About Ellen Hawley

Fiction writer and blogger, living in Cornwall.

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. 

What does freedom of the city mean?

Not long after Prince Andrew gave up on huffing and puffing until he blew down Virginia Giuffre’s house–in other words, after he settled her lawsuit out of court–the city of York rescinded an honor it had given him back when he looked a bit less sleazy than he does today: the freedom of the city.

This is significant because, um, why?

Well, it’s not, really. Or it is, but only if you take British traditions seriously, which I have some trouble doing but I’m sure Andy doesn’t. No one could run around dressed in those uniforms if they didn’t take it all seriously. 

Still, in the avalanche of bad publicity that’s fallen on him lately, York’s contribution is barely a pebble. But since it’s an intriguing pebble, let’s talk about what this freedom of the city business is.

Irrelevant photo: This was taken during either Storm Dudley or Eunice, although I’m damned if I remember which one. My partner swore they sounded like an aunt and uncle from Oklahoma–ones no one looked forward to seeing. All that white stuff? That’s foam. We had enough wind to whip the ocean into a meringue.

Starting at the beginning

Freedom of the city dates back to the middle ages, when lords were lords and serfs weren’t free and any sensible person would’ve told you this was the natural order of things. 

All that non-freedom is what made the freedom of the city matter.

According to a “purported law” of William the Conqueror’s–he’s the guy, remember, who won England as his very own plaything in 1066–“If serfs reside without challenge for a year and a day in our cities, or in our walled towns, or in our castles, from that day they will effectively be free men and forever free from their bonds of servitude.”

For a law that’s no more than purported, it seems to have had an impressive impact. It was repeated in various ways by various cities and rulers. Henry II gave Lincoln a charter saying, “Should anyone reside in my city of Lincoln for a year and a day without being claimed by any claimant, and he is contributing towards the customary dues of the city, and the citizens can prove (by the customary legal process of the city) that a claimant was present in England but made no claim upon him, thereafter he may remain in my city of Lincoln, undisturbed as before, as my citizen, without legal challenge.”

For claimant, you can substitute lord–someone with a feudal right to claim this person as, effectively, his property.

Elsewhere, you’ll find specific statements about a villein (that’s what you and I would call a serf) being freed of villeinage if he lives “undisturbed for a year and a day in any privileged town, to the point that he is accepted into its community (that is, gild) he is thereby freed from villeinage.”

Gild? That’s what we’d call a guild. Hold onto that word, because we’ll come back to it.

 

Consulting the grownups about this

Notice that bit about privileged towns. This year-and-a-day stuff didn’t work in just any town. You couldn’t hide out for the required time in your local market town and hope to be free. The magic only worked if the spell was written into the town’s charter. 

But not every town or city was welcoming to fugitive serfs.

Do I have details about that? I do not. The best I can tell you is that historians aren’t in universal agreement over how common it was for villeins to free themselves this way, or how welcoming or unwelcoming towns were. And since historians are the grownups in this discussion, we’ll leave this for them to work out while we go upstairs and do whatever they told us not to.

It’s worth knowing that free men didn’t live only in cities. They also lived in the countryside, working the land more or less as serfs did. The difference was that they rented their land, didn’t owe the lord any service in kind, and were free to leave, although they couldn’t necessarily afford to. You could be free and as poor as the neighboring serf–or poorer. 

Nothing’s ever simple, is it?

 

Two footnotes 

  1. Becoming a free man didn’t make you a freeman. That was a different category and we’ll get to it in a minute. What being a free man did do was make you not-a-serf, which was a major change in status,even if it wasn’t the solution to all your problems. 
  2. Almost everything I’ve found talks about free men. Only the Guild of Freemen of the City of London website acknowledges references to women having been guild members. Given the English language’s counterproductive tradition of sometimes insisting that men means both men and women and the rest of the time insisting that men means only men, figuring out what we’re talking about here isn’t easy, but the year-and-a-day thing does seem to have applied to women. As far as I can tell.

 

Guilds, freemen, and free men

It’s not just the men and women who are hard to tell apart. Several websites get woozy about the difference between free men and freemen. So when the city of Birmingham, by way of example, explains what freemen means, it’s hard to know if it applies to both free men and freemen.

Don’t you just love the English language?

What does the Brimingham website say? “The medieval term ‘freeman’ meant someone . . . who had the right to earn money and own their own land. People who were protected by the charter (rules) of their town or city were often ‘free’, hence the term ‘Freedom of the City.’ ”

Are you confused yet? 

Good. Then you’re following the discussion. You could live in a city and be free, but not be a freeman, and therefore (at least as time went by) not someone who had the freedom of the city. To become a freeman of a city or town, you had to be accepted by one of its guilds, and they limited their membership. If too many people have the right to practice as, say, goldsmiths, prices will drop.

The medieval guilds were powerful organizations, made up of merchants or craftspeople (who weren’t always men). They had a monopoly on their corner of the economy and regulated trade, standards,  apprenticeships, and prices. Each one protected its interests, and they often controlled city or town governments.  

If you couldn’t become a member–and unless you had connections, you probably couldn’t–you might well be free and a man, but you were stuck working as a laborer. You weren’t a freeman of the city.

 

More about freemen

The Portsmouth City Council website skips over free men and goes straight for freemen:The institution of freemen or burgesses dates from the early beginnings of municipal corporations in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Freemen or burgesses enjoyed considerable political privileges, being entitled to elect the officers of the corporation and its representatives in Parliament, although they were not necessarily resident in the borough of which they were burgesses or freemen.”

In this context, the corporation was the city government.

“In choosing freemen or burgesses, boroughs found it convenient to admit men of national importance who might be able to secure greater economic or political privileges for the area. Prominent local landowners with interests in a borough would reward their supporters by securing their admission as freemen or burgesses–between the sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries a very high proportion of the known burgesses in Portsmouth were not resident in the borough.”

In other words, freemen were a select group of a city’s residents (or, just to confuse the picture, non-residents). They were people with power and money. That held until 1835, when the Municipal Corporations Act established city councils. After that, they might very well still have held power, but they had to exercise it differently.

 

Can we confuse the issue a bit more?

Of course we can. Let’s go to Texas, where a couple of Freedom of the City certificates are sitting in the Ransom Center, which led the center to write about them.

One certificate was issued in London in 1776 to Michael Dancer at the end of his apprenticeship. It was big–2 feet by 5 inches–and came with a tube so Mick could roll it up and carry it around with him. The Ransom Center swears that people would have carried these the way we might carry a passport or driver’s license today, to prove identity and citizenship. 

I offer you a grain of salt to go with that explanation. They might well have needed the document for one thing and another–only people who’d been granted freedom of the city could exercise a trade within London’t city limits, and that held true until 1835–but I’d guess it was too important to cart around the streets every day like a driver’s license. 

The Ransom Center tells us that along with a freedom of the city certificate, London also presented its new members with “a book titled Rules for the Conduct of Life, which was intended to guide them in their life as freemen. While providing many basic laws and recommended codes of conduct, the book also outlined several interesting freedoms available only to freemen.  For example, the book notes freemen have the right to herd sheep over the London Bridge, go about the city with a drawn sword, and—if convicted of a capital offense—to be hung with a silken rope. Other ascribed privileges are said to include the right to be married in St. Paul’s cathedral, to be buried in the city, and to be drunk and disorderly without fear of arrest.”

I’m not exercised about where I get buried–I hope to be past caring by then–but that silken rope might make freedom of the city worth pursuing. 

 

What does being a freeman of the city get you today?

Not much. Let’s limit ourselves to London: You can’t drive sheep across London Bridge anymore. Capital punishment’s been abolished, so if you want to be hung with a silken rope you’ll have to make your own arrangements. I’m not sure what the law is on drawn swords, but I‘d recommend doing some research before you try it. Folks get twitchy about swords these days, no matter what certificate you’re carrying.

That makes the freedom of the city something you can put on your resume, if you have one, but that’s about it. It’s just a bit of English tradition that you’re welcome to take seriously if you can.

News of Britain’s Royal Mail & some advice about social media 

A package with no return address that was addressed to an empty house sat around a London post office for a month, and since it was marked “Edibles,” someone opened it and found brownies. And you pretty well know what happened next: People ate them. 

Okay, full disclosure: It wasn’t just marked, “Edibles,” it was marked, “Edibles by Pablo Chocobar,” and in hindsight maybe someone should’ve guessed what that meant. Or maybe they did. Either way, everyone involved got high, especially the guy who ate four. 

Someone made a video of what happened next, and it went viral, which must’ve been satisfying. Then the people involved in the incident were suspended–reportedly–which must’ve been less satisfying. 

The Royal Mail said it would be reminding everyone of how to handle mail with no address for delivery or return. It promised to scold everyone involved thoroughly, just as soon as they stopped giggling.

Would you forgive me if I offer a bit of advice here? I know this isn’t an advice blog. I won’t tell you how to clean your house, your skin, your gut, or your mind. But we’ve stumbled into a subject I know something about, so here you go, kiddies, learn from me: When you just have to break the law or commit a fireable offense at work, don’t video it. Don’t take selfies. And if someone else videos it, stay out of the picture. Don’t grin woozily into the lens and say, “I ate four.” I know all of that is what people do these days, but it’s still incriminating evidence. 

Sheesh, the younger generation. You have to tell them everything.

Irrelevant photo: One of the first wild primroses of the year.

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On a more sober note,the Royal Mail is trying, maybe a little desperately, to be cutting edge and exciting (or at least that’s my interpretation), so it’s adding barcodes to its stamps. That’ll let people scan them and watch videos, messages, and information online.

How thrilling is that?

What kind of videos and information? Sadly, not videos of stoned postal workers wandering around London trying to remember what to do with all this paper stuff they’re lugging around. Instead, they’re offering exciting information about postal services, and when all the pieces of the new program are in place the sender will be able to choose a video for the recipient to watch, or even record a greeting. So far, though, only one video’s available. It features Shaun the Sheep. 

Will anyone care when it’s quicker, easier, and often free to send a video or a recorded message without the stamp? I’m doubtful. 

 

The queen’s jubbly

Some as-yet-unidentified business decided to cash in on Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee by ordering 10,800 cups, mugs, and plates with a hideous picture of the queen and a bit of jubilee wording. 

So far, so boring. But when they were delivered, the wording was, “To commemorate the Platinum Jubbly of Queen Elizabeth II.”

Proofreaders of the world, unite. 

All the merchandise ended up on a clearance website, and if you’d been fast enough you could’ve bought the whole mess for £32,400, but they’ve probably sold by now. Why? Because the word jubbly was made popular by a sitcom character whose catchphrase was “lovely jubbly.” That and the sheer absurdity of the stuff are probably enough to make it saleable.

Now let’s backtrack: The queen’s what

Jubilee, and to explain it I’ll lift a quote from the royal website, which takes the whole thing seriously and is maintained (I assure you, based on no insider knowledge whatsoever) by someone who’s roughly as royal as I am: “On 6th February this year Her Majesty The Queen will become the first British Monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years of service to the people of the United Kingdom, the Realms and the Commonwealth.”

You’ll notice that they not only award the queen a capital Q, they also capitalize the T in the, since it’s close enough to the Q of Queen to pick up a bit of royal fairy dust. According to the convoluted rules of English-language capitalization, the T should be lowercase. 

Of course, they also capitalize just about every other noun in the sentence. Because, see, they’re really, really excited about this. And it’s all so very important. 

So important that the country’s getting an extra four-day weekend and a lot of encouragement to hold celebrations. The country’s also getting a royal jubilee pudding competition. (Sorry, the deadline’s past in case you were thinking about sending in a recipe.)

What’s a pudding? Um, yeah. Basically, a dessert, but the word’s hazy enough, even in British English, that the royal website needs two paragraphs to define it and ends up saying that, other than being sweet, it’s open to interpretation.

Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey reports that an awful lot of people are taking all this royal hoopla seriously.

 

Geography, soup, and general incompetence news from all over

Can we shift to politics for a minute? Britain’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, who’s supposed to be in charge of, you know, dealing with the rest of the world, wherever it may be, publicly mixed up the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. The exact quote is, “We are supplying and offering extra support into our Baltic allies across the Black Sea.” 

That gave a Russian official the opportunity to point out that the Baltic nations are called the Baltic nations because they’re on the Baltic Sea. Still, it’s an understandable mistake. The Baltic and Black seas are 700 miles apart, but they’re both full of water, start with a B, and are somehow or other associated with a highly fraught region, or possibly two, so what the hell. 

But setting aside all that annoying geography stuff, it’s reassuring to know that we’re both supplying and offering support. And that it’s going into our allies, not just bouncing off their outer shells.

You can see how helpful our support’s turning out to be.

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Meanwhile, in the U.S., Georgia’s Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene denounced Democratic speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi’s  “gazpacho police” for “spying on members of Congress, spying on the legislative work that we do, spying on our staff and spying on American citizens.” 

If she’s issued a clarifying statement, I haven’t found it, but the going theory is that she was worrying about being spied on by something along the lines of Nazi Germany’s Gestapo, not by bowls of cold vegetable soup. Although these days, you can’t rule anything out.

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If you think being spied on by cold vegetable soup is too silly for anyone to believe, consider the survey showing that one in every four Americans thinks the sun orbits the earth. Less surprisingly, almost half of them–48%–don’t believe humans evolved from other animals.

The survey was conducted by the National Science Foundation and included more than 2,200 participants. But before anyone starts drawing wide-ranging conclusions about the U.S., one in three residents of the European Union got the earth/sun question wrong. 

The small print: In most cases, one in three is more than one in four, even though it involves smaller numbers.

You’re welcome.

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In cheerier news, Northern Powergrid sent compensation checks to tens of thousands of customers who’d been left without power after a storm last November. So far, so ho hum, but 74 of them got checks for trillions of pounds. 

Unfortunately, Northern Powergrid blocked payment before the checks could be cashed. 

How’d they find out? Someone tweeted a photo of his check and asked if the company was sure it could afford it. The tweet went–you guessed it–viral, and he got a lot of attention, but you could argue that he tweeted himself out one or two trillion pounds.

The company’s mumbling about a clerical error and an electricity meter reference number being dropped into the slot where the refund amount belonged. 

It’s the kind of mistake that could happen to anyone.

 

The freedom of speech report

Last fall a Conservative member of parliament, Jonathan Gullis, suggested that anyone who uses the phrase white privilege should be reported to the Home Office’s anti-extremism program. He also said teachers who criticize the Conservative Party to their students should be fired.

“We need to start sacking people who are pushing their political ideology,” he said.

He, of course, is not pushing a political ideology. He’s just saying what everybody knows is right.

 

And finally, a report from Britain’s grocery store aisles

The pandemic increased the number of people ordering groceries online, and although it’s nice not to have to wander the aisles yourself (or some people think it is anyway), it does leave customers at the mercy of computer algorithms. 

What are people getting in place of the things they ordered? These examples come from the oddly named British consumer group Which? (The question mark is theirs, not mine. I deny all responsibility. Have you ever wondered how to make a possessive out of a name that carries its own punctuation?)

Two in five people who answered Which?’s survey had gotten odd replacements, including:

  • Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream instead of fish filets
  • Eggs from an actual chicken instead of a candy called Creme Eggs
  • Duck paste instead of duct tape
  • Scouring sponges instead of a victoria sponge cake
  • Sausage rolls instead of toilet paper (that’s not quite as insane as it sounds: they’re called toilet rolls; still, you don’t want to think about that one too much)

And more mysteriously

  • Cooking oil instead of milk
  • Tampons instead of shaving cream
  • Bleach instead of orange squash–a kind of dilute-it-yourself soft drink
  • And dog food instead of bread sticks

The people who pick the groceries off the shelves can override computer substitutions, but they’re being chased down the aisles by time targets and can’t always spare the minute it would take to dig into what’s happening, so they grab what they’re told and move on. 

Customers do have the right to reject substitutions, but if they’re like me they’ll sometimes agree to them before they’ve taken in the full insanity involved. 

What do we know about the new Omicron variant?

Well, on its wanted poster, it’s called BA.2, so let’s call it that. We don’t know what it calls itself. It’s estimated to be 1½ times as infectious as its relative BA.1.

What kind of relatives are they? They’re being called sister viruses, since .2 isn’t a descendant of .1, although why it’s a sister instead of a brother I don’t know. Viruses never allow themselves to be shoved into little pink or blue baby suits.

Never mind. If they want to be sisters, they can be sisters. Kids, you can be anything you want to be. 

Within limits. We’ll discuss the fine print when you’re older.

Let’s set that aside, okay? We’ve got some good news for a change: BA.2 doesn’t seem to be any more dangerous as BA.1, and the vaccines seem to be as effective against .2 as they are against BA.1.

Irrelevant photo: The first celandine are out. They’re looking a little bruised, as if they’ve gone nine rounds with King Winter, which they have, but they’re in bloom.

End of good news. Dr. Gregory Poland, of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, said that variants will “continue to happen and infect every unvaccinated person until people are vaccinated and until they’re wearing a mask. You can choose to ignore these facts―these clear data―but the virus could care less what we think. The virus is going to find people who do not have protective immunity and infect them.”

That should be “couldn’t care less,” but you know what he means.

 

So what should we be doing?

According to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyeus, “We are concerned that a narrative has taken hold in some countries that because of vaccines—and because of omicron’s high transmissibility and lower severity—preventing transmission is no longer possible and no longer necessary. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s premature for any country either to surrender or to declare victory. This virus is dangerous and it continues to evolve before our very eyes.”

That quote’s a few weeks old, but we’re not listening. Many countries are undoing their Covid restrictions because, hey, they know better. And it’s over. 

Meanwhile, Covid’s overwhelming Hong Kong and desperate hospitals were setting up beds outside.

How much of Hong Kong’s population’s vaccinated? The closest I could come to an answer is this: If you compare the number of doses delivered to the population, 78.9% of the people could have had two doses. 

 

Vaccine news

Scientists at the Wistar Institute are working on a vaccine that, at least in animal studies, creates a stronger, broader, and more durable protection than the current vaccines, and does it with a single, low dose that can be stored at room temperature. If that’s not enough, it can also be adjusted quickly as new variants arise.

And it makes a decent cup of tea if you ask politely.

It uses three technologies: immune focusing, self-assembling nanoparticles, and DNA delivery. Now let’s see if I can explain what those are.

Well, no, I can’t quite, but I can throw some language at you to make it sound like I understand a bit of this. 

The vaccine shoots you some naturally self-assembling proteins (whatever they may be), and they then form nanoparticles that arrange themselves–oh, hell, I’m lost, so I’ll quote: “By arranging themselves into structures that resemble an actual virus, the nanoparticles are more easily recognized by the immune system and transported to the germinal centers, where they activate B cells which produce protective antibodies.”

To translate that, they use long words to activate your immune system, creating “stronger levels of protective, neutralizing antibodies.” 

If I understand this correctly, all this convinces the body to produce things that would normally be produced in high-tech factories.

They’re at the animal-test stage, and so far it’s producing a stronger, longer-lasting immune response than the existing vaccines. With that data in their pockets, they’re scrambling around, trying to raise the money for human trials. 

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Another set of trials is using a nasal spray to deliver a booster vaccine, focusing the immune system on the areas Covid attacks first, the nose and lungs. It depends on the recipient having already had an mRNA vaccine or possibly a previous infection.

The idea, since this focuses the protection on the nose and lungs, that it would prevent both infection and transmission. 

They’ve run tests on mice and will test the approach on larger animals, then hope to start human trials.

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Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have worked out a way to inject RNA and DNA into the stomach lining by way of a capsule the size of a blueberry, allowing it to reach the digestive tract directly. 

Other than driving anti-vaxxers nuts, what’s the purpose? It would let you–or, ideally, someone who knows what they’re doing if you’re no more skilled at this than I am–deliver medicine for gastrointestinal problems directly to the gastrointestinal work site. It might (or might not–it hasn’t been fully tested yet) also let you deliver an RNA vaccine in a new and interesting way, one that would be easy on needlephobes and wouldn’t make small children scream, although that last possibility depends on someone getting them to swallow the blueberry. 

And, of course, it would drive the anti-vaxxers nuts. 

 

Do masks work?

A California study reports that wearing an N95 mask or its equivalent reduces the chances of becoming infected with Covid. In Europe, the N95 is called an FFP2; both are also called KN95 masks or just plain ol’ respirators.

These aren’t the blue disposable masks that blow around the parking lots of this and many other fair lands. They’re also not your average cloth masks. They’re the more expensive ones made of I have no idea what but designed not just to keep you-the-wearer from sharing your germs but also to protect you-the-wearer from stealing other people’s.

That’s other people’s germs, not their masks, and that’s a huge and important difference. As mask mandates are reduced and as some people insist on their right to breathe in other people’s faces, they become a form of self-defense. 

Some N95s are disposable. Others are reusable–up to a point, estimated at about 40 hours of use. 

The study involved 3,000 Californians, and it’s a less than perfect study. For one thing, it relies on what people say they’ve done, with no reality check built in. That’s always dicey. You know what humans are like. It was also limited to people who chose to get tested for Covid. Still, it might give us a hint or two about what’s happening out there.

So with all that out of the way, would I please tell you what the damn thing said?

Why yes, I’d be glad to: 

People who said they always wore masks (any kind of masks) in public indoor settings were 56% less likely to test positive for Covid than people who didn’t wear masks. That went up to 83% for people who wore N95 masks. People who wore surgical masks were 66 percent less likely to test positive.

A more controlled study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tested the rate of transmission when an infected person talked for an hour to an uninfected person. When the person who wasn’t infected wore a well-fitting mask N95 or its European equivalent, the FFP2 mask, the risk of infection was 20 percent. 

If both people wore surgical masks, the risk of infection went up to just under 30 percent. When both N95 masks or their equivalent, though, it dropped to 0.4 percent. 

The two studies reported their findings differently, so we can’t compare the results–or I can’t anyway–but the second one does tell us that two people wearing good masks present less of a risk than one person doing the same. 

Should we do the howevers now?

To work most effectively, the N95 mask has to be fit tested, which is something they do at hospitals and in hazardous workplaces. It’s complicated enough that no one does it at home. Or in the supermarket, or on the bus. Most people who put them on without fit testing them don’t get a complete seal between the mask and their face, even if it feels like a good fit. 

So they’re less than perfect protection, but even if they’re not fit tested they’re still decent.

How decent? Sorry, I sank, but you’re welcome to dig around in here and figure it out yourself. I warn you, it involves numbers. Also words. Don’t say you weren’t warned. In layperson’s terms, I think the answer would be not enough to make someone with a compromised immune system safe but more decent than a cloth or disposable mask. 

I haven’t looked into how the second study was set up, but I did wonder. Did they actually use an infected person, putting the uninfected person at risk? Dunno. How many of the people being talked at expired from sheer desperation before the hour was up? Dunno that either. I’m sure it depended on the talker. With some people I’ve known, I wilt after fifteen minutes of listening.

A quick history of the English breakfast

Every country has its myths, and I suspect one of England’s is, as the English Breakfast Society puts it, that the English breakfast is “a centuries old . . . tradition, one that can trace its roots back to the early 1300’s.” 

Yes, there is an English Breakfast Society. That should tell us something about how central the myth is. Or, if you like, how central the reality is. Or how odd the country is. 

Or possibly how odd any country is.

Never mind. It tells us something or other. Can we move on?

I found the quote on the society’s website, right below the picture of a wealthy couple from the long-dress-and-maid-serving-breakfast era. They’re sitting at a table looking unhappy. The man’s taken refuge behind his paper and all we know about his face is that he has eyebrows–two, I believe–but that’s enough to let us know he has no time for the woman right now because he’s attending to serious business, which by definition excludes women. The woman’s turned away from him, looking bored. Not to mention sulky. She’s not reading a newspaper because, c’mon people, ladies didn’t back then. 

The maid’s leaving the room and if I had to be one of these three people I’d be her because at least she gets to walk out, even if she can’t stay gone for long. 

But never mind the picture. It’s a red herring. I only mention it because it’s such bad publicity for the English breakfast that I couldn’t resist. If you want to promote the beauty of a meal, bury this picture someplace deep.

Irrelevant photo: a slightly battered rose, blooming in February.

Several other websites make more or less the same claim about how far back into history the English breakfast reaches. But let’s stay with the English Breakfast Society. Not only do they say the English breakfast dates back to the 1300s, but in a different paragraph they say it reaches back to the 13th century, which through a quirk of mathematics or accounting or something numbers-related isn’t the same thing at all. And, they say, it was developed by the gentry, “who considered themselves to be the guardians of the traditional English country lifestyle and who saw themselves as the cultural heirs of the Anglo-Saxons.”

I suspect we’re looking at a bit of time slippage there. The Anglo-Saxons hadn’t come into fashion in the 1300s/13th century. If you wanted to get ahead in whichever of those two centuries we’re talking about, you needed to and downplay whatever Anglo-Saxon traditions your family had kept alive and speak Norman French. Chaucer, who first broke the English language into the publishing world, earning rave reviews on Amazon and GoodReads, wasn’t even born until 1340 and didn’t start writing until several years after that. 

So forget the Anglo-Saxons. I’m pretty sure they’re another red herring. Let’s take the rest of the claims apart.

 

First, who were the gentry?

To belong to the gentry, you had to own enough land to live off it without getting your hands dirty or doing any actual work. It was a loosely defined group, though. The nobles–the people who held titles–were easy to count, and people did count them, totting up fifty in the early 16th century, some 200 in the 18th. Once you had a number, you could be sure you’d gotten them all back on the bus after they’d gotten off to see the attractions or use the restroom.

The gentry, though? Sorry, but if you left a few dozen behind at Tower Bridge, no one would know.  

But let’s not compare the gentry to the nobility. That’s another red herring, and one I dragged in. I got tempted by those numbers. Sorry. Let’s compare the gentry to the peasantry instead. The most striking difference is that where the peasants were hard working and often hungry, the gentry ate well and prided themselves on their hospitality.

Hospitality to people like themselves, that is, or people further up in the hierarchy. It wouldn’t do to get too hospitable to the lower orders. They’d start to think they should eat like that every day.

No, I’m not cynical, just fed up with how little has changed. 

But we were talking about the English breakfast. In this telling, the gentry used breakfast to show off their wealth and hospitality. They made it an important social occasion. 

Take weddings. A wedding mass had to happen before noon (don’t ask me; maybe god had afternoons off), so weddings took place in the morning and then the bride and groom ate a wedding breakfast. With who knows how many well-wishers and hangers-on and family members.

Cue a grand spread for breakfast.

Skip ahead a few centuries and along comes a wealthy middle class. Not all of the middle class was wealthy, mind you, but part of it was, and because it drew its wealth from (gasp, horror) trade instead of land, it couldn’t be part of the gentry. But it could sure as hell eat, and it copied the gentry’s breakfasts, along with many of their other habits.

 

The tale of the English breakfast, version two

In Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain, Pen Vogler tells the tale differently, and I have a hunch more reliably. The earliest courtly records, she says, don’t say anything about breakfast except that people who rose early would have bread and ale. 

Who rose early? Well, it wasn’t the nobles and it probably wasn’t the gentry. Breakfast for them seems to have been a blank. In the medieval monasteries, an early meal was for people who did physical work. Monks and nuns were supposed to have their minds on higher things than stuffing their bellies, at least first thing in the morning.

By Tudor times, though, Katherine Parr’s maids were eating beef for breakfast, and by the 17th century breakfast had become pretty much universal, although the harder you worked (and the poorer you were) the earlier you ate. Samuel Pepys (we’re still in the 17th century) was eating meat left over from last night’s supper, either cold or reheated. (No, the microwave hadn’t been invented and they didn’t have electricity anyway so it wouldn’t have done him any good it if had been. He ate it fried.) For one breakfast, he ate radishes. Make whatever sense of that you can. 

By the time we come to Jane Austen (1775 to 1817), we find her mother writing about visiting cousins and having a breakfast of cakes, rolls, bread, toast, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, although Austen has one of her characters eating pork and mustard for breakfast and another, boiled eggs.

If I can translate all of this, it means that the English breakfast wasn’t what’s now known as an English breakfast. It was breakfast and it was in England, but that’s where the similarity ended. 

By Victorian times, the owners of a grand country house might show off with French food at dinner, but breakfast would be about showing off what the owner’s land produced, so we find ham, sausages, eggs, and bacon, as well as things I think of as un-breakfasty: beef, meat pies, pheasant, kidneys, smoked fish, and kedgeree, which is an Indian-inflected mix of fish and rice–a sign of that the British were messing around in India and had brought home the idea that if you added a bit of spice to your food your taste buds would wake up and do a little dance. 

 

The current components of an English breakfast

What’s now known as an English breakfast is heavy enough to stop a train, but a lot of the dishes I mentioned slid off the plate long ago and were replaced with others. It now involves some or all of the following: eggs, sausages, bacon, grilled tomato, mushrooms, baked beans, toast, and fried bread. Plus tea and antacid. 

Did I miss the marmalade and the fried potatoes? I did, along with the assorted regional variations.

So how deep into history do the components go? As far as I can tell, not very. The baked beans that are now an integral part of the English breakfast didn’t land on the plate, or in the country, until 1886, when Fortnum & Mason began selling them as an American luxury.

There’s no accounting for taste. 

As for the eggs, if you leave chickens to their own devices, they stop popping out eggs during the winter. Or so Lord Google tells me. I’ve never raised chickens, so I’ll have to take his word for it. It’s only when you keep the chickiebirds warm and add artificial light to their lives that they get in the mood to produce eggs all winter. So even among the rich, eggs wouldn’t have been available year round.

And even when they were in season, they were a luxury in a working person’s diet.

Eventually  the 20th century came, though, along with artificial lighting and ways to heat a hen house that didn’t risk setting it on fire, and eggs–or maybe that’s chickens–began to be farmed intensively. In the years before World War I a recognizable version of the modern English breakfast started to show up in hotels and in bed and breakfasts. 

Meanwhile, in the country houses of the rich, breakfast changed after World War I. They no longer had the massive number of servants it took to serve grand breakfasts anymore, and they began to simplify.

I know. It’s tough.

Bacon and eggs get a mention here, along with gastronomical boredom.

During World War II, with rationing in force, in many working-class homes the breakfast protein went to the men and boys and the toast went to the women and girls, with some of the trimmings added in on weekends and holidays. That was caused by a collision of sexism and the men and boys doing heavier work, either in reality or in theory. I know the men worked like dogs in many industries, but I’m not sure how heavily to bet on the women and girls carrying a light load.

But back to the components of the English breakfast: The tomatoes and mushrooms weren’t added until the 1960s and 1970s. Sadly, they’re harder to make fun of.

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If you’re not tired of me by now, I have an article online about the difference between writing for a lesbian audience and writing for a crossover audience. It touches on the gay and lesbian liberation movement in the 1970s. Yes, I really am that old. In fact, I’m older. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the English breakfast.

You can find it at The Bookseller.

How to get a license for your goldfish, and other news from Britain 

We all know how romantic Britain is, right? Ruined castles, foggy moors, illegal waste disposal. Yes, folks, we’ve got it all. 

Back in–hang on. How long has this article been kicking around my coffee table? Back in December 2020–in fact, just in time for Christmas–a Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, got exercised about criminal networks working in waste disposal, and (what with being criminals and all) dumping and burning large amounts of the stuff they were supposed to dispose of in the approved (if not necessarily planet-friendly) way. 

Some of it, he wrote, is hazardous.  

How could that be allowed to happen? 

He set out to demonstrate that the government has lost control of the licensing process so thoroughly that anyone can get licensed to dispose of waste. And they can use false information if they want, because it won’t be checked. 

To demonstrate, he registered his long-dead goldfish as an upper-tier carrier, broker, and dealer in waste. The fish appeared on the form as Algernon Goldfish of 49 Fishtank Close, Ohlooka Castle, Derby. 

A month later, Algernon had his license. Or to be entirely accurate, Monbiot had Algernon’s license. Algernon never opened his own mail, even when he was alive. 

Irrelevant photo: a lily

But let’s be even more than entirely accurate: Algernon may not have been male. To the casual human observer, male and female goldfish look nonbinary, which is to say, we can’t tell the difference. But the culture being what it is, most people will decide their fish is male. 

I know. But a female goldfish applying for a license might have snagged some official’s attention the way a male goldfish wouldn’t, after which they might have asked Lord Google where Ohlooka Castle is, and the whole thing would’ve fallen apart. So it was important that Algernon stay putatively male. 

As the cynical among us used to say in the–was it the seventies? Or as I think of it, last week? Yeah, it probably was. We said, “Make sexism work for you.”

It never did, really, but it sometimes kept us from throwing things.

 

What else makes Britain romantic?

Well, tea, of course. Or if it doesn’t make the place romantic, at least it makes up a huge part of people’s image of Britain. Which is a problem, because the British are buying less tea than they used to. And if they’re buying less, it follows as the night the day that they’re drinking less. 

What’s going on? 

The world’s ending, that’s what. 

On top of which Britons are switching to coffee, herbal tea, iced tea, energy drinks, and for all I know cocaine. 

Not everything on that list is available from your local supermarket, but with the exception of herbal tea all of it will wake you up.

According to Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, which is based on conversations with at least three people who still speak to me, the British consider coffee fancier than tea. 

To be clear: I’m not talking about instant coffee here, and maybe not about the stuff I learned to drink in the U.S. as a young adult, at great cost to my taste buds and ability to sleep. I’m talking about the kind you buy at a coffee shop. The kind that comes from a machine the size of a Volkswagen. Or the kind people make at home using a non-recyclable pod that they slot into a machine the size of a small short-haired dog.

Semi-relevantly, people don’t talk about having coffee here, they talk about having a coffee, as in “I stopped in for a coffee.” I’ve lived outside the U.S. too long to remember what Americans would say, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that. A cup of coffee? Probably. But I do remember that tea’s the fancier drink in the U.S.. Or at least the one that marks you as a bit of a weirdo.  

To prove that tea isn’t the fancier drink in Britain, some whole category of people talk about builder’s tea, meaning the tea people who work in the building trades drink to fuel themselves through the damp and the wind and the hard work. I’m not sure how to describe that category of people who say call it builder’s tea, but I seem to have joined it. They didn’t do a background check before accepting me and I didn’t ask what I was signing up to. 

If that isn’t proof enough of tea’s un-fancyness–and I can’t think why it would be–there’s this: 96% of the tea that Britons slug down is made with a teabag, not from the more up-market leaf teas. 

How did they measure that 96%? By the cuppa, a non-standardized metric that can be found, in spite of the slow shift away from tea, in pretty much every household. The language has preserved a place for the question, “Would you like a cuppa?”

Or maybe that’s, “Do you want a cuppa?” I don’t really speak British. I speak something that’s vaguely related but it doesn’t allow me to write convincing dialogue. 

All comments and corrections and explanations of British English are welcome. Also all marginally appropriate mockery.

 

What else can we learn about British culture?

Why, we can learn what people leave behind at hotels. The Travelodge chain reported on that very topic, because they understand its cultural importance. The past year’s finds include:

  • A pair of feathered angel wings, six feet across
  • A dog named Beyoncé 
  • A dress made out of postcards
  • A horsebox, with the horse inside
  • A drum kit
  • A Jimmy Choo Cinderella shoe 
  • A suitcase full of Blackpool rock

Okay, a couple of those items need explanations. Blackpool rock doesn’t mean stones. Rock’s a stick-shaped hard candy with, in this case, the word Blackpool written all the way through the center. I can understand forgetting it. What I can’t understand is having a suitcase of it, but never mind, the human race is far stranger than any one mind can take in.

As for the shoe, all I can tell you is that Jimmy Choo shoes are ridiculously expensive and that Cinderella’s known for losing a shoe, so pouring that kind of money into two of them seems like a bad investment. But what do I know? I wear running shoes.

But 2021 was a pandemic year. Let’s go back to 2019, before the pandemic got its claws into us, and see what people left:

  • A five-foot unicorn made of flowers
  • A gallon of water from Loch Ness
  • Two alpacas
  • The best man from a wedding party (and that was before the wedding)
  • A dissertation (topic not specified)
  • An urn with someone’s father’s ashes
  • The deed to a shop
  • An Aston Martin
  • A cat
  • A 75-inch color TV (just try finding a black and white one these days)
  • A blood pressure monitor
  • And in a come-down from 2021, a set of angel wings that are only four feet wide

 

Meanwhile in British politics

We could learn a few things here too if we try.

With the shine having gone off the prime minister, a few people in his government are appealing to the we-don’t-like foreigners strand of the culture to see if they can’t shine him back up again. Or at least shine themselves up in case his position suddenly goes vacant.

Appealing to anti-immigrant sentiment is hardly new, but it went into bold-face type earlier this year, with the home secretary, Priti Patel, calling for asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats to be forced back to France, which France insisted would put their lives at risk.

Will not, Patel said.

Will so too, France said.

Don’t care, Patel may have whispered once the microphone was turned off.

Patel introduced a bill that, until public outrage forced her to modify it, looked like it would make a criminal out of anyone saving an asylum seeker’s life at sea. 

All this activated Brexiteer Nigel Farage and some of the rightest wing of the media to accuse the Royal National Lifeboat Institution of being woke. Not woke as in having had too much fancy coffee but woke as in being someone they disagree with. 

Anything can be turned into an insult if you say it in the right tone of voice.

Why was the RNLI having the evil finger pointd at it? Because it was dedicated to saving lives at sea. Anyone’s life. Lots of ink was spilled onto newsprint, and lots of vitriol was spilled onto the internet. One group of fishermen apparently tried to block a lifeboat, presumably when it wasn’t trying to save a fisherman’s life.

So how well did that work for the anti-woke, no-caffeine campaigners? The RNLI ended 2020 on track to raise the largest amount of money in its almost 200-year history. Online donations went up 50%. 

 

 

And in economics

By 9 a.m. on January 7–the year’s fourth working day in Britain–the average head of the country’s biggest companies had made more money (if you figure it on an hourly basis, which they don’t but never mind) than the average British worker will make by the end of the year. Unless of course the spaceships land before the year ends and seriously reconfigure the economic system.

To put that a different way and for a different year, in 2020 FTSE 100 chief execs were paid an average of 86 times more than the average full-time British worker made. I wouldn’t say it adds to the romance of the country, but it does tell us a lot about the culture.

 

And in other countries…

The Dutch government has put out a warning about pendants that are supposed to protect people from frequencies 5G masts emit: The pendants are radioactive, the government says. And (in case this wasn’t obvious as soon as you hit the word radioactive), they’re dangerous. 

In Canada, cats have put out a warning that Elon Musk’s satellite dishes are nice and warm when it snows. Not very warm, but warmer than snow, because they have a self-heating feature that’s supposed to melt the snow off them. It does do that. It also attracts cats.

This was reported by a customer who said his cats have a heated house of their own but they prefer the satellite dish, at least while the sun’s up. 

The cats slow his reception way down, but hey, if kitty’s happy, everyone’s happy. Or so my cats tell me.

And finally, in the United States, an eight-year-old, Dillon Helbig, slipped a hand-drawn book onto a shelf in the children’s-book section of his local library.

“I wanted to put my book in the library center since I was five, and I always had a love for books and libraries,” he said. “I’ve been going to libraries a lot since I was a baby.”

The book is The Adventures of Dillon Helbig’s Crismis, and it’s by “Dillon His Self.”  

Library staff found the book and moved it to the graphic novel section, so it can be borrowed. When last heard of, it had a waiting list of 55. The library awarded Dillon the first Whoodini Award for best young novelist. The award was named after the library’s owl mascot and the category was created for Dillon. Who’s working on a sequel.

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My thanks to Jane Whitledge for pushing me in the direction of that last story.

Is the pandemic over?

Can I be the bearer of bad news? 

You’re not here to answer and the news won’t surprise you anyway, so I’ll just go ahead: The World Health Organization tells us that the pandemic’s not over. 

How do I know? Because Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director general said, “This pandemic is nowhere near over.”

That’s a subtle way of putting it, but if you pay close attention you can tease out the message.

He also said, “Omicron may be less severe, on average, but the narrative that it is a mild disease is misleading. Make no mistake: Omicron is causing hospitalisations and deaths, and even the less severe cases are inundating health facilities.”

And if that’s not enough, “While Omicron causes less severe disease than Delta, it remains a dangerous virus—particularly for those who are unvaccinated. We mustn’t allow this virus a free ride or wave the white flag, especially when so many people around the world remain unvaccinated.”

The “overwhelming majority” of people admitted to hospitals are unvaccinated, he said.

 

Irrelevant photo: The first daffodils are out.

Has Covid gone endemic?

But what about the idea that Covid’s changing from a pandemic to an endemic disease and that we need to stop whining and learn to live with it? 

Let’s start by figuring out what that means: An endemic disease is “consistently present but limited to a particular region. This makes the disease spread and rates predictable.” 

Sorry, but I need to step in here. That last sentence doesn’t mean that being consistently present and limited to one region makes the disease spread. It means those things make the disease’s spread predictable.

Which was probably already clear, but I couldn’t help myself. I used to misunderstand people for a living, and old habits are hard to break.

So how do we measure up to that definition? We’ve blown it on the “limited to a particular region” part, but let’s not be fussy. Are the spread and rate predictable? 

Nope. Not only do we have sharp spikes, we have no idea when a new variant will come along or how dangerous or benign it’ll be. We do know that the climate’s right for creating new variants.

Another defines an endemic disease as constantly present but not causing the upheaval or massive number of infections that an epidemic does. Covid hasn’t become endemic by that definition either.

But again, let’s not be fussy. Even if Covid doesn’t fit either definition, couldn’t we pretend it does, get over our fear, and learn to live with it?

Well, it depends on how we want to live. Or die. Being endemic doesn’t mean it’s no threat. Before penicillin, tuberculosis was endemic. [Late correction: Penicillin has nothing to do with tuberculosis. See the comments below. It’s the things you think you know that trip you up.] So was syphilis. They wrecked a lot of lives. They killed a lot of people. People learned to live with them because they had no choice, but I wouldn’t make a virtue of it. 

It would be interesting to look at how much resistance measures to control their spread met. But that’s another post.

Learning to live with Covid is one of those phrases that, when you look at it, means nothing. Does it mean we tear off our masks, join a germ exchange, and relearn the lyrics to that Country Joe and the Fish song with the line “Whoopee, we’re all going to die”? Or does it mean we wear masks religiously, invest in some serious ventilation, and pass vaccine mandates? They’re both ways of living with a virus.

Does it mean learning to live with a constant threat, not just of death but of disability from long Covid–a threat that no one’s been able to quantify yet? If so, how will we decide to live with it?

Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at WHO, said, “Endemic malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people; endemic HIV; endemic violence in our inner cities. Endemic in itself does not mean good. Endemic just means it’s here forever.”

Okay, he skipped the predictable part, but we did say we weren’t going to be fussy.

“What we need to do is get to low levels of disease incidence with maximum vaccination of our populations, so nobody has to die,” Ryan said. “The issue is: It’s the death. It’s the hospitalizations. It’s the disruption of our social, economic, political systems that’s caused the tragedy—not the virus.”

And in case you’re betting on the next variant being milder than Omicron, mutation isn’t a one-way street. The direction of travel is random. 

 

Could you scrape up some good news, please?

Possibly, but let’s whisper so we don’t spook it: Some experts say that once the Omicron wave recedes we may get a period of quiet. The theory is that we’ve built up widespread immunity that could keep future waves from hitting as hard as they have in the past. 

Do waves hit? Is that a mixed metaphor? Do we care?

Probably, but let’s focus on the important stuff.

That’s not a unanimous opinion and other experts are more cautious, reminding us that it’s not clear how long Omicron immunity will last or whether a new variant will evade it. Omicron has demonstrated that even a relatively mild version of Covid can put a huge strain on health systems–and on the people who work in them. 

And as Boghuma Titanji, a virologist at Emory University School of Medicine, put it, “Wealthy countries moving on, I fear, will push the issues of access to vaccines and therapeutics access down the global priority list.” Which would mean not only more deaths in poor countries but (self-interest alert here) more variants loose in the world.

On the other hand, data suggests that the human immune response becomes better and broader every time it’s exposed to Covid’s spike protein. 

On the third hand, however, Leif Erik Sander, an immunologist at the Charité University Hospital, says that Omicron’s spike is so different from the spike in earlier variants that it’s not clear just how much immunity the Omicron wave will leave us with.

At which point we’re out of hands and it’s time to talk about what the next variant might look like. One possibility is that Delta could stage a comeback tour. Omicron was able to spread so quickly in part because the earlier versions hadn’t left us immune to it. Once that advantage fades, it may die back, leaving Delta room to work. Or they could work out their disagreements, move in together, and have babies, which could easily be uglier than either parent.

And, since a handful of antibodies does not an immune system make, what happens if a new variant evades not just our antibodies but our T cell response? (Reminder: T cells are an essential part of your immune system. Don’t leave home without them.) Well, if that happens “we’re dealing with another pandemic,” Shabir Madhi, a vaccinologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, said. But “the likelihood of that happening, I believe, is quite slim.”

 

Let’s try that good news thing again . . .

. . . because my last try didn’t go well.

Researchers in Finland are working on something they call a biological mask–a spray that could (assuming the tests go well) protect a person against Covid for 8 hours. 

It’s not meant to replace vaccines but to supplement them. If a person’s immune system doesn’t respond well to the vaccines, this spray is their friend. Or if they’re faced with a combination of a vaccine-evading variant and too many human beings in a risky setting, then ditto. 

The active molecule in the spray is called TriSb92, a name I forgot as soon as I got past the comma. Never mind. It’s a clever little beast that targets a part of Covid’s spike protein that’s common to all variants–at least so far–and once it makes contact it keeps the virus from going to work. You know what that’s like. It calls in sick and loses its job because spike proteins have no union and therefore no sick leave and no job security. 

If it was anything other than the Covid virus I’d feel bad about that, but it’s got it in for us. Have no mercy.

The developers think the spray might also be effective against new coronaviruses that emerge. Keep your fingers crossed. This sounds promising.

Party news from Britain and–oh, you know, other places

The recent news from Britain demonstrates my theory that politicians aren’t brought down by corruption, by undermining democracy, or by heartlessness toward the vulnerable. It’s the human-size scandals that do them in. Not the kind that  wreck a country–we’ve developed a high tolerance for country-wrecking–but the ones that show the politicians as human-size jerks, people no larger than ourselves who we can afford to wipe off our plates.

Yes, it restores my faith in the basic lunacy of my species. (I’m assuming that’s your species as well.)

What’s happened, you ask? Or you ask if you’re not British, because over here we’ve been following this with either glee or despair or fury, depending on our pre-existing political convictions, our temperaments, and how warped our senses of humor are. Or in my case with a destabilizing mix of both glee and despair–a mix that leaves me wondering what kind of excuse for a human being I really am.

What I’m talking about is a drip feed of stories about Boris Johnson–Britain’s prime minister when he can spare the time and attention–along with the circle around him having broken every rule of the Covid lockdown that they imposed on everyone but themselves. At a time when people couldn’t be with family members as they died, Johnson and his cohort were holding parties. Or gatherings. Or work events. With wine and cheese. And, for one of them, a bring-your-own-booze invitation. 

Irrelevant photo: Cornwall’s trees may not tell you which way the wind’s blowing at any given moment, but they do let you know where the prevailing winds come from.

At a time when extended families couldn’t meet in parks, never mind at funerals, they were holding more work events involving alcohol. And in the spirit of screaming irony, dozens of people from the Cabinet Office’s Covid task force showed up at one of them. On the same day the government tweeted that workplaces couldn’t hold Christmas lunches or parties.

The prime minister has variously said that he wasn’t at one or another of them, that he was there but thought he was attending a work meeting, that no one told him they broke the rules, and that he was there but is really, really sorry, especially about the party the day before Prince Phillip’s funeral, which (this being Britain and all) may be the one that sinks him. 

On the other hand, the video of Johnson dancing around with a light saber isn’t from any of the lockdown gatherings. Fact checkers have established that it predates the pandemic.

You feel better now, right?

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Meanwhile, Michael Fabricant, a Member of Parliament from Johnson’s own Consevative Party, accused the BBC of attempting a coup.

How? By covering the Partygate story. 

“This is not news reporting an event,” he said. “This relentless news creation is a coup attempt against the prime minister.”

What the hell, a coup attempt made big news in the U.S. I expect he thought tossing the phrase into the conversation would trigger the same sort of attention here. 

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At more or less (mostly less) the same time and no doubt backing the BBC’s coup attempt, dozens of people in dark suits, Boris Johnson masks, and floppy blond wigs turned up in Trafalgar Square and outside Downing Street with beer, wine, music, and British flags to drink, dance, and chant, “My name is Boris,” and “This is a work event.”

I heard some pundit on the news saying that when the political response shifts from anger to mockery, a politician’s career is over. Stay tuned and we’ll see if it’s true.

 

And in party news from elsewhere

A December 30 charter flight from Montreal to Cancun, Mexico got so rowdy that the passengers were banned from their return flight

The trip had been organized by something that describes itself as an “exclusive private group,” the 111 (pronounced  Triple One) Private Club. 

If exclusivity depends on who you exclude, I’m happy to be among the people who get left out of this.

The passengers drank and danced in the aisles, maskless, and of course video’d themselves to provide evidence. Because nothing that happens happened if you don’t have a selfie to prove it. 

The airline they flew down on, Sunwing, canceled their return flight. It did negotiate with Triple One about taking them back, and it got as far as agreeing that the passengers would show up sober and not be served any alcohol on the flight, but negotiations broke down over food: Sunwing said it wouldn’t serve meals. Triple One said that on a five-hour flight they’d fade away without it. 

Okay, I haven’t a clue what Triple One actually said, but negotiations did break down at that point. Last I heard Triple One said it was working to get the passengers home and two other airlines also refused to have them on board. I

Who were these little charmers? Influencers. Reality TV stars. A small handful of the organizer’s business partners. They were facing  fines when they got home. And possibly jail time, which gives a whole ‘nother meaning to the word  reality

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And finally, an Australian four-year-old wanted to have a party of his own–he had a birthday coming up–and used his father’s phone to order $1,139 worth of cake and ice cream, including a personalized birthday cake, from Uber Eats. It was delivered to the fire station where the boy’s father works, and the firefighters accepted the order.

What sane person, after all, would ask questions before accepting a thousand dollars worth of cake and ice cream? 

Uber Eats agreed to refund the money and the parents are speaking to the kid again, although I don’t know if he got to eat any of the stuff he ordered. Which doesn’t make it much of a party for him. 

Boris Johnson will be drafted in to consult with him on his party planning as soon as he’s booted out as prime minister.

The End of Roman Britain: Instability and the Hoxne Hoard

Whatever shortages Britain’s facing due to Brexit and Covid, it hasn’t run short of archeology. The country entered this strange time of ours rich in buried history and since the stuff in question hasn’t gotten up and walked out of the ground, it’s still rich.

The tale I’m about to tell you comes from before Brexit, though, and before Covid. Never mind the logic of that. I needed an opening paragraph. 

 

The tale

Let’s begin in 1992 with a tenant farmer, Peter Whatling, losing his hammer. And since–well, you know how attached you can get to a hammer, he got hold of a friend, Eric Lawes, who’d taken up metal detecting when he retired, and out they went to the field where Whatling had been when his hammer wandered off.

Before either of them had time to get cold and go home for a nice cup of tea, Lawes picked up a strong signal and started to dig, but instead of the hammer he brought up shovelfuls of silver and gold coins. Lawes was an experienced enough detectorist by then to knew when stop digging. He contacted the police and the local archeological society. 

The next day, archeologists came and dug out the treasure with the earth still around it so they could move it, intact, to a lab and work out both its age and how it had been stored before it was buried. What Lawes had turned up was 60 pounds of silver and gold in the form of 15,234 (or 14,780; take your pick) Roman coins and what’s technically known as a shitload of fancy thingies of one sort and another.

Lawes got £1.75 million for the find, which he split with Whatling, although legally speaking he didn’t have to. 

Whatling also got his hammer back, and it’s now on display along with the older and more expensive stuff, which is called the Hoxne Hoard, after the village where it was found. And because the English language is insane, that’s pronounced Hoxon. 

Try not to think about it. It won’t help.

The hoard is particularly valuable not just for what it contains but because it was excavated whole instead of being scattered by a plow or an over-eager detectorist. 

Irrelevant photo: Once again, I’m not sure what these are. Let’s just call them some of the many red berries that cheer us through the fall and winter.

 

Why people bury treasure

Every time someone digs up a pile of treasure, someone else asks what it was doing in the ground to start with, and it’s a good question. Who buries these things, and when and why? 

In the case of the Hoxne Hoard, the who is easy to answer (sort of), because some spoons included in that shitload of fancy thingies had a name engraved on them: Aurelius Ursincinus. That can give us the illusion that we’ve answered one of the questions, although we haven’t, really. We know he was male and that he had a Latin name. After that, the record’s blank. We don’t even know for sure that he was alive when the hoard was buried.

As for when, the coins give us something more solid to work with: The newest ones were minted between 407 and 408 C.E. So logically speaking, they’d have been buried sometime after that. 

Why someone buried them, though, draws us into the land of speculation, which is a nice place to visit but it’s always foggy, so it’s hard to be sure of what we’re seeing. What we do know is that some clever devil thought to make a graph of all the dates of the treasure hoards in British Isles and found spikes in three time periods: when the Roman legions left Britain, when the Normans invaded, and when England divided up into two teams and fought a civil war. 

In other words, people bury treasure in troubled times, hoping they’ll be around to dig it back up when the danger’s passed. The ones we know about? Those people didn’t come back. The ones we don’t find and that no one will? Someone came back for those.

 

Roman Britain

I’ve read about the Roman legions leaving Britain and always kind of assumed they got a telegram from Rome: “Troops withdrawn Stop. Expect you home soonest Stop.”

Well of course they used telegrams. They didn’t have email yet. The problem is that you paid for telegrams by the word. Or maybe it was by the letter. Either way, no legionnaire would expect an explanation–it would’ve been too expensive. So off the legions toddled, leaving Britain to fend for itself.

Which goes to show what I know. It turns out that they didn’t all pack up and leave at once. But as we usually do around here, let’s take a step back before we go forward: 

In the mid-fourth century Britain was being raided by an assortment of barbarians–a word I use under protest and only because I don’t have a better one. We attach all sorts of judgments to it, thinking it describes people who are hairy and unwashed and brutal. Also uncivilized, as if civilization was a guarantee of good behavior. But all it means here is that they weren’t Roman. 

Mind you, they might also have been unwashed and hairy and brutal, but except for the unwashed part, so were a lot of Romans. And I’m not convinced that modern well-washed brutality is an improvement, but that’s a whole different issue. 

Let’s go back to late Roman Britain: In the barbarian corner and raiding Britain, we’ve got Picts and Scots (with the Scots coming from Ireland, just to mess with our heads) and Attacots, who I’ve never heard of either. It doesn’t look like anyone knows who they were. Also the Saxons, who we recognize from other storybooks. 

Since the small print of Britain’s contract with Rome specified that Britons couldn’t be armed, the country relied on Roman power to protect it. Or at least the part of Britain that Rome had conquered did.They never did hold the whole thing.

In the midst of this, the more central parts of the Roman Empire had troubles of their own by then. Barbarian invasions. Uprisings. Emperors. The deaths of emperors. Battles over who was going to be emperor. 

In 383, in response to an uproar in the empire that we won’t go into, the Roman army in Britain revolted and named its leader, Magnus Maximus, emperor. He could only be the emperor of the west by then, since the east now had its own emperor, but hey, an emperor’s still an emperor, and the title was worth fighting for. So he–and presumably some sizable chunk of his army–invaded Gaul and killed enough people for him to actually be the emperor. Until he was killed, that is, which disqualified him forever after.

What happened to the soldiers who left Britain with him we don’t know. It seems to be a fair assumption that they didn’t go back, so color the Roman army in Britain depleted.

 

Emperors and clipped coins

After 402, the bulk importation of Roman coins into Britain ended, and from that point on the British started clipping coins–shearing bits off of them and using at least some of the metal to make new coins, which were local imitations of the imperial ones. Since the metal itself was what made coins valuable, this meant the coins were worth less and less.

A good 98% of the Hoxne coins had been clipped, with some of them having lost a third of their weight. If you’re trying to get back into your pre-Christmas wardrobe, you should know that this strategy doesn’t work for humans.

In the midst of all this, we can pretty safely assume that the army wasn’t happy, because soldiers don’t like it  when they’re paid in coins that aren’t worth what they used to be. Or when they’re not paid at all. In 406, a rebellion of Roman soldiers in Britain declared someone named Marcus as their emperor. Then he was deposed by someone named Gratian, who was replaced by someone named Constantine, at which point he and his followers toddled off to Gaul–that was in Europe and a far more central piece of the Roman Empire’s jigsaw puzzle–to see if they couldn’t really make him emperor. 

He was beheaded and once again there’s no record of what happened to his followers, but it couldn’t have been nice.

And that telegram still hadn’t arrived. That was the problem with telegrams back then. They had to be carried by guys in sandals. On foot. If you paid extra, they’d jump on a horse or they’d set sail, but it was still slow. And precarious.

 

Not-so-Roman Britain

Soon after Constantine and Co. left, in 408 or thereabouts, Saxons invaded, and sometime after that what was left of Britain’s Roman government faced a rebellion. The Britons armed themselves, ran off the barbarians, and then, for good measure, ran off the Roman magistrates and set up their own government. Or so said the historian Zosimus.

It sounds good, but according to the far more contemporary historian Marc Norris, it was a disaster. Britain’s links with the empire were cut and the archeological record shows a country rapidly moving backward. The economy and social structure collapsed, along with trade and distribution networks. Cities, towns, and villas were abandoned. Norris assumes widespread looting, along with a couple of synonyms–pillaging, robbing, that kind of thing. 

Archeologists can’t find much stuff left in the ground from this period. Good-quality pottery disappears, along with things like iron nails. Entire industries, they conclude, failed.

In the absence of a working government and army, the rich would have privatized security for as long as they could–and buried their wealth, because they couldn’t know when their privatized security squad will notice that it doesn’t actually need them, all it needed was their hoard of coins and expensive goodies. The person who hired them didn’t actually contribute anything.

Norris assumes that barbarian raids increased, although as he points out raiders don’t leave much in the way of hard archeological evidence, so we can’t know for certain. 

According to Bede, writing much later, the Britons of this period were “ignorant of the practice of warfare” after so long under Roman rule. Which is why, fatefully, their leaders seem to have made a deal with the Saxons to defend them from the Picts. Emphasis on seem to. History goes a little hazy during this stretch of time. But the going theory is that they swallowed the spider to catch the fly, and that’s how Anglo-Saxon England came to be: The spider did indeed eat the fly by inviting the Anglo-Saxons in, and that left Romano-Celtic Britain with a Saxon spider that wriggled and jiggled and jiggled insider ‘er.

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In addition to the two links I’ve tucked in above, I’ve relied heavily on Marc Norris’s The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England. It’s a highly readable and very useful book. I’ve lost track by now of who recommended Norris to me. Sorry, I have a note somewhere but I put it someplace safe and I’ll never see it again. So I apologize for not thanking you by name. But I really do appreciate the recommendation. Let me know who you are and I’ll include a link in my next post.