Want my vote? Give me evidence-based policies

This year’s general election is going to be a close one, and a bitter one. For the first time ever, I’ve had representatives of political parties knocking on my door and, although none of the current crop of parties appeals to me, I told the last gang (Labour) that I’m sick of politicians (in this case, Ed Milliband) who react to the moral panic du jour with ill-thought out policies that appease the slack-jawed but actually cause long-term damage.

I’d vote for whoever had the courage to make policies based on evidence and long-term thinking rather than short-term headline grabbing, religious attachment to dogma, or the selfish interests of its core supporters. I doubt such a politician exists, but if any do, here’s my wish-list.

Immigration

We need to politicians with courage to say we need immigration. We are an ageing population: A Survey of the UK Benefit System by Institute for Fiscal Studies, November 2012) points out that a colossal 42.3% of the benefits spend in the Uk goes to “elderly people” (figure 2.1).

To support more older people, it’s obvious that we need more young people to work and pay tax. However, the birthrate in the UK seems to be falling:

The number of live births and the total fertility rate (TFR) fluctuated throughout the twentieth century with a sharp peak at the end of World War II. Live births peaked again in 1964 (875,972 births), but since then lower numbers have been recorded. The lowest annual number of births in the twentieth century was 569,259 in 1977. The number of births is dependent on both fertility rates and the size and age structure of the female population.The total fertility rate for England and Wales decreased in 2013 to an average of 1.85 children per woman from 1.94 in 2012.

Women are having children later. Tellingly, Coalition austerity policies – a prime example of dogma over evidence-based policymaking – are likely to be contributing to the lower birth rate. The UK government’s Office of National Statistics writes:

Other factors which could have had an impact on fertility levels in 2013 include:

  • uncertainty about employment and lower career and promotion opportunities (such as temporary, part-time, or zero-hours contracts), which can significantly reduce women’s demand for children (Del Bono E, et al.,2014; Lanzieri G, 2013)
  • reforms by the Government to simplify the welfare system, which have resulted in some significant changes to benefits that may have influenced decisions around childbearing. The changes were announced in 2011 and 2012 and included; reduced housing benefit from April 2013 for those living in property deemed to be larger than they need. Children under 10 are expected to share a room, as are children under 16 of the same gender; removal of child benefit where one parent earns over £50,000 from January 2013 and a 3-year freeze on payments for those eligible from April 2011; and a cap on the total amount of benefits that working age people can receive from April 2013, so that households on working age benefits can no longer receive more in benefits than the average wage for working families.

Therefore, the current austerity policies will have a long-term effect of reducing the workforce so making more elderly people dependant on fewer working people. Without immigrants working here, this will result in cuts to the services the elderly receive, or a higher tax burden on those in work, neither of which are desirable – particularly to the successors of the current Conservative government for whom elderly people are more likely to vote, and for which tax reduction is an article of absolute faith.

Immigration also brings us skilled workers. A good friend of mine works recruiting nurses from overseas for a big, nationally-known UK hospital. She doesn’t do this because she is part of a dastardly plot to flood Britain with highly-trained, hard-working Filipinos whose English language is better than that of many “indigenous” residents (to get a visa, non-EU applicants are required to achieve a higher score in their English language tests than EU applicants for some odd reason). No, she does this because hospitals need nurses, and there aren’t enough British nurses.

According to the Daily Telegraph, last year

5,778 nurses were recruited from overseas in the 12 months to September… This compares with a figure of just 1,360 reported by 40 trusts in the previous year. Experts said a lack of trained British nurses meant hospitals were forced to hunt abroad for trained staff, with the costs of global trawls vastly inflating the cost of recruitment. Hospitals pay managers and recruitment agencies to go abroad to seek out staff, while offering bonuses to nurses who come here. In total, 91,470 nurses – around one in seven of those now registered to work here – trained overseas, official figures show.

Why? The Telegraph – a highly conservative newspaper – reports

The surge follows cuts to NHS programmes to train nurses in this country, with 10,000 training places cut since 2010.

Anecdotally (from my friend who does the recruitment), many British people don’t want to become nurses. The Royal College of Nursing (the profession’s representative body) notes that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, said in his 2011 autumn statement

all public sector wage rises should be capped at an average of one per cent for two years from April 2013. This comes after a two year policy which saw all NHS staff earning more than £21,000 facing a pay freeze, while those earning up to £21,000 received an award of £250 in both years.

The RCN continues:

the supply of nursing staff is being seriously threatened as NHS organisations attempt to save money by cutting posts and by the reduction in commissioned training places for nurses. Commissioned places for pre-registration nursing has fallen by nearly nine per cent from 2010/11 to 2011/12. This is particularly worrying at a time when 12 per cent of the nursing workforce is aged 55 or over and a quarter is aged 50 or over.

Both the RCN evidence and the staff side evidence draw on results from a joint trade union survey of members which found that almost two thirds of nurses said they had seriously thought about leaving their job, and a third would leave for a post outside the NHS. The top two reasons for considering leaving the NHS are stress/workload and staff shortages. Two thirds of respondents said morale had declined in the last 12 months, while 71 per cent said staff shortages have frequently occurred in their workplace over the past year.

The starting salary for graduate nurses is £21,338 (with an additional £4076 for inner London, as if the extra £78 week before tax makes up for living costs there), but it’s a 3 or 4 year degree course to get there. The current government raised the cap on university tuition fees, so the tuition alone for a 4 year nursing course could come to £36,000 – for a £21,000 pre-tax salary. If the government were genuinely concerned to reduce reliance on overseas nurses, it would either raise salaries, or subsidise tuition fees for socially vital jobs, such as nurses. But it won’t, because it’s unable to make sensible policies that might have the desired outcome due to its dogma of not interfering in markets, and its antipathy to the public sector.

Rent Caps

In 2012, the UK benefits spend was £159bn (up by 1.1% on the previous year). The single largest part of that was state pensions to the elderly – £74.22bn, or 47% of the total spend. The next largest item in the budget is housing benefit £16.94bn. That was up 5.2% on the previous year, and will reach a new high of £25bn a year by 2017, according to new government estimates. Housing Benefit is money paid by the government – sourced, of course, from me and my fellow taxpayers – to people on incomes too low to allow them to meet the cost of their housing themselves.

Incomes are low because of austerity policies, and housing is preposterously expensive in the UK because there’s an inadequate supply. It’s my belief that the main reason for this under-supply is the ideologically-driven “Right to Buy” sell-off of social housing by the Thatcher government – councils who owned social housing were required by law to sell it at deep discount to tenants (and weren’t allowed to use the funds raised to replenish the housing stock).

The stated goal was to make Britain a nation of home-owners; the actual result is that a third of ex-council homes are now owned by landlords. One inner-London council now pays £500,000 a year to rent back properties that it was forced to sell, a situation described as “utterly ludicrous” by its housing chief; it’s hard to disagree with this assessment. (Note that David Cameron proposed re-invigorating Right to Buy in 2011.)

Whatever the reason for the under-supply of housing, though, if the government really wanted to reduce the housing benefit spend, it would simply cap rents. Housing Benefit is nothing more than a government subsidy to landlords, who charge high prices because they know the government will pay them. If rents were controlled, the housing benefit spend would reduce. But it wouldn’t dream of doing so because that would be regulation in the free market (it’s religious dogma that the invisible hand is always right, whether it pickpockets your neighbour and hands her purse to you, or pokes you in the eye). It’s also the case that landlords tend to be Conservative voters. Upsetting loads of nurses and public sector workers is one thing – they mostly don’t vote for the Tories anyway – but landlords are part of the clan who rule us. After all, Charles Gow, the son of Mrs Thatcher’s Housing Minister during the council house sell-off, owns at least 40 ex-council flats on one South London estate.

Politicians of all political hues seem happy to talk tough on immigration, as if it were a bad thing rather than an economic necessity. They all seem to agree that austerity is required, while pumping billions into the City under the cloak of “Quantitative Easing” (which has failed, according to its inventor). This nutrient-free flatulent miasma of stupidity appeases the Daily Mail and Express readers, yet it damages the country.

Give me some joined-up, evidence-based thinking, and you’ll get my kiss on election day.

Update Sun 4 Jan: It seems that fewer than 10% of British people are against mandatory legal limits on housing rents.

Update 7 Jan: Great minds think alike. From the Daily Telegraph (of all places!) on 5 Jan, Ten ways we could fix broken Britain suggests paying people to do degrees we need, more tenants rights, more housing (and using the tax system to punish those who sit on land reserves, like supermarkets or volume builders), and other sensible policies like tripling the congestion charge and legalising drugs.

Where’s your bloody Christmas card?

As regular readers may recall, I don’t send paper Xmas cards, because I’m a miserable bastard. With friends and family scattered all over the place, it seems daft to me to send bits of paper to landfills across the globe via plane or road. So instead, I bung the amount I’d spend on paper and postage to a charity where I think the dosh is better spent.

This year, there are two charities: Acorns Children’s Hospice, which is local to me but done in memoriam Rebecca Meyer, whose story moved so many of us this year, and Greenwich & Bexley Community Hospice, where my Dad, Jeff Lawson, was a volunteer counsellor for many years right up until his death in August.

Happy Consumerfest or whatever-you-celebrate. My plans are to get through the weirdness of the first Xmas when my Dad won’t be getting pissed on all my red wine; not put on any of the 6 kgs I lost this year; get healthy enough to go back to kickboxing; record more of my backlog of songs I’ve written; and continue whingeing to make the web better.

If you still feel the need for a bit of commemmorative paper, print this lovely photo of me in a festive mankini for your mantlepiece.

See you in 2015. xxx

Reading List

Wootarama! It’s my 100th reading list as the penultimate blogpost of this blog’s eleventh year. The Queen just sent me a telegram. You can send me Guinness or Laphroiag.

Reading List

Reading List ninety-nine. With a flake in it.

On Multiple Sclerosis, feeling ill, and heroics

(This is sort of a public service announcement as I get lots of visitors who come here from a search for “multiple sclerosis”.)

I’m a bit grumpy today, not just because I’m in bed with a temperature of 38.7, sweating and occasionally coughing so hard I eject alarmingly yellow blobs of what is presumably some gelatinous form of plutonium, but because I should be at the airport flying to Oslo (where my employers are headquartered) for a meet-up with my excellent team-mates and the notoriously Epicurean office Xmas party. But I’ve elected not to go.

“What’s that?”, you cry. “You – Bruce – who plays punk guitar, does kickboxing and wrestles poodles (and wins!) have turned into Shirley Temple!” you mock.

Here’s the reasoning, in the hope that if you are a merry new recruit to the world of MS (I’m a veteran of ’99), it’ll be some help to you.

When you’re newly diagnosed it’s quite normal to be in and out of your neurologists’s office so often that the staff greet you by first name and soon start darting into stock rooms or crouching behind desks as you approach. You’re new, you’re worried and every tiny twinge sets of your anxiety. Later on, particularly if your kind of MS is cyclical remitting-relapsing, you might breathe a sigh of relief and start to think ‘I won’t let this diagnosis change me!’ and potentially push yourself too far. It’s not a good idea to be an MS hero.

As you probably know if you have it, MS is a disease of the auto-immune system. In highly technical terms, think of an MS person’s immune system as being like a crowd of drunk Millwall FC fans waiting for the opposing fans to enter their stadium. When they see the opposition, they’ll beat them up. But once the opposition is defeated, they’ll very likely smash a few windows, beat up some police, their own friends, set fire to their neighbours’ cars and then turn on each other.

Getting even more scientific, there are no police or windows in your immune system, so it will attack your nerves instead, stripping their myelin sheaths which will never regenerate.

As I write this, my eyes hurt if I move them left, right, up or down. This isn’t much fun – you tend to turn your head instead of having to move your eyes which makes you look a bit like a robot in a sci-fi film. But when this happens to me it’s a warning signal. One of my first MS presentations was going effectively blind in my left eye because of Optic Neuritis, which is an inflammation of the optic nerve that makes your eyes painful and vision darkened. (Mine was dealt with by injecting anti-inflammatory goo just behind the eye, a procedure which was pretty low in chuckles.)

I also have an increase in what I call “fizzy fingers” (due to my incorrigible love of alliteration). This is when my fingertips feel numb or full of “pins and needles”. I always have this to some extent – it’s why I can’t play guitar properly any more – and, to my eternal regret, it’s my own fault. When I was eventually diagnosed (3 years after the optic neuritis) my hands were basically not obeying orders – my handwriting was a scrawl, I couldn’t do my own buttons up etc. But I heroically soldiered on before eventually being admitted to hospital and being put on 1000mg of steroids daily in the medical equivalent of tear-gassing the rioting Millwall fans and shutting your immune system down so it can’t do any more damage. But the damage already done can’t be reversed.

So these days, when I get a little bit of a cold I soldier on. But when I start to get other more sinister signs, I give up and take to my bed. While I know that my team mates would love to sit in a room with me and my pathogens, inhaling the gift of a Christmas fever to take to their loved ones, and I understand that the ladies of Oslo have spent many weeks putting up welcoming street decorations, I’m vegging out until the auto-immune Millwall fans go back to their mums’ houses. (From 15 years’ experience, a couple of days.)

It’s not worth being heroic when the risk is irreparable damage (and I have 2 dependant kids, too). Your MS will be different; your level of heroism may be different. Good luck and take care.

Reading List

Ooh,ooh, it’s the 98th Reading List (including last week’s Device Detection vs Responsive Web Design-themed list). Will I get to 100 before 2015?

Autumn

The smell of roasting dust heralds the fan heater’s first use of the autumn, like the smell of the crematorium we’re all another year closer to.

On the accessibility of web components. Again.

I enjoyed watching Dimitri Glazkov’s introduction to Web Components Easy composition and reuse with Web Components, given at the Chrome Developer Summit. It’s an excellently-constructed talk that builds on the use-cases that web components address to make a compelling argument for the technology.

At 11 min 55 seconds, after a slide reading “Make HTML useful”, Dimitri says

Custom elements is really neat. It basically says, “HTML it’s been a pleasure”.

There we are. Bye-bye HTML; you weren’t useful enough. Hello, brave new world of custom elements. Of course, this isn’t the full messaging; a 20 minute video can’t go into the nuances. But it’s what a lot of people are hearing.

Let’s straighten that out.

One of the advantages of oh-so-boring HTML was that certain elements carried default behaviours in browsers and assistive technology. Like, when you use this mark-up

<label for="form-name">What's yer name?<label>
<input id="form-name">

and you click on the label, the focus goes into the associated input. There’s no need for JavaScript, there’s no fancy stuff extra for a developer (except setting up the association with the for="" attribute), and there’s a significant usability and accessibility advantage for the end-user.

A recent HTML5 Rocks article by Addy Osmani and Alice Boxhall called Accessible Web Components begins with the words

Custom Elements present a fantastic opportunity for us to improve accessibility on the web.

Yes. Yes. Yes. (Thanks Addy and Alice!) It’s perfectly possible to make web components and custom elements accessible. Alice has an example which I’ve screenshotted in Opera (top) and Safari (bottom).

boxall

Note that in the Safari screenshot, the second column of sexy checkboxes don’t work at all – there is no checkbox. That’s because Safari doesn’t support web components. You’ll see the same in IE, or browsers without JavaScript.

Note that the first column does render in Safari, but it’s just normal checkboxes; they aren’t sexy web component-ised as they are in Opera. But – crucially – you can still interact with them, as they’re web components progressively enhancing silly old “useless” HTML. It works like this:

<input type="checkbox" is="io-checkbox">

Simple, huh? You have a silly old useless HTML element, and a new attribute that says “this is extended via web components into a special element I’m calling ‘io-checkbox'”. The web component inherits all the silly old useless behaviour like associating labels with form fields, activation with keyboard for free.

Compare with the sexy but not progressively-enhanced way that doesn’t work in older browsers (the second column):

<io-custom-checkbox tabindex="0" role="checkbox"></io-custom-checkbox>

There’s a super-whizzo-fabbo-megalicious UltraShiny custom element there, which has no graceful degradation. It needs a tabindex and a role there because who wants that silly old useless HTML behaviour? Not us! We’re post-HTML. Yay!

Snarking aside, why do so few people talk about extending existing HTML elements with web components? Why’s all the talk about brand new custom elements? I don’t know.

Of course, not every new element you’ll want to make can extend an existing HTML element. In this case, you can still make your custom element accessible. Just because you’re in the super-whizzo-fabbo-megalicious UltraShiny world of web components, you can – and should – still add ARIA information to make your code accessible. Just because you’re hiding nasty code behind the Shadow DOM, it doesn’t mean that you can brush proper coding under the web components carpet.

You’d hope that those who are assiduously pushing components into the platform would ensure that their demos did this – after all, those demos are meant to be studied, copied and adapted by developers, right?

Wrong. Take a look at Polymer gmail, a “Polymer version of New Gmail app”. Patrick Lauke points out

Google has expertise in-house to create functional, beautiful, web-component stuff that is also accessible. It would be great if high-profile demos like these would actually take advantage of those resources to create things that work not just for sighted mouse/touchscreen users…

To which he received the reply

There’s plenty that can be done in the convenience of unlimited time and resources. If you’d like to help, please submit a PR.

A big demo of a Google cutting-edge technology, made by Google, and there’s no resources simply to make it accessible.

At Paris Web, Karl Groves and I talked about Web Components – the right way, we talked of extending existing elements, adding ARIA and suggested that web accessibility advocates actively fix issues on Open-Source projects. But I meant fixing small projects that you’re using in your own sites – like the WordPress Live Comment Preview plugin, which I tweaked, thereby making 44,837 sites accessible.

I wasn’t talking about fixing demos by a company with a $362.48 Billion market capitalisation. As Patrick Lauke so eloquently puts it:

My resources are currently a bit more stretched than Google’s…but I’ll put it on my to-do list ;)

I’m a fan of web components. But I’m increasingly worried about the messaging surrounding them.

Device Detection vs Responsive Web Design

This week’s reading list is devoted to Device Detection vs Responsive Web Design.

With all the cool kids getting into RWD these days, it’s time to have a look at the Device Detection companies again. Device Detection is the practice of matching a device’s UA string against a table of such strings and looking up certain characteristics of that device and then serving different websites accordingly.

Of course, the utility of such services is dependant on the quality of the look-up table: how many devices does it know about (all the ones in the world, ever?), how frequently it’s updated (have they added the Umbongo J2O TrouserPhone S+ that was released on Tuesday, yet?) and how accurate is that data (does the TrouserPhone S+ really have 178680979 X 7 pixel smellovision display?).They are, however, an order of magnitude more reliable than terrible CMS plugins or JavaScripts that were written years ago and which register IE11 as IE1, or don’t know Chrome exists. UA strings are comically unreliable, being the frontline in an unceasing battle between browser-sniffers who want to deny entry to certain browsers, and browser vendors who want their users to get a first-class experience.

Examples of Device Detection companies include scientamobile (WURFL), DeviceAtlas and 51Degrees. The databases owned by such companies do include device characteristics unavailable through client-side detection. For example, you can’t find out from JavaScript whether a device is actually a touchscreen device; the physical dimensions of a screen or the retail price of a device (which advertisers want to know, apparently – you only want to advertise yachts to gold iPhone or Umbongo J2O TrouserPhone S+ owners).

Mike Taylor, an ex-colleague of mine at Opera, now at Mozilla (and pathological hater of chickens) set up a collaborative document to collect use cases that people are trying to solve with UA detection (which can’t be solved by feature-detection), which is summarised by Karl Dubost (ex-Opera, now Mozilla) in User Agent Detection Use Cases.

Those who oppose Device Detection do so for philosophical reasons – it’s one web and we shouldn’t serve different content to different devices or browsers, or they are certain browser vendors: Internet Explorer, Firefox OS and Opera all have reasons to dislike browser sniffing or device detection (“this website is only available to iPad users”). Google uses device detection all the time on its properties, as do many other large companies.

The device detection companies have begun to issue reports comparing their products with responsive, client-side techniques. Here are three that I’ve seen this week:

They’re worth reading. Of course, case studies only go so far; every business, territory and site is different. One thing everyone agrees on is that performance matters – slow sites lead to fewer conversions. mobiForge has an article M-commerce insights: Give users what they want, and make it fast that claims

RWD sites were the slowest, on average, to load on mobile – 8.4 seconds – while dedicated mobile sites loaded fastest – in 2.9 seconds. Non-responsive desktop sites took 6.57 seconds to load.

I’d like to see proper A/B testing: a well-made responsive version of a site versus its “m-dot” equivalent, redirected from its canonical URL and assembled after a device look-up, across a variety of devices and network conditions. If we’re going to argue, it might as well be about data.

Update 1 Dec 2014: Here’s some initial research on the top 1,000 mobile websites: M dot or RWD. Which is faster? that concludes that “m dot” sites are 50% slower for time to first byte, and

RWD sites are VERY competitive on Visually Complete and SpeedIndex scores. The median values are within 5% for both metrics. Even though it appears that RWD is faster, there is enough fluctuation in the data that we should probably call it a dead heat.

Reading List