Dropping the dynamic, because everything is awful

Because I am a naive optimist, when I migrated various defunct blog archives from elsewhere to here, I assumed that running them on auto-updated WordPress would be fine. This was a stupid move. Not specifically because WordPress is bad, but because everything is bad, and hacking is easy. And, of course, happened.

After several months of this site being broken and struggling to keep client sites afloat, I’ve finally got everything sorted out.

My main websites, client and personal (this one included) are now signed up with crazy amounts of security. I’ve blocked all kinds of user agents, headers and IPs, and I’ve signed up with Cloudflare. They’ll probably get hacked again because YOLO, but at least less so than before. Meanwhile, the old websites are cloned HTML mirrors of the original with everything set to 644,  so nobody nefarious can nefare with them.

And now I can log into this site, I might even write something substantive here before anyone else dies.

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.

The idle musings of John B