Categories
Smart home

Improved home energy reporting

 

I spent some time this weekend improving reporting on the energy monitoring data collected from data around the house.

Ever wondered how often we run our dishwasher? Hopefully you haven’t, but I have, and now I know.

Categories
Weeknotes

w/c 27th January 2024

 

The January blues have manifested for me this year in becoming slightly obsessive about the amount of daylight there is, when it is and how to make the most of it. Sick of the Met Office app making me do the basic arithmetic myself, I added a little note into my task management app over Christmas.

Thankfully we’re out of the sub-8 hour days now, as smlkjns_assistant can confirm.

And the prospect of coming home from work before it gets dark isn’t too far off.

Work has been a lot of staring at datasets or code lately, with more than a few hours spent banging my head against something that I know to be wrong but unable to see why. There has been some pleasure in figuring these things out eventually and, in what is perhaps the dullest accomplishment anyone has ever bragged about, I invested the time in finally cracking the spaghetti-like mess that is ethnicity data in higher education. If you ever find yourself having to grapple with such data, consider using my ultimate ethnicity schema reference lookup and buy me a beer as a thanks.

Engineering works have meant no train service this week and so after being almost driven mad by 4 hours on buses in standstill traffic on Monday I worked from home for the rest of the week. I think having me around so much has confused the cat a little, though thankfully she doesn’t seem to have grown tired of me yet.

Away from screens, I’ve spent some time fixing broken floorboards, which would be a generally unsatsifying task were it not for the excuse to perform a jump test.

Before

After

 

 

Categories
Weeknotes

w/c 1st January 2024

 

I ran power to my garage over the Christmas break, as the start of the grand plan to turn it into a workshop. The decision to use the space as a workshop was made somewhat easier by our discovery upon moving in that the shape of the alley at the back of our house actually makes it impossible to manoeuvre a car into it. So workshop it is.

Step two was to build a basic workbench – something I’ve found myself desperately wanting whilst trying to do various things over the past few months. So that’s what I built this weekend.

Aside from my palm sander exploding part way through all went relatively smoothly and I’m pleased with the result.

Here’s me conducting a rigorous lateral stability test before putting the top on:

And having put the top on, the followup load bearing test:

The end result, in it’s natural habit (enclosed by crap):

Ultimately this will be moved to the other end of the garage, with my plan being to build a partitioning wall to insulate and semi-finish the end it currently sits in. The insulated half will be a coding and electronics workspace, whilst the uninsulated half will be a woodworking and metalworking space. Timescales exceptionally tbc.

Categories
Weeknotes

Yearnotes, 2023

 

My maximum distance from home by day in 2023.

Categories
Weeknotes

w/c 27th November 2023

 

A double bill, given I failed to write any weeknotes last week as the result of some exceptional work shenanigans that started on Friday afternoon and continued to haunt me across the weekend and well into Monday. Thanks go to the patience of the friends we were hours late to meet on the Friday, the patience of the friend who visited over the weekend that I mostly miserably moaned at, the patience of the friends we visited for dinner on Sunday night that I almost exclusively miserably moaned at and the patience of Soph for whom I imagine my miserable moaning represented little change from the norm. In my defence, the shenanigans coincided with the onset of a horrid cold that hit its peak around about the time of my 7:30am start of work on Monday.

Anyway, it’s also been cold as hell, which has started me thinking about how to smarten up our heating. We have a standard combi boiler without any smart tech fitted and a timer interface that requires at least 20 mins stood on a stool to change. I want to be able to automate my heating, change that automation easily, control my heating remotely and of course do it all from smlkjns_assistant. What I don’t want to do however is pay hundreds of pounds for a Nest/Hive type system, pay ongoing subscriptions or to rely on a cloud service I don’t control.

I could try to figure out how to build my own OpenTherm controller but frankly that sounds bloody hard and I don’t want to risk being unable to control my heating at any point during that learning curve. So I settled on working with the existing dumb controls and building something to manipulate them. A SwitchBot would have been the perfect choice mechanically for this purpose but unfortunately requires a platform specific hub as well and whilst an API is available for onward integration, purely local control isn’t. What I needed was a poor man’s jerry rigged switchbot that I could integrate with my own systems directly.

Presenting the most janky of janky first version prototypes – a Pico controlled servo taped to the front of my boiler control. Not a good looking proof of concept but a successful one all the same.

And here’s a demonstration of integration with smlkjns_assistant:

The tape has held up surprisingly well so far, though obviously isn’t a long-term solution. In an ideal world I would 3D print a mounting bracket for the servo but there’s a slight issue with that, in that I don’t own a 3D printer. Next best thing might be to fabricate an aluminium mounting bracket. I think that’s likely the route I’ll go down, though a prerequisite for that is starting to turn the garage into a bit more of a workshop and a bit less of an unorganised pile of garbage.

Thankfully old fashioned pressing a button with my thumb has kept the house reasonably toasty to date, though the cat perhaps has other views.

In more analogue projects, I found some time to start dealing with the corner of our utility room where I had to rip off the skirting board to get the washing machine in. Given you can only buy skirting in lengths approximately the same as the total bumper to bumper length of our car, I introduced Soph to the age old art of cutting some shit up with a handsaw over your knee in a B&Q car park.

Here it is before:

It’s not yet finished because paint and filler takes forever to dry in this weather, so needs another round of sanding, painting and this time better taping on the join with the floor – but currently:

Let me know your tips for getting straight paint lines up against silicone filling irregular gaps please.

Categories
Weeknotes

w/c 13th November 2023

 

I spent much of this weekend disassembling, moving cleaning and reassembling furniture. Much of that furniture was in the form of bookcases. Presenting – our wall of books:

Whilst I worked, the cat mostly stared at me with suspicion from various vantage points.

On a work front – here’s a quick note I wrote on the prospects for UK postgraduate student recruitment this week.

Categories
Weeknotes

w/c 6th November 2023

 

A weeknotes written with a hangover, but a weeknotes all the same.

I attended this event on Tuesday marking 60 years since the Bristol Bus Boycott, with Guy Bailey and Joyce Morris-Wisdom who were both part of the campaign.

I walked around the park by my office a lot, despite its quantity of fallen leaves making it a beautiful beautiful slippery deathtrap.

We joined some friends’ 30th birthday celebrations last night (hence the hangover) which was great fun.

Otherwise, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the way that the symbols of ‘remembrance’ work and are used in this country these days, given it’s that time of the year. If any examination of cultural artifacts or signifiers like the poppy, ‘lest we forget’ or the Cenotaph is to be a serious one, it must start from the acknowledgement that their meanings change over time and this change occurs as a result of culture at all points being contested. Given it’s been over a century since these things emerged, I have absolutely no time for people that try to insist something about what they should mean based on their history as a way to deny the less convenient truth about what they now evidently do mean.

My perception of remembrance when I was younger isn’t necessarily entirely reliable but as I recall it even only twenty years ago it felt substantially different. The notion that a key part of the thing to be remembered was that the sacrifice of the dead was a needless, wasteful sacrifice hadn’t yet been surgically removed. The evil to be observed was still for many the evil of war, the evil of those striving for war, the evil of those sending people to war. It hadn’t yet morphed into remembering an ahistorical story about how war was an unfortunate but necessary response to some other evil. And since, as I say, culture is contested, I remember witnessing people talk about their different understandings of what it was that was supposed to never be forgotten, or what it would look like if we did allow ourselves to forget.

I didn’t pay a great deal of attention in the years since then to how remembrance and its symbols was evolving, or who was winning or losing in the contest for their meanings. I was probably too young to notice if or how it intersected with the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, so forgive me if I’m missing an element of the story there, but I largely wrote it off as another thing gradually eroded by the unique British talent for crushing banality, in which things become ossified into incrementally less coherent rituals, performed each time more meaninglessly that the last. I understood it as something that the right would try to intermittently deploy against others but in the sort of pathetic way that is best ignored.

In the past few years however that view has become less tenable as it’s become clearer that remembrance’s fate is something far worse. While the contests over its meaning may change it again in the future, for the time being a particular politics has established a firm grip on it. War and what we think about war is obviously, to anyone with half a brain, intrinsically political, so this isn’t a new politicisation of remembrance but the victory of a certain politics over others. That sense has obviously been heightened this year, given how remembrance has coincided with global events and how it’s relatedly been used by the right to incite riots on the streets of London, though I think that coincidence is illuminating as to what remembrance had already become rather than in itself the thing that has only now changed it.

Remembrance and its symbols, whatever they might have meant in the past and whatever well-meaning individuals may wish them to still mean, belong now to a pro-war culture. They belong to a right-wing, authoritarian, pro-war and pro-genocide politics and they are used to beat down those striving against war, suffering and injustice in the present.

Unless there is a compelling case that someone is simply naive to the reality of remembrance in Britain (say, if you don’t live in the country and have only just now read about it for the first time on Wikipedia), if they joyfully adopt its symbols – the poppy, the ‘lest we forget’ slogan, the Cenotaph – I am immediately deeply suspicious of them.

There will be certainly be more darkness and suffering in our future and I have no doubt that those in Britain cheering it on and shouting for more will be increasingly doing so with the poppy as their logo.

Anyway, whilst you wait for things to get worse, why not enjoy the Poppy Watch twitter account.

Categories
Weeknotes

w/c 30th October 2023

 

My forays into home automation continue – this week with some smart bulbs that I’ve integrated with smlkjns_assistant.

Still on the to-do list: RGB control. Meanwhile I’ve built out energy usage reporting a little further, in case I was short of reasons to be obsessive about money.

At work this week I’ve been doing some fiddling with postcode data, specifically to work with POLAR4 and TUNDRA statistics. This data is available from the Office for Students but in a not especially accessible format, so I’ve made a public repository of just the basics here: https://github.com/smlkjns/heinsight_postcodes. Some of my earliest lessons in “perhaps Excel isn’t the right tool for working with this data” stem from trying to match irregularly formatted postcodes to 2.5 million row long look-ups and whilst spending a day watching a spinning Power Query loading icon does illicit a certain sense of nostalgia in me, I’m glad to now be doing this in a few lines of Python and a fraction of the time.

Speaking of “a few lines of Python”, I enjoyed Github’s contribution graphs turning spooky-themed this week. (can you spot the month in which we moved house?)

In the real world, we went to a bonfire and fireworks display at the local cricket club last night. Decent display, though they’d sold out of mulled wine, so I have to knock them down to 7/10.

As I have never and will never commit to my weeknotes being solely about the week they’re written in, which would be too grimly predictable and straightforward, here’s a bonus photo from last week’s fun (photo credit to Meg).

And here’s a photo from this morning of me and Socks soaking up some rays.

Categories
Weeknotes

w/c 23rd October 2023

 

A much better week.

I spent much of my time at work picking through dense technical documents, sat in meetings, or grappling with broken code. In the course of that last one I developed a new niche grumble – that it’s absurd to me that the best way to merge two dataframes in pandas according to a value falling between a range is apparently… to not, and to do it outside of pandas.

As antisocial as that all sounds, it was nicely balanced with a healthy dose of top-quality socialising throughout the week. A colleague’s leaving drinks was a lovely opportunity to catch up with old teammates and dinner with a friend visiting the country (along with others) was a real boost. Then this weekend we’ve had some friends staying with us and lots of others kindly joined us for a very loosely Halloween-themed gathering at our house – thank you to all who came.

Exhausted now, and apparently not the only one…

Categories
Weeknotes

w/c 16th October

 

A mixed week.

On Monday I went on a tour of Bristol’s Georgian House Museum, kindly organised and delivered by a colleague. The tour was excellent, in spite of the low-level sense of peril throughout prompted by the staff warning that if any more than four of us stood in the same room at once the floorboards may collapse.

On Wednesday I spent half the day in a state of medium dampness, having diligently looked up the weather forecast when I woke up to see heavy rain and then stupidly forgotten to do anything sensible about it like packing an umbrella. Whilst running between meetings on campus in that rain I stopped to check on a student who slipped and fell on a metal grate in front of me. She’d hit the ground hard and a little while into talking to me burst into tears. I think she was alright in the end, though it did leave me convinced that the day was a miserable one.

On Saturday we drove to Yeovil to attend a Yeovil Literary Festival event that Soph had been gifted tickets to. I would not say I enjoy driving and this was compounded by the route to Yeovil not being one I’m familiar with but as it turned out the drive was the most successful part of the trip, given the event was in fact taking place on an entirely different day. When I eventually managed to get out of Soph why, whilst we were sat in a coffee shop in Yeovil, she was staring at an email on her phone and shaking her head in horrified silence, we reached an out of court settlement that sees me paid an undisclosed sum (one lunch) in compensation. Still, Yeovil is nice and with the free time we suddenly had to explore we did a bit of shopping and wandering around before heading home, no more cultured than when we left.

Today started out better, given there was no need to drive anywhere for something that wasn’t in fact happening. We went to get some food in our local park around lunch time (shout out to Clarence Park Cafe, who boast a menu you would assume physically impossible to deliver out of a small hut). Unfortunately the afternoon ended up decidedly horrible, when on our walk home we found a cat that had been struck by a car on the side of the road, a two minutes walk from our front door. Having to pick up someone’s beautiful cat, carry them down the road and then drive them to the vet is a pretty shit way to end a weekend. We were supposed to spend the rest of the day working through a long to-do list of tasks but after leaving the vets neither of us wanted to do any of that, so we went somewhere else for a walk instead.

Here’s hoping next week will be better.

Categories
Weeknotes

w/c 9th October 2023

 

I spent the last few days in Blackpool. I hadn’t been before and whilst its general outlines were roughly what I anticipated (“Weston-super-Mare, but big”) I’m embarrassed to say that the level of evident deprivation exceeded even my fairly well informed expectations. There’s a different feel to deprivation in towns to deprivation within cities, a difference that makes them hard to compare, so I haven’t been able to decide if Blackpool is the most deprived-feeling place I’ve visited. It may well be – certainly top 5.

Cool tower though, obviously.

The 4D cinema (the fourth D being… bubbles?) inside was not terrible.

And everything is improved by glass you can stand on.

My journey back was a classic British railways adventure, in which a direct service to Birmingham was deleted from the timetable, a minor delay to another service meant I missed a connection and spent an hour waiting in Preston, another minor delay meant I missed a connection and spent an hour waiting in Birmingham and two cancelled connections then meant I spent most of an hour waiting in Bristol.

I made it home eventually though, in time for the cat to fall asleep on me whilst we watched Ireland’s defeat. Thank you to our friends who kindly checked in on her whilst Soph and I scattered ourselves to different corners of the country.

Where the relentless faraday cage properties of trains allowed, I worked on a small side project  – a minimal web app to look up the proportion of pupils eligible for Free School Meals at English schools. It’s a statistic me and many I work with find ourselves referring to very frequently and I wanted a reason to experiment with building a live search function. Turns out building good search functionality is hard (or my Javascript is just crap, could be either) but I’m reasonably happy with the result.

You can find the app itself here: https://heinsight.co.uk/fsm/

Or I’ve also published the complete code here: https://github.com/smlkjns/heinsight_fsm_search

I’ve spent much of the week discussing events in the middle east with those I love and value the opinions of, as I’m sure many have. Whilst it might seem on one level an indulgence in incredible triviality to be concerned with how this has played out in the UK (especially because I do not share the assumption, that seems to prefigure many peoples’ thoughts, that the UK is at all a significant global power), in times like this the choice is often between that indulgence or allowing yourself to be suffocated by powerlessness as you stare into the void. This time around that choice has left me feeling like every piece of news has punched me in the chest twice: one on account of the events themselves and again for the cacophony that immediately follows of British politicians lining up to loudly express their support for war crimes.

I have no interest in trying to jump through the paragraphs of hoops that are apparently necessary to get out the way before you are allowed to actually speak. As far as the British media landscape is now concerned after all, no amount of clarifying the evil acts you consider evil or contorting yourself around meaningless catchphrases about the rights of states will ever in fact grant you that permission to say what must be shouted.

2.4 million people live in Gaza. Half of them are children. It is one of the most densely populated places on earth. There can be no such thing as a targetted strike, even if those dropping bombs hadn’t dropped any pretenses about them and adopted collective punishment as their official policy. What can cutting off water and power to over a million children as you attack them from the skies be other than a war crime?  And after all that the people of Gaza have suffered, if the years of siege end with their forced displacement, a second Nakba, it would be a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. It must be stopped. If it cannot now be stopped, everyone who gave their enthusiastic consent for it to happen must never be allowed to forget that they did so.

Free Palestine.

Categories
Weeknotes

w/c 2nd October 2023

 

This week has been somewhat backwards in terms of its structure for me, given I’ve had a social engagement almost every weekday evening but now find myself with a nearly entirely free and unplanned weekend. Given I’m determined for weeknotes to be a format that I use only when and how it works for me, rather than a structure of obligations that I impose on myself in pursuit of a Linkedin-influencer’s notion of discipline, I would have been perfectly happy to have an excuse to skip writing them this week or to write them late were I busy. It was not to be though and instead I find myself with the time and inclination to write again, risking establishing a highly regrettable reputation for consistency that I’ll have to strive to shatter further down the line.

I try to do a few bits of hobby coding on my morning train journeys when I go into the office, when the caffeine reaches my brain in time. This week I’ve built some very quick and ugly reporting for all the energy usage data I’m now gathering from around the house. Soph’s patience for me excitedly talking about how I can now accurately compare the costs of our dishwasher’s different modes has unfortunately turned out to be limited, though no one’s perfect.

The downside to collecting lots of energy data is that you end up with lots of energy data – I’m adding about 100k records a week at the moment – so I’ve built a bit of a database ticking time bomb that I’ll need to deal with soon.

Elsewhere I’ve been tinkering with using the smlkjns_assistant engine to generate summary messages for my task management app, though that’s still very much a work in progress.

I bought a new phone earlier in the year that has a much better camera than my previous one, which almost immediately caused me to run out of storage space in Google Photos. My solution up until now has been to turn off photo backup and hope that nobody steals my phone but given I largely use my camera these days to document every second of the kitten’s life, I have a newfound interest in ensuring I don’t lose everything. Today’s project is therefore to install Nextcloud on a Raspberry Pi. A perfect Saturday afternoon.

The cat continues to be outraged if she ever suspects she doesn’t hold our undivided attention…

…and has perfected a look of profound betrayal whenever we dare to leave the house.

Unsurprisingly, given the HS2 news, I’ve read a lot this week talking about or around the fact that running the British state has become an exercise in managed decline, none of which I can bring myself to link to. Instead, I recommend this piece by Daniel Trilling in the LRB (whose app I’ve been overjoyed to discover now has a dark mode) on his experience applying for German citizenship.

Tomorrow, as my one planned weekend activity, I’ve been persuaded to go along to this event with Raynor Winn. It’s part of Weston Lit Fest, which I am apparently the last person to find out is a thing that exists.

Lastly, I’m going to Blackpool next week, so recommendations for things to see, do or eat are welcome – particularly any that either challenge or reinforce my view of the place as “what if Weston-super-Mare were big”. The one recommendation I have received so far is this, if that helps to set the tone.

Categories
Weeknotes

w/c 25th Sept 2023

 

Weeknotes?

I’m going to try out writing weeknotes. I don’t know if I’ll keep them up and I haven’t got straight in my head yet the purpose I want them to serve, I’ll see if I can figure that out as I go.

Based on others I’ve seen write weeknotes, no one seems to agree on what they are or what they’re for, which typically manifests in one’s first weeknote being a dull monologue on how they help synergise your strategic leadership style etc. Not doing that.

The explanation of weeknotes that I’ve seen shared most widely is written by Deloitte, so I’ll be trying my best to do the opposite of whatever they suggest.

Weeknotes!

A friend bought me an electronics kit for my birthday earlier in the year that included a Raspberry Pico W. Since then I’ve been experimenting with using Pico Ws to setup home automations integrated with smlkjns_assistant.

Pico Ws are incredibly cool, mostly because they cost peanuts. Micropython can be a little tricky for dummies like me who are used to being able to work in python without ever once thinking about memory management – and it’s taken a bit of trial and error to get to code that remains stable when left running for days on end. Currently I’ve got two running – one to relay commands from smlkjns_assistant to smartplugs around the house and another to query those smartplugs for energy usage data and send the stats back to my server.

In the analogue world, I put some shelves up in our utility room. I’d put this off for a while after realising the wall was only plasterboard with a cavity of several inches between it and the brick behind. I found myself worrying about what sort of plasterboard fixings I should use in my sleep, which is obviously a ridiculous state of affairs, so I got over myself and bought these eventually. About a third of the pack turned out to be duds which I then had to painfully remove from the wall with pliers but I got there in the end. The room is now much tidier, which is good because we need to use it to store all the plants we belatedly realised are toxic to the cat.

Which is a good segway to the cat. We got a kitten recently. She’s beautiful and we love her. She is called Socks McClane because we were too cowardly to commit fully to the Die Hard reference. Her hobbies include destroying everything we own and being carried around on our shoulders.

My dad, in line with his long-running inability to be anything less than immediately outstanding at any skilled craft he turns his hand to, made this for us:

Her impact on my productivity when working from home is mixed. Generally she likes to sleep on my lap, which pins me to my desk when I might otherwise be getting up to wander around and stare out of windows (having lots of windows to stare out of still being a novelty when compared to the flat we were previously in). She tends to have some very strong opinions when I’m on calls though and her preferred way of making herself heard is a well positioned claw inserted into the kneecap.

Speaking of work, I’ve been doing lots of prep work over the past few weeks to allow me to produce powerpoint decks via python quickly and in my own standardised format, for which I’m using python-pptx. I’ve similarly built a bunch of classes previously to produce matplotlib plots quickly to a set format and I’ve really started to feel this week how powerful the combination of these two resources is. I’ve been able to deliver some really detailed pieces of analysis that look great much faster than I ever would have been able to before and with very few lines of newly written code. I’m excited too for the accruing benefits of repeatability with this sort of setup – where I can rerun a piece of analysis with updated data in the future and have it spit out new slide decks with next to no additional work from me.

Given I was on track for a straightforwardly successful week though, the universe naturally intervened and I ended up spending most of Friday afternoon struggling to help a member of my team figure out why two datasets weren’t being merged correctly. Neither of us could find the issue for hours, although when we had just reached the precipice of madness we finally figured out that the issue was a 0.005 second (5 bloody milliseconds!) variance between timestamps. Why does one of our systems produce timestamps that look like this you ask? I don’t know, why does evil exist?

Finally, in bed this morning I read this fascinating article in the FT (paywalled) about a Japanese village where a toddler is the first birth in more than two decades. If anyone has further reading in the “Japanese Children of Men” genre, send it my way please.

That’s it. See you next week, maybe.

Categories
Days

Monday 4th September 2023

 

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Photos

Cologne, July 2023

 

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Days

Friday 30th June 2023

 

Categories
Javascript Python

smlkjns_assistant web client in progress

Categories
Higher Education

Updated modelling: Inflation and the English UG tuition fee cap

 

Cross post from HE Insight.

An update to our modelling of the English undergraduate tuition fee cap’s real terms value decline, based on the Bank of England’s latest CPI forecasts.

The BoE expects inflation to fall faster this year than it previously thought, though news today that CPI in March unexpectedly remained the wrong side of 10% may give pause for thought.

Of course, the C in CPI stands for Consumer. This rate represents costs for individuals, not universities. Whilst we might expect the two to move together fairly closely, a significant factor in the revision to the BoE’s forecasts for this year is the government’s changing interventions in residential energy costs. The Energy Price Guarantee doesn’t cover the commercial energy market of course, so these interventions won’t have a direct benefit for university balance sheets.

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Days

Sunday 16th April 2023

 

Categories
Higher Education

Higher tariff institutions shrink their UK student intake

 

Cross post from HE Insight.

UCAS provider-level end of cycle statistics out today. As we already knew, entry rates for all UK nations have fallen along with total UK applicants accepted. It’s the higher tariff third of the sector driving this drop as they regain control over their intake and reduce offer making.

Categories
Geography

Distance from home in (most of) 2022

 

I’ve had my phone upload regular location updates to smlkjns_assistant since around April, so here’s a chart showing my distance away from home in miles since then.

It was a good year.

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Photos

Sheffield, December 2022

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Photos

Belfast, November 2022

Categories
Higher Education

Measuring falling pay

Cross post from HE Insight.

No matter their grade, the real value of HE sector workers’ pay has been drifting downward for years and crashing since the pandemic.

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Days

Thursday 24th November 2022

 

Categories
Python

Train station accessibility

 

My girlfriend has been unwell recently and has been struggling with stairs. She travels a lot and often wants to know if a train station has step free access.

After a bit of tinkering, my personal assistant chatbot will now query the National Rail Knowledgebase API to return accessibility information for a given station.

And using a SQL implementation of Levenshtein distance will do a decent job at correctly parsing train stations from non-standard or typo’d names:

Categories
Days

Sunday 13th November 2022

 

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Days

Tuesday 8th November 2022

 

A trip to Westminster, a fancy name tag and some branded merch.

Categories
Higher Education

Medicine applicants dip

Cross post from HE Insight.

UCAS’s October deadline statistics, released this week, show that the total number of Medicine applicants has fallen by 9.7%, with the number of UK applicants having fallen by 10.8%.

This represents the first time that the number of Medicine applicants has fallen year-on-year since the 2017 cycle. You’ll recall that last year the number of new UK applicants decreased slightly but were outweighed by a surge in ‘reapplicants’. This cycle, these reapplicants have fallen back slightly and the drop in first time applicants has been much more substantial.

Note however that reapplicants still remain a significantly larger proportion of the total UK Medicine applicant pool than they did prior to the pandemic.

All other things being equal, we might expect the uptick in the number of 18 year olds in the UK population to manifest in growth in the number of Medicine applicants. First time applicants are however falling as a proportion of total 18 year olds, having hit their peak in the 2021 cycle.

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Photos

Majorca, October 2022

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Photos

Riga, October 2022

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Days

Sunday 2nd October 2022

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Days

Saturday 10th September 2022

Categories
UK Government

Forecasting length of tenure for Secretaries of State for Education

 

Some serious, irrefutable science I did from last month, forecasting the decline in the length of tenure for Secretaries of State for Education (and predecessor roles).

Categories
Higher Education

Higher tariff providers’ offer rates fall again

Cross post from HE Insight:

Recently released UCAS data confirms what many have suspected throughout this cycle – higher tariff providers have further reduced their offer rates for UK 18 year olds again this year as the demographic surge delivers ever greater numbers of applicants to institutions still grappling with two years of oversized intakes.

Categories
Further Education

Principal Pay at Further Education Colleges

Cross post from HE Insight:

I’ve once again updated the ranking of English FE college principals’ pay, as the ESFA have recently published new accounts data for 2020-21.

Explore the data in the interactive tool or take a look at the new top 5 below:

I’ve also plotted the total remuneration of principals against their college’s total students, with some interesting outliers from the expected trend.

Categories
Days

Tuesday 7th June 2022

 

Spent the day at the Jean Golding Institute’s Bristol Data & AI Showcase, hosted on the top floor of the M Shed.

Got to test out new smlkjns_assistant features on my way home.

Categories
Python Trains

More tinkering with smlkjns_assistant and trains

 

Categories
Days

Thursday 2nd June 2022

 

Birmingham from the top of 103 Colmore Row.

Categories
Higher Education

New data available on grade inflation

Cross-post from HE Insight:

The Office for Students has released new data today on grade inflation at English universities. Take a look at our charts showing the rising proportion of graduates achieving first class degrees across the sector and the rising number of these first class degrees that the OfS consider ‘unexplained’.

Read the full OfS Analysis here.

Categories
Photos

Prague, April 2022

 

 

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Photos

Frankfurt, April 2022

 

Categories
Personal finance

Plotting changes to National Insurance after the Spring Statement

 

Confused by a tax that, as of yesterday’s Spring Statement, is now being both increased and decreased at the same time? Me too, so here’s a chart telling you:

  • If you’ll pay more or less national insurance next tax year than this tax year
  • If you’ll pay more or less national insurance next tax year now than you were going to before the spring statement

Categories
Python

Train(ing) smlkjns_assistant

 

With the generous and patient help of friends in the railway industry, smlkjns_assistant continues to learn new skills…

Categories
Python

Writing a chatbot in Python

 

I’ve been experimenting with building a chatbot in Python for the past few weeks, mostly to interact with other hobby project systems of mine that I’ve built over the past few years. It’s a Telegram bot built using python-telegram-bot and I’m pretty happy with my progress.

It started as a way for my girlfriend to be able to add things to our joint shopping list without texting me (and me then forgetting). It does a good job of picking distinct shopping list items out of a message by using data from my personal finance and to-do list systems to compare against a list of around 1,200 items I’ve bought in the past.

It can also interface with my personal finance system to service simple queries:

I maintain separate development and production environments for most of my hobby projects, so the bot can also handle the work of things like deploying changes from one environment to another.

Using some external APIs it can also tell you a joke:

Or give you a (sometimes dubious) recipe:

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Photos

Glastonbury, January 2022

 

Categories
Personal finance

My monthly spend at Greggs since 2017

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Photos

Frankfurt, September 2021

Categories
Further Education

2020 update: Principal’s pay at further education colleges

The ESFA released accounts for further education colleges covering the 2019-2020 academic year a few months ago, so I’ve taken the opportunity to update the Principal’s Pay rankings I previously built and wrote about here.

The top 5 colleges ranked by total remuneration of their Principal are now:

Categories
Reading

Severance

Severance

Last week I finished reading Severance, Ling Ma’s first novel from 2018 that I had bought my girlfriend as a birthday gift last month and which, having sped through it, she promptly returned to me to read in order that we could discuss it. It’s an excellent read, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s also an exceptionally difficult one to interpret. That Ma is clearly such an intelligent writer yet has written a story that in many ways makes little sense to me has made me question whether the book itself is flawed or if I am having trouble accepting its message. The below is not a review but an attempt to order my thoughts in the hope that I might figure out which it is. Spoilers for everything from this point on, although I’ll likely not provide enough details for those that haven’t read the book to follow, so worst of both worlds I guess.

The basics first. Our main character is Candace Chen, twenty-something daughter of recently deceased Chinese immigrant parents, who moves to New York after graduating and after a few years lives through the end of the world. This particular end of the world is a fungal pandemic that slowly reduces people to (harmless) zombies, living out the motions of their former routines with diminishing consciousness until they die of malnutrition or simply rot away.  There are obviously some superficial elements of premonition for readers coming to the book post-Covid but to claim that the story is really about pandemics in any deep sense is to do it a disservice. Instead I’d suggest that the elements of the past 18 months of reality that we can recognise in Ma’s fiction are merely a byproduct of her lucid understanding of capitalism. After all, what is obvious is that the book is really about capitalism and the immigrant experience.

Perhaps there would be some readers who would not grasp that Ma is trying to convey a message about capitalism but there’s no prize awarded to those who do understand this link. Indeed the book is in no way subtle about this and neither are the publishers – you’d have had to open the book’s covers very quickly to have not seen the review quotes chosen to emphasise that it’s a ‘dystopian takedown of capitalism’ and an ‘anti-capitalist zombie novel’. Candace is such an engaging character to be inside the head of partly because she so keenly observes the true nature of the economic system she occupies and its through these observations that Ma builds a pervasive sense that capitalism and the apocalypse are really one and the same. Hard to argue with that, for sure.

There’s clearly however something deeper to what Severance has to say about capitalism than simply that it’s super not good. The novel is fascinatingly obsessed with the notions of routine and nostalgia and it’s these things that are supposed to link capitalism and Shen Fever, as the plague is called. It’s at this level that I fear the book’s message is either tragically confused or crushingly bleak.

The fevered act out the routines of their old life, whether that be domestic labour like setting the dinner table or wage labour like folding clothes in a shop.

“..the fevered were creatures of habit, mimicking old routines and gestures they must have inhabited for years, decades.” 

“They could operate the mouse of a dead PC, they could drive stick in a jacked sedan, they could run an empty dishwasher, they could water dead houseplants.”

These routines are to be read, presumably, as an extension of capitalism, as evidence of the extent to which capitalism’s compulsions have permeated the lowest levels of our psyche that even when reduced to barely alive zombies we continue to perform them. Or, alternatively, it is these very compulsions that reduce us to barely alive zombies. The routines repeated by the fevered are though at least partly informed by nostalgia, by what brings us comfort and familiarity, rather than simply that which we have done most, as Ma explicitly tells us:

“They were more nostalgic than we expected, their stuttering brains set to favor the heirloom china, set to arrange their aunts’ and grandmothers’ jars of pickles and preserves in endless patterns of peach, green bean, and cherry, to play records and CDs and cassette tapes they once must have enjoyed.”

So does Ma understand nostalgia and routine as the same things, at their root, or as different things? As the pandemic progresses Candace watches New York empty out and shut down as people leave or become fevered. Many leave the city to return to their family, back to their roots, the location of their nostalgia, but Candace has no roots to return to. Her parents have now passed and she has no other relatives in the US but the flashbacks to her childhood and her parents’ past prior to her birth establishes that this rootlessness has been part of her experience of the world all along. She tries to contact the few relatives she has details for back in China but with no luck. Her parents’ house has been sold and all their possessions are in storage far from her. Apart from perhaps Jonathan (who we’ll come onto later) she has no sense of home and is defined by the fact that she is deprived of nostalgia.

So as more and more people succumb to the fever it is implied that Candace’s continued health is either a result of or symbolises her lack of nostalgia. The book shows very little concern for establishing rules for the fever, who catches it or why or how it progresses, which I appreciate as an encouragement to not interpret the story too literally.  There’s a hint that those in a similar position to Candace, immigrants deprived of a sense of roots, either likewise avoid becoming fevered or avoid it for longer than others. Eddie, the Hispanic taxi driver that picks up Candace when the city is almost empty, jokes that all the white people have finally left and notes that New York belongs to the immigrants now as it has in fact always done. Eddie is then later the last person Candace sees before leaving the city, fevered (probably, there’s some ambiguity I didn’t understand the purpose of) but potentially the last person other than Candace to have fallen victim to it.

Whilst Candace may be defined on the one hand by her lack of nostalgia then, on the other she is defined by her obsession with routine. As everyone else leaves New York in pursuit of nostalgia, Candace accepts a contract to continue to staff the office alongside a small group of others. As management retreat to remote working they leave behind cameras and card scanners to surveil those in the office but Candace appears to be the last one to imagine that there might actually be no one left on the other side of that technology watching her. As the in-office staff diminish, she diligently performs the routines of her work until she encounters two of her remaining coworkers drinking in an off limits area who not only break the news to Candace that they’re the only ones left but are horrified by the idea that she will continue to stay in the city, continue to keep coming to work.

The book seems unsure whether Candace take and remains committed to this contract to staff the office because it gives her purpose or because of the scale of the financial award that she fails to anticipate will be worthless by the time she receives it. A big point is made that the pay, deposited only upon completion of the contract, would be life changing:

“It was a delirious offer … it meant I could take cabs all the time, without cramming into dirty train cars. It meant an air conditioner, a window unit in every room. It meant a larger apartment. It meant that I could afford more for the baby. It meant that I could eventually take some time off to do other things. Take an extended maternity leave. Read more fiction. Take up photography again.”

Yet toward the beginning of the book, when we follow her first few weeks in New York in which she pursues a routine of walking all day and makes no effort to get a job, we’re told that she’s freed of financial concerns in at least the medium term:

“I live off my parents, I said … I didn’t elaborate that they were both deceased … the family coffers or whatever would last me just long enough – maybe, say, for the next ten, fifteen years – for me to be comfortable with not working…”

Perhaps Candace is being insincere to herself when she thinks of the contract’s pay as reason for her to do anything then. This at least aligns with the fact that when her the contract’s payment finally does arrive (presumably automated), it is a surprise to Candace who has lost track of the date in the face of the end of the world. If she was not really concerned with the money though we are presumably left to believe that she accepted the contract as an excuse to continue to perform the routines of capitalism. Certainly in keeping with her dedication to routines but confusingly at odds with her keen awareness of capitalism’s unpleasantness.

So she continues uselessly going into the office everyday to check for emails which never arrive as the world collapses around her. When it finally becomes clear to her that there is no work to be done, she takes up photography assignments from visitors to her blog as a deliberate attempt to find a substitute for her work, still doing so from the office and eventually moving into the office as commuting becomes impossible.

Why is Candace so desperate to maintain routine when it is clear that these routines bring her no joy? Both she and the book repeat on several occasions an understanding of all the wonderful things one could do with their leisure time if they did not have to follow capitalism’s routines. For instance when the pandemic is in its early stages and a severe storm hits the city, offering the possibility that there could be a day’s reprieve:

“I was like everyone else. We all hoped the storm would knock things over, fuck things up enough but not too much. We hoped the damage was bad enough to cancel work the next morning but not so bad that we couldn’t go to brunch instead.”

“A day off meant we could do things we’d always meant to do. Like go to the Botanical Garden, the Frick Collection, or something. Read some fiction. Leisure, the problem with the modern condition was the dearth of leisure. And finally, it took a force of nature to interrupt our routines.”

Yet when the end of the world comes, a force of nature so strong that it interrupts everyone else’s routines, Candace is the only one standing still acting out the routines she claims to want release from. So whilst she is deprived of nostalgia, which renders her immune to the fever, she is obsessed with routine. And here is the core of my confusion: the fevered are creatures emptied of everything but routine – so why is it nostalgia, rather than routine, that dooms people to become fevered? Candace is consumed by routines she hates and yet refuses to jettison but it is not her who succumbs to the plague that would make her act out these routines for ever more, it is those who through extra-capitalist nostalgia are driven to abandon these routines.

I suggest here that nostalgia as presented by Ma is extra-capitalist, although this a point on which the book is again troublesome to interpret. The book jumps around several points in Candace’s timeline, largely showing us her experience of the run up to the collapse of society in New York concurrently with her experience trekking across the country with a small group of survivors toward ‘the facility’ where the group’s leader Bob intends for them to settle. There’s much in this post-NY element of the timeline that seemed to setup themes that were then forgotten but two key events during Candace’s time with the survivors seem designed to further establish the link between nostalgia and the fever. In the first third of the book the survivors spend a night camping close to the childhood home of one of the group, Ashley. Knowing that Bob would not allow it, some of the group sneak out in the middle of the night to visit the house and upon entering her old bedroom, filled with her old belongings, she becomes almost immediately fevered. She goes through the motions of trying on dress after dress, posing in front of the mirror, unresponsive to the others as they scream and shout at her. Ma perhaps hints that she wants us to read this fevered behaviour as a performance of consumerism or the sexual dynamics of capitalist society, describing how Candace watched Ashley “rehearse her sexuality, informed by the most obvious movies and women’s magazines”. Looking past this line though, fundamentally Ashley becomes fevered when she is able to engage in her nostalgia rooted in presumably happy, safe memories of being a teenager in her family home.

The second key event in the post-NY section of the story takes place at the very end of the book (and so major spoilers here). With the group of survivors having arrived at ‘the facility’ that turns out to be a shopping mall which Bob spent much of his childhood wandering around and, somewhat unbelievably, owned half of prior to the apocalypse, Bob effectively imprisons Candace. Considering her joining the group on the unsanctioned and ill-fated visit to Ashley’s family’s house to be a betrayal but fixated on the significance of Candace’s now revealed pregnancy, Bob has her locked in one of the mall’s stores behind its shutters. Recognising that once her baby is born her safety is likely to be of little concern to Bob, she plots to steal a set of car keys in the night and make an escape. At the crucial moment however, as she has managed to sneak her way across the mall in the middle of the night, she is confronted by a now suddenly fevered Bob.

In one of the last conversations with Bob before this happens, we learn the extent to which the mall is a source of nostalgia for him:

“This place … holds a great deal of sentimental value for me. I used to go to this mall when I was younger … My parents would drop me off here, and I’d spend hours just walking around. I’ve probably spent more time here as a kid than anywhere else.”

“I’d just walk around. When I was hungry, I’d eat free samples in the food court. When I was bored of walking, I’d play games in the arcade. The employees knew me. They’d give me extra tokens.”

So again, as with Ashley, the subject of Bob’s nostalgia is on the very surface perhaps a phenomenon of consumerism in that its location is a shopping mall – assuming this wasn’t entirely just a nod to the zombie genre’s tropes. Beyond this though, just as Ashley’s nostalgia wasn’t really about the dresses as commodities as much as it was about the comfort and safety of posing in them in her childhood bedroom, Bob’s nostalgia isn’t really about the mall as a site of consumerism but instead his fond memories of being able to entertain himself there as a child in spite of his limited capacity to engage in the consumerism around him. The one hint that Bob might be falling to the fever before Candace’s escape is when he claims to not know what Candace means when she asks him why he walks around the mall every night – another suggestion that it is this walking around he is nostalgic about rather than anything to do with the consumer transactions the mall exists to facilitate.

For both Ashley and Candace then, the nostalgia which makes them fall victim to the fever is, rather than a clear extension of capitalism, in fact extra-capitalist at least to the extent that fond memories of their childhoods are. The fleeing of Candace’s fellow New Yorkers back to the perceived safety of family homes, a nostalgia Candace lacks due to her rootlessness, aligns with this so closely that it cannot be accidental.

In the last chapter, with Candace having made her escape from the facility and headed into Chicago, she contemplates how she can begin to cultivate a sense of second hand nostalgia built upon the stories that Jonathan, her boyfriend in New York prior to the pandemic, told her of his own years spent there. As she drives further into the city she realises that she in fact very briefly visited Chicago herself once as a child, tagging along with her mother on one of her father’s business trips that she had until this point forgotten. She remembers a discussion with her mother on the trip about what it would be like if they lived in Chicago and, it is implied, she begins to build her own nostalgia for the first time around the scaffolding of Jonathan’s. This nostalgia is in some ways a future-facing one and she considers how her unborn child, to which Jonathan is the father, might in spite of the end of the world and her mother’s rootlessness be able to feel tethered to the city, to feel that it is their home.

It’s pertinent here to point out that Jonathan had huge potential to play a pivotal clarifying role for the book’s themes and message but is denied the chance to ever complete this role. Unlike Candace, who – full of contradictions – remains committed to her job despite her distaste of capitalism, her recognition of the pointlessness of that job and indeed not particularly wanting to have acquired the job in the first place, Jonathan refuses to partake in regular employment and instead ekes out a frugal living from odd part-time jobs that he regularly quits. Candace shares his cynical assessments of New York – of its gentrification, its consumerism, etc – but considers him idealistic. For her, the sacrifices he has to make to opt out of capitalism in the limited ways in which he does are not worth the price and this difference between them is why they eventually part company:

“You think this is freedom but I still see the bare, painstakingly cheap way you live, the scrimping and saving, and that is not freedom either. You move in circumscribed circles. You move peripherally, on the margins of everything..”

Though she doesn’t admit this to him, she concludes that:

“In this world, money is freedom. Opting out is not a real choice.”

So whilst Jonathan opts out of the capitalist routines of work from the beginning of the story, making severe sacrifices to do so, Candace remains seemingly the last person in the world opting in to capitalist routines of work even when there is nothing left to gain from them. Surely this must have been intended as a dynamic to help clarify where capitalism sat in the relationship between routine, nostalgia and the fever. Yet we don’t learn Jonathan’s fate. We don’t know if he becomes fevered, or more importantly if he does, we don’t know under what conditions he becomes fevered or how these connect to his own complex nostalgias. If the fates of the other characters are any indication he will presumably have become fevered if he found himself able to indulge in any extra-capitalist nostalgia. If Jonathan was intended to push us to read the book differently, I’d argue some pages must be missing from my copy.

In the final pages then, as Candace is reaching the centre of Chicago, what might in another book have been a hopeful ending can only be read as cruel. Whether deliberately or through its confusion the only version of the book’s message that makes sense is that the fever, an extension of or stand in for capitalism, which turns people into mindless zombies destined to repeat the motions of capitalist routine until they rot away, will infect those who are motivated to break these routines by extra-capitalist nostalgias. Meanwhile those who decline to stop performing capitalism’s routines, even when all compulsion is removed, are seemingly rewarded by being spared from the fever. It follows then that as Candace begins to build her own nostalgia for the first time with the help of her anti-capitalist former-companion’s own nostalgia she is now destined to become fevered herself.

Is Severance really a ‘takedown of capitalism’ then, or a warning that trying to escape capitalism will only make it worse? Did Ma intend the book to tell us that capitalism will reduce us to zombies and it got mixed up somewhere along the way, or did she intend it to tell us that even trying to escape capitalism will reduce us to zombies and that’s just not what I wanted to hear?

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Photos

Yorkshire, July 2021

Categories
Reading

Thinking about Luddism in the 21st century

I’ve recently been reading Gavin Mueller’s Breaking Things at Work, a short but ambitious book that begins with a recap of the history of the Luddite movement and then uses this as a base from which to launch into a genealogy of luddite tendencies, tensions and tactics that can be found weaved into the history of labour struggle. Mueller is explicit about wanting to provide an antidote to the often poorly thought out Fully Automated Luxury Communism genre of thought that has been fashionable in recent years. I’m not convinced that it entirely achieves this, perhaps instead reaching the slightly lower bar of a refreshing palette cleanser after endless courses of FALC, but I found plenty of value in it nonetheless.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Taylorism in which Mueller includes a 1913 quote from a New Jersey silk mill worker which made me cackle:

“I never heard of this thing called sabotage before MR. Boyd spoke about it on the platform. I know once in a while when I want a half-day off and they won’t give it to me I slip the belt off the machine so it won’t run and I get my half day. I don’t know whether you call that sabotage, but that’s what I do.”

This is from Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Workers’ Industrial Efficiency, published in 1917 when sabotage was being discussed as a new tactic of labour militancy, in which she argues that in reality workers already regularly practiced sabotage but without referring to it as such. Sabotage for Flynn is any withdrawal of efficiency by the worker and this is definition helped me see the value of experimenting with a Luddite lens when thinking about the terrain of labour struggle. Flynn also offers the below quote from another worker:

“I was in the strike of the dyers eleven years ago and we lost. We went back to work and we had these scabs that had broken our strike working side by side with us. We were pretty sore. So whenever they were supposed to be mixing green we saw to it that they put in red, or when they were supposed to be mixing blue we saw to it that they put in green. And soon they realized that scabbing was a very unprofitable business. And the next strike we had, they lined up with us. I don’t know whether you call that sabotage, but it works.”

A key theme of the history Mueller lays out is the conflict between the astute analysis of rank and file workers who often rightly recognised that automation is not simply a means to achieve greater productivity but a process by which control over the production process can be snatched from them, and union leaderships who ignored this understanding and embraced automation as a utopian vision. These leaderships then often limited their agitation and demands to matters of wages etc even as new technologies made work itself an increasingly miserable affair.

Reading about this trend aligned nicely with thoughts left in my head from my (incomplete) reading of Mike Davis’ Prisoners of the American Dream last year in which Davis provides a painstakingly detailed account of the US labour movement whilst attempting to answer the question of, essentially, ‘why didn’t it follow Europe’s path?’. One of his central observations for me was that American workers in the in the 19th and 20th centuries experienced a particularly intense kind of humiliating tyranny at the hands of supervisors in their places of work that their European counterparts largely didn’t share. It was for this reason that whilst European militancy was more likely to focus on the ‘hard’, quantifiable demands about the outcome of work – wages, sick pay, holiday pay etc – first in the sights of American militancy was often ‘soft’ demands, about the nature of work  – protection from abuse (verbal or physical) at the hands of the factory foreman, limits on work that was excessively miserable to perform and the right to be treated with minimum standards of respect.

I hadn’t previously given much thought to how control over one’s work (the pace, the methods used, the ways in which you cooperate with your fellow workers) is something to be valued in and of itself even within the confines of the wage relation’s generalised alienation. It now seems obvious to me however that American workers, historically having been the first to experience Taylorism and the ways in which it systematically stripped this control from them, would have been more inclined to make demands about the nature of their work rather than simply their remuneration for it. It occurs to me that if the relentless pace of life’s reassembly at the hands of technology in the present is to be greeted by any meaningful response from the left, it must be a response that reasserts the right of workers to have a measure of control over their work.

Elsewhere, as the book approached the present, there was an obligatory mention of supermarket self-service checkouts as a familiar and transparent example of automation. I found it slightly distasteful that this was exclusively approached from the angle of customers who objected to the work of scanning items having been outsourced to them, rather than any exploration of what it meant to work in a supermarket alongside these machines. This perspective was stitched into a theme that presented automating technologies as forcing you to perform someone else’s job – citing an interviewed software developer who asked “Why am I doing HR’s job?” in response to having to log his own absence on a digital HR system. This struck me as on the wrong side of the debate that plays out regularly wherever David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs is cited – do you object to having to do the work because you think it shouldn’t have to be done, or because you think it just shouldn’t have to be done by you?

To return to the self-service checkout for a second, every time I see them lazily deployed as an example of technological progress within whatever view I’m amused by the implication that they emerged as a sudden and isolated change in the nature of retail work that popped into existence out of nowhere in the late noughties. Anyone with any familiarity with the history of retail knows that technology has long been persistently restructuring the nature of work within it, albeit often out of view of the customer. That the advent of electronic point of sale systems features so rarely in popular writing on automation says a lot in my view about the backgrounds of those doing this writing.

Back to Breaking Things at Work – though it’s difficult throughout the core of the book to keep track of what argument exactly Mueller is making about Luddism’s value to the reader in the present, in the conclusion he asserts that the left should put forth a decelerationist politics – one committed to slowing the pace of change and undermining capitalist technological progress – based on an understanding that technology is at all times political rather than neutral. This politics would value the Luddism and its tactics as an emergency brake, in Walter Benjamin’s sense, a sorely needed obstacle to the reconfiguration of our lives by the bulldozer of capitalist technological progress.

I’ve a lot of time for this argument, although so far remain a way short of convinced by it, and so I was disappointed that the book didn’t offer much on the topic of what an energised Luddite movement in the most common workplaces of the global north in the 21st century might look like. Discussion of the present was confined to only the second half of the ‘High-Tech Luddism’ chapter and apart from the few pages concerned with the idea of doing someone else’s job was largely focussed on examples of resistance in Silicon Valley or the most obvious examples of resistance to Silicon Valley technologies in our own lives, e.g. boycotts of social media platforms.

As someone who often experiences their day-to-day work as a loop in which I develop my own technological solutions to automate the work required to maintain previous automation (or fauxtomation), I was desperate for something to help me structure my thoughts about being an active participant in, nay contributor to, capitalist technology’s dominating effect on my life. I suspect this sense of being both the automated and the automater is one shared by many workers in the 21st century’s economy, unlike the workers of the 20th century’s economy who were more likely to simply be on the receiving end of an automation done to them, and so it was a shame that the book did little to explore this dynamic.

Nonetheless Mueller manages to fit a whirlwind tour of Luddism’s history, its position within core Marxist debates and its continued relevance in the here and now in a little under 150 pages, without doubt a serious accomplishment.

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Personal finance

Reflections on my personal finance obsession

I’ve maintained a budget spreadsheet since the age of 16. I created my first shortly after starting a part-time job during my A Levels and since then have been tracking my personal finances with greater and greater intensity. This spreadsheet has taken a number of forms over the years as both the things to be managed in my finances and the way in which I’ve conceptualised my finances have changed. Throughout my time as a teenager, a student, a full-time worker, a student again and a full-time worker again I referred to and updated the spreadsheet typically several times a week, rarely less than once a week and as far as I can recall never less than once a fortnight.

It’s certainly not unique to closely budget and in my circle I’d say it’s become more common in recent years, although perhaps this is just a reflection of my circle ageing with me. For those who previously saw the benefit but lacked the motivation or time to budget there’s been a proliferation of apps and digital services designed to make the exercise as effortless as possible, either as a standalone tool or built as part of day-to-day financial services such as Monzo, Revolut etc. For those meanwhile who didn’t previously see the benefit of budgeting there’s been an explosion in online communities relating to personal finance (the ukpersonalfinance subreddit being where I tend to lurk) that often in odd ways occupies the same space as fitness social media influencers – that is, offering the idea of intense effort in one area of your life as a solution to whatever particular powerlessness you feel elsewhere in your life, couched in meaningless motivational bullshit and billionaire idolisation. That this latter trend is increasingly coopted by hustlers trying to sell worthless forex courses or ‘signals’, using uncontroversial personal finance education as a gateway, has also undeniably contributed to making the practice of intense budgeting more common.

Let’s also acknowledge that for many, more so than ever after decades of austerity, falling wages and housing crises, tight budgeting is a necessity to survive. It’s a cliché at this point to talk through some example of boomers buying a house at the age of 20 for a few years’ salary and filling it with a family that could be supported on the husband’s wage alone but it is true that older segments of the population, speaking in terms of generational identity rather any specific one of the millions of constituent varying experiences, have never experienced the need to track one’s finances closely to even be able to dream of a future in which you are more comfortable than you are in the present.

My particular form of obsession with personal finance goes beyond what most people would consider ‘budgeting’ to refer to however and I think I can claim that I spend more time thinking and working on my personal finances than anyone else I know irl. Seeing the journey of my girlfriend who when I met her did fairly limited budgeting and after spending lockdown with me had become more invested in the practice but stabilised far short of my obsession (at what is without doubt a more healthy level of interest), I’ve started to think more about why this has become such a oversized component of my personality.

It’s still not a question that I have a satisfying answer to. There’s an element of class for sure – something about how I’ve processed my own journey from growing up cripplingly poor in a council flat to earning a good salary in a culturally middle class profession and owning the flat I live in. I’m determined to not lose the security that I’ve secured in recent years and I doubt I’ll ever lose the particular anxiety that sits at the back of my head known only to those who have experienced poverty. There are however countless people who have experienced equivalent or more dramatic changes in class status that track their finances no more closely than the average person and I’m not even convinced that those with less money in their past or present are those more likely to be intensely into personal finance – often it is those with so much money that it’s hard to imagine any realistic risk to their standard of living that fill personal finance message boards. The precarity in my own life has subsided after all and yet the hours I dedicate to my finances have not. Whilst class is definitely part of why I have this obsession it cannot then be the only part and it is so far from a common feature of particular class identities that I wouldn’t even flirt with the idea that class is a reliable indicator of personal finance interest.

Looking elsewhere, there’s clearly something in the fact that I’m a data analyst by profession. I spend all day working with data or, these days, doing the peculiar intangible meta-work of middle management with people that work with data. On balance though I’d guess that data analysts are not much more likely to apply data-heavy approaches to their personal lives than anyone else and I know more than a few data analysts who refuse to even look at their bank balance, so this explanation similarly feels unsatisfying by itself.

Relatedly, as we’ll go onto, I’ve often used personal finance as a pet project in which I can develop new skills. Rarely a weekend goes by that I won’t dedicate a few hours to sitting in an armchair coding and personal finance is a naturally data-rich playground that offers all sorts of opportunities for experimenting with building things. Perhaps this too is a component of the explanation, although I know plenty of hobby-coders that spend their time on far more interesting projects so there’s little here that destined me to invest my leisure time in calculating my exact net worth.

The explanation must be some combination of all of the above and – to add a final element – a belief in a particular principle that I’ve acquired somewhere along the way that the key to securing long-term material improvements in your standard of living is careful, persistent and detail-focused attention on making incremental progress rather than pursuing big bang solutions. This isn’t a belief I’m necessarily comfortable with, nor one that I wouldn’t jettison given interrogation on the matter, for whilst it is in some senses a sensible semi-truism it is in others deeply ideological and not something that sits easily with my politics. It nonetheless structures my thoughts at a level only partially perceivable to me and likely predisposes me toward obsessive personal finance tracking.

So what does my obsession actually look like? For a long time it was the aforementioned spreadsheet, its complexity ever escalating. That was until 2019 when, finding that I could no longer contort an unwieldy mess of over-engineered Excel tabs into achieving what I now wanted, I began work on developing my own web application to manage my finances. A few months later I had a prototype system with some limited functionality and had learned enough from the development process to know where I had messed everything up, so started again from the ground up. When the first lockdown landed in 2020 I suddenly had a lot more time to dedicate to personal projects and after a surge in development completed a first adequate version of what I now call Smlkjns Finance. Hours of incremental further development (and a frontend redesign) followed in Lockdowns 2 and 3 until we arrived at the present, where I’ve recently realised that I now never look at the previously adored spreadsheet, it having been made entirely redundant by the new app.

Smlkjns Finance is hosted on a remote server I rent for this and a number of other purposes so that it’s available to me from my phone wherever I have signal. Its frontend is built largely in PHP and runs on a MariaDB database, with some overnight backend jobs performed by some Python scripts. The frontend uses the Google Charts API where plots or other visualisations are needed. I maintain a production environment and a development environment so that I don’t risk knocking the app out of action when I want to work on some new functionality and it’s currently around 7,000 lines of code in total.

I input every transaction of any kind into the app and through a mixture of statement export features from some banks and painstaking data entry from others it contains a record of every transaction across every account I’ve had since 2014, with monthly account balances extracted from old budget spreadsheets providing further data back to 2010. There’s currently approx. 8,500 transactions in the database all together and each has a variety of metadata attached to it.

An example of a transaction record

Every transaction is assigned to a budget and every budget is a weekly instance of a specific ‘budget group’, e.g. Groceries.

An example of a budget currently in progress

The years of data available for each budget group provides a means for the app to project likely final totals for a budget at the end of its week – using an algorithm I first wrote in hundreds of lines of PHP and that I’ve since refined into far fewer lines and is now executed entirely in SQL.

With a record of every transaction in the past and a projection for every budget in the future the app can then calculate a balance for any given account on any given date.

A daily account balance report for my current account throughout January 2021

With this available for every account the app can therefore also calculate my total net worth for any given date and it’s this that is essentially the culmination of it all.

Net worth reported monthly from January 2010 to December 2021

In the above, the green/blue line represents total net worth (green is the past, blue is a forecast of the future), whilst the dark grey line represents total liquid capital and the light grey line represents total liquid and semi-liquid investments.

On the topic of investments, I’ve been experimenting with investing in funds since around September 2020 and so have also built functionality to help me track and manage this.

Total gain on investments reported by day since September 2020

I can’t definitively say that having all this available to me makes me any happier, although time spent developing it is a profound means of relaxation for me. I claim, when pushed, that it helps me make more informed decisions but it’s difficult to think of any decision I would need to make where a few hours with a spreadsheet wouldn’t be able to tell me what I needed to know. So I’m still not sure why I do this. I’m not planning to stop though.

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Note: I’ve tried to cover up any actual numbers in the screenshots in this post but if I’ve missed some somewhere or you’re the clever sort who can deduce what some of the numbers might be from context then lucky you.

Categories
Student loans

20/21: Student loan repayments in context

With not long left of the 20/21 tax year but seemingly plenty left of the ongoing global situation I’ve gotten round this weekend to an update to this and this post, putting undergraduate student loan repayments together with income tax and national insurance to demonstrate the impact of loans on final take home pay.

In previous years I used PHP and Google Charts but this year I rebuilt the work in Python using Matplotlib.

The code to recreate this chart, including for the 19/20 tax year, can be downloaded here.

Categories
Further Education

Principal’s Pay at Further Education Colleges

The pay of vice chancellors at UK universities often makes it into the news and it’s fairly easy to lookup how much your local VC is earning, with it typically published in a university’s annual report. The same cannot be said of further education colleges who very rarely offer any transparency when it comes to the pay of their principals and senior managers, despite it often rivalling that of universities. Data on principal’s pay is however collected by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and published here, buried in CSVs with over 400 columns that frustratingly often change format between years.

I’ve pulled this data into a small tool that allows you to rank colleges by the pay of their principals. Explore the data here.

The latest data available concerns the 2018-2019 academic year. Ranked by total remuneration, the top 5 are:

Number 1: Cliff Hall at Birmingham Metropolitan College – £322,000
number 2: Paul Phillips at weston college – £318,000
number 3: Gary Headland at lincoln college – £277,000
number 4: Liz Bromley at NCG – £274,000
number 5: John thronhill at LTE Group – £257,000

Total remuneration is the sum of the below:

  • Principal’s salary
  • Principal’s performance related pay & bonus
  • Principal’s Other emoluments including benefits in kind
  • Principal’s pension contributions
Categories
Photos

Oslo – December 2019

Categories
Photos

Chester – August 2019

Chester
Categories
Photos

Split & Hvar – July 2019

Split – with a cloud
Split – with Sammi
Hvar – from above
Hvar – waiting for the boat
Categories
Photos

London – July 2019

Regent’s Park. Photo credit: Chloe Thomson
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Photos

Pembrokeshire – July 2019

Cardigan – our cabin
Struggling with the fire
Poppet Sands
Photo credit: David Franklin
Categories
Photos

Birmingham – June 2019

As views from a Premier Inn room go, not too bad
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Photos

Dartmoor – June 2019

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Photos

Bath – May 2019

Categories
Student loans

Updated: Student loan payments in context

New tax year, new numbers. This post provided a comparison of total tax rates (comprised of income tax, national insurance contributions and undergraduate student loan repayments) for tax years 2017/18 and 2018/19. The chart below is updated to show how things now stand for tax year 2019/20.

19/20 Tax Year

Click here to see the full-size (interactive-ish) graph.

Categories
Photos

Cologne – NYE 2018

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Photos

Taunton – November 2018

Categories
Student loans

Student loan repayments in context

With the government currently mulling over various changes to student finance I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to map out how student loan repayments work in context. Repayments currently operate like a tax – graduates have 9% of everything they earn above their repayment threshold taken from their paycheck. Graduates’ repayment thresholds are determined by whether they began their studies pre-2012 (the ‘Plan 1’ regime) or post-2012 (the ‘Plan 2 regime’), whilst the thresholds themselves are raised to account for inflation annually for Plan 1 and when the government feels like it for Plan 2.

This makes it sensible to view student loan repayments alongside the other key taxes, i.e. national insurance and income tax, as you’d expect workers to be more concerned with their final takehome pay than what balance sheets their tax has been split between.

With that in mind I’ve put together a graph showing the different relationships between gross and takehome pay for workers depending on whether they have an outstanding student loan and if so under what regime.

17/18 Tax Year

Click here to see the full-size (interactive-ish) graph.

The repayment thresholds for both Plan 1 and Plan 2 are changing this coming April:

2017/18 2018/19
Plan 1 £17,775 £18,330
Plan 2 £21,000 £25,000

The income tax and national insurance thresholds will also be changing in the new tax year, so with these all put together we can see how the graph will look in April.

18/19 Tax Year

Click here to see the full-size (interactive-ish) graph.


Note: The maths for these graphs is done in PHP and I originally wrote the code that they use to form part of some money/budgeting tools I was building for myself. Being slightly obsessed with personal financial planning I wanted to know exactly how my takehome pay would change in the new tax year and thought others might too.

Further note: All of this ignores pension contributions. I don’t do pensions.