Sunday, 14 October 2012

Remember, remember

Just noticed the US presidential election is actually on my birthday this time round, the first time that's happened since 1984. I think I've got the Panini sticker album for that one somewhere. Back then the going exchange rate was 3 shiny Mondales to the Lineker.

And yes, I will ask Birthday Santa (for it is he) to re-elect Obama. So stop worrying about the polls folks.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Chinese Room

The Chinese Room is a thought experiment conceived by the American philosopher John Searle, in which you watch the infamous 2003 film The Room, then translate it into Chinese. Searle postulated that the act of translation could not make the dialogue any worse than it already is.

It was on the sixth viewing of The Room that one of its deepest secrets became clear to me: every scene resembles the sort of highly contrived dialogue found only in language learning textbooks. I can only imagine that when Tommy Wiseau first studied humanity on his home planet, his textbook convinced him that all human interaction consisted of people meeting, greeting and leaving in quick succession, like talking billiard balls.

As an example of Searle's thought experiment, I present the Flower Shop Scene translated into bad beginner's level Mandarin (from bad beginner's level English):

约翰尼: 你好.
Yuēhànní: Nǐ hǎo.

售货员: 你要什么?
Shòuhuòyuán: Nǐ yào shénme?

约翰尼: 十二朵红色的玫瑰.
Yuēhànní: Shíèr duo hóngsè de méiguī.

售货员: 你好, 约翰尼. 我不知道是你. 给你.
Shòuhuòyuán: Nǐ hǎo, Yuēhànní. Wǒ bù zhīdào shì nǐ. Gěi nǐ.

约翰尼: 这是我. 多少钱?
Yuēhànní: Zhè shì wǒ. Duōshǎo qián?

售货员: 十八美元.
Shòuhuòyuán: Shíbā měiyuán.

约翰尼: 给你. 不用找了. 你好, 小犬.
Yuēhànní: Gěi nǐ. Bùyòng zhǎole. Nǐ hǎo, xiǎoquǎn.

售货员: 你是我最喜欢的顾客.
Shòuhuòyuán: Nǐ shì wǒ zuì xǐhuan de gùkè.

约翰尼: 多谢. 再见!
Yuēhànní: Duōxiè. Zàijiàn!

售货员: 再见!
Shòuhuòyuán: Zàijiàn!

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Coalition maths

According to Andrew Rawnsley, a hung parliament is quite a plausible outcome of the 2015 election. But how likely is it really compared to the 2010 election?

In 2010, a number of factors made a hung parliament a very likely outcome. The Conservatives were in the ascendant, but due to the geographical spread of their voters they required a larger poll lead than Labour in order to secure a majority. Using the Electoral Calculus model we can estimate the leads Labour and the Conservatives would have required to get a majority:


Labour Conservative Conservative lead Outcome
28 39 +11 Con majority 6
29 38 +9 Hung - Con short 11
30 37 +7 Hung - Con short 23
31 36 +5 Hung - Con short 40
32 35 +3 Hung - Lab short 37
33 34 +1 Hung - Lab short 24
34 33 -1 Hung - Lab short 15
35 32 -3 Lab majority 6

In the end, the Conservative lead was seven points and so they had to go into coalition with the Lib Dems. The Tories have since attempted to manipulate the electoral boundaries to benefit themselves, but the Lib Dems have said they will block the manoeuvre in revenge for the failure of House of Lords reform. So we will be in much the same position in 2015.

There is an assumption in the table above though that we have not yet considered: the Lib Dem share of the vote. One of the other reasons a hung parliament was so likely last time round was because the Lib Dems polled around 24%. At the moment, though, they are far less popular, with the likes of YouGov regularly putting them in single figures.

Let's be generous and assume that the Lib Dems will not do quite that badly - what does the table look like if the Lib Dems poll, say, 12%? (assuming the rest of their vote goes to either Labour of Conservative)

Labour Conservative Conservative lead Outcome
36 43 +7 Con majority 22
37 42 +5 Hung - Con short 6
38 41 +3 Hung - Con short 17
39 40 +1 Hung - Lab short 10
40 39 -1 Lab majority 6

Clearly a hung parliament is much less likely under these circumstances, even before taking into consideration Labour's current 10 point lead over the Tories.

This point may seem obvious but I suspect that many political pundits haven't figured it out yet.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

In which I solve all the UK's constitutional questions

While Lord Adonis's suggestion of moving the House of Lords up to Salford Quays is an admirable attempt to spread power away from the capital, it's unclear what crime Salford has committed to deserve having the Lords foisted upon it. It is also, sadly, a bit daft to move a revising chamber 200 miles away from the people it's supposed to be keeping an eye on, even if Adonis's beloved HS2 does get built.

All the idea needs is a little tweaking though. The best way to cure Londonitis is by setting up a devolved English parliament, which also happens to solve the West Lothian question as well.

"But what about regional assemblies!" you cry, eruditely. Well, as an innocent bystander in the North East regional assembly referendum of 2004, I can only suggest that the bludgeoning the idea received at the hands of the voters implies that it's perhaps not the most popular solution.

As far as I am aware the only serious objections to an English parliament are "it's too big" and "London will dominate".

"Too big" is a very odd argument. An English parliament's powers will presumably be similar to Scotland's with control over the NHS, education, etc. All these powers are currently handled by Westminster and on a nationwide basis. Why is Westminster not too big for this task?

If the objection is that England's parliament is much bigger than Scotland's, then I give you Exhibit Germany. The smallest German state, Bremen, has a population of 600,000 compared to North-Rhine Westphalia's 18 million, a ratio of 30 times. England's parliament would represent a mere 10 times more people than Scotland.

And if the fear is that the English leader will rival the PM in power, then again it is not numbers that matter, but the powers they have. An English parliament cannot rival Westminster in power if we don't allow it to by law.

"London will dominate" is a much more serious counterargument. In theory an English parliament based outside of London would mean a large transfer of power away from the capital, but we know from the underhand tactics employed against building a new national stadium in Birmingham that London won't let this happen. The solution is straightforward: make London the federal capital zone of the UK with its own devolved parliament. Happily, it's already got an assembly. Job done. And the English one is made smaller to boot.

All of this, of course, assumes that Scotland won't stick two fingers up at the rest of us. But in part it is the asymmetry of the current constitutional arrangements that is driving them away. If England was just another devolved country, Scotland would finally achieve parity of power, while if England was divided up into regional government, Scotland would feel like it's being treated just like it is in cricket: minor.

Last but not least, a devolved English parliament would be elected proportionally, like all the other  assemblies, putting the public services which first past the post governments so love to screw up every five years into the hands of a more stable politics. What's not to like?

Sunday, 11 March 2012

A Lib Dem logic question

Is not calling on peers to support a bill equivalent to calling on peers not to support a bill? Opinions don't appear not to not undiffer.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

How a Lib Dem meltdown could benefit the liberal left

At this weekend's spring conference, Lib Dem activists have perhaps their last chance to halt their party's self-destruction. While their MPs' born-again espousal of Osbornomics and trebling of tuition fees was a little upsetting for those of us who thought we were voting for the opposite, it is the NHS bill that really has the power to wipe the Lib Dems from the electoral map. Not just because they would be betraying the legacy of the great liberal William Beveridge, but because they would be doing so in direct contradiction of the terms of the coalition agreement: "we will stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care."

If the parliamentary Lib Dems truly believe in coalition government, they have a duty to vote this bill down. If they believe in saving their own seats, they should vote it down. If they believe it would be a jolly fine jape to play on Cameron, they should vote it down. They would be mad not to.

Unless ... perhaps the Lib Dem parliamentary party really are as decent as Tim Farron claims. Perhaps they're acting for the greater good of the liberal left.

It cannot have escaped their notice that Labour's remarkable recovery from 29% at the general election to around 40% in the polls today has come entirely at their own expense, having dropped from 23% to around 10% while the Tories hold steady in the mid-thirties. It is equally obvious that those who have jumped ship are the liberal left. If Labour are sensible, they will fight hard to keep this voting bloc, which means toning down the nasty authoritarian streak in their party - in effect, becoming more liberal.

The flipside is the Lib Dems have to decide whether to fight for them back. At the very minimum this would mean voting down the NHS bill. But maybe there is no going back even then; the Tory policies they have nodded through so far may have scared the lefties away forever. How, then, can the Lib Dems do their bit for the left?

The answer is obvious: take votes from the Tories instead of Labour. But that means becoming more right-wing, not less. They need to become the British version of the FDP, a classical liberal party, the model that Nick Clegg no doubt has in his Europhile heart. With the Lib Dems peeling off right-wing liberals and UKIP pressuring from the lunatic right, for once the Tories will experience the unfairness of first past the post. Sweet revenge for the AV referendum, and a more liberal Labour party in power. Everyone's a winner.

Like highly trained double agents, perhaps the Lib Dems are braver than we will ever know.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Red Plenty - Francis Spufford



If I told you that one of the dramatic highlights of Red Plenty is an upgrade to a Siberian viscose works, you might jump to the conclusion that it has niche appeal. But thanks to the literary wizardry of Francis Spufford this event is genuinely an enthralling plot point, and only one of many he uses to bring to life how Russian society operated in the Khrushchev era.

As if the subject wasn't risky enough, Spufford decided not to write the conventional history he was planning and instead made what he describes as a "Russian fairytale", a kind of heightened-reality novelisation of history. It may sound unappealingly quirky but it works brilliantly because it's a perfect fit for the story he's telling. It could easily have ended up like one of those TV history shows where actors prance about in period costume while a voiceover explains what's really going on, but it is much more immersive than that. There are real lives being lived here, albeit fairytale real lives.

This is a story about the whole of Russian society, from the Politburo to the collective farms, from the central planners to the maternity wards. But above all it is a story about the scientists and engineers who believed that they could make the planned economy work, and make the Soviet Union the richest country in the world, if only their cybernetic theories were put into practice. For a time it looked like they might get their chance, and Red Plenty charts how hopes rose that they really could overtake the West, as well as how their dream eventually unravelled.

Everything about this book is fascinating, up to and including the copious endnotes, where Spufford describes where he has deviated from reality and elaborates on the economic and mathematical ideas of the time. And to top it all, there are plenty of Soviet Jokes.

The Red Plenty website is at redplenty.com.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Bring back the stuffiness

It's not often that I still care about the FA Cup draw at this stage of the season so let me take this opportunity to rant about the decline of the draw itself.

Once upon a time it was just two old duffers drawing balls from a bag - and that was the way we liked it, dammit. Now, as the ever insightful Football Cliches points out, it's dominated by Jim Rosenthal's attempt to fit as much numerology as possible between each draw. But far worse than that, and I think a new phenomenon, is the creeping in of one of the greatest blights on modern football. Yes, there's now banter between the presenter and drawers.

Compare the FA Cup (With Budweiser) to the Wimbledon tennis championship. Wimbledon has kept all its ludicrously old-fashioned but much loved traditions, but underneath it all is a very slick operation. The FA, on the other hand, have dressed up their competition with tiresome razzmatazz but underneath it all their organisation is still stuck in the 19th century. As a trained banterer might say: SORT IT OUT FA.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Popping the question

Spot the loading in Alex Salmond's proposed referendum question:
Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?
Salmond described this question as "simple, straightforward and clear", somehow forgetting to also mention its not-so-subtle bias in favour of independence.

Still, could be worse. Salmond's question is indeed a model of clarity compared to the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence. Presumably he realised he couldn't get away with this world-class level of obfuscation:
Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?
There is something in common though. Do you agree that Salmond got his idea for loaded phrasing from the Quebec question?

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Jesus pulls out of GOP race

SOUTH CAROLINA - Jesus Christ became the latest Republican candidate to pull out of the primaries Saturday in the wake of polls showing him trailing behind even Jon Huntsman.

Mr Christ's gaffe-prone campaign finally collapsed after a YouTube video surfaced showing him healing sick people with no health insurance. It is thought that he has performed many such treatments across the country without accepting payment, a revelation that has enraged Republican donors from the insurance industry. The video has been played a number of times on Fox News where it was described as "an affront to American values" and "worse then Obamacare".

The Son of God entered the race on a wave of popular enthusiasm last year, but like so many of the runners has found the media spotlight unforgiving. In the first Republican debate he was booed by the audience when he said that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God", declared that "you cannot serve both God and money" and described the poor as "blessed". Frontrunner Mitt Romney denounced the words as "class warfare".

Mr Christ's popularity declined further when asked whether he would go to war to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear missiles. He replied that the US "should turn the other cheek", "love our enemies" and that "those who live by the sword will die by the sword". Further, peacemakers were also "blessed". Several of the other candidates accused Mr Christ of giving succor to America's enemies.

Jesus has also been perceived to be weak on social issues. He refused to be drawn on homosexuality, stating only that Americans should "love their neighbor", a response many activists regarded as unsatisfactory.  One Republican commentator noted "that was the moment He lost the South".

In his concession speech Mr Christ thanked his followers and expressed hope that he would be able to make a second coming in 2016.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

"Devo max" and the right to self-determination

It's a longstanding principle of international law that nations have a right to choose their own political status, and therefore Scotland has a right to vote on independence from the UK. But does it also have a right to dictate the terms under which it remains inside the UK? Or to put it another way, if Alex Salmond's "devo max" proposal included a pony for every Scottish resident, should the UK government be obliged to breed them?

Unlike full independence, devolution is a concern for the whole UK. For example, if Scotland was given full powers to tax, spend and borrow, but stayed within the pound, we could potentially end up with a "Poundzone" every bit as unstable as the Eurozone. Any change in the devolution settlement within the UK should surely be a result of negotiation between Westminster and the Scottish government, rather than a unilateral decision by a Scottish referendum.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Hungarian electoral calculus

As if the EU hasn't got enough problems to worry about at the moment, the Fidesz government in Hungary is busy removing checks on its rule. It can do this because it achieved a two-thirds majority in parliament in the last election, which allows it to modify the constitution.

Hungary's electoral system is, to put it mildly, complex.There is a mixture of first-past-the-post seats and two types of PR, one of region list seats and another of "compensation seats" for runners-up in the first-past-the-post seats. Not to mention the two rounds of voting with three-candidate runoffs in the second round.

But have you ever wondered how such a bonkers system came in to being? Of course you have! Who hasn't? Certainly not Kenneth Benoit and John W. Schiemann, who wrote a paper about it: Bargaining Over Hungary's 1989 Electoral Law (PDF).

In summary, the major opposition parties sat round a table and hammered out a compromise between their favoured systems, which they then took to the communists who were forced to compromise their own intentions. Naturally all the parties were interested in a system that would maximise their own seat numbers. Hence peculiarities like the three-candidate runoff, which came about because the communists realised that a two-candidate round would consolidate the opposition against their candidates.

The result is something like splitting the difference between a PR system and a majoritarian system. Fidesz was by far the dominant party at the time of the 2010 election, receiving 53% of the vote, and so gaining 68% of the seats is not a massive distortion of the popular will. In the UK similar voting shares would have resulted in a far more dominant position for the winner.

Nevertheless, because the system has boosted their seats past the two-thirds magic number, Fidesz have evidently decided that they have a special mandate to reshape the Hungarian constitution for their own benefit. Unsurprisingly this includes changing electoral law to suit themselves.

The public apparently disagree about their mandate, with recent polls showing them dropping to 20-25% of the vote. Presumably the thinking behind the two-thirds requirement is that there should be a broad consensus for changes to the institution, which is clearly not the case for the changes Fidesz are making. That smallish distortion in seats has resulted in a massive distortion of power.

Moral: letting a committee of politicians design their own electoral system isn't a very good idea.