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?

Modern life in historic Britain

Britain wears its history with style. Why wouldn’t it? It has so much of the stuff that it can change clothes every hour on the hour and not repeat an outfit in years.

The dry cleaning costs are horrendous, but hey, it’s worth it.

History or no, however, Britain’s a modern country. So let’s spend a moment or six talking about technology in Britain. And elsewhere, since technology crosses borders more easily than beleaguered humans are allowed to.

You may have read that Alexa, that sorcerer’s apprentice in your home (or not–I don’t really know you, do I? she said inserting a question into a statement in a very British way), has been known to eavesdrop on conversations that aren’t addressed to her. Or, in one case, to eavesdrop on an ad on television in which someone asks Alexa-on-the-screen to order cat food, so the Alexa-in-someone’s-home woke up and ordered cat food. 

Friends, do not let Alexa watch TV.

Irrelevant and now out of season photo: rhododendron budding despite the snow.

The owner was able to cancel the order before the house filled up with cat food but was disturbed enough by what happened to lodge a complaint with Britain’s Advertising Standards Agency, which after due consideration cleared the ad, or the company behind the ad, of any wrongdoing. On what grounds? That Alexa’s programmed to need human confirmation before it completes an order. So creepy as it is, it’s all okay.

A similar thing happened in California when a six-year-old told Alexa to order a $170 doll’s house and four pounds of sugar cookies, only in that case when Alexa asked, “Do you really want me to order expensive stuff and make your parents really, really mad at you?” the six-year-old said, “Hell, yes.”

If she’d been English, she’d have said, “Yes, please,” not, “Hell, yes.” And of course I’m paraphrasing ever so slightly. Not what she would’ve said if she’d been British, only what she and Alexa really did say.

The story hit not just the newspapers but radio and TV newscasts, prompting Alexas all over the wherever–nation? state? I’m not sure how far the story spread–to ask whoever was around if they should order doll’s houses. As writer Hari Kunzru tweeted, before long we’ll all have to “prevent our fridges gambling our savings in Vegas.“

Ah, but all those cloned Alexas do more than ask if they should order doll’s houses. For a while there, the press was full of stories about Alexas laughing spontaneously, for no reason their creeped-out owners could identify. Amazon reset them all–it’s done centrally; the only way the owners can seize control is to turn them off–so that they stopped laughing. Which might be even creepier. The suspicion lingers, like a whiff of garlic, that they know something we don’t. Only now they’re keeping any hint of it to themselves.

But it’s not just Alexa who orders us stuff we didn’t want. Starting in January, Tiffany Crow was besieged with stuff she didn’t order. She doesn’t have an Alexa listening to her household’s every belch and whistle, so however this happened that wasn’t it.

What kind of stuff? Oh, wireless speakers, fitness wristbands, projectors, globes, and I’m not sure what else–over 100 items, she said. None of it stuff she wants, unfortunately. She tried getting the deliveries stopped but got nowhere, so she started giving it to the neighbors, but even they reached their limit. She lost her sense of humor about it pretty quickly, because each delivery came with endless packaging, which had to be sorted and recycled. Plus there was all that stuff to get rid of.

So does she have the right to keep it or give it away? According to U.K. law, yes. She informed the company, she didn’t order the stuff, she didn’t order anything like it, and she didn’t order one of them and type in 1,000 by mistake. So it’s hers. She and her neighbors get to keep the loot. Even if they don’t want it.

I know someone who got eight kilos of chocolate-covered Turkish delight by typing in the wrong amount. He had to pay for it, but I don’t think he was entirely unhappy about the mistake.

If you want that in pounds, multiply it by 2.2. That’s one of the few things involving numbers I trust my memory on.

Evenutally Tiffany Crow got the Guardian‘s Money section involved and Amazon miraculously found a way to turn off the loot faucet and apologized but “declined to offer an explanation.”

A glitch on this scale can only happen electronically, so it’s time to quote Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla, who says automation not only didn’t speed up the company’s car production line, it slowed it down. I’m cheating here, because it’s not a British company, but then California’s not a British county/state/province/colony/dependency either. I do cheat when it suits me. Just look the other way if it bothers you.

“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake,” he said. “To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated.”  

Our final high-tech success story is from a British bank, TSB, which used to stand for something but now only stands for TSB. It was recently bought by a Spanish bank, which directed it to update its computer programs, so it tried to transfer 1.3 billion customer records and–you see it coming, don’t you? Not only did they lock people out of their accounts, they gave some people access to other people’s records and created phantom credits and withdrawals. One customer found himself £13,000 to the good. Another found that he’d paid a direct debit to Sky Digital 81 years from now.

A member of the House of Lords discovered that he had a balance of £0.

TSB said it was having a few intermittent problems. Then it said it was having a few more serious problems than that. Then it said a bunch of other stuff but nobody believed anything it said anymore. Its chief executive, whose name really is Paul Pester, admitted that a week after the problems started the bank was on its knees. He refused to answer questions about his bonus, which was said to be £1.6 million and was supposed to be paid once the data migration was complete.

A little while later he was publicly giving up his bonus, which by then had grown to £2 million.

That sound you hear? It’s Alexa laughing.

*

A quick note: I meant to write about the Commonwealth this week, in the hope of learning something about it, but I got lost in the detail and lost my sense of humor over the current scandal involving the government, Commonwealth citizens from the Caribbean, and plain ol’ racism. The scandal recently brought down the home secretary. I may manage to write about some bits of it yet, but I can’t promise. If you want to know what I’m talking about (and if you live in Britain you almost surely know already), you can start by googling “windrush generation landing cards destroyed.”

Some topics work out, others don’t. This one hasn’t.