sungate.co.uk

Ramblings about stuff

Fighter Command 1940 and Daily Random Numbers

I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while, so here goes. In addition to my own personal Twitter account, I run two others as ‘projects’. The first one is called Fighter Command 1940 and it traces the history of Spring and Summer 1940 from the British point of view in World War II on this day in 1940. There is one tweet per day from this account which currently has 450 followers and, at “present”, the Dunkirk evacuation is in full swing. Some recent tweets:

22 May: British and French troops in the North retreating towards Dunkirk. The RAF’s last airfield in France (Merville) is over-run.
23 May: Germans advancing on Calais and Boulogne, and towards Dunkirk. Bad weather prevents Luftwaffe attacks on troops around Dunkirk.
24 May: Hitler personally orders advance on Dunkirk to be halted, a surprise giving Allies time to begin carrying out their evacuation.
25 May: Allied resistance at Boulogne ends as Germans capture the citadel. Defence of Calais is ongoing but Germans are still advancing.
26 May: While Allied troops retreating towards Dunkirk, owners of small boats are contacted by the Admiralty to assist.
27 May: Evacuation of troops from Dunkirk begins with co-operation of Royal Navy vessels, the assorted Little Ships and cover from RAF.
28 May: King Leopold of Belgium surrenders to the Germans as the evacuation at Dunkirk proceeds.

I’m sure you get the idea. Behind the scenes, I prepare the content in advance with an automated trigger to send the tweets each day.

My other project is rather more low key: Daily Random Numbers – this does as its title suggests. It posts random numbers each day. You can use them for any purpose you choose. For example, this morning’s post is:

Today’s random numbers: 2508 6927 2875 8334 9093 5291 4317 5422 7002 5643; today’s random dice rolls: 4 4 1 4 1 6 4 3 2 5

Behind the scenes, this one is a short Perl script which I’ll include here for interest’s sake:

#!/usr/bin/perl 
 
use strict;
use warnings;
 
use Net::Twitter;
 
# In following block, 'KEYHERE' represents an authentication 
# string/secret obtained from the Twitter development area
my $nt = Net::Twitter->new(
    traits              => [qw/API::REST OAuth/],
    consumer_key        => 'KEYHERE',
    consumer_secret     => 'KEYHERE',
    access_token        => 'KEYHERE',
    access_token_secret => 'KEYHERE',
    ssl                 => 1,
);
 
my $update = "Today's random numbers:";
for ( 1 .. 10 ) {
    my $rand = int rand 10_000;
    $update = "$update " . sprintf "%4.4d", $rand;
}
 
$update = "$update; today's random dice rolls:";
 
for ( 1 .. 10 ) {
    my $rand = 1 + int rand 6;
    $update = "$update " . sprintf "%1d", $rand;
}
 
my $result = eval { $nt->update($update) };
 
warn "$@\n" if $@;

And there you have it.

Tornado Dave and the Eye of the Storm

(This blog post is really just a way for me to gather various links/videos regarding the event and for me to make a full record of what happened, apologies if you’re already fed up with hearing about it!)

What happened?

By the end of Bank Holiday Monday afternoon (7 May 2012) we were all at home and I was working on my bike in the garage: I’d fitted new brake blocks and was about to go out for a road test. As this thought entered my head, I heard the rumble of thunder. Irritated that I might not be able to take the bike out, I looked outside.

Above the house opposite was a very dark cloud. The cloud appeared to be moving very quickly; this is probably because it was extremely low. With a second glance, it was clear that the cloud was rotating, which is not something I’d seen before. Within just a few seconds, hail started falling and the thunder and lightning continued. The wind, which had been very calm all day, suddely became extremely strong: the hailstones and other small stones/debris were lifted up and were thrown around in the wind. At the front of the house, our car parked on the driveway was bouncing gently on its suspension due to the extreme wind.

For about a minute or so, the winds were incredibly strong and hail was coming down, or rather flying sideways much of the time. Given how calm the weather had been just a minute before, this was rather unsettling.

We can see some large trees from the back of our house and they were bending over sideways: Sarah was convinced they were about to ‘snap’.

And then within a further minute, everything was quiet again. I could still see the twisting clouds just a short distance away and, given that the wind had dropped, I opened the back door and recorded a video of what I saw using my mobile phone. This is what I recorded:

One can see the rotating clouds and, although the video is far less impressive than what we were experiencing moments before, it does capture something which is rather rare in this country. At the time of posting these notes, the video had in excess of 5000 hits.

I immediately uploaded the video to YouTube and posted links on Twitter and Facebook. Sarah suggested shortly afterwards that I should email weatherpics@bbc.co.uk too, since they might be interested.

In the immediate aftermath, there was a fair degree of chatter online (on Kidlington’s Facebook page particularly) about who had seen what and what damage had been caused: fences down, roof tiles dislodged, trees uprooted and so on. Someone from TORRO commented that this was almost certainly a tornado we’d experienced, given the nature of the weather system and the wind speeds/damage caused at ground level. Apparently, TORRO had been tracking the storm from the Taunton area earlier in the day.

Media coverage etc.

If the tornado itself was strange, things were about to get stranger…

In the early evening, I received a message to my YouTube account from the BBC enquiring about the video. I replied with my mobile phone number and someone from the BBC’s Multimedia Handling Centre phoned shortly afterwards. We discussed what had happened and I gave my permission for the video to be used online. I was also asked if I’d be happy to be contacted by any of the BBC news rooms about it: not expecting it to go any further, I agreed.

Within twenty minutes, I had a call from someone working at Radio 5 Live. They asked if I would be prepared to take part in a live chat later that evening on the 22:30 show. I said Yes.

At 22:30 I put Radio 5 Live on and began listening. I don’t normally listen to the radio, but I knew that Radio 5 Live was heavily sports-related and wasn’t surprised when the show spent the first 20+ minutes with a phone-in about Blackburn Rovers being relegated from the Premier League. At about 22:50 my phone rang and, after checking that I could hear the show over my phone OK, I was listening live and ready to go on air. I eventually went live at about 22:55, this is the recording:

After that I was rather buzzed and it was late: I don’t think I slept very well that night, after the (literal) whirlwind of that day.

The next morning, events took further unexpected steps. Just as I was about to leave for work, within 10 minutes of each other I had calls at home from the news desks at BBC Oxford and ITV Meridian. Ultimately, I agreed with both organisations to give TV interviews about the tornado: they would bring a TV crew to work and do the interviews there.

During a (not terribly productive!) morning at work, I fielded various emails/tweets from interested parties asking to use the video or to interview me about what happened. This included Yahoo UK news who, despite asking for permission to use the video, instead used a still from it: rather pointless, given that the whole point of the moving video is that you can see the cloud rotation.

I also discovered that the video was on the BBC web site from early in the morning: it was briefly in the Top Ten Most Watched. And a composite video including my clip with others was at Number One Most Watched for much of the morning.

Then the BBC arrived. We did the interview outside and, by the evening my two minutes of recorded footage had been edited to include just a short snippet, as follows:

I grabbed a quick lunch and then ITV arrived. This is the end result:

Both those local TV clips went out in the evening on Tuesday (8 May 2012): it was interesting to see all the other footage that surfaced about the same event.

And then the whirlwind, like its media coverage, had passed.

Various links

Initial BBC Online clip of my video – reporter told me later this “probably had tens of thousands of hits”.

Video reports similar to BBC Oxford News TV clip: clip 1, clip 2

Video report about tornado, including my footage and others

BBC Weather feature about the incident, featuring some clips from my video – this feature keeps my name on screen for rather too long, misattributing some others’ videos/pictures to me.

There were numerous other stories about this in the local and national press, web sites and so on. However, since they are many (and none of them include my video, interview or quotes), I’m not including them here!

Kidlington Chess Congress 2012

Update 07.02.2012: I’ve uploaded analysis and comments on my games.

It’s that time of year again, the Kidlington Chess Congress: I’ve played here on each of the last three years too. See my old articles from 2009, 2010 and 2011.

An empty playing hall just before the start of the final round.

An empty playing hall just before the start of the final round.

For the last two years I’ve played sufficiently well in the Under-145-graded section to obtain a grade above that level: so this year, I played in the Under-180 section. My official ECF grade is 154.

It was a very cold start on Saturday morning (-8’C at dawn) and it didn’t help that the heating wasn’t working at the venue: it wasn’t as bad as it sounds, though, because pretty soon the heat generated by 150+ competitors thinking deeply warmed the place up. And then the heating started working anyway… So, as usual, here’s the round-by-round summary:

  • Round One: played White against the second-highest rated player (grade 178) in my section. The game started slowly, but I eventually managed to find some nice moves to get a strong passed pawn in the centre of the board. I was definitely winning, but missed the crucial continuation and lost the initiative. By the end, if anything my opponent had a very slight edge although it was very unclear, but with both our time running out, he offered a Draw which I accepted. It was a solid start, a shame not to have announced my arrival in the stronger section of the tournament by beating one of the top-rated players, though! Score 0.5 out of 1.
  • Round Two: taken as a half-point bye, as every year: score 1.0 out of 2.
  • Round Three: the evening round is always tough. Players are tired by this time and a long game can leave you too exhausted (and too buzzed) to sleep properly afterwards. I had a underwhelming position as Black against a player with a similar grade to mine (148) which I managed to defend quite well: he missed the strongest continuation as we approached time pressure and, perhaps sensibly from his point of view, decided to take no chances and offered a Draw: I was behind on the clock and so was happy to accept that. So, score 1.5 out of 3 at the end of Day One: two draws, one game in which I missed a win, the other in which my opponent missed a win. On balance, fair enough so far.

Kidlington Chess 2012

Snow outside the venue at the start of Day Two

Snow arrived during the evening round of Day One and so this made for some travel complications for some competitors, which was unfortunate: not so for me, however, just living a short walk away. Everyone who arrived at the venue on the morning of the second day was pleased to find the heating still working!

  • Round Four: played White against a moderately-strong player (grade 166) and very quickly ended up with a good position out of the opening. I had a strong attack which my opponent wriggled out of by sacrificing material: unfortunately for me, even with extra material, the endgame proved very tough. The game dragged on and soon we reached a time scramble with just a few minutes left each: I lost the thread of the game, sadly, and with just a few seconds remaining on my clock, resigned. A great disappointment to have Lost this long game, especially after having had a great position, and played very well to reach it. Score now 1.5 out of 4. I had barely an hour to calm down, eat and compose myself for the final round, which was going to be tough…
  • Round Five: played Black against a local player graded 146: I wasn’t very happy after the opening, because I was tied down to defending my weak central pawns. However, I found a clever resource to untangle my pieces, which had the positive effect of sending my opponent into lengthy thought (17 minutes for one apparently-simple exchange and a further 20 minutes for a second one two moves later). Luck finally turned my way when my opponent placed his Queen on the side of the board in a place where it could be trapped: he gave up a Bishop to save the Queen, but it wasn’t enough and he resigned immediately. I was very happy to finally Win: also, finishing the tournament with a win is always nice. Final score 2.5 out of 5, a very respectable 50% against strong opposition.

The disappointment of losing the Round Three game was hard to take, but I’m pleased with my performance overall in the tournament. I have calculated that my grade for the tournament is 159 or 160, depending on whether they round up or down(!) And, my ongoing grade on the next grading list will also be about 160, I think, up from this year’s 154.

Should I give up on Facebook? Google+? Twitter?

(This article will be cross-posted to my Facebook account, my Google+ account and linked-to from Twitter.)

Should I give up on Facebook? Should I give up on Google+? Twitter? What about blogging?

My original philosophy with all social networking was this: treat everything you post as public and there will be no surprises. Even if one only expects certain people to read/see what one posts, taking the pessimistic viewpoint that a cock-up of some kind might make all content public seems like a good “paranoia safety net”.

Something’s changed, though. It’s not just about what you post any more.

Let’s consider Facebook. Not only should I be concerned with stuff I post – and leaving aside for a moment all the stuff that others may post about me – I also need to be concerned about where I web browse. If you’re logged-in to Facebook, any time you visit a web-site with a Facebook ‘Like’ button on it, Facebook gets a notification of that fact even if you don’t click ‘Like’. More than that, Facebook still gets a notification even if you’ve logged out from Facebook because identifiable cookies persist in your browser. That means Facebook know a huge amount about where you browse and when. I don’t particularly have anything to hide about that, but let’s say they decide to ‘enhance’ their offerings in future, as is their usual behaviour, and start posting Facebook messages on your Wall about your other activities. Of course, there will be an uproar and there will be preferences to disable it, but it will be switched on by default and seems rather insidious. “Saves you having to click ‘Like’ to tell your friends where you’ve browsed online…” or something.

So, should I give up on Facebook? Well, maybe. Let’s see: what I get out of it? Possibly not very much, but some occasionally amusing or interesting posts by friends do appear. And I have contact with many more people online via Facebook than anything else. Should I give up on Facebook? Could I give up on Facebook??

What about Google+? Well, I’ve heard Google+ described as rather like a membership with a gym. Lots of people sign up, but then most never go back. I must admit to not really using Google+. There is a lot of talk about it being better than Facebook because Google is less evil and won’t do the same nasty things as Facebook would do. But how can one be sure? After all, the only entity who knows more than Facebook do about where you web browse is Google.

Should I give up on Google+? To the extent that I use it at all, this would be easy enough I think. I don’t visit this particular gym very often.

Should I give up on Twitter? This one’s different. I like Twitter and its simplicity. The short tweets, the ease of follow/unfollow and so on. If I only retain a single, active online presence in social networking I imagine it will be on Twitter. I’m certainly finding that I’m using Twitter more and more, and Facebook less and less.

So should I give up on Twitter? No, I don’t think so.

And what about blogging, on www.sungate.co.uk? There is a great advantage to having one’s own domain name and running a blog on one’s own server: control. I can put what I like on my blog, it won’t go away or get re-organised in a way I don’t like, it won’t spy on me and so on. On the other hand, it’s harder to get people to come here and read it. I find myself posting links to my blog articles on Facebook and Twitter, as that’s possible the only way to get people to read them. Even my wife doesn’t read my blog: it’s the place I write things that she won’t be interested in hearing about. If she was interested, I’d tell her about it and then wouldn’t feel the need to rant about it here!

The blog is here to stay, but how much relevance will it continue to have? Hard to say. And I don’t often get time to write lengthy articles.

I don’t really have a conclusion of any sort to this, I’m simply getting some thoughts out of my head. I guess only time will tell whether I do actually put my social networking where my mouth is and give up on any of them.

Firefox versions: someone’s CHANGED the rules

I wrote this post in June, when Firefox began using Very Silly version numbers. And so someone at Mozilla decided that the version number should now be hidden.

Rather than admit they Got It Wrong, they are trying to hide their mistake.

The developer who presented this change (and many others that are meeting popular dismay) is Asa Dotzler. His surname has already been verbed. ‘To dotzler’ means to change something for no reason other than change’s sake, or to screw something up in the face of heavy opposition.

The bug report raised by Asa Dotzler has some interesting comments 😉

Firefox versions: someone’s not following The Rules

In March 2011, Mozilla released Firefox 4.0: this was the first new ‘major’ version for some time. Prior to that date most Firefox users were running Firefox 3.6.16, which was the previous latest version.

When a new major release such as this appears, users are typically faced with two choices: (a) stick with the current ‘branch’ (in this case 3.6), receiving further minor updates (3.6.17, 3.6.18,…), or (b) to plunge into the new major version.

Typically, new major versions bring with them: (i) new features and (ii) new bugs, so the choice someone makes (or your IT department makes for you) is normally made based on fairly simple criteria: in a conservative environment where a stable platform is highly valued (e.g. office, academic, companies), one would normally stay with the current version, to avoid exposure to the new bugs and where the new features are not considered very important; the latest version would be carefully tested before being made available to staff. Alternatively, adventurous home users and software developers who like having The Latest And Greatest (even if that’s often far from the most accurate description) will usually go for the new version.

When making such a decision, one can read the release notes (“What’s new? What’s fixed? What’s different?”), but people are increasingly making such a decision based solely on the Software Version Number. This may sound strange, but it’s a surprisingly reliable approach: if you’re running QuirkyApp 1.1.3 and you see an announcement for QuirkyApp 1.1.4, one won’t expect there to be much of a change. A few bugs or security flaws fixed, perhaps. However, if you see QuirkyApp 1.2.0, you might think “Hmm, something a bit new, there.” Further, an announcement for QuirkyApp 2.0.0 would be greeted with “Whoa! That sounds like a completely new version, lots of changes.”

One’s response to these changes will vary depending on your point of view. “Just minor fixes” could be seen positively (“Excellent, they’re fixing those annoying little niggly problems with the software!”) or negatively (“Dull, nothing new or exciting…”); equally, the “new major version” could be seen positively (“Lots of new features, looks shinier etc.”) or negatively (“Oh dear, they’ll be introducing lots of new bugs and rewriting the graphical interface for no good reason…”). And so on.

Of course all of this relies on the software developers following The Rules. When I refer to The Rules, I mean something like the following link. For a full discussion of how good software version numbers can be useful and informative, read Wikipedia page about software versions

In late April, Firefox released 4.0.1. All those 4.0.0 users think “Ah, right, security fixes. We understand this…” and everyone installs the update. The usual drill.

Then, a few days ago Mozilla released Firefox 5.0. “Erm, hang on, what’s this? We’ve only just got 4.0, now there’s 5.0?” Quite. This was my reaction. In the past, there has typically been about two years between major releases, so how come they’ve made a whole new version so quickly? The answer is, of course, that they haven’t. According to the developers and the people who know about these things, version 5.0 only includes minor bug and security fixes compared to 4.0.1: therefore, the versioning rules indicate that it should be called 4.0.2, not 5.0. Yet this change will have confused vast numbers of users, especially corporate IT departments who have to plan carefully for major version changes, but for whom simple security fixes (4.0.1->4.0.2) are more routine.

And it gets worse: there are preview releases already available for Firefox 6.0 and Firefox 7.0, both expected to be out this year. Yet the changes expected to be included in these updates are quite small.

Someone has broken The Rules. Who?

Mozilla’s Marketing department, it seems. Apparently, they seem to think that Firefox will be more popular if it gets a bigger version number. After all, its ‘competitors’ Microsoft Internet Explorer and Google Chrome are up to versions 9 and 12 respectively, so they must be better, right? I’m not going to go into a lengthy history of those two products, but suffice to say that both Microsoft and Google have been guilty of playing fast and loose with software version numbers for their browsers; that is, Not Following The Rules. And I don’t think anyone really believes that a bigger version number means that the software is better in any meaningful sense.

That Mozilla are taking Firefox from version 3.6.13 in January 2011 to version 7.0 by the end of 2011 makes one believe that – based on a traditional interpretation of version numbers – more development work has gone into the application this year than since development began more than a decade ago. Of course that’s not the case. I don’t think this helps anyone; it certainly doesn’t help end users, it must confuse the developers and it certainly complicates corporate environments where an IT department centrally manages the installations on a number of machines.

So can anything be done about this? Not really, the decision is not made by the users. However, I hope that at some point – perhaps when Mozilla Marketing are satisfied that the Firefox version number is Big Enough – they return to the more familiar and informative versioning scheme. Perhaps they can call Firefox 9.0’s security releases 9.0.1 and 9.0.2, rather than 10.0 and 11.0?

AV Referendum: a win for NO

On 5 June 1944 General Eisenhower, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces about to invade France, had last-minute doubts about the success of the operation. On the eve of the invasion he therefore drafted a contingency letter of ‘apology’ to be used in case Operation Overlord failed. In the event, of course, the landings in Normandy were a success and his apology was never required.

In a similar but rather less dramatic manner, I am therefore drafting two separate blog posts: “AV Referendum: a win for NO” and “AV Referendum: a win for YES”. Only one will be published. The reason for this is that, as I write this, I am waiting for the car to get its MOT done and have nothing else to do. It’s 08:30 on Friday 06.05.2011: the voting is over, but the count has not yet begun. We exist in a kind of superstate of Yes-ness and No-ness, just like the alive-ness and dead-ness of Schrodinger’s Cat locked in the box. I have time to spare now, but not after the count is announced, so I have to cover both eventualities and write up for both outcomes now. It’d be just my luck that we get a complete dead heat, but I’ll take my chances.

Polls suggest that I will be publishing the NO version; this may be considered equivalent to there being no signs of life emenating from the cat’s box, I suppose.

(Later…. it’s early evening and the bulk of the AV results are in showing approximately 30% YES, 70% NO. What follows is the ‘NO’ version of my post written earlier today.)

So it’s a win for NO. Given the opinion polls running up to the day of the election, this is not really a surprise and in a sense I had already resigned myself to accepting this result. That still makes it a disappointment, of course, because I believe that AV would ultimately have been better for voters.

In my opinion, a NO result means the following ‘bad’ things, from the point of view of someone who wanted (and still wants) to see electoral reform. Firstly, this result will be proclaimed by the NO campaigners as The People Do Not Want Reform. Even NO campaigners, if they’re honest, wouldn’t consider that entirely true, but it’s what I expect to see happen. (The only direct interpretation should perhaps be: People Do Not Want THIS Reform, Right Now; which is not quite the same thing). Politics is all about interpretation, after all.

It’s no secret that many YES voters viewed AV as a potential stepping-stone to further, future reform, typically some form of PR (whether via multi-member constituencies, or via additional ‘top-up’ seats as in the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly). So I’m therefore interested in how the campaigners in the “No to AV, Yes to PR” camp feel about this result: I’m assuming they’re pleased, but I’m genuinely curious to see how one proceeds from here, because this feels like a major setback. The NO result has, in my opinion, crushed any prospect of future reform for decades. And the fact that a NO vote was given in a referendum for quite a small change means that this raises the bar considerably for future reform which will presumably need to be put to the country in a similar manner (even if at all). After all, the People said NO, didn’t they?

It’s worth considering the reasons why people voted the way they did. Those voting YES will have done so for two main reasons, I suspect: firstly, those who believe that AV gives a fairer result in an individual constituency, removes the need for tactical voting and so on; secondly, some will have voted YES for reasons such as “If ‘they’ want NO, I’m voting YES”, or anything for a change and possibly for other reasons. The reasons for those voting NO interests me more. The largest group of NO voters consists, I suspect, of Conservatives and some Labour supporters. It’s no secret that Conservatives and Labour have the potential to keep a disproportionately high number of seats compared to their share of the vote under FPTP and, therefore, oppose AV. Not exactly an ‘honourable’ reason, in my opinion, but at least it’s a valid reason based on how those people wish future governments to be composed.

There is also likely to be a large group of NO voters who consider themselves “anti-Clegg” or “anti-LibDem” and, seeing YES as largely benefiting the LibDems, voted NO. I understand this reason, especially given the horrible state of the LibDem’s current image, largely relating to tuition fees. However, I believe that voting NO for that reason is incredibly shortsighted. AV would result in a generally more balanced voting system for all, not just the LibDems and, if it does favour them, then that’s only because they’ve been particularly badly treated by the current system and almost anything would be an improvement! The first election under AV would have been in 2015, by which time the electoral landscape could be very different. (As an aside, I’m disappointed the LibDems who are taking seemingly all the bad press for the actions of a Coalition in which they have less influence than the Conservatives, while the latter appear largely unscathed. The local election results, plus Scottish/Welsh parliamentary returns, suggests that nation-wide it’s only the LibDems who have been given an electoral kicking. Of course the tuition fees ‘broken promise’ must be a major contributing factor, there’s no denying that.)

However, there is a further large group of NO voters who don’t easily fall into the Conservative/Labour group. This is the group who have been led to believe – quite incorrectly as any independent analysis will show – one or more of the outright lies which were being peddled by the NO campaign. These issues are well-known, but include: AV is confusing and complicated (no it’s not, everyone knows how to rank their choices), AV gives some people multiple votes (it doesn’t, by any impartial assessment), AV will ‘let the BNP in’ (it won’t), AV will cost £250 million (it won’t) and so on. In fact, on the last point I heard yesterday that David Blunkett had quite brazenly announced that the “£250 million” figure was simply “made up”. It would be a great shame if this group made the difference between a YES result and a NO result (Edit, following bulk of results: given the scale of the NO win, I expect this is unlikely. I actually draw some comfort from this). But, still, well done NO campaign: you made some people think they’re too stupid to count and that they should be afraid of non-existent threats. Job done. *rolls eyes*

So what does a NO vote mean for the future? Well, combined with the kicking for the LibDems in the polls, I think it means a (possibly temporary) return to a strong two-party system at the next election and beyond. The future of the Conservative/LibDem government coalition is uncertain. Retaining FPTP means that we’ll still have MPs elected with minority support, we’ll still have to vote tactically in many constituencies and many votes will be wasted.

Is there a bright side here? Well, possibly. One of the only real failings of AV as a system is that if a single party has a huge lead in the polls, their majority may be exaggerated by AV. Not much consolation, though, really. Possibly one could interpret the NO result as meaning “We wanted change, but this wasn’t the right change”: one positive thing I saw in recently YouGov polls was that the data showed a large number of those in the ‘No’ camp sounding positive about ‘PR’, although to be fair I don’t think it was made clear what ‘PR’ might mean in practice. Even if people do indeed want PR, I don’t see how – given the NO vote and the prevailing electoral conditions – it can be brought about. The prevailing system tends to favour a government comprised of those who don’t want change.

Regardless of the actual result, I should point out that campaigning from both the “No to AV” and “Yes to AV” camps was unimpressive. Campaigning was very vicious from NO, particularly regarding personal attacks on Nick Clegg and with its distribution of lies about AV and other misleading material. Equally, from YES we had some rather vague “fairer votes” campaign and a degree of hyperbole about the MPs’ expenses scandal, which is unrelated to the voting system.

In summary, a disappointment, but we must move on. I joined the Electoral Reform Society earlier in the year, because I’m interested in supporting reform in future, but I promise I’ll shut up about all this for a while, now. 😉

Voting ‘YES to AV’: some reasons why

On 5 May 2011, voters will be given the opportunity to answer the referendum question:

At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?

I am intending to vote YES. Here I describe some of the reasons behind my decision to do so. Further, I explore some of the debating points raised by both the “Yes to AV” and the “No to AV” campaigns.

FPFP and AV

Firstly, a description of the two voting systems, from the point of view of a voter:

How FPTP (‘First Past The Post’) works: Each voter votes for only a single candidate (i.e. you put an ‘X’ next to your preferred candidate). The single candidate with the most votes is declared the winner.

How AV (‘Alternative Vote’) works: Each voter puts all candidates in their preferred order, ranking them with ‘1’ as their preferred candidate, ‘2’ as their second preference and so on. If a candidate receives >50% of first-preference votes then they are elected. If no candidate gains a majority on first preferences, then the second-preference votes of the candidate who finished last on the first count are redistributed. This process is repeated until someone gets over 50%.

Note that if there are only two candidates, FPTP and AV are logically equivalent. It makes no difference, because whoever gets more votes will automatically have >50%. However, when there are three or more candidates, differences emerge. (This fact in itself gives a clue as to why FPTP has been used historically – in the past there were usually only two parliamentary parties and so FPTP was not an unreasonable way to elect in those circumstances. In 1951, Conservative and Labour got nearly 97% of votes between them: a genuine two-party system. In 2010, however, it was only 65%: no longer a two-party system).

How AV works

A way to explain why AV can produce a fairer result than FPTP is as follows: let’s take an example where there are three candidates and FPTP gives voting percentages as 60% for candidate A, 25% for candidate B and 15% for candidate C. Under FPTP rules, candidate A would be elected; under AV, candidate A would also be elected because they have >50%. However, let’s consider what happens if the voting percentages were different: 40% for candidate A, 35% for candidate B and 25% for candidate C. Under FPTP, candidate A would be elected because they have the most votes; however, under AV, since no candidate has >50%, no-one is declared the immediate winner. Second preferences then come into play. Depending on these preferences, either candidate A or B could be the eventual winner: it depends on how the second preferences of candidate C are distributed.

The above 40/35/25 split is a good example of how AV can give a fairer result: how it does this depends on how voters treat the relative merits of A, B and C. Let’s say that candidate A is generally well-liked by those who vote B and C and picks up plenty of second preferences: it’s likely that they will be elected, having 40% of first preferences and a reasonable number of second preferences. Because candidate A is generally well-liked, AV makes sure that candidate A is elected: this is a fair result. However, conversely, if candidate A is universally disliked by those who vote B and C, it’s possible candidate B will pick up most of the second preferences from C-voters, thus giving B >50% overall: this is a fair result because although 40% gave their first preference to A, 60% of voters preferred someone else! The FPTP result of electing candidate A as the winner might have meant that 60% of voters end up with an MP they actively dislike! (It’s worth pointing out that this happens all the time at General Elections. Most MPs were elected with <50% support. That is, a majority of voters have an MP they didn’t vote for!)

With more than three candidates, AV does generally a good job finding a candidate with the most broad support from the electorate.

Advantages of AV

  • It ensures that winning candidates have the support of >50% of their voters, where support doesn’t necessarily mean ‘first preference’. This is particularly important when there are many candidates, where a FPTP winner might have only ~20% of the vote.
  • It almost entirely eliminates any need to vote tactically. Voters can put their first-choice candidate first without worrying that they are “letting someone else win”. For example, in a seat where the winner is expected to be candidate A or candidate B, under FPTP a vote for party C might be considered a waste; if a C-voter actively dislikes candidate A, they might be tempted to vote for candidate B to “stop candidate A winning”, since they consider candidate B winning a better result than candidate A winning. Thus in these situations FPTP encourages people to vote for someone other than their main preference. Under AV, a C-voter can confidently vote C as their first preference, knowing that if C doesn’t get many votes overall, their second preference will be counted. The ‘C-voter’ described here would vote: First preference: C, Second preference: B, Third preference: A. This also shows that AV and FPTP can change a voter’s voting patterns to be closer to their real opinions: someone’s first preference under AV might not be the same as the single party they would have chosen under FPTP. AV thus encourages more honest voting.
  • The elimination of tactical voting leads to less negative campaigning by candidates and their supporters. Since second preferences from voters are important, candidates are more likely to try to appeal more broadly rather than alienating traditional voters of other parties. Positive campaigning from candidates is likely to engage more voters overall and help lead to higher voter turnout at the election itself, which is a Good Thing, democratically-speaking;
  • I’m going to be honest and say that I don’t agree with every argument that’s put forward in favour of a “Yes” vote. I’ve seen “Yes to AV” campaign posters stating that AV will help prevent things like the Expenses Scandal and will eliminate safe seats, thus requiring MPs “to work harder for our vote”. I must admit to being slightly confused by this, because I’m not sure I see the validity of these arguments. AV is a voting system and so it cannot really influence how an MP behaves once elected. Further, AV will not eliminate safe seats. It might make some seats slightly less safe, but could equally make others slightly more safe. The elimination of safe seats in their entirety requires the use of a completely different voting system, probably one with multi-member constituencies;

Advantages of FPTP, disadvantages of AV?

Many arguments are put forward by the “No to AV” campaign regarding reasons why AV is a bad idea or why FPTP is better. I list some of the more common arguments here, together with comment regarding why I believe they are wrong or misguided. Generally, the reasons put forward by the “No to AV” campaign are negative reasons against change, rather than positive reasons in favour of FPTP:

  • “AV is too complicated.” Some claim AV is too complicated for voters. Hardly! Given that one only needs to be able to count up to the number of candidates standing in your seat, this isn’t going to be such a big deal. Preferential voting of this sort is already used in various elections and almost everyone will already have had experience of voting this way. It’s true that the count of votes will take a little longer than under FPTP, in the cases where second preferences need to be counted, but it won’t take much longer in most circumstances;
  • “AV gives some people more than one vote” Not at all: it gives everyone one vote, but makes sure that that one vote has the most chance of making a difference! Each voter gets one vote and everyone’s vote may be counted several times, depending on how many ’rounds’ are required for someone to end up with >50%. A second preference is not a second vote, it is an ‘instruction’ regarding how you want your (only) vote to be cast if it would be wasted because your first preference candidate cannot win! Under AV the winner is typically a candidate to whom >50% of voters gave their first or second preference: that means that most voters have ‘helped to elect’ the eventual winner. Under FPTP, especially with a split vote among many candidates, a very small proportion will have ‘helped to elect’ the winner;
  • “AV is too expensive.”, “Give soldiers more body armour rather than changing our voting system”, “Use the money for changing a voting system to help save the lives of babies with cancer” etc. There has been a lot of scaremongering and campaigning of this type. I think this says a lot about the people making those statements, rather than the use of AV;
  • “I’m voting no to AV because I want proper proportional representation, such as STV”: This argument is rather different and I agree with the underlying sentiment wholeheartedly. Proper proportional representation would be a great improvement to the electoral system and I support that. However, this referendum is not about that. It’s about a choice between FPTP and AV: it came about as a political compromise in the Coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the LibDems. (Ideally, the Conservatives would not have wanted a referendum at all; the LibDems would have preferred more proportional reform.) “Yes to AV” is a step in the right direction towards proportional representation, because the preferential voting method used by voters in such a system is the same as in AV. Voting “No to AV” because you want deeper reform is ultimately a futile gesture, because your ‘No’ vote will be lost amongst those who are genuinely anti-reform. If the final result of the referendum is a ‘No’, then that will effectively block chances for electoral reform for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, a ‘Yes’ result will suggest a mood for positive electoral reform that could lead to further reform in future;
  • “The LibDems wanted this AV vote and I’m unhappy with the LibDems’ role in government, e.g. tuition fees: I’m going to vote NO because it’s a vote against Nick Clegg and the LibDems”. If you’re a traditional LibDem voter and feel a sense of ‘betrayal’ for any reason, voting ‘NO’ is futile way to express this! You’d be ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’. It’s likely that one of the reasons you voted LibDem was to see electoral reform. If so, vote ‘YES!’. If you really want to show displeasure at the LibDems, vote ‘YES’ to AV and then put LibDems as your last preference at the next election! Remember that David Cameron is part of the ‘No to AV’ campaign, so you will be voting for him if you vote “against Nick Clegg”. The Conservatives are broadly behind the ‘No to AV’ campaign because the FPTP system benefits them! Both Conservative and Labour obtain an unfairly high proportion of parliamentary seats relative to their vote, at the expense of all smaller parties; many established MPs are behind “No to AV” for that reason.

So I therefore encourage you to vote “YES” on 5 May 2011! AV may not be the best thing since sliced bread, but it’s an improvement over FPTP and a ‘Yes’ vote will show popular support for future electoral reform. Vote YES!