American schools and their guns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From math to fried chicken: the news from Britain

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

We hear from the Ministry of Multiplication Tables

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Then we hear from the Ministry of Procrastination

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

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

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

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

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

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


Then we don’t hear from the Ministry of Defense

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

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

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

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

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


Enough ministries. A music festival bans potato peelers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Windsor finds a new neighbor

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Finally and most dramatically, the world ended on February 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All across the country, chickens were celebrating.

More news from Britain

Plato takes over the Home Office, or else it’s the other way around

Britain’s Home Office–those charming folks in charge of (among other things) finding reasons to throw people out of the country–has outstripped my ability to absurdify the world. In mid-January, it refused asylum to a Pakistani asylum seeker because he couldn’t answer questions about Plato and Aristotle.

Hamza bin Walayat’s application was based on his having renounced Islam, integrated into secular British society, and formed a relationship with a non-Muslim–all those things the government (if you listen to the noises it makes) wants Muslim immigrants to do. I’ll skip over the right and wrong of that, otherwise I’ll start ranting, and focus on what I understand best, which is absurdity.

Walayat’s claiim was based on his having become a humanist, which could get him killed in Pakistan. H’d already received death threats from (among others) his family.

So the Home Office asked him about Greek philosophers, then turned his application down because he couldn’t name “any famous Greek philosophers who were humanistic.”

He would’ve had to name Plato and Aristotle to be approved, although there’s no guarantee that would’ve been enough. There might always have been some other reason to turn him down.

No, I don’t make this stuff up. And how do you satirize it?
Applicant: Here’s my request for asylum. I come from a country where non-believers are  frequently killed for their non-beliefs.
Home Office: Fine. Please summarize Aristotle’s arguments in Prior Analytics.
Applicant: Prior what?
Home Office: Sorry, that’s not good enough.
It’s not only not funny, it’s not much of an exaggeration.
Ten days later, 120 philosophers wrote the home secretary, Amber Rudd, asking her to reconsider his case and pointing out that “there’s no scholarly basis to think that Plato or Aristotle were humanist thinkers.” In fact, both made argument supporting belief in gods.
Do we get to deport the Home Office now?

No. They make the rules and they make up the answers. They don’t have to be right.

But even if Plato and Aristotle did qualify as humanists (however you want to define that; it’s hardly a unified belief system), how many genuinely irreligious people could state three facts about either of them? I can get as far as they were both Greek and they’re both dead.

Semi-relevant photo: Please see the next item, then make yourself a nice cup of tea. Or stop by and I’ll make one. You can even use my new cup if you like. It was a Christmas present but I’m happy to share.

Tea of coffee?

Every so often I write about tea and someone British writes in to say he or she drinks coffee. Only.

Are they telling the truth? Surely not. They’re only saying it to mess with me. Or possibly to bust up a stereotype.

I’d like all those people (okay: it might only be one person, but my memory comes with a built-in multiplier effect) to reconsider. Because it turns out home coffee machines attract cockroaches.

Why? Roaches like three things in life: dampness, darkness, and food. They don’t much care for classical music or abstract art or anything else along those lines. Coffee machines offer them everything they care about, at least if you consider coffee grounds food, and I gather roaches do. Or if they don’t, two out of three isn’t bad, especially when coffee machines are conveniently located near things that beyond question are food.

Extrapolating from the way roach populations multiply, I’m going to go out on a limb and say they also like other roaches. In a carnal sort of way, and especially in a damp, dark sort of place. With easy access to food for the little roachlets that follow from that sort of liking.

If you absolutely do have to drink coffee, either because you’re British and like to bust up stereotypes or because you’re American and feel patriotically compelled to, at least don’t invest in an expensive coffee machine. Use a press pot. Make instant. Resurrect that old percolator some family member stashed in the attic forty years ago and hasn’t thought about since. Spend a small fortune at a coffee shop. Do whatever it takes, but don’t buy a coffee machine.

Or reconsider and switch to tea. If you’re British, the Home Office–which doesn’t approve of much–might crack a hint of a smile. If you’re American, tell yourself tea’s classy, even though it’s not in Britain. Unless you’re doing the gourmet, one-tea-leaf-from-a-plant thing, tea’s just what you slug down to wake yourself up. Coffee’s the classy drink.

If you won’t listen to me and insist on boycotting tea, please memorize a list of Greek philosophers who drank coffee. It wasn’t introduced to Greece until the ninth century, give or take a few weeks, but the Home Office might ask and you’ll need to know the correct wrong answer.

Which reminds me to point out an important life skill, because you, my lovely readers, matter to me: If you have to take a standardized test of any kind, don’t worry about being right. Worry about what whoever wrote the test thinks is right. Tell ’em what they want to hear, then go home, take a shower, and feel an odd mix of icky and superior.

 Plymouth wants to dress up its cab drivers

The city of Plymouth is pondering the wisdom of telling cab drivers they can’t go to work in jeans, hoodies, running shoes (which are called trainers over here), or shirts with logos or graphics that might offend (might offend who? no idea; the article I read only said “might offend”), or that have political messages (regardless, apparently, of whether they’d offend some unnamed person). Or jeans, which we all know are politically motivated, although to date I haven’t figured out what their politics are. I’ve asked mine. We’re well acquainted. I’ve had some of my pairs since Marie Antoinette was in charge of the Home Office. But we still don’t know each other well enough for them to come out in the open with their beliefs.

Drivers would also be banned from wearing flip-flops, swimming trunks, or high heels,

Or tutus. Or pajamas.

What can they wear? Shirts with collars. Knee-length tailored shorts. (Someone define “tailored” for me, please. Does it mean that to go to work you need someone with a tape measure around their neck to make the shirt just for you?) Knee-length skirts or dresses. “Smart” long-legged trousers, which in American are pants. In British, you just have to assume they’re wearing pants, because not many people want to check and those who do shouldn’t. They’re underwear.

I’m guessing they could also wear tuxedos. Ball gowns would be too long and might encourage the driver to wear high heels, so sorry, they’re out. What’s allowed makes a short and boring list, and it doesn’t make room for clothes from other cultures, because the city government doesn’t know about them, didn’t think of them, doesn’t approve of them, or can’t spell them. So no sarongs and no shalwar kameezes.

Why does anyone care what cab drivers wear? My best guess is that when everything’s falling apart, people want to make rules. Preferably for someone other than themselves. I don’t know what’s falling apart in Plymouth, but on the basis of this evidence I’m convinced something is.

I can’t give you a link for that story because it’s from the Western Morning News and I never can find their stories online. So instead, I’ll tell you (irrelevantly) that when I drove cab, I never wore a bathing suit or a ball gown. I did wear sneakers (or sometimes boots) and jeans, and I had a plaid woolen shirt that I wore as a jacket in the winter. It had breast pockets that I could stuff money into without taking off my seat belt. I’m not sure which side of the Plymouth rules it would’ve fallen on. On the one hand, it had a collar. On the other, it wasn’t smart, but then I don’t ask my clothes to pass Home Office tests so I wouldn’t have thought that mattered.

It seems like somebody’s always trying to clean up cab drivers. The problem is that even when they get their way, they’re still not happy, because whatever cab drivers wear, they have a way of still being cab drivers.

Long may it be so.

Tinky Winky dies

Simon Barnes, the actor who played Tinky Winky on the Teletubbies, died in January.

Tinky Winky had a moment of fame when the evangelist Jerry Falwell claimed he was a gay role model who would damage children’s something or other. Moral development, I think.

“He is purple–the gay pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle–the gay pride symbol,” Falwell wrote, in all seriousness, about Tinky Winky. He might have added that Tinky Winky carried a handbag, but he didn’t, which is a shame because it might’ve led people to ask if Tinky Winky was, in fact, a he. I’m guessing that possibility never crossed Falwell’s mind.

I wasn’t a Teletubbies fan, but I must’ve seen at least half an unbroken minute of the show, and nothing I saw told me whether the creatures were male or female. They were a kind of rorschach test. Do you see a male or a female? A symbol of homosexuality or a show that rakes in a lot of money?

Maybe Falwell figured they had to be male because they didn’t wear skirts. He might have easily extrapolated from the symbols that mark women’s public toilets that women all wear skirts. All the time. I don’t know what it means that he didn’t consider other possibilities. Maybe he was one of those men who consider everything male unless it specifically announces itself as female. Maybe he thought  more about men than about women.

Whatever. I’m a card-carrying female and I’m prepared to testify that women have legs. They start at the hip and their placement is very much the same as men’s.

Except for the purse, the Teletubbies didn’t look to me like they were wearing clothes of any sort, but if anyone was a better student of the show than I was I’ll yield the floor to them.

After Falwell went public with his take on the Teletubbies, Barnes was often asked about Tinky Winky’s sexuality.

“The character is supposed to be a three-year-old,” he said.

Good point. Not many three-year-olds have defined their sexuality yet.

Barnes replaced an earlier actor, Dave Thompson, whose “interpretation of the role was not acceptable,” according to the letter that told him he was being canned after the first 70 episodes.

What can an actor could do in one of those costumes that would make his interpretation of the role unacceptable? After thirty seconds of watching, I really don’t qualify as an expert , but it didn’t strike me as a role that challenged an actor’s interpretive skills.

Thompson wasn’t sure what they were talking about but thought it might have been his voice.

“The other Teletubbies use their own voices, but mine was dubbed over. At first they asked me to do a high voice and then they changed their minds just before we started filming.”

After he left the show, he went on to play a lion and then an assortment of other roles, and he does stand-up. His web site asks readers to swear they’re over eighteen before they go past the otherwise blank opening page. Once you swear, you learn that he considers “my greatest achievement to be my novel ‘The sex life of a comedian,’ a free sample of which is available on this site. Please don’t read it if you’re under eighteen, or easily shocked.”

I’m not easily shocked. On the other hand, I’m not easily interested, so I didn’t read the sample. But if you insist on knowing about Tinky Winky’s sex life, this is probably as close as you’ll get.

I said I’m not easily shocked. That’s not entirely true. Assuming The sex life of a comedian is his only book, as it seems to be, there’s a misplaced comma in Thompson’s quote. If he’d kindly move the one before “or” so that it follows “novel,” my delicate sensibilities would be ever so grateful. He might also want to italicize the title of his book instead of putting it in quotes.

I feel much better now, thank you.

An apology

It’s been a long couple of weeks around here, We lost a week to the flu, or if it wasn’t the flu it was something fluish, and the house is still on its ear. What’s worse, my backlog of blog posts is gone and I suspect I’ve been posting too many of these news roundups lately, but this is my third effort to fill the Friday gap and the first two didn’t pull together, so it’s this or nothing. Let’s hope I’m in better form soon.

Stuff that happens in Britain

The VisitScotland website uses a Gaelic dictionary

The Danish concept of hygge–roughly translated as coziness; the promotion of well-being–has made a big impression on Britain, at least if you believe the newspapers and  marketers. I can’t say it’s had an impact on my life, but I won’t promote myself as typical of anything much, except possibly stubbornness.

Still, the publicity around hygge‘s drawn tourists to Denmark, so VisitScotland thought they might be able to cash in by adapting the idea. To Scotland, of course. So, quick, what’s the Scottish version of hygge?

Well, it’s not hygge, they knew that much, and they knew they needed more atmosphere than they could pull out of an English word. So someone ran to the nearest Gaelic dictionary and found the word còsagach. Which is pronounced a lot like còsagach, Sorry, I don’t know Gaelic. If the Scottish version of Gaelic’s anything like the Irish one, the letters don’t communicate much to an English speaker.

VisitScotland, apparently (and sadly), knows about as much Gaelic as I do. because experts say the word’s more likely to be used about wet moss or a wet, mossy place than about anything cozy. Unless you consider wet moss cozy.

It can also be used about fibrous ground or a place full of holes or crevices.

A very secondary definition is snug, warm, sheltered, etc., but that comes from a dictionary that’s some hundred years out of date.

So visit damp, cozy Scotland today. Spend money. Have a memorable experience. And stay away from out-of-date dictionaries for languages you don’t speak. They’re as dangerous as thesauruses. Or maybe that’s thesauri. I’d look it up but I’ve developed an irrational terror of dictionaries.

Irrelevant (but in season) photo: frost.

Amateurs run the country

Example 1. Starting in January, China banned the import of plastic waste, saying that a lot of it is too hazardous to process. (Anyone see a bit of irony there? I don’t. I’m just asking.) Since 2012, Britain’s shipped two-thirds of its total plastic waste exports to China—something along the lines of 2.7 million tons of the stuff.

So what’s Britain going to do with all the plastic its fleets of recycling trucks have been  collecting with such ecological fervor? Recycle it here? Ban plastic packaging? Use it to backfill Stonehenge?

Well, in December—which strikes me as kind of late to come up with a plan—someone asked the secretary of the environment, Michael Gove, about it and he said, “I don’t know what impact it will have. It is…something to which—I will be completely honest—I have not given it sufficient thought.”

So that’s our plan.

We’ll give him half a point for honesty. Then we’ll take it away for cluelessness.

Example 2. A slow-burning fuse of a story either exploded or fizzled out, but I can’t figure out which.

The government was under pressure from a parliamentary committee to publish its assessment of Brexit’s economic impact on Britain. (In case you need a translation, Brexit is Britain exiting the European Union. A lot of people are worried it’ll crash the British economy.) The government resisted. Sorry, it said, but the assessments were too sensitive to be seen by mere members of parliament.

More pressure.

Okay, MPs could read them, but first the government would have to bury them under six feet of plastic waste and the MPs could only read them after sundown, using a flashlight with a single, second-hand AA battery, and they mustn’t disturb the plastic waste because although the government still doesn’t know what to do with it, it might need to know which pieces were dumped first.

I exaggerate only slightly.

But David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the European Union, assured the committee that the government had 58 studies that went into the question “in excruciating detail.”

Then in early December, Davis told the committee he didn’t have any detailed information to publish. At all. He never had. They’d misunderstood him.

What about an assessment of the economic impact of leaving the customs union? someone asked. Was one of those hanging around somewhere?

Um, no. “Not a formal, quantitative one.” The assessments didn’t “have numbers attached.”

I’d like, since this is a public forum, to let Dave know that it’s okay. If he’ll just write a general statement and I’ll make up some numbers. We can paste them in anywhere. Because after you’ve seen a few numbers, they all start to look alike.

A quick P.S.: A BBC Radio 4 news story quoted Davis as saying that he doesn’t have to be intelligent to be a good negotiator. He doesn’t even have to know much, he just has to stay calm. When I wrote this (I generally write these posts well ahead of time; it keeps me marginally sane), he was still doing an admirable job of staying calm. And, I’m reasonably sure, of knowing very little.

For the record, both Davis and Gove are long-time politicians, but somehow or other they’ve managed to bring a broad spectrum of amateur qualities to their current jobs.

Public statements are clear and to the point

Train fares went up on January 2. It was the biggest jump in five years, and since the fares are already high and follow a formula that sets a world standard for incomprehensibility, and since train service in many areas is godawful, passengers are ready to chew up the seats in frustration.

So how did the train companies defend the fare hike? An industry flak-catcher said it showed the industry was trying to keep down the cost of travel.

A reporter asked if the companies were taking any risk at all, since (to simplify slightly) funding comes from the government and profit goes to the companies. The flak-catcher said, “Rail companies operate under contract and they honour the terms of their contracts and provide for things to happen in different circumstances. That operator will continue to make payments until 2020 and then the new operator will continue to make payments.”

I don’t  know about you, but as long as they provide for things to happen in different circumstances, I’m happy.

Anything else you’d like to know?

The police have a quiet word with Jesus

The police in Exeter had a quiet word with a man who was running around dressed as Jesus. That is, he was dressed as Jesus except for his hind end, which either wasn’t dressed at all or wasn’t dressed enough to make an unnamed member of the public happy.

This raises a number of questions. One is what you have to wear to be dressed as Jesus. This particular guy was wearing a sheet. How did anyone know he wasn’t dressed as a ghost? Or one of the apostles, who would’ve dressed roughly the same way as Jesus?

Another question is what a quiet word is. It’s a very English thing, that’s what it is. Or possibly a British one. I lose my way in some of this stuff. It’s the solution to any sort of public awkwardness, and it may or may not be effective. If it’s not, it doesn’t matter, because the next public awkwardness will be handled the same way.

The final question is why I don’t give you a link. It’s because the story was in the Western Morning News and although they do publish online I can never find their stories.

One of the cops involved said the incident had scarred him “for about an hour.”

Everyone loves a feel-good story

A ten-year-old left his waterproof video camera on a beach in Yorkshire and the tide carried it 500 miles across the North Sea to the German island of Suderoog,

There’s an umlaut over the U–they like umlauts on islands in Germany–but we’re in the middle of an umlaut shortage here so we’ll have to do without one. Just make your pronunciation umlautish if you can.

No, an umlaut isn’t something from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It’s two dots that go over a U in German for reasons I don’t understand since I never learned German. I’m sure that has something to do with the umlaut shortage. It’s hard to study German without them.

The island is a bird reserve with either one family or only two people living there (I read several stories and ended up knowing less than if I’d read one). Either way, I’m guessing they don’t have a lot to do in the evenings, so they took a look at what was on the camera and found some people fooling around on the beach and then the first few minutes of the camera’s trip—water, basically.

They posted something about the camera on the bird reserve’s Facebook page and eventually located the kid’s father. The camera’s owners have been invited to come pick it up, but they can only get there by boat from the mainland and they can’t stay overnight. And they have to bring their own umlauts.

At least one artist takes his metaphor seriously

This happened in Belgium, not Britain, but it’s a good story. And both countries start with a B. It’ll do.

A—well, I guess we’ll have to call him a performance artist chained himself to block of marble to demonstrate the inescapable burden of history, including the history of art, which he was trying to free himself from by chiseling away at the stone.

After nineteen days, he had to be cut free.

Every fascinating moment was live-streamed. I’m happy to say, I didn’t watch it and I haven’t looked for a link. If you want to watch all nineteen days of it, I figure you’ve got the patience to find it yourself.

The story led me to realize that one nice thing about writing as opposed to performance art is that when you get trapped by your own metaphors it’s not quite as embarrassing.

At least one non-artist takes YouTube seriously

Someone from Wolverhampton decided to put his head in the microwave and have his friends fill it with cement. It being the microwave, not the head, in case that needs clarification. When they realized he was having trouble breathing (no, apparently this didn’t occur to any of them ahead of time), they poked an air tube in.

How? No idea. Every way I try to imagine doing this ends up with the breathing tube clogged with cement. Lucky thing I’m not one of his friends.

The BBC story mentions that the microwave wasn’t plugged in. I mention that in case you decide to try this and it’s not in the instruction book.

Why’d they do this? It wasn’t performance art and no metaphors were harmed in the process. They wanted to post the video on YouTube.

It took five firefighters an hour to get him loose, and they needed help from their technical rescue team to get the microwave apart.

Some people have trouble letting their pets go

Okay, this one’s pretty grotesque and I wrestled with what passes for my conscience over whether to use it.

My conscience lost.

Someone from Dundee offered to sell a rug she’d had made from her dead dog because her new dog kept trying to hump it. I’m not sure this tells you anything about British culture, but it did happen.

People are very polite 

The British really are very polite. Until they’re not. Because that’s the thing about polite people: When they lose it, they don’t have a wide range of back-up  behaviors. You know, things like saying, “Hey, asshole, don’t push.” Which isn’t polite but is well short of bloodshed.

Some people are so polite they’d find it hard to say, “Excuse me, but would you stop pushing, please?”

So in October, either two or three people on a train near London got into an argument over a phone call. One man was talking one the phone loudly, one man was complaining about that, and the third man–well, I don’t know if he did anything other than just sit there, but he was a friend of Guy #1’s, so he had a kind of peripheral involvement, so when an argument broke out, Guy #2 leaned over and bit Guy #3’s ear.

Job done. Guy #2 went back to his seat. Quite possibly with a real sense of having done the right thing.

What did Guy #1, the guy on the phone, do? No idea.

Things that actually happen in Britain

Cold off the British press: Notes from the U.K. proudly presents the following mostly outdated news stories.

The museum of lost items adds to its collection

The British Museum misplaced a diamond ring worth £750,000. It’s not lost, it’s just—oh, you know how this works. Someone put it in a safe place. It hasn’t been seen since. That happens to me all the time, although not usually with £750,000 diamond rings.

In fact, that’s why I don’t buy £750,000 diamond rings. I know what’ll happen to them.

How do we know this happened? Somebody submitted a Freedom of Information request to—I guess—the major British museums, asking what they’ve misplaced, and then counted up the responses. Some 6,000 items became unaccounted for over the past I’m not sure how long, which makes the report of questionable value but hey, here at Notes we don’t really care. And we aren’t really a we. It’s just me here, typing away.

The 6,00 items include a rare piece of quartz, an old washing machine, a tin of talcum powder, and an important black tie.

How important can a black tie be? I wouldn’t know. I suspect you’d have to have owned one before you can make an estimate. That’s why I never have. I’d put it in a safe place with that damned diamond ring and that’d be the end of them both.

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: This is a flower. In case you weren’t sure.



The arts are flourishing

The winner of the Tate Gallery’s Turner Prize gets £25,000, but the winner of the Turnip Prize gets a turnip mounted on a nail. It’s awarded to the entrant who creates rubbish art “using the least amount of effort possible.” The contest is now in its eighteenth year and is still being run from a Somerset pub.

All the best contests are run from pubs. Or else they start or end in one.

The 2017 contest had over 100 entries but the organizers said proudly that the standard was “still crap.”

Last year’s winner said the contest showed that  “if you set your sights on the gutter and refuse to work hard your dreams really can come true.”

A past entry included a dark pole titled “Pole Dark.” I don’t think it won, which just goes to show you, although I’m not sure what it goes to show you.

I am forever indebted to my friend Deb for calling this contest to my attention.

Water companies use witchcraft

Britain’s a wet country, but every so often people have to search for water anyway. Historically, it was so they could dig wells, but these days it’s also so water companies can find leaks and all sorts of people can locate pipes before they run a digger into them.

Recently, water companies—not all of them, but most—were caught using dowsers, also called water witches, and there’s a predictable flap about it.

Dowsing’s an ancient way of looking for water (or anything else that’s invisible). Traditionally, dowsers used a forked stick. These days, they use a couple of bent wires or metal rods or clothes hangers or tent pegs or—well, you get the idea. When the dowser walks above the hidden water, the wires move toward each other.

Does it work? I’ve never tried. I’m fresh out of tent pegs or I’d go looking for our water pipes. What’s worse, most of our hangers are plastic. Wire hangers are hard to find around here. It’s probably a religious issue because it’s a mystery to me.

What I can tell you is that science blogger Sally Le Page went public about a water company sending a dowser to her parents’ house to locate pipes. Before you could say “superstitious nonsense,” it was in the news. Experts have weighed in to say that it’s not a technique, it’s witchcraft—not in the sense of it being evil but unscientific and silly.

Before this all disappeared from the news, which it did pretty quickly, I listened to a sober BBC journalist interviewing an expert. The journalist happened to have tried water witching and his experience was that it worked—the tent pegs moved strongly toward each other just as he passed over (if I remember correctly) an underground pipe.

The expert talked about false positives. The journalist talked about the feeling of the rods moving in his hands. The journalist was the more convincing speaker.

The regulator (which has no power in this) urged water companies to consider whether dowsing is cost effective, then stuck its fingers in its ears and turned the other way, humming “There’ll always be an England.” The company Le Page challenged said, “We’ve found some of the older methods are just as effective than the new ones, but we do use drones as well, and now satellites.”

“Just as effective than the new ones”? If they’d like to hire a copy editor, I’m retired but can be called in for small emergencies. For a fee.

I don’t need dowsing rods to tell you that since the flap’s already died down everyone will have gone back to business as usual.

A woman becomes Black Rod

For the first time in British history, a woman’s been appointed as Black Rod.

As what?

Black Rod, who is not to be confused with a dowsing rod. Black Rod’s a person and plays a ceremonial role in the little playlet put on when the queen (or king, when there happens to be one) speaks at the opening of Parliament. Black Rod is sent from the House of Lords to summon the House of Commons. The Commons slams the door in his—or now her—face until he (now she) knocks three times with his (now her) staff, at which point someone opens the door and the MPs troupe out behind him—or now her—like overfed ducklings.

Enough of that. I’m tired of juggling pronouns.

Black Rod also does other stuff, some of which may be perfectly sensible, and dresses in, um, a distinctive get-up.

It’s heartening to know that in this glorious new age we live in women can have jobs that are just as silly as men’s. This isn’t what I hoped feminism would bring us when I was a young hell-raiser, but as Yogi Berra may or may not have said, “Predictions are hard. Especially about the future.”

Berra is also supposed to have said, “I didn’t say half the things I said,” which is demonstrated by the first quote appearing on the internet in several forms, so I’m leaving myself a little wiggle room. The first quote was originally said, in some form or other, by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who said at least half the things he said.


You probably already know that the next Doctor Who is also a woman.

For what it’s worth, I’m not sure if someone’s appointed as Black Rod or simply appointed Black Rod, with no as. Maybe you reword the sentence to avoid the issue. But I’m not getting paid to worry about that stuff anymore.

The Department for Environment uses disposable cups

Every day, the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs goes through 1,400 disposable cups in its restaurants and cafes, which are run by private companies under contract to the department. So it’s good to know everyone’s taking the department’s mission seriously.

The House of Commons went through 657,000 disposable cups last year, but they did their bit by buying 500 reusable cups and selling four of them in the course of three years, so yeah, nothing’s going to waste there.

Based on a survey of one, incompetence may have a genetic component

Britain has a foreign secretary—Boris Johnson—who’s known for putting his foot in his mouth. Or in the case of a woman imprisoned in Iran, who has both British and Iranian citizenship, for putting his foot very dangerously in other people’s mouths. (I wrote this in mid-December and may not get a chance to update it; she was still in prison at that point; it would be nice to think that by she’ll have been released by the time this appears but I’m not putting any money on it.)

Johnson not only said the woman was in Iran teaching journalism, which helped Iran justify her arrest (both she and her family say she was visiting her parents, and she brought her toddler daughter with her, so that seems credible), Johnson refused to retract the statement for a long time, offering a kind of non-apology instead.

I can’t explain Johnson’s political survival, but a recent article about his father reported that Johnson-the-father ran for Parliament in 2005 with election literature that not only misspelled the area he was running in, it used a slogan I love: “More talk, less action.”

He lost.

Still, it’s refreshing, in a stupid kind of way. If we want truth in political advertising. there it is.

Unlike his son, he knows how to back down. He’s quoted as admitting that when he was a spy (sorry—I’m not sure what office he was spying for or who he was spying on) his “incompetence may have cost people their lives.” Which, again, is kind of refreshing in its openness, although it doesn’t bring anyone back from the grave.

People argue about how to pronounce foreign words

Guardian letter writers spilled a fair bit of ink arguing about how to pronounce latte, as in caffe latte, as in an expensive coffee drink.

There are two problems involved here: 1. how to pronounce the word to begin with, and 2. how to communicate the pronunciation in print to an English speaker.

And you thought it was just coffee. Silly you. These things are complicated.

I know that: 1. the pronunciation doesn’t really matter as long as people understand you, and 2. the problem could be solved by going online, de-muting the speakers you (or was that me, or possibly I?) turned off to shut up those annoying ads, and then hoping that whoever you’re listening to got it right, which is far from guaranteed. But isn’t it more fun to do it the hard way?

The first way to tell people how to pronounce something is to use specialists’ marks. Caffe latte comes out as kæfeɪ ˈlɑːteɪ. I’m sure the system’s foolproof, but this fool never did learn how to turn the marks into pronunciation. So let’s try method two, which is to rhyme the word or phrase with something else. That’s the method the letter writers used.

The first said latte rhymed with pate, not par-tay.

Par-tay? Is that when you invite a bunch of people over and offer them food and something to drink? Where I come from, that’s a party. There’s no A involved, and no hyphen.

So do I know how to pronounce par-tay? No. It could be par-TAY of PAR-tay. And given that large parts of Britain treat the R as a very shy sound that disappears in company–well, that adds another complication.

The next day someone wrote in to say that in the north they’ve always rhymed latte and pate, reminding us all that accents here change from region to region, making the whole rhyming thing a complete crapshoot.

The day after that, someone said the emphasis belongs on the first syllable anyway, so it should rhyme with satay, not pate. Great, but I thought satay was pronounced sat-AY, emphasis on the last syllable, making it rhyme with the French pronunciation of pate, which is where we came in.

Is this complicated enough for you yet? It not, let me confuse it further. I wouldn’t swear to this, but I think I’ve heard some British people put the accent on the first syllable of pate and others put it on the second, meaning that if you’re using that as your rhyming word, you’re in trouble.

You see the problem here. English is a slippery language.

Take the word skeletal. You’re not going to rhyme anything with unless you’re an expert, but the standard British pronunciation is skell-EE-tl. The American pronunciation is SKELL-uh-tl. If you find a word that rhymes with either version, the comment section is waiting eagerly.

The third way to communicate pronunciation in print is to do what I did with satay: break the word into syllables, capitalize the one that gets the emphasis, and figure out a phonetic spelling for each syllable. It works, but only up to a point. When I had to do it for a series of kids’ books I was working on, I ran into trouble with a few sounds. Some  of them, if I remember right, involved A’s and O’s, but the one that really sank me was the sound at the end of the word garage–unless, of course, you use one of the British pronunciations, which is GARE-idge. It’s a kind of soft G, but–.

Oh, let’s not get into it. We’ll sink. No spelling was foolproof and there’s a whole generation of kids who grew up mispronouncing the vocabulary words they learned from me.

Sorry, kidlets. I did my best.

Google Maps finds out why crowdsourcing isn’t necessarily a good idea

Okay, this story isn’t limited to Britain, but we all know I cheat: Everton football fans went onto Google Maps and labeled a rival team’s stadium “gobshites.”

What’s a gobshite? Gob’s a mouth. Shite is shit. Put them together and you get a stupid or incompetent person, or so the internet tells me. It also swears that shite in Norwegian is shite and that gobshite in Spanish is pendejo, which according to the Oxford Dictionaries literally means pubic hair.

Don’t you learn interesting things here? I’ve wondered about the literal meaning of pendejo for years. Seriously. I have. Why didn’t I look it up? I did, I just didn’t think of typing in “word origin pendejo” until now.

Are you impressed with my intellectual curiosity? I sure as hell am.

In 2015, Lord Google had to close his crowdsourced mapmaking tool when someone added a robot peeing on an Apple logo to a part of Pakistan. In that same year, British sports fans played other shit-related online jokes. It must be a British thing. Sports fans here are a distinctive breed.

In an unstated year, someone labeled the White House entrance hall Edward’s Snow Den.

Google is “understood to be…looking into” the most recent issue. In the meantime, if you want to sneak Boaty McBoatface onto a map, you might still be able to.

Stuff that really goes on in Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

You don’t really care, do you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Great kid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Truer words have never peeled off a sign.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updates from the British press


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contests to name stuff

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

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

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

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

The House of Lords

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

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

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

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

Making Britain great again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erosion closer to home

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

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

Stuff I just can’t let you miss

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

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

In Fardin’s words:

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

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


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

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

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

It turned out to be a pink striped sock.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

English is such a mess.

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

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

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

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

I rhyme it with cone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there endeth our pronunciation lesson for the week.


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Boy, was that hard to type.

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

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

Britain: money laundering, sandwiches, poisonous snakes

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

Funny how that works, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allegedly. I do need to say allegedly.

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

What else is happening here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah. Good point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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