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.

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.” 

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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.

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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.

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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.

News from the fringes of Britain’s election: a midweek bonus post

Elections are serious business, and this one is especially serious, so let’s take you on a tour of its crazier fringes. 

The most important fringe is unraveling in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, a London suburb where Boris Johnson, also known as Britain’s prime minister, is trying to keep his seat in parliament. At the last election, his majority was small–in the neighborhood of 5,000 votes. If he loses his seat but his party wins a majority in the Commons, it will have to find itself a new leader, he’ll have to find himself a new hobby, and the new leader will be the new prime minister. 

Johnson’s most serious challenge is from Labour, so we’ll skip that. We’ll also skip the Liberal Democrat, the Green Party candidate, and anyone else we’d have to take seriously.

The most interesting challenges come from Count Binface and Lord Buckethead. We’re looking at a particularly bitter fight there, because Count Binface used to be Lord Buckethead but had an unpleasant set-to on, as he put it, planet Copyright and had to reincarnate as Count Binface.  

Are you keeping up with this?

Neither am I. Lord Buckethead was–or, I guess, still is–a character in a 1984 movie, Hyperspace, that no one ever saw.  Or so says one newspaper. Another says he was a character in a 1980s Gremloids, another movie that no one ever saw.

Do we care which movie it was? No. Here at Notes, we’re completely nondenominational about bad movies. All we care about is that a comedian, Jon Harvey, appropriated the character.

Buckethead likes to run against prime ministers. He’s run against Theresa May, David Cameron, John Major, and Margaret Thatcher. I believe someone else was being Buckethead part that time, but do we really care about that? Probably not. 

This business of popping around the country to run against prime ministers is made possible by an election law that doesn’t demand that candidates live in the areas they hope to represent.   

The law also doesn’t make candidates use their real names in elections, and that’s a gift to those of us whose spirits need lifting in these dismal times. It doesn’t even make them define real. All they have to do is file papers and pay money. 

So the man who used to be Lord Buckethead is now running as Count Binface, but someone else is running–also in Uxbridge and et cetera–as Lord Buckethead. Count B. has said he looks forward to a “receptacle to receptacle debate” with him.

As Count B. (writing on Twitter as @CountBinface) explained, “At a time when political precedent is being broken all over the place, I find myself effectively standing against not just (current) Prime Minister @BorisJohnson but also myself. I think that’s a first.”

In a separate tweet, he explained that he’d renounced his peerage because in an earlier campaign he’d promised to abolish the House of Lords. 

The current Lord Buckethead is running on the Monster Raving Loony Party ticket.

Guys, I don’t make this stuff up. I only wish I had the sort of mind that could.

Another candidate running against Boris Johnson in Uxbridge and Wherever is William Tobin, who announced that he doesn’t want anyone’s vote, he’s only running because as a long-term British resident in the European Union he’s no longer eligible to vote, although he is eligible to run for office. He wants to raise the profile of 7 million disenfranchised voters who will be affected by Brexit but get no say in British politics. 

I haven’t confirmed that number. Can we agree that there are a lot of them, though?

Enough for Uxbridge and So Forth. In other constituencies, the most interesting fringes I’ve found belong to the Monster Raving Loony Party, whose candidates include: the Incredible Flying Brick, Earl Elvis of Outwell, Howling Laud Hope, Citizen Skwith, and the Baron and the Dame, who must have found a way to run jointly, because they’re quite clearly two people. I struggle to recognize people, but even I can manage to tell them apart: One’s shorter and the other has a long, scraggly beard. They’re both male. One of them being called the Dame is a British thing and has to do with pantos, which are–oh, never mind. It’s too complicated to explain in a short space but but it’s not about trannies or queens. It’s a recognized theatrical form, and a strange one. 

The Monster Raving Loony manifesto includes a proposal to “reduce the national debt by selling the castles back to the French. (Buyer dismantles.)” 

Wish us luck, world. We need it right now.

The Brexit update, with queens and cash and prime ministerial groping

Okay, the title included a bit of clickbait. We’ve only got one queen involved. And the cash? It was a grant, not folding money. Sorry. I’ve gone sleazy and commercial.

Before Britain’s supreme court ruled that it was illegal for the prime minister to shut down of parliament, the lone queen in question asked for advice on whether and in what circumstances she could fire a prime minister. That may not sound like much, but this is Britain. The queen’s supposed to be above politics. She gets to to wave vaguely at the masses as she wafts from ceremonial occasion to ceremonial occasion. She allows prime ministers to fawn on her and then does what they tell her to.

Sorry–advise her to do.

But.

According to the i, “It is a quirk of the British constitution that the Queen retains a number of personal discretionary powers which include the right to appoint the prime minister and other ministers. A House of Commons select committee established in 2003 that these powers also include a right for the sovereign in a ‘grave constitutional crisis’ to act contrary to, or even without, ministerial advice.”

Tuck that possibility away at the back of your head and wait to see where it leads us.

And now a brief interruption while I offer a bit of unsolicited advice: If you’re starting a newspaper, don’t name it the i. You’ll end up with reporters writing phrases like “i understands” and “i has now been told.”

You has been warned.

What else is happening? Parliament’s back in session and members of parliament are being threatened with murder and rape. The MPs who get the most threats are women, especially if they’re black or from some other minority group, and especially if they speak out much, although black and other minority group men get them too. In 2016, an MP, Jo Cox, was both shot and stabbed by a man who considered her a traitor to white people, and her death hangs over parliament–or at least over the MPs who are being threatened. I can imagine that some who aren’t targets think the ones who’re complaining are just being emotional.

You know what women are like.

One MP said the threats she receives echo Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit rhetoric about surrender and betrayal. When challenged about ramping up tension, Johnson said the best way to honor Jo Cox was to get Brexit done. 

Cox was a remainer, making it a Trumpian moment. It doesn’t matter what you say as long as you say it with confidence.

In the meantime, Johnson has been telling the world at large on the one hand that he’ll obey the law and on the other that the country will leave the EU by the end of the month. Since the law he’d been asked about says he has to ask for a Brexit extension by October 19 if he doesn’t have a deal with the European Union, and since getting a deal’s about as likely as him standing up to sing Faustus (and singing it well, mind you) in the House of Commons, you might wonder how he thinks he can manage both. 

The answer, according to some observers, is likely to be the Civil Contingencies Act, which New Labour passed in 2004. It gives the prime minister special powers in a national emergency. 

What’s a national emergency? Well, children, it’s a situation that threatens “serious damage to human welfare” or the environment in the UK. That includes war or terrorism that threatens “serious damage to the security of the United Kingdom.” The threats could include disruption to transportation or to the supply of food, money, energy, or health services.

Are any of those threats on the horizon? There are suggestions that Brexit could cause some of them, but pre-Brexit I don’t see them happening. Still, a feller can always hope, and I expect Johnson is hoping.

What kind of powers are we talking about? Power to create emergency regulations that “may make any provision which the person making the regulations is satisfied is appropriate for the purpose of preventing, controlling or mitigating an aspect or effect of the emergency in respect of which the regulations are made.” 

The act has more detail and some restrictions, but we’re civilians here. That’s close enough. Or if it isn’t, you can follow the link and read more.

The wording strikes me as broad and the limitations badly defined–especially that business about what the person making the regulations is satisfied is appropriate. If I happen to be prime minister (I’ll sing Faustus if I ever am, although I don’t promise to sing it well) and if I’m out of touch with everyday reality (which I’ll prove by singing etc.), what I’m satisfied is appropriate isn’t going to be much of a guide to responsible action. 

What I’m satisfied about also can’t be demonstrated. Haul me into court for dropping bombs on rival parties’ conferences and I can shrug my shoulders and say I was satisfied it was appropriate. No one else was inside my head, so who can prove otherwise?

MP Dominic Grieve, a former Conservative and a former attorney general, said it would be a “constitutional outrage” to use the act in the current situation.  But assorted cabinet ministers have warned, with a gleam of hope in their eyes, that Britain can expect civil disorder along the lines of the French gilets jaunes protests if the country doesn’t deliver Brexit by the end of October. 

Opposition figures have accused them of trying to whip up exactly what they’re warning against. 

While all that’s been going on, Parliament refused to take a break for the Conservative Party conference. That sounds spiteful, and it is, but as the Scottish National Party pointed out, parliament’s never taken a break for their convention, only for the ones held by the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. So okay, fair enough. If you piss off enough MPs, they’re going to take their revenge any way they can.

That didn’t stop the Conservatives from holding a conference, it just left the major players shuttling awkwardly between the conference and parliament.

Outside the crumbling halls of parliament (and that’s not a metaphor; the building’s falling apart), a scandal from Johnson’s days as mayor of London has crawled out of the archives. An American businesswoman, Jennifer Arcuri, received thousands of pounds from a government agency that Johnson controlled, and he made sure she went on trade missions with him that other participants say she was clueless about. In giving Arcuri’s company a grant, the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport waived a rule that no grant could be for more than half of the company’s revenue. 

It’s also supposed to give grants only to companies based in the U.K., but although her company has a U.K. address it has a California telephone number, calling into question where it’s based. Reporters showing up at the address were told it had only just moved there.

Arcuri told friends (who apparently told the press, as friends will, but only if they’re true friends) that she and Johnson were having an affair. 

Johnson could have declared an interest when the grant was considered, taken himself out of the voting, and come out of this squeaky clean, but he didn’t. And so he isn’t and the whole thing’s been referred to the police.

Arcuri lent her company £700,000 just before it won a £100,000 government grant and it’s not clear where the money came from. The company had almost no income and her other companies are either in the red or have been dissolved. And she’s being sued in the U.S. for an unpaid student loan. 

Johnson’s financial backers are also hitting the headlines. His sister said, “He is backed by speculators who have bet billions on a hard Brexit–and there is only one option that works for them: a crash-out no-deal that sends the currency tumbling and inflation soaring.” 

So there’ve been calls to investigate that as a conflict of interest.

Not enough scandal for you? Have no fear, we have one more lurking at the bottom of the bag. A journalist, Charlotte Edwardes, has accused Johnson of groping her under the table at a lunch when he edited the Spectator. Afterwards, she told the woman (we don’t know who that was–yet) sitting on Johnson’s other side what had happened and the second woman said he’d done the same to her. 

Johnson denied doing any such thing. 

Tune in next week (or tomorrow; or the day after; I have no idea when enough insanity will pile up to justify another post) for the next exciting installment of Brexit Britain.

Britain gets a new cabinet: an update

Britain has a new prime minister, who even though he’s never been prime minister of anyplace before has the look of a second-hand car about him–the kind whose odometer broke when someone tried to set it back. So far, he’s told us that everything’s going to be wonderful with him in office. We’ll leave the E.U. by Halloween, with or (possibly preferably) without a deal, and this will make the country prosperous and united.

We’ll all have 100,000 fewer miles on our individual and national odometers.

In anticipation, the pound dropped against both the dollar and the euro.

More concretely, he’s appointed a new cabinet. So let’s check in on what a few of them have done in their limited time in government.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is the new leader of the House of Commons and he’s banned metric measurements in his office. And if something comes into the office speaking metric and has to go back out in the same form? Presumably it will have to be translated into imperial units to be read and then translated back out of them before it rejoins the world. 

He’s also banned a series of words and phrases, including (but, oh, so not limited to) hopefully, very, due to, ongoing, equal, yourself, lot, got, pleased to learn, and unacceptable.

Equal? Yeah, it’s on the list. It will, hopefully, prevent staff members from saying, “Go fuck yourself,” when they’re told that asking for equal pay is unacceptable.

A couple of the entries (lot, got, and I am pleased to learn) have been reported but are unconfirmed. I mention that because this stuff is important and I want to be sure we get it right. I’m an immigrant here, so to a certain kind of person the way I use the language is always going to be suspect. Which makes me very much want to say, “Go fuck yourself.” Due to having an ongoing bad attitude.

Rees-Mogg’s staff has also been instructed to use a double space after a period–which in British is called a full stop, and I’m sure he’d insist on it being called that–and not to use a comma after an and

It is possible to use a comma after an and but it’s not easy. I’m not going to bother working up an example when I’ve got a lot of simpler ways to break the rules.

Staff members should also avoid using is too often. How often is too often? You’re on your own there. Do be careful, though, please. I care about you, and the world’s a dangerous place.

I is also on the list of banned words. Maybe, like the queen, he prefers one. One is–. Nope, can’t use is. One might be pleased to find a less awkward way to avoid its use.

Since he became an MP, R-M’s speeches have used words from the banned list 1,189 times. It may have gone up since that report, so let’s take that as a minimum, especially since uses of the word  I, mysteriously, weren’t included. And yes (ha! got the comma in after and), if you’re going to be such a public nit-picker, someone will sit down and count. Gleefully.

R-M also demands that any man who doesn’t have a title get the suffix Esq. added to his name. Women, presumably, are too unimportant to worry about. Or maybe the language doesn’t have an equivalent. I wouldn’t know.

Admittedly, the guidelines were established at his old office as a plain old MP and have been transferred wholesale to his new, elevated position as Micro-Manager-in-Chief, so presumably this hasn’t occupied all his time. That is, however, speculation.

He’s commonly known as the Honourable member for the 18th Century.

After that, anyone else is going to be a disappointment, but let’s go on.

Grant Shapps, the new transport secretary, has announced a two-page limit for briefings and says he will “pay attention to the font size and margins.”

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has brought his favorite pink cup to his new office. As far as I know, it’s not a sippy cup. 

Oops. Did I just start a rumor?

Priti Patel, the new home secretary, has a £1,000-an-hour contract with a company that supplies products and services to the same government she works for. She also earns £45,000 a year for working 20 hours a month for an accounting software firm. If she cares about the spacing after a period, limits her intake of government documents to picture books, or drinks from a sippy cup, it’s not on record but it might be preferable. 

Now let’s go back to that business about a double space after a period. If WikiWhatsia is correct (and I’m not going any deeper into this than a WikiWhatsia article, earthshaking though the topic may be), a double space after a period is called English spacing. A single space is called French spacing. There are other differences between the two, but let’s stop there. We’re not setting type, just reporting on it. 

So far, it sounds clear, but the phrases are often used in exactly the opposite way, and WikiWhatsia gives a good solid list of examples without managing to help me understand why or how that happened.

Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, the trend in typesetting has been toward a single space after a period. It’s quicker and it’s cheaper, since in a book that small change can save a fair bit of paper. And many people think it looks better.

The U.S. seems to have made the shift to single spacing before the U.K., although even there high-end publishing stuck with the double space for a while. With the introduction of computers, designers and typographers have increasingly leaned toward the single space. In my experience, it dominates the publishing world.

So is R-M dedicated to the double space because he thinks it’s high end? Or because he thinks it’s English as opposed to French (and the English, if you’ll forgive a generalization, have a thing about the French)? Or because it was done that way in the eighteenth century and that’s his century? I can only ask, not answer. If he knew that in the early 1960s, when all girls with fingers were taught to type, no excuses accepted, I was taught that it was necessary, right, and moral to double space after a period. I was (partly deliberately, partly by nature) a monumentally bad typist, but for years I double-spaced after periods.

If that doesn’t take the shine off the double space, I don’t know what will.

Everything You Need to Know about Brexit

Quick, before the Conservative Party announces our new Blusterer in Chief, here’s everything you need to know about Brexit and how we got tot his point:

Brexit starts in 2015, when David Cameron, as Britain’s prime minister and the leader of the Conservative Party, makes an election promise to hold a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union. This is smart politics. Isn’t Davey a clever boy? After the election, he’ll be back in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and they’ll veto the referendum and that means he won’t have to throw himself, his party, and his country, out the fifth-story window labeled Brexit. But he’ll have shut up the Leave voices in his own party, the Leave voices in the U.K. Independence Party, and the Labour voices rumbling at him from the far side of the House of Commons and saying things he doesn’t pay attention to but that get on his nerves anyway.

Irrelevant photo to give you some relief from an otherwise grim picture: a field with corn marigolds.

Then the election’s held and his party wins a majority. Who knew so many people liked him?

Wave bye-bye to the nice coalition, Davey, because it’s going away.

Davey edges close enough to that fifth-story window and looks down. It’s a long way to the ground.

What’s a clever politician to do? He schedules the referendum and tells the country that it’s safer, stronger, and much better looking in Europe, so it should vote Remain. He promises to limit immigration by widening the Channel and to make the sky a tasteful and long-lasting shade of blue using paint from Farrow and Ball, which is what people with any kind of taste at all buy.

Remain loses. Britain will be leaving the E.U.

Why does Britain vote Leave? Because leaving will make Britain great again. Because it will let Parliament take back control. Because Rupert Murdoch said it was a good idea. Because Facebook is fun.

Davey resigns the leadership of his party and with it the prime ministership, and he retreats to a shed in his backyard, which being British he calls his garden.

What he calls a shed is nicer than some people’s apartments. Which he’d call flats.

He starts writing a book. He waits for someone to ask what it’s about but no one does. They’re focused on the window he left open. Several prominent Conservatives are writhing on the floor in front of it, trying to stab each other. The winner will get to lead the party and find a way from window to ground. One that doesn’t break bones. Or that does. The referendum didn’t say that no bones could be broken.

Theresa May emerges as leader of the party, largely because no one thought she was worth stabbing.

What, the press asks her while the other contenders lie bleeding at her feet, is Brexit going to mean.

“Brexit,” she says, “means Brexit.”

Yes, but what does it mean?

It means Brexit.

Oh.

Negotiations between Britain and the E.U. begin. The E.U. negotiators spread papers and studies and printouts on the table. The British negotiators set Etch-a-Sketch pads in front of them.

Time passes. Terri May calls an election, which will prove that, um, remind me, what will it prove? That the country backs her. That’s it.

That’s probably it. Also because it will increase her majority in Parliament.

She loses her majority and is held in place (the place in question being 10 Downing Street) only by duct tape and a small Protestant party from Northern Ireland.

A lot of time passes. According to the rules of the game, only so much time can pass before Britain has to go out that window, whether the two sides have managed to build a ladder or not.

An agreement is announced.

Everyone hates the agreement. Even the people who support the agreement hate the agreement. Britain’s negotiator resigns because he hates the agreement he negotiated.

Britain’s Parliament also hates the agreement, so Theresa May goes back to Europe to change the part of the agreement that talks about the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. It’s the only part of the agreement she can let herself think about.

The E.U. says it’s tired of talking to Britain.

Britain is also tired of talking to Britain. The Conservative Party can’t agree on what it thinks Brexit should be. It can’t agree on whether Brexit should happen. A group of backbenchers ask, “Wouldn’t it be simpler if we just closed the window?”

No one listens to them.

The Labour Party also can’t agree on what Brexit should be or whether it should happen, although it does agree that Brexit shouldn’t be what Theresa May negotiated. If that sounds like it’s more united than the Conservatives, it’s not. It can’t agree on whether it’s a socialist party, whether its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, should be its leader, or whether it’s doing enough–or anything–to combat anti-Semitism in its ranks.

It also can’t agree on the definition of anti-Semitism.

It does agree that the Conservative Party is anti-Muslim, but no one wants to talk about that so it wanders around mumbling to itself that it’s not anti-Semitic, really it’s not, but no one’s listening.

The Liberal Democrats agree that Brexit’s bad. Unfortunately, after their coalition with Davey, only three of them are left in the Commons.

Or maybe that’s twelve. Or eight. Does it matter?

The Scottish National Party is united: Brexit is bad. The Green Party’s also united, but it only has one MP, which isn’t enough for a decent split.

MPs leave the Labour Party.

MPs leave the Conservative Party.

They form a group that isn’t a party and fend off arguments about what they’d stand for if they did become a party by discussing the weather. Then they do become a party, adopting the name of an online petition group that they’re not associated with. They pass a resolution about the weather.

The online petition group objects.

Theresa May promises Parliament a meaningful vote on Brexit.

She promises Parliament a later meaningful vote on Brexit. But before that can happen, she has to go to Europe to negotiate an even better deal than the existing deal even though the E.U. has said there’s nothing left to negotiate. Many people–which is to say, me and possibly one other person–suspect she goes in and out of offices asking if they have any coffee made. She’s too English to ask if they’ll make some just for her.

When they do have some on hand, she sips it slowly while reading a magazine, since no one will talk to her. She drinks it black, because no one asks if she’d like milk.

If she drinks enough coffee, time will run out. Hickory, dickory, dock, Terri May ran out the clock. Parliament will look out the window and vote for her ladder because it’s five floors down and no one else has made so much as a rope out of torn sheets.

She lets the House of Commons vote on the deal she’s negotiated and it loses. She moves all the commas three words to the right and lets it vote again. Why? Because three is an important number in fairy tales. Three wishes. Three chances. Three brothers.

Hell, it’s as good as anything else going on.

It still loses.

To see if it can’t find a rational way out of the crisis, the House of Commons asks itself a series of questions: Should we leave the EU without a deal? Should we hold a second referendum? Should we drag Britain 50 miles to the west and whenever we pass the E.U. in the Channel pretend we don’t see it?

No proposal wins a majority. TV newscasters are mandated to use the phrase no one knows how this will play out at least once in every program. They use the phrase constitutional crisis almost as often.

Why is it a constitutional crisis? Because Britain has an unwritten constitution. This means that no one really knows what’s in it. It may prevent Theresa May from making herself the country’s second Lord Protector (Oliver Cromwell was the first) but it will be years before anyone’s read through enough papers to know for sure.

Isn’t this fun? We’re watching history being made.

Terri May promises to resign and dance the rhumba the length of Downing Street if the Commons will only pass her deal. She promises to delete every comma in the agreement. By hand. In glittery green ink.

Water floods into the House of Commons during a Brexit debate. A group climate-change protesters take off most of their clothes show the MPs their backsides.

All the possible jokes about both incidents have already been made.

Theresa May goes back to Brussels and drinks the Kool-Aid.

No, sorry, that was Jonestown and an American reference, not a British one. She drinks more coffee and is granted another extension. It expires on Halloween of 2019. All the possible jokes about that have been made that too.

A person can drink so much coffee and eventually Theresa May resigns, leaving the Conservative Party to search for a new leader. Every Conservative MP announces his or her candidacy. Every third one confesses to having used drugs. The ones who haven’t used them express regret at having misread the spirit of their age.

In the interest of democracy, several of the candidates promise to suspend Parliament so they can fulfill the will of the people.

After a series of elimination votes, the two candidates are Boris Johnson and Not Boris Johnson, but they seem to have agreed that Boris will win and Not Boris will have a nice job in his cabinet.

What happens next? Nothing good, I suspect, but that’s history for you: It’s one damn thing after another.