Mistaken identities in the (partially British) news

A video showing what seemed to be–if looked at the right way–a Chinese version of the Loch Ness monster paddling around near the Three Gorges Dam turned out to be a twenty-meter-long industrial airbag. Or in some articles, a long piece of tubing, which may or may not be another way of saying the same thing.

What was the right was way to look at it? Mind-altering substances (a category that includes alcohol) have been shown to be effective.

*

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: a begonia

In California, a robocop was mistaken for a robocop. It was rolling through a park, demonstrating that it could do everything the police force had said it would do: patrol large open spaces and use its microphone to deter crime. So when a fight broke out, a witness ran up to it and pushed the emergency alert button. 

What did it do? It said, “Step out of the way.”

Eventually she stepped out of the way and it rolled off, stopping now and then to tell people to keep the park clean.

Another witness just called the police on an old-fashioned phone.

The robot turned out not to be connected to any actual police. It called the company that made it. Which may or may not have called the police. I don’t really know.

Its video camera also wasn’t connected to the police department. Its ability to read license plates and track cell phones? Ditto. It will, eventually and presumably, get connected, but in the meantime it runs around playing cops and park attendants and costs $60,000 to $70,000 a year. 

It has not yet been mistaken for the Loch Ness monster.

*

A cash machine in London mistook a fake £20 bill (or note if you’re British) for a real one. Which would be understandable enough except that the bill said, “Twenty poonds” on the back. Not to mention, “This is play money.”

The machine apologized for any problems it might have caused and explained that it can’t actually read.

You can by counterfeit twenties on the internet. They go for around £8 each, although if you’re okay with money that announces that it’s not real you can get ten for around £15.

No, I’m not recommending it. It just seemed like something you’d want to know.

*

The person in charge of the US nuclear arsenal mistook an internet hoax for something real. Rick Perry, the secretary of Energy, reposted a warning having to do with Instagram being able to use people’s photos in accordance with a treaty that the US isn’t part of. 

The good news is that he didn’t run up to a robocop, push a button, and expect it to protect the nuclear arsenal. 

*

“Jerusalem” was voted the U.K.’s favorite hymn. Or at least the favorite of the people who listened to the BBC’s Songs of Praise and took the trouble to vote. 

What’s that got to do with mistaken identity? The song’s almost universally mistaken for a hymn. The words are by William Blake, who was intensely religious but nothing like an orthodox Christian. Among other things, he didn’t attend church and didn’t believe he needed a god to redeem him. The Creator of this World is a very Cruel Being,” he wrote in “A Vision of the Last Judgment.” 

But let’s be fair and separate the writer from the words he wrote. Did he, in spite of himself, write a hymn? Here it is:

Jerusalem
   And did those feet in ancient time
   Walk upon England’s mountains green?
   And was the holy Lamb of God
   On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
   And did the Countenance Divine,
   Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
   And was Jerusalem builded here,
   Among these dark Satanic Mills?

   Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
   Bring me my arrows of desire:
   Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
   Bring me my Chariot of fire!
   I will not cease from Mental Fight,
   Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
   Till we have built Jerusalem,
   In England’s green & pleasant Land.

It’s stunning, but is it a hymn? He’s asking if the countenance divine shone forth upon our clouded hills, not saying it did. He only gets into statements when he calls for building a Jerusalem, and that’s in the England of this world, not in the next. I’ll admit that using Jerusalem as a metaphor means drawing from Christian imagery, but that’s as far as I’ll go. Blake had no use for organized religion, and especially for state-sponsored religion. So inevitably his poem has been adopted as the hymn of a state-sponsored religion.

The music that goes with it was written in 1916. (Blake died in 1827.) It’s also beautiful. This version comes from the movie The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

And I still say it’s no hymn. 

*

Five out of ten flies will mistake a cow for not-a-cow if you paint it with zebra stripes–which of course you will sooner or later. They register their belief that this is not a cow by not landing on it and not biting it. The cows painted as zebras still identify as cows. They register this belief by mooing and eating grass and allowing themselves to be milked.

*

A national police database in Britain mistook thousands of cybercrime and fraud reports for a security risk and quarantined them, creating a backlog of 9,000 cases and leaving some of them there for a year. The problem is that the reports include words and symbols that the database’s program recognized as risk markers, so yeah, it quarantined them.

*

Rory Stewart–Member of Parliament; former candidate for leader of the Conservative Party; former member of the Conservative Party; and currently independent candidate for the mayor of London–mistook three Irish musicians for minor gangsters.

Stewart’s plan was to walk through every London borough while he was running for Conservative Party leader, and he asked the men if he could film them. They agreed, then found out he was a politician and said they “didn’t fuck with politics.” They left. 

So far, so good, and if he’d left it at that he’d have been fine, but at a later event he talked about meeting three “sort of minor gangsters” who told him he was an idiot. 

The people he was talking to turn out to be a band called Hare Squad, from Dublin. They’re black, which is presumably why Stewart decided they were gangsters. 

“We’re all about peace and love,” one of them, Lilo Blues, said. 

In addition to being denounced as a racist, Stewart was also asked, “What the hell is a minor gangster?”

*

A four-year-old was mistaken for a neighborhood menace when the Birmingham Council (that’s the city government, and we’re talking about Birmingham in Britain, not in the U.S.) sent her a letter saying she’d been accused to antisocial acts –shouting, banging, and visitors. Presumably that’s disruptive visitors. Visitors aren’t inherently a problem. 

Her mother says the girl has eczema and sometimes cries at night. 

The kid was invited to contact the council if she had any questions. I don’t know if she did, but when I was four my questions would’ve been something along the lines of “what’s for dessert”–nothing the council could’ve answered. 

What’s worse, I couldn’t write yet. Or read. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that she can’t either.

Well, no wonder she’s getting in trouble. What’s wrong with the schools today?

*

An early Renaissance masterpiece was mistaken for some old thing hanging in a French kitchen. An auctioneer spotted it when he came to value the furniture after the woman decided to move. 

It was auctioned off for 24 million euros.

*

A Viking warrior was mistaken for some other Viking warrior’s nice little wifely homemaker in Norway. For years. Apologies for the heavy use of stereotypes there, but I’m not the only person dragging them into the story.

The good news is that it didn’t bother the warrior, because she’d been dead for years. The thousand-year-old body was correctly identified as a woman, but even though she was buried with an armory big enough to take down several English or Irish villages, when she was first found they disregarded all that because she was a woman and–hey, we know this: Women aren’t warriors and never were. She was just buried with that stuff because, um, they were cleaning house and the weaponry was in the way.

Now a new team of scientists have reinterpreted the skeleton, looking at the partially healed battle wound to her skull, probably made with a sword. A reconstruction of her face–never a 100% reliable thing–shows one tough-looking woman.

Some of the people working on this were from the University of Dundee, so the story does actually have a British connection.

*

This final item has nothing to do with mistaken identity but I had to put it in: Scientists in the US have discovered that driving tiny electric cars lowers stress levels in rats, in theory because of the pleasure of learning a new skill. They used a mix of lab-raised rats and rats from the real world. The real-world rats turned out to be significantly better drivers than the lab rats. 

The point of the experiment was to explore the possibility of drugless treatments for mental illness, but it might be more useful to know that if you’re hitching a ride with a rat you’ll want to look for one raised in the real world. The safe life isn’t necessarily the best preparation. And I tell you that as a former cab driver. 

*

My thanks for Bill, who in response to last week’s post tells me that there is a culture out there that puts the year first when they write the date: the Japanese. Thank you, Bill. Also domo arigato gozai mas.

What the world wants to know about Britain, part 19-ish

The butterfly net I use to trap strange search engine questions has been filling up quickly, so even though I did a what-the-world-wants-to-know post just a few weeks ago, I can’t let riches like these go to waste. The questions are in italics and appear in their original form, however odd it may be.

The search for important information about Britain

england is not another name for great britain!

A-plus for the answer (or in British, A*, pronounced A-star). But what’s your question? And more to the point, why are you bothering Lord Google about something you already know?

Irrelevant photo: roses.

do brits just talk about weather

Before we can answer this, we have to figure out what it means. This should depend on which word just is hanging off of, but English-language writers dump just into sentences according to what sounds good, then figure that what they’ve written means what they think it means. But any grammar obsessive could tell them that the location determines the meaning. I’m not going to rant about that. The language is used the way it’s used, regardless of what the grammar books say, and I’m on both sides of these issues anyway. Passionately.

Still, it leaves me not knowing what the writer meant. So what are the possible variations here? 

Do Brits just talk about the weather as opposed to doing anything about it? Well, pretty much, yeah. You know how it is. We’re all like that when you come down to it. Talk, talk, talk. And the damned rain keeps coming down.

Or, in defiance of the order the words come in, do they talk just about the weather as opposed to, say, talking about feel-good topics like Brexit and global warming? Well, no. The British talk about all sorts of things. Shoes and ships and sealing wax. Brexit and potatoes and school buses.

Okay, not so much about sealing wax these days. And that’s a Lewis Carroll poem that I’m mangling. His version rhymes.

Or–I’m stretching a point here, but what the hell–do just Brits, as opposed to other people, talk about the weather,? No, it’s  a pretty common topic, given that most of the world’s countries (and therefore people) have something that passes for weather.

I’d go on, but the question only gave me three words to dangle just off of.

I hope I’ve been able to help.

why are we called great britain

Am I the only person who hears something plaintive in this? It has a kind of Mom-why-are-they-callling-me-names? quality.

It’s okay, sweetheat. They don’t mean anything by it. It’s because you’re big. Why don’t we sit down and have  a nice cookie?

Or maybe we should call it a biscuit.

ceremonail position in british government black rod

I’m tired of Black Rod, probably because I’ve heard entirely too much about parliament lately, what with Brexit and all. But yes, Black Rod has a position in the British government. Whether you consider it ceremonial or essential is probably a matter of opinion. Me? I’d call it ceremonial to the point of silliness, but I would, wouldn’t i? 

P.S. You misspelled ceremonial. I nevr misspell anything.

ploughman’s lunch history

It starts as a full plate–cheese, a roll, a pickled onion, chutney, butter if you’re lucky. Three grapes and a twisted slice of orange you’ve gone someplace fancy. Then it gets eaten. Or most of it does and the odd bits get left and someone takes them back to the kitchen and scrapes them in the trash and that’s it. End of history. 

It’s wasteful. I ordered a ploughman’s once or twice because it sounded more appealing than a cheese sandwich, but it’s nothing but a do-it-yourself cheese sandwich. 

characteristics of an aristocrat person how do they act

All aristocrats have exactly the same characteristics, to the point where every morning they call each other to work out what they’re going to wear. 

Okay, I shouldn’t get put off when people ask about this, because I wrote a snarky post about some titled idiot behaving badly and I gave it a clickbait heading about behaving like a British aristocrat. So it’s my own doing if I get search engine questions about it.

But if we’ve established that, let’s go on: Behaving like an aristocrat isn’t about having perfect manners, it’s about (a) considering that your manners, however horrid, are perfect, and (b)looking down on people who don’t behave the way you do–or who try to but who have to learn the secret handshakes from Lord Google.

Lord Google  will never tell us all the secret handshakes, just enough to leave us exposed as wannabes. But even if we find the missing bits and behave exactly like the aristocrats, we were still foolish enough to choose the wrong ancestors so we can’t be part of the club.

Silly  us.

It’s depressing to know (or think I know) that someone out there is trying to play this game. Don’t do it, folks. Aristocracy is a closed and toxic club. They don’t want us in and if we have a brain in our heads, we don’t want in. 

when will we know more about brexit sept 2019

We all wish we had the answer to that. And September’s already well in the past.

does a map show you how narrow a road is

Yes, but measuring the width of the map’s lines to the nearest micro-whatsit won’t help. You have to look at the letters associated with the roads. They won’t exactly tell you the width, but they’ll let you figure out how slow your drive’s likely to be, which is a related question. 

M roads–they have an M before their number– are motorways, the best roads the system offers. A roads–A followed by a number–come next. Some of them are hard to tell from motorways. They’re divided highways with a 70 mph speed limit and make a nice straight line from wherever you started to wherever you’re going. And other A roads are nothing like that. They’re two lanes, and they run through the middle of every town along the route. But they’re better than what comes next: B roads, which may be two lanes but may have one-lane stretches.

Then there are roads that no one bothers to give numbers to. Or they give them numbers but don’t bother to tell anyone what they are. In the summer, in touristed areas, they’re lined with nervous visitors who’ve plastered their cars to the hedges, letting the oncoming cars figure out if there’s room to pass.

There almost always is.

how do british cars pass on such narrow roads?

On the narrowest ones, everyone gets out and disassembles the lighter-colored car, moves it past the darker one, and puts it back together.

Why the lighter one? It’s a simple, non-judgmental way to choose, and it saves time-consuming arguments. 

And if they’re both the same color? Well, that’s where your arguments start. We need a better system. Everyone agrees, but we have to settle the Brexit mess first.

what was uk called before great britain

England, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall. Unless you want to go back to Latin, the Celtic languages, and Anglo-Saxon. And Pictish. For part of that time, though, we’re dealing with micro-kingdoms and it gets messy.

why do british people eat brussle sprouts at christmas?

Because it gives them the strength to face Boxing Day, that extra holiday that comes on December 26.

 

The search for important information about everything else

what is the actual date of 2019/09/04

I can answer that: It was 2019/09/04. 

But let’s talk about dating systems, since someone’s brought them up.. The American system starts with the month, follows with the day, and ends with the year, making 04/09/2019  April 9, 2019. The British and European system flips the first two elements, so the same numbers give you 4 September 2019. 

Isn’t this fun?

The British and European system doesn’t use a comma before the year. Or after, in case the sentence straggles on. The American one does.

Moving back and forth between the two systems means that you can’t be sure what date anyone–including your own bewildered self–is talking about unless they name the month or bring in a day that’s larger than twelve.

I don’t know any dating systems that open with the year, so I have no way to tell what, if anything, the date in the question means. I asked Lord Google for help but he told me I wasn’t asking the right question, so I ended up as fodder for someone else’s post about strange search engine questions.

Lord G., as is his way, wouldn’t tell me what the right question was. Dealing with Lord Google is like being trapped in one of those fairy tales where bad things happen because bad things happen and the world doesn’t reward the just and kind.

So what’s the actual date? My best guess is that it doesn’t exist.

is a vigilante sticking up for someone

It never rains weirdness but it pours it down by the bucketful. Is a vigilante sticking up for someone? Not as often in real life as in the movies. Has someone seen too many movies? Probably. Is a movie watcher having trouble finding the line between fiction and reality? Most definitely. 

For what it’s worth, friends, if you’re facing injustice and overwhelming odds, don’t look for a vigilante. And for pete’s sake, don’t become a vigilante. Vigilantes can propel decent shoot-em-up plots–or if not decent, at least popular–but in real life they end up as lone nuts with guns who leave grieving families in their wake. Try organizing. It’s slower and it’s less dramatic, but it spills less blood and it just might do some good in the long run. 

I have no idea why that question came to me. 

how to respectfully decline an award nomination

Be nice. Explain your reasons. Say thanks. Shut up. 

whats cultural about brownies

They like literature and classical music. They’re not much on visual art.

medieval catholic teaching sex

All the medieval Catholics are dead. So are the medieval everybody elses. That means none of them are teaching sex anymore. But they weren’t much good at it, so don’t worry about having missed out.

The Brexit update, with elections

Britain’s went into election mode this past week, and I’ll tell you about that in a minute, but let’s do some background first.

Before we could schedule an election, first we had to argue about whether to have an election, and if so, when and how. And by “we,” of course, I mean “them”: Our politicians and their many, many advisers. Parliament had to agree before anyone could schedule an election.

At one point in the wrangling, the prime minister, Boris Johnson, threatened that if parliament wouldn’t agree to hold an election before Christmas the government would do only the bare minimum. Then, faced with headlines about the government going on strike, he backed away from the threat, but he did say he’d park his Brexit bill until an election was scheduled. 

I’m reasonably sure that was to keep parliament from tacking amendments onto it. The whole point of trying to shove the bill through in three days, as he tried and failed to do, was to get the beast through unexamined and unamended.

Yeah, we’ve been champions at cooperation and compromise lately. 

In the meantime, the European Union agreed to a three-month Brexit extension, although it can be shorter in the unlikely situation that we all agree on anything other than how terrible the weather is. With that announcement, we all drew a deep breath and started using up the three cans of tomatoes and six cans of baked beans that every household had stockpiled in case of a no-deal Brexit emergency. 

As far as I know, no one’s drawing down their private stockpiles of medication. And since my partner and I both hate baked beans, we don’t have any to use up. Some other household has our portion stashed away and is responsible for using it up. These things all average out.

While everyone was focused on the election that we might or might not have, a leaked document showed that, in spite of vague governmental noises about maintaining EU standards on workers’ rights and the environment, the Department for Exiting the European Union has drafted plans saying that “the government is open to significant divergence from EU regulation and workers’ rights.”

That should matter to us all, but it hasn’t gotten much attention. So little of the important stuff has. We act as if Brexit was a yes / no question when in fact it’s not even multiple choice, it’s an essay test.

Another thing we’re not paying much attention to is the report from a cross-party parliamentary committee about Russian interference in the 2016 EU referendum. The committee expected Johnson to approve and release it. The government’s saying it always takes more time than that. The committee says, “Oh, no it doesn’t,” and the government says, “Oh, yes it does.”

And if that doesn’t sound like a joke, keep reading. It’s a British thing.

Cue accusations of a cover-up.

Cue denials of a cover-up.

Some of the wrangling over whether to hold an election was focused on whether to hold it on December 9th or December 12th. The theory is that this matters because on the 9th more students will still be at their universities, where they’ll be more likely to vote. Parties that appeal strongly to younger voters wanted the election on the 9th and parties that appeal to older voters wanted it on the 12th. 

No one’s motives are pure.

It’ll be on the 12th. 

Holding an election right now is a massive gamble for everyone. Polls show the Conservatives–Johnson’s party–with a lead but nothing like a majority. That should make them (relatively) confident, but they’re not. And there’s no reason they should be. They went into the last election with a lead in the polls and lost ground. And Johnson’s a wild card. A new scandal could emerge at any time. And he was tightly controlled during the campaign for party leadership, but he’s the kind of guy who could have a meltdown this time around. 

Another problem they face is that Johnson hasn’t delivered Brexit by October 31, which he swore he’d do and which will almost surely allow the Brexit Party to eat into the Conservative lead. 

As for the polls, they can be deceptive. Among other things, what matters is the number of votes each candidate gets in each seat, so a nationwide lead may not translate into a majority in parliament. If that’s not clear, I’m sure Hillary Clinton can explain it.

So the party was split over calling for an election. Johnson might’ve done better to push ahead with the Brexit deal he negotiated. In the British system, parliament packs up and goes home before an election and all the bills under consideration die. The bill would probably have gathered amendments he didn’t like, but according to Chris Grey’s Brexit Blog, he could have dropped those later on. I can’t explain how that would have worked and Gray doesn’t seem to think he needs to, but he’s a hell of a lot better informed than I am and I’m going to trust him on this.

Some Labour MPs are also hesitant about an election. The polls show them behind the Conservatives. On the other hand, in the last election they did better than they were expected to do and they’re hoping that rabbit’s still in the hat. They’re scuffling their hands around at the bottom, feeling for fur.

Meanwhile, the smaller opposition parties–the Liberal Democrats; the Scottish National Party; probably the Greens–want an early election. They look like they’d benefit from it. 

All the parties, however, are publicly predicting great and wonderful victories. 

Before the election date was set, we were sprlnkled with so many reasons that holding an election before Christmas would be a problem that they fell upon us like fairy dust.

First, polling places are getting harder to book, especially since they’ll be competing with Christmas shows, especially pantos. 

For anyone who isn’t British (or isn’t from a country that picked up the custom from Britain), I’d better explain that: A panto is a form of kids’ theater. They start around Christmas time, run for a while afterwards, then go dormant for the rest of the year so everyone can recover. They’re (very) loosely based on fairy tales. The leading woman is (wildly over)played by a man. At some point, the audience is expected to yell, “He’s behind you” while some clueless character wanders around doing everything but looking behind him- or herself, and at some other point two characters will fall into an exchange that runs something like, “Oh, yes I will,” / “Oh, no you won’t.” After the first half dozen repetitions, it starts to be funny. Or maybe I laughed so hard because it wasn’t funny. It’s hard to say why it works.

That long digression was to make the point that one problem with a pre-Christmas election is that the pantos may get a larger audience than the election itself. This election really does matter, and a lot of people feel that. On the other hand, we’re all sick to death of everything linked to Brexit. 

Will most people vote? Oh, yes they will. 

Oh, no they won’t. 

Oh, I haven’t a clue. 

Second (we were counting problems with a pre-Christmas election, you’ll of course remember), the postal workers just voted to go on strike sometime before Christmas. I don’t think a date’s been set yet, but if it comes at the wrong time absentee ballots will be held in purgatory until such time as the strike is settled. 

Third, the less time is left between an election being declared and an election being held, the more polling places cost to rent. That cost falls on local governments, which have been starved of funds for the past–um, sorry, this involves numbers. Austerity started in late 2008. I’ll leave you to figure out how long that’s been.

Weighing against all those negatives is the possibility that the election will end the parliamentary gridlock. 

Of course, if it does (and that’s a big if), no one knows which side the change will favor, and once the new parliament is in place it won’t have much time to figure out (a) what if anything it can agree to and (b) how to do it before the next Brexit deadline.

No one knows if Brexit will be the only issue deciding how people vote. Voters themselves may not know yet. If it is, the Liberal Democrats (anti-Brexit) and the Brexit Party (pro) can be expected to pick up votes from Labour and the Conservatives, even though no one (possibly including the two parties themselves) has a clue what they stand for on other issues.

I’ve mentioned before that both Labour and the Conservatives are deeply split over Brexit, but they’re not the only ones who are split. We’ve had a nationwide sale on divisiveness lately, so everybody’s splitting with somebody and every available party is bitterly divided on something. (With a few smallish exceptions, but less not mess up a good image.) The People’s Vote Campaign, which has been pushing for a second referendum, is badly divided, with firings, walk-outs, threatening letters, and calls for the chair to resign. On the other side, the Brexit Party split from the UK Independence Party (better known as UKIP) some time so. Since then, UKIP has burned through leaders faster than the Catholic Church burns through candles. And the Brexit Party was split over whether to contest every seat or stay out of some races to keep from siphoning votes from the Conservatives. It’s too early to say whether some residue of that division still hangs over them.

*

Setting aside all the important implications of this election, it means that unless something startling happens I’ll stop doing Brexit updates for a while. I may even start sleeping late.

But before I set Brexit on a top shelf where it can gather dust, a quick note to readers who’ve taken the time and trouble to argue with me about Brexit posts: I appreciate your willingness to stay with me when you disagree and I appreciate it that you’ve bothered to argue. It’s not easy to read opinions you disagree with, and at least for some people it’s not easy to argue. Thanks for doing both.

*

In case you’re staying up nights wondering about this, members of the House of Lords can’t vote in British elections. The queen can but in the interest of neutrality doesn’t.

*

At least some people had trouble following the emailed link to Friday’s post about the Jacobite Rebellion, and I’ve asked WordPress to help me sort out the problem. I may end up re-posting that to make sure it reaches everyone. If you get it twice, my apologies.

The news from Britain: hedgehogs, space aliens, and golden toilets

A £1 million golden toilet was stolen from Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born. 

But this isn’t a story about being born with a silver spoon in your mouth–or a golden pot under your hind end. Churchill didn’t grow up with the thing. It’s a recently installed piece of art. Or at least everyone involved says it’s art, raising the question, What is art is?

It’s a great question and we’re not getting into it unless anyone wants to tackle it in a comment, in which case things might get interesting.

Oh, go on, say something about it, please.

Irrelevant photo: A begonia.

Before it was stolen, the golden toilet was available for public use, although only to people who’d booked a time slot.

The toilet, or the piece of art, if you prefer, is titled “America,” which does, at least, argue that it’s not just a golden pot, it–or its creator–has something to say. But what? Dominic Hare, the Somebody Important of Blenheim Palace, said the pot was a comment on the American dream. 

No, I didn’t make that up.

I say that a lot, don’t I?

“[It’s] the idea of something that’s incredibly precious and elite being made accessible, potentially to everybody, as we all need to go when we need to go.” (Or at least when the time slot you booked rolls around, and let’s hope it coincides at least vaguely with need.) 

So presumably the theft was in the spirit of the artwork. Someone marched it and made it not just available, potentially, to everybody, but (sorry, I’m shifting to the first person here) to me and I’m gonna take it before somebody else does. 

The American dream (at least in my opinion) is open to interpretation, and that may or may not be the spirit of the American dream that the artist or the Somebody Important had in mind, but it does raise interesting questions about what the dream is, and what America is, and what a golden toilet’s all about. And, of course, what art is, but we said we weren’t getting into that.

Or I said. I have no idea what you’re saying.

Blenheim Palace is the ancestral seat–and this really is what it’s called; I’m not making puns–of the Duke of Marlborough. The duke’s half brother, who founded the Blenheim Art Foundation, said when the toilet was installed that they weren’t going to guard it because it was plumbed in and wouldn’t be easy to steal. Besides, the toilet was open to the public, so a thief wouldn’t know who’d used it last or what they’d eaten.

That quote should open a collection of things it would be best to shut up about. The thief wasn’t squeamish and didn’t care who’d used it last, or first, or next to last. Not only did someone steal it, yanking all that plumbing loose created an expensive flood precisely because it was connected.

It’s been recovered. I don’t know if it’s been reinstalled. Or guarded.

I could probably construct an argument that the theft was situational art. If the alleged thief’s lawyer would like to contact me, I’m available for consultatioins for a smallish fee. 

*

Speaking of smallish: A smallish poll asked Britons who should be in charge of responding if Earth is contacted by aliens. 

The poll was put together not because anyone from outside had contacted Earth but because a lawyer and an astrophysicist wondered who had the moral authority to make decisions for humanity as a whole. Most people polled (39%) thought scientists were the best bet. Holding a referendum came at the bottom of the list, with 11% of the vote. 

However, if a referendum is held, 56.3% would vote in favor of making contact. That compares with 20.5% who didn’t know, 14% who’d vote against, and 9.2% who wouldn’t vote, maybe because they don’t care and maybe because they figure they’ll have better things to do that day.

Remain voters were more heavily in favor (66%) than leave voters (54%), which is interesting although I don’t know what it means.

*

A flight leaving the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, stopped during a takeoff so the pilot could let a baby hedgehog cross the runway. The passengers weren’t polled, but they were kept informed. 

*

Want to know what Britain does at night? Some people sleep, some try to sleep, some work, some drink, and some have sex, although probably not all night, but the rest shop online. One out of every fifteen things bought on a credit card is bought between midnight and 6 a.m. About two-thirds of the buyers are women but male shoppers spend more. 

What does it all mean? I have no idea, I just thought you might want to know.

*

A drug deal on an island off the coast of Australia went wrong when a seal got involved. 

The tale starts with the yacht that was supposed to pick up the drugs getting stuck on a reef (or at least appearing to–I’m not sure about that part of the tale), triggering a rescue effort because a dinghy was missing and hey, someone might be in trouble out there. Planes searched the area and the drug smugglers, sensibly enough, hid in the scrub, where a fisherman noticed them. One of them had on a hot pink shirt and it wasn’t good camouflage. 

If they hadn’t hidden, they probably wouldn’t have stood out.  

Cops showed up and found more than a ton of meth, cocaine, and ecstasy, worth £556 million (which is more than the golden toilet is worth), under some seaweed. 

Make that an awful lot of seaweed. 

The raid-ees made a run for the dinghy but between it and them was a big honkin’–or, more accurately, bellowing–seal, which didn’t look happy with them. The smugglers decided the cops were a better bet.

*

Apps that women are using to track their periods have been caught sharing data with Facebook and other businesses, including information on what contraception the women use, what  physical symptoms they have, and when they have sex. Not all the apps do that, but some do.

What’s Facebook doing with that information? Good question. Possibly nothing, but possibly not nothing. 

Who else has access to the data? No idea. How much personal information should we be dumping into the opaque workings of the internet? Also a good question. Quite possibly less than we do.

*

One of my favorite organizations, even though I haven’t had any first-hand contact, is the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Its followers call themselves Pastafarians and two of them are asking the European Court of Human Rights to consider their religious rights.

Yes, seriously. If I could make this stuff up, believe me, I would, but I’m not that creative.

One of the plaintiffs is Dutch and the high court in her country ruled that she couldn’t wear a colander–a spaghetti strainer, in plain English–on her head for her identification photo. The other is an Austrian member of parliament who wears a colander in his official photos but is asking for Pastafarianism to be recognized as a religion. At least four countries have already recognized it.

Pastafarianism is–or so I’ve read–the world’s fastest growing religion and it asks its followers to wear colanders on their heads, although I wouldn’t say it demands that they do. It’s not a demand-making kind of religion.

The lawyer defending the Dutch Pastafarian said, “I started out thinking this was just a big joke, but the more you look at it, the more you see it is about fundamental principles…. [Pastafarianism advocates] non-violence, tolerance, loving each other–the same principles as many established religions.” Theologians have “never really been able to agree on what constitutes a religion, so should the state really get to decide?… We say, as long as there are special rights for believers, they should apply to all religions.” 

Pastafarians hold that an invisible and undetectable Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe by using His Noodly Appendages–probably after drinking heavily. 

Go on. Prove it ain’t so.

The (short) Brexit update, with pumpkins

It gets weirder over here by the minute. First, the House of Commons passed Boris Johnson’s Brexit bill. Only that wasn’t a decisive vote. It was the bill’s second reading, which is (the name’s a bit misleading) the first chance the Commons gets to debate a bill. If a bill passes the second reading, all that means is that the Commons approves the general principle of a bill, and then–at least in any normal situation–it goes to a committee, which considers all the clauses, the amendments, the commas, the footnotes, and the implications. Then the Commons can make a more informed decision.

But Johnson was demanding that the bill go through all its stages in three days, one of which had already been mostly used up, so it was second hand by the time the schedule was put to a vote. Commons would have to forget the commas, the clauses, the 110 pages of text, the fact that the chancellor had refused to issue any prediction about the agreement’s economic impact. To keep up with the schedule, the bill needed to leave the ball before the horses turned into mice and the coach turned into a pumpkin.

Why? Because Johnson said Britain would be out of the EU by Halloween and he had his sizeable ego caught up in this thing. Which is convenient, since it gives me a headline. 

We’ll cut to the chase here. After the bill passed its second reading, the commons voted down his timetable, at which point Johnson said he’d withdraw the bill and call for an election. Then he said he’d pause the bill but Britain would still leave by October 31.

He also said he’d talk to EU leaders about an extension–preferably a short one. Donald Tusk, the EU council president, has said he’ll recommend a three-month extension that can end earlier if a deal is finally completed.

Do we have an election coming up? Hard to say. Johnson would love to leave the ball right now, if only to return with a new dress, two slippers, and a mandate. Do you know how awkward it is to run around in one high-heeled slipper, especially a glass one with no flexibility? On the other hand, he may think he can get his deal through, in which case he’ll want to do that first. 

Will Labour support an election? Possibly. The experts are still reading the tea leaves on that.

Most predictions are that any election would return another deeply divided parliament, but I wouldn’t recommend putting money on any of this. 

The Brexit update, with some old lady’s bananas

Saturday–that’s yesterday as I write this–was the big day: A special session of parliament was set up to vote of the Brexit deal Boris Johnson had negotiated with the European Union. It was the moment when we were finally going know what was happening.

Or not, as it turned out, because a majority of the MPs didn’t trust Johnson enough give him a simple vote.

Let me explain, because nothing in the Brexit saga is simple. Ever. In fact, let’s (almost) open with a quote from an unnamed cabinet minister, who said, “I really have no idea what is going on.”

Yeah, I know just how you feel. So if halfway through the update, you feel a heavy fog taking over your brain, obscuring clear thought, you’re right up there with the experts. And no, I’m not claiming to be one of the experts,it’s just that I can get befuddled with the best of them.

So, what happened on Saturday? The government proposed its version of Brexit. I won’t go into the details because I did that in the last update and I don’t want to send you all screaming into the sunset. Let’s sum it up by saying that if Theresa May had proposed it, the people who now support it–or negotiated it for that matter–would have denounced it as one step short of treason.

Okay, maybe two steps short. But that kind of hysterical language has been flying around the halls of parliament and the pages of the press.

And you know what? I keep getting search engine questions about British understatement. But it’s not all understatement here. It’s “surrender bill” and “big girl’s blouse” and I’ve already cleared my mind of the rest of the abuse.

Sorry. Where were we? A version of Brexit was put before Parliament and everyone was counting noses. Each member of parliament comes equipped with one nose except for the MPs representing Sinn Fein, who refuse to take their seats because they refuse to recognize Britain’s right to govern any part of Ireland. They may have noses–that has yet to be established–but they weren’t being counted.

According to all counts, the vote was going to be very, very close. 

But before we could find out what the vote would’ve been, a cross-party amendment was tabled, called the Letwin amendment, by people who don’t trust Johnson to walk from one side of the street to the other without pulling some kind of fast one. You know, disappearing up the side of a building; stealing the bananas at the top of some old lady’s grocery bag; that kind of thing. These are, basically, the same MPs who’d passed a law–the Benn act–not long before that was meant to block the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.

The problem was, they saw a possible loophole in the Benn act, and presumably Johnson did too, because he kept trumpeting to the press that he wasn’t going to ask for the extension the Benn act demanded. A smarter wheeler-dealer might’ve kept that to himself and pulled his stunt at the last minute, but Johnson loves a headline. “See those bananas?” he kept saying. “I’m gonna have those. Watch me.”

The loophole was this: If Johnson’s deal was accepted on Saturday, the requirements of the Benn act would be satisfied and Johnson wouldn’t have to ask for an extension. But if the enabling legislation didn’t get passed in time, Britain could still crash out of the EU. 

“Look, Ma, no hands! We’re gonna crash out!”

So the Letwin amendment withholds final approval until all the legislation implementing the deal is in place.

We’ll take a shortcut or two here, skipping a bit of the drama, and just say that the amendment passed. 

What happened next? Johnson said he wouldn’t negotiate a delay with the EU. What did he do instead? He sent an unsigned letter to the EU requesting a delay, along with a signed one saying why he thought they should ignore the first one. That may still land him in court, because the law requires him to ask for a delay. 

The government–or at least one of its ministers–is still insisting that Britain will leave the EU by October 31.

The government says it will hold a vote on the Brexit deal on Monday, but it’s not at all clear whether the speaker of the house will allow it. He has, in the past, ruled that the government can’t keep bringing defeated proposals back. 

The government could also try to tackle the enabling legislation.

What’s clear at this point is that an amendment for a second referendum will be proposed. If it passed, this would give the country the choice of staying in the EU or accepting the form of Brexit the government’s negotiated. It looks like Labour–which has been dancing around a commitment to the second referendum–will propose it. I don’t think anyone’s had time to count noses or to make sure no one’s coming in with a few prosthetic noses.

By now, everyone’s exhausted with the endless Brexit maneuvering, but Chris Grey, in The Brexit Blog, makes a good point about why it’s happening: “At the core of the entire row over Brexit, “ he says, is the problem that “as soon as [Brexit] gets defined in any particular way, some who support it in principle do not support it in that version.” The Democratic Unionist Party wants one version, the handful of Labour Brexiteers want something very different, and (he argues) the Brexit Party is so invested in the politics of protest that “nothing can ever live up to their fantasy.”

And that covers only a few of the grouplets that have to be corralled before the government can assemble a majority. 

*

In deference to all the good people who are sensitive about old ladies and bananas: I’m 72. I’ve earned the right to make fun of old ladies. And if Boris Johnson thinks he can get his mitts on mine, I invite him to try.

The Brexit update, with a virus

As usual, Brexit’s a mess. Here’s what I’ve been able to sort out. 

Boris Johnson has worked out a Brexit deal with the EU, but don’t ask the marching bands to tune up just yet. It still has to get a majority in parliament and everybody’s counting noses to see if it stands a chance. 

At the moment, Johnson has a working majority of minus 40. Nope, I didn’t make that up. Finding a majority for the deal depends on four key groups:

The Democratic Unionist Party–a small but crucial Protestant party in Northern Ireland–isn’t supporting the deal  

Why not? Because it would align Northern Ireland with EU trading standards and customs, leaving an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The open border is considered crucial to keeping the peace in Northern Ireland, which nobody really want to mess with. But keeping that open border means creating a border between Northern Ireland and Britain.

A border between Northern Ireland and Britain is a red line for the DUP. Or a red flag. They’re unionists. Their primary commitment is to keep Northern Ireland in the UK. A border between Northern Ireland the Britain means–or they believe it would mean–that Northern Ireland becomes increasingly Irish and decreasingly British.

The current deal would give the Stormont Assembly–Northern Ireland’s governing body–the right to end or renew the arrangement periodically, but (unlike the last proposed deal) it would only need a simple majority to renew it. Since pro-EU parties have a thin majority in Stormont, we can assume that it would be renewed. 

Not that the Stormont Assembly’s been meeting in recent years.

Are you following any of this? The more I explain, the less sense it seems to make.

Next group? Hard-core Brexiteers in the Conservative Party. The going belief has been that they’ll take their cue from the DUP, although since Johnson’s one of their own he may be able to sweet-talk them. Or he may not. The interesting thing here is that the elements they objected to in Theresa May’s deal–all focused on the Irish border–haven’t been resolved.

Why not? Because they can’t be–not if you want to both placate the DUP and keep an open border in Ireland. But Boris makes all the right noises, from the hard Brexiteers point of view, even though he’s offering them less than Theresa May’s deal did. 

They may back him or they may not. 

As Yogi Berra said, “It’s hard to make predictions. Especially about the future.”

Of course, he also said, “I didn’t say half the things I said.”

Third group: MPs who Johnson expelled from the Conservative Party. Talk about awkward conversations. Some of them are nervous about being stampeded into an agreement that they haven’t had time to look at in any depth. 

So what’s the rush? Johnson wants to say he got a deal before October 31. 

Why does that matter? Only because he said he’d rather be dead in a ditch than ask for an extension.

Some members of this group are saying the current deal is worse than the one May negotiated–which Johnson voted against. Twice.

Others will probably vote for it. This is far from a unanimous group.

Final group: Pro-leave Labour Party MPs who want, at a minimum, to maintain the EU’s standards on employment, consumer, and environmental regulations and rights. Dump those and the government’s likely to lose these votes. Johnson has said he promises to uphold “common high standards,” but I’m not clear whether this is politically binding or just rhetoric. 

The Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is warning that the deal risks “triggering a race to the bottom on rights and protections: putting food safety at risk, cutting environmental standards and workers’ rights, and opening up our NHS to a takeover by US private corporations.” Whether that warning will bring this group back into the fold is anyone’s guess. The Labour Party–like the Conservatives–is deeply fractured.

An additional group of MPs may vote for the deal if it’s combined with a second referendum, where people are given a choice of this deal or staying in the EU. It’s not clear whether Labour would back a second referendum at this point.

To anyone who’s frustrated with parliament’s gridlock (and who isn’t?), a comment from The Brexit Blog comes as a timely reminder that parliament’s a pretty fair reflection of the country as a whole. In an assortment of polls, no single solution has a majority.

How would people vote in a referendum? The poll results are inconsistent One puts no deal at 34% and staying at 22%. Another has staying at 34% and no deal at 23%. The answers depend in part on the range of choices offered and also, quite possibly, on the sampling method. Or maybe we’re all too dizzy by now to give consistent answers. 

Does it make sense to hold a second referendum when people already voted to leave? It may be the only way out of this mess. No one, during the first referendum, had a clue what leaving meant–including, based on the evidence, the people running the Leave campaign. So setting an actual deal in front of people and saying, “Is this what you want or should we call it off?” has a certain logic. 

Meanwhile, anti-Brexit campaigners have filed a suit to block the government from putting the deal in front of parliament. A BBC article says, “They believe it contravenes legislation preventing Northern Ireland forming part of a separate customs territory to Great Britain.” They’re also asking the court to write to the EU on behalf of the government asking for an extension, using a power called nobile officium. Which sounds like something out of Harry Potter but, as far as I can tell, isn’t.  

Parliament’s expected to meet on Saturday to consider this mess. That’s also when the government’s expected to release the details of the deal.

According the the Independent, Brexit has already cost the British economy £70 billion.

In the meantime, I have a stinking cold and haven’t managed to be funny about any of this. Blame it on the germs. 

The news from Britain: gin, scotch, and the gender pay gap

With climate change threatening grain crops, researchers have isolated a gene in barley that will–thank all the gods you may or may not believe in–ensure that the world’s supply of scotch is safe for the foreseeable future. 

The gene is one of more than 39,000 and it helps barley survive drought. Or to be more accurate about it, “when it’s prominently expressed” the plants are better able to survive drought, so resistant crops can be planted in the future. Assuming that the extreme weather that barley-growing regions face will be drought, not flood, although a mix of the two isn’t out of the question.

The new plants will, presumably, also be good for the food supply, although that didn’t make it as far as the headlines.

*

Irrelevant photo: California poppies. Californians or not, they grow well in Cornwall and once you get a few going they’ll self-seed. Generally in places where you didn’t want them but they don’t object to being moved.

The pope got stuck in an elevator in the Vatican in September. Not for all of September, just 25 minutes of it. I hope I’m not the only person who finds that funny.

*

Unrelated to that (although I’m sure I could manage a very nice segue here if I cared enough), a Catholic school in Tennessee pulled all the Harry Potter books out of its library because “the curses and spells in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”

A group of parents wrote to a local radio station anonymously, questioning the ability of the priest responsible to “critically assess and discern fact from fiction.” They didn’t question his use of the semicolon, but they should  have. It’s diabolical. And also wrong.

As far as I can remember, J.K. doesn’t include a spell for removing a pope from an elevator (or a priest from a school). If she had, I’d write the pope (he’d be thrilled to hear from me) and recommend the books. 

There’s your segue, at the end instead of the beginning, but in troubled times like these, you take your segues where you can get them.

*

In all my coverage of Brexit, I haven’t mentioned the demonstrators–pro and anti–who gather outside parliament and make noise when the newscasters turn on their mics and try to explain the latest Brexity zigzags. At least one of the demonstrators plays bagpipes. Others bellow. And one–. I’m going to have to quote from the Guardian here, because it puts it gorgeously. It talks about “the largely inexplicable presence of a man with a glockenspiel playing the ‘Imperial March’ from Star Wars.”

Which is one way to get your voice heard, even if no one knows what your voice is trying to say.

Or maybe he’s just found a place to practice his glockenspiel where he won’t annoy his family, just the reporters.

*

A truck (that’s American for lorry) carrying 7,039 gallons of concentrated gin was in an accident in Cheshire in September. If you need that in liters, it’s 32,000, although I suspect someone’s rounded it up or down to the nearest something or other. Once you get past the first shot or six, you don’t really care, do you? 

Concentrated gin? It was news to me as well. According to the Langley Distillery, the distilling process produces something that’s “between 78%-82% ABV and cannot be used alone to make gin. We blend the concentrate with neutral alcohol, to create high strength gin that is reduced with water to bottling strength.” 

The missing 22%-18% in that first sentence is made up of adjectives that the distellery lovingly applies later in the description but we can’t afford them this late in the evening, so we’ll stagger home without ’em. 

ABV means alcohol by volume, so 82% should be enough to put us under the table nicely enough.

Neutral alcohol? Oh, hell, you don’t want to know. Or maybe you do but I don’t. It’s stuff you put in gin. What’s more interesting is that the concentrate is flammable, and the local fire and rescue folks spayed it with fire retardants to keep it from going whoosh. 

I had a moment of thinking I was living in a land flowing not with milk and honey but with gin and fire retardant–or gin and fire retardant and drunken, fire-proof fish–but no. Not all of those 7,039 gallons leaked out. They managed to control the leak and pump the remainder into another tanker. 

The BBC reported that people sat in their cars for up to four hours while police, fire fighters, and local drunks worked to clear up the spill. 

*

The head of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s social media team, Chloe Westley, defended someone or other against charges of misogyny by saying that young women have been “misled by feminists” into thinking they were being discriminated over pay. 

The full quote is, “Young women in Britain are being misled by feminists. Take the stories over the weekend based on ‘Equal Pay Day’. We’re told that there is a ‘gender pay gap’ between men and women, and that this is due to rampant discrimination. But this gap is simply a comparison of the average salaries of men and women: it’s not indicative of any kind of discrimination.” 

So why does this happen? Why, women’s choices, of course. Silly creatures that they are, they chose to have biological equipment that allows them to get pregnant, and a significant number of them use it. Then instead of putting the kids in a dresser drawer till they get home from work, they stay home to keep the little creatures alive. Or they pay startling amounts of money so someone else can keep them alive and go back to work, but when the kids get sick what do they do? They stay home with them. Why? That dresser drawer’s still available. 

No wonder they get paid less. If men carried on like that, I ask you, where would the human race be?

*

Jacob Leeks-Mogg” took second place in a vegetable characters competition. It’s a spoof of Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons and now famous for lounging on the Commons benches during a Brexit debate, more or less as seen here. 

_108811928_capture.jpg (660×473)

“Jacob Leeks-Mogg.” Thanks to Deb Croxford for sending me a link to this deathless piece of art, which has either wilted or been eaten by now.

*

Meanwhile, in the U.S., two scientists in New Jersey found a baby two-headed rattlesnake. Since both scientists are named Dave, they named the snake Double Dave and took it into protective custody. Two heads, it turns out, are not better than one. They make the snake slow, and since they both operate independently they sometimes fight over food, not understanding that it doesn’t matter who swallows the food, it goes into a shared digestive system.

There’s a moral in there somewhere, for all of us.

The snake wouldn’t be likely to survive in the wild.

*

And since we’re dropping in on other countries, a cult theory holds that Bielefeld, Germany’s twentieth-largest city, doesn’t exist. Don’t ask me to explain how this started, but the joke’s been going for twenty-five years and the city is now running a contest, offering a million euros to anyone who can prove that it doesn’t exist. 

Bielefeld climate change activists are offering the same amount to anyone who can prove climate change isn’t happening.

*

In France, a court ruled that a rooster named Maurice can keep crowing. A couple–retired farmers, ironically–had complained about Maurice, and the case has been working its way through the courts for two years, sparking a social media I am Maurice campaign.

Other complaints about rural noises have targeted frogs, cicadas, ducks, and geese. 

Humans are a difficult species.

*

Before we leave, let’s go back to Britain for a feel-good story. Bradford was once home to a bustling Jewish community, but the 2011 census records only 299 residents who identify themselves as Jewish. (It’s hard to know what that means, since the question might have been about religion or it might have been about ethnicity. But never mind–that’s a side issue.) Bradford’s lone synagogue was down to 45 members and almost shut down in 2013, when the cost of fixing the roof outran the outran the money it could raise. (Forgive me for even bothering to say this, but some people still need to hear it: Whatever you’ve been told, not all Jews are rich. We cover the full economic spectrum. And, oddly enough, we don’t run the world.)

What happened next was that the Muslim community (129,041 in the 2011 census) stepped in and raised the money, which led to a lottery grant that covered other repairs.

The connection was made by a Muslim self-taught photographer, Nudrat Afza, a Pakistani immigrant who became friends with the synagogue’s 93-year-old chairman, Rudi Leavor, who came to Bradford as a refugee from Nazi Germany.

You can see a few of her photographs of the synagogue here and other photos here. She’s good. And she’s been made an honorary member of the synagogue.

And that story should echo out into a small and perfect silence. Hold it in your heart.

Brexit, with warring headlines

Wednesday brings us clashing online stories. In one, the European Union had made a concession to Boris Johnson, agreeing to give the Northern Irish parliament veto power every four years on the Irish border backstop arrangement–but only if both the Catholic and Protestant communities agree to it. 

In another, talks between the EU and the UK had come to a halt. 

Other stories quote government sources as saying a deal is now impossible. 

All of that may be true, contradictory as it sounds. The problem with the Irish border arrangement is that Protestant politicians would predictably vote to end an arrangement that keeps Northern Irish customs aligned with the EU. It wants to align itself with Britain. And Catholic politicians would equally predictably vote to keep it, aligning etc. with Ireland and the EU. You can’t please both sides in this. So the EU may have made an offer and it may not work. If there’s a way to please both sides in this, no one’s found it yet.

Parliament will have a special sitting on Saturday October 19 to decide what happens next, and the prime minister and the Rebel Alliance (yes, they’re really called that, although they only align on opposing a no-deal Brexit–after that it begins to crumble) will wrestle for control of the agenda.  

In another story, Johnson and his advisors are “reportedly” ready to tell the queen that she can’t fire him, even if he loses a no-confidence vote in parliament, “a plan,” the paper says “ridiculed by lawyers and historians.” 

There are new rumors of cabinet resignations in the face of a no-deal Brexit, and also over the power of Johnson’s advisor, Dominic Cummings, but as of twenty seconds ago no actual resignations. 

On Monday the political editor of the Spectator went public with a 700-word text message from a “contact in Number 10,” a.k.a. the prime minister’s office. That’s presumably Dominic Cummings, who–the papers point out–doesn’t seem to understand how the EU works. He–let’s assume it’s Cummings; it lets us choose a pronoun, and pronouns may be in short supply if we crash out of the EU, so I don’t want to waste them–. 

Where were we? He–we got that far–threatens that any EU country that votes for an extension will go to the “back of the queue” both “within and outside EU competences.” Whatever that means. 

As threats go, this is riddled with problems. An extension has to be approved unanimously by the EU member states, otherwise there’s no extension. That means there will be no isolated member states to pick off. The UK would have to take on the entire EU. That’s is sort of like me wrestling the Incredible Hulk. Which I’d do, mind you. I’m a younger sister. I learned how to lose a fight with style. 

Next problem: that business of queues. Not all countries go meekly to the back of the queue when you tell them to. A queue is a line, for those of you who aren’t British. They’re deep at the heart of British culture. In fact, I lean toward thinking they’re the national religion. But not all countries believe in them. Some sharpen their elbows and push themselves up where they want to be. And since in addition to being a younger sister, I’m a native-born New Yorker, I say that without any disapproval. That’s just how it is, boychick–or whoever wrote the memo. Some of us know how to push and you don’t get to make the rules.

The memo also had a blanked-out threat having to do with security and defence. But those go through NATO, not the EU. And if a threat’s real, Britain might want the aid of larger neighbors. There may still be such a thing as the national interest.

The memo suggests that, contrary to half of what the government’s been saying, it will have to ask the EU for an extension beyond the end of the month. 

Why only half of what it says? In court, where it was hauled by a Scottish lawsuit (on hold until the political process plays out) and will now be hauled by a parallel English one (not yet heard), the government says it has every intention of complying with the law that says it has to ask for an extension. But outside of court, it still says Britain will be leaving on the 31st. 

Who should be believe? I’m reminded of a story about a man whose wife found him in bed with another woman. 

“Who’re you gonna believe,” he bellowed accusingly at her, “me or your own lyin’ eyes?”

I don’t know who to believe. My own lyin’ eyes are starting to spin in my head.

EU officials are increasingly convinced the Johnson’s proposal was written so that the EU would reject it and he could point the finger at them and say it’s all their fault that we couldn’t get a deal. 

Finally, the memo says Britain will be a disruptive EU member, but the first chance it will have to stick a spoke into the EU wheels will be in June, when it can veto the budget if it wants. Between now and then lies, almost inevitably, an election in Britain. I’m not making any predictions of how that’ll go in. But it doesn’t strike me as wise for anyone to be sure they’ll be in power then.

Anyone. 

*

And just so Americans don’t feel left out of something to laugh and cry over, Trump, in announcing that he’s pulling troops out of northern Syria, leaving the Kurds to the gentle touch of the Turkish army, tweeted, “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).”

If I’d made that up, I’d delete it as being too ridiculous to go into print. Don’t reduce people to cartoon characters, I’d tell myself. Leave them some depth. Have a bit of subtlety.

That’s where reality will outdo me every time.

*

I’ve had to post this in a hurry. Hope it hangs together. If not, my apologies.

The Brexit update, with shampoo

We’ll get to the shampoo, but first let’s wade through enough bullshit to get our hair nicely dirty. To wit:

The British government told a Scottish court that it would ask the European Union for a Brexit delay if it can’t reach deal by October 19. 

Why is that bullshit and why do they feel the need to talk to a court it? Because a group of Remain activists filed a lawsuit to require the government to follow the Benn Act, which says the government has to ask for the extension. The Remainers didn’t go to court because the winter nights are long in Scotland. It’s still fall–or Autumn, as they like to say in Britain–and even that far north they have enough daylight left to keep them from going to court for the sake of entertainment. No, they went because Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he’d rather be dead in a ditch than stay in the EU after October 31. And he’s still saying more or less the same thing. (#deadinaditch is trending on Twitter in case you really are bored.)

How can he ask for an extension and still leave on October 31? 

Well, a government statement says, “The government will comply with the Benn Act, which only imposes a very specific narrow duty concerning Parliament’s letter requesting a delay–drafted by an unknown subset of MPs and pro-EU campaigners–and which can be interpreted in different ways.

“But the government is not prevented by the Act from doing other things that cause no delay, including other communications, private and public.

“People will have to wait to see how this is reconciled. The government is making its true position on delay known privately in Europe and this will become public soon.”

What does that means? The government seems to think it has a get-out-of-jail-free card up its sleeve. Or a get-out-of-extension card–one that will let them follow the letter of the Benn Act but avoid the substance of it.

To underline that interpretation, a Brexiteer MP, Steve Baker, said “All this means is that government will obey the law. It does not mean we will extend. It does not mean we will stay in the EU beyond 31 October. We will leave.”

On Twitter, someone who may or may not know anything is speculating that they’re counting on Hungary to veto an extension. Does that make any sense. Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t usually look to Twitter for political punditry, but I was looking at the general wise-acreness at #deadinaditch.

In the meantime, the court’s being asked if Johnson can be jailed if he doesn’t comply with the law. 

Do we know how to have fun over here or what?

Just before all that kicked off, Johnson sent a proposed withdrawal deal to the European Union. We’re going to skip the details of how it was supposed to work, because the EU said it was unworkable, making the details pretty much irrelevant. In diplomatic language, they were “unconvinced” by it. In less diplomatic language, it wasn’t “even remotely workable.”

Every Brexit plan that’s drawn breath seems to have been cursed, which might tell us something about the practicality of leaving the EU. Theresa May–Johnson’s ill-fated predecessor–negotiated an agreement that the EU accepted but that couldn’t find a majority in the House of Commons. The odds of Johnson getting EU agreement to this one are roughly equal to my chances of winning the London marathon, but if he did, it just might get a majority in parliament. 

Emphasis on might

But without EU agreement, there’s no deal to bring to the Commons, so it doesn’t matter which way MPs would vote.

The main focus of any proposal these days is how to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Not because that’s the only issue that matters but because it might make the difference between a majority in the Commons and no majority. Everything else, important as it is, is being ignored.

Having said that, the border does matter. Opening it was a key part of ending the Troubles–the violence in Northern Ireland that ended with the Good Friday Agreement. The last watchpost on the Irish border was dismantled in 2006. The border’s been invisible since then, and the two economies have grown into each other and separating them–if it happens–will be painful. 

But an open border depends on the countries on both sides trading under the same regulations, otherwise you get stuff that meets lower standards slipping into the area where higher standards are in force. In other words, you get smuggling. Or your higher standards become meaningless. Or both. To date, no one’s figured out a politically viable way to get around that.

The director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said the Johnson plan was unworkable and unpalatable and that Johnson hadn’t listened to businesses. And Northern Ireland’s chief constable has said his force wouldn’t staff any form of border security. 

Where the plan has gained support is from the Democartic Unionist Party–the DUP, a small party that first May and now Johnson have courted because they’ve needed their votes.

The plan would have the Northern Ireland Assembly (generally called Stormont, since that’s where it meets) voting on whether to renew the border arrangement every four years. The first problem here is that Stormont hasn’t met since 2017. Like everything else involved in Brexit, that’s a complicated and interesting story, and we’re not going into it. Follow the link if you want to know more.

The next problem is that the Irish government and Sinn Fein have said the proposal would give the DUP veto power over whether to renew the agreement. To make sense of that, you need to know the structure of the Stormont assembly. In a country deeply split between Protestants and Catholics, it seemed to make sense to set up a mechanism that allowed a relatively small number of delegates to say that a bill is sensitive enough to need a two-thirds majority if it’s to pass. In a perfect world, this would keep either side from bulldozing the other.

You probably haven’t noticed this, but this is not a perfect world. For Johnson’s plan, it means that either of the two major parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, could block a renewal or the border arrangement. Since Sinn Fein wouldn’t (it would mean aligning Northern Ireland more heavily with Britain and breaking its integration with Ireland), that leaves the DUP alone with veto power. 

The DUP has used the two-thirds rule to block same-sex marriage and legalized abortion. I don’t know what Sinn Fein has used it for. 

The DUP and Sinn Fein have the same number of delegates in the assembly. They’re ringed by eight smaller parties that float around them like the dust of broken moons. Nobody has a two-thirds majority.

Or–well, move that into the past tense, since the assembly’s stopped meeting.

The EU has called on the British government to publish the complete text of its plan, because the Irish prime minister says Johnson has misled parliament over the impact it would have. So far, the government has published a no more than a summary. 

The EU gave Britain a week to come up with new solutions to the problems it says are inherent in the current plan. 

And now, at last, the shampoo: Johnson had planned a quick tour of Europe to hold meetings with assorted Important People, but everyone who matters told him they’ll be washing their hair and won’t have time to meet with him. So there are scheduling problems. 

Is anything else happening? Well, yes. It’s gotten lost in the mayhem, but it looks like Johnson will try–again–to suspend parliament on Tuesday. To prepare for the queen’s speech. Which is what he said last time. It’ll be interesting to see if Madge (as our neighbor likes to call her majesty) is as agreeable as she was last time he asked. If he doesn’t get her agreement, he can’t suspend parliament. Since she asked for advice about sacking a prime minister the last time he asked her for a suspension, a person could reasonably get the impression that she’s not happy with the current one.

Madge, here’s how it works: You take him to the returns desk and explain that he doesn’t fit. Or he shrank in the wash. Or the color turns out not to match the rug. They’ll ask if you’d like to exchange him or if you want your money back. They’ll be nice about it. You’re the queen. They don’t usually see queens at the returns desk. Of course they’ll be nice.

If, on the other hand, you ordered him online, you’ll need the box he came in. If he doesn’t fit, just bundle it around him as best you can.

Anything else happening? Of course. It never ends. The Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru–not a small fringe group but the party that came second the most recent election–just held its conference and is calling for a referendum on independence, holding out the prospect of joining the EU. Its leader, Adam Price, said, “The UK as we know it could cease to exist in a short few years.” 

He has also called on the UK to pay reparations for–I’m paraphrasing or I’ll be up all night typing–looting Welsh resources.

Meanwhile, Guy Verhofstadt, the coordinator of the EU parliament’s Brexit steering group, somehow got his mitts on a leaked script given to a Conservative MP by his or her party. The Guardian wrote that it “instructed them to attack the EU as ‘crazy’ if it rejected [Johnson’s] proposals.” 

He went public with it. 

Who could resist?

And finally, Johnson’s announced that he’s scrapping Theresa May’s commitment to keep EU rules on the environment, working rights, and safety standards. It’ll make it easier to negotiate a deal with the US.

That’s all we’ve got as of Friday night. I’m going to bed before anything else can happen. If I’m asleep, it didn’t happen.

*

Update: Saturday morning’s paper (that’s Oct. 5) reports that Johnson says there’ll be no delay to Brexit. Government lawyers say he’ll follow the law and ask for an extension. Online stories say the law “only imposes narrow [duties]…which can be interpreted in different ways.” He may be negotiating with Hungary to get it to veto an extension.

What happens next? Good question.