Last month I was working from home one day, when I heard the postman drop off an unusually-loud stack of mail through our letterbox. Anticipating that one of them might have been a Graze box – and feeling the need for a little bit of a snack to keep my brain going – I wandered downstairs to take a look. There, among some other letters, I found a windowed envelope containing a pink letter: a Jury Summons.
Responses from people I’ve told about it have been mixed: some have been positive (“that sounds really interesting”); some have been negative (“isn’t there any way you can get out of it?”); others still have been curious (“you must tell us all about it!”). Personally, I’m pretty keen: it seems to me that jury duty’s an important civic duty, and I’m genuinely interested in the process. If it were a role that one volunteered for – and clearly it shouldn’t be, for reasons that ought to be obvious – then I’d volunteer for and give it a go, at least once: however, I wouldn’t necessarily volunteer for it now, when my work and life is so busy already!
I’ve spoken to people who’ve done jury service before, and a reasonable number of them said that they found the experience boring. From the sounds of things, there’re liable to be extended periods of sitting around, waiting to be (possibly) assigned to a trial. On the up-side, though, it seems likely that I’ll be allowed to use a portable computer in the waiting area – though obviously not in the courtroom or jury areas – so I might at least be able to get a little work done and simultaneously stave off boredom during any period that I’m not assigned to a case.
It’s the people who’ve expressed an interest in the process for whom I’ve decided to blog about my experience. Of course, I won’t be able to share anything at all about any case I’m assigned to or about the other jurors who served on them, but I can certainly share my experience of being a juror. Perhaps if you’re called to a jury at some point, it’ll give you some idea what to expect.
As part of the ongoing challenges that came about as part of the problems with my dad’s Will, I was required the other week to find myself a local solicitor so that they could witness me affirm a statement (or swear an oath, for those of you who are that-way inclined). Sounds easy, right?
Well: it turns out that the solicitor I chose did it wrong. How is it even possible to incorrectly witness an affirmation? I wouldn’t have thought it so. But apparently they did. So now I have to hunt down the same solicitor and try again. It has to be the same one “because they did it partially right”, or else I have to start the current part of the process all over again. But moreover, I’ll be visiting the same solicitor because I want my damn money back!
I’ll spare you the nitty-gritty. Suffice to say that this is a surprising annoyance in an already all-too-drawn-out process. It’s enough to make you swear. Curse words, I mean: not an oath.
Since my dad’s funeral earlier this year, I’ve been acting as executor to his estate. What this means in real terms is lots of paperwork, lots of forms, and lots of dealing with lawyers. I’ve learned a lot about intestacy law, probate, inheritance tax, and more, but what I thought I’d share with you today are some things I’ve learned about Wills.
Note: This blog post discusses the duties of an executor in a way that some people might find disrespectful to the deceased. No disrespect is intended; this is just the way that I write. If you’re offended: screw you.
Here are 4 things you should do when writing a Will (which my dad didn’t):
1. Keep it up-to-date
What you should do: So long as you’re happy with the broader clauses in your will, there’s no need to change it frequently. But if there’s information that’s clearly missing or really out-of-date, it ought to be fixed.
What my dad did: My dad’s Will was ten and a half years old at the time of his death. In the intervening time, at least five important things had happened that he’d failed to account for:
He’d bought himself a flat. Unlike his other real estate, he’d not made specific mention of the flat in his Will, so it fell into his “everything else goes to…” clause. We can only assume that this is what he intended – it seems likely – but specific clarification would have been preferable!
I changed my name. This was a whole five years before he died, but his Will still refers to me by my birth name (which wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem except for the issue listed below under “State your relationships”).
I moved house. Seven times. The address for me (under my old name, remember) on my dad’s Will is one that I lived in for less than six months, and over a decade ago. That’s a challenging thing to prove, when it’s needed! Any of the addresses I lived at in the intervening 10+ years would have been an improvement.
The ownership model of a company in which he was the founder and a large shareholder changed: whereas previously it was a regular limited-by-shares company, it had become in those ten years an employee-owned company, whose articles require that shares are held only by employees. This posed an inheritance conundrum for the beneficiaries of these shares, for a while, who did not want to sell – and could not legitimately keep – them. Like everything else, we resolved it in the end, but it’s the kind of thing that could have been a lot easier.
His two daughters – my sisters – became adults. If there’s somebody in your Will who’s under 18, you really ought to re-check that your Will is still accurate when they turn 18. The legacies in my dad’s Will about my sisters and I are identical, but had he died, for example, after the shares-change above but before my youngest sister became an adult, things could have gotten very complicated.
2. State your relationships
What you should do: When you use somebody’s name for the first time, especially if it’s a family member, state their relationship to you. For example, you might write “To my daughter, Jane Doe, of 1 Somewhere Street, Somewhereville, SM3 4RE…”. This makes your intentions crystal clear and provides a safety net in finding and validating the identity of your executors, trustees, and beneficiaries.
What my dad did: In my dad’s Will, he doesn’t once refer to the relationship that any person has to him. This might not be a problem in itself – it’s only a safety net, after all – if it weren’t for the fact that I changed my name and moved house. This means that I, named as an executor and a beneficiary of my dad’s Will, am not referred to in it either my by name, nor by my address, nor by my relationship. It might as well be somebody else!
To work around this, I’ve had to work to prove that I was known by my old name, that I did live at that address at the time that the Will was written, and that he did mean me when he wrote it. And I’ve had to do that every single time I contacted anybody who was responsible for any of my dad’s assets. That’s a job that gets old pretty quickly.
3. Number every page, and initial or sign each
What you should do: If your Will runs onto multiple pages, and especially if you’ll be printing it onto multiple sheets of paper (rather than, for example, duplexing a two-page Will onto two sides of the same sheet of paper), you should probably put page numbers on. And you should sign, or at least initial, the bottom of each page. This helps to reduce the risk that somebody can tamper with the Will by adding or removing pages.
What my dad did: My dad’s will is only dated and signed at the end, and the pages are completely un-numbered. It clearly hasn’t been tampered with (members of the family have seen it before; a duplicate copy was filed elsewhere; and we’ve even found the original document it was printed from), but if somebody had wanted to, it would have been a lot easier than it might have been if he had followed this guideline. It would have also made it a lot easier when he made an even bigger mistake, below (see “Never restaple it”).
4. Never restaple it
What you should do: Fasten the pages of your Will together with a single staple. If the staple bends or isn’t in the right place, destroy the entire Will and re-print: it’s only a few sheets of extra paper, the planet will cope. A Will with additional staple marks looks like a forgery, because it’s possible that pages were changed (especially if you didn’t number and/or sign every page) after the fact.
What my dad did: His biggest mistake in his Will (after failing to identify me in an easily-recognisable manner) was to – as far as we can see – print it, staple it, remove the staple, and re-staple it. It was the very first thing I noticed when I saw it, and it was among the first things out lawyers noticed too. In order to ensure that they can satisfy the Probate Registry, our lawyers then had to chase down the witnesses to the signing of the Will and get statements from them that they believed that it hadn’t been tampered with. Who’d have thought that two little holes could cause so much work?
I could have made this list longer. I originally started with a list of nine things that my dad had done when he wrote his Will that are now making my job a lot harder than it might have been, but I cut it down to these four, because they’re the four that have caused the most unnecessary work for me.
Unless your estate is really complicated, you don’t need a solicitor to write a Will: you just need to do a little reading and use a little common sense. I’m a big fan of people doing their own legal paperwork (hence my service to help people change their names for free), but if you’re going to write your own Will, you might like to do half an hour’s background reading, first. This stuff is important.
When I first looked at the task of acting as my father’s executor, after his death, I thought “I can have this all wrapped up in eight months.” That was six months ago, and there’s probably another six months or more in it, yet. I heard from a friend that they call it “The Executor’s Year”, and now I can see why. We’re getting there, but it’s taking a long time.
Even when all the crying’s done and the bereaved are getting on with their lives, the executor’s always got more to do. So please, for the sake of your executor: check today that your Will doesn’t make any of these four mistakes! They’ll thank you, even though you won’t live to hear it.
Warning: this post contains details of the nature of the accident that killed my father, including a summary of the post-mortem report and photographs which, while not graphic, may be evocative.
Last week, I attended a coroner’s inquest, which (finally) took place following my father’s sudden death earlier this year. It’s been five months since he fell to his death in the Lake District, while he was training for a sponsored trek to the North Pole this spring. Despite the completion of the post-mortem only a week or so after his death and the police investigation not running on too much longer after that, it took a long time before the coroner was ready to set a date for an inquest hearing and finally put the matter to rest.
I made my way up to Kendal – presumably chosen for its proximity to the coroner who serves the hospital where my father was airlifted after his fall – in a rental car, picking up my sisters and my mother in Preston on the way. We were joined at the County Hall by my dad’s friend John (who was with him on the day of the accident), Kate (a partner of my dad’s), and – after his complicated train journey finally got him there – Stephen (one of my dad’s brothers).
Mostly, the inquest went as I’d anticipated it might. The post-mortem report was read out – the final verdict was that death was primarily caused by a compression fracture in the upper spine and a fracture of the base of the skull, which is a reassuringly quick and painless way to go, as far as falling injuries are concerned. John’s statement was summarised, and he was asked a series of clarifying questions in order to ensure that my dad was properly equipped and experienced, in good health etc. on the day of his accident.
This was clearly a painful but sadly-necessary ordeal for John, who’d already been through so much. In answer to the questions, he talked about how he and my dad had rambled together for years, about how they came to be where they were on that day, and about the conditions and the equipment they’d taken. And, in the minutes leading up to my dad’s death, how he’d been coincidentally taking photographs – including the one below. He’d been in the process of putting his camera away when my dad slipped, so he didn’t see exactly what happened, but he looked up as my dad shouted out to him, “John!”, before he slid over the cliff edge.
Later, we heard from the police constable who was despatched to the scene. The constable had originally been en route to the scene of a minor road crash when he was diverted to my dad’s accident. He related how the two helicopter teams (the Air Ambulance hadn’t been able to touch down, but paramedics had been able to leap out at low altitude, so an RAF Search & Rescue helicopter was eventually used to transport the body to the hospital) had worked on the scene, and about his investigation – which had included seizing John’s digital camera and interviewing him and the other ramblers who’d been at the scene.
That’s all very sad, but all pretty-much “as expected”. But then things took a turn for the unexpected when Kate introduced herself as a surprise witness. Making an affirmation and taking the stand, she related how she felt that my father’s walking boots were not in adequate state, and how she’d told him about this on several previous occasions (she’s now said this on her website, too).
I’m not sure what this was supposed to add to the hearing. I suppose that, were it not for the mitigating factors of everything else, it might have ultimately contributed towards a possible verdict of “death by misadventure” rather than “accidental death”: the subtle difference here would have affected any life insurance that he might have had (he didn’t), by giving a reason to reject a claim (“he wasn’t properly-equipped”). John’s statement, as well as subsequent examination of my dad’s boots by my sister Sarah, contradicted Kate’s claim, so… what the hell was that all about?
We all handle grief in different ways, and its my hypothesis that this was part of hers. Being able to stand in front of a court and describe herself as “Peter’s partner” (as if she were the only or even the most-significant one), and framing his death as something for which she feels a responsibility (in an “if only he’d listened to me about his boots!” way)… these aren’t malicious acts. She wasn’t trying to get an incorrect verdict nor trying to waste the courts’ time. This is just another strange way of dealing with grief (and damn, I’ve seen enough of those, this year).
But I’d be lying if it didn’t cause quite a bit of concern and confusion among my family when she first stood up and said that she had a statement to make.
Anyway: regardless of that confusing little diversion, it’s good that we’ve finally been able to get the coroners’ inquest to take place. At long last – five months after my dad’s death – we can get a proper death certificate I (as an executor of his will) can start mopping up some of the more-complicated parts of his estate.
Last week I was talking to Alexander Dutton about an idea that we had to implement cookie-like behaviour using browser caching. As I first mentioned last year, new laws are coming into force across Europe that will require websites to ask for your consent before they store cookies on your computer. Regardless of their necessity, these laws are badly-defined and ill thought-out, and there’s been a significant lack of information to support web managers in understanding and implementing the required changes.
To illustrate one of the ambiguities in the law, I’ve implemented a tool which tracks site visitors almost as effectively as cookies (or similar technologies such as Flash Objects or Local Storage), but which must necessarily fall into one of the larger grey areas. My tool abuses the way that “permanent” (301) HTTP redirects are cached by web browsers.
[callout][button link=”http://c301.scatmania.org/” align=”right” size=”medium” color=”green”]See Demo Site[/button]You can try out my implementation for yourself. Click on the button to see the sample site, then close down all of your browser windows (or even restart your computer) and come back and try again: the site will recognise you and show you the same random number as it did the first time around, as well as identifying when your first visit was.[/callout]
Here’s how it works, in brief:
A user visits the website.
The server generates a random unique identifier for this user.
Subsequent requests to the server, even after closing the browser, skip steps 3 through 5, because the user’s browser will cache the 301 and re-use the unique web address associated with that individual user.
Compared to conventional cookie-based tracking (e.g. Google Analytics), this approach:
Is more-fragile (clearing the cache is a more-common user operation than clearing cookies, and a “force refresh” may, in some browsers, result in a new tracking ID being issued).
Is less-blockable using contemporary privacy tools, including the W3C’s proposed one: it won’t be spotted by any cookie-cleaners or privacy filters that I’m aware of: it won’t penetrate incognito mode or other browser “privacy modes”, though.
Moreover, this technique falls into a slight legal grey area. It would certainly be against the spirit of the law to use this technique for tracking purposes (although it would be trivial to implement even an advanced solution which “proxied” requests, using a database to associate conventional cookies with unique IDs, through to Google Analytics or a similar solution). However, it’s hard to legislate against the use of HTTP 301s, which are an even more-fundamental and required part of the web than cookies are. Also, and for the same reasons, it’s significantly harder to detect and block this technique than it is conventional tracking cookies. However, the technique is somewhat brittle and it would be necessary to put up with a reduced “cookie lifespan” if you used it for real.
[callout][button link=”http://c301.scatmania.org/” align=”right” size=”medium” color=”green”]See Demo Site[/button] [button link=”https://gist.github.com/avapoet/5318224″ align=”right” size=”medium” color=”orange”]Download Code[/button] Please try out the demo, or download the source code (Ruby/Sinatra) and see for yourself how this technique works.[/callout]
Note that I am not a lawyer, so I can’t make a statement about the legality (or not) of this approach to tracking. I would suspect that if you were somehow caught doing it without the consent of your users, you’d be just as guilty as if you used a conventional approach. However, it’s certainly a technically-interesting approach that might have applications in areas of legitimate tracking, too.
Update: The demo site is down, but I’ve update the download code link so that it still works.
You may remember the long-running story of my letters to the Office of National Statistics, and the more-concentrated effort by another blogger, in regard to the automatic “correction” of supposedly-“erroneous” data in the 2011 census, like somebody having multiple partners or identifying as neither gender. You don’t? Well here’s a reminder: part one, part two, part three, part four.
Well: we’ve finally had some success. A response has been received from the ONS, including – at last – segments of business logic from their “correction” code.
It’s hard to tell for certain what the result of the correction will be, but one thing’s for sure – Ruth, JTA and I’s census data won’t have passed their validation! Their relationship validations BP2, BP2a, and BP2b state that it is logically-impossible for a person to have a spouse and a partner living with them in the same household.
I should invite them around for dinner sometime, and they can see for themselves that this isn’t true.
I also note that they consider it invalid for anybody to tick both or neither of the (two) gender option boxes, although again, it’s not clear from the data they’ve provided how the automatic correction occurs. Increasingly, I’m coming to suspect that this might actually be a manual process, in which case I’m wondering what guidelines there are for their operators?
One good piece of news from this FoI request, though: the ONS has confirmed that the original census data – the filled-in paper forms, which unlike the online version doesn’t enforce its validation upon you – is not adjusted. So in a hundred years time, people will be able to look back at the actual forms filled in by poly, trans, and other non-standard households around the UK, and generate actual statistics on the frequency with which these occur. It’s not much, but it’s something.
Following up on my earlier blog posts about how data on polyamorous households is recorded in the census (see parts one, two, and three), as well as subsequent queries by Zoe O’Connell on this and related topics (how the census records data on other relationships, such as marriage between same-gender partners and civil partnerships between opposite-gender partners), there’s finally been some progress!
No; that’s a lie, I’m afraid. We’re still left wading around in the same muddy puddle. Zoe’s Freedom of Information Act request, which basically said “Okay, so you treat this kind of data as erroneous. How often does this happen?” got a response. And that response basically said, “We can’t tell you that, because we don’t have the information and it’d cost too much to work it out.” Back to square one.
Still: it looks like she’s not keen to be beaten, as she’s sent a fresh FoI request to instead ask “So what’s the algorithm you’re using to detect this erroneous data?” I was pleased to see that she went on to add, effectively, “I don’t need an explanation: send me the code if you need to,” which makes it harder for them to fall behind the “It’s too expensive!” excuse yet again.
Anyway: it’s one to watch. And needless to say, I’ll keep you all posted when anything changes…
This week, I was reading the new EU legislation [PDF] which relates to, among other things, the way that websites are allowed to use HTTP cookies (and similar technologies) to track their users. The Information Commissioner’s Office has released a statement to ask website owners to review their processes in advance of the legislation coming into effect later this month, but for those of you who like the big-print edition with pictures, here’s the short of it:
From 26th May, a website must not give you a cookie unless it’s either (a) an essential (and implied) part of the functionality of the site, or (b) you have opted-in to it. This is a stark change from the previous “so long as you allow opt-outs, it’s okay” thinking of earlier legislation, and large organisations (you know, like the one I now work for) in particular are having to sit up and pay attention: after all, they’re the ones that people are going to try to sue.
The legislation is surprisingly woolly on some quite important questions. Like… who has liability for ensuring that a user has opted-in to third-party cookies (e.g. Google Analytics)? Is this up to the web site owner or to the third party? What about when a site represents companies both in and outside the EU? And so on.
Honestly: I’m tempted to assume that only this guy has the right approach. I’m all in favour of better cookie law, but can’t we wait until after the technological side (in web browsers) is implemented before we have to fix all of our websites? Personally, I thought that P3P policies (remember when those were all the rage?) had a lot of potential, properly-implemented, because they genuinely put the power into the hands of the users. The specification wasn’t perfect, but if it had have been, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now. Perhaps it’s time to dig it up, fix it, and then somehow explain it to the politicians.
Polygamous marriages are not legally recognised in the UK and therefore any data received from a questionnaire that appeared to show polygamous relationship in the manner that you suggest would be read as an error. It is recognised that the majority of respondents recording themselves as being in a polygamous relationship in a UK census do so erroneously, for example, ticking the wrong box for one household member on the relationships question.
Therefore, the data to be used for statistical purposes would be adjusted by changing one or more of these relationships, so that each respondent is in a relationship with no more than one person. This is consistent with all previous UK censuses, and others around the world.
A copy of the original questionnaire would be retained as part of the historical record which would show such relationships as they were recorded. We do not attempt to amend the original record.
Any mismatches between the indicated sex and marital status of respondents will be resolved using a probabilistic statistical system which will not necessarily deal with each case in the same way. The system will look at other responses for each person, including those for the Household relationships, and will alter one or more variables to make the response consistent. In the example that you propose, it would either change the sex of one individual, or change the marital status to “Same-sex civil partnership”, depending on which is considered statistically more likely to be correct.
Honestly, I’m not particularly impressed. They’ve committed to maintaining a historical record of the original, “uncorrected” data, so that future statisticians can get a true picture of the answers given, but this is about the only positive point in this response. Treating unusual data as erroneous is akin to pretending that a societal change doesn’t exist, and that this approach is “consistent with previous censuses” neglects to entertain the possibility that this data has value that it might not have had previously.
Yes, there will be erroneous data: people who accidentally said that they had two husbands when they only have one, for example. And yes, this can probably (although they don’t state how they know to recognise this) be assumed to be more common that genuine cases where somebody meant to put that on their census (although there will also be an error rate amongst these people, too). But taking the broad brush approach of assuming that every case can be treated as an error reeks of the same narrow-mindedness as the (alleged; almost-certainly an urban legend) statement by Queen Victoria that lesbianism “didn’t exist.”
“Fixing” the data using probabilities just results in a regression towards the mean: “Hmm; this couple of men say they’re married: they could be civil partners, or it could be a mistake… but they’re in a county with statistically-few few gay people, so we’ll assume the latter.” Really: what?
I’m not impressed, ONS.
Update: a second FoI request now aims to determine how many “corrections” have been made on censuses, historically. One to watch.
However, in the meantime somebody’s one-upped me and has put in a Freedom of Information request, which – of course – the law mandates that they respond to. I should’a thought of that. Anyway, you can read the request here, and there’s options to follow it by RSS and/or email if you want updates.
Update (27th April 2011):Still no word in response to the FoI request.
How am I expected to irresponsibly enjoy an alcohol-free beer? By selling it to people as “the real stuff”? It’s certainly not by drinking it – you’d have to drink somewhere in excess of one-hundred and sixty-seven bottles of Beck’s Blue, for example, to get the same amount of alcohol as you’d get in one pint of 4% ABV beer (thanks, Wikipedia), and Beck’s Blue is just about the most alcoholic of the “alcohol-free” beers.
Perhaps juggling the bottles would be an irresponsible way to enjoy it. The shopkeeper certainly seemed to think so this evening.
* Beck’s Blue is an alcohol free beer, in case you didn’t know. My year-off alcohol’s going okay (now over half-way through!), by the way, although I’m developing a taste for alcohol-free things and I’m not sure that I’m permitted to maintain posession of my Y chromosome.
Watched Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind last night with Claire and Paul. It’s an absolutely stunning film (currently ranking at #49 in the IMDB’s top 250 films list), a must-see! Go watch it! But try to know as little as you can about it before you do; it’ll only improve the expeirence.
And isn’t exactly the same as with other crimes. Like burglary, say? It’s fine unless you get caught. Is that also “semi-legal”, then?
Oh… but I see the difference. You won’t get nicked and you won’t get fined, but the drug will be confiscated. Now here’s a thought – you’re a police officer and you’ve just caught some kids skinning up a nice fat one, and so you confiscate it and send them running off back to school. Now you could return to the station… to report a crime for which there will never, ever be a trial… and turn in the joint to be destroyed… or…
…what’s the bet that drug use on the beat will increase somewhat when these changes go through?
In any case, I’m all in favour of the decriminalisation of cannabis, but I still think it should be legalised and controlled, like tobacco. And the tax benefits to the treasuary would be fantastic. Not to mention the better control over where it is grown and sold, reducing drug-related crime (not a huge issue with cannabis, anyway, but nevertheless a good move).