Thursday, April 28, 2011

Colvile's "Reasons to vote no"

"1. It makes politics mushier." Absolutely. It means that political parties can't do their own thing on the back of the vote of a minority of the popular vote. They are more likely to have to work with other parties. That sounds like a good thing to me.

"2. It's the wrong reform." Absolutely. But it's all we're likely to get - and let's face it, are either of the two large parties likely to agree to a referendum on PR? I think not.

"3. Nobody actually wants it." Er, actually this is basically the same as 2.

"4. Because the Yes campaign deserve it." Ad Hom. Grow up.

"5. It's not actually fairer." ... because smaller parties are at risk of disappearing entirely, and big swings lead to huge landslides as second preferences slide behind charismatic politicians. However, smaller parties interests are only going to be served by PR, and PR will not come about unless this is a stepping stone. And as for the other issue, if AV changes the political landscape by introducing parties permanently working together, perhaps we might be saved from the curse of charismatic leaders dragging incompetent parties with them.

"6. It's not worth it." ... it might cost more money. This point brings me closer to swearing at the Telegraph correspondent than any other. Firstly, it isn't clear how much extra it will cost, if at all. More fundamentally, if something is good in democratic terms, then you pay the money for it. Elections cost money - perhaps Colvile thinks we should scrap them too? Cost is a non-argument.

"7. It makes tactical voting worse." ... because political parties might tell you how to vote. Well, really, if the British electorate are prepared to be told how to vote by political parties, then I think we may as well scrap elections anyway.

Incidentally, we are told that Clegg is a spent force politically. Supposing there were a general election tomorrow. Are there any politicians that the electorate would be prepared to see running a government? IAMFI

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Cost of AV - and how come so few countries do it

It has been suggested by the "No" campaign that the cost of the Alternative Voting system (AV) might be £250 million pounds.

It has been suggested by the "Yes" campaign that this is rubbish, and indeed Chris Huhne, a Libdem minister, is muttering about legal action against the "No" campaign for the misrepresentation. £130 million was the estimate of cost for vote counting machines - which aren't needed - they haven't ever been used in Australia, which uses AV for general elections. £90 million is the cost of the referendum - which is being paid anyway. And £25 million is the cost of educating the electorate on how to use the system - as somebody said on their blog: "Please can I be the one to be paid £25 million pounds to tell people to list their preferred candidates in order of preference?"

However, let's suppose for a minute that there is in fact a cost to AV. Does that mean it shouldn't be spent? The cost to the taxpayer of the 2001 general election, according to the BBC, was £80 million pounds. Should that not have been spent either?

Of course it should! Government costs money. Another possibility would be that we could scrap elections to avoid paying for them - and have a totalitarian government!

The cost of elections, run in accordance with a country's constitution, is part of the price of democracy. If it is decided (as obviously I think it ought to be) that AV is a better system than "First past the quote post unquote", then the country undertakes to meet the price of elections run upon this basis. The rationale in moving to AV would be ensuring a more representative government. Many people think that it would be worth paying quite a high price to achieve this.

(There's also the fact that money spent by governments doesn't just disappear - it actually pays to employ people.)

Also, it has been regularly pointed out supposedly in defence of "First past the quote post unquote" that AV is only used by three countries - the implication being that few countries have moved in this direction. But in actual fact, many countries already have a voting system with proportional representation (PR). According to Wikipedia, this includes regional assemblies in the UK, and Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the Netherlands, Brazil and Russia. AV is not proper PR - it is a step in that direction. So although there aren't many countries that have AV, that is partly because many more already have far more progressive voting systems.

Friday, April 22, 2011

I don't want strong government

I don't want government run by a party who can do whatever they think is best, with no regard for what the other parties think. That way lies the erosion of civil liberties. That way lies the introduction of identity cards, national databases. That way lies getting into wars for reasons that are not understood and agreed by the government as a whole. That way lies the ideological destruction of national industries. That way lies corruption, and politicians who regard themselves as above the law and the nation as a whole.

I want weak government, where every decision (ideally) has to be agreed by all the elected representatives. In an ideal world, I'd have a government where every decision that is made by elected representatives is made on the basis of a direct mandate on that decision from the people that elected them. I want government that takes place supposedly in my name to be directly accountable to me, in every regard.

I can't understand why anybody in a democratic society would want strong government. If you want strong government, then bring on totalitarianism.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The "No" leaflet

... you know - the one that says "Keep One Person, One Vote"? Some reactions ...

"None of your taxes have been used to print this leaflet" - in other words, there are people who have such strong vested interests in not changing the system that they are prepared to fund a campaign that costs millions. Who are they? And why is it so important to them? I think we should be told.

"The cost of AV is £250 million." Assuming that these numbers are correct (which I doubt), democracy has a price - every election costs money - and that money could be spent on other things. But the idea of democracy is to hold politicians to account. I'd have happily had the country spending ten times that amount if through this it had been able to keep the previous Labour and Conservative governments in check. Better that than the financial hole we had fallen into once the Labour government had scorched the earth behind it. The government that we have now - a coalition, representing 60% of the votes, achieved against the odds under the FPTP system, is working together to fix the shambles of Conservative deregulation followed by Labour big government. If you think the cuts we are facing now are bad, they would be worse were the Conservatives going it alone. And Labour still have nothing coherent to offer. The existing system makes "strong" governments - "strong" meaning free to do what they like in accordance with their ideology and funding organisations. I don't want a strong government. The democratic ideal is that governments should be weak and dependent upon doing the will of the people.

The existing system also makes "strong" MPs. In most electoral constituencies, the MP needs to do hardly anything to secure your vote. At every election, politicians flood into the marginal seats which, we are told, will swing the parliamentary majority one way or the other. What that means is that if you're not in one of those seats, you are simply not important. Parties aren't concerned about broad electoral appeal, or what is best for the country as a whole - all they want at the moment is to win these marginal seats - because the existing system is flooded with "strong" MPs who are fundamentally not democratically accountable. That's why the system needs to be reformed.


That's what "MPs working harder" means - it's not about what happens after the election; it's about how they get elected in the first place.

"The second or third best can win under AV" From a critical thinking point of view, a bus fits through here. What does "best" mean? The leaflet suggests that "best" means "having the most first choice votes". But that's a very narrow definition of "best" - "most widely acceptable", "most competent", "most representative" are alternative definitions.

"Under our present system, the one who comes first is always the winner". But the one who comes first is not necessarily the most representative or the most competent - that's the whole point.

This leaflet makes me angry.


Saranam, Saranam, Saranam
Saranam, Saranam, Saranam
Jesus, Saviour Lord, lo to thee I fly
Saranam, Saranam, Saranam
Thou the rock the refuge that’s higher than I
Saranam, Saranam, Saranam

In the midst of foes I cry to thee
From the ends of earth wherever I may be
My strength in helplessness O answer me
Saranam, Saranam, Saranam

In thy tent give me a dwelling place
And beneath thy wings may I find sheltering grace
O lift on me the sunshine of thy face
Saranam, Saranam, Saranam

O that I may vows to thee may pay
And that by thy faithfulness to me each day
May live and on thy love my burdens lay
Saranam, Saranam, Saranam
From here. Traditional Pakistani, translated by Daniel Thambyrajah Niles (1963)

"A House Like a Lotus" - Madeleine L'Engle

This is quietly one of the most extraordinary young adult books that I've read. Unfortunately it is almost as unavailable as a book is able to be - I was lucky enough to find a cheap secondhand copy from a seller in the US, which was shipped to me in a couple of weeks or thereabouts.

Madeleine L'Engle wrote some of the books that I enjoyed most as a young person, and then enjoyed again as an adult - the "Wrinkle in Time" series. What I only realised today was that WiT was number 20 on a list of the top 50 books that have influenced evangelicals - ahead of "Left Behind" and "Operation World"! It was only relatively recently that I came across the quote from L'Engle along the lines of: if a book would be too difficult to write for adults, write it for children.

"A House Like a Lotus" is the story of a young woman, Polly, who has seized an opportunity to travel across the world, clearly fleeing from something at home that she can't cope with. What that is is only gradually unwrapped, through memories, and its interactions with her present company, and we then have to see whether this is something which she is going to be able to come to terms with before it is too late.

L'Engle writes with a level of scientific and artistic literacy that is rarely, if ever, seen in any author. She also writes with an extraordinary level of empathy and understanding of the minds of her characters - in my opinion, she really captured the behaviour of the children and young people she wrote about, despite having written this well in her 60s. The dynamic of the relationship between Polly and Max - an older woman who Polly ends up almost treating as God, and who is unable to live up to this status - was also interesting. L'Engle's characters are complex and subtle - it's too easy to have pantomime heroes and villains, and hers are never caricatures.

L'Engle makes little in the way of explicit religious declaration throughout the book - if your assumption is that anything influencing evangelical Christians is going to draw lines and bash people over the head with the Bible, this would throw you! The practice of tolerance, wisdom and acceptance that is the thread in this book and all of her other books is one which I admire and aspire to, although I'm more generally aware of how far I fall short.

I'd like to say: get this book and read it straight away. But you can't, as it's simply not available. I am, however, hoping to find people to read my copy and tell me what they think soon - let me know if you think you might be interested.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The behaviour of the PV system

Some interesting and curious phenomena are coming to light (if you are a PV geek).

Yesterday was the first time in a week that we didn't get close to 8 kWh. It was pretty cloudy all day, with occasional light drizzle. However, we still managed to generate 4.7 kWh - which is as near as anything to what we hope to see as an average for the year.

Phenomenon 1: When it's cloudy, the PV system comes on earlier.

On sunny days, it can be quite late by the time the inverter switches on - even now, around 9.00 (which, with daylight saving, is close to 0800 in "solar time", where you base noon on the time the sun is closest to overhead). It seems to be the case that if it's cloudy (but reasonably light) it comes on earlier - today it was on a good hour earlier than that. I think this is because one of the effects of the clouds is to diffuse the sunlight across the sky. As long as the cloud cover is not too thick, the brightness of a cloudy sky overall tends to be greater than the brightness of a blue sky.

Obviously, without direct sunlight, the panels won't generate as much power as in sunshine. However, this brings me to ...

Phenomenon 2: The highest output peaks come not on the sunniest days, but on sunny intervals on cloudy days.

In theory, the output of our inverter should not exceed 2000 W. The running output we have been led to expect is around 1800 W. Look at the peak output from the last few days:
DatePeak output/WTotal output/kWh
06 Apr17418957
07 Apr16098750
08 Apr15848454
12 Apr19927912
13 Apr19304701
6-8 April saw us in settled anticyclonic weather. I suspect that the reason for the gradual decline in peak output (and total output) was that this sort of high pressure results in a haze layer gradually building from ground level up. Barely perceptible, particularly to begin with, it does however lead to the rise in hayfever conditions at this time of year! However, it may be thick enough to gradually result in more of the sunlight not arriving at the solar panels.

12 and 13 were both cloudy; 12 intermittently cloudy, and 13 as I said earlier on, fairly steady grey. However, on both days, peak output was higher than in the anticyclonic weather. There are a couple of possibilities for this. The first is that it was no more than a momentary spike, and it wouldn't have maintained it for any length of time. The second is that the haze layer is significantly less defined outside the anticyclonic conditions, and when the sun was able to break through the cloud, the solar system was able to generate a higher power.

This requires a little more research, which will be easier when the promised PC interface card arrives - we can see just how much time is spent at high power on the less sunny days. It is certainly satisfying to see the LED on the solar output meter blinking away every two seconds as another Wh is generated in bright weather.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On being a snob

Max climbed down from the ladder, and refilled my cup. It was a special tea, smoky, and we drank it without anything in it. I liked it. I liked Max. I liked talking with her. At home, everybody (except my parents) was younger than I, and our conversations were limited. And at school, I didn't have any real friends.... Mostly, I felt I was walking through the scene, saying my lines reasonably well, but not being really in the show. At school, I tried to play the role that was expected of me, as best I could. With Max, I was myself.

She laughed at me gently. 'What a snob you are, Polly.'

'Me?' I was startled.

'Why not? It's obvious that school bores you, and that there's nobody to challenge you, teacher or student.'

'A lot of kids are bright.'

She cut me off. 'Go ahead and be a snob. I'm a snob. If you didn't interest me, I wouldn't give you the time of day. Being a snob isn't necessarily a bad thing. It can mean being unwilling to walk blindly through life instead of living it fully. Being unwilling to lose a sense of wonder. Being alive is a marvellous, precarious mystery, and few people appreciate it. Go on being a snob, Polly, as long as it keeps your mind and heart alert. It doesn't mean that you can't appreciate people who are different from you, or who have different interests.'

Max made me not only willing to be Polyhymnia O'Keefe but happy to be.

A House like a Lotus - Madeleine L'Engle
Some quick thoughts:

1. I don't know why this is out of print. I managed to get a second-hand copy from the States when I heard about it.

2. The relationship doesn't end happily, apparently.

3. From the perspective of the study of English language I'm doing at the moment, I clocked the grammatically incorrect "younger than I" - which may be a pompousism in the "snobbish" narrator's voice - and also that L'Engle uses "different from you", not today's more common US usage "different than you." I probably ought to find out about the heritage of "different than".

4. You probably think this song's about you ... it's not.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Solar PV in spring

We've had six lovely sunny days, generally warm, with largely clear skies. Trees have been covered with blossom and the bright green leaves of the new year.

The output of the solar system has increased accordingly. On each day, we've generated around 8-9 units - a good result for the whole year would be an average of 5 units per day - and peak output has been 1600-1700 watts. The total output for the six days has been more than we claimed for the first three months that the system was installed!

I suspect peak output won't increase greatly - we get odd spikes up towards the 2000 watt point, but it rarely seems to run steadily with this output - I hope that the system will generate closer to the peak for a larger proportion of the day as the summer goes on. At the moment, on a clear day, there is a fairly slow increase from around 9 am (0800 GMT) when the system typically comes onto around 11 am, with the output increasing from around 100 to 400 watts. Then it increases more quickly to its "high output" state, around 1500 watts, as the sun increasingly illuminates both banks of panels, and then starts to drop away fairly abruptly at around 3.30 pm (1430 GMT) as the sun gets closer to the treeline behind the house.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Increase in personal tax allowance.

"a significant rise in the personal tax allowance which will benefit around 23 million basic rate taxpayers"...

£1000 per year tax allowance on which you aren't paying 20% tax ... that equates to £200 per year less tax paid ... which equates to £16.67 per month.

Don't spend it all at once.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The jobs trap?

The Times (don't bother - it's behind a paywall) says that Conservative MPs are turning on Nick Clegg because he is opposed to wealthy families securing "plum internships" for their children, particularly when he benefited from it himself. The Times describes this on its front page headline as a/the (no article was specified) "jobs trap".

I can't see there being a problem myself, other than it being pretty much impossible to police. It's hardly an issue of hypocrisy, any more than a man who was elected by a male electorate is a hypocrite for supporting votes for women. Or a party that was elected with FPTP supporting proportional representation. Change has to start somewhere.

There's no real issue with internships per se. The problem is when this becomes a means of reinforcing social exclusion - exactly the issue that Clegg is trying to address.

As for the accusation made by one MP that this is a "soft and silly policy that most will find immensely patronising" - I for one don't, and I think as more people become aware of an avenue of privilege which others are benefiting from and which they have no access to, they will expect something to be done about it. The governments of other nations may privilege certain social groups. I'd rather not see it here.