Monday, 28 July 2008

WRONG: Wills must be drafted by solicitors

In order to make sure your worldly goods go to the right people you do not need to write, “I, Fred Bloggs, being of sound mind and body, do hereby declare…” on a fancy piece of parchment. Technically, a scribbled note on the back of an envelope carries the same legal force as a solicitor’s document.

It is wise, however, to get a solicitor’s help anyway to prevent the will being ambiguous should someone contest it. Also, there are points of law that may change your mind about what you leave to whom. Unmarried partners, for example, are entitled to nothing at all unless it is specifically allocated in a will.

The following are the strict legal requirements for your will to be valid:

1. It must be written down, and written voluntarily.
2. You must be over 18.
3. You must be of sound mind (though there’s little point in asserting, “I am of sound mind”, because how would you know if you weren’t?)
4. It must be signed in the presence of two credible witnesses who are not themselves beneficiaries in the will. (The will will still be valid if they are, but the witnesses won't get anything.)
5. You have to sign it in the witnesses’ presence, then they have to sign it.
6. It’s worth adding the date, too, for the sake of clarity.

Even if you fulfil all the requirements, your dependents can still successfully contest the will if they feel they have been unjustly ignored. Spouses, ex-spouses (if you/they have not remarried), children, step-children or partners who depend on you financially may all claim “reasonable financial provision” under the Inheritance Act of 1975. A court will decide whether Junior has a right to your money.

Outside of those provisos, you can do what you like. In 1926, a Toronto lawyer called Charles Vance Millar decided to leave his fortune to the Toronto woman who gave birth to the greatest number of children in the ten years after his death. Four women eventually scooped $125,000 each from “The Great Stork Derby” for having nine children each. Several women had more, but, rather coldly, were disqualified because some of the children were stillborn.

In 1930, Time magazine reported the case of a Mr TM Zink of Iowa, who made an even more eccentric bequest. He left $100,000 in 1930 with the instruction that in 2005, when he expected the capital to be worth substantially more, there should be built a library in his name where women would be banned not only from using the library, but also prohibited from working as staff and even being represented as authors. He left his daughter $5 and his wife nothing at all. According to The People’s Almanac, the will was successfully contested.

Next to Mr Zink, William Shakespeare seems a positive charmer, having left to his wife “my second-best bed”.

Monday, 21 July 2008

WRONG: Your vote is secret

Next time you’re engaging in the democratic process, take a look at the back of your ballot paper – you’ll find it’s marked with a unique number. On its own, that number works as a measure against the counterfeiting of ballot papers (as is the “official mark”, a perforation made by the returning officer’s clerks when they hand you the paper). The number, however, corresponds to another on the counterfoil for each paper, which would be fine if that counterfoil did not also record your electoral number.

If you haven’t fallen asleep yet, this means that – in theory – your vote could very easily be traced back to you by The Man.

Don’t panic, though, because in practice it’s not legally possible for The Man to identify your vote except in extreme circumstances. The laws governing elections are very strict, and require that ballot papers are counted face up so that no one can read the number (though this would be very hard to enforce while the papers are removed from the ballot box.) The papers – even the void ones – are then sealed in packets, as are the counterfoils, and returned to the Clerk Of The Crown, who stores them for a year before destroying them. Any deviation from these rules could result in six months in prison for the offending official.

Only the Speaker of the House Of Commons, the High Court or Crown Court can order the opening of the packets, and even then only if they already know that a vote has been fraudulently cast and that the result of the election may be in doubt. The vote-tracing procedure has not been employed in a Parliamentary election since 1911.

In 1998, a Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that the numbering system be abandoned, but its findings have not been adopted by the Electoral Commission.

Incidentally, since 1885 the office of Clerk Of The Crown In Chancery has been held by the Permanent Secretary to the Lord Chancellor. Another of his duties is to use the unique silver matrix of the Queen to affix the Great Seal Of The Realm. Every document of state comes complete with one of these plastic (formerly wax) medallions embossed with the Queen’s mark and tied on with string. Elevations to the peerage are dark green, actions relating to the Royal family are blue, and the appointment of bishops is red.

Friday, 11 July 2008

WRONG: Mars is red

While Mars certainly isn’t green or blue, it’s no redder than, say, the Australian outback. Both are a drab, rusty brown, and Mars' sky is a butterscotch-yellow. After powerful dust storms, iron-rich particles form a yellow-brown haze. This dust absorbs light of shorter wavelengths (the blues), and scatters the yellows and reds around the sky. You can see a similar effect in any smog-laden city, or at sunset. (ie The red sky at night so popular with shepherds.)

There is nevertheless controversy over what precise colour the Martian sky is. NASA was recently accused of “tweaking” the colour of their pictures to fit with people’s expectations. Their first pictures, from back in 1977, were certainly doctored to appear blue, but only because the the scientists were unprepared for presenting their material to the press. “Several days after the first release,” said Imaging Team Leader Tim Mutch, “we distributed a second version, this time with the sky reddish. We smiled painfully when reporters asked us if the sky would turn green in a subsequent version.”

One point of interest is that Mars’ sunrise and sunset are actually blue. While the dust particles scatter away all wavelengths, their particular size relative to the angle through which the light is travelling close to the horizon causes blue light to be directed along the line from the sun to the dust particle (to the viewer), causing a blue haze.

Even stranger, Blur's bass player Alex James is a keen astronomer and was one of the first non-academics to get involved in the Beagle Mars lander project, having asked his accountant to find a way for him to go to Mars. His accountant put him in touch with Professor Colin Pillinger, who was then trying to drum up support for his proposed project.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

WRONG: The Government runs the Stock Exchange

The first ever modern share was issued by the Dutch East India Trading Company, a collection of spice merchants who banded together in 1602 to compete against the Spanish and Portuguese. The investors were mainly middle-class tradespeople like bakers, coopers and barber-surgeons (including, wonderfully, one Agneta Cock). Rather than receive their annual share of the company’s profits – the “dividend” – in cash, Mrs Cock and her fellow investors were paid in pepper, mace and nutmeg.

Modern shares are essentially subject to the same rules as those governing La Cock’s pioneering transaction: in return for your investment, you claim a dividend, and you can sell the share whenever you like for however much anyone is willing to pay.

The London Stock exchange is a public limited company (in other words, you can buy shares in it, and its accounts are published). In 1698, a rowdy group of traders (plus ├ža change) was expelled from the Royal Exchange market, crossed the road and started dealing in Jonathan’s Coffee House, Change Alley. It was 75 years before they thought to build their own offices (even though Jonathan’s burned down in 1748), but they did, and prospered as a private company. Amazingly, it was a further 200 years (1973) before female traders were allowed to join the boys’ club. Its private investors voted in 2000 for it to become a public limited company, and if you fancy it, you can look up a stockbroker in the Yellow Pages today and buy some of their shares. Don’t let them pay you off in nutmeg.