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The US

19 Years Late…

In case you missed it, a team of wildlife surveyors conducting a count of bighorn sheep in Utah spotted a large, mysterious metal monolith right slap-bang in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

Naturally theories abound as to its origin, especially in context of the remarkable similarity to the slab in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

My personal theory is that this may be the world’s best ever long-form practical joke. Somebody has gone to some considerable time, cost and effort to place a metal block in the desert at some point over the last thirty years in the hope someone would eventually stumble on it and be baffled. I hope that person remains silent forever, giggling at the media furor.

Since writing the above, the monolith then mysteriously disappeared, and similar steel structures appeared in both California and Romania, and everybody is loving the whole charade.

Missing the Joke

A phenomenon known as ‘thanksgiving’ occurred last week in the US; for the rest of us that’s roughly akin to Britain holding an annual ‘Thanks-For-All-Your-Resources-And-Priceless-Artefacts-We-Stole-Day’ (see also this hilarious James Acaster bit).

I digress…

However, the holiday did dig out this brilliant story of Thanksgiving prank pulled on NASA’s Atlantis Mission Commander in 1991, when subordinates informed him of an imminent collision between the ISS and a ‘Turkish’ satellite. Aforementioned commander missed the joke, and the hastily coded Turkey displayed on the control room computers, alerting the highest military command. It’s worth a read.


This week, I’m giving thanks to the staffer who selected a teeny-tiny desk to place Donald Trump behind during a press conference.

The desk provided the perfect prop for Trump to hold a televised tantrum in which he verbally abused reporters, you know like Presidents do. 

The event led to #DiaperDon trending on Twitter, which, naturally, led to Trump declaring Twitter’s ‘trending’ section to be a national security threat.

The World

DEMOCR’don’t tell me what to do! 

Is democracy getting stronger globally? No, if you ask the Economist’s Global Democracy Index. Though we’re seeing a promising series of events among the chaos of recent years. Such as the Dutch populist Geert Wilders’ (think, cuckoo clock where the cuckoo is an extra racist off-brand Bill Clinton) electoral embarrassment. Or the admittedly narrow victory of the uniquely French expression of the desire to appear high status over Marine Le Pen and her quintessentially French racism. 

Thinking more currently, the people of Belarus still fight for democracy. 

The aforementioned democracy index report can be found here FWIW.

What just Happened came across a particularly good snippet on the resilience of democracy from The Economist this past week; one which ought be born in mind when considering international development initiatives; 

“America’s institutions are protected by the professionalism of its judges and officials. Many of them feel bound by standards laid down by those who came before them. When Mr Trump tried to subvert the election, he failed abjectly because countless people did their duty.”


Just Like a Cafe

A week ago Belgian police arrested a number of men following the raiding of what was described as a 25-man orgy. This shouldn’t be newsworthy in a modern society, were it not for the fact that a: this of course was a serious infraction of Belgium’s strict lockdown, b: some of those caught breaking the rules were diplomats, and c: one man caught scaling the gutters trying to escape with a bag full of drugs was the right-wing Hungarian MEP József Szájer. Szájer is notoriously anti-gay, having boasted of rewriting the Hungarian constitution to “protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman”.

Hungary’s government under Victor Orbán is notoriously homophobic, pulling out of the Eurovision song contest last year because it is “too gay”, calling it a “homosexual flotilla”.

My favorite part of the story was the incredibly honest and sex-positive response from the host of the party, who was not going to attempt to spare the blushes of his diplomatic guest. Quote:

“I always invite a few friends to my parties, who in turn bring some friends along, and then we make it fun together. We talk a bit, we drink something – just like in a cafe. The only difference is that in the meantime we also have sex with each other.”

Lost Signal 

Incredibly sad news from the world of science came on Tuesday with the collapse of the somewhat legendary Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.

For 57 years the installation has withstood extreme weather and earthquakes. 

In August though, an auxiliary cable snapped, followed by a second at the beginning of November. Finally, the 900-tonne radio receiver which had been suspended above the reflector dish came smashing down, effectively destroying the telescope for good.

Arecibo has contributed to many of the major breakthroughs in astronomy and physics for the last half-century, including tracking asteroids and the discovery of gravitational waves.

The Internet

It’s Like my Ears are Being Embraced

Sometime in the distant past we used to have intelligent world leaders who were competent (don’t worry Jacinda Ardern, I haven’t forgotten you, you’re just a long way away quietly looking after your country), one of whom has just released a book. Obama has been hitting the press circuit pretty hard and it’s providing a wealth of witty and entertaining interviews which bring a deep sense of calm and stoicism. I particularly enjoyed Barack with Stephen Colbert.

Full disclosure, I’m about 6 hours of 29 into ‘A Promised Land’ and it’s brilliant, I look forward to some sort of explanation for the thousands of indiscriminate drone-bombings, although perhaps he’ll save that for Volume II.

Vaccine for your trouble? 

What happens when you take adenovirus from Chimpanzee poop, make it less replicable, and inject it into thousands of people? That’s right, it’s the Oxford/Astrazeneca vaccine trial! 

In essence, the prospective vaccine prompts production of Spike Proteins, the very same as those your immune system will need to target in the event of the (no longer so) novel coronavirus having a crack at you. 

It’s intriguing that smaller doses of the vaccine seem to have a greater benefit to one’s immune system…or rather, would be if the researchers could remember how much vaccine they had been giving people. 

“That’s because different doses of the vaccine were mistakenly used in the trial. Some volunteers were given shots half the planned strength, in error. Yet that “wrong” dose turned out to be a winner”


It’s also important to remember that announcements of preliminary results during trails are absolutely not peer-reviewed literature, nor should they be granted such credence.

How, or if, this early research is threaded into the corpus of knowledge will inevitably vary from what we’re hearing now. 

The challenges in producing quality, approximately reproducible, results are not to be understated. Take, for example, the essential methodology of many vaccine trials; where one group is given the vaccine contender and a control group are given a placebo, before rates of serendipitous viral replication (and corresponding positive tests) are monitored and recorded. 

In a trial with thousands of participants over weeks, or months, the variance in how many participants end up with the VID is going to be significant. The researchers can hardly measure the social habits and protocol adherence, or lack thereof, of participants’ second and third degree associate’s, let alone control for such things. 

Although, keeping track of the dose amount seems to be proving challenging enough for Oxford/AstraZeneca, so perhaps we’re overthinking things here… 

Ultimately, if others can reproduce the results of the study (or if they can’t) then (either way) we’ll know what’s up. 

The UK

You Can’t Spell Exceptionalism Without ****s

Does British exceptionalism still count though? Because the thing is: we’re just better. At least that’s what Government Minister Gavin Williamson smugly assured the public during a radio interview this week. That’s the reason why the UK approved the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine first – you know, the one developed in Germany and Belgium by scientists originally from Turkey in a joint venture with an American company – it’s because we’re “a much better country than every single one of them, aren’t we?”

The great thing is though, all of us pathetic remoaners can now see the sweeping benefits of Brexit, as ministers, including Rees-Mogg, Michael Fabricant and Health Secretary Matt Hancock, queued up to tell how we could only approve the vaccine because we’d left the EU. Quelle surprise: total bollocks. Completely factually incorrect. The UK is still currently bound by EU regulations until the transition period ends at the end of the month, and the vaccine was approved within this framework, as was immediately confirmed by the MHRA.

(For bonus entertainment, refer to this old and totally unrelated clip of Hancock apparently seeing what a woman looks like for the first time.)

In further good news for those who don’t believe rules apply to them, the UK is bringing in an exemption to quarantine requirements when returning from countries with a high rate of coronavirus restrictions if you are a “high-value business traveller”. It is, of course, well known that doing an adequate amount of international business is an effective inoculation against Covid, and indeed many of the laws that are supposed to apply to us all, so it stands to reason that high-value travellers shouldn’t be expected to keep themselves confined.

No Vaccine for Jingoism

Number 10’s newly formed ‘Union Unit’ has sadly failed at one of its first missions. It reportedly has been pushing hard to ensure that all doses of the AstraZeneca/University of Oxford vaccine were printed with a Union Flag on the vial.

Presumably, there was an IT Crowd fan who intervened, with full knowledge of the ‘Made in Britain’ memes that would inevitably follow when the doses start to spontaneously combust, or inexplicably start to rust. After all, does anything sum up 2020 better than: “I’ll just put this over here with the rest of the fire”?

Like When You Find a Fiver Down the Back of the Sofa…

It emerged last week that Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s disclosures in the Register of Ministerial Interests seem to be missing a few things here or there. You know, little matters like his wife Akshata Murty’s £430m holding in her father’s IT and outsourcing firm Infosys (you know, the one with a quarter of a million staff and $13 billion USD in revenue annually) with whom the UK Government holds IT services contracts.

Come now, we’ve all forgotten things, like that old savings account that’s got £20 in and you forgot to declare interest income on your tax return, easily done… but £430m?!

Vitally important though is that this is not necessarily Sunak’s fault: Ministers must provide a list of financial disclosures (in Sunak’s case to the treasury) and advisors then decide what must be published. So it rather raises the question of… what the hell?! Did someone at the Treasury decide these disclosures may lead to inconvenient questions so quash them? Or, perhaps more worryingly, is this within the rules? Is the Chancellor’s wife holding almost half a billion pounds worth of stock in a Government contractor not seen as a potential conflict of interest?

The disclosure was also missing five other companies of which Murty is a shareholder and/or Director.

Thanks for reading! We’ll be back next week, get in touch with the authors Will Marshall and Alistair Simmonds on Twitter and let us know what you did and didn’t like.

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