Budget cuts, crime, and technology in modern Britain

In the spirit of making up the rules as we go along, we’ll start and end off topic. If you get bored along the way, just skip to the end.

In 1947, Jack Kerouac, of Beat Generation, to-hell-with society’s-expectations fame, wrote his mother asking for $25 so he wouldn’t have to hitch through the desert and mountains to get from Colorado to California. The letter went on sale recently. For $22,500.

So much for irony. Let’s talk about crime. Residents of Shoreditch–a London neighborhood–decided to simplify life for local drug dealers by posting signs warning drivers to “give way to oncoming drug dealers.” Other signs marked a crack pickup point and a parking spot reserved for drug dealers. 

The mayor (not of London but of Tower Hamlets–it’s complicated and for our purposes doesn’t matter) sympathized but said the council (that translates to local government) isn’t in charge of policing (which is true) and that budget cuts meant they had 200 fewer cops on the streets. I can’t verify the number but it’s a suspiciously round one, so for the sake of accuracy you might want to add or subtract a few cops. You’ll almost surely end up with the wrong number, but it’ll look more convincing.

Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

I’m not sure if that’s 200 fewer in London or in Tower Hamlets. If I had to guess, I’d say London. But never mind, I can swear or affirm that budgets have been cut and fewer cops are on the streets and behind the desks. If we were talking about the U.S., I’d say there were also fewer in the doughnut shop, but the link between cops and doughnuts turns out, mysteriously, to be an American thing. 

According to Penny Creed, vice-chair of the Columbia Road Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, which put up the signs, it’s not just police cuts that are the problem. “Drug programmes have been cut, mental health programmes have been cut, and it’s a perfect storm.”

After (or possibly before) the mayor expressed sympathy with the group, the council took the signs down, saying something that translates roughly to, “Very funny, kids. We’ll just put these away where the neighbors won’t ask about them. Now, who wants ice cream?”

The drug dealers had no comment.

So how’s a council supposed to save money and fight crime when budgets are being cut? By using technology, of course. At least five local councils are pouring data (not to mention that scarce resource, money) into a predictive analytics system to flag up kids who are at risk of being abused or who are vulnerable to gang exploitation. I think that means the kids are likely to be recruited by gangs, not to be victimized by them. If you’re being victimized, go create your own algorithm.

The theory is that this will let councils target their interventions better and, in this age of politically induced austerity, be more effective with less money. Which was what the government swore everyone would do as a result of austerity. 

What sort of data are they pouring in? Information from schools on whether kids are attending or being thrown out. Police records on antisocial behavior and domestic violence. Housing information, but only on council tenants (if you’re American, that means public housing tenants). The housing information includes repair records and being late with the rent, because people who are late with the rent are likely to do anything from abusing their kids to spending their money on silly things like food.

That’s the trouble with poor people: They never have enough money.

This means, of course, that if you live in council housing and kick in a wall, you go into the database and get watched. If you own your own home or rent from a private landlord, you can rampage through it as much as you like as long as no one calls the cops.

It also means that if you complain about–oh, let’s say fire hazards once too often and make the wrong bureaucrat mad, it’s not impossible to think you’ll end up in the database. Because people who annoy bureaucrats are likely to abuse their kids. Or am I being too cynical?

Is it possible to be too cynical?

Some categories of information were later excluded from consideration, but I’m damned if I could find out which ones.

Critics are saying that algorithms aren’t neutral–they incorporate their writers’ biases–and that the poor will be monitored more closely than the non-poor. The articles I found didn’t mention this, but surely someone out there is raising the possibility that once a person gets trapped by an algorithm and labeled as a risk, they may not be able to prove the contrary. If the computer says they’re a risk, they’ll be treated as a risk.

Is this just a way for cash-strapped councils to spend silly money because someone’s cousin runs a predictive analytics business (she asked cynically)? Possibly, but it’s also being looked at as a way for the councils to make money.

The Guardian writes, “Under the Troubled Families scheme, councils are paid £1,000 for each family they sign up to the programme, with a further payment of £800 when the family meets certain criteria.”  

It’s called payment by results and it means that if you’re trapped in an algorithm, it’s not just because no one can turn the computer off, it might also be because no one will have an incentive to.

In another approach to saving money and being more efficient, the East of England ambulance service wants to improve its response time by allowing ambulances with stable patients to divert to life-threatening emergencies before taking the stable patient to the hospital, although–as a paramedic pointed out–stable patients don’t always stay stable and the ambulance crew might be put in a position of having to choose which patient to use life-saving equipment on.

What’s worse, no one would get to pass Go.

A benefit of doubling people up, however, is that ambulance patients would meet new people and watch exciting scenes of paramedics saving lives, something they’d otherwise have to turn on the TV to see. Loneliness is a serious problem in first-world countries and it diminishes both the length and quality of people’s lives. This is a great way to combat it.

East of England also proposed asking the Royal National Lifeboat Institution–better known as the RNLI–to respond to emergency calls, although loading the lifeboat onto a trailer and dragging it inland is going to be time consuming.

When it was asked to comment, the RNLI said it couldn’t locate the request.

Check the circular file, people. Someone thought it was a joke and tossed it there.  

The East of England service has one of the ten slowest emergency response times in England but a high rate of people hearing their proposals and giggling.

How else can local government save money? By closing public toilets, and many have. Some areas don’t have a single public toilet anymore. I’d have said “some cities,” but the article I read carefully avoided the word. In Britain, the definition of a city is specific–it has to have a cathedral. In the U.S., it’s just a big place where a lot of people live. How big? Oh, you know, pretty big. 

But back to toilets: The country now has a third fewer public toilets than it did twenty years ago, according to data from the British Toilet Association.

I never had a chance to quote the British Toilet Association before. I can’t tell you how exciting this is.

Not having public toilets won’t shock Americans, although calling them toilets will. We don’t like to be reminded of what we use them for so we call them almost anything but toilets.

Setting the language issue aside, though, American cities don’t do public toilets. If you need to pee, what are you doing out in public anyway? We don’t actually say that, just act as if we had. Which is why so many New York subway stations smell the way they do. Or they used to, anyway. I grew up in New York but haven’t been there in a long time. When I first moved to Britain, I was impressed that the country had worked out a way to handle something so basic.

The toilet association is urging businesses to display a sticker letting people know that their toilets are available to non-customers. There’s no word on how many businesses are actually doing it, but I’m going to guess the number isn’t much above zero.

Since we’re talking about being short of money, this might be a good time to mention Katie Hopkins, a commentator who once said that poor people who get into debt have no one to blame but themselves. In September, Hopkins applied for an insolvency agreement to avoid going bankrupt. In other words, she owes more money than she has. Which reckless people might just call being in debt.

It all started when she wrote a tweet claiming that food writer Jack Monroe (who is, just to complicate things, a woman, so watch your pronouns) supported defacing a war memorial. Monroe asked Hopkins to apologize and donate £5,000 to a migrants’ charity.

Hopkins refused, the whole mess ended up in court, and Monroe won. When this surfaced in the papers, in September, Hopkins owed Monroe £24,000 and was stuck with legal costs large enough that if she paid them in pennies the stack would stretch from the top of the Tower of London to the moon unless it toppled over first.

She won’t be allowed to stack them that high because it would constitute a safety hazard. Britain is very careful about health and safety. What’s more, I may be overestimating the height of the stack. I’ve never put more than ten pennies in a pile and I don’t actually know the size of the legal bill. So if I’m wrong about this, please don’t sue me.

Just to complicate things, Hopkins’ mainstream media career collapsed (should I write, “is said to have collapsed,” just to be safe?) when she called for a “final solution” after the terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena. Was she aware that she was echoing the Nazi plan for the elimination of the Jews? I’m not inside the woman’s mind, so I can’t say. But it’s all okay, because she’s not poor so the current situation isn’t her fault.  

On a cheerier note, Britain has a new hobby: magnet fishing. To do this, you attach a powerful magnet to a line and drop it into a body of water.

What do people catch? “Mainly junk,” according to magnet angler Gareth Bryer. “A few pedal bikes, shopping trolleys, fences, road signs.” Also three guns, a crossbow, a samurai sword, machetes, knives, a grenade, and a cash box with £100. Other magnet anglers have recovered a cannonball from the English Civil War and an Enigma machine, which was used to decode German communications during World War II.

A bylaw (of what I don’t know) forbids taking things out of waterways owned by the Canals and Rivers Trust. Let’s assume, for safety’s sake, that the trust owns pretty much any public waterway. The fine is £25 but it doesn’t seem to be enforced much. Still, technically, taking junk out of public waters is illegal, which is why I’ve shoehorned it into this post.

By way of clarification, a pedal bike is what Americans call a plain ol’ bike. It’s also called a pushbike in British, to keep it from getting confused with a motorbike. And a supermarket trolley is what Americans call a supermarket cart. I’ve never had any reason to lift all four wheels of one off the ground at once (given the shape, I’m not sure I could), but I’m pretty sure they’re heavy enough to make them hard to haul out of a canal. And then there’s the question of what you do with it once you have it neatly deposited on the canalside path, where people walking past with their dogs will stop to ask, “What’re you going to do with that, mate?”

And you’ll still have to get it to your car on wheels that won’t be rolling smoothly anymore.

Then there’s that grenade…

I’ll give you a link somewhat at random, because the internet’s full of information about magnet fishing, most of it geared toward helping you take up the sport. If you want to part with some cash, you’ll find all sorts of equipment out there.

Without a single magnet in sight, Britain’s Conservative Party attracted the wrong kind of attention and more or less hacked itself. Just as its conference was getting ready to open, someone discovered that its app not only made its leaders’ private information available to anyone who logged on as attending, it allowed them to modify it. And to make it public, which someone or other gleefully did. Former foreign secretary Boris Johnsoon’s photo was briefly replaced with an unspecified pornographic image and  his title was changed to something that starts and ends with D and has a bunch of asterisks between them. I thought I swore fluently, but that one has me stumped.

Education Secretary Michael Gove’s photo was replaced with one of media baron Rupert Murdoch.

The story appeared on the same day the Conservative government announced that it will introduce guidelines on how much time kids should be allowed to spend on social media. If the kids spend less time at it, that should free up time for the adults in the party to learn how it works.

This next item is crime related but from the wrong country: An American self-published romance writer, Nancy Crampton Murphy, has been taking her research seriously. Having written a blog post called “How to Murder Your Husband,” she went ahead and murdered him. Allegedly. That’s allegedly as in it was allegedly her. There’s nothing alleged about him being dead.

I’d give you a link to her post but it’s been made private. CBS News says it listed the pros and cons of murdering your husband and quotes it as saying,  “Divorce is expensive, and do you really want to split your possessions?”

Tough question, right?

This next one has nothing to do with technology, crime, or budget cuts, but a love song by English singer Lily Allen, “As Long As I Got You” includes the line, “Staying home with you is better than sticking things up my nose.”

And here you thought romance was dead.

And quick, while we’re dipping into a few bits of irrelevance, a tourist to Cornwall posted a complaint on a private beach’s Facebook page. It turns out a rock was covered by waves so that she couldn’t see it and so she hurt her leg on it. And here I said Britain was health and safety conscious. What were they thinking, letting the waves come up over the rock like that?

Other comments on the page have at times included, “What time do the waves start?” and “When will the dolphins appear?”

*

My apologies for leaning so heavily on a single news source this week. I try to spread it out a bit, but it just didn’t work out this time. I was going to quote the Huffington Post on one story, but it wouldn’t let me read the article unless I signed an agreement with its new owner, Oath, allowing it to collect all my data in a stack that reaches the moon and presents a clear hazard to the public. 

When I tried to modify the agreement, as it so kindly invited me to do, I couldn’t find any modifications that made the least bit of sense. I swore many an Oath and thought I’d better leave before I clicked a button  that put me into a database of people at risk of being recruited by a drug gang.

Although that  would at least guarantee me a parking spot in London.

None of the buttons I found allowed me to say no to anything and I couldn’t find a box that said, “Leave me the hell alone.” My choices amounted to saying, “Yes, I’m happy for you to do whatever you want with my data because you have my best interests at heart.”

All this clicking and modifying is, I think, supposed to bring them into alignment with a European Union directive on privacy and data, which was in turn supposed to give us choices about who has our data and what they do with it.

I do love having choices.

And if I haven’t (as I suspect) been particulary funny this week, here by way of apology are a couple of corrections from far more respectable publications than this one. The first few are relatively pedestrian. Stay with me.

The Brazilian magazine Veja initially said that a political candidate liked to spend his free time watching Toy Story. Their apology explained that it should’ve said “reading Tolstoy.”

The New York Times had to correct itself after giving a Muslim scholar’s Snapchat handle as Pimpin4Paradise786. Turns out it’s imamsuhaibwebb.

To be even handed, the Guardian, which quoted these and which is famous for its typos, also called attention to one of its own mistakes, which was a recipe calling for 13 kilos of lamb instead of 1.3 kilos. One of my favorite Guardian misprints is a photo labeled “caption caption caption caption caption caption caption.”

Ah, but Lord Google supplies better Guardian corrections than that, including a one that read, “Heinz and Gome took credit for Sweet Peaches Probiotics . . .  [but] the product won’t and was never intended to make a woman’s vagina smell like peaches.”

Well, damn, that’s disappointing. What am I supposed to tell people if they point out that mine smells like a vagina? That it’s supposed to smell like that?

I think we’ll move on now.

Another correction read, “The ommision of a hyphen after the word ‘sheep’ meant readers were informed that the ancient Philistines of the Gaza coast were attacked by a curious combination of ‘savage sheep and goat-herding Hebrew tribes.’ ”

Ah, but there’s more: “An unwanted hyphen, introduced in the editing process, had us claiming in our print edition that the Villa Valmarana ai Nani, in Vincenza, Italy, was ‘named for the 17-stone nani, or dwarfs, that surround the home.’ To clarify: there are seventeen dwarf statues surrounding the villa, they are made of stone, and we’re not sure how much they weigh.”

A stone is a measure of weight in Britain. It equals 14 pounds or roughly one twelfth of a stone dwarf. (No, I don’t know how much they weigh either, but 97.5% of all statistics are made up.)

And then there’s the time when they quoted the chair of a football club as saying they had the worst team in the division. Turns out he said they had the worst tea.

The Guardian‘s very good at corrections and has enough practice at correcting itself that it’s developed a sense of humor about them. Its readers know the paper as the Grauniad.

To hell with Britain: news from all over

Department of Religious Freedom: A Dutch court ruled that a woman does not have the right to wear a colander on her head in her passport and driving license photos. And just to be clear, that’s not because she’s a woman. A man doesn’t have that right either.

That strikes me as fair enough, but the story’s more complicated than it appears. We’re talking about religious freedom here.

The woman in question, Mienke de Wilde, was (this was in August, when the story appeared in the press) considering an appeal the the European Court of Human Rights. She’s a law student and I’m sure she’ll learn a lot from it. And talk about having something to put on your resume . . .

Irrelevant photo: If I remember my wildflowers correctly, this is a thistle. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

Dutch law bans headgear in identity photos but people can claim an exemption on religious grounds, and de Wilde was claiming one. She’s a Pastafarian, a member of a religion whose members worship an invisible, undetectable god, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who created the universe. They wear colanders on their heads as a tribute to the god, although they consider it disrespectful to explain their beliefs without wearing full pirate regalia.

Why? “Because He becomes angry if we don’t,” the U.K. Pastafarian website says. I should probably have read the Dutch site, but I don’t read Dutch and don’t trust Lord Google to translate anything this important.

Since I’m short on pirate regalia, I’ll leave a full explanation of Pastafarian beliefs to someone with a better wardrobe, but I can at least say that believers are expected to be nice to all sentient beings and to eat a lot of pasta.

Pastafarianism is recognized by both the New Zealand government and the spell check system on my toy typewriter. The Dutch court didn’t exactly say it isn’t a real religion. It said, with the sobriety of which only a court is capable, “It may be the case that the colander is considered a holy object for Pastafarians, worn in honor of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but there is no obligation to do so. In fact, Pastafariansm has no obligations or restrictions.”

That does seem to be true. Pastafarianism’s short on obligations and don’ts. The church originally had ten I’d Really Rather You Didn’ts, but two got lost, so now it has only eight. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t demand or forbid much of anything. Except that  business about the pirate costume.

Department of Shhhh, This Is a Library: A librarian called in a bomb hoax to delay his plane because he was running late. That held it up for 90 minutes, but he still didn’t make it and was arrested when he got abusive with airline staff.  

Kind of changes your image of librarians, doesn’t it?

Department of Corporate Overreach: Procter & Gamble is trying (or at last reading, in August, was trying) to trademark some bits of the alphabet soup spread by text messaging, including LOL, WTF, NBD, and FML. I’ll translate those for the acronymically impaired: laughing out loud, what the fuck?, no big deal, and fuck my life.

The applications went to USPTO–the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Is P&G going to release a product called Fuck My Life? If so, can I sit in on the meetings where they work out a marketing strategy? Please?? I really need to be there and I promise to take notes and report back.

Sadly, it looks like all they want to do is use the letters to advertise existing products so that the millennial generation will think they’re cool. Or whatever today’s equivalent of cool is. Hot. Lukewarm. Fried. Acronymed. I’m 103 and exempt from having to be cool, hot, or anything in between.

The truth is that I never was cool but I no longer give a fuck (which just might make me cool–who knows?). It’s one of the lovely things about getting older, and we can reduce that to an acronym if my language offends anyone: INLGAF.

The USPTO asked P&G for clarification (I’ll bet they did), but according to the Independent, the BBC, and the Guardian, P&G declined to comment to the press.

Of those three, only the Guardian was willing to spell out what all the acronyms stand for. The others hid behind asterisks and “too rude to spell out.”

I think I said this before, back when the Royal Mail trademarked the shade of red it uses on trucks and mailboxes, but I never got around to doing anything about it: I’m going to trademark the word and. That means every time anyone else uses it, they have to put a little ™ (meaning trademark) sign beside it. Otherwise I get to sue them.  

Department of Truth in Blogging: That last paragraph contains a bit of urban mythology. When I worked as an editor, I ran into one or two writers who were convinced that if they mentioned a brand name they had to add ™ to avoid lawsuits and other forms of apocalypse. They didn’t. We didn’t. You don’t. Companies use the symbol to show that they’re claiming the word as a trademark. An R in a circle means roughly the same thing only more so, but WTF, let’s skip the details–they’re boring. The claim only matters to you if you’re another company in more or less the same field and want to use the word / name / phrase / color /acronym.

Department of Friendly and Accessible Government: Britain’s minister for immigration Twitter-blocked two applicants who, in desperation, tweeted her to ask for help when the Home Office wouldn’t reply to their appeals or to letters from their MPs. One was a citizen trying to prevent his long-term partner from being deported to Australia. The other was a citizen trying to get British passports for his Filippino-born adopted (and already British) children. The snag is that they have Filippino passports with their pre-adoption names. To change their names on the Filippino passports, the family would have to take the kids out of school and move to the Philippines, then he’d have to re-adopt the kids. It could take up to 18 months.

What the hell, people and their needs are all so complicated. It’s simpler just to block them.

Department of Endless Updates: Britain’s Home Office has updated its immigration rules 5,700 times since 2010. Or that was the number as of late August. That means they’ve more than doubled in length. They’re now 375,000 words long.

By way of comparison, the minimum length of a novel these days is (give or take a few ands or a the’s) 40,000 words. Most are between 60,000 and 100,000.

At least seven times, new guidelines were issued a week after the last ones were issued.

Judges and lawyers are tearing at their wigs in frustration. One said, “The changes are often hurried out, which means they can be badly written. They can be very difficult to understand, even for judges and lawyers.”

Another called it (with typical British understatement) “something of a disgrace.”

Department of Urban Wildlife: In August, New York City subway crews found two goats on the tracks of a Brooklyn subway line that was closed for repairs. The goats grazed their way down the line–I’d like to say happily but I wasn’t there and even if I had been I don’t know goats well enough to read their mood. But graze they did, right alongside the electrified third rail, until they were tranquilized and moved to a rescue center in New Jersey, where, even though I’m not there and et cetera, I’m absolutely sure they’re happy.

The area where they were found is close to some slaughterhouses and the goats are thought to have escaped from one. So yeah, good food, a nice wide river between them and the slaughterhouse? They’re happy.

Department of Technological Wonders: An article about policing the Notting Hill Carnival mentioned that the police aren’t going to use facial recognition software again this year. They tried it out for two years running and among other successes it managed to confuse a young woman with a balding man.

I struggle to recognize people–it’s called face blindness and I was endlessly relieved when I found a name for it that wasn’t Ellen’s clueless. But mixing up a young woman and a balding man? Even I’m not that bad.  

Department of Archeology: A 90,000-year-old bone fragment found in a Siberian cave turns out to be from a teenager whose DNA contains fragments from a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father.

Denisovans? They’re a recently discovered member of the human family tree and not much is known about them yet. The National Geographic says they were “a sister group of the Neanderthals, splitting from a common ancestor some 390,000 years ago. They likely lived until around 40,000 years ago, around the time when Neanderthals were also starting to fade away.”

This is the first evidence that the two groups interbred and raises the possibility that the lost groups weren’t wiped out by conflict or competition with modern humans, who arrived in Eurasia some 60,000 years ago,  but absorbed into the population.

Department of Lucrative Language: Antonio Horta-Osorio, chief executive of the Lloyds Banking Group, announced that “our differentiated, customer-focused business model continues to deliver with our multi brand, multi channel approach, cost leadership, low risk positioning, investment capacity and execution capabilities positioning us well for sustainable success in a digital world.”

He gets paid £6.4 million a year to say stuff like that.

Department of Modern Royalty: Once upon a time, a dispute over royal succession would’ve ended up on the battlefield or with a nice, quiet assassination. Today, someone who thinks he was cheated him out of Monaco’s throne is suing France for 351 million euros. The switch from one branch of the Grimaldi family to another took place in 1911, and France was, in fact, involved. 

Louis Jean Raymond Marie de Vincens de Causans said, “I want the truth to come out and this injustice perpetrated by France on my family to be put right.”

And, incidentally, he wants 351 million euros. And a few extra names, because six doesn’t seem like enough for someone of his caliber.

Department of Police Being Soft on Crime: The German police rescued a man who was being chased by a baby squirrel. When the police arrived, the man was being chased down the street, but the chase ended with the squirrel suddenly lying down and going to sleep.

Police officer Christina Krenz said that “squirrels that have lost their mothers look for a replacement and then focus on one person.”

The squirrel was taken into custody and instead of being charged is now a police mascot. It’s going to grow up thinking this sort of thing is acceptable behavior.

Department of Terrorist Threats: A man traveling from Belfast to London to see his father, who was starting treatment for cancer, missed his flight when airport security refused to let him take his wheelchair repair kit on the flight. The toolkit had some wrenches (called spanners in Britain), some spare wheel nuts, and medicine for diabetes.

When he challenged security over it, saying he needed the tools in case his wheels broke and so he could adjust his chair to fit into the car he’d rented on the other end,  they said the wrenches could be used to “dismantle the plane.”

I didn’t make that up.

Okay, how about if the cabin crew looked after the toolkit until he left the plane?

Nope.

Could it go with the luggage?

Sorry, there was no time for that.

His partner publicized the incident on social media, and that had no connection to the apology he later received from the airport. The airport has agreed to make a donation to a disability charity, which is nice but doesn’t strike me as being anywhere close to enough.

I admit, I’m not sure what would be.

Stale news from Britain

Racing News: The Great Knaresborough Bed Race took place in June. It follows the tradition of bizarre British festivals, although it’s different from a lot of them in that it asks contestants to stay sober. The rules say all runners have to stay sober until after the race.

Each team is expected to provide:

A bed decorated in the theme for the year

An audible air horn / hooter

A helmet for the passenger

A life jacket for the passenger

Irrelevant photo: A California poppy in Cornwall.

The beds have to be this height, that width, and some other length. They have to have wheels. The wheels have to meet so many specifications that I passed out reading them and had to be revived by two shih tzus and a cat, who wanted supper or they’d have let me solve my problem all by my unconscious self. The beds also have to float, because they’re going to cross the River Nidd. And they have to have ropes attached, although the ropes can’t be attached to any person. The ropes allow the runners can pull the bed when they start swimming.

All beds have to keep to the left except when they’re overtaking. Overtaking means passing. It is not the opposite of undertaking. English is a very strange language. Do not discuss this while swimming a bed across the river Nidd.

The whole thing sounds terrifyingly well organized.

Inevitably, the official video shows people in fancy dress, which means in costume, which, this being Britain, means a fair number of men dressed as women. 

No, I don’t know why they do that. It’s just something men do here. And just so we’re clear, these aren’t drag queens. Drag queens have flair. These are straight guys and they’re aiming for the Cinderella’s stepsister look. Maybe that’s what they think women look like.

The race (as I said above; pay attention, please) took place in June. If you join in next year, do send photos.

Social Media: While we’re talking about being late with a piece of news, last January the Conservative Party held a training session for its Members of Parliament. The idea was to help them use social media to present themselves to their constituents as real people so that younger people would love them and instantly run out and vote for them, even before an election was called. Several MPs responded by rushing out and posting frozen pictures of themselves standing in the kind of expensive buildings where politicians do business. They did not look like real people. They may not have been real people. I didn’t rush out and vote for them, but then I’m not in any of their constituencies and I wouldn’t have voted for them anyway. But I’m just saying, it didn’t work for me.

Then in March, Conservative MP Bob Blackman got so real that he posted an article claiming that the sexual abuse of white British children was part of Somali culture. It didn’t go over well and he said (I’m paraphrasing) that he was sorry if he’d hurt any feelings. That translates roughly to I’m sorry you got your feelings hurt when I stated the truth with less tact than I might have but gee isn’t everyone touchy these days?

Blackman uses social media so fluently that he joined a number of Islamophobic Facebook pages but when contacted about it by Vice said he didn’t know he’d been added and removed himself.

One of the groups, Britain for the British, is (or was–this happened in May) “administered by British National Party supporter Steven Devlin. It features numerous comments which praise Hitler, and many more which wish violence upon Muslim Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, accusing him of being an ‘Islamofascist’ and ‘traitor,’ and hoping that he dies.” 

Does it strike anyone other than me as a bit odd that a site where any number of people praise Hitler consider fascist an insult? Or is it only an insult when you add Islam to it?

If the party has held any more social media training sessions, it’s managed to keep them out of the news.

Snakes: This past summer has been unusually hot by British standards, and that’s led to an unusual number of snake sightings.

First, a quick review of the native reptiles. The BBC reports that “England is home to grass snakes, adders and smooth snakes, and to common lizards, sand lizards and slow-worms, slug-eating legless lizards.” The only one that’s poisonous is the adder, and they’re more of a worry for dogs than people.

Not that dogs worry much.

According to the Forestry Commission, “Adders have the most highly developed venom injecting mechanism of all snakes, but they are not aggressive animals. Adders will only use their venom as a last means of defence, usually if caught or trodden on. No one has died from adder bite in Britain for over 20 years. With proper treatment, the worst effects are nausea and drowsiness, followed by severe swelling and bruising in the area of the bite. Most people who are bitten were handling the snake.”

Some people don’t worry much either, and should.

I’m still trying to understand why the slow worm is a legless lizard instead of a snake. It looks like a snake and it quacks like a snake, but a lizard it is.

“It is illegal to kill or injure any of [the reptiles], with fines of up to £5,000 and six months’ imprisonment for offenders,” the BBC says.

But forget all that. A fair number of non-native snakes have been sighted this summer, according to the Guardian. A boa constrictor was spotted on a London street, wrapping itself around a pigeon. 

In Exeter, a man found an 8-foot (or 2.4-meter, if that works better for you) python in his bathroom, asking to borrow his razor and shaving cream. It seems to have escaped from a pet store in the building and found its way to his bathroom through the plumbing. It wanted to shave off its beard, give itself a new name, and start a new life.

About that “seems to have.” I’d have thought a store would know if it was missing an 8-foot python, but the article I read said “apparently.” Maybe shaving the beard worked–they didn’t recognize it as the 8-foot snake they were missing.

Meanwhile (or before, of afterwards) back in London, a woman woke up to find a 3-foot- (1-meter-) long royal python curled up next to her in bed. And a runner found a baby boa constrictor in the bushes just before a race. What was the runner doing in the bushes? Relieving himself, as the paper so delicately puts it.

He hasn’t peed since.

And finally, a royal python that’s probably pregnant is (as I write this, which means was as you read it) missing in Manchester, although she may be hiding somewhere in the apartment of the woman who thinks she owns her.

Manchester’s a long way from where I live, but Exeter’s not much more than an hour’s drive. I’m hoping the python hasn’t learned to drive.

An estimated 2 million snakes live as pets in Britain. Pythons and corn snakes are particularly popular.

Egg Throwing: And finally, to follow up on our theme of old news and bizarre contests, Deb (who’s popped up in the last three posts) sent me a link to a contest held in 2010, and since it’s news to me (and probably to you), it’ll do. A Lincolnshire egg-throwing contest wasn’t content with the traditional way of throwing eggs, where you take the egg in your hand, pull your hand back, and launch the thing as far as you can. This one introduced trebuchets.

A trebuchet? It’s a medieval weapon developed to launch stones during a siege. You put a heavy weight on one end of the arm, pull the unweighted end down, load a stone in its basket, and let fly. Do this often enough and you can break down a city wall and massacre the residents. 

Fun, fun, fun.

So yes, it’s a kind of catapult,but one with with a long range. I’d never heard the word till I moved to Britain.

Did I say it was medieval? It was, but it was used in China as early as the fourth century B.C.E. (That’s B.C. in [Britishism warning] old money.) Only it wasn’t called a trebuchet there. What a surprise.

You don’t have to call it a trebuchet if you don’t want to. Call it a catapult. What matters here is that it’s not meant to launch an egg.

In the competition, the target–every throwing or launching competition needs a target–was a person. I’m going to guess that each team had to supply its own, but understand that I’m making that bit up.

The BBC reported that “World Egg Throwing Federation president Andy Dunlop said 4,000 people were expected to attend the event, which has a total of 200 participants.”

The World Egg Throwing Federation? It does exist, you can find it on Facebook, and you can even watch a video of a launch that was banned from competition because it used a tube that appears to turn the egg into a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile.

The site comments, “Banned attempt at trebuchet competition. Disqualified because 1. Its not a trebuchet. 2. Its illegal to construct a shoulder launched egg launcher having a range of 1200 yds. (The Police complained)”

Can we stop for a minute, though, and talk about the World Egg Throwing Federation president? That is a position, kiddies, that a person can be proud of. Put it on your resume and you’ll be guaranteed interviews. I’m not saying anyone will hire you, but they will want to see what you look like.

You’ll do even better if you follow the advice offered by my partner, best known as Wild Thing: Change that title. Anyone can be a president. You want to be the Great Hen. Even if you’re male.

The link I gave you above leads to a 2010 contest, but the contest continues year after year. Why would something this important stop? I could give you a link to the more recent one but since we’re dealing in stale news this week, we’ll stay with 2010.

And now a bit of background on my research into this story. Understand first of all that no amount of research is too silly for me to undertake. When Deb first mentioned the contest, she misremembered it as a gravy throwing competition. Her brain apparently contained one egg throwing and one gravy wrestling competition and the combination led to a short circuit, producing a gravy throwing competition.

When I googled the phrase gravy throwing competition, I  found videos on how to throw a gravy boat–not as in now to launch it across a field but as in how to put a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel and make one. It was disappointing, but we can salvage something out of this: If your village is looking for a good fundraiser, you won’t find any others holding gravy throwing contests. There will be some problems to work out, but I can almost guarantee  press coverage. Great press coverage. And please, send me an invitation.

But back to egg throwing: I wrote about this festival before, but it was in the context of the presence of beer at summer festivals. (If you think I remember what I’ve written, you have no idea how my mind works and you can consider yourself lucky.) I can’t think how this happened, but in the earlier post I missed the trebuchets.

That earlier post led Fragglerocking to drop me a line about egg jarping–an Easter tradition from the northeast of England. I was going to wait for Easter to tell you about it, but since you brought it up I’ll drop it in here. 

“Well what do you expect from soft southerners?” she wrote in response to I can’t remember what–something soft and southern. Possibly chocolate eggs. “Up here where we hold the Annual Egg Jarping Championships every Easter, we’re still using hard boiled proper non-fake eggs!”

To jarp (is it a verb?), one contestant holds a hard-boiled egg with the pointed side up. The other one brings another hard-boiled egg down on it so the pointed sides crash. The winner has an undented egg. The loser cleans eggshell off the floor. If neither egg breaks, the players trade roles and try again. No beer is involved and you don’t have to organize an entire village or town to do it, although you can.

What do you do if they both break? For all I know, that’s physically impossible, but just in case, I recommend making sandwiches.

While I was googling egg throwing (I just love the research I do for this blog), I found an article on last May’s convention of the U.K. Flat Earth Society–a group of people dedicated to the idea that, evidence be damned, you can believe whatever you want. It should be getting wildly popular these days, what with folks making up their own facts, although they have more of a sense of humor than most of the people who don’t demand evidence before dedicating themselves to a set of beliefs.

The reason Lord Google led to to it was that the conference included a three-hour presentation about the earth being shaped like an egg. I’m not sure how you fill three hours with that, but I’ll admit to having known people who could fill three hours with less. And I won’t mention any names because they’d only call me.

The news roundup from Britain

Good Cop: During July’s heatwave, police in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, rescued local ducks by setting up two paddling pools beside their pond, which was disappearing, and then keeping the pools topped up with good fresh water.

You’d think that would be an unmixed good deed, but the ducks report high levels of anxiety over when the bad cop’s due to show up.

Crime and Politics: It may not be the bad cop they should worry about. It could be the bad politician. Stephen Searle, a former councillor (that’s a member of a council, which is the local government, making him a local politician), was recently convicted of killing his wife. Not sordid enough for you? Some months before, he had an affair with their son’s partner–the mother of one of their grandchildren.

If that’s still not sordid enough, you’re out of my league and need to look elsewhere for your recreation.

Searle stood for office on the UKIP (U.K. Independence Party) ticket. UKIP is the party that brought us Brexit and it attracts such top talent that it’s had five leaders in slightly less than two years. The first four melted down in quick succession, each one finding his or her own unique route to political oblivion but none quite in Searle’s category.

In a display of deep thinking, fellow UKIP politician Bill Mountford said about the Searle case, “These things happen.”

Irrelevant photo: Leaves. But you probably guessed that.

Politics: You may remember Chris Chope–that’s Sir Christopher Chope to you–the MP who made his name not long ago by blocking a bill that would have criminalized upskirting, or taking a picture up a woman’s skirt without her knowledge and permission.

Everyone who writes about upskirting sooner or later has to use that phrase, “without her knowledge or permission.” I’m just askin’, but when did you or anyone you know last give permission for someone to take a picture up your or her or, in fairness, his skirt?

Never mind. Ol’ Chris is back in the news for having blocked a motion that would allow a Women MPs of the World conference to use the House of Commons’ chamber when the house isn’t in session.

This is not a conference of wild-eyed radicals like, for example–and I’m pulling an example from the air totally at random–me. It’s hard to get much more respectable. It’s organized by the Foreign Office, the Equalities Office, the Department of International Development, and the British Council. It will be so respectable that everyone attending will be asleep in their seats by 10 a.m.

You heard it here first.

The government swore blind it would have the bill back before Commons and passed the next day. And in fairness, it may have actually done that, but if it made the news I haven’t found it. It’s not half as much fun.

I’d like to thank Chris personally for doing his bit to add to the reputation politicians already struggle with.

Let’s change the subject.

Food and Outer Space: In July, St. Anselm’s School in Derbyshire launched a bakewell pudding in the general direction of space. You don’t need a compass or any real sense of direction to do this. You just point upward and hit Launch.

The school lost touch with the pudding at 52,500feet, or 16,000 meters if that works better for you.

This raises a question: If St. Anselm’s loses a pudding on its way to outer space, how well does it keep track of its students?

It also raises another question: How close did the pudding actually get to space. 

Compliments of Lord Google, I can answer that one. Space starts, very roughly, 100 kilometers above the earth. So how many kilometers in 16,000 meters? Nowhere near enough. Only 16.

How many lost-touch-with students were smoking in the toilets during the bakewell pudding launch? Nobody’s saying. What we do know is that the pudding was found–uneaten–almost a month later by a farmer walking his dog in an asparagus field in Lincolnshire.

Apparently I’m not the only creature who thinks bakewell puddings are better launched into space than eaten.

A bakewell pudding, in case you need to know this, is not the same as a bakewell tart. The bakewell tart is a standard British dessert. The bakewell pudding is regional, and bakeries and cafes in the town of Bakewell, Derbyshire (prounounced Darbyshire), spill a good bit of ink in the cause of educating visitors about the difference. 

Lord Google (or the snippet of WikiWhatsia that Lord G displayed for me) says there’s no evidence that either of them originated in Bakewell. Think of that as just one more mystery of the British Isles.

If you’re about to leave a comment telling me how wonderful either the bakewell tart or the bakewell pudding is and how ignorant I am not make unkind jokes about them, please do. I welcome spirited discussion on important issues. You’re even welcome to write, as a recent comment put it, that what I said is complete codswallop.

Codswallop? “Perhaps named after Hiram Codd, who invented a bottle for fizzy drinks (1875); the derivation remains unconfirmed.” Or so says Lord G, although it doesn’t explain much.

But back to our alleged topic: In 2016, a meat and potato pie was launched into space–or an area well short of space but in the general direction of space, which is to say, up. The people who launched it were hoping to get it 30 kilometers above the earth to see if molecular changes would mean it could be eaten more quickly.

Eaten by who? The articles don’t say. Probably by the launchers, because this happened just before the World Pie Eating Championship, and winning a pie eating contest, as I’m sure you’ll understand, takes some serious effort.

I’m not sure how much that explains–I’ve never been inside the mind of anyone who’s entered a pie eating contest–but it does at least set a context.

The pie landed in a field 38 miles away from the launch site, but I haven’t found an article that mentions what was growing in the field or if the farmer had a dog. If only the news reported the important stuff, the world would be a better place.

“First indications are that it did not reheat on entry,” an article in the Guardian reported with a straight face. 

In case you want to try a similar experiment, both launches used weather balloons, which means neithern of them really launched, they just kind of rose. You can use any kind of food you like, but if it’s too gooey you’re going to end up wearing it.

Food and History: This has nothing to do with Britain, but archeologists have managed to date the origin of bread back to before humans developed agriculture. Charred crumbs that have been identified as bread were found in two ancient fireplaces in Jordan. The fireplaces date back 14,000 years–at least 3,000 years before humans first cultivated plants.

The bread was made from foraged wild grain–probably wheat, oats, and (or possibly or) barley–and was found with an assortment of other wild plants. Bread wouldn’t have been a staple food yet. Foraging for wild grain would’ve been too labor intensive. Think of it as their version of chocolate–you don’t get much of it but damn it’s good. 

Modern-Day Foraging: Charging 5p for the plastic bags that stores hand out has reduced the use of plastic bags in Britain by 86 percent. If you’re American, 5p is 6.6 cents–or at least it was on August 1. The exchange rate will have changed by now. If you’re neither British or American, it’s not much money in comparison to what people are spending on the groceries or clothes or whatevers that would’ve once been put in those bags.

I’m not complaining. I’m happy to see fewer wind-shredded bags hanging from the local trees and hedges or slopping around in the ocean. But it’s an odd thing about humans. Tell us something’s free and we accept it and throw it away. Tell us it costs nothing much and we say, “Thanks all to hell and back, but I brought my own.”

Shopping and Teddy Bears: In July, a chain of stores that sells expensive, custom-made teddy bears announced a sale: For one day, customers could buy a bear for only £1 for every year of their child’s age. Since the bears can cost as much of £52, that sounded like a great idea to 110% of the population of the British Isles. Lines formed–or queues, as the British call them. Huge lines.

The British are generally good about queues. They join them at the back end and wait patiently until they get to the front end. Queueing runs deep in the culture. It’s soothing. It makes people feel right about the world. It means the stars are all where they’re meant to be, the bakewell pudding’s headed into space, and they themselves are occupying their proper place in the great scheme of things.

This time, though–and the trouble may have begun when the stores ran out of bears–fights broke out. Not between kids, who seem to have behaved well enough, with maybe some whining here and there. You have to expect that from kids in lines that last, as at least one did, five hours. No, it was the parents who started the fights. They’d promised Dear Little Whatsit a teddy bear. And not just any teddy bear, but a very upscale bear–the kind a kid can show to a friend and say, with all the charming innocence of childhood, “Bet you don’t have one this expensive.” So no, the parents couldn’t just drop into the pound store and see what was available. It had to come from the Build-A-Bear store, so that Dear Little Whatsit could pick out its furry little hide and I have no idea what else, then watch while it was filled with stuffing, had a cloth heart inserted, and got sewn up.

Then Dear Little Whatsit would be tempted by all sorts of extras–clothes, accessories, and probably little bitty teddy boarding schools and horseback riding lessons and the horse to go with them. Which would come to much more than her (I’m assuming gender here, and apologies if I get it wrong; pronouns are such a pain in the neck) age and could possibly equal her parents’ monthly rent or mortgage.

So kids were in tears, wailing, “But you promised.” Which is the kind of thing that can drive bear-buying parent to drastic action. Any action. In one store, a pregnant employee was punched in the stomach, and not by a kid. In other stores, employees were pulling down the shutters and disguising themselves as store fixtures and wailing children.

In another store, employees called the police, saying customers were getting violent. Which brings us to our next news snippet.

Police Emergencies: The Essex police recently publicized some a few of the stranger emergency calls they received. They suffer from the delusion that publicizing them will cause us to think seriously before we pick up the phone.

I doubt it will, but it gives us all something to read while the world goes to hell around us.

What are the latest calls? A woman called the emergency line because a pizza place delivered a mushroom pizza instead of a meat feast. And to make it worse, the pizza place insisted that she’d ordered mushroom even though she’s allergic to mushrooms.

And a man called because a sign on a fence said there was a bull in the field. He wanted to know if there really was a bull in the field or if the farmer “was just messing around.”

Crime, Politics, and Irony: A socialist bookstore in London was attacked by about a dozen masked protesters who turned over displays, yelled, threatened, and ripped up publications. So that accounts for the politics and the crime parts of the headline, but where’s the irony? Well, they appear to have spun off from a far-right protest held earlier that day, which was against censorship.

The Index on Censorship has since sent six books that have been banned or challenged in various places to three UKIP members who were charged with the attack, saying, “We hope the books will introduce them to different ideas.” The other attackers, as far as I’ve been able to make out, haven’t been identified.

The books are: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Color Purple, The Qur’an, His Dark Materials, Fahrenheit 451, and The Jungle.

UKIP suspended the three members and then reiinstated one. A party member said there was no evidence that she had been involved. The remaining attackers don’t seem to have been identified.

Crime, Farming, and Medieval Warfare: Theft from farms is on the rise, and Britain’s farmers are going medieval, according to news stories, using banks, ditches, and stockades to protect their equipment and livestock. They’re also using electrified gates. Did you know that medieval England pioneered the use of electrified gates?

To quote from a different article than the one I linked to, they’re also using “geese, llamas and dogs as low-tech alarm systems, much as landowners did hundreds of years ago.”

Medieval Britain did not have llamas. Llamas first came to Britain when Victoria was on the throne and the government hadn’t yet pulled down the shutters on immigration. (Llamas never have passports. Give a passport to a llama and it’ll eat the thing.) That was a while back, but not hundreds of years. And like so many immigrants, llamas have made a contribution to their adopted land, but they are not medieval.

The theives are after things like quad bikes, Land Rovers, and farm machinery, some of which seems to be stolen to order. A lot of it is shipped abroad to be sold, but heavy equipment has been used a few times to smash into local shops and steal cash machines. Which were also not present in medieval Britain.

*

 My thanks yet again to Deb for alerting me to the story about the ducks. What would I do without her to guide me to the weirder corners of British life?

I welcome links to odd bits of British news. And most other forms of communication. 

British news you almost missed

In a form of protest that brings the Colyton laundryline rebellion to mind, someone recently decorated the office door of Christopher Chope, MP—that’s short for Member of Parliament—with a string of women’s underpants that the papers describe as lacy. I’d have described them thongs myself. Or thongs with tiny ruffles. There isn’t enough room on a thong for big ruffles.

Or much of anything. I know I’m a thousand years old and I never did think underwear could make a person sexy, but if that was all I was going to wear, I’d just as soon do without. I’d be more comfortable.

Anyway, lacy may have sounded more daring than thong. Or less uncomfortable, although no one’s wearing the things. But the photo’s below so you don’t have to believe either me or the papers, you can consult your own lyin’ eyes and see what you think. And with that, I’ll leave the decision to people who care enough about underpants to argue about them.

This all started when fellow MP Wera Hobhouse introduced what’s called a private member’s bill that would have criminalized upskirting—taking pictures up a woman’s skirt without her consent. (Has anyone actually given consent for someone to take a picture up her skirt? I’m just asking.) The rules governing private member’s bills are as bizarre as everything else in parliament and I’m not fool enough to try and explain them, but what we need know is that Chope shouted out an objection to the bill and that was enough to kill it.

At which point all hell broke loose. MPs—who consider shouting at each other an important part of the job description—shouted, “Shame.” Reporters rubbed their hands in glee. Even Chope’s own party, the Conservatives, turned against him.

Private member’s bills normally have as much chance of becoming law as I have of becoming queen, and Chope could have quietly let this one run full-speed into the same wall most of them run into, but instead he accidentally promoted it to the legislative equivalent of crown princess. The prime minister suddenly saw the wisdom of supporting the bill, and if she and her party can stop trying to murder each other over Brexit for long enough she’ll put it forward on the government’s behalf. Or so she says. The opera isn’t over till the fat lady sings, and Theresa May is stylishly–you might even say bloodlessly–thin.

Meanwhile, Chope explained to anyone who’d listen (which was pretty much everyone at that point) that he didn’t object to the content of the law, he just didn’t like private member’s bills in general, and he might’ve gotten away with that if some reporter hadn’t checked the records and found that he’d introduced 31 of them in the past year.

A rare relevant photo: The underwear that decorated Christopher Chope’s office door. Photo from the Guardian.

What Chope had to say for himself was, “The suggestion that I am some kind of pervert is a complete travesty of the truth.”

Is that great quote or what?

Chope was knighted in 2015 and is now Sir Christopher Chope. We’re supposed to call him Sir Christopher.

Good luck with that, Chris.

His other accomplishments include blocking a bill that would “help families reclaim items looted by the Nazis.” He has voted against human rights legislation, same-sex marriage, equal pay, hunting bans (that probably means fox hunting), and smoking bans. But he’s not against everything. In 2009, he voted for abolishing the minimum wage and he favors banning the burqa in public places.

And please remember that he is not a pervert.

Many thanks to Deb for letting me know about the underwear protest. I’d have missed it otherwise, and my life would’ve been that much poorer. Thanks also to Elle at Elle Superstar for showing me a simple way to copy photos from the internet. And thanks to Leda, who showed me a different way but I’m technologically impaired and couldn’t make her system work.

And while I’m thanking people, I’m grateful to Jane at Making It Write, who wrote about drunken seagulls in Somerset, which let me follow her link to the original article. I won’t try to recreate her post–go read it–but I can tell you what I learned from the Bristol Post:

Early in July, the RSPCA–that’s the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals–noticed that seagulls in West Hatch, Somerset, were drunk on their feathery little asses. The first theory was that they were drinking leftover beer at the beaches, but the newer theory is that they’re eating brewing by-products that they’re finding somewhere.

The gulls get so drunk they can’t walk, never mind fly. They fall off the roof. They throw up on fire fighters. Since they’re British, I figured they’d start singing as soon as they got tipsy, but apparently not. They still just squawk like seagulls. Alcohol, it turns out, doesn’t improve your voice, it just makes you think it has.

The West Hatch RSPCA now has a drunk tank where the birds can sober up.

From the Manifesto Club, I learned that a couple in Bexhill-on-Sea, in East Sussex, has been banned from looking at their neighbors’ house. Or from walking past or appearing to look at their neighbors’ house.

The ban defines appearing as being “perceived by any person to be looking into any neighbour’s property.”

The ban grew  out of a disagreement with a couple (couple #2), who bought the house next door and started redoing it. The now-banned couple (couple #1) objected to I’m not sure what about the construction. That’s how a lot of neighborhood wars start in this country.

Couple #2 managed to get couple #1 served with a Community Protection Notice, called a CPN. Awkwardly, CPN also stands for community psychiatric nurse. If couple #1 ignore the notice form of CPN, they could get slapped with a fine or, theoretically, a prison sentence. The police have been involved and at one point asked Couple #1 why they were loitering on the local beach. 

Because that’s what people do on a beach.

The notice form of CPN was created to address “anti-social behaviour affecting a community’s quality of life,” and it was one of those well-intentioned ideas that’s turned out to have its own anti-social side. To get one issued, you don’t have to go to court. A constable (that’s a cop in Ameri-speak), “the relevant local authority,” or someone “designated by the relevant local authority” can do it. 

What’s a relevant authority? ” ‘The relevant local authority’ means the local authority (or, as the case may be, any of the local authorities) within whose area the conduct specified in the notice has, according to the notice, been taking place.”

In other words, the relevant authority is the authority relevant to that place. And the place is the place in which the conduct is conducted.

If it would help, I can ask a friend to translate that into Latin. She might get it wrong, but how many of us would know?

I went online and managed to find information on how to issue a CPN, what kind of behavior a CPN can address, who can be issued with a CPB, and how to appeal a CPN, but nothing about what evidence is needed before one is issued. I’m left with the impression that the relevant authorities aren’t necessarily rigorous about demanding any.

I don’t know what happens next in this case. The publicity it got may have helped couple #1, but I don’t get the impression that good sense is carrying a lot of weight here. Couple #1 is planning to ask for a judicial review.

As for the seagulls, they were thrown in the drunk tank without any form of due process and as soon as they sober up enough to take that in, they’ll object. In the meantime, they say that even when they’re sober they sound better than those goody-two-shoes robins.

Christopher Chope hasn’t commented further (as far as I know), but our neighbor Peta tells me that upskirting is now known as Chope-ing.

And finally, a quick apology for the deluge of news. I meant to follow last week’s news post with some history, but all this lovely insanity found its way to my inbox, and the thing about history is that it doesn’t go out of date the way news does.

More news from Britain

What’s happening in Britain? Let’s start in Colyton, Devon, where a woman hung out her wash. Because people do that here. Dryers aren’t as common as they are in the U.S. If people get any sunny weather, out go the clothes.

So how is this news? Well, after this earthshaking action, she got an anonymous letter asking her “with kindness not to put your washing out at the front of your house” because visitors would see it. “Help us all keep Colyton a town we can all be proud of,” the letter said, and it suggested she “consider using a tumble dryer or hanging the washing indoors.”

The writer claimed to represent both local businesses and the entire neighborhood. Not to mention all of England and probably Jersey (that’s old, not New Jersey) as well. 

Irrelevant photo: a poppy

This being modern (as opposed to Victorian or, say, Arthurian) Britain, the whole thing got splashed all over the town Facebook group and in no more time than it took to wash a load of laundry (I’m making that part up; I don’t know how long it took), neighbors had hung out their own washing. Underwear hung from artfully displayed laundry lines in shop windows. Laundry dangled out of windows. Someone hung pyjamas across the town square and ran a bra up the flagpole. I’m old enough to remember when boys thought it was harmless (or maybe didn’t care if it was harmless) to steal some girl’s bra and run it up a flagpole, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this one was put up by an individual of the female persuasion in the joyous spirit of take that, you old busybody.

There’s talk of it becoming an annual event.

So here’s to the anonymous letter writers of the world. Long may their efforts backfire.

Meanwhile, in sports news, 4,500 doughnuts were accidentally delivered to the Old Trafford cricket ground. Or maybe that’s the Old Trafford Cricket Ground. My sports allergy is bad enough that I don’t know if that’s the formal name and therefore capitalized or an informal name and therefore lower case. You probably–and wisely–don’t care. We’ll move on.

I haven’t been able to learn much about the incident except that the kitchen was left “reeling.”

A single doughnut has 425 calories. Give or take a few hundred, since we don’t know the size of the Old Trafford doughnuts or of the imaginary one whose estimated calories I googled, or whether either of them are frosted. But let’s go with 425. It’s a reliable looking number. That means the Old Trafford kitchen was (at least briefly) in possession of 1,912,500 calories’ worth of doughnuts.

I think. At my best, I’m a hazard around numbers, but I’m pretty sure I got that right. Even if I didn’t, though, we can agree that it’s over the recommended daily allowance for pretty much anybody. Even someone who’s simultaneously male, in training for a marathon, breastfeeding, and pregnant.

If anybody could figure out how much space 4,500 doughnuts take up, I’d love to know, because I assume the Old Trafford kitchen isn’t huge. You can arrange them in any pattern that suits you and measure them either metrically or in imperial measures. Or you can compare them to the size of a double-decker bus, a football field, a phone booth, or Wales. Or Delaware. Your choice, although I’m pretty sure Wales and Delaware are too big to be much use. 

Since we’re talking about food, it must be time to mention that Britain was grappling with a shortage of carbon dioxide in late June and its largest wholesalers had begun rationing beer and cider–cider being a popular alcoholic drink here. If that doesn’t sound bad enough, this happened just when the country was in the grip of a twin drinking emergency caused by the conjunction of the World Cup and a heatwave.

At the end of June (which is when I’m writing this), the word was that supplies were expected (maybe) in early July, which would be just in time to prevent a complete national disaster. If, in fact, they come in as predicted.

The shortage also affected soft drinks and the production of dry ice. Not to mention the meat industry and some medical procedures.

It wasn’t just a British problem but a European one, and it was caused by a combination of high demand and routine maintenance shutdowns. But the price has been low, so in spite of the looming meltdown, manufacturers haven’t had a big incentive to get production up and going again.

What kind of plants produce carbon dioxide? Ammonia and bioethanol plants. Which makes me realize how little I know about how those little bubbles get inside the water.

There’s a certain irony in having a carbon dioxide shortage when the world’s facing global warming caused by too much of the stuff, but it comes from having too much in the wrong places and not enough locked away inside those cans and bottles. The drink manufacturers have done their best to hire people who’ll pick it out of the air, but with Brexit looming there’s already a shortage of people to harvest strawberries, so where are they going to find anyone willing to pick carbon dioxide bubbles?

In case you think this is funny, the shortage also affected the nation’s crumpet supply.

The British Beer and Pub Association, which knows how to address a crisis, called on the government to increase its “storage capacity . . . to ensure this does not happen again.”

By the time you read this, enough carbon dioxide to keep the nation guzzling may well have fizzed its way through the supply chain, but if you’ve been reading about an increase in the suicide and homicide rate, you know the cause.

In other news, a mugger in Crawley robbed a man but left behind a plastic bag with 123 candy bars.

Was the candy worth more than the money he got? A quick and highly inaccurate survey of candy prices tells me that bars range from £.50 (note the decimal point–that’s half a pound, not fifty pounds) to £1. So should we say, fairly randomly, that he’d have to have taken in more than £85 to come out even?

The closest I can get to how much money he got is that it was “a small amount.” So he lost money on the deal.

The police checked with local stores but none of them reported that many candy bars missing. 

A hundred and twenty-three candy bars is not enough to cover an area the size of Wales. Or even a football field or a double-decker bus. It is enough to fill one plastic bag, although we don’t know the size of the bag, which is why it’s not one of the standard size comparisons that newspapers use.

Unlike the guy in Crawley, the writer Ian McEwan got mugged by a standardized test. He’s well enough established that one of his books is assigned as part of the national curriculum. You’d think that’d be great, wouldn’t you? Well, it has its problems–ones I wouldn’t mind having, but problems all the same. 

McEwan’s son (let’s call him McE 2.0) read McE 1.0’s book for his A-levels, which is the standardized test I just mentioned. So before the test, McE 1.0 spent some time going over the novel with McE 2.0, discussing points he could make in his essay.

McE 2.0 got a C plus. Because what does the author know about the book he wrote?

Meanwhile, whoever wrote the English literature questions for a lower-level standardized test, the GCSE, mugged him- or herself, along with some 14,000 students, by mixing up the Montagues and the Capulets in a question about Romeo and Juliet. The question assigned Tybalt to the wrong one of two feuding families and ended up asking an unanswerable–not to mention nonsensical–question.

You could, in theory, answer the question by tearing it apart, but that would be a good way to flunk the test since the standardized marking doesn’t create a lot of latitude for creative thinking.

This marks the introduction of the new, tougher GCSEs. So far, they’ve been a stunning success. Slip in an unanswerable question and you can really thin the herd.

The exam board has apologized but to date it hasn’t fallen on its sword.

From there, let’s move on–not to the recent wedding of Megan and Whatshisname but to the people who pontificated on it. Or one of them, anyway.

Thomas J. Mace-Archer-Mills, Esq., appeared regularly in TV interviews during the uproar. He’s described as having “a posh British accent, traditional attire, and a sense of authority on all things royal.” He’s also “the founder of the British Monarchist Society and Foundation.” But it turns out that his name is actually Thomas “Tommy” Muscatello and he’s from Bolton Landing, New York.

He got the Britishness bug when he was cast in a school production of Oliver Twist and apparently learned an upper-class British accent for the role. You can believe that if you want to, but I’ve heard too many Americans who think they learned a British accent. They’re embarrassing. The best I can say for his accent is that none of the articles about him say that he got it wrong.

They also don’t say that he got it right.

As far as I can tell from the articles I’ve seen, no British media outlet interviewed him. I’m going to take a rash guess and say they picked up some whiff of phoniness. Possibly a strong one.

Since I mentioned at the beginning that we had a heat wave, let’s end by acknowledging that Britain doesn’t have any official definition of what a heatwave is, but the Met Office is working on one.

The Met Office? That’s Britain’s weather service and it’s not to be confused with the Met, which is London’s police department. And if you have trouble with that, it gets worse: Scroll down far enough through Lord Google’s offerings and you’ll find the Met Office offering the police weather forecast.

Do the police have different weather from the rest of us? Possibly, but to make the whole thing even more mysterious, the page I found offered me the police weather for Poland, although it was–I checked twice–from the British weather service. 

Polish police didn’t seem to be expecting a heatwave. Unless of course they define it differently there.

However you define a heatwave, though, Britain isn’t good at heat. Train tracks were buckling in 30 degree centigrade heat. What’s that on the other side of the Atlantic? It’s 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Which is hot but on the normal side of normal in a Minnsota summer.

I never heard of train tracks buckling in the heat in the U.S. The rails are laid with a small bit of expansion room between one section and the next. Britain’s rails don’t seem to be, presumably because 86 degrees is a heatwave. I can understand why no one wants to pull them all up and lay them down differently, but if this is the new normal we’re going to have problems.

Modern life in historic Britain

Britain wears its history with style. Why wouldn’t it? It has so much of the stuff that it can change clothes every hour on the hour and not repeat an outfit in years.

The dry cleaning costs are horrendous, but hey, it’s worth it.

History or no, however, Britain’s a modern country. So let’s spend a moment or six talking about technology in Britain. And elsewhere, since technology crosses borders more easily than beleaguered humans are allowed to.

You may have read that Alexa, that sorcerer’s apprentice in your home (or not–I don’t really know you, do I? she said inserting a question into a statement in a very British way), has been known to eavesdrop on conversations that aren’t addressed to her. Or, in one case, to eavesdrop on an ad on television in which someone asks Alexa-on-the-screen to order cat food, so the Alexa-in-someone’s-home woke up and ordered cat food. 

Friends, do not let Alexa watch TV.

Irrelevant and now out of season photo: rhododendron budding despite the snow.

The owner was able to cancel the order before the house filled up with cat food but was disturbed enough by what happened to lodge a complaint with Britain’s Advertising Standards Agency, which after due consideration cleared the ad, or the company behind the ad, of any wrongdoing. On what grounds? That Alexa’s programmed to need human confirmation before it completes an order. So creepy as it is, it’s all okay.

A similar thing happened in California when a six-year-old told Alexa to order a $170 doll’s house and four pounds of sugar cookies, only in that case when Alexa asked, “Do you really want me to order expensive stuff and make your parents really, really mad at you?” the six-year-old said, “Hell, yes.”

If she’d been English, she’d have said, “Yes, please,” not, “Hell, yes.” And of course I’m paraphrasing ever so slightly. Not what she would’ve said if she’d been British, only what she and Alexa really did say.

The story hit not just the newspapers but radio and TV newscasts, prompting Alexas all over the wherever–nation? state? I’m not sure how far the story spread–to ask whoever was around if they should order doll’s houses. As writer Hari Kunzru tweeted, before long we’ll all have to “prevent our fridges gambling our savings in Vegas.“

Ah, but all those cloned Alexas do more than ask if they should order doll’s houses. For a while there, the press was full of stories about Alexas laughing spontaneously, for no reason their creeped-out owners could identify. Amazon reset them all–it’s done centrally; the only way the owners can seize control is to turn them off–so that they stopped laughing. Which might be even creepier. The suspicion lingers, like a whiff of garlic, that they know something we don’t. Only now they’re keeping any hint of it to themselves.

But it’s not just Alexa who orders us stuff we didn’t want. Starting in January, Tiffany Crow was besieged with stuff she didn’t order. She doesn’t have an Alexa listening to her household’s every belch and whistle, so however this happened that wasn’t it.

What kind of stuff? Oh, wireless speakers, fitness wristbands, projectors, globes, and I’m not sure what else–over 100 items, she said. None of it stuff she wants, unfortunately. She tried getting the deliveries stopped but got nowhere, so she started giving it to the neighbors, but even they reached their limit. She lost her sense of humor about it pretty quickly, because each delivery came with endless packaging, which had to be sorted and recycled. Plus there was all that stuff to get rid of.

So does she have the right to keep it or give it away? According to U.K. law, yes. She informed the company, she didn’t order the stuff, she didn’t order anything like it, and she didn’t order one of them and type in 1,000 by mistake. So it’s hers. She and her neighbors get to keep the loot. Even if they don’t want it.

I know someone who got eight kilos of chocolate-covered Turkish delight by typing in the wrong amount. He had to pay for it, but I don’t think he was entirely unhappy about the mistake.

If you want that in pounds, multiply it by 2.2. That’s one of the few things involving numbers I trust my memory on.

Evenutally Tiffany Crow got the Guardian‘s Money section involved and Amazon miraculously found a way to turn off the loot faucet and apologized but “declined to offer an explanation.”

A glitch on this scale can only happen electronically, so it’s time to quote Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla, who says automation not only didn’t speed up the company’s car production line, it slowed it down. I’m cheating here, because it’s not a British company, but then California’s not a British county/state/province/colony/dependency either. I do cheat when it suits me. Just look the other way if it bothers you.

“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” he said. “To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”  

Our final high-tech success story is from a British bank, TSB, which used to stand for something but now only stands for TSB. It was recently bought by a Spanish bank, which directed it to update its computer programs, so it tried to transfer 1.3 billion customer records and–you see it coming, don’t you? Not only did they lock people out of their accounts, they gave some people access to other people’s records and created phantom credits and withdrawals. One customer found himself £13,000 to the good. Another found that he’d paid a direct debit to Sky Digital 81 years from now.

A member of the House of Lords discovered that he had a balance of £0.

TSB said it was having a few intermittent problems. Then it said it was having a few more serious problems than that. Then it said a bunch of other stuff but nobody believed anything it said anymore. Its chief executive, whose name really is Paul Pester, admitted that a week after the problems started the bank was on its knees. He refused to answer questions about his bonus, which was said to be £1.6 million and was supposed to be paid once the data migration was complete.

A little while later he was publicly giving up his bonus, which by then had grown to £2 million.

That sound you hear? It’s Alexa laughing.

*

A quick note: I meant to write about the Commonwealth this week, in the hope of learning something about it, but I got lost in the detail and lost my sense of humor over the current scandal involving the government, Commonwealth citizens from the Caribbean, and plain ol’ racism. The scandal recently brought down the home secretary. I may manage to write about some bits of it yet, but I can’t promise. If you want to know what I’m talking about (and if you live in Britain you almost surely know already), you can start by googling “windrush generation landing cards destroyed.”

Some topics work out, others don’t. This one hasn’t.

What’s new in Britain?

The news from Britain? Oh, you know, the usual. Somebody wants to nominate the queen for a Nobel peace prize. They wanted to nominate me, but I didn’t feel right about it so they moved on down the list. A replica of Francis Drake’s ship is up for sale. Friday’s the best night to hear gossip in the pub. A badger’s conquered a castle. (Okay, that’s clickbait, and about as accurate as most clickbait.)

Is any of this worth a post? Of course it is. And if you have to ask why, you’re probably right to but please don’t because I’ll only have to come up with an answer.

Let’s start with the queen. Not because she’s the queen. If I won’t give her a capital letter, you don’t think I’d let her jump the queue, do you?

Irrelevant–and out of season–photo. Cornwall in the snow. It snows every ten years, give or take a decade. First we all tell each other how beautiful it is and when it doesn’t go away within two hours we decide the world’s ending.

A brief interruption here for the sake of readers who aren’t British. Jumping the queue is the only real sin in Britain. It means pushing in at the front of the line, or as we called it when I was a kid, butting into line.

What line are we talking about? Any line. Britain’s full of lines. Not because things are in short supply, but because that’s how people here handle more-than-one-person-type situations. If people are waiting for a bus, a ticket, or the attention of the person behind the bar, they form a queue. It may be what Kate Fox, in her glorious and slightly mad Watching the English, calls a disorganized queue (you can’t see it but everyone involved knows about it, and knows where they are in it) or even a queue of one (I’m here first and if anyone else comes along, they’re after me), but it’s still a queue–a kind of implied queue.

I’m happy to make fun of queuing, but it does take the anxiety out of those situations. Not to mention the hostility. And I say that as a sharp-elbowed New Yorker who knows how to push with the best of them. It’s nice not to have to. And occasionally it’s annoying to know I can’t. But jumping the queue is an offense against public decency, the natural order of things, the secular religion, and everything your mother taught you, and you do it at your own risk, and possibly at risk of your mortal soul.

So, no, the queen doesn’t get to jump the queue here at Notes. The newspaper clipping mentioning her just happened to be at the top of the pile. And I’m as hesitant to mess with the order of my clippings as I am to jump the queue. No one but me would care about my clippings pile, but the prospect of picking that mess off the floor and putting it back in its original disorder makes me cautious.

But back to our story: “Senior political figures and ministers” want to nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her more than 60 years of service to the Commonwealth. She takes the Commonwealth seriously, and that’s a large part of what’s held it together. Or so they say. You shouldn’t take my word for it, though, because I’m having to take someone else’s.

What does the Commonwealth do? Good question, and I should write a post about it, if for no better reason than that I might find an answer, but in the meantime let’s quote Philip Murphy, the director of Commonwealth studies at the University of London, who can be presumed to know something on the subject and who recently published a long article about it. It’s in a different, equally fragile, pile of clippings, I can’t pull it out and read it through just now. A closer read will have to wait.

It’s online, you say? Don’t bother me. I have my excuses in order and the dog really did eat my homework.

For now, let’s grab a couple of pull quotes (those are those things in biggish type that publications use to fill the page when an article is, awkwardly, a couple of hundred words too short to reach the bottom).

“Many members of India’s policymaking elite see the Commonwealth as little more than a quaint relic of imperialism,” one says.

“If the Commonwealth really is the future, then we’re in even more trouble than I thought,” says another.

Oh, go on, let’s have one more: “For Britain’s administrative elite, the Commonwealth is a bit like a grandfather clock that has been in the family for generations. It hasn’t told the right time for decades, but no one has the heart to take such a treasured heirloom to the tip.”

The tip is the dump. The place where you throw things out. So if Phil’s right, the Commonwealth doesn’t do a hell of a lot.

The importance of this nomination is highlighted by how weird it got when I googled “queen nobel prize.” I found someone at Queen’s University who won a Nobel in physics and someone at Queen Mary University who won a Nobel in something else. I found Queen Latifah, who hosted the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in 2014. And I found a page from the official Nobel Prize website called “the Queen’s Gowns,” which is about a different queen, Silvia. As far as I can tell–and I didn’t stick around to be sure I had it right–it documents the gowns Queen Sil wore to the awards ceremony in every year since she was queenified in 1976. I’m sure the world’s a richer place now that the information is available to an eager public.

I mention all that in case you think “the queen” is a definitive description.

Will Liz get the award? As someone or other pointed out, the bar was set pretty low when Henry Kissinger won it, and it didn’t help that Barack Obama was awarded one before he’d had time to do anything. So it’s a definite maybe.

But enough of the queen. What about Drake’s ship? It was called the Golden Hind. Sort of. I’ll come back to that, but first, who was Drake?

Well, it depends who you ask. According to a website promoting visits to the ship, he was “the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, on an epic expedition of discovery and adventure.”

Sounds like a movie poster, probably from the fifties.

Drake’s purpose, it says, was “to intercept the gold and jewels, which the Spanish were removing from South America . . . and shipping back to Spain.” It adds that he made vital discoveries, etc., etc. Step right up, folks. Adult tickets are £7, kids and doddery old people get in for a fiver.

It’s okay, I’m old enough that I get to say “doddery.” If you’re under 65, you’ll just have to wait. Unless you want someone to say you’re making fun of the elderly..

On the other hand, if you read Wikipedia (and if no one’s changed the entry yet), Drake’s voyage was about privateering.

What’s that? An early form of privatization. The Mariners’ Museum defines a privateer as “any individual granted license by their government to attack shipping belonging to an enemy government, usually during a war. . . . They receive a Letter of Marque from their nation’s Admiralty, which grants them permission to raid enemy ships and keep a percentage of the spoils – so long as they pay a cut of that bounty back to the government.”

So basically Drake was operating as a licensed pirate, although according to WikiWhatsia Queen Elizabeth I’s support was unofficial, so he probably didn’t get his letter of marque. And it probably didn’t matter. If he’d been captured by the Spanish it wouldn’t have helped anyway.

In 1579, Drake captured a Spanish ship with so much treasure that it took six days to transfer it all to the Golden Hind. Liz’s share of the takings was enough to pay off the government’s entire annual debt and leave enough to invest in a new trading company operating in the Levant, which is roughly and not quite accurately the Middle East.

If you wonder how Britain got to be an imperial power, that’s as good a place as any to start unraveling the thread. If you want my opinion–and nobody asked but you’re too late to stop me–neither country was in the right. The Spanish were plundering their colonies in what’s now Latin America and the English were plundering the Spanish.

Step right up. Adult entry’s just £7.

The ship was originally called the Pelican but Drake renamed it in the middle of the voyage to flatter his patron, whose crest was a golden hind–a female red deer. How can you tell it’s a red deer if it’s gold? That’s too deep for me, but I’m sure there’s an answer out there somewhere. 

Why bother flattering his patron when he was in the middle of the ocean and his patron wouldn’t know a thing about it until he got back–if he got back? Because those long voyages got boring, and jigsaw puzzles weren’t invented until the 1760s.

Two replicas of the ship exist, one in London and one in Brixham, Devon, and it’s the second one that was up for sale, with a guide price at auction of £195,000. Presumably it’s been sold by now, but if not you can probably bargain them down a bit. It’s too big for the bathtub, but if you want a bit of British history in your front yard, it’d look great.

If you have a big enough front yard.

Moving back to modern days, researchers report that the best pub gossip can be heard on Friday nights.

How are they defining best? The newspapers don’t say, but the most common topics are, in order, old memories, something completely random, TV shows, funny stories, gossip, the news, film, music, jokes, and football.

Why’s football at the end of the list? I’m not sure but it may mean that the historic gender imbalance in pubs has been corrected.

What kind of category is “something completely random”? A garbage can category. Again, the papers don’t say what it means, or why, if it means anything else it’s not at the top of the list. I’m going to jump in with both feet and guess that this isn’t a well designed study, just something fun to report on.

One in five people in the study have been offered a chance to buy something odd while they were in the pub. How odd? A hundred dead pheasants. A broken snooker cue. Four packets of bacon.

Pubs are closing down all over the country. How the culture will survive without them, I don’t know.

In Scotland, a “very angry badger” was found in a tunnel in Craignethan Castle, in South Lanarkshire, and Historic Scotland has closed off the tunnel while it tries to lure it out using cat food and honey. I suspect that means tries to lure it into a trap, but it doesn’t sound as friendly when you put it that way. Let’s pretend it’s a little trail of cat food and honey, leading to the great outdoors.

The story’s undated, so I have no idea when this happened. It could have been centuries ago, during one of the many Scottish/English battles for all I know. When I was a kid, we told each other stories about Japanese soldiers hiding in caves on isolated islands who’d never heard that World War II was over. I suspect they were complete bullshit, but we believed each other. Maybe this is the Scottish/English equivalent: a Scottish nationalist badger still fighting to keep out the English, completely unaware that it’s actually fighting Scottish Heritage.

And now your bonus for getting this far in the post: The Mary River turtle, in Australia, can breathe through its–no, I don’t make this up–genitals. As a result, it can stay underwater for as much as three days, and I like to think it has a good time while it’s there. It also grows a punk haircut–a kind of green mohican. If you have nothing better to do with your life (and you’re reading this, aren’t you?), you should check out the photo.

Unfortunately, the turtle’s on the list of 100 most endangered reptiles.

American schools and their guns

Enough about Britain. Let’s have some news from the U.S., because there’s more than enough lunacy there to keep us bitterly amused. I know, I know, it’s a serious subject, but bear with me.

You’ve heard that the solution to school shootings is to arm teachers? Well, let’s check in on what happens when teachers are armed:

In Utah, a teacher shot herself in the leg in an elementary school toilet–or rest room, as we say in the U.S., because we may allow guns in our schools but we don’t allow loose talk about toilets. That sort of language reminds us of what we do with them–which is, generally, not shoot ourselves but get ride of bodily waste products (she said delicately). Or, to prove that I really would say shit if I had a mouthful, we shit and we pee.

The teacher had completed a gun safety course (which I’m guessing wasn’t long enough) and, you’ll be relieved to learn, was carrying the gun legally.

In Idaho, a professor shot himself in the foot while walking across campus.

In Minnesota, a third-grader reached over to a police officer’s holster and pulled the trigger on his (unless it was her–the officer was in possession of a gun but not of a pronoun). Should we start over? The kid shot the cop’s handgun. While it was in its holster and the cop was talking to the kids. The bullet went into the floor without passing through any flesh on the way. Likewise it did not pass Go or collect two hundred dollars. And if you’re a complete outsider to American (and I believe general English-speaking) culture, that’s an irrelevant reference to a board game.

Has Monopoly been translated into other languages and foisted off on the rest of the world?

And in Pennsylvania, a teacher in a small Christian school with one toilet that’s used by both staff and teachers put her handgun on the toilet tank while she used the restroom and then left without it. Four kids between the ages of six and eight used the, um, facilities before one of them reported it to his parents, who told a teacher, who presumably got it out of there safely.

So yes, arm the teachers. That’ll keep the kids safe.

From math to fried chicken: the news from Britain

Here we go again, cold off the press, the important stuff that’s happening in Britain:

We hear from the Ministry of Multiplication Tables

Eight- and nine-year-olds in England (as opposed to Wales or Scotland) are going to be tested on the multiplication tables. The test will itself be tested in a sampling of schools this year and then be introduced—unless, of course, it isn’t—in the whole country in 2020. In between those two dates, schools can introduce the test voluntarily, although why they’d want to is anyone’s guess.

What’s the point? That’s also anyone’s guess. (Don’t you love how neutral my reporting is?) Some standardized testing is about grading the school, some is about grading the student, and this, according to the noises being made by Nick Gibb, the school standards minister, is to “help teachers identify those pupils who require extra support.”

Because teachers don’t notice otherwise. Most only remember they have students when they get test results back. The rest of the time they think they’re talking to holograms.

Irrelevant photo: an azalea blossom. Spring is coming. Unless you’re in the southern hemisphere, in which case it isn’t. Or close to the equator, in which case (I assume) it’s as irrelevant as the photo.

Inevitably, when the good Mr. Gibb went on TV to talk about the new test, the interviewer asked him what eight times nine was. He refused to answer.

Okay, it wasn’t inevitable that the question would be eight times nine, only that someone would ask him one of the less obvious combinations.

“No eight-year-old or nine-year-old will be doing it on live television,” the Minister for Multiplication tables huffed.

Besides, the information’s classified. You want to government to give out the answers before the test is even introduced?

The government claims the tests will be designed to avoid causing additional stress for children and teachers. I haven’t been able to figure out what that “additional” is in addition to, but never mind. We’re dealing with the Minister for Multiplication Tables, not the Minister for Marvelous Writing, but if anyone wants to get in touch with either of them, you might mention that one of the Rules of Marvelous Writing is that if you’re using a comparative (bigger, better, more absurd, far more Marvelous, that kind of thing), it has no meaning unless it’s clear what you’re comparing it to—or in this case, adding it to.

You mght also want to recommend using fewer capital letters. Or was that me who tossed  in the caps?

Is anyone other than me old enough to remember cigarette ads? I’m relying on memory here, but didn’t they tell us cigarettes were smoother? Smoother than what? A cheese grater.

But back to multiplication tables: I’m an expert on not knowing them, so I’d like to testify that not learning them was stressful enough. Taking a standardized test designed not to cause me additional stress? Good luck designing that.

I can also testify that although it’s sometimes a pain in the calculator finger not to have them memorized, it’s entirely possible to get through life that way. Especially now that a carton of calculators is cheaper than a carton of cigarettes.

 

Then we hear from the Ministry of Procrastination

Trafford’s twelve libraries have abandoned fines for late book returns. Or maybe that’s Trafford’s thirteen libraries. It depends which article you read, so just to confuse the situation I found an online map and counted seventeen little red it’s-here symbols marking (I think) Trafford libraries. And if that doesn’t make the whole thing uncertain enough, only sixteen of them had book symbols inside. One had a circle instead. So one library lends circles, and there’s no fee for returning them late. Britain’s a strange country. I’ve lived here for eleven years and that’s only long enough for me to understand how much I don’t understand.

But we were talking about library fines, or we were trying to. If you’d stop interrupting, we’d get to the point much faster.

Starting in April, you can return your book late and not owe a penny. Which—. Gee. I hardly know what to say. Libraries and fines are so linked in my mind that they might as well have announced that they’re going out of the book-lending business. Especially since there’s that little red symbol with the circle inside.

On the other hand, getting rid of fines doesn’t mean you can build up your book collection for free. At some point (and I’m not sure anyone knows what that point it yet) a person who doesn’t return books won’t be allowed to borrow any more.

The Bookseller writes, “In a further move to encourage more people to read, the council [that’s the city government] will also provide every child whose birth is registered in the area with a library card and book start pack, after noting that ‘most learning of literacy happens in the first 11 years of a child’s life, as does the development of a person’s love of reading.’ “

For a bookish publication, that’s really sloppy writing. What does the “after” in “after noting” follow? Providing every child with a library card?

 

Then we don’t hear from the Ministry of Defense

A fitness tracker called Strava was publishing maps of the exercise paths its users followed. They’re called heatmaps and it was all very cool, very compare-yourself-with-the-rest-of-the-world, until somebody noticed that if you knew how to read them you could trace the exercise routes used by military personnel, not to mention the outline U.S. military bases in Syria and Iraq.

I just returned from googling Strava. Predictive text offered Strava, Strava login, Strava app, and Strava heatmaps. I followed them all and was told that no results matched my search. It was all scorched earth in Stravaland.

If you try it and you’re desperate for a result of some kind, you can delete the VA and at least get a result for Stradivarius, but good luck tracking military personnel that way.

I also googled “Strava military personnel,” hoping to find an article I could link to, just to prove to you–not to mention myself–that I’m not hallucinating. Nothing matched my search, although predictive text offered me “Strava military discount,” which had also been deleted. But I swear to you, I have a newspaper clipping about this. It’s from the January 30 Guardian. Now that I’ve squeezed the juice out of it, I’m tossing it on the recycling pile (that’s the floor to the left of and partially behind my chair). The clipping may already be rare enough to qualify as a collector’s item. If anyone wants to dig it out, you’re welcome to it, but I warn you, squadrons of researchers have been lost down there.

The story appeared in several papers. I’d like to know, in all seriousness, why none of those stories are online anymore.

 

Enough ministries. A music festival bans potato peelers

The Parklife music festival in Manchester is banning potato peelers. Why? Because Liam Gallagher’s playing in 2018, of course.

I’m the wrong generation to understand that without an explanation (and I’m not doing all that well with one). If the name alone doesn’t explain the decision to you, you’re the wrong generation too, but it seems Liam’s brother, Noel, broke up a band they were both in and Liam didn’t take it well. Noel’s now in a different band and at one gig someone in his band played the scissors. How? No idea. I’m guessing badly, but that’s only because I’ve never heard anyone play the scissors well.

Or at all. I do know someone who plays the spoons, if that’a any help.

In a straight-faced effort to make sense of the background, the BBC explains that “Liam has referred to his brother as a ‘potato’ on a number of occasions.” In a tweet, he invited concert-goers to “peel some spuds live on stage” and later praised someone who more or less did that.

Yeah, I know, I thought it was supposed to be about the music. I’m old. Don’t listen to me. Listen to the potato peelers.

Parklife says it’s been inundated with requests to bring in potato peelers and in response has banned them. Because they could be used as offensive weapons.

Do I believe anyone actually asked if they could bring them in? Nope. The kind of scofflaw who’d bring a potato peeler to a concert doesn’t ask permission.

 

Windsor finds a new neighbor

Or an old one. Archeologists have found a 5,000-year-old ceremonial gathering place within sight of Windsor Castle. It’s called a causewayed enclosure and dates back to the earliest years of farming in Britain.

Fieldwork Director John Powell said, “This is an exciting find. These are the earliest peoples who are actually settling down in the landscape and leaving their mark.”

The site’s particularly important because archeologists expect to find the complete enclosure, not just bits of it.

The enclosure was found in a quarry whose planning permission depends on allowing archeologists to have access. The same condition applied to some sewage work outside a village near us—archeologists followed the route of a new sewage line as it was being dug and found flints (not native to Cornwall), burials, and if I remember right, a house that dissolved almost as quickly as it was uncovered.

Anywhere you put a shovel into the ground in this country, you’re likely to unearth a bit of history. We haven’t found anything in our yard yet, but a pair of Roman boxing gloves showed up at Hadrian’s Wall. They date from somewhere around 120 C.E. (that’s A.D. in case you still tell time that way). Hadrian’s Wall is nowhere near Windsor Castle but it’s the same country, so I thought I’d mention it.

 

. . . and abandons a plan to get rid of an existing one

The borough of Windsor had a plan to clean the place up in time for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. How? By banning rough sleepers, which is what Britain calls the homeless.

Part of its “homelessness support strategy” was to fine them £100 for sleeping on the street, but they could get 50% off if they paid early. On the other hand, if they didn’t pay at all, the fine would escalate to £1,000.

What was the council going to do when they found out the homeless don’t have that kind of money–that being homeless has some mysterious connection to being broke? I’m not sure. Maybe Stage 2 was to put them in debtors’ prison.

Stage 3 was to reinstate debtors’ prisons. As part of a strategy to support debtors.

Anyway, the plan created such an uproar and the council backed down, but it still wants to ban urination and defecation in the town center. I don’t know any specifics about Windsor, but budget cuts around the country have meant that a lot public toilets have closed.

You don’t suppose there’s a connection in there somewhere, do you?

As for the wedding, the royal family is paying for it but the taxpayer will pick up the cost of security. I’m guessing it’ll be enough to keep any number of public toilets open.

 

Finally and most dramatically, the world ended on February 19

Okay, it didn’t actually end—not unless I’m writing this after the end of the world—but Kentucky Fried Chicken ran out of chicken and had to close 646 of its 900 outlets (so we call them stores? restaurants?). That’s pretty close to the same thing.

I’m not sure how many are still closed on February 22, the evening before the post goes live, when I’m updating this. The official count, I think, is lots.

What happened? KFC changed delivery companies. The GMB union says warned KFC the “the decision would have consequences” since the old distributor has a network of warehouses around the country and the new company has only one. “Now,” the union said—unable to stop itself—“the chickens are coming home to roost.”

It turns out that single warehouse hadn’t been licensed of inspected, and KFC said some chicken would have to be destroyed.

As a side note, GMB no longer stands for anything. The union started out in 1889 as the Gas Workers and General Union, but in the last century British unions merged with other unions, and in the last thirty years even more of the merged, and the GMB now represents a range of workers, including delivery drivers, and has abandoned every trace of its original name except the letters, which I just notice don’t stand for Gas Workers and General. Where they came from and what they once stood for is a mystery their web site doesn’t explain.

It must be another of those mysterious British things. I just love this country.

But back to our main story: What did the public do about the chicken crisis? Why, it called the police, of course.

The BBC quotes two tweets from police forces. From Tower Hamlets: “Please do not contact us about the #KFCCrisis – it is not a police matter if your favourite eatery is not serving the menu that you desire.” And from some other force—probably Manchester but I wouldn’t swear to it: “For those who contacted the Police about KFC being out of chicken … please STOP. Their website says the Prestwich store is now open if you want to follow the four police cars through the drive thru.”

If you have nothing better to do (and I clearly don’t), it’s worth browsing #KFCCrisis on Twitter. When I loooked, someone posting as Jesus Christ (I hope that doesn’t offend anyone; I’m pretty sure this isn’t the real one) wrote, “I am fully aware there is a in the UK… stop sending prayers! I’m trying to fix America and then I will get to you.” Someone else wrote, “ is in its second day and average life expectancy in the UK has gone up by 2 weeks.”

Quorn, a vegetarian meat substitute, tweeted an offer to supply KFC with some crispy Quorn nuggets. And since DHL (and to be fair, any number of other delivery companies) has a reputation for mis-delivering packages, a third tweet reads,”Have they checked DHL haven’t left the chicken with a neighbour or thrown it over the fence???”

All across the country, chickens were celebrating.