Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Alternative Vote system explained in words of one syllable

This isn’t an attempt to plug AV, nor to speculate on what would happen under it, but just to knock down the notion that it’s fiendishly complex.

(Update 26/4: I'm getting quite a bit of Google traffic to this post, which is nice, but I should say that this video featuring Dan Snow is a much better explanation of the difference between AV and FPTP. It's not neutral, but I'm sure you're smart enough to separate out the 'how it works' from the 'why it's good'.)

How to vote
Anne, Bob, Claire, Doug and Eve all want you to vote for them. So who do you like the most? Pick one (Bob, say) and put a ‘1’ next to their name: that’s your first choice. Then, pick which of the rest of them you’d like the most if Bob were out of the race (Eve, say) and put a ‘2’ next to their name. Then, pick which of the rest you’d like the most if Bob and Eve were out of the race – and so on.

You can go all the way and put ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, ‘4’ and ‘5’ next to each name, or you can stop at the point where you don’t have a view on which of the rest is best. You can just put ‘1’ and leave at it that, if you don’t care for the rest of them at all. Then you’re done.

How to count the votes to see who wins
We put all the votes that mark Anne as the first choice in a pile. And then the ones for Bob and Claire and so on. If one of them has more than half the votes, they win.

If not, then the one placed last (say it’s Bob) gets knocked out and we move to round two. Round two, at root, asks: ‘Who do you like the most out of Anne, Claire, Doug and Eve?’

We look at all the votes from Bob’s pile to see who’s the next choice on each. If you marked Bob ‘1’ and left it at that, then you’ve said you have no view on the rest of them, so your vote gets put to the side. If you marked, say, Eve ‘2’, your vote goes on her pile. We move all the Bob votes that do have a ‘2’ marked to the piles for Anne, Claire, Doug or Eve. The votes these four had from round one still count this time, of course: those who cast them still have the same first choice in a race with no Bob.

And if one of them has more than half the votes, they win.

If not, we do the same thing: say Anne is last this time. She gets knocked out and for round three the votes in her pile get moved to Claire’s, Doug’s and Eve’s piles, as marked. And if one of these three has more than half the votes, they win. If not, we knock out the one placed last and go to round four, in the same way. When we get to the point where one of them has more than half the votes, they win. And that’s that.

(Number three in an extremely occasional series.)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mass uprisings against hated regimes – they’re all the rage

If I had anything of substance that half as clever as that pun to say about Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and wherever else, I’d say it here. But there’s a limit to the number of countries on which I can quickly get myself up to the level of expertise needed for a pub conversation, let alone meaningful blogging. And that number is one, give or take.

I’ll just make the very general point that booting out a dictator isn’t the be-all and end-all of democratisation. If you can wring concessions out of him that seriously and permanently constrain his power, it may not be needed at all. And if he does go, what most matters for how the country then fares is the incentives faced by those (such as the Egyptian military) who find themselves in charge. Do they have greater motive to push for deeper constitutional reform or to consolidate their newfound power?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Are you smarter than David Cameron (thinks you are)?

I’m still undecided about voting systems, but I am starting to think that the FPTP campaign (or, more accurately, the anti-AV campaign) is arguing in a marginally more annoying way than the AV campaign (or, more accurately, the anti-FPTP campaign). I’ll try not to let this bias me.

One thing FPTP certainly has going for it is that it’s simpler: simpler to vote and simpler to count. But I don’t think the difference is really all that big, and I’d treat this as a small factor that would only come into play if I couldn’t decide otherwise.

But David Cameron thinks AV is far too complicated to understand:

Here's a passage from a book detailing how the Alternative Vote system works:
"As the process continues the preferences allocated to the remaining candidates may not be the second choices of those electors whose first-choice candidates have been eliminated. It may be that after three candidates have been eliminated, say, when a fourth candidate is removed from the contest one of the electors who gave her first preference to him gave her second, third and fourth preferences to the three other candidates who have already been eliminated, so her fifth preference is then allocated to one of the remaining candidates."
Do you understand that? I didn't. And I've read it many times.

I understood it straight away. Now, Cameron has a first in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford, so unless he’s been in mental decline since his Bullingdon days, he really should be able to get it. Or, as I suspect, he gets it perfectly well and is just playing dumb because he thinks everyone else is.

That said, the passage is much, much longer than it needs to be. But that’s bad writing, not inherent complexity. Here’s my shorter version:

When a candidate is eliminated, each of their votes is allocated to that voter’s highest preference among the remaining candidates. Preferences for candidates that have already been eliminated are skipped over.

And you could cut the second sentence; it’s implicit in the first.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Here I stand; I can do no other

Norm asks for a second opinion on the anthropic principle, in relation to our existence, the laws of physics and the ‘multiverse’. He seeks input from “someone who understands the science”. Well, that definitely isn’t me, but I think I do at least understand the logic (and I think Norm does too, really).

If life-supporting physics is extremely unlikely (and I make no claim about whether that’s so or whether it’s even knowable), then the fact that our universe has just that is, to say the least, curious. Possible explanations are: random chance; deliberate design; or a change of perspective that makes this unlikely situation less remarkable. (The other option is that the physical laws we actually have are in some way necessary – that is, to deny the antecedent.)

The first and second options are the sort of thing that scientists will only seriously settle on if they’ve exhausted all other possibilities, the first being no explanation at all and the second simply shifting the missing explanation back a stage and magnifying it in the process. The third route, which the multiverse hypothesis takes, say that if there is a vast multitude of physical universes, then there are bound to be some life-supporting ones. The fact that we’re in such a universe is no more surprising than the fact that fish are found in seas and not in deserts.

Of course, a multiverse would be quite a thing, and naturally the people from Occam’s Razors Ltd are hesitant to invest. But which is the more extravagant hypothesis: lots and lots and lots more physical stuff, or a creator?

(I don’t rule out other possibilities; I’m no more a scientist than Jennifer Aniston. And I’m also not saying that an atheistic desire to resist the design argument is motivating the idea: the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics gets us into that sort of territory.)

The idea that Norm rightly identifies as unreasonable is that “our physical laws might be explained ‘anthropically,’ meaning that they are as they are because if they were otherwise, no one would be around to notice them”. This of course is rubbish (and backwards causation at that).

All the anthropic principle can give us is the weaker, epistemic conclusion that any observed physical laws must be such as to enable the existence of lifeforms that can observe them. But that’s nothing special: it’s like saying that all instances of drunks recovering their dropped car keys take place under lamp-posts (because when the keys get dropped somewhere dark, they remain unfound).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Choosing how to choose

I keep thinking I should write about the electoral reform referendum (assuming it happens), but I keep being beaten into despair by the fusillades of drivel being fired off in the media by pro- and anti-AV campaigners. It’s as if they’re competing to avoid my support.

If anybody can recommend some blogs/papers/articles on either side, making arguments that don’t pointlessly exaggerate, that haven’t been knocked down on factual or logical grounds a thousand times already, that don’t ramble on about irrelevancies, and that don’t amount to pleading for the advantage of someone’s favourite party, I’d be grateful. I’m genuinely undecided.

Or maybe I should just get it out of my system and fisk all the crap from both sides.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The love that dare not remember its name

This may be the best notice I’ve ever seen posted on our office intranet:

Valentines flower delivery
Flowers have been delivered this morning to the post room with no addressee name on. The sender is "Paul from Lancashire". Please contact the Mail room if you know Paul from Lancashire.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The dark side of the workforce

It was my birthday last week; you can see what silliness I got up to here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

All the latest ‘news’

On reading the Independent’s report that the Daily Star is giving helpful coverage to the English Defence League, I went and had a look. It’s true. there’s nothing like an actual endorsement, but some fairly positive noises are being made.

But what I also noticed (apart from enough tat to make the Sun look sombre and classy) was the button the Star has at the bottom of its news stories:

One for The ‘Blog’ of ‘Unnecessary’ Quotation Marks, I think.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The bonfire of the charities

Stories like this one are becoming familiar, even mundane:

The government's spending cuts are "destroying" volunteering and undermining its "big society" vision, the head of a leading charity has said.

But there will be more of them, and they’ll keep mattering, because they embody the central flaw of Cameronism.

In economics, the government believes in the notion of ‘crowding out’: if there’s less state, there’ll be more growth. But ‘the state’ and ‘the economy’ are not intrinsically rivals, fighting a zero-sum game: they interact in a variety of ways, positive and negative. Indeed, they blur into each other in so many places that while we can talk of them distinctly they shouldn’t be thought of as wholly separate entities. Labour warns that cutting the state too far, too fast will harm growth.

The same applies to ‘the state’ and ‘society’ (the latter per se is a sprawling, amorphous concept; I’m focusing here on the more formal institutions of ‘civil society’). Here, David Cameron has for years been flogging the crowding-out doctrine: if government does less, civil society can and will do more. But the two are very interdependent, often supportively so. Charities, membership organisations and other community bodies operate in an environment shaped by government policies as much as by social norms, and in turn the work they do weaves the social fabric that serves as a context for government action.

And of course a good deal of voluntary-sector funding comes from the state.

The recession means greater demands on many charities and fewer public donations for them to work with, so government money becomes all the more crucial. But of course the government’s cutting its support for charities. This does not look promising.

“But there’s the deficit,” they say. “We need to make cuts, and those, alas, are going to hurt.” Plenty of people may accept that – and perhaps even that the speed and scale of cuts George Osborne has chosen luckily happen to be exactly right. What doesn’t really wash, though, is to simultaneously play the ‘crowding out’ card and argue that less government money for the voluntary sector will strengthen it.

Civil society minister Nick Hurd says:

This is a government absolutely determined to try and help a sector that has become arguably too dependent on the state, to manage through a painful transition into a future where we see a lot of opportunity for it, not least in terms of delivering public services.

He nods to the pain (which is certain and looming), but puts most stress on the sunlit uplands. I think he truly believes in them, but they sound vague to me. The basic assumption is that the state is (on balance) a threat to civil society. If I’m right, this is also the fatal flaw: a government programme based on this assumption will falter and fail.

Piotr Brzenzinski says that “Labour has yet to come up with an alternative to the Big Society, or even a substantive critique of the idea.” But that, in the end, may not be the point. Labour won power on the promise of providing social justice and a strong economy. It lost power because too many people judged that it hadn’t, and because Cameron promised to succeed where Labour failed. Likewise, to defeat Cameron, it may be better not to argue that the general idea of a more plural and decentralised public realm is wrong but to explain why he’s mucking it up and how Labour would do it better.

Showing that government cuts lead to a bonfire of the charities may help to do this. Arguing that the state can help voluntary and community organisations to flourish may help to rehabilitate it in the public eye.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Another twit

So, I’m on Twitter. I have been for ages, but I don’t do much political stuff there, so I’ve never really bothered to integrate it with the blog or cross-promote or multi-platform or whatever ghastly thing it’s called. It’s hard to say anything original or insightful in 140 characters, so it really suits me very well. I mostly use it as an outlet for puns, plus the odd bit of ranting.

Here are some free samples:

  • I just saw a group of fish swim up to a floating marker, thinking it might be food. School buoy error.
  • My architect asked me if I want a room where I can sit down and work quietly, but I’m not sure. So I’ve commissioned a study.
  • I love the new M Night Shyamalan film about a man trying to open a jar of pickles. There’s a great twist at the end.
  • Just saw a lorry carrying 30,000 newly printed copies of the Iliad drive into a lake. Epic fail.
  • A statistician walks into a bar chart.
  • My son has taken some photos of a dominatrix. What a young whippersnapper!

These are some of the better ones. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

If you want to follow me, then I suggest you either buy a van with blacked-out windows or look at @SnoozeInBrief. If you don’t want to follow me, my understanding is that that’s OK too.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

A cut-price stimulus

On the state of economy, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says (among many other things):

High inflation… may constrain the Bank of England’s ability to provide further support to the economy in the event of another adverse shock to aggregate demand. … As a result, it may be wise for the government to have a contingency plan for ‘trimming the sails’, holding back on tax increases and/or delaying spending cuts to ensure that poor growth out-turns in the short run do not sink the longer-term fiscal consolidation plan.


Given this risk to growth and these recent developments, the government could consider loosening its currently planned fiscal tightening for 2011–12. However, this would not necessarily pass through into higher demand in the economy if it merely causes monetary policy to become tighter than would otherwise have been the case. Essentially, the argument in favour of announcing a temporary fiscal loosening in the forthcoming Budget is weaker the more confident one is that it would result in tighter monetary policy.

They have a fair point. Almost anything you do with fiscal policy to support growth is also likely to stoke inflation (which in turn makes higher interest rates likely).


Cutting VAT – or undoing last month’s rise – would reduce prices as well as helping growth.