2024i26, Friday: Commonplace #4

2024i26, Friday: Commonplace #4
Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

A couple of hangers-on from Monday, now:

Walkers Snack Foods Ltd v Commissioners for His Majesty's Revenue and Customs (VAT - snack foods - whether standard rated by Note 5, Group 1, Part II Schedule 8 VATA 1994 - whether products made from the potato or potato starch) [2024] UKFTT 31 (TC): I had to start with this one, because it's a hilarious piece of judicial writing. For all the usual understated reasons: the best and funniest UK judgments don't come out and point and jeer, but you can read the sighs (at best) and muffled giggles (at worst) between the lines. There's a wonderful piece about this in FT Alphaville, and I was pointed to it by a very, very old friend, on whom may blessings be multiplied. (IB: you're a star.)

The below, from para 39, is the best line. But it isn't the only wonderful one. This is all about Walkers wanting to get their "Sensations Poppadoms" product zero-rated for VAT (joking aside, you can see why: imagine the extra markup and extra sales you could get if retailers didn't have to flog them with 20% added on top for the taxman):

Nominative determinism is not a characteristic of snack foods: calling a snack food “Hula Hoops” does not mean that one could twirl that product around one’s midriff, nor is “Monster Munch” generally reserved as a food for monsters.

And, at 66 and 67 as part of the crescendo to the finale and quoting from a Court of Appeal case dealing with the grave issue of the tax status of Pringles:

  1. We also remind ourselves that, at 14, Jacob LJ observed that “This sort of question – a matter of classification – is not one calling for or justifying over-elaborate, almost mind-numbing legal analysis. It is a short practical question calling for a short practical answer.”
  2. The arguments about similarity included comparisons to poppadoms, and reference was made to HMRC guidelines which indicate that poppadoms will be zero-rated. However, the use of the word “poppadom” is something of a red herring (to badly mix foodstuffs).

Definitely belongs in the big bag of judgments I keep mentally labelled: I want to write like this when I grow up.

And yes: definitely reminiscent of that famous cake-vs-biscuit decision of 1991. And the more recent issue of Tunnock's Teacakes. During which apparently the tribunal resorted to a taste test...

Pluralistic: Kelly and Zach Weinersmith's "A City On Mars": by Cory Doctorow. Bloody Cory Doctorow. Love what he writes. Love that he never, EVER stops thinking - and writing what he thinks. Deeply jealous of the insane throughput of good stuff he achieves. This is a review of a book that will be intensely frustrating to all the nerds (hi there) who've loved sci-fi for decades, most of which focuses on humanity moving out from this glorious rock of ours and into the broader cosmos. But all the more important for all that - particularly given the tendencies of some of the more dudebro types in the rich tech world. You know who they are.

The Weinersmiths make the (convincing) case that every aspect of space settlement is vastly beyond our current or reasonably foreseeable technical capability. What's more, every argument in favor of pursuing space settlement is errant nonsense. And finally: all the energy we are putting into space settlement actually holds back real space science, which offers numerous benefits to our species and planet (and is just darned cool).

Every place we might settle in space – giant rotating rings, the Moon, Mars – is vastly more hostile than Earth. Not just more hostile than Earth as it stands today – the most degraded, climate-wracked, nuke-blasted Earth you can imagine is a paradise of habitability compared to anything else. Mars is covered in poison and the sky disappears under planet-sized storms that go on and on. The Moon is covered in black-lung-causing, razor-sharp, electrostatically charged dust. Everything is radioactive. There's virtually no water. There are temperature swings of hundreds of degrees every couple of hours or weeks. You're completely out of range of resupply, emergency help, or, you know, air.

Important to note - as Cory does - that this isn't some "forget the tech" screed. Nor is it a "stuff space exploration" whinge. No:

With City on Mars, the Weinersmiths aren't making the case for giving up on space, nor are they trying to strip space of its romance and excitement. They're trying to get us to focus on the beneficial, exciting, serious space science we can do right now, not just because it's attainable and useful – but because it is a necessary precondition for any actual space settlement in the distant future.


Derisking is Risky: by David Birch. David thinks and writes about finance and new technology (not, I stress, just "fintech"). Always worth reading, sometimes - as here - provocative. But there's an interesting point for those like me (yes, I know, a familiar drum I'm banging) who are frustrated to the point of white-hot anger at the effective decriminalisation of fraud in the UK and its consequences:

We’ve all heard stories about friends or colleagues finding them, or their kids’ sports club or their elderly parents or their cousin’s small business, getting a letter from the bank saying “sorry, your account is being closed, there’s no point calling us because we can’t tell you why”. These are stories about what banks refer to as “exiting” or “de-risking” but, as an very good piece in the New York Times points out, this isn’t about banks getting tough on people who bounce checks: this starts with regulators and then trickles down through bank compliance departments and on to your branch manager (or managerbot).
Things are going to get even worse in the U.K. too because the banks are now forced to recompense customers who are the victims of scams. Hence it is entirely predictable that banks will become more cautiousabout opening or maintaining accounts for disadvantaged, older or more vulnerable consumers. This is why I expect to see another rash of the stories about de-banking in a few months time when the Financial Conduct Authority's new “Consumer Duty of Care Regulations” begin to bite. Banks will be required to assess vulnerable customers and make additional provisions for supporting these customers. Since these provisions will be expensive and will undoubtedly include indemnifying these customers against fraud and scams of all kinds under the Contingent Reimbursement Model, it seems to me an entirely predictable outcome that banks will begin to drop vulnerable customers like hot potatoes.
Here in the U.K. we lack even the most rudimentary infrastructure for tackling financial crimes. Thousands of bogus companies are created every day at Companies House, billions of pandemic support money is still missing, authorised push payment (APP) scams are commonplace and fraud is completely out of control. Instead of incentivising banks to walk away from problems, couldn’t we instead incentivise them to co-operate and create an infrastructure for digital identity, strong authentication and verifiable credentials that might go some way to tilting the cost-benefit analysis around de-risking?

You are not an embassy: by Jamie Bartlett. Via Charles Arthur, another online national treasure. (Who manages to do this kind of commonplace thing, sometimes with a dozen or so links, every day. Bloody hell.) To Jamie I say: hell yes. spot on, pal. Preach.

What’s wrong with calling out the bad stuff going on? Nothing per se. And certainly not on an individual level. The problem is when people feel a soft and gentle pressure to denounce, to praise, to comment on things they don’t feel they fully understand. Things they don’t feel comfortable speaking about. Things that are contentious and difficult to discuss on heartless, unforgiving platforms where the wrong phrase or tone might land you in hot water.
What social media has done is to make silence an active – rather than the default – choice. To speak publicly is now so easy that not doing it kind-of-implies you don’t know or don’t care about what’s going on in the world. Who wants to look ignorant or indifferent? And besides, who doesn’t want to appear kind or wise, or morally upstanding in front of others?
But the result is an undirected anger from all sides: frenetic, purposeless, habitual and above all moralising. There’s nothing wrong with occasionally saying what you think and sometimes it’s very important. It’s the avalanche, the barely thought-though, the mania to show how morally righteous you are in public that’s the problem.

January 14, 2024: by Heather Cox Richardson. I had no idea that Heather was making millions out of her Substack. Good on her (and here it's her choice whether she stays or goes; what each person does about Substack's wee Nazi problem has to be a personal call). This is characteristically good:

...And I came to believe that heroism is neither being perfect, nor doing something spectacular. In fact, it’s just the opposite: it’s regular, flawed human beings choosing to put others before themselves, even at great cost, even if no one will ever know, even as they realize the walls might be closing in around them.
It means sitting down the night before D-Day and writing a letter praising the troops and taking all the blame for the next day’s failure upon yourself, in case things went wrong, as General Dwight D. Eisenhower did.
It means writing in your diary that you “still believe that people are really good at heart,” even while you are hiding in an attic from the men who are soon going to kill you, as Anne Frank did.
It means signing your name to the bottom of the Declaration of Independence in bold print, even though you know you are signing your own death warrant should the British capture you, as John Hancock did.
It means defending your people’s right to practice a religion you don’t share, even though you know you are becoming a dangerously visible target, as Sitting Bull did.
Sometimes it just means sitting down, even when you are told to stand up, as Rosa Parks did.
None of those people woke up one morning and said to themselves that they were about to do something heroic. It’s just that, when they had to, they did what was right.

The story of Noel Thomas's jumper: by Richard Moorhead. Finally, for today, back to Horizon. Richard has been calling POL and Horizon, and others responsible, for years, blessed may he be. This strikes straight home.

Uh oh, I thought. This was a moment I had been dreading. This was, I sensed immediately, a Noel Thomas Jumper moment. I had a very familiar feeling of the need to fight back tears. I only half managed it.
The jumper of Mr Thomas?
There is a picture of Noel Thomas standing outside the RCJ just after his conviction was quashed with his wife, Eira. It's rather haunting and, as it turns out, unhappily prescient of the struggles beyond that day. The other thing about it is a simple and personal coincidence: my late Dad wore the same jacket and jumper. He did so all the time. I often have a moment when this picture comes up in the slide deck for my talks on the Scandal.
And that's why it's me done on the sofa: a connection I cannot undo or ignore. Not very rational but fraught with meaning. My best shot at explaining that meaning is my Mum and Dad ran a pub. Working class Geordies, Shazia sounded like one of my aunties, decency and kindness was what they valued most. Working in the pub, they got to know a lot of people. They knew…. who would help you out? Who’s always first to buy a round? Who can laugh at themselves? They knew who passed these tests in our local village and didn't care about the other stuff; “success” or money stirred neither admiration nor envy.

We all know these people. Any chance you get to celebrate them, to let them know how much the world revolves around them: sweet Lord, do so.