Everything You Need to Know about Brexit

Quick, before the Conservative Party announces our new Blusterer in Chief, here’s everything you need to know about Brexit and how we got tot his point:

Brexit starts in 2015, when David Cameron, as Britain’s prime minister and the leader of the Conservative Party, makes an election promise to hold a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union. This is smart politics. Isn’t Davey a clever boy? After the election, he’ll be back in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and they’ll veto the referendum and that means he won’t have to throw himself, his party, and his country, out the fifth-story window labeled Brexit. But he’ll have shut up the Leave voices in his own party, the Leave voices in the U.K. Independence Party, and the Labour voices rumbling at him from the far side of the House of Commons and saying things he doesn’t pay attention to but that get on his nerves anyway.

Irrelevant photo to give you some relief from an otherwise grim picture: a field with corn marigolds.

Then the election’s held and his party wins a majority. Who knew so many people liked him?

Wave bye-bye to the nice coalition, Davey, because it’s going away.

Davey edges close enough to that fifth-story window and looks down. It’s a long way to the ground.

What’s a clever politician to do? He schedules the referendum and tells the country that it’s safer, stronger, and much better looking in Europe, so it should vote Remain. He promises to limit immigration by widening the Channel and to make the sky a tasteful and long-lasting shade of blue using paint from Farrow and Ball, which is what people with any kind of taste at all buy.

Remain loses. Britain will be leaving the E.U.

Why does Britain vote Leave? Because leaving will make Britain great again. Because it will let Parliament take back control. Because Rupert Murdoch said it was a good idea. Because Facebook is fun.

Davey resigns the leadership of his party and with it the prime ministership, and he retreats to a shed in his backyard, which being British he calls his garden.

What he calls a shed is nicer than some people’s apartments. Which he’d call flats.

He starts writing a book. He waits for someone to ask what it’s about but no one does. They’re focused on the window he left open. Several prominent Conservatives are writhing on the floor in front of it, trying to stab each other. The winner will get to lead the party and find a way from window to ground. One that doesn’t break bones. Or that does. The referendum didn’t say that no bones could be broken.

Theresa May emerges as leader of the party, largely because no one thought she was worth stabbing.

What, the press asks her while the other contenders lie bleeding at her feet, is Brexit going to mean.

“Brexit,” she says, “means Brexit.”

Yes, but what does it mean?

It means Brexit.

Oh.

Negotiations between Britain and the E.U. begin. The E.U. negotiators spread papers and studies and printouts on the table. The British negotiators set Etch-a-Sketch pads in front of them.

Time passes. Terri May calls an election, which will prove that, um, remind me, what will it prove? That the country backs her. That’s it.

That’s probably it. Also because it will increase her majority in Parliament.

She loses her majority and is held in place (the place in question being 10 Downing Street) only by duct tape and a small Protestant party from Northern Ireland.

A lot of time passes. According to the rules of the game, only so much time can pass before Britain has to go out that window, whether the two sides have managed to build a ladder or not.

An agreement is announced.

Everyone hates the agreement. Even the people who support the agreement hate the agreement. Britain’s negotiator resigns because he hates the agreement he negotiated.

Britain’s Parliament also hates the agreement, so Theresa May goes back to Europe to change the part of the agreement that talks about the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. It’s the only part of the agreement she can let herself think about.

The E.U. says it’s tired of talking to Britain.

Britain is also tired of talking to Britain. The Conservative Party can’t agree on what it thinks Brexit should be. It can’t agree on whether Brexit should happen. A group of backbenchers ask, “Wouldn’t it be simpler if we just closed the window?”

No one listens to them.

The Labour Party also can’t agree on what Brexit should be or whether it should happen, although it does agree that Brexit shouldn’t be what Theresa May negotiated. If that sounds like it’s more united than the Conservatives, it’s not. It can’t agree on whether it’s a socialist party, whether its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, should be its leader, or whether it’s doing enough–or anything–to combat anti-Semitism in its ranks.

It also can’t agree on the definition of anti-Semitism.

It does agree that the Conservative Party is anti-Muslim, but no one wants to talk about that so it wanders around mumbling to itself that it’s not anti-Semitic, really it’s not, but no one’s listening.

The Liberal Democrats agree that Brexit’s bad. Unfortunately, after their coalition with Davey, only three of them are left in the Commons.

Or maybe that’s twelve. Or eight. Does it matter?

The Scottish National Party is united: Brexit is bad. The Green Party’s also united, but it only has one MP, which isn’t enough for a decent split.

MPs leave the Labour Party.

MPs leave the Conservative Party.

They form a group that isn’t a party and fend off arguments about what they’d stand for if they did become a party by discussing the weather. Then they do become a party, adopting the name of an online petition group that they’re not associated with. They pass a resolution about the weather.

The online petition group objects.

Theresa May promises Parliament a meaningful vote on Brexit.

She promises Parliament a later meaningful vote on Brexit. But before that can happen, she has to go to Europe to negotiate an even better deal than the existing deal even though the E.U. has said there’s nothing left to negotiate. Many people–which is to say, me and possibly one other person–suspect she goes in and out of offices asking if they have any coffee made. She’s too English to ask if they’ll make some just for her.

When they do have some on hand, she sips it slowly while reading a magazine, since no one will talk to her. She drinks it black, because no one asks if she’d like milk.

If she drinks enough coffee, time will run out. Hickory, dickory, dock, Terri May ran out the clock. Parliament will look out the window and vote for her ladder because it’s five floors down and no one else has made so much as a rope out of torn sheets.

She lets the House of Commons vote on the deal she’s negotiated and it loses. She moves all the commas three words to the right and lets it vote again. Why? Because three is an important number in fairy tales. Three wishes. Three chances. Three brothers.

Hell, it’s as good as anything else going on.

It still loses.

To see if it can’t find a rational way out of the crisis, the House of Commons asks itself a series of questions: Should we leave the EU without a deal? Should we hold a second referendum? Should we drag Britain 50 miles to the west and whenever we pass the E.U. in the Channel pretend we don’t see it?

No proposal wins a majority. TV newscasters are mandated to use the phrase no one knows how this will play out at least once in every program. They use the phrase constitutional crisis almost as often.

Why is it a constitutional crisis? Because Britain has an unwritten constitution. This means that no one really knows what’s in it. It may prevent Theresa May from making herself the country’s second Lord Protector (Oliver Cromwell was the first) but it will be years before anyone’s read through enough papers to know for sure.

Isn’t this fun? We’re watching history being made.

Terri May promises to resign and dance the rhumba the length of Downing Street if the Commons will only pass her deal. She promises to delete every comma in the agreement. By hand. In glittery green ink.

Water floods into the House of Commons during a Brexit debate. A group climate-change protesters take off most of their clothes show the MPs their backsides.

All the possible jokes about both incidents have already been made.

Theresa May goes back to Brussels and drinks the Kool-Aid.

No, sorry, that was Jonestown and an American reference, not a British one. She drinks more coffee and is granted another extension. It expires on Halloween of 2019. All the possible jokes about that have been made that too.

A person can drink so much coffee and eventually Theresa May resigns, leaving the Conservative Party to search for a new leader. Every Conservative MP announces his or her candidacy. Every third one confesses to having used drugs. The ones who haven’t used them express regret at having misread the spirit of their age.

In the interest of democracy, several of the candidates promise to suspend Parliament so they can fulfill the will of the people.

After a series of elimination votes, the two candidates are Boris Johnson and Not Boris Johnson, but they seem to have agreed that Boris will win and Not Boris will have a nice job in his cabinet.

What happens next? Nothing good, I suspect, but that’s history for you: It’s one damn thing after another.

What really happens in Britain. And elsewhere

Two guys working at a bike shop in Bury St. Edmunds got bored back in September of 2017 and decided to cremate a mouse. (“As you do,” as people in Britain say when someone’s done something strikingly odd.)

They ended up doing £1.6 million worth of damage. It took twelve fire crews–sixty firefighters–seven hours to put out the fire.

As of late June, they were still out on bail. None of the articles I read said what happened to the mouse. We can only hope its ashes were handled with appropriate respect.

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Irrelevant photo: I’m not sure what we’re looking at here. Possibly honesty. That’s the name of a plant, not a comment about me admitting that I’m not sure.

Since Notes is about Britain, let’s talk about something that has nothing to do with it: a translation of Game of Thrones into Spanish.

Before the series ended, the upcoming plot twists in Game of Thrones were more tightly protected than the deliberations of Britain’s cabinet–which is setting the bar about as close to the floor as possible–so translators were given something like twenty seconds to translate an hour’s episode. The actors who spoke the translation got a further twenty seconds and then had to swear that they’d forgotten every line they spoke.

As a result, in a not-so-recent but crucial scene, when a character called out, “She can’t see us” (he was talking about a dragon, but you don’t really need to know that) the harried translator supplied the actor with a set of sounds that don’t form a word in Spanish: sicansíos, which is pronounced, very roughly, see-can-SEE-oss. The reason that’s a rough approximation is that any attempt at phonetic spelling in English is doomed.

The actor didn’t have time to say either “what??” or “this doesn’t make sense.” He just voiced the sounds and moved on. The hounds of hell and the twenty-second time limit were nipping at his heels. What else was he supposed to do?

Now, one of the nice things about Spanish is that you can look at a set of syllables that make no sense and at least know how to pronounce it. In English, the whole thing would come to a screaming halt while the actor said, “Look, I’m not arguing about whether this mess makes sense, but will somebody at least tell me how to say it?”

The papers (maybe that should be singular; I haven’t read them all) claim sicansíos might just replace no nos puede ver.

For about twenty seconds.

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And since we’re on the topic of things that have nothing to do with Britain, a survey in the U.S. asked some three thousand people if Arabic numerals should be taught in the schools. Roughly two-thirds said no.

Why? The survey did’t ask, but I have to assume it’s because they’re Arabic. And, you know, Islamic. And likely to turn our children terroristical.

So what are Arabic numerals? They’re the standard mathematical symbols, starting with 0 and going up to 9, that infiltrated our schools centuries ago and are no doubt responsible for the sorry state of the world today. They combine in infinite patterns and they terrorized me during my school years, right up to the time I was old enough to drop math.

I still wake up screaming, although at least one of my math teachers was (as far as I could tell) a very nice person. But even I will admit that Arabic numerals are a lot easier to work with than Roman numerals. Ever try adding MCLII to XIIL? If Roman numerals are the alternative, yes, Arabic numerals should be taught.

Arabic numerals were actually developed by Indian mathematicians but they spread to Europe from the Arab world, picking up their name along the way.

Another survey, in 2015, asked people if they supported bombing Agrabah, the imaginary city where the Disney film Aladdin was set. I don’t have an overall number, but 30% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats thought it would be a good idea. I know that’s a minority, but my friends, I despair.

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The shop in our village closed last year, as shops have in lots of British villages, in large part because people can order their groceries online and have them–or something vaguely like them–delivered to their door. So what’s it like to order groceries online?

Funny you should ask, because a recent newspaper article surveyed some of the more unlikely substitutions that stores had made when they didn’t have what the customer ordered. Top marks go to Tesco, which didn’t have a birthday candle shaped like a five and sent two twos and a one instead. They didn’t include any plus signs, so that would make the kid well over a hundred.

Asda was out of lemon juice and sent a lemon cake.

An unnamed supermarket sent Petit Filous yogurt instead of petit pois–small green peas–and spring onions instead of spring flowers.

Tesco sent printer paper instead of paper napkins.

An Australian Woolworths sent popcorn instead of potatoes.

All of which combines to make one reason I’ve never ordered groceries online. Of course, it helps that I can still drive and have to time to wander dazedly through the aisles myself, wondering where they moved the flour the last time they re-disorganized the place and how many candles it takes to add up to five if I’m working in Roman numerals instead of Arabic ones. And whether spring onions make an appropriate gift for a five-year-old.

The people who fill the orders apparently can override the substitutions the computer suggests, but if they’ve gone comatose with either boredom or overwork and don’t notice that anything odd has happened, they (very understandably) won’t.

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When did rabbits first come to Britain? It’s been assumed that the Normans brought them, but one lone bone found in a Roman palace has destroyed that belief. They were here when the Romans were and they dressed in sandals and itty bitty little suits of leather armor.

They tried the feathery helmets but the style just didn’t work for them, what with their long ears and all, although I have it from a reliable source that they liked the look a lot and envied the humans who wore them.

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Who owns England? Half of the land is owned by 1% of the population. Homeowners (nationally, that’s 62.5 % of the population) all rolled in together own 5%.

Now we come to the odd bit: how you find the proportion of homeowners–you know, that 62.5% that looks so convincing in the last paragraph. Based of Lord Google’s predictive text, you find it by asking for the proportion of homeowners who own their own home.

I’ll give that a minute to land in your brain and detonate.

I’d have thought 100% of homeowners owned their homes, but I’m a word person. I never have been good at math. It’s 62.5% and the other, um, is it 37.5% of homeowners? I can’t explain what they own, if it’s not their homes, that puts them in the homeowners category. But, um, yeah, I’m sure the number’s accurate, I just can’t be sure what it’s a number for. And, what the hell, if it isn’t accurate, just substitute some other number. If you’ve seen one number, you’ve seen ‘em all.

What other rash assumptions did I make about land ownership? I assumed the aristocracy and landed gentry had long since doddered off into richly deserved irrelevance. Silly me. They own at least 30% of the land–possibly more, since 17% of the land is unregistered, meaning it’s probably (information on land ownership is fiendishly hard to find) inherited and has never been bought or sold. The owners are, many of them, the descendants of the Norman barons, still holding what their ancestors seized in 1066. It’s impressive, in a screwed up sort of way.

Another 18% is owned by corporations, 17% by “oligarchs and City bankers,” 8.5% by the public sector. Less than 2% each is owned by conservation charities, the royal family, and the Church of England.

If that adds up to more or less than 100%, recalculate it in Roman numerals and it’ll work out perfectly.

Farmers don’t seem to have been broken out into a separate category. I don’t know why or what that means. I do know that farming itself breaks down into many categories and may be harder to define that it sounds like it would be. If you keep pet llamas or rescue donkeys–or, I assume, horses–your land’s considered agricultural.

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A British judge asked to be excused from jury duty on the grounds that he was scheduled to preside over the trial he was being called for as a juror. So he wrote the central summoning bureau, explaining his predicament.

They refused his appeal and told him to apply to the resident judge.

“But I told them,” he said, “ ‘I am the resident judge.’ ”

They didn’t see a problem with that.

He finally phoned them and they let him off with a slap on the wrist.

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Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson was paid more than $160,000 for two speeches in March. For one of them, that came to £40,000 an hour. As the old song says, it’s nice work if you can get it.

He had to apologize to the Commons for breaching its rules by being late in declaring £52,000 of outside income in addition to not declaring an apparent 20% interest in a property in Somerset.

He’s maneuvering to be the next prime minister now that Theresa May has finished stabbing herself in the back. For the most part (I haven’t read the morning headlines yet) this involves keeping his mouth shut so he doesn’t say anything exceedingly silly while the other candidates admit to drug use and lack of drug use and make promises to cut taxes on the rich–or occasionally not to. One did his best to cozy up to Larry the Cat, 10 Downing Street’s resident cat, who’s outlasted more than one incumbant. 

Larry walked away. 

Boris hasn’t yet promised to bomb Agrabah, but I’m waiting.

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Can you stand one more story about British politics? The person who was in charge of Grenfell Tower when it burned was invited to talk to a housing conference.

What’s Grenfell Tower? An apartment building that has become shorthand for, among other things, the arrogance of people whose bureaucratic decisions affect other people’s lives and deaths. The building went up in flames when a faulty refrigerator set the cladding–which is British for siding–on fire, spreading the fire unbelievably quickly to the entire high rise (or tower block if we’re speaking British).

Residents had been pointing out safety violations in the building for years and were ignored, because what did they know? Besides, it costs money to fix things. Seventy-two people died in the fire.

What was he asked to speak about? Safety.

When some of the survivors raised hell, he withdrew.

Some days it’s hard to be any more unlikely than reality.

Lions and bears and British politicians

Mark Harper is coming dead last in the race to lead Britain’s Conservative Party if the bookies are to be believed. They don’t conduct a poll, just take bets, but it’s what we’ve got by way of a measurement. So to lift his chances, he held a press conference, and somehow or other his campaign released his speech in advance. It began, “Now this isn’t going to be that scripted.”

So that went well.

Maybe what happened next was an attempt to recover and maybe it wasn’t, but either way he invited journalists to ask any question they wanted, promising he’d answer it. It may have really been an unscripted moment.

My best guess is that he hoped they’d ask about his drug use so he could say he’d never touched the stuff. Why? Because his fellow leadership candidate Michael Gove had recently been outed as having used cocaine before enforcing assorted anti-drug regimes on other people, including prison inmates and teachers. And once Gove was outed, all the other leadership candidates felt the need to out themselves. If you missed all that, you can catch up with it here and here.

Unfortunately, Harper had already outed himself as never having done any drugs, so the question was boring.

Never bore a group of journalists.

I can’t quite reassemble the order of what happened next from the articles I’ve read and it doesn’t really matter, although it would help me write a coherent sentence or two. Let’s just say it involved journalists, electronic messages, and an attempt to come up with the most absurd possible question. One nominee was, “How many gallons of sewage will the Thames Tideway tunnel be able to handle every nine days?” Others were who would win in a fight between an ostrich and and emu and what the value of pi is to the nearest seven decimal places. 

My favorite is, “Would he rather fight 1,000 duck-sized horses, or one horse-sized duck?”

Eventually, someone asked out loud who would win if a lion fought a bear.

He did answer, as promised. I don’t remember which he picked. I doubt anyone much cares.

And that, my friends, is British politics in a nutshell. With the emphasis on nut.

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I know I’ve broken my pattern of posting weekly, but (talk about drugs) I just can’t leave some of this stuff alone. And you need to know about it. You know you do.

Drugs & British politicians, part 2

I missed what you’d have to call the punchline to the story about Michael Gove’s drug use: It’s not that the candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party (and with it the prime ministership) used cocaine even while scolding London liberals for wanting to legalize drugs, it’s that as education secretary he enforced a policy that put lifetime teaching bans on teachers who were caught with drugs. And defended the policy even after admitting that he’d put the stuff up his own nose.

It’s also that as justice secretary he was in charge of the prison system where people convicted of the same crime he committed were serving their sentences.

What does he have to say about it? “All politicians have lives before politics. Certainly when I was working as a journalist I didn’t imagine I would go into politics or public service. I didn’t act with an eye to that.”

In keeping with that, we’re amending the laws: Drug use will only be illegal for people who plan on becoming politicians.

So far, the news–if it is news–that Boris Johnson also used drugs doesn’t seem to be damaging his campaign that way Gove’s admission is hurting his. Ditto the assorted other candidates.

I’ll now leave the Gove drug story alone. Unless, of course, it gets even more absurd and I just have to update you.

Drugs and British politicians: a bonus post

As I write this, half the Conservative Party is in the running to be the next party leader and, in a kind of two-for-one offer that’s built into British politics, since the Conservatives are the ruling party, the next prime minister. For at least a brief time, since the Conservatives have a fragile hold on power. They don’t have a majority, just more MPs than anyone else.

But that’s not why I’m tossing a bonus post onto the blog on a Monday morning. It’s because one of the candidates, Michael Gove, admitted this weekend  that he took cocaine when he was what the papers are describing as a young journalist.

Gove is the secretary of state for environment, food, and rural affairs, and he was, before this, generally considered to be polling just behind Boris Johnson, the party members’ goofball favorite. In the British system, the ruling party gets to pick its own leader, and if it’s in power the prime minister, according to its own rules, so the only people whose opinions count in this poll are the Conservative Party’s members.

The Conservatives aren’t a party that attract a mass membership, even when they can attract a big vote, so this is a small slice of the country picking the next prime minister.

If you’ve seen photos of the competitors, Gove is the one who looks like someone drew a face on a balloon, then added a tie. I keep wanting to say a bow tie, but in the photos I’ve found he’s not actually wearing a bow tie. He just happens to look like the kind of balloon who would.

But never mind his looks. I’m not above making fun of them–it’s unfair and I won’t defend it too much, even if I’ll do it anyway. But they’re not why I’m writing about him. It’s because of the cocaine. He made his announcement just ahead of the publication of a book that would have broken the story anyway. If he was trying to take control of the story, it hasn’t worked.

Back in 1999, he wrote an article for the Times criticizing what he called “London’s liberal consensus” on drug use–a consensus that he argued wanted to loosen drug laws.

In a TV interview since the story broke, he said that didn’t make him a hypocrite.

“The point that I made in the article is that if any of us lapse sometimes from standards that we uphold, that is human.

“The thing to do is not necessarily then to say that the standards should be lowered. It should be to reflect on the lapse and to seek to do better in the future.”

By the evening after the interview, the Times was reporting claims that just hours after he wrote the article Gove hosted a party at which cocaine was taken. Please note the vagueness of that “was taken.” I’m not sure who took it, so we’ll just let the stuff blow around a bit and not ask who inhaled and who didn’t.

Anyway, it’s all okay as long as the standards aren’t lowered.

Interviewers have been asking Gove if, as prime minister, he’d be allowed into the U.S., since the visa application asks about drug use. It’s all been just a tad embarrassing.

All this led to other leadership contestants confessing their drug use and non-use. I’ll skip the non-use and stick with the interesting stuff.

In 2005, Boris Johnson said he thought he was once given cocaine but he sneezed so none of it got up his nose. Then in 2007, he said he tried cocaine and cannabis at university (translation for Americans: that means college) but that it had no effect on him. Which presumably makes him still a virgin. It all depends on what your definition of is is. (Possibly unnecessary translation for non-Americans: That’s a Bill Clinton reference when he was trying to argue that sex with a White House intern wasn’t actually sex because of where the relevant body parts weren’t.) 

Jeremy Hunt said he thought he had a cannabis lassi when he was backpacking in India. After which he thought that everything was very beautiful and that the lassi was the most delicious thing he’d ever poured down his throat. And after that he thought it didn’t affect him even a tiny bit.

Dominic Raab used cannabis as a student but “not very often” and “it was a mistake.” Besides which, “It was a long time ago.” So that doesn’t count either.

Rory Stewart smoked opium at a wedding in Afghanistan. He added that the family that invited him was very poor, so there may have been very little opium in the pipe. Which means they were smoking air. It’s hard to keep air lit, but it puts itself in the pipe without human help, it’s free, and it’s legal everywhere.

Someone who isn’t Matt Hancock said Matt Hancock “tried cannabis a few times as a student.” We’re still waiting to hear why that wasn’t really drug use.

Esther McVey said she had “ never taken any class A drugs, but have I tried some pot? Yes I have. When I was much younger.” That has the virtue of not disowning the experience, but I don’t hear her–or any of the other candidates–pushing for changes to the drug laws or calling for anyone who’s been convicted of the same offense they weren’t charged with to be pardoned.

Possession of marijuana carries a sentence of up to five years and an unlimited fine, or both. Possession of Class A drugs, including cocaine, carries a sentence of up to seven years and an unlimited fine, or both.

Please note, those five to seven years are in prison, not in the House of Commons.

Have you noticed that if you have money and connections, you try drugs and that if you don’t, you use them?

Stay tuned. The race to be leader of the Conservative Party can only get better.

Brexit, cats, and smart doorbells

The Brexit uproar has been hard on Britain. We have a prime minister whose idea of negotiation is to say, “I’m so glad we can talk. Let me explain why I’m right.” We have a parliament that doesn’t like her version of Brexit but can’t find a majority for any alternative. We have two main parties that not only don’t agree with each other but also don’t agree with themselves.

On a more positive note, the Green Party’s parliamentary delegation hasn’t split over the issue. It only has one member, but we take our positive notes where we can find them these days.

Irrelevant photo: Bluebells at Lanhydrock in mid-April.

In April, water flooded into the House of Commons, filling–among other things–the light fixtures. Business continued as more or less usual for some ten minutes, then was suspended for the day. All the possible jokes about the flood’s metaphorical meaning have been made, so we’ll skip my versions and move on to another incident that interrupted the endless Brexit debate.

To call attention to the danger of ecological collapse, a dozen protestors from Extinction Rebellion took off most of their clothes and stood with their backsides pressed to the glass that divides the visitors gallery from the floor of the Commons. The Independent reports that two of them were wearing elephant masks and most were wearing knickers or underpants.

Not being British, I was thrown by that. I thought knickers were underpants, so I turned (as I do so often) to Lord Google, who explained that knickers are women’s underpants.

The guidelines for naked and semi-naked protests are complicated and I’m too damn old to understand them in depth. I did all of my protesting fully dressed, thanks. Except for that time when–

Nah. We’ll skip lightly over that. It was unplanned anyway.

Moving briskly along. I gather that if you’re not wearing anything else to speak of, people will notice whatever’s left, so it’s important to wear the right kind of underpants if that’s what’s left after you take everything else off. Once we’ve agreed about that, we can have a long and spiky conversation about what right means and what its social, cultural, and political implications are. It will go on as long as the Brexit debate and come to about as decisive a conclusion. Just to let you know in advance, I’ll defend anyone’s right to wear whatever kind they want and my own right to wear only the kind that are comfortable.

Some of the protestors glued their hands to the glass. 

Ouch.

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An anti-Brexit group beamed an EU flag with an SOS message to the EU from the white cliffs of Dover. The group is called Led by Donkeys.

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A recent poll conducted by Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, Inc., reports that people are on the one hand worried about shortages if we have a no-deal Brexit but on the other hand are stockpiling in a completely whimsical way. A friend bought eight cans of tomatoes. Or maybe it was seven. Another friend has cans of tomato soup and baked beans stored in the shed. I’ve checked our cat food and dog food levels.

Let it rain, let it pour. Britain is prepared.

I am in no way claiming that this is representative. Or that it’s not.

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Earlier this spring, before the EU granted the UK a Brexit reprieve, the British government was looking down the very short barrel of a no-deal Brexit and thought it might be a good idea if 6,000 civil servants did something Brexit-related instead of whatever it was that they normally do. Since the reprieve, they’ve been moved back to their original jobs, but another 4,500 people were hired to prepare for no-deal. I have no idea what’s happened to them.

The Guardian reports that it all cost £1.5 billion, which doesn’t include the cost of preparations various local governments had to make.

In total, some 16,000 civil servants are working on Brexit.

The government has also stocked warehouses with baked beans and pet food, not to mention medicines and toilet paper, which is to say everything we’d need for life to continue normally if the country crashed out of the EU and imports froze solid.

The Brexit reprieve expires on Halloween. All the possible jokes have already been made about that as well.

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Switzerland’s supreme court did something that caught the attention of Britain’s Remain campaigners: It overturned a referendum on the grounds that when  it was held voters didn’t have enough information. The referendum was about whether married couples should pay the same taxes as unmarried couples who live together .

The court said the “incomplete detail and a lack of transparency . . . violated the freedom of the vote.”

*

But enough about Brexit. A far more scientific survey than the Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey, Inc., ever manages to crank out reports that the British are more likely to take drugs before having sex than either Americans, Canadians, Australians, or Europeans.

We’re not going to get too deeply into the American / Canadian thing right now, but briefly: Canada is in the Americas–on the northern continent, if we’re going into detail–but those clever Canadians thought of a name for their country that distinguished it from the countries it shares a set of continents with. The, um, Americans didn’t, so those of us who are from the US are stuck with a name that strews confusion everywhere it goes and pisses off our neighbors every time we try to identify ourselves.  

Sorry for all that, everybody, but if there’s a genuinely workable alternative in English, the people who found it are keeping it secret.

Where were we? Ah. Sex. No wonder I forgot.

In the U.K., 13% of the people surveyed used cocaine in conjunction with sex and 20% used MDMA–a.k.a. ecstasy. The European numbers were 8% and 15%. The American, Canadian, and Australian numbers weren’t mentioned in the articles I found. The most commonly used drugs were alcohol, MDMA, and cannabis, with alcohol being by far the most common.

Among the British, the most likely people to use them were young and had high incomes. If that messes with your stereotypes, hey, I’m only the reporter. If you want to object, go glue your hands to the glass somewhere.

*

Another bit of research compared bullshit rates among teenagers. Who tops the charts? Boys, those from “privileged backgrounds,” and North Americans (translation: from the U.S. and Canada, although Mexico’s also North American).

And if that reinforces every stereotype you ever held, that’s not my fault either. We’re in blame-other-people mode here at Notes this week.

The article I’ve linked to has an April Fool’s Day date, so I thought I’d better dig deeper: The story appeared somewhere else the day before. It’s safe.

I wouldn’t bullshit you. 

The study was limited to English-speaking countries, so we can’t do any far-reaching comparisons.

How’d they catch the little scamsters? They asked how familiar they were with sixteen mathematical concepts “ranging from polygons and vectors to quadratic functions and congruent figures. Hidden among the bona fide terms are three fakes: proper numbers, subjective scaling and declarative functions.”

Those names constitute a truly impressive bit of bullshitting.

The study’s co-author, Nikki Shure, said that “bullshitters express much higher levels of self-confidence in their skills than non-bullshitters, even when they are of equal academic ability. They are also much less likely to say that they give up easily when faced with a difficult problem and claim to have particularly high levels of perseverance when faced with challenging tasks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are also more likely to believe they are popular at school.”

And I’m sure they go out into the world of work and make more money than their classmates. Some of them run for president. Others lead the campaign for a no-deal Brexit.

*

And now we come to the important stuff: A Japanese study claims that cats know their names but can’t necessarily be bothered to respond to them. This has nothing to do with Britain, but the British do love their cats. 

Okay, it’s irrelevant, but I like cats, so let’s talk about it anyway.

Scientists from the University of Tokyo used a habituation-dishabituation paradigm to explore this. I’m sure that rolls off the tongue just as easily in Japanese as it does in English. What it means is that they played five recorded words to the cat and the last one was its name. The first four lulled the cat into–well, boredom: The cat became used to the recording and became less likely to respond to it, but in spite of that it responded more to its name than to the words that came before it, whether the recorded voice was the owner’s or someone else’s. Ears might twitch. Eyes might open a fraction of a percentage of a millimeter.

Would the cat go looking to see if someone was calling it? It would not.

End of experiment. Now it’s time to correct some of their assumptions:

First, there’s no need to ask whether cats know their names. Of course they do. The creatures who don’t know their names are their humans, who call them things like Fluffy and Cutsie-Woo and King Captain Spaceman.

Then the humans–those same people who never thought to ask the cat its real name–wonder why their cats don’t answer.

Because it’s embarrassing, that’s why.

Not that the cats would necessarily answer to their true names. Why bother? Humans can be such pests. What a cat would do is come to the surface enough to ask itself, What’s in this for me? This is a recording, not my person. It won’t offer food. It won’t pet me. Then it would go back to sleep.

Second, what’s all this about owners? Cats have people. They offer food and catnip and adoration. They open doors. They serve as animated hot-water bottles. They pick up dead mice. Owners? What delusions of grandeur humans have.

I hope we’ve straightened that out.

*

Cambridge University just spent £1 million on a bust of Queen Victoria. Or as the BBC put it, Cambridge saved it for the nation, because it was about to leave for parts unknown, impoverishing the country’s cultural heritage.

I’ve written to the Prime Minister suggesting that we stockpile these in case of a no-deal Brexit. She just loves to hear from me.

*

You may have already read that Amazon staff listen in on a percentage of the interchanges humans have with Alexa, that automated spy in your home.

Or not in your home. I don’t listen in, so I don’t know if you’ve opened your door to her or not.

It turns out, though, that other digital magic is accomplished with the help of tiny humans embedded in the technology.

Or maybe I misunderstood that. Maybe they’re ordinary humans listening from a distance.

In 2017, Expensify admitted to using humans to copy some of the receipts its “smart scan technology” was supposed to have smartly scanned. Facebook’s personal assistant, M (I never heard of it either; it escaped from some James Bond movie and went back as soon as it found out what the real world was like), turned out to use a mix or human and programmed responses. And Amazon’s smart doorbells also involved humans.

What’s a smart doorbell? I have no idea. According to a site that evaluates them (and passes you on to sites that sell them, no doubt picking up a small fee somewhere along the way), they have “live video streaming, Wi-Fi-enabled apps, two-way communication, and home automation compatibility.”

So either that means you can stand outside your own house and watch movies on your doorbell or that you can see who just rang it. Or possibly both. Simultaneously. Which is simple because you’re already out there, watching the movie. All you have to do is turn your head.

When I was a kid, we called that a drive-in theater.

My point, though, is that Amazon’s Ring brand smart doorbells allowed its research and development team “virtually unfettered access . . . to every video created by every Ring camera around the world.”

Team members were found face-down at their desks, dead of boredom.

*

Another branch of the human evolutionary family has been found, this one on Luzon Island in the Philippines. They’ve been called Homo luzonensis, they lived 50,000 to 67,000 years ago, and they were about four feet tall (that’s 1.2 meters), with curved fingers and toes that would have allowed them to climb trees. If they’d survived, they might have made less of a mess of things than we have, but that’s highly unscientific speculation.

News of things that don’t exist

Dusseldorf

I’m cheating a bit here. Dusseldorf does exist, but a British Airways plane left London bound for Dusseldorf and didn’t find it. Somehow or other the pilot had been given paperwork taking him to Edinburgh.

No one knew they had a problem until they landed. The pilot got on the intercom and welcomed the passengers to Edinburgh and the plane erupted.

Someone asked the passengers to raise their hands if they wanted to go to Dusseldorf. They all did. They weren’t asked to raise their hands if they wanted to go to the toilet, which was good because by the time they got the plane refeuled and turned around–and found the pilot a good therapist–the toilets were all blocked.

The passengers (and I’m assuming the crew, although I don’t really know that) did get to Dusseldorf, but they were five hours and twenty minutes behind schedule.

This all has something to do with British Airways using a German company to run the plane under something called a wet lease, which I gather involves someone drinking large amounts of alcohol before circulating the flight plans.

New Zealand

Ikea either was or still is selling a world map that doesn’t include New Zealand. This happens to New Zealand a lot, apparently. To pick another example at semi-random, a Smithsonian Museum world population map also forgot it. This happens often enough that the government website includes a New Zealandless map as a joke.

In an effort to be helpful, comedian John Oliver circulated a drawing of the country so that people could download it, print it, and stick it on maps wherever they believe it goes.

If you plan to do this, put in the Pacific Ocean–that’s the large expanse of blue that isn’t the Atlantic–somewhere to the right of Australia and down a bit. Don’t worry about getting it wrong. If it’s on the map at all, you’re ahead of the professionals.

Ikea has apologized and said it will phase out the map, after which it will phase New Zealand in by adding it one island at a time.

Irrelevant photo, since these do exist. Or did. Crocuses blooming in February.

Lord Google doesn’t translate corporate speak, but I’m reasonably sure phase out means We’ll get rid of this damn map as soon as we’ve sold the last copies. You don’t expect us to lose money voluntarily, do you?

Ikea plans to build its first New Zealand store soon. Which will really put the country on the map.

Sorry, I had to say that.

Ferries

The British government has been, in a distracted sort of way, preparing for a no-deal Brexit and looking for ways to add to the chaos it’s created so efficiently, so some time ago it awarded a £13.8 million ferry contract to a startup company that had no ships, no background in shipping, and no written guarantee of financial backing.

Who said the country wasn’t ready to face the unknown? “Face it?” a government spokesperson didn’t say. “We create it every day. We have no idea what we’re going to do next. In fact, we’re not sure what we did yesterday.”

In case you haven’t kept up with the British or Eurpoean news for the past two years, Brexit is Britain exiting the European Union. By the time you read this, something may well have happened. No one has any idea what, though. Every day the news just gets weirder. Cross your fingers that someone will save us from ourselves.

The government later withdrew the ferry contract, saying it was okay because it hadn’t spent any public money on the deal. However (it didn’t mention), it had paid £800,000 to consultants to, um, consult on the project. In fairness they also consulted on two other projects for that money. Maybe the government got a three-for-two deal, making the ferry project a freebie. Supermarkets do it all the time. Generally with stuff that spoils before you get around to eating it.

Then the government agreed to an out-of-court settlement that left it owing the Eurotunnel company £33 million because the bidding process on the ferry contract was opaque and the Eurotunnel company wasn’t invited to bid even though it has actually run a ferry service and can identify the English Channel on a map.

Hint: It’s well to the right of Australia and up a long way.

Literary Merit

A company called Renaissance has developed a statistical approach that tells teachers what books will “provide an appropriate challenge” for their students. Or as they explaiin it themselves, students are tested “to determine their ‘Zone of Proximal Development.’ “

If that phrase didn’t provide you with an appropriate challenge, I can murkify the language a bit more for you, but basically what they’re saying–and this will surely be news to most teachers–is that if a book’s too hard the kid will sink and if it’s too easy the kid won’tbe challenged.

Because that’s a difficult concept for teachers to get their heads around, and because you can’t make money without a highly polished veneer of science, the company has found a way to measure the difficulty of books statistically and has informed the world (probably by accident, but I don’t really know) that John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is only a marginally more difficult read than the Roger Hargeaves’ Mr. Greedy, from the Mr. Men series.

They base that on sentence length, word length, and how difficult the words are.

Rather than search my oh-so-extensive but badly catalogued library for my well-thumbed copy of Mr. Greedy and my long-ignored copy of The Grapes of Wrath, I’m going to rely on the passages the Guardian chose to compare.

From Mr. Greedy: “Over on the other side of the table stood the source of that delicious smell. A huge enormous gigantic colossal plate, and on the plate huge enormous gigantic colossal sausages the size of pillows, and huge enormous gigantic colossal potatoes the size of beach balls, and huge enormous gigantic colossal peas the size of cabbages.”

From The Grapes of Wrath: “In the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

I read The Grapes of Wrath when I was in my mid-teens and I remember that passage. I was impressed with it and it flew about six inches over my head. The reason it stayed with me is that I knew it held some meaning I wasn’t getting.

I did  not read Mr. Greedy that year. It hadn’t been written yet, and my education was that much poorer because of it.  

A Renaissance spokesperson said that the company’s reading levels “are not the only measures of the suitability of a given book for a particular student.” And I’m sure that’s true, but damn it, Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize for his writing and I’m nominating Hargeaves for one.

It’s only fair.

A garden footbridge

When Boris Johnson was London’s mayor, he was in love with the idea of building a garden footbridge across the Thames. That’s a bridge you can walk across that has stuff planted on it, turning it into a garden. Do I have to explain everything?

Then Sadiq Khan became mayor and he drove a stake through the project’s heart.

From the time the bridge project was introduced, a lot of people were skeptical about it. How much money was it going to cost? (More than you thought.) How public would it be? (It would be closed sometimes for private events, so sometimes it would be a public bridge and sometimes a roadblock.) Did the designer have enough bridge design experience? (He’d built one bridge before. Other designers who’d been under consideration had built multiple bridges.) Why was that designer picked? (Um, good question.)

A charitable trust was set up to see the project through and it managed to spend £53.5 million, £43 million of which was public money, without having connected a single rivet to a single beam. And without, as far as I can tell, having bought either the rivet or the beam.

Or whatever bridges are built out of these days. Spit and good wishes for all I know. Both of which are available for less than £43 million. I have a sizable store of them myself, and your’re welcome to bid on them.

Where’d the money go? The designer, the engineer, multiple lawyers, executive salaries, a survey of the riverbed, and a search for unexploded World War II bombs.

Unexploded bombs do still show up here and there, so don’t think I’m throwing that in to be funny. They’re awkward. And still dangerous.

The project’s website alone cost £161,000.

I also have a website. I haven’t added anything to it in a long time, but maybe I should go back and see what it would take to rack up that kind of a bill if I charge myself for my own labor.

The largest chunk of money went to the contractor, who was paid for gearing up for the project and then for winding down from not having done anything in the middle. Or at least, nothing that I can find out about.

Before the contract was signed, doubts were already being raised. Was the money in place? (No.) Who would be responsible for dismantling it if they couldn’t finish it? (Dunno.) Did anyone actually need a garden bridge across the Thames. (Yes. Boris Johnson.)

But you know how it is. Sometimes you try to read through a bunch of legalese for some project that’ll cost someone who doesn’t happen to be you £50 million or more and it’s all  boring and you can’t follow it anyway, so you say, “Oh, screw it, let’s just sign the damn thing and go out for lunch.”

An armed drone network

Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson wants the RAF–that’s the Royal Air Force–to have a networked squadrons of drones ready by the end of the year. They’re to be “capable of confusing and overwhelming enemy air defenses.”

The problem is, that doesn’t seem to be technically possible yet. Or so says  Chris Dole from Drone Wars UK, which tracks the use of armed drones. The technology needed for something like that, he said, is “very much at the concept stage” and he didn’t see a way the deadline could be met.

Gavin Williamson didn’t say that the drones had worked well in a comic book he read recently, but since we’re talking about things that don’t exist I don’t see any problem in quoting something the relevant person didn’t say.

Germs

Fox News host Pete Hegseth said he hadn’t washed his hands in ten years. “Germs are not a real thing,”he said. “I can’t see them; therefore, they’re not real.”

Later, he went on Twitter to say he’d been joking. Which may well be true, but you have to wonder if anyone’s shaken hands with him since.

The Stonehenge Bluestones

The bluestones at Stonehenge do exist, but archeologists have found the gaps they left behind when they were cut from a neolithic Welsh quarry.

Make that two neolithic Welsh quarries. And eighty stones that were cut from them.

The discovery points to two things: One, they were probably dragged to Wiltshire overland, not moved on waterways, and two, they might have been part of an earlier stone circle built closer to where they were quarried.

Why overland? Because the stones came from further north than archeologists originally thought, making that the simpler route.

And that bit about being used locally? There’s a gap of some 500 years between when the stones were quarried and when they were set up at Stonehenge. A local stone circle would explain what they were doing all that time. Unless, of course, eighty neolithic Welsh families used stones weighing roughly as much as a car (although that wouldn’t have been the point of comparison that came to their minds) as dining room tables, it’s the only thing that makes sense.

Why were they moved? We’re not likely to ever know. Maybe the people who set them up moved and wanted to take their stone circle with them. Maybe they were taken in a raid. Either one is possible. Either one is also, when you think about the weight of the things and the work involved, ridiculous. But then so’s everything else I can think of. 

Stonehenge is the only neolithic stone monument whose stones–okay, some of whose stones–traveled more than ten miles from where they were quarried.

Chimpanzees in Belfast. Briefly.

Admittedly, Belfast isn’t the first place you’d look for chimpanzees, but the zoo has some and when a storm brought some branches down into their enclosure the chimps broke them up, made a ladder, and skedaddled up it and out into the wider world.

Then they went back in. Because, with all due respect to Belfast, it’s not a chimpanzee-friendly city.

*

And now something that does exist: a $16 million penthouse in Manhattan, recently bought by the British government to house the civil servant whose job is to negotiate trade deals if and when Brexit goes through. It has a 74-foot living area (it’s New York; they measure in feet there; I’ve had friends in New York whose entire apartment buildings, if they were flattened out, could fit into that space), five bedrooms (not one but two of which are master bedrooms), and two staff rooms. One of the staff rooms is only slightly larger than the minimum size for a British prison cell. Both staff rooms are smaller than one of the walk-in closet in one of the bedrooms.

You’ll notice that staff rooms aren’t called bedrooms, although I’m going to be rash and guess that people are expected to sleep in them. They’re the places where certain people go to be staff.

A spokesperson for the Foreign Office, which was responsible for buying the thing, said, “We have secured the best possible deal and value for money on a property that will help promote the UK in the commercial capital of our largest export merket and trading partner.”

So it’s all good. We’re actually saving money on this. They did promise us that Brexit would save money.

All the news that fits

Driving Hazards

A driver in Devon was found upside down in a ditch in February. To be clear, that’s both the driver and the car. The driver explained that he’d swerved to avoid an octopus.

The road’s five kilometers from the coast. Call that two and a half miles. You’ll be wrong if you do, but you’ll be within driving distance of the right answer.

The driver was arrested “on suspicion of driving while unfit through drugs or drink” and will have to attend a class on thinking up credible excuses and another one on enjoying your hallucinations.

He gets time off for trying to save the octopus.

Apologies

The British Council has apologized to George Orwell for refusing the publish an essay on British food that it had commissioned from him. Several things make this odd. First, the council had paid him for the article, so whatever hard feelings they caused could have been much harder. Second, the rejection happened in 1946, which is by any standard a long time to delay an apology. Third and most important, Orwell died in 1950 and has nothing to gain from publication anymore.

But what the hell, let’s talk about it anyway.

Irrelevant photo: A violet–one of the first spring flowers. Or winter flowers if you believe my neighbors. If flowers bloom, I think it’s spring.

The article involved was supposed to convince Europeans that British food wasn’t as bad as they thought. Based on the quotes I’ve seen, the council had a good argument for not publishing it. The British, Orwell said, eat “a simple, rather heavy, perhaps slightly barbarous diet.” He also said the coffee was nasty and that vegetables seldom get the treatment they deserved.

In fairness, Britain was still rationing food in the wake of World War II, and his description was probably accurate but not what he was being paid to say.

And then there was his marmalade recipe. The council says, in hindsight, that it was wrong to reject the essay but that the marmalade recipe’s still wrong–too much sugar and too much water. “It would have turned out far too watery,” they said.

Did Orwell actually know anything about cooking or did he just beg or steal recipes from people who did and hope they weren’t messing with him? I don’t know. What I can tell you is that in addition to getting his marmalade wrong (and I’m going to have to take other people’s word that he did; I’ve never made the stuff), he also says crumpets are made “by a process that is known to very few people.”

If that’s true, I belong to an elite secret society. And if you’ll follow the link, so will you.

Language

Translation Issues: Ariana Grande went to the tattoo store, as so many people do, meaning to pick up a simple tattoo–in this case, one with the title of her song “Seven Rings.” In Japanese.

Why Japanese? One of the unpredicted results of globalization is that people want tattoos in languages they don’t know but think are cool. It’s less harmful than a lot of the other, more predictable, results have been.

It (that’s the tattoo, not globalization) went wrong when she found out that the damned thing hurt and she asked the artist leave out some characters.

So what does it say? “Shichirin,” which is a small charcoal grill. An earthen one, in case that helps us understand the situation better.

Which wasn’t what she wanted, and since she’s a public figure folks started making fun of her, so she got it fixed. At last sighting (by me, and I make no effort to stay up to date with this stuff) it read, “Japanese barbecue finger.” Or maybe that’s “small earthen charcoal grill finger.” It’s up to you, because translation’s not an exact science. It leaves a good bit of room for interpretation.

I’m now going to give you some advice, because I think every last one of you needs to hear (or read) it: Do not get tattoos in languages you can’t read.

Language and Work: The Oxford English Dictionary is asking the public to tell them about professional jargon and work slang. You can submit your entries here.

The articles about this that I’ve seen give several examples of the kind of words or phrases they’re looking for but the one getting the most play is DTSO. When a vet uses it, it means dog smarter than owner.

Archeology

Oops. A Scottish stone circle that was thought to be thousands of years old turns out to have been built in the 1990s.

Yeah, archeologists had noticed that it was unusual. The stones were small. The diameter was small. But stone circles are sneaky bastards, and they’re hard to date.

That’s not date as in going to a movie and get all romantic with but as in figure out how old they are.

Those aren’t unrelated, though. Before you get into that romantic stuff, you should know how old they are. Personally, I’ve gone to movies with people who made going out with stones look enticing.

But we’re not here to talk about me. The stone circle was a good replica, and the guy who built it came forward when the stones were being tested, saving everyone involved any further embarrassment.

Roadworks: Archeologists exploring an area that’s being dug up for roadworks near Cambridge found what they think is the earliest evidence of beer brewing in Britain. What I love about this story isn’t that it involves beer (trust beer to steal the headline, though) but that it involves archeologists playing in the mud of construction zones.  

Large-scale British construction has to take the country’s historic environment into account, which often means that archeologists follow along and find all sorts of neat stuff. Here in Cornwall, they followed the digging for a new sewage line and found, among other things, some burials that combined early Christian burial style (laid out so the person could be resurrected with a view of the sunrise) with pre-Christian burial (with put the body in the ground with stuff they might want in the afterlife). Presumably, they were hedging their bets. The people who buried them hadn’t made up their minds about how things worked after death and wanted the person to prepared for anything.

How’d I find that out? The archeologists held a public meeting to talk about what they’d found and had a great turnout.  

The construction industry considers important archeological finds a risk–they hold up the work. Archeologists, I’m sure, have their own opinions of the construction industry, which is always pressing on them to hurry up so they can go ahead with what they consider the important stuff.

The 21-mile construction project that found the brewing site found remains dating from the neolithic period to the medieval–a stretch of 4,000 years.

Money

Money and Coffee: A new company plans to roast coffee beans by shooting them into space in a spacecraft called the Coffee Roasting Capsule. It could be launched as early as next year. Or it could not, depending on multiple factors that you can make up as well as I can. The idea is that, outside of gravity, the beans will (a) float and (b) get heated by the capsule’s re-entry into earth’s atmosphere. Here on earth, inconveniently, beans tumble as they roast. They break apart. They scorch.

Gravity’s an inconsiderate beast.

I haven’t found any estimates on how much a cup of space-roasted coffee’s likely to cost. And the whole thing may never happen anyway. The article notes at the end that the company didn’t return the paper’s calls and emails. 

No, I won’t sink low enough to make the obvious pun about them being too spaced out to bother. 

Money and Money: The world’s 26 richest people own as much as the poorest 50%. There is nothing I can add to that.

Money and Cake: A British judge had to decide whether a health-food brownie is a cake or not a cake. If it is a cake, it can be sold without without VAT–a hefty sales tax. If it’s not a cake, then it would be considered confectionery (a fancy word for candy) and taxed.

Why the difference? Foods that are part of a healthy diet–foods like cake–don’t get taxed. Or if not exactly a healthy diet, a basic diet. Non-basic frivolities get taxed. 

So someone somewhere had to decide that cakes and biscuits (which if you’re American are cookies) are basics but candy (a.k.a. confectionery) isn’t. Unless the biscuits have chocolate on top, in which case they’re a luxury item and get taxed.

You didn’t really follow that, did you? Let’s give an example. It won’t help but it’ll make me feel like I’ve done my job.

A chocolate cake covered with chocolate is not taxed. Chocolate cake with frosting is an essential part of the basic diet that’s good enough for people whose spending we (let’s duck the issue of who “we” are for now) scrutinize, which is to say people who earn less than us and who we suspect are frivoling away their money on chocolate-covered biscuits when plain biscuits are good enough for the likes of them. 

They’re probably also wasting it on rent and laundry soap.

It cheers me up to know that someone somewhere is bringing rational thought to important questions like what low-income people are allowed to eat without (a) paying tax on it and (b) intruding tax-free on the baked goods of their betters.

No, no. I’m completely objective about this stuff. You should hear me when I have an opinion. 

When I got out my magnifying glass and looked between the lines of the newspaper articles about this, it sounded a lot like the judge had to taste not just the health-food brownie (made of dates, brown rice bran, and finely chopped Birkenstock sandals) but also a French Fancy (don’t ask for it at Victoria’s Secret; you’ll embarrass everyone involved, including yourself)), a vanilla slice, a chocolate eclair, and a slice of Victoria sponge.

It’s a tough job but someone had to do it.

This isn’t the first time judges have had to make this kind of distinction. Courts have based previous judgements on important issues like whether the item’s eaten with a fork and whether it would be out of place on a plate of cakes “at a cricket or sporting tea.” Because looking at home on a plate of cake at a cricket or sporting tea is the measure of a basic diet. Or else a sporting tea is located at the outermost limit of the way judges imagine the world to work. 

Dressing for Winter

Last January 14 was the tenth annual No Trousers on the Tube Day.

I need to stop here and do the usual translations: The tube is London’s underground rail system–what I’d call a subway (you never quite stop being from New York, or I don’t anyway) but in Britain a subway’s a tunnel for pedestrians, not for trains. And trousers are what Americans call pants. Pants are what the British call underwear. So the participants did wear underwear but didn’t wear anything over it.

If you, dear reader, are neither American or British, I’d love to offer a helpful translation but I’m at the limit of my knowledge here and don’t want to lead you astray. You’ll have to do that on your own.

Why have a No Trousers on the Tube Day? Basically, why not? Organizer Farhan Rasheed said, “There is no point to it, we are not campaigning or raising awareness of anything…. It’s a bit of a nonsense day out. It’s London and London is used to this stuff, they take it in their stride and get back to their book.”

The group caught an assortment of trains. On the Picadilly Line, the crowds were thick enough that the participants had trouble finding space to take off their trousers.

It was organized by the Stiff Upper Lip Society, which recommended avoiding “thongs/budgie-smugglers/anything see-through . . . as we aim to amuse, not offend, fellow Underground users.”

Stale news from here and there

Heroic Medical Experimentation: Sometime last year, six doctors in the U.K. and Australia used themselves as guinea pigs and each swallowed the head of a Lego figure to find out how long it would take to find its way out.

The answer is between 1.1 and 1.7 days. To measure this, they developed the FART score (Found and Retrieved Time) and the SHAT score (Stool Hardness and Transit). Without those two scores, the experiment would’ve been just as measurable but wouldn’t have gotten half the publicity.

Toys are the second most common things kids swallow. I’m not sure what the first most common is, but our neighbor’s kid swallowed a coin and the clever devils in A & E (that’s Accident and Emergency–the equivalent of an Emergency Room) used a metal detector to figure out if it had gone into his stomach (safe) or lungs (dangerous). It kept them from having to expose him to unnecessary x-rays.

He’s fine.

Irrelevant photo: A cyclamen, one of those magical British plants that bloom in the winter.

Two things you should know about the experiement: 1. The researchers don’t recommend trying it at home. 2. The experiment doesn’t prove that Lego heads are smarter than mice. Mice in experiments run through mazes where they have to choose one direction or another. The Lego heads followed the only path available to them.

Kids do not, as a rule, swallow mice.

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Department of Eternal Youth: The man who asked a Dutch court to declare him twenty years younger than–how am I going to put this? It’s difficult, because what he asked for falls off the edge of the English language, not to mention the edge of logic. Let’s try it this way: He asked the court to change the year he was born because he didn’t feel his emotional state and physical condition matched the number of years he’d been bumping around the planet. Also because he wanted a better response on Tinder. Anyway, the court turned him down, saying he was free to feel and act twenty years younger if he liked, but his age would remain his age.

The photo that accompanies the article doesn’t make him look like a man who’s twenty years younger than his birth certificate claims. He looks like a man who’d doctor his mirror, mirror on the wall so it shows him what he wants to see.

He plans to appeal–either the court’s decision or the mirror’s.

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Defining Human Rights: While we’re on the other side of the English Channel, a Belgian prince claimed the government violated his human rights by taking 15% off his annual £280,000 endowment. Actually, it was figured in euros–308,000 of them, but I don’t have a euro sign on my keyboard, so I shifted to pounds, knowing that you’d never notice.

The relationship of pounds to euros in constantly shifting, depending largely on who’s screwed up how badly on Brexit and how recently. Forget about me updating it, because it’ll be out of date an hour later. That was the relationship between the two at some point. It almost surely no longer is, but it’ll do.

What did the prince do to make them cut his allowance? He’s been running around meeting with the representatives of foreign states, sometimes in full naval uniform, without the government’s okay. He’d have gotten away with it if he hadn’t tweeted a picture of himself.

The cut of 15%, he said, would “deprive him and his family of all livelihoods.”

It’s tough out there, kids. And the dry cleaning expenses for those uniforms are shockingly high.

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Great Moments in International Diplomacy; And now let’s zip across a bit more water to the United States. I don’t usually write about American politics, mostly because they make me lose my sense of humor. British politics can get depressing, but every so often the people involved will dress up in knee breeches or ermine robes or treat a centuries-old ceremonial mace as if it held actual power. That cheers me up every time. What can American politics do to match that?

Still, let’s have a quick visit: Back in June of 2018, the person Trump would later pick for ambassador to the U.N., Heather Nauert, displayed her grasp of history and diplomacy by saying, “When you talk about Germany, we have a very strong relationship with the government of Germany. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the D-Day landing. We obviously have a very long history with the government of Germany, and we have a strong relationship with the government.

I don’t know if satire really is dead, but I do know it has a hell of a mountain to climb before it can exaggerate the stupidity that passes for normal lately.

Please note: I’m writing this in December and scheduling it for January. I often write my posts well in advance of the time they go live. If by the time you read this, we’ve had two or three more nominees for the post, or two or three different confirmed ambassadors, don’t blame me. If you want your news in a sensibly timely fashion, you need to read a newspaper.

What hasn’t changed in that time is history. The D-Day landing was not a high point in German-American cooperation and good will. 

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Feel-Good News: Two U.S. debt-collection industry executives had a life-changing moment, triggered by I don’t know what, when they realized the crushing effect that medical debt has on people. In response, they became former debt-collection industry executives. More than that, they formed a nonprofit, R.I.P. Medical Debt, that buys up medical debt for roughly half a penny on the dollar and then forgives it.

The group has wiped out $434 million worth of medical debt, freeing some 250,000 people (plus their families) from its burden. The organization targets people who are in financial trouble, facing foreclosure, or earning less than twice the national poverty level.

It’s an all-around feel-good story until you realize that the total past-due medical debt in the U.S. is more than $750 billion.

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Franz Kafka Department of Fighting Terrorism: An American-born theater historian, David Mayer, who lives in Britain, got on a U.S. terrorist watch list because a Chechen Isis member, Akhmed Chatayev, once used the name David Mayer, along with many others. You’d think it would be a simple problem to sort out since David Mayer the historian 1, isn’t Chechen, 2, was born decades before Chatayev, and 3, unlike Chatayev is both alive and the owner of a matching set of arms, one on the left and one on the right. Chatayev, before he died, was known as Akhmed the One-Armed.

No such luck, though. None of that’s been enough to prove that he’s a different person.

Being on the list means Mayer the historian can’t receive packages or mail from the U.S. Why would it endanger anyone if he did? No idea, but he can’t. He found out he had a problem when he tried to buy an old theater poster off Ebay. The U.S. wouldn’t let it out of the country.

He has been able to fly, but he carries his discharge papers from the Korean War to show with his passport. They’ve helped, although I can’t begin to explain why they’re more convincing than having two arms. Papers can be forged. Arms, at the moment, can’t be.

Mayer’s been trying to get himself off the list for two years but hasn’t even been able to find out what list he’s trying to get off of. 

In 2016, a Muslim ten-year-old in the north of England wrote on a school paper that he lived in a terrorist house. Teachers are required to report any suspected extremism, so they did and the cops turned up at his house the next day. His parents did their best to explain that he meant “terraced house,” which is British for a row of houses that are attached to each other by their side walls.

The police and county government issued a statement saying it was “untrue to suggest that this situation was brought about by a simple spelling mistake” and also that “No concerns were identified and no further action was required by any agency.” Those sound to me like they contradict each other, but what do I know about terraced houses?

The boy’s cousin said the kid was afraid to write anymore.

In 2018, a British woman filling out a visa waiver form for a trip to the U.S. accidentally checked yes in response to a question about whether she’d ever engaged in terrorist activities, espionage, sabotage, or genocide.

And yes, that’s a perfectly a sensible question to put on a form, since anyone who’d done those things would, of course, say yes.

That moment’s inattention cost her more than £800. She had to rearrange her trip plus go through a couple of high-stress interviews with the U.S. embassy. She did at least get to go, and she can, as far as I can tell, still receive mail from the U.S.

She may or may not live in a terraced house.

It gets better: A three-month-old baby was identified as a terrorist by his grandfather, who was filling out the same form for him. The baby was summoned for an interview. The grandfather reports that the officials didn’t seem to have a sense of humor so it’s probably just as well that they didn’t dress him in an orange jumpsuit. The whole thing cost them an extra £3,000.

In 2016, a flight was delayed when the seatmate of a professor working some mathematical equations reported that he might be engaged in suspicious activity. The seatmate got off the plane. The captain interviewed the professor and decided it was safe to fly.

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Public Involvement: Back in Britain, the minister of a church in Aylsham decided to make services interactive by letting parishioners use an app to register their opinions on hymns and create a word cloud of things they’re praying for.

I don’t suppose it’ll make the papers when someone writes that they’re praying for the end of the sermon.

One of my favorite attempts to make people feel they’ve been consulted about things they don’t control sits at the end of a British airport security checkpoint. Let’s take a minute to visit it:

You’ve just dripped free from narrow end of the security check’s funnel, frazzled and shoeless, and you’re still trying to assemble your phone and computer and belt and change and, oh my gawd, where did you put your passport?, and there sits this panel with buttons, asking how your experience with airport security was today. The buttons are big, each one’s a different, attractive color, and you get to push one to say your experience was ecstatic, fine, tolerable, or terrifying.

Okay, I’ve made up the categories, but you get the idea.

When I walked past it, a girl and boy were punching the buttons, one after another after another after another. They were having a wonderful time, and their parents were so relieved to see them occupied with something that didn’t break, complain, or cost money that they let the kids slam their happy fists on the buttons for many minutes.

I don’t believe for half a second that anyone looks at the results of that survey, or even that the buttons are hooked up to anything, but it was a reminder of what it’s worth when a massive bureaucratic system asks our opinion.

Public consultation’s a thing in Britain. It has to be done, usually after all the decisions have been made, and if one more authority consults me about things they aren’t about to change, I’m going to start throwing things.

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Swearing and Kids: People working in British nursery schools are reporting an increase in how often kids swear. I probably shouldn’t think that’s funny–I believe swearing should be reserved for those who understand the meaning and implications of the words they’re saying–but all the same, I do think it’s funny.

Someone I know used to work in a daycare center, and just when the inspectors from some important department or other walked through, Kid 1 was about to hit Kid 2 over the head with a toy truck. The person who told me the story magicked the truck out of Kid 1’s hands and said, “We don’t hit people here. Use your words.”

In response to which, Kid 1 said, “Fuck you, Kid 2.”

The inspectors were impressed all to hell and back.

But that was in the U.S. It has no bearing on swearing in Britain. It’s just a story I always wanted to drop in somewhere.

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Swearing and Santa: Where are all these kids learning to swear? Well, a Santa Claus in Cambridgeshire, which is conveniently located in the U.K., came raging out of his grotto this past Christmas, tearing off his beard and yelling at fifty or so kids to “get the fuck out.”

A fire alarm had gone off and the kids were already on their way out, but apparently not fast enough. One parent speculated that thumping music from a kids’ rave (a kids’ rave? don’t ask me) downstairs had already driven Santa to the breaking point when the fire alarm started screaming.

Another parent said they told their kids that this wasn’t the real Santa and that he was going on the naughty list.

And this, my friends, is why you should never tell your kids that Santa’s real. You can’t predict when Santa’s going to tear off his beard and teach your kids to swear, after which all they’ll want for Christmas is another handful of those powerful, forbidden words. And they’ll never believe anything you tell them again.

I expect the shit to fly over my having said that, but I’m actually quite serious about it. 

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What Santa Didn’t Bring You: It’s a little late for Christmas, but Harrods was (and probably still is) selling a hand-painted refrigerator for £36,000. 

I found several articles about it, with photos, so this seems to be far more real than Santa Claus, but I can’t find it on Harrods’ website, possibly because Lord Google knows I’m not a serious customer and tucked it away so it wouldn’t get shopworn. You don’t want unworthy eyes wearing the paint off it.

I did find a £500 hand-painted toaster and a £700 hand-painted blender. You can also buy a £600 kitchen mixer that isn’t hand painted. Just in case you’re struggling with the vexing question of how to get rid of your money fast enough and you don’t like hand-painted stuff.

You’re welcome. I’m here to help. But I still don’t think you should tell kids that Santa’s real.

Inebriation news, mostly from Britain

British pubs are closing at the speed of a slow-moving cultural apocalypse.

If you’re rereading that sentence and looking for actual information, stop now. There’s less in it than meets the eye. We’ll get to actual information in a couple of paragraphs, but we’re still at the part of the post where I’m splattering verbiage in the hope that you’ll read on. In other words, it’s all fireworks, fancy footing, and mixed metaphors.

Not necessarily a great strategy, but a common one. Now for the information:

Since 2001, more than one in four British pubs has closed. According to the Office of National Statistics (yes, the number of pubs in the country is worthy of official notice), there were 52,500 in 2001 and 38,815 at some unspecified point in 2018.

I’m taking it on faith that that really is more than one in four.

Irrelevant photo: Primroses. This is the season for them. I know I’m engaging in un-British activities when I say this, but I’m grateful to live in a climate where flowers bloom in the winter.

But that 2001 high point isn’t particularly high. In 1577, there was roughly one pub (or more accurately, one boozer) for every 200 people in England and Wales. That includes alehouses, inns, and taverns. Ah, now that was the golden age of getting shit-faced. It helped that sipping water was worse for your health than getting plastered all day every day, although a lot of what people drank would have been small beer–beer with a (relatively) low alcohol content.

Which you can still get drunk on, or mildly pie-eyed. You just have to work harder.

Today there are–well, I can’t find the number of pubs per person for the country as a whole, but Edinburgh has 274.7 per 100,000 residents. London has 40. The difference between the two numbers is enough to make me think they set up their studies differently –that maybe one city’s skewed the figures by counting shrubs as part of the population or the other got mixed up and counted bottled instead of bars.

Let’s just agree that Britain today has fewer bars per person than it did in the golden age. Fair enough?

Small, independent pubs are the most likely to close. Chains are still opening new, identikit branches. 

Why does anyone care? In the U.S., if someone told you the bar on the corner was closing, you’d be likely to say, “Great. No more drunks revving their cars at 1 a.m.” But unlike American bars, British pubs are social centers–a kind of public living room. They’re places a soap opera will latch onto as a way for all its characters to stumble over each other and create mayhem in each other’s lives.

Not that people don’t roll out bellowing at 1 a.m. Or singing. They do. And it annoys the neighbors. But pubs have enough of a role that it balances out the annoyance, at least somewhat.

The blame for pub closures gets thrown in all direction–high taxes, high prices, changing drinking habits, higher wages. Who knew that people working in pubs are so selfish that they think getting paid enough to live on is a good idea? Don’t they know an entire culture rests on them living on the pay they’re offered?

Oddly enough, it was a pub owners association that mentioned higher wages as part of the problem.

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The pubs available to members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords aren’t under threat. Unless being noticed by the public threatens them, which it may eventually. Professor David Nutt, a former government advisor on drug policy, has suggested breathalyzing MPs before they vote.

Why? Well, Parliament has thirty bars on site. Or more. Or possibly not that many. The journalist whose work I’m quoting couldn’t be sure and fell back on saying he’d been told there are nearly thirty.

A different article estimates about a dozen bars. That’s a noticeable difference. Maybe the second article only counted bars, not places that served both food and alcohol. Maybe no one’s ever stayed sober long enough to do an accurate count. The first article listed a lot more than a dozen by name, so I’m going with the higher estimate.  

Parliament’s drinks are cheap because they’re subsidized, and that costs the country £8 million a year. Or more, since that number comes from 2016.

The result is a lot of drinking, and stories of drunken MPs are easy–not to mention fun–to find. In 1783, William Pitt the Younger (not to be confused with William Pitt the Elder) was drunk enough to vomit behind the Speaker’s chair during a debate. Herbert Asquith (prime minister from 1908 to 1916) drank enough that he was known as Squiffy.

What’s squiffy? Slightly drunk.

According to tradition, the chancellor of the exchequer–that translates to the finance minister–is allowed to drink inside the chamber when he, she, or it delivers the budget. Probably because everyone figured they needed a stiff drink, but maybe the numbers make more sense that way. Parliamentary traditions are very strange and they’re treated as if they made absolute sense.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, “was said to have gotten so drunk before a budget debate that he had an embarrassing accident in his trousers and had to be locked in his office to prevent him from going to the chamber anyway. He drank himself to death shortly after losing his seat in 2015 general election.”

MP Eric Joyce was convicted of headbutting another MP in one of the bars and banned from drinking in parliament. (I have no idea how well that worked. I wouldn’t bet a lot of money on it being effective.) MP Mark Reckless missed an important vote because he was too drunk. As part of his apology (either that time or a different one–I haven’t been able to sort it out) he said, “I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember falling over.”

If that doesn’t excuse him, I don’t know what will.

All the major political parties are represented here, and some of the small ones.

All that drinking may contribute to the multiple incidents of sexual abuse that have been surfacing lately. Or may not. Close all the bars and we’ll find out.

So was Professor Nutt serious when he suggested breathalyzing MPs? Absolutely. As a culture, we don’t allow people to drive a car when they’re the worse for wear. Why should they be allowed to drive a country? 

The reason Professor Nutt is no longer an advisor on drug policy is that he said publicly that illegal drugs cause less damage than alcohol. I’m beginning to understand why nobody wanted to hear that.

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But let’s not limit ourselves to politicians. Who are the country’s heavy drinkers? Well-to-do professionals, it turns out. People who earn more than £40,000 a year. The lower your income, the less you’re likely to drink much.

That sound you hear? That’s the sound of a stereotype smashing itself to bits on the floor of Parliament.

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But why should we limit the discussion when the world offers us so many ways of getting shitfaced? The good folks who make Marlboro cigarettes are in negotiations to take over a Canadian company that produces marijuana. Shares in both companies soared when the news got out. Another tobacco company and the Coca Cola company are making similar moves. 

Maybe you had to be around in the sixties to find that funny.

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A conference on the role of alcohol in human society was, as far as I can figure out, dedicated to the proposition that social drinking helped humans create social cohesion. The earliest humans got together for feasts. Then they found fermented fruit. Then they learned to help the fermentation process along. 

A recent excavation in Turkey found 10,000-year-old stone troughs that had been used to brew booze. In A Short History of Drunkenness, Mark Forsyth argues that the earliest cultivated wheat, einkorn, may have been grown not to make bread but beer. Researchers say it makes lousy bread but very good beer, although if humans had never tasted bread before, I’m not convinced they’d have thought it was bad. And they could easily have eaten the grain boiled. Boiled wheat is not only edible but good.

Which isn’t to say that they didn’t brew it. But let’s give the last word on this to an expert:

“We didn’t start farming because we wanted food–there was loads of food around,” Forsyth says.

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Eco-minded brewers in Britain have started making beer from sandwich bread that would otherwise get thrown away. Some 24 million slices are thrown away every day.

The link above is to an article from Good Housekeeping. Do not for a minute kid yourself that I read Good Housekeeping or that I’m good at housekeeping. It was the unlikeliest of the available links, so of course I chose it.

How does anyone know how many slices get thrown away? Is there a wasted bread agency somewhere? Has the government outsourced the work or is it still being done by civil servants? Your guess is as good as mine and possibly better.

I imagine every cafe, restaurant, and cafeteria in the country having to make a note when a slice of bread’s thrown away. And every home kitchen. I once had a job where someone decided to find out what we were actually doing when we were out of their sight and asked us to fill in a form every fifteen minutes, noting down what we were doing at that exact moment.

Filling out your damn form, that’s what I’m doing. I wouldn’t want to base any serious research on the answers we gave, but it was for their own good. If they’d known, it wouldn’t have made them happy.

But back to bread and beer: Maybe their survey’s more accurate than the one I helped sabotage. Maybe smart refrigerators watch what we do outside their perfecdtly chilled interiors and send the Wasted Bread Commissin a message each time we set aside the ends of the loaf and wait till they go moldy so we can toss it away without feeling guilty.

For the record, my refrigerator is not smart. Neither is my phone. Neither are my dogs. The cat’s a fuckin’ genius but can’t be bothered to report on us. Cats are good about things like that.

I bake most of our bread and we eat it from one end of the loaf to the other. If you want to make beer, use your own bread.