One for Brian Micklethwait

August 15, 2013

I took this in Paris. One of the trio is 3,200 years older than the other two.

trio paris

Horse racing

August 11, 2013

I’ve never got into horse racing, as I usually couldn’t tell a [insert name of some type of horse] from [insert another].

I know so little about it that I’m not tempted.

But I am fascinated by the complexity of betting on horse races. Terms like “I’ll have an each-way trixie and a lucky 31, all at SP.” And the bookie knows exactly how many horses names will be called (at least five and at most eight) and within minutes nearly 100 bet calculations will be made.

As I was sitting in a betting shop watching some cricket, I decided to try out an idea I’ve had about the way people bet.

I knew nothing at all about any of the horses, or the jockeys, or the trainers. I made no allowances for the race course, the horses recent performances ["form"], or racing conditions.

All I cared about was how many places would be paid out for an each way bet. Just a warning for Americans, you don’t use the same terms as in the UK or Ireland, so what we call a “place” isn’t the same as what you think it means.

I sat through five races and despite misgivings about one of them (too many horses ranked very close together), I duly picked and wrote down my choices. I did NOT however, go to a cashier and place any of these.

The Curragh (a race course in Ireland), the 4.15pm race. The payout for each way was 1/4 odds for either first or second. In the 4.45pm race at the same venue, the each way was 1/4 odds for the first three to finish.

Leicester (in the East Midlands of England), the 4.25pm race. One fifth odds for the first three to cross the line.

Downpatrick (which I assumed to be in Ireland), the 4.30pm race. Again one fifth odds for the first three.

Windsor the 4.40pm race, one quarter odds for the first two.

My picks were Hamza at 6/1, Brazen at 10/1, Ironmill Lad at 8/1, Understory at 5/1 and Sassaway at 8/1.

I chose them with the following principles: how many places were there? Take the horse that has odds putting it closest outside the each way places. So in my first race where the first two would pay out, Hamza was the third favourite. In a couple of races there was a cluster of choices on the same odds (Ironmill Lad’s race for example). There I picked the one that was drifting out. That means the horse the punters were moving their money AWAY from. This worked brilliantly with Sassaway but failed with Ironmill Lad. Where it looked like the odds might be getting shorter (say they were 8/1 but had been 9/1 earlier) I would “take the price”, otherwise I was taking “SP” (the price quoted as the race started).

My choice of bet was an “each way Lucky 31″. I would have put £1 on each selection, which would have cost me £62.

The fun is that this would have automatically selected for me the following combinations:

Five singles:

Hamza to finish first or second.

Brazen to finish first, second or third.

Ironmill Lad to finish first, second or third.

Understory to finish first or second.

Sassaway to finish first, second or third.

Ten doubles:

Hamza and Brazen.

Hamza and Ironmill Lad.

Hamza and Understory.

Hamza and Sassaway.

Brazen and Ironmill Lad.

Brazen and Understory.

Brazen and Sassaway.

Ironmill Lad and Understory.

Ironmill Lad and Sassaway.

Understory and Sassaway.

Ten trebles:

Every possible combination of three of the five horses.

Five fourfold accumulators:

Every possible combination of four of the five horses.

Finally, a fivefold accumulator: all five selections to win or place.

I was effectively making 62 selections (31 bets with either a win or a place) and there were 13 possible winning results for me. In three races, I was winning if my pick finished in the top three. In the other two races, a top-two finish would be needed. I had thirteen possible chances of winning something.

Hamza finished second. Brazen won. Ironmill Lad was in the top two for a long time but didn’t finish in the first five. Understory looked good for most of his race but was well beaten, with a top jockey (who I would have backed if I’d done any kind of research) winning by some distance. Sassaway won well.

If I’d put £10 on each to win, I’d have spent £50 and got £190 back, a profit of 280%.

My Lucky 31 going £1 each way would have cost £62. I would have got £250 back, a profit of 303.2%.

I’m not tempted, but I can see how it might be compelling. And I admit I would have been pretty excited while the races were running.

The State owns your Xray

August 9, 2013

The highlights of my visit (keeping a relative company) to a socialized healthcare hospital tonight.

The way a young woman was silently screaming in pain and all the hospital staff pretended not to notice. She’d fractured her arm badly and spent several hours without anyone doing anything to help.

I’ve seen this sort of thing before, the last time was a gay man who was passing out after being bashed on the head and no one tried to keep him awake. I hope he didn’t go into a coma. Another time – at a different hospital – a woman with her foot twisted 90 degrees fell off a trolley and writhed on the ground screaming for about 10 minutes while medical staff stepped over her to get to a break room for their cups of tea, until a doctor pointed and barked an order “sort that out!” But not tonight.

The complete lack of communication from doctor to nurse. The latter didn’t know anything about what she was bandaging or what it was for. The doctor, of course, couldn’t do a bandage. He also couldn’t give a copy of the X-ray to the patient, or email it (X-rays in socialized medicine belong to the state). There was a competent administrator who seemed to understand what was going on, which was a novelty, but he had zero authority.

The problem of continuity in care is not exclusively a problem of socialized medicine, but is worse: the client, whatever the mission statement may claim, is not the patient, but the owner of the X-rays.

The “Urgent Care Centre” was a hive of inactivity. It was new and looked clean. It was empty. I’ve spent a quarter of an hour trying to remember the last time I was in a place that exuded less urgency and care than this place. I failed. I was at a crematorium recently and that was like the pit lane of a Formula One Grand Prix racing track by comparison.

There was a two hour wait for a “bed” to put the bandage on, because there wasn’t a footrest in the hospital. In the end a supposedly-qualified nurse tried to put a bandage which was too small, and wanted to tape the edges on the fracture. She and her trainee colleague had to be told by the patient how to bandage a fractured toe. They couldn’t figure out that putting the foot on a chair would made bandaging the toe easier.

I counted seven doctors sitting around doing nothing. Actually not nothing: they were taking up chairs that could have been used as footrests.

A visit that would have taken one hour in a competently managed facility took three hours, most of it spent waiting for an unnecessary bed. Apart from the X-ray, which required equipment, nothing that happened would have required anyone more competent than a cub scout who has his first aid badge.

A visit to the nearby private hospital’s Accident and Emergency centre would have cost something like £200 (I looked it up here). I wonder how much in taxes the socialized version costs?

Open email to Amazon

September 7, 2011

Here’s the text of an email I sent to Amazon‘s customer services, about my last-minute decision NOT to buy several albums of music from the store.

Having read the terms and conditions I have decided not to make a purchase for the following reasons:
1) I don’t understand what Amazon’s “right to withdraw” software means for my MP3 download. Does it mean that I can pay for a download and Amazon can, without warning, disable the download? If so, that sounds like a rubbish deal.

2) Ownership. I understand the restrictions on retransmitting and not sharing MP3s, but the statement that I do not own the download begs the question: what exactly am I paying for if I don’t own the download?

3) Cross border restrictions: I currently live in the UK, but I have lived in other countries and I may go and live in the USA. Am I supposed to destroy my UK downloads every time I go and live in another country? What if I spend half my time in the USA and the other half in the UK? Am I not allowed to keep one set of files? Seems very inconvenient.

Consequence: I have never yet bought any downloaded music. At £0.79 a track and my likely target of 1,000 pieces, that’s about £800 of lost business for Amazon. What benefit are you getting that’s worth annoying potential customers this much?

Kind regards,
Antoine Clarke

Rugby, cricket, but not football

August 14, 2011

This is no fluke. England has the best five-day cricket playing team. And the style by which this has been achieved, an innings and 242 run spanking of India, is distinctly un-English, for those who bleated for Tim Henman at Wimbledon or who persist in dreaming that “passion” will win the football team a World Cup.

Let’s be clear how much better England were than India: add another (third) Indian innings and they probably wouldn’t have equalled England’s first innings. Take away Alastair Cook’s 294 runs and his team would have needed 53 runs to win, which is how many Tim Bresnan, the bowler who comes in at No 8 to bat, scored. And India couldn’t get Bresnan out.

I warned that this England cricket squad is as good or nearly as good as the very best in the modern era.

It isn’t a fluke. The foundations for the achievement of becoming test cricket’s number one rated side go back beyond 2005, when England first mugged the then supreme team Australia in an Ashes series which was celebrated like winning a football world cup. There were some slip ups, but since the appointment of the South-African-born Andrew Strauss, this climb up the rankings (England was listed as the worst test playing team at one point) has been the result of the right attitude, preparation and keeping the “passion” to celebrating actual achievements, unlike soccer.

Now cricket joins rugby union as a sport in which the England team have, within the past decade, achieved global superiority. Football, a sport with vastly more money, more spectators and a depth of players, has, by contrast been an utter failure.

Here is England’s World Cup and European Championship record since 1966:

England (World Cup 4th [1990], European Championships 3rd [1968, 1996])

And here are some comparable achievements by countries not rated highly by English soccer fans, commentators or players:
Belgium (World Cup 4th [1986], European Championship 2nd [1980], 3rd [1972])
Bulgaria (World Cup 4th [1994])
Croatia (World Cup 3rd [1998])
Czech Republic (European championship 2nd [1996], 3rd [2004])
Czechoslovakia (European championship 1st [1976], 3rd [1980])
Denmark (European championship 1st [1992], 3rd [1984])
Greece (European championship 1st [2004])
Hungary (European championship 4th [1972])
Poland (World Cup 3rd [1974, 1982])
Russia (European championship 3rd [2008])
Sweden (World Cup 3rd [1994], European championship 4th [1992])
Turkey (World Cup 3rd [2002], European championship 4th [2008])
USSR (European championship 2nd [1972, 1988], 4th [1968])
Yugoslavia (European championship 2nd [1968], 4th [1976])

The teams with better records than England since 1966 also includes Germany, Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal, all of which have at least reached a final.

The first problem for English football is the difficulty in accepting what reasonable expectations to begin with and to work (as opposed to emote) to improve this. It’s hard to accept that Belgium is a more successful footballing country at World and European championships. But investigating why and how to improve on this is the way forward.

It’s a good idea for team spirit if all the players sing the National Anthem with feeling before a game. But it’s not a sufficient skill for winning.

England the best (nearly)

August 2, 2011

There is a tendency among English (and to a certain extent British) sports commentators and supporters to consider national teams either complete rubbish or world class. I’ve written an analysis of the England soccer team at the 2010 World Cup, compared with major rivals which goes into this in some detail. Some time (Real Soon Now, hopefully) I’ll publish it as a page here.

But for now, I want to take issue with Derek Pringle, a former Test player for England, and presently a commentator for the Daily Telegraph. He writes about yesterday’s England win over world number one India:

It was a pounding, delivered with the swaggering elan of the two finest sides of the last 30 years: the West Indies under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards; and Australia under Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh.
They are not yet as consistently ruthless as those teams but successive wins against India appears to have given them an appetite for world domination judging from the one-sided nature of the cricket here.

Now I would bet that any English reader of the quote is going to assume that I want to criticise the comparison with the great West Indian or Australian sides. But that isn’t my complaint. It’s that Andrew Strauss, the South African-born England captain has already matched or surpassed the standards set by the four great captains listed above.

Here’s the record:

Andrew Strauss (England): Captained 37 times, won 19 (51.4%), lost 5 (13.5%), drawn 13 (35.1%).

Clive Lloyd (West Indies): Captained 74 times, won 36 (48.6%), lost 12 (16.2%), drawn 26 (35.1%).
Viv Richards (West Indies): Captained 50 times, won 27 (54.0%), lost 8 (16.0%), drawn 15 (30.0%).
Mark Taylor (Australia): Captained 50 times, won 26 (52.0%), lost 13 (26.0%), drawn 11 (22.0%).
Steve Waugh (Australia): Captained 57 times, won 41 (71.9%), lost 9 (15.8%), drawn 7 (12.3%).

Now it is clear that Strauss can claim to be more successful than Lloyd, in a near dead heat with Richards and Taylor and behind Waugh. But consider the starting point. The West Indies under Lloyd and England under Strauss did not start from a position of undisputed world’s top test cricket teams. And Steve Waugh’s loss rate is worse than Strauss’ even though he started with the top team in the world.

The simple truth is this. A team coming up against Andrew Strauss’ England does not expect to win (his loss rate is the lowest of the five). Which is precisely what it was like to face those other great captains. I think it’s time to recognise this fact and enjoy it while it lasts.

As a result of the 319-runs win in the second test, taking a 2-0 lead in the four match series, England are on course to take over from India as the top test playing team in the International Cricket Council rankings. Already, Strauss’ team is guaranteed at least second place, leap-frogging South Africa.

Sharia-controlled zones

July 28, 2011

The UK’s Freedom Association is getting excited about the attempt by Islamic activists to claim sovereignty over parts of the country. This is being done by putting up flyposters declaring that a part of town is a “Sharia-controlled zone.”

It is amusing that of all the actions taken by groups such as Islam4UK, it is the challenge to local government’s authority that is being taken seriously by politicians. They don’t like it when people take charge of their own communities. Waltham Forest Council Leader, Cllr Chris Robbins, said:

“As soon as we heard about these posters we worked over the weekend to take them all down.” He continued “since then we have been going through our CCTV images and working with the police to try to identify the culprits. Our policy is to use the full extent of our powers to prosecute any offenders.”

Anyone expecting me to criticise Islam in this posting will be disappointed. It is true that if or when a previously Western liberal democracy whose leaders spouted secularist moral relativism becomes a truly Sharia country, I may not like the extent to which people are not allowed to live as they wish in private. But when it comes to people deciding that the state is not their friend, just a hugely expensive nuisance, attempts to provide a “bottom-up” order will occur.

Could I live in a Sharia-controlled zone? Probably easily enough. I’m not an atheist, or gay. I could give up drinking alcohol, though I would probably insist that Christian services be allowed to use Communion wine. I don’t normally smoke or do drugs, I’m quite happy not to gamble, or wear a tie. Growing a beard would take time and I’d miss Match of the Day.

I would however, get a lot of fun watching how the multicultis would cope. Those politically correct, invariably white middle-class, secularist atheists and gay rights activists alike, who think reading about the history of the Eastern Roman Empire is somehow racist or “unhelpful to the project.” Who think it’s wrong for an Afrikaner to say “kaffir” but insist that when the word is used in Arabic, it’s not a term of abuse. Who think saying “Peace be Upon Him” after the Prophet’s name is enough to indicate proper respect of Islam.

The most absurd piece of multiculralist propaganda I recently heard was the claim that the Prophet himself was not a man of war. What an insult to one of the most brilliant military commanders of all history! The expansion of territory controlled by Islamic law in the 7th and 8th centuries is nothing less than remarkable. Most of it was done by conquest but on paper the armies of the Prophet should never have won.

One of the crucial advantages was faith. I’m not an expert on how far this explains the conquest of the Arabian peninsula, the near East, Egypt, North Africa, Spain and Aquitaine (or Gothia as it was still known).

But when taking on the technologically superior Eastern Roman Empire, it helped that the soldiers of Islam offered lower taxes, less oppression from religious intolerance and a more business-friendly view of society than the Byzantines. For Jews and non-Orthodox Christians, submitting to the rule of the Rashidun Caliphate was a clear improvement.

If the campaigners for Sharia law in the UK were to effectively drive out the existing local government control, so that instead of paying Council Tax, Business Rates and the various charges that Councils levy, they paid something like the kharaj and the jizya, might non-Muslims move into such enclaves, especially if crime was effectively controlled?

Waltham Council certainly doesn’t want to find out.

Baffled by technology

July 4, 2011

The main reason blogging’s been light is that I’m shuttling between France and the UK with pay as you go SIM cards. I’m having trouble working out how to use wifi and my French SIM (SFR) won’t work at all outside France.

Do we know what we don’t know?

June 15, 2011

There’s an interesting exposition of the reason why claims of alien (extra-terrestrial) contact with this planet is extremely unlikely.

I most agree with it: the distances, the length of time it would take technology to develop that would make interstellar travel possible, the sheer luck that would be needed to stumble upon another civilization.

In fact I would go further, I think there’s a chance civilizations discover something like limited control of anti-matter, which it only takes a single nutter to detonate, taking out an entire solar system. We call them “supernovas.” We assume they’re all natural phenomena. If the technology to travel between stars is as powerful but takes longer than the development of a self-extermination bomb, the latter will be developed first by a death cult (easier to make an UNCONTROLLED explosion than a controlled one). Therefore no two interstellar civilizations will ever meet. The upside of this is that this will always be fiction.

But that’s where I have to draw the line.
Read the rest of this entry »

Bad news for freedom, the UK’s AV referendum

April 3, 2011

On Thursday May 5th 2011, a tiny number of people will vote to make a badly understood change to the UK’s electoral system. It seems likely (unless there’s a change in public awareness), that the Alernative Voting system will replace the current system of ticking a box for one’s preferred candidate.

The date of the referendum coincides with local elections in some parts of England, but not London. It does coincide with elections to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies so turnout will be high in areas where nationalist and extremist votes are voting anyway, but low in those areas where fewer extremists live.

As usual with referendums, there is no minimum threshold for the result to be valid. If 50,000 people, all of them rabid fanantics for election reform, happen to vote while 45,950,000 stay at home, then we will see a very bad electoral system introduced.

Three reasons for voting “No” to AV, although a different change could be better

1) It is important to realise that the referendum is NOT about “should we change the UK election system to something fairer”. If that were the case, then I would expect the result to be “Yes” and I’d probably support it.

If the referendum question passes, AV will be introduced and any discussion of other, better, voting systems is over. Once we have AV, it is very unlikely that any agreement can ever be secured to have a referendum on scrapping it. It’s like demolishing St Paul’s Cathedral to build a rubbish landfill site. Not something one can reverse easily. Any reform that is as crucial as changing the electoral system should have the same standard of approval as, say a vote by a building society to become a high street bank: 75% of members have to approve.

It is simply crazy to have a fundamental issue of how democracy works in the UK decided by what is likely to be less than one in ten people.

2) Complexity

Most of the people I know who will be voting for the AV change do not strike me as really having examined how it is supposed to work: they support AV for tribal reasons, being members or at least staunch supporters of the Liberal Democrat party. That alone alarms me, as it means that the risk of an unintended negative consequence of AV is almost certain to be overlooked by its supporters. They tend to assume that any opposition to AV is the same as opposition to the Liberal Democrats having a chance of power in the UK parliament.

For what it’s worth, I’m happier that the Lib Dems are in the government coalition than if they were not. So my opposition to AV has nothing to do with my opinion of local government, the environment, European Union, same-sex marriages, drug policy etc.

In my parliamentary constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn, the Liberal Democrats were the first placed party, according to BBC projections of the 2005 general election to the new boundary, with Labour second and the Conservatives third.

Under the AV system, we would have had to vote for our first and second preferences based on that (as it turned out faulty) analysis. So a supporter of the Green party who wanted the non-Conservative candidate to win would have put Green 1st and Liberal Democrat 2nd. A UKIP voter who wanted Labour out would have put UKIP 1st and Liberal Democrat 2nd.

In fact, the analysis was based on what I predicted would be a false reading of the local election results in the London Borough of Brent, where wards with high Lib Dem support were pushed into the Hampstead constituency. I know the areas concerned well and knew that lots of Conservative voters had been voting Lib Dem to get Labour out. Given the chance of voting for a Conservative in a first past the post parliamentary election, they could vote Conservative.

The actual result was a Labour victory and the Conservatives coming second, 42 votes behind.

Under AV, total confusion would have occurred. Unlike the French election system, where there is a second round of voting two weeks later between the top two candidates if neither passed 50%, we wouldn’t have known that the Lib Dems were eliminated before the Conservatives. So the Green and UKIP second preferences would ALL have been wasted. But any Communists or Nazis who happened to prefer Labour or Conservatives would have got a second vote that mattered.

I can see no basis for supporting a second preference when I don’t know who has a chance of winning.

Another problem is the number of people who are likely to be confused and tick two boxes (as they are told to do in local elections for multi-member constituencies). We should be making it LESS complicated, not more.

3) Pandering to the extremists

If the people who vote for the most extremist political parties with the smallest support have their second preferences counted first, they have twice as much influence as the people who vote for the larger more moderate parties.

Specifically, if a British Nationalist Party candidate gets 1,000 votes, but the gap between both Labour and the Conservatives reaching 50% is, say 900 votes, then both Labour and Conservatives have an interest in capturing the BNP vote. This is unlikely to be by offering anything nice. The same obviously applies to socialist or communist fringe groups.

By contrast, in 2002 the French Presidential election unexpectedly threw up a Republican centre-right versus National Font extreme-right run-off. Because the French voters DID NOT HAVE AV, they had two weeks to decide if they preferred “the crook” to “the fascist”. With AV, all Socialist voters who didn’t realise that their support would be needed to keep out Jean-Marie Le Pen would have abstained, so a National Front victory could have been realised.

What change should we consider?

I don’t favour party list systems (like the system used in the European Parliament elections in the UK) because they reduce the connection between the elected politicians and their voters. To succeed, a politician will want to be higher up the party list, which means grovelling to the leader and ignoring local voter concerns.

However, a party list system would mean that if we prefer to back a label then we get a parliament that reflects the aggregate preferences of more people than AV does. If we have to have this, then a D’Hondt method of allocating seats might make sense.

Another option would be to have a second preference, but not cast at the same time (and in ignorance of the choices available). This system, sometimes called “runoff voting”, is used in France where a candidate fails to get 50% support in the first round, as mentioned previously. It is sometimes described as a system where one votes with one’s heart in the first round and with one’s head (or wallet) in the second.

A third option, which I oppose for some of the reasons I oppose AV, is the Single Transferable Vote. It can be VERY complicated to count. If we want a proportional representation system, this is the one that delivers proportionality.

Consequences for freedom

The pandering to extremism that the AV system would likely produce, coupled with the outrage when an election “goes wrong” (millions of people discovering that their second choices were wasted) does not create a climate for pro-freedom policies to get enacted. Scapegoating, already a feature of British politics with attacks on immigrants, bankers, or people who went to public school. Any change to the voting system that is confusing to many voters and which encourages nasty populism is not one I can support.

I know that most people who support AV would not do so if they were convinced that the negative effects I’ve outlined above were true. I hope I’m wrong, or that I don’t get the opportunity to remind readers that I was right. We shall see.


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