mtbc: maze E (black-cyan)
Yesterday on the radio I heard Louise Richardson, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, defending her handsome salary, making the point that competition for vice-chancellors occurs in a global marketplace and she would be paid rather more in the US. This morning, somewhat in response, we had Jo Johnson MP, the Minister for Universities and Science, defending funding arrangements for universities. Now I receive an broadcast e-mail from the Vice-Chancellor here, the University of Dundee, expressing pleasure at our being shortlisted as University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards which I would guess helps to validate his salary.

I was lucky to be born early enough that my own university education in England was paid for rather more by grant than by student loans and what loan I did have had a low interest rate. Now England has moved to a system that is dominated by loans at a higher interest rate. Especially, as a student I had the sense that the taxpayer, not me, was paying for my education and that probably affected my attitude to it.

One concern I have is the idea of having to pay competitive market rates for university staff. It may be a mistake to consider money as the principal attractor to positions in English public universities. )

Another concern I have is the change in mindset that comes from students feeling that they are paying for their own education. Pleasing the student customers is not the same as requiring worthwhile academic success of them. )
mtbc: maze I (white-red)
I have been curious about sewing patterns. Humans are an awkward shape but somehow tailors measure people and figure how to cut pieces of material so as to assemble them garments that fit well. Naturally I wondered what the challenges are in producing software that, given one's measurements, provides one the patterns.

One issue that people face is the limited selection available off-the-peg in stores. I do okay but I know some people who just don't seem to be the typical shape so even after finding some desirable garment in apparently the correct size, it turns out that some part of it is too tight even though the rest is fine. Personally I suppose I have seen a similar issue with my feet: they are not very unusually shaped but sufficiently so that I cannot just assume that a random's shoes standard fit will work.

It is thus with some pleasant surprise that I now discover the Freesewing platform: free sewing patterns drafted to your measurements:
All our patterns are free of charge. We provide detailed instructions to make them into garments, and can help when you get stuck.
It appears to be a bunch of GPL-licensed PHP5 mainly from one guy; I have yet to peruse it with any care. Still, kudos to him for creating and sharing software to provide customized sewing patterns.

I figure that perhaps sewing such clothing may be within my ability. [personal profile] mst3kmoxie owns an adequate sewing machine. Tailoring intimidates me but perhaps if we clear off the dining table then that will provide enough room for me to learn how to cut, line and assemble panels from given patterns.

Next week I plan to make use of a visit to the US to do some more clothes shopping for myself in a consignment store rather than, say, Kmart or Target. Some of our children's better clothes comes from charity shops but I miss the large American ones that are more sure to have something worthwhile and findable. The exciting possibility of custom tailoring at home does mean that I should first check if material is even available affordably or if the clothing in cheaper stores is sold for even less than it would cost me to buy the material to make it.
mtbc: maze B (white-black)
Television shows about how to cheaply feed one's family are currently popular. I notice that they seem to rely heavily on use of refrigerator and freezer space. A consequence of our being short of money since moving to Scotland is that we do not have a large kitchen with much storage space, cooled or otherwise. It is typically not possible for us to employ cunning strategies that involve buying near-expiry perishable items, using only part and preserving the remainder, nor can we usefully buy in bulk or make multiple day's meals in large batches. It seems that these shows are more suited for those who were somehow able to buy a nice house with generous fittings despite British property prices and only now find themselves having to budget carefully.
mtbc: maze D (yellow-black)
I often think about how I could live more cheaply. I had suspected that we could have been rather further along with practical electric cars and associated infrastructure given a little more government support over the years. Oddly, I had never thought about electric motorcycles. After all, motorcycles are generally cheaper to buy and run than cars.

It turns out that electric motorcycles do exist. Models like the Zero SR already look agreeably far along and I expect the state of the market to improve further. It seems like buying a laser printer: running costs make it well worth it overall. I like the idea of being able to travel to Dundee more cheaply then park in a smaller space.

My impression is that a significant factor in the injury rate of motorcyclists is the kind of person who is attracted to motorcycles in the first place: I am guessing that I am something of an outlier in that profile. However, I concede that my latest road collision, now more than a decade ago, might have been interesting on a motorcycle: while the other driver's insurer folded immediately given that I had done nothing worse than proceed ahead at a low speed within my lane only to be hit hard sideways as the other driver turned across the road without seeing me, not being the one technically at fault does not ameliorate physical injury. The risks thus give me pause but I am nonetheless somewhat attracted by the prospect of cheaper travel.
mtbc: maze K (white-green)
The BBC has published information about how much its top on-air personalities earn. Some of them earn a considerable sum indeed. I can buy that the market for such celebrities is competitive. However, I wonder what the BBC is for.

Many of the current better-paid personalities do not seem to me to be all that uniquely remarkable. Worthwhile, even innovative, entertainment need not be expensively produced, though I am one of those viewers who does not mind if the sets sometimes wobble a bit.

Perhaps it is fine for commercial television and radio to poach away the most popular BBC talent. Those willing to work for rather less than £200k, especially outside London, may not be significantly inferior to those we see now and we could benefit from the BBC being able to afford a larger roster of presenters and hosts. Alternatively, it may be that the best of the BBC presenters bring more outstanding value than I recognize or that many viewers care more about seeing one of a few best-known celebrities than I.
mtbc: photograph of me (Default)
Money is well-known to have a non-linear utility function. For example, from my position I would gladly trade a ⅓ chance of winning $20m for a ⅔ chance of winning $5m. What I have not thought through clearly is the effect on lottery tickets: can it make sense to buy only one ticket or, if it is worth buying any at all, is it likely that buying a few would make even more sense?

On the one hand, if running a lottery is profitable and the utility of money decreases the more I win then that might argue for never buying lottery tickets: the ticket cost is worth too much to me. But, the procedure by which unwon jackpots commonly roll over might make ticket-buying make sense at least for linear utility if the number of tickets purchased does not increase proportionally to the larger jackpot. Can rollovers ever make it rational to buy a bunch of tickets? Perhaps the non-linearity is always enough to scotch even that idea.
mtbc: maze N (blue-white)
Much of the rural central USA has liberal zoning: one can quite affordably buy a hayfield, have a cellar dug out, put a prefabricated house on top and live there. In Ohio I used to own several acres of land. This is one of the reasons for which I fully expect to move back to the US: I might then actually be able to afford somewhere I would want to live! I do not need anywhere grand or fashionable but I would like it to be my own space, not on top of my neighbors. I was fine in Ohio with our well water and septic system and whatnot.

Here in Britain planning permission makes it very difficult indeed to simply buy some land and have a house built there, perhaps partly because of the much higher population density. In the news I happened upon a quote from Legal & General about how on average houses cost more than seven times one's annual salary. I do not know if it is quite that bad but it does rather look as if over the past twenty years UK house prices have more than doubled relative to earnings. Ten years ago we had the Callcutt Review of House Building Delivery noting a considerable imbalance between supply and demand that seems to persist to this day. Looking further back in time, I see that over the past few decades house construction has been much less than when my parents were young.

I do not know what caused this nor what the solutions are. I am handsomely creditworthy and my bank is quite surprised not to be loaning me plenty for a mortgage but I cannot bear to take a loan that is some multiples of my income: our lovely house in Ohio cost not much more than twice my salary at that time but around here it would take more than triple to afford even a two-bedroom bungalow for the four of us. The situation in the UK feels like an increasing inequality even brushing rentier capitalism. I do not know if, for example, more garden cities are a good idea but any building plan bold enough to truly make much difference would also indirectly cost existing homeowners substantially. I thus do not expect to buy while I live here. Unfortunately, UK credit history is worthless in the US, so once I do return there I then have to begin to rebuild my credit from scratch with secured cards and the like.
mtbc: maze I (white-red)
The experience of selling items online can be a little disappointing. For instance, I explain why I am offering an indivisible lot and somebody responds wanting only part of it. Or, I say that the price is firm and somebody makes me an offer. I am probably wholly unsuited to buying in, say, a Turkish market: I really don't have the patience for haggling. I do not know if buyers are not reading carefully or if they suspect me of strategically lying. It is certainly so that in the past when I have clearly told another party that they should do me a favor or I will do something that will cost them more than the favor, they have tended not to do me the favor and I have thus acted as promised*, so I suppose that is additional evidence that people do not always take me at my word. It would be nice if there were some unambiguous way I could convey my honest lack of game-playing. Buyers who persist in useless queries tend to have to wait increasingly long for subsequent responses. At least so far when I have replied restating what I originally said, some have paused then assented, so the process may be inefficient but is ultimately productive.

*No, I am not in the business of exaction!
mtbc: maze N (blue-white)
Yesterday morning on the radio I heard discussion of the large amounts of money paid by Her Majesty's Government to private contractors to assess people's ability to work, regarding eligibility for disability benefits. I think it was Stephen Crabb, a previous Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, suggesting that the sums paid are probably reasonable if the private companies are not making much profit on them. A quick search online finds him quoted as saying, If the payments being made reflect the actual economic cost, then I think that is a fair contract.

Argh, no!, I thought in response. Americans have a similar system. )

Paying companies according to their actual cost in doing the work gives them very little incentive to work at all efficiently. The government pays their costs either way. )

I found it a little surreal at Aetion for the government to pay for our time in interacting with the government auditor who would come in, analyze our timesheets and books, and find that we had slightly underbilled the government so we could then ask for more money. We were unusual in actually working efficiently. )

Given that the mortgage on the property in which one's government-project contractors work is a fair overhead to bill, it is hard for me not to see some government contractors as an opaque device to have the taxpayer buy the owners a handsome piece of real estate over the course of some years.

I would far rather see private contractors given tight verifiable-outcome requirements for each milestone payment and, while open to competitive bidding to limit typical profits, able to go ahead and do the work cheaply if they find a way to without losing revenue for achieving that. The occasional larger profit margin is well worth scrapping the overhead of carefully measuring and auditing how much it costs companies to achieve goals inefficiently in the knowledge that the government will still pay.

Large projects can be subdivided to manage risk. )

I should clarify that none of the above relates to my current employment: I do not know the details of our funding. )
mtbc: photograph of me (Default)
Coins accumulate in our household and I provide the service of turning these into Faster Payments Service transfers into bank accounts. I have just been presented with £68.60 of coins ranging from ten pence to fifty pence in denomination. It is easy enough to bag them for my bank or to use them at self-service kiosks in grocery stores.

It occurs to me that there may be people who would be glad to exchange coins for notes of equivalent value. As a student I would hoard coins for use in communal laundry machines and pool tables in bars and suchlike. I am told that banks charge small retailers a fee for the change for the till. I wonder what a convenient but good way would be for me to turn the coins into notes such that it is positively a win for us both.
mtbc: maze L (green-white)
This morning helps to remind me of one reason why I plan to return to the US in several years' time: I am heartened already by glimpses of blue sky through the windows here. If I could have plenty of windows all over without curtains drawn, and porches or decks with enough warm weather, then I could enjoy the light and the outdoors even over many workdays if I could telecommute again.

It's not a pipe-dream. The last house I owned in central Ohio was actually cross-shaped, letting in plenty of light through many windows. It is cheap there to buy several acres of land so I could enjoy windows and porches without feeling overlooked. It is easy to get permission to put a small, even prefabricated, house on a full cellar excavated in a hayfield, with none of the tight planning regulations of the UK. We had plenty of lovely weather through much of the year. I am more productive when telecommuting and it might reduce ageism in hiring for me to be mostly remote anyway.

Living in that way somehow made me more content, glimpsing deer and groundhogs in my yard, wandering around the property to clear fallen branches and whatnot. Although I am stuck back in the UK for the meantime to make higher education affordable for my children, I know that I am still lucky: I have already discovered what makes me happy and in the long term it feels within reach.
mtbc: maze L (green-white)
Today I mailed out our 2016 taxes after correcting an arithmetic error that I made in the first draft. In reviewing our finances I couldn't help but reflect on how increasingly pressured they are, not just because of the fall in the value of GBP that I noticed in converting our income to USD for reporting to the IRS. For example, largely due to the changes by Her Majesty's Government and the Universities Superannuation Scheme to pensions deductions, my net pay last month was nearly 3% less than it was a year before. In the meantime, other costs have increased, an example being our council tax (like American property tax but paid by occupiers rather than owners) which for the coming year increases by over 7%. Our household budget was finely balanced before but in recent months I am barely managing to accumulate savings.

There is limited scope for cutting back: we hardly make a habit of restaurants and bars or cinemas and it is at least a decade since our last true family holiday; the last airplane ticket we funded ourselves was probably to move to Scotland four-and-a-half years ago. Instead, it is the day-to-day expenses that consume our income. We spend over £50 per month on entertainments: streaming video and broadband connectivity and their ilk. Oil will someday be more expensive and we already spend more than £200 per month on fueling the cars which is probably mostly due to my commute to work.

Unfortunately there is not frequent bus service between our village and my workplace in Dundee and, while we could theoretically move to a house in a cheaper council tax band, in the appropriate district for the children's current high school and within walking distance of better public transport, I doubt that such exists in a way that makes any sense. The house we are already in barely fits us – we sleep in bunk beds and I get to exercise in the garage – and we have good landlords which in Britain are unfortunately rare. Falling back to owning only one car would not make much difference: ours have little capital value and having two cars means less driving in total when we have to be in different places at the same time. We were given one of the cars and I expect we will be back down to one before very long anyway: they are already older than our previous car that rusted away and was scrapped.

We are treading water enough for the meantime but something should be done, sooner rather than later. Our savings now have enough to pay for [personal profile] mst3kmoxie's next visa fee but that will not be the only large expense that comes up.

Update: [personal profile] mst3kmoxie notes higher grocery prices. And, US citizens living overseas ought not forget to file Form 8965.
mtbc: maze L (green-white)
I have waited for long enough for forms to arrive so it is time to work on our US tax return. Today I have been gathering the relevant information: dates and amounts of payments of salary, interest, etc. As usual I took the exchange rate information from the Federal Reserve Board's G.5 releases and, goodness, Brexit has made a difference: for May 2016 I am using a rate of $1.4524 per pound sterling and for October I am using $1.2330: ouch. I suppose it will be good for exports. Of course, from a US tax point of view it is good if one's capital gains in the UK do not coincide with a rise in the pound's value so that fall will have been good for some people.

To make my tax filing easier I avoid owning equities and suchlike: I do not want to be trying to figure out how to properly report them as foreign trusts or whatever they become to the IRS. Fortunately the year 2016 was uneventful and looks to be one of my easiest yet as 2015 included both an interest refund from the IRS and a business trip to a conference in the US at NIST which meant that a fraction of my UK salary was thus earned on US soil and could not be excluded as foreign income. For this past year there are no new complications and I ought to be able to file a simpler version of last year's forms. Once my children have paying jobs I shall have to train them in all this.
mtbc: photograph of me (Default)
Thinking about the changes that I recall in my time in Britain, we substantially redesigned the common denominations of notes at least once and recently have further new five-pound notes in circulation, we retired the one-pound note in favor of a coin that is now to be replaced with another coin, we dropped the half-penny altogether, shrunk the five- and ten-pence pieces, gained twenty-pence pieces, and probably other things I now forget. (I would be in favour of dropping the copper coins altogether.)

I wonder what happened in the US over the same period. Sure, we get various designs on what are essentially the same quarters, but anything else regarding the currency that people usually use from day to day? I wonder. I am thinking that I simply forgot something or that the changes were less radical: maybe we got a bit more color on some of the note designs but the size and feel remained the same? Dollar coins have been available for ages of course but people just do not seem to want to use them. Perhaps there has been less need for change, in both senses!

Update: In comments I mention forgetting the two-pound coin. Now I also read that the Bank of England intends a new ten-pound note this summer.
mtbc: maze I (white-red)
I find it interesting how in my case others' efforts to ensure revenue often cause less of it. An early example was Napster. If I could listen to music a few times then I could find that I liked it enough to be worth buying; the music industry had Napster shut down. It is not as if promotion and reviews are likely to cause me to buy an album. The principal substitute I had for Napster was if I were lucky enough to live somewhere where I could first borrow the CD from the library for free (so, not Britain). At least these days it seems that a high fraction of tracks can be heard on YouTube.

A more recent example is newspaper websites that are increasingly hiding content behind varieties of reading quota or paywall. This teaches me not to bother visiting the site as the risk of disappointment is high; they then fade from my mind somewhat. The Guardian is taking a different approach: offering news and opinion for free but reminding us that it would be awfully nice if we were to pay them. Having previously been wealthier I already know that I do actually pay for such things when I have the money and for now The Guardian keep themselves in my mind and my good graces without losing out: I am not going to pay at the moment regardless of access to their content and someday if my financial circumstances improve then they are now among the more likely to share in that.
mtbc: maze I (white-red)
Now I am back at home at the start of a new calendar month I did a few chores on the computer. They included,

  • run backups, shuffle the removable volumes

  • upgrade OpenBSD machines, involves building from source; there were some LibreSSL and other changes lately

  • catch up with book-keeping and set up the new month

  • check credit card balances and make payments accordingly

  • submit the electricity and gas meter readings

  • generate and install replacements for expired server certificates.
mtbc: maze D (yellow-black)
Last night I lost track of time and got to bed later than I had planned. At least I had some reasonable sleep before the alarm went off this morning.

The first challenge was coaxing the house's hot water heater back on. It is an on-demand gas heater: we let the landlord know a month ago that is is becoming temperamental again but they have had difficulty arranging a plumber. Last week they said that they would let us know when the plumber is to come this week. Now the heater often doesn't stay on after coaxing so this may yet escalate to an emergency callout.

Then, the car didn't start: this is the 1995 Peugeot 306. Lights come on, engine doesn't turn. So, I moved my stuff over to our 2004 Vauxhall Astra and drove that into work. So much for [personal profile] mst3kmoxie being able to take it shopping today. However, on the way into work I discovered that I could not find where I had put my campus parking permit. Time wasted trying to park causes spaces to fill up at fallbacks so I parked on a side street, found the pass down the far side of the passenger seat, but walked from there into work anyway.

Given sufficiently clement weather I will probably move the car over to campus at lunchtime when some spaces often open up again. (The ratio of parking spaces to university staff members has declined for some years now.) Then I can load the Vauxhall with my equipment after work today so that I am able to work from home tomorrow, assuming that I have managed to arrange a mechanic callout for the Peugeot.

I had separately wondered if car leasing may work out to be comparable to owning given the ongoing maintenance cost of older cars but the cheaper deals I see do not allow for as much annual mileage as we drive. (The garage that we use for repairs are able to lease cheaply as they do not have the overhead of a fancy showroom and smooth salespeople.)
mtbc: maze L (green-white)
I do not feel that my life is easy at present. Budget-wise we don't live affluently in comparison with many around us: we rarely go to the cinema or to restaurants and we never go on foreign vacations; [personal profile] mst3kmoxie and I skipped Christmas lunches with friends lately because of the cost. Time-wise, after work and sleep and family obligations I am feeling weary enough that it is a challenge to keep reasonably on top of household chores. We do spend a little money and time on unnecessary pleasures: for example, we subscribe to online streaming from Amazon and Netflix. Although I do find a little to spare for our own entertainment I certainly do not donate much in the way of either money or time to those outside my family.

Comparing with others living around here may lead to mistaken thinking: there are many less fortunate than we: recent news from Syria and Yemen makes that difficult to forget. On the one hand it is not easy to address the root causes: I do not know if I am supposed to be lobbying my elected representatives to suspend relations with Saudi Arabia or declare war on Russia or whatever but I doubt I would have any impact anyway. On the other, relatively small amounts of money may make a significant difference to those living in refugee camps and similar or even to the local homeless. I may have doubts about which donations may most effectively utilize my limited means but that indecision ought not prevent me from helping at all. I also have doubts about entertaining the notion that I will do more for others when my own life is easier.

Supporting a family that I chose to have means that my own decisions about what we truly need affect them too. Still, perhaps I should be adjusting my thinking and it may be a good start to at least acknowledge how trivial my hardships are against those of others for whom I do little.
mtbc: maze A (black-white)
This morning I heard a peculiar news story about how accountants should be, or perhaps are being, made liable for devising and suggesting tax evasion schemes, because their customers are caught and fined but the accountant gets off scot-free.

I would have naively thought that if my accountant led me into an illegal scheme for which I were fined then, regardless of their service's terms and conditions, I ought to be able to sue the pants off them. Is this not the case?
mtbc: photograph of me (Default)
My drop in net pay was actually slightly better than I had feared so at least my budgeting has been sufficiently conservative. With the increase in pension contribution and changes in both taxation and national insurance codes occurring simultaneously it wasn't easy to estimate perfectly. If I am lucky then whatever cost-of-living increase we get later in the year will cover the additional voluntary contributions I elect to pay in order to get what employer matching I can.

I had forgotten that many others were in the older pension scheme: it transpires that their net pay is not much changed. They used to pay plenty into a better pension scheme and I used to pay less into a worse pension scheme. Now we all pay more into a worse pension scheme. Still, it remains a far better deal than my previous employer's 401(k).

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Mark T. B. Carroll

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