Lies vs. facts: the 26k benefits ceiling

In the UK the government is proposing a ceiling on benefits of £26,000. This sounds a large figure, indeed it is the median income, so seems reasonable that someone out of work should not receive more than the average working person. The press is, of course, polarised on the issue, as is the Church of England.

I was particularly interested in the coverage in last Wednesday’s Daily Mail, partly as this was where the former Archbishop of Canterbury chose to issue a statement about the issue, and partly because I was on a BA flight and it is one of the free newspapers! This issue of the Mail contained an article, “The hard workers who are proud not to claim”1, detailing the circumstances of three different working and tax-paying households living below or close to the proposed £26,000 limit, who can’t understand why they are working and paying taxes to support others to live on more than them.

I wondered about the truth behind these stories.  As you might imagine, the Mail’s stories were, to be generous, disingenuous, and most probably misleading, both to their readers and those they interviewed. When you work out the actual figures and facts behind the stories, things turn out rather differently then they were projected.

The issue of the proposed £26,000 benefits ceiling was particularly hot in the news after the House of Lords made radical amendments to the bill. The opposition in the Lords to proposed benefits reforms comes not just from the Labour benches, but includes some LibDems and Conservatives, and, vocally, several Church of England bishops2.

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, weighed into this debate chastising his fellow bishops in the Lords, on the grounds that the weight that the national debt lays on our children is a major moral issue and the runaway benefits bill is a crucial part of controlling this.

There are of course differing views on how fast and how radically we should be attempting to cut national debt and how this should be accomplished. What is notable is that Carey chose to make this statement in the Daily Mail. My guess is he chose the Mail, rather than, say, the Times or the Telegraph (let alone the Independent or Guardian, who might have published it alongside contrary views), is that the Mail is much more a paper for ordinary Middle England folk, the ‘squeezed middle’, who feel they are paying the bulk of the taxes that fund the burgeoning benefits budget.

Whilst the ‘quality’ newspapers push their own particular viewpoint, they do follow a certain journalistic ethic, and normally within their articles you find the full facts, as they know them. Now, this is sometimes very deeply buried, to the point of disinformation, but is at least present; the careful reader can see the counter arguments through the opinion.

The Mail has no such scruples; it is unashamedly a newspaper of persuasion not information.

Given this, however much the Mail is targeting a particular demographic, Carey’s choice seemed misguided or naive.

In particular, in the same copy as Carey’s statement, there was the article describing the three households, all in tight economic circumstances, but who are working, paying tax to fund benefits, but not on benefits themselves. This is, in fact, excellent journalism, cold figures are hard to comprehend, real examples can convey the truth better than abstractions.

One household was a single woman, Rachel, living on her own; the second, Lauren and David, an engaged couple with a baby living with one of their parents; and the third, Emma and Darren, a married couple with two small twins, living in a rented house. They all had net incomes below or close to the proposed £26,000 benefits cap, and in each case the description ends with a personal statement, which expresses their frustration that, while they manage to cope on their income, why should people need £26,000 when not in work:

I don’t understand why people would need to claim more than £26,000 in benefits if I can live comfortably on this“, Rachel

It’s crazy that people say they can’t live of £26,000. People need to make sacrifices like the rest of us have.“, Lauren

“It makes us very angry that my husband works so hard and pays tax on his income, which goes to pay the benefits bills of all those people who don’t work and who receive more money than us.“, Emma

What the Mail reporters clearly failed to tell any of these families is what they would be receiving on benefits if they were suddenly made redundant and out of work.

Just to see I put each of these people’s circumstances into the government benefits calculator and a housing benefit calculator3.

Rachel, lives alone with £16,000 gross income and £13,000 net income. She describes rent (£500) and bills taking up most of her income, but leaving her with £250 a month for “recreational and leisure activities“, allowing her to “live comfortably“. If she lost her job her benefits including housing benefit to contribute to rent would total £9,774 per annum (£53.45 job seekers allowance, £19.38 council tax rebate4, £115.30 housing benefit). That is just what she describes as her basic bills with none of her recreation or leisure. I’m sure if asked whether she would be happy to live on this, her answer would be different.

Lauren and David fare worst; they have a gross salary of £33,000, with a net income of £27,560 (including child benefit and child tax credits). If they were both to lose their job, they would take home a total of £200.61 a week, around £10,500 per annum5. It was Lauren who said, “People need to make sacrifices like the rest of us have“. If the Mail reporter had explained to her that she would have to cope on 2/5 of their current take-home money would she feel the same?

It is the last family however, that does appear to highlight anomalies in the benefits system. Darren works in public transport and has a gross pay of precisely £26,000, leaving Emma and Darren with a take home pay of £21,608 (including child benefit). If Darren lost his job (or found himself unable to work as he has a medical condition) and both of them registered as job seekers (although Emma is currently looking after the children at home) then they would receive a total of £24,295 a year (just over £15,000 of this is basic benefit, the rest council tax relief6 and housing benefit), more than their current take home pay.

The reason for this disparity is that Emma and Darren do not attempt to claim benefits: “We are proud that we’re not on benefits, although sometimes it can be really hard“. In fact they would be eligible for substantial housing benefits7, which would presumably make all the difference for them and their children.

The shame of being on welfare runs deep, and, assuming Emma and Darren are Mail readers, no doubt fanned by the constant stories of welfare scroungers and the ‘feckless’. They quite rightly want to instil an ethic of hard work into their children, but do not feel able to claim benefits, which they will have contributed to through tax and national insurance throughout their previous working lives, in order to help as they bring up those same children now.

Interestingly, they are happy to accept child benefit (and I assume child tax credit, although not explicitly mentioned), and when the children are of school age will not send them to a fee-paying school, but happy to send them to a state school, effectively an educational ‘benefit’ of around £16,000 a year, let alone insist on paying for hospital and doctors fees for delivery of the twins and subsequent medical care.

The difference is that these benefits, allowances, and services are universal, and so seen as ‘rights’ as a taxpayer, even if, as in the case of this family, you are a net beneficiary.

This very much strengthens the case for maintaining child benefit as a non-means tested benefit. In general, many benefits are not claimed, whether through pride, principles or ignorance. The one exception is child benefit, which is both universally accepted and well targeted8.

Maybe if appraised of the full facts each of the people interviewed by the Mail might still feel the same, particularly Emma and Darren. Maybe too Mail readers would feel the same if presented with the truth. But clearly the Mail does not trust its readers to make up their own minds if given the full facts, and sadly Lord Carey has leant his weight behind this deliberate disinformation; unintentionally, but very persuasively helping to mislead the public.

  1. “The hard workers who are proud not to claim”, Daily Mail, Wednesday, January 25, 2012, p. 7.[back]
  2. Whether they should be in the second house in the first place is another issue![back]
  3. I used the Tonbridge & Malling Bourough Council’s web site as this has an online housing benefit calculator.  While currently housing benefit is similar across the country, this may change in the future with government plans for ‘localising support‘, the potential impact of which has been under-reported.[back]
  4. For Rachel on a one bedroom flat I estimated a council tax bill of £1000.[back]
  5. This figure is particularly low as  they live with parents.  While the government makes strong statements about family values, there are equally strong disincentives to support close family.  If Lauren and David were out of work, but with friends rather than parents, they would be able to pay rent to contribute to household costs, which they could then claim against housing benefit.  Furthermore, if a grown-up child receives cash support from parents, it is regarded as income for the calculation of benefits.[back]
  6. For Emma and Darren I estimated an annual council tax bill of £1500.[back]
  7. Housing benefit is perhaps the greatest cause of anomalies in the systems. Even Boris Johnson was against a cap in housing benefit, as the proposed, albeit apparently high, limit would still make large areas of London (not just the fancy bits!) no go areas for anyone on an average wage including nurses, transport workers, etc.. The situation gets even more complicated with those with a mortgage, as mortgage interest is deemed a cost for benefits calculation when you are out of work, but not when you have a job.[back]
  8. More broadly there is a minority suggestion (I believe only the Green Party in the UK support this) to replace all tax allowances and basic benefits, with a universal wage or ‘basic income‘, effectively an amount for every adult and child, deemed high enough for basic survival (probably close to current basic benefit levels). Indeed the amount you gain through the personal tax allowance, the amount you can earn without paying tax, is very close to a single person’s job seekers allowance, so this is very nearly a ‘zero sum’ for tax payers without children.[back]

If Kodak had been more like Apple

Finally Kodak has crumbled; technology and the market changed, but Kodak could not keep up. Lots of memories of those bright yellow and black film spools, and memories in photographs piled in boxes beneath the bed.

But just imagine if Kodak had been more like Apple.

I’m wondering about the fallout from the Kodak collapse. I’m not an investor, nor an employee, or even a supplier, but I have used Kodak products since childhood and I do have 40 years of memories in Kodak’s digital photo cloud. There are talks of Fuji buying up the remains of the photo cloud service, so it maybe that they will re-emerge, but for the time being I can no longer stream my photos to friend’s kTV enabled TV sets when I visit, nor view them online.

Happily, my Kodak kReader has a cache of most of my photos. But, how many I’m not sure, when did I last look at the photos of those childhood holidays or my wedding, will they be in my reader, I’ll check my kPhone as well. I’d hate to think I’d lost the snaps of the seaside holiday when my hat blew into the water; I only half remember it, but every time I look at it I remember being told and re-told the story by my dad.

The kReader is only a few months old. I usually try to put off getting a new one as they are so expensive, but even after a couple of years the software updates put a strain on the old machines.  I had to give up when my three year old model seemed to take about a minute to show each photo. It was annoying as this wasn’t just the new photos, but ones I recall viewing instantly on my first photo-reader more than 30 years ago (I can still remember the excitement as I unwrapped it one Christmas, I was 14 at the time, but now children seem to get their first readers when they are 4). The last straw was when the software updates would no longer work on the old processor and all my newer photos were appearing in strange colours.

Some years ago, I’d tried using a Fuji-viewer, which was much cheaper than the Kodak one. In principle you could download your photo cloud collection in an industry standard format and then import them into the Fuji cloud. However, this lost all the notes and dates on the photos and kept timing out unless I downloaded them in small batches, then I lost track of where I was. Even my brother-in-law, who is usually good at this sort of thing, couldn’t help.

But now I’m glad I’ve got the newest model of kReader as it had 8 times the memory of the old one, so hopefully all of my old photos in its cache. But oh no, just thought, has it only cached the things I’ve looked at since I’ve got it?  If so I’ll have hardly anything. Please, please let the kReader have downloaded all it could.

Suddenly, I remember the days when I laughed a little when my mum was still using her reels of old Apple film and the glossy prints that would need scanning to share on the net (not that she did use the net, she’d pop them in the post!). “I know it is the future”, she used to say, “but I never really trust things I can’t hold”. Now I just wish I’d listened to her.

Wikipedia blackout and why SOPA winging gets up my nose

Nobody on the web can be unaware of the Wikipedia blackout, and if they haven’t heard of SOPA or PIPA before will have now.  Few who understand the issues would deny that SOPA and PIPA are misguided and ill-informed, even Apple and other software giants abandoned it, and Obama’s recent statement has effectively scuppered SOPA in its current form.  However, at the risk of apparently annoying everyone, am I the only person who finds some of the anti-SOPA rhetoric at best naive and at times simply arrogant?

Wikipedia Blackout screenshot

The ignorance behind SOPA and a raft of similar legislation and court cases across the world is deeply worrying.  Only recently I posted about the recent NLA case in the UK, that creates potential copyright issues when linking on the web reminiscent of the Shetland Times case nearly 15 years ago.

However, that is no excuse for blinkered views on the other side.

I got particularly fed up a few days ago reading an article “Lockdown: The coming war on general-purpose computing1  by copyright ativist Cory Doctorow based on a keynote he gave at the Chaos Computer Congress.  The argument was that attempts to limit the internet destroyed the very essence of  the computer as a general purpose device and were therefore fundamentally wrong.  I know that Sweden has just recognised Kopimism as a religion, but still an argument that relies on the inviolate nature of computation leaves one wondering.

The article also argued that elected members of Parliament and Congress are by their nature layfolk, and so quite reasonably not expert in every area:

And yet those people who are experts in policy and politics, not technical disciplines, still manage to pass good rules that make sense.

Doctorow has trust in the nature of elected democracy for every area from biochemistry to urban planning, but not information technology, which, he asserts, is in some sense special.

Now even as a computer person I find this hard to swallow, but what would a geneticist, physicist, or even a financier using the Black-Scholes model make of this?

Furthermore, Congress is chastised for finding unemployment more important than copyright, and the UN for giving first regard to health and economics — of course, any reasonable person is expected to understand this is utter foolishness.  From what parallel universe does this kind of thinking emerge?

Of course, Doctorow takes an extreme position, but the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s position statement, which Wikipedia points to, offers no alternative proposals and employs scaremongering arguments more reminiscent of the tabloid press, in particular the claim that:

venture capitalists have said en masse they won’t invest in online startups if PIPA and SOPA pass

This turns out to be a Google sponsored report2 and refers to “digital content intermediaries (DCIs)“, those “search, hosting, and distribution services for digital content“, not startups in general.

When this is the quality of argument being mustered against SOPA and PIPA is there any wonder that Congress is influenced more by the barons of the entertainment industry?

Obviously some, such as Doctorow and more fundamental anti-copyright activists, would wish to see a completely unregulated net.  Indeed, this is starting to be the case de facto in some areas, where covers are distributed pretty freely on YouTube without apparently leading to a collapse in the music industry, and offering new bands much easier ways to make an initial name for themselves.  Maybe in 20 years time Hollywood will have withered and we will live off a diet of YouTube videos :-/

I suspect most of those opposing SOPA and PIPA do not share this vision, indeed Google has been paying 1/2 million per patent in recent acquisitions!

I guess the idealist position sees a world of individual freedom, but it is not clear that is where things are heading.  In many areas online distribution has already resulted in a shift of power from the traditional producers, the different record companies and book publishers (often relatively large companies themselves), to often one mega-corporation in each sector: Amazon, Apple iTunes. For the latter this was in no small part driven by the need for the music industry to react to widespread filesharing.  To be honest, however bad the legislation, I would rather trust myself to elected representatives, than unaccountable multinational corporations3.

If we do not wish to see poor legislation passed we need to offer better alternatives, both in terms of the law of the net and how we reward and fund the creative industries.  Maybe the BBC model is best, high quality entertainment funded by the public purse and then distributed freely.  However, I don’t see the US Congress nationalising Hollywood in the near future.

Of course copyright and IP is only part of a bigger picture where the net is challenging traditional notions of national borders and sovereignty.  In the UK we have seen recent cases where Twitter was used to undermine court injunctions.  The injunctions were in place to protect a few celebrities, so were ‘fair game’ anyway, and so elicited little public sympathy.  However, the Leveson Inquiry has heard evidence from the editor of the Express defending his paper’s suggestion that the McCann’s may have killed their own daughter; we expect and enforce (the Expresss paid £500,000 after a libel case) standards in the print media, would we expect less if the Express hosted a parallel new website in the Cayman Islands?

Whether it is privacy, malware or child pornography, we do expect and need to think of ways to limit the excess of the web whilst preserving its strengths.  Maybe the solution is more international agreements, hopefull not yet more extra-terratorial laws from the US4.

Could this day without Wikipedia be not just a call to protest, but also an opportunity to envision what a better future might be.

  1. blanked out today, see Google cache[back]
  2. By Booz&Co, which I thought at first was a wind-up, but appears to be a real company![back]
  3. As I write this, I am reminded of the  corporation-controlled world of Rollerball and other dystopian SciFi.[back]
  4. How come there is more protest over plans to shut out overseas web sites than there is over unmanned drones performing extra-judicial executions each week.[back]

tread lightly — controlling user experience pollution

When thinking about usability or user experience, it is easy to focus on the application in front of us, but the way it impacts its environment may sometimes be far more critical. However, designing applications that are friendly to their environment (digital and physical) may require deep changes to the low-level operating systems.

I’m writing this post effectively ‘offline’ into a word processor for later upload. I sometimes do this as I find it easier to write without the distractions of editing within a web browser, or because I am physically disconnected from the Internet. However, now I am connected, and indeed I can see I am connected as a FTP file upload is progressing, it is just that anything else network-related is stalled.

The reason that the FTP upload is ‘hogging’ the network is, I believe, due to a quirk in the UNIX scheduling system, which was, paradoxically, originally intended to improve interactivity.

UNIX, which sits underneath Mac OS, is a multiprocessing operating system running many programs at once. Each process has a priority, called its ‘niceness‘, which can be set explicitly, but is also tweaked from moment to moment by the operating system. One of the rules for ‘tweaking’ it is that if a process is IO-bound, that is if it is constantly waiting for input or output, then its niceness is decreased, meaning that it is given higher priority.

The reason for this rule is partly to enhance interactive performance in the old days of command line interfaces; an interactive program would spend lots of time waiting for the user to enter something, and so its priority would increase meaning it would respond quickly as soon as the user entered anything. The other reason is that CPU time was seen as the scarce resource, so that processes that were IO bound were effectively being ‘nicer’ to other processes as they let them get a share of the precious CPU.

The FTP program is simply sitting there shunting out data to the network, so is almost permanently blocked waiting for the network as it can read from the disk faster than the network can transmit data. This means UNIX regards it as ‘nice’ and ups its priority. As soon as the network clears sufficiently, the FTP program is rescheduled and it puts more into the network queue, reads the next chunk from disk until the network is again full to capacity. Nothing else gets a chance, no web, no email, not even a network trace utility.

I’ve seen the same before with a database server on one of Fiona’s machines — all my fault. In the MySQL manual it suggested that you disable indices before large bulk updates (e.g. ingesting a file of data) and then re-enable them once the update is finished as indexing is more efficient on lots of data than one at a time. I duly did this and forgot about it until Fiona noticed something was wrong on the server and web traffic had ground to a near halt. When she opened a console on the server, she found that it seemed quiet, very little CPU load at all, and was puzzled until I realised it was my indexing. Indexing requires a lot of reading and writing data to and from disk, so MySQL became IO-bound, was given higher priority, as soon as the disk was free it was rescheduled, hit the disk once more … just as FTP is now hogging the network, MySQL hogged the disk and nothing else could read or write. Of course MySQL’s own performance was fine as it internally interleaved queries with indexing, it is just everything else on the system that failed.

These are hard scenarios to design for. I have written before (“why software need never hang“) about the way application designers do not think sufficiently about potential delays due to slow networks, or broken connections. However, that was about the applications that are suffering. Here the issue is not that the FTP program is badly designed for its delays, it is still responding very happily, just that it has had a knock on effect on the rest of the system. It is like cleaning your sink with industrial bleach — you have a clean house within, but pollute the watercourse without.

These kind of issues are not related solely to network and disk, any kind of resource is limited and profligacy causes damage in the digital world as much as in the physical environment.

Some years ago I had a Symbian smartphone, but it proved unusable as its battery life rarely exceeded 40 minutes from full charge. I thought I had a duff battery, but later realised it was because I was leaving applications on the phone ‘open’. For me I went to the address book, looked up a number, and that was that, I then maybe turned the phone off or switched  to something else without ‘exiting’ the address book. I was treating the phone like every previous phone I had used, but this one was different, it had a ‘real’ operating system, opening the address book launched the address book application, which then kept on running — and using power — until it was explicitly closed, a model that is maybe fine for permanently plugged in computers, but disastrous for a moble phone.

When early iPhones came out iOS was criticised for being single threaded, that is not having lots of things running in the ‘background’. However, this undoubtedly helped its battery life. Now, with newer versions of iOS, it has changed and there are lots of apps running at once, and I have noticed the battery life reducing, is that simply the battery wearing out with age or the effect of all those apps running?

Power is of course not just a problem for smartphones, but for any laptop. I try to closedown applications on my Mac when I am working without power as I know some programs just eat CPU when they are apparently idle (yes, Firefox, it’s you I’m talking about). And from an environmental point of view, lower power consumption when connected would also be good. My hope was that Apple would take the lessons learnt in the early iOS to change the nature of their mainstream OS, but sadly they succumbed to the pressure to make iOS a ‘proper’ OS!

Of course the FTP program could try to be friendly, perhaps when it is not the selected window deliberately throttle its network activity. But then the 4 hour upload would take 8 hours, instead of 20 minutes left at this point, I’d be looking forward to another 4 hours and 20 minutes, and I’d be complaining about that.

The trouble is that there needs to be better communication, more knowledge shared, between application and operating system. I would like FTP to use all the network capacity that it can, except when I am interacting with some other program. Either FTP needs to say to the OS “hey here’s a packet, send it when there’s a gap”1, or the OS needs some way for applications to determine current network state and make decisions based on that. Sometimes this sort of information is easily available, more often it is either very hard to get at or not available at all.

I recall years ago when internet was still mainly through pay-per-minute dial-up connections. You could set your PC to automatically dial when the internet was needed. However, some programs, such as chat, would periodically check with a central server to see if there was activity, this would cause the PC to dial-up the ISP. If you were lucky the PC also had an auto-disconnect after a period of inactivity, if you were not lucky the PC would connect at 2am and by the morning you’d find yourself with a phone bill more than your weeks’ wages.

When we were designing onCue at aQtive, we wanted to be able to connect to the Internet when it was available, but avoid bankrupting our users. Clearly somewhere in the TCP/IP stack, the layers of code over the network, at some level deep down it knew whether we were connected. I recall we found a very helpful function in the Windows API called something like “isConnected”2. Unfortunately, it worked by attempting to send a network packet and returning true if it succeeded and false if it failed. Of course sending the test packet caused the PC to auto-dial …

And now there is just 1 minute and 53 seconds left on the upload, so time to finish this post before I get on to garbage collection.

  1. This form of “send when you can” would also be useful in cellular networks, for example when syncing photos.[back]
  2. I had a quick peek, and fund that Windows CE has a function called InternetGetConnectedState.  I don’t know if this works better now.[back]

New Year and New Job

It is a New Year and I am late with my Christmas crackers again!

If you are expecting the annual virtual cracker from me it is coming … but maybe not before Twelfth Night :-/

The New Year is bringing changes, not least, as many already know, I am moving my academic role and taking up a part-time post as professor down in Birmingham University.

At Birmingham I will be joining an established and vibrant HCI centre, including long-term colleague and friend Russell Beale.  The group has recently had substantial  investment from the University leading to several new appointments including Andrew Howes (who coincidentally also has past Lancaster connections).

The reasons for the move are partly to join this exciting group and partly to simplify life as Talis is based in Birmingham, so just one place to travel to regularly, and one of my daughters also there.

Of course this also means I will be leaving many dear colleagues and friends at Lancaster, but I do expect to continue to work with many and am likely to retain a formal or informal role there for some time.

As well as moving institutions I am also further reducing my percentage of academic time — typically I’ll be just one day a week academic.  So, apologies in advance if my email responses becomes even more sporadic and I turn down (or fail to answer :-() requests for reviews, PhD exams, etc.

Although moving institutions, I will, of course, continue to live up in Tiree (wild and windy, but, at the moment, so is everywhere!), so will still be travelling up and down the country; I’ll wave as I pass!

… and there will be another Tiree Tech Wave in March 🙂