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The (TV) Taxman Cometh

A few weeks ago, my husband got us a digital cable box, despite the fact that we don't have a television.

The reasoning behind the cable box is that should we ever decide to get a television, using it would somehow be free, with our cable plan. But one of the reasons we don't have a television has to with the fact that watching broadcast television, like many other things in this fair country, comes with a yearly tax; in 2008 to 2009, that tax was around £140. Not a ton of money, but more than I, an American who assumes that television should be free, want to pay.

Now, we'd heard about this TV tax well before we even moved here. But I'll be honest, I didn't really know exactly what it was or how it was collected.

It's simply a tax on any device, including laptops and mobile phones, that is used to receive a television program at the same time its being watched or broadcast to other members of the public. It's set annually by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sports, the BBC has the right to collect the tax, and the money goes to pay for their broadcasts. All well and good "“ the BBC does some great programming and while they make most things available on iPlayer, their web-based radio and television streaming program, it's not all there.

But the question is, how do they determine whether there is a television on the premises, and that it's being used for watching broadcast TV, not just DVDs and video games?

The answer: They have surveillance vans.

TV-licensingFor decades, TV-tax dodgers have been foiled by the TV licensing patrols "“ essentially, vans with large antennae atop them sniffing out TV signals. And if they, the licensing patrols, determine that someone is using a television unlawfully, they can levy a fine of up to £1,000. The first such vans hit the streets in 1926, trying to catch radio listeners who were dodging the obligatory 10-shilling license fee. The invention of TV brought a new generation of vans, but it's only been in the last 17 years or so that the vans have really been effective, able to not only determine if there's a television receiver in use, but to cross reference the information with an on-board database of TV license holders as well. In 2007, the TV licensing department unveiled a new weapon in the fight against TV-tax dodgers: A handheld device that can detect if a television is on within a radius of 29 feet.

The larger triumph of the vans, however, isn't so much in catching dodgers outright, but in the fear they're able to conjure. Even televised public service announcements warning potential TV-tax dodgers were designed to strike a note of paranoia in TV viewers:

In this one, from 1970, a TV license patrolman says, "Yes, there's a TV set on at No 5. It's in the front room "“ and they are watching Columbo." It is no surprise that George Orwell was British.

Despite the fact that the TV tax is ingrained in British media culture, there have been some rumors of revolt lately "“ in the last few years, polls have shown that people would like to see the BBC funded in some other way, or to do away with the tax all together. At the same time, watching television programs on the internet, specifically those that have already been broadcast to the TV viewing audience, is a bit of what media watchdog group OfCom considers a TV-tax grey area and one that, as people continue to rely on the internet and digital cable recording for TV, will need to be figured out.

As of now, we haven't decided what to do with the digital cable box, which remains in its box, unopened, in our spare room. And though the BBC does air some great shows, programs like Clever v. Stupid and Strictly Come Dancing are making me wonder "“ what exactly are 25 million Brits paying for?

[Image courtesy of TV Licensing.]

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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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