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

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

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

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

double space after full stop uk

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

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

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

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

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

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

difference between anerican beeband british beer

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

berwick and russia at war

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

how do you pronounce river teign

Teen.

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

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

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

widemouth

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

english holiday with sprouts

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

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

The sprouts holiday–

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

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

That is–however strange it sounds–true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

debtors prison england

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

why call great britain

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

parky used nineteenth

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

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

Small changes in the world of pandemic Britain

How is our world changing with the onset of the pandemic? Well, the International Football Association, which sets the rules for international competition, has added a new offense: deliberately coughing at another player. The referee gets to decide what’s deliberate and what’s close enough to be offense-worthy, and the player who’s on the wrong side of the decision can be sent off the field.

If you’re American, you should understand that football is soccer but that coughing is still coughing.

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A company in Taiwan has developed a robot that can swab noses to test for the coronavirus. It sounds silly, but it’s one of those jobs that puts health care workers at risk. And you might as well admit it: You’ve always wished automation would swab your nose for you. 

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Vaguely relevant photo: Fast Eddie, who can’t be bothered opening doors. He has people who do that for him.

When Britain was still in lockdown, adults went from watching an average of 34 minutes a day of streaming services in April 2019 to an average of 71 minutes a day in April 2020. Those are the Netflix-type shows that you pay for. But that’s nothing. They also went from watching 4 hours and 53 minutes of TV and online video a day to 6 hours and 25 minutes. 

If I understand this correctly, that’s 6 hours and 25 minutes of TV shows, online pornography, and videos clips of cats opening doors and performing brain surgery. Per day. 

Who says lockdown is destroying our cultural life?

Okay, I only know about the cats because I sneak a peek now and then. You can also find videos of bears sitting in blow-up wading pools or canoodling with cats.

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How are we, as a nation, doing for money? About a third of Britain’s biggest companies have cut their top execs’ salaries in the face of the pandemic. 

Impressed? Don’t be. Top execs make as much or more from bonuses and share schemes as they do from their salaries.

What kind of money are we talking about? The head of Ocado–a grocery delivery outfit–made £58.7 million in 2018-2019–1,935 times the median salary of a full-time UK worker. To put that another way, it would take the average worker eight years to earn what he earns in a day. If that doesn’t add up, don’t blame me. I stole the statistic. See the link above if you want to argue. Or argue with me, but don’t expect a decent opponent. I’m a word person.

I don’t know if Ocado cut his pay–probably not, since food delivery businesses have been making out like (excuse the language) bandits–but I can’t see where he’d have a whole lot of trouble getting by if they did.

Back in the real world, there’s a ban at the moment on landlords evicting tenants who’ve fallen behind on their rent, but when the ban ends (as it’s scheduled to) they’ll owe a huge whackin’ amount of rent and no one who makes the decisions is talking, at least in public, about how they’ll to pay it off.

And a quarter of all adults are struggling with what’s being called food insecurity. That’s not exactly hunger. It’s hunger and being susceptible to hunger and to malnutrition. Almost a quarter have eaten less so they can feed their kids. 

In case anyone’s in danger of forgetting.

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Like the rest of the world, we live in the shadow of the disease–some of us more immediately and some of us less so.

My partner and I got tested for Covid-19 yesterday. Not because we have symptoms but because a friend whose husband died of the virus really, really wanted us to. And because every country should be testing asymptomatic people on a mass scale. It’s the only way to identify clueless carriers, and until we do that they’ll keep spreading the virus. 

I was reluctant. To work, testing has to be on a mass scale and we’re only two people. We could test negative and be exposed tomorrow, so what does a test tell us, really? And the British government isn’t doing mass asymptomatic testing. It’s pushing testing for people with symptoms. But, as our friend reminded me, I didn’t have any overwhelming amount of respect for the way the government’s handling the pandemic, so why did I suddenly want to respect their decision on this? 

We signed up.

So here’s the report on testing: The website where you book the test got stuck in a loop when Ida signed up, repeatedly asking for her date of birth, so that she wasn’t just born again but again and again and again. But it did eventually let us schedule the tests.

Okay, Ida booked both tests while I sat on the couch and kibbitzed.

The system only wanted my date of birth once. 

The testing was well organized. We found a variety of ways to screw up, but the people who worked there were patient and got us through it. Then we came home to go online and register the tests, because if you don’t, you don’t get your results and the whole thing’s pointless. 

Ida couldn’t get past the screen that asked for her post code. It didn’t believe her. Or it didn’t like her neighborhood.  

Whatever. She gave up and called the phone number that the form gave as a backup option.

I got past the post code with no problem. We live in the same house but my half is in a better neighborhood than hers. I was getting all ready to feel  smug when I realized that the page the form had sent us to exists to book a test, not to register a test you just took. 

When do you want to book your test? it asks. 

Two hours ago, please. 

I picked up the phone and called.

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I can’t leave you without a word or six about the government’s world-beating test and trace system. Because contact tracing is–or at least needs to be–a part of our lives these days.

Some of the people who’ve been hired as contact tracers still report–as they have from the beginning–having nothing to do. They’re supposed to call people who’ve tested positive, ask who they’ve been around, and then call them. And talk to them all about quarantining themselves. 

Some contact tracers report only making a handful of calls a month, including the ones to nonexistent numbers. Team leaders are keeping them busy with quizzes and offering prizes for the most calls made. 

One company subcontracting from the outsourcing giant Serco had 471 agents and made 135 calls in two days. That includes calls to wrong numbers, calls to voicemail, and multiple calls to a single person. The tales go on, but you get the drift. 

In early July, the system was reported to cost £10 billion.

That’s in addition to the contract tracing app that failed. That cost £11.8 billion

Lockdowns and communication problems: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Cynics claim the British government has a communication problem. To demonstrate that this is a lie and a slander, I offer you the following statement from Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health and social care. He’s explaining why a local semi-lockdown was imposed in Manchester. 

“We know that from the contact tracing information so whenever anybody tests positive the vast majority of them, unmm, we manage to speak to and we ask which contacts they’ve had who they– we been in contact with and that’s shown that the vast majority of contacts of people who have the virus are pe– are from other than people in their own household of course, unmm, who have to self isolate– anyway– is is is from households visiting and them visiting friends and relatives uhh err and and those two are bigger than the impact– the number of contacts that people have say at work or visiting ehm visiting shops and and and that means that we’re– because we have that information from the NHS test and trace system it means that we’re able to take this action which is more targeted at uhm erm controlling the spread of the virus.”

I hope that clarifies the situation. If the punctuation’s a bit unorthodox, I know you’ll understand. 

My thanks to the inimitable Bear Humphries, from Scribblans, who managed to extract the text from the internet and who is not responsible for anyplace it deviates from the spoken original. He tried to convince me to double check but it’s hard, when you’re looking at this level of iron-bound logic to imagine that anything could possibly have gone wrong. 

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Irrelevant photo: Pears on our tree last year. This year’s aren’t quite this far along yet.

Since we’re talking about communications, the Manchester lockdown was announced just after 9 pm on Thursday and went into effect at midnight. Guidance on what was and wasn’t permitted was published well ahead of time, at 11 pm. Eid al Adha, an important Muslim holiday when families gather together, began on Thursday night, making the issue of what can and can’t be done under the guidelines particularly fraught.

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You’re dying to know how I do my research, right? If you (or at least if I) toss Lord Google the phrase “new lockdown manchester,” the first link Lord G. suggests reads, “Seven simple tricks to fix a noisy washing machine in lockdown.” The second one said, “Doet het aantal stappen tijdens de lockdown er echt toe? – myprotein.com” 

I do, in fact, have lockdown toe. I don’t know how Lord G. knew that, since I hadn’t googled it yet, but I won’t be fixing my washing machine, no matter how noisy it gets. I once turned a 29-cent leak in the toilet into a $250 repair job, plus I took out the kitchen ceiling. When anything involves more water than fits in the dog bowl, it’s cheaper to call a professional.

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And now it’s time to sit at your desks and settle down, people, because we’re going to talk about serious stuff.

Yes, you too, Bear.

The number of Covid-19 infections in England has risen slightly. Or seems to have risen slightly. That’s based on a weekly random sample, so it won’t have been skewed by either more or less testing of the population. The estimate is that 36,000 people are now infected, with 4,200 new infections per day, up from 28,000 with 2,800 new infections per day last week. 

Restrictions were supposed to be eased on August 1, with essential services like, um, casinos and bowling alleys reopening. That’s now on hold, and you’ll have to wear a mask if you go to a movie, a museum, or an assortment of other indoor places.

On the other hand, 2.2 million extremely vulnerable who’ve been advised to stay home up to now can go back to work if they can’t work from home and if the place they work is Covid-secure. 

What’s Covid-secure? You got me.

Is this a good idea? We’ll get back to you about that when someone dies.

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I am endlessly indebted to Boris Johnson’s government for keeping me supplied with blog fodder. A new scheme to make Britain slim, Covid-resistant, and bike-addicted opened as farce this week. 

Picking up on a link between obesity and dying from Covid-19, Johnson launched a program to make Britain lose weight, saying it wouldn’t be “excessively bossy or nannying.”

These people who grew up with nannies. They’ve got a thing about them.

The program hits out at a few of the predictable targets: no more junk food ads on the TV before 9 pm. Information about calories visible on menus (or somewhere–I haven’t read the fine print; possibly in the back office). No junk food displays by the checkout. 

But the bit that’s getting the most press is the offer of a £50 bike repair voucher to anyone (up to some limit–it doesn’t matter just now what it is) stubborn and clever enough to survive its website. That eliminates anyone who doesn’t have a computer, an internet connection, or a bike–in other words, anyone who’s poor. Because the problem with poor people is that they don’t have enough money. And a shortage of money leads to a shortage of bikes, internet connections, and computers. Not to mention other stuff, like good food. So we can discount them.

We can also discount old people (that’s defined as older than me, and I’m upwards of 300), who also may not have computers, internet connections, or bikes, and who therefore aren’t really part of our culture and don’t matter.

But plenty of people wanted–and quite possibly needed–those vouchers enough that they hurled themselves at the website as soon as it went live.

Which crashed the thing. Twitter was alight with comments. The one that interested me most said, “Since when did the govmt use a one man band in Doncaster who has a £30k company with £455 of assets to develop WordPress websites for their national schemes??”

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that claim and I’m too clueless to follow it up myself, but I thought I’d toss it into the conversation and see if anyone knows more about it than I do. The government has a habit of handing out contracts like that. They once, famously, gave a ferry contract to a company with no ships. 

Another tweet reported an improvement in the site: It had gone from not letting him in to crashing once he’d entered his information. 

Will any of it make the nation thinner? Governments have been trying to slenderize Britain for twenty years without any noticeable success. But it does give everyone the satisfying impression that Steps Are Being Taken. 

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And now let’s drop in on the U.S of infectious A. Congressman Louie Gohmert has tested positive for Coronavirus and said in an interview, “I can’t help but wonder if by keeping a mask on and keeping it in place, I might have put some germs–some virus–on to the mask and breathed it in.” 

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But that’s amateur hour. Donald Trump promoted a tweet by Dr. Stella Immanuel which sung the praises of hydroxycloroquine. She has an impressive medical track record that includes warning people that alien DNA shows up in various medicines and that having sex with demons and witches in your dreams has a terrible impact on your health.

She also mentioned a vaccine that will prevent people catching religion. It doesn’t seem to be working, but maybe we don’t have herd immunity yet.

The caption on one of her videos asks, “How long are we going to allow the gay agenda, secular humanism, Illuminati and the demonic New World Order to destroy our homes, families and the social fibre of America.”

The quote didn’t come with a question mark at the end, and as far as I can figure out it didn’t have one in the original. I shouldn’t get snotty about punctuation, but “Get snotty about punctuation” is on the gay agenda for today at 2:50 pm, and I’m helpless in its grip.

I’d like to be better than that. Really I would.

I’d end by telling you to stay sane, because it’s crazy out there, but I worry that you’ll stop reading Notes. Stay only mildly crazy. Don’t get sick.

What people really want to know about Britain, part 20ish

The currents of the internet wash search engine questions to all shores, but here at Notes we (and by we, of course, I mean I) read them through to divine what it is that people really want to know about Britain. 

What do you need to know about these questions? Most of them are boring and repetitious. We’ll skip those. A few aren’t boring but are repetitious. If I can find some new way to answer them, I will. I don’t guarantee accuracy. I don’t even guarantee sanity. Enter at your own risk.

I assume that the people who ask these things don’t stick around to find out what I have to say, so I won’t hurt their feelings if I’m a wiseass. If they do, I’m going to gamble that they won’t remember what they asked so they’ll think I’m being a wiseass about someone else’s question. And if I’m wrong about both those things, I apologize. I type equally odd things into search engines and wash up on different shores.

I’ve reproduced the questions in all their oddity.

 

Britain and England

why do people call britain england

Because when England got married to Scotland it changed its last name. That was the tradition back then, and this was before anyone now alive was born, so don’t feel bad about not being invited to the wedding. I didn’t get to go either.

But England had mixed feelings about the name change and used England prominently as a middle name, as people sometimes do when they don’t want to outright challenge tradition but do want to make a vague gesture in the direction of maintaining their own identity. The result has been all sorts of confusion. Quid est demonstrandum, which is Latin for I’m going to the demonstration. Do you have a quid so I can put some petrol in the car?

A quid is British for a buck, which is American for a dollar, only the British are talking about a pound, even though no one measures petrol in pounds and ounces, only in gallons or liters.

And petrol is British for gas. Gas is British for–

Never mind. 

You can tell how old that translation is by its assumption that you can get anywhere on a quid’s worth of petrol. 

I hope I’ve cleared things up.

when was england called great britain

If the search engine questions that wash ashore here are anything to judge by, just about daily, so that’ll take the present tense, please.

reson of great britain being called

Need of its attention gotten being. 

 

Debtors prisons

why were people sent to debtors prison in 1600 england

Well, it’s complicated, so let’s simplify it: They were in debt. And couldn’t pay. And whoever they owed money to got touchy about it. And the law allowed them to have people tossed into prison for debt, so they did.

debtors prison jobs

You’re too late. This is no longer a viable career option.

 

The mysteries of British culture and history

why is it offensive to put 2 fingers up

That depends in large part on what you put them up. Please send details and I’ll explain.

free printable notes for king alfred the great

King Alred the Great is dead. He’s no longer accepting notes–free, paid, printed, or hand lettered on vellum. If you read the fine print of the handbook Once You’re Dead, it explains all this. And, oh, so much more. 

If, however, we’re talking about notes in the British sense, as in paper money, you should understand that they’re free and printable because they’re not legal tender. In other words, you can’t buy anything with them–no cigarettes, no ice cream, no face masks. But as long as we’re clear on that, I’m sure we can find some washing around the internet. You can find everything on the internet.

Finally, if we’re talking about notes as in what you should’ve written down in class so you could pass the test, then (a) you should’ve written them down in class and (b) you might want to break with tradition and find a decent book (or even a decent encyclopedia entry) instead of gamblling on someone else’s notes. 

why are we called great britain

Because we have (somewhere, although I haven’t gone looking for any lately) free printable notes for King Alfred the Great. It doesn’t get any greater than that. 

why do british have dogs

So they don’t have to bark themselves. 

Or is this a trick question? 

how to develop a british sense of humor

If you have to ask, you can’t.

britain went metric

It did. And froggy went a-courtin’. Is there a connection? A lot of people out there would like you to think there isn’t, but it looks awfully convenient to me. 

king john hawley

He wasn’t a relative. Sorry. My father changed his name from Hurwitz twenty-some years after an immigration official on Ellis Island changed his father’s from Gurievich. That’s as far back as I can trace the sequence, but I’m sure it made other twists and turns without ever getting us close enough to a king for us to have given him Covid-19, or whatever its era-appropriate equivalent was.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that there never has been a king named John Hawley. Anywhere. 

how to be an aristocrat

Get born in the right family.

upper class people don’t drink coffee

For all I know this could be true, although I doubt it. Either way, I’m proud to say they don’t hang out with the likes of me. Or vice versa.

how did the catholic church feel about women in medieval england

It had a built-in problem with women. On the one hand, it wasn’t crazy about them. They were (almost) everything the (theoretically) celibate males who ran the church weren’t supposed to think about. The rest of what they weren’t supposed to think about? Men. Children. Animals. Footwear. Anything else their hormones might suggest in an appealing way.

But it was women who officially represented sex, which–forget my earlier list–is really what the (theoretically) celibate males who ran the church weren’t supposed to think about. So when the (theoretically) celibate males sang “These Are a Few of My Favorite Things,” women weren’t low on the list, they didn’t get onto the list at all. Because it would mean they were thinking about them.

But according to the church’s holy book, god told humans to go make more humans, and the male half of humanity couldn’t do that without the female half. And just to complicate things, their god’s mother had been a female. 

So yeah, they had a hard time with this.  

 

Brussels sprouts

from what country did brussel sprouts originate

The one that plays host to Brussels.

+where did brussell sprouts get it’s name from?

Brussels.

brussel sprouts and christianity as a religion

Christianity is a religion. Brussels sprouts are not a religion. Next question.

 

Etc.

how do us mailboxes work

Well, you drop a letter in and someone comes along in a truck and picks it up, along with all the new friends it’s made, and they all get carried to a sorting station. As long as your letter has a stamp and an address, it gets separated from its friends, who are going other places, and gets sent on its way. This is sad, but it makes new friends on the journey, so it’s not too sad.

Or did I misunderstand the question? I answered how do U.S. mailboxes work? but maybe this was a mailbox asking how do us mailboxes work? Apologies. Everything you need to know is in Section 41B, subsections iii through xvi of the Mailbox Handbook

Technically, though, that should be, how do we mailboxes work? 

Have you ever wondered whose bright idea it was to name a country us? It’s as bad as naming a newspaper i–which someone has–so that to quote it you have to write, “i says,” or, “According to i.” 

Anyway, since you’d say “we work,” not “us work,” you’re supposed to say how do we mailboxes work? not how do us mailboxes work?

You’re welcome.

tulpan i kruka

I didn’t recognize the language here–in fact, I wasn’t sure it was language, as opposed to gibberish–so in my relentless search for blog fodder I asked Lord Google about it and he told me it’s Swedish and means tulip in a pot. 

Well, of course it does. We talk about that all the time here.

Interestingly enough, when I typed in the phrase that led some hapless soul to Notes, Lord G. didn’t refer me to myself. That’s not unreasonable, since I never used the phrase, don’t speak Swedish, had just failed the do-you-recognize-Swedish? test, and don’t have much to say about tulips in pots, so I rank low on the list of experts. 

About many things.

Still , Lord G. did refer someone here using that key phrase. I have no explanation to offer. 

birds speaking english

No matter where birds are born, human speech is at best a second language for them. Mostly, they speak bird.

birds speaking english for sale

Oh, hell. This is starting to sound ominous.

Moles, pizza, and remdesivir: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

A local spike in coronavirus cases in Leicester has been handled with all the grace and efficiency we expect of our government. It announced a local lockdown. The health secretary said the police would enforce it as needed. The message was, we’re tough. We’re efficient. We’re gonna win this thing.

The local police and crime commissioner still didn’t know where he was supposed to enforce the lockdown, though, because he hadn’t been sent a map. Then he got a map but still didn’t know the details of what they were supposed to enforce. 

But it’s okay, because we have a prime minister who can do at least one pushup while keeping two yards away from a photographer.

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Irrelevant photo: St. Nectan’s Kieve

Chaand Nagpaul, from the British Medical Association, said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strategy of dealing with local outbreaks will be no use if the local people who are expected to contain them aren’t given the data they need. 

I could have said that, but it sounds better coming from someone with a medical degree. Leicester could’ve responded earlier if they’d been told they had a problem, and where and how and why.

When Johnson introduced his strategy of containing local outbreaks, he described it as whack-a-mole–a game where you whack a plastic mole with a plastic hammer and even if you’re fast enough to hit it, it pops up out of another hole. 

It was a rare moment of honesty in political discourse.

While we wait to see where the mole’s going to pop up next, Johnson tells us that local authorities have been sent the data they need. 

And the check is in the mail.

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You’ve probably heard by now that the U.S. bought up almost the entire stock of remdesivir–500,000 doses: 100% of the manufacturer’s July production, 90% of August’s and 90% of September’s.

Remdesivir cuts Covid-19 recovery times, although it’s not clear whether it improves survival rates. Other counties have pointed out that buying up almost the entire stock might, um, undercut international cooperation in the face of the pandemic. 

“International what?” Donald Trump replied. 

Okay, he didn’t actually say that. I can’t remember ever seeing a quote in which he asks a question. 

The sale makes it sound like other countries are thoroughly screwed, but in fact they should be able to get the drug via compulsory license, which allows countries to override patents and buy generic versions from countries where the patent isn’t registered. This one is widely registered, but there will, it seems, be gaps.

The drug is made by Gilead, which sounds like it escaped from The Handmaid’s Tale. I’d love to tell you that it didn’t, but I don’t really know that. Lots of things have escaped from fiction lately, and nothing is more bizarre than reality. 

The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care tells us it’ll be fine and it has enough remdesivir “to treat every patient who needs the drug.” 

For how long?

They didn’t say.

*

The New Scientist says, “There is no longer any serious doubt that our bodies can form an immune memory to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.” 

The bad news is that we still don’t know how effective that memory will be. In other words, we don’t know if an immune memory’s the same thing as immunity.

Don’t you just love to hear from me? Don’t I just lift your spirits?

And from the Department of Confusing Information comes this snippet: For every person testing positive for Covid-19 antibodies, two more turn out to have specific T-cells that identify and destroy Covid-infected cells. That’s true even in people who had asymptomatic cases or mild ones.

What does that mean in everyday English? It means that for every person who registers positive on an antibody test, two more have some sort of immune response that doesn’t register. 

Those T-cells the two people have might give them some immunity to the disease. They might keep them from passing the disease on to other people.

They also might not.

The reason T-cells don’t register on an antibody test is antibodies are a whole ‘nother part of the immune system. Expecting to notice T-cells on an antibody test is like making yourself a pizza and wondering why it doesn’t come out of the oven with a side salad.

Basically, antibodies–that’s the pizza–attack the virus before it enters the body’s cells. T-cells–they’re  the salad, and it’s important to remember which is which–go into action once cells have been infected, attacking  them so they won’t infect  new ones. A balanced immune system meal needs both pizza and that salad.

You’re welcome. I’m here to clarify every baffling bit of our world, just for you.

What does all that mean for herd immunity? Not much, because for all anyone knows at this point, those T-cells could protect the bearer without keeping him or her from passing the virus on. 

If you worked this many twists into a pandemic movie, I’d throw my popcorn at the screen and stomp out, muttering, “Enough already.” 

Then I’d go out for pizza and a salad.

I’m just about old enough to remember a world where it was safe to go to movies and pizza joints. 

The Ministry of Impulsive Decisions reports the news from Britain

You’ve probably heard this by now, but good news is hard to come by so let’s not waste it: A cheap, easily available steroid, dexamethasone, can cut the risk of death in seriously ill Covid-19 patients. The bad news? It doesn’t help in milder cases. Still, this is a bit of genuine good news. Gift horse; mouth.

*

Faced with the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping through Britain, our rumpled and (lately) not entirely present prime minister Boris Johnson announced a commission to study inequality.

That’ll slow down those pesky protesters, right? By the time it reports back, everyone will have forgotten how to even spell inequality.

So what was his first move? He appointed Munira Mirza to set it up. And she’s on record as having said that institutional racism is “a perception more than a reality,” not to mention as having complained that earlier inquiries (there’ve been six in four years) fostered a culture of grievance.

If all goes according to plan, the commission’s report will be referred to the Department of Cynicism and Bitter Irony. They do a lot of filing there.

*

Irrelevant photo: Hydrangea–our neighbors’. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Astronomers report that our galaxy may be home to as many as thirty advanced civilizations.

Sorry, but the link won’t lead you to any information about them. All it does is confirm that I don’t make this shit up.

How can we tell that they’re advanced?

Well, they’ve been smart enough to stay away from us.

Okay, that isn’t necessarily by choice. They’d be, on an average, 17,000 light years away. Too far for them to drop by casually for a cup of tea. Too far, most likely, to even know about tea. Quite possibly too far for us to pick up any signs of their existence. And vice versa, although if they get close enough to pick up a hint of what’s going on here, they’ll decide no cup of tea is worth it. 

*

And since we’re talking about the whole galaxy, let’s forget Britain for another minute and talk about Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ.

The autonomous zone was set up after clashes in which the police used pepper spray, teargas, and flash bangs while Black Lives Matter protesters threw rocks, bottles, and fireworks.

Then someone drove a car into a crowd of protesters and shot one of them. I’m not sure what impact this had on events, but I’d bet a bowl of popcorn that it didn’t lower the tension level.

Eventually, the police withdrew from the neighborhood, boarding up the police station and leaving protesters to set up the CHAZ, which covers a few blocks. CNN describes it as more like a festival than a protest. It’s stocked with all the essentials: granola bars, water, toilet paper, and toothpaste.

The mayor, Jenny Durkan said, ”It’s not an armed takeover. It’s not a military junta. We will make sure that we will restore this but we have block parties and the like in this part of Seattle all the time. . . . There is no threat right now to the public.”

Reporting on the situation, Fox News mistook a joke on Reddit for a split in the organization running the CHAZ.

Okay, I have no idea if any organization really is running things or if it’s all evolving on the fly–or if an organization thinks it’s running it and things are also (or instead) evolving on the fly. I also don’t know if I’m supposed to call it just CHAZ or the CHAZ , but never mind the many things I don’t know. (Why do you listen to me anyway?) What matters is that Fox News thought a group was in charge and reported on the split, reading the Reddit post on the air: “I thought we had an autonomous collective, an anarcho-syndicalist commune at the least, we should take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.”

What the post’s doing there isn’t commenting on a split but playing off Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where King Arthur introduces himself to a peasant, saying he’s the king, and the peasant announces that they already have their own government.

“We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week, but all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special bi-weekly meeting by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two-thirds majority in the case of purely external affairs.”

I’d have missed the Python reference myself. Unlike a few people I’ve known and worked with, I don’t have the dialogue memorized. But I like to think that a line Fox News left out would have made me think that something other than a mail-order organizational squabble might be going on: that the king couldn’t “simply expect to wield supreme executive power just because someone threw a sword at him,”

I’ve been in more than one strange political conflict, but none of them have involved swords. Everyone has their limits, and I’m pretty firm about that one, although I did, for a long time, have a friend’s (American) Civil War-era sword hanging on my wall. It was blunt and wouldn’t have been any use in political disputes, but no, I would not have been tempted.

I did once sit in a meeting and consider whether a crochet hook would be any use as a murder weapon, but that’s a different story.

*

Back to Britain: There’s lots of flap here about when, how, and where the kids are going back to school.

In the first plan, two age groups were going back, then the rest of at least the primary school kids would follow before the school year ended. The British school year runs later into the summer than the American one does, but even so it wasn’t clear that they’d be in school long enough to do more than exchange germs.

This was all handled by the Ministry of Impulsive Decisions, which didn’t do any serious consulting with the schools or the teachers’ unions, so a lot of the schools said they couldn’t open safely even for the first group, and some parents, in the interest of safety, kept their kids home from the schools that did open.

But some kids from two age groups went back, and the rest of the plan was sent to the Ministry of Lost Ideals.

Cue calls–including some from within the Conservative Party, which is all that matters since it has a huge majority and doesn’t really have to listen to anyone else–for emergency measures: a summer tutoring program, possibly, or what are being called Nightingale schools, mirroring the Nightingale hospitals, which were basically field hospitals set up at the beginning of the pandemic and barely used, partly because they turned out not to be needed and partly because no one had figured out how to magic up the staff a hospital relies on.

Who knew that hospitals aren’t just buildings–that if you don’t have staff you don’t have a hospital?

Yes, planning is this government’s strength.

So long ago that I’ve lost track of the date, the Department of Good Intentions promised both internet access and computers to any kids in year 10 who didn’t have them.

Why year 10? Why not year 10? It’s random enough to sound like it has some research behind it.

Many headteachers report not having seen so much as a computer cable.

And none of that solves the problem of what the kids in other age groups are supposed to do.

A recent study reports that a third of students have done no lessons at all while the schools are closed and that less than half have sent work to their teachers. Students in what they call the most disadvantaged schools are the least likely to be doing any schoolwork.

The Department of Relentless Optimism is surprised by this.

Let’s move on before I get started on the mind that classifies schools as disadvantaged, as if somehow their problems came from a combination of bad luck and birth trauma.

*

After having said that the free school meals for the most vulnerable kids would stop at the end of the school year, the Department of We Never Said That and if We Did We Didn’t Mean It That Way has announced that free school meals will continue.

How come? A footballer, Marcus Rashford, campaigned for them.

*

Dozens of hospitals are still reporting a shortage of scrubs. This much, you’d think, the Department of We’ve Been Here Before could get right by now. They’re not high-tech equipment. Volunteers have been supplying some. Any place with a sewing machine could turn them out.

Some doctors report that they’re taking their home to wash, which is what they’ve been advised to do even though it risks spreading infection.

The NHS says there’s no shortage of scrubs and asks everyone to go have a cup of tea and think about all those intelligent civilizations somewhere in the galaxy, who see us on Instagram and wish they had such a nice cup of tea.

*

Speaking of Instagram, it’s time for everyone who’s feeling bad because they’re not in a relationship to stop fretting. In Britain, married people and people in civil partnerships reported the highest rise in anxiety levels during lockdown.

That’s not the same as saying they have the highest level of anxiety, only the highest increase. But still.

*

In the Caribbean and South and Central America, the pandemic is kicking off an epidemic of hunger, the U.N. warns.

And in France, a demonstration by healthcare workers demanding more funding for the health system ended with some people in black setting fire to a car (actually, a vehicle–it could be a tank for all the word gives away) and throwing things at the police, at which point the police fired tear gas at the demonstrators, although as far as I can tell from a short mention they didn’t start the violence.

*

Britain’s health secretary was on Sky News talking about how quarantine would protect us from countries where the coronavirus rate of infection is higher than ours.

Which ones, the interviewer asked.

Brazil, he said.

Could he name any others? the interviewer asked.

Um, well [insert vague blither here, along with the word science].

Yes, she asked, but what others?

[….science….]

[….science…]

It’s all about the science, folks. That’s why we’ve imposed a quarantine at a time when we’re the folks other countries want to quarantine.

*

A professor of cardio-vascular science, Mauro Giacca, says, “What you find in the lungs of people who have [died of Covid-19 after 30 to 40 days in intensive care] . . . is something completely different from normal pneumonia, influenza or the Sars virus. You see . . . a complete disruption of the lung architecture.”

Their lungs, he says, can be completely unrecognizable.

And a professor of medicine, John Bell, says that a second wave of the virus, which he considers likely now that Britain’s lockdown is being released, should at least allow scientists to measure whether people who survived one bout of the virus become immune to it.

The Department of Silver Linings has taken note.

*

I can’t let you go until you’ve read this: In Vienna, a man has been fined 500 euros for farting loudly at the police–or, to be formal about this, for offending public decency. He got up from a park bench, looked at the cops, and “let go a massive intestinal wind apparently with full intent.”

He also behaved “provocatively and uncooperatively” beforehand, but that doesn’t seem to be why they arrested him.

Britain’s chimneys and chimney sweeps

Britain’s earliest chimneys were strictly for the rich, and in the Tudor era, they were the must-have accessory. The aristocracy’s news feeds were clogged with targeted ads saying, Heat Your Castle the Modern Way

Heat Your Hovel ads didn’t show up for many a year. 

Hovel-dwellers didn’t have news feeds anyway.

Hovel-dwellers lived in single-story houses with a central fire whose smoke worked its way out through the roof (thatch is good that way, and I’ve heard that slates aren’t bad) or through a hole in the roof. If you were clever about covering the hole, you could let the smoke out and keep the rain from pouring in, all in one go, but no matter how clever you were, above a certain height these houses were smoky.  

Irrelevant photo: osteospermum, with a bit of valerian getting ready to bloom.

With the introduction of the chimney, though, at least some of the the smoke went politely up and out, changing the residents’ lives and lungs. On the other hand, a good bit of the fire’s warmth was polite enough to follow the smoke, so the change wasn’t all about gain.

If you have a third hand, balance this on it: Chimneys also meant you could heat a second story. You could even add heat to rooms that didn’t have fireplaces. All they had to do was cuddle up against the back of the chimney and suck up a bit of warmth. 

By the seventeenth century, enough chimneys had been built around the country that they were worth taxing. Enter the hearth tax, which was based on the size of the house and, most importantly, the number of chimneys it had. 

So what did the rich do? To minimize taxes, they started running the flues of multiple fireplaces up a single chimney.  Many fireplaces, many flues, fewer chimneys. In a big house, they’d still end up with more than one chimney, but nowhere near as many as they had fireplaces.

What innocents they were back then. Today, they’d just build the chimney in a tax haven and have as many as they wanted. So what if it cost more to build them there and import the heat? They’d still be saving on taxes, and the point of the game, once you have that kind of money, is to pay as little in taxes as possible and then yell, “I win!”

Nothing I’ve read tells me how people first discovered that chimneys had to be cleaned, but I’m reasonably sure the realization took the form of chimney fires, complete with the neighbors standing around saying, “I could’ve told them this would happen.” Or whatever the era-appropriate version of withering scorn was.

That’s how the occupation of the chimney sweep  was born, and when the country’s primary fuel shifted from wood to coal, which lines chimneys with creosote, it became even more important.

I’d love to pinpoint the moment when children were first used as sweeps, but I can’t find any information on it. My best guess is that children working in dirty and dangerous occupations was so much a part of life that for a long time it was barely worth mentioning. Kids worked in mines and quarries and everywhere else. In slate quarrying country, where I live, they’d send boys over the cliffs in baskets to set the explosives. It only made sense: They were lighter than the adults. 

A website maintained by a chimney sweeping outfit in Hartford, Connecticut, doesn’t give a start date but does say that kids were used most heavily as sweeps during the two hundred years between with the Great Fire of London (that’s 1666) and the mid-nineteenth century, when Britain outlawed them. I can’t vouch for its accuracy, but any number of chimney sweepers’ sites include some history of the trade, and they’re reasonably consistent.

So let’s talk about those kids. The apprentices to master sweeps were usually boys but sometimes girls, and they were generally paupers or orphans. Anyone who had choices in life would look somewhere else for their kid’s apprenticeship. 

How old were they? Well, they had to be strong enough to be useful but small enough to climb up the inside of a chimney. And since narrow flues created a better draft, you’d be talking about a very small kid–usually around six, but they could (rarely) be as young as four.

And here we circle back to all those flues running up a single chimney. Remember them? The flues made sharp turns and had awkward angles, making them that much harder to get through and putting even more of a premium on smallness.

The kids worked their way up the chimneys using their backs, elbows, and knees, knocking the soot loose with a brush as they went, so it fell on and past them.

According to some sources, the apprenticeships were for seven years and according to others until the apprentice was an adult, although reaching adulthood wasn’t guaranteed. The dangers of sweeping chimneys included getting stuck, suffocating, and breathing the carcinogenic soot (one form of cancer was common enough to be called chimney sweep cancer). The kids also lived in the soot, because we’re talking about people who had minimal chances to wash and who generally slept on the sacks of soot that they collected and the master sweep sold. They grew up stunted and deformed and were prone not just to cancer but to lung problems. 

So yes,it was just like in Mary Poppins, all singing and dancing along the rooftops.

They also had to contend with hot chimneys and rough brick on their knees, elbows, and backs.

Their conditions horrified a fair number of respectable people, and many attempts were made to improve their conditions, mostly without changing anything substantial, although over time the pressure did grow. The turning point came when a twelve-year-old, George Brewster, got stuck in a chimney. A wall was pulled down and he was gotten out, but he died not long after. After that, child sweeps were finally banned.

The sweeps were replaced with brushes on long, long handles, which an adult could work up a chimney.

The bright spot in sweeps’ lives was their one yearly holiday, May Day, which coincided with local celebrations that predated chimneys and sweeps–and Christianity, for that matter. In a few places, May Day is officially a sweeps’ festival. 

Why that day? No idea. We just have to accept that it is and go with it.

I’ll leave you with a link to William Blake’s poem about a child chimney sweep. He wrote two versions. This strikes me as the stronger of them.

Censorship and freedom of the press in England: a quick history

Let’s talk about freedom of the press in England.

Why not in Britain? Because we’ll start before Britain became a country and because English law doesn’t apply to all of Britain. It’s enough to make a non-Briton dizzy. Don’t think about it and you’ll be fine.

We’ll start in 1403, before the printing press was brought to England. Before, in fact, it was invented. That’s when the Guild of Stationers was recognized by London, and it’s an important part of the story, so stay with me. The guild’s members were text writers, book illuminators, booksellers, bookbinders, and suppliers of parchment, pens, and paper. Just to confuse things it’s also called the Stationers’ Company.

They were called stationers because they set up stations–what we’d be more likely to call stalls–around St. Paul’s Cathedral. So there’s one mystery solved. 

Irrelevant photo: St. John’s wort, getting ready to bloom.

Then the printing press came to England and printers joined the guild. 

Printing was the hot technology of the day, so what would any sensible government do but restrict it? When William Tyndale translated the Bible into English–both Henry VIII and England were still Catholic at this point–he played hide and seek with government agents in print shops all across Europe, where he’d fled. Copies of his translation were printed in Germany and smuggled into England.

In England, though, printing could be done only by English citizens, and anything that was going to be printed had to be approved by the privy council. 

Eventually Mary Tudor became the queen and the Guild of Stationers got a royal charter. That gave them a monopoly on printing, so members didn’t face competition from outside the guild. They could only have seen that as a good thing. They also had to settle disagreements over who owned what works within the group, and that led to the invention of copyright. 

We won’t go down that rabbithole today. 

The royal charter also meant that the guild had the power–and presumably the responsibility–to search out seditious and heretical books. Or, as its preamble puts it, “seditious and heretical books rhymes and treatises [that] are daily published and printed by divers scandalous malicious schismatical and heretical persons”.

The heresy du jour  was Protestantism, but after Mary died the heresy du jour was Catholicism, along with more Protestant forms of Protestantism than the approved form of Protestantism. 

So the content of sedition and heresy changed but the concept itself didn’t. 

Isn’t the world a strange place?

In their search for heresy etc., the stationers had to power search, seize, and destroy

Didn’t they get to have all the fun? 

This wasn’t exactly state censorship. It was censorship by a body chartered by the state but working in response to its own interests. I’m speculating here, but you might have been safe enough printing heretical pamphlets on the quiet if you kept on the good side of the guild’s more powerful members. And you might have found some surprising pamphlets stashed in a quiet corner of your workshop if you pissed off the wrong person.

We won’t slog through the period Tudor by Tudor. Let’s just acknowledge that each of them had an interest in stamping out sedition and heresy, in all its alternating forms. Freedom of the press was the next-door neighbor of sedition and would’ve been a dangerous concept to defend in public. If you had nothing to hide, you wouldn’t have any problem showing it to the privy council. 

During the Civil War and under the Commonwealth–that brief period when England was a republic–religious and political thinking went in directions no one could have predicted and no one could control, and print, being the social media of the day, was what all that intellectual ferment poured itself into. 

Given that this was during and just after a civil war, if you’d wanted to argue that freedom of the press and anarchy went together, you’d have found a good stack of evidence for your argument.

Then Cromwell died and Charles II took the throne, and he needed to put all that debate and argument and printing back in the box. The government passed the Licensing Act of 1662. Anything printed now had to carry the name of its printer and its author, and it had to be submitted to a licenser–that was a government official–before it could be printed. 

The licenser kept a copy to check against the printed version, just in case some sly devil inserted a disparaging paragraph about the size of Charles’s wig.

If the text was approved, then it had to be registered with–they’re back again–the stationers. 

The act was meant to be temporary–a placeholder until something better could be pieced together–so it came with an end date, but when nothing better appeared it was renewed. Until 1679, when everyone important got into a tizzy because of Titus Oates’ fantasies about a popish plot, and the act lapsed.

Newspapers moved into the empty space where censorship had once been.

Six years later, the act was reinstated, but the fun had gone out of it, somehow. Licensing print didn’t have the appeal it had once had. It had grown a pot belly and a chicken neck, some mornings it didn’t bother to shave, and heads didn’t turn anymore when it walked down the street. 

But guess what: The government found it could still punish treason, seditious libel, and blasphemy, and it could keep the press in line pretty well that way. And it was all so much more efficient.

A Jacobite printer was executed to prove the point. 

The threat of prosecution was enough to keep most publishers well back from the political edges. And those didn’t stay back? Some were fined. Some were jailed. Some fled abroad. Most played nice.

Before long, London had multiple newspapers and towns around the country had their own papers. The newspaper had become an integral part of the political landscape and that’s glorious but a lot less interesting.

English defamation law has worked at times to limit freedom of the press, since it puts the burden of proof on the defendant, not the plaintiff. In other words, if someone wants to shut you up, unless you have enough money and sheer cussed energy to defend yourself in court, you might just consider shutting up. 

And there are specified limits on freedom of expression. They include making threats, harassment, glorifying terrorism, incitement to racial hatred, or–oh, hell–calling for the abolition of the monarchy. Or imagining overthrowing the monarchy.

That last one carries a life sentence, although the law hasn’t been enforced since 1879. The Guardian challenged it in court and lost on the grounds that the law was a relic of a bygone age and that any change was unnecessary.  

And with that, we’ve come to the present day, so let’s check in with the Stationers’ Company and see what they’ve become now that they can’t stamp out heresy and search other people’s premises. The organization says it has almost a thousand members and sounds deeply snoozeworthy. Most members are “senior executives in the complete range of trades within the Communications and Content industries.” That’s so dull I had to copy it and paste it into place. I tried typing the words but kept passing out.

One of the group’s goals is to create a broad balance of membership. Toward what end? Why, so it can maintain balance, of course. In its membership. 

Listen, don’t ask me these things. They have a hall. You can rent it if the pandemic ever ends.

The pandemic update from Britain: Downing Street plays musical chairs

Boris Johnson has instituted a shakeup in Number 10 Downing Street. According to a senior Conservative source, it’s to “bring some order” to the decision making process. Here’s how it’s going to work:

Johnson will chair a strategy committee, called CS, because committees work best when their initials run in one direction and their names run in the other. Michael Gove will chair on operations committee, called CO, because ditto. Then someone will put on a piece of music and four ministerial groups that were set up to deal with Covid-19, along with the regular Covid-19 morning meeting will all run down the hall screaming. When the music stops–which will happen at some unpredictable time, well before the song reaches its natural conclusion–whoever’s left without an office will be returned to parliament, postage due. 

This may, it’s rumored, curb Dominic Cummings’ influence, although I’d be inclined to try exorcism myself. 

Except for the business about the hallway, the music, and the exorcism, this is real. 

Oh. And the postage due.

Irrelevant photo: A gerbera daisy.

*

In a stunning display of pointless determination, the House of Commons took 46 minutes to vote on a single measure on Tuesday. Or possibly 1 hour and 23 minutes. It depends on your source. And possibly on which measure they were timing.

However long it took, the time didn’t include the debate. It was just for Members of Parliament to cast their votes–something that would normally take 15 minutes.

They were kept the proper distance apart while they waited by an airport-style system that channeled them into a kilometer-long, snaking line. Cleverer writers than me (and also than I) have said that it looked like the world’s most boring theme park. In the photos I’ve seen, somewhere between none of the MPs and very few of them were wearing masks. Because, what the hell, they’ve given up all hope of escaping the virus. 

Since the middle of April, parliament’s been operating on a hybrid system that allowed some MPs to show up in person and others to vote and debate remotely. But the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, scrapped the hybrid system, forcing MPs to show up in person if they wanted to vote.

Why does R-M want them all back? To set an example. 

Of what? I don’t think he’s said. Certainly not of following government advice to minimize contact with people outside your household, work from home if at all possible, and only meet people out of doors in groups of no more than I don’t remember how many. 

I’ll admit, though, that they’re setting an example of the British stiff upper lip. As one MP said, “If I haven’t already had Covid, I’m now resigned to the fact that I definitely will.” 

R-M also said everyone had to come back because it will make democracy “once again flourish.” 

I don’t think he’s explained that either.

MPs who, for medical reasons, can’t come back will be able to take part in some debates remotely but they won’t be able to vote. Because, hey, if they’d had any foresight they wouldn’t have gotten themselves into this situation. To compensate for that, there may be pairing arrangements. That means that if an MP from one party can’t vote a paired MP from the opposing party is taken out and shot so they can’t vote either.

Okay, that’s not the exact wording of the proposal. Maybe they just put a bag over the sacrificial MPs head and lead him or her into a nice dark closet until the voting’s over. Which may take a while. 

Given that there are more than two parties, which  party do they pull the sacrificial paired MP from? Do they ask the non-attending MP, “Who do you hate most? We’ll keep them from voting”? Or do they take one MP from each party? 

But that’s only for MPs with medical reasons not to attend. What happens to MPs who live hours’ away from London at a time when travel’s limited? That’s up from grabs. They too should probably have thought their lives through before they got into that position.

Predictably, opposition MPs voted against the recall, but they were joined by a number of Conservatives–especially the ones who need to keep themselves out of the virii’s path because of age or disability or because someone in their family is particularly vulnerable. 

I don’t even begin to understand British law, but even so I seem to catch the scent of a lawsuit in the wind–from disenfranchised constituents or from older and disabled MPs or from both.

I’m not directly affected by this. I’m not an MP and I’d be happy enough to see my MP blocked of voting for almost any reason, but if I got a chance I’d join the lawsuit anyway.

*

The head of the UK Statistics Authority, David Norgrove (Sir David Norgrove to his friends), criticized Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s use of statistics on coronavirus testing, saying they’re “still far from complete and comprehensible.”

“Statistics on testing perhaps serve two main purposes.

“The first is to help us understand the epidemic . . . showing us how many people are infected, or not, and their relevant characteristics.

“The second purpose is to help manage the test programme, to ensure there are enough tests, that they are carried out or sent where they are needed and that they are being used as effectively as possible.”

However, the aim of the statistics Hancock throws around in his briefings, he said, “seems to be to show the largest possible number of tests, even at the expense of understanding.”

*

A couple of unpublished pages of Isaac Newton’s notes are up for auction, and one of them has a remedy for the plague. It involves making toad vomit and making both the vomit and the unhappy toad itself into lozenges. 

Believe me, you don’t want to know how they got the toad to vomit. And it was a different plague, so I wouldn’t bother trying it for this one.

The pandemic update from Britain: lockdown, lunacy, and a mention of Minneapolis

A pilot flew a private plane from Surrey to an airfield belonging to the Royal Air Force. That set off an emergency response involving the Ministry of Defence and fire crews, who (I’m reading between the lines here) wanted to know what the hell he thought he was doing.

He wanted to go to the beach, he said. 

Since the airfield is in Wales, that was a breach of the lockdown rules, which are different in Wales than in England. Or it’s believed to be a breach, since the rules don’t specifically mention landing your private plane on an airforce base so you can go to the beach. 

I think I can safely say that he’ll be in trouble with multiple agencies. I’m reasonably sure that lockdown will be the least of his troubles.

To put the situation into bureaucro-speak, the police are ‘considering’ whether there were ‘potential breaches’ of coronavirus legislation. And the Civil Aviation Authority has been alerted. It will be demanding a note from his parents.

So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that Dominic Cummings was on board. And if you haven’t followed who Dominic Cummings is, just follow the handy link, which will take you to a post by that noted expert, me, which will explain all. Or enough, anyway.

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England’s contact tracing campaign continues to be a mess, with many tracers not able to log on. Some recruits have set up support groups on Facebook and WhatsApp, pooling their knowledge about what the hell they’re supposed to do, and how. One contact tracer reported (anonymously) that the app wouldn’t work with his or her microphone. Another had been working for three weeks and been asked to do nothing more than join an online training session. A third says he or she has learned to juggle with three balls. 

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Some of England and Scotland’s coronavirus testing centers aren’t matching test results to either people’s National Health Service numbers or their addresses, which means their doctors aren’t told about coronavirus patients on their caseloads and local authorities can’t track outbreaks in their areas.

Back in March, the devolved governments–that translates to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland–told Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary, that the system he was setting up had problems, and Northern Irland and Wales insisted on changes. Scotland and England went ahead. 

Wales and Northern Ireland get to play a satisfying round of I-told-you-so. 

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An NHS trial is giving Covid-19 patients blood plasma transfusions from patients who’ve recovered, and the trial’s set to expand. The hope is that the antibodies will help them fight off the disease. 

To date, it’s only been tried on patients in intensive care, but it may be more effective if it’s used earlier. Stay tuned.

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Back in April, the British government’s science advisory group noted that only half the people who came down with Covid-19 symptoms followed the government’s advice to self-isolate for fourteen days. It recommended doing some quick research to figure out what it would take to get people to follow the guidelines. 

As the lockdown eases and the government’s betting its rapidly diminishing stack of chips on testing people, tracing the contacts of anyone who tests positive, and isolating the cases they find, people actually isolating themselves becomes crucial.

Not going into isolation when you should is apparently now known as doing a Cummings. 

Some members of the science advisory group are now warning that easing the lockdown now will lead to a second wave of cases. In England, 8,000 people a day are still becoming infected, and that doesn’t count people in care homes or hospitals. That data’s collected separately and the two data sets aren’t speaking. You know how it is in some families. 

It also doesn’t count cases in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland.

One advisor, John Edmunds, said, “If you look at it internationally, it’s a very high level of incidence.”

The current R rate–the rate at which the virus spreads–is between 0.7 and 0.9. At anything above 1, the pandemic grows. At 1, it stays the same, which at a rough guess means 80 deaths a day.

John Edmunds’ colleague Jeremy Farrar tweeted, “Covid-19 spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England. Agree with John & clear science advice. TTI [test, trace and isolate] has to be in place, fully working, capable [of dealing with] any surge immediately.”

 

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England’s chief medical officer said, in a carefully worded statement, that the country’s at a very dangerous moment. It wasn’t a clear criticism of the government, but a listener could be forgiven for thinking it was.

He also said, mentioning no names, that England’s lockdown rules applied to all.

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MPs’ inboxes have been swamped by messages about Dominic Cummings, most of them critical. So what does an overwhelmed MP do? Conservative MP Anthony Mangnall gave his responses the personal touch by hitting Send before he remembered to delete the part that said, “insert if there has been a bereavement.” 

He is, he said, incredibly sorry. He remembered to delete the part of the script that said, “Don’t get caught again.”

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I don’t write much about American politics. Even though I’m American, I live in Britain. It’s not the best seat to watch the show from. But I have to go off topic and say something about what’s happening there, even though it’s happening in the wrong country and it’s not pandemic related.

I lived in Minneapolis for years, and a lot of you will know what’s happening: A few days ago, a white police officer killed an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by kneeling on his neck for seven minutes. On camera. While Floyd said, “I can’t breathe.”

What had Floyd done? Tried to buy something at a local food store. The clerk thought he’d paid with a counterfeit bill and called the police, because that was store policy. No one claims that Floyd knew it was counterfeit. At this point I don’t know if anyone cares whether it actually was.

First there were protests. Then there were riots. A CNN reporter was arrested while covering them, even after he showed  his i.d. He’s black. Yes, that’s relevant. 

Rumors are flying every which way. I can’t confirm them, so I’ll stick to what’s in the papers.

My old neighborhood’s been on fire. The post office, the library, and a whole lot stores have burned down, along with the police station where the officers involved in the killing were based.  

At a gym in another part of the city, a white man threatened to call the police on some black men because the gym was restricted to the tenants of the building and they couldn’t possibly have a right to use the same gym as he did. That was after demanding that they prove they had a right to be there. 

In Kentucky, police targeted a news crew covering a protest about a black woman who was killed by police in her own home. “Targeted” means they shot the reporter with pepper bullets. 

In Detroit, someone shot into a group of protestors from a car, killing a 19-year-old. 

In several cities, cars have driven into crowds of protestors.

I’m not using the word protestor to mean rioter.

Sorry–I’m supposed to be funny here, or to at least try. That’s the agreement we sort of made.  So to those of you who are in the U.S.: Guys, I know racism runs deep in our national DNA. If there’s such a thing as national original sin, that’s ours. But I also know that racism’s not the whole story, that there’s more to us than that. So I’m looking for you to sort this out, okay?

Don’t make me come over there.