Stuff that really goes on in Britain

Last July, the queen’s official swan marker counted the queen’s swans. This is called swan upping.

Okay, the unvarnished truth is that they didn’t count all the queen’s swans, just the ones on the Thames. And not even on all of the Thames, just on one part of it. It takes five days to complete that chunk, and that probably explains why they stop there.

But the queen has other, uncounted swans. Lots and lots of swans, although since no one counts them she doesn’t know how many. She owns all the unmarked mute swans on open water in the country. Why? Because she’s the queen, that’s why, and if that’s not enough of a reason for you, go ask someone who takes this stuff seriously.

By way of a partial explanation, though, I found this is Wikipendia: “Rights over swans may, however, be granted to a subject by the Crown (accordingly they may also be claimed by prescription).”

“Accordingly”? No, I don’t understand what that’s doing there either. But “prescription”? That makes sense. If you can convince a doctor that owning a swan will cure whatever ails you, the queen can grant you one.

You don’t believe me, you cynic, you? It’s right there in black and white. Or it was last I checked. The word may have been re-prescribed to some other entry by now—it’s Wikipedia, after all—but I swear I can’t make up stuff like this. I can, however, mix up my links. I suspect the link about what part of the Thames gets swan-upped belongs to the quote, but I can’t be bothered to check.

You don’t really care, do you?

The usual irrelevant photo: A rose in our garden. Roses here get black spot–or ours do, anyway. You can see the spots on the out-of-focus leaves in the upper left-hand corner. Black spot makes the plants lose leaves like mad, but so far the plants have survived anyway. There’s a life lesson in there if you’re into that kind of thing. At my age, I’ve lost a few leaves myself, but my spots tend to be brownish, not black, so I probably have something different.

The swan uppers traditionally wear red and take skiffs out on the river.

A skiff is a light rowing boat, usually for one person. I had to look it up. It’s one of those words I think I know until I notice that I don’t really. I’ll skip the link. You can google it yourself if you want, but unless you have a strong stomach, skip the Urban Dictionary’s offering. They define it as a verb and the less said about it the better. And in a rare moment of good taste and discretion, I’ll say less. So let’s change the subject and quote the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on the subject of swan upping:

“During the Middle Ages, the mute swan was considered to be a valuable commodity and was regularly traded between noblemen. The owners of swans were duty bound to mark their property by way of a succession of unique nicks in the beaks of their birds. It was the duty of the Royal Swanmaster to organise the annual swan-upping, a tradition that survives to this day.

“The role of swan-upping was to round up unmarked cygnets and once the parentage of the cygnets had been established to the Swanmaster’s satisfaction [how do you do that? you ask, of course], the birds could be marked appropriately and returned to the wild. The ceremony exists these days in a largely symbolic form, although as an exercise it is useful in monitoring the condition and number of swans on the Thames.

“The only two companies that still observe the tradition of owning swans on the Thames are the Worshipful Companies of Vintners and Dyers. The Royal swans are no longer marked, but an unmarked mute swan on the Thames is regarded as belonging to the Queen by default. The Queen still maintains an officially-appointed Swan Keeper, and the ceremony still takes place on the Monday of the third week in July.

“The Queen has a prerogative over all swans in England and Wales. The Swan Keeper also despatches swans all over the world, sent as gifts in the Queen’s name.”

Just when you think things can’t get any more English, someone tells you about a Worshipful Company—in capital letters, yet. You have to love this place. Or I do, Even when I’m reduced to fits of giggles.

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On a more prosaic note, a school in Houghton-le-Spring (yes really; it’s somewhere near Sunderland, which is somewhere not near me but that covers a lot of territory and I’m hazy about exactly where in the land of not-near-me it is)—. Let’s start that over: The school sent a bunch of kids home at the beginning of the school year because their trousers (that’s pants if you’re American and definitely not pants if you’re British, except in a sort of metaphorical, insulting way, because pants are underwear except when the word’s used to mean something not good)—. We’re lost again, aren’t we? I’ll get to the point this time. The school sent a bunch of kids home because their trousers were the wrong shade of gray.

If you’re not British, you need to understand that school kids here have to wear uniforms. And that schools take their uniforms as seriously as the queen takes her swan upping. They’re convinced the uniforms give the kids a sense of pride in their school. I have yet to hear a single kid say that it does, but maybe I’m talking to the wrong kids.

I would, wouldn’t I? Mostly I was talking to one kid, who hated them with a passion I really admired.

Great kid.

But back in Houghton-le-Spring (yea, verily, that is the name of the place–I have no idea how it’s pronounced), the school made the kids line up in the rain while someone checked their trousers against a swatch of fabric. Yes, a swatch. They couldn’t just eyeball the damned things and say, “We said gray and that looks more like pink.” Nope. They needed the exact shade of gray.

I’m sure it made the kids immensely proud. Especially the standing in the rain part.

The point of the exercise was to make sure the parents bought £15.99 trousers from Total Sport instead of (oh, the horror of it all) £7 trousers from Tesco, which is a (more horror) supermarket that sells relatively cheap school clothes. Because if you force the parents to spend more money on school uniforms, you squeeze out the lower-income parents and get a better class of dolt filling your school’s seats.

The kids who couldn’t be sent home (presumably because their parents were at work and not available to be shamed with satisfying immediacy) were put in an isolation room, where they wouldn’t contaminate the other kids, and they weren’t allowed to attend classes until they repented, forked out £15.99 times however many pairs they needed, and changed clothes. The three with the wrongest shade of gray were freeze dried and won’t be thawed out until the end of the school year.

The headteacher (that’s the principal, if you’re American) said, “We are very, very particular about the uniform because we need consistency right across the board.

“In doing so some learners were sent home. If you have different types of trousers it leads on to different types of shoes, different types of shirts, etc.”

And the next thing you know, they’ll have different types of—gasp, wheeze—thoughts.

I don’t know when students became learners, but I’m sure they learned a lot from the exercise, and I hope it wasn’t what the headteacher wanted them to learn. And if the headteacher would please contact me, I’d love to correct her writing sample. I won’t charge, but I will point out that “in doing so” doesn’t refer back to a single damned thing.

How do I know? I’m holding a syntax swatch up beside it. She bought her sentences at the supermarket and I caught her at it.

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A letter in the Guardian claimed that in the 1970s, when books had to be moved from the old library in Worthing (that’s probably in Somerset, but don’t trust me on that) to the new one, the library encouraged people to borrow as many books as they wanted from the old library, then return them to the new one.

“The shelves in the old library were soon empty,” the letter says. Except for the one that held the complete works of Proust.

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This doesn’t really fit with our topic, but most of you know me well enough not to expect any better. A second Guardian letter writer mentioned the title of a commentary on modern church songs (or maybe that’s only one category of modern church songs—I wouldn’t know). The point is that the commentary was titled, “O God, let me be the putty round thy window pane.”

I expect it’s even funnier if you’ve been subjected to whatever category of church songs that is. I haven’t, for which I count myself lucky because if I’d laughed any harder I’d have rearranged my internal organs.

As far as I understand the definition of organs, all of mine are internal, but never mind. It sounds better with “internal” left in, and if you have a syntax swatch yourself, allow me to remind you that rhythm does matter.

Some of the Guardian letter writers are frighteningly funny, and the paper, to its credit, encourages the worst in them.

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The Conservative Party held its conference in early October, and since the party’s somewhere between disarray and meltdown it badly needed to come out of it with a burst of energy, a bit of unity, and some good press. Instead, it organized a satirist’s dream. The best part came when the prime minister, Theresa May, coughed and choked her way through her big speech while standing in front of a sign that at the beginning of the speech said, “Building a country that works for everyone.” As she spoke, letters started dropping off until eventually it read, “Bui ding a c  ntry tha   orks for    ryon .”

Truer words have never peeled off a sign.

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And finally, a note about something that didn’t happen: the annual World Bolving Contest Championships. For the second year in a row, there weren’t any. How they get to be annual under those conditions I don’t know, but the paper called them annual and who am I to argue?

Mind you, I can’t find a link to the article. Ever since the Western Morning News started pouring its content into Cornish Stuff instead of its own website, I haven’t been able to find its print articles online, although I happen to know they’re there. Somewhere. So let’s settle for a link to a video from the World Bolving Contest Championships back when they did happen. Just to prove they’re real.

How could you have doubted me? Don’t you feel kind of silly about it now?

So what’s bolving? The bolve is the red deer’s mating call. So bolving? That’s when the stag’s calling. Or when a human’s imitating a hormonally overamped red stag calling his love—whoever she might turn out to be. I have a hunch they’re not particular about that.

If you want a completely irrelevant meaning of the word and its astro-numerological significance, you’ll find it here. I haven’t read it and can’t think of a reason why I’d want to, but far be it from me to stop you from improving your mind.

If the human’s bolve works at all and if a stag’s in the neighborhood, the stag will answer. Maybe because they’re not really calling their loves but challenging their rivals. I’m no expert on red deer, but I’ve known some humans who are wired like that.

This isn’t one of those traditional contests Britain specializes in—the kind that are so ancient that no one really understands what they’re about anymore but everyone continues them anyway. Like, say, the Atherstone Ball Game.. Or the Gloucester Cheese Rolling. No, this one dates back only as far as 2003, when a few people were sitting around an Exmoor pub, drank too much, and made a bet. I’m guessing that’s how a lot of traditional contests started. Not necessarily with a bet, but definitely with a pub.

The contest started out small and local, but before anyone knew what had happened it was big and popular, which meant it involved visitors on the roads after dark and, wouldn’t you know it, insurance.

The WMN story ends with the tale of a regional deer expert who “used to bolve so that he could hear which stags were about, but one evening a mighty stag came belting down through the woods to confront him face to face. The beast did a kind of cartoon skid with all four hooves when he saw his opponent was a man, stopping just feet away to issue one final, deafening, defiant, bellow.”

You can tell you’re in the land of tall tales when you find not just a stag but a mighty stag, and when it does a cartoon skid.

That extra comma in the last sentence belongs to WMN. Far be it from me to cheat them out of it. If you’re not sure which one it is, don’t lose any sleep over it. It’s one of those editty, nitpicky things. I wont freeze dry either you or the WMN for it. The headteacher, though? I’ve got my eye on her. She’d better watch it.

Updates from the British press

Statistics

An article that’s been buried at the bottom of my stack of clippings reports that 98% of us think we’re nicer than half the population. And 90% of drivers say they’re above average. And although it doesn’t say this, 98% of bloggers think their blogs are better than 99% of the others.

Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper getting ready for autumn. This photo’s in the top 0.1% of all online photos as measured by the Hawley Randomness Quotient.

Technology

Are you worried about autonomous weapons fighting a war that never ends? Well, Wikipedia turns out to be a battleground where software bots are fighting each other, sometimes until one of them is taken offline and the other’s sent to bed without its virtual supper.

Please note: Humans are still able to perform both of those actions. We don’t know how long that will be true.

The bots were designed to edit, add links, and correct errors, and they’ve done all of that. Then, when they’re done and they get bored, they start undoing each other’s changes, and then re-undoing them when their opposite numbers undoes—well, you get the picture. Each one’s convinced its right and the other one is uneducated and unwashed and hopelessly out of date.

Some of the battles stopped in 2013, when Wikipedia changed something I don’t understand about the links. (Sorry to get technical on you, but this is important stuff.) Whatever they did, though, it hasn’t stopped all the battles.

I’m using Gizmodo as a source for this, which isn’t primarily British, but I originally found the story in the British press, so the headline isn’t a complete lie.

In a parallel story, in 2011, two chatbots were turned loose to have a conversation with each other. They started bickering almost immediately and ended up in an argument about god. Neither was armed and humans were able to step in.

I’d love to know what bots have to say about god—it might be more thoughtful than what humans manage—but I couldn’t find out.

I’ve lost the link for that, but do you really care? Google it youself if you do. Try “chatbots, god.” It should be interesting. And bizarre.

Contests to name stuff

Having learned from the Boaty McBoatface disaster, when Cornwall Housing asked the public to help name a new street in Goonhavern, it didn’t let them vote. It just picked three names and gave those to the parish council, which dutifully picked the most boring of the lot.

The boring bit? That’s a guess. I did my best to find out what the name is, and (more to the point) what the losing suggestions were. I even went as far as reading a few months’ worth of parish council minutes, which took so much willpower that my eyes fizzed for three days. And I didn’t learn a damn thing from them.

That may say more about me than about the council minutes.

I can’t give you a link here. The post’s been taken down. I could link you to the council minutes, but I’m not that evil.

The House of Lords

Some (nope—not sure how many; sorry) of Britain’s wealthiest individuals are (a) members of the House of Lords and (b) claiming up to £40,000 in expenses (that should be per year, but I don’t think the article was specific) without voting, asking questions, serving on committees, or doing anything else identifiably useful.

Lords don’t get a salary but can claim an allowance of up to £300 a day, plus travel costs. To collect, they have to clock in. One is reported to have kept a cab waiting while he clocked in and then turned around and left.

In a small but annoying addition, the restaurants used by MPs and Lords are subsidized. The Lords resisted a suggestion that they buy their champagne jointly with the Commons because they felt what the Commons drank was of an, ahem, lower standard.

And this in a time of austerity, which is good for people who don’t have power. Or money. Or–oh, hell, don’t get me started. I won’t be in the least bit funny about it. Excuse me while I go bite something inanimate.

Making Britain great again

Anyone counting on Brexit to make Britain great again needs to do something about erosion., because, friends, the island’s being nibbled away, centimeter by centimeter.

Once upon a time that would’ve been inch by inch, but those dastardly Europeans imposed their humorless metric system on the grand insanity of British measures and these days we can only lose our coastline by the centimeter.

It’s sad, isn’t it? What the British system lacked in good sense it more than made up for in creativity. Want a link to a post about British measures? This’ll do as an introduction, although the full scale of craziness would take more pixels than I could find the week I wrote it.

But back to the coastline. For thousands of years, the Sussex coast (one place I was able to find some actual figures for) lost between 2 and 6 centimeters a year. For the past 150 years, though, that’s increased to between 22 and 23 a year.

Part of the problem comes from attempts to manage the coastline and part from gravel extraction, which was done enthusiastically and no controls. And now rising sea levels and increased storm severity have come along and multiplied the problem.

As a result, I regularly see pictures—and we’ve left Sussex now and are talking about coastal areas all around Britain—of houses perched at the edges of cliffs or collapsed onto the rocks at the bottom. You can find a few here.

The National Trust, which owns 775 miles of coastline, some of it sporting historically (and let’s face it, commercially) important buildings, is wrestling with its soul and its account books over where to fight and where to retreat. Mullion Harbor—a nineteenth-century Cornish harbor—was costing them £1,500 per week to maintain and they’ve made the decision to give up. In other places, buildings may (emphasis on may) be hauled back from the cliff edge and settled someplace safer but less picturesque.

Erosion closer to home

Even with those stories out of the way, the stack of newspaper clippings on my computer desk is deep enough to horrify any normal person, but a small corner of imitation wood grain has emerged and I feel—.

Okay, I’m not sure what I feel. It’s all pointless in the great scheme of things. You dust your house and it gets dusty again. You shovel off a bit of desk space and the universe provides enough absurdity to fill it up again. Before you know what’s happened, it’s twice as deep. But be of good cheer, folks. It’s Friday. And when the weekend ends, the universe will send another one if you can only wait for it.

Stuff I just can’t let you miss

An Ig Nobel prize was awarded to Marc-Antoine Fardin for a paper proving that cats are both a solid and a liquid.

Go ahead and laugh if you want, but I live with a cat and I understand this. Put a cat in a shoebox—sorry, invite a cat into a shoebox—and it will become shoebox-shaped and fill the shoebox. Do the same experiment with a round casserole dish and it will become casserole dish-shaped. It’s a liquid. Try to pass your foot through it because you didn’t know it was there and it will trip you. It’s a solid.

In Fardin’s words:

“If you take a timelapse of a glacier on several years you will unmistakably see it flow down the mountain. For cats, the same principle holds. If you are observing a cat on a time larger than its relaxation time, it will be soft and adapt to its container, like a liquid would.”

Fast Eddie as a liquid and a solid. See how he flows between the bars of the drying rack? People, this is science. I’ll thank you to take it seriously.

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A family in Coventry—that’s in the U.K., so the story’s legitimate blog fodder—called the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in a panic (or so the papers claimed) because they’d spotted a reptile under a bed. The creature hadn’t moved in about a week.

A week? If that’s a panic it’s such a slow-moving one and that it could, like a glacier, as easily be a solid as a liquid. But never mind. The RSPCA sent an animal collection officer, and she crept up on it.

“It was around seven inches long and two wide,” she said, and was “protruding from the edge of the bed.”

It turned out to be a pink striped sock.

Due to the officer’s intervention, the family was saved from a fate worse than moldy laundry.

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Having posted about spam last Friday, I thought I’d better check my spam folder to make sure Pit hadn’t been sent to Siberia again. He hadn’t, but I found this gem:

“I dear nonsensical body fluid. think me, ally, I make out it, and outside of this blog I’m a political militant

“and do what I can–which is never enough.”

I’ll have to think about this a bit longer, but I might feel offended at being called a nonsensical body fluid. Although I’ll admit I’ve been called worse things, all of which I understood better. Which leads to to think that even if I do turn out to feel offended, I’ll live.

The minute I figure out what the rest of it means, I’ll let you know if I want to argue with it.

And with that I’m out of your hair for another week.

You know, you don’t really have to read this stuff.

Scones, battleships, and why the London underground’s called the tube

Last Sunday, I opened the paper to find almost a full page devoted to a burning question: How do Britons pronounce the word scone?

I’d been under the impression that everybody who isn’t me pronounced it—as the article explained it—so it rhymes with gone. I’m not sure how useful that is, since for all I know the pronunciation of gone shifts from region to country to class to ethnic group. I pronounce it gawn, although I don’t drag out the W. The pronunciation they’re relying on is, I think, something closer to gohn. Or is that gahn?

English is such a mess.

Still, gone is a good enough place to start. Let’s leave it there for a minute or three.

Irrelevant photo: A bunch of junk I picked up in a few minutes on the beach, mostly plastic rope from fishing nets and a few other bits of plastic junk. Plus a shotgun shell. The village’s weekly beach clean continues and the organizers have set up a board encouraging people to do their own two-minute beach cleans. Plastic bags are neatly tucked into a slot in the board so you can grab one to fill. And yes, I’m aware of the irony in that, as I’m sure they are.

I assumed that rhyming scone (more or less) with gone was the English way of saying it. Or possibly the British way. That gets complicated too–sorting out what’s British from what’s English. I couldn’t remember for sure how they say it in Scotland, never mind Wales and so forth. I do know that the further north you travel in Britain, the longer the O gets (it has something to do with the weather), so scoooon would’ve been a reasonable, guess. I’d add more O’s, but any more than that and I’d fall into the North Sea.

As it turns out, scoooon would’ve not only been a reasonable guess but a wrong one. They save scoooon for the village of Scone, and also for the Stone of Scone, (pronounced, more or less, stown of scooooon, not stooooon of scooooon). The Stone–pay attention, because this is important–is (a) not shaped like a scone; (b) not edible, what with it being a stone and all; and (c) a source of conflict between the English and the Scots. It’s also called the Stone of Destiny. You can read a bit about it here. It’s a great, if slightly batty, story, but not one I want to get into here because, hey, we’ve got important stuff to talk about. Like how to pronounce scone.

I rhyme it with cone.

As it turns out, I’ve been wrong, not about how to pronounce it but about what I’ve been hearing. People from Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the north of England rhyme it (more or less) with gone. The newspaper article says that people from southern Ireland (um, I believe that’s called the Republic of Ireland these days, folks) and the English Midlands join me in rhyming it with cone. Wales divides by region. Everyone else does whatever they want, although the gone pronunciation is slightly more common.

Just so you understand how important this is, a group of Cambridge University academics produced a map of this, the Great Scone Map. Isn’t Britain wonderful?

An article in The Big Think adds two useful elements to the discussion: (1) It rhymes scone with either con or cone, and con strikes me as a more accurate and reliable rhyme; and (2) it includes pie charts showing how the word’s pronounced in the U.S. The charts include a category labeled “What’s a scone?” If you fall into that category, you don’t pronounce the word at all.

The rest of the newspaper article goes on to talk about how pronunciations change over time. Trap used to sound more like trep, and pat like pet. How long ago? It doesn’t say, but it does add that poor and pour used to sound different, and in some place still do. It doesn’t—wisely, I’m guessing—try to spell out how they were (or are) different. When I was a kid, a few of my classmates insisted there was a difference between merry and Mary. As they said them, there was, although you had to listen damn carefully. As I said them, there wasn’t.

Some fifty years ago, the article says, caliber was pronounced ca-LEE-ber.

Since, as I’ve said before, I’m 103 (and please note, I haven’t gotten any older since I started blogging a couple of years ago; blogging, if done consistently, will keep you young), fifty years doesn’t seem like such a long time and I’d expect a few recalcitrant ca-LEE-brists to be hanging onto their pronunciation and insisting that the rest of us are ignorant, uneducated, and just plain rude, but I’ve never heard it said that way. Which means something, but I have no idea what.

And there endeth our pronunciation lesson for the week.

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You probably already know this, but you haven’t heard it from me, so let’s devote a few column inches to Trump’s announcement that he was sending an armada to the Sea of Japan to let North Korea know who the biggest kid on the block is. Except that the ships were some 3,500 miles away and sailing cheerfully in the wrong direction. If you go metric on that, it’s just possible that they were closer. A kilometer’s shorter than a mile, after all.

That has nothing to do with Britain, the alleged topic of this blog, but if Trump and Kim Jong Un manage to blow each other up it’ll involve all of us, no matter where we live, and that’s a good enough excuse to mention it. In the meantime, I just couldn’t pass by an incident that crazy without mentioning it.

If you’ve lost any battleships lately, do leave me a comment. I like to keep up with these things.

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In an comment on an earlier post, Deb wrote to say, “As I am fairly new to your UK Notes, a request, although perhaps you have already written eloquently about the topic, but tube station and the tube in general… I would love some insight into how that name came to be. Subway is so obviously American and creepy and dark, but tube? Who gets the credit for that?”

Well, how could I ignore a question that says I write eloquently? Or that I might have written eloquently. Hey, I take my compliments where I can find them, even if I have to stretch the language to get them. I might indeed have written eloquently, although as it happens I not only didn’t, I hadn’t even thought about the topic. So here we go:

In the 1890s, electric trains were introduced on the London underground, and with them tube-shaped tunnels. The name dates back to that period and I haven’t seen it attributed to any one source; it just popped into the language and stayed there, as so much of the best slang does. The earlier lines (the first one opened in 1863) used steam trains and I don’t know what they were shaped like. Stars, maybe, or salamis, but “Most days I ride the salami to work” just didn’t have the same imaginative authority.

For what it’s worth, parts of the underground are aboveground. They’re sort of nothing shaped, since it’s hard to figure out where they end.

I never thought of the word subway as creepy and dark. I grew up in New York. The subway—okay, not the subway itself but some of the men on it, and in their absence, the possibility of them—was sometimes creepy but the word was just a word. Most of the time, the subway nothing more than a way to get from here to there. And some of the time—well, my brother was obsessed with trains for a while and the two of us spent hours riding them, preferably in the front car, where we could stare out the front window into the dark, watching the tracks and the signals. That part of the time, they were great. For a while, I wanted to drive a subway train when I grew up, even though women didn’t do that back then.

When we first visited Britain, Wild Thing and I saw a sign in London that said “Subway.” I knew that the trains were either the underground or the tube, but my brain—strange creature that it is—insisted that a subway was a subway anywhere in the world, so we followed the sign into a tunnel. Which led us—well, not exactly nowhere, but under a street. Then, having gotten us to the far side, it abandoned us. It was a sub-way: a way that went beneath something, in this case a street. It all made sense, but I couldn’t help thinking it had done me wrong.

As always, I’m happy to (try to) answer your questions about Britain, the United States, nuclear physics, phenomenology (if I figure out what it is) and anything else that holds your attention for more than ten seconds. I don’t promise that my answer will be of any use at all, but if I can answer it reasonably well (in my own unreliable opinion), or have fun trying, .I’ll tackle it.

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And finally, a bonus: an irrelevant, news item for those of you who made it to the end: India’s top court set aside a high court decision because no one could figure out what it meant. (Please note, the top court seems to be higher than the high court. I don’t know what that means either.) The part of the decision quoted in the paper runs as follows:

The “tenant in the demised premises stands aggrieved by the pronouncement made by the learned executing court upon his objections constituted therebefore wherewithin the apposite unfoldments qua his resistance to the execution of the decree stood discountenanced by the learned executing court….

“The learned counsel…cannot derive the fullest succor from the aforesaid acquiescence…given its sinew suffering partial dissipation from an imminent display occurring in the impunged pronouncement hereat wherewithin unravelments are held qua the rendition recorded by the learned rent controller.”

Boy, was that hard to type.

Those of you who rely on Word to warn you if your grammar’s falling off the edge of the English language should be aware that it didn’t raise a single grammatical objection to that. In fairness, though, the spell check did go nuts.

Stay out of trouble in whatever unfoldments this week brings you, and do keep track of your battleships, because you never know when and where you might need them. I’m going to go walk the dogs. Somebody has to do something sensible around here.

Britain: money laundering, sandwiches, poisonous snakes

Because the British government’s taking a hard line on money laundering, it’s not easy to set up a bank account here. Banks and potential customers have to work their way through all sorts of requirements. And yet somehow or other, Britain’s a world money laundering capital.

Funny how that works, isn’t it?

A year or three ago, Wild Thing had to set up a checking account for a small organization that had a treasury of less than £100. Probably a lot less, but I don’t remember. It took four trips to the bank with her passport, a utility bill, and a note from her mother, who is—inconveniently, although not surprisingly given Wild Thing’s age—dead. The note was hard to get and not entirely convincing.

The second person who was going to sign checks had to make two trips and the third had to make just one. Then Wild Thing had to drive back to the bank to pick up the checks.

Couldn’t they have just sent them? Don’t ask me. The bank’s roughly half an hour from our house. Why make things easy?

Irrelevant photo: The daffodils have been in bloom since late January. This one, as you can see, is not involved in money laundering.

At least one of those trips, I admit, was because Wild Thing hadn’t double checked that the name J.’s known by is her actual passport-authenticated, birth-certificate name, and it turned out not to be. But the others? They were part of business as usual.

But that was nothing. For a different organization, she tried to set up an account at a different bank and it took three months. Then the bank closed its branch in the town. We didn’t mourn.

I shouldn’t complain about this being so difficult, because in fact I have laundered money. I’ve also spin-dried it, but I don’t think I ever washed anything larger than a five dollar bill, and it may be in the interest of combating money laundering that the British government introduced its new plasticky five-pound note (no one but me calls them “bills” here) that can be run through the laundry but will shrivel up and die if is it’s run through the dryer. We don’t have a dryer, so however we manage to lose money, it won’t be that way.

But we’re small time money launderers at my house, so it’s—let’s say it’s mildly annoying to learn that in spite of our branch bank’s care in observing the anti-laundering protocols, Britain’s banks laundered £740 million for Russian criminals with links to the Russian government and the KGB.

Allegedly. I do need to say allegedly.

Deutsche Bank is also accused of laundering Russian money. And it lent $330 million to Trump, but it’s okay because the bank’s investigated itself and reports that there’s no link between those two acts. Which lifts a weight off my mind.

What else is happening here?

I’ve just learned that Britons eat a lot of sandwiches. I don’t know how British sandwich eating compares with other countries’, but the numbers–however meaningless they are without a point of comparison–sound impressive. Over the course of a lifetime, the average Briton will spend more than £48,000 on sandwiches. That’s a lot of money, in case you hadn’t noticed. It buys roughly 18,000 sandwiches. If you ever need to know what a lifetime supply of sandwiches consists of, there’s your number.

The typical eater will need eight mouthfuls and six minutes to finish a single sandwich and will prefer to have it cut on the diagonal. The list of favorite fillings is mostly boring, but number 12 is a chip butty–a butty being a sandwich and chips being what I grew up calling french fries, so bread stuffed with fried potatoes. Number 25 is mayonnaise and nothing else.

The list of “unusual” (for which you can read “disgusting” if you like, but far be it from me to push you in that direction) fillings includes mayonnaise and crisps (which I grew up calling potato chips); instant noodles (raw? cooked? six weeks old? I don’t know); lasagna; onion rings and ketchup; mashed potato and sweetcorn (which I grew up calling just plain ol’ corn); leftover carryout (called takeaway here: curry and Chinese food are mentioned); baked beans and cheese; cheese and chocolate spread.

I’m not sure why baked beans and cheese are considered unusual. Baked beans show up in everything except apple pie here, and the firm doing the research is, as far as I can tell, British. But while I’m going off on tangents. I feel the need to mention that British lasagna includes a heavy, pasty layer of white sauce, which I consider an insult to Italian cooking. Or maybe that’s Italian-American cooking. Or American cooking. I don’t really know–I’m not Italian and haven’t studied the evolution of lasagna. What I do know is that I grew up with a different kind of lasagna and consider the British stuff heresy.

Not that I’m stuck in my ways or anything. I just happen to know what’s right. I’ll come back to that below.

The press release spells it lasagne, not lasagna. That’s not enough to condemn an entire nation’s eating habits, but it does call its Italian credentials into question.

What else is in the news? The Western Morning News warns dog walkers that poisonous snakes are on the loose. I can’t find the story online, so you’ll have to take my word for it. But hey, would I lie to you without a good reason?

Snakes on the loose didn’t strike me as particularly funny when Wild Thing read me the headline, so she asked where else snakes would be.

Ah. Good point.

The story below the headline is that a dog walker saw an adder—the only poisonous snake native to Britain—and it reared up and hissed at him. So how did he deal with the threat? Why, he pulled out his phone and filmed it for five minutes.

Are you getting the sense that this wasn’t a life-or-death moment? I don’t particularly want to get bitten by an adder and I won’t shove either of our dogs or the cat in front of one, but adders aren’t generally lethal. Since 1876, there’ve been only 14 known human fatalities. Most dogs, being smaller than your average adult human, are more vulnerable, but the expert the Westy interviewed recommended getting a dog that’s been bitten to the vet asap—carrying it if possible, walking it slowly if necessary. Dogs, he said, generally make a full recovery.

But, guys, I don’t have all that many readers so you need to take care of yourselves out there, okay? I can’t spare you, and poisonous snakes are on the loose. During the winter it was safe enough. They stayed inside, drinking tea and nibbling digestive biscuits while they watched movies on TV. Now, though, the days are getting longer, they’re getting the itch to mate, and they’re outside. On the loose. Be careful, people. You’re not expendable.

And if you do get bitten, please recruit a substitute until you’ve recovered.

But let’s move on while you’re still well, because there’s more news to report.

Thousands of protestors—or maybe I should call them celebrators, or, well, people; let’s settle for people. Thousands of people in London marked the European Union’s birthday by showing their opposition to Brexit in—well, I wasn’t there, but it sounds like the most restrained demonstration ever. Signs included one saying “I’m quite cross” and another saying, “I’m British. I am on a march. Things must be bad.”  The article I read describes it as “not so much a march as a very patient and stubborn queue.”

A queue, in case you need a translation, is a line of people waiting patiently for something. Forget the Church of England; queuing is the national religion.

The march wasn’t all patience and good manners, though. A third sign said, “Buck Frexit.”

Onward.

I’ve been living in Britain so long now that I’m not sure how to call directory assistance in the U.S. anymore. When I was a kid and a young adult, it was free—and they’d give you the associated address as long as you asked for the phone number first. The phone company ran directory assistance, so it was only polite to pretend you wanted to call someone. Then later on, four calls were free. Then one. Then none—they’d started charging, but at least you didn’t need a calculator to figure out how much it would cost.

Britain, though, has a series of directory assistance numbers, and they’re allowed to charge a flat fee of up to £15.98 per call plus £7.99 per minute—and if they put your call through for you, they can go on charging for the every minute you talk. The average charge per call costs less than the maximum but it’s still absurd: £6.98. The services are heavily advertised and are used mostly by the elderly—or those among them (at, ahem, a mere 70, I clearly don’t qualify) who don’t use the internet.

This got into the paper because one 90-year-old was charged £501. No, I didn’t leave out a decimal point. That’s five hundred and one pounds for a single directory assistance call.

A spokesperson for Ofcom, which stands for We’re off meeting with someone powerful and important and don’t have time to communicate with you, said, “We are carefully monitoring the impact of the adoption of these new higher charges and are actively considering whether further action is justified.”

Yup. There’s a lot to consider here. You wouldn’t want to rush into it.

Next we come to a couple of stories about the brain. Only one involves Britain, but let’s not split hairs here.

The first is a New Yorker article that reports on research demonstrating that facts don’t change our minds. Given two sets of facts supporting opposing positions on, say, the death penalty, people will find the one they already agree with more convincing, better researched, and presented in a far superior typeface. The opposing one? It’s a piece of crap.

Appealing to people’s emotions may be a more effective way to change their minds. It doesn’t, unfortunately, guarantee a great decision-making process.

No, I don’t know what to do about it either, but if you’d like a name for it, it’s called confirmation bias. And I fall into the trap as easily as anyone else does, except that I’m right so it’s okay.

The second story is about a series of brain scans that document what we all suspected: that using a sat-nav (make that a GPS if you’re in the U.S.) turns off parts of your brain. This explains why people have been known to drive into the sea in an attempt to reach an island if a sat-nav told them to. It also explains the driver Wild Thing and I tried to convince not to drive up an unpaved, washed-out road a mile from our house. He kept pointing up the hill and repeating, “But the sat-nav says.”

Luckily for him, the road was muddy and he spun his wheels and had to back down before he got to the part that would’ve eaten an axle. Because poisonous snakes could well have been on the loose up there. You can never be sure.

And finally, to reward you for reading this far, I’d like to tell you that the last Friday in April is National Hairball Awareness Day. Break out the cat food. Refresh the kitty litter. We need to celebrate–even if you’re in the wrong nation. (The nation in question is the United States.)

My thanks for Flo for letting me know about this. How could I have lived so long and not found out about it before?

Singing buildings, smart condoms, immigration, and other stuff in the news

The Guardian printed a report on singing buildings recently.

Are singing buildings a sign that the world’s ending? As far as I know, no religious text says it is. Mind you, I haven’t read any religious book from end to end. I tried reading the bible once, when I was young and thought it was something I ought to at least crack the covers of. I got as far as the begats, which bored me into insensibility, before admitting to myself that (a) I didn’t get it and (b) I wasn’t getting anything out of the exercise. So I am officially no expert. But singing buildings do sound harmless: Apparently, when the winds are high enough—and I’m not sure how high that is—certain buildings get the urge to sing. I do some singing myself, so I understand how powerful the impulse can be.

The list of singing buildings include Manchester’s Beetham tower. Several fixes have been tried, and the architect has apologized, but the building sings on, hitting a note close to middle C. If anyone reading this is trying to fix the problem, better breath support should bring that note in right on key. Or so I’ve been told when I go a little flat.

The Cityspire building in Manhattan (who names these things?) used to sing but no longer does. Instead, it’s being treated for depression. That actually might herald the end of the world, and it could be that religious texts need to be updated as architecture and technology evolve.

I’d give you a link for all these claims—they do sound like something I made up—but the Guardian online is mad at me for using it too often and thinks I should subscribe. I would—it’s a fine paper, and I understand how difficult the business climate is for newspapers today—but Wild Thing and I already pay for the print edition and unless you have a tablet you can’t access the online edition based on a print subscription.

Or something along those lines. Google “the strange case of the singing buildings” and you should find it. And in case I wasn’t clear, I was talking about an electronic tablet, not a stone one.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: This is a whatsit plant. In our garden.

What else is happening in the world? Smart condoms are now for sale. How smart are they? Not smart enough to solve your relationship problems or even your (assuming you to be either male and equipped with the relevant organ or female and involved with a male equipped with etc.) sexual—we shouldn’t say “problems” in this context, should we? Issues, then. All it does report back—speed, frequency, girth, skin temperature, and so forth. All those things a thrilling lover needs to know.

Do I hear hysterical laughter from the alto and soprano sections?

The Guardian gave me access to that story. They understand what matters.

Smart condoms probably aren’t a sign that the world’s ending either, but they could evidence that it deserves to.

By the way, as far as I can figure out, they’re not actual condoms, they just work in the vicinity of the real ones. They won’t prevent either pregnancy or venereal disease. They may prevent relaxation and fun.

Moving on:

The CIA, Wikileaks announced, is spying on us through our smart TVs, smartphones, and antivirus software. At our house, we’re assuming some British agency does the same, since Britain helped develop the technology, and that they’ve been listening to everything we say in the living room. Wild Thing’s delighted.

“My opinion finally counts for something somewhere,” the spokesperson for our household said.

[Update: I just checked the link on that story, and (who knows how) I linked it to one of my own posts–about village life and chasing chickens. I’ve left it for the pure silliness of it–and because I thought it was a good, if irrelevant, post. For relevant information, try this link instead.]

What else is happening? A 99-year-old from the Dutch city of Nijmegen had herself arrested because—and I’m making an assumption here—she thought it would be fun. Apparently she’d always been a good girl and, as her niece explained it, she “wanted to experience this.”

O ye who have never sinned enough to be arrested, there is still time to repent. But I warn you: I was arrested in a civil rights demonstration a hundred or so years ago and I didn’t find it a whole lot of fun. Neither, to the best of my knowledge, did anyone I was arrested with. But maybe we went into it for the wrong reasons. Instead of trying to end racism, we should have been trying to have fun, fun, fun.

The tales from our court appearances were pretty funny, but I’ll need a different excuse to tell those.

The 99-year-old isn’t alone. A 102-year-old from Missouri had herself handcuffed and delivered to an event at her retirement home in a police car. It had been on her bucket list.

So let’s talk about bucket lists. I’m all for acknowledging our mortality, but a list of ridiculous things you want to experience before you die? Don’t we have anything better to do with our lives, and if not why are we bothering the planet with our presence here?

For reasons known only to its algorithm, the Guardian gave me access to this story.

From there, we go to immigration. Britain, having held a referendum in which we voted to jump off a cliff of unknown height in a fog so thick that we can’t see what’s at the bottom—this is known as the Brexit referendum, in case you’re not getting the allusion—is now pretending that what we voted for wasn’t to leave the EU but to  get rid of foreigners. As many as possible, and for any reason.

Why?

Well because they’re foreign, silly.

Did I say “they”? Sorry. Slip of the tongue. I’m a foreigner here myself, and citizen or not, I always will be.

So who are they getting rid of? For one, a grandmother who lost her indefinite leave to remain because she spent too much time outside the country caring for her dying parents. You can see why she’d be dangerous. She was held in a detention center for a month and was given no chance to say goodbye to her British husband of 27 years, her two sons, or her granddaughter before being hustled through the airport by the arms and tossed on a plane to Singapore. She had £12 in her pocket and the clothes on her back. That happened on a Sunday, presumably to keep her family from getting hold of a lawyer.

For the government, it’s all about numbers. The more immigrants they throw out, the better the politicians (with rare, brave exceptions) think they look. They’re like people with anorexia—they look in the mirror and never think they’re thin enough.

It turns out that being a citizen is less protection than Wild Thing and I thought when we took citizenship. The home secretary can revoke the citizenship people who weren’t born here if it’s not “conducive to the public good.” No court has to approve it and the person doesn’t have to have been of—or even charged with—a crime. When our current prime minister was in charge of the Home Office, 70 people lost their citizenship that way.

I’d make a joke about that, but I’m afraid I’d suddenly find myself in Singapore. So let’s move on.

The town of Rochdale plans to ban swearing. Also begging, unauthorized collections for charity, loitering, antisocial parking, loud music, drinking in public, and skateboarding. Not to mention bad temper, bad attitudes, bad hairdos, and stupid laws. It’s already made a difference. Asked by a reporter what he thought about it, a resident said, “It’s a load of bullshit.”

Onward. The most hated household chore in Britain is ironing. That’s why I live here. Ironing is against my religion and people don’t laugh when I explain that.

A dog swallowed a toy train and was rushed to the vet for emergency surgery. I believe it was a Thomas the Tank Engine. I am grateful for the existence of a free and fearless press.

Former chancellor George Osborne, who’s still an MP, has been moonlighting at BlackRock, a fund management company. He declared a salary of £650,000. For working four days a month. And then there’s the £800,000 he made in speaking fees.

You know, in a pinch, a person could live on that.

The National Trust has started charging for parking near the Levant mine, in West Cornwall, which has become popular because of the BBC’s Poldark series. The mine was the site of a 1919 disaster in which 31 miners died. The National Trust’s pay-and-display machinery had already been ripped out of the ground once. This time, the coin slots were filled with expanding foam.

I know I’m not supposed to think that’s funny, but I can’t help myself. Expanding foam in the coin slot. Haven’t you ever wanted to do that yourself?

Cornwall’s St. Piran’s flag—a white cross on a black background—was painted onto the information board, just in case the Trust didn’t get the message.

*

And finally, as a reward for slogging through the parts of this that weren’t funny, here’s a comment I just dug out of my spam folder: “Attractive portijon of content. I simply stumblled upon your web site and in accession capital to assert that I get in fact enjoyed account your bpog posts. Anyy way I wiull be subscribingg to your augment or even I achievemewnt you get entry to constantly rapidly.”

Yes. Finally. I aim to establish my bpog as a portijon of content and I’m flattered all to hell that someone noticed.

What, you ask, is a portijon? It’s what you get when you cross a portable toilet with a demijohn. And I—thank you for the applause—have cornered the market.

Paddling in the shallows of the news

Is it possible to dip a toe into the news these days and not drown in sorrow? It is. I’ve been exploring the shallows of the (mostly) British news. Come on in. The water’s silly.

One of our local papers, the Western Morning News, reports that a driver passed PC Mark Freshwater on Tavistock Road while eating pasta “off his lap with a fork.” PC Freshwater gave him “words of advice which he took on board.”

But what really matters here—and you can trust the Westie to focus right in on this—is that “the container appeared to be Tupperware.”

The Westie is a true model of local journalism. No article about a murder, explosion, or other form of violence is complete without a quote from a neighbor, who’s either shocked or horrified or both shocked and horrified. PC Freshwater doesn’t seem to have expressed either emotion, but then this wasn’t a violent crime, and he’s a professional, not a neighbor, so he was able to focus on what mattered, which was the Tupperware. And, I guess, the fork, although it was the Tupperware that sent me over the edge.

That’s the kind of training a cop gets here in Britain. By the time they’re turned loose on the street, they know what matters.

As an aside, I might as well say that I’m both shocked and horrified that the driver was using only a fork, not a knife and fork, as any proper British eater will. And no, anonymous driver, driving is no excuse for bad table manners. Neither is not being at a table. I may be American, and I may have bad table manners, but I do know that much.

I’d give you a link but I couldn’t find the article online. I read my newspapers in print. Screw it, I’m old. If I want to be old fashioned, I’ve earned the right. And if I read all my news online, I’d have missed this and we’d all have been the poorer. I did google “driver eating pasta” and was offered several articles about drivers eating cereal and one about a driver eating pasta, but that was in a different city and a different year. Plus the driver was a different sex. And wasn’t using Tupperware.

Irrelevant photo: This was in bloom in December.

Irrelevant photo: This was in bloom outside our bedroom window in December. December. Don’t let anyone kid you about the British having terrible weather. After 40 years in Minnesota, I’m prepared to swear that this is the tropics.

It is with regret that we now leave PC Freshwater and wade on over to see what’s happening in government security. In December, an article reported that least 1,000 government laptops, computers, and data sticks had been reported missing or stolen since the general election in May of 2015. From the Ministry of Defense alone, the average loss was one item a day. And that’s just from the departments that actually reported their losses. Many managed not to.

When Wild Thing and I first moved to Britain, we regularly saw news stories about secret government documents and computer disks being left on trains. Why did other countries waste their money on spies? we asked each other, when all they needed to do was have their people ride the trains and see what fell into their hands–free and legally.

Then at some point the articles stopped. We missed them but thought maybe the government had gotten better at this stuff. I’m heartened to know that the incompetence continues.

What’s the news from the war on drugs? Antwerp has overtaken London to become the cocaine capital of Europe. But only on weekends. On weekdays, London leads the list.

Go, London.

How does anyone know? You have to test the concentration of cocaine in the sewers. Then you account for how long cocaine takes to work its way through the system and you count backward.

Who’s using all that cocaine? A separate study identifies them as people with household incomes of £50,000 or more.

What’s happening in international relations? In December, in a live TV interview, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was asked to name France’s foreign minister and happily identified him as “mon ami” whatever his name is. Then he was asked to name South Korea’s foreign minister and stormed off in a huff. The game was more fun, apparently, when he knew the answers.

The huff was drawn by four milk-white steeds wearing bells.

Does it mean anything that this item follows the cocaine report? Absolutely not. But PC Pasta recommends Tupperware for all your storage needs.

But let’s move now to the U.S., where unnamed White House sources report that Trump believes female staffers should “dress like women.” Sounds simple, doesn’t i?

I am, or so I’ve been told all my life, a woman, and I’ve never had any reason to question that. As I type this, I’m wearing jeans, a turtleneck, a fuzzy pullover-type thing that probably has a name but I have fashion dyslexia and don’t know it. I’m also wearing slippers. And–forgive me if I shock you–a variety of undergarments and two socks, one on each foot.

Am I dressed like a woman? It’s not a trick question, but it’s not a simple one either.

Predictably, people of various sexes (but mostly women) have cut loose on Twitter, using the hashtag #DressLikeAWoman.

Enough confusion. Let’s check in on the religious front, because that’s where you find eternal truths, right? A theological college connected to the Church of England held a GLBT (that’s gay, lesbian, bacon, and tomato, in case you’re not in the know) service where people had entirely too much fun and everybody involved has had to explain that they’re very, very sorry and that when they referred to god as “the Duchess” it was–they really are so very sorry–a typo. And when Psalm 19’s line “Oh Lord, my strength” appeared as “O Duchess, my butchness,” it was an extended typo.

Guys, it could happen to any of us. And in case I haven’t mentioned it, they really are very, very sorry.

And finally, former British chancellor George Osborne has explained that yes, he did earn something in the neighborhood of £600,000 from speaking fees and work as an advisor to a fund management company while he was a Member of Parliament, but it was only because he was sure it would improve the country. By, um, well, you know. When money moves from one bank account to another, the GDP goes up. And computers are employed to make the transfers, which helps keep their little silicon families in fed and clothed.

Thanks, George. I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say we appreciate what you’re doing for us.