Proportionally Better or Worse?

May 11, 2015

Surprise surprise, there are quite a few graphics around showing the perceived unfairness of the UK’s voting system following Thursday’s General Election. The chances of any type of PR being implemented for Westminster are remote – if nothing else, there’s little or no incentive for the party in power to change the system that’s elected them. That won’t stop supporters of some of the other parties – Lib Dem, UKIP and Green in particular – from pointing at their vote share and arguing the case again.

I have some sympathy for them, but at the same time it’s a case of “be careful what you wish for” – PR would quite possibly have delivered a Tory/UKIP coalition based on the stats, and a lot of the people complaining may well have seen that as their worst nightmare. However, all of the parties need to recognise that PR is a system that can damage as easily as promote them.

One of the things is that PR would see a lessening of the impact of Tactical Voting. Currently, the fate of the country is decided by a number of key marginals – the majority of seats rarely if ever change hands. And in those marginals, there will be a tendency for tactical voting to be encouraged – virtually every party in second place in a marginal will have produced election leaflets saying “Only X can defeat Y here” – clearly saying that even if you don’t actively support them, you ought to vote or Party Y, your natural enemy, will be elected instead. It’s a fairly standard tactic. So Lib Dems might historically pick up a lot of prospective Labour votes in places where they were seen as the only effective alternative to the Conservatives. and some prospective Tory voters who wanted to keep out Labour in other places. UKIP are somewhat different in that they have effectively been a Protest Vote – “we don’t like any of the others so we’ll show them by voting UKIP”. They have built on this somewhat, but Nigel Farage has been very keen to promote himself and UKIP as the party to vote for if you’re fed up of mainstream politics and politicians.

Introduce PR, and the Tactical Vote is less significant. What effect would that have on the smaller parties? Would the Green Vote increase as people felt they would actually have a voice? Would the Lib Dems find their vote squeezed even more, or would it grow as they gain the Lib Dem supporters who’ve voting tactically elsewhere? If UKIP have to engage with mainstream politics, will they have to change their stance? Would the people in the Labour Heartlands like the North-East who voted UKIP continue to do so if they think they could gain real power? The answer is that no-one is really sure – but I’m fairly confident that the share of the votes we saw last week wouldn’t have been quite the same under PR. So to argue for it on the basis of last week’s results is very much a flawed argument.


Did Labour lose, or did the Conservatives win? Election Reflection

May 8, 2015

One of the most remarkable of all sites connected with politics is UK Polling Report – the site run by pollster Anthony J. Wells, which far from taking a party political line, attracts people from all sides of the political debate who are interested in the numbers and analysis. However, if the predictions that were made by many of its denizens are anything to go by (amazingly collated by one of the contributors – see UK Polling Report to find a link to the spreadsheet) then most of those frequenting the site will be scratching their heads today as they consider what went wrong – not with the campaigns, but with the polls over the last few weeks.

It’s a legitimate question to ask given how things turned out. Almost every poll going seemed to indicate a very tight election, almost certainly a hung parliament, and a new coalition or a minority government propped up by less formal agreements. And then came the results of the Exit Poll, greeted with almost stunned disbelief even by those who found their wildest expectations exceeded. Paddy Ashdown said he’d eat his hat, Alaisdair Campbell his kilt if the exit poll was right; even Michael Gove seemed to think that they might not do quite as well as the initial prediction. The fact that the Exit Poll if anything very slightly understated the result – Conservatives gaining even more seats, Labour and the Lib Dems losing even more – suggests that all the polling companies are going to have to take a long, hard look at their methods.

Meanwhile, the political inquests are already starting at Labour and Lib Dem HQs. Both of them will need to do some careful analysis; whether they will reach satisfactory conclusions though is open to question.

First, a quick comment about the Lib Dems. Coalition has often been a difficult expeerience for the junior partner, and for them it was a particularly bad one: in some ways, they have found themselves completely squeezed out. For what we might call the progressives, the softer left and centre, they became a scapegoat in my view: blamed for much of the austerity and perceived injustices of the last five years when, brutally, they failed to stand up to their senior partners. The Conservatives didn’t suffer because most of their voters in 2010 knew that this was what they expected from their chosen party; if anything, the Tory vote may have been firmed up by being able to write off any unfilled pledges as being due to the demands of coalition, while the Lib Dems never escaped the perception that they’d sold their soul for a bit of power and a Referendum on AV. To a large number of the “Anyone but Tory” vote, they became anathema, while they failed to appeal to the centre ground who might normally consider them.

Labour however suffered for more complex reasons and they need to spend some time thinking about them. First, possibly one of the key factors was that they simply failed to convince enough of the electorate to trust them again; after the car crash of the Brown years (not entirely Brown’s fault, but he didn’t seem to know what to do about it) Labour needed to lay out an Economic Programme that looked sound, imaginative, and inspiring – a true alternative vision. They tried, but too many people simply didn’t believe them; they couldn’t bring themselves to trust the people who, rightly or wrongly, in the public mind carried the can for the problems since 2009. The average voter isn’t going to read about the issues in depth; they’re not going to care about the worldwde economic situation, or the American-led bad debt issues that enveloped so many financial institutions. “It’s the economy, stupid” said Bill Clinton many years ago – and Labour didn’t convince on the economy and will have to work hard to change that.

There’s also the issue of what their campaign focussed on. In some ways, under Ed Milliband, Labour attempted to head back towards its roots somewhat – champion the working man, tax the rich, social justice. But the perceived betrayal of the Blair years, when Labour seemed to be less the party of Socialism and more the party of “whatever will get us elected” means that it has lost contact with those roots; while many still voted for them, the ties that bind have weakened and you do wonder if some of those traditional Labour households no longer feel that it’s their party any more. Instead, they latched on to UKIP – a party with a keen eye for a populist policy or seven, the Greens (albeit in smaller numbers) who seem to be offering a sort of Environmental Socialism, or simply stayed at home. However, for the centre ground – which Blair won from so convincingly – they looked too much like the party of, if not Tony Benn and Michael Foot, then at least Neil Kinnock and John Smith.

However, one must also acknowledge that agree with them or not, the Conservatives actually won the election as much as anyone else lost it. They presented a vision that enough people bought into to elect them; they presented themselves as a strong party of government, and you suspect that many were swayed not so much by the political principles as by the image of a party ready to govern with a plan on how they were going to do it. To this end, Cameron’s refusal to participate in the leader’s debate was actually a good thing for him; he dealt from a position of strength and left the others to argue it out. Arguably Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP were the only other party to benefit – looking strong and forceful, and already governing in Scotland. They provided the only other leader who looked Prime Ministerial – and they were no threat to the Tories anyway as if anything they were already going to make it harder for Labour to become the largest party. People who maybe aren’t so political can sometimes be swayed by that perception; they won’t read the manifestos, but will go by that decision of will they offer stable government. Thatcher managed it; Major didn’t. Blair did, for a time at least; Brown didn’t have the same appeal. Cameron built on his time as Prime Minister to make enough of the apolitical ones decide they’d prefer him to the alternatives.

Finally, it will be interesting to see where UKIP goes now. Nigel Farage is at least going to allow a leadership contest, and his party have surprised many by showing that they are not about being a party merely of disaffected Tories, but a real challenger for the votes of the centre ground too. They will talk of a broken voting system – something pretty much every party other than the big two will always do – but with no real prospect of change. The challenge for them is whether they can maintain their momentum, hold onto their place in the spotlight, and become a real alternative to the established parties for a long period of time. Will they replace the Lib Dems as the third force and a destination for those who’d never vote for the other of the big two? Or will their fragile patchwork of party machinery across the country disperse before it can be more permanently harnessed? Only time will tell.


Unreal Tournament: England and the Cricket World Cup

March 7, 2015

You’d be forgiven for thinking that there are currently two England Cricket Teams. One is full of self belief, knows what it’s doing, and is looking to go deep into the World Cup; the other is in disarray, with players who shouldn’t be there, scrabbling for the scraps just to try and at least have a claim on being at least the eighth best team in the world.

The problem is that to anyone outside the camp, it’s the latter that’s the true situation. England so far have one win – against Scotland – and three defeats that it’s hard to argue have been anything other than thumpings. Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka – they’ve not just defeated England, they have done so comfortably and arguably with embarrassing ease, and now England’s fate depends on defeating Afghanistan and Bangladesh – and while England will be favourites in both games, none of the experts are writing them off, particularly Bangladesh who seem to be getting their batsmen in form.

The messages being sent out from the England Camp don’t reflect this though. Not because they’re taking opponents lightly; but because their attitude seems to be that most of the criticism is undeserved, and tellingly through the dogged insistence on playing the same players who have already failed to even run the big sides close. Now to be fair options are somewhat limited – the squad is only 15 strong after all – but when England have lost so heavily, Alex Hales, Ravi Bopara, and James Tredwell must be wondering how bad things have to get before they are given a chance to show what they can do.

More than that, England are looking like the kid who has only just discovered last year’s craze in time to look totally uncool. The game has moved on, but England haven’t. Not so long ago, scores of 300 were par on many grounds; now, it’s reaching the point that you can add 30-40 to that, yet England seem to think they’ve done well to reach 300. Scores are rising – we’ve seen 400 three times already, an individual double century, and unless there’s a batting collapse going on a strike rate of less than a run a ball is just too slow. Yet England’s only two batsmen beating that strike rate are Moeen Ali and Jos Buttler. Add in bowlers that are struggling to cope with the attacking intent and fielding restrictions (as to be fair many teams are), and you have a recipe for a side that looks like it’s still trying to win the last tournament, not this one.

The problem is that there’s little confidence that any of this will change. There have been a number of reviews in recent years; a number of attempts to make a fresh start; but all England seem to have achieved is to engineer the departure of their most destructive (in almost every sense) batsman, and damage the careers of others like Steven Finn almost beyond redemption.

Fortunately, I do have an alternative: through family connections, I would be eligible to represent Ireland. Now there’s a team that’s going places!


Culture of Entitlement?

March 7, 2015

One of the great things about the internet is that there’s so much out there for free. People and in some cases companies have given their time and abilities to produce any number of apps and services that are available, completely legally, for nothing. In the past I’ve played around with Linux, LibreOffice tends to be my office suite of choice, while there are any number of online services I use, very few of which actually force you to pay money up front.

The problem is that sometimes I find myself falling into the trap of expecting these things always to be without cost. And it seems that there are many others out there who do the same. Yet, somewhere, somehow, all of this has to be paid for if it is to remain sustainable.

Let’s take a relatively trivial example. For the last three months or so, I’ve been playing Farmville Country Escape on my tablet. For those unfamiliar with the game (It’s almost impossible not to be familiar with the concept) there are effectively several sets of in game currency: Coins (which are actually in a lot of ways the lowest in value), Stamps (which allow you to purchase certain “Prized Animals”), two types of “Speed Ups” (Helping Hands and Golden Gloves, that allow crops or craft items to be finished sooner), and most importantly Keys. Keys can be used to speed up waiting times, fill in for missing items or ingredients, purchase additional crafting stations or crop fields, all sorts of things – and they’re also the main thing that you can’t get a lot of without spending actual real-world currency.

This can be a real pain when it comes to some of the frequent “Events” that Zynga (the makers of the game) run, as often it seems difficult if not impossible to complete them without either the purchase of keys, specific strategies that come close to cheating, actual cheating, or quite literally spending 24 hours a day for 2-3 days completing the quests. A classic was their “Home for the Holidays” event, where you had to collect special items and make certain things for each stage; one of them required four Alpine Strawberries, which if you had two Strawberry Fields would typically require four harvests, each an hour apart – with the “reward” being more often not what you were trying to get to complete the quest. Reckon on needing to make 20 of these to complete the phase, and that’s more than three days of solid harvesting without sleeping. People were not happy…. ( http://www.zyngaplayerforums.com/showthread.php?2646214-Home-for-the-Holidays-Event-Drops ) The alternative? Spend some real money on keys and/or speed seed to hurry things up – sometimes you can complete a whole stage for keys, albeit about 2000 of them – cost maybe £30…..

Are people right to be angry? Well, it is frustrating (I say this as someone who has always done this the hard way – waiting rather than spending money), but it does somewhat miss the point. Zynga don’t charge up front for the game; but they have invested considerable amounts of money in developing and running it. It has to pay somehow…. There’s a limited amount of in-game advertising which you can’t imagine covers much of the cost, so the big contributor is probably people spending money to buy keys. If it’s possible to complete the events or gain keys without being too frustrating/time consuming, who will pay good money for them?

This is the problem of the Freemium Model. People get something for free, and have a tendency to think that they should get everything for free. But the problem is not Freemium in itself – it’s the feeling of entitlement that so many then have.

In some ways it feels like the whole Internet is sometimes struggling to work out a business model that will allow it to survive, and it can’t go on forever offering content and services without there being some income somewhere. Facebook doesn’t charge for its services – so it has to be paid for through advertising. Evernote reserves some of its features and upload limits for those who are prepared to pay for it. Some Newspapers erect a paywall. And you can probably find plenty of people who will react angrily to that, and move onto the next free service.

Ironically given the content,  this post was originally on the Evernote-linked blogging platform postach.io – which,  after a few days of use by me, announced that it was going premium only; as I don’t think my blog would reach the point of justifying the investment, I decided to resurrect this one… though I’m not going to get angry about it. Postach.io looks to be a good service but blogging isn’t essential enough to me to pay them to do it. But I can understand why they’re asking people to do it.

In short, we have to move away from this culture of entitlement, and recognise that, ultimately, there’s no such thing as free. You pay, somewhere, somehow. Whether that’s through having to scroll through or watch ads, pay for a fully-functional rather than limited service, pay the Licence Fee that allows the BBC to operate, or just give voluntary donations to a creator to encourage them to keep going (as my favourite podcaster, Tom Merritt has done so successfully with his Patreon – https://www.patreon.com/acedtect ) – the message is the same as it always was: even on the Internet, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.


Reflecting on Truth, Lies, and Drugs in Cycling

November 14, 2013

Many years ago, I started watching what turned out to be an epic contest: an American and a Frenchman, battling for dominance, and finally victory for one in one of the most dramatic finishes to a sporting event. It was 1989, and Greg LeMond eventually beat Laurent Fignon by just eight seconds in the Tour de France – the result in doubt until the last couple of hundred metres of the closing time trial.

Watching Le Tour on Channel 4 became a big part of my summer for a while after that. There was little British interest – Robert Millar was a threat in the mountains and after he turned pro Chris Boardman was in contention for the Prologue – but with the likes of Miguel Indurain, Marco Pantani and their challengers, and then Lance Armstrong’s dominance, you couldn’t help but marvel at their scarcely-human stamina.

Except that the doubts were creeping in. 1998 – when Pantani won – saw the Festina Affair, with drug allegations against the team and yet them seeming to have big support from the rest of the Peloton. Suddenly the world was muttering about EPO, HGH, and the inability to test for them; and while Cycling was far from the only sport affected, the unique demands of the sport meant that no-one could really be clear of suspicion. Some high profile cases later, and it looked like things might be clear; but it turned out that actually the worst was still to come.

Reading Tyler Hamilton’s book “The Secret Race” reveals the shocking truth that whether condoned by the team management or not, there was pretty much an expectation that anyone in a pro race was taking something – whether EPO, Testosterone, or a Blood Transfusion on a rest day – if they were even just keeping up. Hamilton’s own account – of going from a gifted amateur to discovering that everyone else in the peloton could blow him away, and then having to face the decision of either taking drugs or just giving up and finding another job – makes that pretty clear. It wasn’t that everyone doped – but those that didn’t were often not competitive, and sometimes found themselves forced out.

Which brings us to Lance Armstrong, the personification of an era when what mattered was more whether you had the best drugs and doctors, and his attempts to argue that he should not be treated any worse than any other cyclist of that era – to the distaste and disgust of many of those who follow cycling far more closely that I ever have.

In some ways, he does have a bit of a point. The argument, it would seem, is that Lance, despite his drug taking, was still the best of his era – because he wasn’t doing anything that others weren’t also doing. If everyone’s cheating, then why should he be the scapegoat? And as time goes by, it becomes clear that an awful lot of the cyclists in the peloton were doing whatever they could to keep up and maybe overtake the US Postal squad. If a team had a particularly good day and looked strong, the question in most riders minds, according to Hamilton, was not about what training regime they were on – it was what drug, blood substitute or whatever had they got access to. If Armstrong was racing on a level playing field, the argument runs, why should he be penalised?

The physiological factors are often quoted at this point; different responses, different red blood cell levels that gave some riders a bigger possible boost from EPO, and so on. And some riders probably were riding clean – though proving which ones is nigh on impossible. But more of a factor is possibly Armstrong himself.

Lance Armstrong, whether in his own words or through the lens of the words of others such as Hamilton, is without doubt a very strong and forceful character. Not someone to cross. Someone who will do whatever needs to be done to achieve. And the sad thing is that he’s used that forcefulness to ride roughshod over anyone that dared challenge him. In some ways, that’s what made him a sporting winner; but by letting it spill over, into the smears and legal action against anyone that dared to reveal what was actually going on – and by even now not seeming to show the slightest remorse for what he did to Soigneur Emma O’Reilly, and continuing to fight the attempts to get him to repay SCA for bonuses he received for his Tour victories – it feels that he is reaping what he sowed. Armstrong set up the “best” team-wide doping system – and until the story finally gathered too much momentum to be derailed, he was best too at forcefully denying it. He may well have been the best cyclist of his era – sadly though, we will never know.

And the continuing tragedy is that it means that every good day for a less heralded rider, every remarkable comeback by a top star, every dominant ride in a major race, will always be questioned. 


In support of Roy Hodgson

April 30, 2012

Ah, the media frenzy is starting already and he hasn’t been officially unveiled yet…. but it seems that the new England Manager will be Roy Hodgson and not, as the media (and allegedly the fans) wanted, Harry Redknapp. And this particular England fan is actually quite happy at the prospect.

I think that one thing that has to be said is that Hodgson is going to be given a pretty rough ride – at least unless he can pull a few results out of the bag. Part of the reason for this is, in my opinion, that he starts with the media already against him – as Phil McNulty’s Blog hints at, Redknapp is something of a darling as far as the press are concerned, as he’s often very quotable and news-worthy. The more astute will of course note that this does not make him a better manager in football terms; just better as far as the media is concerned. In some ways Henry Winter summed things up nicely when he said to the BBC that Hodgson is “… a broadsheet man in a tabloid world” – but what the tabloids want, it should be kept in mind, is not necessarily that England should be successful, but that England – and their manager – should be newsworthy and help to sell papers.

Redknapp is nobody’s fool as a manager. He has, after all, won trophies, taken Spurs into the Champion’s League, and done pretty well there. You don’t get to be there without knowing what you’re doing. However, he’s not exactly what you’d call a deep thinker about the game, and for me Hodgson is the better bet. He’s got a track record in exceeding expectations with International sides, and if the FA are looking for someone to be involved with the new centre at Burton, then Hodgson surely has a better claim for that than Redknapp.

There is an element of looking at Hodgson as the safe option, and people of course then start harking back to the way that Brian Clough was not given the England job. I would argue though that the situation is a little different; Clough was overlooked essentially because the FA knew that if he came in, he would shake things up from top to bottom – which desperately needed doing – and went for someone who would be happier to maintain the status quo. With the best will in the world, I can’t see ‘Arry being the person to shake the FA to its foundations. Hodgson may not be either, but in terms of the sort of job he is likely to have to do – including working with up and coming coaches and players at Burton – he could well prove to be more effective.

The thing that is thrown at Hodgson as much as anything is his brief spell with Liverpool. Reds fans don’t like him, and there will of course be questions about how the likes of Steven Gerrard will take to playing under him again. I think though that it is worth bearing in mind the situation Hodgson came into at Anfield; they had failed to reach the Champions League, some players leaving (most notably Mascherano), the issues off the field dominating – bear in mind it that Hodgson got the chop before he had a chance to spend any of the money the new owners made available to Dalglish – and the continuing problems this season under Fans Choice Dalglish, and you get a picture of a club which had (and to an extent still has) underlying problems that would take anyone more than six months to turn around. Before that, he’d taken Fulham to the Europa League final; after, he’s made West Brom a side comfortable in mid-table against many expectations.

Hodgson will, ultimately, be judged on results, but again we have to look at what we expect those results to be. England are n0t a great side, although they are a good one, but whenever there’s a major championships it seems that anything less than winning the tournament is presented by the tabloids (and some fans) as unacceptable. Yet in reality, England are technically and tactically behind the World’s best teams. Can we really hold a candle to Spain? Do we have a talent to come close to the likes of Messi? Can we match the tactics and technical skills of  the Netherlands, of Germany?

We need to get real. The only major tournament we’ve won was on home soil, more than 45 years ago. We’ve reached one Word Cup Semi since, and that was more than 20 years ago. The last time we reached the Euro semis was again on home soil, 16 years ago. Reality is that we’re performing at about expectations if we reach the quarter finals in a major tournament, and exceeding them if we go beyond that. Given the time he’s got, if Hodgson qualifies from the group stage at the Euros, he’s doing a good job. Whether the press will see things in the same light is another matter of course…..


BeeCloud Buzzing off..

March 1, 2012

Out of a clear blue sky, an email arrived. 

“It is with regret that we need to inform you that we have ended our relationship with Livedrive….As of March 13th 2012 you will no longer be able to backup or restore data…. You are advised to search for another backup solution”.

Yes, it seems that the offer that was too good to be true, was: BeeCloud.eu, who have been offering 512GB – or even more – online backup space for free, look like they are sailing off into the sunset.

Information is patchy to say the least. BeeCloud’s website seems to have been replaced by a single page,  informing you that they are no longer reselling Livedrive – the US-based cloud storage service that has been behind the BeeCloud service. Livedrive’s website says nothing about BeeCloud on their blog, although interestingly there is some consumer pricing indicating that the “free” service that BeeCloud operated is available at a price of £4.95 per month, or at a special offer price of £40 for the year.

This is speculation of course, but it looks a lot like BeeCloud’s business model was flawed. They would have to be paying Livedrive even for free accounts; presumably they hoped that enough people would decide to take up the “Premium” options that included something akin to Dropbox that it would cover their costs. However, when your USP seems to be that you over the most amount of storage for free, that was probably something of a folorn hope.

If people have been truly using BeeCloud for backup – which I have – then this isn’t too disasterous provided you don’t have a hard drive failure in a couple of weeks time. It’s annoying – my computer was on for about three weeks solid copying all of my data to Livedrive – but what I’m losing is after all only a copy of my data. It does however raise the question of what to do about backup now.

This is not a new problem, but with data volumes ever increasing it’s reaching the level of being a real pain. My current computer has about 200GB of data on it – with serious amounts of photos, and an iTunes library that alone is topping 40GB. That means just to backup my data would take 8-10 BluRay discs – about £10 – plus purchasing a BluRay capable drive at about £70. And then spending the time writing that amount of data. And then finding somewhere to put them that’s safe from fire and flood. And hoping that the media will remain readable – it’s currently too early to say if the durability claims made (30 years or more) prove to be accurate. The thought of sitting there with a stack of 40-50 DVDs just doesn’t bear thinking about, and has the same sort of concerns about storing offsite and data durability.

Small wonder that cloud storage seems to offer a panacea for this. You can usually set things to back up in the background – set it and forget it. By definition it’s offsite – and indeed you can then often use it to access your files from any computer so long as you can remember your logon details. However, unless you have fast broadband it can take a long time to do the initial copy, and, as BeeCloud’s difficulties show, you are still hoping that your vendor of choice proves to be longer-lived than your need for the data.

Me? I’m wondering about an External Drive, and keeping the drive itself at work when I’m not using it. At least I’ll know exactly where it is!


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.