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. 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Moneybags at dawn

The spectacle of Ukip MEPs brawling was highly entertaining but it didn't tell us very much we didn't know already. It's a party fuelled by the raw emotional power of hatred, blame and seething resentment, so people with poorly-controlled anger management issues were always going to buzz straight towards it, like flies to a cowpat. There's a bit more fun to be had from watching the ongoing regression from parliament to playground ("He hit me!", "No I didn't and, anyway, he started it!"), but the punchy stuff is just more of the same old, same old, Ukip just being Ukip.

The issue that provoked the punch up / handbags at dawn slap fight might point to something less obvious, though. The substance of the squabble was the suspicion that Steven Woolfe, who had already flirted with the idea of jumping ship to Theresa May's reassuringly xenophobic, Brexit fundamentalist Conservative Party, might actually defect. The defection of the odd MEP wouldn't be very significant in itself, but it did make me wonder whether a more substantive change of allegiance is on the cards, given two things we do know about:

  1. The May government is frightening a lot of people in the City, and in big business more generally, by signalling that the need to be tough on foreigners and tough on the causes of foreigners trumps everything, even the profits of big business. For a party funded by wealthy corporate donors that's a precarious position to be in.
  2. Ukip is overwhelmingly funded by a few rich ex-Tory donors.

Imagine, if you will, that a few of the businesspeople currently funding the Conservatives decided to turn off the money tap to an ungrateful government that seems determined to plough full steam ahead into a profits-busting hard Brexit. The party that was actually set to deliver the Brexiteers' most cherished dream could be defunded.

What would ex-Tory donors like Paul Sykes and Stuart Wheeler do then? Carry on funding a shambolic party of brawling schoolkids, while they watch the party that's actually delivering their beloved Brexit being sabotaged? Or abandon a divided front organisation with one MP that has clearly outlived its usefulness and redirect their wealth to prop up a financially beleaguered party now controlled by True Believers in Brexit? My money would be on the latter.

That defection would cause some real outrage in Ukip ranks. Fortunately for Ukip's disloyal big donors, their chances of getting punched by an angry 'kipper would be pretty remote, given that the moneybags who control our politics are rarely seen anywhere near anything as democratic as a parliament building.

Friday, 7 October 2016

In the green north

I just came across a sentence I didn't expect to read in an article about solar power up in Canada's Northwest Territories (come to think of it, an article about solar power at 60 plus degrees north was pretty unexpected in itself) :
There is a regulatory limit to the number of pellet stoves, LED lighting systems, and other clean projects Chilkowich can undertake.

“There is a cap on solar in each community,” she told me, because she can’t put Northwest Territories Power Corporation out of business. The company has to stay just profitable enough so it’s worth it to run the diesel generators all winter. When oil prices are low, the territorial government reinvests the savings in clean energy projects—but not too many.

“Everything’s connected,” Chilkowich said, as she explained the economics to me.
Brian Castner

Of course, solar can be competitive relative to generator fuel that's been hauled with immense difficulty up to remote and hard-to-reach communities, yet still be damned expensive in absolute terms:
While power in Edmonton, a comparatively southern city (population: 900,000), is 5 cents Canadian (about 4 cents USD), a kilowatt-hour of power in the indigenous community of Colville Lake (population: 166) costs up to $2.96 CDN. The first 600 kilowatt-hours of electricity are subsidized for residential customers, costing “only” 28 cents CDN, but businesses and governments make up the difference. The First Nations band in Jean Marie River was paying $1.91 CDN, making a solar array an easier sell.
But it's still pretty impressive. In parts of the globe further south, the potential is far greater:
Last week a milestone was passed when it was revealed that, for the first time, the sun provided more UK electricity from photovoltaic panels than heavily polluting coal-fired plants over a full 24-hour period. Just under 30 gigawatt hours – or 4% of national demand – was met by solar, the latest in a series of records set by the wider renewable energy sector in recent months.
Wrote Terry Macalister in the Guardian, in April 2016. But whenever there's a ray of sunshine threatening to break through the gloom, you can generally rely on Her Majesty's Government to rain on the parade:
But the solar industry argues it is being abandoned at the worst possible moment – just a few years before becoming self-sufficient, and at a time ministers seem prepared to back much more expensive nuclear or offshore wind power projects.

As many as 2,000 solar jobs are estimated to have been lost over the last 12 months and Decc’s own worst case scenarios warn of 18,700 jobs on the line.
To which the government response seems to be "Yeah, whatever, too busy fracking Lancashire."

Thursday, 6 October 2016

One nation

Theresa May's one nation Conservatism is a funny old thing: 
"Just listen to the way a lot of politicians and commentators talk about the public. They find their patriotism distasteful, their concerns about immigration parochial, their views about crime illiberal, their attachment to their job security inconvenient."
Rhetorically, she's standing up for the broad mass of "ordinary folk" against a terrible elite who keep oppressing them with their merciless liberalism.

First, there's something a bit dodgy about the assertion that patriotism is something that the "common" people do and elites only sneer at - it shouldn't have taken a great deal of thought to come up with examples of distasteful flag waving by unarguably privileged members of the elite. Do you, by any chance, remember this guy, Theresa?

You might counter that The Racist Floor Mop wasn't the sort of authentic working class hero patriot May was praising, but just a cynical politico who thought that the proles, like like those famously "cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies", would be easily distracted by a bit of patriotic rah-rah. I couldn't possibly comment.

But there are plenty more examples of patriotism among the definitely-not-downtrodden. The sort of folk who can afford a holiday cruise aren't exactly living from week to week on zero hours contracts, yet on some British cruise liners, you can roll up to the bar when the ship is due to pull out of port, grab yourself a Pimms,  and join in a bit of flag-waving in a "sail away" knees-up event to a pumping soundtrack of "Rule Britannia" and sundry other patriotic tunes.

And speaking of patriotic tunes, I don't expect that many of the smartly turned out flag-wavers who join the chorus of "Land of Hope and Glory" at the Last Night of the Proms come from rundown sink estates:

But, rhetorically at least, May's Conservatism is all about solidarity and inclusivity and definitely not about one group of people looking down on the other lot. So remember, working class, people like us definitely don't look down on people like you.

But don't you worry, aspirational middle classes - we're going to open lots of lovely new grammar schools, so your precious darlings won't have their grades pulled down by those nasty, disruptive poor kids.

But don't you worry either, proles hard-working families - the grammar school system won't condemn your kids to a second class education. We can definitely promise that when we divide schools into ones that the well-coached children of the sharp-elbowed middle classes can get into by passing an exam and ones with no entry requirements, people are so not going to look down on the schools that you don't have to pass a test to get into as somehow second rate, because ... reasons.

Like I said, Mayist one nation Conservatism is a funny old thing, the funniest bit being how surprisingly similar it is to old-fashioned divide-and-rule.

Monday, 3 October 2016

The management secrets of Boris and Nigel

I, for one, will be sleeping more easily now I know that Mrs May has an actual plan for Brexit. I think this, from the Daily Mash, does a rather more thorough job than the Eurosceptic press of summarising the sort of detailed thinking and meticulous planning that must have gone into a decision that will affect all our lives for years to come:
"After careful consideration of the opinions of the cleverest 52 per cent of the population, I am convinced that sticking it to bossy Germans, arrogant French and stubbly bone idle Spanish is the best direction for our country.

"Of all the challenges facing our nation, the greatest is the existence of foreigners. I firmly believe we should focus on antagonising them, and that creating a massive bureaucratic headache is the best way to do this.

"This nation will thrive if it continues to make everyone’s lives difficult for no real reason..."
When you put it like that, you might think that now would be a bad time to look to the people responsible for the national omnishambles for guidance.

But you'd be wrong. The career advice site expecteer dot com is now offering up the careers of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage to aspiring young executives as shining examples ... of how not to action your key deliverables:
What can you, as a manager, learn from the actions of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage?  Over-promising and failing to deliver is a fatal error in the business world.
Which would be funny, if the racist floor mop and Kermit's evil twin hadn't already turned our entire damn country into a horrible cautionary tale, designed to bring other nations to their senses:
As we Brits are already doomed, you might as well give up, relax, sit back, make a cup of tea, and spend your remaining time watching this adorable bat being adorable:
According to the warning at the end of the video, you shouldn't handle bats unless you're vaccinated and trained, as they can carry deadly viruses and even baby bats can bite and scratch. Unless, of course, you live in Britain, where getting scratched by a bat and catching a deadly virus means that you may never have to listen to the phrase "Brexit means Brexit" ever again.

A little temporary convenience

"Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety" said Benjamin Franklin. Maybe, since we gave up our privacy in return for a frictionless shopping and social media experience, we also stopped deserving nice things. Although, given the unequal bargaining power underlying our Faustian pact with the panopticon owners, it's not as if we were ever given much choice:
Surveillance capitalism has some of the features of a zero-sum game. The actual value of the data collected is not clear, but it is definitely an advantage to collect more than your rivals do. Because human beings develop an immune response to new forms of tracking and manipulation, the only way to stay successful is to keep finding novel ways to peer into people's private lives. And because much of the surveillance economy is funded by speculators, there is an incentive to try flashy things that will capture the speculators' imagination, and attract their money.

This creates a ratcheting effect where the behavior of ever more people is tracked ever more closely, and the collected information retained, in the hopes that further dollars can be squeezed out of it.

Just like industrialized manufacturing changed the relationship between labor and capital, surveillance capitalism is changing the relationship between private citizens and the entities doing the tracking. Our old ideas about individual privacy and consent no longer hold in a world where personal data is harvested on an industrial scale.

Those who benefit from the death of privacy attempt to frame our subjugation in terms of freedom, just like early factory owners talked about the sanctity of contract law. They insisted that a worker should have the right to agree to anything, from sixteen-hour days to unsafe working conditions, as if factory owners and workers were on an equal footing.
Maciej Cegłowski