Vaccinations, chumocracy, Gaia, reporting abuse in China, police priorities, car insurance, the human mind, and a fifth force

18 April 2021

There’s been a lot of flapdoodling over Covid vaccinations, including new concerns that a tiny proportion of them (about 4 in a million) might have caused blood clots which, in an even smaller number of cases, killed people.  To put that in perspective, two people in Cornwall might get a clot and 36 of the millions of people living in Greater London might get a clot, and they wouldn’t even fill the upper deck of one London bus.

There’s also a conspiracy theory that the vaccination will introduce a microchip into your system that will tell Bill Gates every time you have a bath, but you have to be pretty paranoid to believe that.

My wife and I are having our second jabs (or jags if you’re reading this north of the border) tomorrow.

I can understand why people are concerned that Covid passports might discriminate against people who haven’t yet been invited for a vaccination but once everybody’s been offered it, who cares?  Surely requiring vaccination certificates from people who are going to gather closely together is just common sense, not an infringement of their freedom, because it must reduce the likelihood of more superspreader events.  And if anti-vaxxers decide not to get vaccinated, they won’t be able to go to festivals and football matches, but that’s their choice.

Some of us are already used to carrying yellow cards in our passports, showing we’ve been vaccinated for yellow fever (and TAB / cholera), when going to certain countries and I’ve never felt my personal freedom was restricted by them.

When easing the lockdown, Boris Johnson admitted this will inevitably increase the number of cases.  He claims the lockdowns are the major contributors to the recent reduction in infection rates while his health Secretary, Matt Hancock, claims the reduction is due to the success of the vaccination programme;  and I thought they were on the same side.  Anyway, Serco is waiting with bated bank account in case infection rates do start to increase again.

Remember Serco?  Up there with G4S?  Had to pay a fine of £23m to the Serious Fraud Office in 2019 for fraud and false-accounting in its electronic tagging contracts, and another fine for the inadequacy of housing for asylum seekers?  Has since ‘won’ more government contracts?  Was at the centre of the impressively useless £22bn ‘test and trace’ programme for which the National Audit Office subsequently found no evidence that it had reduced Covid-19 infection rates?  Has a CEO called Rupert Soames (another scion of the Churchill family) who said the ‘test and trace’ team had done “bloody well” and trousered £4.9m in 2020 for his chutzpah?  Another example of what floats to the top in slurry pits.

At least the vaccine seem to have been effective here in reducing infection numbers so we’re being allowed to meet a limited number of other people in the open air, subject to the rules of your region, but snogging strangers is still discouraged.

(For some of us older ones, ‘snog’ always used to be a noun:  one would have a snog with someone but now one snogs them, which somehow overrides the implied consent in the first form and sounds much less reciprocal in the second.)

So we’ll continue to wear masks, keep our distance whenever possible and hope for the best but I do wonder if Gaia is behind the pandemic as part of a double-pronged attack on humanity.  Having convinced us we can control epidemics by giving us a false sense of security with SARS, swine flu and AIDS, it’s now hitting us with a pandemic that we can’t control at the same time as we near the climate emergency tipping point.

So let’s turn our backs and enjoy the curiosities of life and that Prince Philip’s funeral service yesterday was attended by 30 representatives of different branches of his family, including Donatus, Prince and Landgrave of Hesse and Gormenghast and Prince Philipp of Hohenlohe-Langenburg and Gilly-Gilly-Ossenfeffer.

And, while racism still seems rife in the police, at least some of them still have their priorities right:  a West Mercia police spokesperson said last week: “We are appealing for information following the theft of an award-winning rabbit”.  The missing rabbit measures four feet from its scut to its bewhiskered hooter and a professional pet detective* has recommended closing Britain’s borders to ensure it isn’t taken abroad for a holiday in the Alpine lettuce fields.

Which reminds me that, since I mentioned coded ways to report abuse last week, I’ve heard about #RiceBunny which is used by Chinese women when discussing sexual harassment to avoid alerting Chinese censorship algorithms.  The words ‘rice bunny’ are apparently pronounced “mi tu” in Mandarin. 

I was also reminded this week that our car insurance comes up for renewal in late May so I must get some quotes. According to ‘Money Saving Expert’, premiums can be halved if you compare different insurers’ prices 23 days before the renewal date.  Costs then increase as the renewal date approaches and leaving it until just before the renewal date will certainly produce higher quotations because insurers say that late renewers are statistically more likely to claim.  Hmmm – it wouldn’t be because they no longer have time to find a cheaper price would it?

In one of life’s coincidences, a friend’s philosophy class now gets regular discussion notes by email and, shortly after I mentioned the human mind last month, she sent me a recent one on the mind.  My immediate response was that, to me, the mind is a nebulous, indescribable link between brain and action / decision / conscious thought which develops over one’s lifetime, from the basic, earthbound, self-centred demands of the newborn to the intellectual and social interactions of adults.  In modern day language, perhaps the brain is the hardware, the mind is the operating software and their interactions are application software.

However, shortly after I’d written this, it occurred to me that my metaphor was based on our current ‘scientific’ understanding of the world;  had I lived in ancient times, I might have used a Hippocratic metaphor and linked mind to the balance between the four bodily fluids.

Recent studies of sub-atomic particles called muons may have found evidence of a fifth fundamental force of nature to add to gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force and the weak force.  In an experiment, muons were expected to ‘wobble’ at a certain rate but actually wobbled much faster than expected so there’s a possibility that a fifth force could speed them up.

Wouldn’t it be exciting if this began to explain some of the apparent anomalies such as why the universe is expanding faster than our science thinks it should!

Well, I suppose we all get excited by different things, like waiting for one of the DoE’s pallbearers to trip at his funeral, drop the coffin and hear a voice from inside saying “clumsy oaf”.  I did actually see a bit of the funeral when a gun was being fired every so often, followed by which a bell went bong and I found myself waiting to see if one of the shots missed the bell.

*          Honestly, I don’t make job titles up.  Their job probably involves discovering it was done by the ferret in the scullery with the chrysanthemum.

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.

A miracle, US super-spreader, Boris backs capitalism, restricting education, badgers and kindnesses

11 October 2020

It’s a miracle!  Donald Trump, the White House’s own super-spreader, has completely recovered from the coronavirus in a matter of days, the only person in the world to do so.  He’s now the fittest person still alive (as I write), despite being a fat pensioner and having been so unfit in his 20s that he failed his medical on leaving college and wasn’t able go to Vietnam to fight for his country and get shot.

Which may be why he said a few weeks ago that the American soldiers who fought and died in World War II were “losers” and “suckers” for getting killed.  It now seems that Covid-19 has destroyed what was left of his brain because nothing he now says or does makes any sense.

Trump said he has “learnt a lot about Covid” from his infection.  If he’d read the briefing papers he’s been given for the last 10 months, he’d have learnt it a lot earlier.

Then, though he was still infectious (why do people say ‘contagious’, which involves touch, instead of ‘infectious’, which doesn’t?) when he discharged himself on Monday, he appeared on the White House balcony and dramatically removed his face mask to prove to the world what an idiot he is and that he doesn’t care who he infects even though, when he was speaking, at least 27 people in his inner circle had tested positive (ABC News claims 34), and the bodies of more than 210,000 people killed by Covid-19 litter the country.

People who know Trump believe he would happily sacrifice anyone, even those closest to him, to win the election.

He’s even cancelled the second presidential debate after a non-partisan commission decided the debate should take place online due to Trump’s diagnosis;  his refusal to take part in a ‘virtual’ debate wouldn’t have been related to his childish and “unpresidential” performance at the first one would it?  He will however be attending a supporters’ rally in Sanford, Florida on Monday, though everyone attending it will be required to sign a waiver of their right to sue the White House if they subsequently contract the virus (“Nah mate, no risk at all, everything’s fine, just sign here or piss off”).

The third and final debate is to be held in Nashville, Tennessee on 22 October, just 11 days away.  Harold Wilson once said “A week is a long time in politics” so anything could happen.

All of this rather leaves Boris Johnson in the shade but he’s desperately trying to catch up.  In a speech he gave on Tuesday, he said “We must be clear that there comes a moment when the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it”.  In plain English, this seems to mean “We’re not going to (re)nationalise anything else or give businesses any more support and if they go bust, tough, that’s how capitalism works”.

However, Rishi Sunak as Chancellor of the Exchequer almost immediately contradicted him by saying that, from 1 November when the furlough scheme ends, the government will subsidise employees’ salaries in qualifying businesses (thought likely to be pubs, bars and restaurants) by up to two thirds, to a maximum of £2,100 per week. 

I’ll bet the odds on Sunak’s being the next leader of the Conservative party are shortening.

I wonder if this is why the government has recently ordered schools not to use materials supplied by organisations that are opposed to capitalism?  The short (about 200 years) history of what we now call capitalism deserves a blog of its own but they’ve obviously never heard of social enterprises or mutuals or housing associations or even charities and other not-for-profits? 

It might be easier just to control what schools can teach.  Stop history at 1820 to include Mary Wollstonecraft but exclude the Tolpuddle martyrs and exclude all earlier references to slavery, colonisation, empire etc.  In fact, better to burn all the books just in case.  Fahrenheit 451.

Another Johnson wheeze to distract from his disastrous handling of everything else, announced a couple of weeks ago, is his expansion of badger culling to 11 new areas with the aim of killing 60,000 more of the beasties.

In 2018, in the report of an independent review led by Professor Sir Charles Godfray at Oxford University and commissioned by the then environment secretary, one Michael Gove, scientists said it was wrong to claim badgers were the main cause of outbreaks of bovine tuberculosis and it was “highly desirable” to start vaccinating badgers rather than killing them.  They concluded that most infections were caused by poor farming practices such as insecure fencing between different herds, and the movement of two million cattle round the UK each year.

Despite the government’s clear commitment in March to phase out badger culling, this turned out to be another of Johnson’s “Of course I’ll still love you in the morning what was your name again” promises.

The South West was that light grey line way below all the others on the charts of infection and deaths during the first epidemic but, with the summer influx of grockles and the return of students, things are declining and, worldwide, it looks as if the earlier surge was just a foothill in a mountain range still to be scaled.

Interestingly, the Office of National Statistics routinely tests tens of thousands of households around the country whether or not the occupants have symptoms and has found that, between April and June, 86% of people testing positive had none of the main symptoms on the day they were tested and 75% had no notable symptoms at all.  This could be interpreted to indicate that most people have it and are infectious without showing any severe symptoms so tests don’t identify all carriers and we should all wear masks everywhere.

In August, I praised Tesco Mobile’s kindness in giving £700,000 of equipment away.  Sadly, I was premature.  Tesco, to whom we (you and I and all other UK taxpayers) have already given £249,000,000 for a business rates holiday, is giving dividends worth £315,000,000 to its shareholders.  Morrisons did something similar last month

Tesco’s Chief Financial Officer Alan Stewart said it is the “right thing to do for shareholders” because it was based on last year’s profits.  What absolute bollocks.  The same argument could be used by a company that made a profit last year and is now bust but it’s still OK to increase its losses by giving its shareholders a dividend.

We are definitely entering the end days of capitalism.

And there’s more good news and kindness.

The Queen has issued a message of support for traditional media outlets.  She said that “having trusted, reliable sources of information, particularly at a time when there are so many sources competing for our attention, is vital”.

She never, of course, comments on political matters but one is tempted to read her support for the BBC into the message.  Good on yer, ma’am.

The footballer Marcus Rashford, who I’ve praised before for getting the government to extend free school meals, has been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list.

And Prince William has set up the Earthshot prize fund which will give away five £1m prizes each year for the next ten years with the aim of trying to reverse the climate crisis and “repair the planet” by 2030.  No, of course it’s not all coming out of his own pocket but it’s great that King-in-waiting no. 2 is using his power to draw together a group of charities and businesses and individuals to support the movement started by a Danish schoolgirl.

Love and kindness, unkindness and stupidity

6 September 2020

Some interviews with ‘celebrities’ ask “Have you ever said ‘I love you’ and not meant it’?”

Before I answered that, I’d need the questioner to define love because I ‘love’ so many things.  I love my wife, I love my children, I love my friends, I love books, I love pictures, I love the countryside, I love music, I love the smell of lily-of-the-valley, I love swimming, I love the feel of rain in my face, I love the softness of a labrador’s ears.  Put like this, it’s clear that the word ‘love’ covers a whole range of feelings.  Then take into account that all the examples I’ve just given are very subjective and have no objective validity for other people.

There is another, more generalised dimension to love which encompasses our relations with the world outside, like a general love of cats which leads people to feed feral cats in urban wastelands, or a concern for homeless people that involves them in projects to improve their lives.

I’ve given examples of this in previous blogs and called it ‘kindness’ which is perhaps one of the manifestations of love.

The ancient Greek philosophers had quite a lot of words we translate as ‘love’, the best known, at least to people who were ever taught about the Bible, probably coming from the King James English translation of the Greek version of 1 Corinthians 13:13 “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity”, where the Greek word agápe is translated as ‘charity’.  Most subsequent revisions and translations translate it as ‘love’ although the original meaning of the English word ‘charity’ was arguably closer to the mark.

Agápe implies selfless universal love, such as the love for strangers, nature, or a God, an unconditional compassion and empathy that is extended to everyone else in the whole world.

In English – as used in that stupid interview question – ‘love’ tends to imply what the Greeks called éros, which covers intimacy and sexual love and includes the physical pleasure associated with it, while ludus is a sort of eros Lite, covering mutually enjoyable flirting and having a crush on someone, and philia describes the reciprocated friendship, regard and affection between friends and close family members. 

Storge describes the affection and loyalty that accompanies a sense of ‘duty’ felt by parents towards their children or by people towards a country, political creed or football team, xenia covers kindness to strangers and hospitality, giving of yourself to people you don’t know and philautia is basically self-confidence, which can be good when it means being comfortable enough in your own skin to love others, or bad when it’s linked to sociopathy.

All these words can be translated and interpreted as ‘love’ but it’s interesting to see in how many forms ‘love’ appears, and surely kindness is implicit in almost all the Greek words. 

If only more people were kind, and remember this doesn’t mean imagining what you might like if you were in their situation, it’s what you think they might like in their situation.

This is, of course, all getting philosophical and textbookish and, predictably, I have hang-ups about philosophy:  it seems to involve a lot of armchair research that has no practical application in the world we inhabit, but that’s probably just because I’m not clever enough, and don’t get enough time to sit in armchairs.

In the real world, remember Marcus Rashford, a young footballer who forced the government into one if its U-turns back in June?  His latest target is to end child food poverty in Britain and he’s formed a task force, the Child Food Poverty Task Force, working with FairShare, the Food Foundation and many of the country’s best-known food brands.  He’s described the poverty of his own childhood, saying “I know that feeling [of a 9-year old trying to protect their family], that was my reality”.  

Down at our level in the real world, perhaps we should all just try to think less about ourselves and more about other people and if they might welcome any kindness

So many people aren’t kind.  Have you ever, in your wildest dreams, imagined the Gaslighter-in-Chief, Donald Trump, doing something kind, or even laughing?

This blog often highlights unkindnesses and stupidity in the hope that more people will be sufficiently shocked to think how they could do to make life better for others.

Random examples this week include:

  • Heathrow has told its 4,700 staff in the front line that their pay will be cut by 15-20% if they want to avoid losing their jobs;  their announcement omitted to say if the money they give to directors and shareholders would also be cut and the omission gives us the answer.
  • British Airways has furloughed tens of thousands of staff during the pandemic and is now planning to get rid of 10,000 jobs.  Willie Walsh, BA’s boss, agreed in March to reduce his basic pay (£850,000) by 20% but he was given £3.2m last year and, now he’s leaving, will be given another £883,000;  other senior executives will also receive huge bonuses.  Regardless of contractual ‘rights’, surely these should be forgone?
  • Back in the 1970s, Tony Abbott, former prime minister of Australia, was reported by Liz Jackson to have said “I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons” and, in a 2010 TV interview, “I probably feel a bit threatened [by homosexuality], as so many people do. It’s a fact of life.”  (Not mine mate.)  Boris Johnson is now appointing him a special trade adviser.
  • Johnson has officially started the construction of HS2 (now estimated to cost £105bn of your money and mine) which will destroy AONBs, SSSIs, woodlands and the lives of many thousands of people on its route for the benefit of a few people who think they need to save 15 minutes when travelling between Birmingham and London.  (Why not just invite all its supporters to provide the £105bn in return for unlimited free first-class travel on the HS2 trains for themselves and all their descendants for the next three generations, and give the £105bn saved to the NHS and schools?)
  • Lebanon has discovered another 4.3 tonnes of undocumented ammonium nitrate near the port of Beirut.  (Sounds like an opportunity for Ryanair to offer cheap flights to ringside seats in Beirut for 5 November.)
  • At the end of August, Apple’s market value was greater than the combined value of all companies in the FTSE 100 index.
  • Water companies in England discharged raw sewage into rivers more than 200,000 times last year;  in February this year, a permit was issued for the import of 27,500 tonnes of sewage sludge containing human waste from the Netherlands.

Let’s finish with another kindness.

The Home Office has chartered an aeroplane to deport 11 Syrian asylum seekers, many of them without any identity documentation, and has just abandoned them at Madrid airport.  A Guardian reader who lives in Spain has offered to help and she’s now trying to arrange local support for them.

Horseflies, brilliant GCHQ cock-up, self-effacing politicians, U-turns, misogyny, Democrats v. Trump, and more kindness

23 August 2020

Mosquitos last week, this week horseflies.

We know of course that horseflies don’t leave a single puncture mark but make a small slash in the skin, about 1mm long, (and that spider bites leave a pair of puncture holes) but it’s been discovered that their judgement of distance is affected by bold patterns.  Presumably we should all now wear tartan trousers (or plaid pants if we’re in America) and patterned shirts on picnics.

GCHQ, Britain’s top intelligence agency, tweets puzzles every so often.  The most recent one asked what letter comes next in the sequence C, U, T, S, I, U, N.  The correct answer is T because the series takes the fourth letter of every major planet in the solar system in the order of their distance from the sun but, when they published the answer, an intelligence official unwittingly – or wittingly, who knows? – didn’t name all the planets  and listed only the first two and the last two, using an ellipsis to cover the others.  The ‘solution’ thus read “Mercury, Venus, …, Uranus, Neptune”.  It was expanded to show the full list within 20 minutes but the rude word suggested by the original answer had already hit the internet.

Much less interesting has been the reactions to the algorithmic exam results.  Two days after Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson assured people there would be “no U-turn, no change”, he apologised and ordered a complete reversal, though he tried to blame the fiasco on the regulator Ofqual.

The non-executive chair of Ofqual, Roger Taylor, then threatened to resign unless Williamson withdrew his criticism, reminding him they’d told him a month earlier that they’d received a report saying the algorithm was “volatile” and flawed.  It’s believed that Williamson tried to water down his apology but Taylor insisted and Williamson finally said “We have full confidence in Ofqual and its leadership in their role as independent regulator.”  The DfE further confirmed that it had been Ofqual’s decision, not Williamson’s, to drop the results produced by the algorithm.

Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive.

The government has also been shamed by the incompetence of its response to the coronavirus pandemic.  When commenting on the dismal failure of Serco’s coronavirus track-and-trace system, an official statement said “Serco and its team of specialist sub-contractors has played an important part in in helping reach hundreds of thousands of people who might have passed on the virus” and that they had been “93% successful in persuading people to isolate” where contact with people had been made (my emphasis).  This statement was issued by – yes, you guessed it – Serco.

On the bright side, a new book ‘Men to Avoid in Art and Life’ by Nicole Tersigni is being published tomorrow by Chronicle Books.  It takes the mickey out of mansplainers by pasting deadpan captions onto classical pictures which show men sharing their expertise on subjects like breastfeeding and period pain. Tersigni is a comedy writer and says she published the book partly to show that the same misogyny has existed for centuries, and partly because older paintings are more likely to be out of copyright.

The two examples I’ve seen are very funny and could help to take our minds off Brexit, which is still creeping up on us, with no substantive progress having apparently been made on any of the vast differences between the leavers’ promises and reality, and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has been reported by the BBC as saying that and EU-UK trade deal “seems unlikely”.

To add insult to injury, a wild pear tree in South Cubbington wood, which is estimated to be 250 years old, still bears fruit and was voted England’s Tree of the Year in 2015, is to be felled so HS2 can be built;  and the completion of CrossRail has been delayed yet again, this time until 2022, while costs have escalated by yet another half a million pounds.

Shouldn’t all future governments be required to organise a booze-up in a brewery before they’re allowed to run the country? 

In America, Joe Biden’s appointment of Kamala Harris as his running mate gives some of us a lot of hope that the Democrats might really oust Donald Trump (I daren’t believe in that until it actually happens) and the presentations at the Democratic convention were impressive:  sadly no Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but Michelle Obama stole the show and Kristin Urquiza blamed Trump for misleading America about the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic.  “My dad was a healthy 65-year old”, she said.  “His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life.”

Trump’s older sister Maryanne Trump Barry, who is a federal judge, was secretly recorded by their niece Mary a couple of years ago.  The recordings have been heard by the Washington Post and Associated Press.

She was less than complimentary about her brother, saying “He has no principles” and, when asked what he reads, “He doesn’t read”.  Later she said “I’m talking too freely, but you know. The change of stories. The lack of preparation. The lying. Holy shit … It’s the phoniness of it all. It’s the phoniness and this cruelty. Donald is cruel.”

More recently, a California judge has ordered Trump to pay Stormy Daniels’ legal costs of $44,100 and another American judge opened the door for Manhattan’s district attorney to access his tax returns (although, sadly, they may not be public before the election). 

Is a smidgeon of schadenfreude forgivable here?

The charity, Crisis, is planning to give homeless people 2,500 free handsets and mobile packages because an email address is often more valuable to them than a sleeping bag and, with Iain Duncan’s Smith’s universal credit scheme, claimants have to log on daily.  IDS is of course another of the government’s not-geniuses, along with Gavin Williamson, Matt Hancock, Robert Jenrick, Priti Patel, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson – oh, good heavens, there are far too many to credit individually – who are left in place to provide a thin blue line where the buck is supposed to stop before it claims Johnson. 

Tesco Mobile is giving £700,000 of equipment in the first year, with more to follow.  Perhaps corporate social responsibility departments are beginning to wake up to the fact that they’re not just token attempts to compensate for corporate greed but that genuine kindness trumps political donations and peerages for Russian oligarchs.

It’s also encouraging to see the increase in personal kindnesses shown by a 561% increase in one-off donations as well as a 112% rise in regular donations to charities via WPNC’s online donation platform.  Other donation platforms have also seen increases in individual giving. 

Perhaps there is still hope in the kindness of people who care more about things other than their bank balance.

Bunny hops and Faraday cages, Bob Dylan on mortality, C-in-C sells Americans, naked market forces, nerfing, and kindness in an online interview

5 July 2020

My curiosity was aroused recently by a notice we get from Western Power Distribution with our annual wayleave payment for the power line that runs over our garden.  It warns of the dangers of hitting a power cable with a vehicle you’re in, and what to do next.  We don’t actually have any cherry-pickers or trench diggers but I read it anyway.

Much of it is obvious, such as stay in the vehicle if possible (you’ll be in a Faraday cage so you won’t get electrocuted in the car but remember mobile phones don’t work in Faraday cages).  In summary, it says that, if you have to get out, jump – or, if you have a Lamborghini, crawl – straight down to the ground, don’t touch the vehicle after any part of you has landed, then “move away from the vehicle using bunny hops”.

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t like not knowing interesting things, however irrelevant, so I naturally contacted WPD to ask why the bunny hops and a manager who lives nearby called in on his way home one day to explain.  Basically (and I simplify somewhat), the power flowing from the cable round your vehicle into the ground doesn’t just go straight down but it dissipates over an area surrounding it so there’s a risk that, if you walk, your back foot might still be in a 50,000 volt area while your front foot would come down in a 30,000 volt area, with the remaining 20,000 volts going through your body, whereas bunny hops mean that both your feet are always in areas of similar voltage.

It’s why birds can sit on power lines without getting electrocuted, and why you can bunny hop onto a live rail at the station without getting a shock (I know it works because I did it once to prove it to a dubious friend that I wouldn’t die).

In an interview published in the New York Times on 12 June, Bob Dylan was asked if he often thought about mortality.  He answered “I think about the death of the human race. The long strange trip of the naked ape. Not to be light on it, but everybody’s life is so transient. Every human being, no matter how strong or mighty, is frail when it comes to death. I think about it in general terms, not in a personal way.” 

I put it differently some years ago when I wrote “All our lives are written in sand, and washed away by the tides of time” but it comes to the same sort of thing, that we overestimate our own individual significance.  In a century, we’ll all be forgotten, and our statues will be toppled.

Even Donald Trump’s increasingly lunatic efforts to be remembered as America’s worst-ever president will be forgotten.  Last weekend’s contribution came when he claimed that he didn’t know Russia had offered to pay to be allowed to attack American troops in Afghanistan.  If he really didn’t know, he should find out why;  if he did, the US military should know that their commander-in-chief is willing to sell their lives to Russia.

As a country, the US is also outstandingly successful at alienating other countries all over the world but at least we might learn the dangers of unregulated market forces now that America’s bought the world’s entire stocks of remdesivir, which is manufactured by a company called Gilead Sciences Inc and is one of the two drugs that seem to work against Covid-19. 

In an open letter published on 29 June by Daniel O’Day, Gilead’s Chairman & CEO, he explains how socially conscious they are and says “As with all our actions on remdesivir, we approached this with the aim of helping as many patients as possible, as quickly as possible and in the most responsible way” and “In normal circumstances, we would price a medicine according to the value it provides.”  With Covid-19, they reckon it would allow patients to be discharged four days earlier, which would save American hospitals about $12,000.

He then boasts that “To ensure broad and equitable access at a time of urgent global need, we have set a price for governments of developed countries of $390 per vial. Based on current treatment patterns, the vast majority of patients are expected to receive a 5-day treatment course using 6 vials of remdesivir, which equates to $2,340 per patient” in government healthcare programmes;  (because private US insurance companies expect discounts, they’ll have to pay $520 which, less 25% discount, happens to come to $390.)

Gilead’s generosity goes even further and O’Day says:  “In the developing world, where healthcare resources, infrastructure and economics are so different, we have entered into agreements with generic manufacturers to deliver treatment at a substantially lower cost. These alternative solutions are designed to ensure that all countries in the world can provide access to treatment.” 

In other words, they are refusing to share their knowledge with the developed world and the rest of us, from China through Russia to Europe can die for all they care.

He adds later “As the world continues to reel from the human, social and economic impact of this pandemic, we believe that pricing remdesivir well below value is the right and responsible thing to do.”

Of course.  We would have expected no less of big pharma?  Wouldn’t we?

Except they then sold 500,000 doses, Gilead’s entire output for July and 90% of August’s and September’s output, to Donald Trump.  Trump’s reported to be some sort of Christian but obviously not the bible-reading sort.

Thinking of Trump reminds me that, during the week I came across the word ‘nerf’ for the first time, so I looked it up.  It turns out to be used in computer gaming as the opposite of ‘buff’ and is defined as a feature in some video games that decreases the power or strength of the player, and is used metaphorically in more generalised contexts, such as ‘Trump’s been nerfed by his own stupidity’.

As has Boris Johnson who this week said that the coronavirus pandemic “allowed” him to allocate money to repair schools that have been falling apart since George’ Osborne’s ‘austerity’ policies reduced school funding so much they couldn’t even afford the buckets they had to put under drips from leaky roofs.  Johnson needed a pandemic to allow him to do this?  Nerfed.

This week’s kindness comes from a BBC journalist, Christian Fraser, when he was interviewing Dr Clare Wenham, assistant professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics, about local lockdowns.  As she was explaining the problems of accessing testing data, her daughter Scarlett appeared beside her with a picture of a unicorn and asked “Mummy, what’s his name?”.

Wenham apologised and lifted her down and Scarlett went to the back of shot to try the picture on different shelves in a bookcase.  At the end of the interview, after thanking Wenham, Fraser spoke directly to Scarlett saying “Scarlett, I think it looks best on the lower shelf … and it’s a lovely unicorn.” What a lovely way to put an embarrassed mother at ease.

The idiocies of politicians and businesses, John Prine, greed and kindness

5 April 2020

Our leaders seem to be competing to show who can be the biggest idiot, and it’s a close-run thing.

Evidence from China and Singapore gave clear signs in late January that coronavirus would spark a pandemic and, shortly afterwards, the World Health Organisation started advocating programmes of mass testing for live Covid-19.  The British response to testing has been less than impressive:

  • Mar 11 – we’ll increase tests to 10k a day (Government statement)
  • Mar 19 – we’ll increase tests to 25k a day (Boris Johnson)
  • Mar 29 – we’ve reached 10k tests a day (Michael Gove)
  • Mar 30 – we’re actually doing about 7k tests a day (Helen Whately)
  • Mar 31 – we’ll be doing 25k tests a day by the mid-April (Gove) or the end of April (Government statement)
  • Apr 2 – the government made mistakes – “There will be criticisms made, and some of them will be justified” (Matt Hancock)
  • Apr 2 – we’re “catching up” and we’ll doing 100k tests a day by the end of April (Hancock)
  • Apr 2 – 5k NHS staff have been tested so far (Hancock); this leaves only 1,295,000 still to be tested (me)
  • Apr 2 – it is extremely unlikely that the UK will be able to test for live cases in the general public (Government statement)

The numbers of daily new cases of Covid-19 in the UK dropped from 4,450 on Friday to a total of 3,735 yesterday.  Optimists believe the spread of the disease could be levelling off;  cynics believe this could be because not enough tests are being done.

The new Nightingale Hospital in London was opened this week and the Royal Engineers are in the process of building more of them over the country so at least somebody is anticipating a huge increase in the need for them.  I’m sure somebody’s realised they’ll need to be staffed.

However, the increasing rate of deaths in the UK does seem to be slowing though it takes time for the statistics to catch up with the facts because of the way they’re reported.  For example, Wednesday’s deaths were originally reported to be 159 while the actual number is now known to be at least 463. only 200% more.  Any chance the police will accept a 200% margin of error when stopping people for speeding – well, officer, I know the limit’s 30 but I was only doing 90 so that’s within my 200% margin of error innit?

For a helpful guide (approved by a friend of the family who’s an epidemiologist specialising the worldwide spread of diseases) on how to remain as sterile as possible when unpacking shopping, see:  https://youtu.be/sjDuwc9KBps.

After doing nothing for six weeks as the pandemic started, Trump did another of his U-turns on Sunday by saying his promise to re-open America by Easter had been “aspirational” and he hoped it would all be over by 1 June.  He added that he would have done “a very good job” if only 100,000 people died of it.  ‘Only’ 100,000 Americans dying as a result of the President’s incompetence is a “good job”?  I’d hate to experience what he’d describe as a bad job.

What I tend to forget about America is how little is governed by federal law – many laws are still set at state level so what is legal here may be illegal three paces to the south.  The two most shocking laws that are set by individual states and not nationally are gun control and abortions but a lovely tweet went viral this week advising pregnant women to file for financial support for their foetuses on the grounds that the Republicans would either have to grant it or admit that a foetus isn’t a child, which would undermine their opposition to abortion.

When the possibility of voting reforms that would make voting easier during the pandemic, was being discussed, Trump said, if it were easier for people to vote, “You’d never have a Republican elected in this country again”.  He didn’t think that one through did he?

Still, after four months in the shadows doing Sweet Fair Angela, the Labour party now has a new leader who may now leap into action.  At least, whatever you think of his politics, Keir Starmer has the ability to take things seriously, unlike Bumbling Boris.  He’s agreed to work with the Conservatives for the common good on coronavirus and some of us hope he’s preparing to respond to a sadly inevitable  increase in domestic abuse cases and a birth-rate bulge around the end of the year.

Less impressive was the Bank of England having to ‘ask’ the UK’s largest banks, after they’d already paid millions in bonuses to their executives, to scrap nearly £8bn of dividends and cancel plans for further cash bonuses;  private health firms have sold thousands of test kits at £295 each (twice what they used to cost);  Tim Martin, founder and CEO of the Wetherspoons pub chain, who is ‘worth’ about £280m is claiming the company can’t afford to pay its staff during the shut-down and will need government support;  and Pets at Home is claiming that its dog-grooming service staff are essential workers.

(Another sad effect of the pandemic is that John Prine is critically ill after contracting coronavirus.  Anybody who doesn’t know his work and likes country / folk music, have a listen to ‘In Spite of Ourselves’ which he recorded with Iris Dement.)

But some corporates are showing kindness rather than greed.  In the UK, Ocado ordered 100,000 Covid-19 testing kits for staff but has promised them to the NHS if required, and Morrisons are donating large amounts of produce to foodbanks.

Remember what Terry Pratchett said:  “Kindness is love in disguise”.

Dracula, 366-day years, “buy a new house, donate £66,000 to the developer”, ABdePJ still climbing, coronavirus, Finnish football and more kindness

1 March 2020

I had a routine blood test this week which apparently showed slightly raised levels of iron in my blood.  My doctor assured me this isn’t serious but, not being a medic, I started thinking that there’s a lot of oxygen in my body and the inside of my body is quite damp (over half my body weight is water and blood can be about 80% water) so there must be risk that I’m going to rust away from the inside out.

I then started to imagine my crumbling and blowing away in a convenient breeze, like Dracula at the end of the eponymous 1958 film.  The film is well worth a watch just to see how film-making and acting styles have changed.  In one scene, our heroes have searched the whole house for Dracula until somebody says “We’ve searched everywhere except the cellar.”  Van Helsing dramatically claps his hand to his forehead and says “The cellar.  My God!  We forgot the cellar.”  Brilliant!  I’d have started with the cellar but I suppose the film would have been a lot shorter.

Anyway, raised levels of iron can indicate haemochromatosis and the best way of getting rid of the excess iron is to lose a lot of blood.  Come back Dracula, all is forgiven.

Also this week, I had what appeared to be a Boris Johnson-inspired offer to extend the warranty on my computer.  Part of it said “if your factory warranty expires on 31/12/2019 and you purchase a one year Post Warranty Care Pack on 31/4/2020, your new HP Care Pack extension will be valid from 31/4/2020 through 31/4/2021.”  That is so groovy:  366 day years so people have to work one extra day every year for the same money – sheer genius.

On which subject, I was impressed to learn that Persimmon, the housebuilders who chucked out their previous chief executive last year even though he voluntarily reduced his bonus from over £100m to a paltry £75m, have just chucked out his successor (with a bonus of £45m).

I was even more impressed that their profits exceeded £1bn for the second time and that, despite critical problems with the quality of the houses they build, their average house sold for more than £215,000 and each one made them a profit of almost £66,000.

That’s one of the reasons we should all be capitalists, so nobody would need be on benefits.  I mean, if people can’t afford to make a donation of £66,000 to the property developer when they’re buying a £149,000 house, then they don’t deserve a house anyway.  It’s why Iain Duncan-Smith introduced the universal credit scheme and left so many people with no money at all for 6 weeks to encourage them to get jobs, or die of starvation.  It’s a funny old world (“funny” in the sense of ‘aaarrrggghhh’).

Then the head of the Home Office resigned and will be claiming constructive dismissal from the government after his boss, Priti Patel, was even more unpleasant than she usually is.  When Boris Johnson was asked if he retained full confidence in his home secretary, a Downing Street official said: “The prime minister has complete confidence in all of his cabinet.”  I’d give her a week.

And the Pentagon carried out a military exercise simulating a “limited” nuclear exchange with Russia to prove that it’s possible to use nuclear weapons in a battle without causing a world-ending conflict.  Next week they simulate an exercise in which fairies cure cancer.

After claiming the coronavirus (possibly to be known as the Nehivirus in America?) / Covid 19 outbreak was a democrat hoax designed to prevent the best president ever being re-elected, Donald Trump, a self-confessed germophobe, handed responsibility for dealing with the epidemic to Mike Pence, the Vice-President.  Pence is a devout Christian who has said he believes that “someday scientists will come to see that only the theory of intelligent design provides even a remotely rational explanation for the known universe” (so, logically, the epidemic is God’s doing and trying to contain or cure it would be opposing the mysterious ways in which God works).

According to the World Health Organisation ‘sitrep’ yesterday, there were 85,403 confirmed cases worldwide and it would seem that the average death rate is about 2%.  I originally guessed there might be 250,000-500,000 cases worldwide but am now wondering if there be could be ten times that number.

Trump has assured Americans that they are “very very safe” so it’s obviously Pence’s fault if they’re not.

The Finnish Football Association (Suomen Palloliitto in Finnish, as I’m sure you knew) is one of the few football organisations that has equal pay for their men’s and women’s national teams. Now they’re going a step further and the country’s top division of women’s football will be called the National League instead of the Women’s League in a push for “full equality”.  Finland leads the way yet again!

After the suicide of TV presenter Caroline Flack, one of her Instagram posts in December was shared widely and has since gone viral.  In it, she said “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”

Also as a result of her death, someone who just called themselves Emma contacted Simon Key, who runs the Big Green Bookshop (http://www.biggreenbookshop.com/), offering to pay for a couple of copies of Matt Haig’s memoir about depression ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ so they could be given to other people.  Key, who already runs a “Buy a Stranger a Book” scheme online, tweeted about this and was overwhelmed by requests for the book and by donations, some small, some large, from people who wanted to give the book to those who’d been brave enough to ask for a copy.