Blog Archive — Page 22

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  • The Curious Case of the Disappearing Child Benefit

    This morning, the Prime Minister used his BBC interview to let us know why, exactly, his proposed changes to the Child Benefit system take into account the income of a single family member rather than the household overall.

    As loudly bemoaned in the media over the past few days, the Conservatives plan to scrap Child Benefit for higher rate tax payers, those earning over £44,000 a year. Because this is tied in to the tax situation for a single individual, it leads to wild inconsistencies in the family incomes that are affected. Under the scheme, a two-parent household where one parent earns £44,000 and the other does not work would lose their Child Benefit. However if both parents were to work and earn £43,000 each, for a total of £86,000, they would still receive the payments.

    As someone who earns far less than £44,000 and who could still get by without Child Benefit if necessary, I have no problems with scrapping or reducing Child Benefit for those substantially more wealthy than myself. But couldn’t we at least make it fair?

    David Cameron’s excuse for this unfairness is that to base it on household income rather than individual income would involve a whole new means-testing process, with all the added bureaucracy and money-wasting that involves.

    Has Mr Cameron forgotten about Labour’s Child Tax Credit scheme, a bizarrely parallel yet unrelated programme under which working parents can claim more money. Child Tax Credits are means-tested based on household income in just the same way that the Prime Minister is claiming to be too much work. Would it not in fact reduce bureaucracy and wasted effort if both were to be combined into a single Child Benefit system that was means-tested on household income?

    But no, apparently the decision is set in stone.

    How do the Conservatives plan on trying to fix this unfairness? Apparently, it emerged this afternoon, with a married couples’ tax break. However, as the rumour heard by the BBC has it, this would only affect couples earning less than the £44,000 threshold – the household with one parent earning over £44,000 and one stay-at-home parent would not stand to benefit. It’s also reported as being introduced “before the 2015 election”, potentially leaving a four-year gap between then and now in which the unfairness of the Child Benefit change is not being adressed.

    Furthermore, while the proposed married couples’ tax break thankfully includes civil partnerships, it presumably does not include long-term partners who choose not to marry. I imagine that encouraging traditional values such as marriage is a vote-winner amongst certain groups of Tory voters, but should the government not stay well clear of these very private decisions? Should a poor couple who do not want to marry be pressured into it, however gently, by their financial situation?

  • The Meh Society

    Today, Ed Miliband gave his acceptance speech to the Labour party conference, and having watched it, I caught myself accidentally feeling cautiously optimistic. Have no fear, that feeling was quickly despatched and I remain my normal cynical self.

    One particular term he used which grated horribly for me was “the good society”. The Good Society, really? Was the Tories’ equivalent not annoying enough already?

    The thing about “the Big Society” and “the Good Society” is that they’re soundbites and they don’t mean anything, and that for some reason annoys me more than it ought to.

    We’re just about coming to understand that Cameron’s “Big Society” is about parents building schools and getting charities to pick up the bill for things the government can’t afford to fix. It seems to be a partial removal of the state’s abstraction layer: instead of wanting schools, paying taxes and letting someone qualified turn one into the other, you’re now encouraged to take on that overhead yourselves so that they can sack half the public sector workers.

    Wait, this wasn’t supposed to be a rant about that Society.

    No, the “Good Society” is even more nebulous, and I hope it doesn’t become a buzzword like its alter ego. What is it supposed to entail? Us being vaguely nice to each other and hoping it all works out?

    For all the catchy phrases that politicians throw around, the majority of the public are committed members of the “Meh Society”. We want to pay taxes at a reasonable level, and get good public services as a result. And in the main we’re nice people, but we’re also pretty cynical about politics, and being declared part of “the Good Society” or “the Big Society” just doesn’t entrhrall us as much as those in parliament would like to believe.

  • New Labour: Gone, but not Forgotten

    “The era of New Labour has passed,” said Ed Miliband on Sunday, and boy was I happy to hear that.

    I am, I suppose, of the New Labour generation – Tony Blair swept to power in 1997, just as I was turning 12 years old. I stayed up late to watch the votes roll in, more excited by the fact that I was simultaneously maths-geeking with half the population than I was knowledgeable about how a Labour or Tory win would affect me.

    But from about that time, the dawn of my political awareness, Labour has been New Labour. Miners’ strikes and Poll Tax riots are creatures of the history books to me, and trade unions just aren’t things a 12-year-old cares about. Labour, to me, was about the cult of personality and of spin, Mandelson’s scandals and Blair’s toothy grin. They were about Middle England and unpopular wars and sacrificing our liberties at every turn for our protection from today’s terrorist organisation of choice.

    After a while I turned 18, and like the good proto-Socialist that I was, I voted for what I perceived as the most Left-leaning party on the ballot sheet.

    The Liberal Democrats.

    Five years later, well, that alleigance didn’t work out so well.

    But while I’m glad that Labour’s new leader has called the end of the Blairite regime, I’m a little saddened by how quickly the possibility of a “lurch to the Left” has been dismissed. Ed Miliband has said that he wants to “redefine” the political centre ground, but where does that leave our political landscape?

    We have the Conservative party, on the centre-right. The Lib Dems, approximately at the centre. And now Ed Miliband’s Labour, redefining… the centre.

    Centre, centre, centre. Should we be bracing ourselves for a continuing era of utter dullness in politics? If we discount the tiny Greens, the loony-fringe UKIP and the despicable BNP, and if post-New Labour continues Blair’s obsession with winning Middle England’s votes, everyone’s manifestos start looking suspiciously similar.

    Time to just say “sod it” and run as a candidate for the Pirate Party or something?

    (Sources for the Milliband quotes are the Financial Times’ website, which I’m not linking to because it’s got Murdoch cooties.)

  • Cyberpunk Cities in the Making

    (http://www.flickr.com/photos/allandonque/4649225751/))”]Bahrain Financial Harbour

    Glittering skyscraper spires tower over the city of Manama, Bahrain’s capital – and only – city. Each lit up at night with a thousand twinkling lights, they are monuments to technology and to money, each one the home some giant financial mega-corporation.

    But yet in the streets below, a very different city lives. A city of densely packed buildings, looming over the streets that get narrower and narrower as you venture onward. Every building is a shop, most more than one, and flanked by market stalls. Jewellery, clothing, carpets and all manner of things are waved at you as you pass, in the hope of making a customer of you.

    Above head-height, some buildings are intact enough to be homes, their air conditioning units dripping warm water down into the streets. But others are abandoned, even ruined. Nothing gets fixed here; people just work around its broken-ness.

    Manama Back-Street

    In each shop window are plastered layers of ‘room to rent’ signs, each one marked ‘Kerala only’, ‘Filipino only’ or one of a dozen other permutations, pasted up by apartment-owners desperate to find a tenant with whom they have something in common against the city’s multicultural morass of people.

    And most of all there’s the smells, and the contrast between them. Good and bad, they assault you at every turn. There are places here for every culture on the planet, from the Italian restaurants and Irish bars of the tourist areas to grimy Chinese takeaways and run-down Pakistani restaurants that cater only to their ethnicity of choice. And as soon as three restaurant-smells in a row lull you into a false sense of security, an open dumpster full of rotting vegetables is always waiting.

    Between its glittering mega-corp spires in which the lucky few work, and the ant’s nest of twisting streets and cheap phone unlocking shops for the rest, Manama is twenty years of dubious technological progress away from becoming the epitome of near-future Cyberpunk dystopia.

    And for that, I adore it.

  • East of the Sun and West of the Moon

    The sun sets on my final day out on the range, the sky darkening towards dusk as out to the east across the Gulf, the full moon begins to rise. Within minutes the sky darkens from blue to orange to purple, and on towards black as we head back across the water. Here for a moment, east of the sun and west of the moon as the sky darkens, we finally know that we are done here.

    Yesterday’s acceptance tests passed with flying colours; just another day as boring as many others, but so much more significant. It’s the day we’ve been waiting for for more than four years, the day that seemed immeasurably distant just a year ago. But now it has come and gone. This project has been a constant for me since the early days of 2007, something never-changing for the duration in which I’d moved house, gotten engaged, had a child, and so much more besides. And it’s over.

    Pink Floyd playing off an iPod as we watch progress bars tick up, cleaning the system, checking it, backing it up. Final tasks, in preparation for leaving.

    We drive back to the compound as darkness ascends, lights flickering on beside the roads and the buildings of the old town. Maybe that’s goodbye to the range forever, though I very much doubt it. There will be warranty calls and support requests, fresh new plane tickets in my hand as I fly out here again sometime, months or years from now. But the project as it was is done, four signatures at the bottom of a page signalling our freedom.

    This time tomorrow night I will be in Bahrain, awaiting my flight; then home once more, home to a gorgeous fiancee and an adorable son, a ton of laundry to do and a world that no longer includes this project.

  • Engineering and Enterprise

    I stoop low over the table, squinting in the flickering light of an incandescent bulb not long for this world. My fingers clutch and twist wires, forming tiny twigs of copper into shapes that would join and hold fast. I am Making Ethernet Happen. Without benefit of crimping tools or solder, or even sellotape to separate each contact from its kin, I have zero technology, and with it I bring our species’ greatest technology to this place.

    I feel I should renounce my status as an engineer after creating this ridiculous mess of anti-design. And yet I feel good about it, that feeling of taking two things that do not go together and making them go. Mah Ethernet

    The compound has levelled up in recent days, and gained the ability to provide take-away Thai food. It’s served out of someone’s kitchen, and the fact I still only barely parse Saudi Riyals as ‘real money’ brings to mind Maelstrom’s opportunistic food stalls, feeding a tiny and bizarre community in exchange for bits of metal that are only worth something there.

    But it feels like more than that. It may be a tiny enterprising step by a very bored housewife, but it’s the first step to a community improving itself. Bootstrapping, to coin a favourite word of my profession.

    Long ago I had my rant about the impossibility of small, totally self-sufficient communities. But I wonder what happens if, for an indefinite period of time, small isolated communities are left to self-improve. What strange sets of improvements would they produce? Could I live in a flat block that’s a net exporter of Italian food and IT support?

    The only problem with it all, is that the one thing that spurs on the self-improvement process, is utter, mind-numbing, unending boredom.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, potentially dubious green curry is calling.

  • Haircuts and Homeliness

    Back here again. Jubail is beginning to feel like a second home, we slip back into life here so easily. We remember what channels are on the TV, what to order for lunch to minimise the amount of it that’s stale. Out on the range, they remember our tea and coffee preferences, and we have our own mugs. I’ve given up wondering if each trip will be our last, saying goodbye as if we would never return. I guess our real final trip will sneak up on us in the end, never letting us know that’s what it was until long after we’ve returned home.

    For years I’ve travelled around with wildly varying hairstyles across my various forms of ID, from my passport photo taken with barely any hair in 2005 to more recent shoulder-length versions. I’m surprised I’ve made it this far without being questioned by anybody, but I imagined the first query would come from a passport checker in a booth somewhere, probably on re-entering Britain, who I’d be able to have a chat with and explain the haircuts.

    As it turns out, the first person to question it was a Marine. With an AK47. Who didn’t speak English.

    Fun times!

  • a thousand words: Finishing Touches

    The vast majority of user-reported bugs and requested features on “a thousand words” have now been sorted out. As requested by my co-conspirator Eric, we now have an ‘adult content’ filter based on a date of birth field in users’ profiles, and a ‘report’ button to bring problematic stories and pictures to the attention of the moderators. There’s also a DeviantArt-style “request critique” option to let users know what kind of comments you’re looking for.

    Timestamps have been fixed, “no stars yet” ratings introduced, and text field policies such as “mustn’t be empty” have been added across the site. A few rendering issues in IE have been sorted out, so it now looks much the same across all platforms.

    The biggest change is unfortunately something most of you will never see – the moderator console. Picture submissions and reported stories/pictures now sit in queues that can be dealt with by moderators. An item entering a queue triggers an e-mail to all mods, who are invited to review it and make changes as appropriate. Once changes are made, the affected users are then e-mailed to let them know what happened (and in the case of reported items, to give them a chance to challenge it).

    There’s one major feature request that’s not yet been implemented: file uploads. Once in the system this would allow users to submit pictures from their hard drives rather than from the web by URL, and would allow moderators to copy URL-linked pictures to the site to avoid hotlinking. (At present we don’t hotlink, but we do therefore have to copy pictures to the site manually using FTP.) It could also allow users to use a non-Gravatar picture for their profile.

    Depending on how things go, that may or may not be ready by tomorrow night. On Saturday morning I jet off to sunny Saudi Arabia, so any changes not made by then are going to remain unmade for a while. From that point it’s in Eric’s capable hands as to whether she wants to release the site or not. Even if the site does advance to release status, I’m still taking bug reports (they’ll sit in my inbox until I get back), so keep on letting me know what’s broken and what you’d like to see added!

  • a thousand words: Alpha, Beta

    “a thousand words” has now reached a stage where every feature that I give a damn about is implemented. Thus, we’re opening it up to a limited beta test to iron out the wrinkles and get a list of any features potential users would like to see us launch with. If you’re bored or simply have a love of breaking other people’s shit, head along to http://athousandwords.org.uk and see what hell you can raise. As the Big Red Box Text warns you, really don’t submit any work of fiction you care about, just in case some kind soul finds an SQL injection vulnerability and trashes the database.

    Since last time I bored the hell out of you all, voting and commenting has been implemented, registration has been fixed, filtering HTML tags from submissions has been added, as has a word count and the picture selector on story submission. There’s been a bunch of behind-the-scenes tweaks to improve security too.

    The one feature that Eric definitely wants is a way to mark stories according to their content. We could do this in several ways – I would prefer, if anything, to just have a “not for kids” option on each post and a Date of Birth field associated with user accounts, so we can hide stories as required. Other options include a range of ratings (U, PG, 12, 15, 18…) or tags for certain content (violence, sex, language) so people can avoid whatever they’re picky about.

    This probably ought to come with a Report button so that users can report incorrectly rated stories, and I would add a similar feature to report pictures. (Picture submissions are moderated, so Goatse isn’t going to make it through anyway, but the mod team might miss subtler things like licencing terms and copyright infringement.)

    At that point, all that’s left on my list is the admin interface and anything that users suggest during this beta. Hopefully we’ll be ready to launch by the time I depart for sandier shores at the end of the week!

  • a thousand words: Hot Profilin' Action

    A few days’ laziness (by which I mean a few days’ Starcraft) have passed with not much work being done on “a thousand words”. That came to an end tonight, with a productive evening resulting in a working profile system so that users can now add and display personal information, change their registered e-mail address and password, etc.

    There’s now a database backend for the voting and commenting systems, which will be complemented by their GUI pages tomorrow night.

    Once that’s done, that’s the last of the main functions out of the way and we’re basically down to tweaks. I think we ought to, in no particular order:

    • Decide on what formatting users can add to stories, and filter for it

    • Add a word count, and possibly limit submissions to e.g. 600-1400 words

    • Add a means of reporting stories and pictures for e.g. copyright issues

    • Add a means of rating stories, so users can mark them as containing sex, violence etc.

    • Create an admin interface, so we don’t just have to run the site with raw SQL queries

    • Add ranks, etc. (incentives for achieving high Total Stars)

    • jQuery up some of the main bits to improve user experience

    • Implement the scrolling list of pictures for users to select when creating a new story

    At that point, I think it should be ready for open beta. Hopefully we can get it all done within a week, before I depart for internet-less shores!