Posts tagged ‘UK’


Cambridge Analytica is merely Facebook’s ‘smaller, less ambitious sibling’

14.04.2018

Beyond all that had gone on with AIQ and Cambridge Analytica, a lot more has come out about Facebook’s practices, things that I always suspected they do, for why else would they collect data on you even after you opted out?
   Now, Sam Biddle at The Intercept has written a piece that demonstrates that whatever Cambridge Analytica did, Facebook itself does far, far more, and not just to 87 million people, but all of its users (that’s either 2,000 million if you believe Facebook’s figures, or around half that if you believe my theories), using its FBLearner Flow program.
   Biddle writes (link in original):

This isn’t Facebook showing you Chevy ads because you’ve been reading about Ford all week — old hat in the online marketing world — rather Facebook using facts of your life to predict that in the near future, you’re going to get sick of your car. Facebook’s name for this service: “loyalty prediction.”
   Spiritually, Facebook’s artificial intelligence advertising has a lot in common with political consultancy Cambridge Analytica’s controversial “psychographic” profiling of voters, which uses mundane consumer demographics (what you’re interested in, where you live) to predict political action. But unlike Cambridge Analytica and its peers, who must content themselves with whatever data they can extract from Facebook’s public interfaces, Facebook is sitting on the motherlode, with unfettered access to staggering databases of behavior and preferences. A 2016 ProPublica report found some 29,000 different criteria for each individual Facebook user …
   … Cambridge Analytica begins to resemble Facebook’s smaller, less ambitious sibling.

   As I’ve said many times, I’ve no problem with Facebook making money, or even using AI for that matter, as long as it does so honestly, and I would hope that people would take as a given that we expect that it does so ethically. If a user (like me) has opted out of ad preferences because I took the time many years ago to check my settings, and return to the page regularly to make sure Facebook hasn’t altered them (as it often does), then I expect them to be respected (my investigations show that they aren’t). Sure, show me ads to pay the bills, but not ones that are tied to preferences that you collect that I gave you no permission to collect. As far as I know, the ad networks we work with respect these rules if readers had opted out at aboutads.info and the EU equivalent.
   Regulating Facebook mightn’t be that bad an idea if there’s no punishment to these guys essentially breaking basic consumer laws (as I know them to be here) as well as the codes of conduct they sign up to with industry bodies in their country. As I said of Google in 2011: if the other 60-plus members of the Network Advertising Initiative can create cookies that respect the rules, why can’t Google? Here we are again, except the main player breaking the rules is Facebook, and the data they have on us is far more precise than some Google cookies.
   Coming back to Biddle’s story, he sums up the company as a ‘data wholesaler, period.’ The 29,000 criteria per user claim is very easy to believe for those of us who have popped into Facebook ad preferences and found thousands of items collected about us, even after opting out. We also know that the Facebook data download shows an entirely different set of preferences, which means either the ad preference page is lying or the download is lying. In either case, those preferences are being used, manipulated and sold.
   Transparency can help Facebook through this crisis, yet all we saw from CEO Mark Zuckerberg was more obfuscation and feigned ignorance at the Senate and Congress. This exchange last week between Rep. Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto and Zuckerberg was a good example:

   Eshoo: It was. Are you willing to change your business model in the interest of protecting individual privacy?
   Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, we have made and are continuing to make changes to reduce the amount of data …
   Eshoo: No, are you willing to change your business model in the interest of protecting individual privacy?
   Zuckerberg: Congresswoman, I’m not sure what that means.

   In other words, they want to preserve their business model and keep things exactly as they are, even if they are probably in violation of a 2011 US FTC decree.
   The BBC World Service News had carried the hearings but, as far as I know, little made it on to the nightly TV here.
   This is either down to the natural news cycle: when Christopher Wylie blew the whistle on Cambridge Analytica in The Observer, it was major news, and subsequent follow-ups haven’t piqued the news editors’ interest in the same way. Or, the media were only outraged as it connected to Trump and Brexit, and now that we know it’s exponentially more widespread, it doesn’t matter as much.
   There’s still hope that the social network can be a force for good, if Zuckerberg and co. are actually sincere about it. If Facebook has this technology, why employ it for evil? That may sound a naïve question, but if you genuinely were there to better humankind (and not rate your female Harvard classmates on their looks) and you were sitting on a motherlode of user data, wouldn’t you ensure that the platform were used to create greater harmony between people rather than sow discord and spur murder? Wouldn’t you refrain from bragging that you have the ability to influence elections? The fact that Facebook doesn’t, and continues to see us as units to be milked in the matrix, should worry us a great deal more than an 87 million-user data breach.

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Is the death of expertise tied to the Anglosphere?

20.03.2018


Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Boris Johnson: usually a talented delivery, but with conflicting substance.

I spotted The Death of Expertise at Unity Books, but I wonder if the subject is as simple as the review of the book suggests.
   There’s a lot out there about anti-intellectualism, and we know it’s not an exclusively American phenomenon. Tom Nichols, the book’s author, writes, as quoted in The New York Times, ‘Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything. It is a new Declaration of Independence: No longer do we hold these truths to be self-evident, we hold all truths to be self-evident, even the ones that aren’t true. All things are knowable and every opinion on any subject is as good as any other.’
   I venture to say that the “death of expertise” is an Anglophone phenomenon. Head into Wikipedia, for instance, and you’ll find proof that the masses are not a good way to ensure accuracy, at least not in the English version. Head into the German or Japanese editions and you find fewer errors, and begin to trust the pages more.
   Given that many of “the people” cannot discern what is “fake news” and what is not, or who is a bot and who is not, then it’s absolutely foolhardy to propose that they also be the ones who determine the trustworthiness of a news source, as Facebook is wont to do.
   I can’t comment as much on countries I have spent less time in, but certainly in the Anglosphere, I’ve seen people advance, with confidence and self-authority, completely wrong positions, ones not backed up by real knowledge. You only need to visit some software support forums to see online examples of this phenomenon.
   When I visit Sweden, for instance, there’s a real care from individuals not to advance wrongful positions, although I admit I am limited by my own circles and the brief time I have spent there.
   It’s not so much that we don’t value expertise, it’s that the bar for what constitutes an expert is set exceptionally low. We’re often too trusting of sources or authorities who don’t deserve our reverence. And I wonder if it comes with our language.
   I’ll go so far as to say that the standing of certain individuals I had in my own mind was shattered when we were all going for the mayoralty in my two campaigns in 2010 and 2013. There certainly was, among some of my opponents, no correlation between knowledge and the position they already held in society. It didn’t mean I disliked them. It just meant I wondered how they got as far as they did without getting found out.
   Fortunately, the victor, whether you agreed with her policies or not, possessed real intelligence. The fact she may have political views at odds with yours is nothing to do with intelligence, but her own observations and beliefs. I can respect that (which is why I follow people on social media whose political views I disagree with).
   In turn I’m sure many of them disliked what I stood for, even if they liked me personally. Certainly it is tempting to conclude that some quarters in the media, appealing to the same anti-intellectualism that some of my rivals represented, didn’t like a candidate asserting that we should increase our intellectual capital and pursue a knowledge economy. No hard feelings, mind. As an exercise, it served to confirm that, in my opinion, certain powers don’t have people’s best interests at heart, and there is a distinct lack of professionalism (and, for that matter, diversity) in some industries. In other words, a mismatch between what one says one does, and what one actually does. Language as doublespeak.
   So is it speaking English that makes us more careless? Maybe it is: as a lingua franca in some areas, merely speaking it might put a person up a few notches in others’ estimation. Sandeep Deva Misra, in his blog post in 2013, believes that’s the case, and that we shouldn’t prejudge Anglophones so favourably if the quality of their thought isn’t up to snuff.
   Maybe that’s what we need to do more of: look at the quality of thought, not the expression or make a judgement based on which language it’s come in. As English speakers, we enjoy a privilege. We can demand that others meet us on our terms and think poorly when someone speaks with an accent or confuses your and you’re. It gives us an immediate advantage because we have a command of the lingua franca of business and science. It gives us the impunity to write fictions in Wikipedia or make an argument sound appealing through sound bites, hoping to have made a quick getaway before we’re found out. Political debate has descended into style over substance for many, although this is nothing new. I was saying, although not blogging, things like this 20 years ago, and my students from 1999–2000 might remember my thoughts on Tony Blair’s 1997 campaign as being high on rhetoric and light on substance. Our willingness to accept things on face value without deeper analysis, lands us into trouble. We’re fooled by delivery and the authority that is attached with the English language.
   You’ll next see this in action in a high-profile way when Facebook comes forth with more comment about Cambridge Analytica. I can almost promise you now that it won’t hold water.

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Posted in business, culture, globalization, India, leadership, media, New Zealand, politics, publishing, Sweden, UK, USA, Wellington | 2 Comments »


We need to heed the warnings that Harry Leslie Smith gives

26.02.2018

Not that Asian countries get this right all the time, but generally, when a 95-year-old speaks, we (as in many of us with Asian heritage, and by ‘Asian’ I mean a lot of cultures that make up the 3,700 million people on the continent) tend to listen and we revere their experience. And WWII veteran Harry Leslie Smith, who is one of the more active people of his generation, brings us a warning about where Brexit and other developments around the world are taking us.
   The excerpt from his book, Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future: a Call to Arms, in The Independent, headlined ‘Brexit threatens everything I fought for in the Second World War. On my 95th birthday, this is what I need people to know’, makes for sobering reading, and if we don’t heed his words, we could be heading into trouble. Even if you support Brexit, it would still be advisable to read the excerpt and ensure that the future that he foresees doesn’t come to pass.
   Quite telling is this:

Unlike today, no political party in my youth advocated the isolation that Brexit will bring to Britain. Instead all insisted that our military and political survival depended on cooperation and integration with other nations. Yet today, the political descendants of Winston Churchill are turning our nation into a hermit kingdom whose wealth and ingenuity are being squandered for an idealised notion that we are still a mighty power that the nations of the world want to trade with on our terms.

   I have to agree with him there. When a very good friend of mine, whose opinion I respect greatly, and who voted for Brexit, indicated that New Zealand would be at an advantage, I had to point out that even before the UK joined the EEC, our share of trade with the nation was already declining. We had to look for other trading partners, including ones far closer to home to us. While there’s some truth in that UK–NZ ties could be strengthened, don’t expect a bonanza. If our two-way trade with the EU is worth NZ$19,986 million (Treasury figures, year ended March 31, 2017) and the ONS believes the UK alone accounts for £2,500 million (roughly NZ$4,800 million), then some quick calculations (I realize the periods may differ) indicate that the UK accounts for 24 per cent of the total. But the EU, in total, accounts for 14·5 per cent of our trade. In other words, the UK alone accounts for around 3·5 per cent of trade with us. That’s a fraction of what it was in the 1960s, when New Zealand was a sort of Little Britain (no, neither Little Britain nor the historical sense of that term), when Japanese cars were just an occasional distraction on our roads. We have new friends with whom we trade and I don’t think we’re as nostalgic for the days of Empah as Farage, Johnson, Gove et al. We seem to be more realistic, and we realize the war was a long time ago—and we had to be tougher, in part thanks to the UK’s membership of the EEC.
   It’s not just Britain: Smith doesn’t have great things to say about the US president, Donald Trump, either, especially when he recounts the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt.
   And:

The baby boomers were bequeathed by my generation a society built upon a bedrock of personal sacrifice and a commitment to social and economic justice. Yet all of our accomplishments, from the NHS to council housing as well as our unfinished work trying to ensure a more equal Britain, was pawned off by them to the hedge funds, tax-avoiding corporations and political parties that believe governments should be run like businesses.

   Whereas once upon a time, both Conservative and Labour wanted to uphold the institutions that helped make the UK a decent society—as National and Labour did here—modern ideology has changed the right into something that people like my parents—who voted National for decades—simply don’t recognize today. Even in my lifetime, which is less than half of Smith’s, I find some of the ideas that are being peddled mere caricatures of conservatism. There’s a whole generation—let’s call them ‘Thatcher’s children’—who don’t know any differently.
   Smith doesn’t conclude with this in the excerpt, but I will, as I think it’s a strong paragraph:

And now with our nation in chaos over Brexit, and fascism becoming as great a threat to our security as it once was in the 1930s, the majority in this country and the western world sit like the inhabitants of Pompeii the day before Vesuvius destroyed their city and their lives, ignoring the warning calls of imminent destruction.

   Once again, collective memories are incredibly short—which is why older people who have real experiences they can share so clearly need to be listened to. I mean, why wouldn’t you?

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Orange may be the new black but the difference is less than you think

09.02.2018


Instruct Studio

It’s easy to dismiss comedians as, well, comedians, there to tell a joke and to get a laugh out of us. But what if the comedian—such as Frankie Boyle—is one of those who sees the state of the world we’re in, and “tells it as it is”? His opinion for The Guardian makes for sobering reading.
   Initially, you think this was going to be a laugh-a-minute piece, when he writes, of US president Donald Trump:

You kind of wish he’d get therapy, but at this stage it’s like hiring a window cleaner for a burning building.

   But there are some uncomfortable truths, and it is certainly not slanted against the right, despite the medium:

I don’t really understand commentators who say it’s vital not to normalise any of Trump’s actions. They have been normalised for eight years by Barack Obama while many of the same people looked the other way. Banks and corporations writing their own legislation; war by executive order; mass deportations; kill lists: it’s all now as normal and American as earthquakes caused by fracked gases being ignited by burning abortion clinics. Of course, there is a moral difference in whether such actions are performed by a Harvard-educated constitutional law professor or a gibbering moron, and the distinction goes in Trump’s favour. That’s not to say Trump won’t plumb profound new depths of awfulness, like the disbanding of the environmental protection agency set up by hippy, libtard snowflake Richard Nixon.

   When confronted with that, it becomes much clearer why many people—and I include American friends of mine who are neither racists nor hicks (sorry to go against the mainstream narrative)—voted for Trump. If the country’s making some very un-American moves, then why not have someone who claims he can make a clean sweep? Never mind that he had no intention of doing so—it’s a case of swapping one bunch for another while satiating his own ego—but people cling to hope in their own ways. I am no supporter of the main alternative they had—Hillary Clinton—and only wish that Americans had the confidence to support a third party as we do, rather than be told ‘A vote for [Jill or Gary] is a vote for [Donald or Hillary].’ I heard this from both supporters of the right (Clinton) and further right (Trump) there, and it didn’t matter which third-party candidate’s name they inserted.
   It’s a reminder that we need to continue forging our own path, and do what is right by us—and it appears our new coalition government has received this message on so many policy fronts in its first 100 days, though with the revised TPPA I wonder sometimes. As Britain is finding out, it’s not that good for your own people to be a vassal of the United States in times like this.
   The solution? Focus on your own doorstep and do what you can with your own government. I won’t quote Boyle’s words here since I’d rather you click through and The Guardian can earn some money from ad revenue (at least from those of us who aren’t using ad blockers), but it’s a good a solution as any.

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An accomplishment: debunking every single point in a Guardian article on Julian Assange

25.01.2018


Elekhh/Creative Commons

Suzi Dawson’s 2016 post debunking a biased Guardian article on Julian Assange is quite an accomplishment. To quote her on Twitter, ‘The article I wrote debunking his crap was such toilet paper that I was able to disprove literally every single line of it, a never-before-achieved feat for me when debunking MSM smears. Check it out.’
   Here is a link to her post.
   I will quote one paragraph to whet your appetite, and you can read the rest of what I consider a reasoned piece at Contraspin. To date there have been no comments taking issue with what she wrote.

To the contrary, other than solidarity from close friends and family, these people usually end up universally loathed. In the cases of Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Bill Cosby, these men were protected for decades by the very establishment that they served. It took decades for their victims to raise awareness of what happened to them yet once they finally managed to achieve mainstream awareness, their attackers became reviled, etched in history as the monsters they are. The very speed and ferocity with which the Swedish (and other) governments targeted and persecuted Assange speaks volumes. Were he an actual everyday common rapist it is more likely than not that the police would have taken little to no action. Were he a high society predator, it would have taken decades for the public to become aware of it. But because he is neither, and is in fact a target of Empire, he was smeared internationally by the entire world’s media within 24 hours of the allegations and six years later is still fighting for the most basic acknowledgements of the facts – such as that he has still never been charged with any crime, which Ms Orr fails to mention even once in her entire piece.

   It’s important to keep an open mind on what we are being told—there are many false narratives out there, and neither left- nor right-wing media come to the table with clean hands.

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Happy 40th birthday to The Professionals

30.12.2017

‘Anarchy, acts of terror, crimes against the public. To combat it I’ve got special men: experts from the army, the police, from every service. These are the professionals.’

   Forty years ago, ITV began airing one of the UK’s most iconic TV series.
   There’s more at Dave Matthews’ The Authorised Guide to the Professionals, to which I contributed many years ago (yes, I am a fan).
   While there are many quality shows today, The Professionals still holds up reasonably well in terms of action, music, lighting and cinematography (especially if you see the series as restored on Network’s latest set of DVDs), though some of the plots are lacking and there are a lot of outdated 1970s’ attitudes to gender equality and race.
   If you keep that in mind—that it is a product of its era—it’s still an enjoyable show, in part because of my own sense of nostalgia (has it really been forty years?). And the second and third seasons are still, in my opinion, Brian Clemens’ finest hour.

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Consumer’s choice: how I bought a car from the UK over the ’net and shipped it home

01.10.2017

Originally published at Drivetribe, but as I own the copyright it only made sense to share it here for readers, too, especially those who might wish to buy a car from abroad and want to do the job themselves. It was originally written for a British audience.


Above: The lengths I went to, to make sure I didn’t wind up buying a car with an automatic transmission: source it from the UK and spend ten months on the process.

One consequence of Brexit was the pound falling, which makes buying out of Blighty very tempting for foreigners. When it comes to buying a car, the savings can be substantial enough for a buyer in the antipodes.
   My situation in New Zealand was neither driven by politics nor currency: it was the lack of manual-transmission cars. When I last bought a car for myself in 2004, the market was roughly 50–50 between manuals and automatics. Today that figure is 90 per cent in favour of automatics, meaning those of us who prefer shifting gears ourselves face a major difficulty. We either limit ourselves to the few cars that come on to the market that are manuals, or we switch. Considering it was my own money, and a five-figure sum at that, I wasn’t about to contemplate getting something that I didn’t like. Britain, it seemed, would have to be the source of my next car.
   There were certain circumstances that made this a lot easier.
   First, you need friends in the UK.
   Secondly, you should browse Auto Trader, Parkers and other sites regularly for months on end to get a feel of the market.
   Third, you should be looking for something that’s relatively new, to ensure compliance with the laws of both the UK and your own.
   When my old Renault Mégane I Coupé was written off in an accident, the logical thing would be to buy the Mégane III Coupé. However, if you live in a right-hand-drive country and you’re not in the UK, Ireland or South Africa, you’re out of luck, unless you fancy going to an RS. And I simply didn’t need 250-plus horsepower to go to the post office or up the coast.
   There were two powerplants common to Renaults in New Zealand: the 110 bhp 1·6, and the 2·0 automatic. That left me with one choice, and 110 bhp was sufficient for what I needed. I also looked forward to the better fuel economy, even if New Zealanders pay less at the pump than Brits.
   I was fortunate that I didn’t need a replacement car in a hurry. For years I had a “spare car”, one that my father had bought and I could use now that he had developed Alzheimer’s. The other stroke of luck was that I had contemplated getting a newer Mégane III Coupé anyway, and had been browsing UK sites for about six months at that point. I knew roughly what a good deal looked like. Finally, the esteemed motoring editor, Mr Keith Adams, and one other school friend, Philip, had offered to check out cars should I spot anything in their area.

I advise strongly that you use a company specializing in the importation. That’s where Jake Williams and Dan Hepburn at Online Logistics of Auckland came in

   While my circumstances were unique, there are plenty of other reasons to look to the UK for cars.
   A friend looking for a Volkswagen Eos reckoned he would save NZ$10,000 (£5,850) by sourcing one from the UK. This is largely fuelled by the greater depreciation on UK second-hand cars, and the savings potentially mount on flasher motors, such as Audi Q7s or Bentleys.
   While Japan is closer, and the source of many used cars in New Zealand, some buyers have had to buy new radios to match New Zealand frequencies. There’s also the disadvantage of dealing in a foreign language with a very different legal system should you choose to do it yourself.
   The disadvantage of a UK import is that speedometers will be in mph, whereas New Zealand adopted the newfangled metric system decades ago. However, on a more modern car with a digital dashboard, the switch shouldn’t be an issue, and that was the case with the Mégane.
   For a Kiwi buyer, the first step is to check the New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA) website, which has useful worksheets on private car importation.
   In summary, the car must comply with New Zealand standards, and it helps—for now—that cars that have EU type approval will. The car must have a vehicle approval plate or sticker, or a statement of compliance. The NZTA worksheets and website are detailed and go through further specifics.
   You should, for peace of mind, order an AA or Dekra inspection. AA members in New Zealand can expect a discount from AA in the UK, and this shouldn’t exceed £200. Any faults need to be remedied before you purchase the car, or you should walk away.
   Of course, you need to be able to prove the ownership of the vehicle: that means an invoice showing that you’ve purchased it (this should have the VIN on it), plus the V5 registration document. Since it’s being exported outside the UK, the relevant part of the V5 noting thje car will be leaving the country will have been sent to the Department for Transport by the seller. The seller needs to put this in the courier to you.
   I advise strongly that you use a company specializing in the importation. You can do a lot yourself, but it pays to have an extra pair of eyes to ensure you’ve dotted the is and crossed the ts, and in New Zealand, that’s where Jake Williams and Dan Hepburn at Online Logistics of Auckland came in.
   Online Logistics isn’t interested in profiting based on the price of your car, unlike some services. They set standard fees for shipping, and arrange insurance, which it’ll need on the way to New Zealand. They do ask that the car departs from Felixstowe, and they will ship it to Auckland.
   They will require the VIN, so they can double-check that the car meets the required standards, the invoice, and the original copy of the V5.
   Once it’s on New Zealand shores, it has to go through several inspections.
   The first is an inspection by the Ministry of Primary Industries, which makes sure that there aren’t any bugs. It could order that the car be fumigated, and this can set you back around NZ$400. Once done, you’ll get an MPI sticker saying the car’s passed the biosecurity inspection.
   Customs will then sting you GST (the equivalent of VAT) on cost, insurance and freight.
   An NZTA-approved organization will then inspect the car to check for structural faults. Online Logistics took care of this part, so you don’t need to hunt for an approved one yourself. Once that’s done, you’ll get a pink sticker from NZTA.
   The fourth step is getting the car certified. Again, Online Logistics has a company it contracts to do this, and this is where you’re likely to see your car for the first time. Certification will confirm that the car meets safety and emission standards, gets the VIN recorded into the database, gives you a registration form so you can get the car registered in New Zealand, and issues a warrant of fitness (MOT). Certification can be strict: cars that have had a poor repair job done in the UK will not pass until it is redone in line with New Zealand standards, and this is where the importation process can fall to pieces. That’s why it’s important to have that check done in the UK before purchase. Stay well away from category D cars, and aim for low miles.

Having identified the model I wanted, I had to trawl through the websites. The UK is well served, and some sites allow you to feed in a postcode and the distance you’re willing (or your friend’s willing) to travel.
   However, if you rely on friends, you’ll need to catch them at the right time, and both gentlemen had busy weekends that meant waiting.
   VAT was the other issue that’s unfamiliar to New Zealanders. GST is applied on all domestic transactions in New Zealand, but not on export ones. This isn’t always the case in the UK, and some sellers won’t know how any of this works.
   One of the first cars I spotted was from a seller who had VAT on the purchase price, which logically I should get refunded when the car left the country. I would have to pay the full amount but once I could prove that the car had left the UK, the transaction would be zero-rated and I would get the VAT back. I was told by the manager that in 11 years of business, he had never come across it, and over the weeks of chatting, the vehicle was sold.
   Car Giant, in London, was one company that was very clued up and told me that it had sold to New Zealanders before. They’re willing to refund VAT on cars that were VAT-qualifying, but charged a small service fee to do so. The accounts’ department was particularly well set up, and its staff very easy to deal with long-distance.
   Evans Halshaw, however, proved to be farcical. After having a vehicle moved to the Kettering branch close to Keith’s then-residence after paying the deposit, and having then paid for an AA inspection, the company then refused to sell it to me, and would only deal with Keith.
   Although the company was happy to take my deposit, Keith was soon told, ‘we will need payment to come from yourself either by debit card or bank transfer as the deal is with yourself not Mr Yan,’ by one of its sales’ staff.
   I wasn’t about to ask Keith to part with any money, If I were to transfer funds to his account, but not have the car belong to me, and if Keith were to then transfer ownership to me without money changing hands, then the New Zealand Customs would smell a rat. It would look like money laundering: NZTA requires there to be a clear chain of ownership, and this wasn’t clear. Evans Halshaw were unwilling to put the invoice in my name.
   I’m a British national with a UK address—again something a lot of buyers Down Under won’t have—but Evans Halshaw began claiming that it was ‘policy’ not to sell to me.
   The company was never able to provide a copy of such a policy despite numerous phone calls and emails.
   Essentially, for this to work and satisfy Customs on my end, Keith would have to fork out money, and I would have to pay him: a situation that didn’t work for either of us.
   Phil, a qualified lawyer, offered to head into another branch of Evans Halshaw and do the transaction exactly as they wanted: head there with ‘chip and PIN’, only for the company to change its tune again: it would not sell to me, or any representative of mine.

The refund from Evans Halshaw never materialized, and I found myself £182 out of pocket

   This farce went on for a month and involved a great deal of calls from me into the small hours of the morning.
   The matter eventually went to the group’s lawyer, David Bell, and between him and me, it was sorted in 10 minutes.
   Evans Halshaw did indeed have a policy not to sell to a foreigner, never mind that he was also a Briton. What their first staffer should never have done was take my deposit in the first place.
   Despite knowing it was me who paid the deposit, the Kettering dealer began believing it was Keith who was the buyer.
   When Mr Bell knew all the facts, there was a moment when the penny dropped for us both: he had been told that Keith was the buyer all along, and advised accordingly. Once I knew where the mix-up was, everything made sense.
   It wasn’t helped by belligerent staff who refused to answer questions directly.
   However, on knowing of their error, Evans Halshaw refunded my deposit (albeit minus the credit card fees I had paid) and offered to refund the AA check, in exchange for the report. I willingly gave them the report, but the second refund never materialized. Neither the dealer principal at Kettering nor Mr Bell responded, despite reminders, and I found myself £182 out of pocket, along with goodness knows how much in long-distance phone charges. I still wonder how this is one of the country’s largest dealer groups, with this blatant disregard for the customer.
   Two weeks later, the perfect Mégane popped up. It was all a blessing in disguise. It was the colour (Cayenne orange) of the car I had on my computer wallpaper years before. The mileage was very low. And another friend, Andrew, was willing to pop by and look at it, sold by a very easy-going seller, Andy Mudge of Thames Fleet Purchasing. In fact, he proved so amenable I referred others to him, and he was more than happy, as with many other dealers I had spoke to in the UK since the Evans Halshaw affair, to sell to a British national based abroad.
   The car passed the Dekra check with next to no issues, and Andy was willing to cap the freight charges of the car from his Maidenhead property to the port for £100. (It’s advisable to have the car transported, rather than driven, to the port, as I won’t have paid for the tax as the new keeper.)
   The car was non-VAT qualifying, making life easier for both parties. I paid Andy the amount by wire transfer, added a pony on top to cover the courier of documents (V5 and handbooks) and the spare key.
   The one feeling I hadn’t expected was to see thousands of pounds leave my account and have nothing to show for it. The car took just under two months before I witnessed it for the first time, having flown up to Auckland to collect it (another NZ$100), with a 600 km journey south back to its new home in Wellington.
   Many months later, I’m thrilled with my purchase. There are, to my knowledge, only two non-RS Mégane III Coupés in New Zealand, both in the same colour. It has an engine for which I can get parts, and there are sufficient commonalities with the Méganes sold here when it comes to brake pads and other items. It had taken a considerable amount of time but it was eventually worth it. After all, if it’s your money, you should get what you want. If you don’t want to drive the standard New Zealand car—and looking around that appears to be a Toyota Auris Automatic—then the UK is a very ready source of cars.

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Posted in business, cars, globalization, internet, New Zealand, UK | 1 Comment »


Fun for car anoraks—till you get to the factual errors

08.07.2017

I bought Steven Parissien’s The Life of the Automobile: a New History of the Motor Car, which started off as a good history. I’m 300-odd pages in now and the mistakes are really worrying. There’s also a shocking lack of editing (one part repeated, albeit in different language, and spelling and grammatical mistakes) in the parts I’ve got to now; it’s as though the editor got tired after the first 10 chapters and stopped caring. But the biggest errors are factual.
   I am astonished to learn, for instance, that Harley Earl was responsible for the concept of the Ford Thunderbird (p. 255), that Triumph TR7 production was transferred to Speke in 1982 (p. 293, though Parissien later contradicts himself with the correct fact), and that John Z. de Lorean was a protégé of Lee Iacocca (p. 309). I really have no idea how, but as far as I know, de Lorean was never at Ford, and he had a Chrysler stint long before Iacocca got there. I also never knew that ‘In 1968 the Toyota Corolla became the first Japanese car to be manufactured in the US’ (p. 314; that was the year it went on sale there, and from memory the Corolla didn’t get built there till the NUMMI deal in the 1980s) or that the Opel Ascona C was also sold as the Opel Vectra (p. 337). The Italian Job was released in 1969, not 1967 (p. 224).
   I am frustrated with this book—and now it makes me wonder if the stuff earlier on, which I know less about, was accurate.
   I can understand an editor not grasping the subject as well as the author but there is less excuse in professional publishing for the other problems. Maybe there are few professional proofreaders left, now that spellchecks have been around for a generation or more. I was prepared to recommend this book even a week ago and tolerated the spelling and grammar, but these factual mistakes are worse than what can be found in Wikipedia, and I often label parts of that site as fiction.

PS. (September 17): How much worse can it get, as I continued through? A lot.
   On p. 320, we get an admission that Parissien was wrong on p. 314: the Honda Accord was the first Japanese-branded car to be made Stateside. At least an earlier error was corrected. But they begin again on p. 321: Parissien claims the V30 Toyota Camry dominated the US mid-size car market (it was never sold outside Japan; he’s thinking of the XV10, or the Japanese-market Scepter, which was badged Camry). Correcting his error on p. 322, the Camry was not specifically targeted at the US; it was Toyota’s attempt to create an efficient car from the ground up, and it was not done in 1980, but 1982 (the 1980 Celica Camry was not sold outside Japan). The Paykan deal was cemented long before George Turnbull got to Iran (p. 324), though local content rose in the 1970s for it to be truly Iranian-made and Parissien might mean the shifting of the engine tooling there, if I’m being generous. There is only one world, not multiple ones (also p. 324), unless Parissien knows something about parallel universes that the rest of us don’t. Surely Chrysler managed to launch its T-115 minivan (Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager) before Renault launched the Espace (p. 330), and the Triumph Acclaim was never called the ‘Ronda’ (p. 334), though its successor was.
   On p. 360, in a single paragraph, Parissien makes several errors. The MG 6 launched as a five-door car, not his claimed four. There is no such thing as the Roewe 150, in China or elsewhere. The MG 3 has five doors and is not a three-door counterpart to the 6. The five-door MG 6 launched not in 2011, but in 2010, and the Magnette name was only used in the UK for the four-door. The founder of Chrysler was Walter Chrysler, not Walther (p. 364). The Lancia Delta only became a Chrysler in the UK and Éire, as far as I know (p. 365), and remained a Lancia in most countries. The Belgian designer is Dirk van Braeckel, not van Braeckl (p. 368); Mercedes-Benz never bought an 18·53 per cent stake in Volkswagen (p. 369); and Citroën’s BX was not the last car in that range to have ‘pneumatic suspension’ (p. 372). The Malibu was not a Saturn, but a Chevrolet (p. 375), and Buick was never sold off (p. 376). The Ford Mondeo did not replace the Telstar in all Asian markets (p. 377), and it shared far more than the ‘windscreen, front doors and rear’ with the Contour and Mystique (in fact, the rear was not shared, though there were common engines, platform, and plenty more). It’s not entirely certain that the US market judged the Contour to be too small (p. 378), but there was a lack of marketing (which would have made an even better story than the one Parissien writes about). Ford subsequently filled the Contour’s niche with the smaller Focus Stateside. The CD338 Fusion was never sold in Australia (also p. 378). Ford never resurrected the Taunus in Germany under Alan Mulally (p. 381)—this invention is incredible. VAZ did follow up the 2101 with something similar after it ended production in 1983 (not 1984, p. 382), viz. the 2105, which was about as similar as one could get to the 2101.
   On p. 384, Parissien claims Acura’s Legend sales were ‘disappointing’, after saying they were ‘beginning to sell rather well’ 50 pp. before. The Hindustan Ambassador was not based on the 1954 Morris Oxford (p. 389): that car was actually the Hindusthan Landmaster. The Ambassador was based on the 1957 Morris Oxford III, and was in production from 1959, not 1958. The Red Flag (or Hongqi) marque was not reborn on an Audi A6 (p. 391), but the marque had been used on a version of the Audi 100 C3 from 1988, and no Hongqi bore an Audi–Chrysler–Hongqi brand name. The Chinese company is Dongfeng, not Dongfen (p. 391), and Parissien’s claim that the Everus was sold in the west (p. 392) is news to me, as I am sure it is to its own management. I’ll stop there for now.

P.PS. (September 18): Some bedtime reading, or should I say error-finding, last night. On p. 394, Toyota and Aston Martin did not jointly develop the Cygnet: Toyota developed the IQ in 2008, and Aston Martin converted that car to become its Cygnet, and ‘hot hatch’ is a very optimistic description for a city car. Toyota did not launch the Cygnet in 2008 as Parissien claims, nor did it have a say in what customers were expected to purchase the Cygnet: it was aimed specifically at existing Aston Martin owners, not ‘Toyota and Aston expected initial demand to be limited to those who already owned an Aston Martin sports car.’ It was certainly no ‘eccentric experiment’ of Toyota, but of Aston Martin. Volvo never made a model called the A40 (p. 395), and I bet Nissan is surprised to find that the original Qashqai was designed ‘at the firm’s Milan design centre’ (p. 397) when it was designed in London. Maserati never launched a Jeep-based SUV called the Kubang (p. 397), but it did have a concept of that name, and the Levante appeared in 2016 after the book was published. There is no such car as the Porsche Cajun, and if Parissien refers to the smaller Porsche crossover, then that is called the Macan, and it has five doors, not the claimed three (p. 397). The Volkswagen New Beetle was not on a Polo platform (p. 399), but a Golf one, as was its successor (though a newer Golf); and Ford would dispute that its Mustang is a sedan (p. 401). If J Mays’s first name is J (as footnoted), then there is no need to refer to him as ‘J. Mays’ (p. 401). The Ford Ka’s name is not derived from StreetKa (p. 402): that was a model spun off from the Ka in 2002; and some would regard the Mk II model was being superior to the Fiat 500 on which it is based (especially as Fiat adopted some of the changes for its own model). I have yet to see a Smart with a Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star or marque anywhere, unlike Parissien who seems to think they are badged Mercedes (p. 403), and a Smart SUV does not exist unless Parissien is reporting again from his parallel universe (p. 403). There is also no such car as the Kia Exclusive (p. 410).

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Posted in cars, design, interests, publishing, UK, USA | 1 Comment »


Twenty years on, the Hong Kong handover reminds us how impotent Britain proved to be

01.07.2017


Hong Kong’s skyline in 2008, photographed by Scrolllock.

Has it been 20 years since Dad and I sat in front of the telly to watch both Britannia sail out of the harbour and China set off a magnificent fireworks’ display to celebrate getting Hong Kong becoming one of her possessions again?
   Following some of the 20th anniversary commemorations through the media, notably the BBC World Service which followed them keenly, I had very mixed feelings.
   Having been born British in the then-colony (whilst cheering the All Blacks today, natch) I have some nostalgia for the Hong Kong of old. If it weren’t for some aspects of colonialism, my mother wouldn’t have secured a decent job at Wellington Hospital (viz. an English and Welsh qualification) and I probably would never have learned English before the age of three. It all helped.
   It was the spectre of 1997, specifically the fear of what the Communists would do after July 1, 1997, that prompted my parents to make plans to emigrate as early as the 1970s.
   Of course, history as shown that largely those fears have not come to pass, although the Umbrella Revolution highlights that universal suffrage is not a reality in the city.
   In a post-Brexit (or at least a post-Brexit vote) era, these past two decades also highlight that British nationalism is meaningless and little more than a tool for politicians to yield for propaganda.
   You can fairly argue that that is what nationalism always has been. It could also equally be argued that nationalism is founded on some rose-coloured-glasses past, painting a picture that actually never existed.
   American nostalgia looks back at a 1950s’ economic boom while ignoring segregation while British nostalgia shows a child pushing his bike up a hill to Dvořák’s New World Symphony.
   Brexiters, rightly or wrongly, want to reassert a British self-determination founded on a British national character.
   Most Britons I talked to, regardless of their politics, agree that if you are Hong Kong British, then you are British. That should be some solace to the families of those HKers who lost their lives fighting under the Crown in both World War II and the Falklands.
   Yet there is no reality to this claim when it comes to government. Fearful of an influx of Hong Kong British emigrating to the UK, the British National (Overseas) category was invented in 1985, to replace our previous status as Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies. It didn’t do the wealthy any harm, mind: a lot went to Canada and Australia and took their money there. Others stayed and invested in China, and helped fuel the growth of Shenzhen as a technological powerhouse. The Hong Kong Chinese person is generally industrious, many having descended from refugees from China in 1949 who decided to make the most of the freedoms in the colony. That work ethic was certainly nothing any Briton in the UK needed to fear, yet somehow we were classed as Johnny Foreigner.
   When I went to the UK in 2001 with that BN(O) passport, I had terrible trouble at immigration, denied entry when queued up with other British subjects. I wound up at the back of the queue with some white South Africans, who were less than impressed and said, ‘But that’s apartheid.’ Correspondence to the High Commission, Foreign Secretary, and Shadow Foreign Secretary went unanswered, though I did get a response from the PM.
   In other words, the fears within Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech held more sway in Blair’s Britain than any sacrifice in the Falklands (even if, I should point out, Powell was not addressing immigration per se). Today, I wonder if they still do.
   The Tiber was greater than the Atlantic.
   Labour were quick to point out how wrong the Tories were with BN(O) back in the 1980s, but in 2001, Labour wasn’t working.
   Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said at the time of the handover in 1997 that Britain would ‘walk with you’, that Britain had won assurances that elections in Hong Kong would be free and fair, and that if China ever failed to live up to this pledge, Britain would take the matter to the United Nations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
   In 20 years, Britain has not lifted a finger.
   We might get lucky like the Gurkhas one of these days if Joanna Lumley wants to come to our aid. But we certainly can’t rely on any politician.
   Being British (I retained my nationality and applied before the deadline to be a BN(O)), you can see how the pro-Brexit position was hard to stomach to me. The likes of Nigel Farage and the “other” New York-born politician with funny hair, Boris Johnson, seemed to revel in some idea of British unity, but anyone from Hong Kong will tell you that in politics, that is an empty concept.
   Only one of my friends who was pro-Brexit voted based on the idea of an independent Britain being more efficient when freed from the whims of Brussels, and I respect him for it; most of what I saw was aimed against immigration. The current PM’s belief in safeguarding the interests of British subjects should be cold comfort to those affected: if they couldn’t defend our interests, will others fare any better, especially with a minority government in a Conservative Party that actually remains as divided as ever?
   Not that I am championing the People’s Republic of China for its handling of relations between mainlanders and Hong Kongers; it has equally been exclusive of us and our unique culture. I have already gone into the Umbrella Revolution elsewhere (even if the TV One website omitted my televised comments about Wikileaks’ reporting of US State Department interference as this goes against the western narrative), and this doesn’t need exploring again. The disappearance of publishers critical of Beijing should sound alarm bells—I note that one of them was a British subject, but the best the UK could muster was an expression of concern. I cannot help but wonder if this is the fate that awaits Britons on the Continent should something happen to them.
   Some negatives aside, I am happy that when I visited a “Chinese” Hong Kong in 2006, I found a city whose character was intact, and I remarked at how unchanged that was. In subsequent visits in 2008, 2010 and 2012, that core remained. Given all the paranoia before 1997, ‘One country, two systems’ has certainly not been as bad as many of us—including those of us who moved our entire lives abroad because of those fears—predicted. I wish all HKers well on this 20th anniversary.

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Fifty editors at Wikipedia ban Daily Mail based on some anecdotes

12.02.2017

How right Kalev Leetaru is on Wikipedia’s decision to ban The Daily Mail as a source.
   This decision, he concludes, was made by a cabal of 50 editors based on anecdotes.
   I’ve stated before on this blog how Wikipedia is broken, the abusive attitude of one of its editors, and how even luminaries like the late Aaron Swartz and Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger chose to depart. It’s just taken three years or more for some of these thoughts to get picked up in a more mainstream fashion.
   I made sure I referred to a single editor as my experience with someone high up in Wikipedia, not all of its editors, but you can’t ignore accusations of certain people gaming the system in light of the ban.
   Leetaru wrote on the Forbes site, ‘Out of the billions of Internet users who come into contact with Wikipedia content in some way shape or form, just 50 people voted to ban an entire news outlet from the platform. No public poll was taken, no public notice was granted, no communications of any kind were made to the outside world until everything was said and done and action was taken …
   ‘What then was the incontrovertible evidence that those 50 Wikipedia editors found so convincing as to apply a “general prohibition” on links to the Daily Mail? Strangely, a review of the comments advocating for a prohibition of the Mail yields not a single data-driven analysis performed in the course of this discussion.’
   I’m not defending the Mail because I see a good deal of the news site as clickbait, but it’s probably no worse than some other news sources out there.
   And it’s great that Wikipedia kept its discussion public, unlike some other top sites on the web.
   However, you can’t escape the irony behind an unreliable website deeming a media outlet unreliable. Here’s a site that even frowns upon print journalism because its cabal cannot find online references to facts made in its articles. Now, I would like to see it trust print stuff more and the Mail less, but that, too, is based on my impressions rather than any data-driven analysis that Leetaru expects from such a big site with so many volunteers.
   I’ve made my arguments elsewhere on why Wikipedia will remain unreliable, and why those of us in the know just won’t bother with it for our specialist subjects.
   By all means, use it, and it is good for a quick, cursory “pub chat” reference (though science ones tend to be better, according to friends in that world). But remember that there is an élite group of editors there and Wikipedia will reflect their biases, just as my sites reflect mine. To believe it is truly objective or, for that matter, accurate, would be foolhardy.

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