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Showing posts from 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.

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 m…

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:


LabourConservativeConservative leadOutcome2839+11Con majority 62938+9Hung - Con short 113037+7Hung - Con short 233136+5Hung - Con short 403235+3Hung - Lab short 373334+1Hung - Lab short 243433-1Hung - Lab short 153532-3Lab 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 wil…

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 "…

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.

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 ...…

Red Plenty - Francis Spufford

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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 …

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…

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?

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 …

"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.

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 t…