Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

Beforehand:

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.

Fuck.

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>

 

 

 

 

Big topic, but I’ve been musing this for a while.

Regular readers of my blog will know me as a big supporter of advertising. Some years I’ve spent six figure sums on advertising. Ouch. Advertising works, and I won’t bore you trying to prove that, when there are great books out here that can do this, scientifically with hard evidence. The problem with advertising is not that it doesn’t work, but that people are trying to kill it off, without (as usual) thinking about the long term consequences of their actions. This is  a general problem with society, we try to ‘fix’ X with no thought to the secondary or tertiary effects. Its human nature. I even made a game that models such effects which helps explain why politics often gets this wrong.

Ad-blocking is becoming more and more common, and this presents a problem not just fort advertisers (its a problem they can actually solve), but for consumers and society as well. I’d argue its why Donald Trump is president, and why nothing has been done about climate change. Seems a stretch? let me try to persuade you.

Firstly let me write in defence of people who block ads. Generally I do not block ads, I do not have ad block installed on my PC. I have a different plug-in called ghostery. Ghostery is there to identify and optionally block ‘tracking’ beacons and cookies that are often found on sites where you would not expect them. Visiting a site that shows me ad banners is just fine with me, but notifying dozens of different companies about every site visit I make is…not ok. I am prepared to have a Volkswagen advert in my peripheral vision while I read the news. I see that as a (more than) fair trade. II do not see the notification of facebook, google,twitter & a dozen companies I’ve never heard of that I am reading that same article to be a fair trade.

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Some sites I visit, with a simple 4 or 5 paragraph article, have 20+ trackers identified by ghostery. In the real world, you could imagine this as me reading a newspaper with 20+ anonymous businesspeople stood behind me peering over my shoulder and making notes of who I am and what I’m reading into little notebooks. Are you happy living your life like that? I sure as hell am not.

So people rebel against this (and who can blame them) and as a result they install ghostery or adblock, and continue to surf the web. The ads have magically disappeared, and all is good with the world. Somehow the online content is still there, but we never care how it works, because we just assume we can free-ride of all the dumb schmucks who have not installed ad blocker yet. The problem is…the scales are tipping so that too many of us are blocking, and not enough of us are viewing. The end point of this trajectory is that the people producing the online content are not earning anything from ads. What happens next?

The BEST outcome, and it may seem perverse but the very BEST outcome is that all of those sites go bankrupt and close down. That the very best thing for society that can happen. Sounds weird? well again, do not focus on the immediate consequences, think about the secondary and tertiary effects. Someone who runs an online news site, or games review site already has staff, maybe premises, they have web hosting, they have technical skills…are they going to give up when ad revenue dries up? Not without a fight, which means (after perhaps a period of fighting a losing battle with ad-block-blockers and then begging…) they will take money from wherever they can get it.

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This used to be an indie games review site. You probably have not heard of it, it didn’t do well. Getting attention is hard. The thing is, if you read any of the articles on there, you probably do not notice any major difference between it and any other games website. There are no ads…but then you assume they are just getting blocked right? In fact no. There were never any ads on the site. I own it. I set it up to promote indie games, and hired a journalist to write for the site for a while. I did it because I saw a very long term business case for ME to do this. The more people who played indie games, and heard about indie games, the better the prospects for the industry I was in. It also meant more indie game devs knew who I was, just as I was going into publishing. It als meant more ‘independent’ coverage of indie games that prevented the whole industry becoming steam plus rock paper shotgun. This was a strategic business move by me. BTW I am a game developer. Are you happy with me owning a games news site?

Luckily I’m a nice guy, I’m not out to screw people over, and even if I was, the journalist who worked for me is a very honest nice guy and has a lot of integrity. However… it would have been easy to hire someone a LOT less scrupulous for the same money on the understanding that every fourth article would be about MY games and incidentally how awesome and underrated they are. Believe me…its not difficult to find wannabe journalists looking for actual paid work.

The frightening thing is…as a reader, you have no idea. You read something online and you just assume its free. is it unbiased? Is it actually paid content? Did the journalist get flown to Barbados to review the game? When journalists cannot earn any money from ads, a 3 night stay in a five star hotel in Barbados to review Grand theft Auto sounds irresistable. The real killer is that its probably CHEAPER than conventional advertising, and it comes across as more ‘honest’. Oh the irony.

So circling back to Trump, Climate change and fake news… If you haven’t seen my point yet, here it is in four words.

Someone is always paying.

In the past, you knew who. it was Volkswagen running a banner ad. it annoyed you, but you knew who it was. Very WORST case, if you were reading a  review of the new VW Golf and you saw the ad, you probably thought ‘hmmmmm’ and maybe engaged some cynicism about the articles impartiality. Thats good, that’s how it should work. The problem now is that the ad has disappeared, but that SAME money will be spent, and it will make its way to the guy writing the article somehow, you just cant see it, and you probably don’t even think about it.

We suffer a lot from ‘fake news’ lately, which has been blamed/credited with Donald Trumps election win. I recognize the phenomena from climate change, where there has been a history of ‘fake news’ claiming that wind turbines don’t work, that solar panels never pay back their costs, that climate change is a Chinese hoax…and other such bullshit. The problem is the same: ‘News; being written not because it is actual news, or even true, but because the person paying for the news has an agenda, normally one that furthers their business interests (in this case big oil).

Note the phrase: “The person paying for the news”

That used to be you. It used to be me. We used to pay through ads, and that got annoying and now we just block them and don’t think about it. These days we pay in other ways, maybe through surrendering our personal information to Facebook (who doubtless then sell it), or maybe we pay with our votes. Yup, we pay with our opinions and our freedom of thought. We stopped paying journalists years ago, and never gave a damn about them, which means that we can now hire journalists for dirt cheap. You got a marketing budget of $50k? that will write a LOT of articles, believe me. You have a marketing budget for your oil company of $1billion? How much for the US election campaign?

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Journalism is cheap, and we made it so.

So how the hell do we fix this? Well its actually quite simple, in the way that all solutions people do not want to hear (use less fuel, fly less, eat less beef to help with climate change) are simple. The problem is they require you to think long term and behave in a way that seems irrational in the very short term.

PAY for journalism.

You can subscribe to a lot of news sites. this gets rid of the ads. If you are a gamer, Rock Paper Shotgun has a supporter program. Online versions of UK print newspapers like the Guardian and Times have subscriptions you can pay to. The economist is a great weekly news magazine you can subscribe to online. I honestly believe that paywalls will become MORE common, not less. Everyone jeered at the ‘evil’ times paywall. Its still there. And don’t make the mistake of thinking you are a ‘mug’ or ‘gullible’ to pay for something like this. I hope I have established in this article that you are ALREADY paying for it, you just don’t see the connection.

And to round off, here I am, a highly skilled and very experienced software developer and business owner typing this article on a VERY cold Wednesday morning instead of coding my next game. How am I doing this? Why do I have this blog? What is my motivation? Well clearly its a bit of personal PR and branding. If you read all this stuff, now and then i have a post thats about my latest game and its trailer. Thats how I am getting paid for this. I don’t *deny* it, but then I don’t bang on about the link either.

Was this article really *free* for you? Have a think about it, and if it concerns you that this was motivated by me wanting to sell you stuff, you can formalize the arrangement by paying what you want for the Humble Tycoon Bundle, which is on sale now and includes Big Pharma and Democracy 3.

hey, at least I haven’t stuck any ad-tracking cookies on here right?