Saturday, March 27, 2004

So what do you do all day?

0930 - 1030
Undermine World Religions
1030 - 1200
General Attacks on the Institution of the American Family
1200 - 1300
Catered Lunch and Fashion Show
1300 - 1330
Plot to Remove All Men From The World
The Feminist Agenda, from Long Story; Short Pier, where you'll also find the Homosexual and Fundamentalist agendas. (found via The Great Communicator)

Minor changes

I've slightly changed the format of the 'Watching' section of the sidebar, so as well as just being a list of the last five films I've seen at the cinema or on DVD, there's also a pithy review of each of them, should you care to know my brief opinion. I considered introducing something similar for the books and music parts just above but as stuff tends to go on there before I read and listen to them, rather than after as in the case of the films, it would get too confusing keeping track.

Cutting prices on the net

I've just placed an order on Amazon - Against All Enemies (following Matt Turner's recommendation), A Devil's Chaplain and Kind Of Blue - and I remembered the slightly media flurry a few weeks ago about the concept of 'Fifty Quid Man', that latest creation of the marketing demons:
"This is the guy we've all seen in Borders or HMV on a Friday afternoon, possibly after a drink or two, tie slightly undone, buying two CDs, a DVD and maybe a book - fifty quid's worth - and frantically computing how he's going to convince his partner that this is a really, really worthwhile investment."
But, it occurred to me that the internet, or at least Amazon, version is more of a twenty-five quid man - that being the amount you have to spend there to qualify for free shipping. I'm sure I can't be the only person to have added an item or two onto an order, persuading myself that it's good value for money to spend that extra cost on more books and CDs rather than postage and packing. Or maybe I am, and now you're all laughing at me.

Live from that Information Superhighway thing

OK, I know I've said before that it's a good idea to remember that blogging (and reading blogs) is a minority pursuit, but I'm not sure I'd call it secret:
Republicans have accused Democratic U.S. House candidate Stephanie Herseth of maintaining a secret Web page to receive campaign donations raised from ads on liberal groups' Internet sites...
The Herseth Web page takes campaign donations from people directed there from Internet sites called "blogs," which are online bulletin boards that feature journals, opinionated articles and messages.
I know that the Republicans like to spread the 'Al Gore said he invented the Internet' myth, but surely that doesn't ban them from discovering how it works?

Friday, March 26, 2004

The parliamentary Time Lord group

It's good to see cross-party co-operation - including my own MP - on the issues that really matter.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

That was quick!

Following on from my STV posts of the last couple of days, the Scottish Parliament votes to introduce STV for local council elections in Scotland (thanks to Alister for informing me).

I knew that a vote on introducing it was coming in Holyrood, but I can only plead English ignorance of affairs in the Scottish Parliament for not realising it was this week.

Update: For anyone who may be interested a transcript of the debate can be found here. It seems like it was an interesting (though sometimes heated) discussion. In the end it was passed by quite a large majority, with only the Conservatives and two Labour rebels voting against.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Do you understand what's missing?

Chris Lightfoot lays down a proposal for individuals who own blogs to try, should such individuals wish.

Do what you do

Watching tonight's So What Do You Do All Day? which featured Independent editor Simon Kelner, a couple of thoughts occurred to me.

First, I suggested a couple of weeks ago that the Independent might consider a price-cutting strategy when (and, like most, I think it's when, not if) it switches fully to a tabloid edition. However, Kelner made tonight, and I've seen it made before, a good case for the argument that newspapers are already underpriced for what they provide. As he said, most people don't really consider just how much work goes into producing a daily newspaper and compared to books, for example, 60p for the amount of information you get in a newspaper is relatively cheap. (Before I get the lectures on economics in the comments, I know that this ignores the case for the market determining the price etc) I think he has an aversion to getting into battles on price - not least because his rivals have deeper pockets to fight a price war with - and would rather make the case for reading the Independent on quality rather than cost.

So, while I still think it would make sense for the paper to go for a price cut as a statement of intent when it moves to being fully tabloid, I don't think it's going to happen. It'll be interesting to see, though, what (if any) moves the Mail and Express make when it happens and whether they consider the Independent as a threat in their section of the market.

On a lighter note, having seen Johann Hari on screen tonight and a couple of weeks ago on Dinner With Portillo, he really needs to ask Simon Kelner for a new picture to go with his byline. The picture he currently has makes him look far more like a rather intense young fogey than he seems to be in person (and in his postings at Harry's) and a new picture might help him escape his reputation.

A few more thoughts on STV

A few more comments on elections, and thanks to the comments on the post below.

First, Chris Lightfoot reminds me of Arrow's Theorem which makes the point I made about how there's no perfect electoral system. I had heard of it before, but it slipped my mind when I wrote the post, so thanks to Chris for reminding me. This page makes the case for the Condorcet system being satisfactory on the grounds of Arrow being unneccesarily stringent and indeed, in that small set of elections that can only return a single winner, it may be a better system than the Alternative Vote.

The other issue, raised by Matthew in the comments, is the idea of STV as a Proportional Representation (PR) system of election. Now, this may be more of a personal foible (after all, the ERS was originally called the Proportional Representation Society) but I'm not sure that one can classify STV as a PR system, at least within the common perception of 'PR'.

I think the issue stems from the general idea that the main 'problem' with FPTP is that it doesn't guarantee the delivery of a proportional result where proportionality is defined as the individual parties receiving a number of MPs broadly equivalent to their level of support in the country as a whole (that's not to say that it can't, of course). Thus, the alternatives to FPTP are often grouped together under the banner of 'proportional representation'. The various party list systems are proportional representation systems under this definition but I would argue that STV is not - I think an overall 'proportional' result is more likely under STV than FPTP, but it is not a necessary outcome of the system.

As I said below, the key difference between STV and party list systems is that where they deal with votes for parties as a whole across a region or country, STV deals with votes for individual candidates in a constituency in the same way as FPTP. It's important to remember that when one looks at the share of the vote in general elections currently, that assumes each vote has been cast for an individual because they are the representative of their party in that constituency. For the vast majority of voters, this is the case, but it's not universal (for instance, I'm sure that many of the people who elected the independents Martin Bell and Richard Taylor wanted a Conservative or Labour government, respectively, but did not want to vote for the individual party candidate in that constituency).

The same issue applies to STV elections in that it's hard to determine what would count as a 'proportional' result in an STV election. One could assume that whichever party a voter casts their first preference for is their preferred party - and I suspect this would likely be the case for the majority of voters - but any strict proportionality would have to assume that their immediate further preferences were for the other candidates of that party in the constituency.

As an example, assume that we're in a constituency that returns five members under STV. One candidate of Party X has a huge level of personal support in that constituency and receives 70% of the first preference vote. If the result was to be proportional then one would expect Party X to get 4 of the 5 MPs based on that level of support. However, if the support is for the individual rather than the party then when his surplus votes are transferred they will go to the candidates of the voters' parties of preference rather than Party X. Thus, while Party X receiving 4 MPs would seem the proportional result, it's not the result the system delivers because the voters don't wish that result. They elect the five candidates who they support the most, not the parties they support the most.

However, if one assumes that voters generally use their preferences within candidates of their preferred party - as I said before, this would likely be the case for the majority of voters and in the vast majorities of constituencies - then results will be broadly proportional, the degree of proportionality depending on the size of constituencies in the system - the larger they are, the more likely the overall result is likely to tend towards proportionality.

As a final minor point, I think that, if STV was to be introduced in Britain, I'd like to see constituencies returning five MPs in most cases, though there should be flexibility on that point - rural constituencies could return as few as three, lest the constituency becomes too large in terms of area to be credible, and urban ones could return as many as seven, especially when a larger constituency could then cover an entire city. However, I think five is the optimum size, as it would require a party or individual to get over 16% of the vote in that constituency to win a seat automatically. This would be enough, I think, to limit the risk of extremist candidates getting elected but it's still low enough to give a chance for smaller parties and independents who can attract later preferences from voters to get elected.

Monday, March 22, 2004

Why I support STV

Just a quick question before I start on the meat of this post - could a defender of the First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system explain why they don't propose redrawing local council wards so there's only one councillor for each ward? After all, if having more than one representative for an area is a bad thing, why don't you make the structure universal? (Special bonus prize for the first respondent to use 'ah, but that's different' or a variant in their response)

Anyway, electoral systems have been in the news again recently following Peter Hain mentioning the Alternative Vote in a recent speech and, rather than get into a snarky argument in Tom Watson's comments again, I thought I'd do something positive and outline some of the reasons why I support the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system instead.

First off, I'd like to state that I don't believe STV is a perfect electoral system, but I don't believe that any electoral system I've encountered is perfect. Indeed I doubt that, given the various requirements of an electoral system in a modern democracy, it's possible to come up with a 'perfect' system. Any electoral system requires the trading off of one thing for another and it comes down to a question of what the individual and society believe are the most important requirements and what can, or should, be done to achieve that. I think STV does have weaknesses, but I'll explain later why I think the benefits of the system outweigh, and to some extent mitigate, those weaknesses. Of course, some of the features I see as strengths others may see as weaknesses, and vice versa.

For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to assume that you understand how STV works. For an overview of the system see here or the Electoral Reform Society's web site.

My main reason for preferring STV is that it shifts the balance of power in elections towards the individual voter and away from the political parties. In FPTP and party list systems, voters are presented with a stark choice between the different parties and the candidates they have selected. Some may say that FPTP makes voters choose between candidates, rather than parties, but the individual voter has no power to choose the candidate of their preferred party - if you wish to support a particular party, you have to take the candidate you're given regardless of what strand of opinion they represent within that party.

The benefit of STV, in my view, is that it means candidates can't hide behind their party - there won't be the situation that you get now in some constituencies where, as it's said, a donkey would get elected as long as it wore the right colour rosette. Assuming that parties stand more than one candidate - and it would be irrational for them not to do so - each voter has the opportunity to choose between the candidates of that party for the one they prefer. This encourages candidates to stress their personal characteristics and strengthens the sense of the representatives elected as individuals rather than party representatives.

STV also tends to be a more proportional system than FPTP - it doesn't guarantee the same degree of proportionality as party lists do, but it tends to produce results more in line with voter preference than FPTP. Of course, the important thing to remember is that within STV voters are casting their votes for individuals as much as they are for parties. However, if one assumes that voters keep their early preferences amongst the candidates of their preferred party then results tend to be proportional between those parties who receive enough votes to break quota. It's worth noting for those concerned about PR systems giving representation to extreme parties that, assuming a constituency electing five representatives, any party or individual would have to get the support of at least 16% of the electorate to be elected.

For me, though, proportionality isn't the most important reason for supporting STV, though it's an added bonus of the system. I would argue in fact that proportionality isn't as important under STV as it is under other systems as the vote is for the individual rather than the party and thus it's hard to determine what the proportion of votes for any single party may be.

There's also the fact that STV limits the number of 'wasted' votes, or votes that don't result in the election of the voter's preferred candidate. There's no need for voters to cast their votes tactically as the system ensures that the vast majority of votes cast will, at some point in the election, go towards electing a candidate - in a five member constituency, for instance, 83% of voters will see at least one candidate for whom they have expressed a preference elected. Voters don't have to worry about wasting their vote for a candidate with no chance of being elected, or in simply piling up a huge majority for a very popular candidate as those votes will then go their next preference. I believe that this would encourage increased turnout in elections because people would know that their vote has more chance of having an effect in the election than it does now under FPTP.

The one criticism that's often made of systems other than FPTP is that they don't deliver 'strong government'. I've discussed this issue before, but it's important to remember that none of the electoral systems seriously suggested for the UK automatically guarantee that any one party will receive an overall majority. It's the way the votes are cast, not the system of voting that determines the result of the election. While FPTP has delivered governments with absolute majorities, there's nothing inherent in the system that ensures that will be the case in all elections. If the voters wish to have a government with a majority then they will cast their votes that way.

The one major perceived weakness of STV is that it requires multiple-member constituencies. One can use preference voting in single constituencies - Alternative Vote (AV) - but the studies I've seen indicate that it could well be less proportional than FPTP in the current situation and it doesn't promote the power of the voter to anything like the extent of STV. Obviously in some situations - Mayoral elections spring to mind - there's no other option than AV, but in most situations STV is much more preferable.

Yes, STV does break the connection between a single representative and a single constituency and I'm not going to pretend otherwise. However, as I mentioned at the start, the single representative isn't the sole model within the UK - the majority of local council wards have more than one councillor and I'm not aware of any movement to break them up. Indeed, in the past, parliamentary constituencies often elected more than one member. Multiple representatives mean that the electorate has a choice as to which of their representatives they approach when they have a problem, allowing them to choose whichever one they believe will deal with their case the most appropriately. STV does also mean that representatives have to be more aware of their constituency's needs as they would have to rely on their personal standing and reputation to get re-elected.

This is an advantage for STV over the mixed systems currently used in Scotland and Wales in that each member has the same level of responsibility. There does seem to be a confusion as to who's responsible for what in mixed systems with constituency members often seeming to have more work than the 'top up' list representatives - under STV, each member would represent a constituency.

Finally, there's the issue of whether STV is too complex a system. To which I can only respond that yes, it is more complex than FPTP, but if complexity is a concern for you then a nice dictatorship takes away all the complexity of having to determine who to vote for.

On a less flippant note, introducing STV would no doubt require some level of education and promotion to ensure people are aware of the new system and how it works, but I think the cost of that is a price worth paying for a better system. Counting the votes and discovering the results would take longer than under the current system but, for me, that's not a relevant concern. As long as the results can be determined in a reasonable amount of time - and from what I recall, Ireland's STV system usually has all the results available within a day or so of the election - I see no reason to be concerned. More automation of the counting process (subject to the necessary safeguards, of course) could always be introduced if there is an overwhelming desire for a speedy result.

So, that's my case for STV. I know there are lots more arguments for and against, and I could have looked at some of the points I've made in greater depth but this entry's already gone on for too long and I'd like to open it up for debate, if anyone's interested.

I'm sure I've heard that phrase before...

My fellow denizens of soc.history.what-if might be interested in this item from the Observer's Pendennis column:
The catastrophic saga of the world's worst-fated dust jacket rolls on. Thousands of sleeves for historian Andrew Roberts' new book - What Might Have Been - 12 What Ifs of History - have been pulped by publisher Weidenfeld after it emerged that litigious Macmillan had registered exclusive use of the phrase 'What If?' Now it seems Nasa was also bruising to litigate. 'The jacket had a picture of the moon on it,' a Weidenfeld bookworm moans to Pendennis. 'It was taken by Nasa and they said they would sue if we used it. We couldn't believe it. Do they own the moon?' Pendennis has put a call in to Cape Canaveral ...
(Also posted as an item to SHWI)

I'd claim it, but no one would believe me

A busy weekend for Belle de Jour denial everywhere - Sarah Champion now categorically denies it in The Observer as Rowan Pelling denies it in the Independent (but you have to pay to read her declaring she's not a prostitute, which is kind of ironic).

But I have a theory - Belle de Jour is a actually a real call-girl, who puts on a psedunymous, anonymous disguise to write British Spin.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Malaysian GP Review

This race was a lot better as entertainment than Australia was, and not just because it wasn't a Ferrari-led procession for the entire race, from the start that led to you wondering just how there wasn't a crash as Webber's clutch failed on the front row and seemingly every car on the grid went round him to the cross your fingers and will it over the line ending as British fans prayed to the gods of reliability for a Button victory.

There's still worries about how the season is going to progress, but they've been allayed somewhat as Ferrari now seem potentially (if not actually) beatable with Montoya keeping Schumacher honest throughout the race, and Barrichello proving that they don't always make the best tactical choices. McLaren have bounced back from their Australian disaster, and Renault are still up there, but Jenson Button and BAR are showing they could be the dark horses of the season.

So, here's the good/average/bad ratings:

Good Race:
Ferrari: Another easy afternoon's driving for Michael Schumacher, who doesn't seem to have broken a sweat in the 30-degree heat. They'll be concerned that they don't have the same advantage as they had in Australia, but there's nothing too much to panic about seeing that they've picked up 33 out of a potential 36 points in the first two races.
BAR: Watching Jenson Button getting the traitional soaking of champagne that marks his initiation into the podium club, it must be easy for Dave Richards to forget the five years of strife that BAR have experienced prior to this season. Suddenly, the pieces have fallen into place and they're looking like a truly competitive team. The only black cloud was Sato's engine failure that lost him his chance of eighth place, but given the rapid development of this team he's going to have more chances for points throughout the season, so they'll hopefully be able to shrug it off.
Sauber: They got a point! Someone will notice them! The people of Switzerland will rejoice! Maybe not, but the average race category was getting full, and Massa getting a point was more than they'd have expected this week.

Average Race:
Williams: It could have been good, but Montoya never seemed to be able to get close enough to Michael Schumacher to try anything. Ralf's failure to score is going to be causing some questions to be asked at BMW, but they'll be hoping that's just a one-off glitch. Sure, that's one more than Ferrari will have this season, but it might be acceptable.
Renault: Flashes of good, mixed with dashes of bad. Alonso would have had a much better finish if he hadn't pushed too hard in qualifying and ended up 19th on the grid. Trulli put in his usual few laps of really fast driving and then faded to anonymity. 5th and 7th would have been a good result for them last year, but not anymore, and they'll be looking over their shoulders at BAR.
Jaguar: Just about an average race because of Webber's 2nd on the grid, but they'd have been happier if the race itself never happened. Webber just seemed to have one of those days (like Montoya at Indianapolis last year) where nothing went right, but hopefully the true potential of Jaguar was shown in qualifying rather than the race. Klien continues to not embarrass himself in the midfield, and that's about all that's required of him.
Toyota: From backfield nightmare to midfield anonymity would have been their aim for this weekend, and they managed it. Da Matta came close to a point, but Panis will not relish his entry into the The Worst F1 Pit Stops...Ever! Calling your driver in when the crew's not ready for him is one thing, but said driver then picking up a speeding penalty while gesturing at the team bosses is not what Toyota's corporate bosses want to see for their investment.
Bad Race:
McLaren: Well, not as bad as Australia, but well below what they would have wanted. The only silver lining for Ron Dennis is that it looks as though he can blame Mercedes for giving him dodgy engines.
Jordan: Were they in the race? I noticed a flash of yellow a couple of times, but that could have been the light bouncing off the screen.
Minardi: Look, I've got no objection to Minardi being in F1, even if their car is relying on the 2002 Arrows, but can anyone provide a justification for Zsolt Baumgartner being in F1 - besides the ?5m and the great racing driver name? The official timing records him as finishing just under 85 seconds behind...his own team mate. So, not only was he the slowest driver in the field, he was 1.5 seconds a lap slower than someone in the same car. Unless Bruni's faster than Alonso or Schumacher would be in a Minardi, the only service Baumgartner's providing is to serve as a good counter-example to the bloke-in-the-pub 'anyone could drive as fast as Schumacher in one of them cars' argument.

Next time: It's our first time in the desert. Bahrain welcomes its first Grand Prix in two weeks time...and now they start at a reasonable time in the day.


I don't want to believe it, but when I hear about the Taiwanese election I can't help but think of the movie Bob Roberts which involves someone faking an assassination attempt to win an election.

Disputed elections are bad at the best of times, but when they're just a few miles away from China the stakes feel like they're being raised to a rather uncomfortable level.

Whole numbers

Found via the BBC's Click Online programme, the Degree Confluence Project is an interesting site, containing details of visits to those spots on the Earth's surface where two whole integer degrees of latitude and longitude meet.