Alex Salmond’s criticism of the UK Supreme Court is grandstanding

So, Mr. Sal­mond would like to see the remov­al of the Supreme Court’s power to decide Human Rights issues with regard to the Scot­tish crim­in­al justice sys­tem. Moreover, he has chosen to per­son­al­ise the issue by attack­ing Lord Hope, the deputy pres­id­ent of the Supreme Court, and pre­vi­ously lord justice gen­er­al of Scot­land. The situ­ation has become so far­cic­al that the Scot­tish Gov­ern­ment, led by the SNP, are look­ing at remov­ing fund­ing for the Supreme Court.

Loads of heat and noise there, against a tar­get that, to retain its impar­ti­al­ity, does not involve itself in polit­ics. It’s easy to shoot at some­thing that won’t shoot back, isn’t it?

Any­way, the changes the SNP are pro­pos­ing will not mean that decisions of the Scot­tish crim­in­al courts will not be prone to any review — it will mean that, as before the intro­duc­tion of the Scot­land Act and the Human Rights Act, Human Rights chal­lenges to it will have to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Stras­bourg rather to the UK Supreme Court. This will of course mean con­sid­er­able delay com­pared to now. And on the European Court of Human Rights there are pre­cisely no judges with extens­ive under­stand­ing of the Scot­tish crim­in­al justice sys­tem. On the UK Supreme Court, there are two — Lord Hope and Lord Rodger, who is unfor­tu­nately ill at the moment.

What Alex Sal­mond is doing is trans­par­ent — and it has noth­ing at all to do with the qual­ity of justice in Scot­land, or the rest of the UK. Sal­mond, as lead­er of the Scot­tish Nation­al Party, has just won a major­ity in the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment. His party are com­mit­ted to a ref­er­en­dum on wheth­er Scot­land should be inde­pend­ent or not in the lat­ter half of this par­lia­ment­ary ses­sion. It is there­fore to his advant­age to cri­ti­cise decisions made by oth­ers that affect Scot­land — it’s the old “them and us” ploy. While Mr Sal­mond has always had a tend­ency to play the “poor down­trod­den Scots” card at every oppor­tun­ity, to per­son­al­ise the attack against the Scot who, with the oth­er mem­bers of the Supreme Court, is the last bas­tion against Human Rights-based mis­car­riages of crim­in­al justice in Scot­land, is rep­re­hens­ible.

What we should really be ques­tion­ing here is the decisions of the High Court of Jus­ti­ci­ary in Edin­burgh. In both their judg­ment in Fraser and HMA v McLean (the fore­run­ner to Cad­der) — the lat­ter with a bench of no less than sev­en justices — they have got a point of Human Rights law wrong. What is caus­ing this dif­fi­culty in cor­rectly ana­lys­ing wheth­er aspects of the Scot­tish crim­in­al justice sys­tem is com­pli­ant with the Con­ven­tion on Human Rights?

Penalties from HMRC and reasonable excuses

For a long time, HMRC have taken the view that where the law allows a “reas­on­able excuse” for the late fil­ing of a return — be that a self-assess­ment per­son­al tax return, Cor­por­a­tion Tax return, VAT return or PAYE return — the reas­on­able excuse must relate to an event or situ­ation that was excep­tion­al and unfore­see­able. Ordin­ary fail­ings or mis­un­der­stand­ings were not enough.

We are def­in­itely see­ing, how­ever, a change in atti­tude from at least one Tribunal judge. In Colin Humphreys v Rev­en­ue & Cus­toms [2011] UKFTT 98 (TC), the tribunal said (at para. 8):

HMRC con­tends that if the appel­lant is to estab­lish that he has a “reas­on­able excuse” for the late pay­ment he must show that excep­tion­al cir­cum­stances exist. That is not the test stip­u­lated by the legis­lature. The words “reas­on­able excuse” are ordin­ary Eng­lish words to be giv­en their prop­er every­day mean­ing. There is no jus­ti­fic­a­tion for the gloss that HMRC seeks to put on those words.

I notice that one of the Tribunal judges in that case has gone some­what farther then before: In Ballysil­lan Com­munity For­um v Rev­en­ue & Cus­toms [2011] UKFTT 257 (TC) the tribunal said (at para. 3):

I have to bear in mind that this is a case in which a pen­alty has been levied. In those cir­cum­stances the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Jusil­la v Fin­land (73053÷01) ECtHR (Grand Cham­ber) is highly mater­i­al. The Court decided that a pen­alty or sup­ple­ment charged by the rev­en­ue author­it­ies of a mem­ber coun­try is in the nature of a crim­in­al pen­alty and thus any pro­ceed­ings in respect of it attract the pro­vi­sions of art­icle 6 ECHR (right to a fair tri­al). Thus, in my judge­ment, it is for HMRC to sat­is­fy me to the crim­in­al stand­ard, so that I can be sure, that the required fil­ing did not take place.

So, we have a two-pronged attack here on HMRC’s insist­ence that an excuse must be excep­tion­al: firstly, an ordin­ary read­ing of the enact­ing legis­la­tion (Sched­ule 55 of the Fin­ance Act 2009) must be under­taken as the words “reas­on­able excuse” are not used with a spe­cif­ic defin­i­tion. And since the European Court of Human Rights have held that a pen­alty to make a return is essen­tially crim­in­al in nature, it requires a crim­in­al level of proof.

I wouldn’t be sur­prised if we see a first-stage tribunal determ­in­a­tion based on one or the oth­er of these points appealed. I per­son­ally am happy with the rul­ing based on the defin­i­tion of “reas­on­able excuse” — the phrase is clear, and I do not believe it to be ambigu­ous. Look, for example, at “reas­on­able doubt” — a phrase that has been clearly under­stood in crim­in­al cases for a very long time.

I’m not so sure though about the Jusil­la point. It seems to me to be a fairly inter­pret­ive read­ing of the case. One point, though, does jump out at me: the Grand Cham­ber (at paras 32–34) con­cern them­selves with the pro­por­tion­al­ity of the pen­alty. They have no prob­lems with 10% (with a cap at some level), they do seem to have a prob­lem with a fixed sum that is not in pro­por­tion to the tax owed.

It may be, ulti­mately, that “reas­on­able excuse” gets a leg­al redefin­i­tion, either judge-made or in stat­ute, but fixed pen­al­ties get changed into per­cent­age pen­al­ties. This may be of some advant­age to the indi­vidu­al or small busi­ness: it may reduce the pen­al­ties on small errors. That seems fair to me.

Instant Messenger Conversation Modifies Contract; Signed With ‘Awesome’

This isn’t a UK case, but I could see the same hap­pen­ing here — as the art­icle states, all the ele­ments of a con­tract seem to be present:

Instant Mes­sen­ger Con­ver­sa­tion Mod­i­fies Con­tract; Signed With ‘Awe­some’:

Many people don’t quite real­ize that almost any kind of “agree­ment” can be seen as an enforce­able con­tract in the eyes of the courts. While some people think a con­tract has to involve a full writ­ten doc­u­ment and sig­na­tures, that’s often not true at all. Take, for example, a case involving affil­i­ate sales of e-cigar­ettes, in which a writ­ten con­tract was deemed to be mod­i­fied by a simple instant mes­sen­ger con­ver­sa­tion. The affil­i­ate com­pany, CX Digit­al, wanted to remove the con­trac­tu­al lim­it of 200 refer­rals per day for sales of Smoking Everywhere’s e-cigs, and the fol­low­ing IM con­ver­sa­tion ensued:

[CX] (2:50:08 PM): We can do 2000 orders/day by Fri­day if I have your bless­ing

[CX] (2:52:13 PM): those 2000 leads are going to be gen­er­ated by our best affil­i­ate and he’s legit

[Smoking Every­where]: is avail­able (3:42:42): I am away from my com­puter right now

[CX] (4:07:57 PM): And I want the AOR when we make your offer #1 on the net­work

[Smoking Every­where] (4:43:09 PM): NO LIMIT

[CX] (4:43:21 PM): awe­some!

Smoking Every­where then tried to bail out on pay­ing CX the affil­i­ate fees owed, and claimed (among oth­er things) that this didn’t rep­res­ent an actu­al modi­fic­a­tion of the con­tract which had the 200 per day lim­it stated. The court didn’t buy it, not­ing that this is a per­fectly fine example of an offer, counter-offer and accept­ance, all encap­su­lated in instant mes­sen­ger.

(Via Tech­dirt.)

How I now take notes while studying

The pro­cess of try­ing to cap­ture what I’m learn­ing is a pro­cess that is still under a degree of tri­al and error, here. When I was at school and last study­ing at uni­ver­sity level, it just kind of went in. I didn’t care about the pro­cess. Now, a few Open Uni­ver­sity courses later of vary­ing dif­fi­culty, I find that I need to pay some atten­tion to the tech­niques of study­ing, in order to find ones that suit me best. Con­tin­ue read­ing “How I now take notes while study­ing”

More evidence of dumbed-down UK schools

Look what French kids get up to at their A-Level equi­val­ents:

Con­tro­versy Erupts in French Classrooms over Per­mit­ting Teens to Genet­ic­ally Modi­fy Bac­teria: Sci­entif­ic Amer­ic­an:

A row has broken out in France over wheth­er 15- and 16-year-olds should be allowed to cre­ate trans­gen­ic Escheri­chia coli bac­teria in the classroom.

Prac­tic­al exper­i­ments in which stu­dents learn how to use plas­mids to alter the DNA of the bac­teria have been under way for 17 and 18-year-olds in the final year of the sci­entif­ic bac­ca­laur­eate at schools across France for the past dec­ade.

When I was in my final year in School, in 1985–6, we used to be able to do bio­logy at this sort of level (not exactly of course, plas­mids hadn’t even been dis­covered then — but approx­im­ately the same level of tech­nique.

I bet kids in the final year of A-Levels in the UK nowadays aren’t even allowed near live cul­tures, let alone being allowed to breed new ones.

How changing my bedding helped me at the gym

You don’t often think about the things you have forever believed to be right for you.

My shoulders have troubled me for years — OK, they weren’t exactly helped by a couple of acci­dents that caused rotat­or cuff dam­age, but the prob­lem has gone one much longer than that. And in Octo­ber it got to the point that it was hold­ing everything up at the gym; and for three months I got very frus­trated with that, as any­one who fol­lows me on twit­ter will attest.

A couple of weeks ago I decided that, in order to let them calm down, I needed to sleep flat on my back at night. Now, I don’t like doing that. I snore. But the snoring’s mit­ig­ated by a spe­cial gum­shield now, and any­way, the shoulders are more import­ant. So I dug the spe­cially-shaped memory foam pil­lows out the attic, and put them on the bed.

It didn’t work. Just like last time. The time they ended up in the attic in the first place. I kept turn­ing on my side and curl­ing up — as I always have done. So much so that my pos­ture is very poor: my left shoulder is usu­ally car­ried a little for­ward, caused by always sleep­ing on my right hand side.

So I began to think about why I do that. I had nev­er con­sidered it before. OK, I like curl­ing up, but that’s not enough of a reas­on, espe­cially when asleep. Then I finally real­ised why I do this.

My duvet is too light.

I’m get­ting cold.

I’m curl­ing for warmth.

After that blind­ing flash of the obvi­ous, I dug out my 15 tog duvet (for com­par­is­on, I was pre­vi­ously using a 4.5 tog one, through­out the year) and tried it out.

My good­ness, it’s heavy. But I don’t find myself auto­mat­ic­ally curl­ing up now. And lying flat at night is hav­ing a slow but sig­ni­fic­ant effect on the shoulders — they’re nowhere near per­fect yet, but I’m able to work out prop­erly, without pain. I’m not at full strength, but that will come back in time. Too light­weight a duvet. Who would have spot­ted that one?

How to stay safe at a public Wi-Fi hotspot

Using pub­lic WiFi is becom­ing risky, if you pass import­ant inform­a­tion insec­urely over it. There are freely avail­able tools out there that will listen in to all the net­work traffic, look­ing for pass­words — and now there are tools, like Firesheep, men­tioned below, that will hijack ses­sions you’ve already securely logged into.

Takeaway les­son? Any time you’re using a pub­lic WiFi spot, encrypt all activ­it­ies if you can. And def­in­itely encrypt pass­words going to your mail serv­er. I’ll be enfor­cing that last one on my mail serv­er in the next few days.

How to stay safe at a pub­lic Wi-Fi hot­spot

(from Ars Tech­nica)

Viking found organic compounds on Mars in 1976

Vik­ing Found Organ­ics on Mars, Exper­i­ment Con­firms : Dis­cov­ery News:


Using Mars-like soil taken from Atacama Desert, a study con­firms Mars has organ­ics, and Vik­ing found them.

A reana­lys­is of Mars Vik­ing exper­i­ments shows the probes did find organ­ics.
The res­ult was not ini­tially under­stood due to the strong oxid­a­tion effects of a salt in the Mars soil known as per­chlor­ate.
A fol­low-up study on per­chlor­ate-enhanced soil sim­il­ar to what’s found on Mars revealed fin­ger­prints of com­bus­ted organ­ics.
The Vik­ing 1 Lander, illus­trated in this mod­el, touched down on the west­ern slope of Mars’ Chryse Plani­tia (the Plains of Gold) on July 20, 1976.

Prevent deactivation of Find My iPhone or iPad

It’s not often I’m post­ing com­puter or phone-related stuff here any more, but this one is clev­er and deserves wider atten­tion:

Pre­vent deac­tiv­a­tion of Find My iPhone — Mac OS X Hints:

Cur­rently if you do not have a pass­word on your device a thief (or child) could deac­tiv­ate Find My iPhone. How­ever most people don’t know that you can pre­vent this by using a passcode. (This might require iOS 4.2 or later; I didn’t have an earli­er ver­sion to test it.)

To pre­vent any­one from turn­ing it off you can do the fol­low­ing steps:

  • Open Set­tings and go to ‘Gen­er­al.’
  • Scroll down and tap on ‘Restric­tions.’
  • Turn on restric­tions and enter a four digit passcode and repeat to turn on.
  • Under ‘Allow Changes:’ turn both of the switches Loc­a­tion and Accounts to Off.

Now you can­not dis­able find my iPhone without the passcode. This also pre­vents changes to any­thing related to loc­a­tion ser­vices and changes made to your email accounts.

Find my iPhone is free. Works for iPads too, of course.

My ideal retirement home

This is to where, one day, I would hope to retire:

View Lar­ger Map

It’s a dream, but it’s a good one. Look around in the map on the link. The house to the left of the blue door is where I spent many many hol­i­days as a kid.

The main win­dow, on the middle floor, used to be a big bay win­dow where you could sit in and read books and watch the fish­ing boats come in and out of the nearby har­bour. I’d change it back to how it was.