Birdman

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Most people in Glasgow avoid the city Centre pigeons like the plague – and some probably believe they are avoiding the plague. When I saw this guy my automatic reaction was that he was going to end up pretty ill from handling ‘wild’ (do you call them wild when they’re habitat is a city centre?) pigeons – especially given this is in Glasgow, not the cleanest of cities on its best day. However, despite my reaction, and similar reactions from puzzled onlookers, I was wrong.

Seeing this guy handle the pigeons without fear of the plague, or whatever, prompted me to do some Googling on the subject of urban birds and disease. I learned two things. The first is that there is actually an organisation called PiCAS – the Pigeon Control Advisory Service – who are the experts on controlling pigeons in a non-lethal manner (yay for the pigeons!), and the second, all the talk about pigeons being ‘rats with wings’ that spread disease is nonsense, even those greasy little city centre pigeons are probably fine. And, this is backed up by vets, various experts and agencies deal with birds, Public Health England, and even the Centre for Disease control in the US.

So as it turns out there’s no need to be afraid of our numerous winged neighbours. Except for seagulls, obviously. That lot are brutal.

At any rate the pigeons on Sauchiehall Street seemed to love this guy, given that they were happy to eat right out of his hand. I think he may actually have some experience with birds, or perhaps he’s a vet, because he was also checking the birds for injury and seemed to know what he was doing. There are certainly some of the city centre pigeons that could do with some R&R, that’s for sure.

Lunch Break

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A ‘workie’ (slang Scottish term for a workman or woman) on his lunch break, enjoying some afternoon sunshine outside Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art on Queen Street, 21st August 2016.

Cuts to Scottish Welfare Fund – A hint of things to come? 

WelfareFundTitle_1The Scottish Welfare Fund is a discretionary payment allocated by local authorities and funded in part through the UK Department for Work and Pensions and topped up by the Scottish Government. This is because the DWP transfers the funding for the scrapped Community Care Grant and Crisis Loan, both of which the DWP used to administer, to the Scottish Government:

“On 1 April 2013, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) abolished two elements  of the Social Fund – Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans – and transferred funds  previously spent on them to Scottish Ministers. In its place, the Scottish Government  established the Scottish Welfare Fund”

(Scottish Government, 2016a)

So the SWF is funded by the UK government (via taxes – which are then transferred to ScotGov) and then topped up by the Scottish Government. It is widely seen as the Scottish Government’s response to welfare reform, but given it is funded by UK Gov this is a little misleading – even if some (the lesser amount) is provided directly by the Scottish Government, since most of the funding for the SWF still comes from the UK government. This means that:

“For 2013/14 and 2014/15  [the amount provided by the DWP] amounted to £23.8 million. The Scottish Government topped this amount up by a further £9.2 million, giving the Scottish Welfare Fund a total budget of £33 million for  both these years.  This level has been maintained in 2015/16 by the Scottish  Government at £33 million”

(Scottish Government, 2016a)

So, given that ScotGov has championed the SWF and many in Scotland have seen the SWF as an indication of both the ScotGov’s unwillingness to cut welfare and their resistance to such cuts enacted by the UK Government, I was surprised to see this in my mailbox at work, from Glasgow City Council:

“Glasgow City Council has seen a reduction to the Scottish Welfare Fund allocated from the Scottish Government in 2016/17. Further reductions are also expected into future years”

(Glasgow City Council, 2016)

Now, this is surprising – particularly since, having loudly championed the SWF (a cynic would say this was as much about making the UK government look bad – which requires little effort anyway – as mitigating the impact of cuts to welfare on people living in Scotland), the Scottish Government have said little about this cut (lending credence to the more cynical), instead leaving local authorities to announce it individually. Why is the SWF being cut? Is there less funding from Westminster, or can ScotGov not make the top-up they have in previous years? Essentially, why has the same level of funding not been maintained and why is it expected to drop in coming years?

Looking at the bigger picture, what does this indicate about the Scottish Government’s commitment to social welfare, particularly since some welfare powers are soon to be devolved to Scotland? This includes responsibility for Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and Personal Independence Payments (PIP) – will we see a cut in provision of these benefits, intended for adults and children with illness and disability that require extra support?

The Scottish Government seem to be cutting welfare before they even have their hands on it – and given the DWP guarantee the larger element of the SWF, you have to ask if it is ScotGov’s contribution which has been reduced, leading to the reduction in funding to Local Authorities. If that is the case, why aren’t the Scottish Government using their overspend, which has occurred for the past three years, to boost SWF funding?

As someone who voted Yes in the Scottish Independence Referendum I’m conscious that had the vote been in favour of independence, Scotland would be an independent country as of this year. Given the current reduction to the SWF, what might have occurred in a Scotland where the whole welfare system is under the Scottish Government – would we now be seeing cuts across the board to match Tory cuts to the UK welfare system? This is the crux of the problem for me regarding the SNP – we will never know how capable they really are until they can no longer resort to blaming Westminster – and by that point it would be too late, should their performance be less than satisfactory. That’s a chance I was willing to take back in September 2014, but now I’m not so sure.

The SNP sell themselves on a ticket of progressive politics and social equality, but that doesn’t seem to be their practice (yes, they are more progressive than the Tories, but that says very little – they aren’t any more progressive, or socialist, than Labour in power under Corbyn might be, but this is an unknown at present). With further welfare powers and responsibilities to be devolved, we’ll soon see the SNP’S true colours – I hope they stick to the principles they championed during the IndyRef and ensure a fair and secure welfare system for Scotland, and in doing so put people first.

As always, thanks for reading.

Scottish Government (2016b)

Scottish Government (2016a) Scottish Welfare Fund Statistics: Annual Update 2015/16. Official Statistics publication for Scotland.

Scottish Government (2016b) Social Security for Scotland: Benefits being devolved to the Scottish Parliament. SSFS slidepack update, July 2016.

(Disclaimer: Any criticism of the Scottish Government or the SNP is usually perceived as an attack by some SNP supporters. Let it be noted that I am not currently affiliated with any party, either as a casual supporter or a paid member. This article isn’t intended as a political attack, but to highlight potential issues in the future of Scotland’s welfare system and to hold the Scottish Government to account on this matter – whichever party might be in charge – in the interests of everyone living in Scotland)

George Orwell on ‘the pigsty we’re in’

George Orwell's Burmese Passport photo. Image credit: headlong.co.uk
George Orwell. Image credit: headlong.co.uk

“I do not believe that a man with £50,000 a year and a man with fifteen shillings a week either can, or will, co-operate. The nature of their relationship is quite simply, that the one is robbing the other, and there is no reason to think that the robber will suddenly turn over a new leaf. It would seem, therefore, that if the problems of western capitalism are to be solved, it will have to be through a third alternative, a movement which is genuinely revolutionary, i.e. willing to make drastic changes and to use violence if necessary, but which does not lose touch, as Communism and Fascism have done, with the essential values of democracy. Such a thing is by no means unthinkable. The germs of such a movement exist in numerous countries, and they are capable of growing. At any rate, if they don’t, there is no real exit from the pigsty we are in.”

– George Orwell: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters; Vol 1 (via reliving the 80s)

Pubs and alleyways

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I’ve been meaning to post this for ages… I’m trying to get more pictures with people in them, as apparently never having any people in your pictures (deliberately) makes you seem like a bit of a sociopath (no offence to sociopaths), This is – and I’m sure many people will recognise it – the lane off Buchanan Street that leads to Sloan’s Bar – the oldest bar in Glasgow, believe it or not  (also, one of my favourites on the rare occasion that I have a bevvy). Black and white, because most of the alley was either black or white anyway!

Thanks for reading.

The ESA assessment: Institutional classism in action

DPAC [Disabled people against cuts] protesting PIP assessments - which share many of the same issues with ESA - in Norfolk, July 2016. Image credit: Roger blackwell
DPAC [Disabled People Against Cuts] protesting PIP assessments – which share many of the same issues as the ESA assessment – Norfolk, July 2016. Image credit and more info about DPAC Norfolk: Roger Blackwell
New research this week, conducted by RadStats and reported by Welfare Weekly and the Guardian, indicates that the ESA Capability for Work Assessment is unfairly applied based on the area an individual lives in – and potentially their level of educational attainment – not their health or their actual capability for work:

“[T]he research has established a significant relationship between work capability assessment outcomes and local educational attainment. In areas where children finish school with more GCSEs, claimants were placed into the support group more frequently rather than being placed in the work-related activity group – the group in which disabled people must undertake preparation for a return for work or risk having their benefits sanctioned.

Hume says that a possible explanation of this is that people with more qualifications might be more able to complete the significant paperwork required to claim ESA, or are better at seeking appropriate evidence and assistance.

Ultimately the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] is making decisions that seem to be influenced by factors other than the health of the claimant,” he adds.”

In areas where there is more need to be in the Support Group, due to greater instance of morbidity and health inequalities, individuals are essentially less likely  to be placed in the the Work Related Activity Group (the group in which the DWP places individual who are likely to be able to return to work), regardless of whether they meet the criteria or not. This suggests that classism is indirectly playing out via discrimination on the basis of educational attainment – which, as research shows,  has a causal relationship with income.  Even when other factors are controlled for, growing up in a low-income household still has an impact on individual educational opportunities and employment up to 12 years later.

This seems to confirm something I’ve thought since joining a Welfare Rights service and was being trained on ESA – that the ESA (and PIP) questionnaires and assessment are designed to be confusing to people with lower levels of education (and often, therefore, from a poorer and more disadvantaged background) in an attempt to deter them from applying or going through with, what is, as standard sadly, a highly stressful process of reconsideration and appeals – through which not just their health, but their lives are interrogated by successive faceless DWP ‘Decision Makers’ and callous tribunal staff that can’t even look people in the eye when declining their benefits.

Just in case you missed that, we receive training on how to complete the ESA50 Capability for Work Questionnaire – but individuals, often with health conditions that affect their mental or cognitive capacity, are supposed to be able to complete the form themselves, without issue. This is in addition the the problems they experience already in relation to their health condition, and for many is just too much to deal with without significantly impacting their health. There is now an ever increasing list of people who have died after being found fit for work by the DWP, some have died as a result of being found fit for work. Comparisons between the DWP and the Nazi eugenics programme seem less and less like hyperbole each day.

Help exists for those having difficulty with the form. At present our agency can get you in for an appointment within two weeks, usually. Citizens Advice, a more popular and well known service, has a significantly longer waiting list – and often operates on a first-come-first-served ticket basis. This isn’t a criticism of CAB – it’s merely meant to highlight the difficulties people face in getting support to apply for the benefits they need to survive.

You can read the full article via Welfare Weekly (originally reported in the Guardian).

And you can check out this report from Spartacus Group, which highlights the issues faced by individuals claiming ESA and makes recommendations for a better system (there’s a brief executive report at the beginning for those of you in a hurry).

Thanks for reading.

Brainstorming is dead, long live brainwriting! 

If you’re a bit of an introvert like me, you’ve probably grudgingly taken part in some form of groupwork brainstorming-type session at some point, while thinking to yourself “I’d be better doing this alone”. And, well, you’d actually have been right to think that. A recent article based on research into brainstorming techniques states that:


The old brainstorming method infiltrated the American workplace over half a century ago, after an advertising executive named Alex F. Osborn coined the method in the 1940s. As companies all over the country adopted the method, psychologists started to wonder: Does brainstorming actually work? Many scientific studies later, they had their answer: a resounding no. Study after study found that people who use this group technique produce fewer good ideas than those who ideate alone”

So there you have it, throw that at your over-eager HR manager next time you and your colleagues are forced to ‘share’ ideas round a table like a group of toddlers at pre-school.

But wait a minute, I’m getting ahead of myself. Is thinking on your own really the best option, then? As it turns out, that’s also a resounding nope. Unsurprisingly researchers have found that a mixture of individual and group thinking produces far better results – so you don’t quite have that free pass to introvertsville yet. Specifically, researchers employed the use of group ‘brainwriting’ (already sounds better than brainstorming, right?) alongside individual thinking sessions to produce better results:

Ultimately, the researchers found that if you only had two options—to work in a brainwriting group or work alone—you’re better off in a group. The brainwriters came up with 37% more ideas than the loners. The team also discovered that if people did brainwriting in groups and then brainstormed on their own, they produced more good ideas than when they did the reverse scenario (i.e., working alone, then group brainwriting). “We’ve found that what happens is once you’ve been in a group for a while, interacting and sharing ideas, and then you’re alone, there’s a big jump in your creativity”

However, when there are only two options – brainwriting or individual thinking – the best option turns out to be the former, so us introverts aren’t quite off the hook yet. Nonetheless, as someone who can’t stand phonecalls (something I wish my PhD supervisor would realise) because it’s difficult to organise and articulate my thoughts when I’m also having to worry about the social and interactional aspects – the psychology – of working with others, brainwriting definitely sounds like an improvement. It also sounds like the library equivalent of group work, with fastidious silence and a focus on writing, not speaking. Writing is a great leveller when you remove all the personal factors like voice and physical appearance and just focus on the words and their meaning.

A final word about group work. What I liked about this research is that is forces both introverts and extrovert to question the assumptions of their behaviour and demonstrates that each of the different modes of thinking – brainwriting and individual thinking – have their merits, but that ultimately a combination of the two works best. Or put in other words, a compromise between introversion and extroversion is best for all.

I like this because it highlights the value that individual working can bring and the value of introverts being occasionally left to their own devices, but does so without totally trashing group work and the benefits it can clearly bring as well. I can only imagine that for some people used to brainstorming as a main method of producing ideas, the brainwriting approach might help them become more independent and therefore creative in their thinking, and that can never be a bad thing.

So next time you’re hassling your introverted friend to go to the club or your quiet colleague to take part in some dreaded group exercise, instead of feeling sorry for them, fill their heads with ideas then leave them to stew it over on their own – that’s apparently how you’ll get the best results out of us. Who knows, by forcing introverts to work with others permanently with no time for personal reflection, maybe we’re delaying the cure for cancer, or the answers to finding life on Mars. At the very least, you’re really, really annoying us, so take a leaf out of our book for a change.

The full article that inspired this post and details of the research I’ve referred to can be found over at fastcodedesign.com

I couldn’t find a source for the image I used at the start of this post. If it’s your image and you want it taken down, or would like it credited to you, then please get in touch.

Ride the spiral to the end…

Looking upwards from the bottom of the water tower
Looking upwards from the bottom of the water tower

These photos are from my trip to the Lighthouse last week, and show the modern spiral staircase in the Macintosh-designed water tower, currently open to the public as part of of the Macintosh Interpretation Centre exhibition. the water tower was originally designed as part of the Herald Newspaper building, which was the reason for the building being designed and built before it was later converted into the Lighthouse gallery we have today. The water tower stored water for the building’s fire control system and served to protect the archives, which were then entirely in paper format. I would recommend a visit for the view from the top of the tower alone, the Glasgow cityscape is a stunning mix of architecture.

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The staircase brings to mind a favourite song of mine by the band Tool. The song is called Lateralus, and the syllables of the song lyrics adhere to the Fibonacci sequence, which is a series of numbers that can often be found when measuring the dimensions of naturally occurring spirals, such as in spider’s webs or some plants.  So, each time you see a spiral staircase, bear in mind that although it might be m,an-made, the design is almost certainly natural in origin!

Lyrics to Lateralus:

With my feet upon the ground
I lose myself between the sounds
And open wide to suck it in
I feel it move across my skin
I’m reaching up and reaching out
I’m reaching for the random or
Whatever will bewilder me
Whatever will bewilder me

And following our will and wind
We may just go where no one’s been
We’ll ride the spiral to the end
And may just go where no one’s been

Spiral out
Keep going

And here’s a link to the song if you like what you see: Tool – Lateralus (YouTube)

And here’s a link to some information about the Fibonacci Spiral, if you’re into numbers and science and stuff.