Horseflies, brilliant GCHQ cock-up, self-effacing politicians, U-turns, misogyny, Democrats v. Trump, and more kindness

23 August 2020

Mosquitos last week, this week horseflies.

We know of course that horseflies don’t leave a single puncture mark but make a small slash in the skin, about 1mm long, (and that spider bites leave a pair of puncture holes) but it’s been discovered that their judgement of distance is affected by bold patterns.  Presumably we should all now wear tartan trousers (or plaid pants if we’re in America) and patterned shirts on picnics.

GCHQ, Britain’s top intelligence agency, tweets puzzles every so often.  The most recent one asked what letter comes next in the sequence C, U, T, S, I, U, N.  The correct answer is T because the series takes the fourth letter of every major planet in the solar system in the order of their distance from the sun but, when they published the answer, an intelligence official unwittingly – or wittingly, who knows? – didn’t name all the planets  and listed only the first two and the last two, using an ellipsis to cover the others.  The ‘solution’ thus read “Mercury, Venus, …, Uranus, Neptune”.  It was expanded to show the full list within 20 minutes but the rude word suggested by the original answer had already hit the internet.

Much less interesting has been the reactions to the algorithmic exam results.  Two days after Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson assured people there would be “no U-turn, no change”, he apologised and ordered a complete reversal, though he tried to blame the fiasco on the regulator Ofqual.

The non-executive chair of Ofqual, Roger Taylor, then threatened to resign unless Williamson withdrew his criticism, reminding him they’d told him a month earlier that they’d received a report saying the algorithm was “volatile” and flawed.  It’s believed that Williamson tried to water down his apology but Taylor insisted and Williamson finally said “We have full confidence in Ofqual and its leadership in their role as independent regulator.”  The DfE further confirmed that it had been Ofqual’s decision, not Williamson’s, to drop the results produced by the algorithm.

Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive.

The government has also been shamed by the incompetence of its response to the coronavirus pandemic.  When commenting on the dismal failure of Serco’s coronavirus track-and-trace system, an official statement said “Serco and its team of specialist sub-contractors has played an important part in in helping reach hundreds of thousands of people who might have passed on the virus” and that they had been “93% successful in persuading people to isolate” where contact with people had been made (my emphasis).  This statement was issued by – yes, you guessed it – Serco.

On the bright side, a new book ‘Men to Avoid in Art and Life’ by Nicole Tersigni is being published tomorrow by Chronicle Books.  It takes the mickey out of mansplainers by pasting deadpan captions onto classical pictures which show men sharing their expertise on subjects like breastfeeding and period pain. Tersigni is a comedy writer and says she published the book partly to show that the same misogyny has existed for centuries, and partly because older paintings are more likely to be out of copyright.

The two examples I’ve seen are very funny and could help to take our minds off Brexit, which is still creeping up on us, with no substantive progress having apparently been made on any of the vast differences between the leavers’ promises and reality, and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has been reported by the BBC as saying that and EU-UK trade deal “seems unlikely”.

To add insult to injury, a wild pear tree in South Cubbington wood, which is estimated to be 250 years old, still bears fruit and was voted England’s Tree of the Year in 2015, is to be felled so HS2 can be built;  and the completion of CrossRail has been delayed yet again, this time until 2022, while costs have escalated by yet another half a million pounds.

Shouldn’t all future governments be required to organise a booze-up in a brewery before they’re allowed to run the country? 

In America, Joe Biden’s appointment of Kamala Harris as his running mate gives some of us a lot of hope that the Democrats might really oust Donald Trump (I daren’t believe in that until it actually happens) and the presentations at the Democratic convention were impressive:  sadly no Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but Michelle Obama stole the show and Kristin Urquiza blamed Trump for misleading America about the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic.  “My dad was a healthy 65-year old”, she said.  “His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life.”

Trump’s older sister Maryanne Trump Barry, who is a federal judge, was secretly recorded by their niece Mary a couple of years ago.  The recordings have been heard by the Washington Post and Associated Press.

She was less than complimentary about her brother, saying “He has no principles” and, when asked what he reads, “He doesn’t read”.  Later she said “I’m talking too freely, but you know. The change of stories. The lack of preparation. The lying. Holy shit … It’s the phoniness of it all. It’s the phoniness and this cruelty. Donald is cruel.”

More recently, a California judge has ordered Trump to pay Stormy Daniels’ legal costs of $44,100 and another American judge opened the door for Manhattan’s district attorney to access his tax returns (although, sadly, they may not be public before the election). 

Is a smidgeon of schadenfreude forgivable here?

The charity, Crisis, is planning to give homeless people 2,500 free handsets and mobile packages because an email address is often more valuable to them than a sleeping bag and, with Iain Duncan’s Smith’s universal credit scheme, claimants have to log on daily.  IDS is of course another of the government’s not-geniuses, along with Gavin Williamson, Matt Hancock, Robert Jenrick, Priti Patel, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson – oh, good heavens, there are far too many to credit individually – who are left in place to provide a thin blue line where the buck is supposed to stop before it claims Johnson. 

Tesco Mobile is giving £700,000 of equipment in the first year, with more to follow.  Perhaps corporate social responsibility departments are beginning to wake up to the fact that they’re not just token attempts to compensate for corporate greed but that genuine kindness trumps political donations and peerages for Russian oligarchs.

It’s also encouraging to see the increase in personal kindnesses shown by a 561% increase in one-off donations as well as a 112% rise in regular donations to charities via WPNC’s online donation platform.  Other donation platforms have also seen increases in individual giving. 

Perhaps there is still hope in the kindness of people who care more about things other than their bank balance.

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