A Minnesotan admits, belatedly, that it does actually snow in Britain

Having survived 40 Minnesota winters, I can get snobbish about the British weather, but recently 61 people got trapped in at a pub by a 9-foot-high snow drift and downed power lines, so I’m now prepared to admit that British weather can, very occasionally, be extreme.

That happened during Storm Arwen (Britain names its storms these days). Even in Minnesota, we would have classed it as more than a nuisance snow. Most of the people were stuck there for three nights and they spent the time playing board games, singing karaoke, and doing pub quizzes. Two stayed an extra night, working up the courage to leave. 

Pub quizzes? They’re a big thing in British pubs and people love them. Don’t ask me to explain that. I’m a foreigner. I was glad to be done with quizzes when I left school. A single day of quizzes, board games, and karaoke would’ve sent me out into the snow drift. If I could’ve gotten the door open.  

The pub fed everyone for free but–wisely–charged for booze.

Irrelevant photo: Li’l Red cat in a basket.

Elsewhere, Storm Arwen was less fun. Thousands of people lost power, and with it heat, for, as I write this, more than a week. Why it’s taking the power companies so long to patch the network back together is anyone’s guess. There’ll be an investigation eventually, but in the meantime we’ve got some people who are too damn cold to think that far ahead.

The army and navy were finally called out to help. That would’ve happened sooner, but it took a while for anyone to remind the government that people up north do actually vote. 

Storm Arwen was followed closely by Storm Barra, and Storm Barra was preceded by wind and snow  warnings. Since storm news uses a traffic light system and warnings are yellow, we’ve been treated to yellow snow warnings.

Maybe you have to have lived in the US to find that funny–or disgusting–but Minnesotans consider it the height of humor to advise each other not to eat yellow snow, and here we are with warnings about the stuff falling out the sky. How the dogs managed to get near it before it hit the ground is anyone’s guess.

You have no idea how many things will change when you drop yourself in a new country.

 

Reviving a cat story

This happened it 2015, but it resurfaced recently and since I missed it last time around, I’m willing to bet someone else out there did too: A man in Yorkshire called 999–Britain’s police, fire, and ambulance  emergency number–because his girlfriend let the cat eat his bacon

Yes, and what, the operator asked, did he want done about it?

Well, he wanted to press charges, of course.

Against the girlfriend or the cat?

Against both of them.

“Right, sir,” the operator said. “it’s not a criminal offense to let a cat eat your bacon. And we don’t arrest cats. I’m very sorry.”

No word on what happened to the relationship, but I wouldn’t bet on him living happily ever after. With either the girlfriend or the cat.

My gratitude to CatLadyMac for pushing me in the direction of this story.

 

Neolithic mince pies

Archeologists at Stonehenge have been derailed by enough Christmas cheer that they’re claiming the monument’s builders invented the mince pie. Or at least that they ate something very much like mince pies, involving meat fat, nuts, and fruit. And possibly grain for a crust.

Or possibly not. They’re making a huge leap from what was available to what they might’ve done with it., and I’ve made enough questionable pies to tell you that you can’t draw a straight line from having the right ingredients to turning out a pie. Especially if you’ve never seen a pie before. 

In the interest of accuracy, let’s say that it’s probably not the archeologists making that leap from they had the ingredients to they made mince pies. That comes from English Heritage, which funnels visitors through Stonehenge, and sells them stuff–including, at this time of year no doubt, mince pies, since they’re a hazard of every British Christmas. English Heritage has made a “neolithic mince pie recipe” available. 

Those people you see standing on the sidelines rolling their eyes and silently mouthing, “Don’t blame me”? Those are the archeologists.

 

Covid news

In Italy, a man tried to get his vaccination certificate while still avoiding vaccination by presenting a fake arm. Because who’d notice, right? 

Colorwise, the arm was a pretty good match for the rest of him, but it was made of silicon and the rest of him was made of muscle, bone, and all those other things that are found in animate creatures. So yes, someone noticed, probably well before jabbing a needle into the arm.

I can’t help wondering whether he just handed the arm over or attached it in more or less the area where a real arm would normally grow. Either way, he didn’t get his proof of vaccination and he did get some attention from the local police.

And the press.

*

From the start of the Covid pandemic, a substantial number of people have told us that viruses inevitably get milder as time goes on. Didn’t that happen with the 1917 flu epidemic? Didn’t the Black Death eventually disappear? The conversation around that has gained in intensity with the arrival of the Omicron variant, which on early and incomplete reports appears to be more transmissible and maybe, possibly, hopefully milder. 

With the emphasis on maybe. The experts, though–spoilsports that they are–are holding out for actual evidence before they commit themselves.

But do viruses inevitably become milder? Not according to Alan McNally, the director of the Institute of Microbiology and Infection at the University of Birmingham. 

I know. Another spoilsport. The world’s full of them. He calls it “one of the most baffling misinformation myths peddled during the pandemic.” 

He’s joined by spoilsport Brian Ferguson, an immunologist at the University of Cambridge. “It’s really unpredictable what will happen to the evolution of the host or the virus. You can pick out examples of things going one way or the other depending on what point you want to make.”

One argument trotted out to defend the belief that viruses evolve toward being kinder is that indisputable fact that dead people don’t walk around much. This, the argument goes, limits their ability to spread any disease that may have killed them. 

I’ll confess to having trotted out that argument myself. Oops. I did mention that I’m not an expert, right?

The problems with it include Covid’s ability to spread before people know they have it, including people who never become sick and never know they were carrying the disease to spread it anyway.

And if that isn’t enough, a disease can be serious, both to individuals and to the society they live in, even if the people who get it don’t die. 

We have no way of predicting what direction this mess will go in. 

*

How’s the vaccination campaign going? Well, the Sicilian village of Monte delle Rosse (population 2,100) has a vaccination rate of 104%. And they accomplished that without vaccinating either the dead or any silicon arms. Here’s how it happened:

Italy calculates the vaccination rate by comparing the number of residents and the number of people vaccinated. So when people came in from the surrounding villages for their vaccines, they put little Monte delle Rosse on the map. 

The take-up there was particularly good because before the vaccines were available, the area had a bad Covid outbreak, started by a nun and a priest who came to town not knowing they were Covid positive. 

That sounds like the start of a bad joke, doesn’t it? Although they usually walk into a bar, not a Sicillian town. Sorry I can’t supply a punchline, but-you’re welcome to leave one in the Comments section. In the meantime, the outbreak really did start that way, and when a vaccination team arrived, word of mouth brought people flooding in.

The village mayor said, “There was almost an air of celebration at the vaccination hubs. It was like being at a popular town festival. People understood that, with vaccines, they were creating a shield that would protect their community, safeguarding the very survival of the village.”

It also helped that someone set up a What’s App group that responded “to fake news and reassured people about vaccine safety. I am convinced that, if we had spread the wrong information about the dangers of jabs, today we would be here to tell you another story–that of dozens of deaths from Covid that would have risked halving the inhabitants of this village.”

 

A follow-up on what makes a British city a city

In November, I wrote about how a British town becomes a city. It’s time for a follow-up, because the Cornish town of Marazion, with a population of 1,440, is making a bid to become a city.

How do they justify that? The boosters cite things like its wonderful people, its community spirit,  its history, and its beauty. Not to mention its clock tower and the possibility that it’s the oldest chartered town in Britain. Or that, if it isn’t, it’s among the oldest.

“Size is not important,” said a town councillor, who may or may not have understood what he was saying.

I’m working on a proposal to make my living room a city. It has a human population of two and a remarkable number of resident animals, along with stunning drifts of dog and cat fur. .

 

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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. 

*

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?

*

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.

*

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.