Month: April 2011

Is AV better than FPTP? (via Gowers’s Weblog)

What this person said.

Is AV better than FPTP? On May 5th the UK will vote in a referendum for only the second time ever. (The first time was in 1975, when we voted on whether to remain in the EU, or the Common Market as it was then called.) Now we have a chance to decide whether to retain our current voting system, misleadingly known as First Past The Post, or whether to switch to the Alternative Vote. Let me come clean straight away. Although in this post I shall try to write dispassionatel … Read More

via Gowers's Weblog

On great Formula One battles.

So yesterday was the Malaysian Grand Prix*.

It was quite exciting, or at least an awful lot seemed to happen.

This is quite unusual in Formula One, which can descend into knowing almost precisely who will win within the first ten laps.

Of course, the person who was leading in the first ten laps was, in fact, the person who won in this race too**. But there was a bit of a scrum behind him and that was the important thing.

Now people might think that the point of Formula One is that it is a battle for excellence amongst drivers, or race strategists, or, at least, between engineers. However, you are fast coming to the conclusion that actually, the real battle is between the design teams and the governing body of the sport.

This is because every year, the FIA fiddles with the racing rules to try to slow the cars down, cripple them aerodynamically, make sure they have to stop occasionally, limit the clever design solutions which the teams can come up with to counter these measures and insist on certain other devices being introduced all with the aim of allowing one driver to actually pass another, should his skill be sufficient.

This has proved quite hard. It is in the nature of the engineering race to try to make the car too fast, too aerodynamically efficient, able to run for longer, to invent ways round the perimeters that the FIA hasn’t conceived of yet and to find ways to defend against any useful bit of kit the other teams might have come up with, and the technical gurus are very very good at this.

The FIA seems to have a nose ahead this season, though.

There are two gadgets designed to give the cars a boost at the right time in the right place. Something called DRS, which can change the aerodynamics of the car at a strategic moment, and the KERS, which gives more power. Although part of the success of these is that there seems to be a splendid fail rate in the race at the moment, which in itself creates more opportunities.

But the thing that really put the cat among the pigeons on Sunday was the way the tyre manufacturer, who is the same for all the cars, has been asked to provide tyres which are designed to fall to pieces as quickly as possible. This means more stops so that new sets can be fitted, which opens up windows for different drivers with different strategies gaining or losing an advantage anyway. And because quite when and how the tyres will start to degrade isn’t well understood yet, getting the timing right on these stops hasn’t been perfected and at least for now is providing all sorts of opportunities for errors, confusion and downright incompetence.

It was a lot of fun.

You felt a bit for the commentators though.

Particularly since it is only their second outing as a commentating team.

Yes, Vettel is only twelve years old. Or, aren't you getting old?

*Formula One, for the motorsport challenged amongst us.

** Sebastian Vettel. Of course. He drives for Red Bull. May well be unstoppable this season. He also won the Championship last year.

On damage limitation.

About six months ago you bought a car. Your first car, which is quite an achievement for a thirty <cough> year old and shows just how much of your adult life has now been spent living in cities.

You bought the car for two reasons really. Firstly, to make the weekly shop less of a huge logistical performance. And secondly, to make it easier to get out of London sometimes.

You certainly didn’t buy the car to drive in London, which is a good thing as the times when you have thrown caution to the winds and attempted to have been marked by a lot of sitting in traffic, a complete lack of anywhere to park, and on one occasion, a congestion charge fine after being stuck in traffic and then not finding any parking resulting in an aborted, but ultimately very expensive, trip to the Imperial War Museum.

However, the problem with using the car to get out of London is that first you have to get out of London. And so you have developed a definite fondness for the A3, a route which does indeed whisk you away from the big smoke with the minimum of fuss and breathing other people’s petrol fumes.

So you are now looking forward to many years of visiting any and all tourist attractions within easy reach of your getaway route.

This inevitably means you are going to be spending a lot of time at RHS Wisley Gardens, where you went with the Star on Wednesday.

Or not, because you and the Star will have made such an impression on the long-suffering staff on this first visit, that thy may well pull up the drawbridge at the mere suspicion of your silver spanner pulling into the car park.

Which was surprisingly full. Although you later realised that because it isn’t in London, and because there is parking, it makes it a prime target for both the elderly and the very young. Particularly as under sixes get in for free.

The trip started well. It was the first in the series of glorious sunny days here in Southern Britain and the drive down only took a monumental forty minutes or so. The Star had had a nap in the car and was all fresh and happy, and soon the Gardens rang with the warning, “This one is for smelling, sweets, not for picking. Remember, not for picking.”

Surprisingly this actually works, and the sight of the Star solemnly bending over and sniffing in the general direction of a bloom reminds you irresistably of the grave demeanour of wine connoisseurs tasting the first sip of a new glass of vino. This makes you laugh quite a lot.

But the Star was more appreciative of the bugs the flowers attract. He followed the progress of bees from nectar source to nectar source, chased butterflies across grass, flowerbeds and picnicking mothers and children, and lay on the ground to study ants. Until, that is, you found a fish pond, with large numbers of huge hungry carp, who saw the shadow of a toddler looming over them and fought each other for the best position should the toddler’s Mama have thought to bring some bread. The Star thereafter refused to budge from the fish for a good twenty minutes, which was fine by you as you were in the shade, with a stout fence between the Star and the water and a nice post to lean against while he gawped.

When he had torn himself away from that, there was still a glasshouse full of interesting ferns and orchids and such to run round, and finally, a dedicated play area, which had considerably fewer brightly coloured metal and plastic swings and slides sets and considerably more strategically placed tree trunks and wigwams.

The Star loved the wigwams. He’s just discovered the concept of playing house and spent a happy few hours when your brother was around last, sitting in his little den of clothes horses and sheets opposite Uncle Urk’s den of clothes horse and sheets, performing domestic duties such as making the bed (out of a cushion and a blanket), insisting on synchronised sipping of water and indulging in the occasional visit between the two houses (“Knock knock!” “Who’s there!” “The Star!” He can keep this up for hours).

So the idea of frames covered by portable sticks just aching to be rearranged, into which and out of which you can carry wooden bricks* in self-important bustle directed by a bossy young lady of four who calls you ‘boy’, and where you can sit and indulge in a satisfying toddler gossip with some other two year olds, well, it almost topped the fish.

But after forty five minutes of relaxing in the shade on a bench you decided it would be a good idea to have some refreshment, particularly as the Star had just attracted the attention of two stick wielding older kids, and was showing signs of fighting back (note to self, teach the Star that if a child chases you waving a stick** menacingly, pick up a bigger stick to defend yourself with, not a twig).

So you set off towards the nearby cafe.

And this was where disaster struck, because somehow the Star fell over, probably twisting to take a better look at a passing worm, and as you were holding his hand at the time, you overbalanced and went down with him.

You managed not to land on the Star.

You also managed not to land on the Comet’s bump.

Unfortunately, in avoiding landing on your Firstborn or your Unborn, you managed to come down very awkwardly on your left leg, and within a few minutes of a concerned elderly lady picking you up, helping you to a nearby bench, rounding up the Star and sending her husband to the cafe for help, you realised you had a problem.

How were you going to get home? Your initial idea of getting one of the gardening vehicles to give you a lift back to the car and taking it from there receded into fantasy as your ankle started to really throb.

This was soon replaced by the more urgent concern of you feeling faint.

Being seven months pregnant and feeling faint after a fall is not a relaxing state to be in. It’s not a relaxing state for other people to be in either, which is why more staff were summoned, you were removed to the first aid room and an ambulance was called.

Of course, by the time the ambulance arrived, you were feeling better and while they checked you out thoroughly, it was soon clear they were not going to be recommending that you be rushed to hospital. The foot was merely badly sprained, and the dizziness was temporary. The Comet was kicking and all your vital signs were normal.

So you returned to the logistical problem of getting yourself, the Star and, preferably, the car, back to London.

It was at this point that you were forced to admit that you do not carry a mobile.

You made it sound like a temporary inconvenience. In fact, the Star nibbled the buttons off yours more than six months ago. You had been using your MiL’s, but she took hers back to Russia. In January.

So you borrowed the Operations Manager’s, he who was supervising your care. And who subsequently had to wheel you, the Star and the Comet the length of the Gardens in a wheelchair, load you all into the car, drive you to the nearest train station, and wait for his boss to come and pick him up.

By this time, it was well after closing time.

The Star, meanwhile, had been having a whale of a time. He had had a whole staff member assigned to him. She read him stories, gave him apple juice in a carton to drink, fed him an apple, the chocolate cake she had unwisely brought with her when summoned from her break, a banana and some cheese. She let him run up and down in the corridor outside and took him out to see the ambulance. She didn’t complain that she had to do this while enduring the powerful smell which he was letting off, having taken the opportunity of his Mama’s attention being elsewhere to poo his pants.

Luckily, you had a change of clothes with you. In the car.

Still, all’s well that ends well, and to cut what is now a very long story short, B was able to come out on the next train to drive you home. He collected your brother along the way, which was helpful as you were unable to move independently for two days, and are only now able to hobble slowly without having to hang on to bits of furniture or your husband. The hurt has subsided too. It’s more a dull ache than a blinding pain now.

Particularly when the Star decided he found it amusing to jump on your leg at regular intervals, being apparently skeptical at the negative response he got when he asked ‘Mama fixed?’ every five minutes.

Luckily, it’s for situations like these that Grandparents were invented. He’s had a lovely time this weekend.

Anyway, you can highly recommend RHS Wisley Gardens for all accident prone visitors, and to those who are able to remain on their feet also.

And in the meantime: send ice.

*The bricks are the only weak point of the play area. They are made of solid wood and quite heavy. The Star does not always distinguish well between square heavy bricks and balls, particularly when older children are slinging them round with abandon, albeit rather less dangerously aimed abandon than the Star does when he copies them. Still, the time out he got for that allowed you to get some water into him, and the baby did not appear to be permanently damaged, so that’s all right then.

** Actually, sticks the perfect size for picking up and playing swords with are also, on reflection, not such a good idea either.

On Mothers Day.

For the last three years you have been trying to get B to recognise Mothers Day.

It’s not going well.

He just doesn’t feel it. Russians don’t celebrate it at all. They have Women’s Day, which in principle you prefer to both Mothers Day and Valentine’s Day as it is somewhat less specific to certain stereotypical roles women are supposed to play in their lives and considerably more inclusive to all women in general. Who should, after all, be worshipped at least once a year.

Although you’d prefer all three times.

Of course, the irritating thing about Women’s Day in Russia is that lately it is apparently impossible to mention it without sourly drawing attention to the discrepancy between its intended status as a celebration of feminism, and the fact that feminism in Russia is a dirty word and that this is just an excuse to throw the downtrodden female masses in the Former Soviet Union a paltry sop in the form of a limp bunch of flowers in lieu of any actual appreciation of their rightful place as equal and valued members of society.

If you were in a feisty mood, you would find it almost impossible to resist the temptation to point out in return that taking mother out for lunch is also something of a paltry sop for taking her for granted the rest of the year in a society with doesn’t even have the decency to be honest about the second class status that women still hold. Because otherwise, why would the bulk of childcare, cleaning and career suicide still be left to the female half of the parenting partnership? Why wouldn’t this holiday have become ‘Parents Day’ a long time ago?**

Plus you do wonder if anyone who thinks the female masses are downtrodden in Russia has ever actually met any Russian women. Stronger-minded ladies are few and far between. Although they do dress well.

However, you are not in a feisty mood. Or even a pensive mood.  You can get irritated with Mothers Day on ideological grounds, but it’s never bothered you on a personal level, not when you were childless, not even when you were unwillingly childless. You tended not to connect the dots. Mothers Day was a day for presenting your own mother with a homemade scribble and a bunch of daffodils with a beam of benevolent affection, and for turning up at Granny’s with the annual pot plant.

It didn’t have anything to do with you.

But when you realised that you were about to qualify, you spotted an opportunity, as a down trodden female mass, to wangle a bit of a lie in. Well, what you are aiming for is breakfast in bed, actually. Lounging around in bed. A bit of light bathing, with the door shut, and a book. Someone else doing the cooking and wiping the Star’s snotty nose. Someone else stuffing the suddenly eight armed toddler into clothes in preparation for a walk. Someone else answering the question ‘where going?’* about yourself, himself, the ladybird, the lady on the street, your neighbour, the pigeon, the worm, the man getting off the bus, the man getting on the bus, the other pigeon, the other lady bird, the other lady on the street, the rook, the crisp packet, the boat, your neighbour again, the water in his bath and Papa after he has said good night.

For a day.

Of course, a card on a grubby bit of paper that makes you look like a demented female dinosaur is also absolutely indispensable.

However, this year you got a framed black and white photograph of what you are reasonably sure is a late eighties Lotus formula one car, with a dedication from someone whose signature you can’t quite make out (yet) to someone called ‘Q’, which B found at a car boot sale and has been hoarding for the occasion.

As presents in general go, this is pretty up there on your list.

As Mothers Day presents go, it really needs work.

But you felt entirely unable to complain as April 3rd – Mothers Day 2011 – coincided rather unfortunately with B’s birthday.

You made him a cake. Of course.

What do you get the Soviet medal enthusiast who has everything for his birthday?

You make him a Soviet Order of the Patriotic War, Class I cake, of course.

And this is what it's modelled on.

You will say this. You will never laugh at Cake Wrecks again. How people, even professional people, get the icing onto the sponge in one piece and without getting it covered in either powdered icing sugar or jam is beyond you.

Fun though.

*’Why?’ will be a relief.

**Well, card sales on Fathers Day would take a bit of a hit perhaps.

On pissing on trees.

The Star appears to be pretty much potty trained.

This has either taken a couple of weeks or over six months, depending on how you calculate it.

He’s been using a potty at home quite happily since the summer. Since, in fact, being locked in a room for a week with a small boy his own age who was quite happy to wee to order in a glorified chamber pot.

Recently, you’ve even managed to get him to do so despite wearing pants and trousers, which probably relieved guests’ sensibilities somewhat. There’s nothing quite like being greeted at the front door by a small boy waving his pipiska. Although having the Star shout ‘Kaka! Kaka! Kaka! Kaka! Kaka!’ loudly in your ear when the time comes is always a bit alarming.

However, you recently decided it was time to take the show on the road.

This is partly because you will soon have a new entity whose bottom will need 24 hour wiping in the house and partly because this summer, the Star will be returning to Russia.

If it was embarrassing to be the mother of the only two year old in Moscow still in nappies, imagine the horror with which a pampers wearing three year old would be greeted.

So armed only with his potty and a spare change of clothes, you have been sailing boldly into the great outdoors for three weeks now.

The first problem you had was that the Star has always decided himself when he wants to sit on the garshok. The idea of listening to your suggestions about when he might want to try a preventative widdle fell on extremely stoney ground.

He also stopped telling you when he needed to go, preferring instead to hold it as long as possible, presumably in the hope that Mama would stop this nonsense and put the nappy back on, or that you would arrive back home where emptying himself was safe and comfortable.

Needless to say this led to accidents.

Including one day where, when his Russian playgroup went on a trip to a nearby park, you found him, plaintive and disconsolate, behind a tree in extremely wet trousers and shoes and surrounded by a large and muddy puddle.

You hugged him and took him back indoors, changed him and had a quiet chat, and he agreed that in future he would go to the toilet when Mama thought it was necessary.

Which he has been doing.

Next you learned to dispense with the potty.

This was as simple as leaving him with his Papa in the Great Outdoors for an afternoon. Real Men do it standing up, Papa declared, and apparently the Star agreed.

The next time you found yourself in the vicinity of a tree with a Star who was overdue to pass water, therefore, you coyly suggested that you both go and say hello to that oak over there. Just like he did with Papa the day before.

The Star looked at  you with scorn.

‘Not say hello. Me piss on tree,’ he declared firmly, and proceeded to lean obligingly forward (‘Not piss on shoes!’) and allow Mama to arrange his apparatus appropriately. Yes, in answer to a fascinated friend of yours who has only girls, you do have to teach boys to hold their own penises.

He will also stand on the toilet seat and send a stream of wee in the general direction of the bowl in public toilets, although you both have to improve your aim a bit there.

Or perhaps not, she says, contemplating some of the males of her acquaintance.

But the attentive reader will have noticed that so far you have only been talking about emptying the Star’s bladder. And it is true that pooing in public is not going quite so well. You are managing fine in some ways because the Star generally manages to defecate at home. Unfortunately, on the rare occasions he doesn’t, he simply dumps in his pants, which leads to protracted cleaning up sessions in baby change facilities and the smell of shit following your pushchair for the rest of the day, because no matter how many plastic bags you smother the poo smeared trousers in, it is still quite quite penetrating.

You suspect that only when you forget to take spare clothes with you and the Star is forced to travel across the capital in squishy, smelly underpants will he see the wisdom of shouting ‘Kaka! Kaka! Kaka! Kaka! Kaka! Kaka! Kaka!’ on the street with the same enthusiasm he shows at home.

When it will be time to stock up on those little bags that dog owners carry around with them everywhere.