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

25 April 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Climate change, US impeachment, nominative determinism, where the money goes

14 February 2021

No response from Chuck Schumer yet, not even an acknowledgement. 

At least the White House replied when I was emailing the last president even though they sent an identical reply to my first two (different) emails.

However, I did get a reply from the writer of frequent letters to the local paper written by a far-right climate change denier.  A few weeks ago, his letter saying “child poverty and climate change are woke concepts, used to describe parental poverty and nice warm weather” inspired me to ‘explain’ that because the volume of ice is greater than the volume of liquid water, if all the polar sea ice melts, sea levels will fall not rise.  On Friday another of his letters was published thanking me for pointing out “the anomalous expansion of water” and disagreeing with another correspondent who’d attempted to correct one of his misapprehensions about the climate crisis.

I was disappointed (but unsurprised) by his immediate acceptance of my claim without first checking the volumes of water in polar sea ice in relation to the volume of water in all the world’s oceans while he went to some lengths to explain why somebody else wasn’t up to date with the meaning of ‘woke’ and that his own earlier claim about the adverse effects of burning hydrogen had been misunderstood.

I now feel I must write to apologise for having teased him (Oh what a tangled web we weave …)

But isn’t it fascinating to see how extremists will unquestioningly accept a claim that appears to support them, however daft it is, while they attempt to counter the arguments of scientists and other experts.

This week’s entertainment has been provided by the evidence presented to the US Senate hearing on the impeachment of The Man With A Mouth Like A Dog’s Bottom*.  The prosecution presented a detailed and illustrated case containing some frightening new footage from security cameras.  

The defence made only a token effort, knowing that Republican senators from states whose voters supported Dog’s Bottom feared they might not be re-elected if they didn’t vote to acquit him.  They produced some carefully edited and misleading videos taking historical clips of Democrats using the word “fight” out of context, slotted them between clips of the violence and produced the punchline that, if a president tells a crowd to “fight like hell”, “No thinking person could seriously believe that [this] was in any way an incitement to violence or insurrection”.  Absolutely right, old chap, how could any sensible person possibly think that.

I actually thought of a much better case for the defence which would have left enough doubt in people’s minds to make the decision much harder (for obvious reasons, I’m not going to tell anybody what it is until we know if he’s going to face criminal charges).

In the event, only 7 Republican senators had the courage of their convictions, not enough to give the required 70% support, and he was acquitted by 57 votes to 43.  Let’s hope that the weak senators’ support for Dog’s Bottom will continue to taint their reputations (see how I resisted saying ‘dog their days’) until the next elections in 2022.

(A friend suggested the vote would be fairer if it were taken my secret ballot – what a great idea!  That can be the 29th amendment.)

After the acquittal, Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, said the former president’s conduct amounted to a “disgraceful dereliction of duty” and he was “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day”.  He added “President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he’s in office.  He didn’t get away with anything yet.”

And Nancy Pelosi reminded people that the mob had chanted “Hang Mike Pence” after he’d refused to support Dog’s Bottom’s claim that the election had been rigged.  “They just dismissed that,” she said. “Why? Because maybe they can’t get another job.”

The invasion of the Capitol building did produce a wonderful example of nominative determinism.  A police officer, already hailed as a hero for saying “Don’t do it” to the rioters as he led them in the wrong direction, away from the Senate door and the chamber, is now known also to have warned Republican senator Mitt Romney that the invasion was heading his way and turned him round.  His name?  Eugene Goodman.

Despite (or perhaps because of) all this, the latest newsletter from investment managers Charles Stanley has just said “Despite global economic growth entering another pandemic-driven soft patch, we are constructive on equities over the next few months.”  Apart from providing a great start if you’re playing BS Bingo, all this means is that they’re hoping markets will hold up despite all the bad news around at the moment, but you must remember that their firm’s existence depends on people giving them money to invest instead of buying gold bars, Bitcoin or tulip futures for themselves, so they’ve a vested interest in being bullish.

While 2 million people died and tens of millions lost their jobs and the rest of us just had to stay at home in 2020, the world’s 15 most active hedge fund managers (all of them men surprise surprise) made about £17 billion (that’s £17,000,000,000) between them.

There’s something wrong somewhere.

What happened to kindness, caring, being nice to each other, sharing, and helping those less fortunate than ourselves?

*          Not only is there an unmistakable physical likeness but identical material issues from both orifices.

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.

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.

Trump’s failed coup, Trumpites betrayed, lost children, confederate flags, NHS, Elon Musk and football

10 January 2021

Good news this week:  the failure of Donald Trump’s attempted coup d’état in America, which meant we had a few days when Covid didn’t dominate the news.

Trump’s incitement of an attack on the Capitol on Wednesday sent shockwaves round the world as it showed both the problems caused by Trump’s psychosis and the absence of effective security in the Capitol. The invasion left 5 people dead, one of them a police officer;  another 60 police were injured and 12 are still in hospital.

The condemnation of the riots was bipartisan and many former Trump supporters are joining the Democrats’ moves to remove Trump from office before he can do any more harm and an impeachment motion is in progress.  Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman said “He needs to be removed … Our president is this country’s greatest national security threat.”

Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, has already spoken to senior military officers to ensure there is a cut-out that will prevent the automatic launch of nuclear missiles if Trump ‘presses the button’.

Twitter initially suspended his account for 24 hours but it wasn’t till late on Thursday that he issued a video suggesting the protestors go home, accepting that “a new administration will be inaugurated on January 20” and promising a smooth transfer of power before he spoilt it by muttering about voter fraud and saying “we love you” and “you’re very special”.

He also said he was “outraged by the violence, lawlessness and mayhem” of the Capitol and that those who “broke the law will pay”, leaving the Trumpites he’d encouraged feeling betrayed.

Then, on Friday morning, he sent two more tweets which Twitter judged as “further incitement of violence” and “highly likely to encourage and inspire people to replicate the criminal acts that took place at the US Capitol” so they shut down his account permanently (would that they had done so 4 years ago).

I reckon shrinks all over America will be offering to treat him for free because his psychopathology is so fascinating they’ll get a best-selling book out of it.

Facebook has also banned him from posting anything on its platforms (which include Instagram) until after Joe Biden has been inaugurated.  Other social media companies have closed down his accounts and the most violent far-right Trumpites have been reduced to social media channels and chatrooms like Parler, except that Apple and Google have removed Parler from their apps stores and Amazon have said they will no longer host it.  The far-right message board 8Chan was created as a more lawless alternative to its predecessor 4Chan, the birthplace of the QAnon conspiracy theory, that was rejected by mainstream web service providers last year.

Naturally, I opened Parler and, while I don’t really understand how these things work, it does appear to contain strange messages from some deeply unpleasant people.

Talking of which, a brand-new Congresswoman Lauren Boebert from Colorado does her shopping with a Glock handgun (the gun most used by armed British police) in a holster on her hip and, while she described the attempted coup as “inexcusable”, has insisted she will carry her gun into Congress.

One hopes that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris both have very tight security around them at all times, and that Trump has too – if he were assassinated, he’d become a martyr to the Trumpite commoners and increase the split in the Republican party which is already riven between Trumpites and those committed to the practice of democracy regardless of party politics.

It’ll be interesting to see how many of Trump’s more stupid decisions Biden can put right during his honeymoon period but he’s got a lot to do and, as Robert Heinlein once said, “You can’t do everything at once if you don’t die first”. 

One of his higher priorities should be that, of the 5,500 children, some under 5, separated from their parents at the border since 2017 under Trump’s globally-condemned migration policy, 628 still haven’t been reunited with their parents.

A lot of the vandals on Wednesday were carrying confederate flags, the first time one has been seen in the Capitol building.  The flag now represents white supremacy, racism and slavery but was originally created in 1861 when 11 southern states seceded from the United States, then only 85 years old, and called themselves the Confederate States of America. 

What worried them was that the newly-elected president Abraham Lincoln was refusing to allow slavery in the new territories being annexed in the west and southern slavers feared they’d be next in line and would lose their unpaid labour force, so they fought a 4-year war and lost, leading to the near-total abolition of slavery throughout the United States.

Even today, many white Americans remain racist, some of them violently so, and the flag is still associated with and used by the Ku Klux Klan, but it wasn’t till 2016 that major retailers decided not to sell the flag and, since George Floyd’s murder, the removal of confederacy symbols has accelerated across the country.

Some people claim the flag is a valid symbol of the country’s history, with the same devotion as Germans claiming the swastika as such a symbol.

On New Year’s Eve, America ordered one of its aircraft carriers home from the Persian Gulf but, two days later, Trump reversed the decision because he thought the Iranian leaders had threatened him.  Let’s hope Biden has already made contact privately with Iran to suggest the two countries talk before doing anything irreversible.

Kim Jong Un has told the North Korean Workers’ congress that his 5-year economic plan had missed its targets “in almost all areas to a great extent” and said he would learn from the painful lessons” of the past! He also said that America was North Korea’s “biggest enemy”, that plans for a nuclear-powered submarine had been completed and he was planning to develop smaller nuclear warheads.  Another triumph for Trump’s diplomacy.

Our own dear government is being called on to explain why a confidential Ministry of Defence database set up in 2015 appears to have breached international law by failing to record an estimated 500 air strikes in Yemen that resulted in civilian casualties.  In addition, the government has been granting export licences to arms manufacturers for weapons and ordnance to Saudi Arabia.

The government is also getting stick for its handling of the Covid pandemic – in the first survey of this year, 72% thought the government had acted too slowly.  With 1,325 deaths on Friday alone, the NHS has warned it’s nearing breaking point while the numbers are still rising fast and the additional infections that were unavoidable after the idiotic decision to suspend restrictions for Christmas Day are now beginning to appear.

The poll also suggests that in a general election tomorrow, the Conservatives would lose their entire majority but no party would have a simple majority.  It also indicated that Boris Johnson would probably lose his own seat.

The SNP MP Margaret Ferrier was suspended by the SNP in October after she admitted travelling to London and attending debates in the Commons after taking a Covid-19 test and, when she was told her test was positive, she returned home by train.  She’s now been arrested and charged with breaching coronavirus restrictions.  Dominic Cummings, lock your doors and turn the TV off so they’ll think you’re out and start looking in County Durham.

Elon Musk is now the world’s richest man, a position he achieved by doing absolutely nothing while investors scrambled to buy shares in his company, Tesla.  It’s not known how his seventh child, X Æ A-12, reacted to the news.  The baby’s mother, the Canadian singer Grimes (aka Claire Boucher) explained that the name was derived from “X, the unknown variable, Æ, my elven spelling of Ai (love &/or Artificial intelligence) and A-12, the precursor to SR-17 (our favorite aircraft)”.  Who’s a pretty flake then.  Neither parent was sure how to pronounce the name.

At Marine FC’s ground in Crosby, the football match of the year took place as the Spurs team travelled to their grounds to play in an FA cup competition match.  Sadly for those of us Brits who like supporting the underdog, Marine lost 5-0 but they were delighted with the respect shown them by Spurs – they were applauded off the field by every on all sides and their manager, Neil Young (no relation) said “The football community, and in particular the Tottenham Hotspur supporters, have been incredible. To sell over 20,000 [virtual] tickets in what is a very tough time for our football club … it’s really nice.”

And, in Staffordshire. police arrested two burglars on the job after one of them inadvertently sat on his phone and dialled 999.  The police listened as the burglars talked about the burglary and heard the arresting officers arrive.

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.

Christmas meditations, kindness, Gabriel, forgiveness, tolerance, the sanctity of law and coathangers

27 December 2020

In many countries, many people celebrated Christmas last week and, in many countries, many people didn’t.

December 25th (although the calendar was different back then) was chosen at random as the birthday of a baby about whom much has since been written and in whose name many kindnesses have been done and many people killed.

When I was young, Christmas started in our house with Kings College’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve.  My mother loved it, especially ‘Once in Royal’, and there was a special place in her heart for the chorister who read the first lesson one year, who probably got the Brian Blessed Award for over-acting later in life, as he read with well-practised shock and horror:  “Who told thee that thou wast naked?”

As an adult, I’ve always tried to listen to ‘Once in Royal’ each year and it still makes me think of my mother almost 50 years after her death.

It’s also made me wonder about the oral transmission of the stories from ageing priests to younger ears, and the various languages in which it was later written down and copied and translated.  Even in my lifetime, the words have changed as more translations, retellings and theses have appeared but I’m still waiting for a simplified version of the middle section of the first chapter of the Luke’s Gospel that will say:

“An angel yclept* Gabriel sailed down a sunbeam on shining white wings, and bowed down before Mary, a young woman who was married to Joseph but still a virgin because he was much older.  “You’re pregnant, milady” said the angel “and Jehovah** has said that your son will inherit his forefather David’s throne” – and Mary said “OK then.  Will you have a cup of tea?” but Gabriel said he had to go and rose up as silently as an owl.”

I also wonder about the omissions from Jesus’s story, like what he did during the first 30 or so years of his life, apart from sharpening chisels, sweeping up sawdust, debating theology with priests in the temple and building a bridge of rainbows for his friends to play on.  Did he ever laugh? 

Many of Jesus’s teachings included Aesop’s conclusion 600 years earlier that “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted”, a sentiment that was qualified slightly more than a century after Jesus’s death in Marcus Aurelius’s ‘Meditations’ in which he said “kindness is invincible, provided it’s sincere”.

Another word for which we remember him is ‘forgiveness’.  Remember that (again according to Luke) some his last words were “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”;  he didn’t say “I forgive you”, he asked God to forgive them.  The interesting thing is that, much as we think we ought to, we can’t (well, I can’t anyway) forgive anybody who hasn’t first shown some sort of regret or repentance for what they did or said, but Jesus didn’t need that.

And, above all, we remember him for ‘love’ and his instruction “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. (He obviously hadn’t met our neighbour.)

Of course none of this is exclusive to Christianity and most the world’s major religions have similar foundations. 

Having praised the UK’s Chief Rabbi last week for his tolerance of Islam, I was encouraged to see that somebody from Israel had visited this site and I was flattered that David Bogomolny, who posts as ‘ben Alexander’, had offered his own kindness by ‘liking’ my offering. 

New Zealand’s wonderfully human prime minister, Jacinda Arden, who was re-elected by a landslide in the autumn has admitted to suffering from “imposter syndrome” despite her successes.

If only our own prime minister suffered from it.  He has just, exactly as Polly Toynbee predicted about a month ago, given up almost everything at the last moment to agree a Brexit deal with the EU.  The opposition parties now have no choice but to support it because there isn’t time to do anything else and, if it’s not approved, the UK will crash out next week without any deal, which would arguably be even worse than the deal he accepted.

What I’m not yet clear about is what will happen in Ireland.  Will I be able to go to Belfast, nip across the soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic to buy stuff that’s cheaper in the EU, then avoid any border controls on my return from NI because I’m returning from the UK?

Anyway, Boris Johnson is now jumping up and down in his cot and praising his negotiating skills while the fishing industry, and other businesses, 7,000 lorry drivers and a lot of the rest of us feel betrayed and will have to pick up the pieces.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is pardoning all his criminal buddies while executing more people given a federal death penalty.  Even though his pardon doesn’t reverse the guilty verdicts and they’re still criminals, I do wonder if muddled the paperwork and meant to pardon those under a federal death sentence …

Amy Coney Barrett’s not having a good time either.  People with controversial cases they think would appeal to her personal social and religious prejudices (same sex parents, abortion, gun control etc) are now trying to present them in such a way that they’ll end up in the supreme court where her hang-ups will override her legal duty and she’ll decide in their favour.

So much for an independent judiciary that leaves the judges’ political views out of the courtroom and just considers the law.

Rather than end up in front of Coney Barrett, Ghislaine Maxwell will probably make a plea bargain in a lower court.  Having been hiding for 9 months, Maxwell was finally arrested in the summer and her exact whereabouts are now known at all times – she’s inmate 02879-509 at the Metropolitan Detention Centre, Brooklyn.

Cynics believe she’s pessimistic about her future because she recently married and transferred assets to her new husband but, of course, it could just be love and/or coincidence.

In 2021, I’ll be working on a theory about the first known form of mineral life:  metal coat hangers.  If you leave them in a cupboard, they huddle up together and, when you try to take one, all the others rush after it and fall to the floor.  Some of them have also perfected the art of clinging together to form chains. 

Even two left together on a bed can metamorphose into one of those Christmas cracker puzzles that take 10 minutes to separate two twisted bits of metal;  and they can teleport:  they disappear into wormholes in hotel wardrobes and reappear in your wardrobe as if they’d never been anywhere else, and a bagful of the things taken to a charity shop will be back within the week.

Their reproductive processes are unclear but two coat hangers will turn into three if you shut them in a dark cupboard and at least one will fledge when you next open the door, falling to the floor and attempting to bounce out of the house before you can catch it, often holding hands with another fledgling that jumped at the same time.

I have to admit I’ve not yet proved any intelligence or motives behind their movements but their actions are indisputable and, of course, I might be wrong.  In any event, with some wire-cutters and a couple of used biro tubes, they make wonderful dowsing rods.

*     Well, OK, it’s anachronistic but it’s such a lovely word I couldn’t resist it

**   Remember everybody there was Jewish at the time.

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.