You deserve it

We’re losing big chunks of our welfare system, aided by constant scrounger rhetoric from the press. We have outsourced the decision about whether people are sick or not to Atos. The NHS is being privatised while the Tories constantly tell us that it isn’t. Local authorities are being told to outsource pretty much everything to private companies. We have long been losing our freedom with TPIMs (Formerly Control Orders) allowing people to be locked up without trial, security theatre making travel and events hell, police deciding that protesting or speaking out is terrorism, police routinely kettle and hit protesters, and governments making a grab to spy on all our communications and censor them. We hand over police duties to private security firms. We hand over billions of pounds to banks, doubling the country’s national debt while they continue to gamble away the money, pay themselves huge bonuses and land the country in crippling, deadly recession. Companies do everything that they can to avoid paying tax and threaten governments when anyone tries to clampdown. In fact the Conservatives receive half of their funding from business in the City of London. Employers continue to pay pathetic wages that no one can live on and yet still fire more employees and increase the workload on those who are left. It seems that racism and xenophobia are everywhere,  people continue to discriminate based on skin colour, gender, sexuality, disability and religion or lack of religion and who knows what else – they just hate everything different to them. People are being sent to work, unpaid, in Tesco and Poundland, while the government pays the employers to exploit these people and the employers sack the paid workers to make way for the slaves. Our prime minister wants to scrap the Human Rights Act because it stops him from being so nasty to everyone.

You deserve it. All of you. You let it happen. We let it happen. Maybe it should happen and people should suffer for their inaction and their hatred, except that the worst offenders really won’t suffer. They will just buy or oppress their way out of any situation. Fuck it, nuke the human race, it doesn’t deserve to be here.

 

Broken Tweetdeck

I’m more than a little baffled by the new version of Tweetdeck. It has lost significant functionality compared to the previous versions. The new version:

  • Can’t delete tweets.
  • Can’t see the twitter @ name responsible for retweets because only the real name is shown.
  • Can’t see from a profile whether that person is following me.
  • Can’t reply to or retweet tweets when browsing another person’s timeline.
  • Can’t send a tweet to Facebook as well as twitter when retweeting.
  • Doesn’t show all of my tweets that have been favourited or retweeted, especially after a restart.
  • Insists on quoting tweets instead of the traditional RT @name: tweet.
  • Doesn’t copy hashtags into replies.
It also has changes that I dislike but can live with. It:
  • Requires extra clicks to see conversations attached to a tweet.
  • Won’t let me click in a column to select what scrolls with the mouse wheel as it loads the details for the tweet clicked on.
  • Doesn’t reply to tweets within the columns any more, which means can’t reply to one tweet while composing another.
  • Loses a tweet in progress if it is closed.
  • The colour scheme includes significant white parts. The dark colour scheme of Tweetdeck helped me to communicate when migraines made white web pages hurt.

I’m baffled as to why they would break Tweetdeck like this. The cynical view is that Twitter want to break Tweetdeck so that people return to using the Twitter website directly, but that doesn’t entirely make sense. Tweetdeck provides abilities that Twitter just does not, like the ability to see tweets streamed in real time instead of periodic updates, and can show replies, messages and lists all at the same time alongside the timeline. If I were twitter I would brand Tweetdeck as Twitter Pro and call it a premium service. Instead they seem to be deliberately making it like the Twitter website and breaking it. Unfortunately there is still nothing better to move to.

Reprehensible landlords and nice people to the rescue

Here is a tale of both reprehensible treatment of a disabled single mother and her family; and of heartwarming cheer and the kindness of strangers.

Mould1
Mould in Becki's house

In the week when Channel 4 gave us Dispatches: Landlords from hell and showed us the state of housing that landlords are prepared to leave their tenants in, and that councils were prepared to pay for, it is not that suprising to hear another story of a landlord leaving a family in run-down damp and mouldy accommodation. But you wouldn’t expect that landlord to be the council itself. Well, it seems that Arun district council have not only left a woman and her five young children in such a house, but they even knew about the damp problem before she moved in.

The story gets worse though. Becki, who blogs at Broken Single Mum, suffers from chronic pain as a result of injury caused by pregnancy with her fifth child. She has to use a wheelchair to get around but since her house is not adapted for such a wheelchair, she is forced to use crutches indoors. She is no longer able to manage stairs or her own front door. Because of this she has been sleeping and living downstairs on the sofa, itself mouldy because of the state of the house, and all the while looking after her children. She has to wash in the kitchen sink and use a commode with no privacy. Becki is on the waiting list for a new council house and not surprisingly has the support of three social workers, a health visitor and a disability advocate to help convince the council to make her a priority for a more suitable home. To her surprise, however, when Becki bid on a suitable house the council turned her down. One of the considerations which affected the decision was the state of her house. Apparently the council likes tenants to have their house in “pristine condition” before they move to keep the costs down for the council, but in this case that is an absurd expectation – the house was a wreck to begin with. Becki acquired the house in a council house exchange but there were problems and the family were not able to move in to the house for many months. In that time the condition of the house deteriorated rapidly. In Becki’s words,

When I moved in to this property there was no ceiling in the hallway from the front door to close to the stairs. There were floor boards screwed on to brick walls. There was a hole in the floor of the main bedroom (ok, that is still there, that one has stumped me). The walls were pitted and scarred. The back garden was in such a state that a guy from the council came out and declared it unfit for use! That’s right, they told me it was too dangerous to let my children play out there, that was the state of it. The kitchen consisted of two double cupboards and one single, and a long surface that wasn’t attached to anything.

Unfortunately when Becki turned to the council for help in restoring the house to the state that it had been when she agreed to the exchange, the council refused and quoted a clause in the exchange contract which exempted the council from repairs for several years.

How the house was before
How the garden was to start with

So we have a situation where the tenant dramatically improved a council house at her own expense, put up with all the health problems associated with mould caused by damp which the council knew about and did not fix, desperately needs to move to a house with more bedrooms for her children and a bed and a bathroom that she can actually get to, has the support of multiple support workers, and yet has been refused an available and suitable house because her paintwork wasn’t sparkling clean. And then, to cap it all, when Becki found a suitable private property and requested help from the council to raise the necessary deposit under their deposit bond scheme, they informed her that they would not help because she was currently in “secure” housing.

From here the story takes a turn for the better. Persuaded by her friends through Twitter, Becki set up a page at the fundraising website GoFundMe to allow people to donate towards her costs of moving. Within  hours that fundraiser has already reached £764, more than half of the £1350 deposit needed to allow Becki and her family to move house and get out of the mess that she is in. It really is heartwarming to see that generosity coming from strangers on the internet, helping to do what the council seem unwilling to do. Even after the house deposit is covered the family need to purchase new beds and a sofa and so I’ll finish with a plea. Please, go and add a little bit to that fund and let Becki get her family to safe, secure accommodation for Christmas. You’ll feel better for helping.

—UPDATE—

Thanks to some wonderful people Becki now has enough to cover the house deposit, has a guarantor and has sorted out the rental agent, but due to the way housing benefit is paid she still needs to raise a month’s rent in advance.

Donate through GoFundMe to help Becki

Raise Money Online with GoFundMe.com

Virtual models and H&M – a storm in a teacup?

The media appears to be making a big fuss about H&M “confessing” to using virtual models on their website. The people at Jezebel.com realised that H&M picture clothes on models that are put together by a computer. You can read the original story H&M Puts Real Model Heads On Fake Bodies [Jezebel] and see an example in the Telegraph H&M confess to using computer generated models. In the last 24 hours this story has appeared all over the place.

The story has provoked an angry response from a lot of people and many have pointed out problems. I agree that doing it this way can contribute towards defining a particular body image as the norm, and can create an unrealistic ideal in the minds of women and in what people expect of their partners. There is no range of body shapes and sizes, which can’t help people who are unhappy with their own size or shape. I could see this contributing to eating disorders and mental health problems too.

I think, though, that this is being sensationalised by the media and being blown out of proportion. Accusations that this is being done to keep costs down or to get perfect models or with some malicious intention are wrong here. One comment I saw says “Even the bodies of professional models are too imperfect to properly advertise clothing with. Even with photoshop. The only solution was to invent an entirely virtual body that no human being actually has.” This just isn’t true. Here is what is really happening: H&M use a virtual dressing room created by Looklet.com. The clothes are photographed on a mannequin and the human models are photographed. The whole lot is put on the website. Then the computer can take whichever clothes are desired and put them on a model to create an outfit to the customer’s own specification. The point is to allow customers to see what their outfit looks like, which encourages them to buy that item of clothing, and maybe to buy other clothes and accessories that they have tried on the virtual model. It is possible to tell which pictures used a virtual model since all of the models for the virtual dressing room are shown with the same pose, left hand on hip. The virtual models are highlighted in the picture below.

H&M screenshot with virtual models circled
Screenshot from H&M website with virtual models highlighted
H&M screenshot
Screenshot of H&M website - note the "TRY ON" button near the bottom right.

As I said, this is being sensationalised by the press. H&M never said that they didn’t use computer models, and they haven’t confessed to anything, just acknowledged the truth when people noticed. I am sure that many people had noticed on earlier occasions when they used the website to mix and match clothes. H&M aren’t the only ones to do this; other clothing brands such as the Swedish JC (Jeans & Clothes) also use Looklet. Strangely, so do Absolut Vodka.

screenshot from H&M website showing mail virtual model.
Another H&M screenshot. They have virtual models of men too!

There are steps that could be taken to make this better, not all of them practical. The clothes could be photographed in a range different sizes, but a single new size would double the work required to process the images and get them onto the website and in practice is not affordable. It could be made clearer that the virtual models are not real people, with a notice to that effect on the website, and perhaps H&M shouldn’t use the virtual models mixed in with their real ones. The virtual models could be made obviously less human; although making them look like a Barbie doll might be a bit too condescending.

In the end I don’t believe that this is anything like the scandal that people think it is. People have looked at the headlines with words like “confesses” in them and made assumptions but few have gone to the website and experimented with creating looks to see what the real reason for the virtual models is. The ability to create looks is useful and is enjoyed by many people as a creative outlet as well as being a marketing tool. Yes, it has its drawbacks, but perhaps they are worth working around to get the useful features too.

 

Scary future

*** Trigger warning for some links and comments ***

Apart from talking about problems with the 38Degrees process, David Gillon’s guest blog post “On being demonised” – a disabled 38 Degrees members’ perspective [38 Degrees] is a comprehensive summary of what government policy is doing to sick and disabled people. It makes a depressing read. But that isn’t all. Today Lisa Egan has written what she sees in the future for sick and disabled people in Not OK [Where’s the benefit] and it is not looking good. It’s downright scary, in fact. These quotes aren’t hyperbole; these are realistic impact of what the government are doing.

“Those proposals contain something I never saw coming: From the end of 2013 I will no longer be eligible for the benefit. At all. Like I said, I was perhaps expecting a fight during the reassessment process but the idea that the goal posts would be moved quite so far had never occurred to me.”

“Quite simply without my DLA I will not have a car so I will not be able to go shopping. Without the benefit I will not be able to afford online deliveries as an alternative to shopping myself. I will not be able to bring my medication home from the pharmacy. With not being able to get food or medication I can’t see how I can possibly last long.”

“all hope is lost and I have that deadline of 2013 when my life will actually become unliveable. ”

“The anti-cuts movement chose to fight to save libraries rather than lives. There’s nothing quite like that knowledge to really make you feel despised.”

Add into the mix what Phillipa Willitts has written in You’re frightening me [the f word] and this is starting to be quite overwhelming. Today I also read what Emma experienced at Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Market 2011 In A Wheelchair [Pseudo-living] and it doesn’t present anything positive about progress towards an accessible society for all. In fact people seem to be getting more prejudiced and discriminatory. Two Thirds avoid disabled people [4-traders]

The only positive thing that I have read today is this article in which former speechwriter for David Cameron, Ian Birrel, slates Ian Duncan Smith and the Department of Work and Pensions for feeding benefit scrounger and disability misinformation to the press. The demonisation of the disabled is a chilling sign of the times [The Observer]

Unfortunately, much blame rests on the shoulders of the media and certain parts of government. There has been a new dialogue overdisability, characterised by the constant drip-drip of stories implying vast numbers of disability claimants are bogus, that benefits are doled out without proper checks and taxpayers fund free cars for thousands of children with minor behavioural disorders.

Many emanate from the Department for Work and Pensions, which has twisted facts, manipulated statistics and distorted data to win support for its drive to cut costs and crack down on benefit fraud. This cascade of spurious claims and scandalously spun stories ends up demonising the disabled. It does no credit to Iain Duncan Smith, the secretary of state, who proclaims himself a compassionate Conservative. Ministers say they cannot be blamed for the actions of the media, but they know how the game is played.

This isn’t positive in itself, but I’m pleased to see that more people are recognising the hateful rhetoric that is targetting sick and disabled people in the UK.

Computer programming at school

There has been an increasing movement recently to have more computer science and computer programming taught in schools. I wrote about this a while ago in Why kids should learn to program computers and several organisations have begun to campaign about this. See Games, government and the future of coding in the UK [Guardian Gamesblog] and Programming should take pride of place in our schools [The Observer]

To me, the campaign to teach computer programming and computer science in school is really in two parts. The first part is to expose children to computer programming at a young enough age that they get a chance to learn it while it is easy for them, and to allow some of them to discover a love of coding that they might otherwise never pay attention to. The second part is to make sure that those who then choose to study Information and Communications Technology (ICT) at GCSE level are actually taught computer science – transferable principles of computing – and not just how to use computers for business. At the moment the ICT GCSE really consists of office skills. Learning to use a word processor, spreadsheet, database, and make presentations is quite important but I believe that these are simple things that every child should know in order to do their homework. In effect the ICT GCSE is like teaching someone to write but only on headed paper branded with a Microsoft logo. It is a necessary skill made so focussed and narrow as to be a bit pointless. Those who have actually chosen to study computing ought to be given a much deeper understanding of how computers work and impact the world around us.

At school in the 80s there was a BBC micro in the corner of nearly every classroom. Some children played educational games on them. Some used the simple word processor to type up their work. Some of us discovered that we could make the computer do things by typing commands. Fun things. For example, the old classic:

10 PRINT “STEVE IS THE BEST”
20 GOTO 10

The next question after seeing this little gem is often “What else can I make the computer do?” Of course not everyone asked this question, not even a majority, but those who did often went on to acquire a new hobby and a love of learning about these machines. Many of those people entered the computer software industry and now produce games and applications for a living. Others may use their skill to apply information technology to their job in all sorts of industries. Without the same opportunity and prompting present in classrooms any more, that chance of an early introduction has been lost.

One argument for teaching computer programming in schools is that it is a useful skill for future employment. In fact writing software is one thing that the UK has a good reputation for in the global market. However less people are going into the software industry now and the UK needs more programmers to keep the industry going. This might well be due to children not being exposed to coding early on and never discovering their talent or love for coding. It might also be because computers in the 80s did very little without being programmed to do something interesting by the end user. Now we have games consoles and web browsers so that children don’t have to learn any coding at all to get entertainment from computers. Preparing people for work is not the only reason to teach programming; I think that part of school should be a chance to cover a wide range of subjects so that children can discover new things that they might then choose to study at a higher level or go on to learn on their own as a hobby.

This video from BBC Click talks about the Raspberry Pi project to get ultra-cheap ultra-simple computers back in front of children and into classrooms. Can a £15 computer solve the programming gap? [BBC Click] It also visits a classroom where 11 year old children are being given the chance to create computer games as an introduction to programming. It is very interesting to see how they seem to take to it easily and get very absorbed in the project. This is what is being lost if we do not introduce them to the subject at that young age.

I have seen the argument that computer programming should not be taught in schools because there are other more important subjects that should be taught. There are many things that children ought to learn about and not enough time to teach them. I can sympathise with this argument to some extent. There are important skills that ought to be taught. I would suggest that managing a household budget and cooking are two essential ones. However, children are also taught subjects that might be to develop indirect skills or might even be just for fun.  I think that they should be introduced to computer programming very young, between the ages of 6 and 12. At these younger ages I don’t think that there is such a conflict between subjects, although I could be wrong about this. At any rate, an introduction to programming would not need to be dragged out over a long period. It would suffice to introduce the subject in a few lessons and then allow those that have had their imagination captured by the subject to continue in their own time with access to school resources.

If those children then go on to study ICT at GCSE, they might be disappointed with its focus on office skills. Reform of the ICT GCSE only affects people that have chosen to study it. I know of many people who have been frustrated at what they were directed to study because it was what they already knew and does not stretch them, and because they were not taught anything more advanced. I would like to teach office skills to all students early on as part of other subjects, (I think that happens already) and then people choosing ICT ought to get the more in-depth teaching that they would like.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? Vote in the poll and have your say in the comments below.

Free speech isn’t just for you

Jeremy Clarkson has upset people. Nothing new there. Commenting on the strikes on November the 30th, he said:

“I would have them all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean how dare they go on strike when they have these gilt-edged pensions that are going to be guaranteed, while the rest of us have to work for a living.”

Later (not in the clip below) he said: “‘I do sometimes use the train to come to London but it always stops in Reading. It’s always because somebody has jumped in front of it and somebody has burst. You just think, why have we stopped because we’ve hit somebody? What’s the point of stopping? It won’t make them better.”

 

So here’s what I think of what he said. First of all, it is clear to me that the comment about shooting people is not his serious opinion. It is hyperbole. This is just how Clarkson is, he says stupid things that he doesn’t mean to make some people laugh and make other people outraged. To me, it’s not funny, to some unpleasant people, it is. His comment about “gilt-edged pensions” is plain wrong. Public sector pensions are not gilt-edged, gold-plated or any other phrase that implies that they provide enough to live on.

1.11 The Commission firmly rejected the claim that current public service pensions are ‘gold plated.’ The average pension paid to pensioner members is around £7,800 per year, while the median payment is around £5,600.

From Page 26 of the Hutton Report [PDF]

Clarkson is also a hypocrite for calling pensions gilt-edged and claiming that “the rest of us have to work for a living.” I don’t know what his pension is like, but he definitely earns above the average wage – including approximately £1 million per year from the BBC. And I am fairly sure that he doesn’t work as hard as the average teacher, nurse or other public sector worker. As for his comments about people who fall under trains inconveniencing him, that just shows how detached and insensitive he is.

Last week another example of offensive speech made the news. A woman on a tram let out a tirade of racist speech, argument and abuse, and it was all captured on video. That video caused enough outrage to be viewed over 7.5 million times on YouTube. Since that incident the woman has been arrested and charged with racially/religiously aggravated intentional harassment.

Following his comments, Unison said today that they are considering reporting Clarkson to the police for hate speech. What Clarkson said was offensive and vile in my opinion but for all that I disagree with him, I cannot agree with those who say that he should be prosecuted or sued for what he said. I believe that freedom to say what we want is absolutely essential. Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights give us the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – to think what we want. Article 10 gives us the right to Freedom of Expression – to say what we want. Those are rights. They are not supposed to be negotiable; we must be allowed to think whatever we want and to speak our opinions. People who say things that are popular don’t need those rights enshrined in law because nobody will try to stop them from speaking. It is people who say things that are not popular that need the protection of those rights. And it isn’t just the freedom to say something hurtful or hateful, it is also the freedom to criticise those in power and to protest against government policy. It is very hard if not impossible to clamp down on any expression without providing excuses to clamp down on all expression.

That isn’t to say that there is no way to avoid what people say. We don’t have a right not to be offended by what someone says, but we do have a right not to listen. If offensive comments are left on a private blog or website, I see no reason why they can’t be removed. That’s not censorship, that is refusing to listen. The person who left the comments is free to get their own blog to say what they want. In the case of the woman on the tram, I think if she is found guilty of harassment then that is probably fair – but that is not for what she said but for who she said it to and how she said it. I think it would have been quite reasonable for the driver to ask her to leave the vehicle so that the other passengers did not need to be exposed to what she was saying. In the case of Jeremy Clarkson many people don’t want to hear what he says and don’t want to pay him to say it. I think it is fair for people who pay the BBC license fee to demand that the BBC not pay those fees to Clarkson as a salary for saying offensive things, and quite fair for the BBC to sack him. I don’t think that will happen though. I certainly don’t think that he should be prosecuted for hate speech. I’m also not saying that such offensive speech cannot be opposed. I think it is right to speak out against such opinions and there is nothing to stop other people criticising what was said. It is common for campaigns by the BNP and rallies by the EDL to be opposed by counter-protests by people who feel that they cannot let such political views go unopposed.

Where is the line as to what people can say, then? I agree that there must be a line. I think this because at some point a person using their right to say what they want can cross into abusing other people’s rights. In the case of freedom of speech I do not think that the line should be drawn to prevent offence, but should be drawn at the point where it becomes a threat to other people. I think the charge of harassment for the racist lady on the tram is probably the right charge. I would have disagreed with the charge if it had been hate speech.

This is a difficult problem though. A few months ago Kaliya Franklin (Bendy Girl) had comments left on her YouTube videos that advocated that she be killed because she is disabled. The comments were threatening and a horrible experience for her, and she reported them to the police. I don’t doubt that the comments were a crime under the rules about hate speech. The question is, should they be? I wouldn’t want to allow such comments but at the same time I believe that people should be free to think such things if they are that nasty. I don’t have an answer to this problem.

In the end I think the laws that we have on hate speech are unnecessary. When hate speech becomes threats or harassment it is covered by other laws.

 

Links

My Tram Experience [YouTube]

Jeremy Clarkson: ‘execute’ public sector workers, says BBC Top Gear host [Telegraph]

Sack Jeremy Clarkson over strike comments, Unison urges [BBC]

How rich is controversial Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson? [This is money]