Lizards, sewage, antisemitism, and Rembrandt: It’s the non-pandemic news from Britain

Is anything happening in Britain other than the pandemic?

Why yes, and thank you for asking. 

A fake Rembrandt has been hiding in the basement of a museum. It’s a small picture of an old man with a beard, looking unhappy (the man, not the beard). When it was first stashed down there, the man was young, clean-shaven, and hopeful looking. 

The painting was given to the museum in 1951 and spotted as a fake in 1981 by the world’s leading authority on the subject, the Rembrandt Research Project. 

Then a new curator came along and the picture just bugged her. It looked too Rembrandtish to write off. 

It’s now been analyzed by dendochronologists. Those are people who, um, analyze dendos. Or possibly dendons. In time–that’s the chronology part. 

Oh, never mind. You don’t need to know what they do and I don’t either. What matters is that they’ve figured out that the wood the old man’s painted on came from the same tree as an acknowledged Rembrandt. So it was, at least, likely to have been from his workshop. And may be by the master himself.

It’s a pity it couldn’t have happened when the man was young and optimistic, but at least it’s happening.

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Utterly irrelevant photo: A castle ruin near Edinburgh. Photo by Ida Swearingen

A seven-year-old with cerebral palsy climbed Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, raising over £17,000 for the National Health Service and a disability charity. 

When he was born, his parents were told he’d never walk, sit up, or talk, never mind raise money for the NHS. 

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It was always going to be hard to make importing sewage sludge for farm fertilizer sound appealing, but it’s being imported anyway. It’s happening quietly, though, so no one has to take on the job of explaining why it’s a good idea. 

Why is it a good idea? Well, its use on farmland is effectively banned in the Netherlands, and the Dutch water authorities had problems incinerating it. And the stuff has to go somewhere, so they looked across the channel and saw Britain and said, “Hmmm. Betcha they’d pay good money for it.”

Only in Dutch. 

The sludge could contain E coli and salmonella, persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals (not the musical kind–no one’s complained about it causing noise pollution), and microplastics. And it could be a source of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Other than that, it’s nice stuff and does return nutrients and carbon to the soil. 

Yum.

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The rapper, singer, and songwriter Stormzy has donated £500,000 to fund scholarships for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. They’ll go fifty students of any age–and not just university students. 

The plan is to give £10 million over ten years to groups fighting racial inequality in Britain. 

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The street artist Banksy donated we don’t know how much for a refugee rescue boat, the Louise Michel, which is now sailing the Mediterannean. Last I heard, it had picked 219 people out of the water and the deck became so crowded that the boat was effectively stranded. The most vulnerable 49 (along with a man who died before being picked up) were transferred “to safety” (I’m not clear where), and the remainder were put aboard another rescue ship.

Finding a port willing to accept refugees is a serious problem. Plucking them out of the water is, relatively speaking, the simple part.

The International Organization for Migration says more than 7,600 people have been picked up at sea and forced back to Libya–a policy of both the Libyan coastguard and European Union states. Another 500 are known to have died in 2020, trying to make the crossing, although the actual number is likely to be higher. Libya has been accused of mistreating refugees at sea and of selling them to militias. 

Banksy explained why he wanted to get involved when he wrote to Pia Klemp, who’d captained several rescue boats: “I’ve made some work about the migrant crisis, obviously I can’t keep the money. Could you use it to buy a new boat or something?”

Klemp initially thought someone was putting her on, but they soon settled down and worked together. She summed up the arrangement this way: “Banksy won’t pretend that he knows better than us how to run a ship, and we won’t pretend to be artists.”

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Local governments in Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Poole have proposed, in their wisdom, fining homeless people £100 for sleeping in doorways or leaving their belongings in the street. If they don’t pay up, that can go up to £1,000. 

Which of course they have. That’s why they’re living on the street.

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Emma Cownie and Doug Jacquier have clued me into–

Guys, I don’t know how to break this to you, but it seems the royal family are actually lizards. Shapeshifting lizards.

I know. I couldn’t have imagined it either. And it’s not just the royal family. The whole world, it turns out, is run by lizards. It explains a lot, doesn’t it? 

This isn’t new news, but then this isn’t a newspaper, I’m not a reporter, and I only just found out about it. It rose from the depths of the conspirosphere in April, when a former broadcaster, David Icke, did a TV interview in which he left the road way, way behind. 

This wasn’t the first time he’d talked about it. You can find him here, explaining everything to us. “Much of it,” he says, “is backed up by hard factual information.”

And the rest of it? Oh, hell, who cares?

Okay, I confess: I haven’t listened to the interviews, relying on the writeups instead. How much time do you think I have here?

Icke’s life moved from sports to broadcasting through the Green Party and alternative medicine to spiritualism to–well, he did predict that the world will end in 1997. As far as I can tell, he was wrong. He’s been accused of antisemitism, which he denies, but he also says that whoever wrote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (an antisemitic forgery) ”knew the game plan.” 

I’m working from WikiWhatsia here. I normally hold out for something marginally more reliable, but with a topic like this, why quibble?

The lizards are from the Draco constellation and have been breeding with humans. And the scientific method is bollocks and climate change is a hoax. 

Um, yeah, I think he’d broken with the Green Party by the time he announced that.

Anyway, it all gets complicated. Have a good time. It could almost make a person go back to the pandemic for a little rest. 

Love at first sight, antibodies, and vaccines: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The British government’s wants a fast Covid antibody test to use in mass screenings before the end of the year, and it’s focused on the test made by Abingdon Health, which uses blood from a finger prick, and is, Abingdon says, 99.4% accurate.

But Jon Deeks, a professor of biostatistics and head of the University of Birmingham’s test evaluation research group, says Abingdon hasn’t published enough data to show that the test can be trusted. Without that, no one can know if Abingdon gamed the system by selecting blood samples with high antibody levels. Doing that is sort of like showing someone the top line of the eye chart, the one with a single big letter. They may read 100% of the letters correctly, but that doesn’t mean they should be driving.

Other companies have antibody tests that UK universities have validated and that are selling around the world, but they can’t seem to get the government’s attention. It saw Abingdon across a crowded room, fell in love, and has eyes for no one else. 

I can’t offer you any statistics on how many of those relationships work out in the long term, but I’m going to claim that, after a few passionate and agonizing months they turn out to be the disaster that everyone else predicted.

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You know what this country really needs to raise morale as we face a season of shorter days and slowly rising infection rates? Another governmental fuckup. Because I don’t know about anyone else, but I have moments of madness when I ask myself, What will I write about if they start getting this thing right?

Those moments. They don’t last long, but they’re disturbing.

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Irrelevant photo: As we inch toward fall (or autumn, if you like), we have red and orange berries. So here are red berries. I have no idea what they are.

Reassuringly, as researchers, governments, and companies the wide world ‘round rush to find not just a vaccine but the vaccine–by which I mean the first vaccine–the World Health Organization’s Solidarity Vaccines Trial Expert Group warns that a bad vaccine could manage to make this mess worse.

Is that cheering I hear? Yes. Thank you. I will have no shortage of things to write about. All I need is time and energy.

So what’s the group’s problem? 

“Deployment of a weakly effective vaccine could actually worsen the Covid-19 pandemic if authorities wrongly assume it causes a substantial reduction in risk, or if vaccinated individuals wrongly believe they are immune, hence reducing implementation of, or compliance with, other Covid-19 control measures.” 

In other words, people will get the vaccine, think the pandemic’s over, and rush out to scoop up some virii and spread the little bastards. I’ve imagined myself acting in ways that would accomplish that. 

The group says any vaccine should be 30% effective to get approval, but it recommends at least 50% effectiveness. Allowing for 95% accuracy, that translates to 30% in practice.

Did that make any sense of you? Me neither, but then it involves numbers, so I wouldn’t expect it to. I’m a word person.

They point to the danger of governments pressing for quick approvals for their own political reasons rather than comparing vaccines and finding the best one–which may not be the first. 

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As parts of England face localized spikes and people are told to self-isolate (who invented that phrase and can I slap them?), the government has noticed that people still need money when they can’t work. At least they do if they plan to pay the rent and put food on the table. If they can’t do those things, they may be oddly reluctant to stay home. 

This is a step forward, but not a big one, because a trial program will offer people who meet certain criteria the princely sum of £13 a day. 

What criteria? They’re complicated. I sank. I do not get to pass Go. Or collect £13. 

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Human adaptability knows no limits. When forced to cope with the unnatural situation that we called lockdown, Britons bought boxed wine–300% more from the Co-op, 40% more from Marks & Spencer, 41% more from Sainsbury’s. 

Human credulity also knows no limits. A study by Avaaz (“a U.S.-based nonprofit organization . . .  [that] promotes global activism on issues such as climate change, human rights, animal rights, corruption, poverty, and conflict) reports that in April the top ten Facebook pages with false information and conspiracy theories had four times as many views as the top ten reputable sites.

A separate study in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene found 2,000 claims about Covid on social media, and 1,800 of them were false. That covered 87 countries. 

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Boris Johnson spoke to schoolkids as part of his effort to appear to be doing something in the midst of the pandemic, and the Twittosphere noticed that the books behind him sent an interesting message. The titles included The Twits, Betrayed, Resistance, and Fahrenheit 451.

It turns out they did indeed send a message, but it wasn’t meant for Johnson. The librarian had set them up six months ago, when she resigned, and no one had noticed. 

Sometimes if you want to make a point, subtlety isn’t your best bet.

Johnson’s speech, standing in front of the books, wasn’t subtle but it was largely incomprehensible. He blamed a mutant algorithm for messing up the grades in a test the kids hadn’t taken because he hadn’t bothered to check how old they were, told them Harry Potter wasn’t sexist, blithered a bit about his own school experience, and made a passing reference to the supine stem of confiteor in order presumably, to let them know that he studied Latin and was better than them.

It’s a pointless story, which unfortunately doesn’t have a punchline, but then it was a pointless moment in the career of a politician who seems like a good fit for pointlessness.

The Bristol bus boycott

Back in the bad old days, when the U.S. was unashamedly racist (gee, just think of the changes time has wrought), when the southern states weren’t just segregated but vibrating with the possibility of lynching, Britain had a reputation for being free of the color bar. 

I don’t think it was just me who believed that. I’m pretty sure I had both company and a push or two in that direction, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the belief came at least in part out of the experience of black American soldiers during World War II, when the U.S. Army was still segregated and Britain felt like a place you could take a deep breath.

That should teach me not to judge a country on the basis of one or two stories, although it probably won’t. In postwar Britain, it wasn’t unusual to see signs saying, “No blacks, no Irish, no dogs,” when a place was for rent. 

In the interest of getting to the point, we’ll let that example stand in for a range of racist practices and talk about the bus boycott. 

Irrelevant photo: I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think this is a viola. At any rate, it’s a volunteer.

But before we do that, I need to stop and warn you that I haven’t managed to be funny about any of this. Sorry. It happens. Ask me to write about the black death and yes, I could probably be funny. The Bristol bus boycott, though? I haven’t managed it, but it’s an interesting piece of history. For whatever good my opinion does, I think it’s worth your time. 

The story starts in 1963. In the U.S., the Civil Rights Movement was still fighting to integrate the most basic elements of public life, in South Africa the anti-apartheid movement was becoming more and more visible, and in Bristol the bus company had a whites-only policy for its higher paying jobs. That was as legal in Britain as it was in the US or South Africa. The difference was that in Britain no law enforced segregation, it just didn’t ban it.

The union local at the bus company and the management were in agreement on keeping blacks out of the better jobs. For the union, it was about the garden-variety racism of some members, but it was also protecting overtime. Before the war, basic wages had matched what skilled workers at the city’s aerospace plant earned, but since then they’d fallen behind. That left drivers and conductors dependent on overtime to make up the difference. 

But overtime depended on the company being short of workers, so tapping into a new source of drivers and conductors was the last thing the union wanted, and back in the fifties the local had passed a resolution against hiring anyone black as a driver or conductor. 

What management got out of the whites-only policy is anyone’s guess. Maybe just a chance to sit comfortably in their existing prejudices. It’s a surprisingly powerful motivator. You can judge their thinking by a quote from a manager:

“The advent of coloured crews would mean a gradual falling off of white staff. It is true that London Transport employ a large coloured staff. They even have recruiting offices in Jamaica and they subsidise the fares to Britain of their new coloured employees. As a result of this, the amount of white labour dwindles steadily on the London Underground. You won’t get a white man in London to admit it, but which of them will join a service where they may find themselves working under a coloured foreman? . . . I understand that in London, coloured men have become arrogant and rude, after they have been employed for some months.” 

A group of four men formed the West Indian Development Council (West Indians made up the majority of the black community) and set out to demonstrate that the bus company really was refusing to hire black drivers and conductors. An eighteen-year-old, Guy Bailey, applied for a job and showed up at the receptionist’s desk, explaining that he had an interview. 

You have to give a kind of back-handed credit to the bus company, because if they’d wanted to prove the association’s point they couldn’t have been more helpful. 

“I don’t think so,” the receptionist said.

He gave her his name. Yup, he had an appointment. 

She went to the manager’s office door and called,  “Your two o’clock appointment is here, and he’s black.”

The manager called back, “Tell him the vacancies are full.”

The company had been advertising for applicants, and an hour before someone from the association had called to ask about a job and been told they were hiring. He had an Essex accent, so they’d assumed he was white.

“There’s no point having an interview,” the manager said, still calling from his office. “We don’t employ black people.”

The next day, the association called a boycott of Bristol’s buses. 

At this point, I’d expected to read about the boycott itself, but the boycott isn’t the focus of anybody’s article about, um, the boycott. Bristol’s black community wasn’t large, so it didn’t have the economic impact of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Instead, the West Indian Development Council picketed bus depots, organized blockades and sit-ins, and generally brought the issue in front of  the public. Britain was the scene of an active movement against apartheid in South Africa, and the two causes became linked. 

Support came from the local Labour MP, Tony Benn, and the Trinidadian cricket player and high commissioner for Trinidad and Tobago Learie Constantine became a central figure. Student groups and antiracist organized demonstrations handed out leaflets. Bristol’s local press was inundated with letters, pro and con. The national press began to pay attention. 

The strategy had an impact. The local became isolated within the union movement and was accused of bringing shame on it. And the drivers began getting grief from passengers. 

Bristol’s Council of Churches decided to help out by issuing one of history’s more useless public statements: “We seriously regret that what may prove an extended racial conflict arising from this issue has apparently been deliberately created by a small group of West Indians professing to be representative. We also deplore the apparent fact that social and economic fears on the part of some white people should have placed the Bristol Bus Company in a position where it is most difficult to fulfil the Christian ideal of race relations.”

If you figure out what they’re calling for there, do let me know. Possibly a return to the time when they could snoozily ignore the problem.

Negotiations went on for months with the bus company, the union, the Bishop of Bristol, and the city government doing their best to sideline the West Indian Development Council, but Learie Constantine–remember him? the cricket player?–met with everyone he could and convinced the Transport Holding Company , the parent company of the Bristol Omnibus Company, to talk with the union, which they did for several months before the union voted, at a meeting of 500 members, to end the color bar. 

The first non-white conductor wasn’t Guy Bailey but a Sikh, Raghbir Singh. Bailey–remember, he was only eighteen–had found it hard being at the center of the storm and decided he didn’t want to work on the buses. 

“I felt unwanted, I felt helpless, I felt the whole world had caved in around me. I didn’t think I would live through it,” he said. “But it was worth it.”

A few days after that first hire, four other non-whites joined him. 

In 1965 and 1968, Britain passed two Race Relations acts banning discrimination in housing, employment, and public places. Harold Wilson’s government had decided it had to keep a situation like Bristol’s from happening again.

Three of the central people, Bailey, Roy Hackett, and Paul Stephenson, were awarded OBEs for the roles they played. 

An OBE? Well, irony’s alive and well, thanks. That stands for Order of the British Empire, which (you may remember) wasn’t what you’d call free of racism. Still, recognition is recognition, however deeply tinged with irony. 

 

Face masks, baronets, and a parallel universe: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Britain’s subsidy on eating out is due to end this month, and it sounds like servers will breathe a sigh of relief. It’s brought money into pubs, cafes, and restaurants, and along with it, crabby, demanding customers. 

One server said, “Last week I had someone swearing at me on the phone. They wanted to book a party of 20. I tried to explain there’s no way we could book in 20, the only thing we could do is we have got tables outside. He told me I’d ruined his day.”

You know how it is: Nothing says “Let’s have a good day” the way ruining someone else’s does. 

I don’t know what it is about having part of your meal subsidized that puts people in a temper, but any number of servers report that it’s been horrible.

Irrelevant photo: It’s blackberry season.

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Having advised English secondary schools against using face masks when they reopen, the government has now changed its mind and is giving head teachers (if you’re American, that means principals) discretion over whether to require them or encourage them, although how much encouragement a mask needs is anyone’s guess. 

A fair number of schools had already said they were going to require (or encourage) masks anyway and the World Health Organization has said it’s a good idea. (Okay, I’ve simplified WHO’s advice, but we’re in the neighborhood.) So the government’s avoided the embarrassment of a showdown with the schools and instead is having a showdown with its own MPS, who are saying things like: 

“Masks should be banned in schools. The country should be getting back to normal not pandering to this scientifically illiterate guff. It is time to end the fear. And keep it away from our kids, thank you very much.”

“We need to embed Covid and proportionately live with it.”

My favorite is the statement that Boris Johnson–that’s our alleged prime minister–has been “reprogrammed by aliens.”

So yes, we’ve confused WHO and Dr. Who, but we’re on top of this. It’ll be fine.

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Speaking of our alleged prime minister: Dominic Cummings, who is Johnson’s brain and quite possibly his programmer, although I don’t think he’s an alien, already caused a lot of trouble by breaking his own lockdown rules, getting caught, and swearing blind that he drove 60 miles to make sure his eyesight was good enough to drive–.

Should we start that over? Dominic Cummings hasn’t been an easy presence in 10 Downing Street, and I don’t think anyone would argue that he’s united the country. Today, though, it’s his father-in-law in the news. He told a visitor (who told the world) that Johnson will be stepping down in six months because he’s struggling with the aftereffects of Covid-19, which he caught by being an idiot. 

Not that I blame people who catch the disease. Only the ones who think the rules of epidemiology don’t apply to them.

Johnson denies that he’ll step down. Number 10 denies that he’ll step down. The father-in-law’s in hiding. Cummings has stolen a tardis and is not available for comment.

The father-in-law’s a baronet. That’s not a weapon, it’s a title–the lowest order of hereditary title, and it’s available to commoners, so feel free to be snobbish about it. It gives you–or him, really–the right to be called sir. But only by people willing to call him that. Its rare female equivalent is a baronetess, and if you find one with your birdwatcher’s field glasses she will probably not want to be addressed as sir. Or siress. 

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The Oxford Vaccine Group says it just might have enough data gathered before the end of the year to bring its vaccine before the regulator for approval. 

And that doesn’t say the regulator will approve it. 

Anything leaning that heavily on the word might is a kind of non-news item, but it appeared in a large enough range of publications to make it look like news. Presumably they put out a press release. Maybe they decided we all need cheering up and a press release is cheaper and more practical than tea and cookies. Or maybe they’re afraid we’ll forget them and start looking to Russia and China for salvation. Either way, please join me in a cup of tea, a cookie, and a shred of hope.

Or a biscuit if you’re holding out for British English. I’m very nearly bilingual and happy to work with either version of good cheer.

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Okay, that’s enough with the good cheer. You knew it couldn’t last, didn’t you?

The world now has the first fully documented case of someone getting Covid a second time. The man’s 35 and was diagnosed in March and again in August. The two infections have some genetic differences, which says that this isn’t a single infection that hung around.

It’s not clear whether the genetic differences are enough to have made his body not recognize the second version. All anyone can say so far is that nobody should count on being immune. Beyond that, no one’s drawing sweeping conclusions.

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At least in Europe, the coronavirus is becoming less deadly, although it’s not clear why. 

If you divide England’s Covid deaths by its cases (and England follows the European pattern in this), you get a fatality rate of 1% in August but 18% in April. And if you take those figures too seriously, you’ll be misled, because deaths lag a couple of weeks behind infections and because testing has changed during that time. 

Still, something seems to be going on.  It could be that the disease is infecting a younger group, who are, wisely, less prone to dying to if. It could also be that hospitals are treating it more effectively. 

One set of scientists thinks a variant of the virus, known by its friends and family as D614G, is more infectious but less deadly. A second set thinks that’s not so. I think we’ll find out occasionally, so let’s wait and see. 

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For a while there, it looked like scientists in Antarctica might have found a parallel universe, created in the big bang right with ours. In it, left is right, up is down, and time runs backward.

Then it looked like they hadn’t found one at all, damn it. A new paper argues that the pulses that hinted at the parallel universe were reflections off the ice formations. 

Am I disappointed? Damn right. If time was running backwards, there’d be a way out of the pandemic. Not to mention climate change and anything else we’ve screwed up, although I’ll admit there’s an awful lot of stuff in the past to not look forward to. 

Fun with the pandemic: It’s the update from Britain

What could possibly go wrong when they reopen England’s schools? Well, they may be short of 6,000 buses. If so, the problem will hit kids who get to school on public transportation. Some bus companies reduced the number of buses on their routes when the pandemic hit, and social distancing will reduce capacity even further.  

Just to make this more fun, no one knows where the shortages will be. Some councils (that translates to local governments) are putting on kids-only public buses. Others are installing dart boards and using the tried-and-true method of having a blindfolded, socially distanced elected official throw a single dart. If she or he misses the board, no extra buses will be needed.

Bus companies got extra funding to ride out the pandemic (if you’re American, fasten your seat belt, because the language is going to get bumpy), but coach companies didn’t. 

Irrelevant photo: Morris dancers. Because what could be more fun that putting on a costume and whacking at one stick with another stick? This is from way before the pandemic, when people–yes, really–did stuff like this. 

What’s the difference? A bus runs a local route in a metropolitan area. A coach runs between cities. Or internationally. Possibly interplanetarily. But it’s still, physically speaking, a bus. Or so says Lord Google, although he doesn’t mention the interplanetary routes. Only a few of us know about them. We scoop up hints from the far corners of the internet and piece together the patterns.

Coaches are largely for privately chartered trips. 

Let’s review that: A bus is not a coach. A coach is a bus only different. And a couch is neither.

You’re welcome.

Why do we need two separate words? So that we’ll know who not to fund, silly. Also to confuse Americans who pretend to know something about Britain but understand less than they think they do. I don’t promise that I got the definitions right. What I can tell you with authority is that there is a difference and that it’s a mystery tightly held by people who descended from the Druids and who still know some of their secrets.

What do coaches have to do with the problem of kids getting to school? Some school districts may have to hire coaches to pretend they’re buses. But by November, the best data-driven dartboards predict, 18,000 of the 42,000 people working in the coach industry will be out of jobs and nearly 16,000 coaches will be off the roads. That’s something like half the UK’s fleet.

See lack of funding, above.

The Department of Education has issued guidance to local authorities saying that “at least 50% of journeys to school of two miles or less” need to be done on foot or by bike to leave space on the buses for longer trips.

And they’re going to convince the kids to do that how, exactly?

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Another unexpected result of the pandemic has been that cooks are turning back to canned food. Or as they put it here, tinned food. When the pandemic and panic buying rode into Britain like two lonely horsemen of the apocalypse, canned tomatoes disappeared off the shelves as quickly as toilet paper. 

No, sorry, I don’t have the recipe.

Sales of canned food went up 72.6% in March. That’s compared to March of 2019. 

So what are the canned-food companies doing? Kicking off a canned food festival on Instagram, dragging in TV chefs with Michelin stars to convince us that a curry involving canned spinach, potatoes, and chickpeas is a good idea.

I’ll go as far as the chickpeas. After that, I’m outta here. 

To be fair, they’re urging people to donate to food banks, so I can’t make fun of them too much.

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The pandemic hasn’t sent Britain back to the age of Victorian prudery, but the country does have a new set of guidelines on how to shoot sex scenes. It comes from Directors UK and it’s about how to handle “nudity and simulated sex.” I recommend paying attention, because you can never predict when you’ll be called on to deal with simulated sex. If I’d known when I was twenty–

Nah, we’ll skip the details. I could’ve spared myself no end of awkward situations.

What are the directors going to do? Well, for one thing–and I know this will shock you–they recommend looking at scripts to see if sex scenes couldn’t be replaced with emotional intimacy. 

See? I told you you’d be shocked.

They recommend looking at some of the classics (Casablanca’s mentioned) to see how sexual tension can be built without the flapping breasts that are generally thrown in as a quick and easy substitute.

They also raise the possibility of actors quarantining for two weeks before shooting a sex scene or using real-life partners. In case emotional intimacy’s too much work and the flapping breasts are absolutely necessary.

In Australia, a long-runnnig soap, Neighbours, has started shooting again. Actors keep a meter and a half apart and (you’d guess this, since it’s not practical at that distance) there’s no kissing. 

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Facial recognition technology is having a hard time telling the difference between a person wearing a mask and a spoof of a face. That made the news because shoppers who use it to pay for things with their phones are either having to take their masks off or enter a code instead, but the CCTV cameras of the world are having a quiet breakdown in a back room somewhere. Their failure rate ranges from 5% to 50%.

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Since the organization that will replace Public Health England is being handed to the person who set up England’s world-beating test and trace program, I can’t let you go without an example of test and trace success:  An anonymous tracer writing in the Guardian says, “I was hired as a contact tracer in the north-west of England at the end of May. . . . 

“In 12 weeks I have not made a single call, despite working 42 hours a week. . . . We have a WhatsApp group comparing notes with other call handlers and quite a few haven’t had even one job. . . . 

“Given that the north-west has seen some of the biggest spikes in infections, you would think we would be busy. . . . 

“Despite not being allocated any cases in three months, I was offered an extension on my contract this morning.”

Outsourced tracing companies have missed 46% of contacts in the hardest hit parts of England.

It’s all good though. 

Scapegoats, efficiency, and contracts: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

After England’s pandemic-related, algorithmically driven screwup of graduating students’ grades, no interview with Gavin Williamson, the human at least nominally in charge of the mess, was complete without the interviewer asking, “Are you going to resign?” 

Williamson would then blither on about whatever topic he could grab hold of as it flitted through his brain and the interviewer would repeat the question at least once, preferably twice.

Why didn’t he just say no? An algorithm told him that it would call attention to his mistakes. If he pretended not to hear the question, no one would notice.

Algorithms are the modern version of reading tea leaves, or chicken entrails. Someone claims a lot of expertise, interprets the tea leaves/chicken guts/computer reports, and isn’t to be held responsible if the prediction doesn’t match reality. 

Irrelevant photo: If I remember right, this is a thistle. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

The prime minister announced, from his vacation hideout in Wherever, that he has complete confidence in Williamson. In normal political-speak, that means someone’s done for, but Johnson said the same thing about his official Toxic Advisor Dominic Cummings and he’s still firmly rooted.

Why are they keeping Williamson  on? 

  1. This isn’t a government that insists on competence. Take a minute to consider the prime minister.
  2. The schools are reopening soon, and if it follows the pattern the government has established, it’ll be a mess. So they’ll be able to sacrifice one minister to the gods of public outrage instead of two. This’s known in the trade as efficiency.
  3. Both of the above.

Your answers will be graded by an algorithm that takes your parents’ income and educational background into account. The results may be reversed as soon as a second algorithm determines that the moment of maximum chaos has arrived, but I can’t promise. 

The correct answer is C. Not that it matters. Your grade’s already been determined, your fate is fixed, and there is no such thing as free will.

Doesn’t it just make you happy to read Notes?

*

Speaking of blame, Public Health England is being folded into a new agency, along with the Covid track and trace system, and it will not, may the heavens forbid, be put in the hands of someone with a public health background but those of Dido Harding, whose background is in business and who’s proved her worth by organizing the complete mess that is track and trace. This is also efficient. The government gets to blame a now-defunct body, Public Health England, for screwing up its response to the pandemic while rewarding one of the Conservative Party’s inner circle. And we’ll all forget that the government was the outfit going for herd immunity when the pandemic started. You remember herd immunity, right? The theory that said, “It’s okay if someone else’s granny dies. We can’t shut down the economy.”

Somehow they never think it’ll be their own granny who dies. Or themselves.

*

I read about a new home coronavirus test that works like a pregnancy test. I don’t think you pee on it, but it reports back in the time (the article said) that it takes to  eat your cornflakes. I was starting to get excited about it when I noticed that the article was in an absolute rag–an unreliable source. I got mad, deleted, it and haven’t been able to find it again. I googled pregnancy-style covid tests and got information on what to do when you’re pregnant with covid, which sounds like someone out there is spending nine months incubating a virus.

And there I was, thinking Rosemary’s Baby was scary. Anyway, at that point I decided not to worry about the link.

According to the description of the test, you add whatever precious bodily fluid the test asks for, plug the kit into the wall, and wait an hour for your result. 

Well, I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t take me an hour to eat a bowl of cornflakes.

Okay, full disclosure: I don’t eat cornflakes–they’re soggy and horrid–so I might not be eligible for the test. If I had to choose between knowing whether I had the virus and avoiding the cornflakes, I might well choose ignorance.

But never mind me. We’re trying to discuss public health, so stop fooling around, please. I’m sure I I could apply for an exemption anyway–maybe substitute an old sock or something else tasty to fill the time while I wait. 

The problem with the test is that it may or may not be legit. The Royal College of Pathologists (if you want to be impressive in Britain, find a way to get royal into your name)–

Can we stop wandering off the topic, please? The Royal College of Pathologists has called for the rules to be tightened on the home antibody testing kits that are being sold to consumers. And here I do have a link.

Why are they complaining? Well, to start with, no one knows whether having antibodies protects you from the disease. And if that doesn’t discourage you from buying a kit, the result might not be accurate. Or it might not be clear. The BBC tested 41 kits and found that a third were either inaccurate or gave incomplete information. 

Other than that, though, they’re great. And if you are pregnant, I’m sure your baby will be lovely. 

*

There’s good and bad news for singers worried about the pandemic. A study reports that, as a way of spreading the droplets and aerosols that are believed to carry the virus from person to person, singing quietly is only marginally more efficient than talking quietly. If you shout or sing loudly, though, and you’ll produce 24 times (shouting) or 36 times (singing) more of the suspect droplets and aerosols.

The study hasn’t been peer reviewed yet, but a lot of studies are being released before they’re reviewed in the midst of the current crisis. 

The size of the space where you sing or yell, as well as its ventilation, also come into the equation. Singing in a cathedral is going to be safer than singing in a pub. Singing in the shower, no matter how small, is safe as long as you don’t pack twenty of your closest friends in there with you.

The study is the first one to look systematically at singing, but it has its limits. It didn’t look at how much of the virus aerosols actually carry or how much of a risk they pose, and it didn’t look at the dynamics of choir singing.  

*

How much has Britain paid consultants for, um, whatever crucially important, world-beating work that it is they’ve done to help us out during the pandemic? That’ll be £56 million, please, and we don’t take checks. And most of their contracts have been given without competition. Because, hey, it’s a crisis. C’mon, studies are being published before they’re peer reviewed. Contracts are falling from the sky like candy from a pinata. 

Sorry about missing the tilda over the N in pinata. I’m sure Word Press has one somewhere, but I can’t find it and haven’t looked very hard.

Some of the contracts haven’t been made public yet but they have been leaked. Because, hey, it’s a crisis. Candy. Pinata. Want a sampling? PwC got a £1.4 million six-month contract to  to help run an emergency fund for small charities struggling to survive the pandemic. And McKinsey got £14,000 per day for six weeks to help create a replacement for Public Health England. I’m not sure if that includes any nitty-gritty work or if it’s just about defining its “vision, purpose and narrative.” I’m cynical enough by now to believe that the answer is behind door number two. And that the result will be some corporate gibberish that will mean nothing but will, I’m sure, look lovely when it’s printed in gold on the front of thousands of folders to hand out at conferences.

*

Speaking of contracts, a company called Public First, run by long-time associates of cabinet member Michael Gove and of the prime minister’s brain, Dominic Cummings, got a contract–again, with no competition–to work with Ofqual on its recent disaster, that algorithmically driven disaster I mentioned in the first paragraph. 

The association with Gove and Cummings goes back some twenty years, to the early days of the campaign to haul Britain out of the European Union. It was a long-shot investment that seems to have paid off.

How much were they paid for all their hard work? Dunno. It hasn’t been made public. It’s believed (remember, the contract hasn’t been made public) that the company was hired to help secure public confidence in what Ofqual did in downgrading 40% of graduating students’ grades. 

Stop laughing. It’s deeply disrespectful.

Comparative swearing and the regulation of language

I’ve lived in Britain for fourteen years, but you (or at least I) don’t stop being an outsider just because time’s passed. What I’m working toward telling you is that after all those years and in spite of heroic efforts, I still don’t know–never mind use–all Britain’s available swear words. 

Back in 2016, the Independent offered help to people like me, reporting that Ofcom, Britain’s communications regulator, interviewed 200 people about what they found offensive and then sorted the words into 3.2 categories, mild, medium, and strong, with a small subset of very strong.

If the list was published in 2016, it’s not exactly news, but I just found it and I’d bet a batch of brownies that not a lot of you will have seen it either. 

If you took that bet, you can either fax me a batch or send them as an attachment.

Irrelevant photo: I don’t remember what this one’s called. It’s a flower. It’s blue.

Ofcom isn’t necessarily recommending the words to us, just thinking through what can be used on the air when. 

It defines mild swear words as words that are okay to use around kids, so they’re not banned before 9 pm, when a great national gong sounds and all the kiddies are chased to bed lest they hear something terrible. 

The moderate words might or might not be acceptable before 9. That’s not a whole lot of guidance if you’re the person who’ll catch hell for making a provocative decision, but on the other hand it allows you all the wiggle room you could want. 

The strong words can be used only around people who stay awake after 9 pm, which some nights leaves me to provide my own damn swear words. 

What Ofcom was doing, I gather, was updating its list and checking it against the latest cultural shifts. If you want the full list, you’ll have to follow the link, but I’ll give you a few highlights:

In the mild category, I found ginger. That’s what they call redheads here, and I do know that the culture has a thing about redheads, although I don’t know why. My best guess is that it has something to do with Norman (or Anglo-Saxon–what do I know?) dominance over the Celts, who cling stubbornly to their habit of producing redheads. A culture’s dominant group always finds reasons to look down on the people they’re dominating. So ginger as an insult? Yup, there we go again.

But let’s be clear, I’m putting together two bits of information that may not want anything to do with each other. Take my explanation with a grain of salt. Or a full teaspoon.

What other insults are mild? Damn. Sod off. God. Cow. Arse. 

I’ll stop here so I can explain, for the sake of anyone who isn’t British, that the cow on that list isn’t an animal in a field that says “moo.” It’s an insult applied to a woman–especially, Lord Google tells me, one who’s stupid or unkind. It also falls into the category (I think–remember, I’m an outsider here) of mild or everyday sexism, although it’s used by both men and women.

The “I think” in that last sentence is only about the idea that it’s mild, not that it’s sexist. There’s always a way to insult you if you belong to the nondominant group.

As for arse, it’s the part of your anatomy that you sit on. Why it has an R when the one that Americans sit on is R-less and generally spelled differently I don’t know. Possibly to distinguish it from an animal that stands in a field, is able to carry burdens or pull things, and isn’t a horse, although Americans use the same word for both and for the most part know which one they’re talking about.

When I came to the medium-strength list, I started finding words I don’t recognize: bint, for example, and munter.

On the strong list, I found beef curtains, bloodclaat, flaps, punani, and clunge. The internet being what it is, I could look them all up, but I suspect I’ll enjoy them more if I don’t. And I don’t need to know. The reason I haven’t heard them isn’t because my friends don’t swear (although, now that I think about it, not many of them swear as much as I do) but because they don’t swear with these particular words. Maybe the words are falling out of use and maybe (medium range or not) they’re disgusting, so my friends are boycotting them. 

We’ll leave that as just one more mysterious thing about Britain. 

In the U.S., it’s the Federal Communications Commission that decides what’s allowed on the airwaves. Back in prehistory, I hosted a radio call-in show and we worked with a list of seven words that would break the airwaves if we said them, and before we went on the air I recited them sweetly so guests would know what to not say. 

Okay, not sweetly. I never could do sweetly and I never much wanted to. I recited an unemotional and absurd string of forbidden words. But it wasn’t an official list. The FCC never supplied us (or anyone else) with one. We were relying on comedian George Carlin’s 1972 list of seven words that you couldn’t say on TV. It didn’t have FCC approval, but it was as good as anything else. 

After a while I could only remember five. And I’m not sure they were the same five each time. I could’ve substituted a couple of random choices, but five was enough to sketch out the territory. We were working on a seven-second delay and I never had to bleep any a guest, although I did bleep a caller or three.

The FCC, like Ofcom, sorts what you can’t say into three categories, but they’re not the same three (or three point two). “Obscene content,” the FCC website says, “does not have protection by the First Amendment. [That’s the U.S. Constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech.] For content to be ruled obscene, it must meet a three-pronged test established by the Supreme Court: It must appeal to an average person’s prurient interest; depict or describe sexual conduct in a ‘patently offensive’ way; and, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

You want to know this stuff, right?

Indecent content portrays sexual or excretory organs or activities in a way that is patently offensive but does not meet the three-prong test for obscenity.

“Profane content includes ‘grossly offensive’ language that is considered a public nuisance. . .  .”

There’s something inherently absurd about sitting down to sort this stuff into boxes, isn’t there?

Sorry. I’ll shut up and let the FCC finish.

“Broadcasting obscene content is prohibited by law at all times of the day. Indecent and profane content are prohibited on broadcast TV and radio between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.”

What we learn from this is that American kids stay up later than British kids.

But how do you figure out what word goes in which box?

“Determining what obscene, indecent and profane mean can be difficult, depending on who you talk to,” the website admits. 

“In the Supreme Court’s 1964 landmark case on obscenity and pornography, Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote: ‘I know it when I see it.’ That case still influences FCC rules today, and complaints from the public about broadcasting objectionable content drive the enforcement of those rules.”

Then they run out of the room and leave you to figure out what you’re going to do.

When I was hosting the radio show, websites didn’t exist. No one handed me FCC guidelines and I didn’t think to search them out. George Carlin was as accurate as anything that came to hand, and having read the guidelines I’d say he probably still is.

*

If you’ve been around here a while, you will have figured out that I don’t offer advice on relationships, weight, or money, which are the only three things people truly want advice on. I don’t assume you’re trying to improve yourself and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t help if you were. But I’m about to give you one bit of advice on a topic that no one asks about: swearing. Here it is: Don’t use swear words you don’t understand. It won’t end well. 

If you have to look one up, if you can’t hear all its echoes and implications, you don’t understand it.

In fact–more advice coming–don’t use non-swear words you don’t understand. A philosophy professor once told me about a student paper that read, “When we consider the obesity of the universe, we know there must be a god.”

You won’t find me calling anyone a clunge. I’m not even sure it’s a noun.

Education, chaos, and lawsuits: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Way back when pandemics were nothing more than handy plot devices for weary writers or the nightmares of sensible scientists, I remember reading about a different nightmare scenario, the investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) clause that was being negotiated into an assortment of international trade and investment agreements. It allows foreign companies to sue governments in what are always described as highly secretive tribunals (and I’m paraphrasing some slippery language, so I may not be hitting this next bit directly on the head) for money they lost, or might have lost, due to government actions. 

I read a lot of nightmare scenarios, and I try not to let them keep me awake at night. This one came from sensible sources, so I didn’t disbelieve it, but nothing happened (at least where I could see it), the world as I knew it didn’t end, so I went back to sleep. 

Sunday’s paper, though, brought the news that it’s time to wake up. Big-money law firms are shooting emails to their clients on the subject. One, Ropes & Gray, wrote that actions brought under investment treaties could be “a powerful tool to recover or prevent loss resulting from Covid-19-related government actions.” 

The fear of lawsuits may mean that governments will back away from decisive responses to the pandemic, or to its economic impact, for fear of getting sued. investor 

Just when you thought we’d hit bottom, right?

*

New research suggests something we already know: that we still don’t know much about how actively kids spread Covid-19. Researchers in South Korea first suggested that kids from ten to nineteen are better virus spreaders than adults, but once people dug deeper into their it became less clear just who infected who. 

So the current best educated guess is that kids in that age group are at least no more likely to spread the infection than adults are. Unless, of course, they go out and act stupid, in which case they will, but not because they’re biologically better conduits.

But–and there’s always a but–kids do tend to have contact with more people than adults do, which would mean they could be great conduits, but for social rather than biological reasons.

I hope I’ve confused the picture sufficiently.

*

Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper getting ready for autumn.

A company in Cardiff has developed a quick test that spots Covid-19 T cells. T cells last longer than antibodies and have their own ways of fighting infection. They’re the things your body turns to when the first line of defense crumbles. 

The test may be useful in developing a vaccine.

It’s been possible to test for T cells before this, but it’s a slower process. The developer, Dr. HIndley, said, the new test  “stripped back everything to the bare bones” and a lab can get a result in 24 hours.

*

England has been in chaos over A-level grades

A bit of background: A-levels are a standardized test that students hoping to go to university (if you’re American, substitute college) first take and then submit. But the tests were canceled this year because of the virus. 

What to do? Well, every year teachers submit predicted grades–an estimate of how well students will do–and students either prove them right or don’t.

Could the students use their predicted instead? No, that would be too simple. The government stepped in to prevent the horror of grade inflation by applying an algorithm to the grades and creating grade deflation, penalizing students from poor and minority backgrounds, from schools that don’t usually do well, and from larger classes in more popular subjects. It didn’t penalize students from affluent, non-minority backgrounds, good schools, and private schools. Or students who were in very small classes.

Some 40% of the estimated grades were downgraded.  

An assortment of students lost the university places they’d been offered because their grades had been downgraded.

Then when everyone started shouting, the government said, fine, your school can appeal your grades. 

Then the secretary of state for education, on behalf of the government, said the process was robust and fair.

Then the government said, okay, we won’t charge your school if it appeals your grades and loses, something it would normally do.

Then the exam regulator published advice which contradicted something the government had said about the appeals process.

Then the regulator withdrew its advice. 

Then several students filed a lawsuit against the regulator.

Then members of parliament from all parties got inundated with letters from their constituents and felt the need to make very-unhappy noises to the government.

Then Boris Johnson, our alleged prime minister, went on vacation.

Then everybody remembered that the grades for a different standardized test for somewhat younger students are due to be released on Thursday and all hell was going to break loose all over again. Or not all over again, because this particular hell hadn’t stopped breaking yet.

Then I finally understood why universities didn’t declare the whole system invalid and accept the students they wanted in the first place: The government had limited the number of students they can accept. Why did they do that? I don’t understand the logic here, so I’ll quote an explanation from March of this year:

Strict limits on the number of students that each university in England can recruit were imposed by the government in an effort to avoid a free-for-all on admissions, with institutions plunged into financial turmoil as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Guardian has learned.

“A government source said each university would face limits on the number of UK and EU undergraduates it could admit for the academic year starting in September, in a move backed by higher education leaders. It will be the first such limit since the university admission cap was lifted in 2015.”

Exactly why extra students would be a problem when they’re losing international students I can’t explain, but it’s good to know that the government wants to avoid turmoil.

Then the secretary of state for education said he was really sorry and he hadn’t meant any of it. Everyone could use their predicted grades. And the cap on the number of students? They hadn’t meant that either. 

Then the universities were left to pick up the pieces, which you’ll find scattered on the floor of admissions offices all over the country, along with the admissions officers themselves, who are currently unable to haul themselves into their chairs.

And the kids–or former kids–who hadn’t been able to take the test get to pick up the pieces as well, because reversing the decision didn’t make everything snap back to the way it had been before their grades were lowered. Some kids missed out on scholarships. Programs with a limited number of places have already offered those places to other candidates. 

Scotland got itself into the same problem but made a quick u-turn, reverting to the grades the teachers had predicted. Why did England hold out for so long? Why, to wring the maximum amount of chaos out of the situation. Why look like a jerk by reversing yourself quickly when you can look like a world-class jerk and make scads of enemies by reversing yourself slowly? I’m a devotee of the mess as an art form–it’s underestimated, in my opinion–but really, guys, schools start again in September and I’ll have plenty to work with. You can stop anytime you like. 

Which reminds me to say that the government’s abolishing National Health England, folding it into the test-and-trace system. Since test and trace has been a disaster, they’re handing the two services to the person who’s been in charge of it, Dido Harding. We’ll catch up with that eventually.

*

This final item has nothing to do with Covid, but let’s toss it in anyway: The Home Office refused a British lawyer a visa he hadn’t applied for. 

He got married abroad and applied for a visa so his wife to join him in the country, submitting hundreds of pages of documents and a fee that topped £3,000. The Home Office refused him a £95 visa for a visit. And he couldn’t appeal the decision because he hadn’t applied for that visa.

Do we summon up the spirit of Joseph Heller (that’s Catch-22‘s author) or Franz Kafka?

When a newspaper called the Home Office, presumably for a quote, they decided to consider the application the man had actually filed.

His brother, who also married abroad, was refused a visa for his wife on the grounds that his description of the family restaurant’s menu differed from his father’s description. The father said it served pizza. The son said it also served garlic bread, chicken wings, and ice cream.

It’s a good thing capital punishment’s been abolished in the U.K. or they might’ve been hung for that.

A judge overturned the Home Office decision and ordered them to pay the couple £140. They still haven’t gotten it.

Nanobodies and jellyfish: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The optimists among us have been counting to see how many horsemen the current apocalypse has brought, and they’ve been able to chalk them up at an impressive rate as long as no one insists that they all ride through in the same place at the same time. We’ve got war, we’ve got famine, we’ve got plague, and now–ah, yes, the satisfaction of getting the complete set–we’ve got jellyfish.

Yes, friends, the fourth horseman looks sloppy on a horse but makes up for with his powerful ick factor.

He–that’s the fourth horseman–also stings, so horses aren’t crazy about carrying him, but that’s the thing about apocalypses, they don’t care what anyone thinks of the arrangements. They don’t even care about the proper plural of their key word, which may be apocalii or apocalump.  

Britain’s (and Ireland’s–let’s not be selfish) seas have been warm and calm this summer, and that’s brought jellyfish blooms–a mile-long cluster of compass jellyfish off Devon, although admittedly that was an estimate; masses of lion’s mane jellyfish off the Isle of Lewis and off Galway. And, presumably, others. The Marine Conservation Society said, “Already, some areas of the UK’s seas resemble a ‘jellyfish soup.’ ”

Which also sounds pretty apocalyptic.

*

Semi-relevant photo: What’s the best place to face down an apocalypse? Bed. Minnie the Moocher is ready to face anything.

From Australia comes the news that alpacas (along with other relatives of the camel) make two types of antibodies, the usual kind and a kind called nanobodies, which aren’t (or so they claim) escapees from a trashy science fiction series but an, um, you know, alternative antibody by a different name.

Okay, it’s a single-domain antibody, which makes it sounds like the expensive version of a plain old antibody but is actually an antibody fragment. They can be easier to mass produce. Or so says WikiWhatsia. I don’t know a thing about this myself and we can only hope WikiWhatsia wasn’t deep in one of its occasional bouts of madness when it told me that.

The reason I mention this is that researchers are trying to convince an alpaca to produce a nanobody that attacks Covid-19, then test it (the nanobody not the alpaca) to see if it’s safe and effective enough to turn into a vaccine. 

Don’t be in any hurry for this to happen, but don’t rule it out either. 

My thanks to Doug Jacquier for putting me onto this. I now know that not only do alpacas spit, they make nanobodies in their spare time.

*

Thursday’s papers brought more news on why scientists are worried about the Russian vaccine:

Once upon a time, in the long-ago year of 1977 (is anyone other than me old enough to think that’s recent?), a virologist named Scott Halstead was studying dengue fever and he discovered that if you caught dengue fever once and it left with antibodies, the antibodies not only wouldn’t protect you from a second bout, they’d help you get sicker. 

Thank you, antibodies.

That’s called antibody-dependent enhancement, or ADE, and one worry about the Russian vaccine is that Covid might behave like dengue fever. Why shouldn’t it? It’s outsmarted us at every other turn. 

ADE’s one of the things researchers look for in phase III trials of a vaccine–the phase the Russian vaccine skipped over. 

Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology, said the work behind the Russian vaccine has been opaque.

“I don’t think the Russian researchers have done anything wrong, but I think they’ve jumped the gun. If we’re talking about safety, then you have to be looking at issues like ADE, which was a concern that scuppered some efforts to develop a Sars vaccine, where it exacerbated an asthma-like response in the lungs.”

Ideally, he said, scientists would be able to compare all the vaccine candidates being worked on around the world, using the same criteria, and find the best vaccine, not the first.

“No two of these candidates is going to be alike in terms of safety, how effective they are or how cheap they are to produce. . . . There have been too many debacles in this pandemic. This is not another occasion to blunder in. You want to line up the candidates side by side.”

*

England has quietly subtracted 1.3 million from the number of Covid tests it claims to have carried out.

Or–wait–not carried out. Made available. 

What does made available mean? Less than it sounds like it means, but don’t worry about it. They’re discontinuing the category anyway.

Are we clear about everything now?

*

New countries have been added to Britain’s Oops List. That’s the list of countries we were told, with lots of celebration, that it was safe to travel to. Then some of us traveled to them and they turned out not to be safe after all because, oops, the rate at which the pandemic spreads isn’t static, it spikes and forms second and (if it gets a chance) third waves. So the people who traveled to those countries will come home to a 14-day quarantine that they didn’t count on.

A spike of Covid cases in France saw it become an Oops Country and anyone coming to Britain from France now has to quarantine for 14 days unless they touched their feet on British soil before4 a.m. on Saturday, August 15. 

It strikes me as counterproductive, if you’re genuinely worried about people importing the virus, to give them a few days to rush home so they can beat the quarantine. If the germ’s circulating where they’ve been, it’s circulating. Germs don’t own calendars and don’t care what day it is. 

Isn’t it lucky I’m not in charge here?

Headlines reported a rush of people trying to beat the deadline. Sort of like Cinderella running from the palace with the clock madly striking midnight. 

Larry the Cat (@Nnumber10cat) reported on Twitter that Grant Shapps, the transport secretary (who unlike Larry claims to be human), thinks that 4 a.m. Saturday falls on Sunday, and reproduced Shapps’ tweet to prove it.

Shapps did not introduce the Cinderella image and neither did Larry, but has anyone ever wondered why her dress turned to rags but her shoe continued to be its fine and fancy self? Not to mention how she got her foot into a rigid crystal shoe and how she danced in it?

*

Someone in New Zealand went on Trade Me, “The news of Level 2 lockdown came as shock to me. During my unnecessary panic, I decided to get a test. After testing negative, I figured I’d share my gift of Covid free air with the world.

“Enjoy this free range, gluten free bag of air from the lungs of a 100% New Zealand made boy lol.”

The top bid when I checked, on Saturday night, August 15, was $80,200 NZ. Whether the seller will ever collect that is beyond me. 

Surely not.

What people really want to know about Britain, part who’s counting?

Let us enter, once again, the depths of the internet, whose current wash strange questions to the shore here at Notes.

But you need to know a few things about the process before we go on: First, no feelings were hurt (or so I tell myself) in the process of turning me loose on these questions. They come from people–or I assume they’re people–who flit through here, driven by whatever whim propelled them at 2 a.m. to ask Lord Google for information on subjects they may not have actually cared about, and then flit right on out, leaving behind their questions but not their consciousness. Second, the questions appear in all their original oddity, except that I’ve italicized them. Third, I used to answer them seriously. It didn’t take long to get boring. 

*

Irrelevant Photo: The view from Castle Point, where there is no castle. The flowers are heather and gorse.

double space after full stop uk

For the sake of American readers, I need to explain this before I answer it: The question isn’t about social distancing at two stop signs. In Britain, a full stop is that tiny dot you put at the end of a sentence: a period. Back in the old days, when we used typewriters and that seemed like a perfectly reasonable thing to do, we were taught to double space after a period. That pool of wide-open paper made it easier to spot the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next.

In my school, by the way, only girls learned to use typewriters. They were considered too technical for boys. 

Then word processors came along and spoiled the fun by introducing proportional spacing.The divisions between sentences now jumped out without the help of an extra space. So the second space went the way of the typewriter and the quill pen, although 30% of the people in a survey (which may or may not be representative of I have no idea what population) still think it’s correct to double space.

If you want to know more about this (and who wouldn’t?), here’s a link

I can’t explain why Lord Google thought this was the place to send people for information about that, but now that I’ve written about it, he’ll send more.

Now let’s double back and explain my second sentence for the sake of non-American readers: In most (possibly all) states in the U.S., failing to come to a full stop at a stop sign will earn you a traffic ticket. But only if you get caught, which mostly you don’t. 

difference between anerican beeband british beer

You drink one in America and the other in Britain unless you want to pay extra for an import. One’s spelled with an R and the other with an extra B and no space at all before the and

berwick and russia at war

This is the longest non-war in history, and it has the biggest following. 

how do you pronounce river teign

Teen.

Teignmouth, though, the place at the mouth of the River Teign? Logic says you’d pronounce it the same way. 

Logic is wrong. This is England. Those are place names. Abandon hope. It’s Tinmuth.

And the government of the area, which is called the Teignbridge Authority? We’re back to teen.

widemouth

Most people call me bigmouth, but widemouth is far from the worst thing anyone’s called me. The place name, though, is pronounced Widmuth.

english holiday with sprouts

Back in the old days, this was known as Christmas, but the world changes and we have to change with it. It’s now known as English Holiday with Sprouts. 

These are brussels sprouts we’re talking about, for those of you who aren’t clued in to the oddities of British culture. I don’t answer questions about either bean sprouts or that hairy fuzz that grows out of alfalfa seeds. 

The sprouts holiday–

Let’s capitalize that: The Sprouts Holiday falls on Christmas, and folks gather around to eat brussels sprouts (and possibly other things, but the presence of sprouts obsesses a category of people who buzz around this blog like flies). 

Sorry, I got sidetracked. The people gather, eat sprouts, and wear silly paper hats. They place two desserts on the table and set fire to one of them.

That is–however strange it sounds–true.

The question should probably be about a British Holiday, though, not an English one, but I’ve never spent the Sprouts Holiday in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland, so I don’t really know how integral sprouts are there. I’d be happy to hear reports from the other nations on this crucial topic. 

Don’t you love that people turn to me to learn these things? Who better to explain the intricacies of the British Christmas tradition than an American Jewish atheist? This, my friends, is the true meaning of multiculturalism. 

Whatever that was you just threw at me, you missed. 

But let’s go back to the question and make sure we cover all possibilities. It might have been about taking your sprouts on holiday with you, which in American would be taking your brussels sprouts on vacation. Because, hey, it may be a holiday (or vacation) for you, but if you leave your sprouts at home, what kind of time are they having? The world would be a better place if we all took our vegetables into account when we made our plans. 

You’re welcome, and a 50-page position paper on the subject will arrive in your inbox tomorrow. Please get back to me with any changes by Monday. 

how did carriages pass on narrow english country lanes in olden days

This is, surprisingly, a good question. I don’t know what it’s doing here either. English country lanes are narrow. So are British country lanes in general, but let’s not get into that. Horse-drawn carriages didn’t have a reverse gear.

The partial answer is that country lanes aren’t an even width. They have wider spots, where you can pull over, swat horseflies, check your phone messages, and wait for that oncoming carriage to pass.

The rest of the answer? What happens when you’ve got a blind bend in the road and no wide spot? Your guess is as good as mine. What I can tell you is that I live in an area with lots of narrow lanes and blind curves and I’ve seen the shipwrecked remains of abandoned carriages or the bones of the horses that pulled them, so they must have figured out a way to go on.

debtors prison england

Where we’ll be if we don’t break down and admit that we need to tax those who can best afford taxes.

why call great britain

Because it’s running this fantastic ad campaign: Do you want your tea hot, your weather cool, your history complicated, and your spelling unpredictable? Call Great Britain! We deliver. 

parky used nineteenth

This is our mystery question. There’s always one. [Warning: I’m about the offer the world a bit of misinformation. In my defense, I was repeating what I’d been told by someone who seemed to know what he was talking about. The more fool me. See the comments for a correction or three.] Parky comes from a bit of Cockney rhyming slang: It’s parky in the mold means it’s cold. Mold is the rhyming bit, so it gets dropped because otherwise the phrase might make sense to people who didn’t already know what it meant. 

Nineteenth, though? Used? All suggestions, however bizarre, are welcome.