Monday, 24 October 2016

Appeal to authority

I'm hoping that UK-based cold callers will be deterred by a change in the law, making company directors personally liable for fines of up to half a million pounds for breaching the regulations intended to stop people being pestered with unwanted sales calls. Sadly, I expect that the pests will soon rise to the challenge of getting round the new rules.

Having said that, I'll probably never again come across another telesales racket more perfect than the people who cold called the unwary, promising to help them get rid of cold calls (for a fee). What the folk who made cold calls selling a cold call blocking service were doing was skimming a fee off unwary punters who didn't realise that there was a free service out there (in this case, the Telephone Preference Service).

Less paradoxical forms of this type of skimming are available. Somebody might, for example, ring you, suggesting that you might be paying too much Council Tax, due to your home having been placed in the wrong Council Tax band, and offering to check this, potentially SAVING YOU £££££!

The right thing to say at this point is that you can check your own band "in 10 minutes, at no cost" and appeal directly to your local Valuation Office Agency (VOA) if you think that your banding is wrong. If your appeal is rejected, but you still think your banding is incorrect, you can take your appeal further, to the appropriate tribunal.

It's all there on the relevant site, which is pretty clear and understandable (government websites get a lot of criticism - sometimes with good reason - but this particular one tells you what you need to know and I can't see much to moan about).

The wrong thing to do is to express any interest in the cold caller's service.

The wrongest thing to do is to give the cold caller your credit/bank card details. Not unless you want to receive a letter like this:

"Dear [your name here]

Claimers UK processed your payment of £65 for the administration fee but unfortunately  this transaction had been charged back by your bank informing us that you haven't authorised or participated in this transaction.
All our sales lines are recorded and we have evidence of you verbally agreeing to this transaction there for [sic] you are bound by the terms and conditions.

Shore claims have completed and finished [sic - how do "completed" and "finished" not mean the same thing?] your checks in regard to getting your council tax lowered.
But have not been paid for the work that has been carried out.

Please look up terms and conditions 2.4 on your policy paper work that was sent to you.

To arrange payment of this account please call us on 08448009426 or alternatively send in a cheque of [sic] the full amount of £65 to:
Claimers UK LTD, 7 Dukes Court, Bognor Road, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 8FX.

If payment is not received by [insert deadline] we may recommend to Shore claims ltd that they commence legal  proceedings to recover the full outstanding balance. These actions may incur additional costs for which you may be held liable. 
Please do not underestimate the seriousness of this matter.

Yours sincerely,

[illegible scribble]

Account Manager
Claimers UK Ltd"

Devon and Cornwall Police issued a statement earlier in the year, warning people against such scams (specifically naming Claimers UK Ltd), and asking for individuals to report any offences to Action Fraud by calling 0300 1232040, or visiting

I'm guessing that the people behind this operation are hoping that the person prospect who picks up the phone is elderly, trusting and not very confident about, or interested in, this newfangled Internet and therefore unlikely to discover, within a couple of clicks, that you can investigate this for yourself for free and go directly to the relevant authority to appeal, if you think there's a problem with your banding. In this case an appeal to (your local) authority isn't a logical fallacy - so long as you do the appealing yourself and don't outsource the process to some cold-calling skimmer.

Not that people from the generations that are used to finding stuff out with an Internet search should be too smug, as the skimmers are lurking on the Net, too. Up until quite recently, people who were in a hurry to renew their passports might have inadvertently clicked on a site with the same look and feel as the official passport renewal site, which actually belonged to a private company which skimmed off an admin fee for processing your passport request and forwarding it on to the correct authorities. It looks as if they've cracked down on that particular trick recently (when I googled "passport renewal" just now, the official site came up as the first search result - in the past, operators of lookalike sites have used SEO jiggery-pokery to make their sites appear above the official one in the search results), but it still pays to be wary.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Any sufficiently advanced troll...

So the coronation of the eccentric playboy who also happens to be Thailand's Crown Prince has been delayed, presumably to buy time for an extreme image makeover. After all, you can't have a loopy head of state who's prone to confer senior military rank on a favourite pet. Or can you?

The case of Foo Foo, the part-time Air Vice Marshal and full-time miniature poodle, inevitably brings to mind Caligula's* plan to make his horse, Incitatus, a consul. So is Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn as mad as Caligula? Well, maybe, but perhaps Caligula himself wasn't mad (at least when he did the horse thing). The simple reading of the horse story is that Caligula's desire to award a prestigious rank to his favourite horse was straightforward proof of the Emperor's raving lunacy. But there's also a more nuanced reading - that Caligula was deliberately making a ludicrous gesture for satirical purposes. In this reading, Incitatus' proposed consulship was just a memorable way of saying " Those consuls are useless - my horse could do a better job."

It wouldn't be the only time people have spotted method in the apparent madness of elite figures. King Canute, the apparently foolish monarch who apocryphally tried to forbid the tide from coming in, is, in the more nuanced version, the wise ruler, who used the the tides' failure to obey him as a practical demonstration of the limits of human power and a rebuke to the flatterers at court who treated him as some kind of superhuman being.

Go back as far as Solomon and the "wise ruler" reading is accepted without question - of course he wasn't serious about having that baby cut in half - that's why they call it the wisdom of Solomon, dummy!

So was Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn's pet promotion prank evidence, not of insanity, but of wisdom or, at least, of advanced trolling? I'm not convinced, but I do think I'm seeing a variation on Poe's Law here. Poe's Law, you'll remember, is the Internet maxim asserting that certain extreme views (Poe had Creationism, in particular, in mind) are so extreme that it's impossible to parody them in such a way that someone won't mistake the parody for the genuine article, or vice versa.**

In much the same way, a tiny minority people live lives of such extreme privilege that it's almost impossible to tell whether their bizarre acts of self-indulgence are the result of deliberate irony, or just the predictable lack of self-awareness that goes with being able to act out their every whim (see also Sir Benjamin, the beaver-bashing baronet).

* With due apologies to Mary Beard who's been patiently and fruitlessly trying to remind us all that, to the Romans, he would have been known by his proper name, Gaius (Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus) not his childhood nickname "Caligula" ("little boots").

**Or, in Alan Morgan's pithier version, "Any sufficiently advanced troll is indistinguishable from a genuine kook."

Friday, 14 October 2016

Air Chief Marshal Foo Foo

King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand died yesterday and 2016, a year that's already set several records for global weirdness, might get more bizarre still. Meet the heir to the throne of Thailand, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn:
Ralph Boyce, the former head of the US embassy in Bangkok, wrote an extraordinary account of a dinner with Thailand’s Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and the prince’s dog, Foo Foo, which held the rank of Air Chief Marshal.

Mr Boyce described the dinner in a valedictory dispatch in November, 2007, when he “paid a farewell call” on the 58-year-old Crown Prince. The prince’s consort, Princess Srirasmi, “confirmed that the Crown Prince’s miniature poodle, Foo Foo, currently holds the rank of Air Chief Marshal”, wrote the ambassador.

“Foo Foo was present at the event, dressed in formal evening attire complete with paw mitts, and at one point during the band’s second number, he jumped up on to the head table and began lapping from the guests’ water glasses, including my own.

“The Air Chief Marshal’s antics drew the full attention of the 600-plus audience members, and remains the talk of the town to this day.”

Under Thai law, criticism of the royal family is forbidden, but the Crown Prince was at the centre of a scandal in 2009 when an Australian TV channel obtained a video of a lavish birthday party he had thrown for Foo Foo, during which Princess Srirasmi, 39, sat topless.
Gordon Rayner, writing in The Telegraph

There's speculation that the Thai game of thrones may be rigged in the hope of bypassing Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and fishing somebody who isn't functionally insane out the royal gene pool.
Air Chief Marshal Foo Foo, I presume?*

*Image © 20th Century Fox - I'm just going to mumble "fair use" and hope nobody notices...

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

The most right-wing man in Britain

Beaver sightings! At Woodlands Castle. Wanted dead or alive. £1,000 reward! For crimes against trees. Beavers have been cutting down our trees!
So reads a sign erected by landowner Sir Benjamin Slade on his land around Woodlands Castle, Somerset. A beaver expert, who examined the damaged trees, begged to differ, telling the BBC that "Beavers produce distinctive scalloped chips when they gnaw trees and there weren't any ... It looks as if it has been done by humans with an axe."

The needle of my Great British Eccentric detector was flickering by this point, so I googled the beaver-bashing baronet and, boy, was I not disappointed. Sir Benjamin was, I discovered, either:
  1. The living embodiment of that comic monstrosity Sir Henry, eponymous antihero of the surreal monologue / film Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, or
  2. an upper-class performance artist who has turned his whole life into a Vivian Stanshall tribute act
Here's Sir Henry Benjamin sitting at the bar in his main property, a stately home, near Taunton, holding forth to interviewer Robert Chalmers on the general beastliness of foreigners. Chalmers doesn't record whether the baronet was wearing hairy tweed and waving an overflowing balloon of brandy for emphasis, but that's how the interview looks in my head:
"Russians?" Sir Benjamin Slade pauses, seeking the adjective best suited to the compatriots of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. "Dishonest."

"Chinese?" I venture. "They're impossible."

"Brazilians?" "Sex, football and dancing. That's all they do."


"Boring. The Romans described them as boastful. They're at your feet or at your throat."

Sir Benjamin embarked on this guide to global culture after recalling how he once defaced an atlas before presenting it to his godson. "It was this wonderful children's book, showing all the countries of the world and saying lovely things about each. I took this atlas and wrote on every country, all about the people. It is quite horrific, this stuff I wrote, and which the godson read. One of my friends said: 'Do not let anyone see it. Or you will go to prison.'"
Just drop whatever you're doing and read the rest of Chalmers' interview. It's hilarious.

Surprisingly, Sir Benjamin has a blog. Unsurprisingly, he was an enthusiastic supporter of Vote Leave Beaver.
"Yes, I can see it's been defaced by Bolsheviks, but what the Devil d'you think you're wearing, man? This isn't a ruddy carnival, you know. Quick, pass me my pistol, see if I can't wing the blighter. Bloody country's going to the dogs..."

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Creepy clown panics nation

Kudos to the people at Business Insider for their dementedly appropriate choice of image to illustrate Lianna Brinded's article on the leaked Treasury report about the likely impact of hard Brexit. With his blend of slapstick absurdity, nihilistic menace and terrifying unpredictability, The Joker has to be the perfect brand ambassador for Brexit.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Fixit means Fixit

It seems to me that Britain being in the European Union was a good deal for Britain. Britain avoided the unpalatable bits, like joining what turned out to be a disastrously badly-designed Euro and accepting functionally open borders (personally, I'd have been quite happy if we'd joined Schengen, but this wasn't to the majority of British peoples' tastes). Britain also got most of of the good stuff: the ability to attract inward investors (like Nissan in Sunderland) with the promise of access to a continental-sized market, access to a massive market on our doorstep,* the negotiation power of being part of a huge trade bloc, visa-free travel and access to continent-wide work and educational opportunities.

The EU was far from perfect, but it didn't need to be perfect for a Remain vote to make sense, just better than the alternatives.  And, as far as I can see, the EU status quo was better than the alternative scenarios the Leave campaign came up with - either soft Brexit, with single market access but no voice in making the rules Britain would be forced to obey, or the hard fantasy version, where Britain just throws its existing trade arrangements and negotiating leverage away and then loudly demands that the club it just flounced out of and everybody else in the world gives Britain preferential treatment, while the rest of the world rolls its eyes and says "can you believe these guys?"

But, like I say, the EU is far from perfect, with the design and execution of the Eurozone occupying its maximal distance from perfection. Brits wanting to get out of the EU makes no sense to me, but you've only got to look at the way the Euro is destroying growth, whole economies in southern Europe and the European social model, to see why taking back control from this European project might make sense to some Europeans. Never mind Brexit - some people are looking at the Euro and deciding it might be time to Fixit:
The advantages of leaving the euro could outweigh the disadvantages, concludes an interim report published yesterday by Euro Think Tank, a working group of economists from Finland.

The authors of the report argue that the ability to rapidly adapt to external shocks and mitigate their adverse side-effects is the greatest advantage of having a flexible exchange rate instead of a fixed one – especially for small open economies such as Finland.
Helsinki Times

*I never bought the argument that Europe would become unimportant in trade terms, because other regions of the world are growing faster. The European market is important because it's so close - literally a footstep away in the case of the land border with the Irish Republic. Nothing, short of physically moving Europe half way around the world, is going to change the brute facts of geography.