The British government conquers whatever century this is

To demonstrate that Britain’s a thoroughly modern country, the Treasury has asked the Royal Mint to create a non-fungible token, better known as an NFT or a cryptoasset.

Nothing I’ve read says whether anyone involved understands what an NFT is–I sure as hell don’t, no matter how many times people explain it to me. The closest I can come is that it’s something that doesn’t exist but that people are willing to pay money for. Sometimes large amounts of it.

Fair enough. If you can get people to part with their money for questionable stuff–well, that’s the world we live in these days. Let the buyer beware. And you can see why the government would want to get in on the act. Hell, they sold us Brexit, didn’t they?

The Treasury tweeted that “this decision shows the forward-looking approach we are determined to take towards cryptoassets in the UK.” 

That sounds almost as convincing as me claiming to be on the cutting edge of technology. Or of anything else. People who actually are on the cutting edge don’t bother mentioning it, although they do occasionally bleed a bit. Or at least, that’s my impression from back here in the cheap seats.

Irrelevant photo: A neighbor’s maple doesn’t care if there’s a fence in the way.

What non-fungible token is the government selling? We don’t know yet. Or I don’t, although as you can imagine I’m just panting after one so I can do whatever it is people do with them once they’ve parted with their money. I’ve been looking online for recipes, but whatever it is doesn’t seem to involve cooking.

Stick around. I’ll let you know all about it as soon as I figure it out.

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Britain’s other Great Leap Forward into the–

Remind me. What century is this?

Twenty-first. Thanks.

–into the twenty-first century involves appointing Michael Grade as the new chair of Ofcom, which regulates the country’s media. Grade doesn’t use Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok, all of which he’s now supposed to regulate. That makes him the obvious person for the job. He’s also a Conservative, making him an even more obvious choice. And he has heard rumors about the internet and has kids–three of them–who use all of the above, so he’s more than prepared to deal with online safety and, you know, whatever the other issues are. I’m sure some aide will get him up to speed if his kids don’t.

Or an officeful of lobbyists. They’ll know what’s needed. 

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Another recent high point in British politics involves the defense secretary getting scammed into a video call with someone he thought was the Ukrainian prime minister, Denys Shmyhal.

No, I never heard of Shmyhal either. I’m guessing the defense secretary was roughly as well informed. 

While we’re at it, do you know who Britain’s defense secretary is? Why, it’s Ben Wallace, of course. 

Sheesh. The ignorance level around here is shocking.

So Ben told the alleged prime minister that Britain was running out of anti-tank missiles to send to Ukraine. Sometime after that he got suspicious, but by then he’d given the hoaxer, who turned out to be a Russian prankster, enough to make an embarrassing clip up on YouTube.

Whether or not he knew what YouTube was before, he does now.

 

Reports from the world of libraries

Some twenty years ago, two Charles Darwin manuscripts wandered out of the Cambridge University Library, presumably with a bit of human help. They’d been taken out of storage to be photographed and, um, yeah, they somehow disappeared. The assumption was that they’d been misfiled, and I hope you’ll join me in imagining the library’s entire staff tearing the place apart in mounting levels of panic. 

Eventually, the library reported them as stolen, a worldwide appeal went out, and nothing more happened. 

The manuscripts were worth millions of pounds. Or else they’re worth that now. Take your pick. It doesn’t matter since we’re not in the market, but I do have a nice non-fungible token you could buy for considerably less. And a bridge in Brooklyn.

Anyway, twenty years passed, as they will if you give them enough time, and then in early March a pink gift bag showed up outside the head librarian’s door, along with a typed note wishing her a happy Easter. The manuscripts were inside

They’re in good condition and the librarian is in even better condition, and the area outside her door isn’t covered by CCTV. So far, we don’t know whodunnit.

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On February 6, when New Zealand celebrated Waitangi Day–that’s a national holiday which among other things closes libraries–a programming glitch meant that the doors of the Turanga Library opened up as if it was a working day, and 380 people came in, browsed, read, returned books, and did whatever else people do in a library, including borrowing 147 books using the automatic book-borrowing thingy, which also thought it was a working day. What they don’t seem to have done is steal anything. Or for that matter, damage anything. 

They did leave messages about the lack of staff on social media and somebody sent in a security guard to shoo everyone out and lock up.

 

Meanwhile, from the car world…

Police in Spain stopped a driver for zigzagging across the road and using his mobile phone–that thing you folks in the US know as a cell phone–while driving. When they asked him for identification, he showed them a card issued by the Errant Republic of Menda Lerenda and said he was a member of its sovereign diplomatic service.

To which they said, “Uh huh. If you’ll just come with us–”

He didn’t invent Menda Lerenda. It exists in the same way that a non-fungible token exists, which is to say only online.

Sorry. This non-fungible thing has turned into a kind of unplanned theme. 

The republic claims a physical existence by defining each person who buys its i.d. as an independent republic whose national territory is the place they occupy at any given moment.

That makes it, it says, a micronation, “an individual and mobile sovereignty recognised by other states capable of acting with complete independence in strict compliance with international law.” 

Uh huh. 

The driver turned out to be higher’n a kite. He was fined for a variety of offenses and ended up with nine naughty points on his driver’s license. 

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In San Francisco, the police pulled a car over for driving without headlights and found nobody inside. Then the car left, only to pull over on the other side of the intersection.

Welcome to the world of driverless cars. An outfit called Cruise is testing out what the article I read calls technology for ride-hailing purposes. I’m reasonably sure ride-hailing purposes are usually called cabs, but we’ve already established that I’m not at the bleeding edge of new technology. If they need to call a cab a ride-hailing purpose, what can I do but make twentieth-century fun of them for it? 

They’re offering free rides at night. (Here, kid, the first one’s free.) The local cab drivers all hate them. I know that without having to look for a source. I’ve been a cab driver. 

Cruise later took to both Twitter and human communication forms to explain that the thing with the lights was due to human error and that the car left because it didn’t consider the place it had stopped to be safe.

If someone Black had been driving, she or he could’ve been shot for that. 

No, I don’t think that’s funny either, but I did think it might keep things in perspective. 

The car wasn’t ticketed, and neither was the company.

*

Meanwhile, back in Britain, the best brains in government–or at least some that are still relatively unaddled by Covid–are wrestling with the issues that driverless cars present. How will the Highway Code change to accommodate them if, as proposed, they’re allowed to operate at slow speeds on jammed motorways?

Motorways? If you life in the US, you call them highways or interstates.

Well, the non-drivers will (if the proposals go through) be able to watch movies and TV on the cars’ built-in screens but they won’t be able to use their phones. (Sorry. No idea. It made sense to someone.) They’ll have to be ready to take control of the car when it tells them to–for instance, when they’re coming to an exit.

And who gets the blame if something goes wrong? If the car’s in charge, then it’s not the driver, since the driver wasn’t driving. Financially, it would be the insurance company. For dangerous driving, it would be “the company that obtained the authorisation.”

You’re welcome to unravel the bureaucracy implied in that bit of verbiage if you have nothing better to do.  Me, I’d rather vacuum the rug.

Comparative swearing and the regulation of language

I’ve lived in Britain for fourteen years, but you (or at least I) don’t stop being an outsider just because time’s passed. What I’m working toward telling you is that after all those years and in spite of heroic efforts, I still don’t know–never mind use–all Britain’s available swear words. 

Back in 2016, the Independent offered help to people like me, reporting that Ofcom, Britain’s communications regulator, interviewed 200 people about what they found offensive and then sorted the words into 3.2 categories, mild, medium, and strong, with a small subset of very strong.

If the list was published in 2016, it’s not exactly news, but I just found it and I’d bet a batch of brownies that not a lot of you will have seen it either. 

If you took that bet, you can either fax me a batch or send them as an attachment.

Irrelevant photo: I don’t remember what this one’s called. It’s a flower. It’s blue.

Ofcom isn’t necessarily recommending the words to us, just thinking through what can be used on the air when. 

It defines mild swear words as words that are okay to use around kids, so they’re not banned before 9 pm, when a great national gong sounds and all the kiddies are chased to bed lest they hear something terrible. 

The moderate words might or might not be acceptable before 9. That’s not a whole lot of guidance if you’re the person who’ll catch hell for making a provocative decision, but on the other hand it allows you all the wiggle room you could want. 

The strong words can be used only around people who stay awake after 9 pm, which some nights leaves me to provide my own damn swear words. 

What Ofcom was doing, I gather, was updating its list and checking it against the latest cultural shifts. If you want the full list, you’ll have to follow the link, but I’ll give you a few highlights:

In the mild category, I found ginger. That’s what they call redheads here, and I do know that the culture has a thing about redheads, although I don’t know why. My best guess is that it has something to do with Norman (or Anglo-Saxon–what do I know?) dominance over the Celts, who cling stubbornly to their habit of producing redheads. A culture’s dominant group always finds reasons to look down on the people they’re dominating. So ginger as an insult? Yup, there we go again.

But let’s be clear, I’m putting together two bits of information that may not want anything to do with each other. Take my explanation with a grain of salt. Or a full teaspoon.

What other insults are mild? Damn. Sod off. God. Cow. Arse. 

I’ll stop here so I can explain, for the sake of anyone who isn’t British, that the cow on that list isn’t an animal in a field that says “moo.” It’s an insult applied to a woman–especially, Lord Google tells me, one who’s stupid or unkind. It also falls into the category (I think–remember, I’m an outsider here) of mild or everyday sexism, although it’s used by both men and women.

The “I think” in that last sentence is only about the idea that it’s mild, not that it’s sexist. There’s always a way to insult you if you belong to the nondominant group.

As for arse, it’s the part of your anatomy that you sit on. Why it has an R when the one that Americans sit on is R-less and generally spelled differently I don’t know. Possibly to distinguish it from an animal that stands in a field, is able to carry burdens or pull things, and isn’t a horse, although Americans use the same word for both and for the most part know which one they’re talking about.

When I came to the medium-strength list, I started finding words I don’t recognize: bint, for example, and munter.

On the strong list, I found beef curtains, bloodclaat, flaps, punani, and clunge. The internet being what it is, I could look them all up, but I suspect I’ll enjoy them more if I don’t. And I don’t need to know. The reason I haven’t heard them isn’t because my friends don’t swear (although, now that I think about it, not many of them swear as much as I do) but because they don’t swear with these particular words. Maybe the words are falling out of use and maybe (medium range or not) they’re disgusting, so my friends are boycotting them. 

We’ll leave that as just one more mysterious thing about Britain. 

In the U.S., it’s the Federal Communications Commission that decides what’s allowed on the airwaves. Back in prehistory, I hosted a radio call-in show and we worked with a list of seven words that would break the airwaves if we said them, and before we went on the air I recited them sweetly so guests would know what to not say. 

Okay, not sweetly. I never could do sweetly and I never much wanted to. I recited an unemotional and absurd string of forbidden words. But it wasn’t an official list. The FCC never supplied us (or anyone else) with one. We were relying on comedian George Carlin’s 1972 list of seven words that you couldn’t say on TV. It didn’t have FCC approval, but it was as good as anything else. 

After a while I could only remember five. And I’m not sure they were the same five each time. I could’ve substituted a couple of random choices, but five was enough to sketch out the territory. We were working on a seven-second delay and I never had to bleep any a guest, although I did bleep a caller or three.

The FCC, like Ofcom, sorts what you can’t say into three categories, but they’re not the same three (or three point two). “Obscene content,” the FCC website says, “does not have protection by the First Amendment. [That’s the U.S. Constitutional amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech.] For content to be ruled obscene, it must meet a three-pronged test established by the Supreme Court: It must appeal to an average person’s prurient interest; depict or describe sexual conduct in a ‘patently offensive’ way; and, taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

You want to know this stuff, right?

Indecent content portrays sexual or excretory organs or activities in a way that is patently offensive but does not meet the three-prong test for obscenity.

“Profane content includes ‘grossly offensive’ language that is considered a public nuisance. . .  .”

There’s something inherently absurd about sitting down to sort this stuff into boxes, isn’t there?

Sorry. I’ll shut up and let the FCC finish.

“Broadcasting obscene content is prohibited by law at all times of the day. Indecent and profane content are prohibited on broadcast TV and radio between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.”

What we learn from this is that American kids stay up later than British kids.

But how do you figure out what word goes in which box?

“Determining what obscene, indecent and profane mean can be difficult, depending on who you talk to,” the website admits. 

“In the Supreme Court’s 1964 landmark case on obscenity and pornography, Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote: ‘I know it when I see it.’ That case still influences FCC rules today, and complaints from the public about broadcasting objectionable content drive the enforcement of those rules.”

Then they run out of the room and leave you to figure out what you’re going to do.

When I was hosting the radio show, websites didn’t exist. No one handed me FCC guidelines and I didn’t think to search them out. George Carlin was as accurate as anything that came to hand, and having read the guidelines I’d say he probably still is.

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If you’ve been around here a while, you will have figured out that I don’t offer advice on relationships, weight, or money, which are the only three things people truly want advice on. I don’t assume you’re trying to improve yourself and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t help if you were. But I’m about to give you one bit of advice on a topic that no one asks about: swearing. Here it is: Don’t use swear words you don’t understand. It won’t end well. 

If you have to look one up, if you can’t hear all its echoes and implications, you don’t understand it.

In fact–more advice coming–don’t use non-swear words you don’t understand. A philosophy professor once told me about a student paper that read, “When we consider the obesity of the universe, we know there must be a god.”

You won’t find me calling anyone a clunge. I’m not even sure it’s a noun.