Just when we thought American isolationism was over . . .

The Americas are moving away from Africa and Europe at the heart-stopping speed of four centimeters a year. If you plan to row the Atlantic, do it now. Your trip’s only going to get longer. 

I couldn’t find any parallel mention of either the Pacific or some continents getting smaller, but systems have only so much give in them, and what’s gained in one place has to show up as a loss somewhere else. What I’m saying is that if that old pair of jeans suddenly fits again, the credit may not go to your new diet, it’s more likely to go to the Atlantic Ocean. 

 

Zoom news

You’ve probably seen this already (and if you haven’t, you may be the only person on the planet keeping that category open), but that’s not going to stop me from telling you about it: A lawyer in Texas appeared in court, via Zoom, to to argue a case while disguised as a cat

Actually, a kitten. If you play the video–and if you haven’t, you really should–you can see his little kitten mouth explaining to the judge, as we all have to at some point in our lives, that he’s not a cat.

“I can see that,” the judge said soberly, although what he was seeing was that the lawyer was in fact a cat. Which proves that witnesses are expected to tell the truth but judges don’t have to. And that we can’t always believe the evidence of our own lyin’ eyes. 

Also that the English language uses the word see loosely.

A rare relevant photo: This is Fast Eddie. He is a cat–on Zoom, off Zoom, in any and all situations. He is also, it’s worth noting, not a lawyer. But he is slightly out of focus. It’s not his fault. 

I don’t know if any of this will give the defendant grounds to appeal, but some inventive lawyer could have a wonderful time with it. 

The lawyer’s not the only person who’s been trapped by Zoom filters since the pandemic forced many odd things to go online. Lizet Ocampo, the political director of People for the American Way, appeared at a work meeting as a potato and couldn’t un-potato herself. 

“As a progressive organization, we fight for justice for all and access to opportunities, and in the last three-plus years, it’s been a little tough,” she said (irrelevantly) after one someone in the meeting took a screenshot and put it on social media. “I just kind of gave up and stayed as a potato for the rest of the call.”

What makes her comment relevant is that an organization that fights for justice should recognize the importance of its directors understanding–at first hand if possible–how hard it is for potatoes to get taken seriously. Ocampo, I trust, now has a visceral understanding of the problem. 

Congressman Emmer, from Minnesota, appeared at a Congressional hearing upside down, with his head disconnected from any recognizable body part, pretty much stopping any sort of sensible discussion. Contributions included, “Is this a metaphor?” “At least you’re not a cat,” and “You could stand on your head.”

 

Food news

Which brings us neatly to our next topic: Scientists have engineered spinach plants to send emails. 

What, you ask, does a spinach plant have to say and why would it want to say it to us, not to another spinach plant? Well, at the moment, the plant doesn’t get to choose. The email will say that the plant found nitroaromatics in the groundwater and the email will go to the scientists. 

Nitroaromatics in groundwater are a sign that explosives might be nearby, and their presence triggers the plant to send a signal, which an infrared camera picks up. Then the camera sends the email. 

Think of the camera as the spinach plant’s office assistant.

We’ve reached a point where no one thinks it’s strange that a camera sends an email, right? Or that your toaster has opinions about your Facebook posts?

What this means, sadly, is that no one wants the spinach plant’s opinion, it’s just a conduit for information that scientists want. 

“Plants are very good analytical chemists,” said Professor Michael Strano, who led the research. “They have an extensive root network in the soil, are constantly sampling groundwater, and have a way to self-power the transport of that water up into the leaves.”

They could, potentially, be set up to send emails related to climate change. 

When I walked past my spinach plants yesterday, I heard them whisper, “We feel so used.” 

I gave them Ocampo’s email address.

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I don’t know why anyone should believe me on this next item, since I can’t prove it by embedding a link. I’m taking my information from a Twitter ad, which if the culprits have any sense will have been taken down by now, but the makers of Weetabix teamed up with Heinz Corp. and advertised–

Okay, you know how British foodies are trying to rehabilitate the reputation of British food? No? Never mind. They are. And it’s important to them, so the rest of us can just play nice, please, and not do what Weetabix and Heinz have done, which was a very unpleasant playground trick involving dry Weetabix and baked beans. Or more specifically, Weetabix with baked beans poured over them. And offered to the world as something to eat. 

Voluntarily.

What is or are Weetabix? Allegedly, a breakfast cereal, although I have tried the stuff and wasn’t convinced. It (I ate less than one, so let’s commit ourselves to the singular) is wheatish and shaped like a raft with rounded corners. Or like a dish sponge. Dry, it tastes like straw. Wet, it tastes like bread that you soaked overnight in lukewarm water. 

Yes, I know: Someone out there loves it/them. Possibly even you. And I respect that, although you’re making a terrible mistake, possibly even wasting the part of your life that you spend eating breakfast. But hey, who am I to judge?

Someone with a blog and no editor to keep me from writing myself over a cliff edge, that’s who. 

But if I go so far as to admit that I could be wrong about Weetabix (and I’m fairly sure I haven’t), I think even people who like Weetabix, or who at least respect them, will admit that pairing them up with baked beans is one of those errors in judgement that comes from being in lockdown too long. 

If you’re good with technology, you might be able to find the ad and turn it into a Zoom filter, then appear at your next job interview as baked beans on Weetabix. The way the job market is these days, how good were your chances anyway?

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The History of Parliament blog called my attention to a new electronic tool that lets researchers (along with any fool who stumbles in after them) search parliamentary debates and find out how many times a word like, say, Brexit shows up. So someone’s used it to search for all mentions of the word cucumber

Come on, someone had to do it. Let’s be glad they just went ahead and got it over with.

The news–and I know this will surprise you–is that it doesn’t come up often. Even in a debate about the Tomatoes and Cucumbers Marketing Board in 1950.

No, I can’t make this stuff up. I’m too earthbound.

I may be misreading this, but the introductory paragraph seems to say that the word’s never been used but later on the post produces an example of when it was used: in December 4, 1656, right in the midst of Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate. We don’t think of that as a particularly funny time, but during a debate about the rights and privileges of the burghs (don’t ask, because what’s important here is the cucumber), the discussion got increasingly convoluted and MP Philip Jones compared it “to the dressing of a cucumber. First pare, and order, and dress it, and throw it out of the window.”

Reword that and you’d get a laugh. It’s all in the delivery. 

 

Archeology

A four-year-old walking the beach with her parents spotted a dinosaur footprint. It’s 220 million years old and was preserved in the mud. No one’s sure what kind of dinosaur left it but it would’ve been small and walked on two legs.

It was on a beach called the Bendricks, in Wales, which the South Wales group of the Geologists’ Association called “the best site in Britain for dinosaur tracks of the Triassic Period.

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A couple of prehistoric teeth found in Jersey may be evidence that modern humans didn’t displace Neanderthals but merged with them. The teeth come from two different people and combine features of both modern humans and Neanderthals, suggesting that the blend was common in the population. Modern humans and Neanderthals overlapped by 5,000 years, which is a long enough time to get acquainted, even outside of speed-dating situations.

Hope, despair, passwords, and racism: It’s the news from Britain

You know all those passwords that The People Who Know These Things tell you never to write down but that you write down anyway because those same people also tell you to use a different one for every damn thing and who can remember all that mess? Well, an Irish drug dealer lost £46 million in bitcoins in spite of writing down the code for his stash. But because it’s a dangerous world out there–something any upstanding drug dealer should be aware of–he hid the code in the cap of his fishing rod case. 

I mean, of course you shouldn’t write it down, but what could be safer than that?

Nothing until he got busted with some two thousand euros worth of pot in his car, got sentenced to five years in jail, and somehow in the middle of all this didn’t think to ask anyone to save his fishing rod case because it had great sentimental value. So his landlord cleared his house out and had everything hauled to the dump. Which sent it to either Germany or China, where it was incinerated. 

Not all that £46 million came from drugs. He bought the bitcoins when they were worth £5. Then they went up to £7,500. Each.

He had other accounts, and the Irish state confiscated them, but without the code they haven’t been able to claim this one. And there’s a lesson in there, although I’m not sure what it is or who’s supposed to learn it.

And yes, I do know that Ireland’s not Britain. We share a stretch of water, though, as the Irish know all too well. And anyway, I cheat.

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Entirely relevant photo, although it won’t be clear why yet. This is Moose, a snub-nosed dog who snores when he’s awake. Keep reading. It’ll all make sense eventually.

After that, we need a feel-good story: In February, a book-lover responded to the suicide of TV presenter Caroline Flack by contacting the Big Green Bookshop–an independent with an online presence–and offering to buy two copies of Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive, a memoir about coping with depression, for people who needed them.

The store’s owner already ran a buy-a-stranger-a-book club and tweeted the offer, saying he’d “try to cover any others that are requested.” He got thousands of requests, along with donations ranging from £1 to over £100. In mid-February, the donations had mounted up to £6,000 and he’d sent out 600 books. 

“This book has made such a difference,” he said. “Lots of people have said it saved their lives. And this is not just about people getting the book, it’s about how they’re getting it.”

Okay, I can’t help myself: If you want to donate to the buy-a-stranger-a-book club, here’s the link.

A branch of Blackwell’s Bookshop is doing something similar.

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And a feel-sexy story: A hormone in chocolate could (note the get-out-of-jail-free quality of that word) boost men’s sex drive. How? By making women smell or look more attractive to them. 

Smell or look? Either/or, not both/and? Sorry, I don’t make the rules. 

Would it make men look or smell more attractive to either men who are attracted to men or to women who are attracted to men? 

Sorry, that wasn’t part of the study.

Would it make women look or smell more attractive to women who are etc.? 

Not part of the study. The trial involved straight men. I’m going to take a wild and irresponsible guess and say that’s where the money is when you’re developing drugs for a low sex drive. Or else the folks running it lack imagination.

The hormone’s called kisspeptin. Results are not guaranteed, but if it doesn’t work at least you got to eat some chocolate.

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I’m not sure how this one will make you feel. I’m not even sure how it makes me feel. Depression is at war with amusement. Who’d’ve thought you could feel both at once? 

After Dominic Cummings–our prime minister’s brain–called for “misfits and weirdos” to apply for jobs in his office, someone who calls himself a super forecaster was hired. Andrew Sabisky became a contractor working on “specific projects,” although last time I checked no one would say what those projects were. So at least we know they didn’t just send him into an office and say, “Work on everything, why don’t you?”

So far so ho-hum. Then someone dug out what our little forecaster had to say about life, the universe, and everything. It turns out that before he started working on specific projects he published work arguing that people who look like him are smarter, thanks to their genes, than people who don’t, and that people from backgrounds like his are more conscientious and agreeable (those aren’t my adjectives) than people who–gasp, wheeze–depend on long-term government support. He favors enforced birth control, starting at puberty. I’m not clear who that’s supposed to be enforced on, but I expect he’d make exceptions for people like him since they produce children who turn out to be so very much like him. 

I’m loading the dice here, but only slightly. By way of unloading them: Nowhere did he mention his own looks (he looks like a bar of soap, and if I were a better person I wouldn’t hold that against him) or his background. And when he wrote about intelligence, he wasn’t talking about every variation of people who don’t look like him, only people of African origin. He based his argument on a study that’s been discredited for systematically excluding high-IQ people of African origin from its study group. Amazingly enough, its sample group had low IQs.

And that’s without going to get into what IQ actually measures and how much more complicated the genetics of intelligence are than, say, the short and tall pea plants that Mendel measured.

Sabisky also believes in the existence of race, although scientists have given up on the concept of human races. It just doesn’t work. 

So once all that became public, all hell broke loose and Sabisky resigned. I’m not the only person who’s noticed that our little super forecaster hadn’t seen any of this coming.

Last I checked, it wasn’t clear who’d hired Sabisky, how far anyone had looked into his background before hiring him, whether he had a security clearance, or whether either our prime minister or his brain agrees with his views.

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The Sabisky fiasco, however, did set journalists digging into Dominic Cummings’ writings and they found a blog post (watch what you write on your blogs, people) that argues in favor of selecting embryos for intelligence. 

Does he plan to give the embryos itty bitty prenatal intelligence tests? Well, no. He figures that first someone will figure out what genes control intelligence (so far, what they know is that at a minimum it’s complicated and that it’s probably more complicated than that) and second that embryos can be screened for those genes and third that the best ones can be selected. The rest, presumably, will get tossed into the garbage can of history and the human race will get smarter and smarter. Unless this works out the way breeding dogs for specific qualities has, in which case the human race will get stranger and stranger and have shorter and shorter noses and snore a lot. 

We have two shih tzus (see above for one of them). That’s where I did my research.

David Curtis, editor-in-chief of Annals of Human Genetics, said Cummings “fundamentally misunderstands key concepts in genetics. . . . He seems to have got his ideas from a physicist rather than . . . genetics researchers.” 

“Got”? That’s British for “gotten.”

Richard Ashcroft, a professor of bioethics, called it “cargo cult science.”

If you don’t recognize the phrase cargo cult, it’s not a compliment.

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For reasons I can’t explain, the only story that could possibly follow that is one about tattoos: The actor Orlando Bloom got his son’s name–Flynn–tattooed on his arm in morse code. Then he put it on Instagram, because if it’s not on Instagram it didn’t happen.

If your arm isn’t on Instagram, you don’t have an arm.

Someone pointed out that the tattoo spelled Frynn. 

The tattooist corrected the spelling and added Bloom’s former dog’s name as a bonus. 

Former dog? That’s what the article said. Presumably, it (or he, or she) got a promotion and is now a cat. Whatever it currently is, the creature’s name was and still is Sidi. 

And with that out of the way, what else can we do but review the tattoos of other people who’ve publicly screwed them up? Ariana Grande tried to get lyrics from one of her songs tattooed on her arm in Japanese. It ended up saying “small charcoal grill.” The BBC interviewed a tattooist who admitted to having tattooed “serenitiy” on someone’s face. If you’re not a skilled proofreader, there’s an extra i tucked away in there, probably riding the cheekbone. The person the face belongs to is unnamed, but since it’s on his face I’d still call that public. 

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A daredevil died trying to prove the earth is flat. “Mad” Mike Hughes aimed a home-made rocket straight up, hoping to get 5,000 feet above the earth. Exactly what he planned to do once he was up there I don’t know–presumably it wasn’t go into orbit–but something went wrong and the whole thing came back down. 

I’d love to know how he figured the sun rises and sets and all the rest of that stuff in the sky moves around. Maybe we have to go back to the earth being at the center of the universe. 

Anyway, I think we can all agree that he proved gravity works.

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The excavation of a cave in Kurdistan shows that Neanderthals buried their dead–possibly with flowers, although that last part is still controversial. The burial is some 70,000 years old and the flower pollen was found in the soil by the body, along with mineralized plant remains. 

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And finally, some good news from a place with precious little of it: The Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos was built for 3,000 people and now holds 20,000. The toilets are overflowing, bags of rubbish lie uncollected, and people are trapped there by the Greek government’s refusal to move refugees to the mainland and by other E.U. countries’ refusal to accept any serious number of refugees. The water supply is uncertain and cold. People live in tents and spend hours waiting for food. Nights are cold.

And yet: A refugee named Zekria started a library and a school there. 

Zekria used to teach law in Kabul, and when the schools that charities run had no room for his kids, he started his own school. Before long, he had more students than he could handle and built up a team. They turn no one away, even if it means that some classes are huge. 

They have three classrooms, thirty teachers, and a thousand students. Classes include English, Greek, German, French, guitar, and art. 

The library is next door. Most of the books have been donated by aid workers.

Moria is better known for fires, violence, rape, murder, and desperate overcrowding. The world’s turned its back on the people trapped there, and Zekria’s asylum application has been turned down more than once. Presumably because he’s not the sort of person you’d want in your country.

And yet.