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

11 April 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOUND

Tabby cat, white chest and paws,

answers to the name of Bugger Off.

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

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

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

4 April 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And two updates on other failures:

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

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

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

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.