Covid’s silver lining: another Zoom call goes wrong

If the pandemic cloud has a silver lining, it’s Zoom, which gives us such wondrous ways to screw up.

On the day that his party–the Republicans–launched a state campaign against distracted driving, an Ohio state senator, Andrew Brenner, participated in a Zoom call, and being a master of the technology he didn’t trap himself in a cat face and have to assure members of the state’s controlling board that he wasn’t a cat. No, he started the call in a parked car, showing his very own human face. Then he left the call for a few minutes and reappeared in front of a homey background. 

He’d have been fine if it hadn’t been for the seatbelt he was wearing. And the way he fixed his eyes straight ahead as if he was driving and turned his head from time to time as if he was changing lanes. And the moments when the background wavered and a road appeared beyond what looked very much like a driver’s side window, which had also appeared. 

The meeting was, of course, live streamed to the public. 

No, we don’t take in the real scandals of our age, but give us a politician in a seatbelt pretending to be at home and we sink our teeth in until they hit bone.

Irrelevant photo: rhododendron

“I wasn’t distracted,” Brenner said before digging his hole a little deeper by adding that “I’ve actually been on other calls, numerous calls,, while driving. Phone calls for the most part, but on video calls I’m not paying attention to the video. To me, it’s like a phone call.”

Which is why he did all the cloak and dagger stuff to look like he was someplace other than in his car. 

I suppose, since we’re talking about Zoom, that I have to mention another call that went wrong: Canadian MP William Amos showed up at a virtual parliamentary session stark screaming naked except for a strategically placed mobile phone. He was, he said in his apology, changing out of his jogging clothes when his laptop camera turned on. He’s patriotically placed, you’ll be glad to know, between the Canadian and Quebec flags.


. . . And bringing those two themes together

Have you ever had one of those problems that you can’t get anyone to pay attention to, no matter what you do? Geoff Upson, in New Zealand, had been tried to get some Auckland potholes filled and when he ran out of sane solutions he spray-painted penises around them–at last call about a hundred of them, some in neon paint.

I’d love to tell you that they’ve now been filled, but instead Auckland Transport activated the police on the grounds that penises distract drivers, making them a safety risk. 

No, not owning one. Seeing one painted on the road. 

They also said that it’s dangerous to paint on the road. They have your best interests at heart, Geoff. 

No word on whether the potholes have been filled. 


. . . And having nothing to do with any of that

A Belgian farmer moved a stone that was in his way and accidentally added a thousand square meters of France to his country.

In 1819, after Napoleon’s defeat, the Belgian-French border was marked out with a line of stones that had the date on them. If that makes it sound like the French-Belgian border’s a low-key sort of thing–well, I’ve never been there but that’s the impression I got too. It also sounds like the farm might be an international operation, at least some of the time. Intentionally or not. 

Two things kept this from being an international incident: One is that the countries aren’t at war. The other is that in 2019 the stones were geo-localized, so the wandering stone could be moved back to its original spot, although I expect the farmer wasn’t happy about it. 


Six years ago, developers in London illegally knocked down the 1920s Carlton Tavern. This kind of thing happens regularly. Generally the developers say, “Oops, wasn’t that what we were supposed to do?”then pay a fine and go on to build what they wanted to. But this time some 5,000 people and a couple of local politicians organized a campaign.

To make sense of this, you have to understand that the building’s owners and the people who wanted to save the place aren’t the same folks. The owners asked for planning permission to convert the building to ten flats, which in American means apartments, and they didn’t get it. English Heritage–that’s an organization dedicated to preserving, um, you know, English heritage–was set to give the building listed status, which is a form of protection for buildings with historical significance, but two days before it came through the bulldozers knocked the place down.

A leader of the campaign said, “We had a suspicion . . . that they would do something, so we asked English Heritage to think about listing it. They took a plaster cast of every tile, and documented everything.”

That meant the local council–that’s the neighborhood government–could and did order the developers to rebuild it, brick by brick by brick. A few parts were reclaimed from the rubble, the rest were re-creations.

The Carlton reopened in April and is being run by Homegrown Pubs. One of the people involved said, “The pub tells its story from the half-broken fixtures that we’ve got. You can see bits of broken wood–it’s not all perfect, which we really love because it gives character and charm to the building.”

James Watson from the Campaign for Pubs said, “I never imagined that I would see a planning inspector order a developer to put back what he’d just knocked down, to look exactly as it was. I thought the developer would get a slap on the wrist, a £6,000 fine. It has set an incredibly useful precedent. Other planning inspectors will remember it, and so will developers.”

Watson also said that most developers are smart enough not to just send in the bulldozers. They “take some tiles off the roof and let the rain in. The beams rot, it collapses, and they say to the council, ‘This is a derelict site that needs to be rebuilt as flats.’ “ 

Why do pubs need protecting? They’re not just places to sit from 10 a.m. until you’re shitfaced, although up to a point you can do that in them. They also play a role in holding communities together. They’re a kind of public living room. But for a combination of reasons, running a pub is an increasingly hard way to make a living, so they’re disappearing from the British landscape. A few are being bought out by and run as community-owned businesses, which have the advantage of not needing to make a profit.

Your feel-good story for the week

A department store chain, H & M, has introduced a free service that allows men to borrow a job interview suit, free, for twenty-four hours. 

“Research shows that it takes less than one second for an employer to judge your ability based on your appearance,” according to an H & M manager. Hence the program’s name: One/Second/Suit. You don’t even need to dry clean it when you’re done. You send it back in pre-paid packaging and they’ll take care of that before the next person gets it.

If anyone offers a parallel service for women, unfortunately I haven’t heard about it.

Just when we thought American isolationism was over . . .

The Americas are moving away from Africa and Europe at the heart-stopping speed of four centimeters a year. If you plan to row the Atlantic, do it now. Your trip’s only going to get longer. 

I couldn’t find any parallel mention of either the Pacific or some continents getting smaller, but systems have only so much give in them, and what’s gained in one place has to show up as a loss somewhere else. What I’m saying is that if that old pair of jeans suddenly fits again, the credit may not go to your new diet, it’s more likely to go to the Atlantic Ocean. 


Zoom news

You’ve probably seen this already (and if you haven’t, you may be the only person on the planet keeping that category open), but that’s not going to stop me from telling you about it: A lawyer in Texas appeared in court, via Zoom, to to argue a case while disguised as a cat

Actually, a kitten. If you play the video–and if you haven’t, you really should–you can see his little kitten mouth explaining to the judge, as we all have to at some point in our lives, that he’s not a cat.

“I can see that,” the judge said soberly, although what he was seeing was that the lawyer was in fact a cat. Which proves that witnesses are expected to tell the truth but judges don’t have to. And that we can’t always believe the evidence of our own lyin’ eyes. 

Also that the English language uses the word see loosely.

A rare relevant photo: This is Fast Eddie. He is a cat–on Zoom, off Zoom, in any and all situations. He is also, it’s worth noting, not a lawyer. But he is slightly out of focus. It’s not his fault. 

I don’t know if any of this will give the defendant grounds to appeal, but some inventive lawyer could have a wonderful time with it. 

The lawyer’s not the only person who’s been trapped by Zoom filters since the pandemic forced many odd things to go online. Lizet Ocampo, the political director of People for the American Way, appeared at a work meeting as a potato and couldn’t un-potato herself. 

“As a progressive organization, we fight for justice for all and access to opportunities, and in the last three-plus years, it’s been a little tough,” she said (irrelevantly) after one someone in the meeting took a screenshot and put it on social media. “I just kind of gave up and stayed as a potato for the rest of the call.”

What makes her comment relevant is that an organization that fights for justice should recognize the importance of its directors understanding–at first hand if possible–how hard it is for potatoes to get taken seriously. Ocampo, I trust, now has a visceral understanding of the problem. 

Congressman Emmer, from Minnesota, appeared at a Congressional hearing upside down, with his head disconnected from any recognizable body part, pretty much stopping any sort of sensible discussion. Contributions included, “Is this a metaphor?” “At least you’re not a cat,” and “You could stand on your head.”


Food news

Which brings us neatly to our next topic: Scientists have engineered spinach plants to send emails. 

What, you ask, does a spinach plant have to say and why would it want to say it to us, not to another spinach plant? Well, at the moment, the plant doesn’t get to choose. The email will say that the plant found nitroaromatics in the groundwater and the email will go to the scientists. 

Nitroaromatics in groundwater are a sign that explosives might be nearby, and their presence triggers the plant to send a signal, which an infrared camera picks up. Then the camera sends the email. 

Think of the camera as the spinach plant’s office assistant.

We’ve reached a point where no one thinks it’s strange that a camera sends an email, right? Or that your toaster has opinions about your Facebook posts?

What this means, sadly, is that no one wants the spinach plant’s opinion, it’s just a conduit for information that scientists want. 

“Plants are very good analytical chemists,” said Professor Michael Strano, who led the research. “They have an extensive root network in the soil, are constantly sampling groundwater, and have a way to self-power the transport of that water up into the leaves.”

They could, potentially, be set up to send emails related to climate change. 

When I walked past my spinach plants yesterday, I heard them whisper, “We feel so used.” 

I gave them Ocampo’s email address.


I don’t know why anyone should believe me on this next item, since I can’t prove it by embedding a link. I’m taking my information from a Twitter ad, which if the culprits have any sense will have been taken down by now, but the makers of Weetabix teamed up with Heinz Corp. and advertised–

Okay, you know how British foodies are trying to rehabilitate the reputation of British food? No? Never mind. They are. And it’s important to them, so the rest of us can just play nice, please, and not do what Weetabix and Heinz have done, which was a very unpleasant playground trick involving dry Weetabix and baked beans. Or more specifically, Weetabix with baked beans poured over them. And offered to the world as something to eat. 


What is or are Weetabix? Allegedly, a breakfast cereal, although I have tried the stuff and wasn’t convinced. It (I ate less than one, so let’s commit ourselves to the singular) is wheatish and shaped like a raft with rounded corners. Or like a dish sponge. Dry, it tastes like straw. Wet, it tastes like bread that you soaked overnight in lukewarm water. 

Yes, I know: Someone out there loves it/them. Possibly even you. And I respect that, although you’re making a terrible mistake, possibly even wasting the part of your life that you spend eating breakfast. But hey, who am I to judge?

Someone with a blog and no editor to keep me from writing myself over a cliff edge, that’s who. 

But if I go so far as to admit that I could be wrong about Weetabix (and I’m fairly sure I haven’t), I think even people who like Weetabix, or who at least respect them, will admit that pairing them up with baked beans is one of those errors in judgement that comes from being in lockdown too long. 

If you’re good with technology, you might be able to find the ad and turn it into a Zoom filter, then appear at your next job interview as baked beans on Weetabix. The way the job market is these days, how good were your chances anyway?


The History of Parliament blog called my attention to a new electronic tool that lets researchers (along with any fool who stumbles in after them) search parliamentary debates and find out how many times a word like, say, Brexit shows up. So someone’s used it to search for all mentions of the word cucumber

Come on, someone had to do it. Let’s be glad they just went ahead and got it over with.

The news–and I know this will surprise you–is that it doesn’t come up often. Even in a debate about the Tomatoes and Cucumbers Marketing Board in 1950.

No, I can’t make this stuff up. I’m too earthbound.

I may be misreading this, but the introductory paragraph seems to say that the word’s never been used but later on the post produces an example of when it was used: in December 4, 1656, right in the midst of Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate. We don’t think of that as a particularly funny time, but during a debate about the rights and privileges of the burghs (don’t ask, because what’s important here is the cucumber), the discussion got increasingly convoluted and MP Philip Jones compared it “to the dressing of a cucumber. First pare, and order, and dress it, and throw it out of the window.”

Reword that and you’d get a laugh. It’s all in the delivery. 



A four-year-old walking the beach with her parents spotted a dinosaur footprint. It’s 220 million years old and was preserved in the mud. No one’s sure what kind of dinosaur left it but it would’ve been small and walked on two legs.

It was on a beach called the Bendricks, in Wales, which the South Wales group of the Geologists’ Association called “the best site in Britain for dinosaur tracks of the Triassic Period.


A couple of prehistoric teeth found in Jersey may be evidence that modern humans didn’t displace Neanderthals but merged with them. The teeth come from two different people and combine features of both modern humans and Neanderthals, suggesting that the blend was common in the population. Modern humans and Neanderthals overlapped by 5,000 years, which is a long enough time to get acquainted, even outside of speed-dating situations.