Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Energy

We live in interesting times from an energy supply point of view, this post aims to hold various items of relevant content.

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Apr2016 : Energy Trends article
A Bloomberg article describes how recent solar and wind auctions have been won by companies promising to deliver the lowest cost energy - even when compared to other sources.

This has been driven by falling solar costs (not 1/150th of its 1970s price) and is seeing the amount of installed solar capacity double seven time since 2000. Even wind has doubled four times over this timeframe.

Analyts keep getting caught out - since 2000 the International Energy Agency has raised its long-term solar forecast 14 times and its wind forecast five times. Every time global wind power doubles, there's a 19 percent drop in cost and every time solar power doubles, costs fall 24 percent.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Talk : The Crisis in Post-16 Education

Interesting Cafe Sci talk recently by Alan Barker from the University and College Union (UCU). Alan is a teacher of A-Level Mathematics and is involved in a number of projects to make teaching of this subject as effective as possible (see here and here)

Alan's talk was on "The Crisis in Post-16 Education" and was fascinating. The post below below is based on the talk, with some added bloggage and linkage thrown in....

The talk began by mentioning the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, which allowed polytechnics to become universities; removed FE establishments from LEA control; introduced competition for funding and learners between institutions; and allowed institutions to set their own terms and conditions for staff.

An interesting look at the background and effects of these reforms can be found in this paper by Michael Hammond.

Alan commented on how the changed funding regime had resulted in cuts in the number of courses offered, with one head telling Alan that the situation was now so bad that "there is nothing left to cut" except core courses. Pay was also an issue post-1992, with increases being higher for senior managers than for teaching staff. Data on FE pay in 2012 can be found on P19 of this report , which puts medial senior manager pay at ~£62k and teaching staff at ~£29k.

On the other hand, this article in FE Week quotes the UCE saying "as college staff were being offered a measly pay rise of 0.7 per cent in 2012/13, some of the top earning college leaders were enjoying pay rises of more than 30 per cent." and listing salaries well in excess of 100K for many college principals.

Alan commented on a number of occasions on how, far from being more efficient, the current structure of FE has many mismatches between education rhetoric and actual funding. One example being a Darlington college which had a large number of classes for hairdressing, not because of local need, but because that was where the funding was [although a news (article) suggests it was more to do with pushing girls towards hairdressing as an "easy" option}.

There is a government push towards merging FE colleges in large towns and cities (a process that is happening right now in Nottingham), although Alan stated that there was "no evidence base" that larger establishments were more more financially stable and that a similar policy in Scotland had resulted in a significant drop in drop in student numbers. When the plans were announced, the Scottish Government claimed there would be £50million of efficiency savings each year from 2015/16 and that outcomes for students would improve.

But Audit Scotland found that, although there were savings from reducing teaching staff, "total student numbers were now 36 per cent lower than 2008/09, teaching staff had been cut by 9.2 per cent in the last two years alone and budgets were down £69m between 2011/12 and 2015/16".

On the other hand, Alan also commented on the duplication or courses and lack of co-ordination that occurred in the past when there were several FE colleges in the city. Alan described another way of organising FE establishments, one in which local people, local government, staff and students were more involved; where there was a proper education policy and where there was a move away from a very narrow "skills agenda".

Another remarkable story mentioned in the talk was some comments from Vince Cable that, in 2010, Government officials wanted to cut all FE funding, claiming that "no-one will really notice". In then end, the FE budget was cut by 40% - and student fees went up from £3,375 to £9,000 year to compensate.

According to Alan, the direction of travel for government policy had three arms:

Apprenticeships - A-Levels in schools only - No adult provision for education

In short, you get one shot at education, if you miss out, for whatever reason, you are toast. Alan commented on how this was in conflict for a wish for "lifelong learning" and for people to retrain during their careers.

Q&A
One of the most interesting features of Cafe Sci events is the long Q&A session. Alan's talk was no exception.

One question asked how people could hold local FE providers to account (e.g. relating to finances or student outcomes). Alan's response was there was no way of holding local FE to account. There was no ombudsman, they were not part of local government. In short "you have no control over the education system in your city"

Another person asked whether there were positives in the potential merger of Nottingham FE colleges in terms of offering courses that were not otherwise viable, or more flexible timetables. Alan responded that this was possible and that many educators had some support for the scheme. The questioner also pointed out they had wanted to get some local community organisers onto a course about fuel poverty - something that was desperately relevant to the communities they lived in - but found that the course was £800 (for just three days) - it seemed that there was a failure to look at where the NEEDS were, in favour of looking at where the FUNDING was.

Then, right at the end of the event, there was a remarkable discussion. It centered about the fact that the alumni of FE colleges are invisible, yet we interact with them everyday. But we do not recognise it because the badge on the back of the heating engineers van doesn't say "Central College Nottingham" - it says "Corgi" or "City and Guilds".

The digital designer; the hotel sales executive; the award winning film-maker; the plumber, the famous animator; the Transmission and Asset Manager for National Grid; the award winning fashion designer; the gardener; the IT support technician; the TEDxDerby organiser; the hospital healthcare support workers; the hairdresser; the biomedical scientist, the nurse; the sports coach; the car mechanic and technician - all of them a product of Further Education Colleges.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Critical Thinking : Rothschilds own all the banks

A short video about the Rothschilds appeared on BFTF's Facebook timeline a while back...

The Rothschild conspiracy explained in 4 minutes

...It did at least have the virture of being short..

The central bank in your country is owned
and controlled by the Rothschild family, apparently

Not true. The Bank of England is an independent public organisation, wholly owned by the Treasury Solicitor on behalf of the government, with independence in setting monetary policy.

The run the central bank of every country
 in the entire world (except three) apparently

...Except, according to the video, for North Korea, Iran and Cuba - presumably this means that, for example, the Central Bank of China is under Rothschild control - something that is difficult to imagine, given the one party state in place there...

There isn't actually any evidence of Rothschilds controlling ANY central banks, much less virtually ALL of them.

Unless, of course, a Facebook video with no references for its assertions is "evidence".

Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Libya

...The video alleges that there were four other countries who had independent central banks in 2000 (Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Libya) and that the Rothschild family the US to gain control of the Afghanistan and Iraqi central banks by invading, and used the UN to gain control of the Sudanese and Libyan central banks. It further alleges that the thaw in relations between the US and Cuba/Iran is to allow their central banks to be taken over too. Oh, and it'll be the war thing for North Korea soon....

BFTF notes that these kinds of conspiracies always refer to the Rothschilds family, never to any of the other major banking families around the world, such as Barenburgs, Coutts, Fuggers, Goldman-Sachs, Rockefellers, Morgans or Warburgs.

Sad that real issues of loss of sovereignty such as TTIP or groups combating global financial injustice such as the Jubilee Dept Campaign do not get this kind of airtime.

Related Content
Critical Thinking

Monday, 28 March 2016

Academisation of schools

Recent proposals to force all schools to become academies have caused BFTF to pay attention to this issue.

Whilst it does not affect BFTF directly (Little No3 Son is well on this way through secondary education at a school that is already an academy), BFTF cares about the quality of education in England, and that the structures delivering it are accountable, well run and effective. Lets look at each of these in turn.

Accountable
BFTF was disturbed to read a report recently on what happened when a local journalist tried to find out about proposals for Halewood Academy to close its Sixth Form.

The school would not comment, and directed the reporter to their website (where the consultation letter and proposal could be found)

The council would not comment, saying that academies were the responsibility of central government.

With parent anger growing, the reporter tried to speak to someone at the school again - to no avail.

The council then directed the reporter to the "regional schools commissioner", who was responsible for overseeing academies on the governments behalf.

The commisioner told the reporter to talk to the Department of Education.

And the Department of Education had already told parents that "the government and Parliament aren't responsible!

Well Run - Assets
BFTF hears a lot of concerns about land and buildings that were previously publically owned being gifted to private companies on academisation. DoE advice sdescribes how schools becoming academies should " transfer your school’s land to the academy trust."

PFI continues to be a be a big issue. A CoE secondary school, built via PFI, and which wished to become part of a Multi-Academy-Trust is described in a public service article thus:

"The PFI agreement includes a series of facilities management contracts lasting up to 25 years and costing more than £1m a year. At a time of budget reductions, this commitment puts the long-term financial security of the school at risk. The school’s governors are fully aware of this and are deeply concerned about the future viability of the school. They hoped that academy ‘freedoms’ would give them the opportunity to renegotiate the PFI contract, but this appears to be legally impossible.

The diocese is reluctant to take on such an open-ended financial burden, which must be a disincentive to any potential sponsor. Its independent auditors concluded that the PFI contract did not meet the school’s needs, did not function effectively and did not provide value for money. For the diocese, voluntary aided status might offer the best of both worlds. It would increase its influence on the governing body and would give it more control over the land and assets of the school, without having to take on the same financial risks that it would if the school were an academy."

On the other hand, an article at the right-wing Policy Exchange site describes how government policy aims to separate the procurement and management of schools, so that there is no conflict of interest between the two roles.

Well Run - Management
Disturbing to read that the current oversight system did not spot the severe financial irregularities of the Perry Beeches Academy chain, and took six months (!) to respond to warnings raised by a whistleblower.

Effective
In 2015, the Chair of the Education Committee commented that :

"Current evidence does not prove that academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children. It is clear though that academisation has led to greater competition, challenging many maintained schools to improve and incentivising local authorities to develop speedier and more effective interventions in underperforming schools."


BFTF notes that academies do not have to follow the national curriculum or employ trained teachers. That does not sound like a recipe for success, but it does sound like a recipe for cost cutting. What is the point of a national curriculum if no school has to follow it? How can one compare schools (excpt via GCSE results) if there is no benchmark?

A number is not an "increase"

Dear NASUWT (nasuwt@mail.nasuwt.org.uk)

Just read a BBC report which said :

"Increasing numbers of pupils are coming to school hungry, anxious and unable to concentrate because of family financial pressures, a teachers' union has said. The NASUWT union said growing numbers of teachers and schools were providing food, equipment and clothes for pupils."

Link : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-35873541

But I can see no actual data supporting the assertion that numbers are increasing.Is this data available and, if so, where can one find it?

[To pick two examples "Almost three-quarters of the teachers had seen pupils coming to school hungry" and "Over a quarter had given food to hungry pupils" were mentioned, but neither say whether these levels are higher, the same, or lower than previous years. Seen this kind of thing before on BBC reporting]

[Also complained similarly to the BBC]

Part of article

Simon Starling at Nottingham Contemporary

BFTF and No3 Son recently saw a fascinating exhibition of work by Simon Starling at Nottingham Contemporary (see also here). Simon is an alumni of Nottingham Trent University and has won many awards, including the Turner Prize in 1995, for his work.

Below are a few notes on some of the items that particularly caught the attention of BFTF, together with a bit of added bloggage...

The Nanjing Particles (2008)
A big hit with BFTF and No3 Son, this was originally displayed at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (whose history is fascinating in its own right btw), the sculptures are million-fold magnifications of silver particles extracted from an image of Chinese strikebreaking workers at the Sampson Shoe Factory in Massachusetts. Ironically, it was too expensive to make the sculptures in the US, so the job went to the Shanghai State Art Foundry in Nanjing (more info here).

The strikebreakers at the Sampson Shoe Factory, 1870 (via Wikipedia)

1,000,000 x magnified Silver particles

So many questions.... How did the silver particles get extracted? What did the electron microscope image look like? How was it converted to a 3D form? I guess to find the answers to these questions, one will have to buy the book (don't like to link to tax-avoiding Amazon, but that's the only place BFTF can find it).

The Alchemist and Recursive Plates
An unusual take on the "science meets art" genre, this part of the exhibition showed Joseph Wrights original "The Alchemist" together with a recent Daguerreotype of the same painting.

The Alchemist (1771) is a famous painting (definition of "famous" : "one BFTF has seen before") but BFTF was surprised to find that it is normally found in Derby Museum and that Joseph Wright was a son of that nearby city. Alchemists were the predecessors of modern chemists and the painting shows an alchemist producing phosphorous from boiled down urine. This was actually done by German Alchemist Hennig Brand around 1669. The glow is caused by phosphorous vapour reacting with oxygen in the air. Indeed, the word "phosphorous" means "light bearer". Alchemists, however, were unaware of the actual chemistry that was happening.

The Alchemist (via Wikipedia)

In contrast, the Daguerreotype, one of the first photographic technologies was developed when chemistry was better understood (although discoveries of the electron and atomic nucleus were still to come). Daguerrotypes are produced on a silver plated metal sheet and are very fragile. In the image below, one can see reflections of the room (in colour) and also a faint, reversed, image of The Alchemist painting.

Modern Daguerreotype of "The Alchemist" 

"Project for a Rift Valley Crossing" (2015-16)
This remarkable project, specially produced for Nottingham Contemporary, is still in progress. It involves taking some 1900 litres of water from the Dead Sea (which contains ~0.05% Magnesium), extracting the ~90kg Magnesium from it to make a canoe, and then rowing across the Dead Sea in that canoe.

The inspiration for the project came from the story of magnesium bicycle maker Frank Kirk, who extracted ~2.5kg of Magnesium from ~1.5m3 of seawater and made Magnesium bike frames.

The Industrial Bulk Containers (IBC's) that had contained the water were on show (each holding about a tonne of water) as was the resulting canoe - but the trip across the Dead Sea is scheduled for some point in the future.

Two IBC's, each capable of holding ~ 1 tonne of water

Canoe made from Magnesium extracted from Dead Sea water

Close up of Magnesium welds

La Source (demi teinte) (2009)
Another hit with No3 Son, this display took a section from a half-tone image and converted the dots into glass balls. Nottingham Contemporary even provided a raised viewing platform to get a good view from!

La Source from viewing platform

La Source, close up

All technically very clever, from the manufacture of the glass balls to the laying out of the balls to form the image.

D1-Z1 (2009)
No3 son thought that the 35mm projector running a film loop was "pretty cool", but for BFTF it was seeing what was projected - footage of one of the earliest programmable computers, the Z1, which was designed by Konrad Zuse in Germany in 1936. Remarkably, it was of a mechanical design, which leaves BFTF wondering whether this is the direction things could have taken in a SteamPunk world.

35mm projector showing footage of the Z1

Close up of the 35mm projector

Z1 mechanical computer (via Wikipedia)

Final note...
Perhaps worth repeating that there was a lot of other stuff on display that is not covered here and also that the plum cake in the cafe is very nice.

Related Content
Surface Gallery - Michael Powell Exhibition
Report on Street Art Exhibition at the Surface Gallery
Pictures of the Sky
Nottingham - Tiltshifted
Shonaleigh at Nottingham Storytellers
Great programme describing how some of Turners paintings covered key changes in the Industrial Revolution.
Piero Gilardi and John Newling at Nottingham Contemporary
Light Night 2013
The Chair
>Jean Genet at Nottingham Contemporary

Image Sources
All BFTF's own except:
North Adams Strikebreakers
The Alchemist
Z1

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Priorities

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum reports on how US Air Force food aid drops in Syria are missing their targets because the $60,000 cost of the system used to ensure accuracy is felt to be such that "You wouldn’t use it for a purely humanitarian drop.”

For context, imagine how much the cost of the mission (planes, 21 pallets of food aid, air crew, air base costs etc) would be. And all that largely wasted because the pallets drifted off course because the were not dropped accurately.

This story raises other issues - why is the USAF doing these drops? Why not the air forces of the surrounding countries? Maybe they are and it is not being reported?

Sent an email to local MP and Conservative Party asking what the UK was doing to put this right.