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

20 December 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Floods, cleaners, dogs, the weirdness of Covid-19, food banks and more kindnesses

17 May 2020

The devastating floods in east Africa which have killed almost 200 people and displaced some 40,000 more would, in normal times, have made the front pages but the western world has become tunnel-visioned about Covid-19 and the huge risks being taken by various states in America which are re-opening while the death curve continues to hurtle upwards and the president no longer has the bottle even to hold press conferences.

Mexico has been suffering from thunderstorms and tornadoes and snow fell in New York last week, the latest snowfall there since 1977 but at least they pass quite quickly.  Other things taking a back seat include the Brexit negotiations which seem to be getting nowhere, and exactly what last week’s easing of the lockdown actually means.

My initial reaction, having heard the prime minister’s broadcast as I was finishing last week’s blog, was one of relief, that he hadn’t opened the door any further.  As we awaited more detail of how this would affect our lives, incomplete guidance was slowly released, some of it self-contradictory, the rest of it confusing, leaving polls showing that (for the first time since the pandemic started) a majority of people think any easing is dangerous and the government is handling it badly.

Luckily, Boris Johnson’s sense of humour remained intact as he reintroduced us to an old warning, which I first became aware of in the 1970s when bombs were going off in places like Welwyn Garden City.  “Stay Alert”, he said, allowing us all the opportunity to resurrect suffixes like “Britain Needs Lerts”.

The new rules say it’s now OK for domestic cleaners to return to work;  it seems daft that they’re allowed to go from house to house, some of whose occupants could be unwittingly infected and infectious, but we took up his offer and have unfurloughed our cleaner.  (She said that only one other customer has continued to pay her during the lockdown, the rest just laid her off;  I guess some people just don’t think what the lockdown might be doing to people like her.)

I have been hoovering and cleaning things, honestly, but it is the Labrador Shedding Season.  I’m convinced that, yesterday, I left more dog in the wood than came back home with me.  (Commercial break:  Furminators are wonderful inventions and get out much more hair than normal dog-combs.)

We all know that dogs can be trained to do all sorts of amazing things like judging the height of a branch to ensure their visually impaired companion doesn’t bang their head on it, and loading washing machines, and sniffing out everything from drugs and bombs and guns and fugitives and cancers and blood-sugar levels, but they’re now being tested to see if they can identify Covid-19.  Can anyone help me train ours to stop identifying fox poo and rolling in it?

Johnson (who was described this week by Marine Hyde as “a prime minister who has never entered a bedroom without first checking if there’s a wardrobe”) is encouraging people to go back to work where possible and Jacob Rees-Mogg* has said parliament should be setting an example by crowding back into the House and sod physical distancing (isn’t ‘social’ completely the wrong word when describing distancing?).

Jacob, if you really believe people should go back to work, volunteer for one of your local food banks that you’ve previously said are such a brilliant idea, thereby completely misunderstanding why they exist and why they’re now more essential than ever;  you might even just start to see a little more of the real world.

Actually, of course, the reason Rees-Mogg wants parliament to reconvene is that, without the braying of his supporters, it’s all too obvious that Johnson hasn’t read his briefing papers, is completely unprepared for PMQs and hasn’t yet realised his blustering doesn’t work against a meticulously prepared and unflappable opponent.

It’s also becoming clear that Covid-19 is unlike any other coronavirus we’ve encountered with different people suffering different symptoms and taking differing times to recover.  It even seems that it doesn’t automatically produce a cough and a fever, which means that temperature checks at places like airports don’t pick up all those affected.  Nobody even knows whether having had it provides immunity against being infected again.

Professor Paul Garner of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine developed an unusual form which gave him a variety of unpleasant symptoms that came and went over a period of weeks and it’s now believed that about 5% of patients suffer from long-term “on-off” symptoms for months.  It also leaves some people feeling fine while their blood-oxygen levels are so low that established medical science would have expected them to be severely incapacitated or dead.

On an even more sombre note, yesterday produced an impressive example of what a difference a word makes.  A headline said “Body found in suitcase” while the article below said “Gloucestershire Police have found a body in two suitcases”.  Doesn’t that ‘two’ conjure up a whole new, gruesome picture.

One of the symptoms of a nationwide tendency to kindness is that in March, when it was becoming obvious even to government that the Pandemic was going to be serious, the NHS asked for 250,000 volunteers to help people who were self-isolating or older, and NHS staff and other care providers needing deliveries.  750,000 people offered to help.

This week is Mental Health Awareness week and its theme this year is kindness.  We know that the lockdown is causing more people to suffer from mental health problems, particularly those who are concerned about the virus itself, so let’s show them our non-judgemental understanding and, rather than telling them what to do, let’s just let them talk while we listen.


*          The Rees-Moggs called their latest, sixth child Sextus.  I reckon the next three will be called Septum, Octavo and Eneuf.

Real news v fake news, making money from coronavirus, two deaths and an unexpected kindness

8 March 2020

Tragically, today is International Women’s Day.  Isn’t it sad we still need one and can’t just have an International People’s Day.

The good news is that 10 Downing Street does read this blog:  rumour has it the government will be doubling spending on flood defences in this week’s budget (see the 29 February post).

I came across something this week that’s even more worrying than Boris Johnson’s bid for absolute power, something that is patently obvious but I’m too thick to have registered it before:  real news tends to be hidden behind a paywall (with the honourable exceptions of media like the BBC and the Guardian – even the Washington Post limits the number of free articles you can read and will only show you more if you allow their trackers) while fake news is free.

The real news is still coronavirus-obsessed so I’m spending more than 8 hours on public transport going to a London hospital on Tuesday to see for myself just how crowded the streets are and how many people are wearing masks, and I might as well have my laryngeal botox injection while I’m there.  I’ll report next week if I survive.

The virus has provided some wonderful opportunities for capitalists who still follow Thatcher’s creed that exploiting market forces is the only true economic imperative.  Amazon claims to be struggling to de-list products such as hand sanitisers and masks whose prices have been ramped up by 2000% but you can still get a 4-pack of 5 litre containers of Primagel Plus “Against CorONAVIRUS-HIV-SARS Disinfected” (sic) from an Italian supplier for only £150.  It is apparently a “must-have product for hand disinfection” and “is a clear gel for surgical medical presidium” (no, me neither).  The stuff has one 5* review that says “Very good & strong”.  Obviously irresistible.

A search for “coronavirus” on the website apparently also shows products such as testing kits for dogs and cats.  I know that greedy entrepreneurs preying on the neuroses of the gullible isn’t funny but I did find a smile creeping upwards as I imagined people on their hands and knees calling “Come along Whiskers, sit here while, SIT, while I, stop wriggling, while I test you, SIT DAMN YOU, while I test you for a virus you can’t catch”.

Incidentally, while everybody is panicking about catching Covid 19, let’s think about it from their point of view.  From all the pictures I’ve seen, it’s a very pretty virus and, while it is very small, it has clearly developed some sort of survival instinct.  For example, it’s made itself unusually easy to catch and has realised that it’s not in any virus’s best interests to kill their hosts so the death rate is very low (even for those of us in the demographic with a 10-15% death rate).  Their best chance of propagation is to leave their hosts alive and active so they can pass it on to as many other people as possible.  Perhaps, in some unimaginable way, they’re intelligent, possibly with the group mentality and/or race memory of ants who build nests and run amazingly efficient maintenance systems that are not affected by the death of individual ants?

I was asked an unanswerable question this week.  “What’s hagiography?” someone asked, so I explained and was then asked “How did you learn that?” which flummoxed me completely and I realised I don’t know when or where I came across most of the words I know, including flummox.

The saddest news locally is that FlyBe, which is/was based at our local airport, has gone bust and a couple of thousand people have lost their jobs.  It remains to be seen whether the airport will be able to survive without them.

The saddest news from America – apart from the obvious one – is that Kerry Spencer and Nathaniel Woods were sentenced to death for the murder of three police officers in a drug raid in 2004.  Spencer admits the killings and has repeatedly insisted that Woods was “absolutely innocent” and actually ran away when the shooting started.  Guess which one the state of Alabama has just killed by lethal injection.  Now guess what colour he was.  Spencer is on death row but still alive as I write.

The saddest news in this house is that a friend unexpectedly died in her sleep on Wednesday night.  One of us has known her for 60 years, the other for longer because they were at school together and, despite my pleas, the school wouldn’t let me in, quoting some rubbish about a gender problem.  Strangely, her death led to an unexpected example of kindness.

We have two labradors, one who’s 13 with arthritis and fading sight, the other her son, a bouncy 10-year old hoolidog.  The mother is a sweetie but now too old to play games and, if she ever gets the younger’s favourite toy, he will immediately grab it from her.

As I passed on the news, I was crying and the mother dog suddenly appeared beside me and snuggled up to comfort me, then fetched the favourite toy and presented it to my wife, something she’s never done before.

Perhaps ‘kindness’ is being over-anthropomorphic but there was certainly some sort of empathy, and a wish to comfort us, which impressed us a lot.