Brexiteria, grownup politics, and the Plymouth Hoe

A few years ago, when Britain voted to leave the European Union, Scotland voted heavily to stay but got dragged away like a teenager whose parents show up just when the party’s getting going. That strengthened what was already a fairly strong inclination in Scotland to leave not the EU but the UK, or to put that another way, to disunite the United Kingdom. 

Yeah, it’s been interesting around here lately.

So what does our prime minister do? The other day he took his tousled head of blond hair up to Scotland to see if he couldn’t charm them out of their sulk. Even though he’d just extended the British lockdown and shouldn’t have let himself be caught going anywhere he didn’t absolutely, seriously need to go. Even though only essential travel between England and Scotland is allowed these days.

“If I do it,” Johnson didn’t say but looked like he wanted to, “it’s essential.” 

That’s not a real  quote, you understand, but he really did remind reporters that he’s the prime minister of the entire UK. 

When a prime minister has to remind people of that, he could well be in trouble. 

The Scottish National Party holds a majority in Scotland’s parliament and is likely to still hold one after the next election, and it’s talking about holding a second independence referendum, regardless of whether the prime minister of Wherever-he’s-the-prime-minister gives his approval. The polls at the moment say independence would win.

Did I mention how interesting it’s been around here lately?

Irrelevant photo: A camellia bud.

More Brexiteria

These next snippets deserve more space, but they won’t get it just now. At least not here. 

When the Brexit campaigners sold the country on leaving the EU, it was going to save us money, rejuvenate British business, and make palm trees grow from London rooftops. Although somehow they forgot to mention the palm trees. 

So what’s happened? British businesses that export to Europe are getting hit by extra charges, paperwork, and taxes. And what does our Brexit-boosting government recommend? The Department of International Trade tells them to set up separate companies inside the EU. 

Won’t that mean layoffs in Britain? Well, yeah, but the vote’s over, so who cares?

Consumers who buy stuff from Europe are getting hit by charges they didn’t expect. Customs duties, a value added tax, and to add insult to injury, a fee from the shipping company for handling the paperwork. And EU trucking companies are refusing to haul goods to Britain because they’re asked to come up with thousands of pounds to cover taxes and potential tariffs. For small- and medium-size companies, it’s not worth it.

Welcome to the Brexiteria. When we were looking in through the window, the food was more appealing than it is now that we’re inside. 

 

The Plymouth Hoe

Facebook is taking its role as a publisher seriously. 

That’s publisher as opposed to platform. A publisher’s responsible for what it pours into the world. A platform? It shrugs its shoulders and says, “Not my responsibility,” when someone advocates blowing up the planet and then manages to do it. It may be the end of the world, but at least the platform can’t be sued.

Will you get to the point, Ellen?

Of course. Facebook gave a good scolding to people who mentioned a Plymouth landmark, the hoe, and it took their posts down. And banned at least one of them. The posts sounded suspiciously like sexist bullying, and they could well have been except that hoe is an Anglo-Saxon word for a sloping ridge shaped like an inverted foot and heel. Which is a lot of highly specific description to wedge into three letters. If it can do all that in three letters, why aren’t we still speaking Anglo-Saxon.

Never mind. That’s a different post.

I haven’t been able to confirm the specifics of that definition, mind you. Ask Lord Google about hoe and as soon as you get past the line that says it’s a garden tool, the definitions go off in all those directions Facebook was trying to ban. Even when you add “Anglo-Saxon.”

The Plymouth Hoe genuinely is a sloping area, a grassy  one where the Pilgrims–the ones who settled in Massachusetts, not pilgrims in general–embarked. I have no idea if it’s shaped like an inverted foot and heel, but you might want to ask yourself if it would be shaped like a foot if it didn’t have a heel.

So has Facebook gotten its publisher act completely together? I doubt it. If you look, you can still find people on Facebook saying Covid’s no more of a threat than the flu (I just tried) and I have no idea what else because that’s as far as I went, but at least they’re not calling a landmark by a word properly belonging to a garden tool. 

Facebook has apologized to the people whose hands it slapped. 

I can’t wait to hear what happens next Christmas when some bully quotes Santa’s laugh.

 

The pharaoh’s passport

Back in prehistory–or to be specific, in 1974–a French doctor was studying the mummified remains of Ramesses II, because what doctor doesn’t poke around under a mummy’s wrappings when the chance comes his or her way? That led him to realize they were being taken over by a fungus. That’s they, since remains are plural, but maybe it should be he, since Ramesses may have been the second but he was still singular. Anyway, he or they needed treatment, which seems to have been available only in France. 

The articles I’ve found don’t explain why France. They take it as a given. Maybe the work could’ve been done anywhere but Ramsesses spoke better French than, say, German or Tagalog. Maybe it could’ve been done in Egypt but after all those years he was dying to travel.

Whatever. To get into France, he needed a passport. Just because you’re dead, that doesn’t mean you can go where you like. Even the dead need documents. So Ramesses became the only pharaoh (to the best of my limited knowledge) ever to be issued a passport by the Egyptian government. 

 

Playing politics the grownup way

In a classic moment of grownup politics, Jacob Rees-Mogg called Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, Moanalot. 

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And speaking of grownup politics, now that the UK’s left the European Union, Britain’s refused to grant the EU’s representative in Britain the privileges and immunity that go with diplomatic status under the Vienna Convention. And ditto the twenty-five people who came with him. It claims the EU is an international body, not a nation state, and if it treated it like a nation state every other international body in the world would want the same privileges.

Throughout the Brexit negotiations, the British negotiator referred to the EU as “your organization,” irritating the hell out of the EU’s chief negotiator.

A hundred and forty-three other countries around the world give the EU full diplomatic status and don’t seem to be having a problem with international organizations trying to pile into that same space. But you never do know. They might, and a nation-state can’t be too careful.

 

Human originality

New Zealand’s tourism agency launched a campaign against tourists “travelling under the social influence.” It takes aim at people traveling halfway across the world to take the same pictures everyone else takes. You know, the ones they’ve seen on social media. Same poses, same spots, same illusion that they’ve found bliss and their lives will be perfect forever after. Or at least, same message that they have enough money to get their asses halfway around the world and are therefore happier than their friends.

Human beings really can be idiots. Sorry. I know how likely it is that you, dear reader, are human. And you may be aware that I’m human as well. Still, the fact remains–

New Zealand’s invited us all to send creative travel shots to #DoSomethingNewNZ. You could win a NZ$500 voucher–which you won’t be able to spend until this whole Covid mess ends and New Zealand opens its borders. In the meantime, you can sit back and think of a few hundred ways to spend that money without ever silhouetting yourself against the sky on a mountain peak or pretending to meditate on a rock by the ocean. Or indulging in what the tourism agency calls the run-me-over shot, where someone walks down the middle of an apparently deserted highway.

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The popularity of the TV series Bridgerton has had an unexpected side effect: viewers running to their computers looking for corsets. 

No, my computer doesn’t have a corset either. They’re using the computer to look on the internet. Searches went up 1,000%. 

Have we all lost our minds? Probably, but for whatever it’s worth, the Smithsonian Magazine says most of us misunderstand the Regency era corset. They were comfortable. Or at least comfortable in terms of what women learn to expect from their clothes, which take my word for it ain’t much. And a range of corsets would’ve infested–

Sorry. A range of corsets would’ve been available to the discerning buyer of the time, ranging from informal and comfortable to I’m-going-to-a-ball and I don’t care how uncomfortable it makes me. But in an era when women’s dresses were waistless, no one would’ve tightened her corset to the point of fainting. What would the point have been?

What people are buying, though, is anyone’s guess. 

 

Unintended consequences: from Brexit to bitcoins

Ah, the unintended consequences of Brexit.

Forget the fish rotting on the docks and the emptying of supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland. One of the least expected consequences may be that Dutch customs officers are confiscating sandwiches from drivers as they enter from Britain. The new rules don’t allow anyone to import meat or dairy products from Britain. Or–in case you need a fuller list–fruit, vegetables, or fish. I’m not sure what that leaves. Is chewing gum made from organic substances?

Water, maybe. 

One driver asked if he could give up his sandwich fillings but keep the bread. 

No, the customs official said. “Welcome to the Brexit, sir. I’m sorry.”

Irrelevant photo: primroses.

Another unintended consequence is that truckers now need a permit to enter Kent if they’re planning to go on to Europe. 

Yes, Kent’s still part of Britain. But the system avoids pile-ups at the channel ports, or at least it’s meant to. Who know what unintended consequences it’ll have. The permit’s called a Kent access permit, or kermit. If truckers don’t have one, they’re liable for a £300 fine and they’ll be turned back.

The good news is that they can keep their sandwiches until they cross the channel. 

 

Bitcoins

With the price of bitcoins soaring, two people have been in the papers lately over lost coins.

One is a computer engineer in Wales who managed to throw away a hard drive “containing,” as the paper put it, bitcoins worth £200 million.

Yeah, it could happen to anyone. 

He’s offered the local government £50 million if they’ll dig it out. Assuming of course that they find it. And if it still works. He says there’s a good chance he could rescue the data. The local government–called the council in British–says it would cost millions of pounds to dig up the landfill, it would have a huge environmental impact, and anyway their licensing permit doesn’t allow them to do that. 

It also says it’s told him all this before.

He started mining bitcoins in 2009, when they were worth nothing much and when mining them was something you did on the computer, not physically in the local dump. He says he has an international hedge fund “willing to put up anywhere between £2.5m to £3.5m to do a professional search operation of the landfill.”

The council still doesn’t sound interested.

The other bitcoin owner is from San Francisco and hasn’t lost his computer but he has lost the password that would let him get at $250 million worth of bitcoins. He was given 7002 of them as payment for making–yes I do hear the irony–a video on how bitcoins worked, and I’m sure he included a snippet that said, “Don’t lose your password.” But no one listens to themselves, do they? You have to at least cross state lines to be an expert. He stored his bitcoins safely in an IronKey wallet, wrote the password on a piece of paper, had a nice cup of coffee, went on with his life, then discovered that he’d lost the paper.

When he got the coins, they were worth somewhere between $2 and $6 each. The price has gone wild during the pandemic, though, and at one point they were worth $40,000 each. They will have gone up since then. Or down. Or possibly sideways. Bitcoin’s a cryptocurrency. It can defy the laws of gravity and economics if it wants to.

He’s tried eight passwords. If he tries two more wrong ones, he might as well try searching a dump in Wales. 

Around the world, some $140 billion worth of bitcoins are either lost or locked away from their would-be owners, or so says Chainanalysis, which somehow knows these things.

 

“Baying mobs”

The government wants to introduce legislation to protect statues from being removed by “baying mobs” “on a whim.” 

Yeah, they really do talk that way. Or write that way, anyhow, since the quote’s from an article by the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, who’s just brimming over with understanding of the communities he–

Okay, I don’t actually know what a communities secretary’s supposed to do in relation to all those communities the country’s made up of. 

The statue of Edward Colston, which was dumped in the Bristol harbor last year, wasn’t pulled off its plinth on a whim. People had spent years trying to get rid of it through respectable avenues, and they’d gotten nowhere. Pull it down, though, and somehow the picture changes.

Jenrick mentioned an attempt to erase part of the nation’s history “at the hand of the flash mob, or by the decree of a ‘cultural committee’ of town hall militants and woke worthies.” I’d be interested to know what he had to say when the statues of Saddam Hussein were being pulled down with the help of Britain’s ally, the U.S. I seem to remember the papers in general greeting that as liberation, not an attempt to erase history.

 

Brexit, paperwork, and bad metaphors

What’s been happening in the US these days makes Britain look like an island of sanity. Yes, we’re led by a buffoon who can’t remember from one minute to the next which direction he’s leading us in, only that he wants to lead, but at least he’s not inciting armed mobs to storm Parliament.

Admittedly, Boris Johnson did–with only a bit of exaggeration on my part–invite a virus in to storm the population, but the times we’re living through set a low bar for political wisdom. The last time I looked the bar was underground and you could shuffle across it without having to lift your feet out of the dead leaves. So yes, he lost control of a pandemic through stupidity and for political gain–not to mention financial gain, although I have no evidence that he’s personally one of the beneficiaries. But hey, look, no armed mobs inside Parliament! 

So yeah, we’re doing fine. Let’s check in on Brexit, shall we?

 

Irrelevant photo: a daffodil after the rain. It has been raining a lot, and the first daffodils really are coming out, but I stole this from an earlier year.

Brexit

Brexiteer Bill Cash (he’s a Conservative and a Member of Parliament, known as Sir Bill to his nearest and dearest) compared Brexit to the end of the Stuart dynasty. 

How’d the Stuart dynasty end? Not well if you were a Stuart. Well enough if you weren’t either a Stuart or Catholic. We could call the transition either a coup or an invasion, depending on our mood. Since I haven’t decided what mood we’re in, we’ll leave both possibilities on the coffee table.

The last Stuart king was (gasp!) Catholic. That upset enough powerful people, but then he had the temerity to have a son, who even before he was out of diapers was clearly a Catholic-in-training. In fact, he’d barely had time to get into diapers before England’s Protestant elite invited William of Orange (whose wife, Mary, was the king’s Protestant daughter) to invade. Which he did, and James looked at the cards he was holding and–probably wisely–fled.

But having been invited to the card party, Will and Mary found that the hosts got to decide how the game was going to be played. And that, kiddies, is called the Glorious Revolution, because the hosts limited the monarchy’s power, handing it to Parliament. 

It’s also called that because the winning side went on to write the schoolbooks. 

Is Brexit the Glorious Revolution all over again? Only if the Brexiteers get a free hand in writing the schoolbooks. 

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But we’re not far enough away yet to worry about schoolbooks. We’re worried about the country getting slapped in the face with the dead fish of a half-thought-through border arrangement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland

That’s a horrible, half-thought-through metaphor. Sorry. If it hadn’t made me laugh–and if it didn’t have some truth to it–I’d replace it with something marginally more sensible.

What I’m talking about is that during the endless Brexit negotiations, relatively sane politicians were afraid of restarting the Troubles in Northern Ireland, so Boris Johnson was under a lot of pressure not to mess up the Good Friday Agreement which (a) ended them and (b) established an  invisible border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. It let goods and people flow between the two without so much as a wave or a wink from an official. 

The problem was how to keep that when the rest of Britain separated from the E.U. and the laws and regulations go out of synch, making barriers and inspections and paperwork necessary. The negotiators never found more than two possibilities: Either you have a visible, functioning border dividing the two parts of Ireland or you have one between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain. Britain didn’t like either solution, and the problem stumped savvier politicians than Johnson, including Theresa May. 

I never expected to say anything good about May, but there you go, I just did: She had the smarts to know it was a problem. Johnson just signed an agreement putting the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, lied about it, and figured something would come along to save his hash. Paperwork? he said. There won’t be any paperwork. It’ll all be seamless.

It’s not, and the transition has found any number of companies in Britain waking up to discover that they need all the paperwork Johnson told them they wouldn’t. Trucks are getting stuck at what’s now an internal border somewhere in the middle of the Irish Sea. We’re hearing tales about British companies that no longer deliver to Northern Ireland, although I have no idea if we’re talking about two companies or several thousand.

Presumably that will settle down once companies figure out the paperwork, but the long-term effect on Northern Ireland and its union with Britain should be, um, interesting.

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An online group that campaigned for Brexit, Leave.eu, has found that an unexpected result of winning the Brexit battle is that it had to choose between keeping its domain name and leaving Britain for the EU, because .eu domains are limited to, you know, the EU. 

So the group re-registered itself in Ireland, using the contact details for businessman Sean Power, who when a newspaper contacted him about it seemed surprised said he had no links to the group.

 

And in other news

A new study says that if the world can stabilize carbon emissions at net zero, the planet’s climate could also stabilize within a couple of decades. The belief had been that the world would tip into runaway heating, but if the new model’s correct we have some hope.

We do need some hope. 

Net zero? It’s sort of like when you run water into the bathtub and the phone rings and it’s only going to be a minute so you don’t turn it off but you do go in the other room so you can hear yourself think but you lose track of things and by the time you come back the water’s up to the rim. If you’re going to put yourself in there (and what’s the point of all that water if you’re not), you have to take some water out. That’s net zero. You have to balance the amount of carbon you dump into the atmosphere with the amount  you take out. Otherwise the floor gets wet.

Over a hundred countries have pledged to reach net zero by 2050. 

Do they mean it? I wish I knew, but more and more businesses and people with money and power are starting to notice that an overheated planet looks promises to be expensive, so maybe they’ll do more than mouth good words. Watch this space.

This space being not my blog but our planet. It’s the only one we’ve got. Even if you lose the URL, it’ll be easy to find.

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A study in JAMA Internal Medicine tells us that even rich Americans have worse health than people in twelve other industrialized countries. They’re more likely to die from a heart attack or cancer, or during childbirth. They’re more likely to have an infant die. The only area where the U.S. did better is in treating breast cancer.

That’s comparing rich, white, non-average Americans to average other-industrialized-country people. In other words, comparing people who get far better care than their average and below-average fellow citizens to an average of citizens in countries with less fragmented health systems. 

The comparison countries were Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. 

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Experts have found a correlation between traffic accidents in Asia and major football games in Europe. 

Let’s tackle the important questions first: Experts in what? In intercontinental football/traffic accident correlations, of course. 

Honestly. I have to explain everything.

That leaves us with the question of why there should be a correlation, and the answer may have to do with time zones. More people watch football–by which, if you’re American, you have to understand that we mean soccer–than any other sport, but the highest profile games are played in Europe. And they’re popular enough that people stay up to watch them. If a game starts at 8 pm somewhere in Europe, people in various parts of Asia may have to stay up till 4:30 to see the end. Or 5:30. And you know how it is: Once they see the beginning they have to stay up for the end. Then they spend the day sleep deprived. And since we live in a car-based, not-net-zero world, they get behind the wheel and end up in a ditch.

The researchers estimate–and it is only an estimate–that football games might be responsible for Singapore cab drivers having 371 accidents a year. 

Aren’t you glad you learned that today?

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An HG Wells memorial coin issued by Royal Mint uses images from “The War of the Worlds,” including a tripod with four legs. 

Tri,” a Wells biographer wrote. “The clue is in the name. . . . [But] at least the clock numbers round the edge don’t go up to 13.”

The great Brexit cut-and-paste job

Parts of the Brexit deal have been so deeply thought out that they cover technology no one uses anymore.  On page 921 (of course you’ll want to look it up) it talks about “modern e-mail software packages” like Netscape Communicator. Netscape went belly up in 2003, leaving its Communicator in the back of the refrigerator. It’s grown an enthusiastic covering of green mold in the intervening years.

Another section of the agreement recommends encryption systems that are older than I am and even more open to cyber attacks.

Educated guesses attribute it to negotiators using the cut and paste feature when they ran short of time.

I feel better now about not having absorbed the contents of the deal.

And now that I’ve justified my headline, on to other news.

 

Irrelevant photo: This is a very strange geranium that only flowers after three years. Then it spreads seeds all over the place and you wonder if growing it was a good idea. 

Other news from Britain

London has drafted in its police horses to help create a wildflower garden. Not for their manure, but to trample in last autumn’s seeds. The horses walk around the garden for half an hour a day and their riders get to write it up as community engagement.

Grazing animals—not just horses but sheep and goats—create dips and furrows in the ground as they walk around, pushing seeds into the soil and creating microhabitats, which seems to be an impressive word for a hoofprint.

London’s short on sheep and goats, but it does have horses.

Every article on this that I found used “Call the cavalry!” in its headline, right down to the exclamation point. I expect they’re all dutifully reprinting someone’s press release. Not me. I don’t reprint press releases. I steal my news second hand, with pride.

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Nottingham knows how to honor its heroes.

Most years, Nottingham tram drivers get a £25 voucher as a Christmas bonus. This year, since the drivers worked throughout the pandemic in direct contact with an infectious public, what did Nottingham Express Transit do? It gave them a voucher for a free baked potato or a roll from a food van that parks outside the depot. 

It had already thanked the staff, it explained, and anything more would be inappropriate. Those thank yous don’t come cheap, you know.

 

News from the U.S.

Something called the Air Company has figured out how to make vodka from carbon dioxide and water. That means each bottle takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and puts it first into the bottle and second into your very own self. This in turn means that if you dedicate yourself to it you can drink us all out of global warming by drinking 11 quadrillion martinis.

By way of full disclosure, 11 quadrillion martinis would make “a significant impact” on global warming but it’s not a complete solution. On the other hand, you won’t be in any shape to notice fine distinctions at that point, so let’s not worry about it.

So far, the Air Company’s capturing carbon dioxide from standard fuel alcohol fermentation, but it has its eye on power stations. Capture carbon dioxide there and you’ve got yourself a good headstart on those martinis.

It also has its eye on creating alcohol products other than vodka: ethanol, methanol, and propanol. From there (apparently—it’s not like I know anything about this) you can get to plastics, resins, fragrances, cleaners, sanitizers, and bio jet fuel.

They’re based in Brooklyn, which is not in Britain, but we all know I cheat. If I wedge one or two items about Britain into these roundups, I’ll call that good enough and hit Post.

News from other places

In November, a metal monolith was found in the Utah desert. Then a metal monolith disappeared from the Utah desert. Then a metal monolith appeared in Romania and a metal monolith disappeared from Romania..

Then some wiseacre pointed out that these weren’t monoliths, since they had several pieces and the root of monolith is mono, meaning one, but no one paid attention, so when a mysterious metal object appeared in Southern California, headline writers were still calling it a monolith. It sounds better than metal object or thing.

And again, when one appeared on the Isle of Wight, it was still being called a monolith, and ditto the ones in Belgium, Spain, Colombia, and Germany, along with a second one in Britain, on the new-agey Glastonbury Tor. 

It said, “Not Banksy.” Not literally. Someone had written that on it. Monoliths don’t speak. Even the ones made of many parts–you know, the multiliths.

Around Christmas, a gingerbread monolith appeared in a San Francisco park, and considering that it’s made of gingerbread, it’s huge–7 feet tall, held together with icing, and decorated with gumdrops. 

The park board has said it will stay up “until the cookie crumbles.” Which it did a few days later. 

What’s being called an anonymous collective called The Most Famous Artist claimed credit for the Utah and California metal monoliths. That doesn’t include the gingerbread one. 

The does it mean to be an anonymous collective? It has a name, it’s been made public, and  as a general rule having your name known conflicts with being anonymous. 

Or so I thought, but what do I know? I’m just some old bat sitting on her couch and typing.

Go to the collective’s anonymous website (it’s on the anonymous branch of the internet) and you’ll find pictures of people, which is also a bad idea if you’re anonymous. And a name, Matty Mo, who’s “building a community and working with brands.” Not to mention selling his work. 

Whether there really is a collective, or a community, is anyone’s guess, but either he or the collective is or are also selling replicas of the monolith for $45,000. Or at least offering them for sale. I can’t swear that anyone’s buying.

A British paper asked Matty Mo (assuming it was him) about the Isle of Wight monolith and he said, “The monolith is out of my control at this point. Godspeed to all the aliens working hard around the globe to propagate the myth.” 

Brexit, royalty, and falling iguanas: it’s the news from Britain

Britain and the European Union now have a Brexit deal, so instead of complete chaos on January 1, we can only expect moderate chaos.

Moderate chaos looks good these days. 

Like 99.4% of the country–and quite possibly like the Members of Parliament who are expected to approve all 1,246 pages of it before their tea’s had time to cool down (some sources say it’s 2,000 pages; does it really matter)–I have only the more general idea of what the deal says or what it will mean for any of us, although the papers are starting to fill us in. 

Before the agreement was reached, a poll asked people first whether they thought we were wrong to leave the EU and then how they’d vote in a referendum to rejoin: 49% said we were wrong to leave and 39% said we were right. Then they took one chair away, restarted the music, and asked the next question. (Presumably that same) 49% said we should apply to rejoin while 51% said we shouldn’t.

So 10% had no opinion on leaving or staying but did on rejoining. I have no idea what that means. 

Screamingly irrelevant photo: strawberry leaves after a frost.

The queen

Britain’s Channel Four showed a fake queen’s Christmas speech, timed to follow the real one on Christmas afternoon. 

The queen’s speech? It’s a British institution, and everywhere but here it gets capital letters. Every Christmas day, she addresses the nation and says something. I don’t know what because even during the brief moments when I haven’t been able to avoid listening all I heard was a faint buzz.

People take it very seriously, though. At various times, I’ve been asked if I was going to listen to the queen’s speech, if I did listen to the queen’s speech, if I do in general listen to the queen’s speech. It’s a measure of something, although I don’t know what. When I answer, I try to avoid expressions of horror and I try to avoid making jokes. A fair number of my fellow citizens–and even of my friends–take her seriously. And I’m an outsider here. It’s best not to walk into someone’s house and rearrange the furniture, although I might whisper quietly to a few thousand of my closest readers that I find the whole queen thing–not to mention the queen’s speech–odd.

So, yes, this Christmas we doubled down on oddity and had a real queen’s speech followed by a fake queen’s speech. Officially, the fake one was to send a “stark warning” about deep fakes and the possibility of fake news. Unofficially, I’m pretty sure lockdown was responsible. A bored mind is a dangerous thing. 

The fake speech has been criticized as not a very good fake, and it’s true that the queen looks rigid, but I watched a (very short) snippet of the real speech and the real queen was also rigid.

The fake includes  a TikvTok dance and the queen saying about Harry and Megan that it’s hurtful when someone tells you “they prefer the company of Canadians.” 

That was entirely realistic.

Yeah, go on and watch it.

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Speaking of the queen, England and Wales are fighting the history of colonialism all over again.

To brush up on our British history: England’s bigger than Wales. England conquered Wales and did all the unpleasant things that conquerors do. That started centuries ago. It lasted until–

Um, yeah. We could argue about the end point, and also about whether there’s been one. But even if we agree that it’s all in the past (we won’t, but never mind that), I doubt anyone in Wales has forgotten the history.

That takes us up to the present day, when a few politicians on the English side of the Severn Bridge, which links England and Wales, proposed renaming it to mark the queen’s platinum jubilee

No, I don’t know how many years you have to put behind you to get a platinum jubilee and I don’t care enough to look it up. A lot. It’s not the point.

The proposal woke both residents and politicians on the Welsh side of the bridge, and they all sat up in bed to said–in unison, mind you–that if the bridge gets renamed it should be named after either the Welsh rugby hero Gareth Edwards or the Welsh politician Aneurin Bevan, who led the establishment of Britain’s National Health Service. That last idea is guaranteed to annoy the Conservative politicians who want to rename the bridge (and quite possibly the health service and also your back teeth) after the queen. 

The bridge is made up of several parts, and one of them both starts and ends on English soil, which is why the English politicians think they can pull this off, but the collection of bridge part-lets are maintained as a unit and up to now seem to have been named as a unit. 

In addition to offending the Welsh, the renaming would cost money–probably a lot of it, although no one’s mentioned a figure yet. It’s maintained by Highways England, which was itself renamed recently at a cost of £7 million after having been called–apparently quite happily–the Highways Agency.

 

Chilly weather and a chance of falling ignuanas

On December 23, the south Florida weather forecast included cold weather and the possibility of falling iguanas. 

I know. Florida’s not in Britain. I cheat. It’s your own fault for not keeping an eye on me.

Iguanas are cold blooded. At around 45 F., they go dormant and look like they’re dead. They’re not. Or at least the ones who don’t die aren’t. The larger they are, the more likely they are to be alive but dormant.

The problem is that they like to sleep in trees and if they go dormant up there they have a habit of falling out. Which doesn’t do them any good and can also be a problem for humans underneath. Iguanas can measure up to 5 feet long and weigh as much as 20 pounds. 

If you need to know the impact of a 20-pound iguana falling out of a tree–and who doesn’t?–the formula is W=PE=Fd=mghF=d [over–sorry, my computer skills aren’t up the finding the right symbols and this is too important to leave out] mgh

I have no idea what any of that means, but I do know that at some point you’ll need the height of the tree before it does you any good. After that it gets complicated–there’s a second step, where you have to plug in the results of the first step. You’ll be happier going to the website for the second formula without me. 

Iguanas aren’t native to Florida, but they have adapted. Some dig deep burrows to stay warm. Some live near water, where the air temperature’s higher. Some sleep in trees and fall out if it gets too cold. And some cry weee, weee, wee, all the way home.

It’s a brutal kind of personality test. 

Or maybe which way they face the cold doesn’t depend on their personalities but on what they find to work with–cement, water, tree, diggable dirt. We are all, to some extent, creatures of our environment.

Brexit, Santa, and bad sex: it’s the news from Britain

As I write, Brexit talks are continuing. Competing headlines say that a deal is possible; that the European Union isn’t optimistic about reaching one; that a no-deal Brexit is likely, is very likely, is more than likely, is likelier than Santa Claus coming down Boris Johnson’s chimney; that even if Britain and the EU reach a deal there may not be time to approve it; and that the Scandinavian gods will descend from Mount Olympus (yes, the Greek gods did use to live there but they found it drafty and moved on. The Scandinavian gods, being from, you know, Scandinavia, think the weather’s great and following the example of the Czars use it as a winter palace.

That didn’t end well for the Czars, but you know what gods are like. They always know best. Won’t listen to anyone–

Where were we? That the Scandinavian gods will descend from Mount Olympus and whack a few heads, dictate a deal, and that’ll settle things. No one will be happy, but that’s the sign of a workable compromise.

Usually.

The Scandinavian gods scenario is generally considered the least likely, but just in case I’m making a list of heads I think would be worth whacking. In case anyone asks.

I don’t want to give you multiple links for all the various scenarios, especially since the last one’s embarrassingly hard to document, so we’ll settle for this one.  

We’ve had days of news stories about what’s going to happen to shipping and production and supply lines and prices. The government’s sunk lots of money into building black holes for trucks to wait in while their paperwork–and everyone else’s paperwork–gets sorted out. And ports are already backed up, for reasons I don’t really understand although as a rule bad political decisions are a fair bet. Empty containers are sitting where they full ones need to be. Ships are landing on the continent because they can’t land in Britain.

And this is all before Brexit hits.

As for us, we’ve stocked up on dog and cat food; on bread flour, sunflower seeds, and tea; on laundry soap; on a few other random items. We have no idea what’s about to happen or what we should have stocked up on instead. And really, we have only the vaguest idea what we need for life to be manageable. If we continue to have electricity and water, and I’m reasonably sure we will, we’ll eat something and we’ll wash. 

No, I’m not really expecting a complete breakdown. It’s just that I feel like minor-league maniac stocking up this way. Making jokes seems to counterbalance that.

Sleep well, Minnie. The dog food stash has been topped up.

If anyone tells you they do know what’s about to happen, they’re (a) kidding you, (b) kidding themselves, (c) pretending to govern the country.

*

Let’s change moods and countries.

A couple of guys moved into an apartment on New York’s 22nd Street and discovered that it came with  a seasonal delivery of letters to Santa Claus. They seemed like an annoyance at first, but after a while one of the men, Jim Glaub, got into the spirit. He picked a letter writer that he could be Santa to and found other people who’d do the same with others. 

The most moving ones were from kids whose parents were broke. One kid wanted a bed so he wouldn’t have to sleep on the couch. Another wanted a blanket “for my mom to sleep warm this winter and gloves for my dad to work.” Also shoes for her brother and some art supplies and glitter for herself.

I hope someone gave her lots of glitter.

At some point, mysteriously, what had been a few dozen letters became hundreds–more than an informal network could handle–and Glaub started a charity, along with a webpage to match kids to people able to give. 

No one’s been able to explain why the letters come to that particular apartment. In the early stages, when they were still an annoyance, the men talked to the post office.

“Can’t help you,” it said. 

Yes, at Christmas inanimate objects can talk. Surprisingly coherently, even if not helpfully.

*

Britain’s National Accounting Office reports that £50 billion pounds in cash is–

Um.

–well, it’s somewhere but they don’t know where. I guess you could say it’s missing, although no one expects to know where the nation’s cash is at any given moment, so missing isn’t quite the right word. Where it’s not, though, is in circulation.

This isn’t money that’s gone missing from the budget or that disappeared due to any sort of creative accounting. People are holding onto cash–a lot of it, as it happens. And this isn’t just happening in Britain. It’s happening in the U.S. and Europe as well. 

What does it all mean? It’s hard to say, but speculation tends to involve criminal activity. The three currencies all have high denomination bills (or notes if you speak British) that make it easy to smuggle–or even just carry–large amounts of untraceable cash. 

In case you need to know that at some point in your life, you heard it here first.

*

In deference to how bad 2020’s been already, the Literary Review canceled the contest it sponsors, the Bad Sex in Fiction awards. The judges felt “the public had been subjected to too many bad things this year to justify exposing it to bad sex as well.” But they warned the writing world not to take that as a “license to write bad sex.”

Not that the writing world needs a license.

I often argue with myself over which paper to link these snippets to. For this, though, the decision was simple: The Guardian’s article comes with a photo of the Reverend Richard Coles, in full reverent suit, reading at last year’s awards ceremony. Someone had fun picking that out of the archives.

How the pandemic tempts us into insults and sports metaphors

Britain has approved the first Covid vaccine, thereby starting a robust exchange of insults with a random sampling of other countries, and in case that didn’t bring enough joy to the world, setting off another round of the sort of chaos that allows us to recognize Boris Johnson’s government even when we’re blindfolded in the woods on a moonless night. 

I look at each day’s news with a mixture of dread and glee.

The insult exchange

It started with Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, who you might think (being the education secretary and all) would know better but, hey, silly you.

Williamson went on the radio and said Britain was the first country to approve the vaccine because “we’ve got the very best people in this country and we’ve obviously got the best medical regulator, much better than the French have, much better than the Belgians have, much better than the Americans have.

“That doesn’t surprise me at all, because we’re a much better country than every single one of them.”

Several winces later, Conservative peer Michael Forsyth (his friends and family call him Lord Forsyth; you can call him Mikey) tweeted, “Frankly, [that’s]  just unseemly.” 

European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer pointed vaguely in the direction of the high road and said, “This is not a football competition.”

 

Irrelevant photo: erigeron

Anthony Fauci, on the other hand,  ignored all of that, but he was critical of how quick Britain was to approve the vaccine, saying the UK hadn’t reviewed it “as carefully” as US health regulators.

The next day he backtracked, saying, “I have a great deal of confidence in what the UK does both scientifically and from a regulator standpoint” and on top of that, “I did not mean to imply any sloppiness.”

The difference in speed is because the US regulator often goes back to the raw test data while both UK and European Union regulators work from the reports the companies assemble. 

A few people have commented not that the slower approval process would be any safer but that people might have more confidence that it was safe. It could be a valid point, but where’s the fun in that?

 

The Brexit connection

Unable to see a flap going on and not jump into the middle of it, prominent Brexiteers in the government waded in and claimed that Brexit was the reason Britain had been able to approve the vaccine so quickly. 

“Prominent Brexiteers” describes pretty much the whole government, but this was only a couple of them, Matt Hancock and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Their quotes, sadly, are as boring as they’ve turned out to be inaccurate, so we’ll skip them, but you can follow the link if you want all the Ts dotted and the Is crossed.

The inaccuracy, though? EU law allows individual countries to distribute a vaccine in an emergency. They don’t have to wait for the European Medicines Agency to approve it. In fact, since Britain’s in a transition period until the end of the year, we’re still running on EU law and yes, that’s what we’ve done.

 

The chaos

Having approved the vaccine so quickly, we’re kind of like the kid who snatched the first potato out of the oven. Yes, he made sure he got the big one, and yes he gets to boast to everyone else about that, but he might’ve been smart to grab a potholder first. It would only have taken a few seconds.

In other words, as far as I can tell, from my vantage point on the couch, we’re having trouble figuring out what to do with the vaccine now that we have it. Because it all happened so fast and we haven’t exactly been (I know this’ll surprise you) planning for it. 

I seem to remember some loose talk, oh, maybe last week sometime, about frontline staff being a top priority for the vaccine, although I don’t remember hearing a definition of frontline staff. There was equally loose talk about NHS staff being at the top of the list. Whether those two were the same thing or not is anyone’s guess. 

During the first lockdown, we were all governmentally cranked up to respect the underpaid people who kept the buses and trains running, the stores stocked, the cash registers registering, the packages delivered, the food produced, and the cabs zipping around our towns. They put their lives on the line, we were reminded, and if they didn’t get the pay they deserve and need, they did at least get a bit of recognition.

Now that a vaccine’s imminent, are they still frontline staff? 

Well, um, it doesn’t look like it.

The government’s circulated (and the newspapers have duly published) a priority list with nine categories, starting with care home residents and the people who take care of them and working its way down to people over fifty. The list has some oddities, including putting frontline medical (and only medical) staff in the second category instead of the first and not bringing in the clinically vulnerable until the fourth category, where they keep company with the over-seventies. The Black and minority ethnic people (it’s a category in Britain, however vague it may seem to me as a foreigner) who are statistically at higher risk are mentioned nowhere. It also leaves out teachers and people who work in public transportation and food processing and retail the many other jobs that put people at risk. You know, all those people we appreciated so much the first time around and have now forgotten.

Then, after the list had been circulated, it somehow looked like care home residents and their carers might have to wait, because the vaccine has to be stored at the temperature of dry ice and you can’t just toss it in your back seat and drive it to the nearest care home. But hospital inpatients and outpatients who are over eighty might just skip to the top of the list because they’re easy to find. 

I have a picture of NHS staff running down hospital corridors vaccinating any random person who looks old enough. Whether they’ll find them again when it’s time for their booster shot is a whole different problem. But we have weeks  before we have to solve that one.

What we do know is that the first batch of the vaccine has arrived in the UK and that it will be distributed to hubs–places selected because they have the equipment to keep it cold enough. 

How many doses do we have? 

Um. Dunno. The business secretary, Alok Sharma, said that by next week, when vaccinations are supposed to start, the government’s “absolutely confident” that it will have 800,000 of them. 

I wasn’t worried until I saw that “absolutely confident.” 

Are they going to divide those 800,000 doses so they cover 400,000 people at two doses each? Or is the plan is to give one each to 800,000 people and trust that the second dose will be available when it’s needed? More doses are expected before the end of the year, but Sharma couldn’t say how many and NHS Providers said the UK would have to assume that more doses might not arrive “for some time.”

Sober-sounding voices on the radio advise us not to try to book a vaccination. The NHS will contact people to let them know their vaccination category is open and tell them how to register. But the NHS generally communicates with patients by letter. You know letters? Those paper things that appear in your mailbox or fall through a slot in your door? They take time to write, to print, to seal into envelopes, to move from wherever they started to wherever they’re going.

In theory, the vaccination program begins on Tuesday.

Independent of all this, I’ve read that it may be April before everyone in the nine at-risk categories is vaccinated. 

 

Mass testing

In the meantime, we have lots of twenty-minute Covid tests, which are also called lateral flow tests, in case it makes your life better to know that. They were supposed to be game changing, but the government’s announced so many game changers since the start of the pandemic that I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be running around with a tennis racket or a pool cue. 

The tests were rolled out on a mass scale in Liverpool, which has a high infection rate, and Dr. Angela Raffle, a consultant in public health and an honorary senior lecturer at the University of Bristol, said, “The infection rate in Liverpool has come down no quicker than in many other places that haven’t got mass testing and we haven’t yet seen a proper evaluation report from Liverpool.”

I read elsewhere else that mass testing alone isn’t a solution. You have to do something useful with the results if testing’s going to bring down the infection rate, and we seem to have missed that part of the plan. Possibly because it involves different sports equipment, which is stuck in the government’s Warehouse of Sports Metaphors. We filed forms that will let us get our hands on it long ago, but they’re still waiting for approval.

The NHS test and trace program, which is the key to doing something useful with the test results, usually hits the headlines because it misses some absurd percentage of people (4 out of 10 a month ago, which is–holy shit–almost half), but recently it improved its contact rate. 

How’d it do it? 

It changed the way it reports its data. I’d love to give you a link on that, but I heard that on the radio and I can’t find the right combination of words to coax the information out of Lord Google. But it was the BBC, and whatever complaints everyone from all sides has about, it isn’t known for making up its facts.

The rapid tests are also being used to allow relatives to visit people in care homes and do what I’m old enough to remember once seemed natural: hug them. But because the rapid tests miss some problematic percentage of infections, the BBC writes that “there has . . . been concern in some parts of the care home sector over the use of the tests, with homes in Greater Manchester reportedly urged not to use them to allow visits.” 

Some homes report not having received tests, in spite of a government announcement that everything was in place and reunions were possible. Others say they have the tests but not the training to use them

And there I have to leave you. A masked delivery driver is at the door and I hope he’s brought my sports metaphor delivery. 

He’s not on the list of priorities for a vaccination and he’s working on a zero-hours contract.

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.

Cathedral cats, soy sauce, and highway signs: Its the news from Britain

Southwark Cathedral’s much-loved cat, Doorkins Magnificat, has died. 

Doorkins came to the cathedral as a stray and discovered that the vergers–the people who open the building in the morning and (I assume) close it at night–were good for a bowl of food and a pet or two if she was in the mood, so she stayed for twelve years, making herself at home on the warm pipe that runs under a stone seat, on a cushion, on a grating where warm air (I’m guessing here) does very little to take the chill off a cathedral’s huge open space but does a great deal to take the chill off a cat.

At Christmas, she liked to sleep in the manger display. Humans, I need you to move the kid over. The cat needs a nap.

That’s one way we can know Doorkins was a genuine cat. 

She wasn’t a fan of the bishop, she strolled through the most solemn of services, and she gave herself a good cleaning whenever the mood took her. When the queen visited–well, they say a cat can look at a queen, but a cat can also decide it’s not worth the trouble. Doorkins couldn’t be bothered. She opened one eye, didn’t see anything that impressed her, and shut it again. So we’ll amend the ancient wisdom: A cat can look at a queen, but only if she wants to.

What could be more relevant to a post that opens with a cat than a photo of birds? This is a murmuration of starlings. In the winter, they flock together to roost in the trees at the edge of the field–thousands upon thousands of them. They come in in separate flocks that merge, circle, form shifting patterns, and eventually condense onto the trees for the night.

She did lend her name and image to a range of tchotchkes that the cathedral sold to visitors–mouse pads, mugs, magnets, cards, eventually a kids’ book. She had her own Twitter account but left it to her humans to post stuff.

Tchotchkes? Sorry, that’s a bit of Yiddish. Or maybe it’s Yinglish.  Either way, it’s out of place in a conversation about a cathedral, which is probably why it wandered in, as disrespectful as a cat. Tchotchkes are little things that are basically useless but decorative and don’t we just love having them around?

After Doorkins died, the cathedral held a memorial service, although in keeping with Covid guidelines they limited it to thirty people. Her ashes are buried in the cathedral close.

A close? It’s, um, a closed space. In British, a dead-end street’s called a close. So is the enclosed area around a cathedral, even though the ones I’ve seen aren’t seriously enclosed, just marked with a low wall. I don’t usually let myself get publicly sentimental, but a cathedral close is a good spot for a cathedral cat with a following that won’t be ready to let her go. 

The dean of the cathedral said, “She did more to bring people to this place than I will ever do.”

*

A seventeen-year-old student working on a project to explore brand loyalty fooled mainstream online news outlets into thinking Woolworth’s was going to reopen in Britain. The store hasn’t been around for over ten years, but the MailOnline, the Star, the Metro, the Mirror, the Sun, and a fair number of others fell for a tweet saying the chain would be resurrected, even though Woolworth’s was spelled two different ways and the Twitter account linked to a nonexistent website. 

The student didn’t expect (or mean) the experiment to take off the way it did, but once news outlets picked it up it got away from them. Twitter took twelve hours to shut the account down.

*

With Brexit looming and the pandemic raging, the government needs whatever good news it can get, so it announced proudly that a new trade agreement with Japan will mean cheaper soy sauce for your average British soy sauce addict. Because you know how many pints of soy sauce a dedicated user can get through in an afternoon. 

The announcement from the Department of International Trade didn’t spell soy sauce more than one way, and the trade agreement with Japan is entirely real, but it turns out that the price of soy sauce won’t be going down. Under the EU trade agreement that we’re about to leave, the tariff on soy sauce is a whopping 0%. Unless someone pays us to take it, it’s hard to get cheaper than that. 

We would have gotten a bargain if as European Union members we’d been importing it on the basis of World Trade Organization rules, but we haven’t been. Those aren’t the rules the EU and Japan trade under. 

It also turns out that Britain doesn’t import much soy sauce from Japan. It comes from China.

Other than that, the announcement was entirely accurate. 

*

Two brothers are suing the London police for stopping, searching, and handcuffing them after they greeted each other with a fist bump. Both are–I’m sure this will surprise you–Black. At 29 and 30, they say that between them they’ve been stopped and searched more than 25 times, starting when they were as young as 12. The only explanation they were given for the search was that they fist-bumped each other and were in the Deptford high street.

It’s legal for the British police to stop and search someone if they have “reasonable grounds to suspect you’re carrying illegal drugs, a weapon, stolen property, or something which could be used to commit a crime, such as a crowbar.”

Or if you’re Black and bumping fists in Deptford. 

According to the government’s own figures, between April 2018 and March 2019, there were four stop and searches for every thousand White people, compared with thirty-eight for every thousand Black people.

*

Britain’s garbage dumps are under attack by zombie batteries, and if you live in some other country the odds are that your garbage dumps are in just as much danger. 

A zombie battery is one that’s tossed out with the household trash instead of being given the respectful end-of-life care it’s due. It then gets punctured or outright crushed and starts a fire.

Or–in the name of accuracy–it can start a fire, especially if it’s the lithium-ion type that run laptops, cell phones (aka mobile phones), e-cigarettes, and Bluetooth thingies. They can get worked up enough to explode. 

Zombie batteries are believed to have started 250 fires at waste processing sites in the year ending in March 2020, and Britain goes through 22,000 tons of batteries a year. Less than half of them are recycled properly. 

Beware. And my apologies for not posting that before Halloween. A zombie battery would make a great costume if you’re into obscure jokes.

*

In response to a directive from the Department for Transport, it looks like Highways England is rebranding itself as National Highways, although it still covers only England and the new name has managed to piss off the Welsh (or at least some of them). The Welsh political party Plaid Cymru called the new name “self-aggrandising and offensive.” Wales, like England, is a nation within the country that is the United Kingdom, and in Wales the roads are the responsibility of the Welsh government, not the English one.

It’ll also be expensive. It’ll cost something like £7 million to redesign and reprint brochures, signs explaining road works,  documents, departmental cars and trucks, and who knows what else. And if that isn’t absurd enough, the agency’s said to have just finished updating all of the above after a 2015 name change. 

However much they spend redesigning signs about road works, I predict that they’ll continue to be unreadable. Instead of saying something like, “Closed 8 pm to 8 am, 3 October to 5 October,” road closure signs say something along the lines of, “We’re terribly sorry for the inconvenience, but this road will be closed between 8 pm and 8 am from 3 October 2020 to 5 October 2020 while we conduct roadworks that will improve your driving experience. ”

And of course it’ll end with some sort of attribution to National Highways, or Highways England, or whoever they are. Not that most drivers read that far. We’re all panting to know who left us the sign, but by the time we’ve read as far as “driving experience” we’re in the ditch and not happy with how ours has gone. 

Either that or we zip past knowing only that the road will close at some point but sublimely ignorant of when.

Diversion signs, on the other hand, point us boldly through the first turn or two to take us around a road closure, then whoever set them out either ran out of signs or got bored. Either way, they abandon us on some back road. If we keep driving, though, and take a random number of rights and lefts, eventually we come out someplace else and can start over. 

*

In California, raccoons broke into a bank, prowled the halls, sat at a desk, and were shooed out before they could withdraw any cash, although they did get some almond cookies. 

They broke in sometime during the night and seem to have climbed a tree, crawled through the air ducts, and fallen through the ceiling tiles. In the morning, they were spotted through the windows by a guy heading to work on a construction site. He called the Humane Society.

No charges have been filed.

Moonshots and international law: It’s the news from Britain 

We all just love good news, which is why we’ll try not to gag when we discuss Boris Johnson’s moonshot plan to test everybody in Britain for Covid all day every day, including when they’re asleep, working in their pajamas, or breaking and entering because they want to wear someone else’s pajamas for a change.

I know, but you do need to let me exaggerate now and then. It prevents explosions.

The moonshot plan is about ramping up Covid testing from 200,000 tests a day to 10 million a day by early next year. It would cost, at a wild and irresponsible guess (sorry–at a sober but preliminary estimate), £10 billion plus. 

Plus how much? At those levels, who cares? By way of comparison, that’s roughly equal to the UK’s education budget, but since the alternative, at least in the scenario posed by the prime minister, is a second lockdown, it’s a bargain at twice the price. 

Or something along those lines. 

Completely relevant photo: Have I mentioned that we’re going to the dogs?

It’ll involve lots of private companies–some of them the same ones who are screwing up the current test and trace program–so I could see where we’d end up paying twice the price. For half the product.

Given that the current testing program is short of something–probably lab capacity but who really knows?–and is therefore suggesting that people drive to hell and back if they seriously want to get tested because Britain’s a small island and when I was a kid we walked to school. Through the snow. We didn’t stand around waiting for a bus to pick us up and moaning about a little rain–

Let’s start that over. Why do you people keep leaving me in charge? 

The moonshot tests, or at least some of them, will give results in minutes. 

The problem is–

No, one of the problems is that the technology to make this work doesn’t exist yet. Another problem is the public health leaders are screaming for more control of the current testing program because the companies running it are making such a mess. 

This time, though, they’ll get it right. And I’ll be twenty again, only much smarter than I was the first time around. 

Also taller.

*

Want another problem with the moonshot program? The government’s advisors weren’t called upon to advise before it was shot at the press. The National Screening Committee was sidelined on the grounds that the moonshot is a testing program, not screening. 

“Mass testing is screening,” according to Allyson Pollock, the director of something very impressive at Newcastle University. I’d give her full title but we need to move on. Sorry.

See how British I’ve gotten in fourteen years? I apologize all the time. I don’t mean it, but I do apologize. 

If I were Britishly British, though I’d write “I’ve got” instead of “I’ve gotten.” Don’t ask me to explain it, but I’ve discovered that the American version annoys the hell out of someone in the village who’s well worth annoying. I’d use it anyway–my speech pattern, c’est moi–but it does add joy to the words.

Where were we? 

If the committee had been involved, it could consider the impact of false positives and false negatives and the social and economic impact of a large number of people being told to self-isolate. 

John Deeks, a professor of something equally impressive at the University of Birmingham said, “There is a massive cause for concern that there is no screening expertise evident in the documents. They are written by management consultants. . . . Before you start, you have to make sure you do less harm than good.”

*

If a massive testing program really happens, is anyone talking about paying people enough that they can afford to stay home if they test positive? 

Don’t be silly. It would set a bad precedent and make people lazy. 

*

While the official testing program limps along, running short of whatever it’s running short of, the University of Exeter is buying its own tests for students and staff–saliva tests that promise results either the same day or the next. They’re made by an outfit called Halo, which says they’re wonderful. As they may well be, but I’d like to hear that from an unbiased source and so far I haven’t found one. With a different test, people who actually understand these things complained that although the company making the test reported that it registered very few false negatives or false positives, it’s possible to game the data and unless companies make their testing process transparent, no one will know if they have. 

I don’t know if Halo’s transparent. 

*

Covid cases have been  rising in Britain, but the number of deaths has stayed low, presumably because the infections are concentrated among younger people, who are less likely to die or be hospitalized. A fair number of fingers have been wagged at them for getting sick. They’ve been out seeing friends, drinking in pubs, eating in cafes, attending illegal raves. 

Of course, the government’s been dangling vouchers in front of them–and the rest of us–to lure us into pubs and cafes so we could support the economy, as well as telling everyone working at home to get out of their bathrobes (which could use a good wash by now anyway) and relocate their hind ends to whatever office it is they used to work in. The economy can’t deal with this many people working from home.

That says something about how much sheer uselessness it takes to keep the economy rolling.

Now that more people are testing positive for Covid, though, it’s their own fault for listening to the government. They should’ve known better. 

Why are younger people really picking up the disease? A combination of factors, probably. Many of them have jobs that put them into contact with the public, and with all the viruses the public carries. Some of them are careless. They’ve been told they’re unlikely to get seriously sick. The police have broken up some illegal raves, but the entire younger population of the country wasn’t at them, 

You also have to figure that a lot of us who are retired are still in hiding, or semi-hiding, so we’re a little harder for the germs to find. Opportunists that they are, they jump into whoever they find.

What’s the government’s advice to  keep young people on the straight and narrow? “Don’t kill granny.”

Seriously.

There’s something unnerving about that as a way of mobilizing a nation.

*

No news from Britain is complete without a mention of Brexit: 

Rod McKenzie of Britain’s Road Haulage Association warns us, or warns the government, or warns anyone who’s listening, which may not be anyone at all since the government listens only to itself, I don’t really exist, and we’re not so sure about you–

Can we start that over?

Rod McKenzie, of Britain’s Road Haulage Association, warns us that we’re “sleepwalking to a disaster with the border preparations that we have, whether it is a deal or no-deal Brexit at the end of December.”

He’s worried about supply chains being interrupted, especially on the heels of the Covid crisis. 

“The difference here is between a disaster area and a disaster area with rocket boosters on.”

Remember the beginning of lockdown, when everyone was stocking up on toilet paper and bread flour (or hoarding it, depending on whether we were talking about ourselves or our neighbors)? If you’re in Britain, it might be worth doing that again. I have a recipe that calls for both if you want it.