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Ramblings about stuff

Kidlington Chess Congress 2014

I’m sure I could almost create a standard template for these posts now: it’s the sixth year I’ve played this tournament and here is a brief summary of what happened as I played again in the Under-180 section:

  • Round One: Got off to a poor start playing inaccurately in the opening as Black; I never recovered from that and, with a further missed tactic later on, this was always going to be Lost.
  • Round Two: For the third year running, playing Karl Biswas with White: got a good, solid position out of the opening and ground this one down to Win a slightly-better endgame.
  • Round Three: Last game of the day saw me playing Black against a remarkably strong and mature 12-year-old boy. Although it nearly went pear-shaped in the opening, this one fizzled into a Draw.
  • Round Four: Just like the first round, I mucked this one up right at the start by messing up the opening: as White against a strong opponent, I really should have done better here. I recovered enough to make a (long) fight of it, but – apart from hoping for errors from my opponent – this was destined to be Lost too.
  • Round Five: Playing Black against Darrell Watson, who I played four years ago in the lower section. For once I got a reasonable position from the opening and, in trying a little too hard to play for a win, my opponent gave me some excellent chances. As the time ran down, I made a serious blunder which should have cost me the game, but my opponent missed it and the game should have been drawn. But my opponent returned the favour a few moves later, meaning I could finish with a Win.
The new World Champion, Magnus Carlsen: not playing at Kidlington

The new World Champion, Magnus Carlsen: not playing at Kidlington

Overall I’m a little disappointed with my results this year: that’s the first year I can really say that so I probably shouldn’t complain.

The games were very long (all over three hours except the first, with the last one being nearly three-and-a-half) so it was very tiring. Because of my performance and the length of the games, I spent a huge amount of game time feeling rather low about how I was doing. Although I ended up on 50% overall, I only snatched that in the last minute of the final round. Given that I scored higher last year against much stronger average opposition makes this year’s results look poor by comparison.

Having said all that, it wasn’t a disastrous performance: two wins, one draw, two losses. My grade for the tournament was only about 140 (last two years it has been 160+), but that’s not a disgrace.

I’m most disappointed about how I played in the openings, particularly. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this event, it’s that I need to learn some lessons about openings! Mistakes in the opening ultimately cost me both games I lost and perhaps prevented me from doing better in the drawn game. Learning to handle openings better will no doubt improve my play generally, although there’s a lot of time required to do this that I don’t really have.

Beware future competitors of Kidlington 2015, I’ll be up for personal revenge!

Full games with my commentary/analysis here with full crosstabs and results for all sections available at the Kidlington Congress website

Final word of congratulations to local girl Zoe Varney who was joint winner of the lower Under-145 section with 5 out of 5. Worrying thing is, she might be in my section next year… !

Darkness falls across the LAN: a seasonal poem

To fully appreciate this you should voice it like Vincent Price in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, which is obviously the lyrics from which this has been spoofed. Listen to that track starting at 4 minutes 15 seconds here

So, here goes:

Darkness falls across the LAN
Powerpoint is close at hand
Users crawl in search of clue
To terrorize the printer queue

And whosoever shall be found
Without a soul from Redmond
Must stand and face the hounds of Dell
And rot inside a Windows shell

The foulest stench, your face it slaps
The cruft of forty thousand apps
And grizzly gangs from every spammer
Are closing in with suspect grammar

And though you fight to run your code
Your PC starts to jitter
For no mere user can resist
The evil of … the Twitter.

Opt-in/opt-out internet filtering?

A few things to get off my chest regarding proposed internet filtering. Firstly:

  • I pay my ISP for a service, namely the provision of an internet connection. They are an Internet Service Provider.
  • I don’t expect my internet connection to be deliberately crippled by said ISP in any way.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on this matter conflates material which is already uncontroversially illegal (images of child abuse) with material which is not illegal. He uses public disgust at the former as a lever to invoke support for censoring the latter. This is simply deceitful.

To continue:

  • ISPs have been coerced by the government into providing internet filtering as “default switched on”, with an opt-out option. That is, everyone’s internet connection will be censored unless they make some decision to opt-out of that process. That’s just a way to make normal people sound pervy, because however the option is phrased it will make the person ticking the box feel as if they’re ticking the box marked “Tick this box for more boobies!” In reality, the opt-out option will be reluctantly required for anyone who finds that they run up against (legal!) things the filters have blocked. And what happens to the list of the names of people who have opted out?
  • An opt-in option is more reasonable: that is, no filtering unless the customer asks for it. This provides a service to those customers who want their internet connection (which they are paying for) to be deliberately crippled; everyone else’s internet connections are left alone. This was the preferred plan from ISPs before the government interfered. Why should customers want their connection disrupted in this way? Well…
  • Parents who want to offload some of their parental responsibilities to a piece of software running at an ISP will be able to do so with opt-in. So, rather than educating their children themselves, they will get a (completely false!) sense of security that their children can browse the internet unattended without any supervision. Because that’s a great idea, isn’t it, even with filtering software in place, what could possibly go wrong?
  • Any filtering software will be very bad and will fail “both ways”. That is, it will block things that it shouldn’t block and it will allow access to things that it was designed to block.
  • Any filtering software initially designed to block one type of content can be trivially modified to block further types of content. That’s a very slippery slope.
  • What if the option to opt-out of the filtering is removed in future?

So, the plans are stupid and dangerous. Why have they been announced? I can only assume it’s because the Prime Minister thinks that the prospect of a plan to filter perfectly legal content will be very popular with certain people. People he believes likely to vote for him at the next election, perhaps.

It’s my internet connection. I pay for it. Leave it alone.

Marvellous musical memories from ’80s movies

Here are some random annotations of memorable moments in films from the 1980s. No reason, except that I’ve been listening to the music a lot! In many cases I’ve picked out songs which are not necessarily the tracks one might immediately associate with each film; for example, I’ve deliberately not picked “Don’t you forget about me” (Breakfast Club), “Nothing’s gonna stop us now” (Mannequin) or “I’ve had the time of my life” (Dirty Dancing).

Make sure you’ve got speakers or headphones to hand when playing these clips: turn it up as loud as you dare.

Let’s start with “The Breakfast Club” (1985). In this slow-burning cult classic, the gradual development of the characters makes the film special. It’s all dialogue and there’s very little action, the exception being the following scene where the teenagers finally let their frustrations out, dancing to the song “We are not alone” by Karla DeVito.

On to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) which has lots of action. In direct contrast to the previous film this clip is a quieter, thoughtful interlude in an otherwise lively production. Our main characters are taking a contemplative timeout in an art museum where they view exhibits by (amongst others) Picasso, Matisse, Rodin and Gauguin. The music is by The Dream Academy: a wonderfully atmospheric instrumental cover of The Smiths’ “Please, please, please, let me get what I want”.

The final section where Cameron is staring at the little girl in Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” was explained by director John Hughes: “The closer he looks at the child, the less he sees. […] I think he fears that the more you look at _him_ the less you see.”

The most famous scene in “Mannequin” (1987) is when Jonathan and the mannequin (Kim Cattrall) dance around the inside of the department store to the poptastic “Do you dream about me?” by Alisha. There’s nothing deep about this, it’s just fun!

“Pretty in pink” (1986) is one of a handful of films to star Molly Ringwald (see “The Breakfast Club” above), but the far more memorable aspect of it to me is Jon Cryer’s magnificent portrayal of Duckie. The closing scene where he mouths “Moi?” and breaks the fourth wall to raise an eyebrow to the audience is delicious. The clip below isn’t directly from the film, but is a composite comprising various scenes taken from entire film. However it is accompanied by “If you leave” by Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark which was the song actually playing in the film proper during said ‘eyebrow’ moment.

Everyone knows “I’ve had the time of my life” from “Dirty dancing” (1987) and the bit where he lifts her up; but this is a more subtle scene with, in my opinion, a far better song. Here we have “Hungry eyes” by Eric Carmen:

No nostalgic rummage through the 1980s would be complete without the classic “boombox scene” from “Say anything…” (1989). For the uninitiated, our hero John Cusack playing Lloyd Dobler is trying to win back his girl Diane Court. To do so, he turns up outside her house and plays Peter Gabriel’s “In your eyes” on a ghetto-blaster (as we’d call it back then), held high above his head. It’s surprisingly hard to find a good clip of this online, but this is what I’ve found. Jump forward to 1 minute 43 seconds on this clip:

This particular scene has been repeated, spoofed and recreated by many different people. Although not quite in keeping with the rest of this post and I’m not sure I should really link to this (and I’m certainly not going to embed it in my post) but Glee did a reasonably faithful version of it here which gives you a longer bite at the song.

“Cocktail” (1988) is my penultimate choice. It has a great soundtrack but I’m not going to choose any of the songs you’ll have heard of. Not “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin, not “Hippy Hippy Shake” by Georgia Satellites, not “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys, not “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard, not even “All shook up” by Ry Cooder or … and it goes on. My choice here is the track used to start the film: “Wild again” by Starship. I can’t find a clip which is just the opening, but someone has uploaded the entire film: the action kicks off just a few seconds in…

If you remembered to stop after the first four minutes of the above and haven’t been distracted watching the whole film, then we can move on to my final choice, “The Lost Boys” (1987), which has another great soundtrack. The classic song is “Cry little sister” by Gerard McMann. It’s played on several occasions during the film, here’s a clip from the opening credits:

There are many other films with great soundtracks, or even with just the odd great song, that I could have included (I’m thinking “Top Gun”, “Beverly Hills Cop”, “Back to the Future”, …), but I could never compile a complete list. Perhaps I’ll do a Part 2 one day.

Hope you enjoy watching/listening to these clips as much as I enjoyed compiling them!

Les anecdotes de Paris

A collection of random observations during our recent trip to Paris… this is not a full write-up of what we did, because that would take too long. Just a few anecdotes, as much for my own memory as anything else.

We went to Paris via Eurostar: train from London St Pancras to Paris via the Channel Tunnel, which took 2.5 hours. We measured the speed of the train using the GPS on a mobile phone, top speed was 189 mph (over 300km/h) and it cruised for prolonged periods at above 170 mph (273 km/h).

When we appeared on the French side of the tunnel, there was an amusing moment as almost everyone (us included) got their mobile phones out to ensure that they’d reconnected successfully to the French networks. All good, even though my phone defaulted to using the “google.fr” search engine instead of “google.co.uk”!

After arriving at Paris Gare du Nord (which is just like London Paddington except with more Gallic shrugging and less tea), we got quickly to the Paris metro (underground), greeted almost immediately by these easy-to-translate adverts:

McVities on the Metro

Cheeky buggers.

The metro was easy: very ‘familiar’ to anyone who has used the London Underground. There were occasional buskers, predominantly traditional French accordion players. This became a bit much later during our stay and prompted one of my charming daughters to proclaim “I want to punch him”, thankfully out of earshot of the musician and everyone else!

Our apartment had a Boulangerie/Patisserie just 30m from front door. This could have been rather dangerous, diet-wise, but we largely resisted.

The rest of the family were generally relying on me to converse with the locals: I think I did pretty well on this front. On our first afternoon, I had a long conversation with a shop owner; she got her speech slowed down to a suitable speed for me to follow, which was a good confidence booster. I also, on more than one occasion, answered questions from (French!) travellers on the Metro regarding directions and so on. And I never accidentally ordered a wardrobe or a giraffe in a restaurant, so that’s something.

Paying for stuff by credit card: the payment consoles sometimes had prompts in English, but usually in French. The prompts for “Insert card”, “Please wait” and “PIN OK” were replaced with equivalents, e.g. “Patientez” instead of “Please wait”. The French appear to have settled on “Code Bon” as their equivalent of “PIN OK”: I like this phrase and we began using it as a general term of approval for things we liked. e.g. “This croissant is delicious. Code bon!”

We took a trip up Montparnasse tower, which gives an excellent view around all of central Paris. There’s a small café at the top and, foolishly, I asked if they had tea. “Avez vous du thé?” The server assured me that she did and … well, you all know where this is going don’t you?

Not Quite Tea at Montparnasse

Proper tea: boiling water; French tea: moderately warm water. Proper tea: proper tea bag; French tea: plastic tea bag; Proper tea: fresh milk; French tea: UHT milk. I am reminded of a quote from the magnificent Douglas Adams in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ where a vending machine “delivers a cupful of liquid that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.”

And in a glass mug? No-one uses those unless you’re in an advert for water filters or you wear orange sunglasses while typing on a Macbook.

If “Avez vous du thé?” had been met with “Ah, non, monsieur” it might have saved everyone the trouble.

Oh, and one final thing. Coca Cola Light is not Diet Coke. Not in the French or any other universe.

Kidlington Chess Congress 2013: points make prizes!

First weekend in February? Yes. Exeter Hall, Kidlington? Yes. That’ll be the Kidlington Chess Congress, then? Yes. My fifth year, in fact: previous tournaments I’ve played: 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Update 5 February 2013: I’ve uploaded my game commentary and analysis for this year’s games.

Round 4 in progress on Sunday morning, 03.02.2013

Round 4 in progress on Sunday morning, 03.02.2013

Playing once again with the stronger players in the Under-180 section, my first round match got off to a slight false start: my opponent hadn’t turned up. In fact, two players (both with the same surname: “They’re brothers”, said someone) were both missing. I was re-paired with the person waiting for the other brother after the tournament controller contacted the brothers and discovered travel problems or similar. My revised opponent and I moved to a spare board, an interesting novelty for which was that we got to play using one of these new-fangled digital chess clocks:

Digital chess clock

Digital chess clock

Since I was a child, I’ve only ever used the standard, analogue, wind-up clocks:

Conventional chess clock

Conventional chess clock

How exciting. ;-) (For what it’s worth, the digital chess clocks have some advantages: they allow more accurate timing for a start and also permit some more creative time controls, such as a time increment for every move played. They do need batteries, though.)

Anyway, on with the show…

  • Round One: playing my new opponent (graded 176) with White. We played an unfamiliar (to me) opening and, although I initially played correctly, missed the best way to continue and ended up a pawn down. While not normally critical, this is not something one wants to do against robust opposition. To be fair, I think that’s the only mistake I made, but my opponent played correctly throughout and it was only a matter of time before I Lost this one. A little frustrating because I’d played quite well, but at least it wasn’t a complete disaster. 0 out of 1
  • Round Two: half-point bye; 0.5 out of 2
  • Round Three: the Saturday evening game set me with Black against an opponent (graded 145) who played quite quickly. He played the Morra Gambit, which is usually good for White, but completely mishandled it. I just played solidly and calmly, letting my opponent make more and more mistakes! By the end I had a material advantage of rook, bishop, knight and three pawns for a queen: although my opponent still had a few chances to make a nuisance of himself with the queen, my material advantage was crushing. A nice Win to round off the day, 1.5 out of 3
  • Round Four: after a good sleep, Sunday morning saw me playing White again against an opponent graded 148. He played a standard opening but left himself in trouble after my move 9: he then spent 30 minutes trying to figure out a way to defend against two independent threats. He chose poorly and on move 11 I won a knight. At this stage, he decided the game was a lost cause and to save his energy for the final round, and resigned. I don’t think I’ve ever Won in 11 moves in a serious competition before! Rather amusingly, the entire game fits in a single tweet :-) Score 2.5 out of 4: already same total as last year, so I can’t do any worse.
  • Round Five: I was initially paired against my old friend Steve Harris (from my teenage days at Ilford Chess Club), but he asked to swap and the controllers agreed: I’d have happily played him – he was somewhat my nemesis when I was 16-18 – but I was happy to go along with his choice. So, instead I played White against the same person I had played in the final round from last year: Karl Biswas (pictured on the right in the olive green sweatshirt of the photo above, as it happens). I beat him last year and he reminded me immediately that he recalled getting his queen trapped on the side of the board. However, it was not a re-run and after quite a well-played, tough game we agreed a Draw: equal endgame with rook and six pawns each. Final score 3 out of 5.

Once I’d finished I looked at the scores and remaining games and noticed that I was, at that stage, the highest-placed First Round Loser: a position for which there was a prize. There were two ongoing games where all four players had 2 out of 4 and had lost their first round game: so, if both those games were drawn I’d win the prize outright. However, both those games were decisive and I had to share with two others. That meant a Massive Cash Prize(TM) of one-third of £45.

Later on, it turned out that our little “team” (an ad-hoc collection of four players: one local girl who I know plus two of her friends, plus me) were in the running for the Team Prize: in the end, the Team Prize was also a one-third share of £45, because three teams tied on 12.5 points. So, each person on each winning team collected one-quarter of one-third of £45: £3.75 ;-)

So after a good weekend where I played some good games and made very few mistakes, it was nice to pick up a grand total of £18.75 – of course, the money was just a nice bonus and didn’t even cover my entrance fee(!): it was satisfying to have played so well. My grade for the tournament was 168, pretty good: my listed grading might actually go down very slightly from 159 to 157 when next published, strangely, partly because my current rating is boosted by some good games I played in Kidlington 2010 and those games will “drop off” the end of the calculations; Kidlington 2011 wasn’t so good, grading-wise. A good tournament next year should push me over 160.

New GPG key: transition statement

There is a text-only, digitally-signed version of this post available here.

My old OpenPGP key was generated in 1998 and the key length, 1024-bit DSA, is now considered too short for current security purposes. Therefore I am transitioning to a new key. The new key is a 8192-bit RSA key: I’m using a particularly long key because I plan to keep this one for some time.

The old key will continue to be valid for some time, but I’d prefer all future correspondence to use the new one. I will start creating signatures with the new key immediately.

I would like this new key to be integrated into the web of trust. Please read the digitally-signed version of this post to certify the transition.

If you previously signed my key, I will send a copy of this transition statement to the primary email address on your GPG key which you used to sign it.

The old key:

1024D/CD28DA92 1998-07-05
Key fingerprint = AEC5 9360 0A35 7F66 66E9 82E4 9E10 6769 CD28 DA92
Dave Ewart davee@sungate.co.uk

And the new key is:

8192R/378BB197 2013-01-18
Key fingerprint = CF3A 93EF 01E6 16C5 AE7A 1D27 45E1 E473 378B B197
Dave Ewart davee@sungate.co.uk

To fetch my new key from a public key server, you can simply do:

gpg --keyserver subkeys.pgp.net --recv-key 378BB197

If you already know my old key, you can verify that the new key is signed by the old one:

gpg --check-sigs 378BB197

If you don’t already know my old key, or you just want to be double check, you can check the fingerprint against the one above:

gpg --fingerprint 378BB197

If you are satisfied that you’ve got the right key, and the UIDs match what you expect, I’d appreciate it if you would sign my key:

gpg --sign-key 378BB197

Lastly, if you could upload these signatures, I would appreciate it. You can just upload the signatures to a public keyserver directly:

gpg --keyserver subkeys.pgp.net --send-key 378BB197

I’m happy to handle any encrypted email challenge prior to signing or further verification if required: just let me know.

Thanks.

Leaving Ubuntu: the last straw?

A recent post by Richard Stallman raises an issue that I, and others, raised some time ago regarding the behaviour of the Ubuntu ‘dash’ feature in Ubuntu 12.10 and later. I’m posting here after reading Stallman’s post and also Ubuntu Community Manager Jono Bacon’s responses here and here.

(I know Jono from his Lugradio days, but I hope he won’t take this post personally.)

The issue surrounds a feature introduced to the Ubuntu ‘dash’ in Ubuntu 12.10 (released in October). The feature has become known as the “shopping lens” and has generated a great deal of controversy. It works as follows:

  1. A user types a search string into the dash;
  2. This search string is used to search local files/documents/music/video etc.
  3. This search string is used to return search results from Amazon

The dash always did step 2 above, but the recent introduction is that of step 3. I’ve tested this behaviour on a fresh install of Ubuntu 12.10 (codenamed ‘Quantal Quetzal’). After starting the newly-installed system, opening the dash and typing ‘terminal’ (because I want to launch the command-line terminal), I am returned various search results:

  • A link to the Gnome Terminal application: this is actually what I want;
  • About 5 or 6 hits on Amazon for various releases of the movie ‘The Terminal’ starring Tom Hanks.

This has happened because my dash search terms have been sent over the network to Canonical’s servers (Canonical distributes Ubuntu) and onwards to Amazon. This is a major privacy issue. Search terms entered into the dash, since its inception, have always (and only) been directed to local resources: local applications, local documents, local media. Sending local search terms across the Internet is not acceptable, especially since it’s done without consent.

Imagine if the search term was something less innocuous. Perhaps it relates to a sensitive medical matter (you’re searching for your own document named with the condition) and suddenly you’re seeing online results for that query.

And, and this is the clincher, if you click through to any of those search results and end up buying something (e.g. ‘The Terminal’ on DVD), then Canonical get a cut of that sale from Amazon. That is, this is a money-making scheme. Blog posts such as this one by Cristian Parrino present the online search using buzzwords and talk of “improving the experience” without any mention of the monetisation that Canonical are introducing.

This is exactly the issue Richard Stallman raises and he’s right on the money: this is an invasion of privacy.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against anyone making money, but it should be made clear that’s what’s happening.

Jono and others have attempted to defuse this situation and various changes have been made to how the dash implements these searches, but I believe they are insufficient for the following reasons:

  • “The feature can be disabled.” Yes, it can. But only if you know about it and know how to switch it off;
  • “The feature can be uninstalled.” Yes, it can, but again only if you know that it exists and know how to uninstall the appropriate package;
  • “There’s a privacy policy link displayed at the bottom of the dash when searching.” Yes, there is: this was added in response to early feedback about the online search. While welcome, this is insufficient: it’s not very prominent and there’s nothing which forces the user to see it. In fact, I believe this was only introduced because there was a concern that the online searching might be illegal under EU law in the form it took prior to the policy being made available;
  • “Everyone has their own idea about privacy, some people don’t care so much about this.”. That may well be true, but that’s not the point: many users will simply be unaware that this is even a privacy issue in the first place! Ubuntu is designed to be used by non-technical users and those users are unlikely to be aware of how their search terms will be used;
  • “[References to how people freely share their data in other online applications such as Google search and Facebook]” Not relevant. With such applications, it’s very clear that content/posts will be shared with others. One should not expect, however, a search for a local document to leak out online!

Canonical’s response has been a case of not taking the issue seriously enough, in my opinion. I guess we’ve reached the point where Canonical are, by their own admission, starting to ‘monetize’ desktop Ubuntu for general users. I respect Jono’s opinions in such discussions, but remember that (despite commenting on his blog that “does not neccessarily represent the views of my employer”), he is a Canonical employee.

Looking at the online-search feature objectively, it’s an excellent idea and well-implemented technically: however, the feature should be explicitly opt-in the first time someone tries to use it. That is, unless someone has unequivocally stated that they want to use the feature, it should not send anything across the network.

I’m sufficiently unhappy about this to probably switch away from Ubuntu at my next hardware change, although I’m on Ubuntu 12.04 LTS until then and it (thankfully) lacks the online-search feature.

Overall I’m disappointed that Ubuntu/Canonical have done this; disappointing that Ubuntu/Canonical don’t consider it a serious privacy problem and that they won’t consider it as an opt-in feature. Were that to be done, all my complaints with it evaporate.

Update 8 January 2013: found this article discussing some of the same issues, amongst other matters.

Boundary review: why it shouldn’t matter!

Background

There has been some recent political drama regarding proposed constituency boundary changes. It’s rather an unseemly mess and this post is not about the politics of that. Instead I’m writing here about why constituency boundaries are deemed important and, rather more significantly, why boundaries should not really matter.

Why do boundaries attract such attention?

The significance of boundaries lies in the fact our MPs are elected in single-member constituencies using First Past The Post (FPTP) voting. The results of such elections are very sensitive to boundaries. In fact, it can be demonstrated that the process of modifying boundaries can have a huge effect on the results: new boundaries change constituency composition, change turnout and (particularly under FPTP) can change the manner in which voters vote tactically. The fact that boundaries are so significant is exactly why people tend to argue about them.

Disproportionality and bias

When FPTP is used to elect MPs in single-member constituencies in a national election, there are two major faults with the results:

  1. Disproportionality, and
  2. Bias

Disproportionality is what makes it possible for a party to gain significantly more (or fewer) seats than their share of the vote would merit. Disproportionality is a built-in ‘feature’ of FPTP and cannot be avoided when using that voting system. In contrast, bias explains why disproportionality can affect different parties to a greater or lesser extent.

For example, in 2005 Labour won 55% of seats with 35% of the vote: that’s disproportional. In 2010 the Conservatives won 47% of the seats on 36% of the vote: that’s also disproportional. The fact that Labour’s 2005 results were significantly more disproportional than the Conservatives in 2010 is a demonstration of bias.

When viewed nationally, FPTP is disproportional by definition. One could use the term unfair instead of disproportional. The fact that there is bias in the system means that it could be considered not to be fairly unfair! It is easy to see why the Conservatives are in favour of a change where some of this bias would be removed (in their favour). Even with bias reduced or eliminated, the system will remain disproportional as long as FPTP is used and there will still be a strong chance of majority governments formed by parties gaining no more than 40% of votes.

Would AV have helped here?

No. Any voting system which elects its parliament in single-member constituencies will always exhibit disproportionality and, almost always, bias too. AV will indeed improve matters locally to eliminate tactical voting, but when the wider national picture is inspected, it will possess similar disproportionality and bias as FPTP.

How bias occurs

To explain how bias occurs requires some complex analysis and is a result of a combination of factors. It is affected by the geographical distribution of votes, differences in constituency size and in turnout.

As an example, to see how constituency size might have an effect imagine a single constituency with a single-party majority. Split that seat in two: now the winning party has two seats instead of one, without anyone’s vote changing. Similar demonstrations show the effect of turnout and geographical distribution of votes. Broadly speaking, the reason for the bias seen in recent UK elections is that Labour tend to be popular in constituencies with lower populations and/or lower turnout. The Conservatives tend to be popular in larger seats with higher turnout.

Can bias be eliminated?

One proposal to eliminate bias is to “make all constituencies the same size”. That sounds incredibly sensible at face value (and is the primary political point made by the Conservatives) since it sounds fair. However, there’s much more to it than that. What does “all the same size” actually mean in practice? Same population? Same size electorate? Population or electorate as of what date? It’s not necessarily obvious or straightforward. The ratio of population to electorate varies and so does the stability of that population. Generalising hugely, city populations tend to be younger and more likely to migrate, while rural populations tend to be older and more likely to stay put.

Of course, even assuming one really could eliminate bias in the current system, the disproportionality would remain. Elimination of bias would simply allow us to move from unfairly unfair to fairly unfair!

Safe seats

A related issue to the choice of boundaries is that of safe seats. As a result of a coincidence of boundaries, many seats are safe seats; this ‘safeness’ only changes if the boundaries are modified which then as a result makes a previously non-safe seat into a new safe seat. Safe seats are bad for voters, because a single party may control such a constituency for decades, often with the support of under 50% of the electorate.

Can we eliminate disproportionality?

Can we eliminate disproportionality by changing the boundaries? With single-member constituencies, No. However, the answer is Yes, if we change from single-member constituencies to multi-member constituencies.

How would multi-member constituencies help?

Electing MPs in multi-member constituencies using a voting system such as STV (Single Transferable Vote) results in little disproportionality and little bias: the levels of each are largely determined by the number of MPs in each constituency. For example, 100 constituencies which each elect six MPs would be less disproportional and less biased than 200 constituencies which each elect three MPs.

In such a system, a party polling x% of the national vote will gain approximately x% of the seats in parliament, thus being broadly proportional. The level of proportionality improves as the number of MPs per constituency goes up.

Of course these larger constituencies will still need boundaries. However, unlike single-member constituencies, the sensitivity of the election results to the actual boundaries is severely reduced. Review of boundaries need not take place so often: for instance, if the population changes significantly, the number of MPs returned could be changed rather than the boundaries. This would allow the larger, multi-member constituencies to be more ‘natural’ compared to current constituencies, following existing local authority/county boundaries.

There’s plenty of precedent for multi-member constituencies around the UK in various tiers of government. It’s used, together with STV, in the Scottish local government elections and for the Northern Ireland assembly. There’s no reason why they can’t be used for Westminster elections too.

And finally…

I’ve written this up because every time I see discussion of small detail of a proposed boundary change, I’m frustrated because fiddling with the boundaries of a single-member constituency system is Solving The Wrong Problem, in my opinion. Attempting to make the system more fairly unfair seems wrong, when the opportunity exists to make it more fairly fair!

The boundaries should not matter and, with multi-member constituencies, they will not matter.

Multi-member constituencies is the right solution for eliminating unfairness, together with the STV voting system. This is the approach proposed by the Electoral Reform Society for Westminster elections. There are advantages and disadvantages of multi-member constituencies, of course, but that’s not really a subject for this post. Perhaps I’ll just say that the precious “constituency link” held as important by MPs may not seem so important to voters when it links an MP who was voted-for by less than 50% of their constituents with an area having fairly arbitrary, artificial boundaries.

Sadly both Labour and the Conservatives gain from the current system, because they benefit from the effects of disproportionality. They would both have fewer seats under a proposed multi-member system, so it’s going to be extremely hard to bring about such a change. They will continue bickering about small changes in the boundaries of the single-member constituencies, intentionally missing the point of further reform. It is worth pointing out, however, that there are advocates of proper reform in all parties, including Labour and the Conservatives.

Could I beat Usain Bolt over 100m on my bike?

Question: Could I beat Usain Bolt over 100 metres, if he ran and I biked?

First thoughts: it might be possible, but I need to do some calculations to get an idea of whether it’s feasible or not.

Usain Bolt running, Chris Hoy cycling

To win the Olympic Gold on Sunday, Bolt ran 100 metres in 9.63 seconds. That’s an average speed of 10.37m/s. The first thing one needs to figure out is: can I bike that fast? Because if I can’t even match his average speed, then I clearly can’t beat him. The speed 10.37m/s is equivalent to 37.34km/h (23.2mph): I can certainly ride faster than that over short distances; I might be able to manage 50km/h (31mph) at a stretch. So, as the MythBusters say, we are at the ‘Plausible’ stage thus far.

The key to this will be to attain top speed as quickly as possible. I can certainly bike faster than Usain Bolt can run but only once I’ve reached top speed.

Let’s assume a simple mathematical model for this task. For calculation purposes, consider the 100m race split into two sections:

  1. Accelerate smoothly from stationary to top speed, and then
  2. Continue at that top speed until the end of the race.

It’s probably a reasonable model for cycling over a short distance. With this model, we must make two assumptions to plug into our model:

  • What is my top speed? (let’s call this V_max for “Velocity-max”)
  • How quickly can I reach that top speed? (let’s call this T_accel for “Time to accelerate to max velocity”)

Calculating one’s finishing time for 100 metres based on the above model works as follows. Ignore this bit and skip to the table below if aren’t interested in the method and just want to see the results:

  • Given T_accel, one must calculate the distance over which the acceleration takes place. This is calculated as (V_max*T_accel)/2 – let’s call that distance D_accel
  • Assuming that we finish accelerating before we reach 100m, we then work out how long we take to finish the remaining 100-D_accel metres, riding at our top speed of V_max. Let’s call that time T_steady, beecause it’s the time we spend at our steady top speed: T_steady = (100-D_accel)/V_max
  • Our finishing 100m time T_finish is therefore: T_accel+T_steady

To make everything work properly, units of measurement must be consistent. Times must be measured in seconds, distances in metres and speeds in metres per second. Conversion between “metres per second” and “kilometres per hour” is very simple: one metre per second is 3600 metres per hour, i.e. 3.6km per hour. Let’s try running the numbers with V_max speeds of 12m/s, 13m/s and 14m/s (equivalent to 43.2km/h, 46.8km/h and 50.4km/h). What about acceleration times? I’m less sure of suitable values here, but let’s try 5 seconds, 7 seconds and 10 seconds.

Top speed: 12 m/s 13 m/s 14 m/s
Acceleration time:
10 seconds 13.33 12.69 12.14
7 seconds 11.83 11.19 10.64
5 seconds 10.83 10.19 9.64

Aha! If I can get my speed up to 14m/s (50.4km/h or 31.3mph) in five seconds and hold that speed, I can finish in 9.64 seconds, just 0.01s behind Usain Bolt, based on Sunday’s performance!

Is that possible, could I do that? It sounds like an awfully tall order. I can beat Bolt if I can go faster or accelerate quicker than above, of course, but realistically I think that’s beyond my capabilities.

If I can’t do it, what about real cycling professionals? Let’s apply the same sort of mathematical model to the recent Velodrome cycling at the Olympics, I see some sprint cyclists recorded “first lap” times of just over 17 seconds. This is a distance of 250 metres from a standing start. If one assumes a smooth acceleration over the entire lap I calculate that these cyclists pass 100 metres at around 10.7 seconds (detailed calculations available on request) – Bolt still wins. However, if the cyclist achieves top speed much earlier in the lap, they will reach 100m sooner. Jason Kenny completed his gold-medal-winning sprint final 200m (not quite a full lap), presumably at his absolute top speed, in around 10 seconds: this is an incredibly quick 20m/s (72km/h or 45mph!). So how quickly would he be able to complete 100m, from a standing start? Assuming a top speed of 20m/s, to reproduce the 17 second first lap time, this would be a 9-second acceleration (covering 90m in that time) and a further 8.0 seconds to cover the remaining 160m at 20m/s; as a side-effect that shows us that such a cyclist would cover 100m in approximately 9.50 seconds. This beats Bolt!

To answer my own question: could I beat Usain Bolt over 100m on my bike? No. Not a chance.

Further question: could any cyclist beat Usain Bolt over 100m? Possibly, just, although it might be very close.

I wonder how fast I could actually bike 100 metres, though, from a standing start? I think I should try timing it…

And of course it goes without saying that I’d be able to beat the sprinters over 200m, because I’d be up to top speed for longer :-)