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The all-too common cold

As someone who is in their eighth decade, I have had to come to terms with the inescapable fact that most of my life is behind me. So looking back is an everyday occurrence. But that doesn't mean that I have abandoned ambition.

The last couple of days has seen me step up the running part of my walk. I now feel sufficiently sore after exercise to know that it's really making a difference. And my heart beats per minute at the end, I do the running towards the end of my walk, have risen into the zone where there should be real cardio benefits. But even so, the average speed of my locomotion remains a tad under six and a half kilometres per hour.

I vaguely have had the view that a suitable end game should be that I am fit enough to do a 10 kilometre run in a decent time. I am already covering that distance on most days, so that's half the requirement. I merely have to up my speed by a bit over 50% to get the time under the hour.

The world record for 10,000 metres, on an athletic track rather than on our up and down roads and paths, is about twenty-six minutes. So being well over twice the age of the record holder, if I can get my time down to twice that world record, that sounds a decent target. So a one hour target is it. Then I shall look for a competitive run to enter.

It is said that golfers preen their egos if they do a round of a championship course in one stroke for each year of their age. Maybe the general target for running should be the world record divided by the younger age and multiplied by the older. With a 23-year old record holder and my being 73, that makes my target for 10,000 metres 82 minutes. So I am setting that as the target for the end of Parliamentary recess.

There's an important point in all this. Even in one's eighth decade, it's necessary to still be setting targets. Gain new skills and knowledge; work on the fitness of body and brain.

We can be pretty certain that the future remains very uncertain in public life and how it may affect us as private citizens. We are in the middle of a pandemic caused by a new coronavirus. A small proportion of our common colds, I think I more or less permanently have the symptoms of one, are from this virus family. Some think as much as a third of acute respiratory infections follow a cold (careful: I cannot find a source to back up this memory but it sounds plausible).

For forty-three years between 1946 and 1989, the Common Cold Unit (CCU) in England's Wiltshire conducted research to understand this most frequent of illnesses. As part of its contribution to widening knowledge of the current pandemic, Elsevier, a Dutch publisher, has created an archive of relevant research which is free to browse (

One of the papers in it was published by David Tyrell, former Director of the CCU, in 1992 (

A selected quote which shows that some things never change is on page 10 (page 113 on the printed page; it's that page in an academic journal);

"Possible strategies for prevention and treatment Common colds, like any other infectious disease, might be brought under control by intervening in a number of ways. These are to prevent transmission, enhance host immunity, limit virus replication..."

Sounds rather familiar.

I was born in 1946, the same year as the CCU. In my whole life, research has been conducted worldwide; without delivering a vaccine against the coronavirus, or the other viruses, that causes the common cold.

My planning assumptions are in two parts. Firstly, the reprioritisation of basic hygiene measures is the measure that will make the biggest reduction in our picking up bugs, including the SARS-CoV-2 virus causing so much difficulty right now, from others. I now carry a small sanitising spray with me at all times, wash my hands regularly and thoroughly, and expect to do so for the rest of my days. I assume this needs to be a permanent change.

Secondly, and rather less encouragingly, I assume that since we have spent my whole life looking for something that would tinker with our immune system to stop the common cold in its tracks, and have failed, we won't develop a vaccine for COVID-19. But given that we have been successful in developing anti-flu vaccines, I may well be wrong.

I can do something about my first action, in the hope that my second assumption matters much less than it might do otherwise.

Technology and our understanding of the mechanisms in the human body are continuing to increase, and the rate of understanding is also rising sharply. But.

On the 5th of October 1972, I was at a conference at the University of York for a conference on the future of COBOL. That's the COmmon Business-Oriented Language which is a programming language then widely used on business computers. It was designed as a follow-on to the first "plain English" programming language, Flow-Matic, previously designed by Rear-Admiral (from 1983) Grace Hopper. Part of the attraction was that she was a speaker at the Conference. I was privileged to join a small private meeting with her. She was a true hero of computing. When she retired from the US Navy at the age of 79 years eight months and five days, she was the oldest ever uniformed member of that country's armed services.

I made a genuine sacrifice to meet her. The Conference had been suspended so that attendees could sit in the main hall to listen to the last ever live broadcast of the Goon Show. I choose to listen to her in a side room. As someone from across the pond, that radio program meant nothing to her.

Grace's legacy lives on today in the way we do "linear" programming (if you are not a techie don't bother to ask). And after a program run failed in 1947 when a moth, the Americans call them bugs, got jammed in an electro-mechanical computer she was using, the term "computer bug" became common currency.
By Courtesy of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, VA., 1988. - U.S. Naval Historical Center Online Library Photograph NH 96566-KN
COBOL is still widely used. Not much for new programs but still firmly mainstream in programs in use around the world.

Not being modern or fashionable, maintenance of COBOL programs rests on the shoulders of old lags who learned the language decades ago. Their number has been shrinking for some time.

One of the ironies of the present pandemic can be seen in the US program to payout support to those affected by it. It has required amendments to their "MasterFile" software; which is written in COBOL. Not easy to change this software from 1962, especially as the skills reside in an age group most severely affected by the pandemic (see

COBOL was the first programming language I learned in 1969.

I wonder what the current going rate is?

I don't need to leave my house to help out.

2020-07-15 Correction: Reference to "SARS-CoV-19" virus has been amended to be "SARS-CoV-2 virus".


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