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The problem of proving a negative

Wot a whopper

So the Appeal Court has ruled that it’s okay to lie on an insurance claim about the circumstances the loss arose out of, so long as the claim is genuine and the lie doesn’t make a difference to the actual amount claimed.

It’s called a ‘collateral lie’.

I can’t comment on the legal side, the case was about some ship’s crew and a cargo loss they blamed on the weather when it was caused by something else not their fault; sometimes it’s easier just to lie than to have to explain.

I once had a claim rejected when the insurers argued that if the radio had not been in the car in the first place, and the car had not been locked, the kids doing drugs would not have had to smash the quarterlight to steal it.

There are lies, ‘collateral lies’, and there are profitable evasions.

But I do wonder if there isn’t a more general application here?

Is it okay in principle, for instance, for a politician ambitious for the highest office to tell people the double-lie, that they are spending £50 million a day on our annual subscription to Brussels, and he would spend the money instead on the health service?

It’s obviously okay to say that, when it’s clear they would have voted anyway to leave the European Union. It’s only a ‘collateral lie’.

Meanwhile, some of the collateral damage of Brexit is already emerging.

You remember we wanted to get our sovereignty back from Brussels? So yesterday, our world-leading semiconductor company, ARM was sold to an indebted ($100m overdrawn) Japanese entrepreneur for a notional £24 billion.

The post-Brexit-vote collapse of the pound against the yen made ARM a bargain. And Mrs May bravely hailed it as another sign of a brighter future for Britain outside the EU.

What, that we can flog-off our sovereignty instead to the highest foreign bidders, so they can profit from controlling our potentially hugely lucrative industrial research and development programmes in the future, that we never seem able to exploit ourselves because we are such a small country?

Already, British research scientists, universities and high-tech SME companies are reporting being frozen out of co-funded European projects, as being too toxic a risk for the investors.

Individual trade deals or not, it’s hard to see Japanese or Australian or US government funding being made available for British research projects in the way it has through the EU, without Britain surrendering control of our own world-beating technologies.

And we have had to give up our turn at the rotating Presidency of the EU next year, so have no chance to influence anything..

But don’t worry, at least Brussels isn’t calling the shots!

Cretins rule, ok?


The problem of proving a negative

An open letter to the UK-based, very funny American humorist and compulsive litter-picker, David Sedaris, on the danger of being too public-spirited.

Dear David Sedaris

I read about your litter-picking interview with Clare Balding.

So, I was standing in the queue for the butcher’s, as one did in those days in the People’s Republic of North Harrow, in the 1970s when lamb chops were on ration, watching two children tearing up paper and throwing it on the ground. I said to their grandmother, ‘who do you think is going to pick that up after you’ve gone?’ and she looked embarrassed and told the children to pick up the paper.

A younger version of the grandmother then came flying out of the shop, shouting at the children to put the paper back on the pavement because,‘you don’t know where it’s been!’ The grandmother explained that the man in the queue had complained that the children had dropped the litter. And the woman informed me furiously that if I didn’t piss off and mind my own business, she would fetch her husband to sort me out.

I’ve been a little less public-spirited since. But maybe not enough less.

20170524_125218The people who annoy me most are the ones who thoughtfully pick up their dog mess in a little bag, and then leave the bag lying on the footpath. There’s some kind of cognitive dissonance there. I’ve been guilty of it myself: on a circular route, I planned to pick up the bag on the way back as that’s the direction the village’s only public dog-litter bin lies in, only to be seduced into taking a different way home, forgetting all about the bag and its contents; forgetting where I had left the car parked.

I live on the edge of a seaside town, on a thunderous main road, where the houses shade into a flat, partly wooded heathland along the river valley. It’s littered with industrial buildings, goods yards, railway lines, cycle paths and sports grounds. Dogwalking territory, it’s also a place where people can go to celebrate the nearby supermarket, McDonalds and so on by liberally distributing their wrappers and cut-price cider cans in the undergrowth, smashing up the one park bench so regularly the council gave up repairing it and it’s no longer there.

Another sign of civic pride is the way people like to get exercise and fresh air by carrying whole bags of rubbish into the woods and abandoning them there, to rot and spill their contents among the bluebells.  When you can just put the bags outside your house and the council eventually will collect them, and when there is a public recycling centre a few hundred yards further along the footpath on the industrial estate, it seems perverse.

The river sometimes floods, and the trees growing along the bank are festooned with tattered plastic bags and old clothing washed downstream; there are stains and trails of litter running down the high bank above the river on the opposite side, under the ends of the gardens of the estate houses above.

Every few months, McDonalds or the supermarket holds a sponsored litter-pick, and you find all sorts of people busy filling bags. I always take the trouble to thank them politely, because while it occurs to me that I have nothing better to do on my thrice-daily walks with the dog around the exurban space that passes for our local park, than to pick up the litter myself and just stop being offended by it, somehow my brain fails to recall my good intentions the next time, and we go out unequipped either to pick the litter or to cut back the brambles growing over the footpath behind the sewage works; another pet project for which somebody else might eventually take responsibility.

Yesterday, however, things got more serious. Passing the town cricket club, with its signs asking people please not to walk their dogs in the private grounds, I observed a family: a youngish man in a baseball cap, calf-length shorts and hoodie, his partner, their toddler and a large black dog, larking about behind locked gates on the actual playing surface.

Some protective civic instinct made me raise my cellphone to take a picture for identification purposes, should it be needed. Stupid, really, as I’m not a member of the cricket club and people trespassing in their grounds really is none of my affair. If they don’t want people trespassing they should fix the fence.

But they were too far away to photograph clearly, so I gave up the attempt. As I walked on, I heard commotion behind, a man loudly shouting ‘fucking paedo!’ I didn’t connect, until I got home and within minutes two policemen were on the doorstep, wanting to know why I was going around photographing people’s children, because (while it was not illegal!) there had been complaints, and I had been followed home and was seen photographing children along the way.

Now, a sometime journalist, movie-maker and blogger, perhaps a trifle OCD, I’m an information gannet. I make photographic notes of all kinds of mildly uninteresting things I encounter, for all kinds of purposes. I take pictures of:

…my dog; my cat; the exuberant wildflowers along the river; interesting cloud formations; garish sunsets over the bay; storm-damage; flooded landscapes; unusual rocks and weird jellyfish stranded on the beach; of unidentified insects; my guitar collection, for sales purposes; of my house, ditto – I’ve been trying to sell for nearly four years but nobody is crazy enough to want to live here, and I’m seeing why.

I record my DIY projects and workplaces, essentially other people’s gardens, showing how effective I’ve been at restoring them in case anyone wants to talk about a job. I kept a documentary record of the restoration of a nearby stately home I was paid to look after for seven years; I record, too, the more valuable things I own, mostly guitars, for insurance purposes when I get burgled; important documents; local views: for instance, of my street at night, so I can complain about the harsh lighting keeping me awake.

I also photograph things by accident, like my own eye, as I’m not very good with ‘smart’ technology and didn’t realise for ages that the camera points both ways front and back. Besides, it’s a cheap phone and you can’t see the viewfinder screen in daylight. Some cameras are ‘point and shoot’, mine is more ‘point and hope’. And the buttons are situated just where they can sometimes turn on the camera all by themselves, I find it’s been videoing the inside of my pocket.

So some of my shots are interestingly abstract. I sometimes photograph the washing-up, for documentary interest. I once proposed an exhibition of my colourfully artistic shots of food residues on plates after a party, ketchup and picallilli, custard and cake crumbs…. I took a shot in evidence of my garden hedge the other day, as I feared from the sounds of chainsawing that my neighbour, who is from Birmingham, was attacking the other side and could possibly kill off the whole thing, and I might have to sue him.

I’ve even tried taking selfies, as for some reason people need to know from time to time what I look like; only I don’t look at all like my selfies, which show an elderly, bearded man with receding hair and baggy pouches beneath alcoholically bulging eyes, living alone with his familiars: a dog with strange amber eyes and a magic cat, his guitars; keeping himself to himself, an outsider tragically photographing his own face in a small cottage on a main road in the noise-polluted outskirts of a small town.

Just like a fucking paedo, in fact.

Only, he isn’t! There is absolutely no reason to suppose anything of the sort.

The one thing I never, ever photograph is other people’s children. Or even other people, except maybe sometimes far in the background, for scale (I have a photographic and movie degree. I know about shooting landscapes.) What might strike you most about the several albums of photographs I hold on my computer is how few people are depicted in them at all. I’m not really a people person.

You probably won’t even find pictures of my family, my ex-wife and grownup kids, my ninety-year-old mother. They take countless pictures of each other, their holidays, their dinner parties with friends, their table layouts, their graduation ceremonies, their weddings; they can email me if they want. I’m just trying to make sense of the world around. Collecting evidence.

But when some concerned parent in a baseball cap decides that, no, neither he, nor his partner, nor their large, black dog trespassing on a private cricket square could possibly be the subjects of an elderly weirdo pointing a cellphone at them from a hundred yards away; but concludes instead that he must have been focussing directly (a physical impossibility at that distance) with some sinister intent on their little princess, and calls the police, who turn up on the doorstep the minute he gets in, you lie there at night wondering what on earth proof you can offer, to prove a negative. No, I wasn’t? I didn’t? I don’t? See for yourself?

But someone says you did.

And is there now to be a campaign of vilification, graffiti on my door, my car trashed, petrol through the letterbox, a pitchfork village lynching? Will I be followed around by men in baseball caps, shouting abuse at me? Have I become ‘a person of interest’?

I showed the policeman my cellphone. Look, a picture of my dog. A pie I ate, for some reason. Wildflowers. The river. My car. My newly decorated living-room. No children!

And the policeman said, well, you might have another phone somewhere.

And asked me where I was born.

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