March 28, 2014

Why I'm not watching F1 in 2014

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I’ve always been a big motorsport fan. For years, I have watched every qualifying session and race of every F1 season (until the BBC stopped showing all races a couple of years ago – had to make do with the highlights since then for 50% of the races). Even the predictable dominance of he who needs his index fingers clipping off over the last four years hasn’t managed to turn me off. But the technical regulation changes, in particular those pertaining to powertrains, of 2014 have finally turned me off the sport.

Engines are a key factor in motor sport – the clue is in the name, after all. For me, engines are the most exciting and enthralling things I come into contact with in my day to day life. The bigger, the louder, the better. My choice of weekend car was influenced by a number of things – appearance, history, the fact that it’s British – but first and foremost I chose it because it has a 5 litre V8 engine. When I fire it up, animals flee and my garage reverberates as its foundations are shaken. It’s fabulous, and it never fails to make me grin like a 5 year old child and accelerate my heart beat by a good 20 beats a minute. It’s having a similar effect on me now just thinking about it.

You see, when it comes to engines, the old saying goes that “there ain’t no replacement for displacement”. The bigger the swept volume, the more air the engine breathes per cycle and the more fuel you can burn (and therefore you get more power out). More air and fuel making bigger explosions also results in fabulously loud and exciting noises. Engines are my thing, and the most endearing thing about them is the noise that they make. It’s in our biology that loud noises get our blood pumping – listen to rock music at quiet volumes and then again at loud ones and there is a great difference in how much you get into the track. I find the notes of a great engine spell-binding – for example in my Griff, the deep and assured burble of the exhausts while cruising which give way to a growl, a bellow and then an almighty roar as you floor it and the revs build. The noise of a Ferrari 412T2 – the last V12 engine in F1 – is spine-tinglingly awesome even through my stereo speakers, let alone in real life.

Of course, all of this old-school noise and speed is seen as downright anti-social today, more than it ever has been. Maybe that’s part of the appeal – the two fingers to a society trying to tell others what they can and can’t do in their own free time. The motor industry is caving into pressures to be more sensitive and fuel efficient at all levels of their products. Now, for the car I might drive to work on a weekday or pop to the shops in, I can completely understand this push. These are utiltiarian vehicles, and being sensible with the earth’s resources is in general a reasonable aim. For performance cars though, cars which don’t do mega miles but exist purely for the love of cars and driving, I’m much less convinced.

Technologically, it’s very impressive that engineers can make such improvements in fuel efficiency whilst maintaining performance. This is primarily achieved in engines by turbo-charging, which uses exhaust gas to force more air in to a smaller engine,so when you want to burn more fuel you have the air to do so, without the penalty of the big capacity engine the rest of the time. Modern turbocharged technologies are very impressive when done right – you get high torque from low rpm’s and performance everywhere in the rev band. Ultra-high end cars like the McLaren P1 are taking this even further, using electric motors to overcome one of the shortcomings of turbocharging – delayed throttle response (a technique McLaren refer to as “torque fill” – you draw the power curve you want the engine to have, and program the electric motors to fill the bits where the engine can’t quite deliver).

This is all very clever, but it has several problems for car enthusiasts like myself:

  • The downsizing of engines almost always means less cylinders. This generally has a very negative impact on noise. For luxury cars, moving to 4 cylinder engines is also terrible from a refinement perspective (go look up primary and secondary force balance before you disagree with me)
  • The turbo in the exhaust takes a lot of the force out of the exhaust gases, and robs engines of a decent exhaust note
  • For engines that don’t have the electrical bits, the throttle response and turbo lag does make for a less enjoyable experience. For all of these high-torque-everywhere type engines, the driving experience is strangely dulled by having so much performance without having to work for it – as odd as that may sound to some
  • Electric motors and batteries add a lot of weight, which needs very expensive engineering to minimise and mask. Weight is the primary enemy of an enjoyable driving experience
  • The electric power add-ons in particular add enormously to price and to complexity, which makes ownership much less attainable. More systems and bits can also only be bad for affordable maintainability, and adds yet more barriers to the car enthusiast who also likes to work on their own vehicles (not that any of this type are even remotely in price brackets that those who do their own spanner work would contemplate)

Even the multi-million pound budgets of F1 teams can’t sort out all of these issues, as the row over engine noise goes to show. In the article I’ve linked to, Andrew Benson – a well known and respected commentator – questions whether the engine note is really such a step back. He argues that the previous generation V8’s weren’t a great noise like the classic V12’s – no argument from me there. But the screaming sound of a V8 at 20,000 RPM (before they were limited) approaching a corner at close to 200MPH is a very happy memory that I can still flip back to. And as for asking if the noise is “that big a deal” – well for me, yes it is, as I think I have already made clear. In terms of your senses, you get a much better view of what is going on in a race by watching it on TV. The sounds and the smells are what you get by attending a track which you don’t get sat at home (I don’t subscribe to this whole crowd atmosphere thing, the spectacle is on the track not sat next to it). Some people are fascinated that some people, myself included, would spend hundreds of pounds attending a race just to hear the noise, just as I am happy to spend a day out and a fair wad of cash just to hear loud aeroplanes at airshows. Everyone has their own reasons for attending, and as one of our primary senses noise must surely be a big factor in the enjoyment of motorsport for many. I am surprised that so many people find this surprising, including those such as Andrew Benson who have spent their life following the sport.

In moving to ERS powertrains then, F1 is following the zeitgeist of engine downsizing for political reasons, amid claims that they are “more relevant” to the cars of today. I would contest that whilst they might have relevance to the playthings of millionaires whose supercars are now coming loaded with this sort of technology, for under an RRP of £100k you won’t find cars that have this sort of technology in. And no matter how much money you throw at a car, in moving to increasingly high-tech power trains the charm and character of a real sports car from yesteryear is sadly being eroded. For me then, it’s a farewell to following motorsport (as not much else is properly televised) and a retreat to my garage to play with real cars more instead. I only hope for future generations that access to real cars is well preserved.

October 30, 2013

The great energy debate, and Hinkley C

Unless you are living on Mars, you will have noticed a great deal of news coverage and political froth on energy supply recently. I thought I would set out the lay of the land as I see it in an attempt to try and cut through some of what has been reported.

Energy prices have increased significantly above inflation since 2007, when we all started to become poorer as a result of the credit crunch and hence have been sensitive to cost of living increases. Those cost increases are down to a number of pressures:

  1. The cost of fuel is increasing. This is in turn driven by a number of factors which include increased demand from emerging economies, finite reserves depleting making extraction more expensive, and fuel being traded internationally when the pound has significantly weakened. Roughly speaking, the wholesale cost of energy makes up around 45% of a domestic bill, and has been responsible for about 60% of the cost increases to the consumer.
  2. The transmission costs for the UK networks are increasing above the rate of inflation. This is because of the need to create a lot of new infrastructure for gas storage and connection of renewables to the grid. Transmission costs make up about 20% of a domestic bill, and are responsible for around 15% of the cost increases.
  3. There are a range of environmental subsidies which are all paid for through levies on domestic bills. You have probably noticed the large numbers of solar panels springing up on rooftops and in fields, or the construction of lots of new wind turbines. All of these are subsidised through feed-in tariffs, which come out of bills. Then there are smart meters and energy efficiency measures like “free” loft insulation. This is “free” at the point of use, but your energy supplier does this at zero cost to themselves – it’s all paid for through these levies. Additionally, a carbon price has come into force. This makes up around 5% of the gas pricel and 30% of the electricity price, and starting from a zero base a few years ago this is entirely a cost inflationary aspect.
  4. Following privatisation and subsequent botched market reforms, the price of energy collapsed around the turn of the millennium. We were therefore starting from a very low base, where energy was cheaper than it sustainably could have been. The energy companies were essentially all broke (sob sob I hear you cry…) and as a result of this and a lack of a clear long term direction for the sector set by policy there has been no driver to invest in new plant. We are now at the point where old stations that were build during the state industry days need replacing or are being forced to close due to new regulations. In order to invest in plant, energy companies need to raise the cash and demonstrate a reasonable rate of return to investors.

You will notice that none of these drivers are “trying to make a quick buck”. The headlines you read about profit margins are often misleading, to say the least. The energy market is volatile so it is only to be expected that year on year sometimes profits will jump up and sometimes they will fall back. In 2012, the company I work for (EDF Energy) saw profits fall by about 6%. A lot of our profits are also going into building new stations, covering investment in our existing plant (for example, post-Fukushima upgrades to our nuclear fleet) and covering other costs such as pension deficit repairs. The actual bottom line figure is much lower than the headlines suggest. Companies have to make a reasonable profit in order to be sustainable for the long term, otherwise you get market instability and a lack of investment. Healthy companies mean stable employment for a large sector of the UK workforce, and good returns for investors. A large chunk of institutional investors are actually pension funds of the UK workforce, so I suspect it’s in many of our interests that a reasonable return is given to them otherwise our retirement suffers.

To be fair, the coverage I have read on the BBC is largely quite balanced and communicates the above information in a balanced way, if you care to look for it. Newspapers have their own agendas and will tend to follow the direction of the political parties they support, and in any case love to stir up a story of public outrage. Whilst this is disappointing, there’s not much that can be done about it. What irks me though is that politicians who must surely be in the know about all these facts have decided to play political football with energy prices as we all seem to have moved on from blaming banks for our present troubles. A great example of this is Ed Miliband’s price freeze policy.

Whilst the price freeze may gain a lot of popular support from hard-up voters who aren’t all that well informed or interested in the nuances of the energy markets and only see rising bills and the finger being pointed at “the big six”, it presents a completely false picture of what is happening in the market. We are at a crunch point where we need to spend well over £100bn in the coming years on new energy infrastructure, and the government is looking to the private sector to fund this. The bill is much larger due to the environmental pressures being exerted on the industry – by the politicians. And into this delicate climate where we are being asked to spend vast sums on new plant (with a rather unstable outlook), in wade the politicians with all guns blazing for a few cheap headlines. You couldn’t make it up. If you want to freeze your energy prices for 20 months, you can already do so anyway without the need to go to the ballot box – just switch to a long term price fix contract, which are available for up to 3.5 years in length. John Major with his support for a windfall tax is no better – what sort of message is that sending? Please invest all these billions of pounds in projects that take decades to pay back, but don’t you dare make any money out of it or we’ll just shift the goal-posts and tax you at a moment’s notice. Or maybe all these environmental obligations we’ve been working on for years, perhaps we’ll just scrap them and upset the apple cart on all your investment planning.

With this kind of unstable climate, all that you will do is scare off investors and we won’t have any new infrastructure. As a result, we will see long term prices continue to rise whilst becoming increasingly unstable and the threat of a capacity shortfall will increase. That’s good for no-one. What is needed is a sensible and grown up approach, the outlook for which until the 2015 election does not look hopeful.

This brings me neatly on to the new nuclear deal at Hinkley C. The coverage centred on the strike price, and rightly so. The price agreed is lower than existing costs for all other low carbon technologies, so it should be a good deal for consumers. As I understand it, the price is also what will be paid when the plants come on line – i.e. you need to view the figure in the context of the value of money in 2023, not 2013. Add 10 years of inflation to the current wholesale price and £92.50/MWh looks a lot more palatable. Also, unlike feed-in tariffs, if the wholesale cost is above this level then the government gets the difference back. With all the inflationary pressures on wholesale prices, there is therefore a good chance that the consumer will effectively make money out of the plant. All good stuff.

What I am most pleased about however is that in all the coverage, despite the incident in Fukushima in 2011, the focus has been entirely on the price agreed. That no-one has (to my knowledge) questioned the safety and integrity of UK operators and regulators when new nuclear power plants are in the news is both right and something that makes me proud to be in that industry.

August 15, 2013

Why, as a motorist, I have a problem with cyclists

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The BBC news is today running an article entitled “Is there any such thing as Road Tax?”. The article actually explores the tension between motorists and cyclists, looking at the often-made claim by motorists that since cyclists don’t pay road tax, they shouldn’t be getting in their way.

I’d like to start this article by a couple of points about my own circumstances. I am a motorist, and I have a round-trip commute of 80 miles each day. I do occassionally cycle on the roads, although cycling is definitely not something I would choose to do as a past-time. When my commute is shorter, I hope to commute by bike every day. And my wife already commutes by bike every day. So, although I am a motorist who doesn’t currently use a bike very much, I don’t have a problem with cyclists as reasonable and responsible road users. When I see a cyclist, I will always endeavour to give them plenty of space on the road when overtaking, and I wouldn’t dream of using my car aggressively to intimidate one.

One of the issues this article touches on which some might find surprising is that VED (to give road tax its technical name) doesn’t actually get spent directly on the roads, it goes straight to the treasury. This is really a separate topic, but it’s definitely something that all motorists should be challenging more strongly. What are we paying the duty for if it doesn’t get spent on the roads? Government should be primarily funded by taxes evenly spread across tax-payers. We all pay our share of income tax, every time we buy something we pay a flat percentage of VAT, etc. Other taxes, such as council tax, are there to fund particular services – fine. There are other taxes aimed at changing our behaviours, such as on cigarettes. In this regard, motorists already pay a tax precisely linked to the environmental damage that vehicles do – which is of course fuel duty. So what is VED for, if not for the maintenance of our road network? There should either be a direct link between the two which all road users should pay, or it should be scrapped altogether because it’s not an even and fair tax on the UK population as a whole.

The main thrust though, is that motorists don’t like cyclists because they don’t pay to use the roads. I don’t think this is really true. Certainly it’s a well used phrase – I even use it myself from time to time – but really, that cyclists don’t have to pay to use the roads is not what irritates motorists. There are two issues around cyclists really that bother me:

1. Cyclists pick and choose the traffic laws they abide by. The most common example is jumping or ignoring lights. The problem here I think is that unlike the motorist, the cyclist can do this without fear of losing their ability to use their bike. There are no fines that I know of, nor is there a points system to dissuade them from law-breaking. Were I to observe in the dead of night that it was perfectly safe to run a light and be caught, I’d be £60 poorer and 1/4 of the way to losing my licence. Cyclists can do this without consequence. I’m not saying that motorists don’t break rules – of course they do (and there are plenty of bad examples of driving I could list that make me equally irate) but there are consequences for the motorist should they be caught. Unlike with cyclists, this keeps some semblance of order about things. This disparity of consequences is a real bone of contention for me. I think that this is an issue that needs some form of legislation to address, with fines and black marks against bad cycling just as for bad driving.

2. Cyclists hold motorists up – unnecessarily. I don’t usually mind encountering slow traffic or short delays where necessary – sometimes it is unavoidable for road users to get in each other’s way. Examples would be cyclists on narrow country lanes, or slow moving vehicles such as tractors and trucks that don’t have much of a choice about getting in the way or not. But when I encounter cyclists riding 2 or 3 abreast and leaving me unable to overtake, or riding in the middle of the road a long distance from junctions, or using the road in the way when there’s a cycle path also – well I consider that pretty unreasonable, and delays are bound to wind up motorists quicker than anything else. If I chose to dawdle along as a pedestrian on a cycle path and not get out of a cyclist’s way, I would (quite rightly) expect to be told in no uncertain terms to change my ways. Why should cyclists expect any different from motorists? This irritation isn’t solely reserved for cyclists – another great example would be middle-lane hogs on the motorway, who cause no end of delays and frustrations by not realising there’s a lane to the left.

So, in conclusion – don’t break the rules and don’t get in the way, and everyone will get along just great.

January 21, 2012

Legal challenge to UK energy legislation

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This week, green campaigners have launched a legal challenge to some aspects of legislation in an attempt to block new nuclear stations. There are two main areas of attack – governments limiting liability of the generators, and the introduction of a carbon floor price (the latter currently specific to the UK). Their challenge of course completely mis-represents the reasons why this legislation is in place. For example, on the subject of a carbon floor price Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton and Hove, claims:

“The introduction of a carbon price floor is likely to result in huge windfall handouts of around £50m a year to existing nuclear generators”

I haven’t gone into the details of her claim, but I do know the history behind why the introduction of a floor price is critical to new nuclear investment, and it has nothing to do with handouts of £50m a year to generators (which, incidentally, is not a great sum in the first place. It would represent the change in revenues of existing nuclear generators if the wholesale price of electricity were to change by 0.1p per kWh, about a 2% change in the current base-load price of around 4.5p per kWh).

A little bit of history for those who aren’t familiar with the highlights of events affecting the UK energy market during the last 30 years. Electricty generation was largely a state-owned system, with the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) owning and operating the power stations. In 1991, Margaret Thatcher concluded the sale of the CEGB to private investors, creating two companies – National Power and Powergen. However, during the sale process it was discovered that the existing nuclear fleet, containing a lot of old generation Magnox stations which were expensive to run and didn’t have a lot of life left in them, made the deal commercially untenable, and so all the nuclear stations were kept in public ownership under a new organisation, Nuclear Electric. This commercial PR disaster along with Chernobyl is what killed off the UK’s new nuclear build programme at the time, and why we only have one PWR today, Sizewell B.

Nuclear Electic was part-privatised in 1996, the newer design AGR and PWR stations sold off as a private company, British Energy, and the old Magnox stations retained under Magnox Electric and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. However, the government reformed the electricity market in 2001 with a piece of legislation called the new electricity trading arrangements. This, combined with a big dip in wholesale gas prices due to oversupply, led to a crash in the electricity price, and in 2002 British Energy essentially went bankrupt and had to be bailed out by the UK government (there were other factors, such as stations being offline, renegotiation of fuel costs and problematic business deals, but the wholesale price crash is the main trigger). The wholesale cost went down to 2p/kWh and lower, below the cost of generation. It should be pointed out that other generators also suffered from the price crash – Drax (the UK’s largest, newest and most efficient coal plant) came close to closure in 2003 because it wasn’t profitable at the time, and only a long-sighted view by investors kept it open (the plant is now very profitable).

British Energy survived with government help and was sold to EDF Energy in 2009. Now, a new build programme is looking to replace the existing nuclear fleet which is due to be largely decommissioned in the coming decade or so. However, building power plants is very expensive, in particular modern nuclear plants with advanced safety features. Therefore, investors are unwilling to commit to such a long-term project as a power station (which is expected to provide returns over a period of 60 years or more) with such high up-front costs unless they can see that their investments are secure, because it becomes too risky for the rates of return. As such, the prospect of a price crash such as that of 2001 repeating and wiping out their investment is untenable, and so long as that remains it’s unlikely that a new nuclear build programme will happen. This is the real purpose of the carbon floor price – not to give generators a £50m/year bonus (which as I’ve already stated, is small beer in the grand scheme of the industry), but to give investors the confidence to give long term commitments to new generating capacity in the UK. Without this, the industry will continue to suffer from under-investment in new capacity and we will be left with a short-term approach to new power stations, most likely further increases in the numbers of combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plant. There are two problems with this approach – firstly, it makes the market much more volatile to carbon fuel prices, which are unstable both in price and increasingly supply as declines in world production and increased dependence are used more and more as a political tool. Secondly, it doesn’t sort out our carbon emissions without the additional retro-fitting of carbon capture and storage technologies, which add further to the cost and fuel use and are as yet unproven on a large scale.

Faced with these realities, politicians have sensibly opted to provide the market with an instrument that guarantees a minimum carbon price, thereby making investment in nuclear and other low carbon technologies a commercial reality without otherwise subsidising them. Whether this amounts to a subsidy in name I’m not sure; it seems a bit of a grey area and I don’t have the technical knowledge to answer that question. What I do know is it seems like a credible way of delivering long term investment in low-carbon generating capacity, which can only be a good thing for the UK’s future and the environment. Few people complain about the direct subsidy of other renewable technologies including on-shore wind (except when they are taken away) which are in any case far larger in pence per kWh than any subsidisation of the nuclear industry. The fair alternative would be to remove all forms of subsidy for all forms of power generation, and apply a great deal of upward pressure politically on the carbon price. However, without the long term security of a floor price I still question the risk of such a strategy in securing the investment required.

December 10, 2010

Higher education funding

So the vote is through the commons, and it’s likely that future students of higher education will have to pay up to £9,000 a year in fees. Student bodies have of course opposed this, with predominantly their own self interests at heart. Yet no-one really seems to have an alternative. So what really is the protest about?

Let’s look at the problem. Higher education is expensive, and needs to be paid for somehow. Traditionally, this funding (for UK students at least) has predominantly come from the government. In past times where student numbers were low, this was a sustainable model – the brightest and best went to university whilst everyone else got by with O-Levels, A-Levels, HND’s etc. Then it all started to go wrong with the drive to increase student numbers. In an attempt to fund the previous government’s frankly ridiculous target of sending 50% of people to univesity, in came tuition fees to much protest. Initially around £1,000 and then raised to the current £3,000 a year cap, much has been made of this fairly modest contribution by students to their education.

Now, the party is over and the public money has run out. The UK, like many western economies, has built up a massive debt and deficit, which must be curbed in order to avoid economic catastrophe. Most areas of public spending must come down in order to achieve this, and higher education must do its bit. What previously was seen as a right to free education for all now looks like a luxury that we can’t afford. With the numbers of people now attending universities, the lines must be redrawn.

So, the question really is, why is it everyone’s right to free university education? Free education up to the age of 18, few would argue with. But by the age of 18, young people are perfectly well equipped to go forth and start work, learn a trade or a profession. University has traditionally been the route for those who wish to take on the most challenging careers in law, medicine, science or academia. These career paths demand abilities and skills that require academic learning beyond the A-Level stage. The principle beneficiaries of these educated people are the students themselves, who go on to command higher than average wages, and the instituions that employ them.

Aha, you are probably thinking at this point, but not everyone who goes to university does benefit financially. Well no, I wouldn’t dispute that. That’s because many people who go to university now don’t actually need their degrees to go on and perform the jobs they take on in society. But as the number of graduates exceeds the demand, employers can be picky and selective, giving preference to or even making a requirement that applicants have degrees that they don’t really need for their jobs. What we have is an over-qualified workforce.

Some of you will still be thinking that my arguments exclude those whose chosen profession really does need a degree, but leads to low paid work, for example in social work. My own opinion is that in a lot of cases, we should be exploring alternatives to the degree for such work – such as a system of work-based learning and part time study at further education college, which if well designed could lead us to have even better suited people in these professions than the academic degree route. The fundamental point is though, that any profession that requires a degree but isn’t offering the wages to pay for the tuition fees is receiving a public subsidy by the government, because they are not paying out for the level of education they need in their staff.

The current system is such that all professions essentially receive this subsidy. By increasing the fees charged to students, the true cost of higher education is being made more visible to students and their eventual employers. For many, their profession values their qualification as it should and it is only fair that as a well paid professional they should have to pay for the benefit of the education that they received, which is now providing them with a quantifiable financial benefit, and their employer is paying for the cost through their higher than average wages. If this is not the case, then that profession is receiving a subsidy and this should be achieved through alternate means, either by the government increasing wages for low paid public sector professionals who are in genuine need of a degree, or by directly subsidising the fees of students who take up these courses with a commitment to public sector work upon graduation. By having to pay what it actually costs, students will also re-evaluate whether they really need a degree to do their chosen profession, and in time student numbers will probably naturally come down a little from their current levels. This is the nature of supply and demand; to argue against this is to argue for the state to subsidise an over-qualified and under-paid workforce, which is a nonsence.

Many of you reading this will find my justification for tuition fees as abhorrent as the fees themselves. But what are the alternatives? Well, I see three main alternatives:

  1. Carry on as we are, keep fees at current levels or even reduce and abolish them. State subsidy for higher education will increase, the workforce will continue to be over-qualified for the jobs that they do, the government finances take the hit and other areas of public spending have to take a bigger hit to compensate for the spending. Not an ideal option in my opinion.
  2. Reduce student numbers and make higher education more academically exclusive, limiting to say the top 25% of achievers. I’d support this as an alternative, but many wouldn’t – not least the NUS would have a seizure. It also doesn’t have the neat supply/demand and visible true cost of education benefits that fees do, and the government still has to pick up the tab for those who go.
  3. Have a graduate tax. This isn’t actually any different to tuition fees loans for most people, except that you’d have to pay tax for your whole career instead of just paying back what you borrowed for your education. Thus, the best paid professions would be subsidising the least well paid professions. This option is attractive to liberal types, presumably because they see it as a great way of bashing corporate high fliers to subsidise a utopian dream of university eduaction free for all. The reality of this system is little different for all but the highest paid, who are effectively being actively encouraged to pay for their education elsewhere before returning to the UK for work, thus neatly avoiding having to pay the tax in the first place. Has little merit over fees in my opinion, whilst adding some flaws.

Of these options, clearly my view is that higher fees are likely to become a permanent feature of higher education, and rightly so. The idea that poor students will be deterred by going to university because of the debts shows either a fundamental misunderstanding of the terms of the loans – paid off by the state after 30 years, only paid back when earning over a very comfortable threshold, not a commercial loan in the strictest sense – or a liberal belligerence that refuses to accept that good quality higher education costs serious amounts of cash, and it’s not on for the government to indefinitely fork out for their benefit.

February 28, 2010

3D TV at the Bristol Sound & Vision Show

I don’t know how many people have been following the hype about 3D television going on in the home cinema world recently, but curious myself I decided to check out the Bristol Sound and Vision Show to see the available demos for myself. Usefully, both polarised (LG) and shutter glass (Samsung) sets were available to try.

From what I can gather, the format agreed sends both the left and right image from the source to the TV at the same time, and the display then does whatever it needs to with the data to make the image 3D. In the case of the polarised LG, the left and right images are interlaced and simultaneously projected through a polarised layer; the glasses then have the corresponding polarisation over each eye to filter out either the left or right image only. In shutter glass screens, the screen alternately displays left and right images 120 times a second, and liquid crystal shutter glasses alternately shut out the left and right eye in synchronisation with the TV refresh rate to give the 3D image. The glasses for the shutter-type displays are much more expensive (about £100 a pair), which is one of the reasons why if you’ve been to the cinema recently you’ll have been watching 3D generated using the polarised effect.

The demos were sadly limited, with the special demo room giving only about 3-4 mins worth of 3D imagery on the LG TV’s, and the Samsung displaying some animated 3D content on a stand outside. As the conditions were completely different (as well as the content) and the viewing experience so small, forming an authoritive and detailed opinion would be nigh-on impossible. In general, however, I felt that the improvements given by 3D over standard HD were nowhere near as great as the flaws introduced into the viewing experience.

The LG image I generally found to be exceptionally distorted, suffering from serious ghosting of the image around the 3D objects. I noticed this to a much lesser extent when watching Avatar at the cinema, so I don’t know how much of this flaw is due to the particular hardware and how much is down to the limitations of the technique. The ghosting was bad enough to make the image very uncomfortable to watch. There was also generally significantly less resolution to the image, as a result of both the left and right images being interlaced at once. I was sat in the front row of the demo room, maybe 7 feet away from a 47” screen, so maybe viewing from further back may have alleviated some of these issues, or perhaps it was related to the content. As I said, I can’t be sure because of the limited exposure to the hardware.

The Samsung shutter glass screen I generally found to be a much more positive viewing. I’ve always had a hunch that the shutter glass approach is a superior technology to polarisation, and generally I felt that the demo experience bore this out. The content showing was very different, but was very watchable without glasses, with only a noticeable lack of definition to edges to give the 3D of the image away – but certainly nothing to make it unwatchable. With the glasses on, the refresh rate of the screen was quite visible – I believe currently the standard is to refresh at 120Hz, and the experience was similar to viewing with an old CRT screen with a refresh rate set too low – it was quite strenuous on the eyes. The image was much sharper than the LG however, and had good levels of brightness – although lower than without the glasses on. I’m not sure how much higher the refresh rate can go on the LC glasses, or even if this would solve the issue of image flicker. Overall though, I much preferred the Samsung as a viewing experience, although I still think that the negatives outweigh watching content in normal HD.

Perhaps with Panasonic’s products later this year (with all the ex-Kuro engineers assisting), the image quality will begin to accelerate a notch or two. My advice for the time being though is for would-be early adopters to hold fire with their cash.

On a related note, the demonstration of the 9.2 Onkyo receiver, also at the What Hifi stand, demonstrated what a difference extra surround speakers make. In particular, the addition of front at-height speakers really added to the viewing of a scene from 2012. I’m not sure as to all the ins and outs of this; what extra information is required on disc, and if other manufacturers are planning to bring similar products to market soon. Definitely worth a demo in the meantime though, even if it means having to have an over-lively Onkyo in your system!

September 23, 2009

Best news of 2009 announced by BBC

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I was thinking recently of doing a blog post about the need to renew Trident and how it should be ring-fenced in the forthcoming economic horror-slasher film “Britain 2010: Gordon’s chickens return to roost”, but the government have beaten me to it by their announcement that our nuclear defense is non-negotiable. Happily, there is some even better news to blog about today. Top Gear, the best thing by a country mile to ever be dreamed up for the small screen, is going to be broadcast in HD when the new series starts on November 15th. I’m already devising ways of locking my TV onto BBC HD so that we regrettably won’t be able to resolve any scheduling conflicts with Strictly Come Dancing etc in our household – sorry Jen…

July 04, 2009

Political stalemate

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It appears that the current political debate in the UK on the future of the country’s finances has reached something of a stalemate. As political commentators, economists and those who follow politics in the news will know, Gordon Brown has resorted to outright and blatant lying in a last-ditch attempt to save his bacon. He’s widely on the record for portraying the next election as a clear choice between “Labour investment and Tory cuts”. I have yet to hear a single person outside the Labour party (who seem to have begrudingly united behind their leader after their disastrous European elections) express a view other than “this is a fabrication”. I even heard an economist on PM say (apologies if this is not exact) “For once, there is a very clear right and wrong, and all the government’s own figures show that Gordon Brown is wrong”. What I don’t understand is why there is widespread indifference to this at present. Perhaps everyone is exhausted in the wake of the economic crisis and the expenses scandal. But surely when the debate comes this far between one party telling the truth and the other a complete fabrication, then it’s really time to sit up and take action. I quote the linked article above:

Some in Labour feel it is not a credible position to say that the Tories are going to cut everything while Labour will invest. But cabinet ministers close to Gordon Brown believe that this is a fruitful line of attack.

How exactly cabinet ministers think that this is a credible line of attack, when the argument is clearly so far from being credible, I don’t know. Perhaps it is the only position that Labour have left, because as soon as they are forced to admit the true state of the finances and come clean they will be forced to show that their management of the economy not just since the credit crunch but before it was poor, which will do irrepairable damage to them. Mervin King has already said as much as the current levels of government spending are unsustainable – they have after all only been sustained so far by relying in turn on an unsustainable financial sector. Right now though, until Labour drop the pretence that investment will continue to rise under their governance if they are elected for a fourth term, the Conservatives will not be able to talk a great deal more about their plans for the economy, because discussion of cuts from them would result in Labour making political hay by falsely pointing the finger and claiming to have something altogether better. Nick Clegg is right when he says that neither of the two main parties is being honest with the public – but until Labour are forced into doing so, the Conservatives risk too much damage by revealing their future plans.

March 30, 2009

Sky – one of the biggest cons going?

Following the gradual death of my CRT widescreen about 6 months ago (after just over 5 year’s life – not impressed!), we’ve been progressively updating the main living room home cinema. Despite my reservations, I allowed myself to get nagged into getting Sky+ because “It’s got 24 on it” (which I’ve never seen and couldn’t care less about). And since we’ve now got a HD television, for the extra £9.75 a month it seemed a logical thing to get the high definition package as well.

Big mistake.

I always objected to getting Sky before on four main grounds – despite the plethora of channels, there’s pretty much nothing worth watching; the boxes don’t allow you to transfer files to your PC to back up content to DVD etc when you run low on hard drive space; you’re tied into their hardware which is not exactly the last word in performance or reliability, and most of what you end up watching you get with the standard television licence anyway. Having now had the box for a couple of months, I can confirm all of the above to be the case.

On the adverts for Sky, we’re constantly reminded of “How easy it is to record a series” “Even my Grandad can do it” etc etc. And yes, I can confirm that the setup is indeed pretty intuitive once you get the hang of it; it has some neat features (although I find the EPG quite clunky to navigate because of the sheer number of channels that I don’t want to watch). However, it’s little use being able to set up a series record easily if the record fails without any diagnosable reason about 50% of the time. Looking around the forums, I’m not alone. I thought that most of the problems with the early boxes had been resolved, but I’m unfortunately mistaken and hardware issues are still widespread. Compared to my Humax Freeview PVR, the Samsung HD box I have is absolutely hopeless. It regularly claims to have no signal for hours or even days at a time, has locked up several times lock up in a blue screen and require resetting, and above all the missing recordings fault outlined above really defeats the point of a PVR in the first place. The earlier Thompson boxes are supposedly even worse; I think the Pace ones are a little better but it seems to be a little bit of luck which one you end up with, and Sky support seems none too helpful on the matter. I’m particularly irritated that as an informed customer I can’t request which box I wanted; and requesting a swap seems like a fairly major battle.

So assuming that I’ve missed the recording, I suppose I could always use the catch-up facility to miss those episodes of 24 which I’m shelling out nearly £30 a month for. Afraid not; despite having a decent speed broadband that doesn’t struggle with iPlayer, the Sky streaming software plays back with unwatchable lags and breaks while it regains some semblance of a buffer. I also can’t get the “save to disk” functionality to work, despite having tried it on two separate computers (which in itself is a mission because Sky will tie it to one PC only at a time so you have to call them up to swap it over) and un-installing suspected conflicting software. Useless.

And even when you do actually get a picture, the effect isn’t as impressive as you might think (assuming that you can find something worth watching on a Sky-only channel that justifies the subscription in the first place). Sure, the picture quality is pretty good (particularly once you ditch the cheap HDMI cable which gave me a lot of interference through my receiver; guess I can’t really blame them for this so much because everyone builds to a cost), but the sound is really sub-standard and for me goes quite a way to spoiling the whole experience. I think at best it’s on a par with my humble 3 year old Humax Freeview PVR through a couple of inexpensive RCA connections.

Sadly, Sky tie you into a minimum 12 month contract when you sign up, so it’s an expensive lesson in trusting your instincts and standing your ground when you have reservations about a technological product. Hopefully if you’re reading this, you might not make the same mistakes that I did. Save the cash towards a holiday / another gadget / give to the needy / burn £50 notes for fun. Whatever you choose to do with your hard-earned, just steer clear of Sky.

September 23, 2008

Caroline Lucas on the Today programme

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If you were listening to Radio 4 at 7:50 this morning, you would have heard a rather firey (considering it was between two environmentalists who are theoretically therefore on roughly the same side of a debate) discussion between Caroline Lucas, who heads the Green Party, and Mark Lynas, who is a well-known activist in environmental circles. The feature came about because Mr Lynas has spoken in favour of nuclear power as something we need to decarbonise the electricity generation sector, which has resulted in him receiving a very harsh backlash from his fellow campaigners. We saw a similar reaction a few months back with George Monbiot, when he voiced his opinion that climate change was a far more important issue than the traditional opposition to nuclear power of the green movement, and that he “no longer cared” if we went nuclear or not. So why the emergent rift? And who is right?

It seems to me that Monbiot and Lynas are part of a growing cluster of people within the environmental movement who have begun to look past the traditional Chernobyl/atomic weapons opposition of the past and really think about how we can practicably meet the very tough environmental targets of the future. They have tried not to simply criticise current policy, as others have, but actually respond to the policymakers question of “well, what would you have us do?” with something implementable.

The facts are these: currently, electricity generation makes up for 20% of our energy consumption in the UK, about another 30-35% being transport and the remainder falling to space heating and industry. If either hydrogen fuel cells or electric cars/public transport is to grow in the future, this electricity demand will increase significantly. This is coupled with a projected future increase in population of the UK of about 10m by 2050, and a continued growth in the economy (a key efficiency measure used in policy making is one of emissions relative to economic output, thus a growing economy may make use of its energy more efficiently yet still have rising emissions as a nation) which will likely outstrip any marginal gains in efficiency once everyone has had their lofts insulated and pipes lagged. Nuclear power currently accounts for just under 20% of our electricity generation, with all but Sizewell B currently scheduled to come offline by 2023. Add this up, and what you get is a gaping hole in electricity generation both in the short and medium term. Unless the economy is to rapidly shrink and the lights are to go out (which would result in the quick breakdown of civilisation as we know it – not a palatable thought), this gap needs to be filled.

Anyone within the power industry will tell you that this hole will likely be plugged by gas fired power stations. While a lot more efficient than coal, there are three big problems with gas power: firstly, most of the generation cost is in the fuel, so volatile commodity prices as we have seen recently result in a very unstable wholesale price. Secondly, the UK is a net importer of gas now the North Sea fields are depleted, and relations between the UK and the big gas exporters are, shall we say, frosty. This leaves us exposed to the political whim of nations who aren’t afraid to do us some serious damage – not an ideal position to be in. And thirdly of course, this doesn’t come close to meeting our emissions reduction targets. So beyond plugging very short-term gaps in generation, an expansion of gas-generated electricity is not a very wise move, and the UK would do well to reduce this sector in the long term.

One of the main hot topics in energy at the moment is carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS. Long-term, this may well prove to be a silver bullet for the energy sector, allowing the use of plentiful supplies of cheap coal around the world to be used to generate electricity without an environmental side-effect. However, there still has yet to be a demonstration of the technology on a large commercial scale, and no-one can really give any guarantees as to how successful technically or financially this will be. To rely on CCS at this stage of saving our bacon would be more than a little risky given these facts.

The darlings of the environmental movement, efficiency gains and renewable energy, will of course play their part in the future energy mix. However, efficiency measures will only take us so far, and as outlined above growth in the economy, population and usage for electricity means that demand is likely to increase, not decrease. The renewable energy sector is currently estimated at taking a 60% share in electricity generation by 2050, but what about the other 40%? Furthermore, renewable energy requires backup for when the wind isn’t blowing etc, and this adds to the cost. The higher the percentage of renewables, the more backup you need and the more expensive it becomes. Backup is also likely to be a fossil fuel burning power station, which again doesn’t do much to help those emissions targets. Expansion of unreliable renewable energy to such a large (or even larger) share is therefore likely to be firstly very expensive, and secondly require environmentally unfriendly backup. It’s also not been demonstrated that it’s even implementable on such a scale.

Where this leaves us then is nuclear energy. Proven? Well it’s been working in this country since 1956, and with new designs is becoming ever safer, cheaper and more straightforward to decommission. Nuclear proliferation is also not possible with PWR (pressurised water reactors – the type likely to be built as the next generation of reactors) designs, as creation of weapons grade plutonium requires very frequent refuelling to prevent build up of unwanted plutonium isotopes. PWRs are operated commercially on a flat-out basis with no on-load refuelling for a lengthy period of time, making extraction of fuel for use in weapons impractical. Low carbon? Current estimates suggest a carbon emissions figure of 7-60g/kWh for nuclear (through-life cost including uranium ore mining and refinement), which is on a par with/lower than many renewable energy sources, leave alone gas at over 350g/kWh and coal at over 700g/kWh. Waste? Waste repositories are currently being constructed at several sites around the world, which is widely thought will store waste securely for thousands of years until it is no more active than the radiation from background sources. Evidence that this will succeed includes examples from nature, where active materials have been securely stored in rock for billions of years with no escape of active materials despite sub-optimal conditions. Cost? New stations are now designed with over 50 years of experience, and designed to be decomissioned safely and economically. Experience with legacy equipment should not be allowed to be confused with what is being proposed for the future. Fuel costs are also around 10% of operating costs, which provides much more stability in costs. Studies show that an appropriate mix of nuclear power is projected to be significantly cheaper than increasing renewable energy usage beyond the 60% planned level by 2050. Reliability of supply? Newer designs have excellent load factor performance.

So, the next time you hear Caroline Lucas tell you how expensive nuclear power is compared to other technologies like renewables, how we don’t need it because we can all save energy usage by efficiency measures, how dangerous it is because of nuclear wastes and the risk of proliferation, take a moment to consider her claims and do some research for yourselves instead of believing the rhetoric. And realise just how much twaddle her and her ilk talk.

March 2023

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