Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Your Vote Matters (Well, To A Certain Extent, I Suppose)

OK, sorry for yet another politics post, particularly after such a long gap, but we're almost at the election! The day after tomorrow, the polls will open and Britain will flock to cast their vote for whoever they want to lead us for the next however many years it is.

Well, some of them will, anyway. One of the major problems with our first-past-the-post electoral system is that it's entirely too easy to find yourself stuck in a constituency where your preferred candidate has not the faintest chance of being elected, even if they're from one of the major parties. And in those circumstances, it's completely understandable that a lot of people will simply not bother, or vote for someone who's kind of close to their preference, but isn't quite what they were after. I think that's a shame.

So, I'm going to use this space to give you three good reasons why you should vote, and moreover why you should vote for the person you actually want to get in rather than the person who might make it. I may as well note before I start that the cornerstone of democracy is that everyone is free to cast their vote for whoever they want, for whatever reason they want, or indeed not to vote at all. If you want to vote for the BNP to "send a message" to the "political elite", for instance, that's your democratic right. (That said, we have a great tradition of free speech in this country, so it's also my right to call you a complete idiot if you do.) Essentially, I'm fully aware that if you don't want to vote for anyone, or if you want to vote tactically, that's absolutely your right, so don't let me guilt you into it. But if you'd care to read on, here's why there might be a better option.

First, parties become competitive by people voting for them when they are not competitive. That's been the Liberal Democrat pattern for ages — they very rarely take a seat out of nowhere, but rather do it over two or more electoral cycles, slowly gaining enough support to be seen as potential challengers to the incumbent, at which point enough people take them seriously to get them the rest of the way. Another example is the Greens, who haven't had a decent shot at a Parliamentary constituency since their formation, but who stand a reasonable chance of taking Brighton Pavilion this time around. So even if the vote you cast for a non-competitive party this time around doesn't get them into office, people will look at the vote total next time. Not just the voters, but also the parties themselves — the more people vote for them in a given constituency, the higher the chances that they'll pour some more cash into campaigning there in the future.

Secondly, people look at the popular vote. Even in our voting system, where the popular vote is technically irrelevant, it gets a lot of attention from the parties when they're campaigning or when they're trying to argue that their opinion should be taken more seriously. And in this election, where there's a reasonable chance of the Liberal Democrats coming second in the popular vote but a distant third in seats (and of Labour coming first in seats despite coming second or even third in the popular vote), the popular vote is likely to be a powerful argument in favour of voting reform. When we're talking about popular votes, every vote is as important as every other.

Thirdly — and perhaps most importantly — this is the least predictable election for a generation. The Lib Dem surge caught everyone unawares (watching the Conservatives scrabble madly to regain the initiative after the first debate was a particular highlight for me, I have to admit), and with this coming on top of the expenses scandal (which has resulted in around a hundred MPs not seeking re-election), a lot of constituencies are suddenly way more open than they have been for years. In short, unless we get some kind of voting reform before the next election, this may well be the public's best chance for decades to upset the normal order of things and bring a bit of variety to politics. Don't blow it now!

Campaigning is in its final stretch, and if you haven't decided who to vote for yet, you're almost out of time. Whatever the outcome, this is the most exciting election the UK's seen for ages and the possibilities are fantastic. I don't know about you, but I for one am looking forward to it.

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Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Politics is always improved by a little injection of Science.

We're into the last few weeks before the General Election. At least, I assume we are, our Glorious Leader having apparently neglected to officially call one, and seeming to want to hang on until the last possible minute. And who can blame him, frankly? The poll numbers have been showing the Conservative lead evaporating recently, going down from a lead of around 18% last July to a mere 7% or so. The Budget seems to have pushed it back in their favour (not unusually, given how people don't tend to like being told they're going to pay more), but whether that's the start of a new trend back towards the blue end of the scale or a mere blip on the way to the great British public being completely undecided is something we just won't know for a little while longer.

Either way, it's an exciting time in politics, and the pollsters are having a lovely time. But how do we interpret the poll results? Well, I've been letting my geeky side (which is, I must admit, pretty enormous compared to my non-geeky side) run riot a little more than usual, with the result that I'm now in a position to put forward a tentative projection.

There's two main ways of predicting Parliamentary results based on poll figures. The first is the Uniform Swing Projection. In a nutshell, this method compares the vote share predicted by a poll with the vote share at the previous election to calculate the swing towards or away from each party, then applies that swing to the vote share in each separate constituency.

It's not the most sophisticated way of doing predictions, and suffers from a few limitations. For example, a strong negative swing can result in a prediction of zero votes for a party, which is fairly unlikely. It also fails to take into account boundary changes and the size of a constituency, and is likely to hit particular problems in an election like this one where a number of MPs have resigned or have had their reputations tarnished by the expenses scandal. It's a good place to start, though, and gives you a reasonable idea of the general trend of the election.

So, what's the prediction? Well, based on the most recent YouGov poll listed on the UK Polling Report, which gives figures of 38% Conservative, 31% Labour, 19% Lib Dem, 12% other, I'm projecting a Hung Parliament with the Conservative Party short of a majority by 51 seats. That's not far off UK Polling Report's current projection of a Conservative shortfall of 19, so I think I'm in the right neck of the woods.

Of course, that's only one poll, and I've heard bad things about YouGov (it's an online outfit, which does make them susceptible to outside influence). So let's see some more recent results, with my projections.

  • 29th March (YouGov), Con 39% Lab 32% LD 18%. Projection: Hung Parliament, Con down by 35
  • 29th March (Opinium), Con 38%, Lab 28%, LD 18%. Projection: Hung Parliament, Con down by 3
  • 28th March (ComRes), Con 37%, Lab 30%, LD 20%. Projection: Hung Parliament, Con down by 59
  • 27th March (BPIX), same results as ComRes above
All of which seems to suggest that there may be quite a bit of variability, but the Conservatives have a lot of work to do if they want to form a majority government.

I've got some more work to do on my projection model, and I've had some ideas for getting it a bit more accurate, so watch this space for more details (I'm also going to open-source my code shortly so you can play around with it for yourself). Until then, I'm going to leave the parties to frantically scrabble for those extra few votes...

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Monday, 15 February 2010

Harmonicas make everything sound sad.

What with all the excitement of the Winter Olympics (which have been fantastic so far) and the Six Nations (which...hasn't, at least from an English perspective), I forgot to make an update which I really shouldn't have missed, even in these days of very sparse additions to this blog. That update is the annual anti-Valentine's entry.

OK, so it's a little cynical to always make sarcastic comments about love at this time of year, but on the other hand, there is such a field of mawkish sentimentality to choose from when selecting something to methodically deflate, it seems churlish not to do something.

Fortunately, I've gone the classy route this time, by doing something creative for a change. That would be recording a song, on the theme of love. Have a listen to "So We'll Go No More A-Roving".

The music may be mine, but the words certainly aren't — they're taken from a poem by Lord Byron (original text here). It's a sad song, telling of a love that used to be bright, but has faded; love itself must have rest, as old age takes over.

Byron wasn't exactly in any position to know about old age, being only 29 when he wrote this, but the note of weariness that pervades the poem is very powerful. It's always a bit surprising to see someone who was a notorious hellraiser — he was the first man to be described as "mad, bad and dangerous to know" — coming up with something as tender as this. Maybe it indicates that the what he thought was love to start with wasn't actually what he was after.

This poem feels like it's nothing but sadness, leaving the reader with no love and nothing to replace it. But maybe that's the point. If the first rush of love — wild, passionate, roving late into the night — doesn't last, then we have to find something with which to replace it before that happens. Whether Byron ever managed this is unknown, but it's unlikely; he died only seven years after writing these verses. Maybe our challenge, then, is to see whether we can do better.

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Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Earthquakes, Evangelists and Evil

What would be a proper Christian response to the recent events in Haiti?

That's not just idle speculation, it's actually pretty important. After a US General has suggested that the death toll may top 200,000 (that's considerably higher than the population of Newcastle, in case you were wondering), the world is in shock at what seems like a completely senseless tragedy. At emotionally fraught times like this, the church has traditionally been one of those places that tries to bring "meaning" (in so far as that's possible) to those situations which seems meaningless, in the hopes that people will be comforted.

That's not always a good thing, of course — it's entirely possible that what people really want from the church is an assurance that this kind of thing won't happen to them, that there was something different about those "others". Sadly, some people are all too eager to give such false assurances; Pat Robertson, an American televangelist, has blamed the earthquake on a pact with the devil that Haitians allegedly made in order to gain their independence.

I don't mind admitting that when I first read Robertson's words, my immediate reaction to them was decidedly un-Christian, and I'm certainly not going to repeat it here. (Not without a long disclaimer and a video of a kitten, anyway.) How someone so influential, who commands a large audience of Christians, and who is apparently well thought of by his audience, could spit out such poisonous rubbish is beyond me. Needless to say, that is not the right way to approach the topic.

So what can we say? Well, it makes sense to start with what we know and have always known — that God loves the world and the people in it. This is a theme that runs right through the Bible, from the world's creation (when God looks at all he has made, and sees that it is very good), through to its salvation, in which we find that God loves the world so much that he will send his Son to save it. This is a love so great that literally nothing can separate us from it. So whatever happens, we can be sure that God hasn't left us, and that he cares for us.

But if God loves the world, why do things like earthquakes happen? Although I'm going to have a stab at this, it's really far too large a topic to cover in a single blog post, even if I thought that I had a handle on it (and I really don't). People far more intelligent and wise than I am have spent years trying to solve this. Some people have even used the problem of evil as an argument against God's existence, often phrased in the form of The Riddle of Epicurus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?
Personally, the point where I would take issue with this is at the second line, in which it is claimed that not consistently preventing evil is logically equivalent to malice. This doesn't logically follow, to my mind at least. There are situations in which permitting evil to happen is not necessarily an evil act in itself, if it allows a greater good. Take imprisonment, for example. Is it evil to deprive someone of their liberty? In a vacuum, you'd have to say yes. (Particularly if by that you meant imprisoning people inside a huge vacuum. That's definitely evil.) But if, by imprisoning someone, you prevent him from killing someone else, then you've done more good than evil.

"But wait!" I hear you cry. "That doesn't work, quite apart from the whole 'ends justify the means' thing which you appear to have completely ignored, even if it was for the purposes of avoiding long digressions like this one. If you're carrying out little evil acts to prevent big evil acts, you're presupposing the existence of big evil acts! That doesn't explain evil at all!"

And you'd be right, annoyingly perceptive voice in my head. What it does let me do, though, is lead up to what Wikipedia tells me is Plantinga's Free Will Defence (the whole Wikipedia article on the problem of evil is well worth a read, by the way). Plantinga argues, in a nutshell, that if God wishes us to have free will, we can choose either good or evil. Now, the fact that free will pops up in the Bible so very early (Adam and Eve chose to eat from the tree) indicates that it's part of the original plan, the one that God calls "very good". So, if evil can occur, this is only because a much, much greater good — the ability to choose to serve God, or not to — is its result.

Right, so we've reached the stage at which we can say that God who is both all-powerful and completely loving isn't necessarily incompatible with a world where terrible things happen. That doesn't go far enough as an explanation, though. Sure, we can say that murders and violence may happen, but that's because people exercise their free will and do bad things. It doesn't cover earthquakes, landslides, typhoons, or any of the other million and one horrible things that the Earth periodically does. How does this square with the image of a world that God made, and with which he was very pleased?

I think the key to understanding this is that we always like to remember the first half of the verse I linked to above ("God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.") and we forget the second half ("And there was evening, and there was morning — the sixth day.") Each part of the story of Genesis is linked to a particular and very specific time; just because the world was perfect then doesn't necessarily mean that it's still perfect now.

(I'm going to take a moment here to digress, and say that I'm not going to put forward any opinion, one way or another, on the extent to which I consider Genesis to be a literal, historical account of creation. That's a topic just as large as the problem of evil, and far too much ink and vitriol has been spent on it for me to try to wade in here. What I will say is that even if one takes the most metaphorical view possible — and I'm not saying that I necessarily do — there are still many, many important themes and valid bits of theology that we can draw from the book. In other words, Six Day Creationism isn't the only game in town, and it's possible to take just as active a part of the conversation if you're on one end of the spectrum as if you're on the other. Right now, I'd prefer to focus on the stuff on which we stand the slightest chance of reaching some kind of agreement. Sound good?)

What Genesis makes very clear is that although the world was perfect, there was a Fall. After Adam takes the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, God says the following to him:
Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it
all the days of your life.
From that point on, everything goes wrong. Adam and Eve get clothed in animal skins rather than the leaves they were wearing before, highlighting the fact that death is now a part of their lives. Adam has to work the ground before it will give him any food, which implies that before this it was working with him. Again and again the point is hammered home that just as humanity is no longer living in the type of relationship with God that he originally planned, so their relationship with the Earth itself has gone sour.

For the record, I should note that Pat Robertson (and those of his ilk) probably wouldn't disagree with any of this. Where we part company is the assumption that because the Earth's brokenness is because of sin, therefore any manifestation of that brokenness — for example, an earthquake — is in response to a very specific sin, such as the one Robertson attributes to the inhabitants of Haiti. I think this seems like a very odd idea. Should we assume that if we get weather we want, for example, that God is particularly pleased with us? No, of course not. After all, Jesus makes it very plain that the rain falls both on the righteous and the unrighteous. Although the Bible reports that God has used natural disasters as a form of judgement (the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah comes to mind), it doesn't remotely follow that any natural disaster is therefore part of such a judgement.

What's more, it's daft to assume that any particular sin you see is going to receive a visible punishment. Take the Roman Empire, for example. This was a society that far outstripped our own in terms of capacity for evil (bad though Big Brother may be, we haven't yet reached the stage of having people raped and murdered in public for our entertainment), and yet it never received so much as an errant asteroid.

Of course, all this ignores the number one reason not to blame particularly sinful Haitians for the earthquake: Jesus tells us not to. You can't get much plainer, really — Jesus is told about specific tragedies, and states in no uncertain terms that these were not due to their victims being unusually bad. He does add the very ominous warning "But unless you repent, you too will all perish", but he's not backtracking on his own words. He's not suggesting, for example, that even though people who have towers fall on them aren't necessarily sinful, if we don't repent we will also have a bunch of towers fall on us. No, he's pointing out that sin is a big deal to God. What we might think of as something inconsequential is something that has completely broken our world. It didn't cause a tower to fall, it caused our relationship with God to be completely twisted out of alignment, and that matters a lot more.

I've clearly gone on at some length here (hello, all two of you who made it down this far!) so let's draw things to a close. What is our response to the earthquake?

Well, first, don't blame the victims. I'm looking at you, Robertson. What the victims of this need to hear from us is not that God is not chuckling away at the carnage that he has caused, but that he loves them and cares for them.

Secondly, we need to back up that expression of love by actually helping them. If you possibly can, donate to the aid effort. If you're in the UK, I'd recommend donating to the Disasters Emergency Committee, an umbrella organisation of several charities working together to get help out there. The Red Cross, or Médecins Sans Frontières, would be good choices too. Anything you can do to help is a good thing.

Thirdly, and most importantly, pray. We're living in a broken world, one which periodically does terrible things to its inhabitants, just as they do terrible things to each other. And we can't fix that, but we believe in a God who can. When we've done all we can on our own terms, the only thing left to do is to ask God to do all he can on his.

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