Archive for April, 2010

The process of a hung parliament

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

The Cabinet Secretary prepared a paper earlier in the year on the transition periods between governments, including the process for a hung parliament – it’s been published here.

The key quote is: “Where an election does not result in a clear majority for a single party, the incumbent Government remains in office unless and until the Prime Minister tenders his and the Government’s resignation to the Monarch. … As long as there is significant doubt whether the Government has the confidence of the House of Commons, it would be prudent for it to observe discretion about taking significant decisions, as per the preelection period. The normal and essential business of government at all levels, however, will need to be carried out.”

In other words: whatever happens, short of a clear majority, Brown remains in power until the dust settles.

As to just how the dust settles, this summary points out an interesting wrinkle: the Lib Dems have a system in place to control how a coalition is decided upon. Clegg would need the explicit support of three-quarters of the MPs and of the party executive; failing that, he could appeal to a special conference, and need a two-thirds majority there; failing that, he could take it to a ballot of all party members. I can’t see it ever dragging on that long, but it is interesting to know that it’s not simply a matter of the party heads making a decision and then moving swiftly on to government.

I suppose they were asking for this one

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

A graffitied campaign sign spotted whilst cycling to work this morning:


Oddly enough, I think this is the first graffitied poster I’ve actually seen this time around. Perhaps Oxford has a more consensual approach to campaigning…

Recipe: whipped cream

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

This one is more for my reference than an actual recipe, but. Some months ago Andrew’s grandmother very patiently taught me how to whip cream. (After expressing mild astonishment that I didn’t even know you could whip cream. I don’t even know what I thought. Maybe one udder full-fat, one skimmed, one whipped?)

Anyway, I’ve been waiting to have a go at it myself. And it appears, contrary to every recipe on the internet, it is not that hard to whip cream through trial and error. I bought ordinary double cream, fished out my flatmate’s very nice Ikea whisk, and whisked. And whisked, and whisked, and whisked, and whisked. And got bored, and switched to a fork and took the bowl through to watch ten minutes of Deep Space Nine.

Nothing doing. I changed back to the whisk – apparently, you cannot do it with a fork, but you can do it without an electric mixer. Within about thirty seconds, it had turned pleasantly solid and fluffly. I chopped some strawberries into it, and they aren’t very nice – it’s only April, so they’re imported and a little tasteless, even though it was such a sunny day they were half price – but I am ridiculously pleased with myself.

That is all. Next time I will do it with someone else in the house – Andrew is away – so I am not loser girl eating her way through an entire bowl of whipped cream all by herself.

Recipe: slow-roasted tomatoes

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Oh my god. Remember I said I was slow-roasting tomatoes? Well, today I had the afternoon off school and resolved to try it.

Oh, oh my god. I had no idea how this was going to work, but the tomatoes just came out of the oven and they taste like…. well, the original author described them as “twenty feet tall and made of sunlight”. The taste is indescribable: sort of sweet, sort of sour, sort of like the best pizza you ever had, sort of like dessert and somehow still savoury. It’s utterly delicious.

I altered the recipe slightly, as expected: my tomatoes took not quite six hours, not the recommended seven, and that includes twenty minutes earlier when my flatmate wanted the oven for a pizza. (I suspect this shorter time is because it’s a fan oven, and obviously all ovens are different, etc.) Despite the ridiculously long cooking time, they’re very simple: ten minutes’ preparation time, maximum, and although you should check them every so often just to check they’re not turning into little red leather scraps, but essentially it’s easy peasy.

I have this feeling I’m just going to eat them out of the jar, rather than use them in actual food, and that they might be gone tomorrow. I had no idea how much to start with, so guessed 750g of baby plum tomatoes: this has yielded one not-very-large jar (that is already looking depleted, sigh).

Mmm. Tastes like summer. And speaking of summer, it’s coming; the birds are singing, the glass is green, I’m drinking smoothie out of a wine glass and my landlord’s cat has just bounced through the window. Life’s good.

A post-aviation world

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Via BBC: Could we live without flights?

I love the image at the top of this article. No, I really do; it’s gorgeously windswept, it reminds me of Shetland and other places marked by great distance. It’s an oddly bittersweet image, I think, but the article tends more to the sweet. It concludes that Britain would suffer in a world without air travel – it would suffer in terms of its tourism, food and business – but not as much as you might think. Which is interesting: it’s certainly interesting to learn that, for example, most of the tourism revenue in the UK comes from domestic holidaymakers, even if they don’t make up the bulk of the tourists, and for another example, that most of Britain’s food, even its fruit and vegetables, comes by ship, with figures of one and two percent given for the proportion of British food that is actually flown in.

But it’s a little unforgivable to then move on to the topic of people living near airports now getting more sleep, and conclude that everything in the garden is lovelier than expected in the post-aviation world. What about the people who didn’t arrive here head-first? If there were no more air travel, how could I ever go home – how could I ever attend a family wedding or visit a new baby or take my grandfather out for tea? How could you live in a world that had become so much more frightening, so much more implacably, devastatingly large overnight?

And more than that: we wouldn’t go anywhere, and the world wouldn’t come to us. Part of the reason Britain is not all-white, all-homogenous is air travel – people come, and work and dance and live and cook in new ways – and you can imagine that stopping, peeling away in layers from life as we know it until, as the BBC article notes, without even realising the implications, it’s 1950. Flying is wonderful, and it’s not just because of mangoes in supermarkets. It’s the reason there are people to buy them.

Turnout figures

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Liberal Conspiracy, I’ve noticed, are quoting the YouGov polling figures in full – not just the headline percentages, but some of the subsidiary questions. (14/4; 18/4).

The one that interests me is the “likelihood to vote” question. Last week, 65% of those polled said they were “absolutely certain” to vote; this week, 68%. Now, these percentages are probably overoptomistic – people do like sounding politically involved and keen when asked questions, and there are of course no shortage of people who intend to vote, but get stuck in traffic coming home from work, or come down with the flu, or simply forget.

If we assume everyone overestimates their willingness to vote by ~10%, then we’re looking at an expected turnout of 75-78%. (If we assume they overestimate by ~20%, then we’re looking at an expected turnout of 66-68% – less remarkable, but still better than recent standards)

I wonder if we have the polling likelihood question from previous years, to compare the actual result and see what our modifier should be…

(Also: it’s interesting to see the likelihood of voting ticking up along with the recent swing to the Lib Dems. Cause or effect?)

Cookbook publishing, it’s very difficult

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

Cookbook misprint costs Australian publishers dear.

So, a publisher in Australia managed to publish a cookbook with a recipe that called for “salt and freshly ground black people”.


I’m sure I would have had much more sympathy for said publisher, though, had he not been quoted as saying, “[W]hy anyone would be offended, we don’t know”, and “proofreading a cook-book is an extremely difficult task”.

I don’t know, I might not buy books from a publisher that finds it very difficult not to accidentally advocate grinding up black people.

Quality versus age of Wikipedia’s Featured Articles

Friday, April 16th, 2010

There’s been a brief flurry of interest on Wikipedia in this article, published last week:

Evaluating quality control of Wikipedia’s feature articles – David Lindsey.

…Out of the Wikipedia articles assessed, only 12 of 22 were found to pass Wikipedia’s own featured article criteria, indicating that Wikipedia’s process is ineffective. This finding suggests both that Wikipedia must take steps to improve its featured article process and that scholars interested in studying Wikipedia should be careful not to naively believe its assertions of quality.

A recurrent objection to this has been that Lindsey didn’t take account of the age of articles – partly because article quality can degrade over time, since the average contribution is likely to be below the quality of the remainder of the article if it began at a high level, and partly because the relative stringency of what constitutes “featured” has changed over time.

The interesting thing is, this partly holds and partly doesn’t. The article helpfully “scored” the 22 articles reviewed on a reasonably arbitrary ten-point scale; the average was seven, which I’ve taken as the cut-off point for acceptability. If we graph quality against time – time being defined as the last time an article passed through the “featuring” process, either for the first time or as a review – then we get an interesting graph:

Here, I’ve divided them into two groups; blue dots are those with a rating greater than 7, and thus acceptable; red dots are those with a rating lower than 7, and so insufficient. It’s very apparent that these two cluster separately; if an article is good enough, then there is no relation between the current status and the time since it was featured. If, however, it is not good enough, then there is a very clear linear relationship between quality and time. The trendlines aren’t really needed to point this out, but I’ve included them anyway; note that they share a fairly similar origin point.

Two hypotheses could explain this. Firstly, the quality when first featured varies sharply over time, but most older articles have been brought up to “modern standards”. Secondly, the quality when first featured is broadly consistent over time, and most articles remain that level, but some decay, and that decay is time-linked.

I am inclined towards the second. If it was the first, we would expect to see some older articles which were “partially saved” – say, one passed when the average scoring was three, and then “caught up” when the average scoring was five. This would skew the linearity of the red group, and make it more erratic – but, no, no sign of that. We also see that the low-quality group has no members older than about three years (1100 days); this is consistent with a sweeper review process which steadily goes through old articles looking for bad ones, and weeding out or improving the worst.

(The moral of the story? Always graph things. It is amazing what you spot by putting things on a graph.)

So what would this hypothesis tell us? Assuming our 22 are a reasonable sample – which can be disputed, but let’s grant it – the data is entirely consistent with all of them being of approximately the same quality when they first become featured; so we can forget about it being a flaw in the review process, it’s likely to be a flaw in the maintenance process.

Taking our dataset, the population of featured articles falls into two classes.

  • Type A – quality is consistent over time, even up to four years (!), and they comply with the standards we aim for when they’re first passed.
  • Type B – quality decays steadily with time, leaving the article well below FA status before even a year has passed.

For some reason, we are doing a bad job of maintaining the quality of about a third of our featured articles; why, and what distinguishes Type B from Type A? My first guess was user activity, but no – of those seven, in only one case has the user who nominated it effectively retired from the project.

Could it be contentiousness? Perhaps. I can see why Belarus and Alzheimer’s Disease may be contentious and fought-over articles – but why Tōru Takemitsu, a well-regarded Japanese composer? We have a decent-quality article on global warming, and you don’t get more contentious than that.

It could be timeliness – an article on a changing topic can be up-to-date in 2006 and horribly dated in 2009 – which would explain the problem with Alzheimer’s, but it doesn’t explain why some low-quality articles are on relatively timeless topics – Takemitsu or the California Gold Rush – and some high-quality ones are on up-to-date material such as climate change or the Indian economy.

There must be something linking this set, but I have to admit I don’t know what it is.

We would be well-served, I think, to take this article as having pointed up a serious problem of decay, and start looking at how we can address that, and how we can help maintain the quality of all these articles. Whilst the process for actually identifying a featured article at a specific point in time seems vindicated – I am actually surprised we’re not seeing more evidence of lower standards in the past – we’re definitely doing our readers a disservice if the articles rapidly drop below the standards we advertise them as holding.


Thursday, April 15th, 2010

It’s a Thursday afternoon in the spring, and I am thinking about voting. Here comes the spiel:

Have you registered to vote, lovely British people reading this? Here’s how you do it, if not; you do need to post the form in, because it needs your signature, but otherwise it is easy peasy. And you may already be registered if you haven’t moved since the last election, but do check.

I do think everyone who can vote, should. I don’t think you should vote for a candidate if you don’t think any of the candidates are worth voting for, but if you spoil your ballot paper you are part of the turnout, and I think that’s kind of cool. I mean, you could also refuse to do even that, because you don’t wish to engage with bourgeoisie representative democracy, and that would be a legitimate choice and would totally make you unique and special, but on the whole I think voting is great. And not only just for the democratic aspect; I like how polling stations are tiny places, and you vote with a pencil and a scrap of paper, and there is no technology and nothing scary to do. You go in, you vote, sometimes the BBC wave and smile at you on your way out, and all is well with the world.

My problem at the moment is that I don’t know whom to vote for. I am registered in Oxford East, which is an interesting Labour marginal seat; although the incumbent, Andrew Smith, has been in place since 1983, he’s got a good prospect of losing to the Liberal Democrats this time around, which makes it a little difficult for me, considering the two parties I would consider voting for are pretty much the only two real contenders.

I did consider registering to vote by post in Sefton Central, the constituency my parents live in, but at the time I thought Claire Curtis-Thomas was standing again, and she’s about the only MP I hate so much on a personal level that it entirely eclipses her party affiliation (Labour!)[1] and it would be even harder to decide whom to vote for. In addition, Sefton Central is a new seat – I have only voted in a general election once before, and it was from that address, but in 2005 that was the Crosby constituency – so it’s harder to guess what will happen. And in addition to that, I don’t like postal voting! I like going to polling stations on sunny afternoons in May. Every election I can remember has been sunny, although possibly that is just the delicate tint of childhood, I don’t know.

Another thing that bothers me, though, is that I will be voting in Oxford East six weeks before I cease to be a permanent resident of that constituency. And you could argue that the MP elected from that constituency would still be under a duty to protect my interests in terms of national policy – foreign policy, healthcare, education policy, the usual – but six weeks after that I cease being a resident of the UK.

Well, that’s not true. I’ll still be a permanent resident of the UK, and once I return there will still be probably three and maybe four years of the parliament to go, so it certainly still affects me. I just think it’s interesting from the perspective of the principle behind it – clearly people who leave their country of citizenship shouldn’t lose their right to vote, because they’re not (necessarily) gaining the right to vote elsewhere, but it does seem to disenfranchise them in a fairly fundamental way. It’s interesting, but I can’t think of a better way of doing it. I have decided not to vote in any local elections while I’m away – I have no right, really, to do so – and there will be no general elections (unless something really dramatic happens) and no European Parliament elections either.

So that’s that… but I still need to decide whom to vote for. Tonight, there’s the whole glossy American-style debate, which may be helpful, and next week, on April 22nd, there are hustings in Oxford East, which might also be helpful, I don’t know.

Hmm. Three weeks left to decide.

[1] I remember being told in A-level politics that generally speaking, the personality of an MP doesn’t influence their results much – think up to 500 votes either way. Hi, I am one of the 500, apparently.

Spot the problem

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

From the Conservative manifesto:


I understand that it’s traditional in political maps to remove adjacent countries so as not to confuse people (and that it’s traditional in English maps to forget about anything north of Caithness) but… replacing France and Ireland with the sea was perhaps not the most tactful idea.

On the other hand, perhaps hinting at a policy of submerging all the foreigners was deliberate – it is the Conservative manifesto, after all…

Edited to add: there’s a second map. This one is marginally less ludicrous – there’s no attempt at sea, so removing Ireland looks reasonable. The Western Isles have appeared – though still no Orkney and Shetland – but, somewhat strangely, so has the Isle of Man.


So, the geopolitical lessons we can take away from the manifesto? France and Ireland: submerged. Offshore parts of Scotland: may or may not exist. Isle of Man: apparently now annexed into the UK. Disappointingly, neither of the other major parties includes maps in their manifestoes.