The PM’s week, late-stage capitalism, executing teenagers in America, and wasps

2 May 2021

When you’re in the wrong, you should never lose your temper;  when you’re in the right, you don’t need to.

This old saw was proved all too clearly by Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday when Sir Keir Starmer asked some simple questions that Johnson was too embarrassed to answer and he got visibly angrier till he humiliated himself by losing his temper.  Even the pictures of him jabbing a finger at Starmer show clearly that Boris was stuck:  he daren’t give truthful answers to the questions and he daren’t lie to parliament.

Later the same day, Matt Hancock refused to answer questions about whether ministers who break electoral law should resign and volunteered that it doesn’t matter if Johnson resigns.  His actual words were “It is important that there are questions, and there were endless questions in the House of Commons earlier on some of the issues that you raised … but you’ve also got to concentrate on the big things that really matter.”

Johnson had a busy week:

  • he refused to set up a public enquiry into his handling of the pandemic, despite pressure from the Institute for Government (the leading independent think tank on the effectiveness of government) and the King’s Fund (an independent health and care charity) who, for some reason, seem to believe it should be done now so we can learn lessons from it, rather than when it’s too late and even more people have died;  and the Lord Speaker, who spent 11 years in Conservative cabinets and is a former chair of the Conservative Party, is calling for a public enquiry to be set up “as soon as possible”.
  • he inadvertently gave his reasons for refusing the enquiry when a small number of people near his office heard him shouting “no more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands”.  He has naturally denied saying this, knowing that ‘the science’ has estimated his delays in March and September last year have already increased the number of Covid-related deaths by 10,000-20,000 ‘bodies’.
  • he now seems likely to be subject to an investigation by parliament’s sleaze watchdog for having reputedly spent £200,000 to stop his flat looking like “a John Lewis nightmare” (sounds good to me) according to a friend of his fiancée* or “a skip” according to Sarah Vine, a right-wing columnist who is also Michael Gove’s wife and, apparently, an expert on skips;  all he’s said is that he paid for it himself and refuses to deny rumours the Conservative party lent him £58,000.  By a strange coincidence, much of the paperwork which would show who originally paid for the stuff has gone missing. 
  • he briefed various media that Dominic Cummings was behind the leaks and Cummings responded with a blog making new allegations about Johnson’s improprieties.
  • his closest allies were accused of awarding government contracts worth millions to their friends and relations and we learnt that his predecessor had lobbied for funding for Greensill Capital, a company that then went belly-up.
  • he said the government “would be working very hard” to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe after she was sentenced to a further year in prison in Iran this week and he added “I don’t think it is right that Nazanin should be sentenced to any more time in jail.  I think it is wrong she is there in the first place, and we will be working very hard to secure her release from Iran … The government will not stop, we will redouble our efforts and we are working with our American friends on the issue as well.”.  What he forgot to say was that the secondary reason she’s already served 5 years (for a different ‘crime’) was because he told a parliamentary select committee in 2017 (when he was Foreign Secretary) that “she was simply teaching people journalism”, which the Iranians quoted in evidence against her, and Johnson had to apologise for the “distress and anguish” his comments had caused the family.  The first reason is that Britain is still refusing to pay the money it has owed Iran for decades.

So, not a good week for Johnson (in a good week, he just gets the skitters) without even mentioning all his earlier lies and deceits.  And he’s the man who was elected by his party members to ‘lead’ their party into a time of peace and harmony in the post-Brexit world.

In the world of late-stage capitalism, the case against two former executives at Serco collapsed because the Senior Fraud Office failed to disclose some evidence to the defendants and the judge didn’t allow the SFO’s request for the case to be adjourned to a retrial.  One of the accused, Simon Marshall, subsequently said “The allegations against me were entirely without substance, as is now clear”, which seems a rather over-optimistic interpretation of a case that failed because of a judicial technicality rather than his having been judged ‘not guilty’.

Serco had previously had to pay £12.8m to the Ministry of Justice as part of a £70m civil settlement in 2013 and £22.9m in fines and costs in 2019 after admitting three offences of fraud and two of false accounting on electronic monitoring contracts.

This week also saw publication of a report by human rights experts from 11 countries that describes the systematic killing of unarmed African Americans as a crime against humanity and holds the US accountable for a long history of violations of international law.

America’s approach is exemplified by the fact that capital punishment is still legal in more than half the states and only 40% of the people on death row are white while 72% of the population identify themselves as white.  The death penalty itself is not prohibited by international law but how it’s used gives a measure of the decency of the country itself and, in America, what are considered as “cruel and unusual punishments” proscribed by the Eighth Amendment.

It also allows reflection on the ages of those allowed to be executed.  In 1944, the 14-year old George Stinney was electrocuted in South Carolina after being found guilty of the murder of two children.  The case was based on circumstantial evidence, he maintained his innocence throughout and the verdict was subsequently overturned and he was pardoned.  Posthumously.  Better never than late.

It wasn’t until 1989 that a Kentucky case said there was a general consensus that people under 16 shouldn’t be executed and this has since been confirmed by the US Supreme Court.

However, many states under Republican control are still buying drugs used in executions from illicit dealers (pharmaceutical companies are not allowed to sell their products to be used in executions).  Arizona has, for example, ordered $1.5m worth of such drugs and said they must be shipped in “unmarked jars and boxes”.

And so to this week’s good news:  according to a report in Biological Reviews, there are about 100,000 wasp species worldwide but only a third of them sting, and they are all valuable plant pollinators.

*          I wonder why Carrie Symonds** is still his fiancée and not his wife.  She doesn’t look like someone I’d want to upset so perhaps it’s in case he discovers he’s inadvertently spawned yet another child with somebody else and wants to be able to walk away again.

**        Did you know her paternal grandfather was a former Labour MP, now probably spinning in his grave?

The Chauvin verdict, me and Shurf, pots and kettles, football, Russian assets and driverless cars

25 April 2021

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel in America?  Over here, it’s the headlights of a train coming towards us.

Derek Chauvin, a police officer who had already been the subject of numerous complaints about his brutality, was found guilty of second- and third-degree murder and manslaughter after kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for 9½ minutes.  The second-best thing was that the jury returned its verdicts swiftly and unanimously so they obviously had no reservations.

The prosecution case included the video recorded by Darnella Frazier, an exceptionally brave witness who filmed the murder taking place.  She was only 17 at the time and has been praised by the Minneapolis police chief but, sadly, she now lies awake at night wondering if she could perhaps have intervened and saved his life. 

And it’s still going on.  As the Rev Al Sharpton, a civil rights leader activist and founder of the National Action Network, said last week “Eleven months ago, I delivered the eulogy for George Floyd.  It grieves me that I am returning to do the same for Daunte Wright”.

(Daunte Wright was shot in the chest at close range while police attempted to arrest him during a traffic stop for an outstanding arrest warrant.  The officer who pulled the trigger said she’d meant to use her Taser but grabbed the wrong weapon.  She’s since been charged with second-degree murder.)

My only encounter with the American police was in Carmel, California in the late 90s when a flock of birds was resting on a rocky point between the coastal path and the sea.  Naturally, I shinned over the single piece of wire edging the path to get closer to them and take a photograph and, as I was focussing and clicking way, I heard some shouting behind me.

I tend to assume that people can’t possibly be shouting at me and it wasn’t till my travelling companion called my name that I turned to see her standing next to a gun-toting uniform that had ‘Sheriff’ written on it.  I never saw ‘Twin Peaks’ but I did read one of Nancy Banks-Smith’s critiques in which she talked about a character called Shurf and it conjured up an image that’s stayed with me. 

Anyway, they obviously wanted me to come back so, on principle, I took one final photograph and walked back to where they were standing, surrounded by a growing group of interested spectators.  Shurf and I then had a conversation which went roughly as follows:

  • What are you doing?  You’re not allowed over there.
  • I was just taking photographs of those birds.
  • It’s dangerous, you might get knocked over by a big wave.
  • The sea’s very calm.
  • Sometimes large waves come from nowhere.
  • The sea’s thirty feet below where I was and a hundred yards away.
  • These waves can be very big and you could have been killed.

At this point, I decided Shurf didn’t have any sense of proportion and was performing for the crowd so I went into my default mode when dealing with authority figures with guns and apologised and humbly listened to his lecture and we parted, if not as friends, at least not as killer and corpse. 

Nowadays, it’s rather different and the American police will kill someone for allegedly trying to pass a dud $20 bill, especially if they’re black.  Some of my (visibly white) friends in America always feel their stomachs lurch when a police car comes up behind them. 

The guilty verdicts against Chauvin were themselves historic:  he was the first white officer ever held accountable for killing a Black person in the state of Minnesota, but the fight for equality, justice and police reform has only just begun.  Somebody has even suggested that all law enforcement bodies should be dismantled and built again from scratch on a federal basis.

Chauvin himself currently faces up to 40 years in prison where the majority of other inmates will be (a) black and (b) not his fans.

Over here, the government has been described, even by members of its own party, of cronyism and sleaze.  A former prime minister has been accused of lobbying government for personal gain, which may or may not have been legal, the current prime minister has allegedly misused party money at the behest of his fiancée and a former special adviser, who broke the lockdown rules himself last year by driving from London to County Durham, has described some of Boris Johnson actions as “mad and totally unethical” and accused him of a lack of integrity.  Pots and kettles.  It doesn’t look good for Johnson, except that nobody ever believed he had any integrity anyway, and Dominic Cummings is just proving that hell hath no fury like a spad scorned.

The latest Opinium poll indicates that almost 4 of every 10 voters think Johnson and the Tory party are “mostly or completely corrupt”.  Yawn.  What’s more surprising is that 3 of every 10 voters believe the Conservative party is “clean and honest”.  However, the poll was taken before Cummings came out of his box.

I never thought I’d ever say this but what a fascinating week for football!  Fifteen of Europe’s richest clubs announced they were founding a European Super League.  Everybody from the prime minister to the fans who buy tickets for the matches rose up in arms and, by Wednesday, the idea was dead.  You must be pretty stupid not to do any research or consult your supporters or consider the effect on other football clubs before announcing something like that;  it just shows all too clearly the difference between the owners who are in it for the money and the fans who are in it for The Beautiful Game.

In a rather different but equally unsurprising way, an American reporter, Craig Unger, has just published a book, “American Kompromat”, in which a former KGB spy, Yuri Shvets, alleges that America’s last president has been a Russian “asset” for decades.  (He makes it clear that there’s a difference between “asset” and “agent”;  the latter actively pass information to their controllers while the former are too thick to realise they’re being manipulated.)

According to Shvets, the KGB’s assessment of Donald Trump was that “In terms of his personality, the guy is not a complicated cookie, his most important characteristics being low intellect coupled with hyperinflated vanity.”

Of course, former spies who’ve changed sides aren’t necessarily the most reliable of sources but, in 2019, Robert Mueller confirmed that Russia had offered Trump a lucrative building deal in Moscow and Trump had lied about his dealings with Russia, giving them the additional leverage of threatening to expose his lies.

And, for those of you thinking of buying a driverless car (not me for sure), remember the Tesla with nobody at the wheel that misjudged a curve a bend at high-speed last week, hit a tree and burst into flames, killing both its middle-aged occupants.  The Tesla company was asked for comment but has no media relations department so I still don’t know if the tree survived.

Vaccinations, chumocracy, Gaia, reporting abuse in China, police priorities, car insurance, the human mind, and a fifth force

18 April 2021

There’s been a lot of flapdoodling over Covid vaccinations, including new concerns that a tiny proportion of them (about 4 in a million) might have caused blood clots which, in an even smaller number of cases, killed people.  To put that in perspective, two people in Cornwall might get a clot and 36 of the millions of people living in Greater London might get a clot, and they wouldn’t even fill the upper deck of one London bus.

There’s also a conspiracy theory that the vaccination will introduce a microchip into your system that will tell Bill Gates every time you have a bath, but you have to be pretty paranoid to believe that.

My wife and I are having our second jabs (or jags if you’re reading this north of the border) tomorrow.

I can understand why people are concerned that Covid passports might discriminate against people who haven’t yet been invited for a vaccination but once everybody’s been offered it, who cares?  Surely requiring vaccination certificates from people who are going to gather closely together is just common sense, not an infringement of their freedom, because it must reduce the likelihood of more superspreader events.  And if anti-vaxxers decide not to get vaccinated, they won’t be able to go to festivals and football matches, but that’s their choice.

Some of us are already used to carrying yellow cards in our passports, showing we’ve been vaccinated for yellow fever (and TAB / cholera), when going to certain countries and I’ve never felt my personal freedom was restricted by them.

When easing the lockdown, Boris Johnson admitted this will inevitably increase the number of cases.  He claims the lockdowns are the major contributors to the recent reduction in infection rates while his health Secretary, Matt Hancock, claims the reduction is due to the success of the vaccination programme;  and I thought they were on the same side.  Anyway, Serco is waiting with bated bank account in case infection rates do start to increase again.

Remember Serco?  Up there with G4S?  Had to pay a fine of £23m to the Serious Fraud Office in 2019 for fraud and false-accounting in its electronic tagging contracts, and another fine for the inadequacy of housing for asylum seekers?  Has since ‘won’ more government contracts?  Was at the centre of the impressively useless £22bn ‘test and trace’ programme for which the National Audit Office subsequently found no evidence that it had reduced Covid-19 infection rates?  Has a CEO called Rupert Soames (another scion of the Churchill family) who said the ‘test and trace’ team had done “bloody well” and trousered £4.9m in 2020 for his chutzpah?  Another example of what floats to the top in slurry pits.

At least the vaccine seem to have been effective here in reducing infection numbers so we’re being allowed to meet a limited number of other people in the open air, subject to the rules of your region, but snogging strangers is still discouraged.

(For some of us older ones, ‘snog’ always used to be a noun:  one would have a snog with someone but now one snogs them, which somehow overrides the implied consent in the first form and sounds much less reciprocal in the second.)

So we’ll continue to wear masks, keep our distance whenever possible and hope for the best but I do wonder if Gaia is behind the pandemic as part of a double-pronged attack on humanity.  Having convinced us we can control epidemics by giving us a false sense of security with SARS, swine flu and AIDS, it’s now hitting us with a pandemic that we can’t control at the same time as we near the climate emergency tipping point.

So let’s turn our backs and enjoy the curiosities of life and that Prince Philip’s funeral service yesterday was attended by 30 representatives of different branches of his family, including Donatus, Prince and Landgrave of Hesse and Gormenghast and Prince Philipp of Hohenlohe-Langenburg and Gilly-Gilly-Ossenfeffer.

And, while racism still seems rife in the police, at least some of them still have their priorities right:  a West Mercia police spokesperson said last week: “We are appealing for information following the theft of an award-winning rabbit”.  The missing rabbit measures four feet from its scut to its bewhiskered hooter and a professional pet detective* has recommended closing Britain’s borders to ensure it isn’t taken abroad for a holiday in the Alpine lettuce fields.

Which reminds me that, since I mentioned coded ways to report abuse last week, I’ve heard about #RiceBunny which is used by Chinese women when discussing sexual harassment to avoid alerting Chinese censorship algorithms.  The words ‘rice bunny’ are apparently pronounced “mi tu” in Mandarin. 

I was also reminded this week that our car insurance comes up for renewal in late May so I must get some quotes. According to ‘Money Saving Expert’, premiums can be halved if you compare different insurers’ prices 23 days before the renewal date.  Costs then increase as the renewal date approaches and leaving it until just before the renewal date will certainly produce higher quotations because insurers say that late renewers are statistically more likely to claim.  Hmmm – it wouldn’t be because they no longer have time to find a cheaper price would it?

In one of life’s coincidences, a friend’s philosophy class now gets regular discussion notes by email and, shortly after I mentioned the human mind last month, she sent me a recent one on the mind.  My immediate response was that, to me, the mind is a nebulous, indescribable link between brain and action / decision / conscious thought which develops over one’s lifetime, from the basic, earthbound, self-centred demands of the newborn to the intellectual and social interactions of adults.  In modern day language, perhaps the brain is the hardware, the mind is the operating software and their interactions are application software.

However, shortly after I’d written this, it occurred to me that my metaphor was based on our current ‘scientific’ understanding of the world;  had I lived in ancient times, I might have used a Hippocratic metaphor and linked mind to the balance between the four bodily fluids.

Recent studies of sub-atomic particles called muons may have found evidence of a fifth fundamental force of nature to add to gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force and the weak force.  In an experiment, muons were expected to ‘wobble’ at a certain rate but actually wobbled much faster than expected so there’s a possibility that a fifth force could speed them up.

Wouldn’t it be exciting if this began to explain some of the apparent anomalies such as why the universe is expanding faster than our science thinks it should!

Well, I suppose we all get excited by different things, like waiting for one of the DoE’s pallbearers to trip at his funeral, drop the coffin and hear a voice from inside saying “clumsy oaf”.  I did actually see a bit of the funeral when a gun was being fired every so often, followed by which a bell went bong and I found myself waiting to see if one of the shots missed the bell.

*          Honestly, I don’t make job titles up.  Their job probably involves discovering it was done by the ferret in the scullery with the chrysanthemum.

Kindness and laughter, gambling, billionaires, insurance, escaping abuse and worries about heaven

11 April 2021

At times like these, the world needs kindness more than ever.

Suffering is all around us while autocrats and plutocrats live increasingly remote and unreal existences, never seeming to recognise that they actually depend on the rest of us.

In China, the Uighurs are being ‘re-educated’ to destroy their cultural history and independence;  in Myanmar, the Rohingya are being annihilated and demonstrators are being shot;  in the middle east, Israel is killing Palestinians and disenfranchising all Israelis who aren’t Jewish;  Muslims are divided between Sunnis and Shi’ites (basically the left and right hands of the Prophet fighting over who gets to cut the other one off);  Americans are buying guns and, having got them, reckon they might as well use them to kill other people;  Northern Ireland is descending into chaos again, this time over the Brexit agreement rather than religion, but the burning buses look the same;  the ‘authorities’ in Hong Kong are killing anyone who disagrees with them;  nobody likes Iran (like Britain, another failed state that used to control a huge empire);  and Russia is headed by a humourless despot who thinks it’s cool to be photographed topless on a horse.

What happened to laughter?  Can you imagine Vlad the Poisoner helpless with laughter?  Why are so many leaders so self-important?  What makes powerful people think pomposity and arrogance are essential to their trade?  Can you imagine Donald Trump saying “I don’t know, tell me what you think”?

We are all but waves on the limitless oceans of spacetime, and waves don’t go anywhere, they’re just water going up and down in the same place, and are gone in the blink of an eye.

I sometimes wonder if we all – including me – try to see too far with short-sighted eyes and we should just accept that other people see things differently without necessarily being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.  We can perhaps concentrate just on thinking about what will make other people happier and ignore what might make them like, or fear, us more.

Being kind to people can make them happier, even if only briefly, and doesn’t have to take time, perhaps messaging them asking how they are, or remembering their birthday, or sending them a book you saw in a charity shop and thought they might like.  It’s often the little things that make the most impact and, just for a moment, the other person will wonder if the world isn’t all bad. 

If I could have one superpower, it’d be to make people feel better about being themselves, warts and all.  For me, silliness and laughter are essential parts of this so I get great pleasure from small things, like the official sign in the District of North Vancouver which reads:

Attention dog guardians
Please pick up after your dogs.  Thank you.  
Attention dogs
Grrrrr, bark, woof.  Good dog.

(I’ll send a photograph of the sign to anybody who thinks I make these things up.)

Incidentally, did you see that Betfred, a gambling company, had refused to pay out a £1.7m jackpot won by Andy Green playing blackjack on their site in 2018.  Their excuse?  Their system had a glitch that failed to stop people winning multiple jackpots.  This is a classic example of what Bugs Bunny once described as “a pronoun problem”, a definition I’ve cherished ever since I heard it.  In a summarised form it goes “I’ve got a problem and you’re going to put it right”.

The punter concerned was understandably upset and took them right up to the High Court where it was decided that the problem was Betfred’s not the winner’s and they should pay him what he’d won.  After this judgement, Betfred said “we will abide by the court’s decision and not appeal. We would like to apologise to Mr Green for the delay in receiving his money.”

(An incidental benefit arising from this is that we now know that, because the software’s been sorted, if we do win a jackpot, we should stop playing because the updated software isn’t going to let us win another.)

I always used to suspect it was more productive to place a bet that certain events would happen than to insure against them happening because bookmakers were more likely to pay out than insurance companies but I’m now beginning to doubt this.  (I once damaged the trousers of a suit and was offered half the cost of the suit because only half of it was damaged;  obviously, I did the only thing possible and posted them the jacket and saying here’s the other half of the suit’s value, it’s yours to keep,  please send a cheque for the full cost of a replacement suit, and they did.)

Gambling firms have profited hugely from the Covid-19 pandemic, as have billionaires generally with 493 new billionaires, 205 of them in China, being added to the Forbes annual poll which now lists 2,755 billionaires with a combined wealth of $13.1tn (up from $8tn in 2020).  Trump was one of the few losers and finished almost 300 places further down the list.

Another much more worrying effect of the lockdown has been the surge in domestic violence but an 18-year old Polish woman, Krysia Paszko, who’d heard of the Spanish system which the French had adopted that uses codewords to tell pharmacists they were being abused.  (In France, asking for a “Mask 19”, alerts the staff to abuse.)

In Poland, Paszko set up a website Rumianki i Bratki (camomiles and pansies) in April last year.  It looks like a normal cosmetics shop with pictures of lavender soap and cleansing sage face masks but, instead of salespeople, you reach a volunteer team of psychologists from the Centre for Women’s Rights and, if someone places an order and gives their address, it means a police response is needed;  in the last year, it’s helped 350 people with free legal advice and action plans.

Her inspiration won Paszko the EU’s Civil Solidarity Prize, a 10,000-euro ($12,000) award for Covid initiatives. 

And, of course, the Duke of Edinburgh died this week.  I hope people will respect the Queen’s request that they give money to charity instead of dumping bouquets that rapidly turn into a mixture of compostable material contaminated with cellophane, plastic and rubber bands.  Let’s also spare a thought for how she must be feeling at the end of a partnership of 73 years. 

Philip himself is now in the big kennel in the sky with our dowager dog who died a few weeks ago.  I hope he’ll visit her – she loved everybody, especially if they brought her celery.

Actually, I’ve always wondered, if there is a heaven, do animals go there?  Are your old pets waiting to greet you?  Do they still eat … inappropriate things?  Are poo bags issued to dog-lovers?  I’m reminded of Androcles saying in G B Shaw’s play ‘Androcles and the Lion’ that he wouldn’t want to go to heaven if there weren’t any animals there.

Would a friend of mine who died of Motor Neurone Disease when we were both 43 recognise me now I’m no longer 43?  What about babies who die very young – what sort of spirit would they have?

Even more importantly (for me) is whether there’s laughter in heaven and whether one’s allowed to be silly, like in the card in the shop window that said:

FOUND

Tabby cat, white chest and paws,

answers to the name of Bugger Off.

Silliness and self-importance are mutually incompatible and I know which I prefer.

I wonder about these things not out of any disrespect to other people’s beliefs but because, here on earth, friends, animals and silliness are important to me, and I fully accept that what I now think of as ‘me’ is so rooted in the life I’ve had so far that my spirit may exist far above such petty limitations.

Stopped clocks, inexplicable reports, increasing tax and failures such as Brexit and shrinking willies

4 April 2021

After his husband David died, the Revd broadcaster Richard Coles’ clock stopped.  This wasn’t due to any magical connection, or even coincidence, it was just an old grandfather clock with an intricate winding mechanism that only David knew how to operate.

However, there have been cases when clocks stopped when somebody died, not all of them linked to the song that was popular on the radio in the 1950s but was written in 1876 by Henry Clay Work (and is, incidentally, believed to be why longcase clocks became known as ‘grandfather clocks’).

During World War II, my wife’s father commanded one of the destroyers that accompanied and protected convoys of merchant ships across the Atlantic (Nicholas Montsarrat’s 1951 novel ‘The Cruel Sea’ is supposed to portray a horribly accurate idea of what conditions were like on these convoys).  When he was off watch one night and sleeping, he woke suddenly for no obvious reason and, at the end of the watch, he found his clock had stopped at the time he woke.  He later heard that his brother, who was in the RAF, had been killed at that exact time on a flight over Germany.

While the link between a clockwork mechanism and a human life seems rather unlikely, I still side with Hamlet when he chided Horatio for doubting that he’d seen his father’s ghost and I have no problems with telepathy, or at least some currently inexplicable link between two different minds in different places.

Thinking of mind-expanding experiences, I noticed New York has legalised marijuana for recreational use “to end the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana prohibition” (as one American lawmaker said).  Legalising dope could also, quite coincidentally of course, be worth an estimated $4bn to the state, some $350m of which would go into state funds.  It would also, one hopes, reduce the need for stoners to find street dealers and perhaps drug gangleaders will lose some power as a result.  It would be interesting to know how the weedmeisters’ activities have been affected in, say, Colorado where it’s been legal since 2014.

This was a week of inexplicable reports, not all published on 1 April, one of which claimed that somebody’s trying to set up a charity to raise £1m for a Brexit museum.  Why do we need one?  We’ve already got the London Dungeon.

Another was that Denise Coates, the CEO of Bet365 paid herself almost half a billion pounds last year in salary and dividends.  Bet365 is a company that spends money trying to encourage people to get addicted to a potentially lethal habit.  If other addictive and potentially lethal recreational habits such as nicotine can’t be advertised on television, why can betting?

Abigail Disney (a granddaughter) is a member of The Patriotic Millionaires, set up in 2010 by a group of the super-rich who believe that they should pay higher taxes to fund public services and welfare and to tackle growing inequality.  It has since grown to an international organisation with more than 200 members who are proud to describe themselves as “traitors to their class” and share a concern about the “destabilising concentration of wealth and power”.

In Britain, six billionaires have signed up so far and have expressed their shock that, according to the Office for National Statistics, the richest 1% of Brits hold almost a quarter of the nation’s wealth while 2.5 million Londoners are classified as living in poverty.  One of the members of this club is Gemma McGough who made millions from the sale of a wireless technology start-up.  She thinks the top rate of tax should be as high as 75% to help contribute to the costs of the Covid-19 pandemic incurred by the government and says she’s happy to pay her share.  “If you’re earning £200,000, paying a higher rate of tax on earnings above that is not going to make you poor, is it?”

(What odds do you think Bet365 would give me on Coates not being a member of the club?)

US Senator Elizabeth Warren was proposing an annual wealth tax of just 2% on people with more than $50m, which would have raised $4tn, but has now added a higher rate of 3% on those with more than $1bn, targeting people who have been made richer by the pandemic and pointing out that the top 0.1% (that’s one in every thousand people) pay a lower effective tax rate than the bottom 99% (that’s 990 in every thousand people).  I wonder if it will become law …

Since the rabid chickens of Brexit are already coming home to roost, let’s have a UK referendum on higher taxes for the very wealthy so that no government or party has to take the blame.

In June, it’ll be 5 years since the UK voted to leave the EU and, on 29 March this year (!), the Government’s Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy wrote to all UK companies to say (inter alia) “the Government’s decision to delay the implementation of full border control processes by six months … will provide time to prepare for changes at the border and minimise trade disruption”.  It also admits “Completing a customs declaration can take time, so do consider using a customs intermediary to deal with importing and exporting on your behalf” but I couldn’t find the bit where it says the government will provide the services of such intermediaries free as an admission of its culpability for failing to negotiate a deal four years earlier that would have allowed everyone to prepare for the change.

And two updates on other failures:

  • On 7 March, I mentioned the unfortunate test flights of Elon Musk’s SpaceX prototypes.  This week, Starship SN11 followed the precedent set by the previous three launches when it “experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly” or, in English, it exploded in mid-air.  Musk still anticipates launching the Dragon capsule with people on board in the autumn.
  • You may also remember that, in mid-2019, the investment fund manager Neil Woodford’s luck ran out and more than 300,000 investors in his funds lost most of their money while he kept the £63m he’d trousered as he ran the funds into the ground.  Well, he’s trying to crawl back into the market, announcing last month that he was planning to set up a new business based in Jersey.  What a pity he hadn’t mentioned this to Jersey’s financial regulator who seemed rather less than enthusiastic about the idea.

The good news is that some 2017 research by Professor Shanna Swan of the Mount Sinai school of medicine in New York City showed that, as a result of chemicals used in plastics affecting sex hormones, the average sperm count of an Alt-Right male has more than halved in the previous 40 years, their dangly bits have shrunk, Alt-Right females libidos have decreased and their risk of premature ovarian failure, miscarriage and premature birth have increased in the same period.

Actually of course, as you will have guessed, Swan’s findings applied to all western men and women, not just Alt-Right people, but let’s look on the bright side.

Amazon, buying books, tolerance, political hypocrisy, Scotland, property developers and gun control

28 March 2021

Amazon has a problem which discourages potential buyers.  It isn’t a huge problem for me because I only use Amazon when there’s no alternative but I want a book published online by Amazon which I can’t get anywhere else and it’s written by a friend so I really do want to read it.

The reason I avoid Amazon is not because I dislike the company – their service is actually very good and they handle complaints well – but because I’m unhappy about commercial monopolies and the power it gives them to abuse their staff:  their delivery drivers often have to pee in bottles because they get fired if they leave too many packages undelivered at the end of the day.  (When I heard a former Amazon driver had said this, my first thought was what on earth their women drivers do.)

If I’m logging in to Amazon, they send a code to my phone.  I’m used to this elsewhere, but instead of a number Amazon sends a 274-digit (no I didn’t actually count them) http address to my phone and says ‘tap here’.  It may work on a Smartphone but there’s nothing to tap on Thickphones.

They can then send you a number by email but guess what happens – there’s nowhere on the login screen to enter a number so you end up circling back to blah-di-blah tap here.  After half an hour of teeth-grinding, I phoned them and spoke to someone who didn’t know how it worked and sent me an email saying I can email them so they can ring me back but, in order to do this, you have to log in …  At this point, I lost the will to live and went to bed.

Incidentally, about a year ago, I mentioned the Big Green Bookshop which ran a ‘Buy a Stranger a Book’ scheme.  I sent the money for a signed copy of a book I wanted and topped it up with enough to buy books for two strangers.  The book duly arrived but it was unsigned so I queried this and got an offhand reply saying they’d run out and would a signed bookplate do?  Yes, I said, and never heard from them again, despite two subsequent reminders.  Avoid!

Instead, for books, try https://uk.bookshop.org/, “an online bookshop with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops” where you can buy books and choose the local bookshop you want to have the profit on your order.

Elsewhere, a school in Batley, West Yorkshire is in trouble because one of its teachers used a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad while talking about the Charlie Hebdo massacre carried out by Muslims who were offended because some believe their faith forbids depictions of their Prophet.

I find myself conflicted by this.  I have no problems with the principle of gods and prophets being lampooned or pictured in any way but I’m unreligious and I’m not in a position to judge the validity of other people’s beliefs.  However, I do believe that displaying something which is known to offend some people is tactless and insulting;  we should be able to accept that others have different beliefs which we should respect.  We should also try to learn about their beliefs and understand them even if ours are different. 

Boris Johnson has at last admitted he wished he’d done some things differently and regrets not having locked down earlier but he didn’t say ‘sorry’ and he went on to say there would be a “a fitting and a permanent memorial to the loved ones we have lost and to commemorate this whole period”.  He apparently thinks it’ll comfort people who have lost friends and relations to know that their names will appear somewhere on a memorial.  Sod the memorial, I’d rather have the people back. 

Still, I’m sure he won’t let his ‘regret’ prevent future dithering and delays.  Indeed, while Professor Chris Whitty is warning of another increase in infections and there’s a full-page NHS advertisement on the back of today’s paper saying “Every online meeting is making a difference … Stay Home”, Johnson’s urging people to get back to work.

We’re also seeing Rishi Sunak reverting to type.  A year ago, he took a firm hold of the money and said there’d be “whatever it takes” to support people through the pandemic but he just blew it when he insulted NHS staff who are working their backsides off, risking their lives and dying, with an increase of 1%; his boss confirmed “it’s all we can afford” while simultaneously announcing £1.5bn of support for companies struggling to pay business rates and a huge increase in our stock of nuclear weapons.

Johnson even admitted that “The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed” which is true but even he realised this should never be admitted in public and, immediately afterwards, he tried to withdraw what he’d said.

Further north, after falling out with his former sidekick, Alex Salmond is forming a new party, Alva, which sounds like a Caledonian washing powder.  His only reason to do this seems to be to divide Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP supporters.  I wish someone would do the same with the Conservative Party.

Some of their protégés are currently are trying to convince Horsham district council it would be really great to build lots of houses on a world-famous 3,500-acre rewilding project on the Knepp estate, endangering the rare white storks that have raised chicks there alongside peregrines, turtle doves, nightingales and purple emperor butterflies.  The estate is also believed to house the densest population of breeding songbirds in Britain and provides a vital, protected wildlife corridor linking the estate with the St Leonard’s and Ashdown forests.

But there is good news.  As we all know, developers will happily fell protected trees that have been growing for centuries and infringe any planning restriction they don’t like, pay the fines (which can theoretically be very large but usually aren’t) and carry on with the building work. 

In early 2015, the foreign-owned developer CLTX Ltd was refused planning permission to demolish the 94-year old pub Carlton Tavern in Kilburn, London so they popped in when it was closed over the Easter weekend and knocked most of it down, expecting to pay a fine and get on with the work.  They were then amazed when, immediately following its destruction, Westminster council wrote to CLTX demanding that the Carlton Tavern be rebuilt exactly “as it stood immediately prior to its demolition”, brick by brick.  CLTX’s standard reply to such demands was that this would be impossible because the details had been lost.

Unfortunately for them, a canny bunch of locals didn’t trust property developers (I wonder why) and had anticipated this so they’d asked English Heritage to list it and a plaster cast had been made of every tile, bundles of pictures were taken and everything was fully documented.  So CLTX had to rebuild it and now, six years later, the Carlton Tavern will (lockdown permitting) reopen next month.

Is it wicked to enjoy a feeling of schadenfreude?

Joe Biden seems to have started well in an understated, unshouty way and is even starting on gun control and calling for a ban on assault weapons.

The NRA believes that most murders are committed using handguns and knives rather than assault rifles, and that focusing on gun ownership neglects the killers’ motives for killing someone.  There are also very few ‘mass shootings’ and they account for less than 3% of all the people who are shot to death.  They see this as an argument for not banning assault rifles.

Their opponents see it as an argument for controlling all guns.

From over here, it seems that right-wing Americans fail to recognise the significance of the second Amendment the NRA uses to justify the right to have guns.  It’s clear that most of them have never read the opening words which say “A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State …” and nowhere does it even hint that individuals have the right just to shoot people they don’t like.

What people also seem to forget is that, when it was written, the “Arms” mentioned in the amendment were muskets, cumbersome things that fired one shot then took several minutes to reload.  Revolvers, which could only hold up to eight bullets before needing to be reloaded, and self-contained cartridges weren’t invented till some 30 years later, while the latest weapons can now shoot at the rate of 6,000 rounds per minute and can empty a magazine holding 30 rounds in half a second.

Isn’t it sad that so much thought and engineering goes into producing something so unnecessary.

Dying, death and Near Death Experiences

We are now a household of three orphans since the dowager dog, nearly 14, came to the end of her days and slipped peacefully into her last sleep with the help of an injection from a vet.  Unfortunately, he wouldn’t leave any spare drugs – a mixture of benzodiazepines and barbiturates – so I could, if necessary, avoid a long-drawn out and painful period of dying and skip the nasty bits at the end (see also my blog of 19 August 2018).

She had a good life, was an “absolute sweetie” and, almost invariably, very well-behaved, although we do have a photograph of her just after she’d stolen a stick of celery which was projecting from both sides of her mouth;  she was sitting with her eyes squeezed tightly shut so we’d know that she wouldn’t dream of stealing food and she didn’t have any celery and hadn’t been there at the time and, anyway, we couldn’t see her because she had her eyes shut.

Her son, the bouncy one, seems to have a feeling something’s changed but he too is a Labrador so, even though he’s suddenly become an orphan, it hasn’t put him off his food.

(Why does this remind me of the child who killed both his parents then pleaded for clemency because he was an orphan?)

The peaceful way she died makes me wonder what she experienced as the lights went out.  It’s far too easy to anthropomorphise about dogs but a lot of people – including me – are fascinated by ‘near death experiences’ (NDEs) of humans who have technically died, or got very close to death, before being brought back to life.

This then inevitably raises questions about when death actually occurs and the whole process of dying.

Lyall Watson’s first introduced me to the idea that there’s no clear-cut division between being alive and being dead.  He was a South African biologist interested in unexplained phenomena and his second book (‘Supernature’), published in 1973, made him famous.  ‘The Romeo Error’, published the following year, explored the difficulties of differentiating between ‘alive’ and ‘dead’.

Although NDEs have been known and written about for centuries (Socrates and Pliny the Elder each had one) and, in 1944, the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung suffered a heart attack and experienced a NDE (and, curiously, a nurse who was with him said his unconscious body seemed to be surrounded by a strange glow);  but, almost by definition, they are unpredictable and almost impossible to research ‘scientifically’. 

In 1975, Raymond Moody published ‘Life after Life’, the first detailed survey of NDEs, and a decade later, Margot Grey collected some survivors’ reports of their NDEs, including a few that were negative.  More recent research has shown that about one in six survivors had (or admitted to having?) NDEs.

No two NDEs are identical but most share common features.  Many report that their awareness of time was affected and they felt that past, present and future were all around them;  Grey reports that some of their experiences included visions of the future and there was a surprising consensus on what was to come:  widespread earthquakes and volcanic activity, a pole shift, erratic weather patterns, drought and food shortages, economic collapse, social disintegration, diseases of unknown origin and possible nuclear or natural catastrophe.  And now, 36 years later …

Much about NDEs has been researched and collected and published since then, and many suggestions, psychological, physical and spiritual, have attempted to explain them.  A new book, ‘After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal About Life and Beyond’ by Bruce Greyson, has another go at it.

What I find fascinating is how many of the NDEs involve feelings of transcendence and the interconnectedness of everything which, to me at least, chimes with the basic concept of Zen as I understand it.

As our dog was dying and we were stroking her, there was no sign of any discomfort when first her brain and then her heart stopped functioning.  And therein lies the puzzle about the transition from life to death – when did she die?

Different parts of the body die at different rates and we’ve all heard of people who are ‘brain dead’ but still alive (and no, I’m not going to make a cheap joke about Boris Johnson) and we tend to associate consciousness with being alive but we also know that people who have apparently been in a coma later report they could hear what was going on around them, which leads to all sorts of debates about what the ‘mind’ is and how it relates to the brain.  (Neuroscientists currently tend to be dubious about the mind having an existence independently of the brain, possibly because this can lead to theories about spirits and souls whose existences are, as any fule kno, ‘unscientific’ and a matter of individual choice because scientists haven’t (yet?) been able to get them to interact with their machines.)

One eye-witness to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots was the son of William Cecil (the first Lord Burghley), one of Elizabeth I’s most trusted advisers.  Having seen the executioner have three goes at hacking off her head, he reported to his father that “Her lips stirred up and down a quarter of an hour after her head was cut off”.  Other eye-witness reports don’t mention this but there seems no reason why it couldn’t have happened with her brain still full of oxygen and the lip muscles still intact, except that 15 minutes seems a bit optimistic.

He didn’t lip-read what she said but I know that, if it had been me, much of it wouldn’t have been printable in a family newspaper.

When people have ‘died’ and returned to life and spoken about it, there are some remarkable similarities between their experiences but the feelings that accompanied them seem indescribable:  one subject told Bruce Greyson it was like trying “to draw an odour with crayons”.  They also share the fact that complex experiences and feelings take place in a very short time, sometimes just a matter of seconds, and the person sometimes becomes aware of things that they could not have experienced if they were conscious.

When Greyson was starting his psychiatric training in the 1960s, he came across a patient who claimed to have “left her body” while on a hospital bed and accurately described in considerable detail what had been happening in a different room.

NDEs seem to change about 80% of people’s attitudes, values, beliefs and their approach to life, and these changes can persist for the rest of their lives.  Most report feelings of wonder, mental clarity and absolute contentment, many involving a light at the end of a tunnel where they see long-dead relations or entities they describe as Yahweh, or God, or Allah or their own chosen god.

Some police and military officers felt unable to go back to work because they could no longer deal with violence and they ended up as teachers or healthcare or social workers;  and most people realised they were no longer afraid to die.

In a new book by Michael Rosen (‘Many Different Kinds of Love’), written after he recovered from Covid-19 after 6 weeks in an artificially-induced coma, he says of the illness:

“I start to believe the edges of my body are liminal,

They are touching other worlds”

And later, as he was recovering:

“They’ve been worried

About my low blood pressure

But they’ve brought me the Daily Mail

So it’ll be fine in just a moment.”

Making women safer, abortion, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Ghislaine Maxwell and deepfakes

14 March 2021

The horrific abduction and murder of Sarah Everard raises a number of important questions, and not just about the startling lack of information given by the police or how they dealt with last night’s vigil. 

The most obvious question is about what women can do to make themselves safer, like avoiding dark and deserted places at night, wearing flat shoes to make running easier, holding your keys in your hand so you don’t have to stop and search for them, and keeping one key sticking out between your fingers if you think you might have to punch someone, using your phone to tell friends where you are and when you’re home safely.  If you do feel threatened, try to take and send a photograph of the person to a friend, ring 999 and leave the line open, then say enough to your assailant for the call centre to realise what’s happening and send help, carry a rape alarm and, if you use it, throw it away when it starts to screech and run like hell (it’s more natural for the attacker to look at where the sound is going than where you are), scream and remember that, if you do end up having to defend yourself, there are no rules about where you kick or bite or poke or scratch or, even in these Covid-19 days, spit.

When they were young, I told my children they should never get into a car with anybody they hadn’t seen with their mother or me and if anybody tried to force them to get in, they were allowed to scream and kick break things and make as much noise as possible.  I always had a slight feeling that my eldest was rather hoping to be able to try this out but, luckily, he never needed to.

As a man who’s never felt threatened, I was most affected by the answers given to a man who’d asked how we can make women feel safer if we see one on her own at night, or see one who is looking scared.

Their suggestions included several things I hadn’t thought of, including crossing the street to the other side if a woman is coming towards you or you’re coming up behind her and want to overtake, make sure your face is visible, don’t get too close in narrow or confined spaces such as alleyways, underpasses, stairs in multi-storey car parks;  stand aside and back to let them through first, or let them know you’re coming by saying “I’m on a bicycle / jogging and coming up on your left / right” so you don’t suddenly appear from behind. You can also stop to make a reassuring phone call that she can hear, perhaps something like “Hello darling, I’m on my way and will be home in about ten minutes.  Have you got supper / dinner / tea or shall I pick up something on the way?”

If you notice a woman speeding up, this can be a sign she’s frightened so increase the distance between you by crossing the road, or stopping.

If you’ve been with a woman friend who’s planning to walk home, or to a station or bus stop, offer to walk with her and stay with her till her train / bus appears and she’s safely on it.

Another important thing men can prepare for is if we think a woman is being hassled by another man or men.  I’ve always regretted that I didn’t do this about 35 years ago and was at a loss when I saw a young woman apparently being insulted by a group of young men.  It was on a crowded railway station in Wembley after a Bob Dylan concert so there were plenty of others to help but I couldn’t think what to do.

I decided afterwards I could have gone over and said “Hi, Linda, it’s been a long time, how are you, are these people bothering you?” etc which would probably have helped defuse the situation, or at least taken the aggressors minds off the woman for long enough to change the atmosphere.  Far too late for her but I’ve saved it in my mind in case I ever need it again.

While we’re talking about subjugating women, Arkansas has just passed a law banning all abortions except to save the life of the mother, so even pregnancies resulting from rape cannot be terminated.  The state’s Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, said he was signing the bill because of its “overwhelming legislative support and my sincere and long-held pro-life convictions”.  Imagine carrying a rapist’s child inside you for nine months.  I wonder what sort of gods these pro-life people believe in.  I wonder too what they’d do if their wife or daughter had become pregnant after being raped.

Abraham would have done it for nothing and had raised the knife to kill Isaac before Yahweh said “No, hang on, I’ve changed my mind, kill that ram over there.”  (Leonard Cohen wrote a lovely poem / song about this called, with a certain lack of imagination, ‘Song of Isaac’.)

And, while Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been released from house arrest at the end of her five-year sentence, she’s been unable to return to the UK because she faced new charges today and her passport is being held by the Iranians.  The verdict should be known in the next week but nothing seems to be that predictable in Iran.

I thought a UK passport wasn’t technically necessary to enter the country if you had some photo ID but I’m sure Boris Johnson would ensure she was allowed into the UK since it was one of his lies, when he was Foreign Secretary, that she was “teaching people journalism”, that Iran used as evidence of her “propaganda against the regime”.

He has tweeted “Pleased to see the removal of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ankle tag, but her continued confinement remains totally unacceptable.  She must be released permanently so she can return to her family in the UK, and we continue to do all we can to achieve this.”  So no change there then – all mouth and no trousers.

Meanwhile, Ghislaine Maxwell has been refused bail twice already but is still complaining about the conditions in her New York prison cell not providing the sort of lifestyle she’s been accustomed to.  She’s even offered to give up her UK and French citizenships in exchange for bail but the authorities still think she’s likely to scarper again so they’re keeping her in.  Anybody who feels sorry for her has been watching the wrong film.

About 20 years ago, I asked out of my curiosity if my face could be pasted onto a CCTV recording of a bank robbery and was not reassured by the answer.  Now deepfakes are becoming increasingly popular but they’re not infallible and a new AI program can recognise and name all sorts of things and will, for example, recognise an apple as an apple;  except that, if you write iPod on a post-it note and stick it on the apple, the system will decide it’s an ipod.  This has useful implications for the military who will now be able to write CORNFIELD in large letters across a missile launch pad and the satellite searching for weapons will ignore it.

And this week’s good news is that Piers Morgan has been fired yet again which, I think, beats even Boris Johnson’s record.  (I wonder why I dislike the man – I’ve never met him?)  (Come to that, why do I dislike Simon Cowell who I’ve never even seen on TV, and Andrew Neil, who I have?)

The power of touch, the ship of fools, NHS, SpaceX and the 93% and 3% clubs

7 March 2021

I really miss touching people and I’m not even a frotteur;  touch is such an important factor in making people feel better.  Well, appropriate touching is …  Psychologists have coined the term ‘skin hunger’ and I know just what they mean.

I was brought up in a family that didn’t believe in touching though I’ve been told I got a lot of cuddles from my mother for my first 2½ years until my father was released (though they called it ‘demobbed’ in those days) and I met him for the first time.  He’d been a junior officer in the RAOC and believed in discipline, especially when he was the one giving the orders, and discipline didn’t involve cuddles.

It left me crippled with embarrassment about touching and I was into my twenties before I realised that touching other people, which had previously been limited to fairly intimate situations, could be much less limited.

When I later used to run a social skills course, we would spend a couple of sessions talking about body language, territoriality and touch and I was always saddened by how little some people knew about these essential aspects of relationships.  When one is learning, it’s not even obvious which parts of another person’s body are OK to touch and, in British culture, there are lots of unwritten and complicated rules about when and where one can do what and which parts of the body can only be touched by people close to you.

Some of these are obvious, such as if you hug someone, keep your hands above their waist, but some are less so.  For example, lightly touching someone’s forearm or shoulder is fairly safe but touching hands is rather more intimate unless you’re shaking hands.  The face is much more sensitive and two people have to know (and like) each other quite well before one can touch the other’s cheek. 

Some people, of course, cross these boundaries every day.  Hairdressers, for example, touch you in ways that few other people do (imagine how you’d feel if I ran my fingers through your hair) but we have a natural defence system to protect ourselves in these situations:  we classify them as non-persons so they’re not ‘people’, they’re just  doing a job.

But think of the comfort of holding hands with someone you like, or hugging them, or even doing one of those ghastly cheek-to-cheek ‘mwaah’ air kisses.  There’s a lovely photograph of Barack Obama sitting watching the 2012 election results on a sofa with his mother-in-law, some distance apart, but both of them are reaching towards the other and holding hands.

More subtle touching can produce surprising results.  In the 1970s, behavioural scientists set up some experiments, one of which was in a library.  The librarian had been told either to let their hand just touch the borrower’s hand for a microsecond as they handed the book over, or to make sure their hands didn’t touch.

Outside, a researcher would then ask the borrower for their impressions of the library and the staff and, in passing, whether the librarian had touched them at any time.  Without exception, nobody realised the librarian had touched them but the people who had been touched had markedly more favourable views of the library and its staff.

Now, in the middle of a pandemic, all this is lost to us and, apart from the people we live with, we have to keep two metres away even from our best friends.  And if we live alone, there’s nobody.  This can be devastating as, slowly but surely, the physical separation makes us feel more isolated which exacerbates depression and confidence, and some people don’t make it through.  (If this is how you feel, don’t let it overwhelm you, tell someone how you feel – in the UK, you can ring Samaritans on 116123 or email them at jo@samaritans.org).

Even when Covid-19 and its various mutations are under control, will we feel nervous about touching friends?  I do hope not, but there is no ‘normal’ to go back to and we will have to discover how to live in a new world.

Even the behaviour of politicians seems to have changed for the worse during the pandemic (yes, apparently it is possible) with the home secretary, Priti Patel, bottling out and agreeing to give Sir Philip Rutnam £340,000 plus £30,000 costs after he claimed she’d forced him out of his job for defending his staff who had claimed she’d bullied them (and who’d received their own compensation).  With her defence costs, that’s half a million pounds of our money wasted. 

In olden days when politicians still believed in ‘the honourable thing to do’, she’d have resigned when the accusations first came to light and, if she didn’t, the prime minister would have fired her.

In an unrelated case, the government also paid a five-figure settlement last November to the former special adviser Sonia Khan who had been frog-marched out of Downing Street with a police escort.

Now the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, a multi-millionaire married to a billionaire, is being widely ridiculed for giving all NHS staff except junior doctors, GPs and dentists an increase of 1% so, for every £1 they earn, he’s going to given them an extra penny, then tax it.  He’s also said that universal credit claimants will be £20 a week worse off again in September and he’s upset business owners by increasing corporation tax to 25% for larger companies from 2023 (which sounds like something he filched from Labour’s manifesto).

And the ship of fools sails on, with the captain blindfolded and tied to the mast so he doesn’t succumb to the siren songs of competence and common sense.

But there’s hope:  in 2018, Yusaku Maezawa, an online fashion tycoon, bought a bunch of tickets on the lunar spaceship being developed by SpaceX and he’s now inviting eight artists from round the world to join him for free on its first voyage round the moon. 

The first SpaceX rocket exploded on the launch pad in 2016;  another prototype blew up during a test in May last year;  SpaceX’s Starship SN8 rocket was destroyed in a fireball in December;  last week, SpaceX’s Starship SN10 took off successfully, completed its test flight successfully, landed upright successfully, stayed upright successfully, then exploded.

I’m thinking of nominating eight people from the Cabinet, piss-artists all, thereby killing two birds with one stone.

In the UK, 7% of pupils are sent to a private school while, at Bristol University, more than 30% are privately educated.  While she was studying at Bristol, Sophie Pender started the 93% club for students who felt discriminated against for not being rich and privately-educated.  In 2020, the club grew from two groups to 36 across the country, was awarded charitable status and attracted a large number of high-profile corporate sponsors.  Let’s hope this helps educate the 7% who were often, if they were at boys’ boarding schools, educated by (and often as) bullies and pederasts.

In America, an anti-government militia group called the American Patriots Three Percent has recruited a countrywide network of men and women of all ages, including serving and former members of the police, the military and border patrol forces.  One member was pictured at a rally wearing a patch sewn onto his uniform that said “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet”.

(Thinks:  “I could ask what’s for lunch honey, then shoot her while she’s looking for a can of beans.”)

PS:  For those interested in the political imbalance in America, I’ve just posted a separate piece on how this might change (thanks to a friend in America who contributed this information).

Hope for the Disunited States?

7 March 2021

There’s a faint hope of re-balancing the electoral system in America. 

Neither Puerto Rico or the District of Columbia are states and are pushing to become parts of the union.  (Imagine:  the district occupied by the White House and the Capitol isn’t yet a state – its residents can vote in presidential elections and they pay more in federal taxes than any ‘real’ state but they don’t have a voting member in the House of Congress or a voice in the Senate.) 

After what they perceived as an utterly inadequate federal response to Hurricane Maria in 2017. Puerto Rico voted in favour of becoming the 51st state.  If this were approved and if DC became the 52nd state, it could give the Democrats more seats in the Senate but they would still needs 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster which could prevent the proposal being carried so, with American politics being as partisan as they are, the current 50:50 split could make this difficult to achieve.

Both Puerto Rico and DC have large non-white populations and Republicans’ opposition to granting them statehood has been described as a bid to protect white minority rule and as “a fundamental democratic flaw” that “reeks of hypocrisy”.

Back in the day, of course, senators would vote for what they thought was best for the United States but the ‘United’ bit is now very dubious and senators tend to toe the party line to ensure their voters will choose them again next time they’re up for re-election so, in practice, senators’ desire to keep their seat overrides what’s best for the country as a whole.

Perhaps some of the older, more mature ‘moderate’ Republicans who are thinking of retiring anyway will allow their brains to override their bank balances.

However, the filibuster is being questioned at the moment over a Bill to extend voting rights within the existing 50 states.  Perhaps this could be used as a precedent to extend voting rights to residents in Puerto Rico and DC.

In addition to Puerto Rico, there are four other inhabited US territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands.  Apart from American Samoa, people in these territories are US citizens and have to pay some federal taxes.  They also send delegates to the House of Representatives who can debate legislation and sit on committees but aren’t actually able to vote.

If these four territories also became states, the influence of different American peoples, particularly those of colour, would become much more representative.

Then they can start work on updating the electoral college system and the way in which senators are elected.  With demographic changes over the years since the current system was set up, a New York Times columnist calculated that the Senate now gives the average black American only 75% as much representation as the average white American, with the average Hispanic American getting only 55% as much.

Watch this space, but don’t hold your breath.