Stonehenge, nuclear fusion, and pepperoni: It’s the news from Britain

In late July, researchers announced that they knew where fifty of Stonehenge’s fifty-two sarsen stones came from: a spot fifteen miles away. 

Probably. It’s a good match, but they still need to eliminate some more places.

Sarsen? It’s a kind of sandstone. According to one dictionary, the word might be a variant on the phrase Saracen stone, which comes from the (local) Wiltshire dialect.  No, I have no idea either. I think we’d have had to be there at the time for it to make any kind of sense. Besides, the origin’s not definite anyway.

According to another dictionary, the stuff is also called Druid stone. None of which should matter to us but hey, it’s your own fault for letting me lead the way. 

What you probably wanted to know is that we’re talking about Stonehenge’s uprights, which weigh something in the neighborhood of twenty tons, and that’s before breakfast. After a full English (that’s a serious breakfast, since we’re defining things), you can add an easy 10% to that.. 

We’re also talking about the lintels and a few of the other stones. Basically, everything except the bluestones, which came from Wales, parcel post and cash on delivery. Boy, was that expensive.

Why have the experts figured out the location now? Back in 1958, while a crew was setting up three stones that had fallen over a century or so before, they discovered that one of the stones was cracked, so they drilled out a core and pinned the stone back together with a bolt. Sort of like gluing the handle back on that mug you really like, but on a larger scale.

That left them with a neatly drilled core, and a guy named Robert Phillips, um, kind of took it home, because why not? If he hadn’t, odds are someone would’ve thrown it away. He kept it as a souvenir, and sixty-odd years later he decided to send it back where it belonged. But what’s sixty-odd years when you’re talking about something 2,500 years old?

These days, no one’s allowed to mess with the stones, even if they mean well and are trying to figure out something important, so the core–now called the Phillips core–came as a real gift. It has been x-rayed, analyzed, and diagnosed with PTSD, and all the resulting information has been compared with local stone, and that’s how they found a geochemical match. 

Two of the stones don’t match. The theory is that they may have been the work of other builders. 

How do they know that when they can’t take chips from any of them? I have no idea.

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Ten 15,000-year-old stone fragments have been found in Jersey and may be the earliest evidence of art in the British Isles. They were found near flint tools, hearthstones, and granite slabs. 

I have no idea what the granite slabs have to do with anything. I don’t keep any in my house, and I am of course typical of everybody in all ways, but life was different back then. Everyone kept granite slabs in their houses.

Dr. Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum in London said it’s possible that the people who made the plaques weren’t particularly interested in the final product. 

“For us, art is something that we put on the wall, something that we can admire. For them it is more likely that the act of producing the engraving was the meaningful thing.”

That’s a way of saying that the art isn’t particularly pretty. To our eyes, anyway.

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So much for the past. We’ll skip over the present. It hasn’t been a great year, so let’s peer into the future and pretend it’s going to be wondrous.

It will. Really it will.

New technology makes it possible to turn the ordinary brick into a battery that stores enough energy to power a small LED light. 

Okay, the brick doesn’t actually become a battery, it becomes a supercapacitor. The trick is to fill the brick’s cavities with conductive plastic nanofibers.

No, I didn’t understand a word of that either. Except for brick. I understand bricks. But forget the quibbly stuff. If this works, you could have solar panels or a wind turbine and store the power in your wall. 

The bricks don’t have the same power density as a lithium-ion battery, but the researchers are hoping they can increase it. If they can, it will be cheaper than batteries. And, as far as I can tell, less destructive.

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A collaboration involving the European Union, the UK, China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the US is building a nuclear fusion reactor in France. It’s not a commercial project. The idea is to demonstrate that it’s possible to contain temperatures of, oh, say 150 degrees Centigrade, with magnets. One of the magnets would be strong enough to lift an aircraft carrier. 

Look out for your belt buckle.

Okay, I left some countries off the list. Thirty-five are involved. 

If the process works, it could produce carbon-free energy from small amounts of seawater, with no possibility of meltdown and far less nuclear waste than fission reactors.

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Okay, two news items from the present, because you can’t count on me to play fair. One isn’t even from Britain. 

First, a cycle cafe in Wales was refused planning permission.

Why is this news? Because the refusal was based on it not having enough parking spaces. For cars. On top of which, it’s not on a cycle route, and what’s a bike doing out in the real world anyway?

The owner says she’ll appeal.

Second, the U.S. is facing a pepperoni shortage

And you thought life could go on as usual, didn’t you?

The news from Britain, with neolithic sites and new coronavirus tests

News about the government’s failed Coronavirus tracing app keeps trickling out. This weekend, we learned that several groups responded when the prime minister called for a national effort to create a smartphone app. Dunkirk spirit! Save the nation! 

What happened next? NHSX, the outfit that made the failed app the government committed to, treated them as rivals. 

NHSX, ever so incidentally, was set up by the health secretary before he became the health secretary, so he was able to be totally neutral about it.

Don't worry about it. The photo's just to break up the text. It's completely irrelevant.

Irrelevant photo: pansies

“We naively thought they would incorporate them into one,” Tim Spector, one of the rival developers said. “The whole point was to help the NHS, to find the hotspots so they could get the resources to the right hospitals.”

Silly him. NHSX, he said, treated his team like the enemy and people within the NHS were told not to work with them. 

“They were very worried about our app taking attention away from theirs and confusing the public,” he said, but if the NHSX app had worked they’d have happily handed over what they’d done. 

Of the rival apps, Covid Symptom Study has 3.5 million users and helped spot symptoms like loss of taste and smell, and Evergreen Life has 800,000 and spotted a local outbreak around Manchester before testing was available. 

The Covid Symptom Study reports that although the number of people reporting symptoms are decreasing around the country, they’re staying steady in London. As far as I can tell, it’s getting zilch in terms of backing from the government, which is now betting its chips on an adaptation of the Apple-Google app, which won’t be ready till fall. 

The delay is because the government says the distance calculator on the app isn’t accurate enough. That means it’ll send people who haven’t been exposed notices that they have been, and they’ll have to self-isolate when they shouldn’t have to. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said the government’s working closely with  Apple-Google and will come up with a hybrid version. Which will be better, bigger, more accurate, and have polkadots.

“Oh yeah?” said  Apple-Google. “We never heard of you and where exactly is Britain anyway?”

Okay, what they–the they in question here being Apple–actually said was, “It is difficult to understand what these claims are as they haven’t spoken to us.”

They said they’re not aware of a distance problem and have no idea what the hybrid model’s about.

The NHS, however, said, “NHSX has been working with Google and Apple extensively since their API [application programming interface ] was made available.”

Google said, diplomatically, that it welcomed the government’s announcement.

Yeah, we’re doing fine over here, and thanks for asking. Hope you are as well.

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While we’re doing tech news: K-pop fans have co-opted the #BlueLivesMatter hashtag by tweeting images of Smurfs and other blue characters. They also flooded #WhiteLivesMatter with K-pop videos to the point where it became known as a K-pop hashtag.

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Let’s check in on what’s happened with all those possible tests that we heard about and that were going to save our viralized asses from an enemy that’s not only too small to see but too small for most of us to imagine. 

A four-week trial of a saliva test is about the start. All people have to do is spit in a plastic jar instead of letting someone stick a swab down their throats and up the  noses (or worse yet, having to do it themselves, which involves finding either your tonsils or the address where they once lived).

People can do the test at home. They can even do it out in public if they don’t mind being disgusting. Cross your fingers. 

The current test has multiple problems. In addition to having to figure out where your tonsils used to live, it gives a lot of false negatives–20%. It also makes people cough and sputter, putting people administering the test at risk. And the virus doesn’t last long on the swabs, so too much delay and the test’s invalidated. 

Another new test gives results in 50 minutes and should be tested on NHS staff starting this week. Unlike the saliva test, which reports back in 48 hours, though, it relies on a throat swab. 

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When the government instituted a program to deliver food parcels to people who are in deep hiding from the virus because they or a family member are particularly vulnerable, I had a moment of thinking the government might get its act together and I before long I wouldn’t have anything to make fun of. 

That’ll show me what I know.

Where the program works, it’s great. But. It’s delivering pork products to Muslim families. It’s delivering free food to families whose pride is hurt by the assumption that they need help and who would happily take themselves off the list if someone had asked.

I’d be willing to bet they’re sending beef to HIndus, but I haven’t seen that reported. 

The program’s being run by a private firm and the government says anyone with special dietary needs should contact their local government and leave the national government the hell alone. Want to place any bets on how long it takes to get through three levels of local government to the company that’s actually running things?

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In the department of slight over-reactions, North Korea lost its temper over a defector’s plan to send propaganda across the border from South Korea and blew up an office that was set up to improve north-south communications. 

Am I making assumptions when I say they lost their temper? Probably not. The official news agency said the move reflected “the mindset of the enraged people to surely force human scum and those, who have sheltered the scum, to pay dearly for their crimes.”

So yeah. Lost temper. Plus a few commas gone a-wandering.

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Near Stonehenge, archeologists have found a 4,500-year-old circle of shafts that’s 1.25 miles across. Or 2 kilometers, if you take your distances metric. That may be a rough approximation. I’d be surprised if they match that neatly but I’m too lazy to check. Whatever it translates to, it’s the biggest prehistoric structure found to date in Europe. A paper on it has been published in Internet Archaeology and is available to any idiot–and I offer myself as an example of the species–who clicks on it.