If you're looking for a post about Cait Riley, click here

Want new Blog posts sent to you automatically when the Blog is updated? Enter your email address & click the GO button. I won't spam you.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

The Elephant in the Room with Iain Duncan Smith

It's commonly alleged that Iain Duncan Smith is evil - you can even find a website pointing out that he looks like Fritz Sauckel who organised slave labour for Nazi Germany but I've worked out why he does what he does. No, it's not particularly that he's a member of the Conservative Party or that he's stupid or out of touch. The truth is that he has an "elephant in the room".

As I've pointed out before, there are around 2.5 million unemployed but only 0.5 million vacancies. He must know that so why does he continue to "support" the unemployed with a plethora of schemes?

I got the answer listening to Graham Hoyle who used to be Chief Executive of the  Association of Employment & Learning Providers (Video). He picks up on the economy and the jobs market mismatch and how not everyone can have a job.

Very crudely, there could to a be a policy that says who gets the 0.5 million  jobs and leaves 2.0 million on the dole. To refine it a little, it would need to be a decision about which groups to support. E.G.: you might decide to support those with disabilities into jobs, or those who'd been out of work for a long time, or under 25s.  That's the elephant in the room that no one talks about because it implies leaving other groups to "languish on benefits"

So Iain has to be seen to be trying to help all 2.5 million into work even though for 2 million of them it will largely be a waste of time. That's why they'll be on useless courses, workfare or 35 hours a week supervised pointless jobsearch. To admit the real problem would lead indirectly to policies  that would attract even harsher criticism.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Great poverty campaign

Download a PDF here
A parody of the 1979 "Britain isn't working" poster by the Conservative Party. This one is by Church Action on Poverty

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Life with a Satnav

(Caution, mostly geeky)

I first suspected I needed a Satnav in 2006. I got lost in outer Northampton and then lost again in Brackley. The Brackley incident was particularly annoying because my route planning was to follow signs to Brackley and then pick up signs to Oxford but there weren't any. Lots back to Northampton, the ring road and the Town Centre (which I visited several times) but nothing for Oxford. I just checked on Google Streetview and found some relevant signs but perhaps they weren't there in 2006, or it was dark and I was tired.

My next encounter with GPS technology was when a camera I bought came with a built in GPS. This was quite irritating because sorted itself out so slowly it tended to stamp the pictures with the position the camera had been in for the previous picture. Even when it didn’t do that, it was often wrong by 25m horizontally which annoyed me.

So finally I bought a Garmin Nuvi52LM. I first tried it out on foot because I'd had a few drinks. Whether that was the reason I decided to walk it the wrong way along one way street after telling it I was in a car I don't know. Perhaps I'm naturally cruel. Anyway, the little “you are here” symbol approached the one way section but refused to enter it. Suddenly it flipped and showed we were at the far end of the one way section. Patiently it waited until I got there. Walking back it was fine – that was legal. No way would it show me apparently breaking the law. Later I discovered how to turn on its voice. I must try this torment on it again and see if it says anything interesting or just whimpers. You're probably thinking by now I must have been one of those children who  pulled the wings off of flies to see what happened but strangely enough, I wasn't..

Anyway, when I sobered up, I took it out and about in the car. I let it show me alternative routes to places I already knew. It did this rather well – choosing roads I didn't realise were the quickest route. It also showed up the optimism of my speedometer when it says 70mph it’s really 67! It's also fairly good at telling me what the current speed limit is which helps if I’ve been distracted as I passed a sign. Annoyingly, it “knew” there was a 50mph average speed check on part of the M5 when in fact there wasn't and I couldn't stop it going “dong”.

I downloaded some free software called Basecamp that lets you display your trips in minute detail. This revealed how clever the software is. The GPS system seems to detect (and log) quite a few “rubbish” positions – places over 100m from the road but doesn't usually worry you with them. To confuse it a little more, I took it on a walk alongside the River Severn well away from the road. It showed our position as 200m “out to sea” and at an elevation of -2m. In reality we were about 4m above the level  of the water - and on dry land.

Another thing I found “off road” is that despite not being designed for the job, it's more useful than you might expect. Say you hope you're on a footpath that your (paper) map shows as joining a road at a distinctive junction. The device shows you as in the middle of nowhere but if when you walk, the indicator moves closer to the distinctive junction, that's good.

 It also “believes” you'll do as you're told so if you turn off the motorway unexpectedly, it continues to log you on the “correct” route for 500 feet/10 seconds before flipping to your actual position on the slip road. After that bit of disobedience at junction 11A of the M5, it logged me nipping across country at 159 mph to explain the discrepancy. So if I'm ever accused of speeding, this gadget might not help as much as I'd like.

Not a bad early Christmas present to myself.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

"Pitchfork protests" in Italy

These anti-austerity protests originated in Sicily a year or two ago and have now spread There are conflicting reports of why the Police removed their helmets. Some sources including this video say it was out of solidarity with the protests. Others report that taking helmets off is standard practice when danger levels have lowered.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Practical and Social Aspects of Teleportation

The idea for this blog post came to me after a friend mentioned teleporting on Facebook. I suggested she teleport over to my local pub some 100 miles away from her for excellent cider and music. If she'd had the technology she'd have been able to do that and still be home in time to make cocoa for her fiancé.

It got me thinking about how cheap and effective teleportation might affect our lives. It certainly would make keeping up with far-flung friends easier. Of course, this is nothing new  - other bits of technology have done that - the car, telephone and Internet  spring to mind. These were not always instant solutions - cars still cost money to drive and a few decades ago, a long distance phone call was ten times the cost of a local call even within the UK. Still, if teleporting was possible, you'd be able to enjoy a real hug.

Another factor, familiar to traffic engineers is that if travel becomes easier, congestion rises to meet it. That would be unlikely to affect a friend teleporting 100 miles for an hour or two in an obscure pub but what if it applied to journeys to our local racecourse? Certainly the traffic jams in the town would be reduced but there's still a need to have some way of ensuring that in crowded places you didn't teleport into a space already occupied by someone else.

Maybe the technology would sort this out. You'd program in your desired coordinates and the "the system" might book you an empty space nearby to safely teleport into. Still might be a bit of a bang as your arrival displaced all that air.

Assuming that telporting technology was fairly low energy (and it might not be) then the roads and the energy consumption of  transport might fall away and reduce "Global Warming" - provided that total energy used for travel didn't increase now it was so easy.

It would also mean that it really didn't matter where you lived. You could live somewhere cheap and nice. Teleporting in to work would be easy. If the weather was foul at the weekend, you could go somewhere nicer. Immigration? Well, you might teleport into a job in a more developed country but you could go home to "the old country" in the evenings. Suppose you were a former miner in South Wales - you could teleport in to a job where coal mining was still economic. Then you could go home via a supermarket in a an inexpensive part of the world to get your groceries.

The more I think about it,, teleportation is the way forward!

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Maybe CCTV isn't so bad?

I suppose my political leanings might be described as liberal or "left of centre" and lead to a natural scepticism about CCTV surveillance. However, a recent experience has made me less sure.

I went to a dance in London the weekend before last and planned to get home via a National Express coach from Victoria. They messed up and stranded me overnight. After I finally got home and caught up on some sleep, I emailed a detailed complaint to their MD who despatch his Head of Coach Stations to Victoria where she grabbed the CCTV recordings. This not only allowed her to verify my account, she identified more shortcomings. The upshot was that they have suspended some staff pending disciplinary action and are sending me a compensation cheque - enough to have covered a night in a decent London hotel.

It's also pleasing to see a business in transition: The poor performance of the staff at Victoria was not a complete surprise to this occasional bus user but the superb complaint handling makes me think the industry might be getting its act together at last.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Dancing, Spinning and getting Dizzy

Before I got into dancing I got dizzy very easily and had nasty experiences on some fairground rides. As I did more dancing, my tolerance for rotation increased greatly and nowadays I can do very long swings, spinny French waltzes, etc. without any trouble. Of course, I sometimes find myself partnered with someone who gets dizzy and have to look out for that.

Novices who get dizzy often get advised to do "spotting" or to focus on some convenient part of their partner's body. I've always suspected that this is rubbish advice because:
  •  I don't use either technique and I'm fine
  • If you are the leader in a couple on a crowded dance floor you need to use your eyes more intelligently than that!
So I was interested in some recent research that suggests that dancer's brains adapt over time to suppress input from their vestibular systems, I thought about this again at a recent ceilidh where I danced with a very old friend who I hadn't seen for about a year. She got very dizzy in swings and it never used to be a problem.

I was concerned because I've known dizziness like this to accompany a diagnosis of ME. However, she told me that she had done no dancing for many months. Perhaps the brain adaptation had reversed. Hope so!

Monday, 14 October 2013

Getting stranded in London: A sort of guide

Due to a cockup by National Express (that they've already described as “appalling”) I found myself at Victoria Coach Station at midnight last Saturday with the next coach at 0730.

I thought I'd try and have an adventure or at the very least survive 7 degrees C and occasional rain. After speaking to cluster of 9 hotels I asked a policeman for advice about safe places to sleep. He pointed out that “This is Victoria!” before directing me to a shopping arcade up the road. I got asked for change three times on the way and I found it was quite a haunt of mainly young people with wheeled suitcases and i-phones waiting for coaches to various airports.
Some were more organized than me
After sitting on a step for about 2 hours, I was shivering so much I probably fooled a few local seismographs into reporting an earthquake. So I went for a walk and was bored enough to read a sign at a bus stop that said “Night Buses”. Aha! A night bus, I reasoned would take ages to get anywhere which is usually what's wrong with buses but tonight, a long trip on a warm bus seemed an attractive bargain at a flat fare of only £1.40, Joy! In 3 minutes, a heated conveyance would take me to the delights of Sutton in Surrey! 

Sure enough, it came along but as it was already packed, it sailed straight by. The next offering was Ealing Broadway in 15 minutes. Now, I liked this idea because I'd heard of the place before and remembered it had a station so if I ran out of buses I could still get back to Victoria. The N11 was full too – people standing all the way up the stairwell but the driver was attracted to the challenge of getting even more people on. No one spoke English; it was mainly Germans which didn't seem right for Ealing Broadway somehow. I reckon the journey took well over a warm hour and took in the Worlds End Health Centre which sounds like something from Douglas Adams. He'd also have liked the announcement lady on the bus “N11 (smile in voice) to (tiny pause) Ealing Broadway!”. You just wanted her to change to Samarkand or somewhere more exotic but no.

I found an amazing bagel shop still open in Ealing Broadway around 4am that sold me a hot cheese bagel for £1.50 and you could sit in and eat it. I considered the cup of tea upgrade for 50p but what goes in must come out and this city of bright lights and CCTV probably had a "failing to be convenient" law.
Anyway, when I came out, I discovered that the last N11 back to Victoria had gone and the first tube wasn't until after 6. But wait, I could just catch the last N7 and get off at Oxford Circus. Perhaps it would be interesting at silly O'clock? The driver of the N7 reckoned that since he only had 3 passengers, he could get up a bit of speed and regarded traffic calming as challenges to be swerved around or crashed over. I remember reading once that you can tip a double decker bus 30 degrees from the vertical before it falls over but I think this guy was trying for the record. Terrific banging and rattling from the chassis! If anyone had been using an iPod it would have upset them.

Oxford Circus around 5.30 and Macdonald's is open and doing a brisk trade. I haven't visited one of their "restaurants" for about 20 years but when the rain is coming on again, your perspective changes. I order a bacon and egg wrap and actually the egg part wasn't too bad.

I wandered back up to Oxford Circus again and see a small crowd gathered around the entrance to the tube. Then a tannoy starts up saying that the station didn't open until 7am. Perhaps it was a recording set off by a movement sensor? George Orwell may have been imaginative but he had his limits.

So I walked  generally downhill as I knew that if I reached the Thames and then turned right, I'd get close to Victoria. Pall Mall was a name I remembered from "Monopoly" so I followed it until a sign for St James Park caught my eye. It was really quiet and dark with no one about except some ducks and a possibly royal cat. Along Birdcage Walk (who makes up these names?) past a few royal bits and back to Victoria where the Nero is open in the rail station and sells me a decent coffee.

I didn't get to bed until noon. Quite pleased to have pulled a 26 hour all-nighter. I'd also got just a whiff of what the real homeless go through.

Oh, and the dance beforehand was pretty good :-)

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Ivy Flowers

Ivy is a foliage plant, right? It does flower and like many gardeners, I have never thought about it much. Then I saw some of mine being mobbed by bees and even a butterfly. I think I've seen pigeons eating the berries too so maybe it ticks the "wildlife friendly" box.
 Its flowering habit is interesting in its own right. Normally, it lurks around near the ground, climbs a few things and doesn't flower. However, it it reaches the top of something such as a wall, it has "nowhere to go" and so it flowers.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Yes, Mr Duncan Smith

“Well, Bernard” said Sir Humphrey, “how are you getting on with your new Minister?”
“Oh, Iain's OK but some of his policy ideas are a bit strange”
“A minister with policy ideas? Extraordinary!”
“Yes, he's had another idea to give benefit claimants an incentive to get into work”
Sir Humphrey shuddered
“After the row he had when he claimed the benefit cap had incentivised 8000 claimants to go out and get a job?”
“Yes, and despite the roasting he got from the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority for it”
“As I remember, I suggested you persuade him to talk about liars, damn liars and statisticians but you let him go all religious and say he believes he's right”
“I know, Sir Humphrey, I know!”
“So what is this latest idea?”
“Well, it's a bit of partnership working with the MOD”
“No Bernard! No, no, no! The army does not want the reintroduction of National Service, especially if it involves the unwashed and the unemployed!”
“I know that's a hardy perennial Sir Humphrey but this scheme is truly different”
“Iain's proposal is that anyone unemployed for more than a year is handed over to the Army and shot”
“Well, that's certainly a very strong incentive to get a job, Bernard but surely even he hasn't forgotten the Human Rights Act?”
“Not at all, that helps immensely”
“How so?”
“Well, as you rightly observe, the ever more annoying Human Rights nonsense would scupper an otherwise sensible and effective policy so adding weight to the idea we should abolish Human Rights”
“Well done,” Bernard said Sir Humphrey quietly “You're really getting the hang of politics at last”

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Recovering from Plantar fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis is a pain in the heel that is typically worst first thing in the morning. This is my story of continuing recovery. I am not medically qualified and if you suspect you have Plantar fasciitis, get a doctor or physiotherapist to check and follow their advice.

For standard information, try this Wikipedia article and for evidence-based advice, try the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence article

So, I "caught" Plantar fasciitis at the Chippenham Folk Festival at the end of May. I did a lot of vigorous ceilidh dancing mainly on a "wood" floor that probably had concrete a few mm down. By the time I got home, walking was extremely painful. I had already booked for two festivals in August so I needed to fix things fast. I have largely succeeded. Here's what I tried, my thinking and observations:

  1. I stopped walking 4km a day to work and drove. In fact I became a total couch potato.This was intended to reduce further damage and pain
  2. I bought into the theory that a contributing factor is an Achilles Tendon that's too tight which keeps the Plantar fascia too tight and did exercises to stretch it as per the NIHCE article.
  3. To protect the Plantar fascia, I used gel pads in my shoes
  4. I avoided walking barefoot
  5. I visited a physiotherapist. My choice was a local clinic that offered the minimum number of unproven trendy treatments. (I couldn't find anybody who didn't offer at least one bit of quackery!). The practitioner I saw seemed to share my love of evidence-based medicine and her knowledge of what did/didn't/might work matched my own reading. Perhaps the most important question I asked was: if I took pain killers, could I end up doing more damage? Her answer was basically "No" and that if I was doing damage, no analgesic I could buy would stop the pain.
  6. Based on this, I got in a supply of the strongest paracetamol and codeine tablets you can buy in the UK without a prescription. If I experienced pain when dancing, I took one plain paracetamol and if the pain persisted, I took one paracetamol/codeine mix. 
  7. The above drug routine was largely successful although there were some surprises:
  • In 7 nights, I only needed to get up to the full dose three times.
  • The affects of two months of virtual inactivity showed. I was often stopped by other pains and shortage of breath
It seems likely to me that a lot of the dancing (which was on floors with a reasonable amount of spring) was usefully exercising the other muscles near that heel. I was also modifying my technique to avoid banging the heel on the floor. I fully expected some of the vigorous rant steps and hop steps to give me instant agony or trouble next morning but they didn't.

So I very tentatively suggest the following regime to Plantar fasciitis sufferers:
  • Protect the heel against impact
  • Exercise all the surrounding parts pretty vigorously
  • Don't be afraid to use any pain killer that's otherwise safe for you.
Remember: I'm not a doctor!

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Why Iain Duncan Smith is wrong even if he’s right

There's been a lot of fuss recently about the "Benefit Cap" that's being introduced to the UK. Basically it limits the total amount of welfare benefits anyone can receive to around the average working wage.

You might be shocked that anyone on benefits can get anything like the average wage? In fact, only around 1% of benefit claimants do and will have their income reduced by the cap. Typically, these are people with quite a few children living in expensive rented accommodation.

Iain Duncan Smith believes this isn't so much a problem as an "incentive to work" and he has claimed that thousands of people notified that they will be affected have gone out and got a job.

However, the UK Statistics Authority are not happy with this claim

In rather dry language, they say:
We have concluded that the statement attributed to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that 'Already we've seen 8,000 people who would have been affected by the cap move into jobs. This clearly demonstrates that the cap is having the desired impact', is unsupported by the official statistics published by the Department on 15 April

It's important to note that "unsupported by the official statistics" doesn't actually mean "wrong" - it's just possible that Iain Duncan Smith will be proved right in the end - maybe the cap does move people into jobs. Let's look at the implicationsof him being right:

  • 8000 soon to be “capped” people have moved into work despite there being roughly 5 unemployed people  chasing each vacancy
  • Presumably, a largely different 8000 people would have got those jobs otherwise
  • Meanwhile, around 40,000 less employable people with large families in expensive areas will lose money – one in three will be over £100/week worse off.
So the real achievements of this policy include:
  • To have changed who got appointed to 8000 jobs
  • To have inflicted severe poverty on tens of thousands of families
  • It will save a couple of hundred million pounds
So, Iain Duncan Smith is wrong even if he's right

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Use Gmail to get rid of spam

I first got an email address back in 1993 and in those days you thought nothing of giving it to all and sundry - spam was still meat in cans. That soon changed and after a few years I was getting several hundred unwanted emails a day. A change of email address helped but pretty soon the flood resumed. That's when I was tipped off about  Gmail - and how I could keep my email address and get rid of almost all the spam.

In some ways, Gmail is just an ordinary email service like Yahoo or Hotmail. The key difference is they have got a really good spam blocking system.

So, here's how I used it:

  1. I opened a free Gmail account
  2. I set up an autoforward from my normal email to send all my mail to the new Gmail account
  3. I could have stopped there and just read my email in Gmail and adjusted it to send replies "From" my old email address
  4. However, I prefer to read my email via a separate program so I used the autoforward in Gmail to send the messages on to an ordinary email account which I access with Thunderbird
Gmail settings screen

So the upshot is I "haven't changed a thing" but Gmail is silently cleaning up my email.

 If your existing email doesn't have an autoforward facility, there's a facility in Gmail called Mail Fetcher that pulls your email out rather than your old account pushing it into Gmail. A disadvantage of this is that incoming email may be delayed

Friday, 7 June 2013

Wetherspoons: Fail

So I got to the head of the queue at Wetherspoon's and tried to place my food and drink order, "Table number?" asked the barman. "Oh, I haven't got one yet" I explained. "I can't take an order if I don't know where the food is going to go"

I looked round the busy pub, briefly contemplated finding a table upstairs somewhere, determining its number, coming down, queuing again, placing my order and hoping the table would still be vacant when I went back.

"I'm sorry", I said, "I'm in the wrong place" and left.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Poitically Correct Gardening

The rules are reversed in gardening. We are positively encouraged to root out migrants such as Spanish  Bluebells because they breed with our native Bluebells.

Chemical warfare is still very much allowed although the list of allowable toxins is cut every year. Instead, we are offered nice biological weapons such as nematodes that carry bacteria into the bodies of slugs and kill them.

But, dear gardener, come out of the garden and try any of that in the rest of the world and you're in trouble!

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Getting culinary with the Sea Kale

I've written about this easy luxury vegetable before but this time I've got better pictures. The first move is to approach the bucket...

...Flipping it over...
...just snap off the stems...
...steam for 6 minutes...
...serve with fried breaded chicken. This picture uses the "food" setting on the camera - not sure what it does!

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Pensioners to be the new hate figure

I've commented before on our government's campaign to demonise benefit claimants. Up to now, the targets have been working age "scroungers" - pensioners have been off the radar and protected from cuts. (although some will argue that the rising pension age represents a cut)

Now, Iain Duncan Smith is suggesting that better off pensioners hand back their benefits such as the winter fuel payment (which isn't means-tested). The reason why these benefits are not means tested is simple - it  actually costs more to means test these small sums than just to dish them out to all. My guess is that if pensioners did start repaying benefits, the administration costs would result in a net loss.

Actually, pensioners have been helping the government on this issue for a long time anyway. What they've done is simply failed to collect/apply/etc for benefits. According to AgeUK, this amounts to £5.5 billion/year.

Pensioners are a tempting target. Although a lot of them have low incomes, they often have capital in the form of houses. Meanwhile, young people are often unemployed, in debt and have little chance of acquiring property.

There's a lot of pensioners and their numbers are growing. Any politician seen to attack them may suffer at the ballot box. The ballot-box hit isn't just from the pensioners themselves - it's from their children. Not only might children want to protect their aged parents - they'll want to protect their eventual inheritance. That inheritance might be the only chance to buy a house - but wait, the attractions of owning a house may be less if it comes under attack later in life.

A canny political move might be to encourage inter-generational conflict, EG: "It cannot be right that Granny Perkins lives alone in a three bedroom house while hard-working Kirsty is crammed into a one-bedroom flat with her two children". Perhaps Granny Perkins should have her state pension reduced for under-occupancy in order to encourage her to swap with Kirsty? I think that particular wheeze won't fly simply because it would be another "bedroom tax" and that policy is doomed medium-term as its unworkability becomes more evident. However, other policies that attempt to wrest money from older people can be expected. They will probably take the form of attacks on capital leveraged by attacks on income.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Camping food: Instant Porridge

I'm probably the last person in the UK to discover this sort of product but never mind. This example is sold by Lidl at 55p a throw. You peel off the top, add boiling water up to the line, stir for a couple of minutes and eat.
It's quite nice. Purists will object that it shouldn't contain sugar - I believe the Scottish way with porridge involves salt which is currently not favoured by the healthy-eating lobby. A look at the nutrition panel on this product shows it does a fairly good job of ticking the boxes.

Verdict: Worth packing a few for the next camping trip and seeing what the gang think.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Story: The most magical place in the world

Chuck never tired of watching the rare Red-crowned Cranes down by the lake. For them, it was peaceful, a happy accident of living in the “Demilitarized Zone” For Chuck, it made it the most magical place in the world. He also got to do the most secret and surreal job here in a ramshackle hut perched right on the border only a few kilometers from the official huts at Panmunjom.

Hwan and he were of an age and shared a love of wildlife. They worked well together so when Hwan emerged from the bushes on the other side. Chuck cheerfully  sauntered over to greet him. Technically, this was a breach of the North's sovereignty but no one seemed to care. Perhaps the project was too secret to risk monitoring.

“They're really pleased with you!” said Chuck,
“Yeah! They've sent you extra Whiskey – I got a sore back carrying it”
“Oh thank you! I was worried that we might have gone too far?”
“You mean the little firework display?”
“It was great! It really rattled some cages – and your successful rocket launch has really got people talking”
“Yes, they're talking but mainly they are being rude about us and the Great Leader”
“Sorry about that, it's the price of distracting our media. Writing scary stories about you guys keeps them busy and off our back”
“It's not so bad for us really. We use their stories to prove to our people the conspiracy of the running dogs of the paper tigers of the western lackeys or whatever it is this month”

Both men smiled and they sipped their beers quietly for a few moments.

“I do have a worry – the US has a habit of taking hate campaigns to the next level and invading as with Iraq. This would be bad for us”
“It's a fair point, Hwan, that would be the end of our nice little racket here but it's not likely – a country like the USA needs enemies. Who could we hate if we didn't hate you?
“Don't be silly. They have oil. They're much higher up the list.”

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Incentives to Work

Our government is big on Making Work Pay and incentives to work but take a look at  its own statistics:


So, even if you gave people a really big incentive (Say, a £1000/week minimum wage if you get a job)  around 2 million people are going to fail.

Of course, it's possible they'll try a lot harder under this sort of deal. You can also throw in some training on how to write better CVs as well. It's not going to make any real difference to the 2 million figure. The CV training will just change who gets the jobs - not create extra ones.

The 2 million will get less benefits in real terms and possibly get hit by the bedroom tax as well.

It's not incentives, it's cruelty.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Demonising the poor is good politics

I was shocked when I heard George Osborne say the case of Mick and Mairead Philpott raised questions about the welfare system. Shocked not only because it was another instance of demonising benefit claimants but also because surely this tactic had received so much bad press, you'd think that sensible politicians would now be steering clear.

However, a look back in history to the time of the Poll Tax shows that deeply unfair treatment of the poor need not be the downfall of a government.   It  arguably brought down Margaret Thatcher but her Conservative Party won an election after the Poll Tax row and governed for around five more years.

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Making Work Pay?

It's an admirable ambition - the idea that people who work should be better off than those who don't. It's great politics because it carries the suggestion that people are choosing not to work and all we need to do is to put the right incentives in place to stop the "benefit scroungers" leaching off of hard working people.

Now, if you're a temporarily unemployed merchant banker, the incentives to get a job paying £100,000 and stop claiming £71.70 a week Jobseeker's Allowance are pretty massive. Some more humble folks have an incentive too:

  • Take Mr Single Youth, aged 23 and still living with his parents. His JSA will be £56.80/week. Out of that he'll have to pay jobseeking essentials such as travel, phone, Internet and newspapers (although he may wangle some of these for free). He gives his mother £10/week towards his food and then there's clothing replacement and maybe an occasional drink with friends (which can be partially "justified" as networking)
  • He may even end up with £10/week to do what he likes with.
  • Now, suppose  Single Youth gets offered an apprenticeship at the miserly minimum wage of £2.65/hour a short walk from home. He only has to work around 22 hours/week to be (slightly) better off. If the apprenticeship is full-time or if he gets an ordinary job at £6.19/hour it's even better.
So, this person has a real incentive to work unless he's comfortable with only £10/week pocket money.
  • Now take Ms "Benefit Scrounger", a single parent, in a large  house with 5 unruly children. I calculated her benefit payment using the government's own calculator as £651.82/week but very soon this will drop to £500/week because of the "benefit cap".
  • She has very little chance of getting a job that  pays £651.82/week
  • If she has a job at all, around 70p of every pound will be lost as her benefit reduces.
An effective "tax" rate of 70% is little incentive to work as those on the top rate of income tax (recently reduced to 45%) will tell you.

Worse still, the price of having this "incentive to work" available is that if  she fails to find work through no fault of her own, she's £150/week worse off.

Some will criticise her for having five kids in the first place. Years ago, you could get away with comments about her being unable to keep a man. Some politicians will talk about sending "messages" that you can't just bred like a rabbit and have the state pick up the bill.

The problem is that she didn't plan to end up as a single parent on the dole with five kids - very few people do.

So, "making work pay" can't be achieved for everyone. We know and respect the fact that it can't work for many people living with disability. The sad truth is that  Ms Benefit Scrounger cannot realistically earn herself out of the "benefits trap". It's also quite unlikely that she can train herself out of it either. "For you have the poor always with you"

Monday, 25 March 2013

Distraction Politics

There's something quite familiar about our government's recent "hate crime". The target is immigrants Apparently, "Immigrant families will be kept off council house waiting lists in England for at least two years, under plans set to be announced by the prime minister"

It's only a couple of weeks since the last "pop" at immigrants - the target then being "benefit tourism". And benefit recipients in general are another target - it's especially common for the more extreme cases to be singled out for press attention. EG: the recent case housing of  the mother of eleven children

So, are these issues real "problems"? For a start, not all of the 11 children are dependents. I dug up some statistics on large families and found some here (see Table 1) and if you look at dependent children, there are no 9-children families and only 0.05% of Children live in 8-children homes. That's just over 5000 children which means there are under a thousand such families in the UK.

The real reason for drawing attention to these stories is political - it stirs up hatred against these handy scapegoats so that politicians can crack down on them and look good. It's not new - and neither was the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Matching education to jobs

This is a hardy perennial - with a touch of recycling. Employers routinely complain about school/college leavers not having the skills required. They've been doing that for forty years to my knowledge and I doubt if there ever was a golden age when there was no difficulty recruiting staff who could spell properly.

Then there is the problem of the aspirations and training/education of young people not matching the employment marketplace. Here's the "latest" on this from the BBC but it isn't really news.

So why is it that "there are 10 times as many people aiming for jobs in the culture, media and sports sector than there are jobs likely to be available whereas "almost a quarter of jobs are in the distribution, hotels and restaurant category, only about one in 40 youngsters are considering careers in these industries"?

Here's a number of possible reasons:
  •  Culture, media and sports are far sexier than distribution, hotels and restaurant work and often better paid with more social hours.
  • It's satisfying for a Careers Advisor to inspire a young person to consider sports work. In contrast, selling the idea of jobs involving flipping burgers at 11pm on a Saturday night is a harder sell.
  • Although Further/Higher education does adapt to the jobs market to some extent, it can be slow and it can feel like a betrayal of academic values. Meanwhile, someone gets on and sells the courses they currently have in stock. Sometime education looks like a racket!
Some ideas:

  • Make it difficult for the education sector to run courses with poor employment prospects.
  • Communicating data about employment prospects to young people is probably of limited use. Only a sub-set of them will be directly motivated by such data. Even if they know that their chances in a particular area are small, they may just decide to work harder and be the best. In itself, laudable and great for those who succeed but a terrible waste of the others.
  • Not a new idea at all but canny employers who can see a skills shortage can try to attract students into suitable training with bursaries, opportunities for vacation work, etc.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Freedom of Information and the Job Centre

If you've had the misfortune to become unemployed or sick, you've probably experienced “Jobcentre Plus” – the UK government's benefits and job-finding “shop”. They also do employee finding for employers too.

Your experience with this arm of government is probably mixed. Some of the staff are hardworking, knowledgeable, reasonable, helpful, sensitive and even kind. Unfortunately, quite a few are lazy ignorant bullies. I know this from being a “customer” a few times over the years and because my in my working/volunteering life I sometimes hear stories from other customers – mainly bad ones.

If you encounter one of the less pleasant staff, it's very bad news. They have the power to reduce your income to zero if you don't do what they tell you to do. Since last October, this could mean destitution for up to 3 years. You might think that such “sanctions” as they call them are reserved for “lazy benefit scroungers” but you'd be wrong.

 Say your “Personal Adviser” wants to get a load of unemployed people to attend yet another workshop to have their CV tweaked for the Nth time. There is no need to mess around explaining how helpful this is going to be or anything namby-pamby.  They just issue a load of “Job Seekers Directions” telling customers to attend on pain of destitution. There you are, sorted!

Except they can't. They don't tell you but they can't. Their website doesn't help either - nor Google. You need to look at the internal guidance for Job Seekers Directions.

How do you do that? Well, you follow the lead of one D Batters who made Freedom of Information request to the Department for Work and Pensions (via the WhatDoTheyKnow site) asking for the guidance and as you'll see if you follow this link, they answered. It tells us that Advisers must (amongst other things):

  • have a full understanding of the claimant's circumstances;
  • be aware of what action the claimant has already undertaken;
  • know why the claimant does not want to do the particular activity;
and the action must be:
  • linked to an action to improve the claimant's chances of finding work;
  • personalised and appropriate for that individual claimant;
So, there's no way an Adviser should greet a customer with a pre-prepared Job Seeker's Direction. There really should be a discussion and they need to establish that the activity is appropriate to you and your individual situation. If you don't want to take up their suggestion, they have to find out why. So, if you're being really silly, and declining something useful, you deserve and should get a JSD to help you stop being a burden on our taxes.

Trouble is, some Advisers either don't know or don't care about all this and are rather more generous with their JSDs. Without WhatDoTheyKnow, no one else would be any the wiser. There's loads of other useful answers to questions about government there. The only things missing are the answers to questions people haven't yet asked.

Sadly, the only way I can avoid being a customer of the  Department for Work and Pensions again is to die early. Perhaps they'll order me to do just that!

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Cheltenham Races: In Town

The cry of the touts is everywhere "Tickets! spare tickets! Buy or Sell!" This year, I've tried to capture the atmosphere in the town

A clue in the High St

Bookmakers in festive mood

Fancy a bet?

Even the charity collectors exploit the theme
The town crier outside Ladbrokes trying to lure custom away to William Hill

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Abu Qatada on a bike

The bail conditions he's alleged to have breached do seem draconian. According to the BBC:  
  • Tagged and allowed out of his home only between 08:00 and 16:00
  • Banned from traveling on the Tube, or by train, car, motorbike or bus
  • Banned from contacting a number of named individuals
  • Only family members, his lawyer, emergency workers and social workers can enter his home without approval
  • Banned from using mobile phones, computers and other devices
  • Banned from attending mosques, leading prayers and giving lectures
  • Needs approval to take a job or enroll on a course
  • Allowed one bank account and must surrender his passport
So, it would seem he's Ok on push-bike or he could try a helicopter. One hopes that if he has a medical emergency, he will be allowed in one of those smaller cars adapted as an ambulance? What if he's taken sick in the middle of the night?

Banning him from mosques would seem to be restricting his rights to practice religion unless a visiting Iman is allowed. The ban on the use of computers looks bad too - many services are going online-only.

According to Wikipedia "Regularly imprisoned in Britain as a threat to national security since he was first detained under anti-terrorism laws in 2002, he has not yet been prosecuted there for any criminal or conspiracy offences" but a number of less than savoury governments allege terrorist offences.

If you believe and trust our politicians, he's a very dangerous man. I'm not sure I do.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Of Cars and CIX

Learnt a couple of things today.

The first concerned the car. I'd not used it for over a week although I had briefly started it up once. Yesterday evening, it wouldn't start. It whirred away merrily but wouldn't fire. The battery started to give out so I put it on charge. I wondered what might be wrong and posted about it in the "cars" conference on CIX.

It was CIX that got me into this Internet thing nearly 20 years ago. It was a crude "bulletin board" similar in some ways to many modern Internet "forums". The technology was unbelievably old-fashioned and still is not particularly modern but that's not the point. It's the community of people that make it so great. Next morning, someone had replied pin-pointing the problem -  brief start up that had wetted the plugs with petrol and they'd stayed wet for several days waiting for me to try another start. The solution was simple - run the starter for 30 seconds - something I could now do with a fully charged battery and the engine reluctantly came to life. A five mile drive and it was starting normally.

So the learning points were:
  •  Don't run the car briefly like that - especially in less than ideal weather.
  •  That paying about £7/month to the antique CIX service continues to be great value

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Shop closures - regional variations

Saw this news article today about shop closures which has a table of closures and openings by region from which they calculate a net loss. I started wondering how useful such figures are given the varying  size of the regions?

So I popped the figures into Excel and had a play. Ideally, I'd know the total number of  shops in each region so I could come up with a percentage but that isn't provided. Instead, I added together the number of openings and the number of closures to come up with a proxy for the number of shops in each region and compared that total with the net change. This results in a "percentage" figure that's pretty bogus in isolation but does permit some feel for regional differences. Here's the result:

First, note the "Total" figure of 13%, that's a useful "average" to compare against individual regions. Greater London with 4% looks to have continuing retail prosperity while the West Midlands and North West with over 20% are not doing so well. 

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Albania under Communism 1987

It was dark and raining. Behind us, the brightly lit Yugoslav border post, ahead a track heading towards a faint light that we hoped was Albania. About half way, the border guards materialised out of the bushes. I could tell that's what their job was by the grey uniforms, caps with a red star, dark glasses and guns on their backs. They did smile though.

 That was 1987, when communism and the "cold war" were real. In 2008, I found the photo album again….

This sign greeted us in the customs shed. We were also asked to declare any religious or pornographic literature

 One of the guides told us that we may have heard that we wouldn't be able to wander around freely but assured us this was untrue. Next morning in Shkodra, I tried this out. People easily identified me as a foreigner because of me clothes and when I got out my camera they were sure. They were still very shy and very few actually came up to talk to anyone in the group.

The party was everywhere... were the leaders.

This was the grave of Enver Hoxa who died in 1985 having ruled the country since the end of the Second World War. I hear his body has been removed to a humbler resting place now.

Transport was basic with few cars

They were proud there was no unemployment in Albania. Here, someone has a job weighing people and discretely writing down the kilogrammes on a piece of paper.

Keeping the streets clean

A foreign currency shop in Tirane. Local people gathered in the evening to marvel at the goods on display.

A greengrocers shop near the centre of the capital, Tirane

Outside the cities we caught a glimpse of the largely unmechanised agriculture.

In the museum in Kruja, a statue to Skenderbeg, a national hero from way before the communist era. He fought the Turks.

Street scene in Durres, the major port.


Tirane street scenes

Looking towards the University

Albania became an officially atheist state in the 1960s. Note the derelict mosque in the background

A medieval bridge

 A giant mosaic on a museum in Tirane