Thursday, 11 August 2011

Contra Hill and Harman

Dave Hill in the Guardian complains at the refusal of those in authority to even consider the causes of the riots:

"Michael Gove's performance on Newsnight was definitive. Fellow guest Harriet Harman's mild observation that the causes of the riots are "complex" produced a barked tirade of rigid sanctimony - the first refuge of the right in denial"

Dave Hill's, necessary, shortening of the argument misses some detail. Harman didn't just say that the causes were "complex" but advanced her ideas on what some of those "complex" causes were. Student Fees were an issue, together with Education Maintenance Allowance. She was careful to say that they did not "justify" the rioting.

So Harriet Harman was genuinely trying to figure out the ultimate causes of the riots.

Was she bollocks.

Amazing, isn't it, that amongst the causes of the riots were following Coalition policy and not following Labour policy? Not, entirely amazing. Mad Mel thinks that the riots were caused by being liberal and thinking too hard about stuff, more reactionary garbage is the cure. Nick Griffin thinks that the riots are a result of "multi-culturalism" (a codeword used by many in the racist community to mean "Blacks, Asians and Jews") and not following BNP policy (get rid of Blacks, Asians and Jews). Others think that the riots happened because of "soft" sentences and a lack of flogging.

Notice a pattern? Of course you do the "causes" of the riots are always too much "stuff I don't like", coupled with a lack of "stuff I do like".

This is hardly a "clear-eyed, realistic, intelligent diagnos(is)". It's a trick even Nick-fucking-Griffin can pull!

But this wasn't Gove's key objection. Gove's key objection was that, despite saying these causes didn't "justify" the riots Harman "relativised" the riots. I don't think "relativised" is a good word for what Harman did. But I do think he was right.

There are a huge number of (partial) causes for any event. When asked for the cause we almost never give it, the cause usually doesn't exists. Why am I late home from work? Well part of the reason is where I live and where my work is: were I to live next door to the office I would not have been late. Neither would I have been late if I could teleport. Of course I wouldn't be late home from work at all if I didn't go out to work. That is the product of a whole separate set of causes.

What we do is give the cause we think is the one we should concentrate on. One that we can change. One that, itself has "ultimate" causes we can influence. One that we should change.

I am late home from work because I went for a drink.

It's true that I work in a certain place, it is true that I can't teleport and it is true that I do go out to work. But I can't change where my work is, I can't learn to teleport and I shouldn't consider (for just this reason) stopping work. Those causes are "givens", we choose the key factor, my love of Real Ale.

My being late home from work is not really disastrous. Let's look at a couple of different choices of the cause.

Event 1: Man M1 rapes woman W1.
The cause 1: M1 is the sort of violent misogynistic scum who would do such a thing.
The cause 2: W1 wore a short skirt and dressed in a "provocative manner"

Event 2: Man M2 beats woman W2.
The cause 1: M2 is the sort of violent misogynistic scum who would do such a thing.
The cause 2: W1 did not have M2's dinner ready when he got home

How do those second causes sound to you?

Given that M1 would not have raped W1 had W1 not dressed in a "provactive manner" and that M2 would not have hit W2 had he had his dinner they are part of the causal history of the act. But they're hardly the thing we should be concentrating on. To even mention them sounds a lot like blaming the victim.

As it does with the riots.

Sometimes a demonstration can get out of hand, sometimes there is a genuine grievance (racist policing, totalitarian governments etc) that provoke riots amongst decent people. We all know, though, that last week wasn't a demonstration that got out of hand, we all know this wasn't a reaction to racist policing or totalitarian goverment. The rioters rioted for a reason similar to why the rapist rapes and the wife-beater wife beats: they are violent, thieving criminals.

There is your cause. The cause.

And if we want to look at "underlying" causes we can consider:
1. What caused them to be violent, thieving criminals and how we can reduce the numbers of other people becoming violent, thieving criminals
2. What keeps them being violent, thieving criminals and whether they can be reformed.
3. Given there will always be violent, thieving criminals, how we can reduce the adverse impact of violent, thieving criminals on the rest of us.

Just as we consider what causes people to be/remain rapists and wife beaters, whether they can be reformed and how to reduce their adverse impact. When people rape and beat we do not divert attention to some, morally, irrelevant "cause".

Imagine Harman's reaction if we did. Imagine the "provocative dress" and late dinner being suggested to Harman as part of the complex of causes for rape and wife beating. Imagine whoever was advancing them (some "Bufton Tufton" backbench Tory) was careful to say that these reasons in no way "justified" the actions of M1 and M2. Imagine Richard Littlejohn writing:

"[Harriet Harman]'s performance on Newsnight was definitive. Fellow guest [Bufton Tufton]'s mild observation that the causes of [rape] are "complex" produced a barked tirade of rigid sanctimony - the first refuge of the [left] in denial"

Now tell me you can't imagine exactly those two sentences and that you can't imagine Dave Hill being utterly appalled by them. Harman showed her intellectual rigour to be on a par with Nick Griffin and moral percipacity to be on a par with Richard Littlejohn.

Gove was right to bark a tirade in her direction and Hill showed either special pleading or a lack of self knowledge to criticise him for it.


Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Joys of Regicide

The revolution is won.

The spark that set it off, of course, was the revelations of tapping (and interfering with) Milly Dowler’s voicemail. People were outraged.

People were so outraged that both News Corp and Parliament lost control of events. And because Parliament could no longer control events it couldn’t, even if it wanted to, support the News Corp cause. All the bad things that would come from defying News Corp were going to come anyway or had already happened. You can't "out" Chris Bryant twice. All the good things that come from bowing to News Corp were lost anyway. Cameron was never going to get another Obama style poster on the front page of The Sun

Parliament had nothing to lose.

It must have felt good.

And if you’ve got nothing to lose in standing up to a bully, the chances are that the bully is going to get it good.

So, right now, the Prime Minister and prospective Prime Ministers no longer abase themselves before News Corp. There is no question of anyone promising to weaken the BBC to help BSkyB (as Cameron was alleged to have done). There is no question of a Prime Minister needing to defend his European policy to Rupert Murdoch (Blair). Murdoch no longer claims the right to be consulted, Cameron’s aids laughed at the idea that the Prime Minister might condescend to meet Murdoch.

This is how it should be: News Corp is no longer a de facto part of the UK Constitution. We have had a sudden and dramatic change in Constitution: a revolution.

Much was the same situation in 1789 Paris and 1381 London. The French citizens were running their own affairs and the English peasants had removed the Lord Chancellor, Lord Treasurer and were wandering at will through the capital. Both revolutions appeared to have succeeded.

One did, one didn’t. After the revolution had been won the French killed the king, to secure the revolution. The English peasants were presented with the opportunity of doing the same. The English balked and were robbed of all the revolutionary changes.

It was the people wot won it. It was the regicides wot kept it.

Fortunately, in this day and age, we don’t need to actually kill anyone. Not the least reason is that the person we need to be shot off is a corporation: News Corp. But if we are to keep these revolutionary gains we need to remove News Corp from our country.

- Dropping the BSkyB bid is a delay, not a cancellation
- The News of the World looks likely to be reborn, with much the same staff and much the same corporate culture, as the Sun on Sunday
- The 39% stake in BSkyB is still there
- The Times, Sunday Times and The Sun are still owned and controlled by News Corp.

They will be back.

Unless, of course, we kill the King : force News Corp to divest itself of all its UK interests.


Sunday, 10 July 2011

Vive la revolution!

What’s the difference between a riot, a popular movement or a demonstration on the one hand and a revolution on the other?

A riot, popular movement and a demonstration may change government policy or a law. Poll tax riots at least helped to end the poll tax and the gay rights movement has nearly got gay marriage legalised (it has got gay nearly-marriage legalised).

A revolution changes a constitution: the permanent environment within which public affairs, whether to have a poll tax or let gays marry, are conducted. The French chopped off the King’s head and transformed France into a republic: that counts as a revolution. East Germany didn’t have to chop anyone’s head off, they just went through some wall, had a few beers and “bingo!” they were part of a democracy. That still counts as a revolution as it transformed the constitution.

Now, the constitution is not only important, in public affairs the constitution is of overwhelming importance. The UK is, in general, a nice place to live. North Korea is, in general, a hell hole. The UK is a liberal democracy (small “l”) and, as can be seen by a quick mental survey of other reasonably nice places to live, liberal democracies generally are reasonably nice places to live. The example of places that were not nice places to live, Nazi Germany, fascist Spain and others, that now are reasonably nice places to live suggests that liberal democracies are reasonably nice places to live because they are liberal democracies.

Over longer timescales we can see that feudal corporate countries were not such nice places to live as liberal democratic nation states. Medieval France and Medieval England were places of servitude and cruelty, utterly inegalitarian and culturally repressed. Whilst modern day France and England are by no means perfect (especially France, obviously) they are paradise by comparison. Let’s get this straight: the increase in VAT to 20%, “THE CUTS!!!!” or student fees are temporary. Constitutional changes, universal suffrage, equality before the law, the secret ballot have permanent and deep effects on every citizen’s life.

The UK, as above, is a reasonably nice place to live and a big part of that is that we have a good constitution. We have a representative democracy, with a more-or-less independent judiciary and respect (sort of) by our rulers for the rule of law. Officiallywe have a Queen, actually her role is mainly ceremonial and just looks as though it’s a part of the old feudal set up. Officially the media have no role in the UK’s constitution. Actually one particular media organisation, News Corp., has become part of how public affairs are organised in the UK. Not just taking part in public affairs, many groups do that, but that there have arisen obligations on the part of others in public affairs to News Corp. Just as the government may be over-ruled by judges and Commons legislation is subject to amendment in the Lords the government is subject to oversight by News Corp. This is oversight, we all suggest things the government should do and anyone is entitled to suggest or campaign, with News Corp. there is a duty on the part of the government to take News Corp. wishes into account.

The Daily Telegraph quotes “a senior News International figure” on the first meetings of Cameron with Murdoch:

“We told David exactly what to say and how to say it in order to please Rupert. But Cameron wouldn’t play ball. I can’t understand it.”

There is a duty to please Rupert Murdoch. It makes sense to tell someone what to say to Rupert. You’re supposed to do as you’re told, to do otherwise is incomprehensible.

News Corp. have insinuated themselves into the very constitution of the UK. And how do they do this? We know that they made money by illegal means. To protect this they followed classic Mafia strategy: they paid off police officers and kept politicians in their pocket. News Corp. are part of our constitution and they are a foul and pestilent part of that constitution: the robber baron of the corporate feudalism we thought we had left behind. But they’re in there, and it seems as if only a revolution is going to get them out.

Revolutions usually start when “something snaps”. The causes will have been there for years, perhaps decades, perhaps centuries but suddenly something pushes the populace over an undefined limit. Revolutions often start small, they often don’t look like revolutions and don’t start as revolutions but, somehow, gain their own momentum. An isolated incident starts it off and initial successes feed the populace’s confidence. The power of the elite, which depends on the populace’s lack of confidence, teeters and falls.

‘Phone hacking and, more broadly, the excesses of the tabloid press have been with us for decades. The hacking of Milly Dowler’s ‘phone was just another, all-be-it spectacularly foul, incident of press lawlessness. But something in the populace seemed to give: the outrage was immense, such that advertisers dropped out, such that the News Corp. lie of “one rogue reporter” failed to work. News Corp seem now to be pushing the “one rogue title” line with the closure of the News of the World. But will it work? It’s a confidence trick, confidence tricks rely on confidence and the public’s confidence in a denial from News Corp. has disappeared. We may well be seeing the start of a revolution.

Protean revolutions though, can peter out. If this revolution is not to peter out it the rage of the public must be used for constitutional change. How does News Corp. push itself into our constitution? What would stop it doing so? That is what should be attacked. Unfortunately, much of the public rage is being used to attack Coulson and Brooks. But this is not revolutionary, that’s like the peasants in the Peasants Revolt being satisfied with policy promises (later renaged on) rather than shooting the King. In the case of Coulson, and the decision to appoint him to Number 10, this is in the past. We will gain nothing by concentrating on Coulson. Brooks is still in the job, but she’s a side issue: a hate figure whose demise will help appease the masses (just like the Peasants Revolt again).

Change the constitution, remove the means by which News Corp. Exercises power. Those bent coppers are more important than either Coulson or Brooks. Those coppers who may not be bent, but acted as is they might as well have been (Yates, anyone?) are more important than Coulson or Brooks. Get rid of them.

And then there are the politicians. We all know that they have been running scared of News Corp. Other than the Lib Dems (big “L”), Tom Watson, John Prescott, Chris Bryant and a few others they have all been running scared. Or, to be more exact, have been following their constitutional duty not to upset Rupert. Some though have not just been submitting to News Corp. but actively promoting its interests. They may not be shills per se, but they might as well be shills. These are the supporters of the ancien regime, these are the people it is critical that the energy of any revolution is targeted at.

Forget Coulson and Brooks: get Hunt and Gove and Osborne. Give them, by all means, an opportunity to renounce News Corp. and reform. But if they refuse, remove them, guillotine their careers. Yes Ed, call for an inquiry. It's pretty obvious that we should stop the News Corp. BSkyB bid and, yes, it was a silly appointment. But cooperate, Ed, cooperate with Cameron on the condition that he purges his Government of anyone pro-Murdoch. Do the same with your party, ditch them. Disown Blair.

Nick! Grow a pair. Take control. Talk to Ed. Talk to the rest of the Commons. Oh, and Commons! Yes I'm talking to you, forget about scoring some little point against the opposition and get rid of any Murdoch supporters. Get them out and get him the hell out of our country.

Vive la revolution!


Wednesday, 4 May 2011

My email to BCA

The British Chiropractic Association posted this on their website:

The BBC programme “See You in Court” episode 4 was screened on BBC 1 on 3 May 2011. Half of the programme followed Simon Singh and his legal team during various stages of the legal proceedings with the British Chiropractic Association.

The BCA was not approached by the producers of the programme for comment, and consequently, the programme was biased to the Simon Singh “side” of the story. The BCA’s position is that the libel action against Simon Singh is now closed following a ruling in the Court of Appeal in 2010.Link

I've sent them a quick email (to Here it is, complete with typo:

See You in Court - Screened on BBC 1 on 3 May 2011


I followed a tweeted link to your comments on the above programme.

I must say that I am puzzled. You state "(t)he BCA’s position is that the libel action against Simon Singh is now closed following a ruling in the Court of Appeal in 2010." shortly after an apparent objection to the programme being "biased". If your position, though, is no more than that the matter is "closed" there is no BCS "side" of the story to tell and the idea of bias disappears. The BBC told both "sides" in full: a call for Libel Reform from Simon Singh and silence from the BCA.

The BBC could be accused of discourtesy if your allegation that they made no approach to you for comment is true but, as the comment would have been "no comment", no actual harm was done.

Personally, I would have been delighted to learn of the BCA's "side". I still would be delighted to hear the BCA's "side": your justification for marketing treatments which (as admitted by your QC) can be described as having no reliable evidential support and then suing the chap who pointed that out!

I'd get popcorn.

I'll post any reply.


Monday, 4 April 2011

The Durian Candidacy - or why AV is more democratic than FPTP

There are exactly one hundred diners who use the works canteen for a nice, healthy, lunch that involves fruit. Only one fruit is served. That fruit is served each and every day for four to five years. Why do the canteen management arrange things in this way? Is it because it’s more efficient? Does it save money? Is it because of some weird dietary theory? Or is it that I need to mirror the choice of one representative in a parliament that will last four to five years? Probably the last. Whilst the diners won’t have a choice of fruit each day and will never have an individual choice of fruit, the canteen management are responsive enough to allow them to collectively decide on the fruit once every four or five years.
There’s a fruit election with apple, banana, cherry and durian as the candidates.

Judging the outcome of the election

We’re going to look at the outcome of the election under First Past the Post (FPTP) and Alternative Vote (AV) and judge which system leaves the diners best off.

The principles in judging the outcome are:
1. If your favourite fruit is chosen then you are best off.
2. If a fruit that you like is chosen in preference to a fruit that you like less then you are better of than you would have been had the other fruit been chosen.
3. if you're “best off” you're also “better off”
4. If you are not better off then you are worse off

So, say you want banana. If banana is chosen, then you are best off. If cherry is chosen and you prefer that to apple then you are better off than you would have been were apple chosen. If apple is chosen and you prefer apple to durian, but prefer cherry and banana to apple, then you are better off than had durian been chosen, but worse of than if banana or cherry had been chosen.

Under AV the diners list the fruit in order of preference, under FPTP they just list one: the first in their AV list.

The outcome

Durian is reputed to taste absolutely delicious and smell utterly disgusting. I’ve found that a bit of an exaggeration (it tastes quite nice and pongs a bit), but it is a fruit that divides opinion. Some are passionately for it, some equally passionately against it. The same cannot be said for other fruits. I don’t particularly like apples but, if push comes to shove, I’ll eat one and am not going to ban you from even taking an apple near me (seriously – durian is banned from many hotels and public places in the Far East). If people don’t put durian down first, then they’re likely to put it down last. Durian is likely to get very, very few second preferences under AV. That said, people who like durian tend to be very enthusiastic about it. If they like it then they like it way more than other fruits. Durian is likely to get a lot of first preferences, under AV, and votes, under FPTP.

So let’s assume that durian gets most votes under FPTP and most first preferences under AV.

The outcome of the election under FPTP is that durian gets chosen. Under AV durian may get chosen. If more than 50 people listed durian as first preference then durian does get chosen.

If less than 50 people choose durian then the fruit with least votes gets eliminated. The diners who voted for that fruit are now counted as having voted for their second preference. If there is still no majority the fruit with the least votes gets eliminated and the votes of the diners counted against that fruit are re-assigned.

Let’s say that apple got eliminated first, then cherry and the count now shows banana and durian with the final tally of votes as follows:

First preferences - 30
Second prefs, from apple - 7
Second prefs from cherry - 17
Third prefs from apple – 5
Total - 59

First preferences - 35
Second prefs, from apple - 3
Second prefs from cherry - 3
Total - 41

Banana gets chosen under AV, whereas durian gets chosen under FPTP.

Which leaves the diners better off?

Those who put banana first preference are best off under AV. Those who put banana second preference put either apple or cherry first (they wouldn't have been counted for second preference had they put durian as first preference). So they prefer banana to durian and, so, are better off under AV.

Those who put banana third preference did so because they chose cherry second preference (and apple first). Even though banana is low down on their list of preferences, banana is still higher on that list than durian (otherwise that third preference would be listed under durian).

Each of the groups of diners in the banana column is better off for banana being chosen against durian. Each of them would be worse off were durian to be chosen. And there is a majority of them. The outcome of AV (banana) leaves a majority of the diners better off than the outcome of FPTP (durian).

The same ranking of outcomes can be applied to elections of MPs. There is something “better” about your second choice candidate being elected as opposed to your third choice; even if “better off” might sound a bit awkward. Perhaps “better represented” is term to use. And, contra other arguments against AV, even your sixth or seventh preference candidate better represents you, and is a better outcome for you, than your eighth or ninth.

There are scenarios where AV does not ensure an optimal outcome. But in these situations, neither does FPTP. Where FPTP differs in outcome from AV, AV ensures a majority of the electorate have a better selection than under FP.

There are lots of arguments against AV other than the democracy of the outcomes in individual cases.

AV helps extremists, like the BNP, for eample.

Only it doesn't, if it did then the BNP wouldn't be so opposed to it. But there are still some good arguments. Like:

AV is complex and expensive to count.

But then I've counted AV and, actually, it's a piece of cake. And, as Eddie Izzard pointed out, the main additional cost is in pencil lead. Ok. So those two were bad examples, but there are good arguments for FPTP over AV other than the outcomes in individual constituencies. The point of this post was that that particular argument was bogus, regardless of any merit of any other argument. Like:

AV counts losers votes twice.

But no, look at the example above. 100 diners, 100 votes in the final tally. Oh well. There must be some good arguments for FPTP over AV.....