Monday, 15 February 2010

Climate Change: More than just hot air

“Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth” 
Turns out we proved David Thoreau wrong, and didn’t need wings to ruin the planet. 
The divisive topic of climate change was once again on the agenda at the start of the month, with new evidence coming to light of hacked emails at the University of East Anglia. Commentators have all thrown their hat into the ring; the main sticking points are whether the new evidence has been taken out of context, and if there is any truth in the ranting of climate sceptics. 

The main flaw in the debate is the notion of absolutism. Climate change is perceived to either be real, or a fallacy. You either believe in it, or you don’t. Such a debate (if it can be called that) is not only strongly irrational, but fundamentally damaging to the notion of progressing to a better understanding of climate change. To the uninitiated, the climate change community seems a hotbed of exclusivity and reactionary tendencies. Any notion of criticism directed towards environmentalists is inevitably met with a call to arms, lest you even think about criticising the movement. 
Such a refusal to allow analysis and self criticism means that they keep the stigma of being something only of relevance to the chattering classes. It's unfortunate that public figures who champion the green movement are almost without exception seen to be elitist (Messrs Goldsmith, Monbiot and Prince Charles). The combination of a ubiquitous green lobby and the topic being adopted as de rigeur by Westminster means that any dialogue sounds like white noise. That it's been trumpeted in the liberal media as a catastrophe waiting to happen also does little to help the situation. Bombarding the public with yet more studies and statistics only has the effect of disenchantment, further stalling any progression to universal understanding. 
This universal understanding is key to the development of environmental policy of the future. Polls show that in the UK we have a fairly good understanding of climate change issues- we are aware that it exists and are definitely more concerned about it than many other countries. 
Contrast this with the United States (still emerging from the Bush administration of denial) and the blank refusal of China to co-operate at the Copenhagen summit to see that we still have a long way to go to achieve a global plan. Scientists have been given the benefit of the doubt for too long. If you read the hacked emails that caused this latest farrago in the UK, they are mostly taken out of context and of little real significance to question the effects of global warming. 
But that doesn't excuse politicians for raising scientists onto an unaccountable plinth. 
Climate change is a problem. We know this. But what can't happen is to let urgency cloud judgement. Facts need to be checked, studies carried out and cross referenced, and scientists know this better than anyone. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts a rise in sea levels between 90mm and almost a metre. Hardly a paradigm of accuracy and diligence. There is much written about misinformation, bias and skulduggery in the media. But what about the green movement? Surely they, like everyone else, are equally fallible? I'm no climate sceptic, but am tired of the halo bestowed on the green movement. 
Where can students fit in with all this? Do your research. Most people take in information passively, letting other people make decisions for them. Individual empowerment is something that is scarce within the student population. 
I've lost count of the amount of hoops I've had to jump through, despite "independent learning" being a university's main ultimate selling point. A culture of being patted on the head, bombarded with "yoof" television and demonisation means that it's a lot better to go and get the information yourselves. Read the literature for and against, and make your own minds up. Then, and only then, can we start to properly compare, contrast and analyse the theories, and maybe it won't seem quite so dull after all. 

Monday, 8 February 2010

Labour's Failure on Education

“Education, education, education”
This was the mantra with which Tony Blair began his first term as Prime Minister, as Labour campaigned to bring classroom excellence to the top of their political agenda. 
Over the next few months, Gordon Brown and Ed Balls will start blitzing the public with endless rhetoric about how education still remains this government’s number one priority. What’s that? A general election on the horizon you say? How fortunate.
But have Labour succeeded since election and three successive terms? There’s no doubting the level of money invested (doubling spending from £29bn in 1997, to £63bn in 2007) but moreover, have funds been spent wisely? Core “per pupil” funding has risen by 55%, while there are now in excess of 35,000 more teachers than ten years ago. 
Initially, in the few years after Labour’s election in 1997, exam results soared, ministers patted each other on the back, and Cool Britannia seemed to be talking the talk, at least. But then a major flaw reared its head. The reason for the rise in exam performance was that teachers were now teaching students to the test. After this initial flourish producing better results, the marks fell into a lull. No more could be done to improve results, as teachers were still working from a rigid structure that was performance based. 
Now teachers feel helpless when they face classes made up of a whole array of different abilities. There is no flexibility, and the national plan dictates that the teachers move on with the lesson, no matter how many children are left behind. I remember in my own school, a despairing teacher saying he’d love to discuss abstract concepts and literature, only to concede “it’s not on the syllabus”, and continue handing out past papers. Children are no longer being taught subjects. They are being taught to pass an exam. Cramming information into the brain during revision and then regurgitating it onto paper, without little idea of context or any real relevance. How can we hope to impassion young people about the arts and humanities, when the very nature of the education system is so sterile?
Labour have turned what should be a bottom-up system into a top-down structure. We need to start nurturing children at the earliest age possible, not throw them into a world of bureaucracy and exam neurosis. By the time so called “problem children” reach secondary school, it’s often too late for teachers to help them. By starting the process of encouraging free and unrestrained learning earlier, we can reduce the chances of encountering stumbling blocks later in life.
Despite all this, of late the focus has not been on primary and secondary education, but higher education. 
Labour set the bar high, with a target of getting 50% of young people into higher education by 2010. They’ve come extremely close, with recent figures showing 47% of people aged 18-25 are in higher education. But has it really reaped rewards? The government line is that getting more people into university is more important than ever to secure the country’s future and the health of the economy. 
But the failings lie in projecting such an exact figure for getting young people into higher education. University applications have gone up dramatically, but that doesn’t mean they’ve produced more industrious and independent graduates. Having an undergraduate degree has now become the bare minimum for most job applications. By proxy, anyone wishing to pursue their dream career must attend university. Furthermore, people who shouldn’t be at university are being encouraged to apply, so determined are Labour to reach that magical 50%. These are not students being equipped for the world of work. These are students attending university because they’re told they have to. All the hyperbole built up around “the best years of your life” has resulted in the myth that university is a must-have, to add to the list of things you do before you die. But it’s a lose lose situation. Opt out of applying, and you risk encountering prejudice and snobbery whenever you file a job application. Apply, and you enter a market over saturated with graduates, all with the added gift of thousands of pounds of debt. 
Labour cannot be accused of under-spending on education. But a mismanagement of finance and an absurdly rigid targets-based organisation can be laid at their feet as a gross failure. Throughout the system, from primary through to higher education, staff are encouraged to always meet the goals set, no matter what. This doesn’t take into account individual cases, “difficult” year groups, and other arbitrary factors. All it results in is a disillusioned workforce and a student population who don’t really know what they want to do, or how to get there. Whichever party wins at the next election, they must think long and hard about how to tackle education, and learn from the shortcomings of this government. 

This article originally appears in the February 2010 issue of Chartist Magazine

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

iSlate ... you mean you haven't heard?

After months of bloggers foaming at the mouth, Apple have finally scheduled a press conference for January 27th, to unveil their "latest creation". The iSlate, as it's rumoured to be called, at it's best could revolutionise the way we read newspapers and books, the way we interact with social media, and simultaneously save the dying newspaper industry.

While all this is unlikely, the iSlate still poses intriguing questions about where the future of publishing and media is headed. We're increasingly dependent on having access to news 24 hours a day. The news and media junkies amongst us aren't content with reading what happened yesterday in the morning paper. We want to get updates on world events as they unfold, with live analysis and documentation. The emergence of smartphones (see previous blog post) has further enabled us to have access to news wherever we are.

So, what can we expect from the iSlate? My estimate is a mix of ingenious social networking applications, the ability to read newspapers and books with remarkable clarity, a wide range of TV, music and film applications, as well as all the normal iPhone perks. The New York Times is currently on the cusp of announcing an online paywall akin to the Financial Times', and there's speculation that the announcement will coincide with Apple's own unveiling. If publishers and newspapers sign deals with Apple, it's sure to bring in some extra revenue to keep news corporations afloat for awhile longer as they try to figure out how to make journalism pay.

It's interesting how Apple's marketing team approach all upcoming releases. Everything is clandestine until the very last minute, with only select bits of information leaked to the public. As a result the rumour-mill goes into overdrive, pre-release hype reaches a zenith and Apple clean up at the sales. For all the abuse hurled Apple's way (smug, overpriced, style over substance) they have a loyalty in their fanbase that other companies only dream of. One can't imagine the same amount of column inches and middle-class chatter dedicated to the release of the latest version of Windows.

At the moment, Apple are reported to be in talks with several mobile phone operators in the UK to close a contract deal. It's expected to offer the same kind of service that mobile networks offer for mobile broadband deals, offering discounted products at the expense of a long term contract. Price speculations are wavering around the $1000 mark, which means that we're likely to get a price close to the basic Macbook here in the UK. Currently, I don't see any point in owning a smartphone, a powerful laptop, and the iSlate. Nonetheless if you just like using your phone to just phone people (what a bizarre idea!) then I think the iSlate would be a worthwhile investment.

Anyway, it doesn't matter what I think. We've got a week to go until the announcement, after which Steve Jobs' plan on world domination will be complete. 

Still, better him than Simon Cowell.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Shiny Happy Phones

Currently, I'm looking for a new phone. My present mobile phone is languishing an inch away from suicide, much like John Travolta I imagine, it's best days definitely in the past. So I've started feverishly researching, because frankly, any option that isn't covered in the world of technology scares me.

Until a couple of years ago this would've been all academic to me. Technology enthusiasts seem to operate in a strange little world reserved also for the likes of model army fanatics. A trip to the Carphone Warehouse is equivalent to treading along the alleys of a rough part of town. I just want to get out as soon as possible. The veneer of the displays and the shiny nature of the employees both dampens and numbs my spirit. Any encroachment into this world both baffles and pressurises me, the outsider.

This all changed with the iPhone, and latterly, the newfound consumer popularity of Blackberry. The iPhone, far from being the best phone on offer now, certainly allowed us who weren't knowledgeable about megapixels and social networking (otherwise known as talking, in the old tongue) to feel confident we had something in the palm of our hand that was both usable and powerful.

I'm enthusiastic about the iPhone. It's an exquisite piece of design and put simply, it works. Blackberry's popularity I'm not so sure of. Blackberry's appeal with the business client was that it pushed email directly to the phone, on the move. Work emails could be addressed there and then, without the need for manually checking back to a web browser every so often. Add to that improved internet use, 3G, etc, and you have the makings of a smartphone. However, Blackberrys do none of the aforementioned better than any competitor. Web browsing is unimaginative, screens are small, and menus often cluttered. Take away the email and you're left with an average, or at best "decent" phone. Why it's taken flight amongst students and the under 25's I have no idea. Do you really get any emails more important than "Uni Qlo sale now on! Viagra Pills Available Now! Your Amazon order has been dispatched"? The answer for must of us is no, and therefore negates the need for a Blackberry. My suspicion is that more and more people buy them as they see peers getting them, and so the popularity snowballs...

So back to my predicament. I'll keep looking for a phone, now that there's less trepidation in my step when approaching the mobile phone store. I'll try not to stare blankly as a salesperson offers me the benefit of "3 months half price". I'll listen to his or hers dulcet tones. And eventually I'll depart from said emporium with a shiny bit of plastic, which will be obsolete in 6 months. This is progress.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Film: Avatar

A rumoured $350 million production budget. James Cameron's first film in 12 years. The invention of an entirely new camera to facilitate filming.

To say that Avatar has been suffering from pre-release hype would be to put it mildly. James "King of the World" Cameron has hailed it as a masterpiece, the template for which all future film-making will take it's cue. I finally got to see the spectacle tonight, and one word summed it up: Underwhelming.

Before I get assailed by legions of fanboys who seem to track Cameron's every waking movement, let me first say that Avatar succeeds to some extent. The 3D technology and clarity of definition is certainly impressive, as is the imagination Cameron to create the world of Pandora.

Unfortunately, that's where the good news runs out, as we are subjected to a turgid storyline, clunky script and woefully predictable action sequences. For a film that has been announced as groundbreaking, Avatar does nothing new. The Matrix's bullet time technology was so fascinating that we'd never seen it's like before. Avatar rehashes action film clich├ęs again, and again, and again. If this is the future of film then I'm worried about the direction that cinema is headed.

We have the peaceful Na'Vi of planet Pandora set upon by the human military, in order to get a precious stone which is worth untold millions of dollars. Parallels drawn with the American war on terror are easily made, with the words "shock and awe" actually making it into the script. Besides some occasionally stunning visuals, the animation fails to convince at every turn. The reason why Lord of the Rings was so successful is that it triumphantly married two worlds together. On one hand, the skilful artifice of computer technicians at Weta Workshop, creating monsters which both looked ferocious but intriguing, mythical but somehow realistic. The animation had a lived in quality. Beasts were animated to look dirty, tired and look as though they were battle-hardned. On the other hand, we had real depth of character in each actor and a realistic effort was made to develop and explore storylines.

Avatar does none of this. The world of Pandora looks too perfect, it's edges too smooth, and it's people with no sense of realism at all. Likewise, it's proof that CGI effects and explosions are no substitute for old fashioned storytelling. James Cameron certainly knows how to throw the kitchen sink at a production budget, but there's little evidence here of any craft or diligence to create a good plot.

I wanted to love Avatar, I really did. But it's such a pristine and squeaky clean looking film, that there's no emotional heart to it. Like both Transformers films before it, one simply can't get over the fact that you're watching a computer game, a collection of graphics and a dull, uniform battle scene.
 I didn't care about any of the main characters, be they bad or good. Even Sigourney Weaver fails to save the day. This type of film normally relies on its hero being a maverick, slightly out of his league, or wise-cracking. Jake Sully, Avatar's central character, is none of these. He's an uncharismatic paraplegic marine, who you simply don't believe when he's in the middle of delivering a cod-inspirational speech (in the same league as Leonidas's "This is Sparta" tirade. That bad, honestly).

Avatar is guaranteed to be a box office smash. Perfectly timed in order to lap up the Christmas holidays market, it's set to be a big draw. Indeed the London Imax is sold out until January 11th for every single screening. All I can ask is don't part with your money to go and see this trash, it simultaneously fails to be anything revolutionary, whilst not even offering mindless entertainment. It bored me. How sad.