Studying Stonehenge

When I took a trip to England right after I graduated from college, one of the coolest places I visited was Stonehenge.  There was a strong air of ancient mystery lurking among the massive stones arranged in a circle on the Salisbury plains.  You couldn’t help but walk among the stones and think about where the enormous stones came from, who put them there, how in the world they got there — and what their mysterious purpose actually was.

02-stonehenge-dog-tooth.ngsversion.1492466772317.adapt_.1900.1Now scientists have answered the first question, at least in part:  many of the smaller stones at the Stonehenge site came from ancient quarries in the Preseli Hills of Wales, and they were consciously mined and taken to Stonehenge, not deposited on the Salisbury plains by glaciers.  Scientists used tools that allowed them to test the chemical composition of rocks in the quarry and match it to the composition of the rocks at Stonehenge.  The tests are so precise that scientists were able to determine that the Stonehenge stones came from quarries in the northern part of the hills rather than the southern part — a finding that is significant, because it means that the stones were probably transported to the Salisbury plains over land, rather than floated there on rivers.  The scientists also found mining tools at that date back to 3000 B.C., when the first stage of Stonehenge was built.

So now we know that, 5000 years ago, human beings mined large stones from Wales and then somehow dragged them 150 miles away, where they were arranged in circles that seem to be related in some way to the summer solstice.  But we don’t know why ancient humans would undertake such an enormous task, or how they accomplished it.  Unless someone invents a time machine, the answers to those questions probably will forever remain an unsolvable mystery — which is one reason why Stonehenge is so cool.

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British Swear Words

Do our polite and refined friends from across the pond curse?  I know they use words like “bloody” when they want to up the emphasis a notch and demonstrate that they are really miffed, but do they ever actually swear?

Apparently they do!  Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s communications regulator — who even knew they had one! — interviewed more than 200 people to determine how they reacted to an array of rude and offensive terms and swear words, and then ranked them in order of offensiveness.  In order to be sure that they covered every form of communication, they threw in a few well-known hand gestures, too.  Words in the mild category include “bloody,” “bugger,” “damn” and “arse,” as well as “crap.”  (It’s hard to imagine someone with a British accent ever saying “crap,” isn’t it?)  “Ginger” and “minger” — which means an unpleasant or unattractive person — were also placed in the mild category.

The medium category then includes words like “bitch,” “bollocks” (which Americans of my age know because of the Sex Pistols) and “pissed,” as well as words I’ve never heard used, like “munter” (an ugly or excessively drunk person) and “feck” (a milder substitute for you-know-what).  From there we move up to the strong category, which curiously has “bastard” in it — suggesting that the Brits find “bastard” a lot more offensive than we do, perhaps of the connotations of the word in a land that still has royalty and nobility — and “fanny,” which seems pretty mild to me.  The strong category also includes a bunch of British slang I’ve not heard of before.  From there, the list moves up to the strongest category, where the queen mother of curses sits, as expected, atop the swear list pyramid.

The list apparently is to be used by the Brits in their communications, with words rated as mild considered to be okay to use around children, whereas most people thought the “medium” and “strong” words shouldn’t be used until after 9 p.m.  The study also found, encouragingly, that the Brits are increasingly offended by words involving race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.

I’m still finding it hard to believe that the Brits ever say “crap.”

Leaking Like A Sieve

We’re living in the midst of the leakiest America in history, and it’s causing lots of problems for our country.

leaky-sieveThe leakiness isn’t confined to just Washington, D.C., the Democratic National Committee, or the confused conduct of the Trump White House, where it seems as though every confidential meeting must end with a dash to the door so that everyone in attendance can call their favorite journalist and recount what just happened in excruciating detail.  Now the leak-fest is also affecting foreign affairs and criminal investigations, too.

The latest evidence of this problem involves the investigation into the horrendous suicide bombing in Manchester, England, where an Islamic extremist specifically targeted kids and their parents at a concert and killed 22 innocents and injured 64 more.  British authorities shared information about the attack, including the name of the bomber and photos of the debris being examined as part of the investigation, with an intelligence network that includes the United States.  Some unprincipled American recipient of the information then promptly leaked the information to the New York Times, which published it.

The BBC is reporting that British officials are furious about the leaks, which could affect the success of their investigation, and have stopped sharing intelligence about the attack and its investigation with American authorities.  British Prime Minister Theresa May also plans to raise the issue with President Trump at this week’s NATO meeting.  Of course, it’s not clear that Trump has any ability to stop the rampant leakiness — he can’t even get his own White House personnel to keep things confidential.

When the profound leakiness in our government invades the intelligence agencies and the criminal investigators, to the point that our allies can’t even trust us sufficiently to disclose information about terrorist attacks that are bedeviling all western countries, then we’ve got serious problems.  Obviously, we want to get whatever information we can about terrorist attacks, so we can use the information to prepare our own defenses and procedures to try to prevent future attacks.  If our allies withhold information because they’re afraid it will be leaked, that not only embarrasses America, it hurts us, too.  And if criminal investigators become as leaky as White House staffers, the confidential investigatory information they provide may help the criminal actor to avoid capture or prevent a fair trial — neither of which is a good thing, either.

The reality is that some things must be kept secret, and if the people in our government can’t keep their mouths shut about the truly secret stuff, then they aren’t qualified to serve in positions where the ability to maintain confidences is a crucial part of the job. We need to determine who is leaking intelligence and investigatory information and thereby imperiling both our relationships with our allies and our own security and replace them.  The leaks have got to stop.

Posing With A Hijacker

Let’s suppose you were still on a plane that had been hijacked by a guy wearing what appeared to be an explosive suicide belt and been diverted to a different airport, where authorities were negotiating with the hijacker and passengers on the plane were gradually being released.

Would you (a) sit quietly in your seat, hoping that authorities resolved the situation, (b) send your loved ones a message so they knew you were OK, and hoping for the best, or (c) get your picture taken with the hijacker and then text it to your roommate, telling him that you don’t “fuck about” and to turn on the news?

untitled-article-1459288787Ben Innes, a 26-year-old guy from Leeds, England, chose (c).  His picture with Seif Eldin Mustafa, who hijacked an EgyptAir flight and diverted it to Cyprus, shows Innes sporting one of the worst fake smiles in the history of the world as he stands next to a sad-faced old guy wearing a belt of supposed explosives (which turned out to be fake).  Innes later explained that he wanted to let the hijacker know that he was no threat and to help the hijacker realize that everyone still on the plane was a human being.  Perhaps . . . but it sounds like an after-the-fact rationalization to me.  His text to his roommate right after the photo was taken sure makes it seems that Innes was more interested in getting his face and name on the news — and his ploy worked.

So Innes has had his five minutes of fame, and everybody got off the plane safely.  But let’s suppose the suicide belt wasn’t a fake, and Innes’ decision to approach the hijacker for a picture made the hijacker feel threatened and decide to change course from the “negotiate, then release” approach he had been taking.  What Innes did was an unbelievably reckless and stupid stunt that could easily have endangered his fellow passengers when the authorities had the situation under control.

Apparently some people are so self-absorbed and so hungry for attention these days, from their own circle of friends and from others, that they will intervene in a hijacking to take their own picture. It’s mind-boggling.  The modern world just grows weirder by the day.

It Sort Of Serves Them Right

On the grounds of Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire, England, a huge, 20-foot-high modern art sculpture of two clasped hands that used to form a kind of galvanized steel wire archway over one of the walking paths had to be moved.

88342508_88342296Why?  Not because it was ill-suited to the classic and graceful lines of the church — although it definitely was.  No, it had to be moved because texting people kept walking into it and hitting their heads because they weren’t paying attention.  It’s part of a trend.  In 2014, 2,500 people went to emergency rooms for injuries they sustained because they were distracted by their cellphones while walking.  This occurs even though texting walkers tend to change their stride to protect themselves while walking, because they know they are putting themselves at risk of, say, stumbling into an open manhole.  But even baby steps can’t save you when your attention is fully occupied by your cellphone’s buzz and a friend’s emoticon and LOL that apparently demand an immediate response even as you are walking down the street.

Should the clasped hands sculpture have been moved?  Yes, of course — but because it was butt-ugly and should never have been put there in the first place, not because members of the Constantly Texting Brigade were walking into it.  In fact, you could argue that we would be doing the texting addicts a service if we installed more fire hydrants, sculptures, canopies, abutments, and crotch-height traffic bollards along our sidewalks and pathways.  After having a few painful but non-lethal encounters with objects in plain sight that attentive, non-texting pedestrians can easily detect and avoid, maybe the texters would come to realize that they should just put away their damned phones while they’re walking, interact with their surroundings, and pay attention for a change.

Her Majesty’s Bloomers

It seems that people collect almost everything these days, and are willing to pay amazing amounts of money to do so.  Still, some of the “collectables” are decidedly . . . odd.

Consider a recent auction in England, where an anonymous collector paid $16,500 for a pair of Queen Victoria’s underpants.  The white cotton u-trou, which are, well, expansive, bear a monogram with a crown and a “VR,” and experts believe they were worn by England’s longest-serving monarch back in the 1890s.

This story is weird on two levels.  First, why would anyone want to acquire such items?  Were the Queen’s old bloomers bought to be part of a collection of royal family memorabilia, or as part of the apparently growing interest in underwear collection — with people paying big money for the unmentionables of Elvis and Michael Jackson and even the dingy undergear sported by Walter White on Breaking Bad?  Are these underwear collections ever actually displayed to anyone?  Can you imagine being invited to someone’s country estate and, while there, being taken by the proud owner on a tour of their collection of celebrity boxers and briefs, nicely displayed in glass cases?  Small wonder that the bidders at these auctions are acting anonymously.

Second, it’s sad that people are selling this stuff, and it’s got to be embarrassing for the descendants of the long-deceased Queen.  Who wants to see an ancestor’s underwear being publicly displayed, especially when it is very much plus-sized?  Apparently Queen Victoria’s clothing was parceled out to staff members after her death, and some of the staffers’ families kept the garments for generations before finally being unable to resist the temptation to make a few bucks.  If I were Queen Elizabeth, or any member of the current royal family, or any kind of celebrity, I’d make sure to include a provision in my will that required all of my underwear be cast into the bonfire as soon as I breathed my last.

Ironic, isn’t it?  Queen Victoria so characterized primness and propriety that people now use the phrase “Victorian attitudes” to refer to antiquated, repressive views on gender and sex — and yet Queen Victoria’s underwear is being publicly displayed, sold to strangers, and made the subject of jokes because of its size.  I think the Queen would be shocked and sternly disapproving of this regrettable development.

The Known Versus The Unknown

On Thursday the people of Scotland will vote on whether to dissolve their ties with England and become an independent nation.  After an early history of bloody wars, Scotland and England settled their differences and have been part of the United Kingdom for 307 years.  All of that could end on Thursday if the Scots vote yes, and emotions are running high on both sides of the referendum campaign.

As part of the United Kingdom, the Scots have experienced the glory of being part of the world’s most powerful nation and won two world wars, but many of them are chafing under the restrictions that come from the current arrangement, where Scottish aspirations might be subjugated to the votes of the English.  Independence, and a sovereign nation that will consider only Scottish interests, therefore is a tantalizing prospect.

But there are risks in independence — and opponents of a yes vote are describing those risks in gory detail.  Major players in the Scottish financial industry, like RBS, have indicated that they will relocate in the event of a yes vote, and supporters of a continued United Kingdom argue that a yes vote will hurt Scottish universities and — horrors! — the Scottish whiskey industry.

The key question raised by opponents of independence is whether Scotland’s economy is sufficiently large to hold its own on the world stage, or whether its budget would be out of balance, interests rates would rise, and businesses and academic brainpower would flee the country.  Proponents of independence say that such concerns are simply scare tactics ginned up by the English, who fear how they will fare, economically and politically, if they are forced to go it alone.  Would an independent Scotland struggle — as has been the case in Iceland and Ireland — or would it be a sturdy economic engine like Switzerland?

Of course, it’s impossible to say what the future holds — so the vote boils down to a classic choice between the known and the unknown, comfort and risk, old and new.  Scotland’s great poet, Robert Burns, spoke of fear of the unknown in the first stanza of his poem A Prayer in the Prospect of Death:

O THOU unknown, Almighty Cause
Of all my hope and fear!
In whose dread presence, ere an hour,
Perhaps I must appear!

We’ll find out whether the Scots elect the known, or the unknown, on Thursday.  People throughout the United Kingdom are holding their breath.