The PM’s week, late-stage capitalism, executing teenagers in America, and wasps

2 May 2021

When you’re in the wrong, you should never lose your temper;  when you’re in the right, you don’t need to.

This old saw was proved all too clearly by Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday when Sir Keir Starmer asked some simple questions that Johnson was too embarrassed to answer and he got visibly angrier till he humiliated himself by losing his temper.  Even the pictures of him jabbing a finger at Starmer show clearly that Boris was stuck:  he daren’t give truthful answers to the questions and he daren’t lie to parliament.

Later the same day, Matt Hancock refused to answer questions about whether ministers who break electoral law should resign and volunteered that it doesn’t matter if Johnson resigns.  His actual words were “It is important that there are questions, and there were endless questions in the House of Commons earlier on some of the issues that you raised … but you’ve also got to concentrate on the big things that really matter.”

Johnson had a busy week:

  • he refused to set up a public enquiry into his handling of the pandemic, despite pressure from the Institute for Government (the leading independent think tank on the effectiveness of government) and the King’s Fund (an independent health and care charity) who, for some reason, seem to believe it should be done now so we can learn lessons from it, rather than when it’s too late and even more people have died;  and the Lord Speaker, who spent 11 years in Conservative cabinets and is a former chair of the Conservative Party, is calling for a public enquiry to be set up “as soon as possible”.
  • he inadvertently gave his reasons for refusing the enquiry when a small number of people near his office heard him shouting “no more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands”.  He has naturally denied saying this, knowing that ‘the science’ has estimated his delays in March and September last year have already increased the number of Covid-related deaths by 10,000-20,000 ‘bodies’.
  • he now seems likely to be subject to an investigation by parliament’s sleaze watchdog for having reputedly spent £200,000 to stop his flat looking like “a John Lewis nightmare” (sounds good to me) according to a friend of his fiancée* or “a skip” according to Sarah Vine, a right-wing columnist who is also Michael Gove’s wife and, apparently, an expert on skips;  all he’s said is that he paid for it himself and refuses to deny rumours the Conservative party lent him £58,000.  By a strange coincidence, much of the paperwork which would show who originally paid for the stuff has gone missing. 
  • he briefed various media that Dominic Cummings was behind the leaks and Cummings responded with a blog making new allegations about Johnson’s improprieties.
  • his closest allies were accused of awarding government contracts worth millions to their friends and relations and we learnt that his predecessor had lobbied for funding for Greensill Capital, a company that then went belly-up.
  • he said the government “would be working very hard” to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe after she was sentenced to a further year in prison in Iran this week and he added “I don’t think it is right that Nazanin should be sentenced to any more time in jail.  I think it is wrong she is there in the first place, and we will be working very hard to secure her release from Iran … The government will not stop, we will redouble our efforts and we are working with our American friends on the issue as well.”.  What he forgot to say was that the secondary reason she’s already served 5 years (for a different ‘crime’) was because he told a parliamentary select committee in 2017 (when he was Foreign Secretary) that “she was simply teaching people journalism”, which the Iranians quoted in evidence against her, and Johnson had to apologise for the “distress and anguish” his comments had caused the family.  The first reason is that Britain is still refusing to pay the money it has owed Iran for decades.

So, not a good week for Johnson (in a good week, he just gets the skitters) without even mentioning all his earlier lies and deceits.  And he’s the man who was elected by his party members to ‘lead’ their party into a time of peace and harmony in the post-Brexit world.

In the world of late-stage capitalism, the case against two former executives at Serco collapsed because the Senior Fraud Office failed to disclose some evidence to the defendants and the judge didn’t allow the SFO’s request for the case to be adjourned to a retrial.  One of the accused, Simon Marshall, subsequently said “The allegations against me were entirely without substance, as is now clear”, which seems a rather over-optimistic interpretation of a case that failed because of a judicial technicality rather than his having been judged ‘not guilty’.

Serco had previously had to pay £12.8m to the Ministry of Justice as part of a £70m civil settlement in 2013 and £22.9m in fines and costs in 2019 after admitting three offences of fraud and two of false accounting on electronic monitoring contracts.

This week also saw publication of a report by human rights experts from 11 countries that describes the systematic killing of unarmed African Americans as a crime against humanity and holds the US accountable for a long history of violations of international law.

America’s approach is exemplified by the fact that capital punishment is still legal in more than half the states and only 40% of the people on death row are white while 72% of the population identify themselves as white.  The death penalty itself is not prohibited by international law but how it’s used gives a measure of the decency of the country itself and, in America, what are considered as “cruel and unusual punishments” proscribed by the Eighth Amendment.

It also allows reflection on the ages of those allowed to be executed.  In 1944, the 14-year old George Stinney was electrocuted in South Carolina after being found guilty of the murder of two children.  The case was based on circumstantial evidence, he maintained his innocence throughout and the verdict was subsequently overturned and he was pardoned.  Posthumously.  Better never than late.

It wasn’t until 1989 that a Kentucky case said there was a general consensus that people under 16 shouldn’t be executed and this has since been confirmed by the US Supreme Court.

However, many states under Republican control are still buying drugs used in executions from illicit dealers (pharmaceutical companies are not allowed to sell their products to be used in executions).  Arizona has, for example, ordered $1.5m worth of such drugs and said they must be shipped in “unmarked jars and boxes”.

And so to this week’s good news:  according to a report in Biological Reviews, there are about 100,000 wasp species worldwide but only a third of them sting, and they are all valuable plant pollinators.

*          I wonder why Carrie Symonds** is still his fiancée and not his wife.  She doesn’t look like someone I’d want to upset so perhaps it’s in case he discovers he’s inadvertently spawned yet another child with somebody else and wants to be able to walk away again.

**        Did you know her paternal grandfather was a former Labour MP, now probably spinning in his grave?

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.

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.

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.

Amazon, buying books, tolerance, political hypocrisy, Scotland, property developers and gun control

28 March 2021

Amazon has a problem which discourages potential buyers.  It isn’t a huge problem for me because I only use Amazon when there’s no alternative but I want a book published online by Amazon which I can’t get anywhere else and it’s written by a friend so I really do want to read it.

The reason I avoid Amazon is not because I dislike the company – their service is actually very good and they handle complaints well – but because I’m unhappy about commercial monopolies and the power it gives them to abuse their staff:  their delivery drivers often have to pee in bottles because they get fired if they leave too many packages undelivered at the end of the day.  (When I heard a former Amazon driver had said this, my first thought was what on earth their women drivers do.)

If I’m logging in to Amazon, they send a code to my phone.  I’m used to this elsewhere, but instead of a number Amazon sends a 274-digit (no I didn’t actually count them) http address to my phone and says ‘tap here’.  It may work on a Smartphone but there’s nothing to tap on Thickphones.

They can then send you a number by email but guess what happens – there’s nowhere on the login screen to enter a number so you end up circling back to blah-di-blah tap here.  After half an hour of teeth-grinding, I phoned them and spoke to someone who didn’t know how it worked and sent me an email saying I can email them so they can ring me back but, in order to do this, you have to log in …  At this point, I lost the will to live and went to bed.

Incidentally, about a year ago, I mentioned the Big Green Bookshop which ran a ‘Buy a Stranger a Book’ scheme.  I sent the money for a signed copy of a book I wanted and topped it up with enough to buy books for two strangers.  The book duly arrived but it was unsigned so I queried this and got an offhand reply saying they’d run out and would a signed bookplate do?  Yes, I said, and never heard from them again, despite two subsequent reminders.  Avoid!

Instead, for books, try https://uk.bookshop.org/, “an online bookshop with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops” where you can buy books and choose the local bookshop you want to have the profit on your order.

Elsewhere, a school in Batley, West Yorkshire is in trouble because one of its teachers used a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad while talking about the Charlie Hebdo massacre carried out by Muslims who were offended because some believe their faith forbids depictions of their Prophet.

I find myself conflicted by this.  I have no problems with the principle of gods and prophets being lampooned or pictured in any way but I’m unreligious and I’m not in a position to judge the validity of other people’s beliefs.  However, I do believe that displaying something which is known to offend some people is tactless and insulting;  we should be able to accept that others have different beliefs which we should respect.  We should also try to learn about their beliefs and understand them even if ours are different. 

Boris Johnson has at last admitted he wished he’d done some things differently and regrets not having locked down earlier but he didn’t say ‘sorry’ and he went on to say there would be a “a fitting and a permanent memorial to the loved ones we have lost and to commemorate this whole period”.  He apparently thinks it’ll comfort people who have lost friends and relations to know that their names will appear somewhere on a memorial.  Sod the memorial, I’d rather have the people back. 

Still, I’m sure he won’t let his ‘regret’ prevent future dithering and delays.  Indeed, while Professor Chris Whitty is warning of another increase in infections and there’s a full-page NHS advertisement on the back of today’s paper saying “Every online meeting is making a difference … Stay Home”, Johnson’s urging people to get back to work.

We’re also seeing Rishi Sunak reverting to type.  A year ago, he took a firm hold of the money and said there’d be “whatever it takes” to support people through the pandemic but he just blew it when he insulted NHS staff who are working their backsides off, risking their lives and dying, with an increase of 1%; his boss confirmed “it’s all we can afford” while simultaneously announcing £1.5bn of support for companies struggling to pay business rates and a huge increase in our stock of nuclear weapons.

Johnson even admitted that “The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed” which is true but even he realised this should never be admitted in public and, immediately afterwards, he tried to withdraw what he’d said.

Further north, after falling out with his former sidekick, Alex Salmond is forming a new party, Alva, which sounds like a Caledonian washing powder.  His only reason to do this seems to be to divide Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP supporters.  I wish someone would do the same with the Conservative Party.

Some of their protégés are currently are trying to convince Horsham district council it would be really great to build lots of houses on a world-famous 3,500-acre rewilding project on the Knepp estate, endangering the rare white storks that have raised chicks there alongside peregrines, turtle doves, nightingales and purple emperor butterflies.  The estate is also believed to house the densest population of breeding songbirds in Britain and provides a vital, protected wildlife corridor linking the estate with the St Leonard’s and Ashdown forests.

But there is good news.  As we all know, developers will happily fell protected trees that have been growing for centuries and infringe any planning restriction they don’t like, pay the fines (which can theoretically be very large but usually aren’t) and carry on with the building work. 

In early 2015, the foreign-owned developer CLTX Ltd was refused planning permission to demolish the 94-year old pub Carlton Tavern in Kilburn, London so they popped in when it was closed over the Easter weekend and knocked most of it down, expecting to pay a fine and get on with the work.  They were then amazed when, immediately following its destruction, Westminster council wrote to CLTX demanding that the Carlton Tavern be rebuilt exactly “as it stood immediately prior to its demolition”, brick by brick.  CLTX’s standard reply to such demands was that this would be impossible because the details had been lost.

Unfortunately for them, a canny bunch of locals didn’t trust property developers (I wonder why) and had anticipated this so they’d asked English Heritage to list it and a plaster cast had been made of every tile, bundles of pictures were taken and everything was fully documented.  So CLTX had to rebuild it and now, six years later, the Carlton Tavern will (lockdown permitting) reopen next month.

Is it wicked to enjoy a feeling of schadenfreude?

Joe Biden seems to have started well in an understated, unshouty way and is even starting on gun control and calling for a ban on assault weapons.

The NRA believes that most murders are committed using handguns and knives rather than assault rifles, and that focusing on gun ownership neglects the killers’ motives for killing someone.  There are also very few ‘mass shootings’ and they account for less than 3% of all the people who are shot to death.  They see this as an argument for not banning assault rifles.

Their opponents see it as an argument for controlling all guns.

From over here, it seems that right-wing Americans fail to recognise the significance of the second Amendment the NRA uses to justify the right to have guns.  It’s clear that most of them have never read the opening words which say “A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State …” and nowhere does it even hint that individuals have the right just to shoot people they don’t like.

What people also seem to forget is that, when it was written, the “Arms” mentioned in the amendment were muskets, cumbersome things that fired one shot then took several minutes to reload.  Revolvers, which could only hold up to eight bullets before needing to be reloaded, and self-contained cartridges weren’t invented till some 30 years later, while the latest weapons can now shoot at the rate of 6,000 rounds per minute and can empty a magazine holding 30 rounds in half a second.

Isn’t it sad that so much thought and engineering goes into producing something so unnecessary.

Making women safer, abortion, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Ghislaine Maxwell and deepfakes

14 March 2021

The horrific abduction and murder of Sarah Everard raises a number of important questions, and not just about the startling lack of information given by the police or how they dealt with last night’s vigil. 

The most obvious question is about what women can do to make themselves safer, like avoiding dark and deserted places at night, wearing flat shoes to make running easier, holding your keys in your hand so you don’t have to stop and search for them, and keeping one key sticking out between your fingers if you think you might have to punch someone, using your phone to tell friends where you are and when you’re home safely.  If you do feel threatened, try to take and send a photograph of the person to a friend, ring 999 and leave the line open, then say enough to your assailant for the call centre to realise what’s happening and send help, carry a rape alarm and, if you use it, throw it away when it starts to screech and run like hell (it’s more natural for the attacker to look at where the sound is going than where you are), scream and remember that, if you do end up having to defend yourself, there are no rules about where you kick or bite or poke or scratch or, even in these Covid-19 days, spit.

When they were young, I told my children they should never get into a car with anybody they hadn’t seen with their mother or me and if anybody tried to force them to get in, they were allowed to scream and kick break things and make as much noise as possible.  I always had a slight feeling that my eldest was rather hoping to be able to try this out but, luckily, he never needed to.

As a man who’s never felt threatened, I was most affected by the answers given to a man who’d asked how we can make women feel safer if we see one on her own at night, or see one who is looking scared.

Their suggestions included several things I hadn’t thought of, including crossing the street to the other side if a woman is coming towards you or you’re coming up behind her and want to overtake, make sure your face is visible, don’t get too close in narrow or confined spaces such as alleyways, underpasses, stairs in multi-storey car parks;  stand aside and back to let them through first, or let them know you’re coming by saying “I’m on a bicycle / jogging and coming up on your left / right” so you don’t suddenly appear from behind. You can also stop to make a reassuring phone call that she can hear, perhaps something like “Hello darling, I’m on my way and will be home in about ten minutes.  Have you got supper / dinner / tea or shall I pick up something on the way?”

If you notice a woman speeding up, this can be a sign she’s frightened so increase the distance between you by crossing the road, or stopping.

If you’ve been with a woman friend who’s planning to walk home, or to a station or bus stop, offer to walk with her and stay with her till her train / bus appears and she’s safely on it.

Another important thing men can prepare for is if we think a woman is being hassled by another man or men.  I’ve always regretted that I didn’t do this about 35 years ago and was at a loss when I saw a young woman apparently being insulted by a group of young men.  It was on a crowded railway station in Wembley after a Bob Dylan concert so there were plenty of others to help but I couldn’t think what to do.

I decided afterwards I could have gone over and said “Hi, Linda, it’s been a long time, how are you, are these people bothering you?” etc which would probably have helped defuse the situation, or at least taken the aggressors minds off the woman for long enough to change the atmosphere.  Far too late for her but I’ve saved it in my mind in case I ever need it again.

While we’re talking about subjugating women, Arkansas has just passed a law banning all abortions except to save the life of the mother, so even pregnancies resulting from rape cannot be terminated.  The state’s Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, said he was signing the bill because of its “overwhelming legislative support and my sincere and long-held pro-life convictions”.  Imagine carrying a rapist’s child inside you for nine months.  I wonder what sort of gods these pro-life people believe in.  I wonder too what they’d do if their wife or daughter had become pregnant after being raped.

Abraham would have done it for nothing and had raised the knife to kill Isaac before Yahweh said “No, hang on, I’ve changed my mind, kill that ram over there.”  (Leonard Cohen wrote a lovely poem / song about this called, with a certain lack of imagination, ‘Song of Isaac’.)

And, while Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been released from house arrest at the end of her five-year sentence, she’s been unable to return to the UK because she faced new charges today and her passport is being held by the Iranians.  The verdict should be known in the next week but nothing seems to be that predictable in Iran.

I thought a UK passport wasn’t technically necessary to enter the country if you had some photo ID but I’m sure Boris Johnson would ensure she was allowed into the UK since it was one of his lies, when he was Foreign Secretary, that she was “teaching people journalism”, that Iran used as evidence of her “propaganda against the regime”.

He has tweeted “Pleased to see the removal of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ankle tag, but her continued confinement remains totally unacceptable.  She must be released permanently so she can return to her family in the UK, and we continue to do all we can to achieve this.”  So no change there then – all mouth and no trousers.

Meanwhile, Ghislaine Maxwell has been refused bail twice already but is still complaining about the conditions in her New York prison cell not providing the sort of lifestyle she’s been accustomed to.  She’s even offered to give up her UK and French citizenships in exchange for bail but the authorities still think she’s likely to scarper again so they’re keeping her in.  Anybody who feels sorry for her has been watching the wrong film.

About 20 years ago, I asked out of my curiosity if my face could be pasted onto a CCTV recording of a bank robbery and was not reassured by the answer.  Now deepfakes are becoming increasingly popular but they’re not infallible and a new AI program can recognise and name all sorts of things and will, for example, recognise an apple as an apple;  except that, if you write iPod on a post-it note and stick it on the apple, the system will decide it’s an ipod.  This has useful implications for the military who will now be able to write CORNFIELD in large letters across a missile launch pad and the satellite searching for weapons will ignore it.

And this week’s good news is that Piers Morgan has been fired yet again which, I think, beats even Boris Johnson’s record.  (I wonder why I dislike the man – I’ve never met him?)  (Come to that, why do I dislike Simon Cowell who I’ve never even seen on TV, and Andrew Neil, who I have?)

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.

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.

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.