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Posts from November 2010

I Know I’ve Done This To Death, But…

Tuesday 30th November 2010

More student protests? Seriously?

By my count, these are the third round of protests about the proposed student fees increases. I would argue that this only really serves to undermine the credibility (hah!) of those students opposed to the rise, but whatever.

It’s really annoying that there still seems to be very little intelligent discussion about it. It all seems to be based upon bloody-minded opposition to fees, and a complete unwillingness to be pragmatic or to face reality. Students are involved, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this…

Having read around and listened to some of the arguments, it seems to boil down to “students won’t be able to afford it” (see this, for a particularly bad example). I don’t see how that’s the case, given the loans and stuff that are available. No upfront fees and you repay when you earn over £21k… What position do you need to be in to be unable to afford that? In practice, it’s a capped graduate tax (which would probably be supported if it were labelled as such… go figure).

To put forward the “can’t afford it” argument is either wilfully misleading, or stupid. Frankly it pisses me off that it can get so much traction and lead to repeated protests. Hence the rants…

More positive blogging with resume shortly (well, I say shortly; with my record it’ll probably be next June).

Update: Here’s Aaron Porter – president of the NUS – speaking about graduate taxes. Oh dear. Here’s a letter to Porter from Nick Clegg, which is infinitely more sensible.

Posted In: PoliticsRant Tagged: | 4 Comments

Just a Thought

Tuesday 16th November 2010

I’ve already written down some of my thoughts about the university fee proposals, on this blog and in comments elsewhere. I have little else to offer on the rights or wrongs of the policy, because frankly I’m fed up of reading impassioned critiques which are at best self-contradictory, or at worse seem to me to have little bearing on reality.

Anyway. Something that people often say is that fees prevent poorer people from going to university. As an aside, perhaps the correlation is more to do with the inequality in lower education; parents’ wealth apparently correlates with how well kids do at GCSEs. Which would imply that students from poorer backgrounds are at a disadvantage because they are less likely to be academically able enough to go to university. Perhaps.

Let’s assume that fees genuinely do deter poorer students from university. It’s probably a fair assumption actually, or at least part of the problem. But I would argue that there’s actually no real barrier to those people going to university, what with the generous terms of the loan, the bursaries that are available, and so on.

So why does that happen? I’ve read that it’s down to perception. That people just don’t like the idea of taking on debt, even though it’s the nicest form of debt you could possibly have, and you should never have problems paying for it.

If this is the case – and to me it seems the most plausible explanation – was it really wise for 50,000 students (or however many it was) to have a jolly to London last week, advertising how expensive university is and how people won’t be able to afford it? Is that really going to do anything to persuade those who are less well off that, actually, they can afford to study; or is it instead just going to reinforce that false perception that it’s too expensive? Hmm.

Posted In: PoliticsRantSleep Tagged: | 1 Comment

Breathe

Monday 15th November 2010

Breathe, breathe in the air
Don’t be afraid to care
Leave but don’t leave me
Look around and choose your own ground
For long you live and high you fly
And smiles you’ll give and tears you’ll cry
And all your touch and all you see
Is all your life will ever be

This is one of my absolute favourite songs. It’s the first proper song from Dark Side of the Moon, and what a way to kick that album off! It starts with Speak To Me, which is essentially a heartbeat (actually a drum) which steadily gets louder, with loads of other sound effects and snippets and which is quite hard to explain. It all builds up until the start of Breathe. With that crisp bass riff, the sumptuous pedal steel guitar, the soft drum beat… It just washes over you, this lovely warm, laid back sound. And then a minute or so later the singing kicks in; David Gilmour softly singing, with this tone of… resignation almost, which is compelling but at the same time slightly contrasting with the feel of the music. It’s captivating.

I think it’s interesting how my music listening habits have changed over the years. In the past I used to listen to it all the time, but now not so much. For instance when I want to concentrate on something (like work, or when I’m reading), I generally find it trickier to do that now with music on. I sometimes get away with putting certain types of music on when I work, but generally that’s music that I’m not hugely keen on otherwise I’d start paying more attention to that! This is one of the reasons why I don’t listen to things like Pink Floyd all that much any more; it requires me to decide to stop and listen to music rather than just putting it on in the background.

Run rabbit run
Dig that hole, forget the sun
And when at last the work is down
Don’t sit down, it’s time to dig another one
For long you live and high you fly
But only if you ride the tide
And balanced on the biggest wave
You race towards an early grave

The second verse is more cynical than the first, perhaps even bitter. The ideas of work never stopping; racing towards an early grave. I suppose it’s an expression of dissatisfaction with the drudgery of everyday life, but still with that luscious, warm sound which envelopes you as you listen. And still with the tone of resignation in Gilmour’s voice.

The upshot, I suppose, is that I probably spend more time listening to music these days. I mean really listening, as opposed to merely having it on in the background. It’s great to go somewhere quiet with a decent pair of headphones, stick an album on and then lose myself in the music, although I don’t even do that all too frequently now. I generally listen for a short period between doing other things, because I don’t always have an hour or so to dedicate to listening to an album. And that’s something I never thought I’d do, actually. A few years ago I pretty much only listened to albums in their entirety, because it sort of puts music in context; listening to one song is almost like reading just one chapter of a book. I was probably a bit snobbish about it really, but now I’m less averse to just listening to the songs I want to listen to.

Home, home again
I like to be here when I can
When I come home cold and tired
It’s good to warm my bones beside the fire
Far away across the field
The tolling of the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spells

And later, of course, the encore. It’s the same again. This comes just after Time, and we go from hearing about how “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”, to this. It’s almost like a temporary respite, a shelter from a harsh realities of life. And it really is temporary, because the encore only lasts a small amount of time before The Great Gig in the Sky, which is an absolutely perfect piece of music.

It’s nice how my tastes have diversified too. There’s a whole heap of stuff that I enjoy listening to now, much more so than a few years ago. And I absolutely love listening to music I haven’t heard before, especially when I discover a track or an album which sticks. I find that every now and again there’s a song which I get hopelessly addicted to and end up playing over and over again. Which means I associate those songs with times. For instance The High Road by Broken Bells brings back strong memories of writing my dissertation back in April, because I listened to it during my writing breaks.

But then, every now and again I return to music that I’ve known and loved for years. Things like Breathe, Tunnel of Love, Goodbye Stranger. And I remember that I’ve not listened to them for ages and why I really like them. And the familiarity is, in a way, comforting; like meeting up with an old friend. Tis a good thing.

Posted In: MusicSleep Tagged: | 2 Comments

The Final Countdown

Wednesday 10th November 2010

The 2010 Formula 1 World Championship. Wow. I mean, seriously, it’s been immense, and it’s not over yet. This coming weekend sees the 19th round of the championship, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. And heading into that event, there are four drivers with a chance of securing the championship, which I think is unprecedented.

It’s been quite a topsy-turvy year. Without a doubt, Red Bull have had the quickest car all season. They’ve won pole position 14 times so far, which I think equals the record set by McLaren in their dominant 1988 season. That they’ve only won 8 races from that qualifying performance is pretty shocking really, and down to a mixture of unreliability (particularly on Sebastian Vettel’s car) and driving errors (er, again, particularly for Sebastian Vettel). They should’ve crushed the opposition this year, but these mistakes have opened the door for other drivers to capitalise and build a championship campaign.

And interestingly, two teams have provided the bulk of the challenge in both halves of the season. In the first half, McLaren were the team with the pace – and tactical nous from Jenson Button, who had two sublime victories in Australia and China – to take the fight to Red Bull. Indeed, I think I’m right in saying that at the halfway point it was Lewis Hamilton who led the championship. However the McLaren challenge has sort of fallen away in the latter half of the year, due to the increased pace of the Ferrari as well as some uncharacteristic crashes for Hamilton at Monza and Singapore. In the latter part of the season, Fernando Alonso has managed to score more points than anyone else, and has clawed back a pretty sizeable points deficit to now lead the championship by 8 points from Mark Webber. Vettel is 15 points behind Alonso, and Hamilton behind by 24 points; 1 point less than the amount awarded for winning a race, and so just about still in with a chance.

With such an intense season it’s perhaps not surprising that team orders have been somewhat of a hot topic. I’ve blogged before about Ferrari’s use of them at Hockenheim, but the behaviour of Red Bull is also pretty interesting. They say that both of their drivers are in with a chance of the title, so no team orders. Yet there have been hints over the course of the year that, actually, Vettel is the favoured son in some parts of the team at least. He is currently behind his team mate in the rankings, and it’s been argued that actually Red Bull just want to keep him in the fight and that by doing that they are harming Webber’s chances. It’s a persuasive argument.

For instance at the previous race in Brazil, Vettel won from Webber and Alonso. Which means that for Webber to win the title, he needs to finish a few places ahead of Alonso and so is likely to need Vettel to help him (assuming current form continues and the Red Bulls qualify on the front row, with Vettel on pole). Now, that’s a big risk, because it’s impossible to know what could happen next weekend. In order to maximise the chances of one of the Red Bull drivers winning, it would’ve arguably been more sensible to let Webber win. Which would’ve put him 1 point behind Alonso, and so not dependant on anyone else to win. Vettel could conceivably win. But it’s going to require something odd such as Alonso having a poor race. It’s possible, but pretty unlikely.

I have a feeling that Abu Dhabi is going to be a properly thrilling race. There’s all the team politics that I’ve just discussed, as well as a bunch of other factors. Certain drivers – Alonso and Vettel, I think – are getting fairly low on engine mileage. Which means that they go into the next race with older engines. Vettel had a pretty spectacular engine failure a few races ago in Korea (innards became outards, which I don’t remember seeing for a while in F1), and Alonso had one let go in practice in Brazil. It’s probably unlikely that one will pop in the final race, but it’s a thought.

It’s also going to be interesting to see how the drivers cope with the pressure. I think the Red Bull drivers in particular are going to be under pressure, and we’ve already seen this year that Vettel is not the most adept at soaking up this pressure; he collided into Webber during the Turkish Grand Prix, and I would not be at all surprised to see him clout into the side of someone in Abu Dhabi.

All in all, I have a horrible feeling that Alonso will wrap up the title. If he does then I’ll be pretty damn annoyed, because I really can’t stand him. He’s a great driver, one of the best in F1, but when he gets out of the car the way he conducts himself is terrible. For instance, when he was Hamilton’s team mate in 2007, he apparently tried to blackmail the team into slowing Hamilton down. In 2008, he and his team cheated their way to win the Singapore Grand Prix – a win that he still counts as valid (see this, and his smug little grin when he answers the question. ARGH. Something else about that video that irritates the fuck out of me: Max Mosley. Don’t get me started on that awful man. I digress). Great drivers don’t need to cheat, don’t need to bitch to the team to slow down their team mates; instead they raise their game and work out how to beat their opponents. Don’t get me wrong, if he wins, he’ll deserve it. But I won’t like it.

I’ve not mentioned Hamilton in all of this, mainly because he’s really a long shot. But anything can happen in motorsport, and I have a feeling that the final race will be eventful. The bookies have him at 66/1, which was definitely worth a £5 punt…

So I don’t have a clue what will happen on Sunday. And whilst I’d like Webber (or Hamilton, but preferably Webber) to win, I’ll be happy as long as it’s a fitting end to a classic season. I can’t wait.

Posted In: MotorsportSleep Tagged: | 1 Comment

Wedding, Water, Waffle

Tuesday 9th November 2010

I think I mentioned in the last post that I went to a friend’s wedding a couple of weeks ago. In some ways, I find it quite odd seeing people my age married/buying property/with kids (delete as appropriate). Obviously I don’t knock anyone who wants to do that, but for myself it all seems so young to be doing those things. In some ways I’m not even sure if I want to get married, in some ways it seems pretty old fashioned, rooted in religious tradition.

Hmm. I guess it makes sense in a symbolic way, committing to someone and whatnot. Although one thing I don’t get is having a big ceremony for it. To me, it seems like quite an intimate and personal thing. So it seems odd to do that in front of assembled family and friends. Oh, sure, the reception is a nice idea (any excuse for a pissup), but a big ceremony? Perhaps not.

Except earlier I did think of one possible reason for it. Because I’ve only just got round to changing my friend’s name on my phone (my friend was the bride), and as I did that I thought “yeah, this is going to confuse me every time I want to text her”… But then, will it? Because there was a big ceremony. So perhaps the ceremony is just a really elaborate way of reminding people that they’re married, so if you want to contact the bride you’ll have to look under a different letter in your contacts.

But then, why not just not get married, thereby avoiding the issue? Actually, I think it’s pretty anachronistic that the woman takes her husband’s surname. The whole thing is, really, unless you change the ceremony (see the previous post).

All this being said, I am (perpetually) single. Which perhaps makes it easier to be cynical about these things. Who knows?

I realise that I’ve not really done a general update on here for a while. Most of my posts have been about Things Which Annoy Me (read: politics/news) or F1. Generally because those are the things I’ve wanted to write about. I’ve also got a bunch of things in my drafts folder which I got half way through and then never finished. One in particular was a lengthy essay about sustainable construction, which I may polish off at some point because it’s actually pretty interesting. But then I would say that…

So yeah, update. I’ve graduated from Cardiff, and I’m now studying a postgraduate course at Birmingham. I’ve decided that I wanted to specialise in one particular part of Civil Engineering, and so the course is all about water. When I say that to most people they sort of look at me blankly, but it covers a hell of a lot. From flow in open channels (i.e. rivers), flooding, to water supply. Which is all quite interesting. At the moment I’m working on a coursework about the sustainability of the water supply in the UK, which is a fascinating topic. Most people seem to assume that because it rains all the time, we have plenty of water to drink. That’s not quite true, and water stress is a real problem. For a summary, see this diagram. Note that the areas with the lowest availability are also the areas with the highest demand (i.e. the South East). Apparently they’ve started to use desalination plants to supply water in some of those areas, which is just phenomenal. As well as expensive and energy-intensive; which in itself is in short supply…

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that since privatisation in the early 90s, the water industry has actually gotten much better. Better quality of water (admittedly, partly driven by EU directive), and crucially more efficiently extracted, treated and delivered (the improvement in leakage is particularly impressive). The regulation that exists to drive all this, though, is pretty mind-boggling. There’s apparently a push to introduce real competition between providers (currently water companies have a monopoly on certain areas; Dŵr Cymru supplies Wales, Severn Trent the Midlands, Thames Water in/around London, etc), and to introduce more of a market. Which is pretty interesting. Turns out that this privatisation/market lark isn’t in conflict with environmentalism. People being greedy (i.e. water companies wanting to make money) doesn’t necessarily equate with wrecking the environment…

Anyway, I digress. This post is probably a bit meandering, but I just felt like writing something really. I was going to say something about the upcoming F1 finale as well, but I think I’ll save that for another post. I’m massively looking forward to it, even though I have the horrible feeling that Red Bull will somehow manage to pass the drivers’ title to the Alonso. Which is really phenomenal given the car advantage they’ve enjoyed this year; they should’ve at least managed to exclude everyone else a while ago. Just goes to show that even if you have the best car, you’ve still got to drive it. Sort of puts Button’s performance in the Brawn last year – which only had an advantage for about 4 or 5 races – into context for those who say his championship is devalued because of the car advantage. Bullshit.

Posted In: EngineeringMotorsportProcrastinationStuff Tagged: | 2 Comments