Monday, 31 May 2010

Around the Internet: May 2010 Edition

I've decided to include an 'Around the Internet' section on the blog with some of the more interesting/unusual links and websites I've come across each month.

Here's the selection for this month, enjoy:
A hat-tip is owed to Richard Wiseman for both optical illusions.  I'm sure a hat tip is owed to people for the cat cafes and Lexialist links too, but I can't remember to whom, apologies.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The Armchair Economist

Earlier in the year I read a book called 'The Armchair Economist' by Professor Steven E. Landsburg*.  I enjoyed the book immensely and for the most part agree with Professor Landsburg's conclusions, but as an rank amateur as an economist not everything is crystal clear to me and I have a couple of questions on points made in the book.

I have emailed these questions to Professor Landsburg today, if I receive a response to any of the points I will post the reply here also (with permission of course).

Query 1: The Indifference Principle (Chapter 4)
With regard to the discussion of the indifference principle and the tipping of bus-boys Landsburg points out that bus-boys cannot be the beneficiaries of changing social attitudes towards tipping them, neither can the restaurant owners benefit.  This is because neither bus-boys nor restaurant owners are in possession of a resource in fixed supply.  If you want an explanation of why I'd recommend getting your hands on a copy of The Armchair Economist.

My query is this: how is this argument affected by minimum wage laws?

My initial thoughts on the matter are that legally binding minimum wages artificially inflate earnings at the lower end of the income spectrum; this leads to higher wage bills for owners/managers of low-paid workers (think supermarket shelf-stackers, fast-food workers, etc.), unless of course they cut staffing levels.

If they cut staffing levels they are worse off than they would have been otherwise since they are spending the same money on staff, but have less staff, who will presumably be stretched more thinly, less work will get done, there will be more problems with poor customer service/staff stress/etc.  The people out of work due to employers having less positions to fill also lose out here.  The beneficiaries appear to be the people working minimum wage jobs, if they still have a job it will be paying more than it would have been otherwise.

If the employers maintain staffing levels at what they would have been without the minimum wage law anyway they are still worse off, as they will have a higher wage bill and hence lower profits.  No-one will be out of work and everyone working in minimum wage jobs will be earning more, so would again appear to be the beneficiaries of this policy.

The employers could pass on the additional cost of paying higher wages to the customer, by charging higher prices, but one thing I do recall from my own economics education (a single 1 semester class in my 4th year of university) is that a seller can set either the price which a good/service is sold at, or the quantity sold, but not both.  Raising prices means selling less, and presumably the business owners have already set their prices at, or close to, the level which maximises profit.

Whichever outcome occurs in terms of staffing levels, there is another effect minimum wage laws would appear to have.  By artificially inflating the wages of certain jobs they make those jobs more desirable relative to other low-paid (but above minimum wage) jobs.  If it lures people to work in supermarkets instead of in bars for example then the supply of bar staff is reduced; surely then bars have to offer higher wages as well?  Does this effect exist in reality?  If so, how far does it spread through the economy?  Do minimum wage laws then effectively bid-up the wages of everyone?

Query 2: Why I am not an Environmentalist (Chapter 24)
The subtitle of this chapter is "The Science of Economics Versus the Religion of Ecology".  The gist of Landsburg's argument is that environmentalism is flawed because it turns matters of preference into matters of morality and instantly assumes the moral high-ground.  I follow this argument and agree with the general conclusions.

What I am confused about is Landsburg's position on recycling.  He points out that recycling paper eliminates the incentives for paper companies to plant more trees and hence forests shrink.  This is perfectly true, but surely the purpose of such recycling is not to maintain larger forests?  Recycling paper does not appear to me to be of particular importance, more interesting to consider the recycling of plastic or metal.  Unlike paper, which is made from a renewable resource (wood pulp), metal and plastic are finite resources (there is only so much metal in the World, the same is true of oil, the refining of which produces the raw materials for plastic manufacturing).  The purpose of recycling metal and plastic then, seems to be a sensible method for making the most out of these resources, rather than just dumping them in landfills.  Needlessly dumping valuable resources makes the World a poorer place (this is in contrast to burning money - see Chapter 7 of The Armchair Economist).

Landsburg of course points out that time is also a valuable resource, but the time it takes to rinse out a can or bottle and then throw it into a bag (instead of a different bag, in the bin) is minuscule.  The real question, which hasn't actually been resolved, is therefore: what is worth more - the time it takes to rinse out a plastic bottle or the plastic itself, which can then be used for some other purpose?

* Actually, I read two of Professor Landsburgs books simultaneously, the other being 'More Sex is Safer Sex' - I'd highly recommend both of them.  I don't yet have a copy of his latest offering 'The Big Questions', as a price-sensitive consumer I'm waiting for it to come out on paperback.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Proportional Representation and Minorities

This post is somewhat in response to a recent post over on Left Foot Forward by Dr Omar Khan, who is the senior policy researcher for the Runnymede Trust.

Dr Khan raises the question of how proportional is PR for black and ethnic minority people?

First I feel it necessary to point out that Dr Khan is either being slightly sloppy in his approach to this topic, or is intentionally trying to mislead by mentioning the AV (Alternative Vote) system, on which the coalation goverment has agreed to hold a referendum in the following context: 
According to Nick Clegg in his first speech as deputy prime minister this week, more proportional systems provide better representation for underrepresented groups, but the evidence (internationally and in the UK) on this point is more complicated, especially for the ‘AV’ (alternative vote) system on which the Coalition Government has agreed to hold a referendum.

[Emphasis is Dr Khan's.]

I'd like to give Dr Khan the benefit of the doubt here - he does admit in the very last paragraph of the article, even if only briefly and in parenthesis, that AV is not in fact a proportional voting system at all.

Whilst this may be slightly misleading, it is not however the main objection I have with Dr Khan's article.  The main objection I have is the entire premise on which the article is built - that we should have a voting system which inevitably leads to us having more BME (Black and Minority Ethnic - Dr Khan's term) MPs.

Whilst I have no objection to there being more BME MPs I think there is an unhelpful obsession with race underlying this premise.  His argument seems to be that if 10% of the general population comprises BME people then roughly 10% of our parliament should consist of BME MPs.  I don't know about Dr Khan, but I don't choose which candidate to vote for based on race.  I prefer to choose who to vote for based on candidates policies, track record and my opinion of whether or not they could do a good job.

I'm going to go out on a limb here - hopefully a pretty sturdy one though - and suggest that not all BME people vote for BME candidates (where there is a BME candidate standing in their constituency).  I would have thought that at least some of them have better reasons for voting for their preferred candidate.

I remember having internet discussions on a similar topic based around this post from UKPR.  The gist of my argument is simple: It is wrong to vote for or against a candidate based on your own pre-concieved prejudices of race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc.

You should vote for the best candidate for the job, wherever they're from and whatever colour their skin happens to be.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010


For those of you unaware of Kiva, it is a website which facilitates micro-finance loans to poor people in the developing World by allowing lenders (i.e. you) to browse a list of entrepreneurs wishing to borrow money and then lend to whomever you wish.  Your money is then lent to the entrepreneurs via a micro-finance partner in the borrower's country.  The idea is that instead of giving people handouts, which can foster dependency, you are providing a means to help people get themselves out of poverty.

The Monkey Business Illusion

See if you can count how many times the players in white pass the ball:

Did you miss it?

Hat tip to Richard Wiseman.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Great Sentences

"It’s idiotic, hateful and destructive to put obstacles in the way of productive activity." - Steven Landsburg on Arizona's new anti-immigration law.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Political Spectrum?

There's something about a lot of political discourse in the blogosphere that particularly irritates me: talk of 'the political spectrum', in particular use of the terms 'the left' and 'the right' by people of all sorts of political affiliation as both complimentary and pejorative terms.

The terms 'right-wing' and 'left-wing' have their origins in the French Revolution, where in the French Parliament, those who sat on the left generally supported the radical changes of the revolution, including the creation of a republic and secularisation; those who sat on the right supported preservation of the monarchy, aristocracy and the established church.

More recently the term left-wing has been used to describe ideologies as wide ranging as anarchism, social liberalism, social democracy, socialism and communism.  Similarly, right-wing has been applied to conservatives, reactionaries, aristocrats, monarchists and theocrats as well as those who support both free-market capitalism and some forms of nationalism.

The problem with this is that the terms are sufficiently vague so as to include such wide-ranging viewpoints that they are effectively rendered meaningless.  By the generally accepted definitions given above, anarchists for example, are both left and right-wing.

Rather than thinking in terms of a left-right political spectrum, it is probably more accurate to think in terms of a plain of political ideas, an idea perhaps best captured by the Nolan Chart.

There's an example of a Nolan Chart below.  This one has been rotated 45 degrees counter-clockwise so that the 'liberal' region is on the left and the 'conservative' region on the right.  If you like to think in terms of left and right-wing politics these correspond (very roughly) to the left and right sides of the diagram.

The x-axis (which runs along the lower right of the graph) represents economic freedom, whilst the y-axis (lower left) represents personal freedom.

An explanation of where some typical ideologies lie on the Nolan Chart:
  • Communism can be considered to span almost the entire length of the lower left side of the chart, spanning both the statist (authoritarian) and liberal regions.
  • Socialism lies next to communism, slightly further up and to the right on the chart.
  • Liberalism, as should be apparent, covers the liberal area of the chart.
  • Social Democracy sits in the middle of the liberal part of the graph.
  • Totalitarianism and Fascism lie at the extreme point of the statist (authoritarian) region, at the very bottom of the chart.
  • Conservatism and Christian Democracy lie in the conservative area.
  • Libertarianism, obviously, covers the libertarian region.
  • Anarchism sits at the extreme tip of the libertarian region, right at the top of the graph, with maximum economic and personal freedom.
  • The centrist region contains many mainstream politicians and parties, combining more moderate ideas from many different ideologies.
In case you were wondering, the little star on the chart is where I personally sit on this measure of political ideology (as a self-described 'liberal with libertarian tendencies' I was hardly surprised by this result).  If you want to find out where you lie, try out this quiz; it seems to me to be quite accurate, despite only containing 10 questions, some of which are not ideally worded.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The General Election & Electoral Reform

I had been expecting an interesting election and an interesting election is what we got.  For the first time since 1974, the second time since the end of WWII, we have a hung parliament.  We still don't know for certain who will be the next Prime Minister [EDIT: We do now, David Cameron has been confirmed as PM, with Nick Clegg Deputy PM in a Con-LD coalition government], all we know at this stage is that Gordon Brown is stepping down from the post this year.

Anthony Wells, over on UK Polling Report, has a thorough breakdown of general election statistics, both here and here.

The most unusual statistic perhaps being that whilst the rest of the UK saw large swings from Labour to the Conservatives, Scotland showed a small swing from the Conservatives to Labour, precisely the opposite direction from the rest of the country.  Despite this though, not a single Scottish seat changed hands, the results were so close as to make no difference to those of the previous election in 2005.  I had expected the Tories to do less well here than in the rest of the UK, but I had expected at least a few of the more marginal seats to change hands, if not to the Tories then to the Liberal Democrats.

Given the current situation we're in, I think now is an appropriate time to share my thoughts on electoral reform.

I was about to start writing about how our current voting system is unfairly biased towards the two largest political parties and cite the fact that the Lib-Dems have less than 9% of the seats in the Commons, despite receiving 23% of the popular vote*, when I came across this piece from Tim Harford, who explains that 8% of the seats is not the same thing as 8% of the influence in the Commons and in the current situation the Lib-Dems have as much voting influence as Labour.

Tim is right, the maths does back him up - commentators are wrong to suggest that the outcome of this election was a bad one for the Liberal Democrats.  However, this is but one election and the Lib-Dems are but one party of many.  The fact that they hold more power than seats in this circumstance is surely not the point though?  (Tim acknowledges this fact in an update where he also points out that many people have missed the point he is making.)
Peter Henley has written here about the difference which would be made to the outcome of this election were it conducted under the Alternative Vote (AV) or Single Transferable Vote (STV) systems, as opposed to our current First Past The Post (FPTP) system.  However, these numbers will involve some pretty big assumptions, so can't be taken as a reliable prediction.  I do agree with the general conclusion made by Peter though, that there would be less of a difference from the existing system with AV than with STV.  This should be pretty obvious, since as a voting system AV resembles a mixture of both FPTP and STV.

First Past The Post (FPTP)
The problem with FPTP is that a party can gain a lot of public support and win a lot of votes, but due either to geography or gerrymandering can win relatively few, if any, seats.  The FPTP system favours Labour, whose voters tend to be concentrated in urban areas, at the expense of smaller parties and parties with less geographically concentrated supporters.

I have only heard two arguments put forward in favour of the FPTP system, one of which isn't even a proper argument:
  1. "We do it this way because we've always done it this way."
  2. FPTP gives you a representative local MP, something which you don't get with proportional representation.  (i.e. Parliament taken as a whole may be unrepresentative of what the nation wants, but at least each individual MP is representative of what their own constituents want.)
As I've mentioned the first of these is not even an argument, just because something is tradition or has always been done a particular way is not a good reason to continue, or to not seek to improve it in some way.  The second point has more substance to it, but even then there are systems of proportional representation which can go most of the way to addressing this issue.

Alternative Vote (AV)
This is the system promised by Labour in their latest manifesto and the system the Tories have discussed implementing to gain the support of the Lib-Dems in Westminster.

In an Alternative Vote system, also known as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) instead of putting an 'x' in the box next to your preferred candidate you simply rank the candidates by preference (put a '1' in the box next to your favourite candidate, '2' next to your second favourite, etc.)  This is simple for the voter and the system for counting votes has the advantage of being simple too.

The advantage of AV over FPTP, and the point which is generally used to argue in it's favour, is that it minimises "wasted" votes.

The way it works is very simple:
  • In each constituency an absolute majority (i.e. more than 50% of the votes) is required to win the seat.
  • If no candidate has an absolute majority the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their votes are re-allocated based on their next preference.
This process continues until one candidate has an absolute majority and is declared the winner of that seat.

Under AV it seems likely that more people would vote for who they actually wanted to win (i.e. less likely to vote tactically), since they can specify a second, third, fourth choice, etc.

Also, more people would be happy with the outcome of the vote in their own constituency, with every MP having gained an absolute majority of votes.

The disadvantage is that it still doesn't necessarily lead to a more proportional share of the seats in Westminster compared to the proportion of votes won for any particular party.  A party could secure a huge number of votes, but come a close second in the vast majority of seats, winning hardly any for themselves.

Single Transferable Vote (STV)
This is the system currently favoured by the Lib-Dems.

With STV the voter votes in exactly the same way as with AV (ranking candidates by preference).  The difference comes in the way constituencies are arranged and the way in which votes are counted.  AV is actually a special case of STV, where only one candidate is elected per constituency.

Rather than having small(ish) constituencies like we do now, with STV the country would be split into much larger constituencies or regions (maybe 5 or 10 times** bigger than our current constituencies).  Say, we combine 10 existing constituencies into one super-constituency, assuming the number of MPs stays the same we then need to elect 10 MPs from this one region.

The system for electing these MPs is the same as that used in the AV system, only instead of requiring an absolute majority each candidate requires the number of votes specified by the Droop quota in order to win a seat.

It works in a similar way to AV:
  • In each constituency, any candidate who has reached or exceeded the quota is declared elected.
  • If a candidate has more votes than the quota, their surplus votes are transferred to other candidates, proportional to the next preferences listed on that candidate's ballot papers.  Votes that would have gone to the winner instead go to the next preference listed on their ballot.
  • If no one new meets the quota, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and that candidate's votes are transferred.
This process repeats until either a winner is found for every seat or there are as many seats as remaining candidates.

Similarly to AV, people are more likely to vote for who they actually want to win and more people are likely to be happy (or at least not dismally disappointed) with the result.  The advantage over AV is, providing the constituencies or voting regions are large enough, the composition of MPs in Westminster will be proportional to the total number of votes received by each party nationally.

In case it is not apparent from my discussion of the voting systems above I am in agreement with the Lib-Dems and in favour of switching to the STV system.  If you disagree with me I'd be keen to hear from you in the comments.

* The Lib-Dems actually gained in terms of total number of votes and share of the vote, but lost seats.
** Maybe more, I use these numbers just as an example.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Dentists, cancelled appointments and unfair charges

Whilst every other blogger in the UK is probably blogging on today’s general election, I thought I’d reserve comment until the results are in.  I’ll be away for a long weekend, so this means I’ll post my thoughts on the election results next Tuesday.

I’ve just returned from a check-up with my (NHS) dentist and I’ve got a minor grievance with the service they offer (which means this post is likely to just be a personal rant).

This is what happened:

I was supposed to have an appointment for this routine check-up last Wednesday (28th April).  Now, my dentist is located a little way out of town, because there are a limited number of NHS dentists in my area and, at the time, was the only one I could find that was taking on more patients.  Also, I do not drive, so rely on public transport to get to/from the dental surgery.

So, having made the 30 minute trip to the dentist, via combination of bus and walking, I was a little annoyed to find that the dentist was unavailable.  I was told that he was called away on an emergency, which of course I understand cannot be helped.  The receptionist informed me that they had tried to contact me and on returning home later (another 30 minute trip) I discovered I had two voice-mails on my home phone from the surgery.  This wasn’t of much use however, as I’m out at work during the day – not sitting around the house waiting on calls from my dentist.

The problem I have is this:

If I had done the same to them as they did to me, they would have charged me £15 for wasting their time.  I know this because it says so on the little appointment cards* they hand out.  My girlfriend was personally subject to such a charge despite repeated attempts to contact the dental surgery to cancel a previous appointment – what do you do if their phone lines are constantly engaged (presumably with people phoning to complain about being unfairly charged)?

The charges themselves are perfectly reasonable.  I understand that their purpose is to discourage people from making appointments that they can't keep or cancelling at the last minute - taking up an appointment that could have been used by someone else and wasting the dentist's time.

But, is my time, and that of other patients not also valuable?  Surely by the dental surgery’s own rules I should be entitled to charge them for an hour of my time (the length of time for my pointless round-trip)?  Maybe it’s for the greater good though – if everyone did this it could put a lot of dentists out of business – my rates are considerably more than £15 per hour.

* “Please give at least 24 hours notice of cancellation Otherwise a fee will be charged.”
** On the upside my dentist has told me that my teeth are in such good condition that I don't need to come in for a 6 monthly check up all the time and I now only need to visit the dentist's once a year.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Four Lions

There is a new film out this week by comedy genius Chris Morris.  It is called 'Four Lions' and is a comedy about a group of hapless terrorists, participating in some sort of suicide bomb plot.  The official website, with information, trailers, reviews, etc. can be found here.

I have not yet seen the film, but intend to sometime soon.  I also intend to post a mini-review once I have seen it.

[Edit]: That mini-review may be a while away yet - none of my local cinemas are screening Four Lions...

Monday, 3 May 2010

Keeping Tabs on Politicians

A recent post over on Left Foot Forward got me thinking a bit on how we, the general public, ensure that our politicians are serving our interests. Of course, we have elections once every few years where we can vote out the corrupt and incompetent, but that will only happen when a politician is obviously corrupt or incompetent, expenses scandal aside it may not often be that apparent.

Websites do exist to help us keep tabs on our representatives in Parliament: and allow you to see when each MP attended Parliament, what debates they participated in, what they said and how they voted. You can also read all of the acts and bills passed (and rejected) by Parliament online, if you have the inclination for deciphering the lawyer-speak they’re written in.

However, there is one noticeable shortcoming in this process – we cannot tell from this information alone why a politician has voted a certain way, we do not know the intent behind any politician’s actions. Sadiq Khan’s post illustrates this when he says “The Liberal Democrats voted against our original proposals and have diluted the provisions of this Act (as did the Conservatives).” in relation to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill.

His depiction here is of Labour struggling to pass a piece of benign legislation, which would only benefit the British public, in the face of unjustified opposition from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. There can be many reasons for voting against a piece of legislation: bear in mind that these bills can be of considerable length and that the specific wording of the bill is what matters, not the intent behind it; because it is what the bill says, not what it intends, that becomes law. In the right circumstances then, a politician can be entirely justified in voting against a piece of legislation due to disagreement with the precise wording of just a single clause or sub-clause.

Khan does not provide us with any clues as to which parts of the bill have been ‘diluted’, or what the original wording of the bill was and whether there is any substantive difference between what was first proposed and what is now enshrined in law. Without these details voters are unable to decide for themselves how to side on the Government’s original proposals.

But then again, Khan's intention is not merely to furnish voters with information; he is after all a Labour MP, standing for re-election this week. The purpose of his article is to convince wavering voters (in this specific case - Muslim voters) that Labour is their best option at the forthcoming general election. This may or may not be true - from the limited information provided it's impossible to tell.


Hello and welcome to my new blog: Revolutioneering.

This is my first blog and to begin with just a place to collect my thoughts and put some of my ideas 'out there'. I hope that anyone who does stumble across it in it's infancy will comment whether or not they agree with me and hopefully everyone can learn something from it.

I intend to write at least 1 post a week, some serious, others less serious, on a wide variety of topics: science and engineering, politics, economics, religion, morality and logic to name but a few general areas.

I welcome any feedback on topics, writing style, ideas, etc.