Saturday, 29 October 2011

Best Served Cold

Chatting to one of my lovely sisters-in-law the other day, she told me how she had opened a packet of Liquorice Allsorts only to be disappointed to find a complete absence of her favourite coconut 'sorts. She wrote to Bassetts about the let-down and in return received a very apologetic letter from the manufacturers explaining that the quantities were governed entirely by random chance so were really out of their control. To make amends, they had included a large selection box of their confectionaries and a further £20 worth of Bassetts vouchers!

This reminded me of my own story from when I was a student involving the mighty multi-national Mars corporation...

Having just returned from morning lectures I was passing through the dimly-lit corridor of the college feeling peckish so decided to buy a Mars bar from the vending machine. As I bit into it I immediately realised something wasn't right: the chocolate coating was brittle and there was an unpleasant bitter taste to it. Upon examination in brighter conditions I could see there was a pale discolouration covering the entire bar - rather like mildew - quite inedible. So I wrote to Mars telling them of my plight.

Sure enough a couple of weeks later, a letter appeared in my inbox. It explained that if chocolate is not kept at a correct temperature the cocoa butter can diffuse to the surface causing the discolouration and bitter taste. It then went on to tell me not to worry, it wasn't harmful, and included a postal order for 22p - the exact cost of the Mars Bar plus a postage stamp.

Thanks, Mars. Thanks a fucking bundle...

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Probably Perfect...

Earlier this year the electorate of the UK proved themselves to be ~70% idiots by rejecting the opportunity to make a small step to reforming the nation's archaic voting system via the adoption of AV. The debate was palpably poor on both sides with many misleading claims and some outrageous lies, the ultimately successful "NO" campaign being particularly scurrilous with their literature.

Anyway, as result of this debacle, I resolved to come up with a voting system which addressed all the criticisms of both sides. The result of this consideration is the voting system I've designated "Pickering's Probably Perfect Vote" system - though in the interests of brevity I'm happy to drop the "probably" and shorten it to PPV.

The intrinsic benefits of this system are:
  • Gives proper PR for parliamentary representation
  • Totally eliminates safe seats - guaranteed!
  • Eliminates tactical voting- guaranteed!
  • One person, one vote
  • Voters just put a simple X (none of this tricky counting to 3)
  • Compatible with independent candidates (no party lists)
  • Cheap to implement (cheaper than FPTP!)
  • Combats voter apathy
  • Ensures all votes count equally
  • Defeats gerrymandering
So How Does It Work?
Under PPV an election is carried out just like under the current FPTP voting system. Each voter simply puts an X next to the one candidate they'd most like to win. The "magic" happens once the ballots have been cast: the ballot papers are all placed into one gigantic hat, shuffled well, and then a single paper drawn. The named candidate selected by that paper is the winner. Job done.

This technique works because the probability for drawing one particular candidate's name from the hat is of course proportional to the number of votes cast for them. As a candidate, getting most people to vote for you increases your chances of being selected, but unlike FPTP that doesn't guarantee you'll win. This may at first seem unfair, but in fact it's the crucial factor for achieving the balanced parliamentary representation that's so conspicuously deficient in the UK's current voting system.

While it's possible that a candidate could get selected with a relatively small vote over a more popular one, it's improbable that that will happen. And when the random element is averaged out by effectively repeated sampling over many constituencies, a remarkable picture emerges: from a political party point-of-view, the overall number of MPs selected by PPV matches amazingly well with the proportion of votes cast for that party. Computer simulations show the degree of agreement to be generally within 2% - a much better match than with FPTP.

So by randomly sampling the constituency votes, rather than by systematically counting them, the overall result is actually a whole lot fairer. This may at first seem counter-intuitive but is actually quite logical. The point is that it's clear that the principle of representing the choices of a particular constituency and the principle of representing the overall choices of the electorate are at odds with each other. Under FPTP the former is given complete precedence and the latter given no consideration whatsoever. It only appears that a reasonable result is achieved because of the natural variations due to cultural differences and clustering of political viewpoints to different constituencies. To appreciate this, imagine that PartyA had 34% of the vote, whilst PartyB and PartyC had 33% each. If this balance was distributed evenly across the whole country, then PartyA would actually have a 100% majority - a total travesty of fairness! Under PPV the parliamentary representations would be an almost perfect reflection of the voters's wishes.

So in fact the only reason FPTP works is by clustering the electorate into regions of social and political identity, but in doing so the system effectively disenfranchises anyone with minority views and at the same time creates the "safe seats" that have been blamed for so many MPs's indiscretions. Under PPV, every vote is equal and carries the same chance as the others of selecting the winning candidate.

And of course the geographical dependence of FPTP makes it open to manipulation by adjustment of constituency boundaries to favour a certain outcome - the process known as gerrymandering. Whilst that could still be attempted under PPV the act of increasing a party's selection in one constituency would similarly reduce their chances of selection in the neighbouring region thereby foiling any overall advantage.

The Big Bonus
One huge advantage of PPV over FPTP is that without the burden of all that laborious counting it will be much cheaper. While this shouldn't really be the prime concern in matters of democracy, it was an issue that was given much weight by the AV "NO" campaigners, so they all should really be delighted by the savings that PPV has to offer. However, it seems fair that this efficiency should be shared back with the electorate, so it's therefore proposed that as well as the draw for the election result, each legitimate voter is also allowed to enter a ballot (with their contact or bank details) for a second draw, the winner of which receives a prize of £5k. This addresses concerns of voter apathy with a carrot rather than a stick: a carrot bestowed by the adoption of a voting system which is finally truly fair for all...


Monday, 18 April 2011

Who says politicians aren't honest...

Last week on BBC Question Time it was Michael Howard; the week before it was Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt; both these stalwarts of the Conservative party showed truly admirable honesty when asked about the impending referendum on electoral reform. Both said they were against AV and wanted to stick with FPTP, and both - when asked about their reasons - brazenly said that it was the best thing for their party!

That's right... the best thing for their party.

Not one iota of thought for what's best for the electorate.

Not one morsel of consideration for what's best for the country.

Just what's best for their party.

Howard even had the temerity to sneer at AV for not even being proportionally representative. A tacit but blatant admission that he's well aware of the iniquities of the current voting system and how it fails to elect a parliament representing the true views of the electorate. Indeed with all the tactical voting spurred by the FPTP system, we can't even tell what the balance of views really is... But for Howard all that matters is what's best for his party.

There is a big smear operation currently underway from the no2av campaign spreading lies and fear about AV. What's undeniable however is just who stands to gain by keeping the current FPTP system: it isn't you or I, it's the old guard MPs incumbent in safe seats with a job for life whose only motive is to put their self-interest ahead of real fairness.

This referendum is the best opportunity in a lifetime for getting the ball rolling for putting real power back in the hands of the electorate. I would urge every voter from every political persuasion to go out and vote for AV in May and seize this chance...

As Thomas Jefferson said: "When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty."

Let's take back our parliament...

Andy |:-)

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

A Flock of UFOs

With an upcoming visit to Birmingham SITP from eminent UFOlogist, Nick Pope, I thought I would mention my own memorable sighting of a whole squadron of UFOs from about 10 years ago.

It was around 11pm one early autumn evening and I had gone outside into our garden in the residential suburbs of Rugby when I happened to glance above me into the clear dark starry skies. I was astounded to see way up almost directly above me a group of 6 identical craft with a stunted chevron shape - somewhat like that of a jet fighter, or a space shuttle but with slightly longer wings - speeding along at a remarkable rate. I immediately realised these were no conventional aircraft: they were eerily silent and there were none of the usual lights - instead they just emanated a dim orange glow. I watched them in awe as they flew sinisterly off into the distance, my heart pounding. Could this be the start of a Hollywood-style invasion??

And then the rationality kicked in...

Although I had been immediately convinced I had seen some form of vehicle, there was something about the flight formation that looked familiar. After a few moments it occurred to me it was exactly the same geometry V-formation as formed by a flock of gulls. And with that thought, all my misconceptions came toppling down...

The whole fantasy was seeded by my expectations of what I was likely to see (and perhaps an element of wishful thinking). While it was rather unusual to see gulls flying at that time of night, aircraft were commonplace - indeed the region is one of the busiest sectors of airspace in Britain.

Having locked onto that fallacious conjecture, my visual cognition then distorted all my perceptions to make it fit with its theory. Rather than seeing 40cm long birds flying at 30mph at a height of 40m (barely illuminated by the suburban sodium lighting), my sense of scale - totally deceived by the dim conditions - decided they were 60m long craft, 600m up and travelling at 450mph. The paucity of light fore-shortened the gulls wings and made it impossible to detect any flapping, which is why I didn't immediately recognise them - even as a keen birder! [Gull wingbeats are relative shallow and sedate anyway.]

Once the penny had dropped, it made me realise just how easy it is to be fooled. With my 20+ years of birdwatching experience I'd always considered myself to have well-honed observational skills, so I felt particularly embarrassed for making such an elementary error and for it taking so long to come to my proper senses. And it's funny how it wasn't until after the event, that my rational objectivity took over; while the "UFOs" were passing my sense of excitement seemed actively to suppress a more objective viewpoint...


Tuesday, 15 February 2011

A bout de gout...

Well here I am in the throes of another bout of suffering and self-pity. What started out as a very slight discomfort in the first metacarpal of my big toe a couple of weeks ago, eventually grew somewhat falteringly into a full-blown inflammation of my right foot, with all its attendant agony - hopefully reaching its final crescendo last night.

For those who have never suffered the affliction of gout, when the pain is at its peak (which invariably comes on during the night), it manifests at several levels. There's an all-pervading throb that emanates from the swollen joint, radiant with inflammation: this totally saps one's energy and is impossible to ignore - like a nagging toothache. And then there's the searing agony caused by the slightest movement or involuntary muscle spasm. And just to add to the fun, the effort of consciously trying to keep absolutely still often brings on a simultaneous attack of cramp!

When at its peak, even the best pain-killers only seem to take a little off the edge of the pain, and it's quite natural to irrationally fantasise about how much better a prospect amputation would be...

And one of the most annoying things about the whole thing is that there are no external agents to blame for the suffering - it's entirely due to the failing of one's own body chemistry. What happens is that urates in the blood produced by the digestive system start to form uric acid crystals in the soft tissues of vulnerable joints, prompting inflammation. As the crystals grow, any slight movement of the joint makes them tear at the inflamed tissues producing excruciating pain. Uric acid is relatively insoluble and so once formed the crystals take several days to disperse even if/when the blood urate level has returned to a tolerable level.

Particularly galling for me is that the factors that normally render someone vulnerable to gout are: being obese (okay I'm slightly over the "ideal" range for my height-weight bell curve); eating too much red meat (I'm vegetarian); and drinking too much ale and red wine (I'm a moderate cider drinker). Indeed my blood tests have indicated a relatively innocuous level of urates relative to that normally associated with the condition.

So it seems I'm one of those rare unlucky people who's prone to gout even with relatively normal urate levels. The consequence of which being that the benefit of preventative medications (such as allopurinol) which act by controlling blood urates is likely to be of questionable efficacy for me.

I will treat this latest episode as an incentive to lose a little of my excess weight and cut down more on the alcohol, but can't really start on that til I'm mobile again and in the mean time I'll just continue to feel sorry for myself... :-(