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September 22, 2021 08:41 +0100  |  Economy 4

We've managed to do what for many in our generation is considered the impossible: we've bought a house.

It's a new build, 4 bedrooms, and has all sorts of fancy things like underfloor heating on all three floors and a heat pump keeping everything warm. The building material is also atypical for British homes (that's good) and so far the place is so warm that we often keep the windows open on cold September nights.

Financially, we're doing alright. The mortgage is for something like 17 years, but since we've been saving for so long we managed to make a substantial down-payment so that our monthly payments are lower than we were paying when we were renting. The mortgage terms also allow up to 10% overpayment each year and our fixed term is for 5 years, so it's possible that we'll be able to pay the whole damned thing off in as few as 10 years.

So far it's been pretty great. For the first time in years, my home feels warm and dry. No more ridiculous light switches on strings or "power shower" installations, gone are the walls so poorly insulated that heat just bleeds out throughout the day. We have a dishwasher. Dear gods have I missed dishwashers.

I'm not sure what more there is to say. We're still working on furnishing it, but once we have a few important things like a couch and dining room table, I'll shoot a video to share.

Note: The title of this post isn't a typo, but a reference to Anna's inability to pronounce the phrase "new house" 😂

January 03, 2021 21:16 +0000  |  Economy Employment Free Software Health Politics Software 0

This year sucked. That line is probably enough to remember the nightmare that is 2020 when I'm (hopefully) looking back on this post in 10 years, but as it's my tradition to go into depth on the past year at the start of a new one, let's go a bit deeper into the why this year sucked so much.

The Pandemic

This was the year that the COVID-19 pandemic took off. Lockdowns all over the world started around March and for the more civilised countries (New Zealand, Taiwan, a few others) that was the end of it. The rest of the world however could not get our shit together.

From the talks of "natural herd immunity" to the politicising of the virus and its prevention as a left-wing conspiracy, nearly every country failed to do the right thing in the most calamitous way possible.

It's left the people with a sense of reason exhausted. I mean, we have experts in this field. Those experts told us what we needed to do to stem the spread. Our leaders overwhelmingly did not heed that advice and chose instead to let 1.8 million people die (so far).

Even while mass graves were being dug in New York, leaders in nearly every nation were refusing to even close the schools. Here in the UK, (home of the famous "take it on the chin" comment by our fearless leader) we had policies that actually encouraged people to eat out at local pubs, and no mask mandate. Now the UK wears the dubious distinction of being the source of a much more virulent strain of the virus. Other countries have closed their borders to us, but nearly all continue with anti-science policy that inevitably leads to more death.

Vaccine Development

There's some good news though: 3 promising vaccines have made their way through a (very rushed) development & testing process to be cleared for emergency use in Europe and North America (and presumably elsewhere). The roll out has (unsurprisingly) been a mess here in the UK, and now there's talk of actually mixing-and-matching the vaccines which sounds insane to me, but again, unsurprising given the kind of leadership this country has.

From my (admittedly ignorant) read of the science behind this though, I'm currently on-board with getting a vaccine (or a "jab" as they call it here) when it's made available to me. As I understand the risks of so-called "Long COVID" vs. the nature of an mRNA vaccine, it's still a smart move in my mind.

Radicalised

Was 2020 a “bad year” or are we simply approaching the inevitable conclusion of living under an economic system that is fundamentally incompatible with human dignity and happiness?

Throughout all of this, I've become more "radicalised". My contempt for capitalism is more palpable, and I'm angrier every day.

All of this, all of this is a direct result of capitalism. From the Chinese government refusing to crack down on wild/exotic animal wet markets, to the world's pandering to their carelessness, to their covering up of the outbreak until it was too late, to the world's reluctance to close the borders, to anti-science policies in nearly every nation treating the working public like expendable peasants. All of it is driven by capitalism:

China

We've continued to trade with China and support their economy because it's profitable for the rest of us. It doesn't matter that they commit genocide or are among the worst polluters on the planet. We pretend that this is only their problem when logically we know that it isn't. The same is true for their public health regulations.

We knew that China's public health policy was a breeding ground for pandemics. We've seen it before. But isolating them? Punishing them for being a threat to world health? That would affect our profits.

And so we did nothing and China acted exactly as everyone knew they would.

Management once the pandemic started

The science was clear on all of this:

  • Close the borders
  • Close the schools, the churches, the markets, and the malls
  • Limit travel
  • Limit the spread by keeping people at home
  • Track and trace infected cases

But we all had rent and mortgages to pay. Around 300 million of us (the Americans) couldn't even have medical care if they were unemployed. How could anyone possibly do the right thing and follow the science?

Our governments could have stepped in. They could have put a moratorium on rent and mortgages. They could have mandated the expansion of grocery store delivery networks and required that no one be permitted to go to work if that work is not directly involved in a key industry like the food supply, public health, utilities, or the military.

The right thing would have been to do this for just a month or two and get a handle on the virus. Limit its spread and understand its behaviour. It could have been financed through a wealth tax or some other fiscal tool levied against those profiting from the pandemic.

We didn't do this though, because capitalism demands that we all go to work doing jobs that don't really matter so that the very rich few continue to accumulate wealth. It's a given that millions will die, but it's also understood we're all replaceable.

Disaster Capitalism

All of this is what Naomi Klein calls "disaster capitalism": the idea that disasters are leveraged (if not also created) by people who profit from them.

There are absolutely winners in all of this: Amazon and Tesco for example both posted record profits while exploiting their workforce. As The Guardian pointed out:

Bezos has accumulated so much added wealth over the last nine months that he could give every Amazon employee $105,000 and still be as rich as he was before the pandemic.

None of this is to say that there's some sort of illuminati cadre of rich assholes running the world. Only that the world is as it is because these sorts of people profit from it the way things are rather than how we all know they should be.

We don't need 2¢ USB sticks from China or next-day delivery of slippers from Amazon. We need a universal basic income, nationalised health care, and a government that understands the economy as a system of land, water, and people rather than currency.

This pandemic has happened entirely because we have prioritised personal wealth over humanity.

It's not just a bad year

Towards the end of the year, it became fashionable to refer to how we'll all be glad that 2020 is over, because somehow everything was going to be better in 2021. Nothing has changed though, and so even if the vaccine is rolled out smoothly and the pandemic subsides, all of this — in one form or another — will happen again because that is what this system was designed to do.

The worst is yet to come. Next up we're looking down the barrel of a crippling depression and the appallingly inevitable climate catastrophe. The skies above California literally turned red this year, and yet that nation still has no salient climate plan. The world community has done little more than talk about how we should probably do something, but fossil fuels are still subsidised by nearly every industrialised nation.

There's a reason you feel like things have only been getting worse: they have. Disaster capitalism is as much about profiting off of disaster as it is about demoralising the peasantry and keeping us fearful. We've been "holding on" for so long, hoping for things to get better when they absolutely will only get worse so long as we live under this system.

In Other World News

Despite the pandemic, there were a lot of things that happened worth noting that happened this year:

Black Lives Matter

George Floyd was murdered by a police officer and the country, the world was (finally) enraged. From what I've been hearing, very little has come of the rage though, as the pandemic has made mobilisations difficult. Still, calls for defunding or abolishing the police are finally being taken seriously, so that's a start.

Trump

Trump made it through all four years and got clobbered in an attempt at re-election. I maintain that if this pandemic hadn't happened, he would have won a second term (I have that little faith in the US), but with more than 350,000 dead so far and millions losing their jobs, there was no way he was going to win in a fair fight.

The question then was how much would the Republicans have to cheat to win this one, and they did their best: everything from gerrymandering, to restricting access to voting places, to sabotaging the postal system. None of it was enough to give Trump a win, though it may well have been enough to hold onto the Senate. We'll know in a few days with the Georgia run-off vote.

Oh, and there's widespread claims that the election was somehow fraudulent, and that Trump was actually the winner. This has led to Trump-devotees holding (maskless, of course) rallies calling for the arrest of Joe Biden.

And one more thing: Q-Anon is a thing now. There's a lot of overlap between these nuts and the nuts claiming that Trump actually won.

My Life, Directly

In comparison to any of the above, my life doesn't exactly feel significant, but this is my blog, so I'm going to cover that too.

Lockdown

The (limited) lockdown we had here in the UK was rough. I was just holding onto my sanity, being able to send my 1 year old away to the child minder during the work-week, but when that was all cancelled, Christina and I became full-time babysitters while also being full-time employees.

We "managed" this by working in shifts. I would work 4 hours while Christina looked after Anna, then I'd take care of Anna for four hours while Christina worked. When Anna napped midday, we'd both work, and when dinner came around, one of us would cook while the other took care of the kid, then she'd go down and both of us would go back to work 'till 11 or midnight at which point we'd go to sleep only to repeat this... for the entire month.

I won't complain though. It was hard, but at least we remained employed through the fortune of having remote-friendly work. I know that a lot of people in this country were looking down the barrel of no income and substantial rent to pay, so I know that we've been very fortunate.

Our childminder was freaking out when she heard the news that she couldn't keep her doors open, since no kids meant that her income was suddenly reduced to £0. Christina and I decided however that so long as our employment situation didn't change, we would continue to pay her as if Anna was in full attendance as usual.

Fear

The worst part of this though — at least for me — as been the looming fear. Yes the odds of death are low, but they're still very high compared to almost anything you would choose to do on a daily basis. On top of that, the long-term health effects of COVID-19 are almost entirely unknown. There are reports of cramps and migraines lasting months, and permanent heart damage, so this isn't something anyone wants to get.

My parents are both very high-risk, and yet they continue to have regular visits with my brother who flies all over Canada for work. It doesn't help that my brother's attitude toward COVID is more dismissive than anything else.

Personally I've had breathing concerns for years ever since I contracted pertussis in my late teens. Every time I've had a bad flu since then, there have been moments where the coughing and seizing locks up my whole respiratory system and I literally can't breathe. In those moments, I'm taken back to that year where whooping cough was destroying my lungs and I think that maybe this time will be the last... and then it subsides.

...and that's the flu.

I may talk a big game about the macro-level implications of this thing, but I'm honestly — personally — worried.

Christina is less concerned (which doesn't help with my own fears). She's frustrated by the way this year has likely stunted Anna's social development, how we see our friends so rarely (always outside, at a "safe" social distance), and she remains (rightly) concerned about the way the vaccines have been rushed through, and how public health is once again being politicised: you're either happy to give your 2 year-old a vaccine that's never been tested on 2-year-olds being rolled out by a government with a demonstrated lack of interest in public health, or you're an idiot anti-vaxxer who hates Britian.

There's a lot of stress to go around.

Goodbye Workfinder, Hello MoneyMover (again)

On the corporate front, I said goodbye to Founders4Schools/Workfinder back in November, and while I'll miss a lot of the people there, I won't miss working there for a variety of reasons.

For the last 2 months of 2020, I went back to MoneyMover to help move some of their codebase forward. I'd been helping to keep things running in my off-hours for the last 2 years, but there were a lot of things that needed more dedicated attention, so I agreed to come back for a short stint to help out. It's a great place to work, so I've really enjoyed being able to work with with everyone again.

Later this month, I'll be moving onto my next full-time job, this time with LimeJump. That move warrants an entirely separate post though, so I hope to get to that soon.

Majel

Finally, the best news (for me anyway) this year was the "launching" of my latest side project, Majel. I won't be announcing it to the nerd world for a few days still, but I'm really happy with how it's turned out.

Majel is a front-end for Mycroft, an OpenSource Alexa replacement. Imagine being able to "install" Alexa on your laptop or a Raspberry Pi and know that it does what you want without eavesdropping on your conversations. Mycroft even sells dedicated devices that do the same thing (just like an Echo), again, all Freely licensed so you can extend it in any way you like.

Majel is one such extension, my add-on to the Mycroft system that allows you to control a web browser with voice commands. Sure, maybe Alexa can control a "smart" TV and play shows from Amazon Prime, but it's unlikely that Amazon will also let Alexa control Netflix, let alone a local library stored in something like Kodi.

So I wrote Majel to do just that. You can say stuff like:

Play The West Wing

and it'll look at your local library and play those files if you have them (remembering where you left off of course). If you don't have them, it'll ask Netflix & Amazon who has the show and then play it with the service that does.

It also does stuff like:

Youtube baby shark

Where it'll look up "baby shark" on Youtube and play the first search result, full-screen and on a loop. Anna was thrilled.

Finally, it plugs into my Firefox bookmarks to do handy things like:

Search my bookmarks for chicken

Where it'll draw up a touch-friendly web page full of chicken recipes from my curated collection.

It's all licensed under the AGPL and regardless of whether or not there's much interest in it, I'll likely continue to develop on it. I want to be able to tell it to do basic web stuff, like do a Google/DuckDuckGo search for something or pull up a Wikipedia page on an arbitrary topic. I also want to get it to a point where I can say:

Call the parents

and have it start a video call, but that'll likely require working with something like PyGUI, so it may be a while before I can figure that out.

Anyway, I'm really happy with it, and it represents the culmination of roughly a year's work, squeezed into my off hours after Anna's gone to bed and when I'm not already expected to do some off-hours contracting. I'm hoping it'll show the Mycroft project a way toward making these digital assistants a more visual experience, but even if it flops, I'm still happy to have it running on my old Surface Pro 3 in the kitchen.

July 07, 2013 21:51 +0100  |  Communism Economy Food Language Travel Urban Design 1

The Centre for Science and Culture
The Centre for Science and Culture
Warsaw's Old City
Warsaw's Old City
Kraków's St. Mary's Cathedral
Kraków's St. Mary's Cathedral
Kraków's Old Market
Kraków's Old Market
Shoes belonging to the victims of Auschwitz
Shoes belonging to the victims of Auschwitz

I went on two rather big trips over the past few months, and with the exception of my recounting of Auschwitz, I haven't written about either yet. I'll start with Poland, and if I have time tonight or tomorrow, I'll try to fit Greece in here too.

For 2013, DjangoCon was held in Warsaw, Poland, and for the first time in my life, I was working for company willing to fund the trip. I bookended the conference with a few vacation days, and squeaked out a little over a week of time to explore the most Eastern place in Europe I've been able to see so far.

Urban Landscape

To say Warsaw is beautiful would be a little too generous, but it's not nearly as ugly as I had expected. World War II saw nearly 85% of the city demolished, and then the Soviets took over, littering the landscape with those 60s/70s era square, concrete monstrosities. Like most things communist, the architecture is efficient, and ugly as hell. Despite this though, Warsaw has managed to renew itself in this post-communist era. Big people-friendly parks with fountains dot the landscape, surrounding the historical landmarks around the city. There's an epic building at the centre of everything called "The Centre for Science and Culture" -- a gift from the Soviets to the people of Warsaw. It's an interesting to comprehend the communist view of society: what was exalted, what was suppressed.

The suburbs of Warsaw are pretty depressing. The Soviet architecture is unrelenting, and unlike the core, there hasn't been a lot of money invested here. Wide roads with no sidewalks frame collections of square concrete towers entrenched in overgrown and unmanicured grass. Sidewalks, where they exist are cracked and unmaintained, and graffiti is everywhere. Still, while I don't paint a very pretty picture, the area I was in felt quite safe: playgrounds and families with children, people walking their dogs or just sitting enjoying the sound of kids playing. While it's immediately apparent that there isn't much money here, the people seem content, even happy.

Language

Polish is a rough language. I know I've bitched about Greek here, but let me tell you Polish is no picnic either. I managed to learn how to pronounce key words like "please", "thank you", "yes" and "no", but outside of that, I found it really difficult even to get the sound of the words to process in my brain. Thankfully, I had my phone doing a lot of the heavy lifting, using Google Translate like a boss everywhere I go. I even had it talk for me in a few tight situations. For the most part the older generation speaks no English at all, while the younger crowd, like people their age all over the world, is working hard at learning. Hollywood movies are subtitled and not dubbed as they are in Germany, which apparently helps out a lot. Still, if you're a unilingual anglophone like myself, having a semi-universal translator in your pocket is a really good idea if you're visiting here.

Culture

When the war ended and the Soviets occupied Poland, they offered to rebuild Warsaw's Old City but did so with a catch: they would rebuild the entire town, but not the Royal Castle. Not stupid, the Varsovians took the Soviets up on their offer, but rebuilt the castle after they were driven from Poland decades later. This Soviet policy of dismantling the monarchy in the hearts of minds of the Poles extended well beyond this offer, occupied Warsaw saw the Soviets deface national monuments everywhere, burning the crowns off of the Polish coat of Arms everywhere they could find it. Much like the castle, the crowns were re-attached after the Soviets left.

The monarchy wasn't the only thing the Soviets wanted to destroy and religion was high on their list, but even they weren't crazy enough to try to outlaw the church in Poland. Catholicism was, and still is, very strong in Poland, bolstered considerably by the actions of John Paul II, a Pole himself who is credited (at least in part) with the defeat of communism. There are still churches all over Warsaw and Kraków, and many of them display his likeness on the outside in paintings and sculpture.

One last note on the culture: from what I could tell, "socialism" here is an even dirtier word than it is in the US. The cab driver who took me home one night kept asking me questions about Canada (his English was pretty good) and toward the end he said something to the effect of "it must be nice to have such strong capitalism there". I tried to explain that many of us aspire to a more socialist state, but he seemed to think I was pulling his leg or something. It would seem that Poland's experience with communism has tainted the whole concept for a few generations.

Economy

Poland is one of the poorer European nations, still recovering from decades of occupation and neglect. The currency there is called the złoty (pronounced zlottee) and you can buy one for about $0.33CAD or €0.23. In real world terms, this means that a Twix chocolate bar will run you about $0.40CAD or €0.30. So long as you stay out of the tourist-targetted places (read: Hard Rock Café), you can easily get by on about €10/day.

My hostel was in the suburbs, one of those aforementioned concrete monstrosities that had been gutted and heavily renovated on the inside. My private room had a big comfortable bed, free wifi, a private bathroom and it was super-clean. I stayed there for 10days for about 1200zł or €278. This was so affordable that I just abandoned my hostel for one night and left for Kraków by high speed train (60zł) where I splurged on a 4star hotel for 232zł so I could visit Auschwitz. Honestly, if you're looking for a low-cost holiday in a country where the food is decent, and the history fascinating, Poland is the place.

Food

Apparently, Poland is the land of pierogis, so I sampled a bunch while I was in Warsaw. Honestly, I don't see the appeal, but they weren't terrible. I'd like to experiment with making them on my own sometime though. They're pretty simple, and might be more to my liking with some bacon and feta...

They also have this ridiculous ice cream (not my photo) there that, while saturated in sugar is really fun to eat. The soups all have a flavour similar to other Eastern European styles, and the diet in general is very "meat and potatoes" friendly. Generally, my stomach had a good time in Poland.

Conclusion

Poland is pretty awesome. It's the birthplace of both Marie Curie and Copernicus, the seat of Auschwitz and and archive of 20th century cold war history. If you've got t the opportunity, I recommend a visit.

Photos from the trip can be found in my image gallery

July 11, 2012 21:54 +0100  |  Activism Economy Environment 0

This is going to be a ranting post, so you may want to skip it if that sort of thing isn't your cup of tea.

I went to a meetup tonight called CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) Amsterdam, a new group started here making efforts to build a community to encourage social responsibility here in the city. The guest speaker was Kumi Naidoo, executive director and "chief troublemaker" of Greenpeace International, and his talk was, for the most part, both informative and interesting -- but something rubbed me the wrong way, and I need to rant about it.

Naidoo claims that the world is suffering from a great imbalance: the rich European countries, he said, spend more on feeding their pets in a week than is required to feed an African family for a month. Here in the Netherlands, we subsidise cows to the tune of something like €2/person/month, and yet such a large portion of the world still doesn't have access to electricity. Both of these statements are true, but they're both completely irrelevant to the cause of environmentalism and only serve to alienate rational people from it.

This isn't just about the fact that the world is not going to be fixed by making people feel guilty for feeding their pets. It's about Greenpeace painting the entire environmental movement as a bunch of out of touch hippies driven by irrational guilt to redistribute wealth from stable, richer nations to less stable, poorer ones. Statements like these imply that there are simple answers to the complex problems of militarism, corruption, unstable regimes, and corporate influence, instead framing everything as if we should all feel guilty for having pets.

There's nothing wrong with managing the welfare of your citizens by using their collective wealth to secure a supply of meat and dairy. Having pets and buying frivolous things, while not exactly constructive for the betterment of humanity, isn't the source of the problem. If Greenpeace really wanted to go after this imbalance, they'd do better to go after corporations (and those who buy from them) that pillage poorer nations, like precious metal mining companies in South America and Africa, but now that he's already blamed pet owners and milk drinkers for the ills of the world, he's lost half the room.

Seriously people, stop it. It's hard enough being an environmentalist in this world, I don't need help like this.

May 19, 2011 09:36 +0100  |  Economy Politics Technology 0

I just read a really fascinating article about a new technology called "distributed cryptocurrency" and its far-reaching implications into world economies and government policy. If you haven't heard of BitCoins yet (a form of cryptocurrency that's gaining popularity), it's basically an uncontrolled, untraceable currency that's presently being used as payment for services on some websites. The assumption is that at some point this currency will break into tangible goods (if it hasn't already) and then everything changes: taxation, welfare, markets, everything:

The author of the article, Rick Falkvinge, is the founder of the Swedish and first Pirate Party. Far from a joke, the Pirates already have a small number of seats in the European Parliament and are gradually gaining support if for no other reason than that they actually understand concepts like peer-to-peer file sharing and distributed cryptocurrency. If you're curious at all about where we're headed, Falkvinge's blog is a good place to start.