Does Exeter Cathedral have the world’s oldest cat flap?

I can’t prove that Exeter Cathedral has the world’s oldest cat flap–no one seems to collect worldwide data on cat flaps–but it has one that was built sometime between 1598 and 1621. Or if not built, cut, since the hole doesn’t actually have a covering.

How authoritative are those dates? Dunno. Multiple sources use the same dates, but they could all quoting each other. Still, the door that the hole was cut in looks old enough to convince me, so let’s go with it.

The cat flap was to allow the cathedral cat (not the one in the picture, you understand) to get into the cathedral clock and catch the mice and rats drawn there by the animal fat that greased the clock’s workings. This may be the origin of the nursery rhyme “Hickory, dickory, dock/The mouse ran up the clock.”

Absolutely and completely relevant photo: The Exeter Cathedral cat door–with cat demonstrating that it’s still in working order.

The cathedral kept a series of cats on the payroll in the medieval era, spending 13 pence a quarter on each one in turn, which doubled for a few years in the fourteenth century. Maybe they had to add a second cat when the first one was overwhelmed. Maybe the first one took on an apprentice or insisted on a friend staying for a lifetime’s worth of suppers. The evidence is scant but tantalizing.

 

Want to buy Evelyn Waugh’s old house? 

From there, let’s go to the news: If you were in the market for an eight-bedroom, six-bathroom mansion, you’re too late to bid on the one Evelyn Waugh once owned. (He’s the guy who wrote Brideshead Revisited.) It came with a few small snags that looked like they’d keep the price down.

The asking price was £2.5 million, and yes, that’s down. In 2019, it sold for £2.9 million, and I’ll drop a hint here for the mathematically impaired: That’s more than this year’s asking price. The 2019 buyer was  a company controlled by a former BBC executive, Jason Blain, and it financed the deal with a £2.1 million bank loan, but the bank lost its sense of humor when the company that bought the mansion defaulted on the loan. 

To be fair to the BBC, Blain has also worked for Sony Entertainment. He seems to have a history with, um, I guess you’d say payment problems. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel took him to court when he paid only (only!) £508,500 of the £1.24 million he owed for an eight-month stay. The penthouse he was renting went for £4,725 a night, and his bill included £30,110 for valet parking and £25,497 for room service. 

I’ve seen enough movies to vaguely imagine how a person could rack up that kind of a bill on room service, but valet parking? Where were they parking that car? In a neighboring country? 

Never mind. Let’s talk about the sale’s snags instead. At some point after the 2019 sale, the mansion was rented to someone or other for £250 per year (I’d love to know the story there; all I’ve read is that they call themselves “Evelyn Waugh superfans”), and whoever they are, they’re refusing to leave and won’t let anyone in–no buyers, no real estate agents, and no photographers, so we won’t be able to go online and poke our snoopy old noses into the virtual rooms to see what we couldn’t have bought anyway. 

As the auctioneers explained the situation,  ““The property is occupied under a Common Law Tenancy at a rent of £250 per annum. A notice to quit was served on the occupant on 19 August 2022 and a copy of such notice was affixed to the property gate on 22 August 2022. Prospective purchasers should take their own legal advice regarding this and will be deemed to bid accordingly.”

I believe that means, “Don’t blame us when it all goes wrong.”

When the place was auctioned off, it sold for a mere £2.16 million. The occupants are still refusing the leave.

 

How much can you manage to spend on a train ticket?

British trains are expensive–complaining about the impenetrable pricing structure is a recognized indoor sport–but I can’t account for how much one passenger managed to spend.

The passenger was a drag queen who was booked for a private performance in Bangor but who lived in London. To be clear, that’s the Bangor in Wales, not the one in Maine. It would cost more to get from London to Bangor, Maine, but you’d need something more than a train ticket.

But back to business: She did what anyone would do and booked a train ticket–a first class ticket, which isn’t what anyone would do, but who could resist? I can only assume the client was paying but it’s not like I know that. It was supposed to include a Christmas dinner, even though this was well before Christmas. The British don’t believe in confining Christmas dinner to Christmas day. Christmas dinner, like the wine that was supposed to come with it, is a liquid, and it leaks into the surrounding month. The ticket cost £589

How could the ticket cost that much? It wouldn’t have been easy. After I’d stashed my credit card safely in the other room, I went online to see how far I could push up the cost of a similar ticket. A last-minute (you pay a lot more for a last-minute ticket) round trip came to £153.40. That doesn’t seem to have been first class, although I tried to upgrade myself in two different ways, and nothing mentioned Christmas dinner. Maybe I lack imagination, but I couldn’t get close to £589. 

Never mind. She paid a shitload of money for her ticket. I paid nothing for mine, but then I didn’t go anywhere.

On the way out, first class service was canceled and she was decanted into the ordinary cars. On the way back, the whole train was canceled, but not until two minutes after it was due to leave. 

She took to Twitter, which did at least shake loose a response from the train company, Avanti West Coast. It said, “We’re sorry to hear about this customer’s experience and we’re happy to look into their complaint. . . Our new timetable is based on a robust and sustainable roster for our people without reliance on overtime . . . ” and so forth, for at least two paragraphs of blither.

Merry Christmas. Would you like a side of cranberry sauce with that?

 

Could artificial intelligence write that?

I’ve been reading a lot lately about whether artificial intelligence is ready to replace writers. A new chatbot is–they say–impressing people with how fluent it is. Fluent enough that a Guardian columnist had it write the opening of his column and it produced a credible if boring paragraph. 

Academics report that it can give correct answers to questions they ask their students.  

It has certain limitations, as the columnist (once he took over for the chatbot) pointed out. It can’t see why a kilo of beef doesn’t weigh more than a kilo or compressed air or why crushed glass shouldn’t be a health supplement. It reproduces the biases of its human trainers and makes up facts, but then humans do the same things–more of them every day, it seems–so maybe it shouldn’t lose points for that. 

Humans, though, will bump up against the real world periodically, and that will give them a chance to correct some of their bullshit. Or we can hope it will. Mentioning no names, but I’m still waiting.

As time goes on, the chatbot will probably make fewer ground glass-type errors, but the bias it inherits from its humans is likely to continue. I also wouldn’t look for its prose to lift off the page and make us smile, and I wouldn’t expect creativity. Still, it could have written Avanti’s response to the passenger’s complaint as effectively as the human who (presumably) wrote it. Or more so, since it wouldn’t be bothered by any residual sense of shame. 

 

What about those pesky humans, though?

Humans, it turns out, are more likely to send hate-tweets when the weather turns nasty. The best available explanation is that we’re at our nicest, or at least our least horrible, when the temperature’s between 54 F (that’s 12 C) and 70 F (21 C). Outside of that, we get crabby.

The study tracked 75 million tweets from 773 US cities and found that the pattern held even in high-income areas, where people would be at least somewhat insulated from heat and cold. It couldn’t trace the demographics of hate tweeters but it could trace their targets: primarily members of the Black, Latino, and LGBTQetc. communities. 

Women aren’t on the target list. (Are women a community? Is any demographic group?) I’m not sure if that indicates a hole in the study’s design or a startling sociological insight. Seventy-five years of life experience (admittedly, I didn’t spend all of it on Twitter) says it’s a flaw in the study’s design.

The study–or at least the article on it–didn’t mention rain, snow, or other storms.

 

Your feel-good story for the week

A girl named Madeline (age not specified) sent a letter to her county government saying, “Dear LA County, I would like your approval if I can have a unicorn in my backyard if I can find one.”

The letter found its way to the department of animal care and control, and its director (or someone else on her behalf) sent Madeline a metal tag stamped “Permanent Unicorn License,” along with a fuzzy unicorn–white with pink ears, purple hooves, and a silver horn. The country did set some conditions though: Any sparkles or glitter sprinkled on the animal have to be nontoxic and biodegradable and the unicorn has be fed watermelon at least once a week.