Monday, February 28

Trust versus directness.

Speaking of the house sale that fell through, it's about time I slagged off First Trust. They're a Northern Irish bank. They're shite.

We started by going to the One Stop Mortgage Shop, who recommended First Trust on the grounds that they (a) are willing to lend lots of money to graduates with good prospects and (b) give 100% mortgages. Wrong on both counts. The Mortgage Shop submitted our application to First Trust and told us that we could expect a call from them the following Monday, maybe Tuesday. After calling the Mortgage Shop three times to get them to chase First Trust, we eventually got a call from them about two and a half weeks later. That call was just to arrange an appointment for us to go in and see them; the appointment wasn't for a few more days. All this time, we had an offer on our chosen house, so time was of the essence.

One Stop Mortgage Shop knew First Trust's requirements back to front, so told us everything that we'd need to take in to our meeting. We went armed with every bit of paperwork required. Peter, the First Trust mortgage bloke, refused to take photocopies of some of the bits of paperwork, telling us that they wouldn't need them. All he did, it turned out, was photocopy things, fill in a form, and send it on to the real mortgage people, whom we didn't see. They eventually went through our papers and, after another couple of weeks, another mortgage bloke called Alan called us to ask us to go back in to provide various extra things that they needed, every one of which we had taken in the first time and Peter had refused to take copies of. That was annoying.

Then things really went downhill. They surveyed the property.

The surveyor recommended that we get a damp and timber specialist's report done on the house, which is fair enough. We did so. The report said we should get a damp-proof course put in and some woodworm treatment. Again, fair enough. But this is where the bank went a bit strange.

Firstly, they wanted to put a condition in the mortgage specifying that we had to do this work within three months of buying the place. Yet again, fair enough. But they also wanted to reduce the mortgage by the projected cost of the work. Remember, they claim to offer 100% mortgages, so they're trying to take a cut of the skint-people market. Yet they want to force us to put a deposit on the house and insist that we spend thousands of pounds on building work — and, by the way, they were also insisting that we couldn't take out any further debt to pay for either, and would credit-check us to make sure we didn't. Since they knew that we'd gone to them in the first place because we couldn't afford a deposit, what on Earth made them think this made any sense? They're entitled not to want our sort of custom, but, if they don't, why have a marketing drive aimed at the likes of us?

And why did it take them so long to do everything? All the above took months. Although the sale was eventually scuppered by the vendor's bastard lawyers, it was First Trust who provided the initial huge delay that pissed the lawyers off and gave them the excuse they needed.

A couple of extra details here, that really should have rung more alarm bells with us. Firstly, while First Trust were demanding a deposit, they called it a "retention". Now, First Trust charge a big admin fee — the "higher lending fee" — for mortgages over 95%, which is their right. But what they were doing here, rather than saying "We'll only lend 97% on this house," was saying "We'll still lend 100% on this house, but with a retention of £2000." Since the "retention" didn't bring the total mortgage down to the 95% mark, we thought this was an academic distinction. As we were later to discover, we should have taken more notice of their dodgy reasoning. I'll come back to this.

Secondly, it was clear that the surveyor was working with the bank in an unusual way. Our lawyer noticed it (and got driven spare by it, frankly). The bank and the surveyor appeared to be contacting each other and exchanging views on how much the mortgage should be for and how big a deposit — sorry; "retention" — if any, the bank should demand. This isn't what a surveyor's supposed to do. The surveyor's supposed to tell the bank how much the place is worth and whether it's a good risk. This surveyor was telling the bank what the terms of our mortgage should be, and the bank were bowing to his opinion at every turn. Worrying.

So, on to house two. First Trust assured us that, this time, since our mortgage was already agreed in principle, all they'd need to do was survey the place and either approve or deny it for lending, so there would be far fewer delays this time. Bollocks, as it turned out.

We'd offered £78500 for the place. The surveyor went out and valued the place at £76500 — exactly two grand less than we'd offered, which was suspicious, since £2000 was the amount of "retention" the bank had wanted from us the last time. However, he also specified on the survey that it would be worth £78500 after we'd put a damp-proof course in. In other words, the bank had, in order to avoid the arguments they'd had with our lawyer the first time round about what is or isn't a retention, arranged for the surveyor to build the "retention" into the survey. This is just wrong.

You might be thinking that I'm just whinging and that the bank and surveyor hadn't really done anything wrong at this point, but that's certainly not what our lawyer thought, and you might change your mind when you hear what happened next. We contacted the vendor, explained what had happened and that we were skint, and offered to split the difference: would she agree to accept £1000 less? She agreed. We told the bank. The bank contacted the surveyor, who got back to the bank to tell them that, in that case, the place was only worth £75500. That's right: the surveyor was changing his valuation to make sure that, no matter what price we agreed to pay the vendor, the bank would always lend two grand less.

Again, we got a damp and timber specialist's report, and, again, it recommended a damp-proof course. (Since moving in, we've discovered that we almost certainly don't need one, as the place isn't damp, but that's another story.) This builder was a pain in the arse and insisted on quoting for replastering half the house because he thought it needed it, even though this had nothing to do with the alleged damp. First Trust insisted on ignoring the details of his quote and only looking at the total figure, which was about £9500. They showed this to the surveyor, who immediately changed his valuation to £68500 — £10000 less than our original offer and £8000 less than his first valuation. He had now given three different valuations based on one visit to the property.

Now, the reason we were able to get this house at such a bargain price was precisely that it needed work. Remember where I said it was twice the size of and cheaper than house one? It's also in the same street. House one had two small bedrooms and a box room and a tiny garden, and was £83000 — and wasn't even in good condition. House two has four large bedrooms and a big garden and was four and a half grand less. Of course it needed work. We knew that. What the surveyor was saying was that the place would be worth £78500 after we'd done a hell of a lot of work to it. A quick browse through any of the local estate agents' windows shows this to be delusionary nonsense. And the surveyor didn't even have the excuse of ignorance, as he was the same guy who had surveyed house one, just up the road.

Now back to that whole retention-versus-deposit issue. What was really happening here was that the bank were refusing to give a 100% mortgage on the house, and, like I said before, that is their right. However, by arranging for £10000 to be deducted from the surveyor's valuation rather than the bank's mortgage offer, the bank could still claim to be offering us a 100% mortgage — 100% of the valuation, but only about 87% of the price — and they could therefore still demand the higher lending fee that applies to mortgages over 95% and they could still charge us the slightly higher interest rates that come with 100% mortgages. This, frankly, is a scam.

What it comes down to, I reckon, is that First Trust have an internal communication problem: their marketing people want them to go for the 100% mortgage market, while their mortgage department don't want anything to do with it. In a case like that, the easiest way for the mortgage department to avoid corporate in-fighting is to shift the responsibility for turning down business onto a third party — the surveyor. I'm being charitable here. The other explanations are that they're simply a bunch of unprofessional, icompetent, ignorant bastards, or that they're deliberately setting out to rip people off.

Anyway, Alan had assured us several times that all we were waiting for was confirmation of the mortgage that First Trust would definitely give us, then he finally rang up to say good news: here's your mortgage, and we're reducing the amount by ten grand. I was incredulous. Then he suggested to me that I might want to ring the vendor and ask her to reduce the price accordingly. I pointed out that (a) that was insane and (b) we already knew from experience that, even if the vendor were stupid enough to reduce her asking price by £10000, First Trust's pet surveyor would immediately lower his valuation by the same amount. I told Alan that we thought it was counterproductive to deal with a mortgage lender who kept scuppering our attempts at buying a house, and told him to return the higher lending fee immediately. And that was the last of them. (Unsurprisingly, it took them two or three weeks to return the higher lending fee, with no interest.)

This was the eleventh hour. It had been dragging on for ages; the vendor was beginning to ask whether we really intended to buy the place; we'd been assuring her that everything was going smoothly, that the mortgage would be ready shortly; and now this. But two things had changed since we'd started the whole process. First Direct, with whom we both bank, had upped their maximum mortgage from 80% to 95%. And the whole process had taken so long that we had saved enough for a deposit.

An hour or so after that last call from First Trust, I called First Direct. I was on the phone for less than an hour; by the time I hung up, they had approved me for a mortgage for the amount I needed. I gave them the name of the surveyor that First Trust had used, and explained that he had given three valuations based on one visit. First Direct agreed not to have anything to do with him. They sent out a surveyor a few days later, who simply said that the place was worth what we were paying for it and was a perfectly good risk for the bank — no conditions on the mortgage, no report needed from a builder, no mucking around. First Direct aren't perfect, so did proceed to cause one or two quite exasperating delays, yet, in the end, even with those delays, changing banks and starting the whole process again from scratch delayed our moving-in date by just two weeks. That's a shorter delay from First Direct on the entire mortgage application process, from first contact to moving in, than the length of time it took First Trust to get around to calling us back to make a first appointment. Oh, and, rather than asking us for a large admin fee, they paid us to take out a mortgage.

Bank with First Direct. Not only are they brilliant, but other banks are run by bastards and fools.


Update:

Reading back over that, I realise that I'm being unfair to First Direct. They processed the mortgage quite incredibly quickly for us: because of the situation First Trust had left us in, First Direct fast-tracked the whole thing. What I referred to as "delays" were actually just times when the process slipped from extra super fast to plain fast.

Friday, February 25

Sofa saga.

Finally sat on our new sofa last night. My mother-in-law bought it for us sometime last year — around September, I think. It's taken quite a while to get to the sitting-on-it stage.

You see, we were going to buy this house. It was a fairly nice house, and we could afford it, and the vendor had accepted our offer and it was all going ahead and everything, and then the sale collapsed a couple of days before it was all going to be finalised, for no good reason. Vic used to work for the vendor's lawyers, and we're pretty sure (though we cannot prove) that they deliberately scuppered the sale to piss her off. If not, then they were quite astonishingly unprofessional for no reason.

Thing is, this house had a huge living room, and we chose our sofa accordingly. And then the sale fell through.

Now, the sale falling through was not the end of the world. As it happened, we almost immediately found a far better house: twice the size with a much bigger garden, for less money. You can't argue with that. Trouble was, it had a small front room. So we've just spent a couple of grand on having a wall knocked down just so that we can fit our new sofa into the house.

Was it worth it? Well, it's pretty comfortable. And roomy.

Next, I plan to buy an Olympic swimming pool for the bathroom.

Wednesday, February 23

Ah, it is to laugh.

Type the word "fuckwit" into Google and hit the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button.

Go on.

Packaging.

I'm eating some chicken & bacon pate just now, and it's really not bad, but it took me about five minutes to open the bloody pack. I had to use an axe in the end. (Well, no, I didn't.) What is it with modern packaging design? Every time we figure out how to open something, the designers up the stakes with a new type of impregnable shrink wrap that can only be opened by steam power. You'd think, having gone to the trouble of making good pate and selling it to me, they'd let me eat it.

Before long, products will be sold in their own little safes, and you'll need a ten-digit code to open the bastards.

Prader-Willi.

Tim and Mark are both up in arms over this:

A 31-stone man has been detained in a mental hospital against his will because he cannot stop eating, it emerged today.

Chris Leppard, 23, of Hastings, East Sussex, suffers from Prader-Willi syndrome, which means he cannot tell when his stomach is full and could eat so much that it will kill him.

East Sussex social services "used powers normally used to detain mentally ill people who might harm themselves or others" to section him (forcibly detain him against his will), according to the Sun.


Saith Tim:

They’re being really tough on obesity these days ... How long before that 20% of the population that smokes gets locked up?


Mark calls it "worryingly Soviet" and says:

Sectioning someone is a pretty awful thing to do and surely must only be used when a person is wholly unable to comprehend their circumstances. This poor guy is not mentally ill and is fully aware of his condition. This is a travesty.


Now, I'm as worried as the next Libertarian about the state's appropriation of our private lives, but this is a red herring. Chris Leppard has not been locked up because he's obese or because he enjoys his food. He's been locked up because he has a very nasty syndrome one of whose elements is a mental defect, which is shortly going to kill him.

Patients with Prader-Willi syndrome do not have a functioning hypothalamus, the part of the brain that tells you when you're full. As a result, they simply cannot stop eating. Five minutes after eating a seven-course meal, these people feel literally like they haven't eaten in weeks. All the brain's emergency survival mechanisms that are only supposed to kick in when you're starving to death (and that most of us will therefore never use) are active in Prader-Willi sufferers on a daily basis. Children with Prader-Willi get into fights at school as they attack other children to take food from them. No matter what a Prader-Willi sufferer may know rationally, they're fighting a battle against the irrational parts of their own mind. And, cruelly enough, Prader-Willi comes with an unusually slow metablism, meaning that patients need far less food than your average person anyway, and typically also comes with learning difficulties, making it even more difficult for sufferers to pit their intelligence against their instinct. If not properly supervised at all times, they can easily put on a couple of stone every few weeks. By their late teens, it's not unusual for them to be wearing ventilator masks overnight, to stop them choking to death in their sleep. Very few of them live past forty.

To say, as Mark does, that Chris Leppard is fully aware of his condition misses the point entirely. Mental hospitals are full of people who are fully aware that they have self-destructive compulsions, but that awareness doesn't allow them to do anything about it. People with OCD are usually fully aware that their hands are clean, their door is locked, or whatever, but that awareness doesn't enable them to stop washing their hands or checking the door for the fifteenth time. There's a lot more to our brains than awareness.

To say that Chris Leppard is not mentally ill is simply wrong. Yes he is: part of his brain doesn't work properly.

Back to The Guardian's report:

Mr Leppard's mother, Anne, told the newspaper: "Four people turned up and after some questions, said they were taking him away.

"Chris was really upset, crying, saying he didn't want to go and that he wasn't mental.

"We didn't know they were coming to take him. He is being punished for being ill. He has a physical problem. He was working well towards losing weight."

She added: "He asked social services to give him six months to prove he could lose weight. They didn't give him six days. I had stopped giving him money for food.

"For the first time in years we were getting somewhere. We had locked food cupboards, that was a big step."


Hmm. Now note this little snippet:

The council became aware of his condition after he was featured in a BBC documentary.


I saw that documentary. It was very good. It followed the lives of three people with Prader-Willi syndrome. One of the interesting things about it was that two of those people (both children) really wanted to do something about their condition so that they could gain some genuine independence, while Chris Leppard paid lip-service to the idea of self-control so that he could pretend to be independent. The two children knew that, until they learnt to handle their illness, they could never be independent, because they understood what "independent" meant. Chris Leppard thought that being independent meant not living with his mum.

He is being punished for being ill.


No, he is having his life saved.

He has a physical problem.


Yes, and a mental problem too. That's not an insult; it's an unfortunate fact.

He asked social services to give him six months to prove he could lose weight.


The words missing from that sentence are "yet again" and "yet another". Anyone who saw the program knows that he keeps saying this, and that he keeps failing.

He was working well towards losing weight.


No, he was putting on weight at an astounding rate. Telling him he's succeeding when he's failing is part of what has led to his current problems in the first place. This woman is totally irresponsible, and has simply refused to take her son's illness seriously. I mean, look at this:

I had stopped giving him money for food. ... We had locked food cupboards, that was a big step.


Parents of Prader-Willi children lock the food cupboards when they're in their early teens, at the latest. Anne Leppard waited till her son was twenty-three and thirty-one stone. She'd stopped giving him money for food? In other words, she had been giving him money for food up till a few weeks ago. The one thing a Prader-Willi patient needs to learn more than anything else is self-control, but Chris's mother never bothered to teach him. Now, when the government step in to try and save her son's life — doing what she should have done years ago — she complains.

The parents of one of the children featured in the documentary put a lot of effort into finding a solution, and eventually got their son into a school that specialised in teaching Prader-Willi children — not just giving them an education, but teaching them dietary self-control and an exercise regime, too. The parents of the other child, an American girl, sent her to a residential home for Prader-Willi children for a few weeks, where they forced her to lose weight and, again, tought her about diet, exercise, and self-control. Chris Leppard's mother gave him all the fatty, carb-packed, high-calorie food he wanted, and sat back.

The story here isn't state intrusion. It's parental negligence.
 

Tuesday, February 22

He doesn't even get time for a cup of tea.

Is Saint Nicholas the busiest saint? There's all that work on Christmas Eve, of course, but then there's also the workload that comes with being the patron saint of bloody everything:

against imprisonment, against robberies, against robbers, apothecaries, bakers, barrel makers, boatmen, boot blacks, boys, brewers, brides, captives, children, coopers, dock workers, druggists, fishermen, Greece, Greek Catholic Church in America, Greek Catholic Union, grooms, judges, lawsuits lost unjustly, longshoremen, Lorraine, maidens, mariners, merchants, murderers, newlyweds, old maids, parish clerks, paupers, pawnbrokers, perfumeries, perfumers, pharmacists, pilgrims, poor people, Portsmouth England, prisoners, Russia, sailors, scholars, schoolchildren, shoe shiners, Sicily, spinsters, students, thieves, travellers, unmarried girls, watermen


I seem to remember that he is also the patron saint of pirates, but they're not on the list. They're pretty much covered under thieves, mariners, and murderers, though, I'm sure.

Is there anyone in the world who doesn't, in some way or another, get Saint Nick's patronage? You might have thought that Russia alone would be a big enough project for one person. No rest for the dead.
 

Humour and hope.

Bush in Brussels:

You know, on this journey to Europe I follow in some large footsteps. More than two centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin arrived on this continent to great acclaim. An observer wrote, "His reputation was more universal than Leibnitz or Newton, Frederick or Voltaire, and his character more beloved and esteemed than any or all of them." The observer went on to say, "There was scarcely a peasant or a citizen who did not consider him as a friend to human kind." I have been hoping for a similar reception — but Secretary Rice told me I should be a realist.


Class.

I shan't bother quoting any of the rest. Those of us who understand what Bush is doing already know, and the rest of you simply won't believe it.
 

That old chestnut.

This might just be the best spoof error page yet.

(No, I wasn't. I wasn't. I'm at work. I could get sacked for that sort of thing. Not that I would if I were at home. In a darkened room, by myself. Definitely not. Oh, shut up.)

Monday, February 21

A word of explication.

Looking at the British news, I can't help but get the impression that people in Britain don't quite know what the news is.

Last week, the news was not that the IRA had committed the UK's largest ever bank robbery. Everyone knew that the minute details of the robbery emerged. No, the news was that the Irish Government publicy stated that the IRA were behind the robbery. And Bertie Ahern called Gerry Adams "childish".

Similarly, this week, the news is not that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are part of the IRA's ruling council. Everyone already knew that. Everyone. The news is not that Sinn Fein and the IRA are largely the same organisation. Big yawn. No, the news is that the Irish Government have stated these facts in public. That is momentous.

Broom of Anger has some ideas about where this is all heading.

Friday, February 18

Non-violence.

"Non-violent" protestors piss me off.

Let me qualify that. There's nothing wrong with protest marches. You want to have the police shut the streets for a couple of hours so you can show off your banners, on you go. Organise it in advance, so that people with important business can avoid the disruption, and emergency services know to use alternative routes. Fine. That's not what I'm talking about.

But perhaps that's not enough for you; perhaps you want to make life a bit difficult for those against whom you are protesting. So, like the suffragettes, you chain yourself to someone's front gate or you lie down in the middle of a busy street and cause a bit of disruption and expense. Annoying, but, again, fair enough: the worst you're likely to do to anyone this way is to cause them a bit of delay. (Though, if the police have to get rid of you, I think you should be billed for their time. They could have been out catching murderers and thieves if it weren't for you.) No, that's not really what I'm talking about, either. That's genuine non-violence.

No, what I'm talking about is the modern approach of committing trespass and vandalism and then hiding behind the pathetic and unconvincing lie of "non-violence".

Imagine you're sitting at home one night, watching TV. Suddenly, thirty men and women break in through one of your windows, setting off sirens to make as much noise as possible, spray-painting slogans onto your furniture, shouting at you, chaining themselves to your kitchen units, getting mud on the carpets, smearing manure on the walls, and playing deeply awful versions of Joan Baez songs. These people will insist that, as long as they don't actually hit you, they are non-violent. Well, bollocks to that. This is violence. The lack of fisticuffs is a mere technicality.

So I'm pleased to see that Greenpeace have met some people who refuse to indulge their bullshit.

WHEN 35 Greenpeace protesters stormed the International Petroleum Exchange (IPE) yesterday they had planned the operation in great detail.

What they were not prepared for was the post-prandial aggression of oil traders who kicked and punched them back on to the pavement.


Ha.

“We bit off more than we could chew. They were just Cockney barrow boy spivs. Total thugs,” one protester said, rubbing his bruised skull.


Ah, the poor dear. He's been doing this for years and is used to people just rolling over and taking the abuse. How dare anyone resist? No, really, how dare they?

(As an aside, I just have to comment on that tidbit of journalism there. Was he really rubbing his bruised skull as he uttered those words, do you think? Maybe, maybe. It's just that I've seen these people on TV a thousand times, and, even after being beaten up, they tend to puff their chests out and harrumph defiantly when the press turn up.)

Anyway, he then goes on to inadvertently describe Greenpeace:

“I’ve never seen anyone less amenable to listening to our point of view.”


No, what you saw was people who wanted to get on with their work without having a portion of their lives appropriated by publicity-seeking politicians — which is what Greenpeace are. You want people to listen to you? Canvass on their doorsteps, send them leaflets, fund some broadcasts, send speakers to schools and conferences. Don't do this:

They made their way to the trading floor, blowing whistles and sounding fog horns, encountering little resistance from security guards. Rape alarms were tied to helium balloons to float to the ceiling and create noise out of reach. The IPE conducts “open outcry” trading where deals are shouted across the pit. By making so much noise, the protesters hoped to paralyse trading.


Yes, clearly the protestors' aim was to get the traders to listen to their point of view. Feh.

Here's the hypocritical evasive delusionary crap I'm talking about:

“They were kicking and punching men and women indiscriminately,” a photographer said. “It was really ugly, but Greenpeace did not fight back.”


No, of course Greenpeace didn't fight back; it was the IPE traders who fought back. Greenpeace started the fight. Just because they didn't technically throw any punches, they think they're all shiny and innocent. Twats.
 

The master criminal at work.

Thanks to Mr Pootergeek for pointing us in the direction of Duncan Grisby's triumph over the forces of evil:

This man's name is Ben Park. He broke in to my flat in the South of Cambridge on Friday 4th February 2005. I had a video camera with motion detection software set up on my computer. It captured these images of him.


I find it interesting that Mr Park pulled the face in the second photo down without realising he was on camera. Does he like to practice his Robert De Niro impersonation while burgling, or is it that he always prepares for his crime sprees by chopping twenty onions? Note also, under the anorak, the bold horizontally striped top. Nice to see members of the burgling community keeping up the old traditions. Shame he forgot to wear his Lone Ranger mask.
 

Tuesday, February 15

A recommendation that's probably of no use to you.

Ah, builders. You ask them to do something very simple, such as turn up or do some work, and they do something else, such as go to the pub or have a cup of tea, and then they charge you extra because the work is taking so much longer than it would if they were actually doing it. Usually.

Well, as I mentioned yesterday, we've had the builders in of late, and they've not been like that at all. I called them two weeks ago tonight, they turned up the following afternoon, and they have removed a wall, put in a beam (because it was a supporting wall), bricked up a doorway, removed and bricked up a fireplace, fitted a door, replaced a large ceiling, insulated the roof, put in an access hatch to the attic, removed some disgusting old built-in cupboards and repaired the wall where they were attached, patched up a hole in the outside wall, and — get this — hoovered up quite a bit of the dust they created. They pretty much finished on Friday, just coming back yesterday to make good a couple of little things that weren't quite right. They stuck to the quote, and charged very little for the various extra bits I kept thinking of. They were quick. And their plasterer may well be the greatest plasterer in the world. We keep stroking the walls just to check that something really can be that smooth.

They're called BWP Contracts. So, if you've googled their name as you ponder whether to hire them, now you know. And if you're looking for a builder in the Belfast area, look them up.

On the other hand, if you live in London or Chicago, this blog is really going downhill.

Monday, February 14

I have nothing to say.

Nothing. None of the news looks interesting enough to comment on. Charles and Camilla? Yeah, that's big news: a man and a woman who have been in love for longer than I've been alive are going to tie the knot. Shocking. A riot at Ikea? A bit odd that they were trying to get in, admittedly, but, as The Guardian is always telling us, desperate people will turn to violence when they are the victims of oppression, and, well... Ikea has victims instead of customers. I'd rather like to see Ikea added to Bush's hitlist, come to think of it. I mean, yeah, Iran is probably a higher priority right now, but Egypt? Does Egypt really cause more suffering than Ikea? It seems unlikely. And what else has happened? Sod all, as far as I can see, "sod all" being, if I do say so myself, the best summing-up of the nascent general election campaign you're going to see until Peter Snow unveils his graphics. What will he have this time, I wonder? Giant bears throwing red, blue, and yellow frisbees at each other, I hope. Or wombats would be good. I like wombats.

Tonight is Valentine's Night, so I shall be heading home with my lovely wife to indulge in a bit of stripping. And, by that, I mean I'll be up a ladder with a scraper and a steamer, removing the blight on our new living room that is wood-chip. Ah, I kill myself, I really do. Got rid of about half of it last night. The walls aren't too bad, but it appears to have been superglued to the ceiling by bastards. The previous owner (or possibly the owner before that — how would I know?) was rather enamoured of wood-chip: some of the original doors actually have wood-chip laid into their panels. Weird. Not as weird as the pictures in the house we nearly bought but didn't, though. Some people are devout Christians. Fair enough. Some devout Christians like to put framed verses from the Bible on their walls. Fair enough. The woman who nearly sold us her house (but was persuaded not to by her bastard lawyers, who we suspect were merely exercising a grudge against my wife, who used to work for them) appeared to have decorated her home by plugging a random number generator into a database that contained the Bible and Arena's complete archives. "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son." Well, maybe he did, but what has that got to do with puppies in a basket? Or with a black Porsche 911 Turbo? Amazingly enough, these pictures were less weird than the rest of the decor. A lucky escape that the sale fell through, then, you might think, but only if you hadn't seen the place we did get. Half the walls in our front room were painted a sort of washed-out mushy-pea-green; the other half were pale mauvy lavender. My very spirit still cringes at the memory of it.

Anyway, we've had extraordinarily efficient builders in, so our front room is now our front room and back room at the same time, and is huge. And we've got a new ceiling on the top floor and an insulated attic, and sundry other things done that needed done. And all we have to do is clear up the fucking mess and remove the fucking wood-chip. Oh, joy.

Speaking of building, I've been hard at the virtual webby type in recent days, getting rid of Haloscan's trackback system (which, I felt, was a bit crap) and replacing it with Movable Type's standalone trackback tool and then spending ages buggering around with it, trying to figure out how to add automatic email notification. Yeah, yeah, this is probably blogging about blogging, but I blogged about other things first, see? To soften the blow. Anyway, it's kind of blogging about programming, if you think about it. And that is fine. Still extraordinarily dull, yes, but ethically defensible. Anyway, send me a trackback ping. I went to a lot of trouble to get this just as I like it (programming in Perl is particularly difficult for me, as I have no idea what Perl is), and I wouldn't want to think it was all ultimately futile.

So, yes, like I said: I have nothing to say.

Tuesday, February 8

Dying in the name of fiscal security.

My friend Laura has sent me a link to this kerfuffle of Scots outrage:

PUB bosses today warned MSPs banning smoking was a bad idea – because people would live too long.

Urging the Executive to change their plans, the Scottish Licensed Trade Association said ministers had failed to take account of the high cost of geriatric care and increased pensions which would result from the health improvements.

But ...


... and you're not going to believe this next bit ...

... their "outrageous" arguments were condemned.


There then follows a lot of self-important blather.

Hats off to the SLTA for bringing this argument out in public. Now, could all the pompously outraged gits start looking at the way our beloved NHS makes decisions?

What the fuck?

James links to this story. I'm not sure I can believe my eyes.

The German parliament's Home Affairs Committee said on Wednesday that Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union should continue, but urged de facto limits by calling for migrants to undergo German language tests and checks on their employment qualities.


In Germany, it is illegal to display a Swastika. It is legal, however, to angle for votes by promising to keep Jews out of the country.

In my experience, Germans are nice people who, for obvious reasons, have a strong distaste for anti-Jewish discrimination. I sincerely hope that the voters are going to punish the government over this. On the other hand, the German Government have enacted such insane pro-immigrant legislation over the last few years that there is a backlash, and any moves to cut immigration — even of Jews — might therefore be popular.

Israel has long been unhappy over the large number of Jews choosing to settle in Germany and the Israeli embassy in Berlin says its goal is to get Jewish immigrants to go to Israel.


Prescience, I call that.

There are only twelve types of people.

Esther links, in her usual odd way, to this calculate-your-Zodiac-sign thing. Now, while the idea that events in our lives are influenced by flaming balls of gas billions of miles away from us and from each other to such an extent that we can make accurate predictions by observing the patterns that those balls happen to form when viewed from Earth is not only patent nonsense but empirically inadequate, I've always been amenable, at least in theory, to the idea that the time of year at which we're born might have some bearing on our personality. I don't think for one minute that the stars would have anything to do with it, but other factors, such as climate and daylight, might. Or might not. In a world in which the temperature at which crocodile eggs are incubated decides the gender of the hatchlings, it's not that far-fetched that people born in June might be more irritable than those born in January.

So, in a spirit of scientific enquiry, I took the test. It was utterly wrong.

According to our analysis, you are a Virgo, Aug 23 to Sep 22.


Not even close.

But you are certainly not a Cancer, June 22 to July 22.


OK, that's true. But divining what star sign I'm not is unimpressive.

Based on my answers, the results give a score from 0 to 100 for each star sign, with 0 being a total mismatch and 100 being a perfect match. My lowest score — for Cancer — is 50, which just goes to show how full of Barnum's phrases the definitions are. It would be interesting to see how low a score anyone can get. My guess would be that people rarely score below 40 for any sign. My second-lowest score, 52, was for my real star sign, Aries. So that's pretty bloody wrong, then.

The test's bold assertion that I am definitely a Virgo is based on a mere 73. That's not very high, is it? The closest match I have to any of the definitions is three quarters. Even if the test had got me right, I wouldn't be impressed by a mere three-quarter match.

As it turns out, that's the whole point:

When a credulous person reads a description of their personality based on their sun sign, what do they do? In my experience, they go through and they pick up on some adjectives (such as 'blunt' and 'ambitious'), which they feel described them, and skip over the others. They notice all the adjectives they feel pertain to their personality, and, ignoring the misses, their faith in astrology is strengthened. It's a pernicious problem for all skeptics to address. But, if the tables are turned and your self-evaluation is used to place you into an astrological category, instead of being forced to fit the category given to you by birth, then your willingness to deceive yourself may be made evident. Most people read only their astrological description and accept it; they don't go through and read them all to see if one suits them better. In this way the real value of my reverse astrology test is found primarily in its one-time use by an individual; the statistical results are not nearly as useful.


Nice one.

Friday, February 4

Impossible.

Part 20 of Arthur Chrenkoff's indispensible Good News From Iraq series starts, of course, with the elections. He links to all sorts of great news, including this:

There was nothing surprising about the stunned looks I got last Friday as I stood at the entrance to the girls school in Swafiyeh, handed the guards and the representative of the Iraqi elections committee an Israeli passport and declared my wish to register to vote in the elections to the Iraqi parliament, which would begin in Jordan exactly a week later.

The elections official asked to see some document attesting to my connection to Iraq and the belittling look on his face was replaced by one of sincere astonishment when I gave him my grandparents' 1951 laissez-passez. After pointing out my father's name on the yellowing certificate and presenting a signed and notarized translation of a document proving I am his son, the mustachioed Iraqi ordered me to wait. He disappeared into the big building with my passport and the Smooha family's most precious document, leaving me with the guards at the entrance.

A scant five minutes later it was my turn to be surprised. The mustachioed one, smiling broadly, appeared at the edge of the school's inner courtyard, instructed the guards in Arabic to let me in, and then turned to me in English: "Welcome. Please follow me." When I strode with him into one of the classrooms manned by Iraqi elections officials, another surprise awaited me. The four women and young man seated behind small desks had been apprised of the Israeli's approach and they were waiting for me, all smiling.


It's wonderful to see so much of the Left's vicious pessimism proven wrong at once. I feel the same way I felt when Reagan and Gorbachev sat down and casually, almost flippantly, signed away the end of the Cold War. Jesus Jones should re-release Right Here, Right Now — except that, being successful musicians, they're probably Guardian-reading Bush-hating twats. Tsk.

I'm going to stick my neck out and make some predictions now.

By the end of Bush's presidency, there will be at least three more genuine democracies in the Middle East, with more teetering on the brink.

The good work will go on after Bush finishes, because the Democrats won't win the Presidency without embracing the Bush Doctrine — though I'm sure they'll call it something else to save face.

Iraqis will build a monument to Bush, and maybe to Blair, and definitely to Coalition soldiers.

Within five years, Iraq will be one of the world's most important economies. And not just because of the oil.

Iraq and Israel will become official allies, and probably guarantors of each other's security.

There will be massive celebrations in Iraq on the thirtieth of January every year for generations. This will be their Fourth of July. The celebrations might well involve everyone symbolically staining their fingers purple.

Maybe I'm too optimistic. But it all seems quite realistic now.

A woman on the radio talks about revolution
But it's already passed her by.

Look at it this way.

Omar tells two stories from the Iraq elections:

The suicide attack that was performed on an election center in one of Baghdad's districts (Baghdad Al-Jadeedah) last Sunday was performed using a kidnapped "Down Syndrome" patient.
Eye witnesses said (and I'm quoting one of my colleagues; a dentist who lives there) "the poor victim was so scared when ordered to walk to the searching point and began to walk back to the terrorists. In response the criminals pressed the button and blew up the poor victim almost half way between their position and the voting center's entrance".

I couldn't believe the news until I met another guy from that neighborhood who knows the family of the victim. The guy was reported missing 5 days prior to elections' day and the family were distributing posters that specified his descriptions and asking anyone who finds him to contact them.

...

one story that is famous now in Iraq is about one brave Iraqi (A'adel Nasir) who saw a suspicious looking guy walking around a polling center in (Al- Hurriyah) district and soon the brave man realized that the suspicious guy was trying to commit a suicide attack; he ran towards him, wrestled him and knocked him down causing the bomb carried by the terrorist to explode, sacrificing his own life and saving the lives of the people standing in line at the gate of the voting center.


How is it that millions of people have so much difficulty making a moral distinction between these two sides? How is it that anyone supports the first group against the second in the name of human rights?

Wednesday, February 2

Gratuitous cuteness.

I haven't done anywhere near enough of this to keep her eager fanclub satisfied, so here are some pictures of Phoebe.












On the sofa with Boris.



On the way home in the car with me, the day we got her.


There. Happy?

Scepticism in a world of stupidity.

Perhaps, once upon a time, being sceptical was easy. Perhaps things that sounded obviously untrue stood out. But, when it is true that Dutch banks are legally obliged to pay for their robbers' guns, it is true that the Soviets successfully banned surnames in Mongolia, it is true that people in a democratic country have just gone on a march to protest another country's transition to democracy, it is true that the word "brainstorm" is being replaced in some quarters with the phrase "thought shower" so as not offend epileptics, who claim that they were never offended anyway, and it is true that Saudi Arabia is facing a sand shortage, how are we supposed to spot hoaxes?

All of which is a preamble to my pointing out that Kate has pointed out that the article in The Telegraph upon which I based my post about state-enforced prostitution in Germany may not be completely true.

Well, that's one way of reading it. The article which supposedly debunks the Telegraph piece really does no such thing.

A spokesman for the Federal Labor Office said that if job seekers said they were prepared to work as, for example, dancers in strip bars, advisers could put them in touch with any suitable employers, but vacancies would not be displayed in job centers.

He also stressed job centers would not look for prostitutes on behalf of brothels, nor offer sex industry jobs to people who hadn't specifically mentioned it as an area of interest.


What the spokesman doesn't mention is the twenty-five-year-old woman The Telegraph were writing about, whose job centre told her to contact an employer who was interested in hiring her but didn't tell her that that employer was a brothel, who then tried to sue her job centre only to find that the law was on their side. Until I see a denial of that, I'll work under the assumption that it did happen — but it looks like it was the result of a job centre employee being either stupid or nasty, not the result of them following the letter of the law. We can, no doubt, expect to see more such fuck-ups, but not as part of a widespread state-imposed program.

Meanwhile, I love this quote from "celebrated Berlin prostitute" Molly Luft:

"One can't expect everyone to be prepared to work in the sex industry," Luft said. "Plus if people aren't very attractive they aren't going to make much money," she added.


She's never been to Glasgow, then.

Heroism and rudeness.

Jonah Goldberg explains just how great the Iraqi election is:

Americans snatched the victory from Iraqis. We defeated Saddam, not the Iraqi people. If they were going to take pride in their liberation they would need to feel some ownership of it.

...

The Iraqis now have their heroic story of resistance. Americans could not vote for them. We could not walk down Iraq's most dangerous highway in their place. Iraqis seized their own future. They have their narrative, their symbols, their victory. John Kerry grumpily says we shouldn't "over-hype" the election, which is just one more grain of sand on the vast beach of reasons why he deserves to remain the junior senator from Ted Kennedy's state. We should hype this to the hilts. Not as a Republican or "neoconservative" I-told-you-so - the pro-war side has gotten too many important things wrong to ever blithely use I-told-you-so and Iraq in the same sentence - but rather as Americans: We should hype this because the heroic effort of millions of Iraqis to un-pry the clenched fists of murderers is the stuff nations are built on. Our public diplomacy requires such hyping.


He's right, of course. This election has reminded me that I've not been entirely taken over by cynicism; it has, in fact, restored my faith in human nature. The scenes of jubilant Iraqis enthusiastically embracing their new right to vote remind me of the scenes of the Berlin Wall being torn down. And they seem to have had a similar effect on a lot of the anti-warriors, too: many of those who opposed the war are nonetheless agreeing that the election is a Good Thing. And, in the face of the footage, those who oppose the election are revealing to the public what utter bastards they are.

Jonah provides a link to this report in The Washington Post:

The young man wore a winter jacket over his explosive vest and approached the polling station with his hands in the pockets.

"Take your hands out of your pockets," said Ali Jabur, the Iraqi police officer in charge of patting down voters on the street outside. The young man obliged by throwing his arms wide, and blew them both to bits.

Three hours later, in streets still littered with the bomber's remains, some very determined voters streamed into the Badr Kobra High School for Girls, intent on casting the ballots that they called a repudiation of the terrorist attacks meant to scare them away.

...

When the suicide bomber at the high school struck shortly before 11 a.m., the polling site had been growing busy after a slow start. But Hadi Saleh Mohammed, the election official in charge, felt he had no choice but to close it down. There were the wounded to evacuate, a gruesome mess to clean up, security to reassess.

While all that went forward, the voters stood at the end of the block, waiting.

"They wanted to come back in," Mohammed said. "They didn't want to go back home."


This is heroic. Compare the Spanish to these people:

"I would have been happy to have died voting at the time of this explosion, because this is terrorism mixed with rudeness," said Saif Aldin Jarah, 61, a balding man with white hair who leaned on his daughter, Shyamaa, as he shuffled into the afternoon sunlight after casting his ballot.

"When terrorism becomes aimless and without a goal, it becomes rudeness," Jarah said, holding aloft a finger stained purple with indelible ink.


That may be the most damning use of understatement I've ever heard.

Tuesday, February 1

The welfare state.

Traditionally, the Law of Unintended Consequences is meant to refer to things that one couldn't reasonably have predicted. Who would have known, for instance, that burning fossil fuels in Britain could contribute to avalanches in the Alps? These days, perhaps it should be renamed the Law of Unconsidered Consequences, or maybe the Law of Slapdash Legislation.

Here's the latest government weeze from Germany:

A 25-year-old waitress who turned down a job providing "sexual services'' at a brothel in Berlin faces possible cuts to her unemployment benefit under laws introduced this year.

Prostitution was legalised in Germany just over two years ago and brothel owners - who must pay tax and employee health insurance - were granted access to official databases of jobseekers.

The waitress, an unemployed information technology professional, had said that she was willing to work in a bar at night and had worked in a cafe.

She received a letter from the job centre telling her that an employer was interested in her "profile'' and that she should ring them. Only on doing so did the woman, who has not been identified for legal reasons, realise that she was calling a brothel.

Under Germany's welfare reforms, any woman under 55 who has been out of work for more than a year can be forced to take an available job - including in the sex industry - or lose her unemployment benefit.


This should help to solve Germany's welfare funding crisis. Stop paying benefits to anyone who refuses to become a prostitute. I reckon there are a lot of savings to be made there.

It gets better.

Job centres that refuse to penalise people who turn down a job by cutting their benefits face legal action from the potential employer.


Let's just run through that again, shall we? If you are unemployed, you have to give your details to the job centre. The job centre in turn have to give your details to any brothel who asks for them. The brothel's HR department can then order the job centre to order you to work for the brothel. If the job centre refuse, they are breaking the law and the brothel will sue them. If you refuse, you will lose your entitlement to state benefits and you will quickly become very poor — eventually poor enough that you'll start to consider taking the job.

Of course, there was an easy and obvious way to avoid this problem, but, apparently, it presented difficulties of its own.

The government had considered making brothels an exception on moral grounds, but decided that it would be too difficult to distinguish them from bars.


How can anyone simultaneously claim both that they can't tell the difference between a brothel and a bar and that they are fit to hold public office?

So, you may well be asking, why has the German Government taken the somewhat unconventional step of introducing enforced conscription into prostitution for the long-term unemployed?

Prostitution was legalised in Germany in 2002 because the government believed that this would help to combat trafficking in women


Of course.


Update:

Is it true? Isn't it? Or is it? Or not? Hmm.