25 October 2020
In 2017, the Grenfell Tower fire killed 72 people. In July 2019, the then housing minister James Brokenshire (another great example of nominative determinism) said he expected “remediation” of other buildings with dangerous cladding would be completed by the building owners by June 2020. Last week, 249 buildings still needed to be made safe even though the government has allocated £600m for the removal of Grenfell-type panels and a further £1bn for first safety problems discovered since the Grenfell disaster in other high-rise blocks. Brokenshire made it clear that the government believed the building owners were responsible so why are they giving our money to compensate property developers who selected unsafe designs, installed cheap but dangerous materials and trousered huge profits?
The wonderful Marcus Rashford was despairing on Wednesday after the government refused to extend free school meals over the holidays. Thousands of paediatricians and other doctors have added to the pressure to reinstate them and a petition has so far gathered 700,000 signatures. All over the country, local councils, small and large companies and individual donors and volunteers are working together in an attempt to fill the gap and it’s now possible Labour may force another vote. Can Boris Johnson even spell ‘hunger’?
On Thursday, Rishi Sunak discovered lots more billions he could give away but rather than give it to the NHS as infections and deaths continue to race upwards, he gave it to businesses affected by the rapidly increasing lockdowns. Did he think of excluding large companies whose owners can inject more cash themselves if they haven’t kept enough reserves?
Johnson accused Sadiq Khan of bankrupting London’s transport system. TfL’s audited accounts show that, since Khan took over from Johnson in 2016, its deficit has reduced by 71% and its cash reserves increased by 16%. Can’t Johnson count?
Welsh politicians want more information about the potential environmental impact of the Hinkley Point construction contractors dumping tens of thousands of tonnes of soil in the sea near Cardiff. Why don’t they dump it in Swansea Bay to become foundations for Swansea’s climate-friendly tidal lagoon proposal can be reconsidered?
We already knew that Donald Trump paid no personal income tax in America in 10 of the 15 years before he became president but the New York Times has discovered he has a previously undeclared bank account in China where he paid almost $200,000 in taxes in 2013-2015. The Trump Organisation claimed that the account was opened “to pay the local taxes” and that “No deals, transactions or other business activities ever materialised … since 2015, the office has remained inactive”. So he secretly hides lots of money in China just to pay taxes for – er – hiding money there?
In 2016, a Dutch researcher has guessed Trump’s Twitter account password – “yourefired” – and they’ve just done it again – “maga2020” – so there’s still no obvious sign of intelligent life in Trump.
On the other hand, Exeter Chiefs, who were playing in the second tier of English rugby only ten years ago, beat Wasps 19-13 to add the Premiership Crown to their European one.
As the UK creeps uncertainly past the lockdown shadows of Scotland and Wales, the second surge is “very serious” in Germany, “out of control” in Spain, and Belgium’s deputy prime minister is in intensive care; and, as American public health experts warned that the US is on the verge of a whole new surge in infections and death, Trump reassured everyone in the last presidential debate that “It will go away” and “We’re rounding the corner”.
About 220m people are eligible to vote in the presidential election and more than 50m have already done so and, despite polls favouring the Democrats, everybody’s still nervous about the outcome. Remember that in 2016 Hillary Clinton got 3m more votes than Trump but the historically outdated system of electoral college voting put the loony into the White House.
For example, California’s population is greater than the population of the 22 smallest states combined (nearly half the total number of states) but California only has 55 electoral college votes while the smallest 22 states have 96 votes.
This may be why 110,000 Californians have bought a gun since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, 47,000 of them buying their first ever gun, claiming they fear civil unrest.
Strangely enough, the most powerful argument to vote Democrat came from Trump himself when he said he could leave the country if he loses.
One of the New Yorker magazine’s legal staff writers, Jeffrey Toobin, has been suspended for apparently masturbating during a Zoom work call. We’ve all been bored during work meetings but is this the ‘new normal’?
This could be described as prestidigitation, which literally means ‘fast fingerwork’ and is known over the pond as American Express. It’s how stage magicians do their tricks, by making you take your eye off the ball (ahem).
How the magicians do this and how our brains are misled are still not properly understood. We know that we can see everything from in front of us to about 90o on each side but what we tend to forget is that we actually don’t see everything. We normally shut out a lot of irrelevant stuff and concentrate on what’s important – a car unexpectedly coming out of side turning, the hole we’re digging for a new garden plant or the screen in front of me that shows I’ve just mistyped a word.
(For an executive summary of the next bit, skip down 4 paragraphs.)
Neuroscientists now think vision takes a complex route through the brain through areas that not only amplify the bits we’re concentrating on but filter out irrelevancies.
In 1984, Francis Crick – yes, the DNA guy – proposed that the thalamus (a very ancient part of the brain that receives sensory stimuli) acts as a filter and the cortex (the more recently developed wiggly bits on the outside responsible for more complex activity) boosts selected inputs to help us focus on features of interest.
More recently, a team of neuroscientists at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered that signals go via the front of the cortex to a much more ancient structure called the basal ganglia (found in the very primitive brains of the earliest vertebrates like lampreys and Donald Trump), then to something called the thalamic reticular nucleus (next to the thalamus) and thence to the thalamus itself, before finally going back up to higher cortical regions which make decisions about what to do.
(Executive summary: everything our eyes see goes through various filters and amplifiers in the brain so we can concentrate on what’s important and make decisions about what to do / think.)
The obvious weakness is that we sometimes discard stuff that is actually important, or even just interesting, particularly if a stage magician misdirects our attention. For example, many of us will have tested our awareness of what’s happening around us by trying to count the number of times the players in white shirts pass the ball in an old video clip but this one was new to me:
Give it a go and see how you do. (I got 2 out of 3.)
And finally – and readers who find bad language offensive should read no further – I’ve only just come across a short Twitter exchange back in June 2016 that made me laugh, between two of my favourite Guardian writers / journalists, one week after the EU referendum:
LucyMangan – This whole fucking shitshow is almost worth it to have MarinaHyde [writing] every day
MarinaHyde – thank you so much! Too kind xxxx
LucyMangan – GET BACK TO WORK