British prime minister fires British prime minister’s brain

On Friday, Boris Johnson fired Dominic Cummings, who’s functioned as Johnson’s brain since Johnson took office. This leaves a major gap not just at 10 Downing Street but between the prime ministerial ears, since we’re doing body metaphors.

Everyone in government will be rushing to fill it. 

This all started with Cummings’ ally, Lee Cain, resigning. Johnson had been about to promote him but seems to have been shoved onto a different track by Allegra Stratton and Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, a woman with a considerable political background of her own. 

They had some help, and we’ll come back to that, but first: Stratton got into the picture when she was appointed to lead government press conferences and came into conflict with Cummings and Cain over whether they should be real press conferences or what they’re calling White House-style briefings, where no real questions are answered. She considered the White House-style briefing cosmetic and pointless.

Potentially relevant photo: Cummings and Cain will have plenty of time on their hands. They could take up a fine old English tradition and join a morris dancing side. You don’t actually get to hit anyone with the stick, which I suspect will disappoint them, but you do at least get to pretend.

Symonds’ influence raises an interesting issue. She’s not an elected member of government, which makes it easy to rear back and think, Hold on. Who the hell is she to have so much influence just because she’s in a relationship with the prime minister? And some of the cheesier papers are doing that. What the hell, she has no job title and she’s a woman. Women make a tempting target. 

One the other hand, Cummings and Cain weren’t elected either. Who the hell were they to have so much influence? We could argue that Symonds is saving the country a lot of money by not drawing a salary. Or we could skip making that argument. My point is that we can’t draw a clear line between Johnson’s special advisors and his fiancee. It’s murky–and interesting–territory, full of  moral ambiguities.

Johnson is said to  have been furious that Cummings and Cain were briefing against him and Symonds. “Briefing against” translates to undermining their reputation.

Assorted other personalities and factions within the government and in the Conservative Party also got into the push-and-shove over who was going to have the prime ministerial ear. Factions seem to be the latest thing in the Conservative Party–something I’d thought only Labour was good at. Backbenchers–

Hang on. Time for a definition. Backbenchers are Members of Parliament who haven’t gotten the top government jobs (or the shadow jobs that the opposition party hands out). They sit at the back of the room when parliament meets, playing with their phones and throwing spitballs. Every so often, they get to jeer the opposing party, which has the virtue of waking everybody up, but otherwise they’re supposed to vote as instructed and shut up (or say what’s expected) the rest of the time. 

They don’t actually throw spitballs. They do jeer and carry on as if their development stopped at spitball-throwing age.

With the explanation out of the way, we’ll go on: Backbench Conservatives have been forming pressure groups. It worked for Brexit, they figure, so why not start groups opposing Covid lockdowns or accusing the National Trust of having a Marxist agenda because it’s acknowledging that role of slavery in creating the properties it manages and opens to the public?

Cummings and Covid are taking the blame for Johnson not having kept good relations with his party’s MPs. As one backbencher said, new MPs never got a chance to know Johnson and “they have spiralled off into orbit, and if the party isn’t careful, they will become serial rebels, never to be seen again.” 

With Cummings going, some of them are hoping for a fresh start, but a former staff member said, “The contempt for MPs does not come from Dominic Cummings, he’s just a harder version of the smiling frontman. The basic contempt comes from Boris Johnson.” 

What happens next? Don’t I wish I knew. Cummings and Cain are old political pals of Johnson’s from the Brexit campaign, and they formed the hub of the hard Brexiteers in Number 10. With them gone and Brexit looming, it’s hard to say which way things will go. Britain’s still in talks with the European Union and there isn’t much time left to put together a deal before we leave the EU without one.

The same staff member I quoted a couple of paragraphs back said about Johnson, “This is a guy who gets blown around by whatever storm; he has no political compass.” And advisors–presumably Cain and Cummings–had complained about Johnson not being able to make big decisions. 

That makes it particularly important who’s getting to whisper in his ear.

Whee.

And did I mention anything a pandemic? Somewhere in here, some actual work needs to be done. 

Whoever’s left at Number 10 is expecting Cummings to take public revenge and is–or possibly are; surely there’s more than one–preparing responses. One official was quoted as saying, “It’s the last days of Rome in there.” 

I’m’ sure the most interesting dirt hasn’t been dished yet. Have patience, my friends. It will leak out eventually.

Pesky science and contact tracing: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A former Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, accused Boris Johnson of “giving in” to the government’s scientific advisers when he declared a second lockdown. 

Those damn scientific advisors. You can’t turn your back on them for a minute. It’s all just science, science, science. 

So what have those pesky scientists done lately? 

Some have demonstrated that masks don’t deprive you of oxygen. Yes, they already knew that, but the rumor that they do has a life of its own, so a few of them went ahead and rigged up a clutch of people with portable pulse oximeters (the measure blood oxygen levels), and guess what: They found no signs that any participant was short of oxygen. 

In other words, they’re saying you should wear a mask. You’ll still be able to breathe.

Pesky damn know-it-alls.

They’re also developing an overwhelming number of possible vaccines–more than I can keep up with–and identifying existing drugs that hold out the hope of treating Covid well enough to at least prevent hospitalization. But stay strong, people. We mustn’t give in to them. We’re doing just fine by our own ignorant selves.

*

We haven’t heard much drum-beating lately about Britain’s world-beating Covid app–the one that was going to save us all–but every so often an article surfaces about what’s gone wrong with it. The latest is that it was set at the wrong sensitivity level, so it missed notifying thousands of people that they’d been in contact with and infected person, and it stayed at that setting for a month. A government source said a “shockingly low” number of people were sent warnings. 

*

Someone working in Britain’s business secretary’s private office tested positive for Covid and the rest of the office went into isolation. But the business secretary himself, Alok Sharma, went to South Korea and even after he heard of the positive diagnosis held meetings there . 

He hadn’t had close contact with the person who tested positive, he said. 

They had a meeting four or five days before, the papers say–and people are contagious before symptoms begin. 

Sharma hadn’t “been told to isolate by NHS test and trace,” a spokesperson said.

Well, no, I don’t expect he had been. The test and trace system is notoriously nonfunctional.

Sharma tested negative before he left for the trip and again when he arrived, someone the spokesperson said, not mentioning the test’s percentage of false negatives or its inability to pick up pre-symptomatic cases reliably.

*

Before England went into lockdown, the universities minister (hands up: who knew Britain had one?) urged university students to stay where they were for the duration of the lockdown. Some uncounted many headed home anyway. 

Most of them are taking classes online anyway. 

*

Michael Gove, the cabinet office minister, and Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, gave out assorted wrong information on what people could and couldn’t do under the new lockdown rules. There’s no point in repeating misinformation, so let’s just say that it hasn’t helped. They apologized very nicely, and in fairness the new lockdown was hauled out of the flatpack so quickly that the government only had time to put half the screws in place. We’ve been asked not to rest heavy objects on it until November 15.

Still, I don’t think they’ll be letting any ministers out on their own for a while.

*

The Department for Education has outsourced the work of advising schools on how to handle Covid. Until recently, this was done by clinicians from Public Health England, who advised, did spot checks, followed up, and advised further. Then in September they were replaced with a call center whose workers read from a script. One teacher was told to send thirty-two students home.

Why thirty-two? he asked.

The call handler didn’t know. 

*

At the end of October, Boris Johnson promised England that we’d have Covid tests we could read ourselves. Better yet, they’d give us a result in ten to fifteen minutes. They’d work on presymptomatic people, asymptomatic people, semisymptomatic dogs, cats in all states of symptomosity, and ham sandwiches–in short, everyone and everything. Including–this being England, a nice cup of tea.

People could be tested, know they were safe, and go on with normal life. And the would still be warm enough to drink.

The government bought 20 million of tests. 

Unfortunately, the maker’s website says the tests aren’t meant for people without symptoms and are meant to be read by a health professional. 

Step away from that tea, please.

*

Just in time to beat lockdown, a couple got married, joined their last names, and became Mr. and Mrs. White-Christmas.

Seriously. Tilly Christmas and Kieran White. I doubt they had any arguments over whose name would come first.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-dorset-54822289

 

 

Politicians and hungry kids: it’s the pandemic news from Britain

After refusing to find common ground with Manchester’s political leadership over money to support workers and businesses devastated by a local lockdown, the government announced a new package of support for businesses and workers devastated by local lockdowns. 

Andy Burnham, Manchester’s mayor, said it was what he’d been pushing for all along

So why did the government let the talks blow up before agreeing to provide support? So it can say, “Nyah, nyah, we win.” The government can now claim that it was their idea all along and that they’ve forgotten where Manchester is anyway.

*

Irrelevant photo: Starlings in the neighbors’ tree. They gather in large flocks in the fall and winter. The Scandinavian starlings spend their winters here. The ones that spend the summer here head south in the winter. Go figure.

This might be an appropriate time to talk about sewage

No, that wasn’t an editorial comment. I am so politically neutral that I can’t even see myself in a mirror. 

Ninety sewage treatment sites in England, Wales, and Scotland are starting to test for Covid. A pilot program in Plymouth spotted an outbreak that was clustered around some asymptomatic cases well before the test and trace system spotted it.

Admittedly, the test and trace system couldn’t spot a Covid-infected camel if it crashed  through the Serco board room with a nickelodeon on its back playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but the point is that the sewage folks spotted the outbreak at an early stage. They’d have no problem spotting a camel either. 

The nickelodeon might be more of a problem. It needs a different set of reagents and an entirely different testing protocol.

*

Having finally noticed that the test and trace system not only isn’t working but that the percentage of people it contacts has fallen, the government placed an ad for someone with a track record of “turning around failing call centres.” 

The job pays £2,000 a day. And as I often have to remind you, in a pinch a person can live on that.

*

When I was looking for details on the program to support workers and businesses devastated by etc., I thought I could save myself a few keystrokes by just typing in the chancellor’s last name, Sunak. Auto-complete took what I’d written and supplied “flip-flops.” I was delighted: Sunak and Johnson had both flip-flopped on support for etc, and here Lord Google was writing an editorial for me. 

I followed Lord G.’s editorial to pictures of physical flip-flops–those plastic sandals you can slip your feet into without having to fasten anything. Turns out I’d flip-flopped a couple of letters and typed “Sanuk,” a brand of flip-flop that cost anywhere between £20 and £55. 

I remember when flip-flops were cheap. Of course, I remember when gas (or petrol if you speak British) was $0.29 a gallon. I also remember when I was nineteen, and it was a shockingly long time ago. 

*

After rising for seven weeks, the number of Covid cases in England looks like it’s stopped rising. Hospitalizations always tag along behind, kind of like a pesky younger brother, so they’re still going up.

*

An Australian company is working on a Covid test based on saliva–no swabs involved–that reports back in fifteen minutes and uses a hand-held device. That doesn’t necessarily mean the device is cheap–the article didn’t say what it costs–but it does mean you don’t need an entire lab for the test, so there ought to be some savings in there somewhere.

Of course, in Britain, we’ll have to contract with an outsourcing company to bring it into the country, and that should add a few million to the cost, if they get it here at all. But hey, what’s a few million pounds between friends? After all, Parliament just voted not to give low-income families £15 per kid over the school holidays so the kids wouldn’t go hungry. We might as well spend that money somewhere. 

The tests themselves work out to about $25 each, although to get a more exact figure I expect you’d have to do some sort of mathematical gymnastics involving the cost of the hand-held gizmo and the number of tests you’re going to do on each one. 

The bad news is that the system’s still being tested, but the hope is that it’ll detect the virus when people haven’t  yet shown any symptoms but are already contagious. The current tests are most effective after symptoms have started, meaning they give a lot of false negatives.

*

After Parliament voted not to give families that £15 per low-income kid over the school holidays, cafes, restaurants, and local governments stepped in to help fill the gap.

The issue of kids going hungry was raised by a football player, Marcus Rashford, who learned enough about hunger as a kid to qualify as an expert. He shamed the government into creating a program over the summer, but the thing about eating is that having done it once doesn’t keep you from needing to do it again.

Reacting to businesses stepping in to help, Rashford said, “Even at their lowest point, having felt the devastating effects of the pandemic, local businesses have wrapped arms around their communities today, catching vulnerable children as they fell.

“I couldn’t be more proud to call myself British tonight.”

Boris Johnson, on the other hand, “declined to welcome the offers of assistance,” as one paper put it. I assume some reporter gave him the opportunity just to see if he would. But hell, if these kids wanted to eat over the holidays, they should’ve had the foresight to get themselves born into better-off families, the way he did.

Arguing against spending the money on kids, MP Brendan Clarke-Smith said, “I do not believe in nationalising children.

“Instead, we need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility and this means less virtue-signalling on Twitter by proxy and more action to tackle the real causes of child poverty.”

Like low pay, possibly? Or a lack of jobs? 

Nah, it’s got to be personal irresponsibility.

The government’s decision is particularly grotesque since it spent over £522 million on a summer program to tempt people back into cafes and restaurants, but only if they could afford to pay half the cost. And MPs are expected to get a £3,000 raise.

What people really want to know about Britain, part 21ish

It’s time to empty the search engine questions onto the kitchen table and see what Lord Google’s sent us. The questions appear here in all their oddity. And in case you worry that I’m making fun of the people who left them, I’m 99.9% sure that not a one of them stuck around to read my answers. They came, they saw, they thought, What the hell is this?, and they left.

British History and Culture

does anyone know why the british all wore those silly-looking white wigs ?

Oh, I am so glad you asked. I hadn’t gotten a decent search engine question in weeks and I’d been starting to think Lord Google had stopped caring about me. The answer is, first, yes. I know that and, oh, so much more. Most of which I won’t tell you because, having left your question, you’re gone, aren’t you? Besides, it would scare you shitless if you knew what I do. It sure as hell worries me.

But there’s a second part of the answer, which is that they liked their wigs. They took them seriously, in no small part because the wigs allowed them to look down on the wigless–the schmucks who were so poor they had to run around–publicly yet–in their own hair. Wigs were strictly for the upper classes. Think about it. Wigs weren’t just expensive, they were in style. It’s amazing what people will wear if it’s expensive and in style.

People who could afford to had more than one. Think of the wig as the Gucci bag its day. Or if you have a Gucci bag and take it seriously and I’ve insulted  you–sorry–fill in the imaginary blank with any expensive style you do think is ridiculous.

Now, O person who’s no longer here, think about something you own and love that’s the height of fashion. Then think about yourself in forty years, looking at a picture of yourself and (or in) it. Think how silly it (and quite possibly you) are going to look. 

That’s if we’re all still around in forty years, which is looking less likely every week.

Irrelevant photo: flowers from a village produce stall. Chrysanthemums, I’m reasonably sure.

cockwomble definition scottish

Is the Scottish definition of cockwomble different than (or from) the English definition of cockwomble? Or the Welsh, Irish, or Cornish one? I’m outside my area of expertise here  –if I have an area of expertise–but that doesn’t normally stop me from sounding authoritative. So I’m going to say no, the cockwomble grew out of a kids TV show, The Wombles, which was British, not English/Scottish/etc.ish. The show grew out of a kids’ book. A band by the same name grew out of some hallucinogens. 

No, I don’t know that. I’m asserting it in complete ignorance, but I do remember a moment or two of the seventies, which is what leads me to think–

And when someone comes along and tells me I’m wrong about any of that, I’ll be happy to shove over and give them the expert’s seat.

Lord Google is besieged by people asking about a link between cockwombles and Scotland. I know this because I asked him about it myself. I can’t find any reason to think the link exists, but if enough people ask eventually a link of sorts will be cobbled together.

cockwomble oxford english dictionary

I’m sure there’s a cockwomble working at the Oxford English Dictionary. There’s one anyplace with a staff of more than six. There might even be a definition of cockwomble in there somewhere. Dictionaries have gone refreshingly lowbrow these days. But what’s the question doing here instead of at the OED?

self esteem bell ringers

Y’know, I hate the phrase self-esteem. Or maybe it’s not the phrase but the idea. It strikes me as a short answer to a long and complicated question. I don’t trust it. But when you add it to something as noisy as church bells, it gets really annoying. Can we limit the bell ringing to people who don’t feel so damn good about themselves, please?

But since I slammed the question into the British Culture section–and I take these categories seriously, I’ll have you know–I’d better explain that bell ringing is a thing here. There used to be competitions. Maybe there still are.

And with that I’ve exhausted most of what I know on the subject. I’ll just sneak out quietly before anybody notices. 

anglo-saxon england notes

It was your class, sweetie. You’re the one who was supposed to be taking notes.

what were debtors called in great britain

Debtors. Also things like Alfred, Harry, James– Occasionally you might get a Sarah or something along those lines, but with the power to contract debts solidly in the hands of men, that seems to have been less common.

why do we eat brussel sprouts for christmas

Because Santa’s moved on from that coal-in-the-stocking routine. Times change, dear.

berwick on tweed at war with germany

No, no, no. It’s Russia that Berwick on Tweed isn’t at war with even though a lot of people think it is. Germany? Berwick also isn’t at war with Germany, but nobody except one late-night person messing around on the internet thinks it might be.

Although I suppose Berwick can not be at war with one country as easily as with another. Or with all of them at once. With the state the world’s in, it’s good to hear of someplace that isn’t at war. Even if it’s not a country and doesn’t have an army.

perwick island still at war

Look! We’ve got another variation on the theme of Berwick not being at war with Russia.

Lord Google couldn’t lead me to any Perwick Islands, but he doesn’t insist on precise spelling and told me instead about three Berwick Islands. One is in (or off) Australia, one is ditto in relation to Louisiana, and the third to South Carolina. After that we get to Lerwick, on the Shetland Islands.

None of them are at war with anyone. Isn’t that marvelous?

I’m learning so much about how rumors start.

how to pronounce tunnel

This is a perfectly sensible question, given how badly English-language pronunciation aligns with English-language spelling. Unfortunately, this is not a sensible place. Try a dictionary, friend. 

British Politics

supine stem of confiteor

This is a phrase our prime minister dropped into a speech to a bunch of blank-faced school kids, apparently in an effort to convince them that education was exciting and that they’d look back on these days as–well, who knows? The best days of their lives? A time when they’ll learn useless phrases they can later throw into a speech when they have no idea what point they’re supposed to be making? 

In a career that’s long on incoherence, this wasn’t Johnson’s most coherent speech. But it did follow his pattern of being able to say stupid things in Latin. Or partially in Latin. Most of it was in English, but nobody understood that part either.

when did the uk go metric

Some time ago, in a moment of Euro-madness. Or make that several moments of Euro-madness, and I’d give you an actual date but the country crept up on metricosity in stages, giving us one date for petrol (which if you’re American is gas) and diesel, another date for certain types of alcohol, no date at all for beer, at least in pubs, because it’s still sold in imperial measures, and–well, you get the drift. 

Now that we’re leaving the European Union, will we go back to our state of pre-metric innocence? Innocence is hard to recapture and I suspect the shift would be too much trouble for even the most hard-nosed Brexiteers, but I may be underestimating them. Or overestimating them. Or I may be, as a karate teacher I once studied with liked to say, overexaggerating. 

Americans in Britain

baking powder biscuit in england

Outside of my house, you won’t find a single baking powder biscuit in England. You’ll find scones, which are made with baking powder, but they’re a different thing. You’ll also find biscuits, which we Americans–being the perverse creatures that we are–call cookies, and they’re generally with baking powder too, but they’re not baking powder biscuits, they’re just biscuits. Made with baking powder

Are you confused yet? Then you’re getting into the spirit of the thing.

Baking powder biscuits look like scones but they’re not as sweet. 

Yeah, but what about cheese scones. They’re not sweet. 

We’re leaving them out of the conversation because they’ll only leave crumbs on the floor. They’re also different from baking powder biscuits, but (other than the cheese) I can’t explain why. It’s something you just have to take on faith.

You eat baking powder biscuits like bread: with a meal, without a meal, to mop up the gravy, with butter, with jam. The only thing you can’t do with them is toast them because you’ll never get them out of the toaster in one piece. 

Baking powder biscuits are a southern thing. They’re a Black thing. They’re a wonderful thing, and mostly we just call them biscuits. What they’re not is an English thing. Or (since this is probably what the question meant) a British thing. Americans are still trying to work out the difference between England and Britain. What do you expect from us? We still haven’t figured out the difference between the United States and America in general.

Questions that Defy Categorization

Britishfonot

I thought I’d include it so you’d understand how strange it gets around here. Even without my intervention. I have no idea what it means.

how to politely reject the award

You mean on those special occasions when saying, “Fuck you, this is meaningless,” just won’t do? 

It’s not that hard. You start by saying thank you. Then you explain that you don’t do awards. If your reason is that they’re meaningless, you’ll want to keep it to yourself because you’re being polite, remember? If your reason is something inoffensive, you explain it. Then you get out of there while everyone’s still smiling. 

You’re welcome. I’m going to start an advice blog any day now, with a side of good manners and another one of cole slaw.

amazon

Somebody asked to find Amazon and Lord Google sent them to me. That must mean I rank higher than Amazon.

Would you like a side of cole slaw with that?

Covid, singing, and the London Marathon: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

The London Marathon was supposed to happen last April but it was postponed until October 4 because of the pandemic, and somewhere in between those two dates they decided to make it a virtual marathon. A handful of top runners will follow the marathon’s route and have what used to be called a race. 

What do we call it now? I’m not sure. The language tested positive the other day, but it’s a beautiful, beautiful language and it’s only in the hospital because there were some people here who wanted to be cautious. Very, very cautious. 

The test’s fake anyway. The virus is a fake. 

But with all that hospital equipment beeping, it’s hard to remember words. So never mind what we call it these days. It used to be a race. A very beautiful race.

Where were we? 

All the other runners will do their miles wherever they happen to be–Cornwall, Australia, it doesn’t matter–and log their time onto an app, which will take their word for it and give them a medal. 

Okay, the app won’t give them the medal. It has humans to do that for it.

This being Britain, a certain number of the participants will run in costume, which could be anything from a tutu to a telephone box. If you’ll click the link, you’ll see someone running in a 10 kilo a rhino costume. That’s 22 pounds, or to put it simply, a shitload of weight to go running in, especially since she has to hunch forward inside there and can’t see very well. And that’s just when she’s in training. On the day of the actual marathon, her husband will be on hand to steer her around trash barrels and gawping kids. 

*

Irrelevant photo: This flower is orange. You’re welcome.

A third of Britain is living with tighter-than-the-national Covid restrictions because of a localized rise in case numbers. And what really matters in all of this is who’s to blame.  

Boris Johnson blames the public’s “fraying discipline.” It has nothing to do with the government having encouraged people over the summer to travel, eat out, drink out, get out with their wallets in hand, or with guidelines and laws so murky that Johnson got them wrong when he explained how simple they were. Or with its own advisors (and more recently an MP) breaking them. Or with a heroically useless test and trace system. 

The mayor of one affected area, Middlesbrough, said the new measures were based on “factual inaccuracies and a monstrous and frightening lack of communication, and ignorance. . . . We do not accept these measures.”

Cases have managed to double in the majority of cities and towns under the tighter restrictions. I don’t have a start date for that–the restrictions started at different times in different areas–but it ended on September 20.

The best educated guess on why they haven’t been effective is that the rules are confusing and that the communities and their leaders haven’t been involved and don’t support them. Plus that when you try to talk about what’s wrong with the test and trace system the discussion quickly falls off the edge of the English language.

Okay. The expert whose opinion I’m paraphrasing, Chris Ham, said the test and trace system was “still not working well enough.” But I’m channeling what he really thinks. You know I am.

*

Serious, labor-intensive contact tracing in two Indian states shows that just a few events were responsible for a disproportionate number of Covid infections. It also suggests that, contrary to what’s generally been thought, children transmit the virus quite efficiently, thanks. Every time I read a study about kids and transmission, it contradicts that last one, so let’s not rest too much weight on that frail bridge, just acknowledge that it’s all still preliminary.

Still, this is the biggest epidemiological study of the spread so far. 

What they found is that 8% of the people they followed caused 60% of the infections. The things that seem to separate an event from a superspreader event are how close people are to someone who’s infected, how long they’re close, and how good the ventilation is. 

Contact tracers followed 78 people who’d been on a bus or train with one lone infected person, sitting within three rows of them for more than six hours, and found that 80% of them had gotten the virus. In lower-risk environments–being in the same room but three feet away–only 1.6% got the virus.

Kids between the age of five and seventeen passed the virus on to 18% of the close contacts in their own age groups. That’s not exactly parallel information–how close, how long, how well or badly ventilated, or what percent of adults passed it on to close contacts –so it doesn’t tell us whether they’re passing the bug along as efficiently as their older, wiser, creakier relatives, but what the hell, it’s information. I thought I’d throw it at you. 

The study also doesn’t answer the question of whether any biological factors separate your average infected person from your superspreader. 

*

Back at the start of the pandemic, the British government set up a loan program to help businesses survive. The British Business Bank warned that it was vulnerable to being scammed by people setting up fake businesses. 

Actually, not just vulnerable to: at high risk of. The British Business Bank is state owned and was supposed to supervise the program, and it sounded the warning twice.

And surprise, surprise, exactly what they warned of has happened, although I don’t think anyone knows yet how often, or how much money the government’s on the hook for because of it. What I’ve seen so far is anecdotal–the ”someone stole my name to steal money from the government” sort of thing. But I thought you might need cheering up by now, so I wanted to mention it.

*

A new study of Covid spread and singing is drawing from “faith communities” to find its participants. I’m putting that in quotes because on the one hand it manages to include every religion you can think of and several you can’t, so it’s useful, but on the other hand it sounds so prim and tippy-toed that I want to throw crockery at it.  So I’ll use the phrase and disown it at the same time. 

I just hate when people do that. Which is why I’m spending more time explaining it than I am talking about the study.

Other than its focus on religious groups, the study’s inclusive: It’ll involve people from a range of heights, sizes, sexes, ages, and ethnicities. Also with and without hairy faces in case any of that affects things. They’ll sing at different volumes, chant, or hum, using assorted face coverings, while lasers measure the aerosols they spray out. 

These days I do all my singing from inside the large plastic wheelie bin that the county supplies for green waste recycling. With the lid down. As long as the green waste guys don’t come when I’m singing and the neighbors don’t get together to push me down the hill and into the ocean, it’s perfectly safe. 

*

It seems to be accepted at this point that Covid can catch a ride on the aerosols that we breathe out when we do all those noisy, communicative things that human evolution has given us, but it’s not clear to what extent aerosol-borne germs actually spread the disease. 

What is known is that aerosols travel more than six feet–the magic distance that’s supposed to keep us all safe from other people’s germs. The six-foot recommendation was based on the larger particles–droplets–which fall to the ground relatively close to the breathing, singing, humming source. But aerosols can hang in the air for hours. They hold dances up there. They run marathons in rhinoceros costumes. 

Okay, we don’t know what they do up there, or how dangerous it is to us. All we know for sure is that ventilation is a good thing. So are air purifying systems.

Mind you, I don’t know what qualifies as an air purifying system and I’m not in a hurry to take any non-expert’s word on it. I do know that open windows work. I also know that in a Minnesota January open windows aren’t as simple a solution as they are in June.

*

An article in Journal of General Internal Medicine surveyed 28 experts in vaccinology (yes, there is such a thing) and on an average they thought a vaccine would be available to the general public (this would be in the US or Canada) at the earliest in June 2021 but more probably in September or October.

For people at the greatest risk, the soonest would be February but more probably March or April.

But as the great Yogi Berra may or may not have said, “It’s hard to make predictions. Especially about the future.”

Berra also may or may not have said, “I never said half the things I said,” which is why I’m being cautious about attributing that quote to him. Someone will, inevitably, let me know that someone else said it. And they’ll probably be right.

*

Having Neanderthal genes, as 16% of Europeans, 50% of south Asians, and 0% of Africans do, can make a person three times more likely to need ventilation if they’re infected with Covid.

But Professor Mark Maslin added a however to that: “Lots of different populations are being severely affected, many of which do not have any Neanderthal genes. We must avoid simplifying the causes and impact of Covid-19. . . . Covid-19 is a complex disease, the severity of which has been linked to age, gender, ethnicity, obesity, health, virus load among other things.”

I only mentioned it because it’s so damn weird.

Does the Covid virus work nights? It’s the pandemic update from Britain

With Covid cases rising in Britain and more than a quarter of the country living with local restrictions on top of the national ones, pubs in England have been told to close at 10 pm. So who can resist a story about Parliament’s bars being exempt from the rules?

Parliament has thirty bars and the booze is subsidized, so it’s cheap. And we shouldn’t be calling it booze, because a lot of these people are high-class guzzlers. They’re not in the habit of letting people talk about them as if they were your everyday, low-rent lush. They are extremely high-rent lushes.

But high rent or not, sitting in the House of Commons or the House of Lords is a thirsty job, so they need those bars. Which, I assume, is why they were neatly defined as workplace canteens, which gave them an exemption on both hours and a few other things until the opposition–that’s the Labour Party–started yelling, the whole thing got a bit of embarrassing publicity, and someone decided that, gee whiz, guys, this might give people the wrong idea about us. 

The bars now stop serving at 10 pm, and that will last until either the regulations change or outsiders promise not to notice.

*

Irrelevant photo: Pansies. I’ve given up growing them. The slugs and snails just love ’em.

What’s the logic behind closing the bars at 10 pm? According to our prime minister, who’ll say anything that comes into his head, however incoherent it may be, “What we’ve seen from the evidence is that the spread of the disease does tend to happen later at night after more alcohol has been consumed.” 

What evidence do they have that the disease spreads late at night once the viruses or their containers (that’s us) have gotten shitfaced? Well, the BBC asked the Department for Health and Social Care for the specific evidence and didn’t get it. Instead, the BBC ran through an assortment of data from Public Health England, showing the number of outbreaks in schools, food-related businesses (you can slot the pubs in there), care homes, and workplaces, but it inevitably showed more transmission in places where testing’s heaviest, so it’s anything but conclusive. And it doesn’t mention time of day. Or night. 

Professor Mark Woolhouse, who’s on the government’s infection modelling team, explained (helpfully), “There isn’t a proven scientific basis for any of this.”

So as far as we know, the virus works both the day shift and the night shift.

*

A study has begun on how long Covid can survive once it’s airborne. Figure that out and  you can figure out how to reduce the risk people run in enclosed spaces. 

The consensus is that it’s not just the larger droplets that humans breathe, cough, and sneeze out that carry the disease, it’s also aerosols–tiny beasties less than  5 microns across, which hang in the air much longer than droplets. By way of comparison, a human hair is 60 to 120 microns across. 

Because aerosols are so small, they stay airborne longer than droplets and can be carried by air currents. 

Humans are messy creatures, always breathing–not just in but (annoyingly) out–and we tend to share whatever’s taken up residence inside us. So if the disease does spread on aerosols, keeping two meters away isn’t going to keep us safe. 

Earlier research gave the rough estimate that Covid has a half-life of 1.1 to 1.2 hours in aerosol form, but the new research will create a closer replica of real-world conditions, even varying it for different climates. I’m hoping they don’t tell us that we all need separate countries. In spite of how difficult we are as a species, I actually like being around other humans. Not all of them, but a fair few.

*

Here’s a quick snapshot of Britain at the moment: University students across the country went back to school this month, and (to no one’s surprise) universities are reporting Covid outbreaks. They’re being urged in all directions: to drop all face-to-face teaching, to continue normal teaching, to be sure campuses are two-thirds empty, to quarantine affected students and pretend that in a dorm that solves the problem, to let student life carry on as usual because the climate of fear is doing untold damage, to return the tuition they charged, and to keep the tuition they charged.  

The only way to choose the correct advice is by having a gorilla throw darts at a target.

A report says infections in the food industry are thirty times higher than are being reported. 

A scientist from SAGE–the group of scientists who advise the government–is arguing that repeated two-week lockdowns could knock the virus on the head. Not necessarily hard enough to kill it but enough to make it dizzy.

Outside of Britain? The world has now logged a million coronavirus deaths. Those are the ones that’ve been counted. How many are there really? No one knows. Countries haven’t even agreed on the definition of a coronavirus death, and we won’t get into the problem of figuring out who actually had it when testing is so patchy. But basically, a lot of people have died, and that’s not taking account of the people who are left debilitated or of the economic damage the pandemic leaves in its wake.

*

A quick Covid test is now available. It gives a result in 15 to 30 minutes and works like a pregnancy test, but nine months later you don’t have to wake up in the middle of the night and feed anybody. 

Unless of course you want to. 

The makers claim it’s 97% accurate, but in real-world conditions it picks up something more like 80% to 90% of infections. Other quick tests are sold online, but this is the first one that meets the World Health Organization’s standards. By way of illustration, Spain ordered two sets of rapid tests in March and sent them back.

A second test is expected to get WHO approval shortly.

Under an initiative started by the WHO, the European Commission, the Gates Foundation, and the French government, 20% of the tests will be made available to low- and middle-income countries for $5 per test. The rest will go to wealthy countries. You may notice an, um, imbalance there between what wealthy countries get and what poor ones do, but it’s actually better than the alternative, which is to have them all go to the countries that can pay the most. 

Yes, it’s a lovely world we live in.

Right now, most low- and middle-income countries are doing minimal testing. North America tests 395 people per 100,000 daily, Europe tests 243, and Africa tests fewer than 16, but most of those are in just three countries, Morocco, Kenya, and Senegal.

It’s not clear whether the UK plans to buy any of the tests. It’s committed heavily to two different tests that take 90 minutes, aren’t as easy to use, and cost more.

 

*

A reporter asked Boris Johnson to explain the tighter local restrictions that northeastern England is living with and, to prove how simple the rule of six is, he got it wrong. It all has to do with how many people you can get together with indoor and outdoors.

Here’s how it really works:

If you’re outside the restricted area, it’s six inside and six outside. But if you’re inside, it’s six inside but not six outside. 

I hope that clears everything up. If not, just hide in your basement, knock the glass out of a periscope, and breathe through that. We’ll look for you when this all passes, as all things must.

Covid, Brexit, and a nice cup of tea

Silver Lining Department: Pain researchers have noticed that Covid can block pain receptors, fooling people into thinking they’re not sick. I’d explain that in more detail, but between the first few paragraphs of the article and the last ones all I managed to scrape off the page was an impressive-sounding buzz. 

What I can tell you is that understanding this (as I so clearly don’t) opens up two possibilities: 1, By blocking something called neuropilin-1, doctors could limit Covid’s entry into the body. 2, By blocking neuropilin-1, they could limit the body’s experience of pain. 

In other words, a new approach to pain control may come out of this mess, as well as another possible way to tackle Covid. Take heart, my friends. Every silver lining hides a cloud.

Or vice versa. I keep forgetting.

*

Tragically, that line about silver linings isn’t my own. I stole it from a song by Brian Bedford, “I Hear the Sky Is Falling,” sung by Artisan. It’s a lovely little paranoia song. I recommend it, because we all need a paranoia song to fall back on from time to time. 

*

Irrelevant photo: pears on our tree.

Early research says that Covid doesn’t spread easily among kids under ten. They don’t catch the bug as easily as adults, and when they do they don’t get symptoms as often, which means they don’t cough and sneeze it into other people’s breathing spaces.

That was the silver lining. The (small) cloud is that infected kids do spread it, but at a lower rate. 

After kids turn ten, though, every cell their bodies wakes up, showers, and puts on big-boy pants and a bad attitude, and from then on kids spread it more easily–possibly as easily as adults.

But again, that’s all based on early and limited research. Like so much about this mess, it’s not certain.

*

On Tuesday, when he was announcing a new, improved, world-beating set of Covid restrictions in England, Boris Johnson called for togetherness. Or, to be completely accurate, “a spirit of togetherness.” 

I don’t want to misquote a man whose public statements mean so little.

So what does this one mean? We’re all going to virtually join our sanitized hands, keep two meters apart, and sing “Kumbaya” as we beat the virus by not doing half the things he told us–told us? hell, begged us; harassed us– to do just six weeks ago. 

I support a lot of the changes–the country opened up too quickly, with minimal planning and a screwed-up testing system–but I don’t know how seriously people are going to take them. The government’s blown whatever credibility it back when lockdown started. So even though some of their own scientists (that means the ones they’re willing to listen to, sort of) say the restrictions are late and not enough, getting people to follow them may be like rolling a dead horse uphill in an ice storm. 

*

About a 20% of people in Britain say they’d be likely to refuse a Covid vaccine and 78% said they’d be likely to get it. The missing 2% may be covered by the about at the beginning of the paragraph. Or they may be on break, having a nice cup of tea. It’s a British thing–not drinking the tea but attaching a nice cup of to it. It makes such a difference when you raise it to your lips. Your blood pressure falls. You expect–well, if not exactly wonders, at least niceness. And as a rule, you get it. 

 *

A post or three ago, I wrote about younger women forming a larger part of hospitalized Covid patients, and I’ve found a bit more detail: The study was based on hospital admissions and it noticed a rise in serious cases among women between twenty and forty. Between January and September, 44% of hospitalized cases were women. Since August (yes, you noticed: they overlap), it’s been 48%, driven by a rise in the twenty-to-forty age group, with no matching rise in admissions of men in that group. 

So it’s not a huge rise, but it is an increase. The best guess is that it’s because the work women in that age group do leaves them more exposed to the virus than the work men do. It should remind us, though, that no age group is invulnerable.

*

Hospitalized Covid patients who also had the flu were more than twice as likely to die as those who didn’t (43% as opposed to 26.9%). 

Those numbers don’t actually look like one’s more than twice the other, do they? I’m trusting an article in the Medical Express. Maybe they were in too much of a hurry to check their figures. 

Either way, it was a small study but the findings line up neatly with preliminary findings from another study that’s in progress. To be on the safe side, get your flu shot, okay?

*

The Helsinki airport has started to use sniffer dogs to detect travelers with Covid, and they’re close to 100% accurate. Plus they have lovely soft fur and it only takes then ten seconds to make their judgements, although the process itself somehow takes a minute, probably because humans are slower on the uptake than dogs are.

*

Meanwhile, with the Brexit transition period ending on January 1, we’re told that a reasonable worst-case scenario would involve lines of 7,000 trucks waiting to use the Channel Tunnel. They count on delays of two days and 30% to 60% of the trucks not having the right paperwork. 

And then there’s the possibility that a Covid spike could mean a shortage of port staff and border officials slowing things down a bit more.

And then we have to talk about disruptions to imports. Only we won’t. I’ve exceeded my dire warning limit for the day.

And did I mention that truck drivers will need a Kent access permit if they plan to use the tunnel or ferry to France? 

“We want to make sure that people use a relatively simple process,” Michael Gove said. 

Gove? He’s the minister for the cabinet office, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and the only human being I’ve ever seen who looks like a balloon wearing a bow tie. Even when he’s not wearing a bow tie. 

When Johnson’s government tell you the process is going to be simple, you’ll want to sit down and make sure you’re comfortable.

The head of the Road Haulage Association said, “How on earth can [trucking firms] prepare when there is still no clarity as to what they need us to do?” 

We’re looking forward to another interesting year.

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.

*

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.

*

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. 

*

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.

*

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.

*

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. 

*

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. 

Fairy dust and pushups: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Let’s say you’re a prime minister who got this pesky pandemic thing wrong, hesitating to lock the country down, shaking hands with hospital patients, refraining from kissing babies only because parents clutched their kids and turned away when they saw you coming. A prime minister who told the country that washing hands and singing Happy Birthday would keep everyone safe, and who then, embarrassingly, got sick yourself, either because you didn’t wash your hands or went off key on one of those tricky passages in “Happy Birthday.” A prime minister who locked the country down late but made an exception for your special advisor so he could run around the country scattering virii because he’d mistaken them for fairy dust.

So you’re that prime minister, and after you’d been sick you came back to work to hear lots of speculation whether you were really up to running the country.

Irrelevant photo: a thistle

What would you do?

Pushups, that’s what you’d do. Publicly.

Or maybe you wouldn’t, but that’s what Boris Johnson did, except the British seem to call them press-ups. Never mind. Same thing. Floor, hands, arms, body weight. Straight back if you’re doing them right.

There were two problems with the strategy: Your ability to do pushups has no bearing on your ability to run a country, and Johnson isn’t what you’d call a natural athlete. The photos show a kind of lumpy, overage guy in a dress shirt and slacks looking baffled by a floor. Has this thing always been here? he seems to be asking himself. Can I outsource it?

*

He can’t, but let’s go back to that special advisor, the one with the fairy dust. A law graduate is trying to crowdfund £300,000 for to pay for a private prosecution of Dominic Cummings’ two breaches of lockdown.

“I am trying to encourage the re-establishment of the concept of the rule of law – one law for all,” Mahsa Taliefar said. “What Cummings did demonstrated that at the moment in the UK if you are rich and have powerful friends the law doesn’t apply to you.”

I just checked the website and she’s raised £31,000 so far.

*

You know the theory that we all have to choose between the economy and our health? The theory that says lockdown destroys the economy and we have to open back up to get things going? Well Sweden–the one Scandinavian country that never did lock down, relying on some vague instructions, hand washing, and good sense–not only has a five times Denmark’s death rate but roughly the same economic performance.

Whether there’s a lockdown or not, it turns out that in a pandemic most people avoid public transportation, stay out of shops, and keep their kids home from school. In other words, they exercise the good sense they were advised to. The problem is that a minority will do none of that. Ten percent of the people create ninety percent of the infections.

*

A while back I posted the news that Britain’s free school lunch program for the most economically vulnerable kids will be continued into the summer. It’s good news, but it’s looking a little tarnished lately. It turns out that the £234 million program was outsourced to a private company whose helpline charges £21 an hour.

It used to charge £60 an hour, but–you know what people are like–they had complaints and switched over to the cheaper one in April.

Hey, people, you’re saving–um, hang on–£39 an hour. Focus on that.

Parents and schools also complain about the vouchers being hard to use. Not all stores will take them, and at stores that do, they often don’t scan correctly so they’re unusable.

Oh, and the website leaves people waiting long stretches of time to get their coupons.

And that, my friends, is how to fuck up a free lunch.

*

Scotland has had no coronavirus deaths for four days and has only ten cases in intensive care. The first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is talking about the possibility of eliminating the disease, and at a press conference she dropped hints that they might have to test or quarantine visitors from England. She has no plans at the moment, she said, but she’s not ruling it out.

On the other hand, she didn’t do a single pushup, so what’s she worth?

Meanwhile, a spike in virus cases in Leicester has sent the city going back into lockdown, with non-essential shops shutting their doors, schools closing to most students, and people advised to stay home except for essential trips.

It’s the first of local lockdown since Britain opened back up.

*

A jazz club in Paris has opened up for private concerts. They let people in either singly or in pairs if they live together. Three musicians take turns giving five-minute concerts to each individual or couple.

The concerts are free but guests are welcome to pay what they can or want.

The club’s director said the concerts “generate a kind of magic. People become very emotional. Some come out in tears.”

 

 

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

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

Sorry, make that a London lord mayor.  

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

*

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

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

*

Irrelevant photo: primroses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

Hell, even the whale was white.

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

The definitive answer is that no one knows. 

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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