Azara Blog: October 2011 archive complete

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Date published: 2011/10/16

Sainsbury elected as next Chancellor of Cambridge University (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Lord Sainsbury of Turville will be the next Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, replacing the Duke of Edinburgh who stood down in June.

Lord Sainsbury will become the 108th chancellor in the university's history and was the official candidate.

He took 2,893 of the 5,888 votes cast, winning on the first count.

He was challenged by actor Brian Blessed (1,389), lawyer Michael Mansfield (964) and Cambridge grocer shop owner Abdul Arain (312).

Well, 2893+1389+964+312=5558 so it looks like 5888-5558=330 people spoiled their ballot, or something. Sainsbury received just under 50% of those who cast votes, but just over 50% of the votes reported, so the single transferable vote system did not need to be used. In any case, the establishment candidate won and the joke candidates did not.

What is most surprising is that Blessed received so few votes, and barely beat out Mansfield. Blessed had received quite a lot of free publicity in the media, more than any other candidate. Quite possibly most of the people who blustered via twitter or facebook that they would vote for him did not bother showing up. And indeed, the requirement to show up at the Senate House to vote no doubt put a lot of potential voters off. The university was expecting up to 10000 people to vote, so that is another indication that a lot of people decided not to bother in the end.

In some sense, all is well that ends well, but this election could easily have gone to Blessed, given the nature of social media. Why was Blessed the preferred candidate of the new media chattering class and not some other random celebrity? Well, just because some random person pushed him forward and he happened to be the first that obtained some traction in the media, and then all the sheep followed suit.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on the election says (or said):

On 7 October, IT analysts speculated "a failure by Cambridge University administrators to understand online campaign techniques may result in the defeat of their preferred candidate for the next university chancellor - Lord Sainsbury of Turville", and predicted a possible victory for Blessed. Cambridge alumnus Anthony Zacharzewski, a democracy analyst and founder of the Democratic Society, argued that the University's failure to engage with online campaigning and to adequately publicise the candidates' web presences, "plays into the hands of the Blessed vote", since his supporters had the best-organised online presence. The same analysts also predicted "gridlock in the city centre" on the election days.

It seems in Cambridge that sanity can sometimes trump the web. And why anyone would have predicted "gridlock in the city centre" (any worse than normal) is a mystery. The only "gridlock" was in the Senate House, because each person voting had to be looked up in a list (a long list, in the case of people who were not members of the Regent House).

It will be interesting to see if the university changes the voting rules for future elections. There is no good reason why the vote should not be limited to members of the Regent House. If the rules remain unchanged then it is pretty obvious that there will be plenty of candidates in future who either some joker decides would be a good laugh to support (e.g. Blessed this time around), or who are just in it to get some free publicity for some cause or other, no matter how little it has to do with the university (e.g. Arain this time around).

Date published: 2011/10/01

Lisbon thoughts (permanent blog link)

In many European cities, e.g. Krakow, the historic core has received much attention and has been lovingly restored, whereas just outside the core less attention is paid and the buildings look tired. Lisbon seems to be the opposite. The historic core has many buildings that need a serious amount of attention and money spent on them, whereas in the newer districts the buildings seem to be well maintained.

The area around Oriente Station was developed for the 1998 Expo and has all the kinds of modern buildings that are of a high architectural standard. (Although some of the apartment blocks look fairly empty.) And the buildings in the area around the Parque Eduardo VII look similar to the turn-of-the-century buildings of Paris. There is even a replica of a Hector Guimard designed metro station, at Picoas station. So it is odd that the historic core has so many buildings looking so derelict.

One thing that the historic core does have is a nice collection of baroque churches. And it is a bit surprising that the Lisbon tourist websites seem to ignore this feature. They are perhaps not in the same league as the churches in Rome, but they are not far off. There are many trompe-l'oeil ceilings, and many of them also have beautiful wood floors and pews (possibly made from wood imported from Portuguese colonies). The cathedral, surprisingly, is just about the least interesting of the churches, and has a somewhat crumbling interior.

There seems to be a ritual in Lisbon (and possibly elsewhere in Portugal) whereby on the first day of term the older students haze the first year students in public squares and parks.
hazing of students in Lisbon
The older students are all dressed in black suits with white shirts, some with various insignias. The first year students are made to grovel in front of them. It can look rather sinister and it is not difficult to see how societies can fairly easily brainwash their citizens into following orders.

Paris to introduce an electric car share scheme (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

Paris is launching its first car-sharing project as it aims to clear its traffic-clogged boulevards.

The backers hope the scheme will be a major boost for electric vehicles.

The Autolib system is intended to build on the success of the Velib bicycle-rental service, similar to that operating in many European cities.
Valentine de la Celle, a 30-year-old Parisian mother of two, does not own a car.

"We are doing building work at home at the moment and to take things to the tip I would have to hire a car, which is difficult," she told Reuters.

"But the scheme needs to be quick and simple, otherwise people will not use it."

Advocates of these kind of car share schemes (anywhere in the world) perpetually claim that one of the aims is to clear "traffic-clogged boulevards", and the BBC repeats this propaganda point without any critical analysis. And yet, who is most likely to take up this kind of scheme? Well, people like de la Celle, who currently does not have a car. If the scheme is any good, it will just add more cars to the road system, not fewer.

What the advocates really hope for, it seems, is that lots of people who own cars suddenly decide to get rid of them and join this scheme, and at the same time find the implementation of the scheme such a hassle that in the end they use the car much less than before. Of course de la Celle realises that instead the scheme ought to be "quick and simple".

It will be interesting to see if the Paris scheme somehow miraculously squares this circle. Of course the ruling elite might well square the circle some day by banning all other cars (excepting theirs, of course) from the city.

British geoengineering research test put on hold (permanent blog link)

The BBC says:

A pioneering test of a climate "tech fix" planned for October faces a six-month delay as scientists discuss the issues it raises with their critics.

The test is part of the UK-based Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (Spice) project.

It would use a balloon and a kilometre-long hose to spray water into the upper atmosphere - a prelude to spraying climate-cooling sulphate particles.

But the funders believe that more talks about the social aspects are needed.

The project is supported to the tune of £1.6m by UK research councils, including the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), whose independent advisory panel recommended the delay last week.

The test would have put the UK at the forefront of practical climate engineering research.

Dr Matt Watson of the UK's Bristol University, who leads the overall project, said he endorsed the decision, although his team had been "taken aback" when they first heard the news.

"We're talking about a pressure washer you could buy in a hardware shop, a long hose, and two bathloads of water, so you couldn't have a more benign experiment," he told BBC News.

"But in the end it's the social context that's important - and we realise there's no point in having the (ESPRC independent panel) process unless we're going to work with it."

The initial deployment, due to take place from an abandoned airfield in Sculthorpe, Norfolk, will almost certainly not take place before April.
The Spice team - drawn from a number of universities as well as Marshall Aerospace - calculates that 10 or 20 giant balloons at a 20km altitude could release enough particles into the atmosphere to reduce the global temperature by around 2C.

But opponents argue that even testing could have harmful impacts, that there are questions of ethics and international law that remain unanswered, and that even raising the prospect of geoengineering distracts from initiatives to curb emissions.

Helena Paul, co-director of environment group EcoNexus, said she was "really pleased" at the latest news.

"We are certainly not ready to carry out experiments, and this project should not just be delayed, but should be cancelled immediately," she told BBC News.

"This is particularly important because while the scientists involved keep saying that reducing emissions is the primary necessity, they risk distracting attention from that necessity at a crucial moment."
However, Dr Watson said there was a need to divorce the concept of researching these technologies from their actual deployment as a climate "fix".

"My personal framing of this is that there is a very big difference between being keen to research geoengineering and being an advocate for deployment," he said.

"I am not in any way an advocate for deployment."

Watson is being rather naive or disingenuous with his claim that this is only research. There is no point to the research unless you believe that some day it might be deployed.

On the other hand, the delay is just pandering to the usual suspects who cannot cope with life in the 20th century (never mind the 21st). No amount of conversation with these people will ever convince them to change their opinion. Scientists should have learned that lesson from the GM fiasco, where the hysterical anti-GM brigade never accepted any scientific evidence or reason. These people are against science and technology for ideological (i.e. in effect religious) reasons, not rational reasons. Indeed, the "argument" made by Paul against this research is that mankind must whip itself into a frenzy against carbon rather than trying to find a way of living with carbon. Why? Well, because these luddites say so.

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