One born every minute…

A Sucker, that is.

On our recent trip to America, we were deceived in various ways three times by enterprising Americans. Each one is worthy of closer analysis.

The first one I’ll call the plausible panhandler. A tall, black lady, smartly dressed, immediately offered to guide us in the right direction less than 10′ from the exit doors of the LAX Airport arrivals hall. Offering no more information than what we had already been given by a Virgin rep as we transitioned from airside (Purple bus stop 200 yards on your right) she floweringly and eloquently expressed it in a friendly and lively manner, seamlessly segueing into a spiel about collecting for a Los Angeles Mission that worked with homeless children, all currency accepted, receipts given. Knowing that we had been somewhat lined up but being polite Brits we reluctantly handed over a note (£10 if my memory serves me) and we were immediately given a receipt, or rather a printed card with the Mission details. On reflection, if she was a member of staff connected to the Airport in some way, the airport wouldn’t have approved of a sideline in chugging (charity mugging). If she wasn’t, then the airport wouldn’t have approved of her operating as a disguised chugger either. Whether she was chugging or simply panhandling, her verbose description of the purple bus stop certainly earned her £1 for entertainment value.

The second I’ll call the employee scammer. Pier 39 at San Francisco is a very entertaining collection of shops, attractions and street theatre, the best free entertainment of all being the resident sea lions honking nearby. There is a small 4D theatre near the end that had three 3D movies with added effects (moving chairs, mist, bubbles etc. hence the 4D). The movies are shown in sequence during the day and over the box office, countdown clocks showed the time to the desired feature. One of the three features was Spongebob Squarepants (a favourite of David’s) and it was only a few minutes away.

Now this show was fairly expensive for what it was ($12.95?) and we debated whether to get triple show offers or just David going in as he was gagging to do it and we knew that we probably had discount coupons back in the hotel room. Anyway, we decided to all three go on for the single show. On offering my Visa travellers debit card (Post office Dollar version) the counter clerk asked if we could possibly pay cash instead, as the credit card reader was playing up. I did so, he gave me three tickets, and in we went.

Now whilst we were waiting inside, I glanced down at the tickets we had been given, then noticing something odd, took a closer look. The top one was indeed for Spongebob Squareparts dated and timed for that showing, but the other two were a little more dog eared and were actually for other movies at earlier times. This appeared to be a scam where a third of the money goes to the business but the other two thirds gets re-distributed. (When the tickets were collected indoors they were simply pocketed rather than torn, after a cursory glance at them that suggested the guy inside may have been in on the scam as well).

Now I didn’t lose out personally on that one, but it did annoy me that they were ripping their Bosses off and it is hard to believe that fairly obvious (practically blatant) dishonesty would not come unstuck sooner or later. I imagine that the credit card reader worked fine, it was just a bit tricky for the ticket clerk to embezzle some of the proceeds when cash was not involved. Similarly, giving dodgy tickets to someone who is obviously a native english speaker is risky. What if I’d been a Cop?

(I’m reminded of a holiday I took to Greece back in 1988 during my transition from the Telecoms industry to the entertainment technology (cottage) industry. I visited a number of archaeology sites in walking distance of the Parthenon and at each one, I exchanged my Drachmas for a rather pleasant souvenir ticket with a coloured image of the treasures within. The last site I visited, however, was slightly different. A wrinkled old Greek man in the kiosk gave me an extremely non-pristine ticket in exchange for my money. Then, when I had finished looking round, he tried to blag it back off me on my way out!)

The third piece of stitching up was of the Corporate variety. Virgin holidays have a partnership with Dollar car hire which I personally feel that they should review as if my experience was typical it involves deception in so many small ways that I can comfortably call them swindlers. We had booked car hire for 11 days, one way rental, drop-off at the Sheraton Fishermans Wharf, SF. We were staying in the nearby Holiday Inn and last time we went to SF, the car stayed in the Hotel garage from the evening we arrived to the day we drove to the airport. As we had been made aware that the hotel charged $40 dollars a day for parking (now actually $41 plus tax) we saw little need to pay so much just to be able to drive to the airport. We pre-paid for something called the Platinum package, all of the death by a thousand cuts that makes sure that you are fully covered for every eventuality.

Whilst flying over, I’d dreamily suggested that an open top convertible would be great for the big drive we needed to do from San Diego up to San Francisco. It wasn’t a very practical suggestion, of course, because small convertables tend to have small luggage space and we had two large suitcases. Last time a Chrysler Neon with two of us and one case had been fine, but now there were three of us, although our “Frequent Virgin” status entitled us to a (minor) updrade. Anyway, on arrival at Dollar at their large off-airport depot, we were given the usual hard sell of paying for an upgrade. We were already a bit grumpy at that point because we had already queued at the counter with the large Virgin sign to be told we had to go to the other main counter which had a large queue (which had got even larger whilst we waited wrongly in the wrong queue). Anyway, we were spun a line about how the car we were allocated didn’t have a trunk so our luggage would be visible (a red herring of course, our luggage would be in the hotel room most of the time). The pictures of the various cars didn’t really indicate what they were like and we hadn’t heard of any of the models. Previously, we have generally just refused the hard sell then found we had a bigger car allocated anyway, as there is a certain amount of pot luck involved. Anyway, after him extolling the benefits of the next class up, I asked him what it would cost us. $9.99 a day, he said with a straight face. Knowing we would have two days with extensive driving, I decided that $110 bucks was probably reasonable for a bit of comfort. Of course, I forgot the cardinal rule of much of North America- the price you see is rarely the price you pay, unless the item is exempt from sales tax. (That probably only applies to Ice cream and Churros).

We then enquired about dropping off the car- would it be OK to terminate the hire one day early if we made good time to SF? Sure, no problem at all. What time would the office close? Airports are 24 hours, city Hotel ones close at round about 10:30pm, he advised. Bizarrely, he let us choose any car we wanted out of two nominated zones outside, and after picking something the size of a Range Rover (with three rows of seats, but the back row folded to form the boot bit) we were ready for the off. Just as I was about to pull off, the car chimed and put on the service light, which was annoying as you expect hire car companies to be on top of service intervals, but there again, most cars start reminding you of this a couple of thousand miles before it is actually due and we couldn’t be bothered to pick and repack another car. Another grumble was the lack of an operating manual in the glovebox, there were numerous dashboard controls which we had no idea what they actually did and had to work them out the hard way, or just not bother with them.

Anyway, the car was fine for the first ten days of the holiday, but after we had set off from San Diego for our long drive to San Francisco, the car chimed again and the engine icon lit orange. Having checked all the levels, we decided to detour slightly to a Dollar office we had noticed opposite our hotel in Anaheim. The guys there owned up that they couldn’t actually do anything for us because they were actually only a concession, but the light was likely to just mean the service was required and we only needed to worry if the icon flashed and it triple-chimed. If we were still concerned though, the office at LAX airport would change the car, or otherwise they highlighed the roadside assistance phone number.

Pressing on, we eventually arrived up in San francisco, but when we found the Dollar office there, it transpired that it closed at 5pm and they wouldn’t accept car drop-offs out of hours. As the parking was even more expensive there and we didn’t want to have to mess about to fit in with free on-street parking (meter hours were 7pm to 7am) we found the cheapest overnight car park nearby, still a substantial $28.

On returning the car in the morning, I was extremely miffed to find that my $9.99 a day charge totalled more than $280 dollars. It seems that they wanted to charge me 11 days of breakdown cover/personal protection at $11.44 a day, more than what the car was costing me, along with some minor taxes here and there. Anyway, I declared them to be charlatans and I’ll take it up with the holiday company first to see if it is a misunderstanding, a miscalculation or simply a legalised swindle.

I see no reason to willingly patrionise Dollar car rental again, along with KPMG and Capital One, my current short list of Companies who have pissed me off enough to stay on my boycott list.

Update: Now I have the bill in front of me, here were the “extras”

State Tax 9.25% $18.68
Tourism Surc 2.5% $2.75
apconrecfee 11.11% $26.19
Upgrade 11 days@ 9.99 $109.89
prsnlprotpla 11 days@ 5.45 $59.95
Roadsafe 11 days@ 5.99 $65.89
TOTAL CHARGES $283.35.

Harumph.

The quango cabinet

This has been a very bad week for the Labour Party. I’m delighted of course.

We now have a cabinet with seven unelected cronies, the makings of a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation. Craig Murray calls it the most undemocratic Government for over a century.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister lies through his teeth on National Television. He is at best delusional and it would seem that the sky is brown on his planet.

Can it last until next June? Do we care?

Saturday night is music night. This seems appropriate…

Where’s Wally?

During our extended blogger break, the Greys managed to fit in a holiday over in California.

America has many joys, along with a few bummers as well, but I’ll save them for another time.

Anyway, visiting the San Frncisco Museum of Modern Art (known as SFMOMA), David asked me if I’d spotted Wally.  Now I didn’t expect to find Wally the children’s stripy jumpered bobble hatted specky geek in such a highbrow museum and it turned out that we were both right: Wally was on a nearby rooftop readily viewable from the corridor leading to SFMOMA’s new roof garden which had only opened a few days before.

Anyway, there are no doubt many children dragged along to the rather stuffy art gallery delighted to spot Wally (or in most cases, Waldo) for themselves.

(Actually, the museum isn’t stuffy at all, but much of the installations aren’t particularly child-centric. David was bemused by the Caravan and the child surrounded by hundreds of poodles though).

Where's Wally?Ah, there he is, hiding behind the chillers.

(Click for bigger pics)

The power of the pencil

Today is polling day in Britain. It is a fallow year for local elections in the Leeds area as we have a Medieval agrarian voting system of electing a third of the Councillors every year then having a year to recover, such is the effort required. We get to vote for six MEPs though, out of a total of 72 to the twelve EU Regions that make up what we (but the EU don’t) call England.

We had a selection of leaflets through the door from six parties (from Labour, Conservative, Liberal-Democrat, BNP, Greens and UKIP) but on examining the candidate list ont’ ‘interweb I saw that there were actually twelve parties standing with a total of sixty nine candidates (one new party only fielded three names, although it is possible that this is not for financial reasons as apparently the deposit is £5,000 for an individual OR a party).

Anyway, no further leaflets being forthcoming, I thought I’d just do a bit of web sniffing about the various remaining parties, describing themselves as  Pro democracy:Libertas.eu, No2EU: Yes to democracy, Jury Team, English Democrats “putting England first”, Christian Party “Proclaiming Christ’s Lordship” and Socialist Labour Party (LEADER ARTHUR SCARGILL). (Actually, I didn’t bother with the last two, God botherers and Weetabix wearers don’t float my boat).

 As I worked through the sites, it was apparent that none of them were by any stretch of the imagination libertarian. Socialist, or righteous, certainly and often Eurosceptic to some degree, but often somewhat single issue. A look at the candidate biographies was often revealing as well, one lead candidate looked rather shifty to me and hunches are what we use for initial judgement.

I then took a closer look at the Jury Team. I have been following http://wwwthepartysover.blogspot.com on Google reader for a few months now and their view of individuals as independents over political parties is a one that certainly resonates. Indeed I put forward such a position before I stood on Morley Town Council and for a period, the collective individualism was an effective force. (Alas, that was frittered away once a party of independents was formalised and they got the whips out…)

So, having got past the front page, I checked out the three Yorkshire candidates, but alas, I found them wanting in various ways. They weren’t likely to rein in the EU Superstate,  their backgrounds weren’t particularly ordinary, their road maps were certainly not about rolling back the State , they didn’t even appear to acknowledge the iniquitous system, namely the 27 unelected Commissioners who actually made the 75% of law imposed upon us from their star chamber rather than the 785 MEP’s of the Europarl who merely tinkered with it.

My default is generally UKIP for the EU (or not bothering at all) but in many ways they appear to be  a bunch of cowboys who seem to forget their prime mission when the wheelbarrows of SISO cash become on offer once they make it to Brussels (or Strasbourg). It is probably the most pertinent protest vote though (other than the “don’t vote for the big three” or “anyone but Labour” which is more of a British protest vote, not really what Europe is about).

I saw the following quote on Facebook today and thought that the person who said it did have something of a point:

…trying to choose a political party in this country is like choosing which paedophile I’d like to dress as a clown for my children’s birthday party. 

So, visiting the polling station this morning, I was still in two minds. UKIP or Noneoftheabove? Or indeed something else?

On arriving at the polling booth at about 7:25, I noted that I was the fifth person to vote in my Ward. (That might indicate a big increase in turnout, often I’m the first!). The ballot paper was pretty big, about A4 width but A3 length. (I was advised that I had to fold it twice afterwards so that it would fit in the ballot box).

The polling booth had a sign saying something to the effect of:-  “you have one vote- vote for a party or a person”, but I couldn’t vote for a person as they were all grouped together against their party. (Some places today do actually have independents standing but it is a high bar to clear for an individual unless (s)he is very flush).

I looked at the form, appraising the open spaces for writing in the spoilit party. Then I remembered what seems to happen to spoilt ballots at the count. They provide a source of mild amusement to the counting assistant depending on the sophistication of the message. They are seperated off for a cursory look by the returning officer’s sidekick and any possible but ambiguous ones are discussed with the candidates concerned (where the indication of the voter is mostly clear but it might be technically incorrect by having ticks, or perhaps extra crosses with some scribbled out). Otherwise the spoilt papers are counted  and logged then generally unreported by the media, sometimes not even published properly by the Councils unless pressed.

Of course, if vast numbers of people spoilt their paper that would be news…

Anyway, in the end, I held my nose and crossed the bottom box for UKIP.

It turns out that lots of people have been contacting UKIP because the polling clerks have been handing out the ballot sheets folded and the voters haven’t realised that UKIP were on the bit folded over at the back, rather than missing. A bizarre story and the comments over at Iain Dale’s place on this reflect a wide range of opinions, although mostly erring on voter stupidity.

I have to say that my ballot form wasn’t folded at all so I had no trouble finding them, but I don’t think that the clerks should be folding them when they hand them out.

Update: The Beeb has the story (and a picture of a folded ballot paper). Is it just me, or is the way it is folded rather odd? That might be how you fit it in an envelope using a machine, but you either third or quarter it in normal circumstances. I suspect that they might have had to bring out more ballot boxes during the day to some polling stations as well because it would get increasingly harder to get those folded pieces of paper through the slot.