Peter Rhodes on racist ghosts, computer cock-ups - and why not set fire to red tape?

Read the first column of the week from Peter Rhodes.

 New boiler? Read the small print
New boiler? Read the small print

Condemning the Halloween industry, columnist Michael Deacon declares: “The use of white bedsheets as ghosts fails to reflect the true diversity of the spirit community.”

It says something for the age we live in that I am obliged to point out that Deacon is a satirist and his comment is not to be taken seriously. It is something that in more innocent times we used to call a joke. Remember those?

According to the headlines, we can get grants of up to £5,000 to scrap old gas boilers and replace them with heat pumps under the government's Boiler Upgrade Scheme. Hang on. Isn't that what they promised us under the late, unlamented Green Homes Grant? That, too, offered a government contribution of £5,000. But the small print explained that the voucher would merely cover 75 per cent of the total cost unless “ you, or someone in your household, receives certain benefits.”

It's a pity we can't keep warm by burning red tape.

In Bath, a lady wearing a T-shirt with the logo “Knitter” was walking across Pulteney Bridge when she was snapped by the CCTV monitoring the bus lane. The computer, being brainless, assumed “Knitter” was a vehicle number plate, traced a van in Dorking with the number KN19TER and sent an automated fine to the bemused owner.

The good news is that this little spat has been sorted out with much laughter and goodwill and the fine was cancelled. The bad news is that brainless algorithms are controlling our daily lives.

I was once travelling in a car fitted with a clever gizmo that scanned the road ahead for speed-limit signs and flashed them up on the dashboard, informing the driver that the limit was 34, 50, 70 or whatever. Suddenly, the display started showing 90, which is 20mph more than the maximum UK limit. What was going on? It turned out the gizmo had spotted a 90 speed-limit disc on the back of the lorry in front of us and assumed (remember the T-shirt?) that this was a warning sign.

Again, no harm done. But does anyone seriously believe computers have the wisdom to be trusted, say, with driving driverless cars? I am reminded of Jim Hacker in Yes, Minister whose computer keeps breaking down. “You told me this was state-of-the-art,” he complains.

A civil servant explains: “Yes, minster, that is the state of the art.”

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