Archive for June 2011

Am I being threatened?

This post is very much out of character with the rest of my writings but if I may beg the indulgence of my audience for a personal matter I would be grateful.

I shall begin with some facts about my place of residence for matters that will eventually become clear.

I live in a flat. I have three flats which adjoin me: one above, one below and another to my right (as seen from standing outside my front door). The flats were built across 2003/04 and I have been living there (and paying a mortgage on it) since then. The inside of the flat is carpeted with the exception of the bathroom and the kitchen.

Scene set? Then away we go.

Last Saturday (June 18th for the avoidance of doubt) I was at home doing my ironing whilst watching V for Vendetta on BBC3 (2100 – 2305 hrs) when, shortly before 2200, I had a knock on my door. Answering the door I see a gentleman that I don’t recall ever seeing until that moment. He tells me that he is from the flat below (at this point, to the best of my knowledge, the only people I knew who lived there where a mother and her daughter and they have been in there since 2008) and informs me that he can hear my television. Whilst personally I didn’t think that it was particularly loud I nevertheless apologised for disturbing him and said I’d turn it down. Call me naive but at this point, if the roles were reversed, I’d have said thank you and gone back to my own flat. His parting words were (and I know I’m paraphrasing here) something like “Don’t make me have to come up here again.”

Scroll forward to this evening (June 24th) and I’m at home about to clear up after some cake baking when I hear a knock at the door. They knock again before I can get to the door. Now I do not for the life of me know why I did it but before I opened the door I looked through the spy hole to see who the caller was. However I couldn’t see anything because it was being obscured by a hand or some part there of. Considering this suspicious I did something I simply cannot recall ever doing before and put the safety chain on. Then I opened the door. My caller is the same gentleman from Saturday and he wants to complain about the noise he said I made when I got home last night.

Last night (June 23rd) I went out for a meal with a friend. I got home just after 2230 and went up to my room. I can’t be exact on the timing of getting through the door but I do know that I sent this tweet at 2240. My activities once I got home were to undress, carve some ham so I could make a roll for my midmorning snack the next day, have something non-alcoholic to drink, clear up the mess of clothes and other personal items from my bed where they had all been unceremoniously dumped and perform my nightly ablutions. I sent my last tweet at 0002 but didn’t do to bed until almost 0100 as I was talking to someone on instant messenger for much later than I had intended to. During this time I was in and out of my bedroom a few times (I don’t know how many but it was probably more than 10) and because I hadn’t used a doorstop to pin the door open (all the doors are fire doors and – with the exception of the bathroom – have returns on them) it was closing behind me all of the time.

He tells me that my actions once I got home last night woke him up and that he heard every door close. I am also informed that I woke up the five year old girl as well. Given that I often let the door close behind me – and at all hours – and I have never yet had any complaints from my neighbours about it I was rather surprised but did the only thing I can do which is apologise and say that I’ll try to be more careful in future. This though isn’t enough for him. He is upset at me because I do not wish to open the door fully to speak with him. He tells me that he had to get up at 5AM to go to work and didn’t appreciate the interrupted sleep. He apparently believes me to be a dosser but I don’t know why. He says that he is a builder and that he knows some people – although without qualifying this. He mentions that he knows I am a cyclist and that he knows where the bike shed on the development is.

To my ears none of this was said in a polite tone and I did more than once say to him – mostly in reply to his repeated demands I open the door fully – that I believed him to be threatening me. I did also indicate that I would call the police and did at one point even call out to my lodger (who was in and heard all of this) to dial 999.

Once I had finally closed the door on him I could hear him in the hallway and, although I cannot confirm this as I didn’t go to the spy hole and check, it seemed he was on the phone to someone and he certainly mentioned my flat number.

Afterwards the first thing I did was to have a chat with my lodger just to make sure that it wasn’t just me who thought he was threatening. I was at this point shaking. The tears came later.

Various people on twitter as well as my dad have advised me to call the police. I’m still unsure as to whether or not to do this as if they have a word with him then he knows what I have done and that could make matters worse. However if I do nothing they could get worse anyway.

In the meantime I shall watch myself whilst closing the bedroom door just to be on the safe side and keep a wary eye out for strangers loitering in the area. I will also try over the weekend to pop into the nearest open police station and ask for some advice and I shall check to see if the old dictaphone a previous lodger left works so that if I get another performance I can record the incident.

Update: I went to the Police Station this morning (Sat June 25th) to report the matter and now have an incident number. I’m told that someone will be in touch.

Update 2: The police came visiting this morning (Sun June 26th). They read the printed copy of this post, listened to me and agreed that his reaction sounded somewhat OTT. They had a quick glance at the TV to satisfy themselves that I don’t have a set-up which would rival Disaster Area’s sound system and advised me to be slightly more cautious about things like door closing as sound does apparently carry more than I thought in these flats. I got the distinct impression that they have been here before for noise complaints – and potentially more.

Afterwards they went to see him and get his side of the story but he wasn’t in.

Freedom of Speech?

Luke O’Donoughoe, a particularly brain-dead specimen of humanity if one is to go by the picture of him in the Daily Fail, has gained himself an (no doubt) unwanted footnote in history by being the first person to be banned from a football ground for life because of remarks he made on twitter.

That ban has now been followed up with a criminal record ‘for sending an offensive message by public communication network under the Communications Act 2003′ and 120 hours of community service.

His crime? In the now deleted tweet (or tweets) he referred to a recent club signing using a word beginning with ‘N’ which is deemed to be offensive. Whether the player that the remarks were about saw them is unknown but what is known is that lots of others took offense on his behalf and it is their anger which has led us to where we are now.

That the word has history is undeniable but for all of that it is still a single word – and such a small word at that, consisting as it does, of only 6 letters and two syllables. Words though convey meanings and some, such as the one O’Donoughoe used, contain a lot more information than others.

Should he be punished though for using it? Indeed should anyone be punished for using words that others may deem to be offensive – especially if the person to whom they were directed didn’t see and/or hear them? Is second-hand offensiveness now as permissable in this country as second-hand smoking?

If we are truely a society that permits freedom of speech then people should be allowed to use the words without fearing that the State will punish them for it.

And before anyone shouts at me, I am not saying that the use of them should be consequence free. As the (I presume) owners of their ground, Norwich City are perfectly within their rights to ban O’Donoughoe from their property for life and, if being banned from the home ground of the team he supports isn’t enough, the internet will undoubtedly make sure that his stupidity – or at least some reference to it – is always there for others to see.

Being ostracised by society is a far more effective punishment for your sins than anything the State can impose.

The Cost of Vaccination

On Monday David Cameron pledged another £814m ($1,335m) that we supposedly don’t have to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) over the next 4 years. This brings, according to the figures in their press release, the UKs contribution up to $2,449m once money already contributed is added in.

The other big (min $200m) contributors (in descending order) are:

US$m Who
1,341 Bill and Melinda Gates Charitable Foundation
819 Norway
511 France
506 Italy
450* US
264 Australia
225 Canada
209 Netherlands
209 Sweden

* With another $90m subject to congressional approval.

Yup, that’s right. The UK is contributing, all told, over 33% of the monies pledged and a sum which is greater than the next two donors put together.

Feel free at this point to repeatedly bash your head against the nearest solid object as you marvel in the astonishing profligacy of the UKs elected politicians when it comes to other people’s money.

But is this really all about the money? Is not preventing deaths from diseases which no longer plague what we refer to as the Developed World a good thing? You’d have to be a cold hatred, callous individual to think otherwise, surely?

I won’t try to be that person but I will attempt some crystal-ball gazing.

Let’s work on the premise that preventing the deaths of a projected 3.9m people from diseases such as yellow fever, meningitis, various strains of hepatitis, rubella, typhoid and others over the next 5 years is a good thing and look then to a future where all these people are walking around.

Some obvious items spring to mind:

  1. Food
  2. Resources
  3. Environment

These are all things that, if certain groups are to be believed, are already in crisis due to the current population count. I’m not one of those but I’m not foolish enough to say that adding these extra people, plus whatever offspring they produce, to the system isn’t potentially going to result problems in countries where they already struggle by on subsistence level farming.

Are we also therefore going to subject them to enforced industrialisation, accelerating them through a process which started in the UK at approximately the turn of the 18th Century with agriculture as we moved away from subsistence farming and consequentially were able to develop new industries? That countries in the third world need industrialisation in order to thrive is indisputable but what right have we to force it up on them? And if we don’t are we going to be spending yet more money in the years ahead to provide food aid to all these people we have saved and their descendants?

Those who are ashamed of our colonial past argue that aid is a way to relieve guilt, bloody money as it were, to apologise for leaving them trapped in a world that is technically and socially well beyond where they might otherwise have been. But does continued aid, however it comes, not reduce these countries to the status of welfare dependents, encouraging them to rely on ‘free’ money from overseas instead of standing on their own two feet and moving forwards?

As always there are no easy or glib answers but once again I am left to wonder if anyone is actually even considering the questions.

Watching the Detectives Rubbish

Living in Britain I as do I have become accustomed to the fact that, however much I don’t like it, I am spied upon on a daily basis by surveillance cameras operated by all sorts of public bodies and private companies under the nebulous idea of ‘safety’. How a fixed camera emplacement, unlikely to ever be watched in real time 24/7, keeps me safe is, as yet, a still unanswered question.

It should then really come as no surprise to me to learn that Newcastle University – or rather their School of Computing Science and their Culture Lab in conjunction with the universities of Lincoln and Duisburg-Essen – have decided to take surveillance one step further and are placing camera phones in bins – all in the name of encouraging recycling.

The ‘BinCam‘ (as it is somewhat obviously named) scheme works by having an app on the ‘phone rigged to take a photo of the contents every time the lid closes. The picture is then uploaded to Facebook for anyone to who adds the BinCam app to their profile to view. It is also sent to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk where a new Human Intelligence Test is created and some lucky soul somewhere gets to identify the contents of the bin (food, recyclable items) visible in the image. Two scores are then awarded to each bin – one for each category aforementioned – and at the end of each week the bins are ranked in a league.

So far five student households have signed up to the scheme and Anja Thieme, post-grad student and project leader says of it so far:

“A few times we even saw people throwing something away and then going back into the bin to take it out again.? During the focus groups, the students said they felt like the bin was watching them and that it definitely made them think twice about what they were throwing away.?? At the same time they felt motivated by the online league table to recycle more and improve their rating.”

No dear, what we have here is not a sudden conversion to the delights of recycling and the joys of sustainability by the participating students but rather a bunch of score whores all obsessed with being the top dog.

No matter what the field of human endeavour, put enough people in the same place and competition will always result – especially if there is some form of reward involved.

Nevertheless the university intends to extend this ‘competition’ to more student houses at the start of the next academic year with their ‘Waste Manager’ – a title that surely speaks for itself – saying:

“Students have busy lives and recycling competes with other demands. Anything that makes recycling easier is good – but when it is fun and innovative like BinCam it really encourages participation. The use of Facebook and the community peer pressure is fascinating and I am looking forward to introducing the application to other parts of the campus.”

Busy lives? Other demands? Unless things have changed radically from my own days then those demands are likely to be nothing more strenuous than drinking, surfing the ‘net, playing computer games and watching lots of TV. Plus some studying.

The idea is novel, I’ll grant you that, but how long until the novelty wears off and the students get sick of it? Will their new found enthusiasm for recycling hold or will they simply go back to what they were doing before?

Of course, if it does take off, then how long before some idiot civil servant or politician either here or in the EU decides to make the whole thing compulsory – and backed up with the obligatory fines for those who step out of line?

Charity begins at…? Part 3

Back in December 2010 I was somewhat scathing about the Government’s Green Paper on ‘Giving’ so seeing that the White Paper has now been published I thought I’d cast my eye over it and see what – if anything – has changed in the intervening 21 weeks and 5 days.

The document opens with the two ministers in charge of the ‘Big Society’ initiative – Francis Maude and Nick Hurd – saying that the British give more than £10bn (or approximately £160 a person) each year to charities. I shall, for the moment, assume that they mean voluntary donations and that said amount doesn’t include all the money given to fake charities by the taxpayer involuntarily.

If the public give so much to charity on an annual basis, then you might be forgiven for wondering why exactly the government feels the need get itself involved. Don’t worry you aren’t alone as your host is wondering exactly the same thing. Our ministers, without a sense of irony, attempt to explain:

Despite a long history of government interventions, the giving of both time and money has flat-lined, and some in the voluntary sector warn of decline. […] We believe we can help to change this. Our ambition is to stimulate a step change in giving. This is a long-term project which requires a new approach that learns lessons from the past. Government needs to work more closely with business and charities.

I suppose it is too much to hope, having spotted that previous government interventions haven’t apparently helped, that the option of less government intervention was even considered?

/tumbleweed

No, I didn’t think so either as it seems that they have come down on the side of yet more government intervention. And that is without mentioning the presence of phrase ‘learns lessons from the past’ – something that is enough to send shivers down the spine given how often its variant ‘lessons will be learnt’ crops up in the aftermath of reports into public sector foul-ups.

The ministers go on to state:

Together we have to make it easier and more compelling for people to give time and money and so make the change they want to see.

I wasn’t aware that it was difficult to give money to charity and would expect that any organisation worth their salt has already made it easy to donate by all possible means. I will however agree that the giving of one’s time is somewhat difficult and something that would generally appear to be the preserve of those who don’t (whatever the circumstances) have to spend the majority of the week trying to earn a crust.

But enough of the fluff. What has the paper actually got to say for itself?

The rational for this whole exercise is that it seems that levels of giving have flatlined in recent years. This is probably even true given the economic situation as those with common sense will reign in non-critical spending (and arguably charity falls under this heading) until such time as they feel more able to donate.

However in order to make it easier for us to give of our time and money the following items, many of which build upon things talked about in the consultation paper, are mentioned. I have broken the list up in to two groupings for the sake of convenience.

Monetary

Cash Point Giving
From 2012 LINK cash machines will offer users the option to donate when they are withdrawing money. Rather than interfere with the withdrawal process, it will be offered as another menu item alongside the usual ones of cash, balance etc. Whilst this sounds like an unobtrusive and thus perfectly reasonable approach I am concerned however that the list of charities to which one may donate will be down to the operator of the individual cash points. Call me cynical but I foresee howling from smaller organisations if they aren’t on the list or, are on the list but no-one knows who they are resulting in money going to the recognisable name instead.

‘Round Pound’
Someone has taken the old adage of ‘looking after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’ and translated that into a shiny new way of fleecing the punter. The paper highlights two schemes that are already in existence:

  • The Pennies Foundation in whereby “three-quarters of funds raised by this initiative are directed to a charity or charities chosen by the retailer, and the rest is distributed to ten other ‘UK people charities’ representing popular causes”.
  • Give Change, Make Change where the money is evenly split between British Red Cross, Great Ormond Street Hospital, WWF and Cancer Research UK. Hum, I think we can all play spot the fake charity there.

What you apparently can’t do with any of these schemes however is give solely to a charity of your choice.

Mobile Giving
Companies such as Vodafone, Orange and Blackberry have come up with some practical ways it seems to give time and/or money via the mobile.

  • Vodafone has teamed up with JustGiving to ‘allows charities and individuals to raise money using text messages in a way that is free to set up and run with all funds raised going to charity’.
  • Orange have developed an app that allows people to be charities’ eyes and ears, share ideas, take part in research or use their skills for the charity.
  • Via Blackberry Messenger a charity can create a unique PIN number to identify themselves within BBM. Users can then connect with that organisation via BBM and carry out a variety of tasks.

On the surface all of those sound quite workable and, importantly, allow the individual to pick the charity rather than having them suffer a predetermined list drawn up by others.

Taxation
One item in the budget that I appear to have missed is that from the start of the 2012/13 tax year, if more than 10% of an estate (excluding exemptions, over the threshold etc) is left to charity than the IHT will be reduced on that estate to 36% from 40%. That seems to me to be more of a flat out bribe than an incentive and I would hope that anyone who might pay IHT has already put serious thought into proper planning in order to avoid it.

Also, the UK Government is looking into accepting donations of works of art and items of historical interest in returns for IHT reductions. Is it just me or does that sound awfully like a protection racket?

Philanthropy advice
This is something that makes a modicum of sense as those who wish to give substantial sums may not necessarily know to whom to give to or what the money could be spent on so may well appreciate it. As someone who would, if they had the money, be a philanthropist such a thing would be of interest. I’m not sure however that it needs £700,000 of taxpayers money spent on it.

Non-Monetary

Community Organisers
In principle the idea of bring local people and organisations together so that they might share volunteers, facilities sounds like a good one. The downside though is that I seem to recall that the current US president was one…

To support them the Community Organisers will have access to an £80m Community First fund. Of this £30m of this will be set aside to match funds raised to support community-led projects in ‘targeted neighbourhoods of England with low social capital and significant deprivation’. It doesn’t say what neighbourhoods it has in mind though or how it will decide which projects are worthy. The remaining £50m will be an ‘Endowment Match Challenge available throughout England, with a clear priority to build local endowments through philanthropic donations’. Again pushing the philanthropic angle (this time after you have already gone to meet St. Peter) and, oddly, I see no mention of the other three countries in the Union.

Bureaucracy
The paper recognises that stupidity such as red tape and CRB checks often hinder giving and says that the government is promising to reduce such obstacles. Hopefully the cuts to the red tape will prove to be more than just hot air and the proposed CRB reforms (which are part of the almost forgotten about Freedom Bill) will come to pass. Also mentioned is what is termed ‘Citizen-led self-regulation’ – basically a ‘rate your volunteer’ thing in the same way as people can leave feedback on hotels, restaurants etc so will no doubt suffer all the potential problems as they do.

Giving Summit
The summit is a new initiative announced in the paper and will be held in the autumn. The idea is that:

This will be a platform for ideas generation, networking and decision-making, bringing together leaders and innovators from business, social enterprises, charities, community groups, academia and government.

Because apparently these groups don’t interact with one another. And there was me thinking that leading members of charities would be doing their level best to attempt to woo business into giving them money. Isn’t that what charity fundraisers and ‘networking’ are all about?

Children
No idea is, it seems, complete without getting children involved and this is no different – working, as it does, on the theory of getting them while they are young. A major plank of this is the ‘National Citizen Service’ or NCS – a name which can no doubt be twisted in any number of ways depending upon one’s political learnings and knowledge of history.

From reading though how it is described in the paper, the NCS comes across as a watered down version of the Duke of Edinburgh Award which somewhat makes me feel that the government is once again taking something that works and produce its own version rather than just leaving well alone.

Leading from the front
Just so us proles don’t feel left out, Ministers have pledged (and we all know that they keep those) that they will each undertake the One Day Challenge – ‘a voluntary commitment to give one day of their time over the course of a year to a charity or community group of their choice’ – and are hoping to persuade civil servants to also volunteer. Indeed, it seems that a number of government departments already offer their staff the opportunity to use at least one day of special leave to volunteer. What ‘special leave’ is I have no idea but I’m guessing it is on top of the regular holiday leave and the two weeks or so paid sick leave that seems to be spent on another foreign holiday… I suppose I shouldn’t really complain: the more time they aren’t at the desks, the less time they will actively be sending screwing the rest of us over!

I shouldn’t be completely cynical however. In a move that makes quite a lot of sense, the government is also allowing charities and volunteer groups to make use of parts of its buildings out of hours. This, I feel, is something that should be actively pursued at the local level as well. Who knows, it might even help the local library – a place we keep being told is in danger of becoming extinct. Throw in schools and there is a lot space there which is empty for a awful lot of time each year.

Celebrating Giving
And finally, for those who do give of their time and money, the government is considering handing out some form of award in recognition of this. Personally I thought we already had this covered with the existing awards system so I’m not entirely sure why we need some more.

Conclusion

I’m not, in the end, completely anti the whole paper as I thought I might be. Don’t get me wrong though. It isn’t perfect by any means but I feel it could have been an awful lot worse.

Unsurprisingly the more viable ideas seem to come from the private sector working in conjunction with the voluntary one whilst the objectionable bits – the NCS, the ‘Giving’ Summit and the money to be spent on the philanthropy advice service – are all government sponsored and will be run using taxpayer cash, providing little that either doesn’t all ready exist or is not needed,

Getting the public to be more charitable, self-sufficient and providing nonessential services locally to those in need is indeed a very laudable aim although I fear it will take more than just nice words and fancy ideas to stop the State thinking of itself as Pater and Mater to us all and for those who have fed deeply on the State teat to wean themselves off of it. The long term viability of any of the schemes, tax payer funded or not, is as yet unknown. They could be roaring successes but if they aren’t then what will happen? Will the government take the hit of seeing them close or will it throw other people’s money at the situation in a vain attempt to save face?

I’m all for cutting red tape and any other nonsense that stops people being able to give of their time freely but if the government really wanted to allow me to be able to donate more to charity then it should ease my (and everyone else’s) tax burden thus freeing up money which could be stuck in the collection tin.

Politician 0, Writer 1

This week the US Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking at the launch of a public awareness campaign to bring attention to the challenges faced by children and families affected by drug abuse issued an ‘order‘ to the creators of the popular TV drama ‘The Wire‘:

I want to speak directly to Mr Burns and Mr Simon: Do another season of ‘The Wire’. That’s actually at a minimum. If you don’t do a season, do a movie.

To which, in an e-mail to The Times, David Simon replied:

“I’ve spoken to Ed Burns and we are prepared to go to work on season six of The Wire if the Department of Justice is equally ready to reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanising drug prohibition.”

Before going on to call the US government’s ‘War on Drugs’ “nothing more or less than a war on our underclass, succeeding only in transforming our democracy into the jailingest nation on the planet.”

I think we can call that game, set and match to David Simon.

I shouldn’t laugh…

…but in this case I’m finding it very difficult not to.

Everyone’s least favourite volunteer tax gatherers, UK Uncut, have decided to go after Bono – everyone’s least favourite pious rockstar* – claiming that he (and U2) avoid tax. (Warning, what figures are shown are courtesy of Richard Murphy.)

Now, as much as I think Bono should shut up, stop singing and crawl back into whichever hole he crawled out of, I have no problem with him wanting to reduce his tax bill by all available means – and I imagine what he has avoided over the years would probably make the £4m that had Adele admitting she was ‘ready to go and buy a gun and randomly open fire‘ look like chicken feed.

And, just to complete the circle of deliciousness, the wannabe tax collectors are planning on protesting at Glastonbury on the same day that U2 are headlining the Pyramid stage.

It truly would take a heart of stone not to laugh.

* Yes, I realise that this is a close call between him and Bob ‘give us your fucking money’ Geldof.

A tip of the hat to @heytherewombat for bringing this to my attention.