Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Random thoughts about travelling

  1. I hate the airport "hurry up and wait" thing, particularly since there is never anywhere convenient to sit near the information boards.
  2. Trying to crochet the Moth-Wing Shrug out of mohair in a hot climate was a mistake.  The mohair is far too sticky to be comfortable to crochet.  (The pattern is "OK", but does have some badly written bits.  Must check the errata.)  Gave up and went back to knitting my sock.
  3. Nobody in security batted an eyelash at the sight of me carrying a crochet hook in my hand luggage, either in Heathrow or in Bahrain.
  4. The "h" in Bahrain has a "kh" sound, like this Scottish "loch".
  5. The main supermarket chains in Oman are Carrefour and LuLu's.  You can buy virtually everything in LuLu's including washing machines.  
  6. Talking of LuLu's, I am severely tempted by a 10L stainless steel pressure cooker with a rocker top, which costs 27.5 OR (about £50).  If it has a trivet and can go up to 15lb pressure, it's coming home with me somehow.
  7. The Muttrah Souk is neither as frenetic nor as crowded as the one in Cairo.  It is big, though, with a rabbit warren of lane-ways.  I'd be happy to wander around this one alone.
  8. I can't barter for toffee.
  9. All my life, my skin has been a battle of genetics between my red-headed father and my olive-skinned mother.  I either burn or tan - it is totally unpredictable which will occur.  Guess my dad's genetics is winning this time, although I am using sunscreen.
  10. I have managed to come to a country beyond the reach of Tesco's mobile phone network.  I can receive calls, but not make them.  Never even occurred to me to check since my last phone was a pay-as-you-go with Virgin which operated everywhere I took it (France, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, Egypt, Malaysia, Singapore, Canada and America*).  Apparently, Tesco's phone deal with O2 only goes as far as Europe (they rent bandwidth from the O2 network; Virgin use T-mobile).  DH's phone is with Virgin and does work.
  11. So much for scheduling a posting.  My last post was meant to be published last week, while we were leaving for Heathrow.  I had to publish it when I logged in today.

- Pam

* OK, it didn't work in North America but that was because my phone was too old to receive the signal not because the network didn't cover it.  I needed a tri-band phone and didn't have one.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

A brief note before I run out the door....

Just in case you start wondering what has happened to me, I thought I'd tell you in advance.  We're going on holiday.  Tonight. For 10 days.  To Oman, about which I know vitually nothing. Don't think I'll have internet access but we'll be back on Saturday 31st March, when I hope to blog with pictures, etc.  Always assuming I don't get arrested for carrying dangerous implements like knitting needles and crochet hooks, that is.

Instead of knitting, I'm taking crochet on the plane.  Since we're going somewhere where it's 35C, I'm reverting to the old days when I'd crochet in summer because it was less uncomfortable with swollen fingers.  My plan is to crochet the Moth Wings Shrug from Interweave Crochet 2010.  In France last year, I bought two balls of a mohair-silk blend directly from the producer, at a market stall.  I'll put one of those in my handbag, together with a 2.25mm hook and a photocopy of the pattern and see what happens when I get to Security.

Cecil B-da-suitcase is almost packed.  It's got the essentials:  sock yarn, spare needles, multiple sizes of crochet hook (in case I can't get gauge with the 2.25mm), and another ball of the mohair-silk.  Oh, and clothes.  And toiletries. Still have to empty my handbag of my portable knitting kit (that'll go into Cecil, too).

See you in a fortnight.

- Pam

Monday, 19 March 2012

A sobering thought for the day

A couple of hours ago, I was ravenously hungry and waiting for the clock to tick around to lunchtime.  Something reminded me of a post on one of the forums I frequent.  The writer had recently married and moved in with her husband. They had virtually no food in their home and, with the exception of £10 she'd managed to raise via eBay sales, no money to take them through the week until payday.   In addition, her employer had recently folded and she had learned that she was not entitled to contribution-based benefits such as Job Seeker's Allowance or statutory redundancy money because the company had not paid over tax or National Insurance Contributions that they'd deducted from their employees. She'd been crying because her husband had gone to work without breakfast and had had nothing to take for lunch.  The forum gave her some good advice about spending her precious £10 on potatoes, oats, eggs, milk, discounted bread, etc, as well as on how to stretch the few items she had in stock. 

 While waiting for lunch, I started to ponder what I'd do in the writer's shoes.  The biggest difference between her and me is that I have a store cupboard.  When I fed two adults in February 1991 on £25, I had some food already in stock:  flour, some tinned goods, spices, sugar, pasta, rice, as well as a few things in the freezer.  And I worked for a company that fed me lunch.  If I'd been truly desperate, I could have made myself toast for breakfast at work, too.   There were days later on, say in 1995, when I ran out of cash and only had 10p to buy some apples for lunch, but I always had food at home and I could have brought my lunch into work if I'd been more organised.  (Different employer by then.)  My store cupboard is a lot bigger now and I have a freezer that is so full of food, I have to play Freezer Tetris whenever I try to take something out.  Truth be told, as long as I was allowed £20 to buy some milk, eggs and veggies (mainly potatoes, onions, mushrooms and carrots), I could get by without spending anything else on food until May.  Or, possibly, June.  But then I'm not particularly narrow minded about food; although we are meat eaters, we eat a lot of pulses-based dishes as well as a reasonable amount of fish and cheese.  

 What would really panic me, would be not having cooking facilities. I could probably get by without an oven and without a microwave, although I use my microwave-convection oven every week, but not having a hob to cook on would almost kill me.  Yes, I could light the barbecue and cook on that but I'd need something for fuel.  (And it might not be strong enough to hold my saucepans.)  If the loss of power was due to some regional disaster or war, would I have to quickly scavenge all my wood supplies and barricade them inside my house?  Isn't that what happened in war-torn Europe during/after the Second World War? And in Kosovo? Another thought:  when the television cameras focus on the faces of the starving and hungry in famine-torn parts of the world,  do we consider that having walked hundreds/thousands of miles to get to the refuge camp, they might not have a pot to cook in? Or any fuel? How many women were raped, maimed or murdered in Darfur because they dared venture out of the refugee camps to find fuel so that they could cook their UN rations?  

It's a sobering thought, risking it all just so you can feed your family and yourself. It certainly puts any recent episode of "I wants it!!" into perspective.  If the dice were rolled differently, that could be me or you or family or friends.  As my mother used to say, "There but for the grace of God, go I". 

- Pam

Sunday, 18 March 2012

How I'd Do The Budget

Wednesday is Budget Day in the UK. Since I have absolutely no influence whatsoever, I thought I'd blog about what I'd do, if I was Chancellor.  Most of it is to do with tidying up the tax system:-
  • Make everyone file a tax return annually and link the receipt of as many benefits as possible to that.  At the moment, less than a quarter of the UK population files a tax return.  HM Revenue and Customs spends a lot of its time chasing it's tail, collecting tax information from multiple sources and trying to cross reference it without a main data key (i.e. a unique tax number for each person).  In addition, we have multiple different regimes dishing out benefits such as tax credits for low income earners (HMRC), housing benefit (local councils), pension credit (Department of Work and Pensions), etc, etc. Each regime requires yet another set of forms, often duplicating each other. Many people don't claim benefits to which they are entitled. Others get take advantage of the lack of joined up dots and claim things to which they are not entitled or dodge taxes altogether. This will be eliminated if you use an annual tax return as the basis for all benefit allocations without the need for further applications, i.e. if you are a pensioner on a very low income, you would automatically receive pension credit without needing to apply for it separately. It will also eliminate a raft of bureaucracy since a lot of the benefit assessments can be handled automatically by the tax return software. (HMRC provides free electronic tax return filing, which automatically calculates your tax liability/refund.)
  • All couples, both married and cohabiting, to quote each other's unique tax reference numbers on their tax returns. This would allow benefits to be assessed that require information on both incomes without compromising privacy or the principles of independent taxation (eg working families tax credit).
  • Automatic transfer of unused personal tax allowances between couples.
  • Increase the personal allowance to £10,000. That was an election promise. It will increase people's disposable incomes by £100 a month and, therefore, stimulate the economy. In addition it'd take the poorest section of the population out of the tax net.
  • Increase the threshold for the 40% tax band to £50,000 to help the "squeezed middle".  Again, this would put hard-earned Pounds into people's pockets, stimulating the economy.
  • Decrease fuel duty by 8p per litre.  Once you factor in VAT, the total decrease would be 10p.  This would lower inflation, since over 90% of everything is transported by road.  (Note, today I paid 147.9p/litre for diesel.  A year ago, it was 131p.  That is money that is being sucked out of everyone's pockets but it is particularly felt by the poorer sections of society since food prices are being inflated to cover transportation costs.)
  • Impose stamp duty on the sellers of homes as well as on the buyers.
  • Remove the exemption from stamp duty on property that companies currently enjoy.
  • Change the basis for funding the NHS. (This is a whole rant on its own.). I'd scrap the current unpopular proposals and, instead, just change the basis on which the NHS is funded. The change is simple: hospitals, doctors and other NHS services only get paid when they treat patients. The current model pays out whether patients are treated or not so patient care isn't the primary focus - maintaining their budgets is. In addition, companies and units are awarded expensive contracts to provide services exclusively in an area.  Under my model, any licensed medical organisation could do NHS work, so long as it was prepared to accept NHS pay rates and deliver the accepted levels of care. Nobody gets awarded expensive contracts. Bureaucracy is automatically discouraged because it doesn't treat patients and, therefore, doesn't bring in money. Expensive PCTCTs can be disbanded because they will have no further purpose.  (You could keep one to work out what rates to pay for treatments and to administer the payment of bills, but you don't need the other 50+ "commissioning bodies".)
  • Increase tax relief for research and development.
  • Give tax breaks to companies which develop and manufacture goods in this country.
  • Change the basis of local government funding from the current Council Tax, which is levied at a series of banded rates depending on property values, to an income tax levy which is collected centrally and then distributed based on a formula determined by population and land area.  This would be fairer.
  • Decrease employer's National Insurance, which is nothing more than a tax on payrolls, by 1% to encourage hiring more staff.
That's what I'd put in my "Budget for growth".

- Pam

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Seeing Red

A knitting forum post has got my blood boiling.  A knitter has been asked by a friend of a friend to knit an aran jumper.  Her question:  "I normally add a nominal charge for knitting but this is a complicated pattern,  what do you think would be reasonable price per ball?".

The implications in that innocent question have made me see red. In one short sentence, that knitter has summed up what is wrong with the way our mutual craft is perceived.  Instead of it being seen as something that requires concentration, skill and many hours of labour, "it's only knitting"(!) and, therefore, not worth anything.  Knitting is sneered at for being "home made" or "hand made".  It's perceived as women's work or a hobby, something that is done for the enjoyment of the craft, but second rate because anyone can do it if they put their mind to it. 

(I'm an accountant.  Anyone can book-keep in their spare time and charge £20/hour for the privilege and nobody would think twice.  It doesn't require as much skill as knitting.  Or as much time.)

What really annoys me is that craftspeople won't charge a proper price for their work.  Instead, they consistently under-charge, which adds to the reason why home-made and hand-made are so undervalued.  When you're selling something crafted with your labour, you should charge for your labour and be properly rewarded. Why undervalue your time?  It is as valuable as anyone-else's.  You are providing a service, like any other tradesman and should charge accordingly.  Minimum wage in this country is currently £6.08 an hour.  My advice to the knitter was to work out how many hours it'd take to knit the jumper, multiply that by minimum wage and charge accordingly.  (Adding in the cost of materials, of course.)   I doubt she'll follow my advice because it will work out to many hundreds of Pounds and she won't think her work is worth that.

Charging £500 for the time it takes to knit a jumper is reasonable, in my opinion.  There are plenty of women out there who'd pay £100 for a screen-printed silk scarf which can be produced in its thousands. (Hermes, anyone?)  Every hand knitted garment is unique;  why not charge accordingly?

"But nobody can afford to pay £500 for a jumper!", I hear you splutter.  So?  I can't afford to waste £500 worth of my time producing something for you that you don't value.  If I give you something I've made, then you better bloody appreciate it!

- Pam

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The story of our lives

I'm working from home today.  It's nearly 10am, so the heating has been off for a while now.  Downstairs, DH is working on the laptop, sitting on the couch in a t-shirt and shorts. For him, it's pleasantly warm.  Meanwhile, I'm upstairs in the study, wearing jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt, a jumper, knee-length ugg boots and fingerless mitts, draped in a wrap, with a blanket over my lap and a hat on my head.  I'm freezing but I categorically refuse to put the heating back on. 

Story of our lives, really: he runs hot; I'm almost always cold.

- Pam

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Food security

Last week, one of my lunches was a Thai Chicken 'lunch pot' from the condemned food counter at Tesco (less than half price of course). While it was heating, I read the ingredients list and was horrified to discover that the country of origin for the chicken was Thailand!

I have nothing against the Thais exporting meat, but surely it does not make economic or environmental sense to import chicken for use in a ready meal from 9,000 miles away? Not when there are probably a million chicken farms located in between.

Anyway, it got me thinking of the issue of food security. The next World War will probably be fought over access to food and water, when Global Warming and an ever increasing population exacerbate current food shortages.  Low lying areas will flood as the polar ice-caps melt, while drought zones will get even less rainfall. To avoid catastrophe, surely it is up to every country to encourage their population to grow as much food as possible in the most environmentally friendly way possible?  Shouldn't they encourage supermarkets and food businesses to buy locally?

This argument isn't as straight-forward as it may initially seem.  With all the best intentions in the world, can Britain feed itself?  Even in the 1930's, Britain did not produce enough food to feed it's population.  For more than 50 years prior to World War 2, Britain's agricultural sector was trapped in an economic depression while cheap imports kept prices low and farmers went bankrupt.  Food production fell during that time. After the War, the huge push into factory farming was driven by the need for food security but, as a result, we now have green deserts of monoculture, where the soil has been depleted of nutrients because crops are no longer rotated, leaving the farms dependent on fertilisers. 

Animals were confined to "factory farms", where their welfare was severely compromised in order to squeeze more chickens/pigs/cattle into smaller and smaller spaces.  This is changing, but if we provide farm animals with sufficient space, fresh air, daylight and fresh food to enable a decent standard of welfare, will we produce enough food?  Is the even sufficient land available?

In addition, there are things we just can't grow:  rice, hard wheat suitable for bread, many fruits.

On the flip side, enterprising farmers in Africa and Asia have created businesses growing food for Britain.  A large proportion of fresh produce in our supermarkets is imported from places like Kenya.  Traditional British varieties of potatoes are imported from Egypt.  These farmers are creating wealth for themselves and paying a living to their workers, reducing their need for international aid to survive.  By buying British, will we deprive these people of the chance to better themselves and their nations?  Or are the contracts placed with these farms actually driving up local food prices beyond the budgets of the locals and diverting food to Europe which would otherwise feed them?  Are we exporting the worst of our current food production practices to them, in order to keep down costs?  Will we damage their farming environment, like we've damaged our own?

I wonder whether the French tolerate food imports in the same way as we do, since a walk through Carrefour leaves the impression that they're rather pay more for good food that is locally produced rather than buy cheap imports.  In their street markets, usually the person selling fresh produce is the farmer who grew it. They are proud of their local food producers and I understand that attitude.  I know the people who grow my vegetables and where they source their eggs.  I hope my butcher purchases his meat from ethical sources.  Personally, I do not want my food to travel thousands of miles around the world unless it is moving under it's own power (flying, walking or swimming).  I'd like to grow more of my own food, particularly the things our farmer doesn't grow (aubergine, peppers).

See what I mean?  This isn't a simple argument.  Where do we go from here?

- Pam