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.

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.

Covid-19 questions, free at last, Yugoslavia, the 28th Amendment? and more kindness

3 January 2021

A new year, which surely can’t be worse than 2020.  Can it?  Well, 2021 started with yet another U-turn but it will see Donald Trump’s departure and the worst of the Covid pandemic could be under control by 2022.

In an interview this morning, Boris Johnson (described recently by Frankie Boyle as “a sort of semi-sentient candyfloss”) admitted more restrictions might be necessary in the spring and said “I’m fully reconciled to that”, a revealing choice of words that implies he’s ready to accept tighter restrictions rather than admitting it’s his decision. 

Q:  Why didn’t they impose another long lockdown in November with no Christmas release? 

A:  Johnson’s ego.

As Bob Dylan once said, “How many deaths will it take till he knows / that too many people have died”.

But we’re finally free of the shackles of the EU, and we’re a sovereign nation once again.  Like – a random sample of other monarchies – Monaco, Tonga, the Netherlands and Spain (where the king has exiled himself and, in 2012, his grandson Froilán, then 13 years old, shot himself in the foot by – er – shooting himself in the foot).

Friday’s papers headlines showed the range of reactions over here with what I thought was the best one in the Independent:

“Off the hook – or cut adrift?”

I’m looking for one of those inflatable lifejackets with the little whistle that’s so invaluable when you’ve crashed in the mid-Channel.

In his new year address to the country, the prime minister made minimal reference to his Brexit triumph and majored on the amazing success he’d had with a coronavirus vaccine which was apparently done without any financial input or technical expertise from anybody whose roots don’t go directly back to William the Conker (when we were ruled by the French anyway). 

Across the Channel, reactions were more of regret than triumphalism, or even relief, though Germany is still shocked that Johnson’s internal market bill attempted to “violate an international treaty that [he’d] negotiated and signed barely eight months previously … That whole episode really damaged Britain’s credibility”.  

A lot of us Brits think that too, mein Freund.

In future history books, 2021 seems likely to be seen as the year the UK started to crumble.   As from last Friday, the borders of the Schengen zone, within which people and goods can move freely, and the EU are no longer the same because both Northern Ireland and Gibraltar will effectively remain within the Schengen zone but not the EU.

Scotland could vote for independence and rejoin the EU, Northern Ireland could also become an independent state, followed by Wales and Cornwall until, in due course, King Charles of Wessex could be burning cakes in Highgrove Palace.  Think Yugoslavia.

What we do know is that financial services face a lot of regulatory problems with the EU and there will be a barrage of new bureaucracy and paperwork, though nothing’s yet ready so nobody yet knows what they should have done yesterday.  Also, lorries will need a special permit to get into Kent (a ‘Kent access permit’, or ‘Kermit’ for short – Miss Piggy would be proud).

Johnson has actually admitted his deal “perhaps does not go as far as we would like” but didn’t mention his abject failure to support the fishing industry.  He originally demanded that EU boats’ fishing rights in UK waters must be reduced by 65% while the EU proposed 25%.  After years of hard bargaining, Johnson finally compromised with the EU’s 25%.  He should have got one of the Goan boys who sell shirts on beaches to have negotiated for him.

There are also worries about how the exchange of security information will continue, if at all, despite Theresa May’s assurance in 2018 that “Europe’s security is our security, and the United Kingdom is unconditionally committed to maintaining it.”  But that was before Johnson sacrificed everything she’d stood up for.

Still, as Johnson pointed out, the UK is now “free to do things differently, and if necessary better, than our friends in the EU” (I wondered if he meant to say “if possible” rather than “if necessary”) and we will of course be able to make new deals with individual European countries as well as with north America, the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific regions and Senegal.

The second Covid-19 ‘spike’ is continuing to grow, and that’s before the Christmas exchange of infections increases the numbers even more, when we may need to build another Nightingale hospital on the Manston airfield / lorry park / open-air urinal in Ramsgate (and issue all occupants with kermits).

However, it’s difficult for us normal people to judge the actual severity of the epidemic.  We’re given R numbers and told how many people have tested positive, been admitted to hospital and died but there’s so much we don’t know.  For example, how does the number of positive results relate to the number of tests done and the population in that area?  How many people have, knowingly or unknowingly, had it already?  How many tests are being done to judge the full impact of the virus so far by testing everybody to see how many people had it without knowing it? 

And, more practical for most of us, what’s its gestation period – how long is it between when you first become infectious to when you show symptoms that lead you to getting a test?  If you test positive, how long are you infectious for – for as long as the symptoms last, or do you stop being infectious while you’re still recovering?  If you’ve had it, does it protect against reinfection by the original virus or any of its mutations?  If so, how long does the immunity last?

We now have some vaccines whose testing and approval have been rushed through with limited testing on comparatively small samples so we don’t really know anything about them except that they seem to increase immunity in a majority of those given it, and experts still disagree about the timing of the booster shot.

As for the ever-changing tier system, why won’t somebody just admit they only exist because Johnson refuses to introduce another complete lockdown.  They haven’t thought the tier system through anyway.  It’s all very well saying people take their original tier with them but, if they go into a higher tier, shouldn’t they have to accept the restrictions of the higher tier forever?  I know someone from tier 3 who was allowed to visit family in tier 4 for Christmas;  surely, having been exposed to the risks of tier 4, they should act from that point on as if they were subject to tier 4 rules, even when they were back home in tier 3?

At the moment, nobody seems to know and those who capable of making the best guesses are medical experts with years of study and clinical experience, not self-important politicians with no relevant qualifications.

Meanwhile, Trump is now quite obviously off his rocker, signing death warrants and pardons but not the Covid-19 relief and spending bill which had bi-partisan approval.  He was also humiliated on Thursday when more than 100 Republicans helped the Democrats override his veto of a $74bn defence bill.  It’s going to be interesting to see, when he reverts to being a nobody, how many Trumpettes suddenly discover other loyalties.

Shouldn’t the new regime pass a new (28th) amendment to the Constitution to prevent any future Dead President Walking from signing executive orders or vetoing approved legislation or making any major decisions (such as presidential pardons) which haven’t also been approved by the incoming president?

This week’s kindness is that Paul Heaton of Beautiful South (formerly the Housemartins), who lives in a terraced house in Withington, Manchester, has admitted to secretly giving away large sums of money over many years.  He even offered to give his back catalogue to the Treasury, but former business secretary Greg Clark turned him down. He’s now trying to get his council tax increased. What a lovely man.

Trump documentary, share your Covid-19 with loved ones, post-Covid planning, stealth tax, pension fund losses and Uranus

29 November 2020

Ivanka Trump still hasn’t answered my email but she does seem to have responded to my pointing out that her father was looking “childish, petulant and vindictive” because he now seems to be more willing to hand over the details.  (It can’t have been anybody else’s influence can it?)

Since he is handing over, isn’t this a de facto secession so it doesn’t matter what he says from now on and he can tell people he didn’t give up just because a mere 7 million more people wanted Joe Biden?

Other countries are hoping to take advantage of Trump’s weakness and, surely a coincidence, the head of Iran’s nuclear programme was assassinated this week.  Without wishing to belittle the seriousness of this murder, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threatened retaliation in a curiously worded statement:  “We will strike as thunder at the killers of this oppressed martyr …” (so far, so good – frightening) “… and will make them regret their action” (which rather lets it down – he should have stopped after the first bit shouldn’t he?)

Biden’s been setting up his cabinet anyway and, when Barack Obama was asked by a journalist whether he’d consider a cabinet position if it were offered to him, he said “There are some things I would not be doing because Michelle would leave me. She’d be like, what? You’re doing what?”

There’s a rumour that a documentary about Trump’s disastrous presidency will be directed by Banksy and called ‘Exit through the Grift Shop’.

We’re now – here anyway – in tier 2, whose restrictions we take with us even if we visit tier 1.  What happens if we want to go from, say, London to York?  Both are in tier 2 but you have to go through some tier 3 areas to do it.  Do trains not stop in tier 3?  Are cars not allowed to stop in tier 3?  What if you’re cycling?

All of this because Boris Johnson doesn’t want to be blamed for a second national lockdown.  And his generous heart is letting small groups of people from all tiers meet for Christmas, so the tier 3 people can share the virus they’re incubating, or is symptomless, with their nearest and dearest.  This year, Christmas is for sharing death.

And our own Government Graft Shop is still open, with friends and relations of government MPs being given huge contracts so they too can become rich at the expense of our overseas aid funding.  Well, I mean, would you rather give all that money to some snotty-nosed starving child from sub-Saharan Africa or to an old school chum who’s down to his last million?

It’s hard to believe but when I first started emailing these rambles through the back alleys of my mind back in 2015, before the blog was created, I wasn’t really interested in politics or politicians and generally wrote about ephemera but since David Cameron’s arrogance led us into Brexit and Trump got elected, and we had to suffer Theresa May and then Johnson, the political world has become irresistibly fascinating in the same way it’s fascinating to keep poking your tongue into the hole left by a filling that got mixed up with your breakfast muesli.

Then we had Covid-19, with Boris Johnson successfully delaying unpopular decisions so that the UK could top the European death charts and America ignoring the whole thing and allowing more than 270,000 people (and counting) to die and 13.5m people to get infected.

Having given away so much money recently, our government has to find it somewhere so why not start unobtrusively?  The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, now appears to have been less than entirely open about his own financial interests and forgot to mention that his wife, Akshata Murty, is richer than the Queen (see last week’s comment about the legal duties of charity trustees to reveal personal interests) – perhaps they could spare a billion or two.

I was somewhat cheered to hear that there’s going to be a parliamentary inquiry into the UK’s post-Covid-19 public transport priorities, including HS2.  I’m old enough to remember when Maggie Thatcher didn’t realise this end of HS1 would run through England and made no provision for it so the trains would zip through France and Belgium, then cross the Channel and crawl up old main and branch lines through Kent and south-east London to a new terminal that had to be built specially beside Waterloo station (and is now no longer used by any trains) until new lines and a brand spanking new terminal at St Pancras station had been built many years later.

(Interesting too that a majority stake in HS1 is now owned by France, the other owners being a Canadian pension fund, an investment fund based in Pennsylvania, and Belgium – our share went with so much else of the family silver.)

However, I was even more disappointed that the inquiry will be so tunnel-visioned.  Surely we should be planning strategically for a whole new post-Covid-19 world and looking at everything from the NHS and Education and the police and HMP to how businesses will operate in future, to where new housing will be needed as more people work from home and relocate, rendering the City of London’s tower blocks redundant, and how centres of population will change, affecting property prices over the whole country, all of which will impact on public transport services including roads and trains such as HS2 …

Then factor in the post-Brexit trade barriers and the climate emergency which will convert all new transport to electric by 2030, if they can agree whether VHS charging points are better than Betamax, and how to build enough in time, and societal changes such as nervousness about sitting next to a stranger on a train or a plane.  Perhaps they might even suggest how to pay for it.

While they’re at it, they could also plan for the next pandemic, apart from just changing prime ministers.

Talking of con-artists, National Savings & Investments has always tended to offer fair interest rates on savings and not fiddled around with them too much.  However, in order to save the government money, they’ve just reduced the interest they pay on the money we lend them.  In the case of NS&I Income Bonds, the rate has been reduced from 1.16% to 0.01%.

This means that, if you invested £100 in an Income Bond, you were being paid interest of 9½p a month;  from now on, they’ll give you nothing every month and 1p every year.  Or, if you’ve invested £10,000, you’ll have been receiving £9.67 a month and you will in future get almost 10p a month.  Clever stealth tax eh? 

Take your money out of NS&I and find a better account – some building societies and sharia banks are offering good interest / profit rates and your savings are guaranteed up to a total of £85,000.

Even worse, the retail empire owned by Philip Green is about to go bust, making 13,000 people unemployed, if he can’t raise £30m.  In an earlier incarnation, he underfunded his staff’s pension schemes and he’s now doing it again.

Green hasn’t yet offered to top up the pensions funds from the billions he took from the company when it was profitable and he’ll keep ‘his’ £100m ocean-going yacht.  His yacht is called Lionheart.  I wonder if Skunksarse mightn’t be more accurate.

I’m not going to mention the Austrian village that’s changing its name but I was charmed in the 1960s to stay in a village to the south of Innsbruck called Mutters, whose neighbouring village is called Natters.

(Uranus already has its own problems with rude words, depending whether you wear tartan or plaid:  should it be pronounced ‘your-anus’ or ‘urine-us’?)

Grasping nettles (not), governmental probity (not), the role of shareholders (not), the United States (not) and racing pigeons

22 November 2020

“Unstoppable Johnson cruises to record-breaking triumph” read a headline that caught my eye this week. 

Disappointingly, it turned out to be about a golfer, but a much better golfer than Boris Johnson is a prime minister – well done Dustin Hunter Johnson who won the 2020 Masters Tournament with an all-time record score of 268, 20 under-par.

And we appear to have a choice of effective Covid-19 vaccines.  Matt Hancock expects the bulk of the roll-out early next year and, with his record just on PPE and ‘test, track and trace’, who could doubt that?

In government, the report of a formal investigation by the Cabinet Office found the Home Secretary guilty of bullying civil servants by shouting and swearing at them.  Priti Patel said that it wasn’t intentional and Johnson not only failed to sack her but urged senior colleagues to defend her.

Johnson’s own ethics adviser, Sir Alex Allan, was so disgusted by Patel’s and Johnson’s lack of integrity that he resigned saying “I feel that it is right that I should now resign from my position as the prime minister’s independent adviser on the [ministerial] code.”  In plain English, this means something like “Boris and Priti are so bent I no longer want to be associated with anything they do”.

Patel’s obviously onto something that will benefit the rest of us no end: 

“If I was speeding, officer, it wasn’t intentional”.

“In that case sir/madam, off you go, have a good day”.

But she’s got to go – and may already have gone by the time you read this.

Nor is Labour doing much better after allowing Jeremy Corbyn back into the party.  He was originally suspended because he said the problem of antisemitism in Labour had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party …”  What he hasn’t explained is who ‘we’ are when he talks about “our opponents”.  The Labour Party covers a wide field and should be finding commonalities rather than alienating sub-groups over comparatively minor differences.

I’m not belittling the horrors of racism but surely it’s more important to work together to increase the party’s influence?

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has given billions to commercial private businesses to help them survive the pandemic and is now realising he’s got to find the money so, naturally, he’s limiting public sector pay.  (Anybody notice the clever shift from ‘private’ to ‘public’?)

And Johnson’s volunteered an extra £18bn for the military after people had had to back him into a corner and kick him until he accepted that poorer children still need to eat in school holidays. 

Many more billions have been given to private contractors who coincidentally happen to have connections with senior members of the government.  Charity trustees (who don’t get paid) are legally required to declare any interest that they or their families or close associates have in the charity’s decisions.  What a pity a certain hedge fund manager with a blind offshore trust (hint:  initials RS) can refuse to disclose his interests and other MPs and their advisers aren’t required to demonstrate the same level of probity as charity trustees.

According to Altus Group, big supermarkets have received £2bn in rates relief despite increases in their profits during the pandemic and have paid huge amounts in dividends to their shareholders.  There’s outrage across the political spectrum that the subsidies weren’t returned to the government – and that’s just the supermarkets.

Wouldn’t it have been fairer to restrict rates relief (and all other financial support) just to smaller independent business that aren’t part of large groups and to provide additional support for the self-employed and those on benefits?

If times get tough for companies, that’s what their shareholders are for.  In good times, they take dividends out and in bad times they should put it back in, not expect the government to bail them out.  And why not restrict directors’ total remuneration and perks to a maximum of (say) ten times the median wage of their UK employees?  That would leave even more money in the company for Covid-type emergencies.

San Francisco has overwhelmingly backed a new law that imposes an extra 1% tax on companies that pay their chief executives more than 100 times the median of their workforce and this surcharge increases by 0.1% for each factor of 100 that a CEO is paid above the median (to a maximum).  San Francisco reckons this will raise somewhere between $60 and $140m a year which will be spent on improving housing and healthcare provisions for the city’s poorest people.

This is just a start but it shows it can be done and the potential is huge.  Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and the third richest person in the world, trousered £450,000,000 last year, almost 10,000 times the median salary of all his workers.

Any old-school capitalists now shouting at me should remember the context:  the average San Francisco CEO’s pay has increased by 940% in the last 30 years so they’re now getting 10 times what they were before the ‘greed is good’ demon sucked out their souls, while the median pay of their staff has only increased by 12%, or one eighth.  Windigos rule OK?

Meanwhile, Johnson’s doppelgänger in America is getting increasingly worried that, having lost the election, he might not be able to continue as president and many people are getting very frightened.  He even asked if he could bomb Iran’s nuclear sites before he goes but was warned this could trigger a broader conflict, which hadn’t occurred to him.

Trump’s mental health problems can be judged by substituting ‘Democrats’ for ‘Communists’ in the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”, written in 1963.

Trump has met senior Republicans to try to get votes for Biden set aside so he can win in the swing states despite the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency saying “we have the utmost confidence in the security and integrity of our elections”.

Chris Krebs, CISA’s director, now expects to be fired by Trump.

The problem is that almost 74m Americans voted for Trump (Biden got almost 80m votes) and his actions could lead to some extremely dangerous divisions in America.

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota has said “[Trump’s] behavior is even more erratic than usual”.

Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes has said “The risk is that he takes his country down with him.”

Tim Pawlenty, the former Republican governor of Minnesota, has said “His response should surprise no one … it continues his pattern of declaring victory, regardless of the actual facts”.

Brad Raffensperger, the Republican top election official in Georgia, has said “I’m a conservative Republican. Yes, I wanted President Trump to win. But … we have to do our job … I’m gonna walk that fine, straight, line with integrity. I think that integrity still matters.”

Trump’s also being investigated for the possibility of fraud into possible payments of illegal consulting fees to his utterly resistible daughter Ivanka.  Her defence is to accuse the investigators of “harassment”.

Coincidentally, I’d emailed Ivanka just before this was reported saying, very nicely, that her father’s refusal to hand over to the president-elect made “[him] and his family a laughing stock”, and pleading with her to convince him that, if he wishes “to retain any credit for the good things he did”, he should concede for the benefit of all Americans. 

I haven’t yet had an answer. 

So let’s end with another puzzle and some good news.

The puzzle is that Harvey Weinstein is still facing charges of sexual assault in Los Angeles which could attract prison sentences of up to 140 years to life.  Do you think they will, as a kindness, knock a century off the minimum sentence if he’s convicted?

The good news is the auction in Belgium last week which sold a racing pigeon for 1.6m and reminded me of one of Terry Pratchett’s characters who “made a fortune selling homing pigeons, and he only had the one”.