All posts by John B

He was watching the defectives

Extremely sad to hear about the sudden unexpected death of long-time friend, crony and partner in crime Tom Barry, of BorisWatch and @boriswatch fame.

Tom provided exactly the kind of hard-nosed, subject-expert and ruthless research and writing into London’s terrible mayor and supine general assembly that nobody in traditional local journalism has (bothered to do / had time for) in decades.

He did this while carrying on a day job as a telecoms expert and being a fully committed dad to two  adorkable boys aged under 11*, and whilst being at the very least a good enough partner to Ish that she put up with him for the whole timeframe.

And he was only 41, and this has broken me a bit. Young people get run over or end their lives or  have tragic but long-running illnesses, they don’t just die, that isn’t how it works. They don’t send pics from beer gardens the same month they die of glorious fun with the kids they love mockingly labelled “when will the torture of parenthood end?” because the fucking concept that it might is ridiculous.

This blog seems to be eulogy-focused lately. Unlike Meg Williams , as well as not being  in his 80s, Tom had a great deal of internet presence – but the two share the context of having touched shedloads of lives for the better. Also, CAN EVERYONE FUCKING STOP DYING?

Two updates.

One: Tim Fenton has written a great piece on Tom’s extremely well researched ‘blogging’ (or ‘investigative journalism’, as it used to be called when paid journalists could be bothered to do it) exploits.

Two: I wrote this at the start of day on 3 November (AEST – lat night 2 November GMT) when the news was under semi-embargo from family. Even since then, I’ve had at least one thought on naval history where I  thought “I’ll ask Tom about this one… fuck.

*I fully expect to get a write-in comment from Tom’s eldest saying “actually I am 11 so I’m not under 11”, because did I mention adorkable? Hopefully I’ll be able to ask him for naval history clarifications in due course.

Today we’re all gay Americans

Congratulations, the US Supreme Court, for making a sensible decision based on Constitutional precedent that horrendous rightwing idiots will pretend is overreach until long after we’re all dead.

To celebrate, here is a nostalgic musing on religion in education.

There was a strange Welsh Baptist chemistry teacher at my high school who ran a renegade version of the Christian Society (the actual Christian Society was run by a nice Quaker chap who was extremely ecumenical and earnest).

It showed exposes by American Southern Baptist churches about how evil everything was. Including a four-part series about how evil rock and roll was.

Naturally, we pitched up to this every lunchtime, on the grounds that rock and roll and bearded Southern Baptists explaining exactly how evil rock and roll was were both more fun than a drizzly field in Guildford.

My favourite bit was when at the end of the final episode, the Southern Baptist presenter explained that not all modern music was bad, to the accompaniment of some utterly awful evangelical Christian Rock dirge, and Mr Jenkins paused the tape to point out to us that actually all modern music is very bad indeed.

We affirmed his opinion that this music was, indeed, very bad. He seemed happy.

Meg Williams, a woman of all importance

This is a very sentimental post.

My last surviving grandparent died today. She was born in Caerphilly (better than being born carelessly, I guess) as Peggy Jean Jenkins. Not as Margaret Jenkins, that’d be boring. And because Wales, she was never called Peggy Jean by anyone; she was Meg from birth.

Her husband, who died last year, was born in Dolygaer (I can’t think of a pun, sorry) as David Elwyn Williams. His family were more boring than Meg’s when it came to Welsh naming choices, although he was never called David by anyone; he was Elwyn from birth.

(by the way, I don’t think anyone of Welsh ancestry ever found the multiple names in the Bible weird. “Simon who is called Peter?” – “yup, I think my uncle Peter’s real name is Simon”.)

I discovered, looking up The Internets, that Meg had no online existence at all, not even dry dull database existence, whether as as Meg or Peggy Jean. This doesn’t seem right, somehow. She was far more interesting and good and excellent than most of the folk who are chronicled online.

She was a schoolteacher and a campaigner for good things and a helping-out-the-neighbours-er and a telling-people-to-stop-being-self-righteous-dicks-er and a mum and a nanna and a great-nanna.

She’s being cremated at a crematorium, by a minister of the church she’s frequented for far longer than it has existed (the 20th century was the century of left-liberal Protestant churches noticing that they were actually the same).

And she’ll be remembered more fondly (in net ratings terms), by more people, than most people who are Of Importance in the way that Society tends to measure it.

Here’s her obit in the local paper. A life in fewer words.

A woman’s not dead while her name’s still spoken.

There was no late swing, and there were no shy Tories

One of the most interesting questions after the 2015 UK General Election is, how could all of the electoral polling possibly have gone so incredibly wrong?

Labour and the Conservatives were predicted to be neck-and-neck and both short of forming a government on their own, with Labour losing about 50 seats in Scotland to the Scottish Nationalist Party.

election_eve_poll
UK 2015 seat prediction on election eve, according to the Guardian’s poll-of-polls

Instead, the Conservatives won a small majority of total seats. Netted out, Labour gained only four English seats from the Conservatives despite its low 2010 base, and lost two seats in its heartland of Wales to the Conservatives.

Labour’s remaining gains in England came from the brutal destruction of the Liberal Democrats, which the polls dramatically understated. This was cold comfort, as the Conservatives took far more former Lib Dem seats, including almost all of the ones that the polls had predicted would stay orange.

Actual UK election results
UK 2015 actual UK election results

So what the hell happened?

Two popularly floated explanations in the media have been a late swing, and the ‘shy Tories’ problem. Both are almost certainly wrong.

Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got late swing

One thing we can reasonably rule out is the concept of a late swing to the Conservatives: a scenario where the polls accurately captured voting intentions, but where people changed their mind at the last minute.

We know this, because online pollster YouGov made an innovative attempt at a kind of internet-based exit poll (this is not how YouGov described it, but it’ll do). After the vote, it contacted members of its panel and asked them how they voted. The results of this poll were almost identical to those recorded in opinion polls leading up to the election.

Meanwhile, the UK’s major TV networks carried out a traditional exit poll, in which voters at polling stations effectively repeated their real vote. This poll (which covered a balanced range of constituencies, but whose results weren’t adjusted as they are for small-sample opinion polls) found results that were utterly different from all published opinion polls, and came far closer to the final result.

Putting the two together, the likeliest outcome is that people were relatively honest to YouGov about how they voted, and that they voted in the same way they told all the pollsters that they were going to vote. This isn’t a late swing problem.

No True Shy Tories

If we ignore Scotland (where the polls were pretty much correct), this is a similar outcome to the 1992 General Election: opinion polling predicted a majority for Labour, but the Conservatives instead won a majority and another five years of power.

A common narrative for poll failure after the 1992 election was one of ‘shy Tories’ [1]. In this story, because Tories are seen as baby-eating monsters, folk who support them are reluctant to confess anything so vile in polite society, and therefore tell pollsters that they’re going to vote for the Green Party, the Lib Dems, or possibly Hitler.

From 1992 onwards, polls were weighted much more carefully to account for this perceived problem, with actual previous election results and vote flows also being used to adjust raw data into something that can reasonably be expected. This happened in 2015, as it has for every election in between [2].

We know that the internet provides the illusion of anonymity [3]. People who’d be unlikely in real life to yell at a footballer or a children’s novelist that they were a scumsucking whorebag are quite happy to do so over Twitter. Foul-minded depravities that only the boldest souls would request at a specialist bookstore are regularly obtained by the mildest-mannered by an HTTP request.

In this environment, if ‘shy Tories’ and poor adjustment for them were the major problems, you would expect internet-based polls to have come closer to the real result than phone-based polls. But they did the opposite:

The current 10-day average among telephone polls has the Tories on 35.5% [and] Labour on 33.5%… The average of online polls has the Conservatives (32%) trailing Labour (34%)

So what is the explanation then? This goes a bit beyond the scope of a quick blog post. But having ruled out late swing and unusually shy Tories in particular, what we have left, more broadly, is the nature of the weighting applied. Is groupthink among pollers so great that weighting is used to ensure that you match everyone else’s numbers and don’t look uniquely silly? Are there problems with the underlying data used for adjustment?

Personally, I suspect this may be a significant part of it:

According to the British Election Study (BES), nearly 60 per cent of young people, aged 18-24, turned out to vote. YouGov had, however, previously suggested that nearly 69% of under-25s were “absolutely certain” to vote on 7 May.

Age is one of the most important features driving voting choice, and older voters are both far more conservative and far more Conservative than younger voters [4]. If turnout among younger voters in 2015 was significantly lower than opinion pollsters were expecting, this seems like a good starting point for a post-mortem.

Update: YouGov’s Anthony Wells comments on the YouGov not-quite-an-exit-poll:

[1] Some polling experts think the actual failure in 1992 had more to do with weighting based on outdated demographic information, but opinion is divided on the matter.

[2] Several polls in 2015 that showed 33-35% Labour vote shares were weighted down from raw data that showed Labour with closer to 40%.

[3] An illusion that diminishes the closer one comes to working in IT security.

[4] There are papers suggesting that this is to do with cohorts rather than ageing, and that It’s All More Complicated Than That, but anyone denying the basic proposition above is a contrarian, a charlatan or both.

On copyright laws and basic economics

There was a massive fuss last week about the UK Greens’ plan to restrict the term of copyright to 14 years, whilst also replacing the current benefits system with a guaranteed basic income that would prevent people with other things to do being forced into paid employment [1].

Suddenly, left-leaning writers who generally claim to believe in fairer distribution of wealth and in individual sacrifice for the greater good found those principles, um, somewhat tested [2].

There’s a really basic economic point underlying copyright and patent law, which non-economists often miss: the marginal cost of distributing existing works is zero and the marginal benefit is greater than zero.

It’s absolutely clear that restricting the distribution of ideas and their expression (and copyright is literally that: it grants a state monopoly to an individual or company on the expression of a particular idea) makes society worse off, once that idea has been expressed.

To use an example: the cost to society of you reading the Harry Potter series is zero. The benefit to you of reading the Harry Potter series is greater than zero, so the optimal solution for the world is for you to read the Harry Potter series for no cost. If the price is greater than zero, that means that there are some people who would benefit from reading the Harry Potter series and who are not doing so, even though it would cost society nothing to give them it for free.

This is true for all pieces of media, all computer programs, and all drug and machinery patents that exist. Provided that they exist now, society would be better off if the state monopolies that have been granted for these works were immediately abolished.

Of course, “provided that they exist now” is the rub here.

The justification for the introduction of copyright and patent law was that it is in the common good to accept this monopoly intervention, even though it overrides actual property rights (you are banned from assembling a selection of actual items that you own into a particular shape), in order to incentivise people to come up with new ideas.

This is clearly true for a certain period – with no copyright monopoly at all, there’d be no Hollywood or computer games industry, and fewer books [3]. But, like all government interventions to create private monopolies, it should be carefully regulated to ensure it continues to act in the public interest.

It is utterly ridiculous to claim that maintaining this monopoly for 70 years after the creator’s death is required to incentivise anyone.

My intuition, which could be wrong, is that the UK Greens plan for 14 years after publication [4] isn’t far from the right number.

If a book or film or record hasn’t sold any copies after 14 years, it’s not impossible that you’ll end up being the next Moby Dick [5] or the next Plan Nine From Outer Space, but it’s distinctly unlikely. More research into the sales profile over time after publication of different types of media would be handy here, but I would be surprised if it isn’t, on average, an exponential decay curve.

Even for 14-year-old bestsellers with significant annual sales in absolute terms, these will usually be a small fraction of the total sales generated near release [6].

The answer may well be different for different types of media – and there’s precedent for this, given that the innovation shown by drug developers and industrial designers already gains them a far shorter monopoly period than media producers are granted.

But whatever the exact number is, it’s an empirical question that we should be asking, and it’s a hell of a lot shorter than it is now. Even at its absolute worst, the UK Greens proposal shifts the window of discussion in the right direction.

[1] The basic income would be in line with the UK’s minimum wage of £13,124 per year, while the average UK professional book writer under the current system makes £11,000 per year from book writing.

[2] Or would have done, had they understood the fact that copyright is a state-granted monopoly that makes society worse off.

[3] Academic books don’t make any money in their own right, and nor does literary fiction, so the biggest loss to readers from total copyright abolition would be the disappearance of middlebrow bestsellers.

[4] The definition of ‘publication’ is another point here: if copyright were restricted to a very short term, we’d need a mechanism to ensure that sending a copy to an agent or A&R scout didn’t set the publication timer going, or new artists spending 10 years shopping a book around agents would be unfairly disadvantaged.

[5] And ideally still alive at the time to enjoy it, unlike poor dead Herman Melville.

[6] Yes yes, Game of Thrones, I know.

FPTP doesn’t mean your vote is wasted – just ask a Scot

The UK’s New Economics Foundation, who style themselves as nef because that’s the sort of thing that was cool in 2003, are one of the worst think-tanks going [1].

With a couple of weeks to go before the 2015 General Election, they have jumped on the election news bandwagon. Their effort is well up to their normal standards of competence.

One of nef’s pet ideas has long been that the UK should have a mainland-European style electoral system, dropping member-represented constituencies in favour of party lists based on percentages of the national vote.

So they’ve created a data website that claims to show ‘how much your vote is worth’, based on the size of the winning party’s majority in the seat you’re voting in at the last election (so if the majority last time was 10, your vote is worth masses, and if it was 20,000 your vote is worth bugger all).

This isn’t a completely unreasonable thing to do. The UK first-past-the-post system tends to favour major parties and local parties, while discouraging nationally-supported minor parties.

For example, in the 2010 election, the Northern Irish pro-unionist DUP won 8 seats on 0.6% of the UK-wide vote, while the neo-Nazi [2] nationwide BNP won no seats at all on 1.9% of the UK-wide vote. The Green Party won one seat on 0.9% of the UK-wide vote, reflecting its greater geographic concentration than the BNP [3].

Meanwhile, Labour and the Conservatives have historically tended to focus campaigns on battleground seats rather than seats where everyone is very poor or very rich.

However, the UK system also allows me as a voter in the constituency of Islington North to vote for a rebellious, anti-war, left-of-Labour MP like Jeremy Corbyn, rather than for whoever goes on the top half of a list of party sycophants to be rewarded with office for years of dedicated hackery.

And as someone who believes democracy is a means rather than an end, I rather like the way that the UK system mostly filters out Nazis and raving lunatics.

Since nef is composed of the kind of early-career wonks who would end up on the ‘rewards for dedicated hackery’ list, it is not surprising that their press release – as faithfully repeated by the Independent here – dwells entirely on the negatives of first-past-the-post, and compares it solely to a European-style list PR system, without stating any of its drawbacks or the alternative systems [4].

But as well as being framed in an absurdly biased way, the study is self-refuting.

UntitledHere’s a list of the UK seats where, in nef’s opinion, voters’ opinion matters the least. According to nef’s analysis, voters in these 10 seats might as well stay home on polling day, because there is absolutely bugger all chance of their vote making a difference to man or beast.

To paraphrase Captain Blackadder, there is one tiny problem with this list: it is bollocks.

Of the ten seats on the list, two (Coatsbridge etc and Kirkcaldy etc) are currently predicted by Lord Ashcroft’s constituency-level opinion polls to change hands at the 2015 election from Labour to the SNP. A third (Glasgow North East) is predicted to remain Labour with a majority of only a few percentage points over the SNP. And a fourth (Belfast West) changed hands less than 20 years ago, as part of a major shift in the Northern Irish republican vote from the moderate SDLP to the, uh, less moderate [5] Sinn Féin.

I don’t know about you, but if I were putting out a press release to promote my brilliant study of electoral things, I’m not entirely sure that I’d include a table proving that it is utter nonsense.

Of course, all four of these cases were driven by a massive realignment in regional politics: the present annihilation of Scottish Labour in the wake of the independence referendum, and the previous annihilation of the moderate-but-inept-and-corrupt mainstream Northern Irish parties once the peace process was safely(ish) in place.

nef would probably argue that their methodology is still valid for the vast majority of safe seats in England and Wales – which, as for Labour’s lowland Scots seats, will be true until it isn’t.

Once an inflexion point is reached, FPTP systems deliver massive, immediate change – as seen most clearly in Canada at the 1993 election, where the ruling Progressive Conservatives [6] went from 154 seats to two. This kind of change is generally in line with the popular will, even if it doesn’t reflect the exact vote weightings of every single party on every single occasion.

When a party is wiped out under FPTP, that’s when the voters of Belfast West and Glasgow North West, of Canada’s Tory outer-suburban heartlands, get their say. It’s their say, not the say of the floating voters in the English Midlands, that is brutal and final. And it’s this pattern that nef’s analysis completely and utterly misses.

To miss FPTP’s potential for seismic shift might be forgivable, in most election campaigns. But as nef’s own data shows, it is happening in Scottish Labour’s weigh-the-vote seats right now, in this election. They’re either wilfully blind, or entirely stupid.

[1] nef’s policy solutions aren’t quite as wrong as those proposed by, say, the Taxpayers Alliance, but such groups are owned by rich crooks who  pay them to publish research lying that the government should give more money to rich crooks, so are wrong for reasons other than incompetence.

[2] The BNP claim they aren’t neo-Nazis, but they are lying.

[3] Thankfully, neo-Nazis don’t tend to agglomerate in specific areas to quite the extent that posh hippies do.

[4] The Australian system of UK-style constituencies with transferable votes, as rejected in the AV Referendum; the Irish system of combining a few constituencies and electing several members using transferable votes; and the Scottish system of geographical constituencies with top-up lists  are all examples that are arguably superior to the European list model.

[5] Depending chiefly on how moderate you believe blowing things up and shooting people in the knees is.

[6] Obvious joke: the Progressive Conservatives’ policies included toilets for bears and a Jewish papacy.

Don’t get your Germanwings over France

Regular readers will be aware that France is to air safety what Scotland is to gastronomy and New South Wales is to probity in government. Today’s news, though, had me genuinely shaking with incredulity and rage.

Not the fact that Germanwings flight 4U9525, flown by 23-year-old A320-200 D-AIPX crashed mid-morning on 25 March (Europe time), of course. Flying is unnatural. The fact that we don’t all die every time we go up in an aluminium-and-plastic tube that doesn’t even float in water is a miracle in its own right, and like all the best miracles it is down to limitless human innovation, experimentation, and learning from experimentation.

It is generally better to be in a plane of the sort that has learned from experimentation, rather than the sort which is experimenting, which is why despite building the world’s first jetliners, De Havilland is not the world’s leading civilian aircraft manufacturer (although admittedly, it is one of the companies that is now merged into Airbus, so it sort of is, a bit, but not really).

Anyway. If you hit granite at 600km/h, then you become shrapnel, which definitely makes learning from experimentation harder. In particular, if you hit a low but pointy Alp at 600km/h, then you end up with bits of aeroplane and person and luggage all over the unwalkable hellhole that vaguely resembles a place, so it will take you months to collect the full jigsaw of former Airbus and frozen Germans.

Every passenger aeroplane carries two black boxes, which are orange because aviation engineers believe themselves to have a sense of humour, and are easier to find and survive crashes better than their fellow passengers. So far, the only one authorities have for D-AIPX is the cockpit voice recorder (CVR); the one recording technical data (FDR) hasn’t yet been retrieved.

After the CVR was recovered and read on the night of 25 March (Europe time), The New York Times, which is broadly honest, quoted some unnamed officials who had heard it. According to them:

  • one of the two pilots was locked out of the cockpit during the eight minutes that the plane went from cruising height to mountain height.
  • the plane’s path, in longitude-and-latitude terms, was in line with the flight plan.
  • the plane descended, quite consistently and at about the steepest level consistent with a normal rather than emergency descent, for the eight minutes before it hit the mountain.

This seems like a reasonable enquiry leak, of the sort that the people leading the enquiry should deny, but which focuses the public mind on key issues. Such as, why did the fucking plane fly into the fucking ground, and why couldn’t the locked-out pilot get in the cockpit?

But then, something really terrible happened: the formal investigation was handed over to a French judge-prosecutor.

In the US and the UK, which are generally recognised as being at the forefront of aviation safety – and also in Germany and Switzerland – formal authority over air crashes goes to an independent governmental agency. They have priority over cops and prosecutors seeking to assign blame, because it is recognised that working out what the fuck happened is far more important.

In France, this is not the case. The French BEA is generally respected for its technical skills, but doesn’t have control over air crash investigations or sites. Instead, they are handed over to local avocats (I’d translate this as “solicitor”, but I got a bit of pushback from doing so on Twitter), who know a fair amount about French law, absolutely jack shit about aviation, and are immediately forced into an adversarial situation of assigning blame (the word for ‘investigator’ and ‘prosecutor’ is the same).

Provincial avocat Brice Robin, who is in charge of the Germanwings crash, is a perfect example of this. Less than two days after the crash, he gave a press conference insisting that the plane was deliberately destroyed by its first officer whilst the captain was in the toilet. And naming both gentlemen.

This conclusion isn’t completely inconsistent with the evidence available. But it’s a gigantic reach from the evidence available, of the sort that a prosecuting counsel would absolutely reach for, but which someone seeking to find the facts would absolutely not. We still don’t have:

  • Any physical evidence from the wreckage showing the status of the door.
  • Conformation of whether the captain’s problem was the electronic lock or the manual deadlock.
  • The Flight Data Recorder
  • Any psychiatric or other medical evidence showing the state of the pilot
  • Basically anything explaining why the plane flew into the bloody Alp

As a result, well before there is any justification for doing so, the French system has struck fear into the hearts of air travellers worldwide, grossly impugned a dead man who may well be completely innocent, and – worst of all – forced the investigation into a specific narrative rather than going through the facts until a narrative is unimpeachable.

(Falsely claiming people are responsible for jet crashes is a bad idea. It turns out that even when they’re dead already rather than waiting to be shot by a crazed relative their homes still need police guard.)