Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

If the economy matters then so do people

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

(This follows on from discussion in Hall earlier (yes Chris this is for you))

It is fairly common and I think reasonable to argue that what is in the best interests of the economy (at least in the long term) is also in the best interests of the people in the long term. (There is much subtly here and I am not saying I agree)
However it is also frequently argued that what is clearly not in the interests of large groups of people is in the best interests of the economy. For example making large numbers of people unemployed overnight so as to slim down the NHS or similar.

I consider the lecture I had from a City investor this morning and the statement he made that essentially the value of the economy of a country is (modulo many other transient factors) the number of working people times the productivity of those people. In the event of making large numbers of people unemployed instantaneously the number of working people is reduced and due to the sudden influx into the jobs market not all those people will get jobs straight away as there won’t be enough available [0]. Then as a person remains unemployed their productivity decreases with time, they become progressively less useful to the economy and less employable so we have a situation where both the number of people working is reduced and where even when we get those people back into work their productivity will be reduced. So negative impact on the economy. Don’t do that. [1]
Yes management and bureaucracy breeds if left to itself and so periodically it is necessary to go around with a sharp knife, a keen eye and a steady hand and remove unnecessary things. However this should be done carefully at a rate such that those being made unemployed can be reabsorbed into working elsewhere doing something more useful.

Personally I would say that people are far more valuable than any physical thing and all structures of countries and economies and physical objects only have value when they are serving people (using a rather wide definition of both serving and people).

Yes I am procrastinating my dissertation. Well spotted.

[0]: Of course if that is not the case then this isn’t so much of a problem.
[1]: It might be possible to argue in certain circumstances that the effect on other factors (debt etc.) is sufficiently large as to outweigh this cost however I think that is likely to be rather rare.

Voting no to AV is just stupid

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

So that might seem a little insulting but it is a statement of fact rather than of opinion. A few days I thought that AV was simply better than FPTP and so “yes” was obviously the right answer. Further discussion and consideration of the issue moved me to the position that since there were no valid arguments at all in favour of FPTP over AV based on methodology (it is simply better in all respects) anyone voting no was either being stupid (believing the deliberate lies being spread by the no campaign) or immoral (voting no in the belief that by supporting an inferior more unfair voting system they were helping to rig elections in favour of their preferred party). Further consideration has led me to believe that even the immoral argument is invalid and so no one who has carefully thought out the issues can vote no.

Before I can explain why you will first need to have any questions you have about methodology addressed. Is AV actually always better than FPTP? Well yes and Tim Gowers (Cambridge maths professor) has written a rather good blog post about AV vs FPTP which has been getting a lot of mileage among the Cambridge students. Having read that and perhaps thought a little about it you will hopefully come to the conclusion that the only reasons you have left for voting no are the ones that I would call immoral – you want to rig the vote in favour of your party because it is easier to rig the vote so that they win with a minority than to actually persuade people that their policies are better than those of the other parties.

Actually those arguments are just stupid as well, at least in the long term – current MPs can perhaps vote no on the understanding that they are only being immoral and not stupid but for the voter that expects to be around (or care about) elections in 20 or more years time then the short term thinking which results in a no vote being a valid option for immoral reasons is no longer valid.

At this point some people might be thinking “Your a lefty I don’t believe anything you say”[0] to which I will make some Peterhouse specific comments: Nicholas Wilson, Nick Dixon-Clegg, Matthew Wells are Conservatives through and through, and are voting YES to AV because it is fair. Owen Woods is a Socialist and is voting YES to AV because it is better. I as a green/orange lefty kind of person who respects people on the right enough that there are even a couple of people in the Conservative party I would vote for am voting YES to AV because it is fairer and better and there is no other sensible option on the table. This campaign is not a party political one it is a campaign between those who are right and those who are afraid of change even for the better.

Consider the two cases where someone might be intending to vote no based on immoral reasons: they are either a Labour or a Conservative voter and think that AV might harm the chances of their party getting into power so often. Well if you are a Labour voter then as Tim Gowers so eloquently puts it “A LABOUR SUPPORTER VOTING FOR FPTP IS A TURKEY VOTING FOR CHRISTMAS”. However what of the Conservative voter?

Well first I will assume that whichever party you support you think that they are the best party, they have the best policies the best principles and are generally better than all the other choices. (If not why on earth are your supporting them.) Then since they are the best then surely eventually they should win under a fair voting system as it will be clear that their policies and principles are better when discussed rationally, over time historically it will become clear (or be possible to make clear) that if the policies of your favoured party had been adopted on a whole range of issues at a whole range of different points in time then the outcome would have been unequivocally better. What I am saying here is that under a fair system democracy should eventually produce the right result if you are correct in your assertion that your favoured party is the best one. It might take a long time, it won’t be easy and things are dynamic so who the best party is in your eyes might change as its current leadership retire and are replaced – but if you believe in democracy then hopefully you believe that given enough time and effort on the side of the best party then they win. (Perhaps I am assuming more faith in democracy than you have, hopefully you have enough that the rest of the argument follows anyway)

Currently the Conservatives might do better under FPTP than under AV in a (fairly small) number of constituencies because though the majority of people in that constituency don’t want them to win they are split between Labour and Lib Dems as to who they prefer first over the Conservatives though the majority would sill prefer Labour over the Conservatives and Lib Dems over the Conservatives. This is the general problem of split voting and is one of the places that FPTP fails really hard because it does not collect enough information from voters to be able to pick the candidate with the most support since FPTP is designed for and works perfectly fine in situations where there are only 2 candidates and fails utterly when there are more than 2 (and there are always more than 2 candidates in constituency elections – even in the speaker’s seat).
However when picking a voting system we are picking something for the long term, we have had FPTP for over 100 years and Australia has had AV for over 100 years. It is not something that we change all that often and so any time the question does have a chance to be decided it needs to be treated seriously with application of long term thinking.
Currently there is not much of a split on the right while there is a fairly large spit on the left, but who can say for sure that in 20, 50 or 100 years from now the situation might be the other way around. For example UKIP might gain support from Conservative party voters, the Lib Dems might move further right (they are currently in coalition with the Conservatives after all) and so pull voters away from the Conservative party resulting in a split vote on the right while Labour mops up everyone left of centre. Then we could have a situation where Labour gained power and were immovable from it for decades despite having only minority support while parties on the right fought over who was the true party of the right. A Conservative voter might hope that Conservative voters are too sensible to let that happen and perhaps they are right but no one can guarantee that.

So we get to make a choice on the voting system now, and we probably won’t get a chance like this again for a long time. While in the short term it might favour particular parties a little to remain with FPTP, AV is clearly better and no one can know the future well enough to be sure that voting no now won’t result in the party they hate jumping up and down laughing on them for decades with a minority of the vote.

Vote AV unless you are stupid, but then even stupid people should be able to understand simple logical arguments ;-)

[0]: Words to that effect were said to me yesterday fortunately there were some Conservatives around to do the persuading.

P.S. though perhaps you might have found this insulting I don’t make any apologies for that, however it doesn’t mean I don’t still like you as a person, I just think you are provably wrong or a little immoral.

Enforcing ‘fairness’ through reverse discrimination for Universities

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

Recently there has been again a lot of media attention on Simon Hughes’ comments that universities should increase the proportion of their intake from state schools to reflect the proportion of pupils in the secondary school education system going to state and private schools.
While I accept it is really important for universities to make a particular effort to ensure pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who would thrive at university do go to university and go to the university which will stretch them the most. I also hold that each and every person who universities fail in this regard is being really badly let down. I think that it is correct that universities should be considering the quality of the teaching that pupils received when considering admissions as if someone managed to do the same amount with less then they have achieved more even if their grades are identical.

I am however going to say something which is possibly controversial – we are never under any sane system going to end up with representative proportions of people across all sectors of society and all types of school going to university and in particular to the best universities. We shouldn’t even try for that as it fundamentally isn’t going to work. What we should be aiming for is what the proportions would be if universities were doing their job perfectly – which would probably be significantly more representative than is currently the case. However it would not be and should not be completely representative.

Why? [Begin controversy] There are genetic factors which impact on the ability of students to thrive at university. If someone’s parents went to University then probabilistically they are more likely to have those factors. HOWEVER this does not mean that people whose parents didn’t go to university didn’t have those factors as not everyone wants to or should go to university even if they could. Additionally as humans we are not limited by our genes we may have natural tendencies towards certain things but with enough effort most of these things can be overcome. My argument is not that people whose parents didn’t go to university shouldn’t go – simply that you are not going to get a representative split there is going to be some natural bias and if we are making our assessments correctly we shouldn’t be upset about this. Of course universities should, can and are making an additional effort to reach those whose parents didn’t go to university as they are less likely to know that they can and should.[End controversy]

Additionally it is not the place of universities to make up for all the failings of all the previous educational establishments that students have previously been to – they make a great effort to do so and have great successes but if the Government really wants to make progress on making university education more representative of the population as a whole it really needs to look very hard at other areas first.

The differences in achievement between people from disadvantaged backgrounds and people from privileged backgrounds (like for example me) appears really quite early on in a child’s education and so the additional effort needs to be being put in there – in primary and secondary schools. Additionally people from privileged backgrounds are likely to be able to put time into learning the right kind of parenting methods and into implementing them that would increase the probability of their children going to university. This is not to say that other kinds of parenting are worse university is not that important in the grander scheme of things and there are far more important things for parents to focus on imparting to their children.

However parenting is hard (yes I find the idea slightly scary) and if there are things which can be taught which do help then they should be taught to those who want to learn them – people only get one childhood and it is important to get it right.

So in summary yes we should be doing better than we are but there are limits to how well we can do (and these limits are very hard to calculate and as limits can only be tended towards). It is unhelpful to say “lets just do reverse discrimination and hope this causes the private school system to collapse in a heap” that doesn’t solve the problem of differences in the quality of education provided by different schools it just gives middle class people even more angst about choosing schools for their little darlings. It causes sillyness like children going to state schools to increase their chances of getting into a good university but actually being taught by private tutors “off the record” which just make inequality harder to measure without actually solving this.

Again please bear with the fact that this won’t actually communicate what I want it to and is eminently capable of being misunderstood. Sorry. However I hope you can see through that to what I really mean.

(Yes as a Guardian reading lefty who went to two different private schools for my secondary education there is some ‘guilt’ that I have been given a better start in life than most people and so all I have had to do is make the effort to tuck in to the plate placed in front of me rather than having to go and fill the plate first. I do try and make an effort to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds through various different mechanisms – but that doesn’t stop my private sixth form school from asking me back to help their pupils but then they gave me a scholarship so I owe them something as well.)

On paying attention – or optimising ordinary things

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

Sometimes it seems to me that many people go through life with their eyes only half open. I suspect this might be because that other half is paying attention to things which I don’t[0].
I think this might be something which helps with and is strengthened by Computer Science. A continual paying attention – observing how things are and why they are that way. Then working out how to optimise – to do things better. A continual[1] desire to improve things which doesn’t stop just because what I am doing or considering is an ordinary thing that billions of people do every day without really thinking. By thinking we can actually do better.
I will illustrate this (poorly) with two trivial examples.

Emptying Dishwashers

Now it might seem that this task is incredibly simple and requires very little thought at all and to an extent that is true. However actually there are significant advantages to emptying the bottom tray first.
Why? Consider that when removing items from a dishwasher we want to maximise dryness. We don’t want wet crockery in the cupboards. Also consider that dishwashers don’t completely dry things – water tends to linger in depressions. This water can be dislodged and drip off if the item it is on is moved. Hence if we empty the top tray first then water will drop off onto items on the bottom tray just when you want them to be dry.
You probably hadn’t thought about that before. Perhaps you think me silly for mentioning it and perhaps I am.

Drying after showers

This might seem even stranger but it is something that even sensible people regularly get wrong.
Here again we wish to maximise dryness both of the person and the room. The situation we wish to avoid is that of a vast puddle stretching across the floor and drying only very slowly resulting in damp problems and wet feet/clothes.
Avoiding this is quite simple – dry in the shower where it is warmer and any drips can go down the plughole. To do this it is necessary to put one’s towel within easy reach of the shower before getting in it. It isn’t really possible to dry below the knees like this and so at the point placing the towel on the floor and then standing on it solves the problem.

Trivia? Yes. OCD? Possibly (certainly my mentioning this has previously resulted in chants of “OCD! OCD! OCD!”) but I am not responsible for the large puddle on the floor. ;-)

Unfortunately this appears to be rather poorly written and probably doesn’t covey what I want it to (it was originally written while half asleep on a train) sorry. But I think I will publish it anyway – hopefully you can enjoy laughing at how silly I am if nothing else.

(Yes Julia this counts as wittering on ;-)

[0]: For example optimising the value for money when shopping to a greater extent than I do through paying more attention.
[1]: At least continual at the limit not perhaps in reality ;-)

Having sensible discussions

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

Recently I have been thinking quite a lot about how people who have different points of view on a particular issue can have a proper discussion about that issue. So often we don’t actually engage with each other or even really try to but instead go from the position “I know I am right and the other person is wrong” to the position “I know I am right and the other person is wrong because of X, Y and Z” but at the same time something similar is happening for the other person for possibly different Xs Ys and Zs.

In reality people don’t generally hold views which they consider to be wrong and don’t do things that they think are evil (at least not and then support them afterwards – I regularly do things that I think are wrong). So in a sensible discussion what we want to find out is what the underlying facts, assumptions and beliefs are and what the relative importance of each of those things. Then hopefully it will be possible to see how these fit together to form a worldview in which the opposite point of view is in fact the correct view.

Unfortunately this is frequently rather difficult partly because it is all to easy to reject things outright and so not actually examine these underlying issues and partly because all these things tend to be interconnected in a rather complex manner. So it may be necessary to talk about a very wide range of underlying issues which are all mutually dependant resulting in it taking a rather long time. Very few people will be prepared to put in that kind of time and even with those who are it is still difficult as there are fundamental restrictions on the number of hours in a day.

Recently I have been having sensible discussions with some of my Christian friends who are inclined to the ‘right’ while I myself generally consider myself inclined towards the ‘left’. In this situation it is possible to have really quite interesting discussions by virtue of the fact that we both already agree on a wide range of very important issues and have worldviews which are on a deep level very close indeed. At the same time outward political views can end up at opposite ends of the spectrum. It is also rather helpful that we already love each other a lot and so it is easier not to get angry or to consider them a bad person because of views that I might find objectionable because I already know that since they love all the people who are affected by implementations of policy based on those views they must have good reasons for them.

In this I have found that it is surprising how big a difference in policy subtle differences in the priority given to different underlying good principles can have. Having had the whole of Christmas to allow these thoughts to mature in the absence of such discussion I appear to have lost my recollection of good examples of this and since some of these thoughts stretch back to April or earlier that is not completely surprising.

So in summary: If both sides in a discussion are willing to put real effort into having a sensible discussion and looking carefully at the underlying issues then it is possible to get rather more out of if than one might expect. (This is also far more interesting than discussing the weather etc. and I should put more effort into making it happen).

Relatedly I had a ‘fairly’ sensible discussion about religion on #cl (It didn’t descend to a flamewar though IRC isn’t really a good place for going into detail on complex issues) this must be some kind of miracle. :-)