From math to fried chicken: the news from Britain

Here we go again, cold off the press, the important stuff that’s happening in Britain:

We hear from the Ministry of Multiplication Tables

Eight- and nine-year-olds in England (as opposed to Wales or Scotland) are going to be tested on the multiplication tables. The test will itself be tested in a sampling of schools this year and then be introduced—unless, of course, it isn’t—in the whole country in 2020. In between those two dates, schools can introduce the test voluntarily, although why they’d want to is anyone’s guess.

What’s the point? That’s also anyone’s guess. (Don’t you love how neutral my reporting is?) Some standardized testing is about grading the school, some is about grading the student, and this, according to the noises being made by Nick Gibb, the school standards minister, is to “help teachers identify those pupils who require extra support.”

Because teachers don’t notice otherwise. Most only remember they have students when they get test results back. The rest of the time they think they’re talking to holograms.

Irrelevant photo: an azalea blossom. Spring is coming. Unless you’re in the southern hemisphere, in which case it isn’t. Or close to the equator, in which case (I assume) it’s as irrelevant as the photo.

Inevitably, when the good Mr. Gibb went on TV to talk about the new test, the interviewer asked him what eight times nine was. He refused to answer.

Okay, it wasn’t inevitable that the question would be eight times nine, only that someone would ask him one of the less obvious combinations.

“No eight-year-old or nine-year-old will be doing it on live television,” the Minister for Multiplication tables huffed.

Besides, the information’s classified. You want to government to give out the answers before the test is even introduced?

The government claims the tests will be designed to avoid causing additional stress for children and teachers. I haven’t been able to figure out what that “additional” is in addition to, but never mind. We’re dealing with the Minister for Multiplication Tables, not the Minister for Marvelous Writing, but if anyone wants to get in touch with either of them, you might mention that one of the Rules of Marvelous Writing is that if you’re using a comparative (bigger, better, more absurd, far more Marvelous, that kind of thing), it has no meaning unless it’s clear what you’re comparing it to—or in this case, adding it to.

You mght also want to recommend using fewer capital letters. Or was that me who tossed  in the caps?

Is anyone other than me old enough to remember cigarette ads? I’m relying on memory here, but didn’t they tell us cigarettes were smoother? Smoother than what? A cheese grater.

But back to multiplication tables: I’m an expert on not knowing them, so I’d like to testify that not learning them was stressful enough. Taking a standardized test designed not to cause me additional stress? Good luck designing that.

I can also testify that although it’s sometimes a pain in the calculator finger not to have them memorized, it’s entirely possible to get through life that way. Especially now that a carton of calculators is cheaper than a carton of cigarettes.


Then we hear from the Ministry of Procrastination

Trafford’s twelve libraries have abandoned fines for late book returns. Or maybe that’s Trafford’s thirteen libraries. It depends which article you read, so just to confuse the situation I found an online map and counted seventeen little red it’s-here symbols marking (I think) Trafford libraries. And if that doesn’t make the whole thing uncertain enough, only sixteen of them had book symbols inside. One had a circle instead. So one library lends circles, and there’s no fee for returning them late. Britain’s a strange country. I’ve lived here for eleven years and that’s only long enough for me to understand how much I don’t understand.

But we were talking about library fines, or we were trying to. If you’d stop interrupting, we’d get to the point much faster.

Starting in April, you can return your book late and not owe a penny. Which—. Gee. I hardly know what to say. Libraries and fines are so linked in my mind that they might as well have announced that they’re going out of the book-lending business. Especially since there’s that little red symbol with the circle inside.

On the other hand, getting rid of fines doesn’t mean you can build up your book collection for free. At some point (and I’m not sure anyone knows what that point it yet) a person who doesn’t return books won’t be allowed to borrow any more.

The Bookseller writes, “In a further move to encourage more people to read, the council [that’s the city government] will also provide every child whose birth is registered in the area with a library card and book start pack, after noting that ‘most learning of literacy happens in the first 11 years of a child’s life, as does the development of a person’s love of reading.’ “

For a bookish publication, that’s really sloppy writing. What does the “after” in “after noting” follow? Providing every child with a library card?


Then we don’t hear from the Ministry of Defense

A fitness tracker called Strava was publishing maps of the exercise paths its users followed. They’re called heatmaps and it was all very cool, very compare-yourself-with-the-rest-of-the-world, until somebody noticed that if you knew how to read them you could trace the exercise routes used by military personnel, not to mention the outline U.S. military bases in Syria and Iraq.

I just returned from googling Strava. Predictive text offered Strava, Strava login, Strava app, and Strava heatmaps. I followed them all and was told that no results matched my search. It was all scorched earth in Stravaland.

If you try it and you’re desperate for a result of some kind, you can delete the VA and at least get a result for Stradivarius, but good luck tracking military personnel that way.

I also googled “Strava military personnel,” hoping to find an article I could link to, just to prove to you–not to mention myself–that I’m not hallucinating. Nothing matched my search, although predictive text offered me “Strava military discount,” which had also been deleted. But I swear to you, I have a newspaper clipping about this. It’s from the January 30 Guardian. Now that I’ve squeezed the juice out of it, I’m tossing it on the recycling pile (that’s the floor to the left of and partially behind my chair). The clipping may already be rare enough to qualify as a collector’s item. If anyone wants to dig it out, you’re welcome to it, but I warn you, squadrons of researchers have been lost down there.

The story appeared in several papers. I’d like to know, in all seriousness, why none of those stories are online anymore.


Enough ministries. A music festival bans potato peelers

The Parklife music festival in Manchester is banning potato peelers. Why? Because Liam Gallagher’s playing in 2018, of course.

I’m the wrong generation to understand that without an explanation (and I’m not doing all that well with one). If the name alone doesn’t explain the decision to you, you’re the wrong generation too, but it seems Liam’s brother, Noel, broke up a band they were both in and Liam didn’t take it well. Noel’s now in a different band and at one gig someone in his band played the scissors. How? No idea. I’m guessing badly, but that’s only because I’ve never heard anyone play the scissors well.

Or at all. I do know someone who plays the spoons, if that’a any help.

In a straight-faced effort to make sense of the background, the BBC explains that “Liam has referred to his brother as a ‘potato’ on a number of occasions.” In a tweet, he invited concert-goers to “peel some spuds live on stage” and later praised someone who more or less did that.

Yeah, I know, I thought it was supposed to be about the music. I’m old. Don’t listen to me. Listen to the potato peelers.

Parklife says it’s been inundated with requests to bring in potato peelers and in response has banned them. Because they could be used as offensive weapons.

Do I believe anyone actually asked if they could bring them in? Nope. The kind of scofflaw who’d bring a potato peeler to a concert doesn’t ask permission.


Windsor finds a new neighbor

Or an old one. Archeologists have found a 5,000-year-old ceremonial gathering place within sight of Windsor Castle. It’s called a causewayed enclosure and dates back to the earliest years of farming in Britain.

Fieldwork Director John Powell said, “This is an exciting find. These are the earliest peoples who are actually settling down in the landscape and leaving their mark.”

The site’s particularly important because archeologists expect to find the complete enclosure, not just bits of it.

The enclosure was found in a quarry whose planning permission depends on allowing archeologists to have access. The same condition applied to some sewage work outside a village near us—archeologists followed the route of a new sewage line as it was being dug and found flints (not native to Cornwall), burials, and if I remember right, a house that dissolved almost as quickly as it was uncovered.

Anywhere you put a shovel into the ground in this country, you’re likely to unearth a bit of history. We haven’t found anything in our yard yet, but a pair of Roman boxing gloves showed up at Hadrian’s Wall. They date from somewhere around 120 C.E. (that’s A.D. in case you still tell time that way). Hadrian’s Wall is nowhere near Windsor Castle but it’s the same country, so I thought I’d mention it.


. . . and abandons a plan to get rid of an existing one

The borough of Windsor had a plan to clean the place up in time for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. How? By banning rough sleepers, which is what Britain calls the homeless.

Part of its “homelessness support strategy” was to fine them £100 for sleeping on the street, but they could get 50% off if they paid early. On the other hand, if they didn’t pay at all, the fine would escalate to £1,000.

What was the council going to do when they found out the homeless don’t have that kind of money–that being homeless has some mysterious connection to being broke? I’m not sure. Maybe Stage 2 was to put them in debtors’ prison.

Stage 3 was to reinstate debtors’ prisons. As part of a strategy to support debtors.

Anyway, the plan created such an uproar and the council backed down, but it still wants to ban urination and defecation in the town center. I don’t know any specifics about Windsor, but budget cuts around the country have meant that a lot public toilets have closed.

You don’t suppose there’s a connection in there somewhere, do you?

As for the wedding, the royal family is paying for it but the taxpayer will pick up the cost of security. I’m guessing it’ll be enough to keep any number of public toilets open.


Finally and most dramatically, the world ended on February 19

Okay, it didn’t actually end—not unless I’m writing this after the end of the world—but Kentucky Fried Chicken ran out of chicken and had to close 646 of its 900 outlets (so we call them stores? restaurants?). That’s pretty close to the same thing.

I’m not sure how many are still closed on February 22, the evening before the post goes live, when I’m updating this. The official count, I think, is lots.

What happened? KFC changed delivery companies. The GMB union says warned KFC the “the decision would have consequences” since the old distributor has a network of warehouses around the country and the new company has only one. “Now,” the union said—unable to stop itself—“the chickens are coming home to roost.”

It turns out that single warehouse hadn’t been licensed of inspected, and KFC said some chicken would have to be destroyed.

As a side note, GMB no longer stands for anything. The union started out in 1889 as the Gas Workers and General Union, but in the last century British unions merged with other unions, and in the last thirty years even more of the merged, and the GMB now represents a range of workers, including delivery drivers, and has abandoned every trace of its original name except the letters, which I just notice don’t stand for Gas Workers and General. Where they came from and what they once stood for is a mystery their web site doesn’t explain.

It must be another of those mysterious British things. I just love this country.

But back to our main story: What did the public do about the chicken crisis? Why, it called the police, of course.

The BBC quotes two tweets from police forces. From Tower Hamlets: “Please do not contact us about the #KFCCrisis – it is not a police matter if your favourite eatery is not serving the menu that you desire.” And from some other force—probably Manchester but I wouldn’t swear to it: “For those who contacted the Police about KFC being out of chicken … please STOP. Their website says the Prestwich store is now open if you want to follow the four police cars through the drive thru.”

If you have nothing better to do (and I clearly don’t), it’s worth browsing #KFCCrisis on Twitter. When I loooked, someone posting as Jesus Christ (I hope that doesn’t offend anyone; I’m pretty sure this isn’t the real one) wrote, “I am fully aware there is a in the UK… stop sending prayers! I’m trying to fix America and then I will get to you.” Someone else wrote, “ is in its second day and average life expectancy in the UK has gone up by 2 weeks.”

Quorn, a vegetarian meat substitute, tweeted an offer to supply KFC with some crispy Quorn nuggets. And since DHL (and to be fair, any number of other delivery companies) has a reputation for mis-delivering packages, a third tweet reads,”Have they checked DHL haven’t left the chicken with a neighbour or thrown it over the fence???”

All across the country, chickens were celebrating.