Reading List

Well, spank me with a pilchard, dress me up as an otter and call me “Madam Sugartits” – here’s this week’s reading list!

I’m off for a holiday in Cambodia (it’s tough, kid, but it’s life) for 2 weeks. I won’t be taking nude photos, don’t worry. See you afterwards. xxx

Reading List

Why we can’t do real responsive images with CSS or JavaScript

I’m writing a talk on <picture>, srcset and friends for Awwwards Conference in Barcelona next month (yes, I know this is unparalleled early preparation; I’m heading for the sunshine for 2 weeks soon). I decided that, before I get on to the main subject, I should address the question “why all this complex new markup? Why not just use CSS or JavaScript?” because it’s invariably asked.

But you might not be able to see me in Catalonia to find out, because tickets are nearly sold out. So here’s the answer.

All browsers have what’s called a preloader. As the browser is munching through the HTML – before it’s even started to construct a DOM – the preloader sees “<img>” and rushes off to fetch the resource before it’s even thought about speculating about considering doing anything about the CSS or JavaScript.

It does this to get images as fast as it can – after all, they can often be pretty big and are one of the things that boosts the perceived performance of a page dramatically. Steve Souders, head honcho of Velocity Conference, bloke who knows loads about site speed, and renowned poet called the preloader “the single biggest performance improvement browsers have ever made” in his sonnet “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s preloader, bae?”

So, by the time the browser gets around to dealing with CSS or script, it may very well have already grabbed an image – or at least downloaded a fair bit. If you try

<img id=thingy src=picture.png alt="a mankini">
…
@media all and (max-width:600px) {
 #thingy {content: url(medium-res.png);}
 }

@media all and (max-width:320px) {
 #thingy {content: url(low-res.png);}
 }

you’ll find the correct image is selected by the media query (assuming your browser supports content on simple selectors without :before or :after pseudo-elements) but you’ll find that the preloader has downloaded the resource pointed to by the <img src> and then the one that the CSS replaces it with is downloaded, too. So you get a double download which is not what you want at all.

Alternatively, you could have an <img> with no src attribute, and then add it in with JavaScript – but then you’re fetching the resource until much later, delaying the loading of the page. Because your browser won’t know the width and height of the image that the JS will select, it can’t leave room for it when laying out the page so you may find that your page gets reflowed and, if the user was reading some textual content, she might find the stuff she’s reading scrolls off the page.

So the only way to beat the preloader is to put all the potential image sources in the HTML and give the browser all the information it needs to make the selection there, too. That’s what the w and x descriptors in srcset are for, and the sizes attribute.

Of course, I’ll explain it with far more panache and mohawk in Barcelona. So why not come along? Go on, you know you want to and I really want to see you again. Because I love you.

Reading List

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?