What not to do on Twitter, and other news from Britain

Never underestimate the power of Boris Johnson’s government to get things wrong. It sent a message of congratulations to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and after it was posted on Twitter some wiseacre adjusted the color (don’t ask me–I’m electronically challenged) and noticed that Trump’s name had been replaced with Biden’s but was still lingering. Talk about you metaphors. The words second term had also been ineffectively deleted. 

Downing Street is harumphing about of course having had two messages ready to go, but why they couldn’t be bothered to have two separate messages instead of sending the president-elect a stained hand-me-down is a mystery we may never solve. 

Downing Street’s believed to be reluctant in its congratulations. Biden’s win complicates Johnson’s Brexit calculations–although saying that Johnson calculates is probably naive. Or just plain silly. Either way, the day after the election was called for Biden, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was asked if he agreed with the statement that every vote should be counted in a democratic election and he managed not to commit himself.

Too controversial. 

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Irrelevant photo: Crocuses, to remind those of us in the northern hemisphere that spring will come. These bloomed in February.

Some p.r. genius at the Royal Dutch Shell–the oil company–ran a Twitter poll asking, “What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions? #EnergyDebate.” The choices were “offset emissions, stop flying, buy electric vehicle, renewable energy.” 

That last choice is missing a verb. Was it supposed to be “use renewable energy”? “Marginalize renewable energy”? “Crochet renewable energy”? 

Never mind. Back when I had a use in the real world, I was an editor. It left me unfit to wander the internet. Nobody, as far as I’ve found, picked up on that oddity in the question. They focused on the more important point: Here was an oil giant saying (in its follow-up tweet) that everybody had to do their part–as in, hey, don’t look at us. What are you doing to get us out of this mess?

Editor or not, I do mix the singular (everybody) with the plural (their). The alternative is to follow the logic of English grammar and assume 100% of the world population is male. But the mixture’s theirs in this case.

Never mind. Let’s talk about the response Shell got: 

Stanley with no last name wrote, “I commit to never buying Shell gasoline.” 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote, “I’m willing to hold you accountable for lying about climate change for 30 years when you secretly knew the entire time that fossil fuel emissions would destroy our planet.”

Scott Dooley wrote, “I’m willing to stop spilling 1,926 barrels of oil in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. Will you match me?”

Greta Thunberg wrote, “I don’t know about you, but I sure am willing to call-out-the-fossil-fuel-companies-for-knowingly-destroying-future-living-conditions-for-countless-generations-for profit-and-then-trying-to-distract-people-and-prevent-real-systemic-change-through-endless greenwash-campaigns.” 

Daniel Nima Moattar posted a headline about Shell fueling violence in Nigeria by paying rival militant gangs and wrote, “Driving slower, shopping less, maybe cutting back on paramilitaries.”

Alexandria Villasenor got in what should be the last word but probably wasn’t: “This won’t age well.”

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In another Twitter success story, Eric Trump tweeted, “Minnesota get out and vote!!!”

Unfortunately, it was a week after the election.

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Enough social media. Ever wonder why Britain’s standing stones ended up where they did instead of in fifteen other spots? 

I didn’t either, but archeologists do, and some of them have come up with an answer for one set, the Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis, in the Hebrides. They found a star-shaped pattern left by a lightning strike. It’s some 20 meters across and now buried in a peat bog that formed 3,000 years ago. A hidden stone circle lies under the peat with it. One theory is that the stone circle was built in response to what must have been a massive event at the time. 

The buried circle’s older than the peat bog and older than Stonehenge. 

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The Department for International Trade is frantically trying to get trade agreements into Parliament in time for them to be approved before the Brexit bell tolls midnight, Boris’s shoe falls off, and the better-than-ever Brexit trade deals we were going to negotiate turn into pumpkins, which at this time of year have been sitting outside too long and been nibbled by squirrels.  

Have you ever wondered why everything in Cinderella’s life turned back to what it had been before it was enchanted except that lone, uncomfortable shoe the prince picked up? 

I’m off the topic, aren’t I?

The idea is to approve a bunch of agreements that would let Britain continue trading with various non-European Union countries on the same terms as when it was part of the EU. If they don’t get approved, trade will default to the less advantageous World Trade Organization terms. The hitch is that international treaties have to sit around parliament for 21 days before they can be approved, but parliament’s going home for the holidays on December 17, which means that the bell doesn’t toll on January 1, when the Brexit transition period ends, it tolls on Thursday of this week. And it tolls for thee. 

Or for them. Or for all of us who live here.

Talks with fifteen countries are still incomplete. Representatives of other countries (sorry, I don’t know how many) say no talks have been conducted at all. The shadow international trade secretary said, ““Not a single additional continuity agreement was secured in the first eight months of 2020.” She mentioned the by now much overworked word shambles. And I’d love to tell you what that additional is in addition too, but I don’t know. 

A Department for International Trade spokesperson, however, said, “We are considering all possible options to maintain continuity of existing trade terms. It is misleading to say there’s a hard deadline on this.”

If you’ll allow me to translate that, it means, “Oh shit. How many days do you get in 21?”

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A study of seagulls has established that they can tell time and that they know the days of the week.

Sort of. They know what time schoolkids will be out in the playground and dropping food. When it’s almost time, they perch on surrounding roofs. When the bell rings, they get to work. And they not only know what times the dumps, fish processing plants, and markets put out their best wares, they somehow know not to show up at the dump on weekends.

A cynical person might say they’re smarter than the Department for International Trade, and I did see one on the neighbor’s roof holding a man’s black dress shoe. It mumbled something about, “What does he think I want with this?” Then if dropped the shoe and flew off to the nearest school playground. 

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Since we’re talking about birds, New Zealand is once again voting for its favorite native bird, and there’ve been accusations of vote rigging: 1,500 fraudulent votes for the kiwi pukupuku–the little spotted kiwi–were discovered and they all traced back to a single IP address. 

They’ve been deleted and calm and fair play have been restored, but the bird of the year election is a big thing in New Zealand and passions run high. An adult toy store is campaigning for the hihi on the grounds that it practices consensual polyamory and that the males have, proportionate to the bird’s size, the largest testicles of any bird in the world. 

Want to guess whether it’s a male or a female running that store?

The winner hasn’t been announced yet, but in 2018, the winner was the kereru, known for getting so drunk on fermented fruit that it falls out of trees. 

 

News from Britain: brawls, bugs, and Brexit

A brawl broke out on a cruise ship when–well, that’s where it gets murky and we haven’t even finished the first sentence. Let’s start with what we do know. Or think we know:

The fight happened so early in the morning that it was still late at night, in the ship’s restaurant (or buffet, as most of the articles put it), after a day of “patriotic partying,” whatever the hell that is, and an evening black-tie event. By this time, everyone involved was probably well lubricated. What the papers establish is that a lot of alcohol had been transferred from the bottles into the passengers but they don’t say which individual passengers it was transferred into. 

The people involved in the fight used plates and furniture as weapons. Passengers who weren’t involved described the fight as being between family groups. Is this what U.S. anti-gay campaigners have in mind when they talk about “family values”? I was never clear on whose family they were thinking of.

Six people were injured and reports say blood was everywhere. 

How much blood? How big an area is everywhere? What values did the families have? Dunno, duuno, and dunno.

Irrelevant photo: North Cornwall cliffs.

It all started, according to a witness, when a passenger became upset that another passenger was wearing a clown suit. He’d specifically booked a cruise with no fancy dress events. 

A fancy dress party is British for a costume party, and they’re endemic in Britain. The whole thing about dressing up says something profound about the British culture, or its psyche, or its something, although I’m damned if I know what. I’d welcome explanations, however far fetched.

If the story sounds strange, it gets stranger: The cruise line, P&O, swears that there was no clown on board and no one was wearing fancy dress. 

The people who were suspected of being behind the incident were confined to a cabin for the last day of the cruise.

With no dessert.

Two people have been arrested, a man and a woman. They’ve also been released but when they were last in the news they were still under investigation.

In the meantime, no one seems to be investigating this whole business about the clown, which borders on criminal irresponsibility.

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Since we’re talking about transportation, a horse wandered onto an unstaffed train station at Tyne and Wear, which has something to do with Newcastle, but we don’t really need to know that. What mattered is that the horse wandered in and passenger helped it wander out, leading it to a nearby field that everyone agreed–possibly based on evidence and possibly based on convenience–was exactly the field it had come from.

The company that runs the trains issued a statement saying almost nothing, but it did mention that trains had been warned about the incident. I’d like to think the trains’ drivers were also warned. The real message was that there’s nothing dangerous about leaving a station without staff and everyone could sleep safe in their beds and not have nightmares about horses. 

What can we learn from this? That trains in Britain have drivers while trains in the U.S. have engineers. They do the same job.

Also that horses get bored. And lonely.

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Reports in August said that Britons had spent £4 billion stockpiling things in case Brexit brings shortages. One in five people had gathered up £380 worth of food, medicine, and–yes, of course–drinks, because if you’re going to face shortages you want to at least be able to get shitfaced. Some 800,000 people are sitting on a hoard worth £1,000 or more. Luxury car imports are up 16% compared to a year ago, so presumably the super-rich are stockpiling luxury cars in case the import taxes go up. Because hey, you’ve got to watch every penny when you’re buying luxury cars.

People are also stockpiling toilet paper, but I don’t know how much they’ve spent on it or how many days’ worth they consider safe. It does all tell us what people consider important.

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A study published in the British Medical Journal reports that washing the dishes can help you live longer. Not because it’ll keep your partner from killing you (it may, but they don’t seem to have factored that in) but because light exercise–taking out the trash, crawling under the bed to locate that lost shoe–keeps you alive longer. Less conveniently for your partner, so will walk around the block. And tickling a nerve near your ear with a low-level electrical charge might as well.

Okay, full disclosure: That last study indicates it might improve your mood and help you sleep and age better. It didn’t actually say you’d live longer.

Optimism also helps you live longer–11% to 15% longer according to a recent study (sorry–I lost the link). On the other hand, a really good chocolate cake might do the same thing. I haven’t found any data to say it won’t.

I also haven’t looked for any.

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Salford City Council has dropped a ban on public swearing in Salford Quays. It was imposed three years ago and never enforced, but if it had been and if you’d been at the wrong end of it, you could have been out as much as £1,000.

With a mouth like mine, it could have been an expensive place to visit. 

In 2017, Rochdale City Council banned skateboarding, swearing, and begging in the town center. Violators could be fined, again, up to £1,000–which makes perfect sense when you’re dealing with someone begging on the street. 

The swearing ban was dropped as unenforceable later in the year. The rest, as far as I can tell, is still in force. 

In 2015, Chester banned sleeping on the street, feeding birds, and unlicensed busking, which is British for making music in public and leaving your guitar case open for people to drop money into. When all hell broke loose (and protesters marched in their pajamas), the council backed off those parts of the ban but kept the ones on urinating in public, drinking in public, and using legal highs. (That’s not a typo. They were talking about the legal ones.)  

I’m not a big fan of public peeing, but it might be more effective to just make some toilets available. Although that costs money. Welcome to austerity Britain. If you need to pee, that’s your problem.  

All the bans were introduced as Public Spaces Protection Orders. 

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Protesters in France spent some time recently going into town halls, politely taking down the president’s portrait, and leaving with it. They’re pointing up President Macron’s inaction on climate change, despite his stance as a world leader on the issue. They recently held a march where they carried the portraits they’d taken–upside down. 

I wish I could explain why I find that so funny. I suspect it has something to do with how perfectly beside the point taking down the portraits is. 

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A new study of seagulls reports that going eyeball to eyeball with them when they’re trying to steal your chips (a.k.a. french fries) will make them back down. Of course, no sooner did someone send out a press release on the study than every TV station in the country sent a reporter to the nearest beach to interview whatever humans were available. One that I watched asked them to recreate the experiment, and it was a disaster, especially when the humans were faced with more gulls than they had eyeballs, or when the gulls swooped in from behind, where (inconveniently) humans lack eyeballs.

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The City of London (which is not to be confused with the city, small C, of London, of which the City, large C, is one small and expensive part) is tightening regulations on new skyscrapers. Existing ones have created winds that a cyclists’ organization says are strong enough to knock over pedestrians and push bike riders sideways, possibly into the paths of cars.

One building, called the Walkie-Talkie because of its shape, concentrated the sun’s rays strongly enough to melt parts of a car parked nearby. A reporter managed to fry an egg using only its heat. It’s since been retro-fitted with anti-pyromaniacal glazing and hasn’t set anything on fire for a while. We’re all hoping it’s found a better outlet for its impulses.

The new regulations will make the architects think all that through ahead of time. 

Don’t you just hate government red tape? 

London has developed a wonderful tradition of giving its skyscrapers names their that developers and architects didn’t plan on, and probably hate. The Walkie-Talkie is one. Others are the Cheesegrater, the Shard, the Gherkin, the Can of Ham, and the Scalpel.

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A New Zealand bug imported to the Isles of Scilly some hundred years ago has evolved to reproduce asexually. The population’s now entirely female and it’s doing just fine, thanks. 

The little beast is a stick insect called the Clitarchus hookeri, and it was an unplanned import, hitching a ride with some plants that were brought in for a subtropical garden. And no, in spite of it sounding like an academic April Fool’s Day joke, the little beast is real

Scientists brought some of the bugs back to New Zealand, where they were happy enough to mate with local males but went ahead and reproduced in the old fashioned way, which is to say, without male input. 

You can draw whatever morals you like from that.

The Isles of Scilly are off the coast of Cornwall and yes, they’re pronounced silly and are sometimes called the Scilly Isles. I’ve heard it often enough that I’ve lost the urge to giggle.

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And finally, a small ray of hope for the human race: Writer Olivia Laing, whose first novel, Crudo, won the £10,000 James Tait Black prize, announced that she was going to share the prize with her fellow finalists. 

“I said in Crudo that competition has no place in art and I meant it,” she said. 

She’s what in Yiddish is called a mensch–a person of real integrity. I’m off to a bookstore to take a browse through the book and if it grabs me, to buy a copy. The other finalists were Murmur (Will Eaves), Sight (Jessie Greengrass), and Heads of Colored People (Nafissa Thompson-Spires). I’ll have a browse through them too. I have a hunch that you wouldn’t end up regretting it if you doing the same.

Terror at the seaside: we all get hysterical about gulls

Let’s talk about wild beasts. Specifically, let’s talk about gulls, since they’ve been in the news here lately. They’re vicious creatures who dive bomb innocent civilians and steal their ice cream cones. Visit to the coast and you’re gambling with your life and your sanity. I’m exaggerating, but at least I admit it.

Yes, friends, the British press is getting hysterical again, so let’s settle for just one link. Enough is plenty.

A rare relevant photo, although it's from Belgium, not Cornwall. From Wikimedia, by Loki11.

A rare relevant photo, although it’s from Belgium, not Cornwall. From Wikimedia, by Loki11.

Before I tell you the terrible tales, I should let you know what I’ve learned about gulls:

They’re not really called seagulls. They’re gulls, and since we’ve already irresponsibly established that they’re vicious we don’t want to make ‘em mad, so we’ll call them what they want to be called. If you don’t believe me that they don’t like being called seagulls, just ask one.

If you dare.

According to Wikipedia, they’re “of the family Laridae in the sub-order Lari. . . . An older name for gulls is mew . . . This term can still be found in certain regional dialects.”  That, irrelevantly, explains a song that mentions seamews. I always wondered what they were. Play nice or I’ll sing it to you.

But back to gulls. (Nice birdy. I’m leaving part of my sandwich right here for you. Leave the finger. I need that.) There have been some incidents, and as usual if they happened to me I wouldn’t be happy about them, but I don’t know how new, or newsworthy, any of this is.

In the most serious incidents, a small dog—a yorkie, a breed that can get so small they’re not really big enough to be dogs—was killed by gulls and a tortoise was ditto. With those two things at the top of the page to draw our eye, column inches have been devoted to cafes and take-away joints trying to protect their customers (and their food) from birds and to children and adults being frightened, and occasionally hurt, by the birds.

Ever since I moved here, I’ve been reading about problems with gulls, or seeing segments on the local news. Or protecting my scones from them. Cornwall’s full of seaside towns and villages, and seaside towns and villages are full of summer visitors, and with the visitors come picnics and ice creams and chips (those are french fries if you’re on the left-hand side of the Atlantic) and so on. And gulls are nothing if not scavengers. If food’s around, they want to know about it. As a result, in some places they now nest on roofs instead of (or more likely, in addition to) the rocky offshore islands they used to like. I seem to remember hearing about a street where the letter carrier refused to deliver mail after getting swooped on once too often. That was a few years ago, then the story disappeared and we never found out what, if anything, got done.

Oddly enough, although gulls sit around on our roof and our neighbors, they don’t do anything more right here than yell and get into the garbage if a fox has already torn the bag open. As far as I know, they don’t even tear the bags themselves, although I can’t swear to that.

In response to this latest flap, the prime minister, David Cameron, has pontificated—sorry, announced that we need to have a big discussion on the subject. He’s counting on the subject disappearing with the summer leaves before he has to figure out needs to be said in the discussion, never mind what has to be done–or worse, have to spend money on it. Should we kill all the gulls? Shut down the seaside? Issue visitors with plastic bubbles?

Saint Ives used to cull gulls and use birds of prey to keep them from nesting. They also had a van driving around town playing loud noises to scare them off. What the van did to the tourists, I don’t know. I wouldn’t think they’d be crazy about loud noises themselves. It probably kept them from nesting on the roofs too.

The thing is, all of that is expensive. A cull costs £10,000. We’re in an age of austerity. That it’s artificially induced (in my not particularly popular opinion) is beside the point. Local governments are having to choose between libraries and leisure centers and then realizing  that they can’t afford either. So St. Ives is trying flapping colored flags. I don’t know how well that’ll work on gulls, but I tried flapping computer disks to keep the birds (blackbirds, I think) off my raspberries. After the first day or two, they were onto my tricks. They not only ate the berries, they set up their laptops on the outside table.

Truro is trying paint that reflects the sun’s UV rays. My guess is that we’ll be seeing gulls with sunglasses in the center of town.

When this first came out, I heard a scientist interviewed on the BBC’s Radio 4. He’d designed a study of urban gulls with an eye toward finding a solution to the problems they present. Embarrassingly enough–not for him but the the government–it was first funded but then defunded before it ever got going. It’s an age of austerity. We can’t afford that sort of frippery until everyone gets hysterical and starts yelling that someone had better do something. Even if it’s random and ineffective.