Friday, 12 December 2014

An ordinary extraordinary day

This may read exactly like a perfectly ordinary day, so trust me on this: just read. The extraordinary will be revealed.

A trickling murmur, like water running over pebbles, a few musical notes, and sparkling sounds intervene in my dreams. I try to open my eyes and nudge my partner.
   "Mmph?"
   "The fairies are here," I explain cogently, and sink back into sleep.
   A few minutes later, on the other side of the bed, Strauss strikes up with the Blue Danube, getting gradually louder and cheerier. Ah. It's morning. Neither of us are morning people; our respective alarm ring tones are the gentlest ease into consciousness we can find - though if I really have to wake up early, I have a special, terrifying ringtone that sounds like a garage party being launched next to my head.

A couple of hours and coffees later, I open my laptop to start work. Ads spring up all over the screen. Oh, shit! It's infected with adware; one of the ads sits bam in the middle of the screen and won't minimise. My free antivirus software keeps me safe for most things, but occasionally something slips through. I get out my phone and start hunting for a solution. It turns out it's an especially nasty one; I can't just uninstall the program that's crept in, but have to go digging around in the scary bits of the computer which you aren't supposed to touch in case you break something. After a while, I find a video someone's recorded which walks me through every step, deleting shortcuts and files disguised to look like part of my operating system and snippets buried in my browser...  An hour later, everything's fixed. I've lost an hour, but at least it wasn't a whole morning and £200 at the computer repair shop.
   I've got a ton to do, though, so I need to work faster. I need month-planners for one of my classes - I find a site that generates them for me, and print them out. I need to make a mindmap for a handout - I was going to draw it by hand and scan it, but there's no time; I jump onto a mindmap website, cut-and-paste my text in, and download the mindmap it creates. Sorted. I'm getting too tense, trying to hurry; I load Spotify and find the playlist I've cunningly crafted for relaxed-but-focused-rapid-work. (It's mostly Brandenburg Concertos.) Back to work. I need to make an image for my blog, combining 32 different images into one. I do actually have Photoshop, so I could do it myself, but it's quicker to use a website that does it for me. I make a mental note to tell my cousin about it - she doesn't have Photoshop, and will find it useful for her nutrition blog. My blog also needs a countdown timer to the end of the year; a bunch of different websites offer me a widget I can cut-and-paste. I put up my post and double-check it: all good, and the related-posts widget I added last week is looking great.
   I check my email: an urgent message from my mother-in-law. She's an International Baccalaureate teacher, currently living in Spain. She needs some EFL resources; do I have any? I reply, attaching some of my own materials from my old job, but most of them don't have proper lesson plans with them, so I send her links to some of the best teaching-resource sites as well. A lot of teachers are sharing their best lessons online now.
   I carry on making handouts for my class. I need a spiffy font for one of them and quickly download one.

Before lunch, I go for a walk along the canal. The weather's just starting to crisp with frost; I wrap my favourite curly-frothy scarf around my neck. My sister knitted it for me for Christmas last year, from a pattern someone in her craft group found online. I listen to a podcast as I walk, which a friend of mine made. We used to teach at the same school - she was the one who introduced me to the online crossword-maker and how to make pair-work crosswords for vocabulary revision. After she had her daughter, she looked at going back to teaching, but she and her husband worked out that after childcare, they'd only be £3000 better off a year. She'd always wanted to be a voice actor; if she could make just £3000 a year doing that, she could stay at home with her daughter and pursue that ambition. It's worked out incredibly well and she's branched out into the production side as well, with the help of some online courses. When I spoke on a poetry podcast last year, and my computer mic didn't record properly, she fixed all the levels for me like a pro. The file was far too big to email, but we just shared it on Dropbox. I used the Dropbox free space for ages, but when my laptop started to show signs of terminal decline, I upgraded and put everything on there except my financial stuff, which is on a more secure cloud.

While my lunch is heating, I check my email: my other cousin has shared a new folder with me - she's done the illustrations! Yay! I message to ask if she's free, and we end up having lunch "together", over Skype. Over the last year, we've been collaborating a lot. She's a care worker and is doing a degree online in Design & Tech, which actively encourages collaboration. We brainstorm our projects, exchange techie tips and handy sites for design work, I proofread her essays (she's dyslexic), she draws things for me. For some teaching materials, I use copyright-free photos, but when I can't find what I need, it's brilliant to have an illustrator - and she says it's good practice for her degree!
   She tells me she's been using one of the meal plans on my cooking blog, that her client loved the recipe, and that for the first time he had second helpings!
   "Ooh, don't forget the post I put up about food hygiene," I say. "If someone's health is shaky, that's especially important." The meal plans are based a lot around bulk-cooking and freezing, so it's dangerous if it's done wrong.
   She reminds me drily that she has an NVQ Level 5 in food safety. "You need to add about rice," she says. "People don't realise how risky it is to keep rice warm."
   I add it while we're chatting about the Christmas decorations she's been making (apparently the template's from one of the parenting & crafts blogs her sister follows, she sends me the link) and the obscure and distressing diagnosis her friend's kid has (one of my friends has a kid with the same thing, I tell her; she found a great ebook about managing it, I can put them in touch). She signs off and I idly return to the crossword over coffee. I still can't work out what the two-headed serpent is, decide it's some classical reference I don't know, give up, and type the letters I have into the crossword-solver on my phone: amphisbaena. What the hell? I look it up with the dictionary app - it's a mythical snake with a head at each end. My annoyance that they used such an obscure word vanishes in delight at learning a new word - in fact, I've got a story I could use that idea in... I Evernote it, so I don't forget.

I've just finished work for the day and am starting to make supper, yelling cheerfully along to a song I downloaded last week, when Pachelbel's Canon cuts through the pop: that's my phone ringing. It's Mum, she's in Oxford anyway to do printmaking, and needs some help with her website; can she come over? She forgot to put the files on a datastick though - maybe if she went home to get them first - but it's half an hour drive each way, and with the traffic... I remind her she's got all her files on Dropbox now, so she can come straight over and we can access them here. I carry on cooking - I'm making a curry feast, one of my favourite kinds of cooking when I have some time free, with a mix of recipes from my books and from recipe sites. One of the older recipes still has everything in Imperial; I look up the conversions on my phone app, as I go. By the time Mum arrives, everything is set up and cooking gently. All the dishes are slow-cook, but each one needs bits of attention and other ingredients at specific times, which gets a bit confusing. I used to draw up elaborate tabled Battle Plans of what to do when, but now I've got a little cooking timer on my phone which lets me set different alarms for different dishes, and name them.
   Mum's website is in Wordpress - she got a web designer to put it together, but based on a template, which made it cheaper and still lets her do everything the way she wants. I'm not surprised she wants help; I'm struggling to work it out myself, and I build my own sites! Luckily the web designer's recorded a video of how to do it, from a webinar, so we go through that together. I really do need to learn CSS properly sometime, my web skills are falling behind, but the local course always seems to run on the same nights that I teach. I should see if there's an online course I can do. Each time the cooking alarm goes off, I leap up to add stock / almonds / tomatoes / whatever's next on the list. Mum also wants to collect all her blog posts together, to go through them, and is talking about cutting-and-pasting several years' worth of writing! I tell her about a nifty website which will combine them all for her. Her time is better spent doing art.
   Just before she leaves, she asks me if I have any old jars; she needs them for paint-mixing. They're in the shed and the torch has gone AWOL again, so I use the flashlight app on my phone to dig them out.

At bedtime, I reluctantly set my phone to Massive Garage House Party alarm (but at least I know I will wake up) and start reading a new short-story collection from a little SFF press on my e-reader.

Nothing especially unusual about that day, right? Apart from the virus, a very pleasant day. Nothing to do with EU VAT regulations, nothing to do with me being a digital microbusiness. Everything I used is probably stuff you use, too. But everything I described there is hit by the new regulations. Everything.

ringtones, antivirus software, antivirus help video, calendar generator, mindmap website, music streaming, image-combiner, countdown timer, blog widgets, teaching resources, font downloads, knitting pattern, podcasts, crossword-maker, online audio-work courses, cloud storage, Skype, online degree content, sites for design work, copyright-free photos, recipe posts, food safety courses, crafts templates, ebooks, crossword-solver, dictionary app, Evernote, downloaded music, recipe sites, conversion app, cooking timer app, Wordpress template, Webdesign help video, online CSS course, flashlight app, ebooks

All of it comes under the heading of "automated digital services".

What's more, almost everything that I, my friends, and my family used in that day was made by a microbusiness. You think, when you're downloading an app or using some handy online tool or whatever, that there's a big company behind it, but most of the time, there isn't: often it's just one person, working on their own. You'll also notice that we didn't have to pay for most of it.

Now reread that day, with all of those options removed.

Now look around at your own life, at how much of that stuff you use, and imagine it vanishing.

Now do you see what I'm talking about? You don't have to be a microbusiness, or any business at all, or even online that much, for this stuff to hurt you. The new EU VAT regulations are impossible for microbusinesses to comply with and they come into force on 1 January. It's not just me withdrawing the writing resources I've worked so long and hard on - it's microbusinesses everywhere, and it's everyone who uses that stuff. And then this is what happens...

  • the free stuff vanishes: all that free stuff is there because people can make money selling their stuff. The free stuff is a taster of what you can buy, or an ads-version and you can upgrade to ads-free (like Spotify and most apps), or a basic version and you can upgrade to more & better (like antivirus software, like online storage space).
  • paid-for stuff from EU people vanishes: hundreds of microbusinesses are already shutting down
  • paid-for stuff from the rest of the world vanishes: overseas websites are already refusing to sell to people in the EU - not "maybe they'll refuse", they're already doing it.
  • physical products go, especially crafts: with most art and crafts, it's just not possible to charge what the actual time, effort, and skill is worth, whether it's a painting or a crocheted hat, so artists and crafts people supplement what they earn by selling downloads of patterns, tutorials, or by making videos and selling ads... Without that extra income, it's just not viable.

I know this sounds extraordinary and it's very hard to believe. It's also true. And it's only just starting to even hit the news. Most of the people directly affected, whose own businesses will go under, don't even know yet, never mind all the people who just use all these things.

If you can't get your head around it, take a look at this mindmap I made, trying to get my head around it:

CLICK TO ENLARGE
At the moment, the people who have realised are trying to get the law changed - yup, people running tiny businesses from their kitchen tables are trying to get an EU-wide law changed. It all feels a bit like Lord of the Rings; right now it feels like the Battle of Helm's Deep and I'm desperate for the moment that those ranks of elves arrive, declaring they will fight on the side of men and lining up along the battlements with their superb archery skills. I don't know who I am in this metaphor. I'm probably a hobbit, though not Frodo. I hope there are elves on the way. But maybe, like Lord of the Rings, it ends up being down to hobbits.

This is what you can do to help:
  • tell people about it - most of the businesses affected don't know, everyone who uses their stuff doesn't realise that "EU vat regulations" have anything to do with anyone's real life
  • help us campaign - there's a list of ways to do that below, from this Huffington Post article
  • buy our stuff, before the end of December - I'm serious. Even if we do eventually get the law changed, that's going to take a lot of time, and our income is about to be severed. Everyone who's working on this has lost heaps of time.
If you want to understand more about it, you can have a look at that mindmap above, read my original blog post about it, read this blog post by Rosie Slovek, read the Huffington Post article, and listen to today's You & Yours (from 18:18 onwards, you'll hear me on that too).

And here's how to help us campaign:
  1. Sign this petition www.euvataction.org/take-action-now/sign-the-petition/ 
  2. Other important action: www.euvataction.org/take-action-now/ 
  3. Take the world-wide survey - because this affects you where ever you are located: www.euvataction.org/take-action-now/complete-the-survey/ 
  4. Visit the website for further information: http://www.euvataction.org

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