Saturday, 25 February 2012

The problems in the benefits system II - a response

This week, on Facebook, a huge debate arose over some attitudes to people on benefits, the economy, and jobseekers. The second post said some things that I believe really need to be said, and it said them much better than I could.

The original post this is a response to is reproduced here. The author wishes to remain anonymous, and I believe their aim was to create discussion rather than genuinely put across their views. Any comments that may identify that author will be deleted.

A response
by Emily Cresswell

I should also say, before I say anything else, that I’m also trying to be objective and avoid confrontation, but having been in this situation very recently, I do tend to get angry about the subject. (And fuck, you’ve seen me when I’m angry, and I’m sure you’re aware of the surprising amount of self-control it takes to stop myself from, say, massacring an entire women’s choir with a shovel.)

One massive problem with the entire benefits system is the belief, which you seem to share, that everyone who has a need to claim benefits is of low intelligence or badly educated. You and everyone else need to stop thinking about benefit claimants like they’re some degenerate sub-species; I know at least one friend who once had to spend a very long time convincing the job centre that she didn’t need to go on a literacy course because she already had a degree in Literature. Now, I may not have ever managed to gain anything more advanced than the universal figure of mockery that is the BA in English, but I never expected that I’d ever get to the point where I’d been on Jobseeker’s Allowance for six months, let alone that I’d have to sign on twice. Some people aren’t unemployable for a lack of basic skills; they’re unemployable because they have theoretical knowledge but no practical experience, and at the moment even unpaid work experience is difficult to find in some fields. The schemes that help people to get that experience aren’t cheap, and that’s why they don’t exist any more; graduates can now expect to get an unpaid and completely useless position in Poundland, instead of the minimum wage part-time *actual job* in a professional field with a non-profit organisation that I was lucky enough to get before the Future Jobs Fund ran out of money. There is now nothing to help young people with professional aspirations to find the experience they need to land even an entry-level job, now that we’re living in an environment where older people who have been made redundant are trying to re-enter the career ladder on a lower rung.

I disagree with you entirely on the subject of humility; the feeling that needs to be encouraged is pride. I can only speak from the point of view of someone who’s claimed JSA, but humility isn’t something that’s lacking; it’s something that’s enforced. The only lasting thing I learned from the twenty minutes of waiting and three minutes of actual human contact that a JSA claimant under the age of 25 can expect in their fortnightly or weekly visits to the job centre was that however much effort I put into looking for work, I would still be treated like shit. The stigma and blame culture surrounding benefit claim is so extreme that I genuinely felt like a benefit cheat, and almost that I deserved the treatment I was getting, despite the fact that even my advisor at the time (one of a grand total of three people I met over the combined eight months who didn’t talk to me like a mentally-challenged infant) said that I was entitled to considerably more money than I was getting. The reason that I refused to apply for more benefits was pure pride – I may have been falling back on a very generous overdraft, but I knew that I was better than applying for money that I could live without. Further, I think that expecting money from one’s neighbours rather than the government is nothing short of rude. Assuming I couldn’t get access to benefits eighteen months ago, who should I have turned to first? The man downstairs whose only source of income is his pension? The couple on the top floor who are preparing to move to Canada? The woman in the flat below me who has two small children? If that’s humility, then with all due respect sir, you can shove it up your arse, because I’ve got too much pride to take advantage of people who probably need the money more than I do, rather than take it from a limited fund set up specifically for people in the situation that I was living in at the time.

And for the record, life on a low a salary is much better than life on benefits. Even when I switched from an almost full single-person JSA claim to a minimum wage twenty-five hour a week job, the difference was immense. If I spent carefully, my income came to more than my outgoings, and I hadn’t experienced that since I lived with my parents. Money is nice (even considering that I’m still not earning all that much of it), but the reason I work is because it feels damn good. It’s my pride that makes me work hard, it’s my pride that lets me enjoy the money I earn, and it’s my pride that even occasionally lets me justify buying something that isn’t second-hand. In three month’s time, my pride should be seeing me through to a pay rise that will get me started on paying off that godforsaken loan. I have genuinely never been happier, especially compared to the depressive pit I found myself in thirteen months ago, when humility gave way to inferiority. Humility is only a good thing when it has strength behind it, and the JSA claiming process saps away so much strength that humility wears down to a feeling of utter worthlessness. That kind of mindset will only ever leave people trying to live on less and less money, convinced that they don’t deserve any better, while pride will give them the confidence to work their way out. If benefits have to be cut to make the contrast more stark, then it’s going to call for some very careful research to make sure that no one is harmed, because you, like most people who haven’t claimed benefits in the past couple of years, seem to think that JSA claimants actually get enough to live comfortably on.

Again, I’m trying not to let myself get confrontational, and spending all evening coming up with a response has helped me to calm down a lot, but it’s a touchy subject that a lot of people with a lot of influence are incredibly out of touch with. Also, I apologise for writing you an essay, but as I say, it’s helped me calm down.

The problem with the benefits system: Part I

This is to provide context for the next post. I don't really agree with much of what is written in this one, but it does put into context what was written in part II, and is reproduced for that reason.

This was written by an author who wishes to remain anonymous. Comments are disabled for this post, and should instead be posted on part II.

My horribly prejudiced views and a few suggestions for getting UK society out of the hole it's dug for itself

I'm not sure what the response will be to this post (if any). If you disagree significantly with anything I say, I'm totally open to other opinions. I come from a pretty well-off background (down in no small part to hard work) and am not going to claim that I fully understand the issues I'm talking about. That said, I've done my best to inform myself along the way, and I think some changes need to happen. Read on ...

This is mostly a rant about how I think benefits and lazy parenting have damaged society, but it starts with a little biology.

In ecology, there is a principle which goes something like this: cheats prosper if they are in small enough numbers. Imagine that there is a particular species of beetle which is poisonous to something that might eat it. This is very often accompanied by bright colours to give the hungry sharp-tooth an opportunity to avoid eating them and getting an upset tummy - everyone wins. But let's say that another beetle, not poisonous in the slightest, evolves those same bright colours, mimicking the genuinely poisonous beetle. Now that one also gets avoided, but if it is eaten by a particularly hungry/naive animal, there is no consequence, and it will likely eat more. If there are few enough mimics, the tactic works, but if there are too many mimics, it backfires and even the genuinely poisonous ones are put in danger of being mistaken for a tasty meal.

This situation is reflected many times - some birds (like cuckoos) rely on other species to raise their young. If too many species did this, no young would end up getting raised. Those fish which spend their days picking parasites off of larger fish might occasionally be tempted to gain an extra-tasty meal by eating some mucus, scales or even flesh from the client fish, but the client will then leave, costing all the other fish a dinner. All right if cheats are in a minority. If there are too many cheat-fish, the client fish will never stop to be picked clean.

How does this apply to society? Well, everyone needs some basics to stay comfortable and healthy. Things like food, clean water, sewage services, rubbish collection, healthcare, shelter and so forth. If left to fend for themselves, most people would be unable to keep themselves going in the forest - it would take significant education and practise to gain those skills. And anyway, given the area that we live in, without people farming intensively, cleaning water on an industrial scale etc. we would be unable to provide for our hefty population. We need specialist workers - farmers, water worker, sewage workers, builders and medics, and fortunately we have them. But that work is hard and time-consuming, so those people receive money for their services. We pay for them either directly or indirectly (through taxation) and this shows that we believe we owe them for their time and effort.

So where do cheats come in? People contribute to society by performing a task that someone else is willing to give up their money for. I think of money as "society owes me" chips. It's a way to keep track of how much of other people's work - time and effort - you can claim in return for your own. They can be redeemed for any of the services I've already mentioned, and many more. You can set almost any task for someone else to do in return for these chips, within legal limits, and it would be a case of employment. Likewise you can aquire almost any good by exchanging money for it. Ecologically, cheats are people who are getting more from the system than they are putting in.

There is a basic assumption in our culture now that everyone should be given equal opportunities. It is considered a right that people should be treated equally and have access to a basic level of services, including housing, transport, media, healthcare, nutrition and education (and maybe culture). These things all represent people's work. The ethical basis of this is easy to understand; it would seem wrong for a person's background to limit how successful they could possibly be. It would also seem wrong for people to suffer malnutrition, or not have easily treatable diseases cured when other people are receiving very large bonuses and can afford to buy designer clothes, stay in 5 star hotels and eat in the priciest of restaurants.

There is, however, a risk in providing these things as a right with no responsibilities attached. When people are living solely on what society considers their basic rights, how can society punish poor behaviour? And if it cannot be significantly punished, why should people control their behaviour? Why should they even learn the capacity to control their behaviour? The moment people have the right to get something for nothing, there is also a potentially unlimited work-leak in the system. However, if everyone stopped working and relied on those rights, no-one would receive anything. For anyone to receive services, there must be contributors shouldering the burden of people receiving more than they are giving.

So why are people given things for free? In the UK there are many "benefits" available, most famously the job-seekers allowance, originally designed to keep people in employment; to stop their lives being ruined by stints of unemployment to the point that they become unemployable. There are benefits if you suffer temporary or permanent ill health and are unable to work - now rather than just family having to shoulder the burden (and if not family, whoever takes pity), it is spread over society as a whole. Free school meals are provided for your children if you are entitled to any other sort of monetary support. If you earn less than £16000 a year and have children, you can receive money to clothe and feed your children.

So far so good - we should do our best to protect each individual, especially children. However, bearing in mind that working generally requires effort (by its nature unpleasant unless it is seen as a reasonable investment) we must consider the incentives being created. If a person can now convince a doctor they are sufficiently ill, they no longer have to spend time and effort working. If a person has children, they can claim money - and how they spend it will be up to them. If a person 'looks for employment', they can claim money. There are cases of genuine need out there, and there are others, and the methods the government employs to tell the difference are always going to be controversial because there will always be mistakes. Some undeserving people will get benefits while some deserving people do not. That is the disadvantage of having to deal with so many cases that a single system must be set up to deal with all cases to keep it fair, rather than a panel deciding on a case by case basis.

But the terrible thing is that it is now perceived as, assumed to be, a right. This is a generous scheme, hoping to ease the burden on families. The cost of this is that people now assume they should never have to shell out to help their relative or neighbour who has fallen on hard times one way or another - the government's support scheme has become, in people's minds, the government's responsibility.

And yet there are still many workers. The life you can lead on a low salary is probably not that different from a life on benefits (a commonly-cited reason for people not wishing to start work) so why do people still choose to work? On a moderate salary, you can significantly lower the day to day stress of paying bills, you can afford to travel in your breaks, or buy membership to clubs, eat occasionally in restaurants or see films at the cinema. You can afford conveniences - more efficient white goods, better quality sound and image in your entertainment, maybe a car. You have to prioritise, but you can afford some luxuries. There is competition for these jobs though, and the expectations of an employee can be high. To get a job, you need a skillset incorporating skills particular to the job as well as some basics. The opportunity to gain those basics is currently part of every person's right.

To get a job and contribute to society, it is necessary to learn several basic things as you grow and develop. You need to be able to concentrate on a task and see it through to completion, fighting distraction, frustration and boredom. For many jobs you need to be able to communicate and work with other people and maintain social relationships. At very least you need to maintain a functional relationship with your boss/employer, never mind if you need to deal with customers. Many employers also expect a basic level of literacy and numeracy. Yet many people are missing some or all of these skills and as such are relatively unemployable. Learning these skills as an adult must be excruciating, if working from years of habits to the contrary.

Currently people are given the opportunity to obtain all of these things as a fundamental right. Unemployed parents should generally have access to housing and sufficient money and education (antenatal classes) to feed, clothe and care for their children, and provide the toys, books and whatever else is needed to give their children a good start in life. However, if a child is not given those things by their parents, two really bad things can happen. They may miss the opportunity to learn those basic social and academic skills, which has big consequences when they are later given their opportunity for a fuller education and they may also never learn how to care properly for their own children.

Young children are impressionable, and making effort is unpleasant. For the brain to concede that effort might be the way forward, it has to see it as an investment with a reasonable expected return. Seeing parents never working because they have chosen to live on benefits will, I strongly suspect, result in a lasting impression that this is a reasonable way to live. Conversely, seeing parents come in tired from a hard day's work five days a week will give the impression that it is right to work hard, and build an expectation of full-time employment. Parents who read with their children, who teach them the alphabet and who use varied vocabulary build these things into their children's expectations of the world and also their children's expectations of what makes a good parent. Neglectful or abusive parents do likewise. By the time they reach nursery it can be painfully apparent which children have been given a good start in life.

Parents' attitudes will be formative for children. If someone is living on benefits because they are unable to work, but their frustration at being unable to work and their encouragement and interest in their children's progress is evident, there is every likelihood that their children will go on to work in school and find employment later. If the fact that parents are on benefits becomes a family joke because they really could be working, and the parents spend their time in front of the tv and let the kids do what they want and pay them little interest, why would the kids expect anything different from life? Why would they treat their children differently? It will take a tremendous effort to provide them and their children with enough incentive not to become ecological cheats.

I believe that this cycle is now endemic in the UK. People are given a frankly alarming number of chances by every national institution I can think of.In particular, the institutions responsible for dealing with young people are all based on the principle that by demonstrating expected behaviour and giving people sufficient chances we maximise the chance that they will turn their lives around. But there are too many people who don't, begging the question 'what can be done for them?'. 'Permanent exclusions' rates are so low because of the financial penalties to schools who do. Instead they get shipped around schools as part of 'managed moves' with the opportunity for a clean slate. For those convicted of crime, young offenders institutions are run on the same principle of giving opportunities to improve rather than giving them 'inhumane' consequences that might actually make them rethink their actions and give them cause to make efforts to change their behaviour. They perceive their carers as unreasonable bullies trying to disenfranchise them rather than authority figures who have a responsibility to care for them and an accompanying power over them. People to be confronted and argued with rather than to be trusted, respected and obeyed. I wholeheartedly agree that support and encouragement should be given for progress, but I think the bar is so low and the consequences so gentle that the behaviour never does change. How many grandparents now say 'I was clipped round the ear when I misbehaved and it hasn't done me any harm'? There needs to be a limit to the support and opportunities with an unpleasant ending. Without any final sanction that people really wish to avoid, many people will fail to change their behaviour.

While the current system of benefits remains, where it is the government's (and by proxy the taxpayer's) responsibility to support people who are not willing or able to support themselves, it will only strengthen this cycle. While the lack of consequence remains for poor behaviour, especially to people growing up and developing their ideas about what behaviours will ultimately benefit them, poor behaviour will remain the norm for these people, to the point that they will really struggle to change it later.

I truly believe that when people behave in an antisocial manner, they should lose some of these rights, incrementally. I don't believe that people should have the right to vote in prison nor that they should be able to watch television. I think that at most they should be allowed and encouraged to develop those basic academic skills. If they develop the patience and persistence to master numeracy and literacy to a moderate level, they should be allowed access to literature and puzzles. At this point they should be encouraged to develop some social skills, in a carefully managed program. I am tempted to suggest that people convicted of more serious crimes (for the sake of argument let's say cold-blooded, premeditated murder/rape, extremes of blackmail and paedophilia and theft of large sums of money) shouldn't be fed in prison unless someone is privately paying for it.

You probably think that last comment is outrageous, that no-one should ever have to face starvation. Do you think it is right that those people should be allowed to get away with their crimes and be free to live in society? I doubt it. Do you think it is right that the society whose laws that individual has significantly infringed should have to pay for the work encapsulated in that food? They're already paying the wages of the people who spend their time and effort keeping them safely under lock and key, as well as maintenance of the building. I also believe that reoffenders ought to be treated considerably more harshly (perhaps based on the sum of their various sentences). If people don't develop the humility and resolve to improve their behaviour while they are in jail, it is a wasted exercise.

I think that the government's support has stopped some terrible things happening, no question. But I think it has paved the way for unrealistic expectations and bogus claims, culminating now in a significant number of poorly-brought up people who have the fundamental right to have children despite having little parenting ability. It has probably meant people feel more secure in drifting from their families and never making any links in their neighbourhoods, because they know that they will never really need to rely on them in difficult times, they can just rely on the Government.

Overall, I think we need sanctions that give opportunities to change behaviour but which do allow for self-destruction. We need to force people look to one another for help more by cutting back benefits - maybe then they will learn some humility. We need to make unemployed life more uncomfortable, and frankly ought to stop people on benefits from buying alcohol/cigarettes or gambling, or face equivalent cuts to their benefits. We need to convince people to rely more on the people around them and less on the government. We need people to think twice about bringing children into the world if they won't be able to support them themselves.

I really believe that the only way the people will change their behaviour is if they see people who behave like them going through things that they couldn't bear to go through. That will mean some people going through really bad things, but I think it's necessary to allow that to happen to give people the motivation to sort themselves out. By all means give temporary support to people making tangible efforts. But it has to be temporary, or people will settle on it - they need to know they need to make the most of it while it lasts. I believe this is the only way we will reduce the number of ecological cheats which are weakening our society.



While I recognise that this is a particularly difficult time in terms of job availability, I think that greater individual employability is still an important step to improvement. We are poorer now as a nation than we have been for a long time because we are importing, not exporting. Solving that is going to be a matter for government, entrepreneurs and business. If the government succeeds in germinating new businesses, the larger the proportion of the population able to contribute to society's work, the better. This doesn't mean ensuring everyone has a degree.

The nations which are growing richer now are doing so at least in part because many people there work really damn hard for a small wage which allows the companies to export goods cheaply. The people work because there are consequences to not doing so. Those consequences have made it socially unacceptable for people not to work, and we need that attitude here too.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Who are you? Self-identity for atheists and skeptics.

Hi. I'm Arkady.

Who are you? Fundamentally, I mean - what part of you defines you as "you"?

This is a question that for many years has been answered simply - the immortal soul. This neatly gets around the  Theseus Paradox by creating a part of you that isn't constantly replaced (like our cells) and which doesn't decay or change, like the arrangement of our cells.

However, for an atheist or a skeptic who doesn't otherwise believe in the immortal soul this isn't a satisfying answer.

Part of the the problem with answering this is that we are ever-changing beings. You could try defining yourself by saying "I am defined as a person who does ..." This is impossible to do in practice - the list would essentially be infinite - but such problems never stopped mathematicians working with "the set of all real numbers", so there's no real conceptual problem.

However, even this isn't satisfactory - fifteen years ago I believed the greatest thing to ever happen to music was the Spice Girls. This is something that has fundamentally changed about me, yet I'm clearly the same person, if a little embarrassed about it.

A stand-up comic I've seen* jokes about this, saying he went to a motivational speaker, who told the group "every moment of every second you can reinvent yourself - become a totally new person, who you were not before." At the end of the session, as he was leaving he was asked to pay for the session, and replies "I think you've mistaken me for someone else."

Try using the excuse for not paying a speeding fine and you'll land yourself in more trouble and laughed out. Clearly we do have some innate sense of who a person is, and it is strong enough to cope with the fact that we change both materially and behaviourally. Otherwise the joke wouldn't work.

For anyone who is now thoroughly confused about who they are (you know who you are) I'd like to propose an answer: you are the sum of the actions you take.

When taken literally, and openly, there are several things this implies about how we must approach the world ethically. It means that we must take full responsibility for all outcomes of what we do - intended and unintended. It means that you have to live with your mistakes, but it means taking pride in your accomplishments. It means never saying "I'm a great writer, even though I don't write anything" - you aren't a writer unless you actually write. It means not worrying about thoughts we never act on (some people beat themselves up a lot over these) because no-one will ever know, and it means you change yourself by doing the things that the sort of person you want to be will do. It means reinventing yourself doesn't in any way "betray" your old self, or kill them.

So this week, do something you always wanted to do, but never quite got around to.

* I'm pretty sure he was called Christopher White, but there appears to be another stand-up comic by that name who is more famous, and dominates the Google results.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Why you should try acting (and some tips to get you started)

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. 

One of my favourite hobbies is amateur theatre and in two weeks time I'm going to be starting rehearsal for a production of Titus Andronicus: The Comedy.

I believe that every person, at some point in their life, should do a theatre production - especially amateur dramatics, and here's why:

1. Self confidence
Putting yourself out there on stage is always difficult. If you're going to do it, theatre is great when you have people around you who can smooth over any mistakes you make. As you ease into it, and get more familiar with the role you also get more confident with the role and that leads to confidence in yourself.

A process I've seen happen with several people is that they join our society, shy, but willing to give it a go. Although they may find the role difficult at first, rehearsals get them more and more familiar with the role, until they can do it easily, confidently. They soon find that they are familiar enough to just slip at will into this character they've been given and will start to do socially when they want to be more confident. "It's fine," they say, "it's not me, it's this character." And they typically find people like this confident character they're playing.

Over time, this process becomes more and more natural, and character traits and mannerisms that work for the character get incorporated into their "real" personality, and vice versa. As time goes on, people realise that there isn't actually a difference between the "real" them and a character they play in social settings, or where they need to be confident - the difference is entirely a construct they created to allow them to do this, where the truth is that they've just learnt to be confident.

It's not always as bald as this. Some people, through their involvement, are taught the mannerisms of someone confident so they can replicate them onstage. They then more purposefully fake confidence, until they've gained enough experience faking confidence that the real thing has overtaken it.

2. Getting used to an audience
At the top of the page, I quote William Shakespeare's As You Like It (Jaques, in act II, scene vii if you need to look it up). Throughout life we often find ourselves in front of an audience. This can be anything as simple as telling a joke around a water cooler to explaining why you should be first in line for promotion at your annual review. By doing theatre you learn how to play to the audience, how to play with the audience, how to make the point you want to make. You learn how to prepare for it and how not to overstay your welcome. How to accentuate your strengths, and how to mask your weaknesses. These are not just useful for entertaining an audience at £4 per ticket, these are life skills.

3. The people you meet
We are a diverse bunch of people. Our interests outside theatre cover almost everything under the sun, some of us are shy and others need the spotlight. We have people with disabilities, people covering the entire LGBT spectrum, all thrown together and... it works. It's very difficult to join us - even for one show - and not make fast friends. And who doesn't like friends?

Have I convinced you?
If I have, look up your nearest Light Entertainment Society, or amateur dramatics group and just show up. Several may even be able to cast you into a minor role partway through rehearsals (though, obviously, not all). When you go to audition, here's some tips:

  • When playing a character, really overdo it. Anyone can read the lines, but by taking the character to the point of parody is how you get the role, as directors prefer to mould what's already there, then to get it out of somebody.
  • Learn your lines early. It makes getting the character in your head far easier.
  • Don't expect major roles - there's always more actors than major roles, but you can make the minor roles memorable.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Formula 1 season 2012 - a look ahead

This week saw the reveal of a third of the field's cars ahead of this week's testing in Jerez, as CaterhamForce IndiaMcLaren and Ferrari all unveiled their cars for 2012.

There are a couple of trends in the news designs, as compared to 2011 cars both led by some small rule changes.

Firstly, the rear of the car has gotten smaller. This is a knock-on effect after the FIA created rules relating to where the exhaust of the car must be, and to how the engine must respond to the throttle. They did this because last year cars were having the exhaust blow the underneath of the car, to maximise airflow around the diffuser and to make the best use of the ground effect. This is something that the FIA want to minimise the use of because it leads to dangerous crashes like Mark Webber's (thankfully harmless) crash at Valencia 2010. What happens is that as the car lifts a bit, the ground effect sucking the car down suddenly disappears which further flicks the car upwards.
Video: Mark Webber flips his RB6. Ground effect more directly caused this crash from the same driver at 24 hours of Le Mans 1999. He escaped both crashes miraculously uninjured.

To make the "blown diffuser" work the teams had to engineer the engines to keep pumping out exhaust gas, even when the driver was off the throttle. This decreased horsepower and made the engines less fuel efficient. The new rules mean the engines are more fuel efficient and more powerful. The knock-on here leads to smaller fuel tanks, which allows teams to make the back of the car smaller.

The other rule change lowers the legal height of the nose of the car. Teams were putting the nose of the car as high as possible in order to get as much air going under the car as they could (ground effect, again). This, however, caused some very alarming crashes in 2010, and Karun Chandok and Michael Schumacher are both lucky to be alive (and unhurt) after the high nose of another car caused to go over the top of their cars.
The nose of Liuzzi's VJM03 causes it to go over the top of Schumacher's MGP W01. 10 or 15 years ago this would almost certainly have been a fatal accident, but Schumacher escaped unharmed.
(Note that this is not how new F1 cars are made.)

The lower nose of the car has seen some interesting interpretations, as most of the teams have a stepped nose:

Ferrari have an interesting idea to get the new nose 10cm lower than last year's car. I really wish I was making this up. Caterham and Force India have also gone down this route, although theirs look more deliberate and less like someone accidentally stood on the model before sending it to the factory. Source

I personally believe the stepped nose looks awful, and I can't imagine it does the aerodynamics any good at all. Even more baffling about it is that it has to create horrible turbulence, and then send that turbulence straight over the rear wing. I find it really hard to believe that this solution is really better than sending less air underneath the car but I also don't have access to a multimillion pound wind tunnel or a team of the finest aerodynamic engineers in the world.

I cannot help but feel that McLaren's far more elegant nose will prove to be faster this year.
McLaren's nose is far more elegant, but the airflow underneath the car will be reduced compared to the Ferrari. 

Having said this, if ground effect is the biggest deciding factor in creating downforce and if the height of the nose is so important, a side-by-side comparison of the Ferrari and the McLaren shows that - at the front of the undertray - the Ferrari's front is just above the height of the wheel axle, while the McLaren's front is level with it despite the fact the Ferrari appears to be sitting lower on its suspension. Maybe the "Platypus nose", as several commentators have referred to it, is the way forward after all. I hope not, but we can't really tell at all until testing starts on Tuesday.

Between the rule changes, downforce will be reduced considerably, but the teams will make back some of the difference in straight-line speed as the smaller back end of the car means less drag, and the new engine rules mean faster engines. This essentially means the new cars will be faster on the straights, but slower on the corners. This speed difference will hopefully lead to some more interesting racing, as the braking zones are where overtaking happens.

Bring on F1 2012.