GP staff remove patient from books because he tweeted about them

Another victim of the inability of organisations to cope with the things people say on social media.

This tweet…

Resulted in this letter.
gp discharge letter

Note that the tweet was not actually directed at any twitter account, so the surgery staff would have to have gone looking for it or been tipped off.

The surgery’s patient charter says

With staff

We aim to treat all of our patients courteously at all times and we expect our patients to treat our staff in a similarly respectful way. We take seriously any threatening, abusive, or violent behaviour against any of our staff or other patients. If any of our patients should behave in such a manner they will be warned that if they do not stop they may exercise our right to take action to have them removed, immediately if necessary, from our list of patients.

There’s no indication that any warning was given in this case. When even the prime minister can get away with calling people who use twitter “twats” it seems a bit harsh for someone to be refused medical treatment for using the same word.

What I want in a wheelchair is… a Raspberry Pi

I’ve been thinking for a while about adding a few improvements to an electric wheelchair. Electric wheelchairs are bulky, expensive, run on heavy and dangerous lead acid batteries, and are decidedly behind the times. I want a high-tech wheelchair. I want a hackable wheelchair. In short, what I want is a Raspberry Pi-powered wheelchair.

A Raspberry Pi in an open case

A Raspberry Pi, if you don’t know, is a small, low power, cheap (£20 – £28) computer that runs Linux and is perfect for embedding in projects. I want to add a Raspberry Pi to allow me to add all sorts of functions. Reversing sensors with an audible alarm. Proximity sensors used to actively steer around obstacles. A light sensor that can turn on the headlights. A WiFi or Bluetooth link to a smartphone to report status. Tires that report when they need air, and batteries that report when there is a problem and when they have finished charging or desperately need to be plugged in. Remote control to bring the chair to you. Pre-programmed routes so that the wheelchair can be told with one button on a smartphone to go to the bathroom / kitchen / bedroom.

Once there’s a computer in the wheelchair the possibilities are endless.

It’s unlikely that a Raspberry Pi could interface with the electronics which control the high currents that the motors need so the standard control unit would have to be swapped for control electronics from the robotics world and the equivalent joystick to replace the standard one.  Of course once a computer is in charge the joystick could equally be replaced by voice recognition or an Xbox controller.

My ideal electric wheelchair would have, in no particular order:

Me in my wheelchair
Yes I know the arms are misaligned. That’s what you get second-hand.
  • Lightweight narrow frame
  • Large wheels
  • Lithium batteries
  • Bright LED headlights (Automatic lights on!)
  • Battery sensors – voltage/charge/temperature/cycles
  • Motor temperature sensors
  • Reversing Sensors
  • Tyre pressure sensors
  • Robotics controller
  • CPU (Raspberry Pi!)
  • Smartphone status app connected via WiFi (Is my battery charged yet?)
  • Swappable controls that fit in a socket on either arm without endless bolts and cables to move.
  • Smartphone holder/charger attachment

I’m convinced that this is all possible, and probably not too expensive although any budget at all for this is out of my reach at the moment. There are people out there attempting to improve their wheelchairs, such as the engineer who has written up his attempts at and various attempts based on the Segway. I might just have to make a shopping list and try to find someone willing to fund it.

Too far too fast? We don’t need cuts at all

More cuts make everything better
Cartoon by the excellent @dochackenbush

A little over a year ago I was out on a protest against the welfare reform bill. I was doing one of several interviews of that day, explaining exactly how the welfare reform bill was going to cause serious harm to a great deal of people.

“But you do accept that we need cuts?” said the interviewer.



The interviewer was lost for words. Of course we need cuts. We have massive debt! There’s no money left!

I said something about the debt being caused by banks and about corporate tax avoidance but I wasn’t prepared for the question and my answer was not convincing enough. The interviewer had clearly decided I was mad and he moved on.

A year later, as then, the opposition from Labour to the Tory / LibDem austerity appears to be a simple statement that we do need cuts, and lots of them, but that the government are cutting too far and too fast. The Labour alternative is simply to cut a little less and to take longer to do it so as not to dump it all on the people at once. I think they are wrong.

So how can I justify that? As Liam Byrne said in his famous note to his successor at the Treasury in 2010, “There’s no money left.” The national debt is at £1.15 trillion. That’s £1,146,732,208,608 right this instant as I write. The deficit – the difference between the UK’s income and expenses – is running at well over ten billion pounds per month. That is, we borrowed an extra £13bn in January. The government have been making cuts, desperately slashing expenditure on public services, welfare and the military, and yet the debt continues to rocket upwards. Even the deficit is still growing, despite what the prime minister claims. Andrew Dilnot of the UK Statistics Authority had to point out to the prime minister that our debt has risen from £811bn in 2010 when the coalition took office to £1.1tn at the end of last year.

Why then, if cuts are being made, is our debt still going up? There are several answers to this.

  • We are in recession and income from tax is falling because money isn’t being spent to tax.
  • Cutting expenditure causes a further shrinking of the economy and a drop in tax income. The Office for Budget Responsibility says that in 2011-12 austerity reduced GDP by around 1.4%.
  • Cutting costs money. Cutting services means that we simply have to spend elsewhere to undo the damage of those cuts. For example, the cuts to care at home and the Independent Living Fund results in people being forced to move into care homes which easily costs ten times as much. Ditto for the bedroom tax, which sends disabled people into care homes and makes whole families homeless who then get put up in a “bed and breakfast” (with no breakfast) at many times the cost.
  • The government aren’t actually spending less despite cutting spending on services. Among other things they are spending money saved by those cuts on administration of welfare reform in more complex testing of benefits and in administration of outsourcing most NHS services. (I prefer to call it privatisation but technically it is outsourcing even if the result either way is a private hospital.)

Cutting doesn’t work, and “cutting” the way the government are doing it isn’t cutting at all, it’s moving money around into administration of private companies to run public services and then claiming that actually more is being invested in the NHS and more benefits money is available for “the most vulnerable” and “those who need it most”.

Assuming that we accept the current growth-obsessed financial system at all then these are the solutions to recession that we need to aim for:

  • Government must borrow more to smooth over the deficit until the economy picks up and tax income rises again, so that our income matches our outgoings.
  • We need to make tax avoidance illegal and recruit more staff at HMRC to collect those taxes. Closing the loopholes and clamping down on the tax gap would raise tens of billions of pounds.
  • We need to invest in doctors, nurses and facilities for the NHS and in care for sick and disabled people, thus creating jobs and providing for our needs at the same time.
  • We need to build social housing, creating jobs in the building industry while simultaneously bringing down rents and reducing the housing benefit bill.
  • We need to bring welfare benefits back above poverty levels, which not only provides for those who need it most, the mark of a civilised society, but would also put money back into the economy when spent. For a really radical solution we could consider some form of Basic Income.

Doing all of the above would create jobs and reduce expenses elsewhere, and result in money being spent by the people and going back into the economy rather than disappearing off as a banker’s bonus sitting in an offshore account.

Scripted, automated troll posts via botnets – welfare opponents running scared

My blog has been attracting trolls recently. Or more likely, I suspect, one troll. They comment most days on my latest blog post under various different names, using a different email address and from a different IP address each time.

Despite the different names, email addresses and IP addresses each time there are consistencies that betray a connection. The domain name of the email addresses are always either that of a throwaway email address provider or a large website. Mostly not an major email provider.) The first part of the email address is often five characters starting with “n”. The name is usually a short form of a male name such as bob, dan, matt, fred, and often has a number like dan 50. They always post the same kind of message – that people won’t work because they’re better off on benefits, that Britain is broke, that British people are lazy and that’s why foreigners have taken all the jobs, that I’m a scrounger. Sometimes they post a link to the daily mail.

You can probably agree that I have reason to suspect this is all the same person. But more than that, I wonder if this person is using an online persona management service like that known to have been requested by various US government agencies, and produced by HBGary among others and sold to governments and corporates. This kind of service and software allows one operator to handle dozens of identities which are used to leave comments anywhere their employer wants a message promoted. It is used to give the impression that there is a lot of disagreement with an idea, or to try to discredit someone by pretending to prove them wrong or just calling their ideas into question. This software is known to exist because one of the companies that make it was hacked in 2011 and had their communications published. A request for this kind of service by a US government agency was also published openly, possibly accidentally on a website for suppliers of services to governments.

Daily Kos writes:

“According to an embedded MS Word document found in one of the HBGary emails, it involvescreating an army of sockpuppets, with sophisticated “persona management” software that allows a small team of only a few people to appear to be many, while keeping the personas from accidentally cross-contaminating each other. Then, to top it off, the team can actually automate some functions so one persona can appear to be an entire Brooks Brothers riot online.”

Who would use this kind of service? And why would they bother with me? I think there are a fair few interested parties who would want to discredit my message about welfare and benefits. Big insurance companies, for one, and companies involved in administering benefits now and in the future. Various think tanks too. We know that insurance company UNUM has been “advising” government for years, and has actually boasted in writing that they influenced welfare policy. Atos has an interest in taking a cut for assessing people. I’m not claiming that any organisation has done this, but these are exactly the kind of customer that persona management services are marketed to.

I don’t think this is paranoia on my part, it’s just an idea I’m pondering. I’m still not sure if my troll is a lone person or several. I’m not claiming to be stalked by the military, I’m talking about software that is sold to military, government agencies, and corporates alike. I’m not talking about being targeted by spy agencies, I’m talking about being on a list of blogs and social network users that have ideas that are vaguely troublesome to the customer for this software. I’m not talking about anyone spending time on me, I’m talking about a person who has dozens of targets and a short brief about what kind of message to post there every so often under a new identity each time. Commenting on my blog is a tiny fraction of their time.

The troll on my blog doesn’t usually read the blog posts, they just scan for keywords like “benefits” and then post their message. They don’t see messages like “your comment is awaiting moderation”, they just try to post four times over a couple of hours. When I block their IP address they don’t come back immediately, they appear the next day on a new address – as though they waited for software to move on. They reply to people who reply to them but they just say more of the same without addressing questions. They are repetitive, saying much the same thing each time but written slightly differently, like someone has a brief to convey a certain idea but has no awareness of context.

I’m probably way off the mark here, but it’s an interesting idea that we could be seeing the work of persona management software in the wild. The messages left on my blog could have been left by people using this kind of system. But they’re probably the work of a particularly witless nasty troll. Thanks for the inspiration for a blog post, dan / fred / wes / dave / ozzy / mark / jane!

UPDATE 2013-03-10

I’ve been checking the troll’s IP addresses at and all but two that I have checked have been known sources of automated comment scripts. It appears that the system being used might not be as sophisticated as the persona management that I talked about, but is instead pre-written comments posted automatically by bots on blogs with welfare-related keywords.

Further reading

The Register: HBGary ‘puppets’ FAIL to convince

The Guardian: Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media

Daily Kos: The HB Gary Email That Should Concern Us All

Daily Kos: HB Gary Federal CEO a Daily Kos Member?

Pastebin: An archive of the troll comments left on this blog – with email and IP addresses

Pastebin: IP addresses used to post troll comments


Basic Income will solve unemployment

Make Poverty History poster - Basic Income
Credit: Photo by Russell Higgs

syzygysue writes over at Think Left that the UK needs eight million new jobs to provide full employment. I believe this is true, but I also believe that it cannot and will not happen. There will be less and less jobs per head of population as manufacturing and logistics become more and more automated. Even in China it is proving cheaper to put thousands of robots in factories than to employ people with all of their foibles and demands, such as being paid a fair wage.

Working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses are abysmal, driving people past their breaking point and Tesco isn’t a whole lot better. People take these jobs because they are desperate to work but they shouldn’t have to accept such conditions. Humans are being used as mere cogs in a vast and uncaring machine and frankly, cogs do a better job of being cogs than humans do. We should accept automation wherever possible even as it puts people out of work.

But if people are put out of work by machines, how will they survive? To quote union leader Walter Reuther when Henry Ford asked how he would get robots to pay union fees, “How will you get them [robots] to buy your cars?”

The answer is that everyone put out of work by machines must receive an income from the general pool of wealth. A share in the profits of the machines as it were. In fact I will go further and suggest that everyone, regardless of other means, should receive this income. It goes by the name of Basic Income, Citizen’s Income, Minimum Income, Mincome, Guaranteed Income and probably some others. It is a salary paid by the government to every citizen, regardless of means, without asking anything of them in return. They are not required to look for work, or to volunteer for a charity, or to do community service, or anything else. It must be unconditional.

A little-known experiment took place in Canada in the seventies and put the principles of basic income to the test. It wasn’t quite the same thing – it was effectively a tax credit which was means tested and paid to those without any other income however it placed no requirements on the recipient and so it is a reasonable comparison to basic income. The trial was known as Mincome and it topped up the income of everyone in the town to at least the minimum level. The experiment was wildly successful in reducing poverty and bringing health benefits such as an 8.5% reduction in hospital visits. The trial was abandoned when a change of government brought new priorities but one of the people involved recently did a radio interview about it and it is worth a listen.

A Town Without Poverty (Note, video is black to start with.)

So how would basic income be paid for? It would replace the tax allowance for a start. If everyone received a few thousand pounds a year then they wouldn’t need tax relief on the first ten thousand pounds a year of their income. It would replace pensions, which are a vast chunk of the welfare budget. It would replace nearly all benefits, in one stroke removing means testing, the work capability assessment, and the stress and stigma of the current system. The rate of taxes would be adjusted to make up any remaining shortfall.

But wouldn’t people stop work if they didn’t have to earn a living? No, actually. Few people want to live on an income that allows for no luxuries or extras. People aspire to get more, and they are prepared to work for that. What is likely to happen is a rise in jobshares and part time work to top up the basic income, thus solving the problem of there not being any jobs for people who are unemployed at the moment. Actually, some people would stop paid employment but on the whole it is people should stop because they have other roles outside of the workplace that are just as valuable. Carers, parents, those in education, those who volunteer to help others. All are valuable roles that are losing out because people are required to work so much to get by. Writers, artists, entrepreneurs and more could all go and focus on creating what they want to create and we all benefit from that.

I believe that basic income is inevitable. If it doesn’t happen then society will collapse completely under the weight of poverty as our production becomes automated and people are treated like machines. That is not good enough though, and I believe we should introduce Basic Income today so that we can be a caring and civilised society.


Further Reading

The Dominion: A Town Without Poverty?

A Latent Existence: Why does everyone have to work?

Think Left: The UK needs 8 million New Jobs

Mother Jones: I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave Tesco staff forced to wear arm monitors that track work rate

Ars Technica: Androids are going to take our jobs, and that’s great!

FT: Obama must face the rise of the robots (Free registration required.)

FT: Foxconn looks to a robotic future (Free registration required)

Basic income guarantee [Wikipedia]

Basic Income Earth Network

Citizen’s Income Trust

A Universal Basic Income

Global Basic Income Foundation