Category Archives: Uncategorized

Two views of the near future

March 25, 2017 | Filed under: Uncategorized

Depending on my mood, and alcohol intake, I find that I flop between vastly varying views of what our future may look like. The pessimistic, dark one comes easily to me, but sometimes the positive one breaks through. I suspect we face a future of extremes and may end up in either, or both depending where you live, and what you earn. Here are my upbeat and downbeat views.

The pessimistic view:

Lots of forces are conspiring to change your world in a bad way. Nuclear proliferation has not gone away, nor has terrorism. The chances are, at some point, some terrorist will successfully use a nuclear weapon, even if its something as relatively trivial as a ‘dirty bomb‘. The impact of a dirty bomb isn’t measurable by deaths,m but by economic damage. Set it off in central park, or Time square, or outside the houses of parliament. The economic damage and panic would be off the scale. Even fukushima was hugely mitigated by being in a *relatively* low population area. Worse still, our abilities to spot such things are not good.  Even if you think that society *can* prevent all terrorism, do you want to live in the ‘total surveillance’ state that it would require? Its highly possible that the last twenty years may become remembered in history books as an anomaly of privacy at the start of the digital age.  We are one major terrorist strike away from compulsory ID cards, total internet monitoring and a ban on personal use of encryption.

When privacy goes, business will step in. I recommend you read super-crunchers if you think corporate collection of data is harmless. For all our lives we have assumed that we have nothing to hide, and no useful data to collect, because who cares so much about our buying habits. that’s before big data and smart AI makes it possible to adjust cliffs health insurance costs based on what he orders from Starbucks for lunch. We are hurtling at high speed towards a future where big business knows way, way more about you than you do, than your family does, than even your therapist does. Advertising will get smarter, more targeted, more manipulative. The idea of dumb ‘banner’ ads may disappear in a future where every word of text, every font choice, every image choice in every ad you see has been curated in real time to appeal to you, at this time of day, on this date. Multiply the creepy feeling of seeing ads ‘follow’ you around the web by a thousandfold.

Not that you will be able to buy anything anyway…because robots just took your job, and if you think you are smart, you better be ultra-smart because AI just took the other jobs too. Of course, you *might* have a job cleaning the expensive sports cars of the super-rich by hand (purely for show of course, even that will be done better by a real car cleaning robot), or be able to compete for one of the rapidly decreasing jobs that robots cannot yet do (or we prefer them not to).

If you do manage to get a job, its likely to be not for ‘the company‘, as thankfully there will still be more than one company on earth, but its likely to be one of a very small number. Remember those glory days when entrepreneurs could start a small company? thats kinda quaint in a future increasingly dominated by massive companies, like Amazon and Alphabet with a market cap larger than many small (and even medium sized) countries. The wealth will continue to concentrate, and the chances are it wont be in your hands.

Name Market cap
Alphabet $563bn
Sweden $517bn
Microsoft $500bn
Amazon $403bn
United Arab Emirates $375bn
Greece $195bn

Not that any of that matters because we are still doing nothing about climate change. It wont kill you directly, but it will make your life hell. Climate shifts will mean devastation to harvests pushing up food prices beyond breaking point for many societies, leading to increased war, massive migration to ‘the west’, and a huge squeeze on the cost of living (compounded by the robots taking your job anyway). Globalisation will not stop, so you will be competing for the last few human-viable jobs with desperate refugees all over the world.  A combination of climate instability, resource wars and food shortages will provide a fertile breeding ground for yet more terrorism, and lead to more extremist politics around the globe. By the way antibiotic resistance could fail soon due to over-prescription and help wipe us out, if a bird flu pandemic or something similar doesn’t get there first. And don’t even get me started on topsoil erosion.

We are fucked.

The optimistic view:

In 1900 a car cost a fortune, went at a pitiful speed, was unsafe, noisy, polluting, unreliable and a pain-in-the-ass to drive. In 2016 a car can be scarily fast, trivial to drive (or even self-drive at times), as comfortable as a sofa, eerily quiet, safer than ever before (by a vast margin), and emit zero pollution. A lot of that has changed in the last 10 years, and the rate of change is accelerating.

I’m 47. As a kid we knew that phonecalls (even local ones) were expensive. nobody could afford to phone another country, unless it was an emergency. These days, phonecalls are effectively free, and communication by high def image, video, voice or even virtual-prescence in a  game is virtually free. Access to vast amounts of human knowledge is virtually free online. the world has never been more connected. Global violence has never been lower. Poverty has never been lower.  Diseases that were commonplace are now virtually eradicated. the human genome is sequenced. Some people in the UK are getting ‘bionic eyes’ on the NHS.

Futurists who talk about the ‘singularity’ are excited at the idea that as tech advances, the rate of tech advancement also accelerates, as the output of that new tech leads to more educated and technologically literate people able to achieve more and more. Kids born today will take to computers and virtual reality in the same way someone my age took to television and books.

People worry about automation causing job losses, but this will just lead to an explosion of leisure. The huge extra wealth generated by an automated workforce that requires no pay, no healthcare, no pension, no breaks, so sleep, will allow society to capture the surplus as tax to pay for either a universal basic income, or for the state to pay for vast social enterprises that create employment. The arts budget could be multiplied by ten, or even a hundred, as the profits from robot-crammed factories pay for a life of creativity and leisure. the forty hour week will give way to a twenty hour week, maybe even a ten hour week.  Democracies will ensure that wealth cannot be forever hoarded by the few, and a need for people to actually afford to buy their products will persuade the super-rich than even the 10-hour weekers will ned to earn a decent wag for society to operate.

Automation and AI will lead to such an economic surplus that once unsolvable problems (climate change, global poverty, unaffordable housing, homelessness) become affordable, maybe even trivial to fix.  Advances in renewable energy point to a future where energy is effectively free, and where almost everything is done by robots and almost all they need is energy, we effectively live a life of pure exploration, enjoyment and leisure.

It sounds unlikely, but we already live relatively blissful lives thanks to the advance of robots. A robot washes my dishes, another washes my clothes. We already have robots that clean cars, that mow the lawn and that vacuum your house. Is it so hard to imagine a special purpose robot that takes out your trash, that irons your clothes, that drives you to and from work (or to the pub!), leaving you to do the ten or less hours a week of creative thinking that you already do, but without the tedious pen pushing or lifting/carrying nonsense that makes up the majority of so many jobs? We no more WANT to keep so many of us stacking shelves in shops than we WANT to go back to hand-washing of cars, or even hand-scything of crops. Technological advance has always given us greater wealth, greater comfort and more leisure and it always will.

We are so lucky.

A short rant about UK tax

January 24, 2017 | Filed under: Uncategorized

…not about it being too high. I think its probably ‘about right’ myself, and there are arguments in both directions, and I don’t want to get into that. My complaint is not that we are taxed too much, bu that we are taxed really badly. Theoretically our income tax system is simple enough:

Basic rate band:  £0-32,000 charged at 20%

Higher rate band: £32k- £150k charged at 40%

Additional rate band: £150k+ charged at 45%

All well and good. A few needless cliff-edges there, having a band between 32 and 150k wouldn’t exactly over-stress modern computers methinks. If life for a UK tax payer was this simple, it would be great. the thing is, we have a load of other bullshit:

  • ‘Tax credits’ are a thing that are basically benefits, but the government didn’t want to call them benefits so they get called tax credits instead, and are not credits against tax.
  • If you earn over £100k, the government starts taking away your ‘personal allowance’ of tax-free income at a marginal rate of 50%. This was a kludge to fix a bodged budget one year that nobody has the balls to fix.
  • As well as income tax, there is capital gains tax, which is totally different rates, at different bands, on money from different sources.
  • ‘National Insurance’ is a tax on employment paid by employers AND employees, again at totally different rates and rules. Its essentially just more tax, and makes no sense whatsoever to be separated from income tax.
  • TV License, is a tax you have to pay to use a TV, or a computer capable of receiving a TV signal. Theoretically you don’t HAVE to have one, but in practice everyone does, and a totally separate regime of costs, enforcement and collection takes place. FFS roll this into income tax.
  • Car Tax. This is a tax (technically a duty) for owning a car, even if you never drive it once. This is again, set, enforced and collected in an entirely different way to…
  • Fuel tax. A tax for using a car, assuming that its a petrol/diesel car.
  • VAT. A sales tax, whose rules are complex enough to be laughable. Some biscuits have VAT on them. other biscuits do not, depending how they are made. I wish I was kidding. I’m not.
  • Stamp Duty. This is a tax on buying a house, or buying *some* shares on the stock market. Apparently it seems to be designed to reduce market liquidity and reduce labour force mobility. No other explanation makes sense.

Essentially the UK tax system is one nobody in their right mind would design. We have several taxes (Car Tax, National Insurance, TV licenses) that could happily be abolished and rolled into a rise in income tax, but nobody has the balls to confront this and actually do it. The insane complexity of the system gives profitable work to an army of accountants who do their best to prevent the government collecting tax from the wealthy, whilst confusing the crap out of everybody else. The partisan state of British politics means that cross-party co-operation on issues such as tax-simplification is much needed yet impossible to achieve.

Eventually such system will collapse under their own stupidity. Countries like Italy and Greece show what happens when the majority of people start avoiding tax, you get more and more taxes to compensate for the evasion, leading to greater and greater evasion…

If I were Prime Minister, one of my first steps would be to abolish car tax and stick the revenue lost as an increase in fuel tax. I’d scrap stamp duty. I’d scrap the License fee and roll them both into income tax, and do the same with national insurance./

Accountants would hate me, but c’est la vie!

I am one of the MANY MANY games programmers who have somehow ended up driving a Tesla model S. I have had it just over a year and feel strangely motivated to talk honestly about my experience owning it and using it. Here is my exciting take on ‘owning an electric car for a year’. Grab some popcorn.


Some background: This is the second ‘from new’ car I have ever bought. The previous one was a lexus hybrid. I had long lusted after a prius, until I sat in one, then drove one, and thought ‘yuck’, and ended up with the lexus instead. As a hybrid owner, I got used to the fact that there was an ‘on’ button rather than a key you turn, and that the car was an automatic (technically a continuously variable transmission), so no gear changes or gear stick. I loved my hybrid car.

When I had enough money saved up, I took the plunge and had a test drive in a Tesla model S, and pretty much ordered one the next day. Mine is an 85D with air-suspension and autopilot. In practice that means its just fucking fast, rather than *insanely* fast, and it does some self-driving tricks, and its comfortable.

How I got it:

I had to wait about 6 months for my car, because this is Tesla-mania time,. and there was a waiting list, plus I needed to get a home charger installed. this cost a pittance, and there was a small subsidy available anyway, I ended up paying about £100 I think. The charger is basically a box on the side of the house near where I park, with a black cable that I often (not every day) leave connected to the car. It takes most of a night to charge from empty, but as its often plugged in, its only ’empty’ if I’ve driven to London and back (about 180 miles). I tend to only plug mine in when its half empty or less.

How I use it:

I work from home (programmer, self-employed), so I don’t commute, so the car is for shopping trips, the odd pub lunch and so on. I have family in London (hence long trips), and I live in rural England, so we have to drive almost everywhere. The local area is narrow roads, people on horses, hardly any traffic, the odd dead badger. mobile phone signal sucks, road markings are rare. More on this later… So far I haven’t left the country in my Model S but may well do this year. Its almost always charged from home, with an occasional stop at a Tesla supercharger. Charging from these is free for me, so I tend to only use them. I have ‘cards’ for using some other charging networks but very rarely use them. I also have an exemption (£10/year to register) for the London congestion charge. This is nice, but hardly a dealbreaker for me, as I use it maybe 3 times a year.

Initial Impressions:

My initial impressions were ‘holy fuck this thing is fast’ and ‘oh my god it drives itself’ combined with ‘jesus this thing is wide’ and also ‘i cant believe i can drive this speed, this far, in an electric car’. I was also amazed at how much luggage space there is. We once had 4 of us go away for a week with a ridiculous amount of luggage, food and other nonsense (suitcases, a drone in a box, multiple hampers of food etc), and we still had spare room. its nuts. Obviously over time, you calm down and just get used to it. I haven’t opened the ‘frunk’ for months, and then, only to show someone whats in there (nothing).

Long Term:

I’ve done about 10,000 miles in mine, with an average watt-hour per mile of 353wh/m. That means, with domestic electricity at 12p/unit I pay roughly £0.04 per mile in fuel. Car insurance is also surprisingly low, it was lower than my lexus (which cost half as much) I suspect the insane survivability of crashes in the Tesla accounts for that. This all sounds like economic paradise (plus servicing is far less complex and urgent) until you factor in the one big problem with the Tesla model S.

its fucking wide.

I hate wide cars, because I suck at parking, and driving in general. I now have big annoying obvious scratches on both sides, and the bill for fixing them is likely £2k+. In other words, over a year I’ve probably spent £426 on ‘fuel’ about £350 on insurance, and about £2k on getting dents fixed. Bah. Basically the Tesla is as wide as a land rover, so if you are used to big cars, its not a big deal, but if you prefer small cars like me…it *is* a factor. Its actually the *only* real negative I have about the car. Basically when I go to a multi-storey car park, it feels like this:

Other Minor negatives:

Teslas service is…’not bad’. by any normal cars standards its good, but by lexus standards, its pretty poor. You have to compare apples with apples, and the model S is not a cheap car, so you expect a certain level of awesomeness on the service side. They don’t have that yet. My car has gone to a service center twice, once for a charging port door issue (they replaced the whole thing and its been fine ever since), and once to get a fix for a car handle motor failure. (The handle stopped sliding back in once the car was moving). I get the impression their service is improving, and early issues were basically due to being a bit swamped by rapid expansion. The only other issue is that some of the cool tech stuff requires a mobile signal, and I live somewhere with an awful mobile coverage, meaning occasionally a podcast cuts out, or voice recognition fails.

Other positives:

Not purely an electric car thing, but having a mobile app that a)locates your car in a car park and b)lets you pre-heat/chill the car is just SO awesome. Having a car with its own free spotify account with voice recognition is hilariously cool. Having a car that can drive itself on motorways is both weird, terrifying AND cool. Being able to ‘summon’ the car out of a tight space is cool…but pointless. Controlling everything from a touchscreen is weird at first, but very cool once you get used to it.

The *BIG* issues.

Range anxiety is not a thing. Not with a Tesla.  it just isn’t a thing. Superchargers are not everywhere, but they don’t have to be, I can drive to London and back without re-fuelling. I now actually feel sorry for non-electric drivers with all this bullshit of having to stop and ‘fill-up’ on their voyage at a petrol station. My house is my petrol station, its always open, and I don’t have to fumble around with wallets and pin numbers. If I lived in a flat, or a terraced house with no driveway, charging would be a major issue, but luckily I’m not in that position. Charging an electric car is trivial for anyone who has off-road parking. Don’t give the charging or the range a second thought if you buy an electric car, its a total non-issue.

The Tesla model S is catastrophically expensive to buy. Its not the solution for everyone. The Model 3 is going to be about £35k, so a LOT cheaper, yet still pricey. I strongly suspect that the 3 will effectively be a very slightly hobbled ‘S’. In other words…if you can wait, and don’t have to have a model S…then its probably worth waiting for a 3. I think the model 3 is going to be revolutionary, not in tech, but in terms of acceptance. Right now the only people buying long range electric cars are those who would otherwise buy an Aston Martin or a Jaguar. The minute it becomes an option for the BMW crowd you are going to see a lot of people picking them up.

TL:DR: Electric cars are fucking amazing. Mine is too wide.

A lot is written about coming increases in inequality, driven mostly by technology. Basically robots will replace almost all low-income and middle-income jobs, leaving a society where wealth accumulates with those who have access to capital and an understanding of high-technology. In short, those who own the robots will own the future, and everybody else is fucked.

This is bad news for the vast majority, and comparisons are often made with previous instances of inequality that have led to civil unrest, revolution, or just plain old suffering. However, I think this time it will be worse because it will be perpetual, and for two reasons.

Reason one: Poverty wont be too bad.

That sounds awful, but what I mean is… “you have nothing to lose but your amazon prime, your netflix and your smartphone” is not much of a rallying call. As technology gets cheaper and the provision of basic services becomes even cheaper, allowing everyone, even the very poorest in society to have a ‘livable life’ becomes almost trivial. I’ve already seen this in my lifetime. My grandfather had an outside toilet (basically a shack) a black-and white TV and a house with no kitchen at all (he built one from spare building material he swiped from sites when he worked as a builder). His house had only a tin bath, no telephone (obviously), and was tiny, even by modern standards.

These days that would be awful, and he would be considered to be living in poverty, eligible for all sorts of benefits etc. In other words, life for people on my grandfathers level of income is vastly better now than it was then, and even back then, we had no workers uprising. I simply cannot see any revolution or popular uprising from people as long as they have facebook, food, a warm house, TV and a smartphone. People now have too much to lose.

Reason two: We won’t know any poor people (or maybe rich people, depending which group you are in).

We may think that situations like downton abbey show inequality at its worse. The rich landed gentry living a life of luxury while the poor servants live a life of near poverty and servitude, but there is actually something very beneficial they had which increasingly we are losing.

They had integration across income levels. Lord Grantham may well consider himself vastly ‘superior’ to his butler and his valet, but he chats to both at least ten times a day. he knows his butlers personal opinions, his concerns, and his thoughts. Ditto, the butler and valet know what troubles Lord Grantham has, how he feels, what he cares about etc. They all live in the same house, albeit in very differently furnished rooms.

In other words, even in a land of masters and servants, there is human contact, maybe even some understanding, some empathy. It really matters where we have personal *human* interaction with people. Its very hard to ‘dehumanize’ people we know really well. Racism, Sexism, Classism, whatever form of exclusion you name, it all relies on keeping ‘the others’ at arms length. This is why religious extremism tries to separate people from outside influence. Its hard to be a suicide bomber when most of the people you will blow up are people you feel like you know and understand. Its no surprise people didn’t like the idea of ‘marrying down’, it blurred the important distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Shockingly, I recently realized I don’t have any close friends (who I see weekly or monthly) who are non-white, nor any who are gay (to my knowledge). This is quite a shock to me, but its true. Also…an increasing number of my friends work for themselves, and are fairly (or considerably) financially successful. In other words, increasingly I seem to associate with ‘people like me’. We all see this as a problem with social media, ‘blocking’ and ‘share with friends’. Admit it, how many of your friends hold strongly different political opinions to you? Now more interestingly, how many of your friends earn more than four times what you do? or less than a quarter of what you do?

As technology increasingly dominates our lives, we no longer integrate with people across financial boundaries. I do most shopping through amazon, never meeting even a cashier, and even when I go food shopping the UK has a fairly strictly defined stratification of grocery shopping destinations by income level. Restaurants even get graded online as £ ££ or £££ to ensure you pick the right one for your income. Cars are now cleaned by robots, soon even taxis will be driven by robots, and parcels and post even delivered by robots. How much random interaction with people not of your choosing will you have in 2020?

A lack of interaction with people from different groups means a lack of empathy for those groups. The age of the hyper-rich and the relatively poor majority is coming, and if we expect the hyper rich to care about anyone else we have to wonder how they will even understand the rest of us if we never meet them. Even their few remaining employees will be bussed in to work to avoid contact with the masses. The new Mr Carson or Mr Bates is a robot or a disembodied AI voice, and the new Mr Grantham won’t care.

An age of huge inequality and technological isolationism is coming, and I cannot see it ending any time soon.


First World Geek problems

December 14, 2016 | Filed under: Uncategorized

This has been a few days of severe first world geek problems. I am well aware how pitiful my woes will seem to people. I find great humour in the idea of pitying someone for a minor blip in an otherwise pretty cushy life, and find first world problems to be a bountiful well of amusement. I am still slightly amused by this gif, even after all these years:

So anyway, let me tell you a tale of woe, and you can laugh and experience the pleasure of schadenfreude in blog form. Also why can’t wordpress spell check schadenfreude?

Yesterday, when checking my email first thing in the morning, I had no internet connection. This is *no big deal*, as occasionally our line drops. We live in the countryside, our internet is delivered by tiny tiny copper wires over telegraph poles, rather than nice modern fiber cables underground. Do not get me started on how expensive this would be to fix (the current quote is about £50k). Anyway…it normally connects pretty quickly. But this time…it did not. taking note that my usually responsive ISP had not replied top recent emails from me…I used my spider sense to detect something was wrong and phoned them, only to get a distressing message on an answerphone. here it is in web page form:

To pit another way: “Fuck you. We haven’t been paying our BT bill, and now you are fucked. ahahahaha”. Yuip…my ISP apparently went bust yesterday.

So yikes. I immediately phone BT to see just how quickly I can get set up with them “10 working days”. Ahahaha. No thanks. So I call someone else, in this case ‘Zen internet’ who also say ’10 working days’. Realizing this is not a joke, but actually the norm in the UK in 2016 (that of course does not prevent it being a joke as well), I sign up to them. Shortly afterwards I spot another ISP saying they are managing to transfer people from my ISP within hours. I switch to them! And then cancel Zen (this took ages, phonecalls…emails…). Then today I get told by the new ISP that no…in my case it will in fact be ten working days.

Christmas with no broadband. OH MY GOD.

Anyway, during all this, I went and met a buddy for lunch and a chat about games & stuff. On the way home, I take a corner a bit too tight in a car park and scratch & even slightly dent my shiny black electro-beast of a car. I have already got a quote for previous dentage, and reckon in total, I’m looking at a £2k+ repair bill.


My Cool image as the person with the shiny black techno-space-car and the ‘fastest internet in the village’ lies in tatters, with small children dancing around it, jeering like some twisted version of a marillion music-video directed by an angry Tim Burton.

So hmmm. Things going a bit badly on that front. On the GOOD front, I’ve got a lot of work done on production Line, to do with Robots and upgrades, and actual ‘game’ stuff. Its feeling a lot more like a playable game than before, which bodes really well.  My internet is currently running through a usb-dongle to a mobile phone-created tethered hotspot. I do hope I don’t run out of my 2 gig allowance before I  …</end of signal>