photo above.

Top of Prince Charlie Aqueduct

In addition to the overbridges, there are a couple of places on this section where another route passes underneath the canal. The first is where the Edinburgh South Suburban railway line tunnels under the canal (as well as a boathouse and Colinton Road) adjacent to the long-defunct Craiglockhart Station. This line is still used to allow freight trains to bypass Haymarket and Waverley, but hasn’t seen a passenger service since the 1960s.

Prince Charlie Aqueduct by night
Prince Charlie Aqueduct over Slateford Road by night

The canal also passes over Slateford Road on a wide single-arched, slightly art deco style concrete aqueduct which, as the inscription above the arch suggests, replaced the much narrower original stone aqueduct in 1937. The Union Canal is well known for its aqueducts and we’ll be seeing much more of them (including in the very next section, in fact!).