Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

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.

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.

No more landline

October 31, 2010

I no longer have a landline. If you have my mobile (cell) phone, you are welcome to call me or SMS. Otherwise email. I will be using Skype more.

Sorry for the inconvenience.

The problem was that I was spending too much on landline fees and also had a pay as you go mobile which cost barely more for roaming as for local calls.

Back (again)

August 4, 2010

Well, I’m back.

I did manage to keep some flow on Twitter but otherwise, I guess its just you, a couple of spambots, and me.

A few words of explanation: from March until July, I was doing a job that involved irregular hours and a ban on signing into a blogging platform, email, or a social media site. The result was that this site lost out.


For now, I’m doing a job that I’m not allowed to discuss in detail – YET. But hopefully that will change soon as the start up project I’m working reaches a couple of targets.

In the meantime, there’s work to be done and fun to be had.

Testing the Wisdom of Crowds

February 8, 2010

On January 11th, I spoke at a gathering of the Libertarian Alliance about James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds book (previous post here).

I got 15 responses to a questionnaire I handed around at the meeting (recording here) and can now report on my findings.

The questions were as follows:

Question 1. Regardless of what you think will happen, which political party or parties, if any, do you want to win the next British general election?

Question 2. Below is a list of six Premier League football clubs, please list them in order of closest to this place [near Senate House, Malet Street London WC1], to furthest (1 is closest, 6 is furthest. [Ranked in alphabetical order: Arsenal, Chelsea, Fulham, Hull City, Manchester United and Wigan Athletic]

Question 3. Guess my weight (in kilogrammes, stones or pounds). [I stood in front of the audience]

Question 4. Which of these four themes is part of the 2010 Spring Collection, according to the latest trends being pushed by fashion houses?
[Stiletto heels; Kitten heels; Pompadour heels; Achilles heels]

Question 5. Regardless of what you want to happen, which political party will have a majority after the next British general election? If you think no party will have a majority, write “None”.

I also asked respondents to rate how they thought the group would do as a whole. However, I have not reported these as it is clear from the responses that this instruction was not well explained by me (some responded in relative terms, others in absolute terms).

Responses and my comments below the fold…

A test for the “Wisdom of Crowds”

January 10, 2010

Tomorrow (that’s Monday, 11th January 2010), I shall be giving a talk about James Surowiecki’s excellent little book, The Wisdom of Crowds, at the Institute of Education in London, at an event organised by “the other LA.”

Given the inclement weather, the fact it’s the first meeting of the year, there’s a new venue, I only told friends about it this evening, and the problem that either the speaker or the subject might not be as exciting to others as it is to me, I consider this a good test.

If no one shows up, how can I possibly argue that crowds lack wisdom? But then if I’m right, surely lots of people will want to know more about it.

I shall be talking about markets, taxes, voting, opinion polls and fairness. There will also be a little quiz.

If you cannot (or will not!) make it, I suggest Surowiecki’s book to anyone remotely interested in psychology, economics or epistemology, or to use less fancy language: how people think, work together and acquire and use knowledge.

It’s very readable, it has only one error of reasoning in my opinion [not fair to tell yet] and the only technical flaw is the lack of an index.

[UPDATE 8 Feb 2010: The flaw mentioned above is the claim that taxpayers consent to being taxed. The missing ingredient is the extent to which coercion (actual or potential) affect one’s decision to comply with taxation or not. If the various tax authorities of the world did not have the power to drag people before courts, confiscate assets and prison sentences weren’t relatively longer than say, for stealing food, I imagine that tax revenue rates would plummet.]

2009 and all that…

January 1, 2010

Every year since 1997, I have compiled a list of 100 New Year’s resolutions, spread over such areas as my debt vs savings, reminders to keep in touch with various family members, an income target, commitments on fitness, reading, study, hobbies and travel. It’s about as personal a document as I ever produce so don’t expect me to broadcast it. I look at it roughly once a month, to keep some track of how I’m doing.

Originally, I started with 56 things I wanted to do in 1995, then a few more got added in ’96, before I found myself with a list of 97 items in 1997, at which point I thought of rounding it up.

I don’t have an easy way of getting a list of all the things I did do, and some are repeated each year, but it now stands at 218, though only nine were successes in 2009.

Off the top of my head, I can think of a few definite things I wouldn’t have done without the list: flying to New York in Concorde, visiting a new country each year (Greece, Ireland, Egypt, the Netherlands, and I’m not counting years where I went to several others [e.g. Italy, the Vatican, the Czech Republic since it split from Slovakia]) and taking part in the Hastings Christmas Chess Tournament (where I won a prize).

I might never have enrolled on my MBA course in 2008 (I’d been toying with the idea for many years), would not have moved when I did in 2003 or bought a camera last May.

On the other hand, I have only once exceeded my income target, in 2003, which I hope reflects the high bar I set myself… For better or for worse, my strategic direction for the year is set with my resolutions.

Perhaps it’s me, but yesterday I found myself asking “where does the idea of New Year’s resolutions come from?” Is it modern, like Mother’s Day in France or turkey for Christmas lunch? Is it ancient, like the seven-day week?

Wikipedia was surprisingly vague on this topic, and most of the claims of antiquity are not well documented (astrologers claiming a Babylonian origin [link in French] are not entirely without an interest in talking up that culture).

The reason I doubt the ancient world as being the original source of the NY resolution custom, is that it seems too modern a preoccupation to think about “must write to mother more often” or “must go to the gym more often.”

There were Jubilee Years announced roughly four times a century by the Popes since 1300AD, which included releasing people from their debts and making pilgrimages, but the NY resolutions seem more personal, more of a form of self-development.

Fortunately, Fugitive Ink had some leads, after I’d suggested that diarists would provide a good starting point:

Possibly, though, I’d start the research slightly earlier than you would – amongst the puritan diarists of the mid-17th century, both in England and the American colonies. They were, after all, great makes of ‘resolutions’ and no slouches when it came to making self-improving promises to God.

When I first started thinking about this, I worried that such pious folk might find the secular New Year insufficiently significant to be worth much in the way of resolutions. But then I had a swift glance at Ralph Josselin’s diary. (He was an Essex clergyman, 1616-83, of broadly puritan inclination, although remaining in Anglican orders.) Look at this, from 1653:

Admittedly, this isn’t exactly a ‘resolution’ per se (despite the odd fact that the word ‘resolution’ occurs in the next sentence), and Josselin is always asking God to do things like that, but all the same, Josselin is evidently using the occasion to ask God to give him ‘a new holy heart’, which in some sense comes rather close to the ‘make me a better person’ end of the contemporary NYR scale, if not the ‘lose a stone’ end of it.

It strikes me therefore that there is no obvious answer to my question, but that the habit of making commitments for the coming year (whether praying for help in achieving them or not) is a reflection of the emergence of a belief in the possible redemption of Man on Earth.

If it did date from Babylonian times, and if it really had persisted through the ages, I wonder if it could be considered one of the most enduring expressions of individual self-development?

I need a new electorate

December 15, 2009

The people have spoken, again.

Changes in your ranks:
#41 cutest (lost 1 place)
#43 hottest (lost 1 place)
#43 person with the prettiest eyes (lost 1 place)
#44 sexiest (lost 1 place)
#45 most dateable (lost 1 place)

Not wishing to sound like a bad loser, but OUCH!!!

Faithful Igor

“So, Antoine, what’s it like to be Igor‘s ugly twin?”

Comparisons are odious

October 31, 2009

The dangers of social media #432: nowhere to hide from being compared with the rest of humanity.

My latest “Compare people” scorecard on Facebook would be really depressing, if I hadn’t had a generally productive week:

#12 best companion on a desert island (lost 1 place)
#29 bravest (lost 2 places)
#41 cutest (lost 1 place)
#43 hottest (lost 1 place)
#43 person with the prettiest eyes (lost 2 places)

At least it’s consistent, not like here.

The wisdom of crowds. Ouch!

September 23, 2009

It’s just as well I retain something of a sense of humour, even if it seems to go unrecognised…

Changes in your ranks:

#14 most attractive (lost 1 place)
#14 nicest smelling (lost 1 place)
#19 person with the best sense of humor (lost 1 place)
#20 best catch (lost 1 place)
#20 most enviable (lost 1 place)

From the Compare People application on Facebook. I’m hoping this is some jealous guy.