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”,┬áis 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.

Merry Christmas

December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

The Phene(ix)

December 23, 2010

Delivering my last Christmas cards by hand tonight, I came across a welcome sight. The Phene, former drinking hole of George Best [video], has reopened after three and a half years.

The place closed down because people moved into the area and then tried to turn this corner of Chelsea into a mausoleum (estate agent-speak for a morgue).

I like the refurbishment. Much better seats quite busy on a Thursday evening. The London Pride’s ok, there is a deli counter and free wifi.

Thoughts on the Ashes

December 17, 2010

Thoughts about the Third Ashes Test. The quote below is a draft comment I decided was too long for Brian Micklethwait’s blog.

Hussey is the only really bright spot of Australia’s batting, with useful support from Haddin and now Johnson. Watson is doing well, the rest have been poor. Looking at the stats I see Clarke has an 80 and Ponting a 51 not out.

The problem is the 23 innings (so far) of less than 10 (46% of the total). By comparison England have 12 (36%). At the other end Australians have hit 50 or more 13 times (26%) to England’s 11 (33%), but the over 100 scores read 5 to Engalnd (15%) and 2 to Australia (4%).

I assumed that Johnson not playing between the tests was a sign of confusion by Australia’s selectors (there are plenty of other signs!) but there clearly was some thinking going on which has paid off.

My view is that Collingwood should have been dropped and both Bresnan and Tremlett lined up for England. Collingwood has taken 6 catches (and a couple of great ones), but scores of 4, 42 and 5 (average 17) with no wickets for 21 overs (he only averages one test wicket per 20 overs in his career) is not good enough for this series. If he’d got the 42 yesterday when England were collapsing I’d take a different view.

The Broad injury looks like being followed by Finn. Overbowling for long spells, because there are only four proper bowlers in the team. In the first two tests this was excusable: caution over going behind. Not now. And Collingwood does not seem suited to this pitch as a bowler.

Meanwhile Bell (worst score 52, he’s been running out of partners) is wasted at number six. Move him, Prior and Swann up the line and put the extra bowler in. Shorter spells might not take more wickets, but injured bowlers off the pitch certainly won’t. I can see Anderson break down soon after his 48 hour flights as he gets overbowled covering for Finn and the absent fifth bowler. A couple of 10-over spells on a hot day should do it. Bad planning.

Swann is occasionally getting whacked around. If there’s a turning pitch coming up England could pick both spinners, with left and right arm options available. I suspect Panesar might get Swann some more wickets. Clearly not this match (unless Australia’s dropping of Beer is an error), but perhaps the next two?

Overall, for all the talk, England have played like a team that think the Ashes are already won after day one of this test.
Final thought about Ponting. Dropping him for averaging only about 30 in the past two years is bizarre. I don’t think Mark Taylor was as good and he kept his place.

One thought niggles me. Whatever happened to the “Cricket Academy” the Australians had which was supposedly the source of greatness in the 1990s and early 2000s?

Quote of the day

December 7, 2010

“The Germans are such a cruel and inhuman race, they have no word for fluffy.”

Edmund Blackadder [H/T my German host]

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.

The one where I defend Bill Gates

August 5, 2010

I believe it was Spike Milligan who once said “money can’t buy friends, but you can get a better class of enemy.” He wasn’t accounting for envy.

Until the British general election in May, which saw off a government that seemed to be trying to combine all the worst aspects of incompetent socialism with the nastier instincts of fascism (racialist immigration policies, ever more puritanical and police-intrusive legislation), the British left had a nasty, but identifiable purpose.

Now it has none.

This article in the Guardian is the sort of dog vomit one would expect to see in an Ayn Rand parody of a collectivist newsrag.

Bill Gates is big enough and ugly enough to take care of himself (and I hasten to add, has never offered me any inducements to speak his mind). I’m writing this on an old Mac because I don’t trust the first billion copies of Windows 7 to be free of bugs.

(Would a free copy of Vista be a bribe or a threat, I wonder? Pleease, nooo! I’ll say what you want, but don’t put Vista on my poor laptop, noooo!)

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation also has its issues for me: it’s rather more politically correct than I would like it (but hey, it’s up to me to make $30 billion and decide how I spend it, right?), and with size and leverage, comes the power to make big mistakes, rather than smaller ones.

Specifically, in a region of an African country where the Gates Foundation chooses to back a malaria project, this will tend to dwarf existing efforts to, say, distribute a vaccine for schistosomiasis (the reason I won’t take my shoes or socks off in some parts of Egypt). The concern is that in the short term, the effect will be to incite most of the health workers to sign up for Gates’ campaign. Read the rest of this entry »

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.