Brexit, cats, and smart doorbells

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

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

Irrelevant photo: Bluebells at Lanhydrock in mid-April.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the protestors glued their hands to the glass. 

Ouch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wouldn’t bullshit you. 

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

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

Those names constitute a truly impressive bit of bullshitting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because it’s embarrassing, that’s why.

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

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

I hope we’ve straightened that out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News of things that don’t exist

Dusseldorf

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

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

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

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

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

New Zealand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry, I had to say that.

Ferries

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literary Merit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s only fair.

A garden footbridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An armed drone network

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

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

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

Germs

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

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

The Stonehenge Bluestones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chimpanzees in Belfast. Briefly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the news that fits

Driving Hazards

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

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

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

He gets time off for trying to save the octopus.

Apologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archeology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money

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

Gravity’s an inconsiderate beast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dressing for Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stale news from here and there

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

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

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

He’s fine.

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

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

Kids do not, as a rule, swallow mice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She may or may not live in a terraced house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The inspectors were impressed all to hell and back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inebriation news, mostly from Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s squiffy? Slightly drunk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crime in London: a bonus post

In an effort to find material for an article, the New York Times asked  for people’s experiences of petty crime in London. Then the Times tweeted the article and nothing’s been the same since. To read the responses for yourself, you can follow the link or search Twitter using the hashtag #PettyCrime, which for no reason I understand calls up a whole different set of answers. I’ll quote entirely too many. I lost the better part of a rainy afternoon to the thread and I don’t see why you should be spared.

“An American talked loudly on his mobile in a restaurant then drank red wine with a fish course. Gave him an extra loud tut.”

“Increasingly people respond to the question ‘How are you?’ With ‘I’m good’ instead of the grammatically correct (and far more polite) ‘I’m very well, thank you.’ It’s only going to escalate.”

Only the excessively boastful and self-satisfied would respond with “I’m very well, thank you”! The acceptable answers are a) ‘not bad’ and b) ‘not too bad at all’ from which we can infer a) ‘my life is falling apart’ or b) ’I’m positively ecstatic’ “

“I fell down a flight of steps at Bank and immediately apologised for causing such a kerfuffle and holding up people’s journeys. So ashamed of myself”

“I once offered a class set of rubbers to a fellow American teacher, trying to offer some good old Limey hospitality. The response was criminally rude and the offer was declined.
I never knew pencil erasers were so contentious”

Ah, yes, friends. Rubbers are one of those things that shouldn’t be discussed with people from the opposite side of the Atlantic. On one side, they’re prophylactics (translation: birth control, as worn by the male of the species). On the other side, they’re erasers–things you use to rub out pencil marks.

“This morning, in Streatham South London, I said ‘good morning’ as I walked passed a fellow pedestrian, they didn’t say ‘good morning’ back. So rude. This will stay with me all day. Traumatised.”

“I left the house after lunch and a street-sweeper said ‘mornin’ to me.  I had to bite my lip not to correct him.”

“On the tube a young man got up and offered me his seat as the carriage was busy. I saw it as a ploy to mug me so I called the police.”

“I stood on someone’s foot on the train today, and they didn’t even say ‘excuse me’. I don’t know what the world is coming to.”

“I recently took my 10 month old daughter on the underground. She stared at people, it frightened them. She doesn’t know the code. She now lives in the north. The tube is safe once more.”

“I asked a man directions to a Burmese restaurant on Edgware Road, he pointed me in the right direction and said it would take 3 minutes to walk there but it actually took 20. Admittedly I stopped for a pint but he should have factored that in.”

“Kitten stole my croissant. Despite obvious trail of crumbs, stolen item was not recovered”

“I fear I’m responsible for a #PettyCrime as on Monday I took a crowded tube, lost my balance and ended up grabbing the arm of a fellow passenger (who I didn’t know!) in a panicked attempt to stay upright. Totally unacceptable behaviour.”

“I was in a busy pub just yesterday, I knew the gentleman a few people to my right was there before me but he was looking at his phone. I placed my order without alerting him. I haven’t been sleeping since.”

“I was blatantly blocked on escalator by a left standing tourist… I didn’t just sigh loudly but also tutted AND HARRUMPHED. To no avail. Said sightseer turned and looked at me. Obviously I apologized, moved to the right and carried on sighing. These people should be locked up.”

“I stopped to let another car pass down a narrow road. They did not gesticulate a thank  you. I have the police report if you wish for more details.”

“I was waiting for a bus recently. When it came, someone who had arrived at the bus stop after me got on before me.”

“A man got on my tube train wearing brown brogues when everyone knows a gentleman only wears brown in the country and black in town.  It was shocking”

“A close friend and I, approaching from different ends of the street, accidentally acknowledged each other outside a polite speaking distance.  I pretended I was waving goodbye and hid in the nearest shop until they were gone. We have never spoken of this.”

“I witnessed an Italian tourist standing on the left side of the up escalators at Piccadilly Circus station preventing people from walking up. Naturally I said nothing but stood close behind them seething and encouraging fellow commuters to join me in silent rage.”

“I have had entire conversations without mentioning the weather. I’ll go quietly, officer.”

“Some guy didn’t apologise to me once after I bumped into him. I was very dissapointed in that exchange and think he should be banged up”

“When I was 21 years old, I worked in a London hotel and one morning I was asked, by an American couple, how to use the microwave in the room. It was the safe deposit box.”

“A publican of fine reputation went rather overboard with an extra splash or two of Tabasco in my Bloody Mary recently. I was so flustered I nearly told him”

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My thanks to Mardi for sending me a link to the BBC’s coverage of these outrages.

More news from Britain–and (as a bonus) New Zealand

This wasn’t supposed to post until next week, but what the hell, here it is: bonus.

It’s happening again: Ordinary people are weighing in on the great symbols of British culture in a struggle to reshape them to suit the modern world. The last time we followed one of these moments in any depth was when 124,000 people voted to name the UK’s newest, biggest, best, most advanced, and cleanest (since it hadn’t been used yet) polar research ship Boaty McBoatface.

They lost, as people who fight for good causes so often do, but at least something on the ship was named Boaty McBoatface. The name only gets italicized if it belongs to a boat or a ship and I can’t remember if the name was stuck on a small remotely operated sub or a mop and bucket (the mop being Boaty and the bucket McBoatface), so we’ll leave off the itals. I wouldn’t call it a win, but it was a gesture in the direction of justice.

We can blame the Natural Environment Research Council for asking what people wanted to name the ship and then ignoring the vote when they didn’t like the answer. They named the ship the Sir David Attenborough. As one headline put it, “Sir David Attenborough launches ‘Boaty’ polar ship.”

It’s got to be tough, being upstaged by something named Boaty McBoatface–and even worse when that isn’t the thing’s name.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: The white cliffs of–nope, not Dover. They’re in Dorset, near Swannage.

Having learned from that fiasco, the government isn’t asking whose face the Great British Public (GBP) wants to see on the forthcoming, horribly plasticated £50 bill. But that’s not stopping the GBP. Campaigns are underway. Give the GBP a silly cause and it will rise in its glorious thousands.

Small- and large-C conservatives are pushing for Maggie Thatcher’s image. Lefties are–typically, I suppose–pushing in several directions at once. I got a petition promoting Mary Seacole, a black Jamaican-born Briton who worked as a nurse during the Crimean War, even though Florence Nightingale wouldn’t have her. She came to be much loved, was known as Mother Seacole, and was awarded the Victoria Cross. Others are backing Noor Inayat Khan, a British spy in occupied France who died at Dachau and was posthumously awarded the George Cross.

So far, so sensible, but when I last checked the petition with the most signatures was for a picture of England defender Harry Maguire riding an inflatable unicorn and wearing not much at all. I tried to find out who Harry Maguire was and what about England he could defend on an inflatable unicorn, but the information came in a package marked, “May contain sports,” and I have a serious sports allergy so I didn’t open it. You’ll have to google him yourself. The unicorn, though? That’s a mythical beast that does not exist in the world we live in and never has. Making it all the more appropriate to grace something associated with finance.

Or at least its non-existence is true in the world where I live. The world’s weird enough that I don’t want to make assumptions about where you live or what you might be using by way of facts.

There’s also a suggestion that two stars from Only Fools and Horses should be on the bill (or note, if we’re talking British) dressed as Batman and Robin. 

That’s a sitcom reference and my allergy to sitcoms is milder than my allergy to sports, but I was too bored to open the box. You’re welcome to look inside if you want, but I’m voting for the unicorn.

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I really meant to stop writing news posts, either permanently or for long enough to convince myself I’d given everyone a much-needed break, but the news has been too good lately, although not all of it has been British.

Point of clarification: By good, I don’t mean containing good news. I don’t think there’s enough good news out there to fill out a thousand-to-two-thousand-word post. I mean that the news has contained moments of lunacy that damn near lift the depression that settles over me when I open the newspaper. To wit:

New Zealand asked the Great New Zealand Public (GNZP) to vote on its bird of the year and it chose the kereru, a Maori word that’s pronounced with a light tap on the Rs and the accent on the first syllable. I hope you’re impressed that I know that and I hope to hell I got the accent in the right place.

A tap, in case you want to try this at home (it’s quite safe), is when you tap (surprise!) your tongue on the top of your mouth, just behind the front teeth. Do that and give it some air. It should work.

The kereru (which should have a long line above the U but I have no idea where to find one or not much of an inclination to look) is basically a wood pigeon on steroids–the kind of pigeon you wouldn’t want to meet late at night in a dark alley. It’s got huge shoulders, a big chest, and a little bitty head. It’s native to both the north and south islands and to rural areas, urban areas, and dark alleys.

A wood pigeon, in case you don’t live in wood pigeon territory, already looks like a pigeon on steroids, but a lower dose than the kereru.

Why does the GNZP love the kereru? Maybe because it’s known for eating fruit that’s so old that it’s fermented, getting itself drunk on the stuff and falling out of trees. [You’ll have to fill in the blank here, because I’m not sure who actually does this] scoops them up and takes them to wildlife centers where they can sober up.

The centers won’t release them until they participate in a two-step program (they tried a twelve-step program but birds just don’t have the concentration), then they go back out and do it all over again. The recovery rate is zero, but that doesn’t stop the centers from trying.

In its sober moments, the kereru also swallows (whole) the fruit of several native trees and then plants the seeds wherever the mood takes it, along with a carefully measured bit of fertilizer. Not many birds are big enough to do that, so drunks that they are, they play an important role in the ecosystem.

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While we’re sort of on the subject of the Maori language, Coca Cola introduced a New Zealand ad campaign that–okay, I’m even more of an outsider than usual here but I think I can safely say they were looking to pick up a bit of cool by using the Maori language. So they wrote, “Kia ora, mate,” all over vending machines.

They were doing okay with kia ora, which means hello and is recognized by pretty much any New Zealander.

Mate, though? In Maori, it has two syllables and means death.

Hi, Death. Wanna Coke? 

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Back in England, the city of York has been discovered. Not by Vikings this time but by hen and stag parties.

Old as I am, I wasn’t around for the Viking raids, but if you put together an argument that the hen and stag parties do more damage than the Vikings ever did, you’d stand a fighting chance of convincing me. It’d be bullshit, of course, but it’d be funny bullshit.

Hen and stag parties are known for staggering off the trains and heading into the walled city center, where they drink themselves witless, wave inflatable penises (that’s the hen parties), and pee in the streets (that’s not just the stags).

In the interest of promoting hysteria, a local paper and unnamed city leaders said the city center had become a no-go area on Saturdays. Even though crime isn’t actually up. It’s not about danger, it’s about inflatable penises and peeing in the street.

Ah, but there’s worse to come. The thing is that when the British get drunk, they sing, and to bring order back to the city center, York is trying to keep buskers–a British word for street performers–from handing their mics over to the drunks. Because there’s nothing a British drunk wants more than to sing into a microphone. Sloppily, badly, and publicly. Patrols are handing out laminated cards that performers can show the drunks saying, more or less, “Sorry, but if I hand you my mic the Vikings will attack and so will the neighbors, and it’ll all be your fault. Go home and sleep it off.”

And since it’s on a laminated card, of course the drunks will respect it.

Has it occurred to anyone other than me that hens and stags probably shouldn’t marry each other? I don’t like to think I’m narrow minded, but cross-species marriages have some inherent problems. Especially when they’re as far apart as a mammal and a bird. Maybe if instead of getting married, they just, you know, dated or something–.

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In the interest of efficiency, Britain’s Royal Mail was partially privatized in 2013, and this year its incoming chief executive got a £5.8 million bonus for walking through the door efficiently. That would’ve been enough to hire 252 postpeople, whose starting pay is, according to one source, £23,000, although according to another the average (not the starting) pay is £22,500.

Or maybe the lower pay was for a different category of postal worker, but it’s close enough. We don’t need details to spot a small difference between the pay at the top and the pay at the bottom. 

The Communications Workers Union thought it might be worth knowing that postal workers’ pensions were cut just months before the bonus was agreed on because the Royal Mail absolutely, no fooling around, had to save money.

The outgoing CEO got a bonus of £774,000 plus twelve months’ salary, which was £547,500. For walking out the door efficiently.

Three quarters of its stockholders refused to back the incoming CEO’s bonus but it went through anyway because the vote’s only advisory. It can embarrass the company but that’s about it. Royal Mail promised to “reflect very carefully” on shareholder concerns and has admitted that it is indeed embarrassed over not having engaged with shareholders ahead of time.

You may have already guessed that “engage with shareholders” isn’t my choice of words. I stole them and I’d have loved to replace them with the kind of words that actual human beings on this planet use instead of the ones inflatable unicorns speak on some mythical planet, but I can’t think of anything a human being would say in that situation so I left them.

News from Britain. And elsewhere

When Boris Johnson became Britain’s foreign secretary, he had to give up his–well, I don’t know if I should call this his day job or his night job, so let’s say his newspaper job. He was a columnist for the Daily Telegraph while he was a member of pariliament.

It’s not unusual for MPs to have outside jobs–roughly a fifth of them do. After all, their basic salary is only £79,397 plus expenses. It’s tough, but in this age of austerity what more can they expect? They have to set an example for the nation.

And the expenses? Well, after the 2009 scandal, when it turned out that one MP had claimed for a duck island and another put in a receipt for having his moat cleaned (and both claims were accepted), expenses went down for a while. Then they started up again. and in 2014 -15 they ranged from a low of around £4,000 to something in the neighborhood of £200,000.

Irrelevant photo. This, dear friends, is a flower. A montbretia, to be more exact–an absolutely gorgeous wildflower that spreads like mad and gives gardeners the heeby-jeebies.

Expenses are supposed to cover travel, the cost of living in London while parliament’s meeting (or in their constituency–it’s complicated, but it depends on what they claim as their primary residence; did you really want to know?), and the cost of running an office. But every so often, you know, the moat really does need a good cleaning. Mine has gone way beyond the limits of decency, but I’m waiting till I get elected because the maintenance on the damned things is just ridiculous.

But back to Boris Johnson having an outside job. Now that he’s no longer in the cabinet, he’s free to make a little much-need money, because who can live on £79,000 plus up to £200,000 in expenses? The Telegraph took pity and rehired him. For £275,000 a year, in return for which he writes a weekly column that he’s said takes ten hours a month to write. That’s £2,291 per hour. Or I trust it is. I’m riding on someone else’s calculation there. Given my gift for math, it’s better to trust even the least reliable source than mess it up myself. That way if it’s wrong I get to blame someone else. In 2009, he described the income from his column as chickenfeed.

I’d love to see the size of his chickens.

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A Costa Coffee ad has been banned from the airwaves because it bad-mouthed avocados. According to British advertising guidelines, ads aren’t allowed to discourage people from eating fruit and vegetables.

The ad talked about avocados taking 18 days, 3 hours, and 20 minutes to ripen, then going bad after 10 minutes. Costa has argued that it was only joking. The Avocado Defense League has said it doesn’t care.

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Full disclosure: There is no Avocado Defense League. Two listeners and half a dozen highly distressed avocados complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, but it wasn’t a coordinated effort.

In the process of making sure that the league didn’t exist (it’s a strange world out there and you never know until you check), I learned two things; 

One, that drug cartels have been extorting money from Mexican avocado growers, because avocado export is big business. The war on drugs has had some very weird results. That’s a more important story than an anti-avocado ad, but I’m a sucker for a silly story and I can’t find much to laugh about in the serious one. 

Two, that some economic sages think the reason the millennial generation is broke is because they eat avocados. On toast. The reason these kids can’t buy a home, they say, isn’t because housing prices are too high, wages are too low, and work too unstable. It’s because the silly little hedonists frivel their money away buying avocado toast.

The ever-helpful BBC has created an avocado toast index. It tells us that in New York, you’d have to forgo 12,135 avocado toasts to save up the downpayment on a home. That’s 33 years without avocado toast. In San Francisco, you’d have to give up 12, 975 avocado toasts, waiting 44 years. London? It’s 24,499, or 67 years.

That’s calculated on the basis on one serving of avocado toast a day.

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Four East London schools closed because they were infested with false widow spiders, which can bite but don’t seem to have gotten around to it. They were too busy keeping up with their homework.

False widows arrived in Britain in 1879, in a bunch of bananas from Madeira disguised as real widows, black veils and all. Having been in the country for this long, you’d think they’d have graduated by now, but homework’s difficult when pens and pencils aren’t made for your species and you don’t have internet access.

There are four species of false widow in Britain. The ones in the London school are the noble false widow, the biggest of the bunch at around 14 mm (the males are smaller, 10 mm, or roughly a third of an inch). Still, compared to a pencil, that’s not very big. I’d make a joke about noble false widows but I can’t think of one that works well enough to be worth our time. It’s a car crash of a name, though. 

And in case you’re as clueless as I am, Madeira’s an island off the coast of Portugal. Politically, if not quite geographically, it’s part of Portugal. It’s one of those places I didn’t know I couldn’t locate until I had to locate it.

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A new typeface, sans forgetica, is supposed to help readers remember what they’re read. The theory is that by making readers work to decipher what they’re looking at, the font will–okay, I’m making this up on the spot, but it sounds credible–engage more of the brain, making the content harder to forget, or possibly even easier to remember. The font’s back-slanted and the letters have gaps that make it hard to read. I read a small piece of an article in it and have no memory of what it said. You’re welcome to try it if you like.

If you’re thinking of using it, my advice would be to forget the font and the make the content more interesting.

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Britain had another royal wedding: Prince Andrew’s daughter Eugenie married–oh, somebody or other. He works as a brand ambassador for a tequila company.

This is a job?

Andrew apparently wanted the BBC to cover the event live and in full, excruciating detail but it declined, so ITV stepped in. Three cheers for keeping the public up to date on the things that affect our lives. The aforesaid public didn’t pick up the cost of the wedding but paid for the security, which an anti-monarchist group estimates at £2 million.

I wasn’t invited. It’s all very sad, because I have a very nearly respectable pair of black jeans that I’ve been meaning to wear someplace only somehow I never do because they’re too dressy for most of the occasions I’m welcome at.

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Our solar system has a newly found dwarf planet on its outskirts, somewhere beyond Pluto. It’s been named the Goblin. Astronomers found it while they were looking for a large planet they assume is out there but haven’t located, which they call Planet Nine. The Goblin seems to be under the gravitational influence of something large but so far unseen, so the find adds to the belief that Nine is out there.

The Goblin is about 300 km, or 190 miles, across and takes 40,000 years to complete one asymmetrical orbit of the sun.

The Goblin’s formal name is 2015 TG387, but a member of the team that discovered it explained that “human examination of the candidate slow-moving objects occurred in roughly the Halloween timeframe.”

You followed that, right? It was close to Halloween when they found it.

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A free speech row has broken out over the use of the word bollocks. The founder of a London plumbing company, Charlie Mullins, was told to take down a sign saying, “Bollocks to Brexit,” which is highly visible above the company’s office.

It replaced a sign that read, “Nobody voted to be poorer,” which hung there for six months without offending the council (which is British for the local government), so Mullins is assuming the problem is the word bollocks, although he points out that a 1977 case involving the Sex Pistols ruled that the word is not obscene.

The definition of bollocks–and if you’re not British you might need this–is either testicles or nonsense, rubbish. Its origin is Middle English, which is irrelevant but interesting. At least it’s interesting if you’re something of a language geek.

Mullins said he’s prepared to go to jail but he’s not taking the sign down. To which the council says, “Bollocks.”

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A Banksy spray painting was sold at auction for more than a million pounds. Then it shredded itself.

It did what?

It shredded itself. Or the lower half of itself. Banksy–a graffiti artist who’s managed to stay anonymous while building a worldwide reputation–had somehow rigged a shredder into the frame and the canvas dropped itself neatly down into the blades, emerging in strips just after it was sold.

As I write this, a lot of things aren’t clear, including how it was done, who bought the painting, whether the auction house will hold the buyer to the contract, and whether the piece is now worth more or less or nothing at all. [A late note: The buyer decided to buy it anyway. What’s it worth? Probably a lot more. The world is insane.]

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Now that Toronto’s rid of the mayor who was caught on video smoking crack, you’d think its problems would be over, but they’ve only just started. Raccoons are riding the subways. They’re breaking into banks, crashing baseball games, and stealing donuts.

One resident found three in her kitchen eating bread. Two ran off but one not only held its ground, it grabbed hold of the broom handle the woman poked at it and yanked it. Which for reasons I can’t entirely explain seems more threatening that just grabbing the thing.

A great deal of growling and hissing went on, all of it on the part of the human.

When the raccoon had eaten every bit of bread in the house, it yawned, scratched its belly, and left through the window. The woman locked the window and the raccoon spent the next two hours scratching to get back in. It must have seen the stale hamburger bun that fell behind the refrigerator the week before.

At one point, the city tried to deal with its raccoon problem by introducing a raccoon-proof trash can with a hand-turned lock. In no time at all, the little beasts had figured out that they could tip them over, triggering a gravity-operated opening mechanism that allows the cans to be dumped into trucks.

To date, no one’s caught the raccoons smoking crack on video. They’re too clever to do it around anyone with a phone.

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Salisbury’s image has been tarnished this year by the Novichok poisoning first of a Russian resident and his visiting daughter and then, just when the city thought it might recover, of two homeless people who picked up the bottle used to transport the poison. Visitor numbers are down. Business is suffering.

What does a city do in a situation like that? Why, it hires consultants, and it asks them to rebrand the city.

Visit historic Salisbury: It’s more than just Novichok.

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In September, Megan Markle–the newly minted Duchess of Wherever and wife to Prince Whoosit–was caught on camera closing her own car door.

Yes, folks, that’s print-worthy. The BBC interviewed an etiquette and protocol coach, William Hanson, to make sure the monarchy would survive. He was reassuring and said it wasn’t a protocol breach.

I’m sure you’re as relieved as I am. If you’re not, you should be. The Guardian was so relieved that it printed rumors about what Prince Charles, Meggy’s newly minted father-in-law, won’t do for himself. You’re welcome to chase the full list down if you’re interested, but my favorite is that he has a valet iron his shoelaces. 

Allegedly.

Cold off the press: News from Britain

Let’s start with news from Britain, since that’s what we allegedly talk about here. Then we’ll wander off topic, as we usually manage to.

In June, scientists took water samples from Loch Ness to see if they could find a “biological explanation” for reports of the Loch Ness monster.

The plan was to test fragments of scales, skin, feathers, fur, feces, and urine–all that fun stufff that gets left in the water and carries DNA. (Sorry, I didn’t mean to ruin your swim, but really, what did you think happened in there?) They expected to find invasive species and unspecified surprises down there (I know, it’s in the nature of surprises to be stuff you can’t list, so I shouldn’t complain, but I will anyway). What they didn’t really expect to find was Nessie, but dropping her name isn’t a bad way to get attention. And even scientists like attention–or some of them do anyway.

I haven’t seen any reports on what the study found. Probably because Nessie doesn’t like attention. She eats researchers if they get too close to the truth.

You heard it here first.

Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline. Or a small bit of it anyway.

To keep ourselves from being eaten, let’s take a couple of giant steps back from the water and talk about politics instead. I’ve been convinced ever since–wait: let me take my mittens off so I can count. Hmm. Turns out it’s since the Conservatives took power that I’ve been convinced the country’s being run by a random collection of amateurs. But that’s come into focus in a new way recently.

In early November, then-Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab told a technology conference that he “hadn’t quite understood” how heavily the U.K. relies on the crossing between the ports of Dover and Calais. The full quote is, “I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this, but if you look at the UK and look at how we trade in goods, we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.” Which led to headlines about him having just discovered that Britain is a island. And to some of his allies feeling that they had to tell the press that of course he knows it’s an island.

On behalf of all voters in the country, I’d like to say that we were relieved to know that. Every last one of us.

Dom has now resigned and is once again a lowly member of parliament. Having negotiated the Brexit agreement, he resigned to protest it. If I’m missing a piece there, someone please let me know where it got to. I’m happy to blame the cat for shoving it under the couch.

But back to this passing whim Britain had to turn itself into an island: In case your geography’s as hazy as Dom’s is, Dover’s in Britain. Calais’s in France, Paris is the capital of Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia has been divided so that the blouse is now separate from the trousers (or pants if you’re American). It just didn’t work as a jumpsuit but it still looks very nice with a scarf.

Rhode Island is not an island.

I hope that helps.

Anyway, welcome to the world, Dominic. No man is an island, but any number of countries are.

Dom isn’t alone in bringing limited knowledge, limited talent, and an impressive amount of candor to his [now former] job. Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley said in September, “I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland. I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland, people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa.”

If you’re American, that’s sort of like someone in charge of civil rights legislation saying they hadn’t known the country has a history of slavery, or that it still matters. Only, of course, the U.S. isn’t doing civil rights legislation anymore. All that unnecessary regulation is being rolled up and stuffed in the back of the closet, right next to the jeans that haven’t fit since 1964. By people who haven’t noticed that our history of slavery still drips toxins into our civic bloodstream. Or who’ve noticed but think it’s fine.

Sorry. I tried to be funny about that. Honest I did.

On a brighter note, U.K. Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright, who’s responsible for media as well as culture, announced that he doesn’t read newspapers. That led the prime minister’s office to announce that she does read newspapers. 

The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Yes, we all think as one over here.

When Wright became culture secretary, to prove he was up to date with modern media, he quick set up a Twitter account. I took a quick scroll through it just now and found him pleased, delighted, feeling very positive, and feeling really positive. It was all I could do to tear myself away but I knew you’d want me to report back, so here I am, energized and enlightened by my trip. 

Four days after he announced that he didn’t read newspapers, he was in the news again to explain not what he doesn’t do but what he does: He plays with Legos.

“Putting Lego together and pulling it apart again is a very therapeutic process,” he said. He mentioned having built a Death Star from 4,500 Lego bits.

It explains a lot about how policy gets assembled.

Enough politics. If we do any more of it, we’ll all get depressed.

In the Netherlands, a 69-year-old went to court to change his birth date so he’ll be twenty years younger. He compared being the wrong age to being transgender. He was born in the right body but the wrong year, although he didn’t put it quite like that.

What he did say was this: “When I’m 69, I am limited. If I’m 49, then I can buy a new house, drive a different car. I can take up more work. When I’m on Tinder and it says I’m 69, I don’t get an answer. When I’m 49, with the face I have, I will be in a luxurious position.”

He will also be less prone to arthritis. Now that I’m 23 again, my joints are like a 23-year-old’s. I can’t recommend it highly enough. 

But enough about me. This is about him, because he sounds like the kind of guy who’d want it to stay that way.

“It is really a question of free will,” he said.

His website says he’s in a long-term relationship with–oh, I don’t know, it was some moderate description like the most wonderful woman in the world. He’s so much in love that he spends his time on Tinder.

Humans. They make me crazy.

For no good reason, that makes my atheistic mind turn toward religion–not as in converting to one or several but as in thinking about the fact that they exist. The Church of England has created a program that allows Alexa–that clever little eavesdropper in your home (or not; I have no idea how you live or what you drag into your living room)–. Can we start that over? I made a mess of it. It programs Alexa to tell you who god is. Pour it in her electronic ear and she’ll also be able to answer questions like “what is the Bible?” and “what is a Christian?” She can say prayers for you, find nearby churches, and answer questions about weddings and funerals.

I can also answer questions about weddings and funerals: At a funeral, you bury someone. Or cremate them. Ideally, they’re dead before this happens. At weddings, two people agree to spend some absurd amount of money feeding their friends and family and getting them drunk. At the end of it, the community agrees to recognize them as a couple. Without the food and alcohol, tradition holds that they would still be single.

In some traditions, neither event is complete unless there’s a fight.

But the Church of England isn’t the only religious group to have enlisted Alexa. She’s been converted to any number of religions, even though they all claim that theirs is the only real god or set of gods. In a way I can only think of as godlike, Alexa embraces them all.

Google, meantime, has introduced Smart Compose, which will complete your sentences as you type an email. You thought predictive text was getting you in trouble? This will bring you a whole new level of mayhem to your life, introducing bland insincerity, cliched phrases and emotions, and things you didn’t mean to say at all. You write, “I haven’t” and it supplies “seen you in a while.” Since the cat’s about to jump on your keyboard, you don’t notice that you haven’t actually typed “had a chance to tell you how sorry I am to hear about your father’s death.”

Then the cat lands on the keyboard and hits a few random keys, triggering an onslaught of pre-programed joy at your upcoming reunion.

“Let’s get together soon,” Smart Compose writes. “Glad to hear life’s treating you so well.”

I love technology.

The army’s been taking a non–technological approach to predictive text. It’s been accused of dictating what soldiers say when they talk to the press.

Child Soldiers International spotted a series of identical quotes from graduates of the Army Foundation College. They date back to 2015. And the graduates didn’t even have to type that initial word.

I can’t find a link between this and the last paragraph, but Scotland’s ahead of England in finally putting a woman’s face on the £20 note. Who’s the trailblazer? Kate Cranston. What did she do? Um, she gave Charles Rennie Mackintosh enough money to start his famous Mackintosh tearooms. At least the papers (I do read the papers) tell me they’re famous, which I’m grateful for because I’d never heard of them. But I’m a foreigner here, on top of which Scotland’s at the far end of the island and that’s a long way to go when all you want is a cup of tea and you’ve got a perfectly good kettle on the counter.

Cranston was “a leading figure in the development of the tearooms.”

Now there’s the stereotype-smashing spirit that would make any feminist proud.

Speaking of pride, the midterm elections in the U.S. saw a dead pimp elected to the Nevada state assembly on the Republican ticket. 

Can Britain, for all its amateurishness, match that?

Budget cuts, crime, and technology in modern Britain

In the spirit of making up the rules as we go along, we’ll start and end off topic. If you get bored along the way, just skip to the end.

In 1947, Jack Kerouac, of Beat Generation, to-hell-with society’s-expectations fame, wrote his mother asking for $25 so he wouldn’t have to hitch through the desert and mountains to get from Colorado to California. The letter went on sale recently. For $22,500.

So much for irony. Let’s talk about crime. Residents of Shoreditch–a London neighborhood–decided to simplify life for local drug dealers by posting signs warning drivers to “give way to oncoming drug dealers.” Other signs marked a crack pickup point and a parking spot reserved for drug dealers. 

The mayor (not of London but of Tower Hamlets–it’s complicated and for our purposes doesn’t matter) sympathized but said the council (that translates to local government) isn’t in charge of policing (which is true) and that budget cuts meant they had 200 fewer cops on the streets. I can’t verify the number but it’s a suspiciously round one, so for the sake of accuracy you might want to add or subtract a few cops. You’ll almost surely end up with the wrong number, but it’ll look more convincing.

Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

I’m not sure if that’s 200 fewer in London or in Tower Hamlets. If I had to guess, I’d say London. But never mind, I can swear or affirm that budgets have been cut and fewer cops are on the streets and behind the desks. If we were talking about the U.S., I’d say there were also fewer in the doughnut shop, but the link between cops and doughnuts turns out, mysteriously, to be an American thing. 

According to Penny Creed, vice-chair of the Columbia Road Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, which put up the signs, it’s not just police cuts that are the problem. “Drug programmes have been cut, mental health programmes have been cut, and it’s a perfect storm.”

After (or possibly before) the mayor expressed sympathy with the group, the council took the signs down, saying something that translates roughly to, “Very funny, kids. We’ll just put these away where the neighbors won’t ask about them. Now, who wants ice cream?”

The drug dealers had no comment.

So how’s a council supposed to save money and fight crime when budgets are being cut? By using technology, of course. At least five local councils are pouring data (not to mention that scarce resource, money) into a predictive analytics system to flag up kids who are at risk of being abused or who are vulnerable to gang exploitation. I think that means the kids are likely to be recruited by gangs, not to be victimized by them. If you’re being victimized, go create your own algorithm.

The theory is that this will let councils target their interventions better and, in this age of politically induced austerity, be more effective with less money. Which was what the government swore everyone would do as a result of austerity. 

What sort of data are they pouring in? Information from schools on whether kids are attending or being thrown out. Police records on antisocial behavior and domestic violence. Housing information, but only on council tenants (if you’re American, that means public housing tenants). The housing information includes repair records and being late with the rent, because people who are late with the rent are likely to do anything from abusing their kids to spending their money on silly things like food.

That’s the trouble with poor people: They never have enough money.

This means, of course, that if you live in council housing and kick in a wall, you go into the database and get watched. If you own your own home or rent from a private landlord, you can rampage through it as much as you like as long as no one calls the cops.

It also means that if you complain about–oh, let’s say fire hazards once too often and make the wrong bureaucrat mad, it’s not impossible to think you’ll end up in the database. Because people who annoy bureaucrats are likely to abuse their kids. Or am I being too cynical?

Is it possible to be too cynical?

Some categories of information were later excluded from consideration, but I’m damned if I could find out which ones.

Critics are saying that algorithms aren’t neutral–they incorporate their writers’ biases–and that the poor will be monitored more closely than the non-poor. The articles I found didn’t mention this, but surely someone out there is raising the possibility that once a person gets trapped by an algorithm and labeled as a risk, they may not be able to prove the contrary. If the computer says they’re a risk, they’ll be treated as a risk.

Is this just a way for cash-strapped councils to spend silly money because someone’s cousin runs a predictive analytics business (she asked cynically)? Possibly, but it’s also being looked at as a way for the councils to make money.

The Guardian writes, “Under the Troubled Families scheme, councils are paid £1,000 for each family they sign up to the programme, with a further payment of £800 when the family meets certain criteria.”  

It’s called payment by results and it means that if you’re trapped in an algorithm, it’s not just because no one can turn the computer off, it might also be because no one will have an incentive to.

In another approach to saving money and being more efficient, the East of England ambulance service wants to improve its response time by allowing ambulances with stable patients to divert to life-threatening emergencies before taking the stable patient to the hospital, although–as a paramedic pointed out–stable patients don’t always stay stable and the ambulance crew might be put in a position of having to choose which patient to use life-saving equipment on.

What’s worse, no one would get to pass Go.

A benefit of doubling people up, however, is that ambulance patients would meet new people and watch exciting scenes of paramedics saving lives, something they’d otherwise have to turn on the TV to see. Loneliness is a serious problem in first-world countries and it diminishes both the length and quality of people’s lives. This is a great way to combat it.

East of England also proposed asking the Royal National Lifeboat Institution–better known as the RNLI–to respond to emergency calls, although loading the lifeboat onto a trailer and dragging it inland is going to be time consuming.

When it was asked to comment, the RNLI said it couldn’t locate the request.

Check the circular file, people. Someone thought it was a joke and tossed it there.  

The East of England service has one of the ten slowest emergency response times in England but a high rate of people hearing their proposals and giggling.

How else can local government save money? By closing public toilets, and many have. Some areas don’t have a single public toilet anymore. I’d have said “some cities,” but the article I read carefully avoided the word. In Britain, the definition of a city is specific–it has to have a cathedral. In the U.S., it’s just a big place where a lot of people live. How big? Oh, you know, pretty big. 

But back to toilets: The country now has a third fewer public toilets than it did twenty years ago, according to data from the British Toilet Association.

I never had a chance to quote the British Toilet Association before. I can’t tell you how exciting this is.

Not having public toilets won’t shock Americans, although calling them toilets will. We don’t like to be reminded of what we use them for so we call them almost anything but toilets.

Setting the language issue aside, though, American cities don’t do public toilets. If you need to pee, what are you doing out in public anyway? We don’t actually say that, just act as if we had. Which is why so many New York subway stations smell the way they do. Or they used to, anyway. I grew up in New York but haven’t been there in a long time. When I first moved to Britain, I was impressed that the country had worked out a way to handle something so basic.

The toilet association is urging businesses to display a sticker letting people know that their toilets are available to non-customers. There’s no word on how many businesses are actually doing it, but I’m going to guess the number isn’t much above zero.

Since we’re talking about being short of money, this might be a good time to mention Katie Hopkins, a commentator who once said that poor people who get into debt have no one to blame but themselves. In September, Hopkins applied for an insolvency agreement to avoid going bankrupt. In other words, she owes more money than she has. Which reckless people might just call being in debt.

It all started when she wrote a tweet claiming that food writer Jack Monroe (who is, just to complicate things, a woman, so watch your pronouns) supported defacing a war memorial. Monroe asked Hopkins to apologize and donate £5,000 to a migrants’ charity.

Hopkins refused, the whole mess ended up in court, and Monroe won. When this surfaced in the papers, in September, Hopkins owed Monroe £24,000 and was stuck with legal costs large enough that if she paid them in pennies the stack would stretch from the top of the Tower of London to the moon unless it toppled over first.

She won’t be allowed to stack them that high because it would constitute a safety hazard. Britain is very careful about health and safety. What’s more, I may be overestimating the height of the stack. I’ve never put more than ten pennies in a pile and I don’t actually know the size of the legal bill. So if I’m wrong about this, please don’t sue me.

Just to complicate things, Hopkins’ mainstream media career collapsed (should I write, “is said to have collapsed,” just to be safe?) when she called for a “final solution” after the terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena. Was she aware that she was echoing the Nazi plan for the elimination of the Jews? I’m not inside the woman’s mind, so I can’t say. But it’s all okay, because she’s not poor so the current situation isn’t her fault.  

On a cheerier note, Britain has a new hobby: magnet fishing. To do this, you attach a powerful magnet to a line and drop it into a body of water.

What do people catch? “Mainly junk,” according to magnet angler Gareth Bryer. “A few pedal bikes, shopping trolleys, fences, road signs.” Also three guns, a crossbow, a samurai sword, machetes, knives, a grenade, and a cash box with £100. Other magnet anglers have recovered a cannonball from the English Civil War and an Enigma machine, which was used to decode German communications during World War II.

A bylaw (of what I don’t know) forbids taking things out of waterways owned by the Canals and Rivers Trust. Let’s assume, for safety’s sake, that the trust owns pretty much any public waterway. The fine is £25 but it doesn’t seem to be enforced much. Still, technically, taking junk out of public waters is illegal, which is why I’ve shoehorned it into this post.

By way of clarification, a pedal bike is what Americans call a plain ol’ bike. It’s also called a pushbike in British, to keep it from getting confused with a motorbike. And a supermarket trolley is what Americans call a supermarket cart. I’ve never had any reason to lift all four wheels of one off the ground at once (given the shape, I’m not sure I could), but I’m pretty sure they’re heavy enough to make them hard to haul out of a canal. And then there’s the question of what you do with it once you have it neatly deposited on the canalside path, where people walking past with their dogs will stop to ask, “What’re you going to do with that, mate?”

And you’ll still have to get it to your car on wheels that won’t be rolling smoothly anymore.

Then there’s that grenade…

I’ll give you a link somewhat at random, because the internet’s full of information about magnet fishing, most of it geared toward helping you take up the sport. If you want to part with some cash, you’ll find all sorts of equipment out there.

Without a single magnet in sight, Britain’s Conservative Party attracted the wrong kind of attention and more or less hacked itself. Just as its conference was getting ready to open, someone discovered that its app not only made its leaders’ private information available to anyone who logged on as attending, it allowed them to modify it. And to make it public, which someone or other gleefully did. Former foreign secretary Boris Johnsoon’s photo was briefly replaced with an unspecified pornographic image and  his title was changed to something that starts and ends with D and has a bunch of asterisks between them. I thought I swore fluently, but that one has me stumped.

Education Secretary Michael Gove’s photo was replaced with one of media baron Rupert Murdoch.

The story appeared on the same day the Conservative government announced that it will introduce guidelines on how much time kids should be allowed to spend on social media. If the kids spend less time at it, that should free up time for the adults in the party to learn how it works.

This next item is crime related but from the wrong country: An American self-published romance writer, Nancy Crampton Murphy, has been taking her research seriously. Having written a blog post called “How to Murder Your Husband,” she went ahead and murdered him. Allegedly. That’s allegedly as in it was allegedly her. There’s nothing alleged about him being dead.

I’d give you a link to her post but it’s been made private. CBS News says it listed the pros and cons of murdering your husband and quotes it as saying,  “Divorce is expensive, and do you really want to split your possessions?”

Tough question, right?

This next one has nothing to do with technology, crime, or budget cuts, but a love song by English singer Lily Allen, “As Long As I Got You” includes the line, “Staying home with you is better than sticking things up my nose.”

And here you thought romance was dead.

And quick, while we’re dipping into a few bits of irrelevance, a tourist to Cornwall posted a complaint on a private beach’s Facebook page. It turns out a rock was covered by waves so that she couldn’t see it and so she hurt her leg on it. And here I said Britain was health and safety conscious. What were they thinking, letting the waves come up over the rock like that?

Other comments on the page have at times included, “What time do the waves start?” and “When will the dolphins appear?”

*

My apologies for leaning so heavily on a single news source this week. I try to spread it out a bit, but it just didn’t work out this time. I was going to quote the Huffington Post on one story, but it wouldn’t let me read the article unless I signed an agreement with its new owner, Oath, allowing it to collect all my data in a stack that reaches the moon and presents a clear hazard to the public. 

When I tried to modify the agreement, as it so kindly invited me to do, I couldn’t find any modifications that made the least bit of sense. I swore many an Oath and thought I’d better leave before I clicked a button  that put me into a database of people at risk of being recruited by a drug gang.

Although that  would at least guarantee me a parking spot in London.

None of the buttons I found allowed me to say no to anything and I couldn’t find a box that said, “Leave me the hell alone.” My choices amounted to saying, “Yes, I’m happy for you to do whatever you want with my data because you have my best interests at heart.”

All this clicking and modifying is, I think, supposed to bring them into alignment with a European Union directive on privacy and data, which was in turn supposed to give us choices about who has our data and what they do with it.

I do love having choices.

And if I haven’t (as I suspect) been particulary funny this week, here by way of apology are a couple of corrections from far more respectable publications than this one. The first few are relatively pedestrian. Stay with me.

The Brazilian magazine Veja initially said that a political candidate liked to spend his free time watching Toy Story. Their apology explained that it should’ve said “reading Tolstoy.”

The New York Times had to correct itself after giving a Muslim scholar’s Snapchat handle as Pimpin4Paradise786. Turns out it’s imamsuhaibwebb.

To be even handed, the Guardian, which quoted these and which is famous for its typos, also called attention to one of its own mistakes, which was a recipe calling for 13 kilos of lamb instead of 1.3 kilos. One of my favorite Guardian misprints is a photo labeled “caption caption caption caption caption caption caption.”

Ah, but Lord Google supplies better Guardian corrections than that, including a one that read, “Heinz and Gome took credit for Sweet Peaches Probiotics . . .  [but] the product won’t and was never intended to make a woman’s vagina smell like peaches.”

Well, damn, that’s disappointing. What am I supposed to tell people if they point out that mine smells like a vagina? That it’s supposed to smell like that?

I think we’ll move on now.

Another correction read, “The ommision of a hyphen after the word ‘sheep’ meant readers were informed that the ancient Philistines of the Gaza coast were attacked by a curious combination of ‘savage sheep and goat-herding Hebrew tribes.’ ”

Ah, but there’s more: “An unwanted hyphen, introduced in the editing process, had us claiming in our print edition that the Villa Valmarana ai Nani, in Vincenza, Italy, was ‘named for the 17-stone nani, or dwarfs, that surround the home.’ To clarify: there are seventeen dwarf statues surrounding the villa, they are made of stone, and we’re not sure how much they weigh.”

A stone is a measure of weight in Britain. It equals 14 pounds or roughly one twelfth of a stone dwarf. (No, I don’t know how much they weigh either, but 97.5% of all statistics are made up.)

And then there’s the time when they quoted the chair of a football club as saying they had the worst team in the division. Turns out he said they had the worst tea.

The Guardian‘s very good at corrections and has enough practice at correcting itself that it’s developed a sense of humor about them. Its readers know the paper as the Grauniad.