May 04 2013

Today

Category: UncategorizedMarcus @ 11:39 pm

In September last year I bought a scooter. I had some spare cash and I’d decided I’d had enough of relying on public transport so it was time to get my own wheels. Only two, but the minimum training requirements are a lot lower than that needed for a car. I like exploring and there’s a limit to what you can do on a mountain bike, especially as hilly as somewhere as Leeds. A couple of weeks ago I rode over to Manchester, out over New Hey Road and back along the A62.By the route I took (and the inadvertent detour via Victoria Rd and the university) it was about 100 miles. Today I rode out to Sheffield and Meadowhall along the A61. I’m on a provisional licence so I’m not allowed on motorways, otherwise it would be a lot faster, both because they have a higher average speed and also because of a lack of traffic lights, speed humps and such like. Part of me is interested in the historical network of roads that were there before the motorways were built. The A62 is the old route from Leeds to Manchester before the M62 was built, and the A61 from Leeds to Sheffield never gets very far from the M1.

One thing about using the non-trunk roads is that you get to see how good (or not) various local authorities are at maintaining them. Greater Manchester, West and South Yorkshire ceased to have county councils in 1986 so they are maintained by smaller metropolitan borough councils. Different places have different approaches to traffic calming and road safety. Wakefield seems to be on another planet when it comes to road markings, with some areas having faded “new” markings next to burnt off “old” ones so it’s difficult to see which is current, and another section having a fairly recently resurfaced road with no markings at all. The road signs are still there (including “get in lane”) so it’s confusing trying to work out what you’re supposed be doing. South Yorkshire also has a lot of “Biker Beware” signs that don’t explain whether bikers should beware of something, or other people should beware of bikers. Helpful. And don’t get me started on utility companies digging trenches along the road, putting pipes in, and then filling them not quite level with the rest of the road so there’s a groove you need to avoid, or face wobbling at up to 50 mph. Being unenclosed and on two wheels really makes you appreciate how the quality of the road surface matters.

Apart from the ride out, I found Meadowhall seems to be mostly women’s clothing shops these days. I went there for a school trip in the early 90s when it had just opened and I don’t remember a lot of how it was back then, but these days it feels pretty tired. Most shopping centres and large town centres are generally just the same shops in a slightly different order. It would make things more interesting if commercial districts were a bit more mixed. Independent shops are OK up to a point, but it would be good to have something else as well. How about shops on the lower floors and offices on the upper floors? Not just the kind of “servicing office worker” type places like sandwich shops, but big high street stores. Maybe have the odd art gallery or live music venue in the middle of the main shopping street as well. If you want to put a real spanner in the works, how about Amazon opening a range of high street shops where you can order and collect, and where they have the most popular items in stock to buy there and then?

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May 04 2013

I Kip, You Kip

Category: Politics Etc...Marcus @ 1:53 am

The day after election day and UKIP did reasonably well, gaining 139 seats. Less reported is that Labour gained 291 of them. It’s not surprising, given that Nigel Farage has been all over the BBC for the last few months without really being questioned. UKIP have been whining that the newspapers have started looking more into some of those candidates, including the bloke who was trying to stop someone taking photos of him pretending to eat a plant, and James Delingpole’s brother behaving like a Dick photoshopping himself into a photo of a dodgy Austrian character with a silly moustache.

Now comes the tricky bit for UKIP. They’ve got something of a reputation as a protest vote and Nigel Farage has a very low attendance rate in his role as an MEP, 75% in the session 2004-09. However, with a total of 147 local council seats, they will now be expected to do things. The BNP used to be something of a right-wing protest vote as well, but their councillors had a habit of not bothering to turn up to meetings. In a lot of cases they were shunted to committees where they could do no harm, like street cleansing or refuse collection. What next for UKIP then? Will they turn out to be as useless as the BNP, or will their councillors do something useful? Farage has said his party machinery hasn’t had enough time to vet all the UKIP candidates so I imagine there will be a few skeletons in the closet coming out in the next few months or so. It’ll also be interesting to see how the candidates cope when they find out what exactly being a UKIP councillor means, whether they decide to remain involved with the party or if they go elsewhere.

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Apr 27 2013

Why the “Asylum seeker gets £2m house while pensioner starves on £6K a year” meme is total bollocks

Category: Politics Etc...Marcus @ 2:43 pm

There’s one of those “share this photo” memes doing the rounds on Facebook where someone has put a stock photo of someone with wrinkled hands holding some coins next to a Daily Mail story about a family from Somalia, and added some inflammatory text suggesting that all pensioners get £6K a year while asylum seekers are given free houses. Like this:

Before going into the details, this is a classic example of a false dilemma or false dichotomy. It isn’t a case of state pensions or support for asylum seekers but not both. I could as easily do a different one where a very rich pensioner sponges off the tax payer while someone who just wants a better life after being persecuted is forced to live in a cardboard box.

Leaving aside the “generic pensioner”, it’s worth reading the original story at the Daily Mail to find out the facts of this case. It was published in 2010 so it’s rather old now, and it mentions certain key points that the meme image does not:

  • The story begins “A family of former asylum-seekers from Somalia” (my emphasis). In other words, they aren’t asylum seekers. They have been granted asylum. As such they are entitled to all the same rights and benefits as our “generic pensioner”, including being able to apply for council housing if they want to. As the story admits, “Rules allow anyone who is eligible for housing benefit to claim for a private property in any part of the country they wish.”
  • They were not “given” the house. It is rented and paid for through housing benefit. The rent may be high, but that’s down to the landlord deciding to charge that much and to allow it to be let out to housing benefit claimants. A lot of landlords are very strict about “no DSS”. As the story says, “The current housing benefit system was overhauled by the last government in April 2008. Labour Ministers introduced new caps on the amount claimants could receive, depending on the size and location of the property. But instead of bringing costs down, the new system encouraged many landlords to raise rents to the level of the maximum allowable”. In other words, not the family’s fault
  • The family were granted asylum in 1999 and the mother has never worked since then. Could it be because asylum seekers are banned from working and she had a large family to look after once it was granted? I don’t know why the father lost his job as a bus driver but the story does admit that he’s trying to find another one and doing training to help him do so

So there. The story isn’t as straightforward as it looks. It has two main points: standard Daily Mail rhetoric against foreign people, and blaming housing benefit claimants for the decisions of landlords. The first is as much a feature of the Mail as Page 3 is of the Sun, and the second could be dealt with if we had proper rent controls that applied to everyone whether or not housing benefit was involved. Benefit caps and bedroom taxes are popular with the tabloids but they aren’t the right way to reduce the housing benefit bill.

What support do asylum seekers get then? The UK Border Agency website has a list:

  • Accommodation including utility bills is provided, but there’s no choice about where it is and it will be in Scotland, Wales or the North of England. It will not be in London or the South. There are also strict rules about what behaviour is expected
  • A cash payment of about £40 a week is made to cover all other living expenses
  • Asylum seekers are banned from working. If their case takes more than 12 months, they are allowed to apply for permission to work, but there are strict rules about what they can do. Begging is illegal
  • Health care and education for children under 18 is provided. This isn’t just to be nice: if someone comes from a country where there might be diseases like yellow fever, typhoid, you want to make sure they aren’t infectious. Apart from a few exceptions, all immigrants wanting to stay for 6 months or more are required to have a health check before being allowed entry, regardless of who they are. Local authorities have a legal duty to make sure all children below a certain age are educated and school is the usual way to do this

Asylum and immigration are often confused. However an asylum seeker is someone who flees their country to escape persecution while an immigrant is someone who enters the country for other reasons. While asylum seekers should seek refuge in the nearest safe country, often they make arrangements to escape without knowing or caring where they’ll end up. They don’t just seek asylum in the UK: a quick Google suggest almost everywhere has people claiming political asylum. However a story about Somali asylum seekers claiming refuge in, for example, Kenya isn’t exactly going to be headline news in the rightwing UK tabloids. Kenyan treatment of asylum seekers isn’t exactly pleasant so it’s not surprising people go elsewhere.

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Apr 26 2013

Meh

Category: UncategorizedMarcus @ 9:25 pm

So I finally get round to setting up a blog on my website (over at http://www.houlden.org for LJers) but then I hardly ever get round to posting anything because when I do try it turns out to be a very long and discursive essay that I never finish. I suppose what I really need to do is something halfway between that and the extremely short updates that Twitter allows.

Quick summary of where things are then. For work I’m doing something pretty complicated that involves ASP.Net, C#, SQL Server, Active Directory and a few other bits and pieces. Away from work, I have a scooter:

Not the biggest thing around but it’ll do for now until I get my full licence. I like to explore, and after working from home it’s nice to get some fresh air, so over the last week I’ve done a circuit from Horsforth to Otley and back via Guisley, a 100 mile ride out to Manchester and back on A roads, and another 30 mile circuit along the top of the ring road to Garforth and via the centre of Leeds. Gotta renew my CBT before mid July so the more practice I can get the better.

I definitely need to do more quick updates rather than long and complicated tracts to keep things moving. Because this is my site rather than something hosted on a shared service like WordPress.com I can do what I want with it.


Apr 24 2013

Quick test…

Category: UncategorizedMarcus @ 10:32 pm

Testing asides in WordPress


Apr 17 2013

Funerals

Category: UncategorizedMarcus @ 12:19 am

No, not that one. There was an article in the Telegraph last July which said that the number of public health/”pauper’s” funerals had increased substantially because of cuts to the social security budget and the Government Funeral Payment Scheme. The article mentions some study by an insurance company which just happens to sell funeral insurance, but I think it is an issue worth discussing anyway. When my dad died we got a grant from the social fund to pay for it because none of had that sort of money at that short notice. The funeral directors offered us an “affordable” funeral for about £1600, which thankfully was taken care of for us. It sounds like a lot, but it included:

  • Collection from the hospice
  • Storage and preparation for the funeral
  • Transport to the crematorium
  • A coffin
  • Various fees such as “ash cash” (a fee paid to the doctor who signs off the certificate authorising cremation) and use of the crematorium chapel
  • A newspaper obituary

More expensive funerals include things like transport for friends & family, catering and other odds and ends. Dealing with the body is pretty expensive: cremating someone over 16 in Leeds costs £633. Burying an adult costs from £842 upwards. A green burial costs £2,248. The cost of a funeral is the first thing to be paid out of the deceased’s estate. Everything else has a lower priority. If there isn’t enough money, the executor has to pay, which is where the funeral payment scheme should come it.

A funeral has to take place because dealing with the remains of the deceased is a public health issue. Bodies have to buried in certain places to avoid polluting groundwater and deep enough to make sure they don’t smell or attract vermin. Cremation requires the body to be prepared so it burns safely (no exploding pacemakers for example) and the fumes don’t cause any problems. Burials and green burials also require a fair amount of land. All this has to be paid for somehow. Local authorities are required to make sure a body is buried or cremated, but that’s as far as it goes in theory. In practice even public health funerals usually have some sort of arrangement to allow people the chance to say goodbye to the deceased in a dignified way, even if it’s just a minister conducting a short service to an empty chapel.

On that cheery note, it’s worth at least thinking about what might happen when your time runs out. Making even a basic will helps people left behind know your final wishes and helps to avoid some of the arguments. It’s also good to keep in touch with people before it’s too late. There are far too many people I just wish I’d had one last chance to speak to while I’d had the chance.

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Apr 14 2013

Beer!

Category: UncategorizedMarcus @ 1:59 am

Testing.How long does it take for Twitter card approval to come through?

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Apr 08 2013

Returning to Politics

Category: Politics Etc...Marcus @ 12:41 am

And the Aggressive Secularist is back, in a different place. Lots to get angry about with changes to the NHS and the constant rudeness about social security (“welfare”) at the moment. It’s sometimes said that you don’t judge someone by who their friends are, but who they decide to make their enemies, especially in politics. I can never remember the difference between a striver and a shirker, but it doesn’t really matter. There’s a massive shift in the use of language going on. A “welfare state” made up of “strivers and shirkers” sounds very different to receiving “social security”. The right-wing tabloids refer to social security payments as “benefits” and “handouts”. However, a lot of how much you get depends on national insurance contributions. Most of the social security bill goes on state pensions, but that’s not what you’d believe if you listen to the press. The level of benefit fraud is also very low: less than 1%. Sure you do get occasional edge cases but the number of these is so small as to be insignificant.

Lots to get the teeth into, especially with the overall narrative and use of language. Later though.

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Apr 07 2013

Pie!

Category: UncategorizedMarcus @ 11:32 pm

Egg and bacon pie

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Apr 07 2013

LJ Posting Test

Category: UncategorizedMarcus @ 10:55 pm

Posted over at http://www.houlden.org/wp-blog/. *waves* at LJ, if it gets through.


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