Pandemic news from Britain: the good, the bad, and the bizarre

At the end of March, someone named Sarah Buck tweeted, “Just had a knock on the door and sat on the doorstep was 2 bottles of milk and a loaf of bread. The man who put them there was stood back on the footpath and told me that the items were gifts from Banbury Mosque! They went to every house on our street delivering these!!”

There are many stories like this, all over the country–people stepping in to help as best they can where they’re needed. We’ll let this one stand in for them all.

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Someone put together an impressive dalek costume and rolled through Robin Hood Bay, near Whitby, announcing, “By order of the Daleks, all humans must stay indoors, all humans must self-isolate.” 

And if you don’t know what a dalek is, you’re making better use of your time than I am. It’s a bad guy from Dr. Who. With a toilet plunger for a nose.  Or maybe it’s an antenna, not a nose. It’s definitely a toilet plunger, though.

You can find the video here.

(That was important enough that it got two links. I hope you’re impressed.) 

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Startlingly relevant photo, but you’ll need to read to the end to understand why

The prime minister is now in intensive care with Covid-19. Ever since he came down sick, his government has been reciting a soothing drone that consisted mostly of the phrase mild case

Then he went into the hospital. For–we were assured–routine tests. On a Sunday night. But he was still running the country.

How dumb do they think we are?

Very.

Now he’s in intensive care and not running the country. So who’s is? Dominic Raab. [Update: True, but it turns out he has no power. He can’t make decisions without the cabinet’s okay.] But Larry the Cat has been edged out. I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. 

Government ministers, by the way, have taken to blaming top civil servants for the mess they–that’s the government, not the civil service–have made in responding to the crisis. 

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In the interest of fixing this mess, the government has bought 17.5 million home testing kits (or possibly an option on them–I’ve seen it explained both ways) that would allow people to find out whether they’ve had Covid-19. This would allow people who already had it and are immune to go back out into the world.

Unfortunately, they don’t work well enough to be much use. The milder a person’s symptoms were, the less likely the tests are to detect antibodies. On top of that, no one knows for sure if people who’ve had it actually are immune and if so how long their immunity lasts.

Other than that, they’re great and we’re well on our way to solving our little problem.

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Scotland’s chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, warned the public not to go anywhere unless it was essential. It put people’s lives at risk. So listen up, people, we can’t fool around with this.

Then she went to her second home. Twice. And got caught. 

And resigned.

It’s funny how much more essential a trip looks when it’s yours.

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In response to the local humans going into hiding, goats have wandered into Llandudno, in Wales, and are looking very picturesque, thank you. These are Kashmiri goats, originally from India, and they’ve been in the area since the nineteenth century–long enough to acquire the local accent. In normal times, they only come into town in bad weather. Or when they’ve saved up enough money for ice cream.

The photos are worth a click.

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I was going to report on what NHS staff are having to use to protect themselves from infection in the absence of genuine protective equipment, but it’ll either make you depressed or homicidal. Ditto the reports of them being warned not to speak out about the lack of equipment and how it’s putting their lives at risk. Both are happening. Read the real news, not just the stuff I post. I can’t make this stuff funny and if I could it’d be immoral. 

After a decade of underfunding the National Health Service, chopping it to pieces, disorganizing it, privatizing it, re-disorganizing it, understaffing it, and blaming the problems on the people who work for it and the previous government, suddenly the Conservatives love the NHS and everyone who works for it. Without proper protective equipment. 

And when this is all over, they’ll privatize more of it. In the name of making it more resilient. You heard it here first.

Me? I lean more heavily toward the homicidal. 

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Let’s cheer ourselves up. Something called Brewgooder has worked out a way for people to buy four-packs of beer for NHS staff. 

“It’s not much,” it said, “but with beer nationally recognised as a currency of gratitude, it’s a small gesture to show your appreciation to a tireless NHS worked that you don’t know and may never meet.”

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Postman Jon Matson, in South Tyneside, is doing his bit to lift people’s spirits. He’s delivered mail dressed as Cleopatra, Little Po Beep, a cheerleader, and a soldier. 

Did I mention that he’s got a full beard? You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Little Bo Peep with a beard.

The response was good enough that he’s promised to dress up as someone new every day. And yeah, that’s worth a click as well.

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In Stockport, someone goes out for an hour a day dressed as Spiderman to cheer up kids. Parents can request a visit to their street as long as the kids promise to stay in and wave from the window. 

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And finally–and irrelevantly–I put a note on my village Facebook page that I’d lost one of my favorite earrings and if anyone found it I’d love to have it back. I didn’t think I stood a chance of seeing it again, but I had to try. The earring’s small and kind of pavement colored, but in less than an hour a neighbor was at my door with it in his palm.

About thirty seconds before that happened, another neighbor offered a box of chocolates to anyone who found it. She’s now in debt to the tune of one box of chocolates.

Thank you, Paul.

Birds, bills, booze, and the virus: It’s the (old) news from Britain

In early March, with northern Italy beset by the corona virus, a winery in Castelvetro had a problem with one of its valves and ended up sending lambrusco into the kitchen sinks and showers (and, presumably, bathtubs) of twenty neighboring houses. The leak lasted three hours–long enough for the neighbors to bottle a fair bit of wine. 

No one’s demonstrated that it cured the virus, but it did keep twenty families occupied and happy for a while.

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The British papers reported a rush in the U.S. to buy guns and ammunition in the face of the corona virus. “Why?” people here asked, since American gun culture’s a foreign language to them. “You can’t shoot the bug.”

As the interpreter of all things American, I had to explain: “It’s to protect their toilet paper.”

Irrelevant photo: Crocuses. They’re not afraid of the corona virus.

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I knew the Covid-19 epidemic was serious when I heard that EastEnders–that essential BBC soap opera–had suspended filming. I’d have thought the world was ending, but they making box sets of dramas available to get people through their isolation. They’re also using local radio stations to coordinate volunteers offering to help the elderly–and I hope other vulnerable people, but that’s not what the new story I read said.

Two notes before I move on: 1) The definition of elderly is “older than me,” even though they seem to have mistakenly asked me to stay out of everyone’s way so I don’t get sick. 2) I am not now watching nor have I ever watched EastEnders.

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This next story starts with a man getting a bill from a utility company he doesn’t have an account with, Scottish Power. He figures it’s a scam and ignores it. 

He gets calls from the same company. He complains to them about it. He gets referred to the complaints line. 

The complaints line tells him they can’t help because he doesn’t have an account with the company.

He writes the chief exec and gets a letter back assuring him they’ll restore his account to a dual-fuel tariff and thanking him for accepting a phone call he’d never gotten.

He continues to get calls from the company. 

He makes a complaint to the Energy Ombudsman, who (or maybe that’s which) tells him they (or possibly he or she) can’t help because he hasn’t exhausted Scottish Power’s complaints process. 

He gets a newspaper’s consumer column involved, but they can’t manage to get through to the company’s press office. The phone numbers they call aren’t answered, the email addresses are dead ends, and the contact people aren’t contacts. Or, quite possibly, people. In the past, when the paper’s gotten other complaints about the company, the best it’s been able to do is roll the stories together and make them public, hoping to embarrass the company. 

The man blocks the company’s number while he’s at work so at least he can get some work done. 

Last I heard, nothing’s been resolved.

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Meanwhile, a driver paid an Irish toll electronically. Then she or he–let’s call him or her them for the sake of my sanity–got a letter from Euro Parking Collection saying the payment was overdue. 

The driver sent a screenshot of their bank statement to prove it was paid.

They got a letter asking for more details and sent them.

Silence.

They looked at the website to make sure it had been resolved and ended up resubmitting everything they’d already sent and got a letter back saying the payment couldn’t be traced.

They called and got an automated message that convinced them the company doesn’t respond to calls. They called some more and got someone who said the company would look into it.

Silence.

They called again. It would be looked into.

They got a letter from a debt collection agency. The toll had now gone from £5.52 to £88.43. 

They contacted the company that administers the toll system and got an email asking for the information they’d already sent twice. When they sent a reply, they were told the sender’s mailbox was full.

When the same newspaper column got in touch, the information still couldn’t be located but the company did at least cancel the payment. 

The columnist had almost as hard a time getting through as the civilian.

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While we’re on the subject of driving, new British cars are cranking out 7% more carbon dioxide than older ones, even though they meet the new emissions standards and have all the cleaner-air bells and whistles. 

How come? They’re bigger and they’re heavier. 

And yes, that includes hybrids. 

Excuse me for a minute while I go slit my wrists.

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Judith Niemi, from Minnesota, sent me this: The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior reports that “house sparrows [still generally by non-birders called ‘English sparrows’] have even learned to open automatic doors to grocery stores, cafes, and other sources of food by hovering in front of the electric eye sensors.” 

Judith adds, “The book does not explicitly say that none of the new world sparrows have caught on to this trick; I’m pretty sure it’s just those scrappy, street-smart birds whose lineage has been perfecting various dodges in London streets for centuries. Distracting people with their lechery, perhaps, while their chums picked pockets? Incidentally, since being imported to these shores the species has evolved to be more variable, and often bigger. Just as aggressive. There’s a metaphor in there.”

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Somehow or other, this story follows from that, although I can’t explain why: In Yorkshire, a pig set fire to its pen. How? Well, first it swallowed a pedometer that another pig was wearing. Then it digested it and–with apologies to those of tender sensibilities–it shit it out, as both humans and pigs will do with the things they swallow. Copper from the battery “reacted with” dry hay and started a blaze. 

Why was the other pig wearing a pedometer? To prove that it was–or presumably they were–free range. 

How did the battery start a fire? It was a lithium-ion battery–the same kind that’s been known to spontaneously combust in cell phones and such.

Why did the pig eat the pedometer? That’s harder to answer. My best guess is jealousy. You know how it is. Why didn’t I get the pedometer?

Was anyone hurt? No. Four pig pens burned but the pigs were fine and headline writers had a wonderful time, writing about pigs pooping pedometer, firefighters saving the bacon, and calories being burned. 

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The fashion house Hugo Boss has a history of taking smaller businesses and charities to court for using the name Boss, so a comedian formerly known as Joe Lycett went to court to change his name to Hugo Boss. In a tweet, he explained the background and wrote, “All future statements from me are not from Joe Lycett but Hugo Boss. Enjoy.”

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A newly published British Medical Journal survey from 2016 reports the MPs–that’s Members of Parliament–are more likely to binge drink than the general public is. Binge drinking is defined at six or more units of alcohol at a session.

MP Dan Poulter commented, “It is extraordinary that there are so many bars in parliament where alcohol is available at almost every hour of the day.

“This is not the case in other parliaments elsewhere in the world and is certainly not the case in other workplaces, where drinking alcohol is not acceptable during working hours.”

To illustrate the impact, the Guardian told a tale from 1983, when a junior employment minister, Alan Clark, gave a speech while drunk enough to throw entire pages without reading them. Why not? As far as he could figure out, they made no sense anyway. An opposition MP “asked me what the last paragraph meant,” he wrote. “How the hell did I know?” 

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And bringing together the tales of the pig and the MP, a plane headed for Iceland made an emergency landing in Edinburgh when a man got drunk enough that he tried to eat his phone. Or at least, he chewed on it hard enough to damage the battery, which fell out and started smouldering on the seat. A flight attendant threw water on it and put it out. 

The passenger was also abusive to other passengers, flight attendants, and the police who came to arrest him when they landed. 

He may be free-ranging again by now. He may even have an ankle bracelet to prove it. But that’s speculation.

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In the late Victorian era, before mass car ownership, London traffic moved at about 12 miles an hour. In 2018, in Westminster and the City (two parts of London), it moved at 8 miles an hour.

I call that progress.

The pandemic news from Britain

So you think you’re bored? An astrophysicist in Australia dealt with coronavirus isolation by trying to build a gizmo that would warn people when they started to touch their faces. He used four powerful neodymium magnets–and no, I never heard of them either but you can buy them online for any price between £4 and £2,000. I’m not sure what range his fell into.

I know: Australia isn’t in Britain. It’s too good a story to pass up. And no, this is not an April Fool’s joke. 

He wasn’t working in his area of expertise, but he figured that if he wore magnets on his wrists and made a necklace out of something else, it would buzz when the two got too close.

Nice try. It buzzed until the two got close together, basically nagging until you were driven to touch your face. So he gave up on that, but he still had those magnets.

“After scrapping that idea, I was still a bit bored, playing with the magnets. It’s the same logic as clipping pegs to your ears – I clipped them to my earlobes and then clipped them to my nostril and things went downhill pretty quickly when I clipped the magnets to my other nostril.”

What he’d done was clip one inside and one outside each nostril, and all was well until he took the outside ones off and the two inside clipped themselves together. When he went to get them off, they would fit past the ridge at the bottom of his nose. So he turned to Lord Google, who told him that an eleven-year-old had had the same problem and that the solution was to use more magnets, from the outside, to counteract the pull of the ones inside.

Do not believe everything Lord Google tells you. Even if you’re an astrophysicist. Lord G. does not have your best interests at heart. The magnets did indeed pull and he lost his grip on them and now had four magnets up his nose instead of two. So he tried to use a pliers, but “every time I brought the pliers close to my nose, my entire nose would shift towards the pliers and then the pliers would stick to the magnet. It was a little bit painful at this point.”

He ended up in the hospital where his partner works and they sprayed an anesthetic into his nose and pulled out three magnets, at which point the fourth one dropped down his throat. He was lucky enough to cough it out. If he’d swallowed it, apparently, he’d have been in real trouble.

He’s sworn never to play with magnets again.

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In the meantime, how’s the UK coping with the virus? Well, it turns out that in 2018 it published a biological security strategy addressing the threat of pandemics. And then ignored it. As a former science advisor to the government, Ian Boyd, put it, “Getting sufficient resource just to write a decent biosecurity strategy was tough. Getting resource to properly underpin implementation of what it said was impossible.” 

Which is one reason that when the government heard a pandemic was coming, it put magnets up its nose. 

To be entirely fair, it’s been putting metaphorical magnets up its nose for years now, cutting money from the National Health Service on every week that started with Monday (or Sunday, depending on your calendar) until the service was barely handling ordinary problems.

The government tested the NHS a while back to see if it was ready to handle an epidemic. It wasn’t. So what did they do? Buried the findings. 

And three years ago the Department of Health got medical advice saying it should stock up on protective equipment for NHS and social care staff to prepare for a flu epidemic. But an economic assessment showed that it would cost actual money, so they didn’t do it.

Doctors and nurses are being asked to come out of retirement during the current crisis, and younger doctors are being asked to increase their hours or work on the front lines, but a doctors organization says many are hesitant because they would not be eligible for death-in-service benefits, “leaving their families in financial difficulty” if they died as a result. 

As I write this, our prime minister, health secretary, and chief medical officer all have Covid-19. So does the prime minister’s brain, Dominic Cummings. But Larry the Cat, who lives and works at Number 10 Downing Street, is immune and he’s prepared to step in as soon as everyone admits that he’s needed. 

He was originally brought into government to take charge of pest control, but you know what cats are like: They study everything everyone does. 

People, he’s ready for this. 

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A lot of ink has been spilled over why Britain didn’t go in with the European Union on a bulk buying deal for ventilators and other medical equipment to help deal with the epidemic. First we were told it was because Britain isn’t part of the EU. Then it turned out that Britain was eligible. So last week we were told it was because the government missed the deadline by accident–it didn’t get the email. But Britain had representatives at four or more meetings where the plan was discussed, and there were phone calls about it.

The cabinet hasn’t commented yet but watch this space. They’re going to blame Larry.

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Farm organizations and farm labor recruitment agencies say that between Brexit and the virus, Britain is short something like 80,000 agricultural workers. They’re calling for a land army to help with the harvest. It’s too early to say how well it’ll work.

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Who’s at the highest risk of exposure to the virus? Low-paid women. They cluster in social care, nursing, and pharmacy jobs–jobs with high exposure to lots of people. They make up 2.5 million of the 3.2 million highest risk workers. So we’re all in it together, but some of us are in it a lot deeper than others, and with a lot less protection.

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People whose health puts them most at risk from the virus have been contact by the government and advised to stay in for twelve weeks. And food parcels are being delivered to at least some of them–something I know not just from the papers but because friends received one and were also put in touch with a neighbor who’s able to shop for them. It’s impressive, but there are still huge gaps. People who have to depend on supermarket deliveries haven’t been able to set them up–there just aren’t enough slots. And sorting out who needs them and who wants them but doesn’t completely need badly? That’s not going well.

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Emergency legislation had given the police the power to

Um. Do something about slowing the spread of Covid-19, but no one’s sure what, and police forces across the country interpreted their new powers in new and interesting ways. 

One force dyed a lagoon black to keep visitors away. Another insisted people could only have an hour’s exercise a day, and a third issued a summons to a family for shopping for non-essential items. A fourth used a drone to film dog walkers and a fifth told a shop to stop selling Easter eggs.

Part of the problem is that there’s a gap between what the legislation says and comments from our notoriously loose-lipped prime minister, who said (before he got sick himself) that people should only exercise once a day. Another part of the problem is that the legislation was rushed through, without much time for thought. 

Senior police commanders are trying to bring some kind of sense to this mayhem. Expect the Easter egg ban to be lifted any day now. I glanced at a summary of the legislation. Easter eggs aren’t mentioned. 

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The government has announced a program to get the homeless–called rough sleepers here–off the streets and into hotel rooms, which aren’t being used anyway, or into empty apartment buildings. As long as they’re on the streets, they can’t self-isolate, and until you address that you can’t control the virus. 

It’s funny how an insoluble problem becomes soluble once the solvers have an interest in doing something about it.

I admit, I was impressed. But the problem is money. Homelessness groups say cities aren’t getting enough of it to implement the program. And they need to provide not just a place with a roof but also food, medical care, and support people if it’s going to work.

At one estimate, 4,200 homeless people were found shelter in a couple of weeks, but thousands are still on the streets and food is hard to come by. Among them are people whose immigration status doesn’t allow them any recourse to public funds because of a Home Office policy that also keeps them from working. No one wants to find them shelter because there’s no money for it.

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To do a decent job reporting on this, I should include the plans to keep people paid, at least partially, and not evicted from their homes, but they’re complicated enough that I sank. The self-employed are in one category. The employed-employed are in another. The self-employed who haven’t been self-employed long enough aren’t in either category. Renters are in a different category from homeowners. 

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And now a non-pandemic bonus to reward you for having gotten this far with precious little to laugh at: Researchers are working on a program that can read brain activity and turn it into speech. 

It works by learning what happens in the brain as people speak, and to build it they had a group of people read the same set of sentences over and over. It started by spitting out nonsense and compared that to what it should have read, and gradually it got so good that it turned “those musicians harmonize marvelously” into “the spinach was a famous singer.”

I love this program. It’s going to write my next post for me. 

Protective gear and flaming vicars: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

What’s happening with the coronavirus in Britain? Funny you should ask, because I was just about to answer that.

Let’s start with the Church of England, which had a hiccup when it went over to virtual services: A vicar set his arm on fire when he leaned forward at the end of his service and brushed against a candle flame. He had enough of a sense of humor to post the evidence online. It includes him saying, “Oh, dear, I’ve just caught fire.”

Which isn’t what I’d say if I’d just caught fire, but that’s the least of many reasons I’m not a minister.

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Semi-relevant photo: What could be cheerier than a bare, windblown tree in the midst of a pandemic? Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Cornwall, where I live, is trying to stop the flow of people from (presumably) London, coming down here on the theory that it’s safer. Or nicer. Or something-er. Or that pandemic is another word for holiday (or vacation, if you speak American). Some of them, inevitably, have brought the virus with them. One Londoner–or so a reasonably reliable rumor has it–was told to self-isolate and decided to do it in his lovely second home, in Cornwall. He proceeded to self-isolate in an assortment of local cafes, spreading the bug all over the town he loved so well.

Thanks, guy. Rest assured that we love you almost as toxically. 

But that’s not the only problem people bring when they come down here to ride this out. Cornwall’s infrastructure is already overstretched during a normal summer, when reasonably healthy visitors pour in. Hell, it’s overstretched during the winter, when they’re nowhere around. Years of tightening the national budget in order to shrink the government have starved local services, which are dependent on central government. That’s a long story and we’ll skip over it. The point is that a tide of people, some percentage of whom about to get seriously sick, is more than it can cope with. 

The county council, Public Health Cornwall, and the tourist board have urged people to stay away. That’s the tourist board telling people to say away.

I doubt anyone’s listening, but they can say they tried.

The manager of a shop in Penzance is worried about incomers buying out her stock. She’s put some toilet paper in the back to sell to local people. If the lack of health services doesn’t scare the tourists off, the lack of toilet paper might.

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A man who’d just arrived on the Isle of Man–yes, I do know how that sounds; I didn’t name the place–was arrested because the island had just imposed a two-week self-isolation period on new arrivals, whether or not they showed symptoms of the virus, and he hadn’t self-isolated. 

It turned out he was homeless and–well, yes, this is part of the definition–had no place to self-isolate. Or sleep. He faced a £10,000 fine and a three-month jail sentence. 

In a startling moment of sanity, the government decided not to prosecute. He’s been found some sort of accommodation, although I have no idea what sort.

Britain’s considering legislation that would let immigration officials put new arrivals in “appropriate isolation facilities.” 

Horse, guys. Barn door. 

But just to prove that the country’s taking this seriously, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace has been canceled. It doesn’t get any more serious than that.

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Undertakers are so short on protective gear that they’re being told to make masks out of plastic trash bags, towels, and incontinence pads when they deal with suspected coronavirus cases. 

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A couple of musicians spent some time playing outside people’s homes in London to cheer them up while they’re stuck there. You’ll find a video here.

You can also find a video of people using a basket and rope to shop from their balcony.

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Self-isolation, by the way, is a ridiculous phrase. I apologize for using it, but these things are as contagious as the damn virus that spawned it.

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The U.K. chancellor–he’s the guy with the budget–has promised employees who can’t work because of the pandemic 80% of their wages, up to a maximum of £2,500 a month, although I don’t think anyone’s seen any money from it yet. But the self-employed and the mythically self-employed–the gig workers and people on zero-hours contracts–were offered only a fast track to £94.25 a week in what’s called universal credit. Let’s not go into why it’s called that. What you need to know is that it’s a whole shitload less money.

You needed me to point that out, right?

The Independent Workers Union is mounting a lawsuit on the grounds of discrimination. I’m rooting for them.

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In the U.S., two senators, Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler, attended a briefing about how serious covid-19 was. This was in January–the same day that Trump tweeted, “It will all work out well,” with the it being the virus.

What did they do? Sound the alarm on how unprepared the country was? They’re Republicans. If they’d spoken up it would have had some power. Well, no, they didn’t. In fact, Burr wrote on FoxNews.com that the country was well prepared. 

What they did was sell a whole lot of stocks before their prices crashed. 

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As for me, the virus has driven to the extreme measure of acknowledging that I am an actual human being, with a life outside this blog. So here’s a personal note, which I wouldn’t usually include: Ida and I are fine. 

Our next-door-neighbor has what they’re pretty sure is just his usual winter flu, but they’re staying in for two weeks (with two small kids; I call that heroic) just to be on the safe side. We’ve done the same, since Ida has something involving a bad cough. No fever on either side of the fence, but we’re all being cautious. It feels a little crazy, but we’re gambling with other people’s lives and that has a way of focusing your attention. 

Or it should, anyway.

All the same, I’m finding it hard, since we’re trying to avoid things we can’t see, hear, or smell, not to either descend into paranoia (ack! I just touched a solid object! I’m gonna die!) or else decide they’re not real anyway and start licking doorknobs. 

As we all would in normal times.

I’m finding it easier to protect other people from whatever the hell Ida has (which for reasons I can’t explain, I don’t seem to have) than I did to protect us from what people around us might have. Maybe protecting other people is more finite. Maybe I’m just more used to it. 

A few days ago, Ida put in an online request for prescription cough syrup and that must’ve sent up a red flag at the doctors’ office, because someone called to ask why she needed it and how she was. The woman who called advised us to stay out of people’s way for two weeks, which we’d already begun to do. The government’s bungled this in more ways that I can count (mind you, it doesn’t take much to go outside of my mathematical range), but the people on the front lines are being amazing. 

Our village has been good about rallying around. It helps to be someplace where the scale is small and so many of us know each other. One of the essential services that threatened to fall apart was the group of volunteers who make sure people are able to pick up their prescriptions. That would normally be handled by a village store, but ours closed some time ago. All the volunteers except one were either over 70 or vulnerable in some other way or else had a partner who was. We put a notice up on the village Facebook site and younger volunteers have come forward, in spite of jobs and kids and all the commitments that go with not being retired. 

We’ve had several offers from friends and neighbors who are going grocery shopping to pick up whatever we need–assuming they can find it. Already, friends have brought groceries–fresh fruit, milk, onions, broccoli, stuff. Apples are hard to find, although a friend left us some yesterday. 

Why apples? 

Why not apples. Sometimes, I’m told, one store will have been emptied out and another will be fairly well stocked. It all leaves me with a sense of limits. Will the stores run out of cat food? Did I get enough peanut butter? Why didn’t I buy more frozen vegetables and potatoes before it all got serious, since we could see it coming? 

Because I didn’t want to hoard, that’s why. But I did want to stock up. Where’s the balancing point between hoarding and stocking up? (Answer: You hoard; I stock up.) 

How often can I cut the spinach I planted last spring, which is still growing, before it decides that I’ve asked too much of it? 

Am I using too much water?

Water isn’t one of the things we’re running short of, but for me, at least, an awareness of limits breeds an awareness of limits. We’re entering a new era here and I suspect I’m feeling its first vibrations. I hope life will go back to normal at some point, but I’m not convinced it will.

But enough about me. Wishing you and yours all the best. Be careful, be lucky, help others, and stay well.

Hope, despair, passwords, and racism: It’s the news from Britain

You know all those passwords that The People Who Know These Things tell you never to write down but that you write down anyway because those same people also tell you to use a different one for every damn thing and who can remember all that mess? Well, an Irish drug dealer lost £46 million in bitcoins in spite of writing down the code for his stash. But because it’s a dangerous world out there–something any upstanding drug dealer should be aware of–he hid the code in the cap of his fishing rod case. 

I mean, of course you shouldn’t write it down, but what could be safer than that?

Nothing until he got busted with some two thousand euros worth of pot in his car, got sentenced to five years in jail, and somehow in the middle of all this didn’t think to ask anyone to save his fishing rod case because it had great sentimental value. So his landlord cleared his house out and had everything hauled to the dump. Which sent it to either Germany or China, where it was incinerated. 

Not all that £46 million came from drugs. He bought the bitcoins when they were worth £5. Then they went up to £7,500. Each.

He had other accounts, and the Irish state confiscated them, but without the code they haven’t been able to claim this one. And there’s a lesson in there, although I’m not sure what it is or who’s supposed to learn it.

And yes, I do know that Ireland’s not Britain. We share a stretch of water, though, as the Irish know all too well. And anyway, I cheat.

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Entirely relevant photo, although it won’t be clear why yet. This is Moose, a snub-nosed dog who snores when he’s awake. Keep reading. It’ll all make sense eventually.

After that, we need a feel-good story: In February, a book-lover responded to the suicide of TV presenter Caroline Flack by contacting the Big Green Bookshop–an independent with an online presence–and offering to buy two copies of Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, a memoir about coping with depression, for people who needed them.

The store’s owner already ran a buy-a-stranger-a-book club and tweeted the offer, saying he’d “try to cover any others that are requested.” He got thousands of requests, along with donations ranging from £1 to over £100. In mid-February, the donations had mounted up to £6,000 and he’d sent out 600 books. 

“This book has made such a difference,” he said. “Lots of people have said it saved their lives. And this is not just about people getting the book, it’s about how they’re getting it.”

Okay, I can’t help myself: If you want to donate to the buy-a-stranger-a-book club, here’s the link.

A branch of Blackwell’s Bookshop is doing something similar.

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And a feel-sexy story: A hormone in chocolate could (note the get-out-of-jail-free quality of that word) boost men’s sex drive. How? By making women smell or look more attractive to them. 

Smell or look? Either/or, not both/and? Sorry, I don’t make the rules. 

Would it make men look or smell more attractive to either men who are attracted to men or to women who are attracted to men? 

Sorry, that wasn’t part of the study.

Would it make women look or smell more attractive to women who are etc.? 

Not part of the study. The trial involved straight men. I’m going to take a wild and irresponsible guess and say that’s where the money is when you’re developing drugs for a low sex drive. Or else the folks running it lack imagination.

The hormone’s called kisspeptin. Results are not guaranteed, but if it doesn’t work at least you got to eat some chocolate.

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I’m not sure how this one will make you feel. I’m not even sure how it makes me feel. Depression is at war with amusement. Who’d’ve thought you could feel both at once? 

After Dominic Cummings–our prime minister’s brain–called for “misfits and weirdos” to apply for jobs in his office, someone who calls himself a super forecaster was hired. Andrew Sabisky became a contractor working on “specific projects,” although last time I checked no one would say what those projects were. So at least we know they didn’t just send him into an office and say, “Work on everything, why don’t you?”

So far so ho-hum. Then someone dug out what our little forecaster had to say about life, the universe, and everything. It turns out that before he started working on specific projects he published work arguing that people who look like him are smarter, thanks to their genes, than people who don’t, and that people from backgrounds like his are more conscientious and agreeable (those aren’t my adjectives) than people who–gasp, wheeze–depend on long-term government support. He favors enforced birth control, starting at puberty. I’m not clear who that’s supposed to be enforced on, but I expect he’d make exceptions for people like him since they produce children who turn out to be so very much like him. 

I’m loading the dice here, but only slightly. By way of unloading them: Nowhere did he mention his own looks (he looks like a bar of soap, and if I were a better person I wouldn’t hold that against him) or his background. And when he wrote about intelligence, he wasn’t talking about every variation of people who don’t look like him, only people of African origin. He based his argument on a study that’s been discredited for systematically excluding high-IQ people of African origin from its study group. Amazingly enough, its sample group had low IQs.

And that’s without going to get into what IQ actually measures and how much more complicated the genetics of intelligence are than, say, the short and tall pea plants that Mendel measured.

Sabisky also believes in the existence of race, although scientists have given up on the concept of human races. It just doesn’t work. 

So once all that became public, all hell broke loose and Sabisky resigned. I’m not the only person who’s noticed that our little super forecaster hadn’t seen any of this coming.

Last I checked, it wasn’t clear who’d hired Sabisky, how far anyone had looked into his background before hiring him, whether he had a security clearance, or whether either our prime minister or his brain agrees with his views.

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The Sabisky fiasco, however, did set journalists digging into Dominic Cummings’ writings and they found a blog post (watch what you write on your blogs, people) that argues in favor of selecting embryos for intelligence. 

Does he plan to give the embryos itty bitty prenatal intelligence tests? Well, no. He figures that first someone will figure out what genes control intelligence (so far, what they know is that at a minimum it’s complicated and that it’s probably more complicated than that) and second that embryos can be screened for those genes and third that the best ones can be selected. The rest, presumably, will get tossed into the garbage can of history and the human race will get smarter and smarter. Unless this works out the way breeding dogs for specific qualities has, in which case the human race will get stranger and stranger and have shorter and shorter noses and snore a lot. 

We have two shih tzus (see above for one of them). That’s where I did my research.

David Curtis, editor-in-chief of Annals of Human Genetics, said Cummings “fundamentally misunderstands key concepts in genetics. . . . He seems to have got his ideas from a physicist rather than . . . genetics researchers.” 

“Got”? That’s British for “gotten.”

Richard Ashcroft, a professor of bioethics, called it “cargo cult science.”

If you don’t recognize the phrase cargo cult, it’s not a compliment.

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For reasons I can’t explain, the only story that could possibly follow that is one about tattoos: The actor Orlando Bloom got his son’s name–Flynn–tattooed on his arm in morse code. Then he put it on Instagram, because if it’s not on Instagram it didn’t happen.

If your arm isn’t on Instagram, you don’t have an arm.

Someone pointed out that the tattoo spelled Frynn. 

The tattooist corrected the spelling and added Bloom’s former dog’s name as a bonus. 

Former dog? That’s what the article said. Presumably, it (or he, or she) got a promotion and is now a cat. Whatever it currently is, the creature’s name was and still is Sidi. 

And with that out of the way, what else can we do but review the tattoos of other people who’ve publicly screwed them up? Ariana Grande tried to get lyrics from one of her songs tattooed on her arm in Japanese. It ended up saying “small charcoal grill.” The BBC interviewed a tattooist who admitted to having tattooed “serenitiy” on someone’s face. If you’re not a skilled proofreader, there’s an extra i tucked away in there, probably riding the cheekbone. The person the face belongs to is unnamed, but since it’s on his face I’d still call that public. 

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A daredevil died trying to prove the earth is flat. “Mad” Mike Hughes aimed a home-made rocket straight up, hoping to get 5,000 feet above the earth. Exactly what he planned to do once he was up there I don’t know–presumably it wasn’t go into orbit–but something went wrong and the whole thing came back down. 

I’d love to know how he figured the sun rises and sets and all the rest of that stuff in the sky moves around. Maybe we have to go back to the earth being at the center of the universe. 

Anyway, I think we can all agree that he proved gravity works.

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The excavation of a cave in Kurdistan shows that Neanderthals buried their dead–possibly with flowers, although that last part is still controversial. The burial is some 70,000 years old and the flower pollen was found in the soil by the body, along with mineralized plant remains. 

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And finally, some good news from a place with precious little of it: The Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos was built for 3,000 people and now holds 20,000. The toilets are overflowing, bags of rubbish lie uncollected, and people are trapped there by the Greek government’s refusal to move refugees to the mainland and by other E.U. countries’ refusal to accept any serious number of refugees. The water supply is uncertain and cold. People live in tents and spend hours waiting for food. Nights are cold.

And yet: A refugee named Zekria started a library and a school there. 

Zekria used to teach law in Kabul, and when the schools that charities run had no room for his kids, he started his own school. Before long, he had more students than he could handle and built up a team. They turn no one away, even if it means that some classes are huge. 

They have three classrooms, thirty teachers, and a thousand students. Classes include English, Greek, German, French, guitar, and art. 

The library is next door. Most of the books have been donated by aid workers.

Moria is better known for fires, violence, rape, murder, and desperate overcrowding. The world’s turned its back on the people trapped there, and Zekria’s asylum application has been turned down more than once. Presumably because he’s not the sort of person you’d want in your country.

And yet.

Lord mayors, tan-washing, green-washing, and Australia-washing. It’s the news from Britain

After a portrait hung in Paris’s central bank for a century, glorifying French history, its subject turned out not to be Louis XIV’s son but a London mayor from the seventeenth century. 

Sorry, make that a London lord mayor.  

How did anyone spot the problem? The pearl sword the man’s carrying is still in use today. Because, hey, you never know when a lord mayor will have a pressing need for a pearl-handled sword. And famous London landmarks are painted into the background. Plus the horse’s trappings (because what’s a lord mayor without a lord horse?) include a coat of lord arms, although the newspaper article I saw doesn’t say whose coat of arms it is. I’m going to take a wild and irresponsible guess and say it was the lord mayor’s own and that’s how they they picked the right lord mayor out of all the other good-lord mayors. 

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Mary Beard’s latest BBC TV show, Shock of the Nude,  about the western tradition of painting the nude, came with a warning: “Contains some nudity.”

I can’t add anything to that. Believe me, I tried.

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Irrelevant photo: primroses.

Boris Johnson’s top communications adviser, Lee Cain (who I never heard of before either) refused to let selected journalists into a government briefing in early February, dividing the journalists who showed up so that the good kids stood on one side of a rug and the bad kids stood on the other. Then he told the bad kids to leave. 

They did. And the good kids left with them. The briefing was canceled. 

The communications team had already banned ministers from appearing on the news shows they’re mad at and told them not to have lunch with political journalists.

Could they have breakfast? A cup of tea? Enough beers that they said something nicely indiscreet but it wasn’t really their fault? I’m going to assume all that’s been banned too, but they weren’t mentioned. 

Johnson’s brain, also known as Dominic Cummings, is said to have a network of spies, watching to see if any of them cheat.

There’s speculation that the government is hoping to bypass the press as much as possible. Recent hires include people with media production backgrounds.

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It turns out that Beethoven didn’t go completely deaf. He lost a lot of his hearing and took to carrying blank books with him so that people could write anything they wanted him to know, but he did hear the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, at least partially.

That has nothing to do with Britain. It involves a German composer and an American academic who’s gone through Mr. B’s conversation books to establish it. But I did learn it from a British newspaper. 

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Who’s the new ambassador for the British Asian Trust? Katy Perry, who’s neither British nor Asian. 

Why her? No idea. Maybe they couldn’t find any British Asians. Or anyone who was at least either British or Asian. If that doesn’t explain it, then we’ll just have to accept that it’s a mystery.

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As long as we’re talking about diversity, let’s switch countries again. Barnes & Noble decided to celebrate Black History Month by tan-washing the covers of books by white writers about white people, so that (until you open the cover) they seem to be about dark-skinned people. The books included Romeo and Juliet, The Wizard of Oz, and Moby Dick, and that’s far from a complete list

I’ll admit that The Wizard of Oz does have a green witch, which would, technically speaking, make her nonwhite. Or maybe that’s only in the poster for a related play. But she could be green. Where is it written that she isn’t? And Moby Dick has a minor character who is, as I remember it (and it’s been a hundred or so years since I read the book, and that was under protest), described as a savage. We can’t spot any racism there, can we? Toward the end, he turns out to be noble, if I remember it right, but a deep and sensitive exploration of other-than-white-European cultures from the perspective of one of those cultures it ain’t. I read it too long ago to write a decent essay on it, and it bored me silly, so I won’t be going back to it, but I can tell you it didn’t pass the skin-crawl test. 

Hell, even the whale was white.

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We’ve done tan-washing, so let’s do green-washing: At the UK-Africa summit, Boris Johnson announced that Britain would stop the funding for coal-fired power plants in Africa. It wasn’t a hard decision to make. Britain hasn’t funded any since 2002. It is, however pouring £2 billion (give or take a few pence) into oil and gas in Africa.

Don’t look at the man behind the curtain. He may not be as green as he sounds.

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Back in the northern hemisphere, Johnson has proposed building a bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland. Or, I guess, the other way around. If it’s built, bridge will almost inevitably go both ways. It would be more than 20 miles long and cross water that’s over 1,000 feet (that’s 300 meters) deep in places. And traffic on it would have to deal with frequent high winds–the kind that regularly close British bridges to high-sided traffic. But that’s the least of it. It’ll be crossing waters where some million tons of World War II munitions were dumped. It’s not uncommon for them to wash up on beaches in the area, and they can explode when they dry out.

I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t find that funny but I can’t help myself.

And did I mention that there may also nuclear waste down there? And nerve agents and assorted other chemical weapons? Most of the more dangerous stuff was dumped further from shore, but sometimes folks got lazy. No one really knows where stuff is, or what condition it’s in, or even what exactly it is. A lot of records were destroyed, and the British government doesn’t monitor the site.

Modern munitions are stable, because they have to be primed or fused, but earlier ones are liable to explode if they’re kicked around. The British Geographic Survey recorded 47 underwater explosions in the area between 1992 and 2004. Lifting them out of the water probably isn’t a good idea either. An attempt to salvage a wrecked munitions ship led to an explosion that registered 4.5 on the Richter scale.

Engineers are said to be, um, skeptical about the bridge. One called it “socially admirable but technically clueless.” 

When he was mayor of London (presumably with access to that pearl-handled sword), Johnson managed to spend £53.5 million (or in another report, £40 million, but what’s £13.5 million between friends?) on a garden bridge across the Thames without a single shovelful of dirt ever being moved. The project was canceled by the next mayor.

[Update: For an explanation of why he doesn’t have access to the pearl-handled sword, take a look at Autolycus’s comment below. Because, people, this stuff matters.]

He–and this is Johnson, not the next mayor–also proposed a new airport outside London. It got a fair bit of press coverage, mostly centered on whether it was technically feasible, before the idea was quietly shelved.

He did manage to get a cable car built across the Thames for £560 million. It was supposed to be a “a much needed new connection” across the river. In 2015, a Londonist article reported that it has next to no regular users. And by way of full disclosure, “next to no regular users” is my interpretation of a shitload of complications and variables, complete with charts and explanations. You’re welcome to wade through them and give me grief about my interpretation if you’re in the mood. 

Unionists in Northern Ireland are said to be supportive of the bridge, but Scotland’s less than thrilled. So maybe they can build one end up of but not the other.

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In the meantime, a Dutch government scientist has proposed building two dykes that would enclose the North Sea, protecting something along the lines of 25 million people from flooding as sea levels rise. The two segments of the project would be 300 and 100 miles long. If you’re interested in water depths and technical possibilities, follow the link. It’s not complicated, but it’s more detail than I want to get into. The cost is estimated at £210 billion to £410 billion.

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Far be it from me to go out of my way to make fun of a government, but when one gives me so much to work with I’d be rude to ignore it. 

Both Boris Johnson and one of his ministers have said that the UK will pursue an Australian-type trade deal in negotiations with the European Union. The problem is that the EU doesn’t have a trade deal with Australia. 

The EU trade commissioner called it a “code for no deal.” 

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A hoard of Bronze Age tools were found in a London quarry–some 100 pounds (or 45 kilograms, if you want to be like that) of them. It includes 453 swords, axes, knives, chisels, sickles, razors, ingots, bracelets, and assorted goodies, many of them broken. They date from somewhere between 900 and 800 B.C.E., which translates to Before the Common Era, or B.C. if you take your historical dates with sugar. Some of the finds are typical of work found in what’s now France and what were, even then, the Alps, although they’d have been called something different. The point is that Britain wasn’t isolated from Europe, but part of a larger culture. 

Archeologists are busy speculating on what it all means. Was all this stuff an offering to the gods? Did the shift from the bronze to iron mean they’d lost their value? Was someone trying to control the amount of Bronze in circulation? Was it a storage site, and if so why wasn’t the stuff un-stored?

The definitive answer is that no one knows. 

The hoard will be in the Museum of London Docklands from April 3 to November 1.

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When an Italian citizen living in London applied for permission to stay in Britain after the Brexit transition period ends, the Home Office app wanted his parents to confirm that he was who he claimed to be. The problem is that Giovanni Palmiero is 101. His parents weren’t available.

The app decided he’d been born in 2019, not 1919, because it doesn’t recognize ages with more than two digits. It took the volunteer who was helping him half an hour and two phone calls before anyone accepted that the app was the problem, not him.

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And finally, just when the European Union announces that it’s going to clamp down on its 82 free ports because they make it easy to finance terrorism, launder money, traffic in drugs and people, avoid taxes, and generally promote mayhem, Britain has announced that, since we’re leaving the EU, it will create 10 new ones. 

Not that Britain couldn’t have done that when it was in the EU. It had 7 free ports between “1984 and 2012, when the UK legislation that established their use was not renewed,” according to the Institute for Government.

A free port, it turns out, doesn’t have to be a port. It can be landlocked if it has an airport. What matters is that “normal tax and customs rules do not apply. . . . Imports can enter with simplified customs documentation and without paying tariffs.” If the goods are then moved out of the zone into the rest of the country, all the tariffs and paperwork apply, but if they’re sent out of the country again, they don’t.

Coronavirus, British quarantine, and the Eyam plague village

As we watch the spread of coronavirus, it’s sobering to remember that when the bubonic plague swept through Europe–this was in the middle ages and later–people (understandably) fled, and some number of them (inevitably) carried it with them to new cities, towns, and villages, helping it meet new people and (in many cases) kill them.

Silly people, you’ll think, even as you wonder if you’d have the strength to take your chances in a plague-hit town. (You’ll notice how neatly I tell you what you think. So neatly that you barely notice I’m doing it.)

Isn’t it good that we’re wiser these days? Because what did countries that were free of the corona virus do when they understood the danger it carried? Why, they evacuated their citizens–or as many of them as they could–along with whatever germs they were carrying. 

And what did Britain do about the possibility that they’d brought the virus home with them? Its first move was to tell them to self-isolate–in other words, to stay home. 

Marginally relevant photo: Pets are wonderful germ vectors. You pet them, you leave your germs on their fur, then–faithless wretches that they are–they go to your nearest and dearest to get petted, because one person is never enough, and they bring your germs with them. This particular germ vector, in case you haven’t met him, is our much-loved Fast Eddie. You’re not seeing him at his fastest.

Could they go out to buy groceries? Well, people do need to eat. But after that, seriously, people, no contact. Except with the people they live with, of course. And with the person who delivers that pizza they ordered, who’ll only be at the door a minute. And of course anyone their families, roommates, and the pizza person come into contact with. 

In fairness, figuring out whether to impose a quarantine isn’t an easy call, and I’m grateful that it’s not mine to make, but if you wonder why the virus has spread you might start your wondering with that decision.

The country moved to more serious quarantine measures not long after, but a newspaper photo of a bus that took plane passengers to a quarantine center shows one person dressed like an astronaut to prevent contagion and right next to him or her (or whatever’s inside the suit) a bus driver dressed in a red sweater, a white shirt, and a tie, without even a face mask–the effectiveness of which isn’t a hundred percent anyway.

As for the tie, I’ve never worn one or figured out how they’re tied, but I do know that germs aren’t afraid of them. Contrary to common belief, they weren’t invented to prevent the spread of infection. Breathe in a germ and your tie won’t be tight enough to keep it from reaching your lungs. 

So what have we learned since the medieval period? A lot about how diseases work, but less about how to contain them than we like to think. The coronavirus isn’t the plague and doesn’t seem to be the flu epidemic of 1917 either, but it’s instructive to see ourselves flounder.

So let’s talk about a village that, when it was struck with the plague, did exactly what it should have done. Heroically.

In 1665, a tailor in the village of Eyam (pronounced eem; don’t ask), in Derbyshire (pronounced something like Dahbyshuh, at least in the Cambridge online dictionary’s audio clip, although I’m sure other accents take it off in different directions; ditto). Where were we before I got lost in pronunciation? A tailor received a bale of cloth from London. It was damp, and his assistant, who was only in Eyam to help make clothes for an upcoming festival, hung it in front of the fire to dry. That woke up the fleas who’d hitched a ride from London.

The plague had already taken root in London and the fleas were carrying it. The assistant, George Vickers, was the first person in Eyam to come down sick.

Between September and December, 42 people in Eyam died of plague. That’s out of a population of somewhere between 250 and 800. Whichever number’s closest to right, that’s a lot of people in a small place, and a lot of them were getting ready to do what people did in the face of the plague, which is flee. The local museum estimates the population as at least 700.

Enter William Mompesson, the village rector, who felt it was his duty to contain the plague. He’d been appointed only recently, and he wasn’t popular. To make the least bit of sense out of that, we have to take a quick dive into English history and religion. I’ll keep to the shallow waters, so stay close.

Charles II–the king who followed England’s brief experiment with non-monarchical government and anti-Church of England Protestantism–introduced the Book of Common Prayer to the English church, and the Act of Uniformity dictated that ministers had to use it. Most of Eyam, though, had supported Cromwell and his vein of Protestantism. In other words, they were anti-royalist, anti-Church of England, and anti-Act of Conformity. So Mompesson represented everything that pissed them off, politically and religiously. 

And Mompesson must have known that, because he approached the man he’d replaced, Thomas Stanley, who was living on the edge of the village, “in exile,” as Eyam historian Ken Thompson puts it. The two of them worked out a plan and in June they stood together to present it to the village: They would, all of them, go into voluntary quarantine. No one would leave. No one would come in. The earl of Devonshire, who lived nearby in the obscenely lush Chatsworth House (although it may not have been quite as overwhelmingly overdone at the time), had offered to send food. 

Mompesson’s wife, Catherine, wrote in her diary about the day they presented the idea to the village: “It might be difficult to predict the outcome because of the resentment as to William’s role in the parish, but considering that the Revd Stanley was now stood at his side, perhaps he would gain the support necessary to carry the day.”

People had misgivings, she wrote, but they agreed. 

August was unusually hot that year, meaning the fleas were more active, and five or six people died per day. The husband and six children of Elizabeth Hancock died within a space of eight days and she buried them near the family farm. And “buried” here doesn’t mean she stood by the grave demurely, wearing clean black clothes while someone else shoveled dirt in. It means that she dug the graves, dragged the bodies to them, and tipped them in single handed. People from a nearby village, Stoney Middleton, stood on a hill and watched but didn’t break the quarantine to help.

Most of the dead were buried by Marshall Howe, who’d been infected but recovered and figured he couldn’t be reinfected. He was known to pay himself for his work by taking the dead’s belongings. Or he was said to, anyway. Village gossip worked the same way then as it does now. There are no secrets, but there’s a hell of a lot of misinformation.

Mompesson wrote that the smell of sadness and death hung over the village. He assumed he would die of plague, describing himself in a letter as a dying man, but it was Catherine, his wife, who died of it. She had nursed many of the sick. Mompesson survived.

By the time the plague burned itself out, 260 villagers had died, giving Eyam a higher mortality rate than London’s. No one can know how many people the quarantine saved, but the guesswork is “probably many thousands.”

Mompesson was later transferred to another parish, where his association with the plague terrified people and initially he had to live in isolation outside the village.

Meanwhile, in our enlightened age, a couple of British-born brothers of Chinese heritage shared an elevator with someone who announced, “We’ll be in trouble if those guys sneeze on us.” Other people who are either of Chinese heritage or who assumed to be report having eggs thrown at them, having people move away from them, and being harassed on the street and online.

Happiness, depression, drunks, and codpieces. It’s the news from Britain.

Let’s start with Brexit, since January 31–the day this post goes live, in case you’re getting here late–is the last day that Britain is still a member of the European Union.

To mark the occasion, Boris Johnson announced a fundraising campaign to rush the repairs on Big Ben so it could ring out when Britain crosses that wild Brexit frontier. The cost was estimated at £500,000. He called it “bung a bob for a Big Ben bong.”

Don’t expect me to give you a word-for-word translation of that into American. Basically, it means “give money” and “I’m cute.”

Then, without the alliteration, a government spokesperson said there might be, um, problems in accepting public donations. Cue assorted forms of confected outrage. The newspaper I deliver to a neighbor (nice neighbor, godawful paper) ran a headline about a Remainer stitchup over Big Ben’s bongs. Because that’s what remainers are about: keeping that clock from ringing.

The headline didn’t get the clock ringing but it saved a bit of Johnson’s alliteration.

The aforesaid hapless government spokesperson was asked if Johnson would apologize to the people who’d already contributed to the crowdfunding campaign. He declined to say either that he would or he wouldn’t. Several times over.

But maybe church bells could ring out all over Britain.

Well, as it turns out that ringing bells, or not ringing them, is governed by church law. Who knew? And  only parish priests get to decide when and whether to ring them. A quick survey by the Guardian didn’t indicate much enthusiasm for it, either on the part of the clergy or the bellringers.

An Exeter Cathedral spokesperson said, “The Church of England in Devon is the church for everyone, whether they voted leave or remain. Church bells are first and foremost a call to worship and, in line with the Central Council for Church Bellringers, we do not feel, in principle, they should be rung for political purposes.”

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Rumor has it that Boris Johnson has banned the word Brexit from 10 Downing Street as of January 31. It’s not clear why. Maybe it’s his way of addressing people’s Brexit exhaustion: Let’s just not talk about it anymore.They’ll also stop talking about negotiations with the EU and pretend everything’s taken care of. Maybe that’s what people really voted for: not to fix anything, just to stop hearing about it.

So what does the new 50p Brexit coin say? “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations.”

Seriously. An earlier edition of 1 million was melted down because it had an exit date that Johnson, in a fit of enthusiasm, promised but then changed–October 31. How much did that cost? Nobody’s saying, although a fair number are asking. In an trial run, a thousand were minted with an earlier date that Theresa May missed.

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One last bit of Brexit news: Bloomberg Econmics estimated that since the referendum the cost of Brexit has been £130 billion, and if expects another £70 billion to be added to that by the end of the transition period. But hey, it’s only money, right?

If you’re interested in how Brexit is likely to affect business or in the issues around regulation and what alignment with EU regulations means, check out the Brexit Blog.

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The Church of England’s House of Bishops has issued advice saying that sex should be for married heterosexuals only. Which makes sense. If god had wanted anyone else to have sex, he would have given them sexual desires and clearly he didn’t.

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Designers have introduced high heels to men’s fashion. One said they made her customers feel “more powerful and sexy.”

The last pair of heels I ever owned–or ever will, and this was back in 1804 or thereabouts –made me feel like I was going to fall down the stairs. That was a split second before I did fall down the stairs. It was sexy as hell. And very powerful. In spite of which I doubt the trend will transfer from the catwalk to the allegedly real world, but if it does, guys, you’re welcome to my share of the damn things, although you’ll probably need a larger size.

I also read that designers are reintroducing the codpiece. You know the codpiece? It’s “a pouch attached to a man’s breeches or close-fitting hose to cover the genitals, worn in the 15th and 16th centuries,” according to Lord Google. A highly exaggerated pouch. Henry VIII wore one. He would have had room to stuff his falconer’s gloves in there, and the falcon along with them. One paper said they’re intended to induce awe. I’m sure they will if you can only get people to stop laughing.  

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Irrelevant photo: A camellia blossom. In January.

A study of UK students reports that focusing on happiness could leave a person depressed. The students who valued happiness most registered as more depressed.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

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Let’s shift countries for a few entries: An octopus escaped a New Zealand zoo by breaking out of its tank and slipping down a drain to the ocean. A zoo spokesperson said the octopus wasn’t unhappy at the zoo–they’re solitary creatures–just curious. 

I’d need to hear that from the octopus before I feel certain of it, but it didn’t designate a spokesperson before it left.

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In the US, a drop-down menu on the Department of Agriculture’s website listed Wakanda, the imaginary country in the movie Black Panther, as a free-trade partner. What do the US and Wakanda trade?  Ducks, donkeys, and dairy cows. Possibly more, since those all start with D and I’d hope they’d trade up and down the full alphabet. I’d check but once it hit the papers, someone erased the evidence.

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A chef in France lost one of his three Michelin stars because a Michelin inspector claimed he’d substituted that English horror, cheddar, for good French reblochon, beaufort, or tomme in a souffle. That threw the chef into a deep depression (he might want to focus less on being happy; I’m told it helps), which in turn threw everybody involved into court.

He lost. Not because anyone proved that he’d used the dread cheddar but because he couldn’t demonstrate that losing the star had hurt his business. A “degustation” menu at his restaurant costs 395 euros.

Me? I like cheddar. Think how much money I’m saving.

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Coming back in the UK, a five-foot corn snake named Allan broke out of his vivarium (no, I never heard of one either; it’s a bit like an aquarium but without the water) when his people were making one of those Christmas trips that no sane person would make without a five-foot snake in the back seat. 

I’m not sure why they noticed that Allan had gone slither-about, but when they did they pulled off to the side of the motorway (if you’re American, that’s a freeway) and started pulling the car apart. Not figuratively: literally. They pulled out the seats and assorted other parts until they found him curled around the gear shift, trapped. They buttered it but he still couldn’t get loose.

This is sounding more and more like I’m making it up, isn’t it? I’m not. 

They ended up with the Fire and Rescue Service and the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals on the scene, one group cutting through a bit of metal and the other using a damp towel to protect the snake from the heated metal the first group was cutting. 

Allan is fine. There’s no report on how the car is.

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After a contestant on a British quiz show, Celebrity Mastermind, misidentified Greta Thunberg simply as Sharon, Thunberg changed her Twitter handle to Sharon. 

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Gardeners in at the Cambridge University Botanical Garden spent years trying to get the Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis orchid to blossom. It finally did in December, and it smells like rotting cabbage. Or a mix of dead rats and smelly socks. Or rotting fish. Choose one randomly, since it didn’t bloom for long and we’ve all missed the chance to describe it ourselves.

Isn’t that sad?

Try not to focus so much on being happy and you won’t feel as bad about it.

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Dominic Cummings, who as far as I can tell is Boris Johnson’s brain, placed an ad inviting weirdos and misfits (the two nouns are quotes, but I don’t like littering a paragraph with quotation marks around a bunch of bitsy words) to apply for jobs at Number 10 Downing Street, where both Boris and his brain work. Cummings has also (a) called for civil servants to be tested regularly to make sure they’re up to doing their jobs and (b) said he regularly makes decisions that are “well outside” his “circle of competence.”

He has not been tested to see whether he’s up to doing his job, and the weirdos and misfits ad may have been outside his circle of competence, because a few days later Number 10 announced that Cummings won’t be doing any recruiting outside of the usual procedures.

Security may also be outside his circle of competence, because he was using a gmail address in his ad instead of the secure government address he’s supposed to be using. Gmail’s known for reading users’ emails, and in some situations for making them available to third parties. 

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In January, a 26-year-old Plymouth man denied wounding with intent to cause bodily harm after allegedly throwing a seagull at someone’s head. He didn’t enter a plea to the charge of attempting to injure a wild bird. 

You’d think you could find out more about a story like that, but I haven’t  been able to. Except that it happened in a cafe, that he’s due in court in April, and that he was wearing a smart suit at his bail hearing. You know: the stuff that really matters.

My thanks to Phil Davis for this one. I can’t begin to tell you how much poorer my life would have been if he hadn’t let me know about it.

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My last news roundup included a story about mysterious packets of money appearing in the village of Blackhall Colliery. The people who left the  money have now outed themselves, but anonymously. Just enough to reassure everyone that the money was meant to be found and that the finders are welcome to keep it.

The two people who left the money aren’t related, aren’t married, aren’t local, and seem to have started out separately before joining forces. They made a point of leaving the cash where it would be found by people who most needed it.

Apostrophes, politics, and village pubs. It’s the news from Britain

The Apostrophe Protection Society has closed its doors

The group was founded in 2001 to preserve “the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark,” but the APS website says, “We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!”

The website also warns us to beware of fake news: The site itself isn’t closing down. If you have a burning question about, say, whether an inanimate object can own something, look no further; It has an answer. You can also find advice about the difference between fewer and less

You’ll sleep better at night knowing it’s still there, right? Although I could argue that the exclamation point they used is excessive.

Not that I would or anything.

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Irrelevant photo: azalea blossoms. For some reason, this came into bloom in the fall.

When one door closes, some totally unrelated one opens, and they have nothing to do with each other. The International Bank Vault has opened its doors in London, but only to billionaires. 

Millionaires? Pfui. 

No, I don’t know how to pronounce that either, and it’s not a quote from their promotional literature. Oddly enough, they haven’t sent me their promotional literature.

Yeah, I know. It was an oversight.

What they offer, as far as I can figure out, is safety deposit boxes. The smallest one is a steal at £600 a year. Want me to order a couple for you? Each one is big enough for some jewellery and “a fair few gold bars; they’re only the size of your mobile phone” said someone or other who’s very important and knows the size of a gold bar.

I’d link you to their website but it’s boring. They do that to keep the riff-raff out.

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This might be a good time to mention that the six richest people in the UK control as much wealth as the poorest 13 million. (And that was before the recent election. I don’t know about you, but I expect a further tip richward.) That’s about £39.4 billion on each side. That’s a lot of money, but it’s less (please note: not fewer) if you have to split it with 13 million other people. 

Actually, that’s 13.2 million. And I’m having trouble finding anything funny about it.

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Scientists at the University of Bath have brewed up artificial neurons that–if they fulfill their promise, the human race survives long enough, and the crick don’t rise–could un-paralyze people, snap the hazy brain circuits of dementia back into sharp focus, correct a form of heart failure, and connect minds to machines. That last achievement may be more fun for the humans than for the machines.

The artificial neurons are built into tiny, low-power chips that can plug right into the nervous system. I mention this not because it’s funny but because it’s interesting. And because none of us are getting any younger.

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A study in the U.S. shows that smartphones are causing dumb injuries. People are walking into lamp posts while messing around with their phones–reading articles on nuclear physics or texting or doing whatever people do on their phones while walking into lamp posts. The problem’s serious enough that Salzburg has installed airbags on lamp posts “to raise awareness of the dangers.”

Not to prevent immediate injuries?

Apparently not. 

The article also mentions injuries from exploding batteries and “the phone hitting the face,” which makes it sound like that happens by itself or that the phone does deliberately. And maybe it does. A phone can get tired of being the conduit for all the trivialities of our weary little lives. You know what people are like. Bash one of them in the face, though, and wow, does that change the conversation. I’ve been tempted to try it myself from time to time, but it’s hard to mistake me for a smartphone, so I’ve resisted.

If those chips do connect our minds to our machinery, think how much more often this will happen.

About half the injuries were caused by people using the phone while they drove. Ninety (out of 76,000  injuries seen in 100 hospitals between 1998 and 2017) involved people playing Pokemon Go. One involved a man stepping on a snake while he crossed a parking lot looking at his phone. The good news? The incident was caught on camera. Possibly by him but more likely by someone who thought it made more sense to film it than to yell, “Look out for the snake.”

I couldn’t find any information on how the snake is. Sorry.

About 60 percent of the injuries were to people between 13 and 29, who make up considerably less than 60 percent of the population. That means either that people learn to be more careful as they get older or that a sizable number of people 30 and over don’t know how to work a smartphone. Me included.

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You probably already know this, but Donald Trump tweeted that Greta Thunberg should “work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill!” 

Thunberg responded by changing her bio on Twitter: “A teenager working on her anger management problem. Currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend.”

Two points to Thunberg. A few spare capital letters to Trump. Not because he’s earned them but because he spends them profligately and will use up his supply any day now.

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As newly elected prime minister, Boris Johnson announced that he was going to lead a one-nation government. “Let the healing begin,” he said.

That was shortly after he celebrated his victory by announcing that Remainers should “put a sock in it.”

Yes, folks, we’ve entered a time of healing and goodwill over here.

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A bit of chewed birch tar found in southern Denmark has yielded the complete DNA of a woman who lived 6,000 years ago, at the start of the neolithic period. Like the early British settler Cheddar Man, whose DNA led to a reconstruction not long ago, she would have had dark hair and skin and blue eyes. 

She would have been a hunter-gatherer, one of a group of people who lived beside a brackish lagoon, and was more closely related to hunter-gatherers from mainland Europe than to those from central Scandinavia.

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A survey of 5,000 British teachers asked what they’d prefer as Christmas gifts from their students. Most of them said a handmade card rather than alcohol or chocolate or whatever else parents think up. 

The exception? Primary school teachers. One explanation is that they’ve seen enough kids’ drawings and they’ve reached their limit. The other–and this one comes from me, so treat it with all the care and suspicion it deserves–is that they need the alcohol more than secondary teachers do.

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Feel-good story of the week: A small village in Northumberland (in case you’re not British, that’s somewhere way the hell up in the north, but in England, not all the way to Scotland) went online to raise money in the hope of buying its pub to run as a community business. The village had already lost its shop, its post office, and its village hall. The pub is the last public space it has left, and no one was interested in buying it–except the residents, who didn’t have the money. 

If you’re British you already know this, but for the rest of youse, pubs aren’t just places to drink. They’re social spaces. The fundraising website describes it as “the centre of our village. It is our meeting place, our venue for community events and celebrations, a boon for our older residents and, in short, is the lifeline of our village.

No community owned pub has ever gone bankrupt in England, they work really well – but we need to buy it first!”

The village consists of a couple of hundred people and needed a minimum of £200,000 to buy the pub, so it turned to the outside world. Just before Christmas, with four days to go, it had raised £186,000. Those were pledges not to make donations but to buy shares. When I checked on Christmas Eve, the site said they’d put in a bid and it had been accepted.

If you collect strange pronunciations of British place names, the nearby Bellingham is pronounced Belling-jum.

No, don’t ask me. I learned it from the website and understand nothing.

Human books, mystery money, and the Vagina Museum. It’s the news from Britain

I often connect my posts to blog link-ups that limit themselves to family friendly posts (or in one case, reasonably family friendly posts), so this post comes with a warning: Nothing here is pornographic, and I respect it if people don’t want to read anything that’ll yuckify their brains for weeks. I’m pretty sure that nothing here will, but no two people’s definition of yuckification will be 603% identical. So whether or not the post is family friendly will depend on whose family we’re talking about. I use the word vagina. Most families have at least one and some have several–presumably not all on the same family member. So I don’t think I’m pushing the limits too far. I wouldn’t recommend the post to a three-year-old, but your average three-year-old is illiterate, so I think we’re okay.

Later on, there’s a bit about the Bad Sex Awards. This isn’t awarded for anything anyone did–the competition would be too (no pun intended, honestly) stiff. It’s a literary award that no one wants to win. The write-up contains a quote that’s bizarre, and–maybe ill informed is the best way to describe it, not to mention physically impossible. Still, I wouldn’t say it’s pornographic, just very damn strange.

You be the judge. Or if you prefer, bail out now. 

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A vagina museum has opened in London. But this isn’t just your garden variety vagina museum that we’re talking about. This is the world’s first (and probably its only) vagina museum. 

Why does the world need such a thing? Well, Sarah Creed, who curated its first exhibition, says that “half of people surveyed did not know where the vagina was.” 

The vagina? Is there only one? Or are we talking about the Great Vagina–the one that created the template for all the vaginas that came after?

Clearly, there’s a lot about this that I don’t know, but I do know where my own personal vagina is: It’s in Cornwall. If any of you are having trouble locating yours, an old-fashioned map or one of the apps on your smart phone (it knows where you are) would be a good place to start.

If you don’t have one of your own (that’s a vagina, not a smart phone), you’ll have to settle for more abstract information. The museum might be a good place to start.

You’re welcome. 

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Mysterious bundles of cash have been appearing in the town of Blackhall Colliery, in Northern Ireland. The bundles almost always add up to £2,000 and they’re left in plain sight on the high street (translation: the main street; it won’t necessarily be any higher than any other street and you don’t have to be under the influence of mind-altering substances to go there). 

What’s going on? No one knows. Or no one who’s talking knows. A police spokesperson said, “This could be the work of a good Samaritan but . . . the circumstances remain a mystery.”

Twelve bundles have been handed in to the police since 2014. If any have been found but not turned it, no one’s saying. But anyone handing the cash in can make a claim to keep it if the owner doesn’t show up.

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This next item has nothing to do with Britain, but I just have to include it: When the Harriet Tubman biopic was first pitched in Hollywood, back in the dark ages of nineteen-ninety-something-or-other, the head of the Whatever Studio said the script was fantastic and he wanted Julia Roberts to play Tubman.

The writer pointed out, with I have no idea what degree of tact, that Tubman was black and Roberts was white and that the discrepancy might, um, present a problem. I don’t think he said that since the story was about slavery in the US race was a central issue, but he probably should have. In some situations, no point is too obvious to skip over.

“It was so long ago,” the Sage of the Whatever Studio said. “No one is going to know the difference.”

My friends, I despair. 

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And this next bit has nothing to do with Britain either (we’ll come back home in a minute), but when the $39,900 armored electric Cybertruck was unveiled, Tesla wanted to prove it was “bulletproof to a 9mm handgun,” so after having people attack it with sledgehammers (they barely made a dent), they threw a metal ball at a window. Which smashed. 

To see if that was a fluke, they threw one at another window. Which also smashed.

The exact quote from the Sage of Tesla, Elon Musk, was “Oh my fucking god.” 

The $39,900 price that I quoted is for the basic model. If you really want to–and I just know you do–you can pay $76,900.

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You’ve probably heard somewhere along the line that accents are important in Britain. They mark your class and your region (unless you learn a new accent, in which case they mark how well or badly you’ve slipped into someone else’s) and they mark everybody else’s attitude toward you. So it’s worth mentioning that a man was charged with being drunk because of his accent.

The story is this: A man named–yes–Shakespeare (Anthony, not Bill) was reported to the Brighton police because he was slurring his words and had a three-year-old with him. The cops appeared, questioned him, and arrested him.

I’m not sure what happened to the three-year-old at this point. She’s probably still traumatized.

Shakespeare’s lawyer (whose name is less interesting than his client’s, so we’ll skip it) said in court, “No offence to people with Scouse accent, but the nature of the accent itself is that it can make people appear drunk.”

Shakespeare was acquitted. And the scouse accent is from Merseyside. That’s Liverpool, give or take a bit of ground around it. 

The word scouse, if WikiWhatsia is right, comes from the name for a stew that was common thereabouts. 

My thanks to Separated by a Common Language, which had a link to the article.

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The judges of the Bad Sex Awards couldn’t pick a winner this year so they chose two. The idea is to find “the year’s most outstandingly awful scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel.” 

But never mind who won, because this is from a runner-up, Mary Costello’s The River Capture: “She begged him to go deeper and, no longer afraid of injuring her, he went deep in mind and body, among crowded organ cavities, past the contours of her lungs and liver, and, shimmying past her heart, he felt her perfection.”

And you wonder why I’m not straight?

Okay, that’s not the only reason. And even though it’s been a long time, my memory’s good enough for me to know that passage doesn’t describe a typical encounter. Still, it could put a suggestible person off.

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On a more uplifting note, the four artists who were finalists for this year’s Turner Prize appealed to the judges not to pick a single winner but to let them share the prize equally. All four works deal with immediate social and political issues, and in their letter the finalists said these issues “differ greatly, and for us it would feel problematic if they were pitted against each other, with the implication that one was more important . . . than the others.”

The judges agreed unanimously.

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In November, the Central Library Scotland hosted an event where people could borrow a human book for half an hour.

The Human Library is a group of “volunteers that are available to be published as open books on topics that can help us better understand our diversity. The Human Library is a safe space for conversations, where difficult questions are answered by people with personal experience that volunteered to share their knowledge.” 

Can I translate that? You go in and talk to someone knowledgeable who’s agreed to be an open book on some topic. The events started in the U.S. and are about prejudices and stigmas the people / books have faced.

The founder, librarian Allison McFadden-Keesling, talks about the volunteers as books, as in “the books are excited to see one another” and her events have grown from 8 or 10 books at the first event to 35.

My thanks to Deb C. for letting me know about this. 

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Oh, and happy holidays to you all. If this isn’t the strangest holiday post you’ve seen this year, at least tell me it’s close.