November 26, 2013

Never-let-a-crisis-go-to-waste department – the modern slavery bill

Filed under: Britain, Law, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:11

Tim Worstall explains why the rush to legislate based on the public outrage over the most recent case of slavery is a bad idea that will have worse results:

I know that I shouldn’t giggle over such things but the revelation that the three “slaves” recently found were in fact the remnants of a Maoist commune well known to social services (indeed, housed by the local council) does provide a certain amusement as we see various leftish types suddenly running away from the story. However, now onto something a great deal more important. Theresa May and various campaigners are going to use this to try and pass an extremely bad law about modern slavery. And it’s worth our all complaining very loudly about this now, as the bill is being drawn up, not later when it is too late.

The problem is that there are two distinct meanings being conflated together for the convenience of the legislators, police, and media: I) sex slavery (which most people recognize as a terrible crime that should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law) and II) illegal immigration (which is not the same thing at all). By lumping the much larger number of type II cases in with the tiny number of type I, you get a big headline-friendly number to shock and energize the population who think you’re really talking only about type I cases.

As Operation Pentameter found out, after every police force in the country tried to search out and find sex slaves they found not one single case in the entire country that they were able to prosecute for the crime.

That is, the police went looking for slavery, type I definition of trafficking, while this foundation is using the type II definition of illegal immigration (or, to get to that 50% number, simply of immigration, legal or not).

Oh, and Eaves is involved. They were the people behind the Poppy Project. Which, laughably, claimed that evidence of foreign born women working in brothels in London was evidence of trafficking. Guess all those foreigners working in The City are slaves then, eh?

Just to make this entirely clear here. These campaigners (and that includes May here) are going to use our revulsion of the type I trafficking to pass extraordinarly severe laws against the type II stuff. Up to and including life imprisonment and confiscation of all financial assets. Yet it is only type I that is in fact slavery. Type II is more normally defined as the employment of an illegal immigrant.

Anyone really want life imprisonment for employment of an illegal immigrant? Someone who, entirely of their own volition, tried to make their lives better by breaking the law to come to this country is now going to be defined as a slave?

May 10, 2012

The Vintner’s Kwality Approximation

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Cancon, Law, Wine — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:15

Michael Pinkus expresses the feelings of a lot of Ontario wine drinkers:

There has been a lot of talk by media-types lately about VQA … about how the VQA symbol is finding its way onto inferior wines; inferior, bland, uneventful, non-descript wine blends — the latest culprit in this category are whites … a growing segment of the LCBO market. These white blends seem to encompass the kitchen and the sink … everything is fair game in them, from Chardonnay Musque to Viognier to Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc (just name a white grape and it’s in there) and of course there’s always some Gewurztraminer thrown into the mix. I find myself on this topic after reading Rod Phillips’ musings, [who] went so far as to accuse the Ontario wine industry and the VQA of dumbing down wine — actually regressing us back to a time when Ontario wine was the laughing stock of the wine world.

[. . .]

Let’s get back to VQA … I’m gonna let you in on another highly guarded secret: VQA is NOT, repeat NOT a sign of quality … it’s a symbol of origin. That’s’ right, according to executive director, Laurie MacDonald, whom the Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada members had a meeting with back in 2011. She was adamant the VQA was all about origin — not quality … so why is the word “Quality” in the acronym? Good question … to which I would hazard a guess there is no really good answer besides it sounded good at the time; but I also offer you this: it sure sounds better than Questionable?

I’m sure, in the past, that you have tasted a wine with a big VQA symbol on it and thought “this is some nasty-ass sh*t … how did that pass VQA?” Yes there’s a tasting component to the process, but I have been assured by many a winery that they just think it’s cash grab by the VQA. It costs a winery $265.50 a shot to run tests through the VQA lab and get authorization to use the symbol on their bottles and a wine can be submitted up to 3 times.

I usually check any Ontario wine for the VQA symbol, and almost always put back any that don’t carry the “stamp of approval”, but I’ve certainly bought more than a few wines carrying the VQA symbol that were unpleasant drinking experiences.

In fairness, I’ve also bought more than a few French wines with AOC designations that failed to live up to expectations, and even more Italian DOC wines that were a waste of money. Wine, by its very nature, can’t be as consistent as other products, so things like the VQA/AOC/DOC are only guideposts, not destination markers. You still have to exercise judgement and roll the dice now and again.

January 13, 2012

Google Kenya’s motto: Do <strike>no</strike> evil

Filed under: Africa, Law, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:40

Someone at Google has some explaining to do:

Since October, Google’s GKBO appears to have been systematically accessing Mocality’s database and attempting to sell their competing product to our business owners. They have been telling untruths about their relationship with us, and about our business practices, in order to do so. As of January 11th, nearly 30% of our database has apparently been contacted.

Furthermore, they now seem to have outsourced this operation from Kenya to India.

When we started this investigation, I thought that we’d catch a rogue call-centre employee, point out to Google that they were violating our Terms and conditions (sections 9.12 and 9.17, amongst others), someone would get a slap on the wrist, and life would continue.

I did not expect to find a human-powered, systematic, months-long, fraudulent (falsely claiming to be collaborating with us, and worse) attempt to undermine our business, being perpetrated from call centres on 2 continents.

H/T to Megan McArdle for the link.

Update: BoingBoing got a response to their post on this issue from Google’s Vice-President for Product and Engineering, Europe and Emerging Markets:

We were mortified to learn that a team of people working on a Google project improperly used Mocality’s data and misrepresented our relationship with Mocality to encourage customers to create new websites. We’ve already unreservedly apologised to Mocality. We’re still investigating exactly how this happened, and as soon as we have all the facts, we’ll be taking the appropriate action with the people involved.

July 23, 2011

Virginia’s state surplus less than meets the eye

Filed under: Economics, Government — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:02

Doug Mataconis takes a jaundiced eye to the Virginia “surplus”:

So, in other words, what we’ve got here are accounting gimmicks. In one case, the State legally permitted itself to defer a contribution to public pensions that were twice as big as the reported budget surplus. In the other, they legally permitted themselves to collect thirteen months of sales taxes for a twelve month fiscal year. The impact of both of these should be rather obvious. Reduce obligations while you are increasing revenues and, wow what do you know, we’ve got a surplus.

This isn’t at all new. As Virginia political bloggers Norm Leahy and Adam Bitley noted last August, the legislature used virtually the same accounting tricks to create the $220 million surplus that was reported last year.

It’s also not unique to Virginia. The same techniques are used in states across the country, and in the Federal Budget. Call it “off book budgeting.” Call it “creative accounting.” Call it whatever you like really, but it’s a pretty stark demonstration of the just how hard it really is to believe any government when they say their budget is balanced. More likely than not, they’ve used one or more of these gimmicks, plus a few others, to defer budget items and artificially increase revenue to make it appear that the budget is in balance when it really isn’t.

June 26, 2011

Skype’s PR problem over their sneaky options plan

Filed under: Economics, Law, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 13:35

Over my career in the software industry, I’ve worked for several companies who provided a stock option plan as part of their employee compensation scheme. Exactly one of those companies’ programs ever provided me with any actual tangible benefit (the company was bought, and the options were bought back at market rate). It netted me a couple of thousand dollars. Options may have been a way to get rich in the early 1990s, but they’re pretty much a longshot lottery ticket now.

Skype has found a sneaky way of making that longshot chance even more unlikely to pay off:

Employees aren’t even able to keep the vested portion of their stock options. The vast majority of stock options granted to startups have a vesting period, typically four years, with chunks of those options becoming vested during that four year (or whatever) period. If options are vested you can exercise them, pay for the stock and own that stock. At least that’s the way things have been done over the decades.

Skype did things differently. With Skype stock options the company has the right to not only terminate unvested options, but also vested ones. And any vested options that you’ve exercised (meaning you paid cash for them) that were turned into actual shares could simply be bought back by the company at the price you paid, regardless of their current value.

Turning your potentially lucrative stock holdings (if the value was higher than your strike price) into a mandatory zero-interest savings account. Nice.

The fact that Skype adopted this plan in the first place isn’t in itself “evil.” But they’ve done two things wrong from what I can tell.

First it appears that employees had no idea what they were signing and they probably expected it would be a normal stock option type deal that everyone in Silicon Valley has done for decades. If Skype wasn’t crystal clear with them, and explained it in normal human language that they understood, then these employees were intentionally misled. Skype had an incentive to make things unclear, because employees would demand far more compensation if they had understood. The fact that employees are so surprised that this is happening suggests that they didn’t understand the agreement. This is what lawyers call fraud.

The second thing Skype did wrong was not to waive this clause with the looming acquisition. The company can deny all day long that they fired these employees for cause, not to save a few dollars on stock options. But the appearance is the exact opposite.

June 25, 2011

QotD: The game marketing game

Filed under: Gaming, Media, Quotations, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:06

. . . here’s the long and short of it: A PR flack complaining about unfair representation of a videogame is like a mugger complaining about unsafe working conditions.

They say advertisers sell the sizzle, not the steak. Videogame companies regularly sell not the steak, not the sizzle, but a recording of the sizzle of aged Wagyū steak, the audio captured under ideal acoustic conditions and sweetened with frequencies proven to make people hungry. Then, often as not, they present you with a microwaved hamburger and a promise to remove the bugs — which in this metaphor are actual insects — just as soon as they can.

I don’t write many reviews these days, but as far as I’m concerned, eviscerating shitty games with snappy sarcasm is a public service. If 500 words of my resentment are more entertaining than 10 hours of your game, then you wrote a crappy game.

And let’s get this out of the way: Don’t come crying to me about the hard work of the developers and how they’re being abused by reviewers. You know what developers really hate? Working on crappy games. Nobody enjoys feeling like they’re being paid to tie ribbons on manure. You want happy developers? Let them make the best games they can and present them honestly.

So here’s the deal. I’m all for civility. In any future game reviews, I will completely do away with venom and mockery, but only if the ad agencies do away with exaggeration and hype. If you start lying, I start making vicious, spiteful fun of you.

Lore Sjöberg, “Alt Text: After Duke Nukem PR Fail, Terrible Games Are Fair Game”, Wired, 2011-06-24

March 15, 2011

DC residents get stiffed on their solar power subsidies

David Nakamura reports on some Washington, DC folks who are feeling ripped off by their local government over solar panel reimbursements that were promised but never delivered:

It isn’t easy going green, and it may also prove costly.

Dozens of District residents who installed solar panels on their homes under a government grant program promoting renewable energy have been told they will not be reimbursed thousands of dollars as promised because the funds were diverted to help close a citywide budget gap.

In all, the city has reneged on a commitment of about $700,000 to 51 residents, according to the D.C. Department of the Environment. The agency has pledged to try to find money in next year’s budget, its director, Christophe Tulou, said.

“It just doesn’t seem fair to go through a process with them and have them make investments in solar panels under the assumption they would be reimbursed,” Tulou acknowledged. “It’s really sad we are having these economic woes when we are.”

H/T to Radley Balko for the link.

February 25, 2011

What the large print giveth, the small print taketh away

Filed under: Britain, Law, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:03

Ever read the fine print of a contract to discover that the actual term of the contract contradicts the claims? Britain’s Office of Fair Trading is looking into this practice:

Companies whose small print changes the basis of consumer deals will face investigation by consumer regulator the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), it has said. According to the OFT, one in five consumers had experienced a contract problem in the last year.

The OFT has set out the criteria it will use to judge whether or not consumer contracts are unfair and should be investigated by it. The crucial factor determining the fairness of contracts will be the consumer’s understanding of what the contract means.

If the small print of terms and conditions alters the contract from what a consumer would understand it to mean from other claims made by a company, that is likely to be harmful and could be unlawful, the OFT said in a paper on unfair contracts.

“Our approach to identifying the potential for harm from a particular contract, before considering whether there is any breach of law, is to assess whether a contract term changes the deal from what consumers understand it to be,” said the OFT’s paper.

“One way in which a contract term can change the deal is where there are surprises buried in the small print,” it said. “Our research found that for 80 per cent of those who had experienced a problem with a consumer contract, the problem came as a surprise.”

February 8, 2011

Smartphone data usage surging

Filed under: Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:46

In a development that will surprise nobody (unless you work in the planning department of a cell phone company, apparently), smartphone users are indulging in data faster than predicted:

With costs of maintaining their networks flying through the roof, the nation’s largest wireless carriers are attempting to limit the mobile Internet usage of their most download-happy customers through speed slowdowns, price tiering and by raising costs.

Yet Americans’ mobile Internet usage is growing exponentially. Video, multimedia-heavy apps and other data hogs have even casual users sucking down more data than they realize.

“As the mobile Web continues to get better, people are using it more,” said Todd Day, a wireless industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan.

[. . .]

In June 2010 — when it scrapped its unlimited data offering and moved to a capped system — AT&T (T, Fortune 500) said that 98% of its smartphone customers use less than 2 gigabytes per month of data, and 65% use less than 200 megabytes.

But that was six months ago. At the rate mobile Internet traffic has been expanding, June was practically the stone age.

[. . .]

The heaviest data users tend to have Android devices, which run widgets that constantly update with data over the network. Android users download an average of 400 MB per month, and iPhone users are a close second with 375 MB per month, according to Frost & Sullivan. On the flip side, BlackBerry devices tend to download just 100 MB per month.

Update: “Brian X. Chen says “Verizon iPhone Shows You Can’t Win: Carriers Hold the Cards”:

The launch of the iPhone on Verizon adds to the mountain of evidence that you just can’t trust wireless carriers.

On the day that iPhone preorders began last week, Verizon quietly revised its policy on data management: Any smartphone customer who uses an “extraordinary amount of data” will see a slowdown in their data-transfer speeds for the remainder of the month and the next billing cycle.

It’s a bit of a bait-and-switch. One of Verizon’s selling points for its version of the iPhone is that it would come with an unlimited data plan — a marked contrast to AT&T, which eliminated its unlimited data plans last year.

Verizon incidentally announced a plan for “data optimization” for all customers, which may degrade the appearance of videos streamed on smartphones, for example.

Verizon didn’t send out press releases to alert the public of this nationwide change regarding data throttling and so-called “optimization.” The only reason this news hit the wire was because a blogger noticed a PDF explaining the policy on Verizon’s website, which Verizon later confirmed was official. Obviously it’s bad news, so Verizon wanted to keep a lid on it.

January 26, 2011

Be careful with your old, tired URLs

Filed under: Britain, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:22

The very first domain name I registered ended up getting hijacked: the ISP I was using got taken over by someone else, and they arbitrarily changed all the contact info for my domain to point to them instead. The domain expired (no notice to me), the grace period for renewal expired (again, no word to me), and suddenly the historical society’s domain name is now a porn site (slightly longer original story here).

That’s why I have some sympathy for this British MP who linked to a site promoting a local concern, which then became a German porn site:

Red-faced Tory MP Francis Maude last night denied all responsibility for the content of a German SmutSite — and then quietly removed a link to it from his own personal front page.

The embarrassment seems to have arisen after Francis Maude, the member for Horsham, and Henry Smith, MP for neighbouring Crawley, got together to sponsor a campaign for an acute hospital to be built in the Pease Pottage area of Sussex. The campaign registered and made use of a domain — c4pph.org (NSFW) — which certainly appears at one time to have been a perfectly respectable site campaigning on this issue.

However, as an official spokeswoman for Francis Maude told us last night: “The campaign … no longer owns or operates the c4pph.org web address and hasn’t done so since last year. We understand the domain name is now under new ownership with no connection to the campaign.”

December 18, 2010

The fascinating economics of Chinese manufacturing

Filed under: China, Economics, Woodworking — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:17

An interesting post at the Bridge City Tools blog about how Americans (and Canadians) are actually willing to pay the outrageous price of $5 for a single 1/8″ drill bit:

About 10 years ago I was in an OEM Chinese factory that made bench grinders. You have seen them, 1/2 HP motor, two 6” grinding wheels, pig tail cord, a small plastic face shield and no nameplate — these would be attached by the American companies that bought them. The total cost per grinder, landed in the US was $7.15. Of course at this price it would be asking too much for a UL tag.

These grinders were, and still are being sold here and the prices range from $49 to $200 — awesome margins by any standard.

Behind the factory floor there was a small mountain of insulated wire that had been pulled from old cars, appliances, televisions and the like and it was replenished daily. Surrounding the wire mountain were a couple of dozen women who were stripping the wire of insulation. These wire remnants were then spliced together and used in the grinder motor windings. Completely illegal, and dangerous. But cheap.

I thought I was shocked until I walked into the factory section that made twist drill bits. Here they were making, for the AMERICAN MARKET, those 59, 89, 119 pc drill sets found at the box stores and other discount joints for $19.95. Again, there were rows of women who were dipping the bits in what looked like Easter egg dye.

I asked the interpreter what they were doing. He replied, “They are making all the bits the same color as these four.” The four bits he pointed out were the 1/8”, 1/4”, 3/8” and the 1/2”.

I asked why.

I learned that those four bits were properly hardened. The remaining 115 bits were made with what I call pot metal. The reason?

“Because those are the only four hole sizes that Americans use.”

I asked, as politely as I could, if there was any guilt or remorse for duping their American customers. The reply was shocking.

“In America, if it cost less than $20, nobody complains about quality — everybody in China knows this.”

It’s an interesting explanation . . . and has the ring of truth to it: I’ve got several sets of drill bits, most of them bought from a reputable source (Lee Valley Tools), but I have one “big” set bought from a big box store (I think it’s branded as DeWalt, but probably made in China).

Most of the sizes of drill I use in woodworking are from the Lee Valley sets, but I think I’ve only used the 1/16″ and 1/8″ bits from the big box set. I wonder what’d happen if I tested all the rest of that set?

I have to admit being guilty of this:

More recently, I found myself at the local paint shop to purchase a Purdy paint brush — I have always liked them. So when I walked into the store I asked the sales rep to show me the most expensive brushes…

“I don’t get asked that very often…” he replied.

I then learned that the cheapest brushes outsell the flagged end bristle brushes by about 20 to one. The reason?

So people can throw them away rather than clean them.

In my defence, I can say that I get several uses from each of the “disposable” brushes because I do clean them after each use, but I do eventually throw them away. Once the quality of the applied stain or finish starts getting worse, it’s time to get rid of the brush.

November 15, 2010

QotD: “Stop crediting the Tories with scruples they show no sign of possessing”

Filed under: Cancon, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:10

Someday, historians will write about those Tory ministers who, under pressure, had the courage to do the wrong thing. Still, after so many such examples, it might occur to someone that these are their principles: not the ones they are presumed to have, based on past statements, but the ones they actually practice.

[. . .]

I suppose it’s possible these other Conservatives exist in theory, as a kind of Platonic ideal form. And so the principles commonly ascribed to them may also be said to exist, as abstractions. But if they never actually act on them, of what real-world significance are they? How is it meaningful to talk about them?

Perhaps there may once have been this great tension between Harper In Reality and the Harper Who May Exist in Theory, wrestling with each other over every great decision. Probably it was a struggle, jettisoning long-held convictions for short-term political gain — the first couple of times. But after the 50th or 60th time I can’t imagine he even notices. So we should stop pretending he does: stop crediting the Tories with scruples they show no outward sign of possessing.

It’s not as if this is anything new, after all. The Tories have been signalling their disdain for principled politics for—well, since their founding, or indeed before. The lesson the party’s leadership drew from the Reform-Alliance experience was not that these parties had been undisciplined or ill-led, but that they had been too radical, too honest, too principled. And the lesson they had absorbed from the Liberals’ success was the corollary. So: make no promises, if you can, or if you must make some, do not be bound by them, or indeed by anything else. And now we have two such parties.

Andrew Coyne, “Politics all the way down: Stop crediting the Tories with scruples they show no sign of possessing”, Maclean’s, 2010-11-15

November 13, 2010

QotD: Drinker’s lesson

Filed under: Humour, Quotations, Wine — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 14:00

In “real life”, Amis was a no-nonsense drinker with little inclination to waste a good barman’s time with fussy instructions. However, there was an exception which I think I can diagnose in restrospect, and it is related to his strong admiration for the novels of Ian Fleming. What is James Bond really doing when he specifies the kind of martini he wants and how he wants it? He is telling the barman (or bartender if you must) that he knows what he is talking about and is not to be messed around. I learned the same lesson when I was a restaurant and bar critic for the City Paper in Washington, D.C. Having long been annoyed by people who called knowingly for, say, “a Dewar’s and water” instead of a scotch and water, I decided to ask a trusted barman what I got if I didn’t specify a brand or label. The answer was a confidential jerk of the thumb in the direction of a villainous-looking tartan-shaded jar under the bar. The situation was even grimmer with gin and vodka and became abysmal with “white wine”, a thing I still can’t bear to hear being ordered. If you don’t state a clear preference, then your drink is like a bad game of poker or a hasty drug transaction: It is whatever the dealer says it is. Please do try to bear this in mind.

Christopher Hitchens, “The Muse of Booze”, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, 2008

September 7, 2010

Another reason we don’t think we’re as fat as we really are

Filed under: Health, Randomness — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:26

It’s because our clothes are lying to us:

. . . I immediately went across the street, bought a tailor’s measuring tape, and trudged from shop to shop, trying on various brands’ casual dress pants. It took just two hours to tear my self-esteem to smithereens and raise some serious questions about what I later leaned is called “vanity sizing.”

Your pants have been deceiving you for years. And the lies are compounding:

H/T to Mark Frauenfelder for the link.

May 17, 2010

Artisanal bullshit, lovingly crafted and arranged for you

Filed under: Randomness — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:14

Gerard Van der Leun has been to one too many “Farmers” market, and he’s reached his bullshit tolerance limit:

Everybody loves “Farmers” markets in America. They are everywhere now. They metastasize in our urban cores like eczema in a teenager’s armpits. Every snoburbia has to have one or more in order to be a bona-fide snoburbia. Where else, I ask you, can white people go to be reassured of the proposition that small, local, “sustainable,” and oh-so-organic farms can feed a nation of more than 300 million people for only three times to cost of current farming methods? Farmers Markets are malls for morons and we all love them. Pass the drool cup and the goat cheese samples, thank you.

I’m primed for the ordinary and established catechism of the Church of Eternal American Bullshit whenever I go to the “Farmers” markets, but I was unprepared for this fresh sign in an empty storefront on the hip Ballard side-street that supports merchants selling nut-butters at $50 a pound every Sunday. It promised levels of bullshit previously thought impossible [. . .]

Go read the whole thing. It’s worth the visit.

Back? Well, I’ve always had my doubts about “Farmers” markets . . . they all seem to sell a suspiciously large variety of foods that aren’t in season (yet are far too often advertised as “locally grown”). They’re not just selling lettuce and carrots, they’re selling modern-day indulgences: allowing city folks to buy themselves a bit of spiritual connection with the countryside. Except it’s usually not the countryside the buyers are thinking of . . .

I still remember the shocked look on the face of a co-worker, when Elizabeth pointed out to her that driving out to some farm gate and buying fruit and vegetables meant you were (usually) buying Californian or Mexican or even Chilean produce (except during those brief weeks when the local produce was in season). Most city and suburban dwellers have no idea about growing seasons.

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