Selfish parents’ term-time holidays

This week, the High Court ruled that a father didn’t have to pay a fine for taking his daughter out of school for a holiday. He won due to a technicality. The law as it stands says children must attend school “regularly”. The man argued that taking his daughter out of school for a week’s holiday, when she had otherwise attended school with few absences, did not constitute regular non-attendance. It’s hard to argue with that. Hopefully, the government will now change the law to put their guidance – that no holidays should be taken during term-time – on sounder legal footing.

Whether it’s legal or not, it’s hugely selfish and irresponsible for parents to take their children out of school just to go on holiday. Parents complain that it can cost “four times as much” to go on holiday out of term-time. If they can’t afford a particular holiday at that price, why not go for a holiday that costs a quarter as much? People seem to be under the impression that a holiday has to involve jetting off to a foreign country. When I was at school, still not that long ago, holidays were spent in a caravan at various places in the UK. And thinking back, we were the lucky ones. I suspect many of my peers didn’t go away at all, or if they did, few went abroad. When did an expensive foreign holiday become a necessity?

Proponents of term-time holidays try to claim that their holidays are educational, a worthy experience for the child, which will do them more good than the week of school they missed. The father in this week’s case took his child to Disney World. It doesn’t sound that educational to me, and I find it hard to believe the educational value was the reason for choosing that particular destination. Certainly, a small number of parents might wish to take their children on an educational trip – a visit to the First World War battlefields in northern France, for example – but the vast majority of holidays are not educational trips at all, and this is just an argument that campaigners have retro-fitted to their cause.

What sort of message does it send out to children if they are taught that it is OK to take time off school whenever it suits them? Apart from giving the impression that schoolwork isn’t important, they are likely to grow up thinking it is OK to pull a “sickie” when they don’t feel like going to work.

Finally, it is the height of naivety to think that if everyone with children could go on holiday whenever they wanted, prices would drop to the level that they are during term-time. Travel companies make their money from the school holidays, and lower the prices off-season. The prices would be equalised largely by increasing them all year round.

Thankfully, the majority of parents are still responsible, and would not take their children out of school even if it were not technically illegal. It doesn’t seem fair to allow the selfish minority to profit and enjoy cheap holidays, while responsible parents have to take more modest breaks.

The campaign to allow term-time holidays is about about one thing: parents who want to go on an exotic holiday, for their own benefit, for the lowest price possible. It is about people who fail to realise that their life changed when they chose to have children, and that they can no longer live in the same way as before. It has nothing to do with it being the only way for the family to be together, or a special, educational travel experience for their child. It is another example of how people fail to live within their means. Five days off school might not seem a lot (although the 90% target for attendance to be “regular” seems rather low – does missing 10% of lessons sounds OK?) It sends out completely the wrong message to kids that it is OK to not take education seriously, and to skive. Parents who put their holiday before a child’s education are selfish, and the sooner the law is tightened up to send an unambiguous message to them, the better.

Freedom of Information: a refreshingly sensible decision

Many commentators have expressed surprise that the government’s Freedom of Information Commission has proposed no significant changes to the Freedom of Information Act, the law that allows any member of the public to request information from the government or a public body, thereby ensuring openness and transparency. Also a surprise is that the government have accepted the Commission’s report, so there will be no big changes, and no charges introduced for FOI requests.

When the Commission was announced, many people thought it was a stitch-up, a typical cynical government attempt to make unpopular changes, but to lay the blame on an independent panel of advisors. How wrong they were. In fact, the Commission appears to have been a model of how this sort of thing should work. A report that a law is working well, with just a few minor suggestions, and the government accepting the report’s findings.

Tony Blair; Müller / MSC, used under CC licence

Blair: “nutter”

Tony Blair has described himself as a “naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop” for introducing the law, saying: “There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.” Mr Blair is widely regarded to have made quite a few bad decisions during his time in office; however, Freedom of Information has to be one of his best achievements. The fact that he now fails to recognise that only goes to show that he has indeed turned into something of a nutter since leaving office, and in this instance it has nothing to do with his religious views.

Let’s give credit where it’s due. The government could have changed the FOI Act to allow them to hide uncomfortable truths, but has instead chosen to abide by the findings of an independent commission. For once, this is the way government should work.

New digital radio stations and the introduction of DAB+

Digital Radio; photo by Stephen Martin, used under terms of a Creative Commons licenceReaders could be excused for not knowing that a new digital radio multiplex launched in the UK today, containing 18 new stations. There has been little in the way of fanfare; in fact, there has been virtually no media coverage at all. Take-up of DAB radio continues to be poor, thanks mainly to two factors. One is that people don’t see the need for, and are not interested in, the additional stations available. The other is that the sound quality fails to live up to what was promised: better than FM quality.

A quick glance through the list of stations shows that the stations are largely more of the same from the same big commercial broadcasters. More Absolute radio, More Kiss, more “chill” and “smooth” pop music stations. These are hardly going to have people rushing out to buy a DAB set. There are also stations aimed at particular religious or ethnic groups: Muslims, Christians, the Asian community. Surely these are only going to attract a small number of listeners? There is also a children’s station, plus Jazz FM makes a welcome appearance on national terrestrial radio (having only previously been available in London or online).

Sadly, when it comes to sound quality, it’s the same old story we have become familiar with on DAB. Most of the stations are in mono, and have bitrates or 80 kb/s for music, or 64 kb/s at a lower sampling frequency for speech stations. Once again, rock bottom sound quality in order to squeeze in the stations, and that fantastic improvement of stereo FM to mono DAB. There is, however, one interesting new development. Three of the stations are being broadcast in the newer DAB+ format, using the HE-AAC v2 codec (also known as aacPlus). What’s more, these stations are in stereo! Before we get too excited, though, the bad news is that the DAB+ stations are only being broadcast at 32 kb/s. Now, while HE-AAC is much more efficient than the MP2 codec used in old-fashioned DAB, is it really that much more efficient? The people who developed HE-AAC claim 48 kb/s gives similar performance to MP3 at 128 kb/s. But we only have 32 kb/s. Do these new DAB+ stations sound even as good as the few existing 128 kb/s DAB stations such as Classic FM?

A quick listening test immediately shows the answer to be no. Tuning to Jazz FM on its new DAB+ channel, the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired. There is that clear rasping sound, an immediate sign that the audio has been encoded using too low a bitrate. Switching to the 128 kb/s MP3 internet stream, the difference is stark. A much wider soundstage, clearer, deeper, smoother tones, none of the artefacts due to low bitrate. Even if anyone thought the DAB+ version was OK, I would challenge anyone to say they couldn’t hear the difference in the MP3 version.

Turning now to Classic FM on DAB, at 128 kb/s MP2, although the sound is always slightly harsh, it doesn’t have the same raspiness that belies a low bitrate. Switching to internet radio, 128 kb/s MP3, there is still an audible difference, but it is more subtle. The sound is more pleasing to the ear, but it’s harder to place quite why. The conclusion is that 32 kb/s DAB+ does not sound as good as 128 kb/s DAB. But then, it only takes up a quarter of the bandwidth.

It would be interesting to know why Jazz FM chose to go down this route. Were they desperate to broadcast in stereo? Their London broadcast is only mono. Or did they want to save money by going for DAB+, and stereo is just a by-product of that? The argument against switching to DAB+ in the UK is that many people have DAB sets that can not decode DAB+. However, I’ve long doubted that to be significant. Radios sold for a long time now have been DAB+ ready (although some Pure branded sets apparently didn’t actually include the HE-AAC codec to save on licensing fees, making a complicated download process necessary!) Surely only very early adopters, and then only those who have hung on to their by-now rather antiquated DAB sets, wouldn’t be able to pick up the new DAB+ stations? In any case, the naysayers have been proved wrong, and DAB+ has come to national digital radio.

Jazz FM and the other two DAB+ stations should be considered experiments. If they attract a significant number of listeners on DAB+, that should make the case for other stations to swtich to DAB+. The trouble with digital radio is always that these is commercial pressure to squeeze in the stations, and that means poor audio. By switching from DAB, to DAB+, you can have the best of both worlds. An 80 kb/s mono DAB station can become a DAB+ at 56 kb/s – the highest possible bitrate for HE-AAC – providing higher quality, stereo sound in 70% of the bandwidth. That way, it would be possible to improve the sound quality of all of the stations on the original national commercial DAB multiplex, while leaving room for four or five additional stations. Everyone wins except a few people with old DAB radios, and if they are early adopters, they will have enjoyed the original DAB transmissions at 320 kb/s, and will likely have thrown the radio in the cupboard in disgust at the degradation of the service many years ago.

The current choices made for the DAB+ broadcasts are a poor demonstration of the technology, just as squeezing the DAB bitrates have made those stations unpleasant to listen to. Yet if, despite this, DAB+ listener numbers are seen to be on par with DAB, and it results in an industry-wide switch to DAB, something good could yet come of it, and the UK may eventually have digital radio broadcasts that live up to their original promise.

Aristocratic titles that shaped physics teminology

William Cavendish, 7th Duke of Devonshire (public domain)

The 7th Duke of Devonshire

I recently read that the buildings of the old Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University are under threat of partial demolition, which led me to consider where the laboratory’s name came from. Most people who work in physics will have heard of the Cavendish, and may assume the laboratory, and the associated professorial chair, are named after Henry Cavendish, the man credited with discovering hydrogen, who also measured the density of the Earth, and carried out research into electricity. In fact, construction of the laboratory was funded by William Cavendish, 7th Duke of Devonshire. It was originally to be named the Devonshire Laboratory, but the first appointee as professor, James Clerk Maxwell, suggested it should be named the Cavendish instead, to honour not only its patron, but also the famous scientist, who happened to be the duke’s great uncle.1 Perhaps this was just as well. “The Devonshire” sounds as if it should instead be a hotel, or perhaps a brand of clotted cream. This raises the issue of the difference titles in the British peerage make to the names of buildings, positions and theorems named after distinguished people.

Oxford University’s equivalent of the Cavendish, the Clarendon Laboratory, was also named after a nobleman: Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, who, like Devonshire, also served as Chancellor of his university. In this instance, the laboratory was named after his title, as opposed to his surname. Had he not been an earl, Oxford could well have the Hyde Laboratory instead, which perhaps is where a Dr Jekyll would work.

Names of buildings is one thing, but do titles have an impact on names in physics itself? Returning to Cambridge, before Maxwell accepted the first Cavendish Chair, it was offered to and turned down by none other than Lord Kelvin. He was actually born William Thomson, but chose to take his title from a river that flows through Glasgow. He was eventually honoured by having the unit of temperature named after him. Had he not been made a peer, we might now be measuring temperatures in thomsons rather than kelvins! That could have caused confusion when it came to symbols, as T is now used for the unit of magnetic flux density, the tesla. T is also used in equations for the physical quantity of temperature. Fortunately, we don’t have to face such confusion as the Glaswegian river came to the rescue.

Lords Rayleigh (left) and Kelvin, c.1900 (public domain image)

Lords Rayleigh (left) and Kelvin, c.1900

Maxwell’s successor at the Cavendish was Lord Rayleigh. His name was originally John William Strutt, but he inherited the title from his father to become the 3rd Baron Rayleigh. He lends his name to Rayleigh scattering, which in simple terms is the answer to the most classic of all physics questions: why is the sky blue? “Strutt scattering” somehow wouldn’t sound quite as poetic. There is also a rather obscure unit of measurement in acoustics, the rayl, named after him. His son, the 4th Baron, followed up his father’s work on the sky’s light scattering, and as a result, another fairly obscure unit, the rayleigh, a measure of photon flux, is named after him.

There is further confusion for physics students when using American text books. The Americans don’t understand British titles, and therefore there are plenty of references to those famous physicists, John Strutt and William Thomson. The latter must surely have been the one who came up with Thomson’s model of the atom, the so-called “plum pudding”? No, in fact that was J. J. Thomson, Rayleigh’s successor as Cavendish professor. Thomson was never raised to the peerage, only receiving a mere kinghthood. But what if he had been? Perhaps he would have chosen the title Baron Cheetham, after his birthplace. That would have given us the Cheetham model of the atom, which perhaps sounds as if it was deliberately contrived to mislead people (cheat ’em!) Yet Thomson was disadvantaged by the fact the nucleus had not yet been discovered; it was hardly deliberate deception.

The discovery of the nucleus came about thanks to the work of Thomson’s successor at the Cavendish, Ernest Rutherford. He did receive a peerage, choosing the title Baron Rutherford of Nelson. Rutherford was unable to choose a purely geographical title based on his birthplace, Nelson in New Zealand, as a certain naval officer had beaten him to it. Otherwise, we may now have Nelson scattering, the Nelson Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, and an element in the periodic table called nelsonium.

What happened to the titles that helped shape physics terminology? After all, before 1958, all titles were hereditary. Lords Kelvin and Rutherford both died without any sons to inherit their titles, which then became extinct. Lord Rayleigh’s title lives on, with the present 6th Baron still living in the family’s manor house, Terling Place in Essex. As for the universities’ wealthy patrons, there is still a Duke of Devonshire and Earl of Cavendish. Today, peerages are still occasionally granted to renowned scientists, but they usually choose titles based on their surnames. Combined with the fact that physics is more collaborative these days, and therefore new discoveries are less frequently named after individuals, it’s unlikely we’ll see aristocratic titles making their mark on physics in the same way in the future. It can be fun to invent fantasy titles, though. Anyone like to suggest an alternate, aristocratic name for the Higgs boson?

1 Reference: “A new era for the old Cavendish?” Physics World, October 2015, p. 12 (not available online)

One constant good: Semper eadem

The Queen in March 2015. Licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0As a child, I remember reading in my treasured 1990 edition of the Guinness Book of Records about the longest serving monarchs. Back then, the book was a scholarly work, and amongst the detail, it gave the date, a quarter of a century in the future, when the Queen would take that record.

Today, that day has finally come. Much has been said of how the Queen has been a beacon of stability as the world changed around her. This has long been recognised. At the time of Her Majesty’s silver jubilee in 1977, Philip Larkin wrote:

In times when nothing stood
But worsened, or grew strange,
There was one constant good:
She did not change.

This idea of constancy in a rapidly changing world reminds me of the motto semper eadem: “always the same”. This was actually the motto of the first Queen Elizabeth, and has since been adopted by the city of Leicester. By all accounts of both Queens’ lives, it would seem far better suited to our present Queen Elizabeth than to her earlier namesake.

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