Some taxes are just fine by me

No one likes being taxed, even when it’s not called a tax but a licence.

But as the very fine David Mitchell said recently

the BBC is the envy of the world. Why are we letting its competitors, and the politicians they have frightened or bought, tell us that we can’t keep it as it is?

There’s a lot wrong with the BBC, and if they close 6Music then there’s even more to add to that list, but in comparison with some of the other things to complain about, it’s just about the best thing that the UK has at the moment.

It’s a bargain; the mealy-mouthed words of the sponsored politicians and the journalists who just rehash their masters’ thoughts cannot take that away from any right-thinking person.

Red lights distract

Recently Boris decided that it might be an idea to investigate whether cyclists should be allowed to (conditionally) turn left through red lights.

While it certainly is not the answer, it’s not really even part of the question.

There are innumerable reasons why cycling is dangerous, but the fundamental one is that cyclists are not considered first class citizens when the road system is being planned, amended, dug up, redesigned or rephased.

My commute is around 7 miles each way. On my morning route in the other morning, just for fun, I counted the number of sets of traffic lights that I had to cycle over. 32. Thirty-two. That’s more than one every quarter mile. There are just four zebra crossings.

I divided the lights into 3 categories: those which were fair enough, e.g. major junctions etc. (12), those that were pure pedestrian crossings that could be easily replaced with zebra crossings (12) and those which I couldn’t quickly decide on (8). It’s these pedestrian request lights that are the most irksome – people pressing the button, then walking across on green, only for the lights to kick in anyway. How about a cancel request button?

It’s no wonder that cyclists run red lights (I don’t, but I’m in a minority) when so many of them are blatantly surplus to requirement. Surely zebra crossings must be cheaper to install, cheaper to maintain, greener (given the average wait times) and less likely to provoke irritation at others’ behaviour? After all, I’m convinced more car drivers would run reds if they could – but they’re constrained by the guy in front.

So rather than the red herring of turning left (which could be often useful, but more often than not, not) – let’s have TfL justify every set of lights with a pedestrian request phase and ponder if that crossing could be better served by a zebra crossing.

That would be a real win in the battle to wrestle control of our roads back from the car.

Update: Someone’s on my wavelength. Ealing is putting a bag over many after realising that the wisdom of crowds works well. Hoorah for them.

Banking Hypocrisy

No, not anything about the merchant banks and the mess they’re making of the world.

My phone rang over the weekend: a number I didn’t recognise. I answered it … nothing. A few minutes later the same number called again and an automated voice introduced themselves as being from my credit card company and, with a reasonable voice emulator, said my name. Apparently they were seeking verification that I’d been responsible for some recent transactions. I was asked to press 1.

Then I was asked to identify myself by tapping in my birthday. At which point I hung up.

I don’t have a problem with fraud prevention and the bank trying to recognise unusual usage patterns and asking me to verify them. Far from it, I’m more than happy to make sure my balance is no higher than I make it.

Banks – all banks – are on at us to keep our PINs secret, to not fall for phishing scams and to be careful with our discarded paperwork, yet here was my bank being blatantly dumb. My postman knows my name and has a reasonable guess as to a lot about my life. Every shop assistant or waiter who takes a plastic payment from me knows precisely what credit card I hold and a decent guess as to my name, quite possibly my address and other data too.

Yet when they ring me, I was asked to identify myself. They rang me. They can identify themselves first. Otherwise, no dice.

I searched for the area code and then searched for the credit card name and the town – and I got some hits. So it is possible that this was genuine. (Or maybe an enterprising call centre worker.)

Either way, they can ring me back. But unless they can prove their identity, I’m not going to talk to them or tell them anything.

Update: I did ring them back and, eventually, got through to a human who was friendly enough and we verified the transactions but, more importantly, I was removed from their automated call list. Any fraud questions they might have, they’re perfectly at liberty to contact me for verification, but I’ll ring them. I’ll go to their website, find their number and call them.

Universally Challenged

It’s been a funny old week for the old lady of student quizzing.

Probably the most press and PR successes for any winning team; we had a bucket load in our year in comparison to most recent winners, but our page in the Evening Standard and interview in Times 2 can’t compete with the shed-load that Trimble et al. have received since overcoming Manchester in a great final.

But all of that is forgotten because one of the ‘winning’ team forgot to read the rules and has been disqualified.

University Challenge is generally recorded in two blocks. The first (and these days the high scoring losers’ repechage and second) round in June and then the remaining knockout rounds in a long weekend in October and November. These two blocks are in different academic years and thus they required that any competitor in the first block was intending to still be at the institution at the time of the second block and subsequent broadcasts.

And, let’s be absolutely clear on this point because the rules were absolutely clear – and they’ve been that way for the entire run of the show under Jeremy Paxman – if you were in your team you had signed a form expressing your intentions.

When we competed in 95/96 we knew that we had to ensure that we’d still be students until the Final was broadcast (in May ’96 in our case). If the circumstances changed in between the two dates, you had to tell Granada.

The Corpus team claim not have realised they’d broken the rules, but then it would have been their fault for not reading them closely enough. Sam Kay should have thought to at least mention it – it beggars belief that four obviously intelligent people wouldn’t have given it any thought.

It is unfortunate for Manchester to “win” in such circumstances but it’s only a quiz show – as they told us when we discussed topics like unfair draws and dubiously phrased questions, “we’re not running the British University Quiz Championshship; it’s a TV show, it’s entertainment.”

It’s not really headline news, it’s not really important, but if you’ve just been plastered on the news pages of half the press in Britain as being intelligent and Google in human form, it is just a little embarrassing to be proven as being unable to read an application form for a TV show.

Reasons to be cheerful

So when I said that when we moved we wouldn’t be keeping Virgin, I was right: when we moved, we didn’t.

This just proves the point.

Phorm is just censorship by another name: delivering content to a user that they didn’t ask for, obscuring what they did request, while not telling them that changes were made. It might start with advertising but could be trivially re-tooled to mask ‘unapproved’ content.

While the IWF and Wikipedia have had some press recently at least they were relatively upfront about the blockages, the reasons for them and the thinking behind it. There is some discussion over what the viewer should be shown if cleanfeed complains (e.g. 404 is lying, but 403 is that the server is refusing which isn’t strictly true either), but at least it’s reasonably public (although there is an argument for hiding the links because by informing someone of the block, you’re confirming that dubious material might really exist there).

But any company (or country) blocking unilaterally a legal protocol are going to find themselves suffering very quickly, as Comcast found out.

I blame the government

If they’d provided us with an education system worthy of the name in the first place we would not have this sort of story about banning Latin phrases in otherwise English communication:

A Campaign spokesman said the ban might stop people confusing the Latin abbreviation e.g. with the word “egg”.

If we had a literate society able to both speak the language and with knowledge of things that we’ve imported from without, able to understand from context if not from being able to read the difference between e.g. and egg, able to not pander to the stupid – who really won’t be worried anyway.

And these are the organisations able to snoop on us for the merest hint of a perceived infraction.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Soviet Bus shelters

Going over old Boing-boing posts (as if there aren’t enough new ones) I found a reference to old Soviet Bus shelters and thought “so that’s where they got the idea for the Vauxhall Cross bus station!”

In a weird piece of public transport related synergy; there are many competing theories, but the Russian word for a railway station is Вокзал (vokzal), which coincides with the canonical 19th century transliteration of “Vauxhall” (Wikipedia.)

[tags]boing-boing, buses, railways, russia, vauxhall[/tags]