Sunday, 16 February 2014

On what will kill Wikipedia

I think that the principle of Wikipedia, collaborative editing of articles that anyone can contribute to, is great. In practice though, it's fatally flawed. Here's why...

I've only ever edited a couple of Wikipedia articles. They had been neglected as most of the reference links were broken and the content was hopelessly out of date. No one had made any meaningful changes in a long time. Knowing something about the subjects in question, I got them bang up to date with everything properly referenced. Over the last couple of years, I've made a few updates to keep things current and so have other people; collaboration works! Although a bit obscure, the subjects of these articles have occasionally appeared in the mainstream media, and as is well known, the lazy journos first (and often only) port of call for research is Wikipedia, so accuracy and currency of the articles is important. A classic example of when it goes wrong being this.

Unfortunately, the articles got the attention of some rather more dedicated editors than me. On one occasion, someone added "x is a dick" to one of them. That's one of the downsides of allowing anyone to edit but those sort of changes can easily be reverted. Someone with admin rights decided that the page should be locked down because of this and so all changes required his/her approval before they were published. Mine and anybody else's were swiftly rejected for spurious reasons. In the meantime, the admin reverted the article back to an out of date version...

The other article is now useless. It fell victim to a Wikipedia policy pedant who appears to edit for a full time "job". When I say full time, I mean they spend 18 hours plus a day deleting content that does not conform to the letter of this huge list of policies and guidelines. Because of the actions of the Pedant-in-Chief, the content of the article no longer contains the reason for the subject's notability and so the whole thing might as well be deleted. I tried to engage with the editor and got a cryptic comment back citing some obscure policy and basically telling me to fuck off, so I gave up.

The biggest problem with Wikipedia is that the casual editor like me cannot compete with those who spend their entire lives on it. We simply cannot and do not want to have to invest huge amounts of time in reading, understanding, and applying hundreds of different rules in order to be able to post content. We also don't want to spend time trying to improve an article just for someone to come along and delete all of your changes and more. If that happens then I suspect that like me, subject matter experts will just give up and walk away. That then leaves the editor community comprising of the bureaucrats, the pedants, and those who like to play attrition warfare and you end up with a site full of articles that are dated or just wrong. But that's OK because all the rules have been followed, a perfect embodiment of "the operation was a success but the patient died".

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Fucking Google again

I guess that we're going to have the same stories published around about the same time each year aren't we?
Google yesterday announced record British earnings of £3.6billion last year, an increase of £600million on 2012. 
But the online search giant has yet to disclose how much corporation tax it will pay.
It will come under enormous pressure over the figure following fierce criticism over its tax affairs. For 2012, the US multinational paid just £11.6million of tax on an income of £3billion.
 
It was accused of leaving hard-pressed families and businesses to fund public services such as hospitals and schools.
I've covered Google in the past so I won't repeat myself, but let's have a look at that last sentence that I've quoted from the Mail. So if Google et al magically start paying corporation tax and fund the schoolsandhospitals, that will reduce the tax burden from a "hard-working family" like me and my lot? Will it fuck. The government of the day will just find something else to spunk it on, what with it being rather easy to be loose and fast with someone else's money.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

How to claim your free food

I always thought that you needed a referral from a GP, Job Centre, or social worker in order to be eligible for assistance from a food bank. Not so apparently:
The Bristol NW Foodbank voucher holders are care agencies, charities and other organisations who come into contact with vulnerable families or individuals in our local community, who may find themselves in crisis and in need of a food package from the Foodbank. This is intended as a short term help, until the agency is able to help their client resolve their situation.
If you are part of an organisation that is working with people in crisis who would benefit from this service and you would like to become a voucher holder, see the contacts page for contact details.
Agencies registered with us working across NW Bristol
  • 1625 Independent People
  • Addiction Recovery Agency (ARA)
  • Age UK Bristol
  • Big Issue
  • Bristol Black Carers
  • Bristol CC Tenancy Support Service
  • Bristol Central Job Centre
  • Bristol Citizens Advice Bureau
  • Bristol Crisi Prevention Fund Team
  • Bristol Debt Advice Service
  • Bristol Drugs Project
  • Bristol Early Intervention Team
  • Bristol Health Trainers
  • Bristol Home Start
  • Bristol Hospital Education Service
  • Bristol Intensive Team
  • Bristol Later Life
  • Bristol Mental Health Crisis Team
  • British Red Cross Fire and Emergency Support Service
  • Bristol Specialist Drug and Alcohol Service
etc.
These are only the first 20 organisations on the list. There are loads more including schools, a cafe (yes, really!), and unbelievably churches. Given that the Trussell Trust franchisees tend to be church-run, this is hardly an independent check for eligibility. Worse still, one of the big players in the poverty industry, the Child Poverty Action Group can issue vouchers. They wouldn't exist without so-called "child poverty" so it's obviously in their interest to perpetuate it. They can claim an increase in child poverty by an increase in food bank referrals, referrals that they make themselves.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Cure your hunger and your gayness

In Central Liverpool and a bit down on your luck? Can't afford food (and that's your story and you're sticking to it)? Well then maybe the Central Liverpool Foodbank could be your saviour?
Feeding the hidden hunger in Liverpool
Central Liverpool foodbank provides a minimum of 3 days emergency food and support to local people in crisis.
Yep, it's another Trussell Trust franchise run by a church, in this case the Frontline Church:
All of our pastors share a vision to see the city of Liverpool impacted with the good news of Jesus through:
  • A growing network of Missional Communities, giving church members a place of belonging, and reaching out to every man, woman and child in our city region.
  • Church Services in various locations across the city, so every man, woman and child can be part of a vibrant local congregation.
  • Good works bringing social and economic transformation to every man, woman and child in our city.
Which is perhaps most famous for this:
A Liverpool church seeking to help gay men and lesbians "break free" with a 'Homosexuality Fact Sheet' has attracted widespread criticism.The Frontline church said homosexuality was caused by "childhood pain" and offers advice on how to recognise someone struggling with their sexuality.
Note that the police and a housing association have gone to efforts to distance themselves from the church. There's a full copy of the "fact sheet" on the Mail website that's worth a read.

It's pretty backward stuff and does make you wonder just how many other Trussell franchises are out there with similar views...

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Foodbank closures

Ha! Only kidding. Given The Trussell Trust's ambitious expansion plans, I'm of the view that the future of foodbanks is looking pretty good. But this perpetuation is a problem; if you are going to offer essential goods free with few or any checks for need or eligibility then the demand will always be there.

Surely it should be the case that a foodbank success story is one that has to drastically scale back its operations or close because of lack of demand? This can never happen now as expectations have been set; the foodbanks will provide.

I personally don't like the politics around foodbanks. Labour might make political capital out of it now but if elected in 2015, the foodbanks will still be there, still be expanding, and there's only so long they can blame the "Tory's savage legacy" before the fingers are pointed in their direction.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Free food

The Tories are driving the poor into starvation and reliance on food banks to survive apparently. At least that's the impression you get should you read anything in the Left-leaning press or hear a quote from a Labour MP on the matter. Now food banks are for emergencies, perhaps the most common being a delay in receiving a benefits claim. Not great, but the help is there. But then a new benefits claim is going to be an irregular event so being reliant on them is unlikely, which fires up my inner cynic...

You need a referral from the Job Centre, your doctor, social worker, etc. to be able to get help from a food bank. Now faced with a request for a food bank voucher, what do you think that the Job Centre staff, doctors, and social workers are going to do? Get the requester to state their case and challenge their story, or knowing they face an argument and have limited time, just write out the referral? Of course they're going to chose the latter option and take the path of least resistance; of what benefit to them is to refuse? Knowing that free food is on offer, is every claimant going to be 100% honest if there is no disadvantage or sanction for a false claim? I'll leave that for you to decide.

I think the thing that bothers me the most about food banks is the "charity" behind a lot of them, The Trussell Trust. Every article you read about food banks will have a quote from a spokesman about how the brutal and heartless Tories are trying to exterminate the poor, who are only saved from this fate by one of their food banks. So what does The Trussell Trust actually do? Well it's actually a franchise operation masquerading as a charity. Want to set up a food bank in your area but need some help? £1,500 to The Trussel Trust should sort that out with ongoing fees every year. They are very keen on your money as:
The Trussell Trust partners with churches and communities to open new foodbanks nationwide. With almost 400 foodbanks currently launched, our goal is for every town to have one.
Yep, so this is yet another "charity" concerned more with perpetuating itself rather than trying to deal with the underlying causes for its existence. It doesn't even get its hands dirty, that's the job of the franchisees who are volunteers, and not to mention that half of its income goes on staff salaries...

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Voluntary work experience not slavery shocker - part 2

Today, the Supreme Court have ruled on the "Poundland" case:
The government has lost a Supreme Court appeal over a ruling its flagship "back to work" schemes were legally flawed.
Ministers failed in a bid to overturn an earlier ruling that regulations underpinning the schemes were invalid.
That second sentence is important because:
But the Supreme Court rejected a counter-appeal against the scheme and upheld the Court of Appeal's ruling in the government's favour that the regulations did not constitute forced or compulsory labour.
And that's the crux of the case the likes of Boycott Workfare or whatever union front were making; that workfare equals slavery. The highest court in the land says otherwise.

Part 1 here.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Spending your donations wisely

I've written about 38 Degrees before; lazy, ill-informed "clickivism" in my view, but they seem to bring in the donations. And speaking of which:
Where do donations go? 
38 Degrees keeps costs low by maintaining a small staff so the majority of donations can fund campaigns. We rely on donations from individuals to help pay for the technology, the research, the equipment and the small office we need to organise campaigns.
 So this seems rather odd:


So out of the £1,401,175 donated, £353,389 is staff costs! That's more than 25% and they've more than doubled since the previous year. And look at the average salary! There's clearly good money in activism.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Labour tax dodgers?

I suspect not, rather just another story in this silly, sorry corporation tax "debate":
Charlie Elphicke, a former tax lawyer, has written to HMRC to ask whether it will open an investigation into Labour Party Properties Ltd (LPPL), a property investment firm wholly owned by the party which operates a £6.3m rental portfolio.

Yesterday the Daily Telegraph revealed the firm, whose directors include Iain McNicol, Labour’s General Secretary, received £8.7m in rents between 2004 and 2011 but paid no corporation tax after reporting a string of losses.

In the two years where the company made a profit, carried-over losses meant it paid no tax. It last paid tax in 2003.

The Labour Party insisted the firm had done nothing to intentionally cut its tax bill. Ed Miliband has frequently attacked corporate giants including Starbucks and Google who are accused of failing to pay their full share of tax through artificial structures.

Mr Elphicke, the MP for Dover and Deal, has asked Lin Homer, the chief executive of HRMC, to investigate a series of “administration expenses” that wiped out the company’s profit.
In short then, a Labour Party subsidiary is frequently loss making due to its expenses being greater than income. The contention is what those expenses are and the amounts involved. Of course, the accounts are not going to give us a line-by-line breakdown of their spending but by looking at them in a bit of detail and making some assumptions based on the nature of the business, we can form an opinion as to whether or not they seem reasonable. LPPL is a property management company that not only owns investment properties rented to third parties, but also owns properties for use by the Labour Party.

Expenditure is broken down into the following categories - numbers are the 2011 figures ('000s):

Property maintenance and repairs - £97
Rents, rates and other costs - £1,043

And then the these are administration costs that Elphicke wants investigating, claiming that they are rather high for a business of this nature:

Administration charge - Labour Party - £36
Interest charge - Labour Party - £70
Legal and professional - £100
Audit - £2
Bank charges and interest - £49
Staff costs - £37
Bad debts charge - £11

OK, so the Labour Party have made a loan to LPPL who are paying interest on this. Both are UK entities so this is hardly in the league of loading up companies with debt from a related company in a low tax jurisdiction. As for the administration charge, I can only speculate, but I reckon it was for the use of Labour Party resources, most likely a charge-back for time and expenses spent on LPPL business. These interest and administration charges will go towards the total income for the Labour Party and any surplus may give rise to a corporation tax liability for them.

As for the other expenses, the issue here is that are Labour getting the best value for money or are they forking out inflated prices for legal advice to their mates? This is an internal issue for Labour Party members and not a tax issue at all.

I'm seeing two things here; the first is that the media, pressure/activist groups, think tanks, and the like have got into a strange habit of trawling through company filings looking for a story on corporation tax. These tend to be written in a way to fire up controversy where none exists, and I think that this is exactly what we've got here. Unless entities publish their line by line expense items and supporting documentation, contracts for the supply of goods and services, and tax returns and calculations, such stories will run as this is the way the debate has been framed. Of course this is completely impractical, not least because of costs and commercial sensitivities.

The second is that rather than defend the laws that they make or do anything about them if they don't like the consequences, MPs have taken to attacking the entities for the amount of corporation tax they pay, often from a position of extreme ignorance, e.g. Margaret Hodge. Elphicke doesn't have this excuse though; he's a former tax lawyer so should know his stuff. His letter demanding the HMRC investigate LPPL for making losses because of some fairly normal looking expenses and conflating revenue with tax paid says to me that his motives are party politicking and publicity seeking rather than righting an injustice.

What is truly daft is this; if HMRC were to investigate, invalidate every pound of the £305k expenses as tax deductible and to disallow any losses brought forward, LPPL would owe something in the region of £9,800*. I suspect that the actual and opportunity costs of an investigation would far exceed any tax recoverable.

* The quick and dirty calculation was to start with the £256k loss, take out the £305k expenses to give £49k profit. Corporation tax on this at the small company rate of 20% would be £9.8k.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Knee-jerk reactions

Fourteen year old Hannah Smith killed herself the other week over alleged online bullying. That's tragic but I was disappointed in the response from the father, the media, and politicians in calling for clamp-downs, bans, and restrictions on social media. I can understand the father's reaction to some extent; he's trying to make sense of what is probably the worst thing that could happen to a parent but this is not the right way to go about things, especially when not of all the facts are out there. This sorry tale has now taken a rather odd, and perhaps sinister twist:
Bosses at Ask.fm, the social network on which hateful comments were posted to Hannah Smith, have controversially claimed that the vast majority of the messages were sent by the teenager herself. 
An internal investigation at the Latvian-based website is understood to have analysed the user profiles from which the messages were sent.

They reportedly now believe the teenager set up a string of anonymous profiles and posted hate messages to herself.

They claim 98 per cent of messages had been sent from a computer with the same IP address as Hannah's with only four posts coming from elsewhere.
Leicestershire police are also said to be investigating a theory that Hannah's ask.fm profile could have been hacked.
I'm not sure why this is controversial if true. If it is then the girl was deeply disturbed with ask.fm being the vehicle for her troubled thoughts rather than the catalyst or the cause. However, just because the messages were posted from the same IP address, it doesn't necessarily mean that Hannah posted them, it would just narrow it down to someone from the same household; a family member perhaps? The hacked profile theory is not plausible at all unless someone has not only gained access to it but also known and spoofed the IP address.

But who really posted the "hateful" comments to Hannah's ask.fm profile won't be known until ask.fm and the police have completed their investigations. What this case demonstrates well is that judgement should be reserved until all facts can be reviewed in the cold light of day; to have a better idea of the truth and to take away the emotion. This is particularly pertinent to politicians who frequently come up with crass and unworkable laws as a knee-jerk reaction to such tragic cases.