All entries for March 2005

March 22, 2005

Reading Festival 2005 – Dubious value for money


For anyone who missed the news yesterday, the current lineup for the 2005 Reading Festival can be found here. The festival runs from Friday 26th August to Sunday 28th, with a weekend ticket costing £125 minus booking fees.

I look forward to seeing The Pixies, Foo Fighters, QOTSA, Maiden and Bloc Party, though the other offerings don’t have as much appeal. Were it not for The Pixies, I probably wouldn't bother given the cost. With any luck we’ll see some smaller, promising groups added to the lineup in the coming weeks.

Unfortunately, it looks like we won't have any controversial additions, such as 50 Cent who last year earned a cool £285 000 despite being forced off stage after 15 minutes. I don't understand the mentality of people who think it's clever to throw stuff because the music isn't to their taste. How about walking away and doing something more productive?


March 21, 2005

Can we manufacture happiness?

Whilst catching up on some reading, I came across Stumbling & Mumbling's review of Richard Layard's book Happiness. Richard Layard puts forward a number of points in favour of saving us from our own greed and promoting greater equality and thus happiness within the country. Here's a sample

[Richard Layard] eludes the question: can there be enough interpersonal comparisons of well-being to make utilitarianism useful for policy purposes? Does it really follow from the claim that happiness is an objective quantity that it is interpersonally comparable? What matters for policy purposes is not happiness as measured in laboratories. It’s happiness over people’s lifetimes, as this, not momentary well-being, is the proper object of policy; it would be absurd for the government to intervene every time someone feels a little down in the dumps. In this context, it might be worth distinguishing between utilitarianism as a moral guide for individuals and utilitarianism as a political ideal. I (might) know enough about my friends and family to make interpersonal comparisons between them. It doesn’t follow that the state knows enough about its citizens to do so.

On the whole, it looks like a poor effort from the LSE Emeritus Professor. The full review can be found here.

Though I’m yet to look though them, Warwick’s own Professor Andrew Oswald has written some papers on the issue of happiness which can be found on his homepage.


March 20, 2005

So you're good at something? Well there's someone better.

Just as starting university shattered any beliefs I had about being anything special academically, a post form Catallarchy discusses the role of increased global-connectedness on our perception of ability and the day to day comparisons we make.

Our personal worlds are vastly larger than at any previous time in human history. Our population is much higher, and we are exposed to the best of the best of this huge pool of talent. This can be hard on one’s self-esteem. The person who used to be able to take pride in being the best of their acquaintance at something is now humbled by comparison with the best of their state, nation, and world.

Full article here

It's great that we have news of & access to the works of those who're at the top of their game; from the world of academia, to the world of music. A dent in our ego is surely a small price to pay. These developments should reduce the duplication of effort in some areas, increase the resources from which inspiration can be drawn whilst acting as a spur for further and more rapid progress on the whole.


March 19, 2005

The end of Cheerleading as we know it

The Friday night lights in Texas could soon be without bumpin' and grindin' cheerleaders. Legislation filed by Rep. Al Edwards would put an end to "sexually suggestive" performances at athletic events and other extracurricular competitions. It's just too sexually oriented, you know, the way they're shaking their behinds and going on, breaking it down," said Edwards, a 26-year veteran of the Texas House. "And then we say to them, 'don't get involved in sex unless it's marriage or love, it's dangerous out there' and yet the teachers and directors are helping them go through those kind of gyrations."

Full article from Fox sports. (Found via Out Of Control)

Good luck to whoever would have to decide whether a particular routine is or isn’t appropriate (A job I certainly wouldn’t mind). Will we see rules on the extent to which cheerleaders can wave their arms around, and wiggle their hips?


March 18, 2005

In the mood for work?

It’s that time of year again; revision season. For those who’ve started the joyous task of revision/essay writing, or those debating whether it’s worth the effort, I’ll post any information that may prove useful as and when I come across it.

First few tips come courtesy of Openloops in a post called Are You in The Mood? In order to start those unpleasant tasks, the following is suggested:

Set yourself a time limit
Set a limit of 5 – 10 minutes; the exact amount of time is not important. Then, work steadily on the task until the end of the set time and then stop. Many times, however, after the project starts moving, you’ll find you want to finish it.

Set up a reward for finishing the task
Promise yourself a simple reward such as a dinner out, a tall milkshake, a new Moleskine, anything that will propel you forward.
Do some “Lead Up” tasks
Instead of jumping right in, do some tasks that lead up to being able to complete main objective. Prepare the workspace. Gather materials. Find some soft music to listen to while working. This will sometimes get you “in motion” to the point where it’s easy to remain in motion (Remember Newton?).

In reality, limits will need to be longer than 5–10 minutes. Half an hour seems like a reasonable length of time to spend concentrating on a given topic. I imagine ‘rewards’ can be taken up at the end of a working day, or even in between half hour stints. Just make sure that these ‘mini rewards’ don’t drag on, taking up as much time as the work itself.


March 16, 2005

Private Vs State schools. Should we aim for equality?

Some stream of consciousness writing on equality of education provision:

I don’t think it’s easy or at all possible to say whether inequality in whatever form is ‘just’ or ‘unjust’. As things stand, there exists a gap in the quality of services provided by state and private schools. On average, private schools allow pupils to achieve academic results far above average as well as allowing personal growth through extracurricular activities.

Why does such a gap exist? Private schools have access to better teachers (though higher salaries) and more resources in the form of technology and learning materials. Private schools have smaller class sizes and there is an inherent culture of excellence; an environment which places great emphasis on achievement. Finally, such schools have selection criteria which (arguably) filter out those likely to perform below average.

How can this quality differential be resolved?

Firstly, we could abolish private schools all together, or introduce legislation which makes their financial state untenable e.g. by preventing such institutions from claiming charity status and receiving tax breaks. Demand for these schools exists as there is a deficiency in provision elsewhere. Their abolition is a gross manipulation of the market for education and would do nothing to raise the quality of existing schools. Quality will remain low at best and the system will need to absorb a huge number of new students.

Secondly, we could bring about convergence by simply improving state schools. If there were an easy solution to the problems faced, we would have seen its implementation years ago. Despite endless initiatives and growth in funding the quality gap persists. It’s said that bad policy breeds bad policy. Perhaps state provision places limits on how good the system can be, and efforts to improve it in its current state will be wholly ineffective. I reckon it’s impossible for the state to match services provided by schools relying on academic results for survival. The state system can provide below par services with no fear of demise in funding or demand. There are no real pressures to move towards greater efficiency and quality.

Finally, we could explore alternatives to state provision of education. I’m wary of saying we should leave the whole process to market forces as education is key if there is to be any social mobility whatsoever. Education is one of those things I’d hate to see people do without. I don’t think the current quality differential is so large that those within the system will be denied opportunities available to others in the long run.

Even if it’s possible to match the private sector, given the blatant diminishing returns to capital, the process of raising funds would simply create more serious problems elsewhere. Greater funding though tax inevitably creates negative incentives at the limit, and reduces the country’s economic competitiveness. That’s without considering the non-existent political will to inflict further tax increases on the population and the numerous other institutions which face fiscal problems such as the NHS. Monetary constraints therefore prevent progress beyond a certain point.

To summarise, the possibilities available for creating ‘equality of opportunity’ are severely flawed. We must accept that inequality is here to say even if it’s not ideal. We should not consider equality as a goal to be worked towards. There is a clear trade off between equality and overall quality, market responsiveness and competitiveness. Earnest efforts to create a state system equal to that of the private sector will prove ineffective and will create problems elsewhere. I have no faith whatsoever in the government’s ability to consciously design a system which works as well as one motivated by market forces. The government should be happy with an 'adequate' system. If it wants real quality, it's going about things the wrong way.


March 14, 2005

NHS Accident & Emergency Targets

Target putting A&E care at risk
Accident and emergency patients could be being put at risk by the need to meet the government's four-hour waiting target, senior doctors claim. Half the casualty units in England told the British Medical Association pressure to meet targets meant patients were moved inappropriately. Some 40% also admitted patients were discharged from A&E before they had been properly assessed or stabilised. But the government said the survey painted a "distorted picture". The government had set down a target which said that, by the end of December last year, 97% of patients should be seen, treated and discharged from A&E within four hours of being admitted. Half failed to meet the target.

From BBC News

It’s hard to understand the rationale behind all the targets handed out. If a patient currently waits 6 hours on average before being attended to, how does assigning an arbitrary value of 4 hours help matters? A new target doesn’t alter the funds available. A new target doesn’t increase recruitment, nor relieve the stress and tiredness of existing staff. Targets seem to yield greater benefits to those employed to create them than to the public putting up with the service. I’m all for collecting data on hospitals in order to gauge performance over time, but no two hospitals are identical in their resources, strengths and weaknesses. By setting targets applicable to everyone the government simply creates incentives to meet targets in ways which may prove detrimental to patients. i.e. through early discharge. Do NHS management seriously think those who’ve dedicated their careers to saving lives will hold patients in A&E wards any longer than is necessary just to avoid extra work?

I suppose the more targets one creates, the greater the chances of some actually being met. And if you’re a government pouring funds into an institution, you’ve got to have some ‘proof’ that the spending has been fully justified.


March 13, 2005

Posting secrets online

PostSecret is a blog that is interesting, amusing and morose in equal measure. The site hosts picture of ananymous postcards from people looking to get particular issues off their mind and into the open.

Yahoo.com says this

If you've been longing to scream your deepest, darkest secret from the rooftops — while still making sure Mom and the neighbors never find out — then it's your lucky day. Just jot it down on a postcard and send it off, guilt-free. Anonymous confessions ranging from lighthearted to therapy-worthy have found a new public home, and it looks like many of us have been waiting for the right moment to spill our guts without signing our names. Remember when you tossed eggs in the neighbor's pool? Or couldn't resist a meat fix on the sly? Maybe you've had it up to here with irony. Whatever your skeleton, here's a chance to throw open wide the closet doors and share it with the world. But don't worry — Mom will be none the wiser.

Here’s one from today:

And an amusing one from earlier on:

The postcards are worth viewing for both their design and the thoughts they convey.


March 12, 2005

Bloglines & RSS aggregators

It appears that the free online RSS feed aggregator Bloglines has been down since yesterday evening. I've heard that this has been happening fairly often, though it’s the first time I've noticed it. With just under 300 feeds under various categories, I'm quite eager for service to resume so that my subscription list may be exported at the very least.

Services such as Bloglines are a godsend for anyone following a large number of writers online. Like other news aggregators it alerts you when a channel (blogger) has a new post, allows you to save interesting posts, display new posts as a newspaper, view posts by week/month, and organise feeds into folders. The service also indicates how many other people have subscribed to a given feed. The principle advantage of a web based solution is that your subscriptions can be viewed regardless of location; data is stored remotely as opposed to locally.

Luckily, the latest version of Feeddemon, created by Nick Bradbury now allows synchronisation with Bloglines or NewsGator (another online service). The benefits of a more powerful software application can now be enjoyed without losing flexibility. The full list of improvements in version 1.5 can be found here. At $29.95, the product is a bargain given the feature set, the product's continuous development and the speed of response in the support forums.

//Update:
Strangely, I can access Bloglines though the Warwick University proxy. The problem be with my ISP (BTYahoo), but no other site has proved problematic. :/


March 10, 2005

On reading and lack of time

In recent weeks, I’ve seen the size of my Amazon wishlist grow to immense proportions. Due to recommendations from bloggers and other authors it’s not odd to see it increase by 5–7 books each week. It’s incredibly easy to build up a shortlist of books and just as easy to instruct Amazon to present a nice package of them at your door step next business day.

Sadly, the time available to read said books appears to remain static. Time causes one’s stock of unread material to grow moderately, whilst you make little headway though the current book of choice. Academic work, together with a growing list of blogs to get though (thanks to Bloglines) doesn’t help matters. And that’s not to mention around 200 sites that have been deemed worthy of further reading over at Del.ico.us (see this post ).

That there is so much scope for learning can only be a good thing. Expecting to have the time to take in everything that could potentially be useful is a recepie for madnesss. The issue of ‘information overload’ will only increase in importance as technology allows greater participation in discussions (e.g. though blogs) and as the costs of acquiring information fall. Still, ‘information overload’ may simply be a notion created to mask an inability to effectively prioritise and manage input.

Mark Twain said, "The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them." These words should encourage us all to find new ways of managing and taking advantage of the opportunities available to us regardless of the barriers that make the task that much more inconvenient.


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