Category Archives: Media

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.

Some men never learn

As I noted last week, celebrated male feminist Sam de Brito wrote an extremely embarrassing article in 2005 praising the pick-up artist seminars organised by RSD, the company that now employs borderline-rapist Julien Blanc.

After online political magazine Crikey picked up my story, frog-in-a-sock de Brito issued a petulant denial, both in the comments to this blog and in Crikey’s comments:
sam_de_nial

De Brito may be right about never having met Blanc, but he is at best mistaken about the people running the operation. Blanc’s almost-as-personally-creepy employer, Owen Cook (who calls himself Tyler Durden, because so edgy, yah) is RSD’s co-founder, has been part of RSD since it was founded, and was part of RSD at the time de Brito wrote the original piece.

But anyway. Hack writer falls for professional con-artist’s spiel, writes terrible article, is found out later, issues embarrassed apology clearly distancing himself from the original piece, albeit with some slightly sketchy handwaving to suggest the organisation was fine in those days. All done, right?

Sadly, no.

Celebrated feminist Sam de Brito’s column this week is all about how, although Julien Blanc is a creep, the people who tried to #takedownjulienblanc were far too horrible to his poor male followers.

Julien Blanc is a creep… I’d guess this is because he was vastly unsuccessful with women in his teens, probably mocked or humiliated by them.

Well, I’m glad we’ve established whose fault Blanc’s creepdom is.

The piece goes on about the travails of poor unfortunate men, pausing briefly to wave a ‘some of these geeks are Asian, and it’s racist for white chicks to be mean to them’ shield about the place, before getting to the punchline:

No man goes out of a night worried he might be raped, sexually abused or catcalled and these are all serious instances of aberrant male behaviour that we must address, punish or discourage as a society.

The flipside of this is your average man can go out every Friday and Saturday night for five years, buy himself a drink and stand at a bar and NEVER have a woman start up a conversation with him.

You may now extract your face from your palm.

When I read this, it reminded me of something that I couldn’t quite place. After a few moments, I realised it was a quote from an actual feminist writer, Margaret Atwood:

“Why do men feel threatened by women?” I asked a male friend of mine. So this male friend of mine, who does by the way exist, conveniently entered into the following dialogue. “I mean,” I said, “men are bigger, most of the time, they can run faster, strangle better, and they have on the average a lot more money and power.” “They’re afraid women will laugh at them,” he said. “Undercut their world view.”

Then I asked some women students in a quickie poetry seminar I was giving, “Why do women feel threatened by men?” “They’re afraid of being killed,” they said.

In a feat of unprecedented literary genius, celebrated male feminist Sam de Brito has taken Atwood’s stark declaration of how women live in constant fear of male violence, agreed with it completely, and then used it to argue that the real problem here is that it’s hard for men to get laid.

I have lost the ability to even can.

Thanks to @msloulou77 on Twitter for making me aware of the new de Brito piece’s existence.

Memory hole? Fixed that for ya

This Sydney Sunday Telegraph piece from a few years back has disappeared down the News Corp memory hole, oddly enough. Before you give it a read, here’s a bit of context on the protagonists.

RSD is the pick-up artist company that later hired despicable pro-rape arsehole Julien Blanc, of #takedownjulienblanc fame [1].

Sam De Brito is an excellent male feminist role model as endorsed by many august [2] publications.

It is reproduced here on the basis of fair dealing, fair comment, fair play, and all the fun of the fair.

Men Paying To Learn To Be Appealing

The Sunday Telegraph

by Sam De Brito, JANUARY 16, 2005

AUSTRALIAN men are paying as much as $1600 to be coached in the art of picking up women by highly skilled dating instructors.

Los Angeles-based company Real Social Dynamics (RSD) offers three-day “boot camps” that train men how to approach and attract women.

“Most guys fumble their way through interactions with women and have no idea how sexual chemistry works,” says Tim, one of RSD’s local instructors.

“Attracting women is a skill set that can be learned and mastered like any other talent – and that’s what we’re here to teach guys.”

RSD puts theory into practice “in the field”.

On meeting dating coach Tim, aka “The Chariot”, I thought: “What the hell can this kid teach anyone about women?”

At 20, Tim is an average-looking Melbourne boy who works in finance. Yet within an hour, I’m watching him do things I’ve never witnessed before.
Tim’s student for the next three days is Steve, 23, a public servant from Adelaide who is decidedly awkward and reserved.

“Most guys link their self-esteem to the way women react to them, and it’s the completely wrong frame to come from,” says Tim.

“I look at the world as a playground. When you talk to women, you’re shooting hoops.

“Sometimes you get it in the basket, sometimes you miss, but you learn with every shot you take.”

Tim says the biggest adjustment any man needs to make to be successful with women is internal: “You’ve got to have fun and make it fun for the girl.”

Even before a man approaches a woman, she’s made judgements about his social value, says Tim, who declined to be photographed, saying anonymity was essential for his work in public.

Rich men, rock stars and handsome guys already have this value, but the rest of us are left to slug it out using body posture, sappy dialogue and vocal tonality.

“Alpha males – that tiny percentage of guys who know what’s up with women – act a certain way, and you can learn it,” says Tim.

Give-aways such as talking too quickly and laughing at your own jokes tell a woman clearer than capital letters that you’re needy.

“The vast majority of women prefer men who are in control, confident and funny,” says Tim.

“Not everyone is naturally like that, so we teach you how to fake it ’til you make it.”

RSD coaches say the best way to initiate a conversation is with a “neutral opinion opener”.

“Women love to give their opinions on a topic, especially if it’s emotionally charged like, ‘Do men lie more than women?’ ” says Tim.

“Instead of asking boring questions that girls have heard a thousand times … we involve them on an emotional level.”

Steve is taught to do this through a variety of “hot” topics and psychological games that on many occasions had women saying: “I’ve never met anyone like you before.”

“Women want to experience these reactions with men. It’s incredibly refreshing for them,” says Tim.

“It also makes any man, no matter what he looks like, an attractive partner.”

Over the course of a weekend, three things become apparent about Tim and RSD’s methods.

1. It’s a numbers game. The more women you talk to, the greater your chance of finding a female you like and who digs you.

2. Tim has an uncanny charm with women. Almost every group he approaches is stoked to talk to him and enjoys his company.

3. It’s rubbing off on Steve. The guy who had struck me as awkward 72 hours earlier is now scanning nightclub crowds like a gunslinging Clint Eastwood.

In just one weekend, Steve has talked to hundreds of females, compiling an expanding library of experience on what women want.

He has also made a fundamental discovery that, Tim says, will set him on his way to success with the opposite sex.

“The most important thing is having a positive mind set and having fun,” says Steve, pocketing a skater girl’s phone number.

An excellent piece from Australia’s premier male feminist, I’m sure we can all agree.

[1] People are also trying to get Julien Blanc deported from Australia for being terrible. While I understand what they mean, Australia’s history of deporting people because the general consensus is that they’re terrible is not one that anyone sensible and left-leaning should seek to emulate, despite obvious temptation.

[2] They may also come out in the rest of the year. I hope you didn’t think I was using any other sense of ‘august’.

Not a case of political correctness gorn mad

The picture is a Banksy mural. It was painted on 30 September 2014, and erased by the end of 1 October 2014.

The story was reported by UK media on 2 October 2014 as being “erased after ‘racist’ complaint“, with the implication being that – despite its clear antiracist message – minority groups were offended because they’re idiots who can’t take a joke.

This is unlikely.

Clacton-on-Sea is one of the whitest places in England. Of the 1,688 people living in the seaside postcode area, 29 are non-white.

It’s also one of the most bigoted places in England. Its Tory MP recently defected to UKIP, and is expected to win a resounding victory in his new incarnation as a Kipper – which is presumably why Banksy chose the place as the site for his mural. Like many eastern England coastal towns, it is full of bitter angry old white people (much of the Economist’s analysis on Tilbury stands in here, although Clacton is far further from London and was never a dock town) and low on jobs. Despite featuring very few immigrants, because nobody in their right mind would choose to live there, the residents blame the lack of available jobs on them anyway.

So let’s consider the probabilities of these two scenarios:

1) one of the 29 non-white people saw the piece, assumed it was racist rather than anti-racist, complained to the (bitter, angry, old, white) staff at the right-wing, Tory-controlled council, and was taken seriously in an example of PC Gorn Mad.

2) one of the 1,659 white people saw the piece, didn’t like its message, complained to the (bitter, angry, old, white) staff at the right-wing, Tory-controlled council about Anti-White Racism, and it got taken down in an example of humourless jobsworth-ery with a possible side dish of bigotry.

My money is heavily on scenario 2 (and I made a few bob on my last excursion into political betting, so I’m feeling lucky if anyone wants to take me up on that one…)

Twitter won’t kill the general feed, cos that’d kill Twitter

Long-time Twitter users, myself included, value it mostly for the general feed (everyone you follow, live and in chronological order) and the ability to replicate the general feed model for specific lists you’ve made of people you follow and for specific search terms and hashtags.

They need the cash to settle this guy's image rights suit
They need the cash to settle this guy’s image rights suit

At the same time, Twitter is a confusing experience for novices and newbies – and to keep the venture capital taps flowing, the service needs to demonstrate growth.

So this week Twitter-the-company has talked about taking something that resembles its existing “discover” feed, which shows some highlights from the last couple of days of a user’s interactions, their friends’ interactions, and paid-for commercial content, and steering new users towards this ahead of the general feed.

This has cause a bunch of people who mostly should know better to lose their shit (sample lazily pulled from the article above):

There is a tiny flaw in their reasoning: it is bollocks.

Why? Well, you need to remember that Twitter’s value – to users and advertisers alike – is completely different from Facebook’s.

Facebook collects detailed demographic information and combines that with your interactions with the site to create a scarily tailored advertising profile. That’s what it’s for. At work this week, I bought a Facebook advert to reach people in Perth, WA who are interested in space exploration. This would have been simply impossible before Facebook existed.

It's difficult to manage a wide group of stakeholders
It’s difficult to manage a wide group of stakeholders

Twitter doesn’t. It provides a direct, unmediated platform for anonymous people, pseudonymous people, named people, famous people, and brands, to all interact on the same level. It doesn’t collate demographic information; the demographic profile data it shows to advertisers is based on surveys of people and the networks they use, not on the information they provide to the site.

But the demographic profile it has is extremely valuable: Twitter’s users are older and richer than the users of any network other than LinkedIn. They are also stroppy as hell, as the storm over this issue (not to mention every other issue that there is in the world) has confirmed.

Twitter-the-company has a balancing act to run, trying to bring in new users so it doesn’t get Kiss of Death growth headlines that deter people from putting up money, but at the same time making damn sure it doesn’t alienate its existing users to any degree beyond that which is necessary to sell advertising, because that would also deter people from putting up money.

The way it deals with this balancing act will, absolutely and definitively, not be by turning into a version of Facebook with the targeting data that makes Facebook into Facebook removed.

So stop worrying. It’s not going to happen.