Budget cuts, crime, and technology in modern Britain

In the spirit of making up the rules as we go along, we’ll start and end off topic. If you get bored along the way, just skip to the end.

In 1947, Jack Kerouac, of Beat Generation, to-hell-with society’s-expectations fame, wrote his mother asking for $25 so he wouldn’t have to hitch through the desert and mountains to get from Colorado to California. The letter went on sale recently. For $22,500.

So much for irony. Let’s talk about crime. Residents of Shoreditch–a London neighborhood–decided to simplify life for local drug dealers by posting signs warning drivers to “give way to oncoming drug dealers.” Other signs marked a crack pickup point and a parking spot reserved for drug dealers. 

The mayor (not of London but of Tower Hamlets–it’s complicated and for our purposes doesn’t matter) sympathized but said the council (that translates to local government) isn’t in charge of policing (which is true) and that budget cuts meant they had 200 fewer cops on the streets. I can’t verify the number but it’s a suspiciously round one, so for the sake of accuracy you might want to add or subtract a few cops. You’ll almost surely end up with the wrong number, but it’ll look more convincing.

Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

I’m not sure if that’s 200 fewer in London or in Tower Hamlets. If I had to guess, I’d say London. But never mind, I can swear or affirm that budgets have been cut and fewer cops are on the streets and behind the desks. If we were talking about the U.S., I’d say there were also fewer in the doughnut shop, but the link between cops and doughnuts turns out, mysteriously, to be an American thing. 

According to Penny Creed, vice-chair of the Columbia Road Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, which put up the signs, it’s not just police cuts that are the problem. “Drug programmes have been cut, mental health programmes have been cut, and it’s a perfect storm.”

After (or possibly before) the mayor expressed sympathy with the group, the council took the signs down, saying something that translates roughly to, “Very funny, kids. We’ll just put these away where the neighbors won’t ask about them. Now, who wants ice cream?”

The drug dealers had no comment.

So how’s a council supposed to save money and fight crime when budgets are being cut? By using technology, of course. At least five local councils are pouring data (not to mention that scarce resource, money) into a predictive analytics system to flag up kids who are at risk of being abused or who are vulnerable to gang exploitation. I think that means the kids are likely to be recruited by gangs, not to be victimized by them. If you’re being victimized, go create your own algorithm.

The theory is that this will let councils target their interventions better and, in this age of politically induced austerity, be more effective with less money. Which was what the government swore everyone would do as a result of austerity. 

What sort of data are they pouring in? Information from schools on whether kids are attending or being thrown out. Police records on antisocial behavior and domestic violence. Housing information, but only on council tenants (if you’re American, that means public housing tenants). The housing information includes repair records and being late with the rent, because people who are late with the rent are likely to do anything from abusing their kids to spending their money on silly things like food.

That’s the trouble with poor people: They never have enough money.

This means, of course, that if you live in council housing and kick in a wall, you go into the database and get watched. If you own your own home or rent from a private landlord, you can rampage through it as much as you like as long as no one calls the cops.

It also means that if you complain about–oh, let’s say fire hazards once too often and make the wrong bureaucrat mad, it’s not impossible to think you’ll end up in the database. Because people who annoy bureaucrats are likely to abuse their kids. Or am I being too cynical?

Is it possible to be too cynical?

Some categories of information were later excluded from consideration, but I’m damned if I could find out which ones.

Critics are saying that algorithms aren’t neutral–they incorporate their writers’ biases–and that the poor will be monitored more closely than the non-poor. The articles I found didn’t mention this, but surely someone out there is raising the possibility that once a person gets trapped by an algorithm and labeled as a risk, they may not be able to prove the contrary. If the computer says they’re a risk, they’ll be treated as a risk.

Is this just a way for cash-strapped councils to spend silly money because someone’s cousin runs a predictive analytics business (she asked cynically)? Possibly, but it’s also being looked at as a way for the councils to make money.

The Guardian writes, “Under the Troubled Families scheme, councils are paid £1,000 for each family they sign up to the programme, with a further payment of £800 when the family meets certain criteria.”  

It’s called payment by results and it means that if you’re trapped in an algorithm, it’s not just because no one can turn the computer off, it might also be because no one will have an incentive to.

In another approach to saving money and being more efficient, the East of England ambulance service wants to improve its response time by allowing ambulances with stable patients to divert to life-threatening emergencies before taking the stable patient to the hospital, although–as a paramedic pointed out–stable patients don’t always stay stable and the ambulance crew might be put in a position of having to choose which patient to use life-saving equipment on.

What’s worse, no one would get to pass Go.

A benefit of doubling people up, however, is that ambulance patients would meet new people and watch exciting scenes of paramedics saving lives, something they’d otherwise have to turn on the TV to see. Loneliness is a serious problem in first-world countries and it diminishes both the length and quality of people’s lives. This is a great way to combat it.

East of England also proposed asking the Royal National Lifeboat Institution–better known as the RNLI–to respond to emergency calls, although loading the lifeboat onto a trailer and dragging it inland is going to be time consuming.

When it was asked to comment, the RNLI said it couldn’t locate the request.

Check the circular file, people. Someone thought it was a joke and tossed it there.  

The East of England service has one of the ten slowest emergency response times in England but a high rate of people hearing their proposals and giggling.

How else can local government save money? By closing public toilets, and many have. Some areas don’t have a single public toilet anymore. I’d have said “some cities,” but the article I read carefully avoided the word. In Britain, the definition of a city is specific–it has to have a cathedral. In the U.S., it’s just a big place where a lot of people live. How big? Oh, you know, pretty big. 

But back to toilets: The country now has a third fewer public toilets than it did twenty years ago, according to data from the British Toilet Association.

I never had a chance to quote the British Toilet Association before. I can’t tell you how exciting this is.

Not having public toilets won’t shock Americans, although calling them toilets will. We don’t like to be reminded of what we use them for so we call them almost anything but toilets.

Setting the language issue aside, though, American cities don’t do public toilets. If you need to pee, what are you doing out in public anyway? We don’t actually say that, just act as if we had. Which is why so many New York subway stations smell the way they do. Or they used to, anyway. I grew up in New York but haven’t been there in a long time. When I first moved to Britain, I was impressed that the country had worked out a way to handle something so basic.

The toilet association is urging businesses to display a sticker letting people know that their toilets are available to non-customers. There’s no word on how many businesses are actually doing it, but I’m going to guess the number isn’t much above zero.

Since we’re talking about being short of money, this might be a good time to mention Katie Hopkins, a commentator who once said that poor people who get into debt have no one to blame but themselves. In September, Hopkins applied for an insolvency agreement to avoid going bankrupt. In other words, she owes more money than she has. Which reckless people might just call being in debt.

It all started when she wrote a tweet claiming that food writer Jack Monroe (who is, just to complicate things, a woman, so watch your pronouns) supported defacing a war memorial. Monroe asked Hopkins to apologize and donate £5,000 to a migrants’ charity.

Hopkins refused, the whole mess ended up in court, and Monroe won. When this surfaced in the papers, in September, Hopkins owed Monroe £24,000 and was stuck with legal costs large enough that if she paid them in pennies the stack would stretch from the top of the Tower of London to the moon unless it toppled over first.

She won’t be allowed to stack them that high because it would constitute a safety hazard. Britain is very careful about health and safety. What’s more, I may be overestimating the height of the stack. I’ve never put more than ten pennies in a pile and I don’t actually know the size of the legal bill. So if I’m wrong about this, please don’t sue me.

Just to complicate things, Hopkins’ mainstream media career collapsed (should I write, “is said to have collapsed,” just to be safe?) when she called for a “final solution” after the terrorist attack on the Manchester Arena. Was she aware that she was echoing the Nazi plan for the elimination of the Jews? I’m not inside the woman’s mind, so I can’t say. But it’s all okay, because she’s not poor so the current situation isn’t her fault.  

On a cheerier note, Britain has a new hobby: magnet fishing. To do this, you attach a powerful magnet to a line and drop it into a body of water.

What do people catch? “Mainly junk,” according to magnet angler Gareth Bryer. “A few pedal bikes, shopping trolleys, fences, road signs.” Also three guns, a crossbow, a samurai sword, machetes, knives, a grenade, and a cash box with £100. Other magnet anglers have recovered a cannonball from the English Civil War and an Enigma machine, which was used to decode German communications during World War II.

A bylaw (of what I don’t know) forbids taking things out of waterways owned by the Canals and Rivers Trust. Let’s assume, for safety’s sake, that the trust owns pretty much any public waterway. The fine is £25 but it doesn’t seem to be enforced much. Still, technically, taking junk out of public waters is illegal, which is why I’ve shoehorned it into this post.

By way of clarification, a pedal bike is what Americans call a plain ol’ bike. It’s also called a pushbike in British, to keep it from getting confused with a motorbike. And a supermarket trolley is what Americans call a supermarket cart. I’ve never had any reason to lift all four wheels of one off the ground at once (given the shape, I’m not sure I could), but I’m pretty sure they’re heavy enough to make them hard to haul out of a canal. And then there’s the question of what you do with it once you have it neatly deposited on the canalside path, where people walking past with their dogs will stop to ask, “What’re you going to do with that, mate?”

And you’ll still have to get it to your car on wheels that won’t be rolling smoothly anymore.

Then there’s that grenade…

I’ll give you a link somewhat at random, because the internet’s full of information about magnet fishing, most of it geared toward helping you take up the sport. If you want to part with some cash, you’ll find all sorts of equipment out there.

Without a single magnet in sight, Britain’s Conservative Party attracted the wrong kind of attention and more or less hacked itself. Just as its conference was getting ready to open, someone discovered that its app not only made its leaders’ private information available to anyone who logged on as attending, it allowed them to modify it. And to make it public, which someone or other gleefully did. Former foreign secretary Boris Johnsoon’s photo was briefly replaced with an unspecified pornographic image and  his title was changed to something that starts and ends with D and has a bunch of asterisks between them. I thought I swore fluently, but that one has me stumped.

Education Secretary Michael Gove’s photo was replaced with one of media baron Rupert Murdoch.

The story appeared on the same day the Conservative government announced that it will introduce guidelines on how much time kids should be allowed to spend on social media. If the kids spend less time at it, that should free up time for the adults in the party to learn how it works.

This next item is crime related but from the wrong country: An American self-published romance writer, Nancy Crampton Murphy, has been taking her research seriously. Having written a blog post called “How to Murder Your Husband,” she went ahead and murdered him. Allegedly. That’s allegedly as in it was allegedly her. There’s nothing alleged about him being dead.

I’d give you a link to her post but it’s been made private. CBS News says it listed the pros and cons of murdering your husband and quotes it as saying,  “Divorce is expensive, and do you really want to split your possessions?”

Tough question, right?

This next one has nothing to do with technology, crime, or budget cuts, but a love song by English singer Lily Allen, “As Long As I Got You” includes the line, “Staying home with you is better than sticking things up my nose.”

And here you thought romance was dead.

And quick, while we’re dipping into a few bits of irrelevance, a tourist to Cornwall posted a complaint on a private beach’s Facebook page. It turns out a rock was covered by waves so that she couldn’t see it and so she hurt her leg on it. And here I said Britain was health and safety conscious. What were they thinking, letting the waves come up over the rock like that?

Other comments on the page have at times included, “What time do the waves start?” and “When will the dolphins appear?”

*

My apologies for leaning so heavily on a single news source this week. I try to spread it out a bit, but it just didn’t work out this time. I was going to quote the Huffington Post on one story, but it wouldn’t let me read the article unless I signed an agreement with its new owner, Oath, allowing it to collect all my data in a stack that reaches the moon and presents a clear hazard to the public. 

When I tried to modify the agreement, as it so kindly invited me to do, I couldn’t find any modifications that made the least bit of sense. I swore many an Oath and thought I’d better leave before I clicked a button  that put me into a database of people at risk of being recruited by a drug gang.

Although that  would at least guarantee me a parking spot in London.

None of the buttons I found allowed me to say no to anything and I couldn’t find a box that said, “Leave me the hell alone.” My choices amounted to saying, “Yes, I’m happy for you to do whatever you want with my data because you have my best interests at heart.”

All this clicking and modifying is, I think, supposed to bring them into alignment with a European Union directive on privacy and data, which was in turn supposed to give us choices about who has our data and what they do with it.

I do love having choices.

And if I haven’t (as I suspect) been particulary funny this week, here by way of apology are a couple of corrections from far more respectable publications than this one. The first few are relatively pedestrian. Stay with me.

The Brazilian magazine Veja initially said that a political candidate liked to spend his free time watching Toy Story. Their apology explained that it should’ve said “reading Tolstoy.”

The New York Times had to correct itself after giving a Muslim scholar’s Snapchat handle as Pimpin4Paradise786. Turns out it’s imamsuhaibwebb.

To be even handed, the Guardian, which quoted these and which is famous for its typos, also called attention to one of its own mistakes, which was a recipe calling for 13 kilos of lamb instead of 1.3 kilos. One of my favorite Guardian misprints is a photo labeled “caption caption caption caption caption caption caption.”

Ah, but Lord Google supplies better Guardian corrections than that, including a one that read, “Heinz and Gome took credit for Sweet Peaches Probiotics . . .  [but] the product won’t and was never intended to make a woman’s vagina smell like peaches.”

Well, damn, that’s disappointing. What am I supposed to tell people if they point out that mine smells like a vagina? That it’s supposed to smell like that?

I think we’ll move on now.

Another correction read, “The ommision of a hyphen after the word ‘sheep’ meant readers were informed that the ancient Philistines of the Gaza coast were attacked by a curious combination of ‘savage sheep and goat-herding Hebrew tribes.’ ”

Ah, but there’s more: “An unwanted hyphen, introduced in the editing process, had us claiming in our print edition that the Villa Valmarana ai Nani, in Vincenza, Italy, was ‘named for the 17-stone nani, or dwarfs, that surround the home.’ To clarify: there are seventeen dwarf statues surrounding the villa, they are made of stone, and we’re not sure how much they weigh.”

A stone is a measure of weight in Britain. It equals 14 pounds or roughly one twelfth of a stone dwarf. (No, I don’t know how much they weigh either, but 97.5% of all statistics are made up.)

And then there’s the time when they quoted the chair of a football club as saying they had the worst team in the division. Turns out he said they had the worst tea.

The Guardian‘s very good at corrections and has enough practice at correcting itself that it’s developed a sense of humor about them. Its readers know the paper as the Grauniad.

Cutting Waste in Britain and New York

One of the things that impressed me when I first visited Britain was that they had public toilets. Not just along the highways, where I’d learned to expect them, but in towns and villages and cities. I mean, do I resonate with the romance of the place or what? Forget your castles, your prehistoric monuments, your green and pleasant land. Will you look at those toilets? An entire nation had noticed that humans have this recurring, messy, polluting need and had responded logically.

Well—as the kids on my block used to say—holy shit.

I grew up in New York, where if you’re out on the street and need to pee ( or anything else along those lines) you’re—oh, I can’t help myself: shit out of luck, because New York doesn’t do public toilets. You need one? Sorry, that sounds like a personal problem. You can’t expect the city to solve it for you.

Deeply Irrelevant Photo: Fountains Abbey

Deeply Irrelevant Photo: Fountains Abbey

If you have money, the problem’s manageable. Money has that effect on a lot of problems. You duck into the lobby of a hotel and head for the toilet (which, this being the U.S. and all, is called the bathroom), and if you’re dressed well enough and act like you belong there, you won’t be challenged. Or you stop someplace to buy a cup of coffee and you use the toilet there. That’s a solution that carries its own problem, since you’ll need another cup later on to get rid of the first one, but still, it’s doable.

If you don’t have money—well, that’s one reason so much of the subway smells of urine. I remember seeing a woman at a bus stop simply straddle the curb and let a stream loose from under her skirt. I was torn between shock and very reluctant admiration.

On my first visit to Britain, when I was so impressed with those public toilets, I didn’t find it easy to say “toilet” instead of “bathroom.” I’m American, and was even more so back then. Americans don’t say “toilet” if we can help it. In fact, I was in a café and asked someone who worked there where the bathroom was. She must’ve thought I was going to tear my clothes off and jump in a tub of hot water, because she did a visible double take. I made myself say, “Toilet,” but it didn’t quite repair the damage. She was in no shape to put words together, but she did manage to point.

In Britain, a bathroom has a bathtub. If it has a shower instead, it’s a shower room. If it has neither, it’s a toilet. Even after eight years, though, I feel crass when I say “toilet.” Much more so than when I say “shit.”

The human brain is a wondrous and baffling thing.

These days the U.K. has a government dedicated to cutting the deficit by cutting waste, and—okay, you see the pun coming, don’t you? I can’t help myself. It’s true. The talk’s all about reducing waste, but the reality is about public services crumbling: the health service underfunded, libraries and various kinds of community centers closing, all sorts of infrastructure not being maintained, and yes, toilets closing. Food shelves—which weren’t needed when I first moved here—are springing up and much in demand. A lot of the cuts are being pushed down to the local levels of government, which depend on the central government for a lot of their funding. Since that’s been cut, they have all the fun of deciding what to cut, and they get blamed for cutting it, since they look like the bad guys.

In our village, we initially heard that the county would be closing the toilets by the beach. The parish council entered into endless negotiations over how to keep them open and who’d bear the cost and who’d own them and who’d committed to a long-term cleaning contract that either would or wouldn’t have to be carried over by whoever either did or didn’t own the damned things.

And so on.

It went on for a long time, and in the end the village managed to keep them open. Not only does the cleanliness of the beach depend on them, but so do two local cafes. But not every village or town has managed to find the money, and many toilets have closed.

Maybe it will teach us all to rise above their physical urges.

Let’s hear it for cutting waste, folks.