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.

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.

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).

Progress on Covid-19, volunteers and the NHS, extremists’ psychology and the misuse of words

28 February 2021

Boris Johnson’s biographer has had a good week.  Commissioned to write a book called “Truth-telling and Triumphs” ten years ago, there’s been nothing to write about and all that had been written so far was “As a child, Boris was abused spoilt worshipped indulged and, henceforth, he expected no more of life”.

Then suddenly, in late February 2021, Johnson stepped right out of character and didn’t promise the pandemic would all be over by Easter / the summer / Christmas / Easter / the summer;  nor did he even promise impossible dates while his medical advisers looked away and tried to pretend they weren’t with him.  Instead, he said that releasing the lockdown would be phased and, while they wouldn’t happen before particular dates, their timing would depend on the situation at the time.

Then Matt Hancock, the health secretary, praised and thanked the large numbers of volunteers (which, crucially to the government, means unpaid) who are helping roll-out the vaccination programme, and he went on to say they were hoping to keep this volunteer force active when the pandemic is over.  What a brill … hang on a minute, these are people who offered to help because the government has cut NHS funding so much in the last 10 years that it no longer has enough staff.

I’ve spent my life paying money national insurance, VAT and income tax so that the NHS, the benefits system and other public services are properly funded and we can all can use them for free.  Relying on volunteers is just another way for the government to avoid having to make up NHS funding, even just to what it was before they came to power.

However, the latest poll shows that support for the Conservatives has increased dramatically since Monday.  I wonder if Johnson will spot the link between his support falling after he was so weak this time last year and its bounce following his newly-found caution.

Meanwhile, the US Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve a third new vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson* for emergency use and Joe Biden has confirmed that America has increased vaccination rates to £1.7m a day and is on track to deliver 100m shots within his first 100 days.  What a nice change from Dogsbottom’s failures**.

The Germans have created some new compound words to honour the pandemic, from coronamüde (tired of Covid-19) to balkonsänger (someone who stands on their balcony and sings at passers-by) but my favourite describes stockpiling lavatory paper and baked beans:  hamsteritis.  (While I was checking that the German for ‘hamster’ really is ‘Hamster’, I came across a wonderful example of how the word can be used in a German sentence that translates into English as “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries” – no, me neither.)

Our government has at last agreed to prioritise people on the learning disabilities register for vaccination, but only because Jo Whiley got a lot of press coverage for her sister’s genetic disorder.  What a pity it took somebody famous enough to get a lot of media coverage before they would act on what seems blindingly obvious to the rest of us.

Interestingly, researchers from the University of Cambridge have found that, in a sample of 330 US-based participants, people with extreme political, nationalist or dogmatic views tend to see the world in black and white and perform poorly on complex tasks that require intricate mental steps.

Dr Leor Zmigrod at Cambridge’s department of psychology said “Individuals or brains that struggle to process and plan complex action sequences may be more drawn to extreme ideologies, or authoritarian ideologies that simplify the world.”  Such people are prone to take simplistic views and are resistant to accept credible evidence that doesn’t support their world view, but this seems to be because they have a genuine problem with processing information, even at a perceptual level.

In some of the cognitive tasks, participants were asked to respond as quickly and as accurately as possible. People who leant towards (small c) conservativism tended to approach every task with caution and react more slowly, giving more detailed responses that meshed with their beliefs while those with less rigid beliefs produced less contextual answers faster. 

Because the “psychological signature” for extremism across the board appeared to indicate a blend of conservative and dogmatic psychologies, the researchers are hoping that these results may help identify people most at risk of radicalisation.

So, basically, extremists can’t help themselves but Shamima Begum has still been refused permission to return to the country of her birth, even though she was only 15 when she was radicalised.  Which of us never did anything when we were 15 that we might now wish we’d done differently?  Get the beam out of your own moat before you throw one in somebody else’s.

I mentioned recently that I’ve exchanged a couple of letters with a far-right climate-change denier in our local paper and apologised publicly for having teased him after he’d obviously thought I was serious about how the comparative volumes of frozen and liquid water could affect sea levels.  Last week, he claimed he’d realised I was taking the mickey (ho yerss) and, having completely missed the point of my first letter, said he was glad my heart seemed to be in the right place.  I don’t propose to respond – I’ve had my fun – but I wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night.

In the same issue of the paper, there was an impressive example of how the omission of a comma can give a misleading impression.  One sentence read “She was the middle of three sisters born to Edwin Gove Trump* and his wife Ruby on May 7, 1918.”  How interesting, I thought, the sisters were triplets, it must have been quite rare for all three triplets to survive in 1918.  Then I read on and it became clear that the omission of a comma after “sisters” wasn’t intended to imply they were triplets.  It would of course have been even clearer if the first seven words had been moved to the end of the sentence …

I also came across an advertisement that said “Your debit card lets you spend up to 8x cheaper than a bank”, which has baffled me totally.  Even correcting “cheaper” to “more cheaply” didn’t help.  What does it mean?  I rather doubt it means you get stuff for one eighth of the price if you use their debit card.  All suggestions on what it’s trying to say will be welcomed.

And the oxymoron of the week was in a report on a man who was defecting from North to South Korea:  “He was apprehended after surveillance equipment spotted him near the town of Goseong at the eastern end of the DMZ, a 248km-long (155-mile) strip of land strewn with mines that has separated the two Koreas since the end of their 1950-53 war.”  Since when has a minefield been considered “demilitarised”?

But my favourite use of words this week was a picture of a woman wearing a sweatshirt printed with the words “Underestimate me – that’ll be fun”.

*          No relation (as far as I know)

**        Doesn’t Dogsbottom sound like one of Shakespeare’s yokels, or the name of an English village, just to the west of Loose Chippings?

Message for Chuck Schumer, PM’s good week, punting, NZ, Vlad the Poisoner, flammable cladding, smart technology and smuggling cactus

7 February 2021

An open message to Chuck Schumer:

“Please remind Senators when you open the trial of your last president that, while they were elected for their party membership, this is not an election and they must now put their politics aside and think for themselves as intelligent individuals, looking only at the facts and the evidence before them.”

Boris Johnson actually had a good week, claiming personal credit for having been at least partly educated in a country whose scientists found the first effective Covid-19 vaccine, and for leading a genuinely impressive roll-out of the new inoculations.  By the end of last week, more than 8.5 million people had already been vaccinated and it seems possible that one of his promises, to vaccinate 14 million people by 15 February, might be kept.  If it is, then shall flags be hung and songs be sung and church bells rung to mark the first time Johnson’s ever kept a promise.

However, he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place:  scientists (and a Conservative former health secretary) want the lockdown kept in place for as long as it takes to know we’re all safe while businesses – many of whom are Tory donors – want everything opened up again as soon as possible.

Scientists have also said opening schools in England too soon would be “a recipe for disaster” while so many new cases are still being reported each day while Johnson has just said he reckons 8 March is “the prudent date to set”.  18 Tory MPs want them opened on 22 February…

How can Johnson possibly say 8 March is “prudent” until he knows if the number of cases will have decreased enough by then to avoid a fourth spike or surge?  (I reckon the only difference between a spike and a surge is the scale of the axes on graphs of the figures.) 

Some of the more unexpected casualties of the lockdowns are guide dogs.  Their normal lives are full of concentrated brain work, guiding their visually-impaired owners round obstacles, judging whether they can safely walk under scaffolding 6’ above their heads (how do they do that?), stopping them at kerbs, judging traffic, etc.  During lockdown, they’re getting bored and there are fears that they’ll need retraining before they can work again.

But perhaps it’s like riding a bicycle or punting:  however long it is since you last did it, it comes back when you’re on the bike / punt.  Mind you, I’ve never seen a dog punting.  (There are only two things you need to learn about punting:  don’t lower the pole down, drop it and let it run through your hand and, if it gets stuck in mud and won’t come free with a jerk, let go of it and stay on the punt – the alternative is damp.)

I can’t let this week go by without a nod at Captain / Hon Colonel Sir Tom Moore who died this week of Covid-19.  When he was 99 and had been told to exercise after a hip operation, he thought he could combine this with raising some money for the NHS so he decided to walk 100 laps of his garden before his 100th birthday, hoping to raise £1,000.  The rest is history:  the story went viral, he raised almost £39 million, was knighted and had a number one hit song with Michael Ball.  Yet another example that ‘ordinary’ people can do extraordinary things.

At the other end of the scale are people like Vlad the Poisoner who failed to kill Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition figure, by putting novichok in his underpants.   Navalny recovered abroad but returned to Russia knowing he was like to be arrested, and so he was, for violating parole from a sentence he was given in 2014 for embezzlement, a case he claims was politically motivated after he’d accused Putin and his mates of stealing billions from the state.  Navalny has been sentenced to two years and eight months in a prison colony, another court case is pending and his supporters are demonstrating in the streets.

Anybody making book on how long Vladimir Putin will now go before killing somebody else?

As far as I know, nobody nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize but Jared Kushner (son of He Whose Name Shall No Longer Be Spoken) and his deputy, Avi Berkowitz, have been nominated for one by the lawyer who acted for the defence in last year’s impeachment trial.  The Hong Kong pro-democracy movement has also been nominated by nine lawyers from both parties.

I’ve recently come across a fascinating project called Operation X, run by Dyami Millarson, who aims to learn endangered European languages before they die out.  At the moment, he’s concentrating on the 14 living Frisian tongues …

Jacinda Ardern has been criticised for not doing enough to remove the systemic disadvantages faced by the Māori peoples and racist bias in environment, housing and child poverty.  However, she has appointed Māori Nanaia Mahuta as New Zealand’s foreign minister, the first woman to sit in the country’s parliament wearing a moko kauae, an ancient Māori tattoo form, and there are hopes that things may be starting to change for the better.

Parliament last week voted on a Labour motion to speed up the removal of flammable cladding from buildings that are still at risk from a Grenfell-type massacre and to set up an independent taskforce to get the dangerous cladding removed.  Some Conservatives supported it but most followed instructions to abstain so it was passed by 263 votes to zero.  Because it’s a recommendation and not a requirement at the moment, why did so many on the Government benches abstain?  Don’t they care about the lives still at risk?  Or are they worried about upsetting the money-grubbing developers who fitted them?

Dolly Parton was twice offered the presidential medal of freedom, the highest US civilian honour, by the last president but turned it down both times, first because her husband was ill and second because of coronavirus travel restrictions.  Last November, Barack Obama was asked why he’d honoured musicians like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor and Stevie Wonder but not Parton.

Obama looked surprised and said “That’s a mistake … that was a screw-up … I think I assumed that she’d already got one … she deserves one.”  He also promised to call Joe Biden and it seems he did because Biden’s now offered her one though she says she’s not sure if she’ll accept it in case it appears political.

Being paranoid about ‘smart’ technology, I was rather upset to get a text message from the garage in Manchester we’d bought a newer car from this time last year saying “Your car … has alerted us that it may require maintenance.  Please call us on …” 

What’s it doing?  It’s switched off and sitting in the garage.  Has it told Google what music I’ve been listening to, or the police that I tend to keep to speed limits?  Is it about to turn the television on to the Gay Rabbit channel?  (What is the Gay Rabbit channel anyway?  We’ve skimmed past it on the list but never bothered to find out what programmes it shows.)

A woman was caught by a detector dog at Auckland airport trying to smuggle almost 1,000 cacti and succulent plants into New Zealand in stockings stuck to her body.  This brought to mind some words from a Loudon Wainwright III song which I’ve only adapted slightly:

Smuggling in cactus is easy

Stuffed in your tights – it’s a breeze

Just walk as if you’re bow-legged

Don’t laugh, don’t fart and don’t sneeze.

Covid vaccinations, HS2, KGB assets, Proud Boys, verbising, nice people and a royal double bind

31 January 2021

We had our first Covid vaccinations yesterday with our second booked for 19 April, which gives us plenty of time to catch Covid with the 50% that isn’t protected.  Then, this morning I had Jerome K Jerome’s problem:  I’d read the list of possible side-effects and woke up with a headache and feeling fluey.  Bit better now though thank you for asking and a friend has just said she too had a bad reaction but it only lasted a day. 

Problems crossing the new “frictionless” and “tariff-free” borders with the EU continue to appear and Boris Johnson is busy rushing round the stables shutting doors while, in the distance, there’s a field full of equine escapees.  However, for a change, this week’s problem wasn’t of his making and came from the EU which was forced to do a U-turn over trying to control vaccines travelling to the UK through Ireland but, even though they had the grace to recognise their mistake and apologise, they’ve thrown a lighted match into a political powder barrel.

Protestors against HS2 have dug tunnels under Euston Square Gardens to delay the work.  They’ve stocked up with food and drink but my first thought was to hope they’ve got a loo down there.  Sadly, they’re apparently already running short of oxygen and rain is causing leaks of mud and collapses in the tunnel.  Great idea to draw attention to the futility of HS2 but why is there never a civil engineer around when you want one?

With the demographic changes wrought by the pandemic, some of which are certain to be permanent, it’s obvious that whole UK transport system needs to be thought again from scratch and HS2 is a white elephant.  The problem is that a vast amount of money and reputations have already been sunk into it and it would be politically difficult to cancel it and make a fresh start on a UK-wide plan.

The government seems to be full of people who will hold onto an investment whose value has plummeted and wait for its value to come back to what they paid for it.  This can feel emotionally comforting but is nonsense.  It’s generally much better to cut your losses and buy another investment with better prospects.

On Tuesday, Johnson said he was “deeply sorry” for the world-beating 100,000 deaths from Covid in the UK and, as prime minister, he took “full responsibility for everything that the government has done”.  When he asked if he now wished he’d done more sooner, he refused to answer the question and waffled “What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could, and continue to do everything that we can, to minimise loss of life and to minimise suffering in what has been a very, very difficult stage, and a very, very difficult crisis for our country, and we will continue to do that.”

Perhaps the Tories should cut their losses.

Of course it’s not all down to the government’s feeble reaction to the pandemic because other factors, such as the increasing incidence of morbid obesity and diabetes, increased the number of deaths caused by the virus.   And the UK’s progress in developing a vaccine and sticking it into people’s arms might genuinely have been ‘world-beating’!

A former KGB major, Yuri Shvets has revealed that Donald Trump was one of hundreds of young people the KGB recruited as ‘assets’ in the 1980s.  They had identified he was very vulnerable intellectually and psychologically and was susceptible to flattery, and was too thick to realise they were using him, so they cultivated him for the next 40 years, feeding him soundbites he could use.  Tragically, the rest is history.

One of the far-right groups in America is (or was, they keep changing their names) called Proud Boys.  Why does this conjure up in my mind a crowd of very camp men in rainbow-coloured leotards dancing to Abba songs on a trailer at a LGBT+ street parade?

On Tuesday’s BBC 1200 news, a reporter said “it is worth caveating that …”, which stopped me dead.  Turning nouns into verbs, and vice versa, has become much more prevalent over the last few decades, in some cases making the original usage redundant and, ultimately, archaic. 

The first I remember was the use of ‘invite’ instead of ‘invitation’;  how many people now send out invitations?  Another is the misuse of ‘leverage’, often in a business context.  Using it as a noun (and even pronouncing it in American with a short E) is understandable but bankers and fund managers who’d never learnt the word ‘lever’ created a new verb from it and now ‘leverage’ deals.

Incidentally, wasn’t it encouraging to see the biters bit this week!  After a discussion thread started on Reddit, small investors started buying lots of shares in Gamestop using the amateur share trading platform Robinhood and the share price rocketed from $40 on 19 January to $400 within a week.

Wall Street institutions and hedge fund managers were outraged because they’d expected the price to fall so they’d sold Gamestop short* and now had to find enough cash to buy the shares they had to deliver at a much higher price. 

Wasn’t the crocheted Bernie Sanders doll that Tobey King from Kansas made and sold on the internet, raising $20,300 for Meals on Wheels America, wonderful!  After the image of Sanders huddled up in a warm coat and mittens at Joe Biden’s inauguration went viral, his own campaign has been selling sweatshirts and T-shirt with the image and has raised a further $1.8m for charities combating food insecurity.  Nice woman, nice man.

There was an advertisement on TV this week inviting applications to take part in a new series called Celebrity Home Cooking, or something like that, and my wife suggested I apply.  I said that, sadly, I couldn’t because I’m not a celebrity.  I’m not even a ‘celebrity’.  Not even in the street where we live.  And anyway, my knowledge of cooking is limited to pre-heating an oven, removing all outer packaging and putting the tray on the middle shelf for 45 minutes.

I also saw part of a programme on Wallis Simpson being manipulated by Edward VIII (previously known as David) who said he’d slit his throat if she didn’t marry him, and he abdicated, leaving the throne to his reluctant younger brother George VI (previously known as Bertie).  A classic double-bind!

*          ‘Selling short’ basically involves selling shares you haven’t got in the hope that the price will go down and you can buy them at a lower price before you have to deliver them.  It’s a form of gambling.

New hope, coronavirus, Brexit problems, 24/7(?) and kindness

24 January 2021

Here beginneth new hope.  Joe Biden’s got a lot to do but he started well by making his inauguration bipartisan, reversing some of his predecessor’s more stupid actions and appointing some good people.  Let’s breathe lightly for a bit and see how things settle down.

Covid is still on the rampage but Boris Johnson actually said something sensible this week when he warned that tight restrictions could last well into the spring and it was too early to guess when they might be lifted.  Gone is the “all over by Easter” bluster.

The injectors are moving closer and, being nearer 60 than 40 (it’s true!), we hope to get our first vaccination within the next couple of weeks.

The scientists at Friday’s government briefing provided some key answers.  The first vaccination provides about 50% immunity 2-3 weeks after the jab;  the second increases this to 70-95% depending on the vaccine.  The second top-up dose should be given a couple of weeks after the first but they’re delaying this to about 12 weeks so as many people as possible are 50% protected.

People who have been vaccinated don’t get any more freedom because, even if they’ve had both jabs, they can still carry and spread the virus to others, as can those who have had it and are thought to be immune to reinfection for 3-4 months.

In the longer-term, Covid 19 is likely to be with us forever, rather like flu, and we’ll get an annual injection to reduce the likelihood of our being (re)infected seriously.

It’s a pleasure to hear experts giving information and actually answering questions;  and that they know ‘data’ is plural.  Incidentally, have you noticed how many times Johnson says “er” when he’s bumbling?

Another genius was fined £200 this week when he was stopped in Devizes, having driven the 100 miles from Luton for a Macdonalds takeaway, even though Devizes doesn’t have a Macdonalds.  Even more brilliantly, he didn’t insure his car so it triggered police alarms every time it passed an ANPR camera and the police seized his car;  he presumably had to walk home.

We hear that much of the UK is flooded and/or snow-covered but down here, we’ve had some rain and it’s been getting colder but Friday and yesterday saw sunshine and blue skies.  There was a little snow last night and this morning the roads were covered in black ice and treacherous.  Incidentally, has anybody seen any gritters yet?  They haven’t done our bus route yet.

The floods are of course likely to add to the woes of businesses that are beginning to reap the Brexit harvest and are unable to import goods due to EU couriers’ refusal to cross the Channel because of the delays, tariffs, taxes, couriers’ surcharges and the extra paperwork now required by the UK, as well as the advance deposit of huge amounts of VAT to HMRC (HMRC has estimated that British companies will have to complete an extra 215m documents a year, with their counterparts in the EU having to do the same.  Private imports and exports are also subject to surcharges of up to 50% and the UK Department for International Trade is advising businesses to set up new companies in the EU.  You couldn’t make it up.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs now has £23m to compensate fisheries exporting fish to the EU if they can show they suffered “genuine loss” (by filling in yet more forms).

Not quite the deal revealed on Christmas Eve when Johnson also said “there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade” with the EU; and, of course, the NHS is still waiting for his original promise of an extra £350m a week.  How proud we all are to have broken free from EU bureaucracy.

The French and UK governments are also putting money into Eurostar to make sure it survives the pandemic as passenger numbers have fallen by 95%.  France still owns 55% of Eurostar and Belgium still owns 5% but the British government flogged off its 40% to private pension funds in 2015.  I’m glad my pension isn’t with one of them.

I’ve a 10p bet with a friend that Johnson won’t see the year out as prime minister (and he’s bet the same amount that Kier Starmer won’t as Labour leader).  I was therefore relieved by Theresa May’s support in her Daily Mail article this week which was very critical of Johnson, saying that his threat to break international law and his backing out of the foreign aid target had not “raised our credibility in the eyes of the world”. 

Back at the ranch, I discovered a new meaning of 24/7 last week. 

On Sunday evening, my wife’s chairlift crawled up four stairs before it stopped, saying its battery was low.  Luckily it came down again so she was back at ground level instead of suspended half way up, but it refused to up again.  I suggested she spend the night strapped in it while I got a good night’s sleep but she declined the offer so I rang the firm that last serviced it and had left a sticker on it saying “24/7 service” (Hanover Lifts if you’re interested).  The précis of an only slightly longer conversation was “You won’t get anybody out tonight”.

Rather than debate the definition of 24/7, I rang our wonderful neighbours who came over and together we lifted my wife backwards up the stairs and onto a chair from which I could then get her changed and into bed*.  (The next day, she rejected my offer to bump her downstairs so I rang Hanover again and she had to stay in bed till 2 pm when an engineer replaced a battery and she could get downstairs again.)

Aren’t people kind?  Three local families have offered to help us with things like this and we feel able to call on any of them, a comfort beyond words.  The world needs need more people like them.

*    I should explain that I couldn’t lift my wife on my own not because she’s too heavy but because I’m just feak and weeble.

UK quarantine, Trump’s legacy, capital punishment, Wikipedia, another Moggery, UFOs, and more Dolly Parton

17 January 2021

The UK’s border controls have at long last been tightened and passengers arriving on international flights will have to go into quarantine as well as proving that they tested negative for Covid shortly before the flight.  I wonder if this includes the flight and cabin crews who breathe the same air that’s circulated round the entire aircraft during the flight?  And if not, why not?

After last week’s attack on the Capitol and the subsequent impeachment of Donald Trump for inciting it, federal prosecutors have claimed that the protestors’ aim was “to capture and assassinate elected officials”, which makes them more than just vandals.  Republican senators who supported the Democrats in the impeachment vote are now reported to be buying body armour and hiring armed security because they fear some of the Trumpites might try to kill them.

I have two (British) friends in America, one in Connecticut and one in North Carolina, and both of them and their families are very nervous about what might happen next, either before, at or after Joe Biden’s inauguration.  The police at a Capitol checkpoint have already arrested one man in a pick-up truck who was carrying faked inaugural credentials, a handgun and a lot of ammunition. 

Trump is expected to leave on Wednesday morning for Mar a Lago in Florida on Air Force One (one last freebie flight) and will live there, despite local residents having pointed out that this will be in breach of an agreement he signed when his complex was being developed. 

Meanwhile, Trump is apparently spending his last few days in the White House increasingly isolated as staff leave and others go out of their way to avoid the Oval Office.  Would it be awful to admit that, even though he’s a horrible man and he’s done some terrible things, and so many people have died, I almost begin to feel a little sorry for him?

Some of the deaths he’s been responsible for were, of course, deliberate and, for the first time, the federal government has executed more people than all the states combined (only five states executed anybody:  Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas – and only Texas killed more than one person).

Technically, it’s the Attorney General William Barr who signed the federal death warrants but in no case did Trump exercise his presidential power of clemency so he has executed more people than the last 10 presidents combined, and more than any president since Franklin D Roosevelt who was president for 12 years, and they’ve all been in the last 6 months.

It was also Barr who authorised the use of a new lethal injection drug bought from a secret pharmacy that is reported to have failed a quality test, though I have some difficulty imagining how one tests the quality of a drug intended to kill humans.  The executioners were hired privately and paid in cash.

Many of the latest executions were carried out in the middle of the night.  One prisoner was left strapped to the gurney while his lawyers tried to reverse the decision.  A second was executed while an appeal was still outstanding.

Two recent cases involve people who were found guilty of having committed horrific murders but had severe mental health problems.

One of them, Alfred Bourgeois, was judged to have an IQ of 70-75 and his lawyers argued he was intellectually disabled and could not be held responsible for his actions.  Nevertheless, he was strapped to a gurney in the middle of a green-tiled room and a public radio reporter who was one of the witnesses reported that, as the pentobarbital entered his system, his stomach heaved and he appeared to be gasping for breath, a symptom consistent with the sensation of drowning that the drug is believed to cause.  Bourgeois took 28 minutes to die.

The second, Lisa Montgomery, had been abused physically and sexually as a child and brain scans and extensive testing showed brain damage and mental illness diagnosed as depression, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.  She also had delusions that God was talking to her through connect-the-dots puzzles.

On Tuesday evening night, the Supreme Court considered an appeal to delay her execution.  In the previous court, the judge had said “The record before the court contains ample evidence that Ms Montgomery’s current mental state is so divorced from reality that she cannot rationally understand the government’s rationale for her execution”. 

At around midnight, the Supreme Court over-ruled the lower court and approved her execution.  She was pronounced dead at 1.31 am on Wednesday morning, one and a half hours later.

Even if you believe in capital punishment, how do you feel about the way America executes prisoners compared with how you die if you commit suicide in Switzerland with the help of Dignitas, or how you euthanise an animal?  A veterinary euthanasia solution will probably contain two main ingredients which cause humane, painless and rapid death, with consciousness being lost before the heart stops.

However, Biden seems to be making a good start on various fronts, including the appointment of some good people to his cabinet and the announcement of a huge financial boost to the economy;  the biggest obstacle he has to overcome seems to be Mitch McConnell but helping to dismantle the legacy of America’s worst-ever president will take a long time.

We’ve been gifted another Moggery this week, almost as good as his praise of foodbanks.  The government is being widely criticised for the inadequacy of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal on fishing that has threatened the livelihoods of many British fishermen but Jacob Rees-Mogg offered them the consolation that “They’re British fish and they are better and happier fish for it”, even if the crustacea die before they can reach markets in France.  Next week, he will probably tell people that if they are hungry, they should just send Nanny to the shops to buy more food.

Last week, the CIA released thousands of papers on UFOs, all their files on the subject they say.  According to some who’ve seen them they read rather like a sci-fi novel but others think the records have been deliberately obfuscated.  And it’s not just UFOlogists who are interested, the US Congress recently told the director of national intelligence to prepare a report on UFOs within six months.

They could, of course, just ask Shirley Maclaine.

Wikipedia celebrated its 20th birthday on Friday.  It was created by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger and continues to be run on an entirely non-profit basis (well done, you two).  It started as an English (well, American) language encyclopaedia but now has more than 55 million articles across 300 different languages and, in January, The Economist reported it was the “13th-most-visited place on the web”, with 1.7 billion unique visitors a month.

Wales has said its success is due to its insistence on being an encyclopaedia and not a free-speech forum and the vast majority of its voluntary writers and editors respect that so, with the algorithms that aim to avoid abuse and inaccuracies, it attempts to be as accurate as possible. 

I once made a tiny addition to an entry (can’t remember what) which was still there when I checked a month or so later but some ‘celebrities’ have been quoted as saying they didn’t recognise themselves from their entry.

However, provided one checks information in it before relying on what it says, it’s an invaluable source of information.

Most restauranteurs big up their dishes but Feigang Fei, a former IT engineer who moved to Canada 14 years ago, now runs the Aunt Dai Chinese restaurant in Montreal and takes the opposite approach.  The menu’s comment on their “Mouth-watering Chicken” is “We are not 100% satisfied with the flavor now and it will get better really soon. PS: I am surprised that some customers still order this plate.”

I recently praised Dolly Parton’s philanthropy and have always been interested in the contrast between the cheerful blowsy blonde image she projects to the public and the person inside who appears to be very acute, intelligent, generous and self-effacing – the kind of person who comes over as a genuinely nice person who would be good company in private.

Despite being a committed Christian, she’s always accepted her status as an LGBTQ+ icon and once entered one of their Dolly Parton lookalike contests.  She lost.