Thursday, November 24, 2011

Why I don't support the public sector strikes

My first "proper" job (not counting the year I spent waiting to do what I wanted to do) had a final salary pension scheme. The retirement date when I joined was 60 - it had relatively recently been increased from 55. This is in a career in which a fair number of people end up having to stop on medical grounds before retirement date.

Around 10 years into this job, the final salary pension scheme was closed for new joiners. It was in a state of substantial actuarial deficit - meaning that the total amount of money that was held by the scheme, coupled with slow growth anticipated, could not meet the financial demands anticipated. The company put more money into it, but they also said that employees had to either increase their contribution to obtain the benefit to which they had previously entitled to, or accept a reduced benefit. It goes without saying that there was no "state" or "taxpayer" to cover any deficit, despite the fact that part of the reason for the deficit was because of a certain chancellor changing the rules to take money out of pension schemes.

Five years ago, I changed to a job in the same sector, but with a different employer. I was able to freeze my final salary pension with the first employer. The new one had a money-purchase scheme, but the retirement date was now 65.

So, over the course of just over 20 years, remaining in the same sector, I have gone from a final salary pension to a money-purchase pension, and my retirement date has got 10 years later.

No-one wants to see other people having to work longer or getting smaller benefits. But neither is it reasonable to assume that because you are a public sector employee, you should be entitled to have a pension that is subsidised with taxpayer's (my) money that is better than any I can hope to have. It used to be the case that such perks could be justified because the terms and conditions of public sector employees were generally worse than those in the private sector - but that's not the case any more. (Here's a report about the relationship between public and private sector pay.)

The public sector strikes aren't to do with economic reality: they are politically opportunistic attempts to chuck stones at the coalition government. There is no political party that would be prepared to back away from reform, and I suspect that the Labour party are secretly relieved that they aren't the party that has had to take the bull by the horns and risk alienating their union supporters. Whilst of course nobody would disagree with the idea of nurses and teachers being able to stop work before they are too old to do their jobs effectively, I suspect it's also the case that few people employed by the private sector are prepared to accept tax rises to allow the public sector privileges that are long gone from the private sector. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

Foreign exchange - what happened next

To continue the story I started in the post below .... I noticed that the foreign exchange at Marks and Spencers also did a very good rate - in fact, over the counter, within two tenths of a cent of the same rate that I could get online at the post office. So I went there.

They didn't charge commission. However ... they said that if I withdrew money using a Barclays debit card (debit card!!) then Barclays would charge commission. I have to say that this baffled me - since when have a bank charged for using a debit card for making a cash withdrawal?!

However, I went to a cashpoint, withdrew (free) £300, went back to Marks and Spencers, and exchanged it for dollars.

Had I bought dollars at the airport, £300 would have bought me around $425. A week or so later, at Marks and Spencers, about £299 bought me $455. The exchange rate had changed in that time, and this accounts for around half the difference.

It's also worth noting that if you order money in advance to collect from the airport, the exchange rates are far less punitive.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Currency exchange - what is good value?

I'd always assumed that the cost of buying and selling currency was "much of a muchness" for your average person (ie. someone who is trying to get money for a holiday, rather than someone who is trading currency as a means of making a profit). Specifically, I thought that since I work at the airport and the exchange bureaux there did "a little bit more" for people who work there, I was getting a fairly good deal.

I was intending to buy some US dollars for a holiday. It's some way ahead, but the exchange rate is quite good, so I thought I'd do it now. There was a little queue for the first office, and whilst I was standing there, I clocked their exchange rate. The published rate in the newspaper was around $1.55 to the pound; I'd been watching it. But they offered to sell dollars at $1.40ish to the pound and buy at $1.74.

That was a pretty huge margin, I thought - almost 10%. So I thought I'd wait, and investigate other possibilities. The same day, the bank were offering $1.45 and the Post Office $1.49! To get some idea of how much difference this makes, if you are buying £500 worth of dollars for a holiday, you would get an extra $45 if you went to the Post Office. It's not the case that commission eats this difference up; in each case, the transaction would have been commission-free. I didn't look on that day at the rate I could get from a travel agent.

I then looked back at what we had paid for expenditure on credit cards. Payments made on credit cards last February, when the exchange rate had been around $1.61, had included a commission charge of around 2.7%. That meant that the equivalent exchange rate for purchases with a credit card had been at around $1.56 - comparable to the rate from the Post Office. I also looked at a transaction where I had drawn money out on a credit card abroad. The same commission charge is applied - about 2.7% - and there is an additional £2.50 charge for withdrawing money, but if you take a significant amount of money out in one go, this would be very cost effective. Bear in mind that the balance for cash transactions on credit cards may incur a higher interest rate, if you don't repay the whole amount every month. The commission rate for a debit card looked as though it was slightly higher, but the handling charge was lower.

So in conclusion ...

The best place to buy foreign money to take abroad with you seems to be the Post Office. But paying for things on credit cards when you're there or even withdrawing cash from an ATM using a credit card (in as large dollops as you can) will also get you a very competitive exchange rate.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


... developed the concept of the 'context of situation', that is, that language is only really comprehensible if we take into account the whole context in which it occurs; the interlinking between the language that is used and the setting in which it is used.
Which about wraps it up for deconstruction.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

More university fee stuff

Here's a very helpful article from Money Saving Expert about how the new student loan setup will work.

In related news, Open University have just announced a major increase in fees. At the moment, you get "points" for completing OU modules - a typical course is worth 60 points, and 120 points constitutes an undergraduate year. At the moment, a 60 point course costs around £700. This will increase in September 2012 to £2500. It will be possible to obtain student loans towards the cost of tuition.

In effect, OU is moving further in the direction of being a mainstream university: it will no longer be realistic for most people to dabble in OU studies; they'll have to decide whether or not to commit to them in a more formal way. It will be one of the most versatile and best value ways of getting a degree, but this is a big cultural change.

Transitional arrangements will exist for people who are already studying. If you want to take advantage of fees based on the current structure for courses starting after 1 September 2012, you must have completed a module which began between 1 September 2010 and 31 August 2011 or be studying a module that starts between 1 September 2011 and 31 August 2012.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

"One in a million is not a fluke ..."

An interesting article on the BBC. It says that a five-sigma level of certainty is the accepted level in particle physics to claim a "discovery". Sigma here is standard deviation:
The number of sigmas (or standard deviations) is a measure of how unlikely it is that an experimental result is simply down to chance rather than a real effect.
To tag "five sigma" as certainty means that a one in a million occurrence is counted as not happening just by chance.

It would be interesting to see how that relates to the Universal Probability Bound (see where else I have discussed this here) or, for that matter, Behe'sEdge of Evolution(if at all).

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry Potter 7b

A few random thoughts - hopefully without too many spoilers ....

Watching the film really did feel like the end of an era. Harry Potter, films and books, has been part of my life for a decade, and whilst Pottermore will doubtless offer interesting and enjoyable material, the narrative circle is now complete. Along the way, I've been introduced passim to Joseph Campbell, Jungian archetypes and radical feminism, so my intellectual life is richer. Whilst Grint, Watson and Radcliffe may not be the greatest actors in the world, they have come to strongly shape the characters; the repertoire of British actors who have played supporting roles in the series have been excellent; and the achievement that is represented by holding the eight films together without destroying anybody's lives is substantial!

In many ways, I thought the film actually worked better than the book. There were certain things that were quite hard to follow in the book, which were made clearer in the film. Whether having read the book was required to follow the film, I'm not sure. There were also some deviations from the narrative sequence in the book. For example, some key sequences - the final showdown, and the death of the snake, amongst others - were presented in a way which made better narrative sense. These also made for better cinema. The increasing connection between Harry and Voldemort as the film went on was also brought out very well.

The fact that this film is largely action-driven for me highlights how character-driven is part 1. There was no shortage of action in it, but Harry, Ron and Hermione were allowed to develop through the film. Perhaps as a consequence, with the exception of the exposition at the start of film 2, it felt like a bit of a rush - one got the feeling that anything not directly related to the action was a kind of quick "Oh, we ought to show this about that character here ...."

The remaining Harry Potter event will be the release of the DVD, I guess. My daughter is already talking about a back-to-back showing. I'm not sure that I could cope with 20 hours, but I'd certainly like to watch the whole of "Deathly Hallows" in one go.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Olympic ticket bid

We didn't get any tickets either, having applied "within our means". Apparently, only 1 in 7 people didn't get anything. For myself, I think I know as many people who did as who didn't - though that may reflect the fact that most people I know would have been pitching for the cheaper tickets.

With hindsight, we can see that the system favoured those people who ignored the advice and applied "without the means" - there is no real penalty for this anyway, since anything you can't afford you can almost certainly pass on later on - and also those people of "great means". Not really a "people's games", then .... That does seem somewhat unfair - certainly the corporate sponsors want to make their bit, but a large chunk of the cost of the games (and all of the disruption) is borne not by the sponsors but by the people.

It is possible to imagine ways of improving the system, again with hindsight. It makes the process of applying more complicated - but to be honest, the system was pretty complicated anyway. People could rank the sessions they were bidding for in order of preference. First preferences are processed first, randomly. Those people who are successful with a bid have their subsequent preferences dealt with after those who are unsuccessful. That would almost certainly ensure a larger number of people actually get tickets.

But it doesn't make much difference now. We, like lots of other people, will just have to try and take our chances in the next lottery round.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Solar power update

Various snippets of news ...

EDF have told us that the first FIT payment and payment for electricity supplied to the grid is about to be transferred into our bank account. A mere £19 or so, this being for the 45 units we generated from mid-December to the end of February - but you have to start somewhere.

The reading was requested in March, and I sent it on 1st March - incidentally, just before the system really started to get going. As I mentioned in an earlier post, EDF only undertook to make the payment within 90 days of the end of the month that the reading was taken - which would have been the end of June, basically. So it was reassuring to be told it would be arriving six weeks earlier than that. I don't know if had I taken the reading later in the month, whether I'd have got the payment at the same time.

The next payment will be for electricity generated from March 1 to the end of May, and will be somewhat more substantial - we're running at an average of around 7 units per day at the moment, and I think we'll be claiming for around 500 kWh for those three months.

The amount of electricity we are drawing from the mains is lower - and noticeably lower on bright days than on dull days. Several years ago, we seemed to be using an average of around 20-22 units per day, all year round. I think our usage is somewhat less than that now - partly due to the replacement of appliances with more efficient ones, and use of low energy lightbulbs, over the last few years; partly due to the feedback from the energy monitor that we have - in the last few months of the winter, it sometimes spiked at over 20 units per day, but the average was around 17. Less power is used for lighting and so on in the summer, so that would bring it down a bit further. But the seven-day moving average of electricity units drawn from the main has actually been below 10 since early April. For a few days in the clear, bright weather at the start of May, we were generating over 11 kWh per day, and the moving average of the amount we were generating was actually above the moving average of the amount we were using.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

U211 versus deconstruction

The OU course U211 "Exploring the English Language" continues to provide food for thought, and a drain on money as I buy books related to it. I've been interested by how "un-postmodern" it is as a course. The influential linguist Halliday developed a system called systemic functional linguistics, which intriguingly I brushed past as I was doing my computer science degree over 20 years ago, when as a field of study it would have been pretty much brand new.

Functional linguistics is in turn developed from the work of Bronislaw Malinowski, who focused on the use of language in context. He asserted that language is only really comprehensible if we take into account the whole context in which it occurs - the interlinking of language used and the setting in which it is used. In other words, if you take a text out of context, you are going to lose some of the meaning and significance. There's an old saying amongst Bible teachers, that "a text without a context is a pretext". It's not quite addressing the same issue, but it does work as an epigram in this field. And the most reliable Bible teachers take seriously the need to understand sections of the Bible in context, rather than using them merely as a springboard for their own thoughts.

English Literature as a field is almost next to this study of English Language/Linguistics. And yet, at times, its approach to context is almost the exact opposite. There is the deconstructive sense that (as I understand it) the meaning of the text is entirely found in the reader, rather than the creator. Thus, in literature terms, it is legitimate to analyse Shakespeare as a gay text, for example. I don't think the linguistic approach would object to a reader explaining the personal significance of a text, but it does insist that the full meaning of a text is found not in the response of the reader, but in its original context.

A deconstructive approach is ultimately self-defeating, as any text (including the one written by the person analysing another) is open to reinterpretation according to any context. Of course, there is the need to be aware of the cultural baggage of a reader as well as the cultural context of the writer - but this is very different from arguing, in effect, that authorial intent is irrelevant.

Monday, May 09, 2011

The FIT scam

It sounds fairly scammy that the government should pay people for generating solar power, far more than the electricity costs to generate or that any company can sell the electricity for. However, this is a government scheme to encourage uptake of microgeneration of electricity. There was a grants regime before, and this has replaced it. And the payback time is still likely to be over a decade - worthwhile, but you need to have a long view.

What is more of a scam is the electricity company role in this. The standard regime is that electricity that we generate and don't use we get paid 3p per unit for. The electricity doesn't bother metering it - they have decided to pay us for half the units we generate. The payment scheme for this is that they say they will pay us within 90 days of the end of the month on which the meter reading was taken. And herein lies the scam.

The next meter reading I do is due in June. Let's say I do it on June 1st. It will relate to the electricity I generated in March, April and May, which will amount to around 500 units, let's say - worth £200 of Feed-In Tariff payments. A significant proportion of this electricity will have fed into the grid - let's say half. That is 250 units that the electricity company doesn't have to incur costs to generate in March-May. But they don't have to pay for them until 90 days after the end of June - that is, the end of September. And when they do pay for them, they only pay 3p per unit. In the meantime, they will have billed and collected their standard rate for them - 12-13p per unit at the moment.

I hadn't put the numbers together when I had this installed just how good a deal it is for the electricity companies. Ours is already exploiting our direct debit scheme to ensure that they are almost always sitting on (and earning interest on) several hundred pounds of credit balance on our account. The companies pushed people to take up direct debit, on the basis of convenience, and a small reduction in charges - but if our experience is typical, they are probably sitting on, and earning interest on, several hundred million pounds of prepayments. Add to this the FIT scheme - it makes it clear that the main short-term beneficiaries of the scheme are not the people who have the systems installed, but the electricity companies.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The morning after

It may seem an odd thing to say, but I am not political - or at least, not party political - or at least, I haven't been party political up to now. I have fairly strongly (and apparently unsuccessfully!) backed the AV campaign. The fundamental reason for this is because I believe in weak government - government that takes place by consensus and co-operation between parties, rather than through the control of one political party. My adult life, until this time last year, has been spent under governments which have doggedly placed the concerns of vested interests and ideologies above their responsibility for the nation, and consequence of this is that the nation has mortgaged its future, and we will basically be paying the price for this forever. Seriously. There were good things that we had as a nation 25 years ago that we will simply never have again, thanks to the last two governments. The wealth of our nation has been squandered.

In England, this seems to be simply not understood by the electorate - either that, or the "electorate" (if millions of votes can be represented as a single entity) simply wished to register a huge howl of protest at its discomfort. The idea of people returning to Labour at the moment is absurd - it has a new leader, but there is nothing to suggest that it has any better idea of how to govern than when it was turned out of office last year. The fact that even in opposition, they are still talking about allowing the deficit to continue to increase confirms this - just how much of the national income do we have to spend on interest payments? And what is going to happen when the base rate starts to increase? I don't understand how anybody with any sense of how government finance works can sleep at night at the moment.

The idea of people realistically thinking that the junior partner in the coalition could or should have been able to do more than they have to change the direction of the senior partner is also absurd. I don't understand why the Liberals should be punished when they have actually done what they can to make sure the impact of the fiscal tightening is felt by and large by those who can afford it (I say this as someone who by this time next year will be literally thousands of pounds a year worse off) - or, for that matter, why the coalition should be punished for trying to sort out the pile of poo that the economy was left in by the last government, or, for that matter, how anybody can tolerate the smug self-righteousness of anybody in the Labour party criticising the current government.

As for the referendum, it looks like there goes our chance for electoral reform for the next generation - and probably the only chance the nation had to save itself from government by ideology rather than consensus. It's interesting that even with a big reaction against the coalition government, the share of the vote in England was: Labour, 37%; Conservative, 32%; Liberal, 15%. The strong government approach would give one of those parties the mandate to run the government according to its party ethos. A weak government approach (of the sort that I'd prefer) would point out that no party is attracting even 40% of the vote, so no party should consider that it has a mandate to rule according to its party ethos. Only by working together can political parties claim to have a democratic mandate where the vote is split in this way, and the reason the vote is split is because no normal people believe in the ethos of parties any more. A voting system which more clearly highlights the subtleties of what people are looking for in politics - as AV would have done at least a little more - would have served the nation better than the current system, which keeps asking people the same question that they stopped being interested in 30 years ago.

More money may have been raised by the "Yes" campaign - but they had a lot more work to do, given the opposition of most of the press. It has been acknowledged that the "No" campaign simply made stuff up - something which is okay in a referendum, apparently, because no candidate is affected as a result. Hmph. A lot of candidates stand to benefit from these lies, and a lot of voters stand to have their votes ignored.

But the people have spoken. We had the opportunity to think about the issue, to ask questions and so on - and we weren't interested. As I said earlier in the campaign, as a nation, we probably get the government we deserve.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Death of Osama Bin Laden

Opinions seem to have been divided about this. For a fair number of people on Facebook, it was an opportunity for rather lame jokes - but then, some people tell jokes about most atrocities and appalling events - laughing in the face of grim realities, perhaps, at risk of rationalising something gross. Few people that I know reacted with the sort of triumphalism that was seen by crowds in the US when it was announced. It was worth noticing that although there was a sense of achievement from the US government, I would have described their attitude overall as being closer to grim than celebratory.

Amongst the more thoughtful people, this quotation "went viral" -
"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that" - Martin Luther King
Interestingly, whilst the second half - from "Returning hate for hate..." - is a quotation from MLK - possibly one he used on several occasions (I found it on the internet in a sermon from 1957, and a speech in 1963) - the first half is made up by somebody else. Whether the two parts of the quotation were erroneously joined or somebody deliberately tried to pass off a new line as his is unclear - see here for a little more discussion on this. Here is how it ought to be more correctly:
I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.

"Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Conspiracy theories are an inevitable consequence of a connected age - but then, now I mention it, they always abounded. Perhaps they just spread faster now. In much the same way that the Roman/Jewish authorities could have dealt with the rumours of Jesus' resurrection by producing his body, the credibility of the US government would be destroyed if Bin Laden were to appear alive or if his body could be shown to be somewhere else. The parallels and contrasts are interesting. In the case of Jesus, the assertion of the disciples was that he was risen, and their behaviour reflected that - something stopped them cowering in upper rooms as they had been immediately after Jesus' execution. It should have been in the power of the authorities to scotch this rumour, but they didn't. In the case of Bin Laden, the assertion of the conspiracy theorists is that he isn't dead. The authorities claim to have available evidence to refute this, although they haven't released it. In support of the proposition that he is dead, they claim to have eyewitnesses, and other circumstantial evidence (the content of Bin Laden's computer), and events are likely to take place which follow from him being dead. The stakes are incredibly high, and the US government knows this - the damage that would be done to them and indeed the credibility of the United States as a whole if they were shown to be wrong in this regard would be immeasurable. With all this at stake, the incentives for anybody to even produce evidence of a body somewhere other than where the US government says, let alone Bin Laden appearing live on the scene, are probably as large as the reward that the government offered. But absent any evidence that Bin Laden is still alive, the conspiracy theories will continue to look as though they are based on "blind faith", rather than any evidence.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Colvile's "Reasons to vote no"

"1. It makes politics mushier." Absolutely. It means that political parties can't do their own thing on the back of the vote of a minority of the popular vote. They are more likely to have to work with other parties. That sounds like a good thing to me.

"2. It's the wrong reform." Absolutely. But it's all we're likely to get - and let's face it, are either of the two large parties likely to agree to a referendum on PR? I think not.

"3. Nobody actually wants it." Er, actually this is basically the same as 2.

"4. Because the Yes campaign deserve it." Ad Hom. Grow up.

"5. It's not actually fairer." ... because smaller parties are at risk of disappearing entirely, and big swings lead to huge landslides as second preferences slide behind charismatic politicians. However, smaller parties interests are only going to be served by PR, and PR will not come about unless this is a stepping stone. And as for the other issue, if AV changes the political landscape by introducing parties permanently working together, perhaps we might be saved from the curse of charismatic leaders dragging incompetent parties with them.

"6. It's not worth it." ... it might cost more money. This point brings me closer to swearing at the Telegraph correspondent than any other. Firstly, it isn't clear how much extra it will cost, if at all. More fundamentally, if something is good in democratic terms, then you pay the money for it. Elections cost money - perhaps Colvile thinks we should scrap them too? Cost is a non-argument.

"7. It makes tactical voting worse." ... because political parties might tell you how to vote. Well, really, if the British electorate are prepared to be told how to vote by political parties, then I think we may as well scrap elections anyway.

Incidentally, we are told that Clegg is a spent force politically. Supposing there were a general election tomorrow. Are there any politicians that the electorate would be prepared to see running a government? IAMFI

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Cost of AV - and how come so few countries do it

It has been suggested by the "No" campaign that the cost of the Alternative Voting system (AV) might be £250 million pounds.

It has been suggested by the "Yes" campaign that this is rubbish, and indeed Chris Huhne, a Libdem minister, is muttering about legal action against the "No" campaign for the misrepresentation. £130 million was the estimate of cost for vote counting machines - which aren't needed - they haven't ever been used in Australia, which uses AV for general elections. £90 million is the cost of the referendum - which is being paid anyway. And £25 million is the cost of educating the electorate on how to use the system - as somebody said on their blog: "Please can I be the one to be paid £25 million pounds to tell people to list their preferred candidates in order of preference?"

However, let's suppose for a minute that there is in fact a cost to AV. Does that mean it shouldn't be spent? The cost to the taxpayer of the 2001 general election, according to the BBC, was £80 million pounds. Should that not have been spent either?

Of course it should! Government costs money. Another possibility would be that we could scrap elections to avoid paying for them - and have a totalitarian government!

The cost of elections, run in accordance with a country's constitution, is part of the price of democracy. If it is decided (as obviously I think it ought to be) that AV is a better system than "First past the quote post unquote", then the country undertakes to meet the price of elections run upon this basis. The rationale in moving to AV would be ensuring a more representative government. Many people think that it would be worth paying quite a high price to achieve this.

(There's also the fact that money spent by governments doesn't just disappear - it actually pays to employ people.)

Also, it has been regularly pointed out supposedly in defence of "First past the quote post unquote" that AV is only used by three countries - the implication being that few countries have moved in this direction. But in actual fact, many countries already have a voting system with proportional representation (PR). According to Wikipedia, this includes regional assemblies in the UK, and Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands, Brazil and Russia. AV is not proper PR - it is a step in that direction. So although there aren't many countries that have AV, that is partly because many more already have far more progressive voting systems.

Friday, April 22, 2011

I don't want strong government

I don't want government run by a party who can do whatever they think is best, with no regard for what the other parties think. That way lies the erosion of civil liberties. That way lies the introduction of identity cards, national databases. That way lies getting into wars for reasons that are not understood and agreed by the government as a whole. That way lies the ideological destruction of national industries. That way lies corruption, and politicians who regard themselves as above the law and the nation as a whole.

I want weak government, where every decision (ideally) has to be agreed by all the elected representatives. In an ideal world, I'd have a government where every decision that is made by elected representatives is made on the basis of a direct mandate on that decision from the people that elected them. I want government that takes place supposedly in my name to be directly accountable to me, in every regard.

I can't understand why anybody in a democratic society would want strong government. If you want strong government, then bring on totalitarianism.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The "No" leaflet

... you know - the one that says "Keep One Person, One Vote"? Some reactions ...

"None of your taxes have been used to print this leaflet" - in other words, there are people who have such strong vested interests in not changing the system that they are prepared to fund a campaign that costs millions. Who are they? And why is it so important to them? I think we should be told.

"The cost of AV is £250 million." Assuming that these numbers are correct (which I doubt), democracy has a price - every election costs money - and that money could be spent on other things. But the idea of democracy is to hold politicians to account. I'd have happily had the country spending ten times that amount if through this it had been able to keep the previous Labour and Conservative governments in check. Better that than the financial hole we had fallen into once the Labour government had scorched the earth behind it. The government that we have now - a coalition, representing 60% of the votes, achieved against the odds under the FPTP system, is working together to fix the shambles of Conservative deregulation followed by Labour big government. If you think the cuts we are facing now are bad, they would be worse were the Conservatives going it alone. And Labour still have nothing coherent to offer. The existing system makes "strong" governments - "strong" meaning free to do what they like in accordance with their ideology and funding organisations. I don't want a strong government. The democratic ideal is that governments should be weak and dependent upon doing the will of the people.

The existing system also makes "strong" MPs. In most electoral constituencies, the MP needs to do hardly anything to secure your vote. At every election, politicians flood into the marginal seats which, we are told, will swing the parliamentary majority one way or the other. What that means is that if you're not in one of those seats, you are simply not important. Parties aren't concerned about broad electoral appeal, or what is best for the country as a whole - all they want at the moment is to win these marginal seats - because the existing system is flooded with "strong" MPs who are fundamentally not democratically accountable. That's why the system needs to be reformed.


That's what "MPs working harder" means - it's not about what happens after the election; it's about how they get elected in the first place.

"The second or third best can win under AV" From a critical thinking point of view, a bus fits through here. What does "best" mean? The leaflet suggests that "best" means "having the most first choice votes". But that's a very narrow definition of "best" - "most widely acceptable", "most competent", "most representative" are alternative definitions.

"Under our present system, the one who comes first is always the winner". But the one who comes first is not necessarily the most representative or the most competent - that's the whole point.

This leaflet makes me angry.


Saranam, Saranam, Saranam
Saranam, Saranam, Saranam
Jesus, Saviour Lord, lo to thee I fly
Saranam, Saranam, Saranam
Thou the rock the refuge that’s higher than I
Saranam, Saranam, Saranam

In the midst of foes I cry to thee
From the ends of earth wherever I may be
My strength in helplessness O answer me
Saranam, Saranam, Saranam

In thy tent give me a dwelling place
And beneath thy wings may I find sheltering grace
O lift on me the sunshine of thy face
Saranam, Saranam, Saranam

O that I may vows to thee may pay
And that by thy faithfulness to me each day
May live and on thy love my burdens lay
Saranam, Saranam, Saranam
From here. Traditional Pakistani, translated by Daniel Thambyrajah Niles (1963)

"A House Like a Lotus" - Madeleine L'Engle

This is quietly one of the most extraordinary young adult books that I've read. Unfortunately it is almost as unavailable as a book is able to be - I was lucky enough to find a cheap secondhand copy from a seller in the US, which was shipped to me in a couple of weeks or thereabouts.

Madeleine L'Engle wrote some of the books that I enjoyed most as a young person, and then enjoyed again as an adult - the "Wrinkle in Time" series. What I only realised today was that WiT was number 20 on a list of the top 50 books that have influenced evangelicals - ahead of "Left Behind" and "Operation World"! It was only relatively recently that I came across the quote from L'Engle along the lines of: if a book would be too difficult to write for adults, write it for children.

"A House Like a Lotus" is the story of a young woman, Polly, who has seized an opportunity to travel across the world, clearly fleeing from something at home that she can't cope with. What that is is only gradually unwrapped, through memories, and its interactions with her present company, and we then have to see whether this is something which she is going to be able to come to terms with before it is too late.

L'Engle writes with a level of scientific and artistic literacy that is rarely, if ever, seen in any author. She also writes with an extraordinary level of empathy and understanding of the minds of her characters - in my opinion, she really captured the behaviour of the children and young people she wrote about, despite having written this well in her 60s. The dynamic of the relationship between Polly and Max - an older woman who Polly ends up almost treating as God, and who is unable to live up to this status - was also interesting. L'Engle's characters are complex and subtle - it's too easy to have pantomime heroes and villains, and hers are never caricatures.

L'Engle makes little in the way of explicit religious declaration throughout the book - if your assumption is that anything influencing evangelical Christians is going to draw lines and bash people over the head with the Bible, this would throw you! The practice of tolerance, wisdom and acceptance that is the thread in this book and all of her other books is one which I admire and aspire to, although I'm more generally aware of how far I fall short.

I'd like to say: get this book and read it straight away. But you can't, as it's simply not available. I am, however, hoping to find people to read my copy and tell me what they think soon - let me know if you think you might be interested.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The behaviour of the PV system

Some interesting and curious phenomena are coming to light (if you are a PV geek).

Yesterday was the first time in a week that we didn't get close to 8 kWh. It was pretty cloudy all day, with occasional light drizzle. However, we still managed to generate 4.7 kWh - which is as near as anything to what we hope to see as an average for the year.

Phenomenon 1: When it's cloudy, the PV system comes on earlier.

On sunny days, it can be quite late by the time the inverter switches on - even now, around 9.00 (which, with daylight saving, is close to 0800 in "solar time", where you base noon on the time the sun is closest to overhead). It seems to be the case that if it's cloudy (but reasonably light) it comes on earlier - today it was on a good hour earlier than that. I think this is because one of the effects of the clouds is to diffuse the sunlight across the sky. As long as the cloud cover is not too thick, the brightness of a cloudy sky overall tends to be greater than the brightness of a blue sky.

Obviously, without direct sunlight, the panels won't generate as much power as in sunshine. However, this brings me to ...

Phenomenon 2: The highest output peaks come not on the sunniest days, but on sunny intervals on cloudy days.

In theory, the output of our inverter should not exceed 2000 W. The running output we have been led to expect is around 1800 W. Look at the peak output from the last few days:
DatePeak output/WTotal output/kWh
06 Apr17418957
07 Apr16098750
08 Apr15848454
12 Apr19927912
13 Apr19304701
6-8 April saw us in settled anticyclonic weather. I suspect that the reason for the gradual decline in peak output (and total output) was that this sort of high pressure results in a haze layer gradually building from ground level up. Barely perceptible, particularly to begin with, it does however lead to the rise in hayfever conditions at this time of year! However, it may be thick enough to gradually result in more of the sunlight not arriving at the solar panels.

12 and 13 were both cloudy; 12 intermittently cloudy, and 13 as I said earlier on, fairly steady grey. However, on both days, peak output was higher than in the anticyclonic weather. There are a couple of possibilities for this. The first is that it was no more than a momentary spike, and it wouldn't have maintained it for any length of time. The second is that the haze layer is significantly less defined outside the anticyclonic conditions, and when the sun was able to break through the cloud, the solar system was able to generate a higher power.

This requires a little more research, which will be easier when the promised PC interface card arrives - we can see just how much time is spent at high power on the less sunny days. It is certainly satisfying to see the LED on the solar output meter blinking away every two seconds as another Wh is generated in bright weather.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On being a snob

Max climbed down from the ladder, and refilled my cup. It was a special tea, smoky, and we drank it without anything in it. I liked it. I liked Max. I liked talking with her. At home, everybody (except my parents) was younger than I, and our conversations were limited. And at school, I didn't have any real friends.... Mostly, I felt I was walking through the scene, saying my lines reasonably well, but not being really in the show. At school, I tried to play the role that was expected of me, as best I could. With Max, I was myself.

She laughed at me gently. 'What a snob you are, Polly.'

'Me?' I was startled.

'Why not? It's obvious that school bores you, and that there's nobody to challenge you, teacher or student.'

'A lot of kids are bright.'

She cut me off. 'Go ahead and be a snob. I'm a snob. If you didn't interest me, I wouldn't give you the time of day. Being a snob isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can mean being unwilling to walk blindly through life instead of living it fully. Being unwilling to lose a sense of wonder. Being alive is a marvellous, precarious mystery, and few people appreciate it. Go on being a snob, Polly, as long as it keeps your mind and heart alert. It doesn't mean that you can't appreciate people who are different from you, or who have different interests.'

Max made me not only willing to be Polyhymnia O'Keefe but happy to be.

A House like a Lotus - Madeleine L'Engle
Some quick thoughts:

1. I don't know why this is out of print. I managed to get a second-hand copy from the States when I heard about it.

2. The relationship doesn't end happily, apparently.

3. From the perspective of the study of English language I'm doing at the moment, I clocked the grammatically incorrect "younger than I" - which may be a pompousism in the "snobbish" narrator's voice - and also that L'Engle uses "different from you", not today's more common US usage "different than you." I probably ought to find out about the heritage of "different than".

4. You probably think this song's about you ... it's not.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Solar PV in spring

We've had six lovely sunny days, generally warm, with largely clear skies. Trees have been covered with blossom and the bright green leaves of the new year.

The output of the solar system has increased accordingly. On each day, we've generated around 8-9 units - a good result for the whole year would be an average of 5 units per day - and peak output has been 1600-1700 watts. The total output for the six days has been more than we claimed for the first three months that the system was installed!

I suspect peak output won't increase greatly - we get odd spikes up towards the 2000 watt point, but it rarely seems to run steadily with this output - I hope that the system will generate closer to the peak for a larger proportion of the day as the summer goes on. At the moment, on a clear day, there is a fairly slow increase from around 9 am (0800 GMT) when the system typically comes onto around 11 am, with the output increasing from around 100 to 400 watts. Then it increases more quickly to its "high output" state, around 1500 watts, as the sun increasingly illuminates both banks of panels, and then starts to drop away fairly abruptly at around 3.30 pm (1430 GMT) as the sun gets closer to the treeline behind the house.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Increase in personal tax allowance.

"a significant rise in the personal tax allowance which will benefit around 23 million basic rate taxpayers"...

£1000 per year tax allowance on which you aren't paying 20% tax ... that equates to £200 per year less tax paid ... which equates to £16.67 per month.

Don't spend it all at once.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The jobs trap?

The Times (don't bother - it's behind a paywall) says that Conservative MPs are turning on Nick Clegg because he is opposed to wealthy families securing "plum internships" for their children, particularly when he benefited from it himself. The Times describes this on its front page headline as a/the (no article was specified) "jobs trap".

I can't see there being a problem myself, other than it being pretty much impossible to police. It's hardly an issue of hypocrisy, any more than a man who was elected by a male electorate is a hypocrite for supporting votes for women. Or a party that was elected with FPTP supporting proportional representation. Change has to start somewhere.

There's no real issue with internships per se. The problem is when this becomes a means of reinforcing social exclusion - exactly the issue that Clegg is trying to address.

As for the accusation made by one MP that this is a "soft and silly policy that most will find immensely patronising" - I for one don't, and I think as more people become aware of an avenue of privilege which others are benefiting from and which they have no access to, they will expect something to be done about it. The governments of other nations may privilege certain social groups. I'd rather not see it here.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Solar update

Today, the five-day moving average of electricity generated per day clicked over 5 kWh (and, for that matter, over 6kWh). We've had odd days when the amount generated has been up to nearly 8 kWh, but this has been the first time when the average has been consistently above the 5 unit point.

The significance of this is that, to make the money that Rayotec claimed for the system, we need to generate around 5 units per day, averaged over the whole year.

We've been monitoring energy usage closely as well, and it's interesting watching the falling trend here. This is partly due to the increase in generated electricity that we have been able to use, but also because as the days get longer and milder, less electricity is used generally.

The next interesting milestone will be when we see a day on which we generate more electricity than we use.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

"The Hunger Games" Parts 2 and 3 - Suzanne Collins

A nearly excellent book ... "Catching Fire" continues where "Hunger Games" left off. Without doubt, this is one of the most significant works of young people's fiction to have appeared in the last few years - with good characterisation, complex plot, moral depth, and enough of an interface with the real world ("Amusing ourselves to Death", literally) to stir discussion.

Personally, I didn't feel that this book was any weaker - it didn't suffer from "second book syndrome"; it has a good independent plot line. There are two parts in separate locations, but then, it is quite possible to divide even the Harry Potter books up into large almost separate chunks. There is an overarching narrative left hanging - but by the same token, it had its own plotline which did conclude.

That's not to say that I consider the book perfect. My quibbles are two-fold. Firstly, the issue that I had with the first book - too much cannon-fodder - hasn't changed. Too many people are introduced simply for the sake of being killed shortly afterwards. It wasn't quite as gory as "Hunger Games", and less time was spent building up our relationship with characters - but even so, I struggle with the sheer brutality of the book.

The other issue is that of suspension of disbelief. It irritates the socks off me when smug TV programmes show all the places where you can the film makers made a mistake and YOU CAN SEE that it's a film. I KNOW it's a film! But I come to see it because I want the film-makers and writer and cast to tell me a story. Similarly, I know that "Catching Fire" is only a story. But there are times when, despite the care that had gone into constructing the scenario, a part of me was just thinking - Naaaaah. It is this fact that, I think, means that Collins' books stand as young people's literature, when they came close to being literature with a dystopic vision in their own right.

However, I would still strongly recommend the book, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next in "Mockingjay".

Well, I must be the awkward one because in my opinion, this was the strongest of the "Hunger Games" trilogy. Having survived her own Hunger Games, and been snatched from the Quarter Quell, Katniss Everdeen finds herself being asked to become the figurehead for an uprising against the Capitol. But just how bad is the Capitol's rule? And is the alternative, offered by the head of the phantom District 13, much better?

This is a fine and subtle book, which has many resonances with issues that are live in our world - tyranny, media for entertainment, propaganda and news, the extent to which the end justifies the means - and this in itself makes it a good launchpad for discussion. On top of that, Katniss is not a simple, triumphant heroine. She is scarred as a result of the torment she has experienced at the hands of the system in the last two books. She is unable to choose between two boys who love her. The people around her are also complex - aspects of their characters which seemed almost by-the-by earlier in the series come to shape and define them, making clear their pathway in some surprising ways. People express dislike of the fact that as Katniss barely avoids total disintegration, we miss significant chunks of the story - but this is her story, not the account of the revolution. Like Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (The Ender saga), one could easily imagine a further series spun off from this one, filling in some of the other people's stories, but in the mean time, I was more than happy from a narrative point of view to live through Katniss's despair.

What of the criticisms I had of the earlier books? Yes, there are still a large number of people who die - but they are no longer "cannon-fodder" - simply placed in the story to be wiped out. Most of the deaths that impact Katniss in this book are no longer "incidental" - they have weight. And the other criticism - that too much of a demand was being placed on me to suspend disbelief - I also feel doesn't hold for "Mockingjay" in the same way.

Personally, I feel that this is the book that makes the series.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Job losses in the oil industry?

Oil companies claim that tens of thousands of jobs will be lost as a result of a £2 billion levy on the oil industry in the UK to pay for general tax cuts. I'm not convinced.

Nobody wants to pay more in tax than they have to, of course. However, the price of oil isn't based on what it costs to produce. It is a commodity, and whilst the price has been driven up as a result of speculation and some restriction in demand following the turmoil in the Middle East, the cost of its production hasn't substantially changed. Supply is largely regulated - both on a macro level (OPEC setting production quotas) and on a micro level (oil tankers reportedly delaying unloading to wait for the oil price to rise further).

The effect of the rise in oil price has been a huge rise in profits for oil companies - Shell alone made a profit of over £10 billion in 2010. Certainly whilst they are making this money, they are likely to continue to plough it back into R+D (creating more jobs), and higher dividends. Certainly the companies who have this money available to them are likely to use them as engines for growth of the company. But to say that jobs which might be created in the future are dependent upon such windfall profits is misleading. And I'm not convinced that it is better overall for the oil companies to keep all of that money than for the government to redistribute a proportion of it.

The real problem perhaps lies with the capitalist system that seeks above the welfare of individuals to return a profit. But since the underlying motivation of the capitalist system is to look after the money of those individuals, I suspect disentangling this lies far beyond the competence of any government - and most of the alternatives have proved themselves to be no better.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Will religion die out?

A model suggests that, in nine countries, religion is headed for extinction. A similar model has given realistic results in predicting the disappearance of endangered languages.

Some quick thoughts. This model could not have predicted the appearance of religions. What social benefit was there, for example, in becoming a Christian in the early years? Even before the might of the Roman empire was unleashed against it, in social terms, "no one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number." Once persecution broke out, what mileage was there in being part of Christianity? And yet within 300 years, Christianity was the institutional religion of the Roman empire.

Incidentally, although I'm writing this from a Christian perspective, the same could be said, I think, about the social dynamics associated with Islam in the early years, and for that matter the Mormons.

Secondly, the model is based on a social or utilitarian analysis of the role of religion. There are some aspects of religious observance that fit this - for example, religion as a cultural or national phenomenon. However, it is misleading to say that this is all there is to religion - it's the liberal secular approach to religion, so beloved of the comparative RE classes which shape our perspective in school, and it's all a census form (which was used for data capture in this research) can really pick up.

Whilst religious affiliation in the UK is declining (though the UK is not one of the nine countries examined in which religion is set to die out, apparently), this hasn't taken place uniformly across society. Social religious observance is, sure enough, seeing particularly strong reversal. But certain religious groupings are seeing numbers steady or increasing. And these have their own, "counter-cultural" or "sub-cultural" social dynamics, which makes it less likely that they will disappear.

I'm very interested in this research, and will probably read the paper fully. However, I suspect that reports of the death of religion are exaggerated.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

More about where we are with solar power

Up to now, the peak time of electrical generation for our system has been roughly between midday and 3pm, when the sun is shining directly onto the panels. Increasingly over the last few weeks, as the sun has got higher in the sky, the solar panels have been reaching their "peak" earlier in the day. The peak on a sunny day corresponds to an output of between 1500 and 1800 W, though we have measured outputs close to the maximum output possible of the inverter (2000W). The power tends to drop off after around 3pm, as the sun gets close to the treeline behind the house. Again, this should get better as the sun gets higher in the sky.

The most effective way of using the generated power would be for us to use as much of it as possible. We are paid (3p per unit!) for half the units we generate anyway, regardless of how much (or little) goes back into the grid, so we might as well use what we can.

Our house seems to have several "modes" of using power, and none of them really fit with the output of the solar system. During the day, the house tends to tick over at somewhere between 300W and 500W, assuming nothing much is happening. At night, once lights go on, it tends to sit between about 600W and 800W - though there's not much the solar system can do about that. As soon as appliances are on, this increases - but appliances rarely draw power continually, even if they need quite a lot. The kettle, for example, uses around 3kW - but only runs for a couple of minutes. The washing machine, ovens, the iron and so on can draw around 2000W, but not for the whole time they are on. The electric shower is by far the most demanding electrical thing in the house, but it's not used a large fraction of the time (fortunately!!).

So assuming the solar system is producing a healthy output, even having appliances on is not likely to consistently use all of its output. Unless a load of things are on at the same time, a significant amount of the power is likely to end up going into the grid.

However, on even a reasonably bright day, within three months of the summer solstice, the solar system seems to be able to cover the bulk of the "background" power use from say around 10am to 3pm - 1.5-2 units, and perhaps some of the use of appliances during the day. So we are trying to shift our behaviour - to put the dishwasher on after breakfast, to delay the washing machine and dryer to later in the day, or run it at weekends. The difficulty of managing our electricity usage to get the most out of the solar system during the daytime highlights how significant the feed-in tariff is in making the cost of the system bearable. Micro-generation of electrical power is an asset, however small, for the country as a whole. Whether it is worth 41p a unit is debatable, but without the FIT encouraging the take-up of such schemes, it would be hard for a person to justify its take up in economic terms.

The new option of a domestic fuel cell is potentially very interesting. This adjusts its supply of electricity to match demand - day or night - and when it can't supply enough, the grid supplies the shortfall. The grid will get a lot less from this form of micro-generation - but the proportion of a household's electricity that it is likely to cover would be substantially higher.

Where we are with solar power

What makes micro-generation worthwhile is the UK government paying a Feed-in Tariff (FIT). Every unit of electricity that we generate we get paid 41p for - this dwarfs the amount that we would save by using it ourselves (around 13p - though this is at a historical high). If we don't use electricity, it is given to the grid. In principle, we are paid 3p per unit for electricity returned to the grid in this way - which is pretty rubbish, but standard. In practice, the electricity companies aren't particularly interested in accounting for little bits and pieces, or metering it separately, so they simply pay 3p for half the units generated.

I sent in my first meter reading for FIT payments on 1st March - a hefty 45 units (kWh)! We certainly won't be getting rich on that. However, things have changed substantially since. In the week following this meter reading, we generated as much as we had in the preceding two and a half months. Yesterday - a clear day all day - was the first day when we generated over 7 kWh. The company that installed the system reckoned that we would expect to generate 1500-1600 units per year; to do this, we would need to generate an average of about 4 per day. The 5 day moving average is currently at around 2.5-3 units per day. As we get closer to the summer solstice, the performance of the system improves markedly - the sun is higher in the sky and therefore more intense; the weather improves so there is more sunshine; the days are longer.

The price of solar electric systems is also falling, as the availability of them rises following an increased demand. Sainsburys, in conjunction with British Gas, are offering a 2.1 kWp system from £10,000 - significantly less than we paid. It also sounds as though the government are interested in continuing to encourage the take-up of micro-generation by households - a report in The Times yesterday (paid for service, no link) suggested that the government was likely to cut the FIT offered for new medium and large installations.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

"One of our Thursdays is missing" - Jasper Fforde

Well, I loved it, as always.

The thread that has bound the series (TN1-5) together has, obviously, been Thursday Next, but given this, Fforde has not confined himself to a particular formula. The focus to begin with is on SpecOps, and only gradually shifts to the imaginative masterpiece which is Bookworld.

In this book, another bold narrative shift takes place, in that "the" Thursday Next spends most of the book out of the frame, and the first person is now the Thursday Next character within Bookworld - or is it? - who has to see if she can find Thursday Next in time to prevent a genre war from taking place. The distinction is a little arbitrary, of course - the fictional Thursday Next is trying to live up to the reputation of the real Thursday Next - but it does make for different relationships with other characters. (Is the "real" Thursday Next any more "real" than the fictional one?! One of the many fascinating things about Fforde's books is that they raise such complex philosophical questions so playfully.)

The imaginative landscape is reconfigured - Bookworld is redrawn - and a significant number of the characters are the fictional versions of the "real" characters in the earlier book. This may be disappointing for those people who have grown to love them - well, I have too! - but better to stop before they become cliches, or worse, are unable to sustain a further book.

Given the quiet revolution, the story itself is as good as ever - a whodunit/thriller with plenty of red herrings and cliff hangers (hmm, I don't think we've met Cliff in these books yet), a fantasy world which is coherent to surprising depths, a huge amount of fun with language and literature, and everything falling into place only when I thought there was no way it could all be resolved in the number of pages that I had left.

In summary, another outstanding book from Fforde. But as before, come with a clutch to allow your paradigm to shift smoothly ....

Thursday, March 03, 2011

I don't particularly like ...

... the media influence of the Murdochs. However, in a capitalist society, people have the freedom to choose what they do with their money, whether they are paying 20p for an issue of the Sun or £12 billion plus for 60% of the company. Also ...

... At least this is "private" money, not "state" money. I didn't like the fact that Labour government "increases" in education spending were channelled to companies selected by the government, and this happened with no public scrutiny.
... I have more of a problem with the expedient "accommodation" of unsavoury politicians of other countries.
... it all pales into insignificance in comparison to what is going on in Italy.

Surprised by Joy

"Well," said Pooh, "what I like best -- " and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called.
A.A.Milne - The House at Pooh Corner
The very nature of Joy makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting.
C.S.Lewis - Surprised by Joy

Thursday, February 10, 2011

University fees again

So the government's aim is that the new system for funding for degrees ought to be fairer. Nick Clegg defended the scheme before an audience of students. In effect, universities need to be given permission to charge the "full £9000", and this will be contingent upon them improving access for students with low income. He has also highlighted the fact that the country simply can't afford to pay tens of thousands of pounds for half its young people to go to university, particularly when a large number of the courses really add little in terms of economic value. No, university education isn't just about economic value: but neither is it about spending three years skipping lectures, buying cheap drink and ending up with a qualification that means nothing.

It looks as though the organisation tasked with ensuring improved access will be the Office for Fair Access (Offa). This has been their role hitherto - the introduction of higher student fees in 2006 had the potential for deterring good students (and indeed, I've worked with a variety of intelligent young people who chose not to go to university rather than accumulating debt). The BBC says:
Offa has the power to revoke the right to charge more and to impose a fine of up to £500,000 if the access agreement is broken.

But BBC education correspondent Gillian Hargreaves said Offa, which was set up in 2004, had never imposed any such sanctions thus far, which raised the question of whether it would be sufficiently robust with universities in the future.
So an organisation set up with the aim of ensuring access (by the previous Labour government) has actually, apparently, not done enough so far. Certainly looking on this page at the chart comparing access to university for state sector free school meal/state sector non-free school meal/private sector pupils highlights the fact that not only do far more private school pupils go to university, but the proportion of them that go to the 30 most selective universities is way higher.

To be fair, Offa doesn't represent a major burden on the taxpayer - they only seem to employ a handful of people. However, also to be fair, it seems unreasonable to assume that this government won't manage to improve access because the previous government set up a quango which didn't do much. There's also the possibility that, although there are inequities, the system is still "fair" - there is, after all, a difference between "fair" access and "equal" access. A large chunk of the issue is actually a problem lower down the educational system, in the inequalities in opportunities and achievement between state system and private system.

Once the can of worms is open, of course, it can't really be shut again - once we move down the line of students paying for their university education, we are unlikely to move back again. So if the system fails, that's that. However, given that the system we had was unsustainable, I'd rather see Vince Cable and Nick Clegg working on trying to make a new system feasible than George Osborne and David Cameron.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Combined heat and power - the way forward?

Here's a demonstration of a domestic fuel cell, from Ceres. These systems behave like gas boilers from the point of view of generating hot water and heating, but have the added benefit of using the wasted energy to generate electricity, at a level of up to a kilowatt or so. This has the effect of reducing carbon emissions and also reducing the consumer's electricity bill.

Ceres are in the process of getting their micro Combined Heat and Power boiler to the market place. Based on a quick trawl across the internet, there are a couple of boilers already on or close to the market which do this - the Baxi Ecogen, which is expensive (the boiler itself seems to cost around the £6000 mark) and relatively powerful (it is capable of providing 24 kW of heating for water), and the e-on Whispergen, which seems to be less expensive but also less powerful (around 12 kW of heating). I just checked our boiler - which is a combi boiler, so has to produce hot water on demand - but it's capable of an output of 30 kW. All the mCHP systems I've seen seem to work on the basis of using a hot water tank. Maybe the next boiler we get is going to require us going back in the direction of having a tank....

Solar PV - the difference a month makes

It's not that loads has changed - the days since we had the solar panels installed have been predominantly grey - well, this is an English winter, after all. However, the system is responding differently already. Even on the greyest day, the panels seem to be generating power from around 9.30 to around 3.30, and we rarely seem to have the "zero output" days that we had for the first few weeks.

There hasn't been a huge change in the sun. In the first month after the winter solstice, the noon position of the sun only gets three degrees higher in the sky, and the day gets less than an hour longer. However, it is evidently enough to take it closer to the light threshold at which the panels start to generate.

We have discovered that the panels weren't optimally connected to the inverter (the south and the west facing panels should have been connected as separate "strings" into the inverter, and they were in fact all linked in series), so Rayotec are coming back to rewire a section of the system. I'm hoping that they are going to find out how much it would cost to install the PC interface module at the same time. I don't know whether this will have a noticeable effect on the performance of the system. In theory, the output of the two different sections of panels can be optimised separately by the inverter: I don't know whether this is likely to give a 1% or a 10% improvement.

The peak output of the system so far has been just over 1000 W - it has reached that on four days, the first after the solstice being 9th January - and the highest total output we've seen has been about 2 KWh. The total output of the system since installation is a mere 13 units, though we lost a couple of days which ought to have been good as a result of our messing around with the system.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Religious freedom not dead yet ...

... at least in the US.

Martin Gaskell was the front-runner for the post of director of University of Kentucky's (UK, confusingly ...) MacAdam Student University, but as news of his religious commitments spread, it seems that opposition to his appointment did too.

UK has paid Gaskell $125,000 out of court in return for dropping a federal religious discrimination suit.

H/T Telic Thoughts

Saturday, January 22, 2011

I think I disagree with my lecturers ...

... and the course hasn't even started yet!

The course is U211, Exploring the English Language, which is not technically due to start for another week or so. However, in a bid to get ahead, since I really don't think I'm going to have the 15-16 hours a week (!) that it claims I need, I've reached the section on accents, chapter 5 of the first book.

The focus in the course has been that no one variety of English should be privileged. That's the sense of the background reading - Crystal's "The Stories of English" emphasises the fact that the conventional narrative of the rise and rise of English disregards the fact that "standard English" is only one facet of the English language. Graddol's "English Next?" explores the issue that English is, in world terms, dominated by non-native speakers. And the opening chapters of the first book have been keen to emphasise that the prescriptive approach adopted to the language in spelling, grammar and pronunciation has only led to one of the expressions of English that we see today.

In discussing accents, however, I think the course goes too far. I am quite happy that in general, accents don't in themselves say anything about the intelligence of the speaker - I've known too many English speakers from all over the place to think otherwise. I'm also quite happy that RP is not a "non-accent".

However, in discussing accents, the focus has tended to be on aspects of pronunciation that are "neutral" - for example, glottal stops or dropping aitches ("ge' inside the 'ouse!"). There has been no discussion so far on the fact that a few aspects of accents quite often betray a level of ignorance of English, or illiteracy - for example, one feature that arises often is the use of "of" where "have" is correct in English (as in "I couldn't of"). The sense I get from the course is that it seeks, in quite a postmodern/pluralist way, to affirm all users of English, regardless of how the language is spoken. (In true postmodern fashion, of course, the language adopted for the course is itself standard English, and I strongly suspect that a response to the course that was not would be likely to raise eyebrows).

I'm trying to imagine how the writers of the course would respond to this issue. They might suggest that English is mutating so that "of" instead of "have" in this context will be considered acceptable usage. But if this is to take place, then sections of the rules of English relating to particles and verb tenses have to be basically disregarded, and in the fullness of time, this would be likely to tidily erode the comprehensibility of the language. They might suggest that there is a difference between an accent and an incorrect usage - but the emphasis hitherto has been that there is no "incorrect usage" - just different, and people need to swim with the tide in this regard. I'd be interested in hearing their thoughts on this.

Personally, for what it's worth, I think that whilst the prescriptive approach is wrong, and fails to take into account many valid expressions of English, the people who write the course are also wrong if they are saying that all expressions are equally valid. There is some discussion about the tone used for science writing, which has taken shape over the centuries, and the writers accept the requirements of the medium. More generally, whilst RP and Standard English have no right to a privileged position in the canon of English language beyond their usefulness as being most widely acceptable, I don't think that the substitution of varieties of English which undermine its ability to communicate can be regarded as progressive.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Monitoring energy use

We've been using a Current Cost Energy ENVI-CC128for a while now.

Good bits first. It is very easy to fit - the device works (I assume) by electrical induction. The sensor has a clip which fits round one of your mains wires, and then communicates wirelessly with the monitor. It sets itself up automatically, and it is apparently compatible with further units, which can be added and set up with similar ease.

If you are displaying this visibly somewhere, the feedback on power usage will almost certainly result in you increasingly switching off unnecessary lights and appliances. This is how it is likely to pay for itself. We have notices changes in our behaviour, and in the event that you don't know which the expensive lights in your house are, this will remind you.

Now the not-so-good. The sticky pad which is supposed to support the sensor isn't strong (or alternatively, large) enough; our transmitter thingy has ended up falling off where it was stuck. The velcro join is fine; it's the sticky pad that doesn't hold the weight of the transmitter when stuck to a smooth plastic surface. Maybe I needed to press it on harder, but I'm wary of pushing too hard on the side of the consumer unit!

Most of the displayed information is, to be honest, a little over-the-top and limited in value. The bar graphs have no scale, so don't really offer much except a vague comparison. The "cost" indication is all very well - it can be set to what you are paying - but the sort of person who can make sense of the concept of electricity units is likely to also be able to make deductions about cost from those values.

We are generating some of our own electricity (with solar panels). Unfortunately, the means of measuring energy use is indifferent as to whether net current is flowing into or out of the house. During the day, when we aren't using much electricity, and the solar panels are generating, we become a "supplier" to the grid. However, the device assumes that this is power being used, artificially inflating the figures for the day. It's fair to point out that this currently isn't likely to be a widespread issue ....

Finally, there's the issue of software. The data from the device is output through an Ethernet connection - but a weird Ethernet connection, which apparently has to connect to a USB dongle - which means that if you want to use this with a computer, you effectively need to buy another piece of proprietary hardware. Other people have commented on the quality of this - their comments, in my opinion, make me wonder whether simply buying a more computer-friendly monitor might make more sense. Also, too much of the software is only available remotely - your power usage being sent to a server on the internet, rather than being analyzable by you. I don't think this is the best way of doing it, and again, my hunch is that there are other devices that are likely to be more user-friendly.

However, if all you are looking for is a power monitor which will encourage you to switch things off, and show you what is going on electrically in the house, this is an excellent little device.

Friday, January 14, 2011

When to wean babies

Interesting news published today, in the British Medical Journal.

We were slightly surprised when new parents that we knew of said they intended to exclusively breastfeed their children until they were six months old. Evidently, this was because we were out of touch with the current recommendations. In accordance with the prevailing advice when our babies were small, we had started weaning our children at around three to four months. None had seemed any the worse for it, and to be honest, by the time they were that age, they seemed ready to move onto something other than milk.

The report is interesting, as it explains the history of the six month recommendation. Ten years ago, the World Health Organisation advised that children universally be breastfed for six months. Breastfeeding is the best option for small babies, and clearly where access to clean water and safe and affordable alternative food supply is limited, continuing to do this while possible is a good idea.

Initially, Western countries seem to have largely ignored the advice, and it was only in 2003 that a health minister said that the UK would comply.

In actual fact, the case for and against starting weaning before six months is quite balanced, from a scientific point of view. Whilst breastfeeding reduces the risk of infections, there's some evidence of undernutrition in children who are exclusively breastfed to six months in Western countries (the BMJ references studies in the US and Sweden). In any case, a lot of children are weaned early and successfully regardless of the advice - the effect of such guidelines can quite often be to lay a burden of guilt and anxiety (or smug self-righteousness) on particular sections of the population (largely middle-class) when the guidance is simply ignored by the rest.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal College of Midwives and the National Childbirth Trust have lined up in support of current guidance. The comments from the RCM are interesting. Their spokesperson said:
I believe that this ... plays into the hands of the baby-food industry which has failed to support the six-month exclusive breastfeeding policy in the UK.

There is evidence that some babies do die in developed countries from inappropriate young child feeding, such as the introduction of solid foods earlier before their swallowing mechanism is mature enough or they have fully developed the capability to cope with solid foods.
The fact that the baby-food industry stands to gain or lose has little to do with the medical evidence - it's more strongly suggestive of an anti-corporate bias in the commenter. Similarly, the fact that the baby-food industry hasn't supported a policy signifies little, particularly if the alternative, which they were able to make money from, seemed to work just as well. For what it's worth, the total income of the baby-food industry from us before our children were a year old was probably around £10 (with the exception of expenditure on formula milk - but that's another story). And there's always a risk of babies dying as a result of inappropriate young child feeding. There's a risk of babies dying as a result of all sorts of things. It's one of the depressing things about babies being born is that they are often born to people like us who are barely competent to do anything with them, and have to learn quickly on the job, generally under massive sleep deprivation.

However, this report has the effect of drawing attention to the fact that the six months advice was advice given with a world readership in mind, and is more to do with hygiene than scientific evaluation of nutritional requirements - and where it's down to that, the conclusion seems to be that the evidence is neutral. That, of course, should hardly surprise us - the world hadn't fallen apart before the WHO recommendations came along.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

How good are Kindles?

I saw a recommendation of a book by a friend on Facebook, with a link to the Kindle edition. I clicked through to that, and paid for it using one click, confirming that I wanted it sent to my Kindle. I picked up my Kindle and switched it out of "sleep" mode". By the time I'd done that, the book had been downloaded, and I was able to start reading.

The Kindle itself is pretty small and light - with the case we bought separately for it, it's the size of a small paperback. It stores up to 3500 books. In any case, you don't have to keep books on the device. Once they have been bought, they can be re-downloaded to any of your registered Kindle devices - my Android phones also have a Kindle reader on them. There didn't seem to be much point in putting the PC Kindle reader on my computer, but it's an option. We have lots of books in the house, though less than 3500, I think - the thought of being able to extend my library without needing more shelves is wonderful.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

"Holy Child" ...

For years, one of the most common hits on my blog has been from a person or people who have searched for the words of the Dudley-Smith carol, "Holy Child, how still you lie". Several times a week, I think, for years. Here's where it is referenced on my page. Just quickly ... if you are the person (or one of the people) who comes here as a result of such a search ... why?