Category Archives: thoughtcat

My complaint to the Press Complaints Commission about the Daily Mail’s vile coverage of the Mick Philpott verdict

Daily Mail front page 3/4/13

Yesterday the Daily Mail published the front page pictured here.

To clarify, the first subhead reads: “Man who bred 17 babies by 5 women to milk benefits system is guilty of killing 6 of them”.

This report came two days after the coalition introduced huge changes to the benefits system affecting hundreds of thousands of people. (The report was also published on the same day that the BBC, with unbelievable insensitivity, published a “class calculator” on its website.)

Following the advice in Zoe Williams’ excellent article on the Mail’s vile piece, I picked my head up off the table and submitted a complaint to the PCC about the article. When you do this, the complaint form asks you to state why you believe the story breached its Editors’ Code of Practice. I submitted the following complaint:

This piece of “journalism”, aside from offending common decency and intelligence in every way conceivable, breaches the code in the following ways:

1) accuracy: it is not accurate to maintain that Mick Philpott committed this terrible crime because he was on benefits. He did so because he was jealous and greedy to a psychopathic extent.

2) opportunity to reply: the children he killed do not have the opportunity to reply. Neither did they ask to be born to this man.

3) privacy: it is an invasion of the dead children’s privacy to publicise their photographs on the front page, especially with the claim that they were simply “bred” by Philpott.

4) harrassment: this article effectively harrasses genuine claimants of state benefits by positing falsely that Philpott’s crimes were linked to his benefit claims.

5) intrusion into grief or shock: several children were killed by this man. Everyone in the family as well as self-respecting members of the public (especially in the Derby community) would be grieving and appalled at the usage of dead children to score political points.

6) children: these children are dead. They also had siblings now potentially tainted by association. Does that not say enough?

7) reporting of crime: the Code says “Particular regard should be paid to the potentially vulnerable position of children who witness, or are victims of, crime.” Again, no such regard was paid to either the dead children or their surviving siblings for the above reasons.

8) discrimination: the article discriminates against Philpott and his family, as well as any other benefit claimants, for being “vile products of welfare UK”.

This news story is about a terrible, tragic crime and whilst it is in the interests of the public to know what Philpott did, it is not in its interests to be told that his being on state benefits had anything to do with the killing of the children.

I await the PCC’s response to my complaint.

No surprises… what the HMRC said when I asked if I could negotiate my personal tax liability

A month ago I wrote this letter to HM Revenue & Customs.

Dear Sirs

I have just read an article on the Daily Telegraph website, “Starbucks opens negotiations with HMRC to start paying more UK tax” (1 December 2012).

I find this story most interesting, and would like to also “open negotiations” with yourselves over my own tax liability. Please can I apply to pay 2% tax on my income? I realise this is somewhat lower than the 20% I currently pay, but it is still quite a lot more than the 0.28% corporation tax that Starbucks have been paying according to that article (£8.5m on profits of £9bn). Also, this is of course a negotiation, so I thought I should start low!

Whilst writing, I should clarify that I do actually believe that people and companies who can afford it should pay a proper amount of tax, especially at this time of “austerity”, and that 2% of my salary isn’t a great deal of money. However, as the government is currently cutting benefits to those in society who don’t have very much, such as sick and disabled people and the unemployed, the taxes you are taking from me aren’t really helping the needy much anyway. Hence what I would prefer to do is pay a smaller amount of direct tax so that I can donate the difference to causes I personally believe in, such as the Trussell Trust which runs food banks for people on low incomes, Shelter for homeless people and the QEF Foundation for the disabled. I hope you agree that this makes sense?

I look forward to entering into negotiations with you as soon as possible, as I feel that getting more of my money to people in need is quite urgent, really.

Season’s greetings,

Yours etc.

Today I received this letter back from HMRC:

Thank you for your letter dated 2 December 2012.

I cannot comment on other individuals [sic] or companies [sic] tax situations. I enclose a [sic] HMRC briefing on the taxing of the profits of multinational business which you may find useful. [Hard copy attached of this PDF “Taxing the profits of multinational businesses” dated October 2012]

As an individual taxpayer who is taxed on his employment through Pay As You Earn you cannot negotiate the rate of tax you pay on your taxable income. The rate of income tax and the amount of your income that is taxable is agreed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the budget and applies to all UK individual taxpayers whether they are employed or self employed.

Yours sincerely.

I have to say I was disappointed. Especially as my tax return is due in a few weeks.

In my opinion the briefing linked above is pretty waffly. It talks a lot about how important the location of the company is, to wit: “Having UK customers is not the same as having a branch in the UK”. Well, Starbucks do have branches in the UK – that’s the whole point. Also note this sentence: “Although an apparently low tax rate in a company’s accounts might indicate tax avoidance, it could also be the case that the business has acted entirely properly, by making use of specific tax reliefs and incentives designed, for example, to encourage capital investment or research and development.” That isn’t the case with Starbucks either. They’re not an engineering firm given tax incentives to develop some gadgetry for the benefit of mankind. The only research and development Starbucks are doing is seeing how many customers like to drink thin, tepid, brown water and pay for the pleasure.

Needless to say, I completely boycotted Starbucks the moment the news broke and to be honest always did my best to avoid them anyway precisely because of how dreadful their coffee is. There are plenty more options in the high street, such as Costa, or indeed your local independent coffee bar, who very likely charge less anyway.

New Mark Knopfler album – exclusive preview

ImageAmazon today sent me an email saying “Customers who have purchased or rated Daylight Crossing by The Webb Sisters might like to know that Privateering by Mark Knopfler will be released on 3 September 2012. You can pre-order yours for just £11.99.” I didn’t really see the connection as the Webb Sisters have proper singy voices and don’t play virtuoso guitar, and (as much as I loved their contribution to Leonard Cohen’s tour band) Daylight Crossing sounded a bit like a rejected Bangles album, which in fairness isn’t the case with even Knopfler’s records. But nonetheless, I read on. The album cover depicted an old van in the woods somewhere surrounded by some old tyres and a sad-looking Collie. This wasn’t terribly inspiring. More so however were the track titles which were then listed. As I read them I was building up a picture in my mind – an audio picture, if you will – of what the album sounded like and what the songs were about. I still haven’t listened to the record but this is what I understand, from the track titles alone, the album to be like.

Disc 1 [OMG. A double album?!]

1. Redbud Tree. Mark secures his return to the songwriting scene with this acoustic, sleepy number about the simple things in life. Lyric: “I wish I was Nick Drake / Or Sir Francis Drake / Or that other guy, the American one / Then I could spend all day / Drifting on a lake / Somewhere in America / Picking my dobro.” Guitar used: dobro (unexpectedly).

2. Haul Away. Nautical-flavoured rock anthem about Mark’s new-found love of boating. Soaring vocal “Haul away, haul away / Off the coast / Of America.” With a great electric guitar solo (played on his famous custom Pensa Mk2) ladelled like custard over the American apple pie of sweet lyricism, this marks Mark’s firm return to form.

3. Don’t Forget Your Hat. Jaunty, light electric ditty performed on 1960 Telecaster advising on how to prepare for a day in the American woods: “Don’t forget your van / Don’t forget your dog / Don’t forget your cat / Don’t forget your hat / Or a spare tyre / Or twelve. / The album cover doesn’t look like a serial killer’s hideout / Does it?”

4. Privateering. Downbeat, smoky number sees Mark get out his red Strat for the first time since Sultans of Swing. “I had a private earring / I wore it all the time / But in America they took it the wrong way / So I took it out again.” The Strat incidentally has since had a new neck, new frets, new pickups, new tremelo, new electrics, new body and a new headstock installed at a cost of £25,000 as well as a new set of Ernie Ball strings (£5.95).

5. Miss You Blues. Plucked on a custom Gibson steel-string, this beautiful track sees Mark at his most mournfully reflective. “I’m on a big tour / Of small arenas / In America / Darling I miss you / Although actually it’s quite nice here.”

6. Corned Beef City. A memoir of growing up in the slums of Glasgow, which Mark experienced first-hand in middle-class Newcastle. A rocking “number” in the style of Jerry Lee Lewis bashed out on a Fender Jazz bass specially customised to have six normal guitar strings. “I sang in Corned Beef City / They didn’t pay in kind / Which was just as well / As I am a vegetarian these days / It’s the American influence / You see.”

7. Go, Love. Mark’s first outing on a mandolin, a custom McLanahan “Markdolin 94 B” with humbucker pickups. “Go, love / If you don’t love me / I will understand / I’d rather you just went / As there’s plenty more fish / In the sea / In America.” Tender.

8. Hot or What. An absolute spanker of an upbeat rock melody, with a full band consisting of Knopfler on five different guitars and Guy Fletcher on all other instruments. “Is it hot or what? / Here in Texas / In America / I don’t always agree with the politics / But Texas is where it’s at / ‘At’ can rhyme with ‘what’ can’t it?”

9. Yon Two Crows. Possibly the saddest of all Knopfler songs ever written on disc 1. A short-but-saccharine acoustic ballad performed on Mark’s custom “Spanish Bastard” nylon-string guitar. “I’m just an old folk singer / Who can’t really sing / My baby done left me / And my voice is all trembly / But at least I’ve got these two yon crows / In my 500-acre back yard / In America / To sing to / Oh bugger, they’ve gone.”

10. Seattle. Mark gets out his fuzz box and cranks up his custom Fender Mustang in an embarrassing take on the popular new American musical style, grunge. “I came to Seattle / To find my way / Now God only knows / What I want to say / Because I cut up all my lyrics / To make them sound more interesting / And this is the result / Er, they still sound pretty boring / Oh dear.”

Disc 2 [OMG, there’s more.]

1. Kingdom of Gold. “I came to America / From Ireland / To search for this Kingdom of Gold,” sings Knopfler in this soaring opener, featuring The Chieftains, Michael Flatley and the Nolan Sisters. Mark himself plays a custom green-painted Gibson Shamrockster. “I am Irish really you know / Even though I was born in Glasgow / Or was it Newcastle / To be honest I can’t remember / Anyway America was disappointing / I didn’t find gold / But I did make a lot of money.”

2. Got To Have Something. A chunky little riff chopped out on Mark’s custom Fender Bloke. “You’ve got to have something / You can do / Whether’s it’s rolling in clover / Or visiting the zoo / I found something / It wasn’t much / I’m just a little folksinger / Anglo-American folkpicker / But I ain’t lost my touch.”

3. Radio City Serenade. A welcome return to the Making Movies-era in this 8-minute fully-rocking dobro anthem to Liverpool’s famous tower. “You thought this song / Was going to be about New York’s music hall / But ha! I got you there / Just because I always write about America / And pretend to be American / That is when I’m not pretending to be Irish / Doesn’t mean I can’t also still write about / My home, the United States of Kingdom.” Features ex-Queen bass player John Deacon, in a wry pun on St. John’s Beacon.

4. I Used To Could. Mark’s first foray into speed ukulele, Knopfler reportedly drank two espressos before recording this song “just to get the feeling right”. “Those were the days / When I could spell / And knew my grammar / I was an English teacher once you know / That’s how I got the idea / For Romeo and Juliet / I used to could do all them things / And talk proper / uh-huh, uh-huh.” Basic track laid down in Mark’s home studio, twelve guitar solos overdubbed via the Internet and mixed in American Studios, America.

5. Gator Blood. A disc of firsts, this choppy little Gibson Chopper riff sees chunky Knopfler being influenced by the deep south of America. “I was in the bayou / I got in the swamp / And shot a political allegory / My hands wrist-deep in blood / That’s gator blood / Also known as gatorade / Those big corporates are bastards, you know.”

6. Bluebird. Another bird song (geddit??), this is in fact a 4-verse blues take on Sebastian Faulks’s epic WWII novel Birdsong, reflecting Mark’s fascination with history. “I went to France / in 1871 / I did some rude things / Then it all fell apart / So I went to America / And did some other things / History is just one darn thing after the other.” Soaring blues solo on Mark’s Ibanez Pecorino 9-string custom played for the first time since 2002’s Songs of the American Songwriters 4-disc set.

7. Dream of the Drowned Submariner. Astonishing 19-minute, multi-section epic musical odyssey featuring Rick Wakeman on Stylophone. Contains a 6-minute guitar solo played on Mark’s original 1966 Fender Doughnut. Unfortunately the other 13 minutes contain lyrics such as “I dived deep down / Into the ocean blue / But I forgot my nose-clip / So now I have a sinus infection / This sort of thing wouldn’t happen / In America.”

8. Blood and Water. As disc 2 starts to end, a water theme to the album emerges – in fact a water and blood theme. Performed on Mark’s custom Gibson Atlantis, built specially for this song with a clear glass neck encasing a ship in water which glides up and down as you tilt it like in one of those biros you used to be able to buy at Cornish resorts. The Knopf turns the lights down low and laments: “I sang this song / Which was a political allegory / But all those idiots / Thought I was singing about alligators / That’s the last time I sing anything meaningful / In America / Oh hang on, that can’t be right.”

9. Today is Okay. Knopfler’s custom Gretsch Bert Jansch (originally owned by Roger Whittaker) lifts the mood for this jaunty, choppy little cheeseburger of a song. “Today is okay / It could be worse / I could have no money / And no talent at all / Instead I’ve got oodles of both / So today is okay / Today is quite good.”

10. After the Bean Stalk. After Neil Young’s After the Goldrush, The Eagles’s After the Thrill is Gone and Freddie Starr’s After the Laughter, Mark Knopfler pays tribute to the “after” genre with After the Bean Stalk. “I threw out the beans / This stalk grew up / So I climbed up / And up and up / And reached the top / There wasn’t much there / So I moved to America.” Performed on, oh I don’t know, some sort of guitar I presume. I’m past caring to be honest.

Disclaimer: I love the early Dire Straits albums and spent many years trying to play guitar like Mark Knopfler. Privateering is available from Amazon.

Prometheus – a review

Noomi Rapace in PrometheusI haven’t been to the cinema in at least five years. Having small children and a wife who works evenings has made me something of a babysitter by default. I have however seen the first few Alien films, including the first many times over, and with an unusual opportunity to take myself out I decided last night to go and see Prometheus. The following review contains spoilers, although it will probably become clear that there isn’t actually that much to spoil.

The film opens with a giant ship flying over a stunning Earth-like landscape – great lakes, mountains, hills. A figure in a robe straight out of The Name of the Rose appears at the top of a waterfall. Removing the robe he reveals himself as a super-muscly albino humanoid, like a pumped-up Silas from the Da Vinci Code. Super-Silas takes what appears to be a nuclear pomegranate from his pocket and eats it. Then, as is usually the case after eating dodgy fruit, he becomes very ill, collapses and tumbles down the waterfall.

Cut, as you do, to the Isle of Skye in 2089, and geologists discovering cave paintings of muscled giants pointing to objects in the sky, which match other paintings they’ve found elsewhere in the world. One of the scientists is Noomi Rapace, a Swedish actress I’ve never seen before because I never go to the cinema. Fast-forward a couple of years and she’s in stasis on board Prometheus, a ship sent out into the far reaches of space by mad trillionaires the Weyland Corporation to find the planet responsible for inspiring the cave paintings.

Standing over Rapace is Michael Fassbender, looking confusingly even more like a Nazi than he did in Inglourious Basterds. With his bolt-upright posture, charming uniform and perfect blonde hair he is obviously a robot, as many Nazis were. Nazibot watches Rapace’s dreams, which are very dull. Then he plays a bit of basketball on a bicycle, learns a language and watches Lawrence of Arabia, just in time for tea.

The ship looks hideously expensive and slick. Classical music plays. The film seems to want to be 2001, but is too boring already. Something’s got to happen soon.

Thankfully something does. The ship wakes everyone up because it’s nearly reached its destination. Rapace and the rest of the crew come out of stasis and all throw up, apparently a “perfectly normal reaction” to being asleep for two years, according to Nazibot. The scene is hardly necessary even if only because the crew would be unlikely to have much in their stomachs after such an epic snooze, but more so because it’s pointless. If the vomiting had turned out to be an important plot detail it might be justified, but, reader, I watched the whole film and it didn’t.

Indeed, the language of the film is very different to Ridley Scott’s original masterpiece, Alien. In that film John Hurt woke up from a similar stasis and simply rubbed his neck. It is a measure of the actor’s skills and the confidence of the director that Hurt simply looked like a man who’d been asleep for a long time. Not only was there no vomiting, there was no dialogue. If Prometheus says anything about cinema’s evolution over the past three decades it’s that these days you can’t be trusted to work out for yourself that you’re going to feel a bit rough after being asleep for two years, and now have to have a robot explain it to you.

So anyway the crew are assembled to be told their mission on this planet the ship is arriving at, which is something to do with Rapace’s theory that humans are descended from the local inhabitants. I can’t really remember the details as I was busy trying not to listen to Rafe Spall’s and Idris Elba’s chronic American accents, the worst this side of Alpha Centauri, or wherever it is they were. With the 17-strong crew also comprising a Scottish woman, an Irish bloke and an English geologist (this is starting to sound like the setup for a dodgy joke), why on earth have two decent British actors try to sound American? Even Nazibot speaks with the sharpest of clipped British accents (sounding more terrifying as a result). But then I suppose he can be programmed to do that.

Having been briefed by a virtual, now-dead Marlon Weyland (Marlon may not be his real name, I just made it up because it sounded good), and punky geologist Sean Harris having argued with the dreamy Rapace about the whole point of even being there in the first place (CONFLICT), the on-board corporeal Weyland representative in the statuesque form of Charlize Theron starts giving everyone a hard time. Looking even more like a Nazi robot than Fassbender, unlike the others she was doing press-ups straight out of stasis rather than throwing up and now tells Rapace and her scientist BF Logan Marshall-Green that they can’t basically do anything interesting at all. More CONFLICT.

Inevitably they all end up on the planet exploring a cave and don’t have any weapons with them because Rapace has said this is an exploratory mission. This sequence contained my favourite bit of the film, as Sean “marked for death” Harris sends some nifty electronic grapefruit flying through the caves to digitally map them, forming back on the ship a 3D representation of every detail of their environment. The team, for reasons of pace, having thus saved themselves about six weeks of geologising, then uncover a decapitated body and a tomb with a giant Easter Island-type head in it, Nazibot showing suspicious abilities to open locked alien doors. Then they find lots of pods, which seasoned Alien viewers will recognise as being VERY DANGEROUS. A storm comes in and they have to race back to the ship, Nazibot stopping to secrete something gooey from one of the pods about his robot-person, and Spall and Harris getting left behind.

Finally on the ship, Rapace and the Scottish scientist examine the head of the decapitated corpse, which has the same features as Super-Silas from the opening sequence. They sterilise it, a message flashing up on a computer screen saying something like “Sterilised and decontaminated, safe to examine”. “Sterilised and decontaminated and safe to examine,” repeats the Scottish scientist, as if I’m deaf or just stupid. It’s like those people who read the words off the Powerpoint presentation they’re showing you. YES I CAN READ, THANKS. They then try to resurrect the head and accidentally blow it up, although not before establishing that its DNA matches ours. So we’re all in it together.

Meanwhile Nazibot examines what appears to be a pickled cucumber from his stolen pod and, during a very dull conversation with Marshall-Green, secretes a bit of the cucumber in his glass of champagne. M-G then gets randy and enjoys close encounters with Rapace, who economically in the same scene we are told can’t have children. Back in the cave, the two errant crew members, who have been told “ironically” by Elba “try not to bugger each other” (the worst line in a film of shit lines), are “ironically” savaged by a phallic reptile. I really like Rafe Spall as an actor but I must say that his accent was so dire that I breathed a sigh of relief when the eel-like creature shot down his throat and shut him up.

Despite all of this action it still felt like the film was going nowhere. It was probably about 45 minutes in by now and apart from anything else I was half-deaf from the Cineworld volume. There seemed to be bass speakers actually in my seat, so anytime anything dramatic happened I was practically vibrated out of it onto the floor. This wasn’t cinema, it was a fairground ride on a plane experiencing turbulence, with a thrash metal band thrown in for good measure.

Next thing I know the crew are exploring the cave again, Nazibot discovering an H.R. Geiger room with a cool 3D planetarium projection thing and a Super-Silas in suspended animation. Sadly though they have to cut their trip short again as Marshall-Green is feeling rancid. Theron, fearing contamination, won’t let him on the ship (typical elf’n’safety Nazi), and brandishes a flame-thrower at him stolen from the first Alien movie. M-G volunteers to be incinerated, which goes to show you should never accept drinks in poncey glasses from Nazi robots. Rapace also feels rough and upon examination turns out to be three months’ pregnant, only a few hours after intercourse! “It’s a miracle,” she doesn’t say, fingering the cross around her dreamy conflicted-scientist’s neck. Nazibot doesn’t let her see the scan of the foetus and gives her a shot of valium, so we know she’s gestating an alien, but she manages to escape and program a nasty-looking robot operating table to perform a caesarean. The scene is as farcical as it is disgusting, the robot lasering the flesh, removing the thrashing squid-like foetus and stapling the wound up again, all while Rapace is wide awake. It is actually a shame that it is either disgusting or farcical, because it should be terrifying – the whole film should be terrifying, as the first Alien film was (within infinitely less gore, CGI or budget). Obviously there have been several other films in the series, none of which matched the first in almost any respect (although I do love the second one, Aliens, for Sigourney Weaver’s performance), but I draw the comparison because of Scott’s involvement. I couldn’t actually believe the two films were by the same director, especially when Rapace then manages to run down lots of corridors mere minutes after major abdominal surgery. I suppose it’s the adrenaline.

Rapace fetches up in a room in which the ancient and supposedly dead Marlon Weyland (I still don’t know his first name and don’t really care) turns out to be ancient and ALIVE, albeit evidently played by some much younger actor behind acres of prosthetics, because you know these days you just can’t get really old actors, or maybe you can but they only act in films that are any good. Weyland has been secretly part of the mission the whole time in a quest to make contact with the aliens that apparently created humans so he can find the secret of eternal life. Cynics would draw a comparison here with the 75-year-old Ridley Scott interrogating his 1979 masterpiece for the secret of making great films, but I’m not jumping on that bandwagon.

So, if you’re still with me, what’s left of the crew and Weyland go down to the caves AGAIN and resurrect Super-Silas, who doesn’t throw up despite having been asleep for thousands of years, proving what an amazingly advanced race he comes from. Nazibot, who speaks every language in the universe, says something to him in Swahili, or at least it sounds like it, the alien’s response to which is to rip Nazibot’s head off and beat the crap out of everyone else. Weyland dies, which is actually disappointing in more ways than one. I mean you go all that way to discover the origins of humanity, you don’t find anything that makes any sense whatever and then you’re beaten up by a massive albino. By the end of the movie you’re more or less feeling the same way yourself. (I’ll say one thing though, from certain angles in this scene Super-Silas looks very much like Blake’s painting of Isaac Newton, which is a nice touch.)

So it turns out that the Super-Silases aka Albino Newtons created us and then wanted to destroy us, for no obvious reason except that we make a lot of shit films. Super-Silas then flies the cave, which has actually been a ship all along or something, out of the ground, apparently destined for Earth to put Ridley Scott out of his misery. Over her radio Rapace tells Elba and his co-pilots back on Prometheus that they have to stop the ship “or there’ll be no home for us to go back to!” On the strength of this weedy plea, Elba and his team – more or less grunts who have barely been involved in any major discussions about the mission – immediately volunteer for a suicide mission to crash Prometheus into the alien ship. Theron manages to escape in a flying pod, only to get crushed by falling debris. Rapace survives, but finds her only companion now is the disembodied head of Nazibot, chatting to her from the floor of the Geiger room while she scrambles to safety in a jettisoned section of Prometheus. Rapace, seemingly in the clear, staggers towards the operating theatre where she had earlier left the tennis-ball-sized creature extracted from her abdomen to find the room now occupied by a giant squid. “Can you hear me?” comes the calm voice of Nazibot over her earpiece. “You have to get out of there.” BECAUSE WE HAVE TO BE TOLD THIS BECAUSE WE ARE ALL STUPID. Super-Silas, who has managed to survive the Prometheus crash (what a guy!), reappears and struggles with both Rapace and the squid, which luckily shoves a tentacle down his throat, leaving her to escape with Nazibot’s head in a bag. As she flies away in another ship handily left lying around, the familiar shape of the original alien we know and love emerges disgustingly from Super-Silas. So the future is uncertain, but appears to involve a sequel.

Overall I’d give the film 5/10, mostly for the flying grapefruit. As it’s basically well made and beautifully designed and shot, it’s like Dr Johnson said, worth seeing, but not worth going to see.

The nonsense of the EU cookie law

CookiesThe following is the text of a letter I sent to the Guardian following the enactment of the new EU cookie law on 26th May. The Grauniad didn’t publish it and I meant to post the text anyway but had an extra prompt today from an article reporting that, a couple of weeks later, four out of five UK organisations are ignoring the law.

I manage several websites in various capacities and this law has been a great worry for firms ever since it was announced.

The likely interpretation of the law has been unclear and much (mis)interpreted, so even though all the sites I manage use cookies in a completely harmless way (for instance to anonymously keep a count of the number of visitors and page views, or to work a shopping cart), I’ve had to spend time auditing cookies, attending workshops, liaising with colleagues, clients, legal advisers and external suppliers, wading through the ICO’s own information and other articles offering their interpretations, and trying to update web content accordingly.

While you can’t expect web developers to work for nothing, I’ve found that some web development firms have taken advantage of the law to charge hundreds or even thousands of pounds to implement hi-tech cookie-control solutions – especially dubious when there is a duty of care to ensure a client’s website complies with law. And although there are open-source solutions available, technical knowledge is still required to put those in place.

One website I manage is for a small cheese shop business and for them to consider spending even a few hundred pounds on a developer to implement a cookie-control widget has been an unwanted distraction and concern for them, especially in this climate. They also depend on analytics software, which uses cookies, to see which parts of their site their visitors are viewing so they can interpret that information to improve the site and remain competitive. As the legislation has again been unclear on this, small firms especially have been stuck between a rock and a hard place in deciding whether to risk breaching the law to retain reliable statistics.

And only now in the past few days, after firms have spent time and money trying to comply, do we hear that most of the Government’s own websites won’t comply in time – this may not actually be surprising given the Government’s contempt for the Information Commissioner’s demand to release the NHS Risk Register, but it hardly sets an example to ordinary businesses and citizens who have no such ability to ignore the ICO.

To rub salt into the wound, the ICO’s Dave Evans announces the very day before the law is implemented that “implied consent” is acceptable and that he finds it “hard to imagine a situation in which we will levy a monetary fine”. The latter is especially disingenuous when the ICO have referred clearly on their website to their maximum fine of £500,000 in relation to this law and others within their remit.

Even though the law may have originally been well-intentioned to protect consumers from a minority of malicious website owners, the ICO themselves admit they won’t be able to monitor every website and so will depend on consumers reporting potential breaches – but when most average users don’t even know what a cookie is, what’s the likelihood of them knowing a website is in breach?

The ruling and its management has left ordinary, honest businesses confused and out of pocket, while normal consumers are as much at the mercy of malicious website owners as before. Both will feel the ICO, EU and Government have let them down.

Addendum: possibly the only good thing that’s come out of the law is the BBC’s fabulous retro photos on its privacy and cookies pages.

Blog post from the past: Why “Thoughtcat”?

A Twitter friend asked me the other day where my name came from. I wrote about the origin of “Thoughtcat” on the original website some years ago, but as with most other pages there, it’s a tad difficult to find now. So here’s the story…

One of my all-time favourite poems is Ted Hughes’s The Thought-Fox, which draws an analogy between a fox prowling for food through a forest and a writer sitting up at midnight on a similar hunt for thoughts, or a poem, in his head; the poem has been a part of my own head ever since I first read it as a teenager. A few years later I was browsing in the poetry section of a bookshop and came across An Unusual Cat Poem by Wendy Cope. Various other (feline) influences came to bear, including a few poems by Brian Patten, and an observation my late grandad once made: “They’re contrary buggers, aren’t they, cats? You feed ’em and look after ’em and give ’em a home, and then they turn round, give you a filthy look and bugger off.” Eventually all this coalesced into my own version of Ted Hughes’s poem (below): inspiration is contrary, it comes and goes; you have a moment of sublime profundity when you can write absolutely anything – and the next moment you’re back, as Leonard Cohen once put it, crawling across the carpet in your underwear searching for a rhyme for “orange”. Russell Hoban has called this “normal work panic”, an essential respect for the “thing-in-itself” which you may think is your idea but actually exists outside of you. Even though you’re the one putting the words on a sheet of paper or the screen of a word-processor, you need to recognise yourself as a kind of channel for this thing, be patient and let it come of its own accord. Like cats, ideas don’t respond well to being forced or told what to do. If you want the love of an idea, you need to keep it sweet by providing a nice home for it and cultivating the circumstances under which it will be fruitful – but even if you do, sometimes it’ll just up and disappear and there’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to wait until it comes back – if it does come back, that is. To mix my metaphors, Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose, once said about writing a bestselling novel in middle-age that it’s a bit like being chased by a dog: you come across a stream and somehow you manage to jump the stream and escape, but when you look back from the other side you wonder to yourself whether you were just lucky, or if could you do it again… anyway, here’s the poem that, for better or worse, started it all off.

The Thought-Cat

A cat wandered into my garden.
I was charmed.  “Hello,” I said.
“Miaow,” it said.
I petted it and chatted to it.
“Miaow,” it said again.

It kept on miaowing until I fed it.
Food was the only thing that kept it quiet.
Then it came indoors, curled up in my lap
and purred itself to sleep.

Next morning the cat was still there,
still hungry, still miaowing.
I fed and petted it some more.
It seemed to like me.  It stayed.

By now I was flattered as well as charmed.
“Wow,” I thought, “I have a cat now.
What a lovely thing to have in a life.”
Having a cat made me feel more human.

We became good friends, the cat and I,
and then one day it disappeared.  Vanished.
Just upped and went of its own accord.
I was very upset.  I had grown very attached to that cat.

But I tried not to take it personally.
Easy come, easy go, I thought – reminding myself
that it wasn’t even my cat to begin with.
This is just the way cats are, I said –
independent, self-sufficient, unsentimental.
I wished I could be more like that myself.

I looked for that cat everywhere, tried staking it out
with bowls of food in the garden, calling its name.
It didn’t have a name so I called out “Cat!  Cat!”
But it didn’t come.

I thought of buying a cat of my own.
I went to the pet shop, was charmed and seduced
by a whole range of kittens and their tiny miaows.
But it broke my heart to have to choose one.
I was afraid that even if I did, it would only leave me one day
just like the first had done.
And anyway, that first one was impossible to replace.
I left the shop empty-handed.

These days I raggedly wander the streets,
still calling out “Cat!” from behind my straggly beard.
The passing children point at me and laugh.
“There goes the cat man!” they say.
I just smile, and they go on their way.

I loiter around pet shops,
stroke and chat to any cat I meet,
beg for pennies and spend them all on cans of Felix
in case the cat ever decides to come back.
I hope it does.  Because if nothing else,
this poem will end rather badly.


(c) Thoughtcat Poetry Inc 1999 or thereabouts.

Blog post from the past: My teaspoon, my wife and me (30/11/03)

Here’s another in my occasional series of re-posts from the original Thoughtcat blog. It is still available on the original site along with lots of other daft stuff but content there is, putting it mildly, difficult to read, as I had a “Microsoft Word” approach to blogging in those days. (Here’s the link for other pedants/masochists.) Anyway, this one was always a favourite of mine for some reason, and the re-post was prompted by my finding a new spoon in the kitchen today, which I think may have been something to do with my wife…

A teaspoon

I am nothing if not a creature of habit.  In just about every area of life, I find a routine quickly and I stick to it.  Take the way I make a cup of tea: firstly I need the right teabags (Yorkshire Tea is my longtime favourite, although anything strong and flavourful will do), as well as semi-skimmed milk and white granulated sugar.  Secondly I need a good mug: it has to be a decent size, sufficient both to brew the tea (too small and it’s too strong; too large, too weak) and make the drink last a good thirty to forty minutes; it should be unfussily decorated, either with one or two strong colours or a simple pattern; and it needs to have a rim that feels comfortable on my lips, neither too thick nor too thin, and definitely not chipped, encrusted or cracked.  Thirdly, the water needs to be just boiled, the electric kettle clicking off exactly as I pour the water into the mug and onto the bag.  Finally, the spoon needs to be right.

At the risk of ending up in Private Eye’s ‘Me and my Spoon’ feature, I’ve always had a thing about A Good Teaspoon.  Obviously it has to be metal: I can’t stand those plastic spoons you find in budget cafés, and especially not those ridiculous ‘stirrers’ that don’t even look like spoons, as favoured by McDonalds.  I’m not hot on metal spoons with plastic handles, either: I need to feel that steel.  The spoon also has to have a large bowl – not so big that it becomes a tablespoon exactly, but, after years of using reasonably-bowled spoons, small spoons confuse my sugar measurements, and worst of all used teabags have a tendency to fall off small spoons in the process of being transferred from the mug to the bin, the bag either ending up on the floor or, worse, dropping back into the mug from a height of several inches, causing the tea to slop out over the sides of the mug and, by adding more tea to the water, altering the strength of the brew I’d just a few seconds before judged to be precisely right.

My only other teaspoon requirement is that the older it is, the better.  Using a brand new teaspoon, even a gleaming silver one, does nothing for me: I need a stainless steel spoon that is actually stained.  I should emphasise the difference between ‘stained’ and ‘dirty’ – I always rinse a spoon before using it, but I like a teaspoon stained golden-brown from years of stirring, tattooed by decades of tannin.  I’m not sure why this is: perhaps it makes me think of past generations using the same spoon in old kitchens to make tea thirty, fifty, eighty years ago perhaps, when all the teaspoons of my imagination were made of stained stainless steel, when things were authentic and had a bit of style, before everything was cheapened by plastic and denim, when men wore hats and suits and ties no matter what job they did (or even if was their day off, come to that), when there were Lyons’ Corner Houses instead of McDonaldses, when tea really was tea… I mean, I could get carried away.  But this is beside the point.

The point is that there is a particular spoon I always use for making tea which matches exactly the above criteria.  In fairness to myself, I’m not really a spoon-nerd; it’s the comfortableness of the spoon I’ve ended up using that has set the standard, not the other way round.  I always use the same one despite having a selection in my kitchen of at least a dozen.  Mum and Dad gave them all to me, together with a bunch of other kitchen utensils, in a job lot when I left home some ten years ago now.  They didn’t need to give me so many teaspoons, but being the way they are, it wouldn’t have happened any other way: they’re the sort of people who have at least three of every household object you can imagine, and in most cases about three hundred – pillows, blankets, towels or teaspoons, you name it, they’ve got half a drawerful going spare.

The spoon in question is just over five inches in length.  The bowl is one and three-quarter inches long, exactly an inch at its widest point and just over a quarter of an inch deep; heaped with sugar it makes for one sweet drink, even in a big mug.  With the exception of a sliver of shine across the bottom of the bowl where the spoon sits on its base, the metal is worn and scuffed as well as stained, such that hardly anything is reflected in it beyond a blur.  My face appears in that fragment of shine, my nose even longer than it already is, my lips protruding, my head curved and exaggerated fisheye-style.  There are no patterns on the spoon except a simple design of two adjacent semi-circles at the tip of the handle’s underside.  One way up it looks like a wide, curvy W; turned upside-down it becomes the top of an owl’s face; on its side it’s a crescent moon with a pointed nose in the middle, like an illustration you might find in a children’s storybook.  A little way in from the pattern are five tiny stamps in the metal: the first four read, respectively, E, P, N, S, the last A1, as if denoting excellence, perfection; research reveals the spoon is actually not stainless steel but silver-plated.  It’s a good spoon, and I love using it, to the point where if I lose it I get depressed, and a cup of tea or coffee made with another spoon just doesn’t taste the same.

True, it’s very rare for me not to be able to find my spoon, as I’m very protective of it.  But sometimes my wife hides it.

Okay, in honesty I don’t think she deliberately hides the spoon; its disappearance generally coincides with her doing the washing-up, and where I dry the spoon and return it immediately to its home (a cup on the worksurface) after washing it, she just buries it in the cutlery drainer with all the other utensils.  I get it back in the end but only after a prolonged and precarious game of Kitchen Utensil Ker-Plunk, where if I’m not careful the removal of the wrong fork at the wrong moment can bring a large Sabatier down on my foot.  No, there’s no malicious intent on behalf of my wife’s kitchen behaviour: I think she simply doesn’t relate to my position on this whole teaspoon issue.  And rightly so; I think it would be a bad day for our relationship if I were to ever say to her, “Look, please don’t hide this teaspoon.  I need to know where it is at all times.  I can’t make a cup of tea with any other spoon.  If you use it, please put it back here where I can find it.”  I mean, shades of Sleeping With the Enemy or what?

Sometimes I’ll go into the kitchen after my wife has made a cup of tea, and see the spoon she used lying rinsed on the draining board: it might be a gimmicky cartoon one that came as a free gift with a box of Tetley about 20 years ago, or one with a blue plastic handle that came in a cutlery set (a Christmas present from my Nan), or even a plain, ordinary, unpatterned, tinny, almost flat one which I don’t know the origin of at all but never use if I can help it.  Try as I might, I can find neither rhyme nor reason to my wife’s teaspoon choice; she just seems to take one at random from Mum and Dad’s original selection.  This is possibly the main difference between us: I’m a creature of habit; she’s flexible.  I tend to want to keep things the way they are; she likes to change them periodically.  But I can live with all this.  This sort of thing is what marriage is all about.

The government, the NHS Risk Register, the comedian and the cat

The other day there were news reports that this shambles of a government had again formally refused to publish the NHS Risk Register, despite being instructed to by an Information Tribunal back in March. (What on earth is the point of the Information Commissioner, then, if the government can just do what it likes?) I heard about the story via Twitter where comedian and writer Graham Linehan, amongst others, was lamenting this latest episode of coalition numskullery and joined him in requesting that the register be released without any further bullshit. However, in the absence of Cameron, Lansley & co listening to us (who would’ve guessed?) I announced that the register had in fact been leaked… to me!

NHS Risk Register, as seen by Thoughtcat
NHS Risk Register, as seen by Thoughtcat.

I tweeted this via Lockerz and tried my best not to look at the stats every few minutes, although I couldn’t help noticing it was gradually getting views. That’s not saying much though, as anything uploaded to Lockerz gets a few dozen views regardless of what it is. Stats crawled up to about 19 or something and at that point a non-celebrity Twitter friend retweeted it, this time adding some hashtags which I should have added myself to begin with. It got a few more views and I then unashamedly decided to RT my friend’s tweet at Graham Linehan to see if he’d RT it himself. He didn’t seem to notice it for a while, which is understandable as he has about 170,000 followers and must get mentions all the time. But then, suddenly, he did. What a guy! I watched as the views went quickly into three figures, and the RT was itself RT’d about 50 more times over the course of the next two hours. By that time, views of the photo had exceeded 4,000, and at the peak of the RTing I got a tweet from an account I’d never heard of called @TrendsUK saying that I was, er, trending in the UK. I couldn’t quite believe this and when I looked at the official Twitter there was nothing there to back up this claim, but it was a nice feeling while it lasted.

I am only joking, of course. None of this is “nice” at all. The way the government is behaving over the NHS is appalling. I don’t for a moment fail to see the irony of a photo like this getting retweeted dozens of times. But it’s the sort of thing that happens when a government lies to the electorate. Shame on the government for propagating this sort of satire.

NB: I’ve still not heard from any of the Lib Dem peers I emailed back in March asking them to vote against the Health & Social Care bill. Not a single one.

An open letter to Lib Dem peers, and other communications I have attempted to get politicians to save the NHS

This afternoon the Health & Social Care Bill is getting its final reading in the House of Lords. The outcome of this vote will have huge ramifications for the future of the National Health Service.

Last week I tried emailing a single Lib Dem MP, Sarah Teather, to ask that she vote to drop the Bill. I chose Ms Teather not because she’s my MP but because she always seemed to me to be basically a pleasant and trustworthy person. She’s also a Liberal Democrat, the party that could have swayed the vote and at one time were a bunch I thought quite highly of. Ms Teather did not respond, even to acknowledge my email. It is a great shame that she did this but what’s worse is that she didn’t even show up to vote, which contributed to the failure of the motion.

I have also written to my actual local MP, Mark Pawsey, urging him to support the release of the NHS Risk Register, and he responded as follows (I am quoting from his letter): “This Government is committed to transparency and is publishing more information than ever before to help patients make the right choices about their care … Risk registers are specific policy tools used across Government that present risks in ‘worst case scenario’ terms … to release these documents would damage the ability of Ministers to receive accurate advice, mislead the public debate and be detrimental to the public interest.”

This is clearly nonsense. Apart from the Orwellian use of the word “transparency”, and the fact that the Information Commissioner has asked that the nhs risk register be made public, which he would never have done if there were any technical reason for it to remain secret, how can it be against the public interest to release information which is absolutely relevant to the debate?

I find myself growing more and more depressed and, paradoxically, exercised by the news of the Bill as it groans on. I can’t express my contempt for Andrew Lansley deeply enough for his ill-conceived plans and snubbing of democracy. I was similarly angered by reports on Twitter about aggressive and intimidating police tactics used against peaceful NHS demonstrators in London on Saturday. When I first read the tweets about police being deployed armed with machine guns to control the protestors and verbally and physically abusing a woman with a 4-year-old child, I went straight to the BBC News website to see what on earth was going on. Nothing – not a dicky-bird. The same on the Guardian website, and on the Channel 4 News website. To date I’ve still seen nothing on these sites about any of this. I tweeted at them to ask why not but didn’t receive a response. I wasn’t in London myself at the time but I know for a fact that demonstrators did not behave in a manner befitting such policing precisely because those news websites failed to report anything. Had there been “clashes” we would have known about them straightaway. My faith in this government and its tactics grows ever lower… and don’t even get me started on George Osborne’s plot to lower the top rate of tax or Michael Gove, well, just being Michael Gove.

But, I digress… today I tried to find a website giving the ability to email all Lib Dem peers to ask them to vote to save the NHS. I couldn’t find one, but I did find most of their email addresses on the website. I manually copied the ones that were displayed into an email and sent them all the following letter:


As an extremely wavering Lib Dem voter/supporter I am counting on you as a Lib Dem peer to restore my trust in the Liberal Democrats and the democratic process and save one of our country’s most vital institutions.

It will be clear by now that the Health & Social Care Bill threatens many vulnerable people. The National Health System will be fragmented, private providers will take over and care will be rationed. This is deeply wrong, and I will tell you a one-paragraph story from my personal experience as to why.

Seven years ago my first child was born at an NHS hospital in Surrey. I hadn’t, thankfully, had much cause to use the NHS during my life. My wife went into labour around 7 in the morning but 24 hours later, most of that spent in the hospital, she still hadn’t given birth. The decision was made to induce the delivery and possibly perform a caesarean. Suddenly we went from a quiet private room in which one midwife was encouraging my wife to “push” to an operating theatre in which no fewer than a dozen medical experts were in attendance – all for one baby and one woman. I was staggered at this level of care and attention. The team of doctors and nurses delivered the baby without having to perform the caesarean and, just as importantly, my wife and I were personally comforted at this extremely emotional and worrying moment by members of the team. My wife was fine and our son was born healthy and has just celebrated his seventh birthday.

This service was paid for by me and millions of other people out of our taxes and this is why the UK is a better place than other countries where we wouldn’t even have been let into the building if we hadn’t had the money to pay for the care.

Our government is eroding democracy by trying to push through this Bill against the will of doctors, nurses, patients and taxpayers. I am PLEADING with you to respect democracy and transparency and stop this damaging bill now. I would like you to ensure the government’s Risk Register is published to enable full debate about the consequences of any reforms – but if you cannot or will not do that, at least recognise that millions of people never voted for the proposed changes, and hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions and contacted politicians such as yourself to express this view.

Please vote to save the NHS.

Many thanks and kind regards.

So far I’ve had four automatic replies: one from Baroness Bonham-Carter saying “I do not check this email address every day”, one from Lord Tordoff saying “I shall be away until 28th March.  During that period I will not be able to process any e-mails”, and one from Lord Clement-Jones saying “I am currently out of the the office” although adding that the email will be forwarded to another address. I’ve also had an automatic reply from Baroness Williams saying “Thank you for writing to me about the Health and Social Care Bill. I have received hundreds of emails and letters so I’m afraid I cannot provide an individual reply”, going on to outline her position and provide explanations for it. Since that was an automatic reply I’m quite surprised that her email software knew that it was about the Health & Social Care Bill. Maybe she has a guilty conscience. I sure hope some of them have.