Nice things, including starlings, Judaism and Islam, kangaroos, generosity, misogyny and proposed new rape laws

20 December 2020

“… and call off Christmas”.  Thus spake Alan Rickman’s sheriff of Nottingham*;  and so it came to pass.

Only nice things are included this week because Friday is Christmas Day, an ancient pagan festival which probably involved a lot of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and was adopted by the Christian church as it began to convert the heathens to wine and biscuits.

Airth, a small town between Edinburgh and Stirling, has been suffering from a lot of short power cuts which baffled Scottish Power until one of their engineers discovered what caused them.  Huge murmurations of thousands of starlings had been wheeling around in those beautiful patterns before landing on power cables.  Then they’d take off again all at once, the wire they’d been sitting on bounced up, got too close to another cable, arced across the smaller gap and blew a fuse.  The cut-outs reset automatically but there’s a 10 second ‘outage’.  Isn’t it wonderful that small creatures weighing only an ounce or so can gather together and turn off millions of TVs.  There could be a lesson for people there …

An article published this week was highly critical of China’s oppression of the Uighurs, a Muslim group with their own culture and language, spread throughout Asia.  According to satellite images, leaked documents and survivor testimonies, Uighur men and women in Xinjiang are being beaten if they refuse to renounce their faith, children are being separated from their families and women are being sterilised.  China denies that the Uighurs are being confined in “vocational skills education centres” but President Xi Jinping issued a directive in 2017 that “religions in China must be Chinese in orientation” and “adapt themselves to socialist society”.

The good news is that the article was written by Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth.  That’s Judaism in practice, open-hearted and open-minded, and it shows clearly why Israel’s policies aren’t based on the precepts of Judaism.

In 1985, Donald Trump bought what is now the Mar-a-Lago club from the residential estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post and, as part of his plans to make money from it, applied for change of use in 1993 from residential to business.  The local government of Palm Beach made him sign an agreement which limited the number of days he could live there to a maximum of three non-consecutive weeks in any year.  Rumours that he’s planning to move there when he’s ejected from the White House may therefore be exaggerated.

Neighbours (largely Republican) have said the town let him get away with more frequent stays while he was president even though the additional traffic, security and noise were unpleasant but they’re now going to start enforcing his own agreement again.  They said there are plenty of other nice houses for sale in Palm Beach but, of course, he might be provided with free accommodation (and security) by the government of the United States for the foreseeable future.

Trump’s casino and hotel in Atlantic City went bust some years ago and the building is now due to be demolished.  The mayor of Atlantic City is raising money for the Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City by auctioning the chance to press the button that sets off the explosives.  Imagine how much they’d raise if they could auction the opportunity to blow up the building with Trump in it.

A recent study appears to show that kangaroos can communicate with humans in ways similar to those used by dogs and horses.  When researchers gave kangaroos a box of food they couldn’t open, many of them came back to the researcher and handed the box back to ‘ask’ for a box that opens.   Our dogs just nag, but have an amazingly accurate sense of time.

This year has also seen a few of the world’s richest people sign up to the Giving Pledge Initiative, created by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, which encourages “the world’s richest people to donate a large portion of their wealth to charitable causes”.  Notable examples include (in random order):

  • MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos, has given more than $4bn in the past four months to hundreds of charities and aid organisations and has pledged to have given $6bn by the year end;
  • Bezos himself has committed $10bn to issues related to climate change;
  • Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter, has given $1bn to a fund to support pandemic relief efforts and other causes;
  • Bill and Melinda Gates have this year committed $305m relating to Covid-19 vaccines and diagnostic development in addition to other money given by their Foundation;
  • Michael Jordan, a former basketball star, will be giving $100m to Black Lives Matter and other social causes over the next decade;
  • Stormzy, the UK musician, has committed £10m to black British causes over the same period and, in August, gave £500,000 to fund educational scholarships for students from disadvantaged backgrounds;
  • Dolly Parton gave $1m in April to help the Vanderbilt University medical centre research a Covid-19 vaccine, but she has form:  she founded the Imagination Library, a charity that gives free books to children all over the world, and she set up My People, a fund that gave money to families who’d lost their homes and to firefighters and rebuilding efforts after the wildfires in Tennessee in 2016;  she also risked her career way back when to support HIV/Aids groups when it was still taboo in country music, and she has given away even more money to healthcare facilities and organizations for years.

Well, it’s a start which might encourage other billionaires to follow suit and begin to address the huge and increasing inequality of wealth distribution that has proved, and continues to prove, so devastatingly destructive. 

We’ll know we’ve turned the corner when an appearance on any ‘Rich List’ becomes a mark of shame.

In America, a bigot called Joseph Epstein has been called out for sexism following an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, offering Jill Biden some advice.  He starts it “Madame [sic] First Lady – Mrs Biden – Jill – kiddo” and then questions her right to call herself Dr Biden because her doctorate is an “Ed D – a doctor of education” which he thinks sounds “fraudulent”.

The implication that you can call yourself a doctor only if you’re qualified to prescribe paracetamol is questionable and would rule out Stephen Hawking for starters.  What he also omitted to mention was that, while her husband was Vice-President under Barack Obama, she continued to teach English composition anonymously at Northern Virginia Community College where she was just known as Dr B and insisted that her security officers disguised themselves as students.

Epstein described himself as an adjunct (i.e. part-time) professor at Northwestern University but they issued a succinct response saying he hadn’t taught there for 20 years and removed his name from the list of “emeritus lecturers” on their website.

Pakistan’s president has approved a tough new anti-rape law which will speed up rape trials and permit the chemical castration of serial rapists.  It also requires trials to be completed within four months, it prohibits the identification of rape victims, it will create a national sex offenders’ register and officers found to be negligent in investigating rape claims could be imprisoned for up to three years.

It still needs to be approved by the government so keep your fingers crossed.

Until next week, enjoy your memories of what you used to celebrate at this time of year, and how, and don’t forget to ring your family to make sure they’re not having more fun than you are.

*   Apparently Rickman ad-libbed this during rehearsals and it got such a laugh, they kept it.

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