On the road again

Another post-from-the-train, this time coming into Dundee en route to Aberdeen. Iona, sitting next to me, is amazed that Scotland is actually picturesque in the sunlight, and swears no-one ever told her this during her six previous visits to the country.

This is possibly the most convoluted journey I have taken in the UK. Oxford to Birmingham to Liverpool, rest, Liverpool to Manchester to Edinburgh, rest, Edinburgh to Aberdeen to Lerwick, finally arrive on Sunday after setting off on Thursday.

The next leg is either going to be delightfully enjoyable or hideously unpleasant. Twelve hours in the North Sea…

The Treasury, unexpectedly, turns a profit

Here’s an interesting note, buried deep in all the Budget reporting today – a report from UK Financial Investments, one of the world’s odder holding companies.

Shares in the two part-state-owned banks, RBS and Lloyds, closed at 44.49p and 64.2p respectively today, rising after the Budget failed to demonstrate we were ALL GOING TO DIE (etc). This is a substantial improvement on this time last year, though far from the highest they’ve been in the interim.

What it also means is that… well, the Treasury poured money into these banks like water in 2009 to stabilise them, taking share capital in return. They got an 84% stake in RBS – 90.6 billion shares – in return for £45.5 billion in funding, and a 41% stake in Lloyds – 27.6 billion shares – in return for £20.3 billion. The maths are simple – 45.5/90.6 = 50.22p per RBS share, 20.3/27.6 = 73.55p per Lloyds share.

But between them, these two banks – mostly Lloyds – have paid back just under £3.2 billion of that initial funding, in cash. If we subtract this from the total investment, we find the cost to the Treasury of those shares is… 49.89p per RBS share, 63.16p per Lloyds share.

Which means that UK Financial Instruments is currently sitting on a paper loss of around £5 billion in RBS shares, but a paper gain of around £280 million in Lloyds shares.

There’s clearly still a long way to go before it would be economically or politically viable to sell these shares, but it does look to be on the right track – it seems distinctly possible we’ll see the Treasury actually turning a profit on these over the next few years, even accounting for the cost of the borrowing to pay for it (at, what, 4%?).

(On a semi-unrelated note… I was quite unimpressed by the Conservative response to the Budget. All it seemed to involve was hammering on about how large the deficit was, without ever touching on… well, what else they’d have done. A missed opportunity to actually discuss economic policy, there.)

Fish, barrel, etc.

From the comments on a recent BBC news story:

Yet another useless and pointless anachronism in our tradition-obsessed country, like daylight saving, the House of Lords and the Monarchy.

Yes, that hideous medieval throwback, daylight savings time (1917). Other equally ancient practices we could abandon at the same time include, er, women’s suffrage (1918) and old age pensions (1909). Ah, the grand tradition of “if I don’t understand it, it must be ancient and meaningless”…

The joy of indices

Today’s light entertainment: an old article from the Independent on the delights of book indices (indexes? You know what I mean, anyway).

One of my favourite sets of indices is from A.P. Herbert’s various collections of Misleading Cases, which if anything get more opinionated as time goes on. A short extract from Wigs at Work:

Barracuda, compared with surtax, 148
Big Ben, lying, a bad thing, 193. See also ‘Summer Time’
Blackmail, defined, 73. See also ‘Collector of Taxes’
Burglar: how much can a, be killed?, 165, 168, 169; use of garden fork against, commended, 165

Eggs: as negotiable instruments, 67; correct handling of, 71
Eton, regrettable incident at, traced to study of classics, 57

Haddock, Albert: [a full column of close-set type]
Intoxication, premature, attributed to Summer Time, 199
Jonah, wife of, her comments, unrecorded, 87
Lying, everyone presumed to be, in divorce court, 85

Right, first time: British Courts have little hope of being, 92
Rylands v. Fletcher: applies to computer, 209; does not apply to snails, 35
Swan, deplorable episode, 56. See also Leda
Thermometers, why not falsify? See ‘Summer Time’
Ultra Vires, to be pronounced in the good old English fashion, 128
Virtue, tax on, 97. See also Income Tax Acts
Wedding guests, harsh lot, 16

In defence of constituencies

Following on from the previous post, some more notes on a somewhat odd article on FiveThirtyEight.

The bulk of the article seems to be criticising the system for drawing parliamentary boundaries on four points:

  1. …the census data used is quite elderly
  2. …the boundaries take account of things other than population distribution, such as council areas
  3. …some geographical oddities like islands are dealt with as special cases
  4. …Wales, Scotland and NI are required to have fixed seat numbers

The main objection here – barring the first point, which I broadly agree with, but which is hard to improve on in most cases – seems to be with the use of non-demographic boundaries in drawing the lines, and I’m just not sure why that is a problem. When electing a representative, the key point is that they be able to represent a constituency; that it be practical for them to find (and be found by) their constituents, that they can identify a distinct section of the population, etc.

Taking the Isle of Wight as an example, it’s big, but how would we split it? We could split it in two – but these would be unusually small constituencies. We could carve off a third and put it in with a Hampshire constituency – but this would disadvantage that third, who would find it more difficult to be in contact with their MP than those who remained insular. In the north of Scotland, you could easily add Caithness to Orkney and Shetland – total population thus “correct” at around 60,000 – but would this have any effect save to further marginalise voters in Lerwick, already pretty distant from the seat of power, and make it vastly less likely they’d ever see an MP?

Political boundaries matter in the same way as geographical ones; if you have existing subnational boundaries like counties or local authorities, then matching the constituencies to these where possible saves a lot of work. People know, much more easily, who their MP and their constituency are; the MP is much more able to focus on issues relevant to a given city or county rather than two or three. In a more practical sense, constituencies have names not numbers; if you’re going to have constituencies with a fixed name, it cries out for a certain degree of geographical coherence.

This is, of course, saying that the absolute “each vote should count equally” principle doesn’t work, that constituencies shouldn’t be made an absolute size and that some people have a theoretically “more powerful” vote than others. This is true – but it’s endemic in the system anyway. If we were going to carefully sculpt constituencies so as to be identically-sized, and demographically balanced, then we may as well drop the constituency idea altogether and go to proportional representation, as in the Netherlands – an ideal case of a balanced constituency.

All this may seem like a bit of overemphasis on some pretty trivial points, but I think those points are telling. FiveThirtyEight ran excellent, intelligent, detailed and basically interesting studies of the last US election; plenty of people outside the US read it avidly for this, myself included. We had to take a lot of its basic assumptions on trust, though; we didn’t have the underlying understanding of the system to do a quick sanity-check and know whether they sounded right or not.

So, come this election, they write about here, and the problems start becoming apparent. To pick a quote from a subsequent article:

Supporters of the Liberal Democrats, while not ordinarily inclined to vote Tory, may do so to push through proportional representation.

This is the sort of thing that… well, hands up, who’s ever met many committed Lib Dems who say, hey, I might just vote Tory to stop those evil Labour people getting in? Um.

Yes, there will be swing voters from LD to Conservative – though not as many as sometimes thought – but those will be classic swing voters; they’ll swing based on the economy, or other overall political issues, or simply because they no longer see the Tories as… quite as messy as they used to be. They won’t be core LD voters, devoutly wedded to PR, who are trying to produce a hung parliament in the hope that this will somehow extort PR from the resulting trainwreck.

In a comment on the last post, cim points out another delight from the same author:

And then there was this one from the EU elections where they decided that it was meaningful to group Plaid with the BNP as “nationalists”. I conclude that they don’t actually know anything about UK politics, and look forward to more amusement as their election coverage continues.

I think that last comment says all I was tempted to, really.

The oppressed Scottish Conservatives (both of them)

There’s a slightly odd post on FiveThirtyEight which I noticed: Breaking News: U.S. and U.K. Redistricting Processes Equally Boneheaded. I wonder if this is what we Brits sound like when we pontificate on US politics.

The part I couldn’t help laughing at.

In the UK by contrast, the net effect of these aspects of the mapping system is one-sided against the Conservatives. The Conservatives have little presence in Scotland (where they hold 1 out of 59 seats) or Wales …

…and a nice large illustration of Scotland to show how terribly the constituency boundaries oppress all those hordes of Tories. Um.

This is a problem of first-past-the-post, first and foremost; there are arguably ancillary problems with the system being marginally skewed pro-Labour due to urban voting concentrations etc etc, but they just don’t come into play at this level. Why?

The reason the Conservatives don’t have many seats in Scotland is – let us be sadly honest – that the average Conservative parliamentary candidate is about as popular on a Scottish doorstep as the rent collector. In 2005, they were fourth, with one seat and 15.8% of the votes; in 2001, the same, with 15.6%. In 1997, they took a staggering no seats on 17.5% of the vote – whilst the SNP, on 22%, took a mere six out of 72.

Coming fourth with ~16% of the vote in an overall campaign, without a great deal of concentration of your voters in specific regions, is almost guaranteed to be a damp squib in a first-past-the-post system. It doesn’t matter if you’re the Conservative Party or the Labour Party; any marginal systemic biases the system may have are vastly wiped out by the sheer scale of the problem.

We can see this using a (very non-Tory) example – look at the Liberal Democrats in 1992, across the whole UK. They took 18% of the vote, but only twenty seats – 3%. In 1987, the Alliance took 22.5% of the votes, but still only ~3.5% of the seats; in 1983, 25% of the vote… and still only 3.5% of the seats.

Would it be better under a non-FPTP system? Well, we actually have a perfect laboratory system here – Scotland. Let’s look at the 2007 Scottish elections – the Conservatives took 16.6% of the “constituency” vote and secured 5.5% of the seats, but 14% of the “list” vote – and 23% of the seats. This puts them on an average share of 15.3%, with 13.2% of the seats – not particularly unrepresentative number-wise, but definitely polling around the same as they did for Westminster elections.

In 2003, the same pattern – 16% of the overall vote, 14% of the overall seats – and again in 1999 – 15.5% of the votes and 14% of the overall seats. In both cases, they took the lion’s share from the proportional-representation list votes; indeed, in 1999, they didn’t get a single constituency seat.

So, yes, if there were not a FPTP system the Conservatives would do better; there is one, and they get hammered. But to use the situation of Scotland – where the Conservatives manage to be a third-place party if they do well – as though it is indicative of the rest of the UK is either disingenuous or just confused; the political realities of Scotland just aren’t the same as the nation as a whole. We cannot logically leap from “the FPTP system is wildly biased against a local minor party”, when we know that FPTP is already biased against minor parties, to “the FPTP system is therefore wildly biased against that party when they compete nationally as a major player”.

Notes from Northumbria

I am, as I type, rolling over the viaduct in Durham (we’re not stopping, the Cathedral just flashed by) and it struck me that it’s been just over ten years since I started taking the East Coast line regularly, when I first went down for an open day at… York, it must have been? Lot of change since then, not least of which is that I am wearing a suit – I’m on my way to a wedding – and connected to the internet on a netbook substantially more useful than any PC I had access to at the time. I might just have had mild terror at the idea of paying £110 for a weekend return ticket back then – and been equally surprised at just whose wedding I’d be coming back home for.

The line is the same, but the trains are refurbished; this is their third owner in that time, having gone from GNER to National Rail to the magnificently dully-named East Coast. Thinking about it, it’s probably their second stint in public ownership – some of the rolling stock here must be a good twenty years old, pre-privatisation. The spirit of British Rail manages to live on in the new nationalisation; even the hasty repainting of the carriages seems to have been done shoddily. (I have yet to test the quality of the sandwiches.)

Still, it’s fun. In the late eighties, when I first remember taking trains – very rarely – it was an exciting adventure because, well, it was a train, and I was six. In 2000, when I started taking long-haul trains regularly, it was exciting because there was a new life ahead, and it was all bound up with that. (“The noblest prospect”, etc.) In 2010, it’s almost mundane, but there continues to be a small thrill – there’s still that faint sense of wonder that I can amble up to the station, buy a cup of coffee, wave some paper, take my seat, settle down, and get whisked to the other end of the country, quietly and cleanly and unobtrusively. No security checks, none of the nonsense that makes flying unpleasant, just the enjoyment of being taken somewhere, the scenery flicking past the windows, and not having to worry about how.

Fake reward signs

Via Andrew Garrett, this amusing image: two signs, one advertising a $50 reward for a lost ipod… and the other advertising a $51 reward for a lost ipod. Amusing, but I can’t see anyone actually calling the $51 guy.

Let’s assume you were indeed some kind of conniving scammer; how would you go about this, presuming that “take down the first poster” isn’t an option? The person who lists second needs to pick a value that increases the plausibility of their poster (is a round number) and provides an economic incentive to call them (is larger) without being self-defeating (is too expensive compared to just buying one).

If the poster had said $60, we might have taken it more seriously – it’s a round number, so it looks more independently plausible – but this doesn’t automatically make it more convincing than the first. When you’re approaching the two signs with the knowledge that one of them is a scam, you’re thinking more critically than usual, and so you’re trying to deduce which one is legitimate.

Seeing the two signs, you’re likely to run through something like the above chain of logic and conclude – one of these two is a scammer, and it makes sense that it’s the higher one. Would it, then, be smarter to deliberately flout the economic aspect and undercut the legitimate poster? Your price is the only way of signalling your plausibility you have, and a lower price implies that you were first to advertise – because it’s irrational to make a lower bid after a higher one.

There is a counterargument that most finders wouldn’t be this honest – they would be motivated by nice simple economic motives first, and so would call the person offering an extra $10. But this doesn’t really reflect the situation: we know that the market value of a second-hand ipod must be more than the amount the scammer offers as a reward, and so a large number of those motivated by purely economic motives would no doubt want to sell the ipod (or keep it). If someone is already contemplating the reward posters at all, they’ve indicated a willingness to take a nominal loss in the interests of “justice” by returning it to its owner.

Alternatively, I suppose, you could counterbid $50, thus anulling pretty much any benefit either you or the original poster would have and turning it into a game of chance. Which offers better odds?

I wonder what we’d get from testing this… is there a sweet spot, just above or just below the original reward, where you’re most likely to get a response?

Meta comment-spam

From today’s spam filter, a comment which amused me deeply:

Howdy, i read your blog occasionally and i own a similar one and i was just wondering if you get a lot of spam comments? If so how do you prevent it, any plugin or anything you can advise? I get so much lately it’s driving me mad so any assistance is very much appreciated.

I suppose the best way to disguise comment-spam is to have the boilerplate text be complaining about it…