A story of ordinary discrimination

I don’t like writing about politics, despite me having strong opinions on some matters. The last time I spent time writing about this, it was about xenophobia in software, and this time it’s a very related story.

Before I start with the tale, I need to prefix that at a first read, it might sound like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. This is probably true for me, as I’m playing on the lowest difficulty setting, being white, wealthy and from a country that is, in most parts of the world, well considered (what I have read more than a few racist commenter define “a good immigrant”). I want you to think twice, though, if this would be just as “silly” for someone with a higher difficulty setting.

So this tale starts with me signing up for a energy supplier programme. This is a Very British Thing to do, so let me explain a bit about this. Like at least a few countries in Europe, and all those I lived in, the UK has a “liberalised” energy market, which means the consumers (including the tenants) can choose which company to give their money to, for their electricity (or gas).

Because of human nature, capitalism, marketing, and whatever else happens, the normal behaviour of these suppliers is to offer you what is usually a very good deal with a lock-in contract of 12 months. After the contract expires, you’re on a monthly-basis on a terrible tariff — you can then either choose to lock in with them for another 12 months for a less-terrible tariff, or switch supplier to one that offers you a better deal yet. From a purely monetary point of view, switching is always a winning strategy. From the human point of view of not wanting to bother, it’s not uncommon to renew with the same supplier, or even not noticing the contract expired and being overcharged.

Since looking at different suppliers, figuring out the best option, and actually switching are time-consuming tasks, it can get to the point where the money saved is not worth the time spent. And that created an opportunity for middlemen to insert themselves into the picture, in the form of energy supplier switching programmes. These programmes take your information, find you a better deal, and even sign you up to switch, with various degrees of automation.

iChoosr in particular tries to find deals for groups, with the idea that you can get a better deal from a supplier by giving them a ballpark of how many people would sign up for it. This is the middleman that Unite the union chose to run their twice-yearly switching programme. I signed up for it last year, because I was able to — I was provided with a no-lock-in contract with EDF when I moved into the apartment, but was getting annoyed at them calling me every two weeks or so to ask me if I wanted to install a smart meter (my landlord didn’t want, I didn’t want to bother.)

Last year, the chosen supplier was So Energy, which turned out to have a very friendly website, too. I switched. Then this year when the time to renewal came I signed up for the programme again. The answer was different this year (unsurprisingly), and E-On Energy was chosen, which was even more interesting to me, as Santander also had a “retailer offer” to sign up for E-On.

And here is where things went badly. I got the offer and went to their website to fill in the form, but when I stated that I lived at this address for only one year and eight months, I was asked for my previous address, which had to be in the UK. No overseas address option was available in the form. And I couldn’t even mess up with the fields, because it wanted to look up the address by (UK) post code.

I already wrote about this in the previous post of course. So that’s not entirely surprising either, but it is a non-small annoyance. It turns out that you need three years of addresses in the UK to be able to pass the credit check that E-On requires. It’s a “tax on the immigrants” in the sense that you will have to choose a more expensive supplier if you can’t provide that data. I decided to renew with So Energy, if nothing else because they are not unfriendly to recent immigrants — and the difference being less than £100 a year made it not worth the hassle to chase E-On around.

I did, though, send a complaint to iChoosr about the fact that their service is not friendly to immigrants. And today that complaint got an answer:

Dear Mr Diego Elio Petteno,

Thank you for contacting us.

We are sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused. Please note that the system asks for your previous address for the credit check by the supplier. However, if your previous address is not in the UK we would advise you to please fill out that you have lived in the UK more than 3years. That way you may be able to complete your switchover process.

For your convenience Please find below the link to your personal offer (if the link does not work then copy the entire link and paste it into your browser’s address bar). This page provides you with your personal details, current energy figures and your offer:

[Continues with usual drivel with link and request for information — F]

“Dianah” from iChoosr support

As I complained on Twitter after reading this email, their answer is worse than the problem! (El tacon pexo del buxo in my dialect.) They suggested, in writing, for me to lie on a credit check form. Let’s not even comment at how they keep calling it a “personal offer”, given that it is not available to me.

Now it is very possible that, all other things being the same, the credit check would pass just fine. If nothing else, Santander giving me a credit card seems to have taken care of most of those problems. And to be honest, I could probably just have asked my girlfriend to sign up in my place, since she’s been living in the UK much longer than me. But beside me not wanting to give money to a discriminating supplier, there is the other “small” problem of lying in credit check forms.

Again, remember I’m playing at the lowest difficulty level. Lying on the credit check form will probably not do me any harm. But what about a worker with a lower salary who just arrived from a different country? What if the credit company noticed the inconsistency and marked their credit rating further down?

Anyway, after complaining on Twitter, because that’s something I do, iChoosr stated that this is not their standard operating procedure, and even offered to “manually switch” me, without the requirement of three years in the UK. Note that once again, this is for me, a white male working for a big company, coming from a country that is not associated with immigration as much as it should be.

This is unfortunately the norm. If you lived all your life in the UK, all of this is hidden away: of course you have more than three years worth of addresses! If you have enough money that you don’t really care about switching provider, then of course you don’t notice credit checks or anything of the sorts. But it does create a much less friendly environment for those of us who move into the country.

Luckily, there are other cases. The dentistry clinic that just opened across the street from us is staffed mostly by immigrants. They know how hard it is, they remember how annoying it was when they arrived. And they made sure that the financing company the signed up with is able to take overseas addresses. Given that there is no interest applied on the financing, I fear they might have just taken the hit of paying higher fees to guarantee that.

Of course the consideration there is not just for their own experience; assuming that would be naïve to say the least. The other side of that calculation is that their location in West London is as such that a lot of their customers are likely immigrants, that might or might not have lived for three years in the UK already, and might thus need a bit more relaxed credit check environment than, say, Richmond High Street.

This is why I’m upset with Unite, too. The fact that their provider does not care to select offers that accept immigrants out of the box throws a shade to them just as much as iChoosr: many of the people counting on these deals are likely on lower salaries than mine, and for them the price difference can be an actual difference. Even more so if they have recently moved to the country. I should send my complaint to them just as much at this point.

Take my experience of this molehill, think it through with the lenses of someone who might not be as privileged as you are, and then start pressuring the companies you work for, or that you pay money to, to actually care about the real people. Rather than just about their bottom line.

Game style considerations

Warning for the readers of Gentoo Universe, this is a blog post that has nothing to do with technology, and it should rather be categorised as personal ramblings on life and games. Feel free to ignore the post if you don’t care about it. Also, I’m dealing slightly with my political views, please do not troll the comments about it, thanks.

Spoiler alert: not much about what you’ll learn about me, but rather on Fallout: New Vegas of which I’ll describe the ending in a moment. So if you intend to play the game, you should stop reading now, or I might make it not work playing (well, not really, but nevermind).

While I’m nowhere near an hardcore gamer, I’ve played my fair share at one time. I’ve been playing videogames since my childhood, leaving them be about at the time I finished high school, limiting to Pokémon and a couple more; I returned to games after my hospitalisation (which was happening exactly four years ago), when I bought a PlayStation 3 as a way to relieve stress — the suggestion, which came from my best friend, actually worked quite well up to now, even though I’ve still had a couple of near-breakdowns.

While there are all kinds of games, my personal preference in term of genres is probably the role-playing games, both “Western” and “Japanese” styles of those — the distinction of the two being very clear for those who played either of the types; quickly and roughly put one is an open story, the other forces you through a single story, with some optional branches depending on how thorough you were on completing it. Most Western-style role-playing games come with a karma system: you’re “good” or “bad” depending on your actions during the game, and yet you’re not discouraged from playing the games with either choice.

More interesting still is Fallout: New Vegas: when you play the game you’ve got different factions that will treat you differently depending on your actions to them, and to their enemies, separately from the karma system itself. Also, while you have a few parties that are definitely bad, you’ve got a choice of three/four different endings, that depend on who you plead allegiance to (if anybody) during gameplay.

I first noticed how much involved I (and not just I) get with the games’ “lifestyle” choices when I spent a whole evening discussing the best outcome for the game’s world with my above-mentioned best friend, with whom I share not a single view in politics. My view, which might sound strange coming from a primarily leftist, is that the best outcome for the Mojave is if the New Californa Republic faction takes control of the region, since that will give order, and an organized society, to the area, while his choice – even stranger coming from a rightist! – is to liberate the area from controlling sources, leaving it in a state of sorta-anarchism. For those who wonder, I maintained my view underscoring my support for the Followers of the Apocalypse faction as well, to equilibrate the scales.

You can see from what I wrote above that I am actually comparing, and somewhat doubting, my personal political views with my choices in-game. After we spent some time talking about this topic, we noticed how silly it is, from a non-gamer point of view, to do so — well, we realised that with the help of my friend’s fiancée, who’s tired silly of listening to us two talking about Elder Scrolls and Fallout games.

Turns out that this is not the only game having a similar effect on me, the previous instalment of the series, Fallout 3, has a similar effect. Since I’ve played the base game twice, both with good and neutral karma, to get the PlayStation 3 platinum trophy I was just lacking a playthrough with bad karma. I’m having a pretty difficult emotional stint, so I thought that playing the ruthless asshole in-game would help me distract, so I restarted the game, and went out of my way to play bad.

I’m having a hard time.

It’s not just the Fallout 3 way to decide your starting karma that bothered me (letting Amata’s vulnerability be used against her), it’s the whole lifestyle of the bad person in-game. Ouch. So many innocents to kill, so little good to be done to them. It hurts me to play this way, it’s like being trapped in Tranquillity Lane for the whole time — if you played the game, you know what I mean!

But that’s not what most concerns me: modern games are quite immersive, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that they stimulate my personal, ethical behaviour. I consider myself a good person, after all. Of course it shows a bit more of my wished politics choices, since I could find in New Vegas a combination that, in my opinion, works better than any one party in Italy, in the NCR and FoA combined. I guess I’m a socialist with a strong sense of authority, which is not exactly the kind of leftist we’re used to here.

At any rate, what concerned me is comparing this situation with the kind of gamestyle I used to have when I was younger. Back in the days I played on a (pirate) shard of Ultima OnLine (well, I mastered, actually), and my player was always either neutral (as in, follow-whoever-does-me-good neutral), or a variation of “negative order”, possibly “legal evil”, but not quite. And in other games, I have had my satisfying destruction, without any order or legality before…

Am I growing old? Has my gamestyle changed so much because I started considering my own responsibilities? I’m wondering this, not just for the games, but also because lately I found myself considering what I should be doing, if I’m supposed to find a way to live more wildly, or if, at twenty-six, I should rather look at solidifying my own status. The fact I can’t even enjoy playing with bad karma, is making me wonder if I’m already changing more that I could tell before.

Oh well.

Non-English political spam

One of the things I hate most of spam is that I receive a huge amount of spam in languages I would never be able to understand. Russian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, German.

One interesting thing I noticed is that once again there has been a wave of German spam that seem to be political in nature. The first time I noticed this was more than three years ago.

At the time, the Sober.P virus was spamming basically everybody with some racist payload written in German.

Now, although I admit I didn’t even try to look up what the mail are, the subject seems to refer to what is happening in Georgia and similar. I have to manually filter some mail, as the GMail antispam filter didn’t work that well with them untrained.

I sincerely start to wonder what is up with Germans, spam and politics. At least they could have used English so that their message, if a message exist, could be understood (and most likely ignored or frown upon) by more people — and made it easier anti-spam filters designed to work with English-written spam.

Get the thorn out

Sometimes it’s necessary to stand by your choices even when they are controversial. We all know that by now. One nice thing of volunteer Free Software is that if you don’t like a controversial decision, you can just leave, or fork, or in any case get away from who made the decision you don’t like.

I left when a decision was made that I didn’t like, I came back when the situation was, to my eyes, corrected. It was and is my freedom.

It so happens that the council made a decision, probably the only real decision since the Council was formed, the first time the council actually grew balls to do something even if that wasn’t going to please everyone.

Am I happy about the decision? Well not really, as it seems to me somewhat silly that we had to go down the road of actually making this decision. But I’m not displeased by the outcome. I think we should have taken this decision a long time ago actually.

To stop speaking like an abstract class in C#, the decision was to retire a number of developers, that for what the Council could gather and upon on are all considered poisonous to the project. Poisonous does not mean they have zero contribution, just that their contribution is shaded by disruption to the wellness of the project. This disruption comprises of a lot of actions, not just one or two. They might even not be huge by themselves, but if they are a lot, well, the size of them starts not to count (the so-called death of a thousand cuts).

This is not meant as a signal that you shouldn’t be criticising Gentoo. Critics are welcome if they are constructive. You can also work in parallel on competing products (hell, Greg KH is listed as a Gentoo Developer but works for Novell!), just as long as you don’t start to use your rights as a Gentoo developer to force people to move on something else, I’d suppose.

It doesn’t even related only to actions on Forums, as our Forums Admins are able to tackle those problems on their own (and I do trust with it). It relates to a lot of small things once again.

In general, the signal that we’re trying to bring through is “don’t poison your contribution to Gentoo”. You can criticise, you can joke, but if the people you joke upon don’t laugh with you at the joke, then apologise and stop it! Otherwise you’re just walking poison and we’re going to get rid of you, sooner or later. Hopefully sooner next time, before developers resign or reduce their involvement because of your actions.

For the Italian readers who read my political rant from yesterday (for those who can’t read Italian it’s a piece talking about job politics, what Italian unionists and politicians do and how it harms the system), you can see a slightly similitude between the two issues. In both cases you have to get rid of some people to avoid leaving everybody out at one point.

Oh and if we wanted to get rid of people working on Paludis, you can expect all of them to be gone, so no that’s not the cause either. It’s just incidental.

And for what it’s worth, nobody is trying to get rid of everybody they disagree with. Otherwise me and Donnie would be trying to get rid of each other ;) As I said before we don’t always agree on how to proceed with things, and we can be often found on opposite sides of an argument. Still we work together, and I’d say we do that quite happily, because of our difference in views: it usually stops us from going with the extremes. But you’ll never find me and Donnie exchanging snide comments, or insulting each other.

In Italy it officially seems spring, this spring cleaning was long due.