Sexism and tractor porn in British politics

You’ve gotta love British politics. Not for what it does or how it works but for its sheer insanity.

At the end of April, Neil Parish, a Conservative MP, was looking at porn sites in the House of Commons–so that’s during working hours and in public–when a couple of his fellow MPs couldn’t help noticing. 

A couple of female fellow MPs, wording that calls attention to the underlying fuckedupedness of the English language, since the word fellow tells us we’re talking about the male of the species, although we’re not. The language doesn’t offer us a parallel word for females or for humans of both or unspecified genders. But never mind that. It’s the language we have, so let’s work with it. We can argue about fixing it when we have the time. In, say, a few hundred years if the species (not to mention the language) is still functioning.

My spellcheck program (since we’ve taken a break to talk about wording) doesn’t stub its toe on fuckedupedness. It just smiles and continues across the kitchen to pick up the mouse parts the cat left in the night. So let’s assume it’s a word English relies on heavily.

At long last, I bring you a relevant photo: This lovely flower is called honesty. What could be more appropriate?

But back to our friend Neil: The aforesaid fellow MPs went public about him watching porn at work and all hell broke loose. And since the incident followed on the heels of another public incident of sexism in the House of Commons, it all turned into a particularly shit-filled shitstorm. (Spell check also accepts shitstorm. Don’t you love the way language evolves?) 

The earlier incident? One of our trashier national newspapers quoted an unnamed MP as saying that Angela Raynor, a leader of the Opposition (that’s the Labour Party), made a point of crossing and uncrossing her legs to distract the prime minister (who’s from the Conservative Party and male) when he was speaking. 

The nerve of her. Any decent woman would have wrapped said legs in burlap. (That’s hessian in British.) Honestly, none of this would be necessary if women would stop showing their ankles in public. How are men supposed to concentrate on running the country with women’s body parts on display everywhere they look?

Where were we before I indulged in that fit of decency? All hell had already broken loose about sexism in Parliament, and in rode Neil Parish and his (I assume) smart phone, although for all I know it could’ve been a laptop, with a bigger screen showing bigger pictures of improbably enlarged body parts.

After a bit of unconvincing waffle (he might have looked at porn, but it might have been by accident), he admitted that he’d watched porn in the Commons twice, but the first time it really did happen by accident. See, he’d been looking for pictures of tractors when up popped (so to speak) this porn site.  

It could happen to anyone. And to be fair, it’s no sillier than the excuse someone offered for one of Boris Johnson’s breaches of his own lockdown rules: He was ambushed by a birthday cake.

Which might or might not have been on a tractor.

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All of this opened the door to a public discussion of sexism in Parliament, and (refreshingly) it’s not just the opposition parties doing the talking. Women in the Conservative Party–again, that’s the party in power–have waded in, with one suggesting that male MPs should all keep their hands in their pockets, because there isn’t a woman in Parliament who hadn’t been subjected to “wandering hands.” 

What the suggestion lacks in effectiveness it makes up for in evocativeness.

I’ll spare you the specific examples. You’ve heard it all before, and if you’re of the female persuasion you’ve experienced it, but last I heard 56 MPs had been accused of sexual misconduct in one form or another.

To demonstrate how thoroughly the government doesn’t get it, the business minister announced that although there were some bad apples, “that doesn’t mean the entire culture is extremely misogynistic or full of male entitlement.”

If you’re ever following a recipe that calls for a half pound of entitlement and you don’t have one in the refrigerator, you’re welcome to dump that one into the frying pan: The person who doesn’t experience the problem tells the people who do that it’s not as extensive as their silly little minds let them think it is. Because he understands the situation better they possibly could.

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Not entirely unrelated to this is a 2020 survey reporting that MPs drink more heavily than the general population, with 29% of the ones who answered the survey falling into the risky drinking category. The survey doesn’t seem to have looked at whether they drink at work or after, but the building that houses Parliament is full of bars, and the booze is comparatively cheap. My money’s on a lot of it happening during working hours.

The business secretary (remember him?) said closing the bars would be an “excessively puritanical” response to the problem of sexism in Parliament.

At least he didn’t say “boys will be boys.” At least not in public.

 

The role of traffic cones in British politics

The combination of Tractorgate, Partygate (that’s Boris Johnson breaking his own lockdown rules), and epidemic government incompetence led me to learn a new political phrase: a cones hotline moment. It came into existence when John Major’s government had lost its way in the dark and decided it could generate light by launching a proposal so spectacularly lightless that it became Westminster shorthand for the moment when (warning: metaphor shift ahead) the rising water reaches the governmental nostrils and the only thing anyone can think to do is spend money on a phone line so people can complain about something they know won’t change. In Major’s case, the subject was roadworks. Which is disappointing. Based on the name, I was hoping it was about rogue traffic cones.

I owe thanks to Gaby Hinsliff, writing in the Guardian, for that information.

Has the Johnson government reached its cones hotline moment? Possibly. As the cost of living soars and increasing numbers of people struggle to pay the rent, stay warm, and feed themselves (choose two, or in some cases one and a half), what does the government offer by way of help? Well, if you own a ride-on mower or a golf cart (called a golf buggy in British), it will save you some £50 a year by scrapping a European Union requirement that you insure it as if it was a car. 

Then it called on us to admire the glories Brexit has brought us.

Embarrassingly, the EU’s already scrapped the requirement. And it did so before Britain got around to it. But if the initiative appeals to you, I have a traffic cone hotline that I’d be happy to sell you. If you hurry, you can get it for 30% off.

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As people struggle to keep up with inflation and the government reorganizes the traffic cones on the Titanic, another Conservative MP delivered his informed opinion about food banks: The only reason people are using food banks is that they don’t know how to cook cheap, nutritious meals from scratch. And they can’t budget, the silly creatures.

The best answer came from Jack Monroe, a food poverty campaigner and a single mother who actually made a career out of recipes using cheap food:

“You can’t cook meals from scratch with nothing. You can’t buy cheap food with nothing. The issue is not ‘skills,’ it’s 12 years of Conservative cuts to social support. The square root of fuck all is ALWAYS going to be fuck all.”

 

In the US, Sarah Palin faces off with someone she’d have thought was an ally

From there, it’s only a small step to American politics:

Remember Sarah Palin? John McCain picked her as his running mate in a presidential election and a lot of silly people–I was one of them–thought US politics could sink no lower. 

Yeah, some jokes aren’t funny but I keep trying.

Sarah’s running for the House of Representatives, hoping to complete the term of someone who died in office, possibly of embarrassment. One of the people running against her is Santa Claus. He lives in North Pole, Alaska, possesses a luxuriant white beard, and changed his name from Tom O’Connor in 2005.

Yes, now that you ask, the new name has caused him problems with airport security once or twice. 

He used to work in law enforcement and although he’s politically unaffiliated his politics have more in common with Bernie Sanders’ than with Palin’s.

This is where I should insert something approximating a punchline but I haven’t come up with one. Sorry.

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In other US news, three former US officials–all unnamed, although presumably they had names soon after birth–told Rolling Stone that Donald Trump asked his aides, repeatedly, if China wasn’t maybe, please, using a “hurricane gun” to create hurricanes and send them to the US. And could the US retaliate militarily.

Maybe, he suggested, they could destroy the storms with nuclear weapons.

One of his press secretaris, Stephanie Grisham, said, “Stuff like that was not unusual for him. He would blurt out crazy things all the time, and tell aides to look into it or do something about it. His staff would say they’d look into, knowing that more often than not, he’d forget about it quickly – much like a toddler.”

 

Vigilantes face down the vigilantes

Remember Canada’s convoy of honking trucks protesting Covid restrictions? Well, a similar convoy gathered, complete  with bullhorns, outside a California lawmaker’s home to protest her work on a bill that would end coroner investigations of still births and require state businesses to mandate Covid vaccines for their employees.

That’s one bill? Apparently. Or maybe they’re two separate bills these guys objected to. Don’t ask me.

This convoy was run out of town by the legislator’s neighbors, who threw eggs and jumped onto the trucks to go nose to nose with the drivers. 

That’s the annoying thing about threatening, vigilante-type behavior: It’s only fun when you’re winning. 

 

And from the world of conspiracy theories

Have you heard of the claim that birds aren’t real? It occupies an uncomfortable space between conspiracy theory and satire. It started right after Trump was elected, when a guy named Peter McIndoe was watching the women’s march in Memphis and noticed some counterprotesters, who he described as “older, bigger white men, . . . aggravators .  . . encroaching on something that was not their event.”

He made a placard saying, “Birds aren’t real,” and joined them. The idea was to make an absurdist statement. When people asked what it meant, he ad libbed, saying he was part of a movement that had been around for fifty years and had tried and failed to save American birds, which were destroyed by the deep state and replaced with feathered surveillance drones.

Someone filmed him and put it on Facebook, where it went viral. Then it became a movement. People have chanted it at high school football games and shown up here and there with banners and signs. Admittedly, it didn’t spread all on its own. Once he saw what was happening, he gave it a fair bit of encouragement and some organizational structure. 

So how many people get the joke? 

Some. 

McIndoe gives interviews in character as a conspiracy believer, and some of his interviewers–the shock jocks of the world–treat him not quite as if he’s bringing the truth down from Mount Whatever but not as an obvious nutburger. They don’t say, “You do know that’s bonkers, right?” They’re noncommittal. They say things like, “Huh. That’s bad.”

“Real conspiracy theorists will approach me like I’m their brother,” McIndoe said, “like I’m part of their team. They will start spouting hateful rhetoric and racist ideas, because they feel as if I’m safe.” 

It sounds like that’s evolving, though. Now “they think Birds Aren’t Real is a CIA psy-op. They think that we are the CIA, we’re put out there as a weapon against conspiracy theorists.”

For the people who do get the joke, though, “It is a collective role-playing experiment. There is true community found through this, it breaks down political barriers. We have taken pictures of a car park at a Birds Aren’t Real rally. There are people who will show up with a US flag on their car, Republican, patriotic, and a car right next to them with Bernie Sanders stickers. I was a Bernie guy myself. You see these people marching together, unified.”

I wouldn’t count on it to heal the fractured country, but it might offer us a short vacation from focusing on the conflict.

 

And unrelated to any of that

I just discovered that Yahoo, in its wisdom, has been dumping several categories of WordPress notifications into my spam folder, which I haven’t checked since our older dog was a kitten. I thought it had gotten quiet out there, but I’ve been stretched thin enough that I didn’t give it much thought. On top of that, WordPress itself has indulged in a badly judged fit of self-improvement and most of its notifications no longer let me drop in on the blogs of the people who send them, which I enjoyed doing before WP tripped over its own feet and made that somewhere between difficult and impossible. So if you’ve noticed my absence (I wouldn’t have, so I’m not expecting you to be moping over it), we have two entities to blame–and neither of them are me.

Other People Manage

Other People Manage is a novel about hard-earned, everyday love. It’s about family, about loss, about the pain we all carry inside and the love that gets us through the day. 
 
It begins in 1970s Minneapolis, with Marge and Peg meeting at the Women’s Coffeehouse. They stay together for decades but live in the shadow of a tragedy that struck early in their relationship. Then Peg dies, leaving Marge to work out what she has left in her life and if she still belongs in the family she’s adopted as her own.
 
“It is rare that a novel of such quiet observation and gentle introspection moves me as profoundly as Other People Manage. . . . A tender and beautiful addition to the literary canon, and a mirror for LGBT readers.”
                                                                                       – Joelle Taylor, in The Irish Times
“A quietly devastating novel about our failings and how we cope.”
                                                                                 – Patrick Gale
“A story that is painful and difficult at the same time that it is deeply rewarding”
                                                                                 – David Huddle
If you already know about the book, my apologies. The thing is, when you publish a book it’s your duty to pester everyone within shouting distance. If I’ve already bothered you, wear earplugs.
You can find a review here.
If you live in Britain–or within reach of the British publishing world–it’s available in bookstores and online. If you’re in the US or anywhere else outside the reach of British publishing, you can order it from Waterstones (they ship internationally and also carry an e-edition). Or get it from the Evil Amazon.
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Sorry not to offer a real post this week. I’ve been meaning to send this out anyway, and I need a short break. Back next week with some form of mayhem.

Saffron in Britain: a quick history

People in fourteenth-century Europe were desperate to get their hands on saffron, which they used, among other things, as a medicine against the plague. Or they were if they could afford it, which most people couldn’t because it was wildly expensive, so let’s add “rich” before “people” in that sentence. It was expensive enough that pirates often preferred saffron to gold–it was worth more and easier to lift.

C’mon, even pirates can get bad backs.

 

How saffron got to England

According to legend, saffron got to England as an illegal immigrant, traveling inside a Crusader’s hollow staff. He picked it up, still according to legend, returning from the Middle East by way of Spain, and if you’re a fan of irony, you might enjoy knowing that it was  the Arabs–the people that hollow-staffed Crusader would’ve been fighting–who brought saffron to Spain so he could steal some.

Why did the Crusader (in a sanitized version of the tale,he was a pilgrim) have to smuggle it? Because he’d stolen it. Places that produced saffron wanted to prevent competition, so for example Basel (which admittedly wasn’t in Spain, even during the Crusades) made it illegal to take a corm out of the city and guards protected the plants when they were growing.

A rare relevant photo: The ones in the foreground are crocuses.

Was that true in Spain? Dunno. It’s a legend. Let’s slip that illegal corm into a pocket and move on before anyone notices the geographical switcheroo.

What’s all this corm business, though? 

Well, kiddies, saffron comes from the crocus plant–the Crocus stativus–which grows from a corm. And a corm is what you and I, in our ignorance, would probably call a bulb. The difference is that a corm is–oh, hell, it’s complicated. A corm is rounder than a bulb and it’s solid. That’s enough to let us pretend we know something. 

You can probably smuggle a corm inside a hollow staff if you don’t pound it around too much and if you just happen to have a hollow staff on hand, but whatever happened took place outside the range of the CCTV cameras, so we’ll never know for sure. 

A different version of saffron’s British history has it landing in Cornwall multiple centuries earlier, not necessarily as a corm but in the form of a spice that could be traded again and again for Cornish tin. As far back as three thousand years ago, Cornwall was trading with the Middle East, so it’s entirely possible that tin was traded for saffron, but the ice is getting thin here and we might want to scuttle back to shore before we break through.  

Before I dump a new subread on you, though, I should explain that the word sativus in Crocus sativus doesn’t mean the saffron crocus is related to Cannabis sativa. Sativa or sativus is Latin for cultivated, not for formerly illegal and still mind bending.

 

How to get from crocus to saffron 

So much for legend. What’s clear is that saffron arrived in England (and by this time Cornwall was part of England), and from the fourteenth century onwards it was an important commodity. It was used in dying, in cooking, and in medicines, and (sorry to repeat myself) it was and is incredibly expensive. These days, it’s the world’s most expensive spice. 

That’s not because it’s rare or hard to grow–make a crocus plant happy and it will spread all on its own–but because you only use a small part of it to make saffron. According to the Britannica“What we use . . . is actually the stigma (plural stigmata)—the pollen-germinating part—at the end of the red pistil, the female sex organ of the plant.” 

Harvesting those tiny little sex organs (try not to think about it; you’ll be happier) involves crawling along the ground and cutting a very low-growing flower, then throwing away most of it. Along the way, you have to separate the stigmata (each plant has three) and their stems (those are the pistils) and dry them. 

Do that with 75,000 plants (or 150,000, depending on your source) and you’ve got yourself a pound of saffron. In 2018, that pound sold for $5,000. 

The next most expensive spice, vanilla, sold for $600.

 

Could we get back to English history, please?

Fine. If we can agree that the stuff’s expensive, we’re ready to go back and look at it as a luxury item.

Starting in the fourteenth century, England became a major producer of saffron, and the chalky soil of Essex and south Cambridgeshire turned out to be well suited to it. Smallholders–people raising crops on small amounts of land–who’d once been subsistence farmers planted it as a cash crop, probably not replacing all the crops they lived on but as an addition. An acre planted in crocuses could bring in £6–a hefty amount of money at the time. Saffron became so important to the local economy that the town of Chipping (or Chepyng–they couldn’t spell for shit back then, but it  meant market) Walden changed its name to Saffron Walden.

According to the historian Rowland Parker, successful cultivation depended heavily on unpaid labor, which was a major part of the farm economy for a couple of the centuries we’re talking about. Serfs owed labor to their lords. Smallholders had families, preferably large ones. 

I relied on WikiWhatsia for that. I avoid it when I can, but I’m tired this week and can’t be bothered. My apologies to the world at large. In general, it’s as reliable as the grown-up encyclopedias, but when it fucks up it can do it spectacularly. And I did confirm a few bits, so the entry looks reliable, at least at the moment.

The Cambridge colleges used saffron heavily. Smallholders who rented land from them could pay their rent in it, and some of the colleges used it to pay their own bills, making it a kind of currency. 

But currency or not, academics also used it in food and as medicine. And they sprinkled it on floors and tossed it into their fires (talk about burning money) as a disinfectant. That was probably just a few academics–the richest ones, making a point of being the richest ones.

 

Nothing lasts forever, though, does it?

Change came in response to several things. As the spice trade grew, other offerings became available, and they weren’t only new and exciting, they were cheaper. The elite could spend their money on vanilla, tea, chocolate, and coffee. All of those were outrageous luxuries for a while.

Saffron? That was so last century.

Synthetic dyes also began to replace natural ones. And as the wage economy grew, people left the countryside and that pool of unpaid labor wasn’t around to dip a seasonal bucket into. Growers replaced saffron with the newly introduced crops: potatoes and corn. 

Corn? Sorry. I’m still basically American. The British call it maize, since they call pretty much any old grain corn

If that list of changes doesn’t sound like enough to explain saffron’s decline, consider the Puritans, who wandered in to disapprove of this saffron-burning culture of excess. They wanted their clothing plain, their food plain, and their fires unbothered by show-off gestures. 

Saffron cultivation and usage declined, but in Cornwall, saffron buns and saffron cakes are a long-standing tradition. 

How long-standing? The sources I’ve found hide behind some vague wording about them being traditional, which means they don’t have to commit themselves on how far back the tradition goes.

 

Saffron Buns

I haven’t posted a recipe in an age, but I do make a mean saffron bun–and if you don’t speak American, mean in this context is a good thing. In spite of my accent, they sell well at bake sales and the local farmer’s market.

Don’t be put off by what I said about the cost of saffron. You won’t be buying it by the pound. All you’ll need is a pinch. 

 

Ingredients

A large pinch of saffron

300 grams of bread flour (or whatever substitutes for that where you live)

65 grams of butter, softened

25 grams of sugar

1 tsp yeast (use fast acting–it’s easier)

90 grams currants (or raisins if need be)

45 grams of candied peel (I never do get around to adding this)

Milk (the recipe I started with calls for 120 milliliters, but I always need more)

 

What to do with the ingredients

Crush the saffron and soak it in just enough boiling water to cover it. Cut the butter into the flour. Mix in the sugar, salt, yeast, and fruit. Add the saffron, in its water, and enough milk to form a dough. Don’t let it get too wet, because the buns have to hold their shape. 

Knead it until it’s silky–about 10 minutes by hand, about 5 in a mixer. Cover and let it rise. How long will depend on the temperature of your kitchen, but if you have to punch it down and let it rise again, it’ll be fine. 

Cut into 8 pieces and form into rolls. Bake them on a cookie sheet–called a baking tray in Britain–and use greaseproof paper or baking parchment if you have it. Otherwise, oil the tray. 

Let them rise half an hour or so, until the dough has a little spring in it.

Bake for 20 – 25 minutes at 170 C. (that’s 350 F., give or take a bit). To check if they’re done, turn one over and tap the bottom. It should sound vaguely drumlike.

Cool. Butter. Eat. Toast if that appeals to you.

The British government conquers whatever century this is

To demonstrate that Britain’s a thoroughly modern country, the Treasury has asked the Royal Mint to create a non-fungible token, better known as an NFT or a cryptoasset.

Nothing I’ve read says whether anyone involved understands what an NFT is–I sure as hell don’t, no matter how many times people explain it to me. The closest I can come is that it’s something that doesn’t exist but that people are willing to pay money for. Sometimes large amounts of it.

Fair enough. If you can get people to part with their money for questionable stuff–well, that’s the world we live in these days. Let the buyer beware. And you can see why the government would want to get in on the act. Hell, they sold us Brexit, didn’t they?

The Treasury tweeted that “this decision shows the forward-looking approach we are determined to take towards cryptoassets in the UK.” 

That sounds almost as convincing as me claiming to be on the cutting edge of technology. Or of anything else. People who actually are on the cutting edge don’t bother mentioning it, although they do occasionally bleed a bit. Or at least, that’s my impression from back here in the cheap seats.

Irrelevant photo: A neighbor’s maple doesn’t care if there’s a fence in the way.

What non-fungible token is the government selling? We don’t know yet. Or I don’t, although as you can imagine I’m just panting after one so I can do whatever it is people do with them once they’ve parted with their money. I’ve been looking online for recipes, but whatever it is doesn’t seem to involve cooking.

Stick around. I’ll let you know all about it as soon as I figure it out.

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Britain’s other Great Leap Forward into the–

Remind me. What century is this?

Twenty-first. Thanks.

–into the twenty-first century involves appointing Michael Grade as the new chair of Ofcom, which regulates the country’s media. Grade doesn’t use Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok, all of which he’s now supposed to regulate. That makes him the obvious person for the job. He’s also a Conservative, making him an even more obvious choice. And he has heard rumors about the internet and has kids–three of them–who use all of the above, so he’s more than prepared to deal with online safety and, you know, whatever the other issues are. I’m sure some aide will get him up to speed if his kids don’t.

Or an officeful of lobbyists. They’ll know what’s needed. 

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Another recent high point in British politics involves the defense secretary getting scammed into a video call with someone he thought was the Ukrainian prime minister, Denys Shmyhal.

No, I never heard of Shmyhal either. I’m guessing the defense secretary was roughly as well informed. 

While we’re at it, do you know who Britain’s defense secretary is? Why, it’s Ben Wallace, of course. 

Sheesh. The ignorance level around here is shocking.

So Ben told the alleged prime minister that Britain was running out of anti-tank missiles to send to Ukraine. Sometime after that he got suspicious, but by then he’d given the hoaxer, who turned out to be a Russian prankster, enough to make an embarrassing clip up on YouTube.

Whether or not he knew what YouTube was before, he does now.

 

Reports from the world of libraries

Some twenty years ago, two Charles Darwin manuscripts wandered out of the Cambridge University Library, presumably with a bit of human help. They’d been taken out of storage to be photographed and, um, yeah, they somehow disappeared. The assumption was that they’d been misfiled, and I hope you’ll join me in imagining the library’s entire staff tearing the place apart in mounting levels of panic. 

Eventually, the library reported them as stolen, a worldwide appeal went out, and nothing more happened. 

The manuscripts were worth millions of pounds. Or else they’re worth that now. Take your pick. It doesn’t matter since we’re not in the market, but I do have a nice non-fungible token you could buy for considerably less. And a bridge in Brooklyn.

Anyway, twenty years passed, as they will if you give them enough time, and then in early March a pink gift bag showed up outside the head librarian’s door, along with a typed note wishing her a happy Easter. The manuscripts were inside

They’re in good condition and the librarian is in even better condition, and the area outside her door isn’t covered by CCTV. So far, we don’t know whodunnit.

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On February 6, when New Zealand celebrated Waitangi Day–that’s a national holiday which among other things closes libraries–a programming glitch meant that the doors of the Turanga Library opened up as if it was a working day, and 380 people came in, browsed, read, returned books, and did whatever else people do in a library, including borrowing 147 books using the automatic book-borrowing thingy, which also thought it was a working day. What they don’t seem to have done is steal anything. Or for that matter, damage anything. 

They did leave messages about the lack of staff on social media and somebody sent in a security guard to shoo everyone out and lock up.

 

Meanwhile, from the car world…

Police in Spain stopped a driver for zigzagging across the road and using his mobile phone–that thing you folks in the US know as a cell phone–while driving. When they asked him for identification, he showed them a card issued by the Errant Republic of Menda Lerenda and said he was a member of its sovereign diplomatic service.

To which they said, “Uh huh. If you’ll just come with us–”

He didn’t invent Menda Lerenda. It exists in the same way that a non-fungible token exists, which is to say only online.

Sorry. This non-fungible thing has turned into a kind of unplanned theme. 

The republic claims a physical existence by defining each person who buys its i.d. as an independent republic whose national territory is the place they occupy at any given moment.

That makes it, it says, a micronation, “an individual and mobile sovereignty recognised by other states capable of acting with complete independence in strict compliance with international law.” 

Uh huh. 

The driver turned out to be higher’n a kite. He was fined for a variety of offenses and ended up with nine naughty points on his driver’s license. 

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In San Francisco, the police pulled a car over for driving without headlights and found nobody inside. Then the car left, only to pull over on the other side of the intersection.

Welcome to the world of driverless cars. An outfit called Cruise is testing out what the article I read calls technology for ride-hailing purposes. I’m reasonably sure ride-hailing purposes are usually called cabs, but we’ve already established that I’m not at the bleeding edge of new technology. If they need to call a cab a ride-hailing purpose, what can I do but make twentieth-century fun of them for it? 

They’re offering free rides at night. (Here, kid, the first one’s free.) The local cab drivers all hate them. I know that without having to look for a source. I’ve been a cab driver. 

Cruise later took to both Twitter and human communication forms to explain that the thing with the lights was due to human error and that the car left because it didn’t consider the place it had stopped to be safe.

If someone Black had been driving, she or he could’ve been shot for that. 

No, I don’t think that’s funny either, but I did think it might keep things in perspective. 

The car wasn’t ticketed, and neither was the company.

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Meanwhile, back in Britain, the best brains in government–or at least some that are still relatively unaddled by Covid–are wrestling with the issues that driverless cars present. How will the Highway Code change to accommodate them if, as proposed, they’re allowed to operate at slow speeds on jammed motorways?

Motorways? If you life in the US, you call them highways or interstates.

Well, the non-drivers will (if the proposals go through) be able to watch movies and TV on the cars’ built-in screens but they won’t be able to use their phones. (Sorry. No idea. It made sense to someone.) They’ll have to be ready to take control of the car when it tells them to–for instance, when they’re coming to an exit.

And who gets the blame if something goes wrong? If the car’s in charge, then it’s not the driver, since the driver wasn’t driving. Financially, it would be the insurance company. For dangerous driving, it would be “the company that obtained the authorisation.”

You’re welcome to unravel the bureaucracy implied in that bit of verbiage if you have nothing better to do.  Me, I’d rather vacuum the rug.

Shreds of hope in the pandemic

A Covid vaccine that’s in development could, potentially, create sterilizing immunity.

Sterilizing immunity? That’s the kind that prevents infection, which means a disease not only can’t get you sick, it also can’t use you to pass itself along to anyone else. If we could get enough people vaccinated with a sterilizing vaccine, we could stop this sumbitch in its tracks.

The snag, of course, is hidden in that word potentially. The thing’s still in development. But if all goes well, it could work on both the existing variants and any new ones and could create immunity even in people whose immune systems sleep through the current vaccines, through bouts of Covid itself, and through math class.

How does it work

The SARS-CoV-2 subunit vaccine (PreS-RBD) developed at MedUni Vienna is based on a structurally folded fusion protein consisting of two receptor binding domains (RBD) of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the PreS antigen from hepatitis B, which serve as immunological carriers for each other, thereby strengthening the immune response.”

Allow me to translate that for you: It’s magic. Don’t worry about it. Although you might want to know that it involves a series of shots to build up to full immunity, and the first trials could start this year. But that depends on funding. 

Irrelevant photo: an ornamental cherry tree. Or I think it’s a cherry.

What doesn’t depend on funding?

Hmm. Dunno. As society’s organized, not much.

Why do I ask so many questions? They’re a cheap and easy way to organize a piece of writing. 

See? Even that depends on funding.

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A second shred of hope is that researchers have found a monoclonal antibody that could potentially be a treatment for all Covid variants as well as for SARS and MERS (if they reappear), and for some versions of the common cold. But there’s that word potentially again. So far, it’s gone through animal studies. Next they have to capture some humans and test it on them.

It’s being combined with another monoclonal antibody, and the two together are going by the name AR-701 cocktail right now, but before they’re released into the wild someone will have to give them a less pronounceable name to make them sound more scientific. 

The plan is for people to inhale it, and it could–again, that word–potentially last for a year. 

Covid and male fertility

A very (very) small study raises the possibility that catching Covid could have long-term effects on male fertility. 

Long-term effects? When someone says that,they’re never talking about  good long-term effects. In this case, it means that men who had recovered from Covid had lower sperm counts, more misshapen sperm, and sperm with lower motility than the comparison group. 

Again, it was a small study, so don’t go off the deep end with it. But I can’t help thinking that if you want to discombobulate someone who’s pounding the table about vaccines messing with women’s fertility–

Nah. I’m not going to suggest that. I’ll leave it to you to sink that low.  

News about Covid tests

Two rapid, accurate Covid tests are in development. I’ve written that sentence so many times before, changing only the number at the beginning, that I’m not even going to give you the details. But testing’s another area where–out of sight of the general public–work’s going on that could have an impact on the way this mess plays out.

 

Covid and the sense of smell 

Omicron’s less likely than the Delta variant to mess up the senses of smell and taste, but a failed attempt to lower people’s viral load–that’s how much Covid they carry around–turned out to protect patients’ sense of smell and taste. It also left them less tired than the patients who got a placebo.

They were using a drug called camostat mesylate, and it’s not clear yet whether it would help restore smell and taste to people who’ve lost them. You can live without both of them, but taste and smell are not minor losses.

The drug will need more testing–which in turn means more time, not to mention more money–before it can be used this way. 

An update on Covid in Africa

One of the mysteries of an already pretty weird disease has been its impact on Africa. According to a World Health Organization’s estimate, 65% of people in Africa have been infected by Covid. That’s something like 100 times more cases than have been reported. Covid cases are undercounted everywhere, and more so in Africa, because so many people have no symptoms. 

When they say “estimated,” they’re not talking about an educated hunch. They’re basing it on blood samples from around the continent. It’s not as accurate as counting every head, but it’s not pulling numbers out of thin air either. 

Earlier in the pandemic, the fear was that Covid would devastate Africa, but it’s turned out to be one of the least affected parts of the world. Multiple explanations are on offer. It has a low percentage of people with risk factors like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. It has a relatively young population. And some studies suggest that having been infected with other diseases, including malaria, may be protective, but that hasn’t been confirmed and rushing out to buy yourself a case of malaria is not recommended.

But being one of the least affected parts of the world doesn’t mean Africa’s unaffected. It’s had 250,000 Covid deaths. Or known Covid deaths–they also tend to be underreported worldwide. Only 15% of Africa’s population has been vaccinated, and that may mean only one vaccination, since the article doesn’t say “fully vaccinated,” which is the phrase that usually pops up.

Why Britain’s days off are called bank holidays

When Britain takes a day off work, it calls the day a bank holiday. England has eight of them, Scotland has nine, and Northern Ireland has ten. Or at least, that was the 2020 count. The queen can add one if the mood takes her, and she’s done exactly that for the 70th anniversary of her queenship. 

Why don’t we get a separate count of holidays for Wales and Cornwall? Because they’re still tucked under England’s wing, and every so often, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear a bit of uncomfortable squawking and rustling under there.

Entirely relevant photo: This is Fast Eddie (in slow mode). He doesn’t have to wait for a bank holiday to take a break.

What do banks have to do with not working? 

I’m so glad you asked. Bank holidays were introduced by the first Baron of Avebury, whose real name was John Lubbock. In 1871 he drafted the Bank Holiday Bill, which true to its name had a limited scope: It was about holidays for banks and financial buildings. 

Buildings? Let’s assume they mean institutions. Buildings go on being buildings even when they’re empty and the doors are locked.

Listen, I only write this shit. I’m not what you’d call responsible for it.

If Lubbock sounds like Santa Claus, handing out days off work, he wasn’t. Bank holidays started before he came along, although I’m not sure they were called that. The Bank of England, the Exchequer, and other public offices took days off for royal events, Christian holidays, and assorted saint’s days (which I’d have lumped into the Christian Holidays category, but see above for me not being responsible). Add them all up and you got around 40 of them. 

In 1830, that was cut back to 18, then cut to 4 in 1834. But a precedent had been established.

 

What did Lubbocks’s act really do?

Read the small print and you discover that the act wasn’t so much about creating holidays as it was about making sure that banks didn’t get penalized for shutting down on a weekday. Any financial wheeling and dealing was postponed till the next day. Bills and promissory notes that were due on bank holidays wouldn’t be due until the next day. But in the process, it standardized the days that were protected that way.

Now can I confuse the picture for a minute? Please? 

Having told you about the many holidays banks used to take, let me quote another source that acknowledges them but also says that before the act banks couldn’t close on a weekday because they’d have been risking bankruptcy. You figure out how to fit those two together. I’m lost.

Over time, shops, schools, other businesses, and the government itself started closing down on bank holidays, but everyone still calls them bank holidays. 

 

A bit of background

The industrial revolution–and the act came along in the middle of it–lent some oomph to the standardization of holidays. It was cheaper for a factory to shut down on a given day, or even for a given week, than to have people wander off wherever they wanted to. 

Not that they could’ve wandered off without getting fired, mind you. But even the great industrialists–those fine folks who kept both adults and children working eighteen-hour days for the most minimal pay–couldn’t keep them working 365 days a year. Among other things, holidays had a religious origin, and theirs was still a religious culture. 

Some things, even the industrialists couldn’t face down. Religious tradition was one of them.

 

Enough about the holidays. Let’s talk about Lubbock

Lubbock’s other claims to fame are that he was a science writer, a banker, and a politician. We can assume it was the collision of those last two claims that led him to think of standardizing bank holidays.

His science writing was more than just a rich man’s hobby. He published books on archeology, entomology, and animal intelligence, and it was in relation to that last subject that, as you’d expect from someone so sober and well connected, he tried to teach his poodle to read flash cards. The Britannica says his book “established him as a pioneer in the field of animal behavior.” 

You can go tell that to my dogs. In spite of his experiments, they remain woefully illiterate.

In his writing on archeology, he introduced the words Paleolithic and Neolithic to the world, and in the spirit of high-minded racism, he titled his book Pre-historic Times, as Illustrated by Ancient Remains, and the Manners and Customs of Modern Savages. It was “probably the most influential archeological textbook of the nineteenth century.”

I don’t suppose I need to comment on that.

Having already become a baronet when his father died, he was later made a peer and took the title Lord Avebury, after the stone circle near Stonehenge that he bought in order to protect it from builders.

Okay, he bought the land it stood on. They tossed the stones in for free.

It’s a hell of a stone circle. If you’re in the neighborhood, do stop by.

A note about that newsletter I claimed I was going to send

To those of you who were kind enough to sign up for my alleged newsletter, I have to report that there won’t be one. It’s a complete flop. Or I am. I had an extended wrestling match with MailerLite and although I didn’t break any equipment or murder anyone, I did threaten all of the above. Basically, all I was going to send was an announcement that my next novel was out, and I’ll do that right here, in this very spot, about a week from now. So you didn’t miss anything anyway. 

And to those of you who didn’t sign up, weren’t you clever? 

I don’t know why I thought setting up a newsletter was a good idea anyway. It’s something that the folks who seem to know things advise writers to do. I think the idea is that if you pop up in people’s inboxes, they won’t be able to get away from you until they’ve bought your book, but we all know that’s not true. They–or you, or we–can leave any time they/you/we want. 

Besides, here I am, popping up in your inbox anyway.

Updates on the fight against Covid: from far-UVC to nasal sprays

Studies showing that far-UVC light kills coronaviruses started circulating fairly early in the pandemic, but they were small studies and the whole project seemed marginal–one of those promising possibilities doomed to be ignored by the folks who know best. A new study might be changing that. 

Might, mind you. As Yogi Berra might or might not have said, “It’s tough to make predictions. Especially about the future.” *

But first, let’s talk about UVC light: It’s short for ultraviolet light, and it kills germs, which (you may remember) we have reason to think is a good idea these days. But UVC has some bad habits. Basically, it doesn’t like people. It can burn the skin and damage the eyes, so if you want to disinfect a room with it, you have to figure out how to keep the light and the people apart. 

That’s awkward, what with Covid’s habit of circulating through the people’s lungs.

Far-UVC, though, doesn’t have those bad habits. It has a shorter wavelength, so it doesn’t penetrate skin or eye cells. But it still slaughters viruses and bacteria, since they’re smaller than the cells humans are interested in protecting.

Irrelevant photo: primroses with violet

So we now have UVC, far-UVC, and a bunch of dead viruses. 

The earlier studies demonstrating far-UVC’s usefulness and safety were conducted in small experimental chambers, and that left open the question of whether it would work in less controlled situations. Now someone’s done a demonstration in real-world conditions–a fairly ordinary room with roughly the same ventilation as a home or office, which is about three air changes per hour.

Does your home change air three times an hour? Does mine? Haven’t a clue, so let’s take their word for it. 

Under those conditions, far-UVC slaughtered 98% of the test microbes within five minutes. Compared to other ways of cleaning air, that’s–to quote someone involved in the project–spectacular. 

I know that, gentle vegetarian that I am, I’m not supposed to be cheering mass slaughter, but nobody ever accused the human race of consistency, and I am, to the best of my knowledge, predominantly human. 

If you want more detail of the experiment, you’ll have to follow the link. It involves numbers, although not many of them. But it doesn’t take many to send me running. Before I left, I did take in that the approach works with viruses, bacteria, and any additional infectious beasties that I’ve forgotten, none of which can mutate to develop a resistance to it.

So in the interest of public health, will far-UVC be coming to all indoor spaces near you? I’d love to think so; it only makes sense. The problem is that it not only makes sense, it costs money. Granted, it would also save money by making indoor air 98% safe, keeping us healthy, and quite possibly getting the pandemic (and assorted other diseases) under control, but we’ve all lived long enough to know that logic doesn’t necessarily apply. It’ll depend on who would be saving the money, who would be spending, and who would be making it it–not to mention who can see half an inch in front of their nose.

In the UK, I predict far-UVC will be adopted only if someone with strong ties to the Conservative Party–preferably a huge fuckin’ donor–goes into the business. At that point, it will become the savior of the nation and we’ll have a world-beating promise to install it everywhere. Some huge amount of money will then be spent and it will be installed in nowhere near as many places as we were promised.

But it’s hard to make predictions. Especially about the future.

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UV can also be used to clean N95 masks, a new study demonstrates. Early in the pandemic, when protective gear was in short supply, people in medical settings tried pretty much everything to make the gear they had last longer, including disinfecting it with UV, since they had the equipment on hand for other uses. The masks were only meant for a single use, but they were desperate enough to stretch that.

Dianne Poster, a co-author of the study, said, “Right now, UV technologies are really in their infancy with respect to the healthcare environment.” And I’m quoting that because it strikes me as relevant–at least vaguely–to the use of far-UVC as well.

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And while we’re in UVC mode, researchers have come up with a system that can alternate between plain ol’ white LED light to, you know, see by and UVC light to decontaminate an indoor space. The drawback is that it depends on motion-sensors to let it know when the room’s empty. So you wouldn’t want to fall asleep at your desk or be in the sensors’ blind spot.

The lights work in standard lighting fixtures, which should keep the cost down.

 

Other new developments

A nasal spray that promises to prevent Covid infection for 12 hours or treat the early stages of infection has passed mouse studies with flying colors and a company is trying to raise money for human studies, development, marketing, and all the uproar necessary (or at least expected) to get a product to market. 

Is this the same anti-Covid nasal spray I wrote about a few weeks ago? Possibly. At the moment, this one’s called N-0385, so you can see why the name didn’t stay in my mind. But who cares? I want this stuff badly enough to risk writing about it twice.

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For the first time, doctors have used a vaccine to clear Covid from the body of an immune-suppressed patient who tested positive for seven months after first catching the virus.

This wasn’t long Covid, where symptoms keep dancing long after the viral band has packed up its instruments and gone home.The patient tested positive through that whole time. 

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Assorted other tests and treatments and vaccines are also in the works. The new tests are faster and more accurate than what we’re currently using. Some of the treatments hold the promise of working against mutated forms of Covid by targeting a part of the virus that can’t mutate–the virus dies if it plays around with that spot. One vaccine would be highly tweakable when not just new variants but new diseases emerge, and I think we’ve learned by now that new diseases will emerge, although whether we’ll act on that knowledge is a whole ‘nother question.

I mention all this to say, Hang in there, folks. We will get through this.

 

Omicron BA.2

How dangerous is the new omicron variant, omicron point two? (It’s actually called BA.2, but never mind that.) For starters–and forgive me if you already know this–it’s no tougher than omicron point one. It can’t lift heavier weights, can’t run faster, and to date hasn’t stolen lunch money from any more kids than point one has. 

It is more contagious, but according to one measurement not by that much. You can tell that by how long it’s taking to become the dominant strain.

So if this study’s right, it kind of fooled us there. Early reports were that it was much more contagious.

The bad news–isn’t there always bad news?–-is that the people studying it expect people to get reinfected. You already knew that too, right? It’s a coronavirus. People do tend to get reinfected by them. So you have my encouragement to deck the next person who mentions herd immunity to you. Or you can ask me to do it if you’re not in the mood. I’m five foot not very much, 75 years old, and terrifying in a fight. 

And I need the exercise.

The article I stole all this from reminds us that “we’re entering a different phase of the pandemic,” and “need to now assess whether [a new variant is] a risk to the general population, . . . a risk to an individual person” or a risk to a specific group such as the elderly or the immune compromised.

Which is an interesting way of seeing the problem and I can’t help wondering if it’s an invitation to write off a few inconvenient groups in the presumed interest of the general population and to stop looking at Covid as a public health issue and start looking at it as a personal problem. 

But maybe that’s just me being cynical. 

The article ends with a call for people to wear masks when they’re sick, even if what they have isn’t Covid, because they’ll protect other people from whatever they have. It’s a radical thought: inconvenience yourself marginally to help other people significantly. 

There’s got to be something wrong with that.

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In the meantime, the World Health Organization says omicron point 2 is 30% more transmissible than omicron point one. I can’t compare that estimate to the one above since their measuring tapes are marked differently. Make what you can of it.

WHO also says the European countries that have dismantled their anti-~Covid measures have done it too “brutally,” going from too many restrictions to too few. It reminds us that cases are rising.

In Britain, they’re rising significantly, and deaths are also going up. Not the way they did at the start of the pandemic, but the trend is up all the same, and the people who are dying of it are still dead. We don’t seem to be treating Covid as a public health problem anymore, just a personal one. If we see a coronavirus coming at us, we’re advised to either duck or dodge to the left. 

It’s a fantastically effective strategy.

 

* Yogi Berra is also supposed to have said, “I never said half the things I said.” So you want to approach his quotes with caution. They’re likely to explode on contact with a human brain.

Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day: a short history

Britain’s Mothering Sunday looks like the sister holiday to the U.S. Mother’s Day, but its roots (no surprise here) go back further and–I was going to say it’s a stranger story, but they’re both strange. 

Let’s start with Britain’s holiday.

Mothering Sunday

This started out as a church event that some date back to the 16th century and others trace to full-on medieval times. It had nothing to do with honoring mothers. On the fourth Sunday of Lent (March 27 this year), people went to the main church or cathedral near where they lived, which was called their mother church and which had a special service that day. The rest of the year, they went to their nearest church–a daughter church. 

You’re right: Hierarchy was built into everything.

One theory of the tradition’s origins is that it grew out of a Bible passage that was assigned as the reading for that day. (Apparently, the Church had assigned readings for Sundays and holidays. Who knew?) It had to do with Jerusalem, “which is the mother of us all.” And since it’s all in the interpretation, you can get from there to the mother church in three easy steps. Or two if you’re good at the game.

Marginally relevant photo: spring flowers. Actually a little early for either Mother’s Day or Mothering Sunday.

The day took on the air of a holiday. One source says domestic servants (that may exclude other categories of underpaid underlings) were given the day off to “go a-mothering” and also to visit their families. That might include their flesh-and-blood mothers, although since having children was a hazardous occupation you couldn’t take it for granted.

Another source doesn’t limit the day off to domestic servants but includes apprentices and reminds us that children as young as ten left home to work away. In this telling, as they walked the country lanes on their way home they picked a few wildflowers as a gift. 

It’s a sweet image and, I suspect, based more on guesswork than documentation. But that in itself is guesswork. Don’t take it too seriously. 

Another source (the link’s somewhere below–don’t bother me when I’m working, sweetheart) says the mother church tradition was medieval and the tradition of visiting family didn’t start until the 16th century–and it had a practical reason: The holiday fell during what was known as the hungry gap, when the winter’s stores were running low or used up and the fields and hedgerows didn’t offer much to eat. So servants and apprentices might go home bringing food or money. 

Let’s hope they had some to bring.

Cake

Since it’s a law that you can’t have a holiday without food (even the holidays where you fast put a big emphasis on what you eat when the fast ends), Mothering Sunday is associated with a cake, called Simnel cake, which for some reason gets a capital S. It’s a fruit cake with two layers of almond paste and eleven layers of religious symbolism.

How’d they get away with cake when it was Lent and people weren’t supposed to eat anything tasty or fun? 

Aha! They did it by reading the small print. The rules of Lent were relaxed for this one day, and so the day was also known as Refreshment Sunday. And that too was linked to a Bible verse, the one about Jesus feeding a multitude with bread and fish. Not with a fruit cake with two layers of marzipan, but it’s all in the interpretation.

The day was also called Mid-Lent Sunday, in case that’s on the test.

A break in the tradition

All of that–with the possible exception of the cake–went out of fashion in the 20th century.

Enter Constance Adelaide Smith, who kicked off a revival, starting with her 1921 book, written under the pseudonym C. Penswick Smith and subtly titled The Revival of Mothering Sunday.

She called for a holiday to honor  many forms of motherhood–the mother church, Mother Earth, mothers of children, the mother of Jesus, and–well, I’m sure she could’ve gone on. And did. The tradition  already existed, she argued, but needed official recognition to kick it into high gear.

She did not say “high gear.”

The medieval idea of motherhood as she saw it–at least according to one source–was rugged and diverse. 

Rugged? Well, the British LIbrary’s blog illustrates this point with a medieval painting of Mary handing off the baby Jesus to an angel (“Here, you, do something useful and hold the kid”) so she can sit on the devil and do a spot of wrestling. While wearing a pristine, floor-length skirt. To the modern eye, it’s an odd picture–especially the freeze-frame wrestling match–but I’ll admit to liking it.

Sort of. But only for its oddity.

Diverse? The medieval holiday wasn’t about honoring your own particular mother but motherhood in many forms. Or at least in one of the forms Smith included in her list: the mother church.

Smith herself had no children, which may be relevant here.

Yet another source, though, mentions that the medieval holiday wasn’t the uplifting event she imagined. Among other things, parishes were likely to get into brawls over who’d go first in the processions.

These things are always neater in hindsight.

Smith had another reason to go back to the medieval period. She’d been inspired by the U.S. creation of Mother’s Day (1914, since you asked) but didn’t want it to displace British traditions.

According to historian Cordelia Moyse, “A lot of people felt that industrialisation and urbanisation were destroying British culture and community.” So Smith took the medieval tradition, knocked off the mud and manure, polished it up a bit, and presented it as home grown, deeply rooted, and coming from a time of greater harmony, when people knew their neighbors and got into fights in church processions.

The idea caught fire at the end of World War I–according to one source because of the country’s many losses in the war. That doesn’t entirely make sense–it was young men who died in the war, not mothers–but grief’s a funny thing and will pour itself into any container it finds.

By 1938–or so it was said–Mothering Sunday was celebrated in every parish in Britain and every country in the empire.

Mother’s Day

Now we shift to the United States, where we already know Mother’s Day became an official holiday in 1914.

How’d that happen? Well, kiddies, it started in the previous century (that’s the 19th; you’re welcome) in several smallish ways. Before the Civil War, Ann Reeves Jarvis helped start Mothers’ Day Work Clubs, which were to teach local women how to care for their children. Forgive the cynicism, but my guess is that local women had been bringing up children for generations–that’s why some were still available for Ann R. J. to teach–but never mind. I’m sure Ann R. J. knew how to do it better than they did.

Then in 1870, Julia Ward Howe (she wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and was a pacifist and abolitionist) wrote the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” which called for mothers to unite and promote world peace. In 1873, she called for a Mother’s Peace Day. 

Juliet Calhoun Blakely, a temperance activist, convinced Albion, Michigan, to celebrate a Mother’s Day in the 1870s.

All of that seemed to go nowhere, as these things so often do. Then in 1907, Anna Jarvis held a memorial service for her mother, Ann R. J. Who was dead at the time. That doesn’t seem entirely relevant, but see above about grief.

In 1908, Jarvis got a Philadelphia department store owner, John Wanamaker, to back a Mother’s Day celebration at a West Virginia church and, ever so coincidentally, to hold a Mother’s Day event at his stores. 

From there she campaigned for the holiday to be added to the national calendar, organizing a letter writing campaign to newspapers and politicians. First towns and cities adopted the holiday, and then it became national. It falls on the second Sunday in May.

After that, it all went wrong. Her idea involved a single white carnation, a visit to Mom, and a church service, but the florists, candy companies, and greeting card companies saw dollar signs and the holiday became a money spinner. (My own mother called it Florist’s Day.)

Jarvis might’ve seen that coming but apparently didn’t. She was cagey enough to enlist both Wanamaker and the florist industry when she was campaigning for the holiday. 

By 1920, she was denouncing the day’s commercialization and urged people to stop buying Mother’s Day flowers, cards, and candy. Eventually, she was launching lawsuits against groups that used the name Mother’s Day. 

In 1948, she denounced the holiday completely and lobbied to have it taken off the U.S. holiday calendar.

It wasn’t.

The lawsuits ate through her money and she died broke. The floral and greetings card companies that she had campaigned against paid her bills.

If anyone’s campaigning to establish National Irony Day, her story’s a perfect fit.

And Father’s Day?

No insult to fathers intended here, but it’s easier to get sentimental about a group that’s ignored or treated badly the rest of the year. Then once a year, you show up with flowers and chocolate and, you know, that makes it all okay. 

Fathers, though? They just don’t have the same appeal. Although you can trace Father’s Day back to the middle ages too, if you want.

Of course you want. European Catholics celebrated Saint Joseph’s Day  on 19 March, and a tradition of celebrating fatherhood in general can be traced back to 1508–which doesn’t say that it began then, only that if it started earlier no one’s found the notes.

In 1966, the U.S. made it a national holiday. It’s also celebrated in the U.K. but not an official holiday.

British government contributes toward environmental protesters’ fines

Just when you decide that humans have thought of every possible way to protest, the environmental campaign group Insulate Britain bought environment secretary George Eustace’s office and they’re donating his rent to a legal fund for activists who’ve been arrested. 

Eustace has spoken against the group. The group has spoken against Eustace. He has more power, but for the moment at least, they’ve gotten the last word.

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But as innovative political statements go, that’s nothing. It only got the top position because I’m still pretending to focus on Britain.

A Danish conceptual artist, Jens Haaning, sent two crates to a museum that was expecting a recreation of his 2007 work, An Average Danish Annual Income, but when they unpacked them they found two empty frames. They’re an artwork called Take the Money and Run.

Which he seems to have done. He was paid–not enough, he says–and on top of that was lent some money to use as part of the artwork. That’s as much of the story as I can untangle. 

So is he in breach of contract? The museum says he is. He says he isn’t. 

“It’s not theft. It is breach of contract, and breach of contract is part of the work.”

Well, fair enough, sort of. Haaning’s work is artistic commentary on modern capitalism. Even a moderately competent lawyer could argue that. Pretty much anything a conceptual artist does counts as art. 

Or so they tell us. 

Irrelevant photo: a camellia

 

News of the human brain

In the US, someone broke into a truck in early March and is now the proud owner of a box of human heads

Last I heard, no arrests had been made. If you have them, please send them back. They were meant for medical research.

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Meanwhile, a study of data from more than a million people makes it look like we’ve been wrong to believe the human brain starts slowing down after we reach 20–which is to say, before most of us have even figured out what our brains are for.

But no. According to this study, the speed stays nearly constant until we’re 60. After that we remember what our brains are for but can’t remember where we left them. 

The study suggests that at 20 (and at 14 and at 16) people’s responses to the study’s questions were faster than older people’s, but they were trading accuracy for speed. And a cow for a handful of magic beans.

No, sorry. Wrong study. 

Mental processing speed peaked at 30 and declined only very slightly until people were 60. 

I’m 140–possibly more, but by now it’s all a blur–and it’s taken me weeks to write this post. 

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What happens to the human brain on music festivals? It goes a little fuzzy, something we can deduce based on a sampling of the river that runs through the site of the Glastonbury Festival. Researchers compared the water upstream and downstream and–you’ll be shocked, I know–found that downstream was heavy with MDMA and cocaine. And probably other things, but that’s all they tested for.

So far, so mildly amusing, but it made the eels hyperactive, impaired their gills, and left them with some muscle wastage. 

The festival hasn’t been held since 2019, The eels are looking for new dealers. Being amphibious is not a requirement but is a plus. 

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And the human brain when it contemplates going on vacation? I’m not sure, but Spain’s tourism minister, Maria Reyes Maroto, has a low opinion of its judgment. When a volcano forced the evacuation of 5,500 people on La Palma, Reyes Maroto pitched it as a tourist attraction. 

“We’re providing information so that tourists can travel to the island and witness something undoubtedly unprecedented for themselves,” she said.

After all hell broke loose, she clarified her statement by saying, “Today we stand with the victims and those affected and we’re thinking about how best to get back to that normality that nature’s changed.”

We’re also thinking about how to get out of this press conference without having to outright grovel.

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But forget about the human brain for a line or two. What about the kea’s brain?

The kea? It’s a New Zealand alpine parrot that’s both endangered and very smart, which tells us that being smart isn’t the solution to all life’s problems. 

The kea is smart enough to use a touch screen but not so smart that it can tell virtual reality and real reality apart.

Kind of like humans, then.

Finding Covid’s weak spot

Researchers have found a vulnerable spot at the base of Covid’s spike protein. This is the medical equivalent of the moment when you found that spot right by your older sister or brother’s knee. You know the one: All you had to do was squeeze it and they were helpless. Instantly. Whatever they were doing to you (unless they were homicidal, in which case you needed something more than this trick), they stopped.

The problem–then and now–is how to reach that spot and (the knee image breaks down here) what to do when you get there.

The good part is that most beta coronaviruses, not just on Covid, have that same weak spot.

What’s a beta coronavirus? It’s a category of virus that causes everything from a cold to Covid. It includes diseases that could jump from animals to humans at some point in the future, starting the next pandemic.

Why is this a weak spot? Because it either doesn’t mutate or mutates slowly. I’m going out on a limb here (put that saw away, please), but I seem to remember reading that when a site doesn’t mutate it’s because the virus can’t function without it. Random mutations will change it, but those versions don’t survive.  

So let’s go back to the question of what to do once we find that spot. We create either a vaccine that targets it or an antiviral that does the same. And by we, of course, I mean scientists. People who–unlike me–actually know how to do this stuff. 

It won’t happen next week, but knowing where the weak spot is? It’s a step.

Irrelevant photo: “Allow me to explain why we need to keep this box.”

Speaking of antivirals 

The bark of the neem tree seems to hold promise as a Covid treatment. 

The tree’s native to India and it’s been used as a treatment for parasites, viruses, and bacteria for much longer than those categories were around to sort diseases into. 

Scientists fooling around in their labs see the bark extract as promising. The next step is to isolate the useful components, then figure out dosage and test the stuff.

Here’s wishing them–and us–luck. In the meantime, it’s probably not wise to test neem bark on yourself, although it is for sale on the internet and recommended for an assortment of ills by the (I’m guessing here) deeply alternative. 

It’s not the only antiviral being explored, just the one I happen to have landed on this week. 

I also found articles on a few new testing methods that are, or promise to be, cheaper and faster than the current ones. Now that so many countries are abandoning testing, though, I’m not sure whether they’ll be commercially viable, no matter how useful they might be.

 

Remember social distancing?

You remember the advice we got from the start of the pandemic that six feet (or two meters if your mind’s metric) is enough distance to keep you from catching (or spreading) Covid? It turns out to have been based on a 1934 model (by  William Firth Wells, if anybody asks) of how respiratory infections spread.

Just how dated is the model? Well, two meters hasn’t changed its length, and neither has two feet–at least to the best of my knowledge, although when you leave the metric system measurements can be unreliable, and if you want to take a side trip into non-metric mayhem, allow me to push you in this direction. It’s not at all relevant, but if you have nothing better to do with yourself and you enjoy a mess, it should be fun.

Back to social distancing, though: A recent study says the 1934 model was oversimplified. The new study looks not just at distance but also at temperature, humidity, viral load, and whether people were coughing, sneezing, or talking. A person talking without a mask can project droplets for one meter. If they cough, make that three meters. If they sneeze? Seven meters. 

Add a surgical, FFP2, or N95 mask, though, and ” ”the risk of infection is reduced to such an extent that it is practically negligible—even if you’re only standing one meter away from an infected person,” according to Gaetano Sardina, one of the researchers behind the study.

 

Vaccines in Africa

Six African countries–Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Tunisia–will be getting the technology to produce Covid vaccines through a World Health Organization program

Only 11% of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated. That compares with a global average of around 50%. And Africa  currently produces just 1% of coronavirus vaccines. An earlier program to get vaccines to poorer countries, COVAX, has missed target after target and only 10% of people in its targeted countries have received at least one dose. 

The current program replicates commercially available vaccines, somehow dodging the patent issues. Don’t ask me. I know roughly as much about patent law as I do about science. Maybe they’re just producing the stuff anyway and daring the companies to sue.

Although Doctors Without Borders welcomed the program, it pointed out that it’ll be a lot of work to recreate the vaccines and called instead on the original producers to help.

“The fastest way to start vaccine production in African countries and other regions with limited vaccine production is still through full and transparent transfer of vaccine know-how of already-approved mRNA technologies to able companies,” a spokesperson said.

 

A Report from the Department of Shell Games

A research company that Pfizer contracted with to test its vaccine has been accused of messing with the data. According to the BMJ, a whistleblower reported that “the company falsified data, unblinded patients, employed inadequately trained vaccinators, and was slow to follow up on adverse events reported in Pfizer’s pivotal phase III trial. Staff who conducted quality control checks were overwhelmed by the volume of problems they were finding.”

After more than once notifying the company, Ventavia, of the problems, the whistleblower got hold of the FDA–the US Food and Drug Administration.

She was promptly fired.

Other former employees that the BMJ talked to generally backed her claims. 

I’m printing this not in support of anti-vax arguments but because it’s from a legitimate source and seems to be true. The vaccine’s been widely used with minimal problems. But if you had any faith left in for-profit medicine, this might rattle it a bit.

 

A quick feel-good story

The Mask Nerd of Minneapolis has set up a lab in his bathroom and for the past 18 months has been testing masks there to see which ones are most effective. He’s got an air compressor on the bathroom sink and an I-don’t-know-what-but-it’s-impressive on the windowsill. 

Aaron Collins is a mechanical engineer with a background in aerosol science. 

“I just want better masks on more faces,” he said. “If you know the secret—if you know a piece of information that could help people—it’s your moral obligation to make sure that people are aware of that.”

You can find him on Twitter under the handle @masknerd. He also posts videos on YouTube.

“This is why we’re scientists,” he said. “This is why we’re engineers. We’re not in it for the money. … We’re in it because we have a passion for changing the world in positive ways.”

 

And on an unrelated topic

An unimportant and bizarre effect of the invasion of Ukraine is that a post of mine, “Is Berwick on Tweed at War with Russia?” is getting an absurd number of hits, going from 3 on a day at the end of January to 249 on a day in the first week of March, and then 74 the next day.

To be clear, I’m all for people educating themselves on the background of this war, but the Berwick on Tweed story? This is the kind of research that convinces people that Hilary Clinton was the head of a pedophile ring operating out of the basement of a pizza parlor that didn’t even have a basement.

But never mind the pizza. Berwick is not at war with Russia. It has no connection to Ukraine. 

Go study some real history.

I’m happy to report that, on the third day, hits on the post settled back to 3.