Monday, May 18, 2015

Management consultancy report

This is the best-value management consultancy report ever - it's free, and it only takes five minutes to read. Not only does it encapsulate the key points of every management consultancy report ever written in Part A, but in Part B there is some really useful stuff - way more useful than you will usually find in such a report. 

Part A – Generic insights that sound profound but are actually really obvious
  • Some of your employees are happy. Some of them aren't. For the most part, if you pretend to be listening to them, they will keep quiet.
  • Costs, costs, costs!
  • If you've not been making money, you need to keep the pressure on costs.
  • If you've been making money, that's good, but you need to keep the pressure on costs because the competition is getting better.
  • Errrr ….
  • That's it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Nineteen Eighty-Four

I did my English Literature O-level in 1984, and almost inevitably we ended up studying George Orwell's book. It portrays a totalitarian, controlling society, echoing and developing what Orwell saw taking place in Soviet Russia at the time he wrote it (1948).

For much of the thirty years since, I've been under the influence of Postman, who in Amusing Ourselves to Death, argued that Aldous Huxley's near contemporary vision of the future, Brave New World, was more characteristic of our world. In Huxley's world, nobody burns books - because nobody reads them anyway. Incidentally, I'm interested to see that Steven Spielberg is working on a TV series adaptation of Huxley's book.

However, in the last few months, the thought has been growing that I ought to read Orwell's book again. Too many things that I've noticed about our culture have echoes of Airstrip One - and, more disturbingly, the shifts in culture are ones that society has blithely accepted, not ones that have been imposed.

The idea that the government should have the right to listen into everyone's phone conversations, read everyone's emails, know everything about their web browsing behaviour, is the latest and most relevant example. This private information should simply not be the domain of government - but not only is the party of government intent on doing this (it was reported as though Theresa May was almost gleeful that the Conservatives now had an overall majority - I have to say she reminds me strongly of Dolores Umbridge ...) but there are plenty of people who think that this has to be done for the sake of security.

More than the simple Big Brother aspect, there's also the thought control side of it, and here the risk to freedom comes from the side of liberalism. If we trace the path of marriage equality, what it has involved is a newspeak-style redefinition of words, followed by the assertion that people not only have to accept this, but participate in it - a business is not permitted to exercise freedom of conscience in running how it wishes to, but may be discriminating if it refuses to do something on grounds of conscience. The law insists: "You have to publicly agree with me, no public space is permitted for dissent." The common argument voiced is: this is analogous to a company discriminating on grounds of race, and therefore wrong. To which there are several responses. The first is to ask whether this is a fair analogy (I'd argue not, the bakers were not refusing to serve them, and would have made and decorated a cake for them). The second is to ask that regardless of whether it is right, doesn't the owner of the business have the freedom to choose how to run his business? If society regards his views as offensive, they will stop buying from him.

What is most scary to me about all this is that people have simply handed over their freedoms, apparently completely unaware of what they are giving up. A business not free to run as it chooses. People prepared to allow the government to supervise all their electronic communication. Yep, that's okay.

Francis Schaeffer saw it coming, of course. He argues, in How Should We Then Live? 

History indicates that at a certain point of economic breakdown people cease being concerned with individual liberties and are ready to accept regimentation. The danger is obviously even greater when the two main values so many people have are personal peace and affluence.
 In other words, the desire to have the feeling of getting richer and remaining secure are the two drivers - people will give up any freedoms to maintain those two things. It's pretty disturbing for those of us who thought that the end of the Soviets would see the end of the push towards the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Monday, May 11, 2015

A quick quiz

1. How many votes does it take to elect an MP? 
a) 26,000
b) 299,000
c) 4,000,000
2. What percentage of voters had their vote effectively ignored in the general election?
a) 32%
b) 49.9999%
c) 63%
3. What percentage of MPs would have been different if a PR system had been used?
a) 4%
b) 14%
c) 24%
Ultimately, it would be incorrect to say the system is undemocratic. But it is certainly not representative. Answers below ...

Saturday, May 09, 2015

What was wrong with polling methodology?

A lot of effort goes into market research, and attempting to ensure that opinion polls are balanced and representative. That being so, let's compare the BBC "Poll of Polls"(which gathers together the results of a basket of opinion polls) with the final percentages who voted:

PartyPoll of polls/%Actually polled/%Difference (nearest 0.5)/%
Labour 33 30.4 -1.5
UKIP 14 12.6 -1.5
LibDem 8 7.9 0
Green 6 3.8 -2

An interesting phenomenon was that the BBC exit poll was very, very close to being dead on - certainly it picked up the fact that the Liberals were going to be hammered, SNP were going to sweep the board in Scotland and the Conservatives would have roughly an overall majority, whereas modelling on the basis of the Poll of Polls pretty consistently came back with a hung parliament and the LibDems not doing so badly. It's hard to overstate the sense of shock and disbelief that the exit poll created, but as a reminder ... Paddy Ashdown said he'd eat his hat.

The difference between the advance opinion polls and the actual outcome was enough to totally change the shape of the parliament. So how come this big discrepancy?

It may be that people's statement of intentions in opinion polls was not reliable. Or it may be that the undecideds didn't distribute their votes evenly when it actually came to casting a vote. My hunch, however, is that there is a social phenomenon involved as well.

Let's hypothesise that there is a block of voters that the opinion polls don't reach, and that the voting intentions of this block of voters aren't congruent with those of the opinion polls. Is it possible to come up with a size for this block and a distribution of their voting intentions which, when you include these voters in with those people reached by the opinion polls, gives you a final distribution of votes that matches what was seen? The answer to that is, yes. Suppose that the opinion polls are actually only able to reach 5/8 of voters, and the other 3/8 for whatever reason are invisible to the opinion pollsters. Then supposing that the distribution of the votes in this group is completely different from that of the 5/8...

PoP Actual share in election Share of invisible votes  ... results in this share 
Conservative 34 36.9 42 37.0
Labour 33 30.4 26 30.4
LibDem 8 7.9 8 8.0
UKIP 14 12.6 10 12.5
Green 6 3.8 0 3.8
Other 5 8.4 14 8.4
100 100 100 100.0
Invisible votes/%

This is a pretty contrived option, obviously - the idea that opinion pollsters are failing to reach 60% or more of the population is pretty implausible. But the principle is solid. To get to an invisible share of 60%, I worked on the biggest proportional drop - the Poll of Polls figure of 6% for Greens and the actual vote of 3.8%. Suppose instead that change of voting intentions on the day means that of the 6% of people who said reported in the PoP that they would vote for the Greens, only 5% actually did, the other 1% switching to "Other". We now only need a block of invisible voters that is half the size:

Poll of Polls Actual share in election Share of invisible votes ... results in this share
Con 34 36.9 47 37.0
Lab 33 30.4 21 30.2
Lib 8 7.9 8 8.0
UKIP 14 12.6 8 12.6
Green 5 3.8 0 3.8
other 6 8.4 16 8.3
100 100 100 100.0
Invisible votes/%
What becomes apparent is that the smaller the group of invisible voters is, the larger the proportion of them that vote for the Conservatives. And this does have a correspondence with an aspect of the real world. The more "conservative" - self-sufficient, independent and autonomous - someone is, the less likely they are to be involved in the rest of society. Their phone number is not accessible as they use the telephone preference service. They get their groceries and so on delivered, rather than going into town to get them. The choices of the Conservative consumer are more likely to result in them being invisible to any of the means that opinion pollsters have available at their disposal to ask for their opinion. Possibly they are also more private and reticent about sharing their views as well.

My hunch is that the size of this block of "invisible votes" is actually quite a lot smaller than 30%, but that there is a growing section of the community who behaves in this way, and who opinion poll organisations are failing to reach. This is just one of the factors on top of others which resulted in the discrepancy between opinion polls and the final outcome of the election. But I think that there may be a significant methodological issue here for opinion polling.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Our reward for last night - five more years of Conservatism

I have little to add to what I wrote prior to the last round of local elections.
It goes without saying that the Liberal Democrats are going to be wiped out in this election, and probably in the general election next year. That's a depressing thought. There's a saying attributed to G.K.Chesterton: "The Christian Ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried." This still applies to Christianity - but it also applies to the Liberals. I'm not a Liberal; however, my values come closer to those of the Liberal party than they do of anybody else I would be likely to vote for. So here are my reasons for sticking with them.

  • They have demonstrated themselves to be competent, pragmatic and practical at all levels of government for many years. This is why I won't vote for the Greens - the one council they have run has turned into a shambles.
  • They aren't in the pocket of vested interests - either unions, businesses, or buddies they went to private school with. This is the reason that I continue not to vote for Labour or the Conservative Party.
  • They aren't systemically corrupt, hypocritical, xenophobic, misogynistic, lazy, exploitative, self-serving and opportunistic. These are a few of the reasons that I will not vote for UKIP.
What about their track record in government? They are described as having made a power grab; of getting into bed with the devil; of compromising their principles. Is this the case? I genuinely don't believe so. Let's talk about some details.
  • Tuition fees - the big one. They were forced, in coalition, to go against their manifesto promise. That was, undoubtedly bad. But how bad is the tuition fee settlement? Money Saving Expert does not present the new settlement as a disaster. Nothing is repayable until you earn over £21,000 per year (national average wage). What this means is, for the low paid, university access is, in effect free. The new student fee structure has actually improved access to higher education for the low paid. And it means that the higher paid will repay an amount which more closely corresponds to the cost of their education. Is that a bad outcome?
  • By being a part of the government, the Liberals have had the effect of seriously diluting many of the Conservative policies. Is that a bad thing?
  • They have also managed to introduce many of their own policies - for example, major increases in tax allowances. Make no mistake, these are not Conservative policies. And yet, they are government policies.
  • They managed to secure a referendum on a form of proportional representation. The fact that they lost was due to the opposing camp having the support of large groups who had most to gain from the existing system being preserved, despite it not being suitable for a system with more than two parties.
But should they have gone into the coalition at all? Well, what were the alternatives? 
  • The Conservatives could have formed a minority government. This would have given the Liberals less influence - would they have been less compromised? Arguably. Would they have had as much influence in the direction of the country? Almost definitely not. So more Conservative policies - would that have been better? I don't think so.
  • The Liberals could have formed a coalition with Labour. But Labour did not have a mandate to form a government. And furthermore, although there's a degree of revisionism now, I continue to be very disillusioned with the years of Labour government, and simply don't want them in power.
For many years, I protested at elections by submitting a spoilt ballot paper. I am still very frustrated by a political system which (on a national level) blatantly favours two large parties neither of which has the support of close to half of the population. For the first time in this government in my memory, we saw a government that represented the votes of a majority of the electorate. And although it didn't do everything right, it did actually work. I find it profoundly bleak that this one successful experiment with coalition government is likely to result in a return to a government which represents a minority of the electorate, introducing policies that have little to do with the will of the populus.
I don't think that a more Conservative government will be an improvement. I don't think locking SNP into the opposition (by hitting Labour and the Liberals in Scotland) will actually serve the interests of the Scots people.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Mock elections

Like many other schools, my children's school ran an election today, to encourage political engagement. There were candidates, votes cast and various election officials, and it's all very good and worthy.

It struck me that if we want to get young people engaged with politics, maybe what we ought to do is run a different sort of mock election. We could have a mock election in which only one party was permitted to stand. Or one where anybody representing any parties except the ruling one are arrested or beaten up. Or one where the non-ruling parties are prevented from presenting their opinions to the electorate. Or one where one of the parties forges and fills in loads of extra ballot papers. Or one where a party bribes or intimidates part of the electorate to secure their votes ....

Maybe that would help young people to see why our elections matter.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

How to get around a problem of conscience, by Douglas Adams

The problem of the five hundred and seventy-eight thousand million Lintilla clones is very simple to explain, rather harder to solve. Cloning machines have, of course, been around for a long time and have proved very useful in reproducing particularly talented or attractive or - in response to pressure from the Sirius Cybernetics marketing lobby - particularly gullible people and this was all very fine and splendid and only occasionally terribly confusing. And then one particular cloning machine got badly out of sync with itself. Asked to produce six copies of a wonderfully talented and attractive girl called “Lintilla” ... the machine went to work. Unfortunately, it malfunctioned in such a way that it got halfway through creating each new Lintilla before the previous one was actually completed. Which meant, quite simply, that it was impossible ever to turn it off - without committing murder. This problem taxed the minds, first of the cloning engineers, then of the priests, then of the letters page of ’The Sidereal Record Straigtener’, and finally of the lawyers, who experimented vainly with ways of redefining murder, re-evaluating it, and in the end, even respelling it, in the hope that no one would notice. A solution has now been found, but since it is not a particularly pleasant one, it will only be revealed if it becomes absolutely necessary. (Source)
This scenario featured in the second radio series of "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy", and a significant part of the drama hangs upon it, so in case this has been absent from your backstory, I won't go into it. Whilst totally tongue in cheek, it does whimsically raise the issue of how to deal with a law that can't acceptably respond to a situation in the real world. In this case, stopping the cloning machine would in effect involve murder. Having failed to wrestle with the moral implications of this, the lawyers resort to trying to redefine, re-evaluate and in the end even respell murder in an attempt to get around the problems of conscience that it raises ... before giving that approach up as a bad job.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Election prediction using my model

The BBC's "Poll of Polls" currently looks like this:

Con: 34%
Lab: 33%
UKIP: 14%
LibDem: 8%
Green: 6%
Other: 5%

I fiddled around a little with my model, and came up with the following:

Defection Con-UKIP - 0.16

Defection Lab-UKIP - 0.11

Loss of votes for Lib when not incumbent - 0.75

Loss of votes for Lib when incumbent - 0.3

Lib transfer votes to green - 0.25

Lib transfer votes to UKIP - 0.1

Lib transfer votes to Labour - 0.3

Lib transfer votes to nationalist - 0.25

BNP transfer votes to UKIP - 0.8

Lib transfer to nationalist that go to labour - 0.5
if no nationalist candidate

Swing Lab/Con/Lib-SNP - 0.35

Swing Lab/Con/Lib-PC - 0.1

Greens standing in 90% - assume all
Defection Lab-Green for new candidate - 0.06

This resulted in the following outcome in terms of percentages and seats:

Con Lab LibDem SNP PC Green BNP UKIP
Percentage of vote 33.4% 33.7% 7.7% 4.6% 1.3% 6.2% 0.4% 12.7%
No of seats obtained 274 270 21 59 7 1 0 0
There are flaws in the model, I've spotted errors in the calculations. However, the numbers are satisfyingly close to the percentages that the opinion polls are returning with. I would like to redo the model more accurately, as I said before, but this is an interesting estimate to go with for now.