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Rube Goldberg Machine World Record

Magnificently pointless and yet with a beautiful finish:


Down to earth AV explanation

Very nicely done:

Karmin Music

Nice cover here, hat tip to the Berklee Music Blog. Hip hop lends itself to sparse arrangements; this is as sparse as it gets. Absolutely love Amy Heidemann’s performance. Beautifully expressive expressions, if that’s not too redundant.



Of course, the reason this is getting huge numbers of views is probably yet another example of the success of whitified versions of black music…

Urgent news: 49 year old man was born in 1961

It is difficult to express how deeply and predictably pathetic  Fox News is. When I read thatBarack Obama has released his birth certificate, I was curious as to how this piece of not-news would be received by the right wing. Here’s a shot from their front page:

Urgent? Seriously?

I understand why Fox News does what it does, they make a lot of money. But I wonder how their viewers manage to get through life. The constant palpitations must get distracting.

Oh FFS, Parliament, grow up

Is it patronising to say, “calm down, dear” to a woman? Usually. The “hysterical women” stereotype is one of the more annoying ones for the female gender, going by some of the eloquent rants I’ve read on the subject. The insidious thing about that particular stereotype is that complaints can leave you open to further accusations of hysteria; we all find it difficult to express anger in calmly modulated tones.

Friends and relatives can decide for themselves, however, whether it’s ok to be patronising for comic effect. Frankly some women deserve to be patronised, just as with some men. My favourite female friends would find life unbearably dull if the men in their lives treated women like delicate little flowers.

It is just pathetic, therefore, when political parties start demanding apologies for jokes that fall flat. Grow a spine, Labour. If David Cameron says something that can be interpreted as sexist, feel free to make political mileage out of it. Ideally, retaliate on the spot with wit or substance. The political equivalent of going crying to Mummy will get you nowhere.

Women on the left won’t change their opinion. Women on the right probably find it quite amusing that when Cameron patronises the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Mr Balls feels he must rush to defend Ms Eagle’s honour. I suspect that women in general may agree in principle, but hope that the Shadow Chief Secretary has more important things to be dealing with. She doesn’t need a man holding her hand in the process, either.

There are two important things about political correctness. First, language genuinely does matter. Serious issues are influenced by the words, tone of voice and body language we use. Second, if you use political correctness as a way to score political points, all you do is reinforce the attitude you’re supposedly trying to change. The left wing often seems more concerned with saying the right thing than getting the right outcome.

The nation needs a serious opposition. Replacing yah-boo politics with “the nasty man said mean things and he won’t say sorry!” doesn’t make the cut.

The delusions of tired old Lords

It is a sad comment on the backward nature of this country’s governance that the thing that unites left wing and right wing enemies is to become Lords together, united in their detachment from reality. Taken from this BBC article, here is Lefty Lord “FTP Is The British Way” Reid writing in the Right Old Times:

The beneficiaries would be the Liberal Democrats, both in terms of seats and in their disproportionate influence in hung Parliaments

- Lord Reid

There’s a simple way to check whether this is nonsense: ask a Lib Dem whether they think they have a “disproportionate influence” on George Osborne’s budget, or Lansley’s NHS reforms. The more they explode in indignation or anger will indicate the degree of delusion old Lord Reid suffers from. I reckon it’s somewhere between “verging on” and “utterly”.

My fear for the AV referendum is that it will return a No vote, and our political debate continues to be dominated by old (in spirit) people who want to cling onto everything they’ve got no matter how they got it, and young (in maturity) people who want everything at once. Everyone aspiring to virtues such as generosity or patience might have to wait a generation or two before their views carry any weight in politics.

Maybe turnout will decline to the point where only the core vote shows up. That would mean winning parties having the votes of maybe 20% of the electorate. Over time, with power swapping from one side to the other, Parliament would represent roughly 40% of the electorate for decades at a time. Strong governments would become like powerful corporations – shafting the majority not out of spite but simply from protecting their interests.

That wouldn’t last I don’t think, but it could last long enough to count out my days on this earth. What a depressing thought. Although there may be some satisfaction to be had in being a curmudgeonly old sod, pointing out to people that they chose to to keep the system in place that renders the electorate largely redundant. You can’t complain about politicians when you let them walk all over you.


It’s a gloriously sunny day, and I’ve got letters and leaflets to deliver. Onwards and upwards and all that jazz.

Fairer Fridays: Asking the right question

(One of a series of regular posts on the run up to the AV referendum on May 5th. As the post makes clear, I’m in favour of voting Yes. For those whom it concerns, I believe the question is either a choice between FPTP and AV –  or between standing still and electoral reform – and not what I think is the best of all the world’s voting systems.)

One of the simpler ways of looking at the AV referendum is to consider the problem we are trying to solve: how do we select Members of Parliament for each constituency? Take out all the emotionally laden arguments, the individual tendency to either fear or favour change, the personalities of the day and so on. You are left with a simple intuition of the problem: when there a multiple candidates, you need a method that somehow allows the voter to express the multiple views they have of them.

The real question then becomes: how should voters express their nuanced opinion? The answer, in the current context, is “well, AV is the only option on the ballot that allows it, so vote Yes”.

This basic reality is why all the arguments pointing out the flaws of AV do not stand up in comparison to FPTP. AV allows you to express multiple views i.e. G is better than O, and O is better than W. FPTP only allows G is better than O. The inevitable upshot of this is that overall, AV is better than FPTP, even though flaws can be identified. Mathematician Tim Gower has written an excellent in-depth piece on the detail, sprinkled with slogan-style simplifications of the various points.

Fantastic though Mr Gower’s piece is, it is all detail that follows from the natural consequences of making decisions with more information instead of less: perfect decisions are not guaranteed, but better ones are (in the aggregate, over time).

In other words, people who vote No will be doing so for bad reasons. Because the current system favours them, or because they are simply resistant to change. Most often, I suspect, because they are simply unwilling to consider the substance of the issue and are therefore going with the recommendation of someone they like. The ridiculous level of hysteria and fear and misdirection from the No camp is unfortunately doing quite a good job of keeping substance out of the public discussion.

From the polls, it looks possible that FPTP will stay. That would be a shame. If electoral reform doesn’t happen, and it is primarily the older voter who votes for the status quo, the generational gap will widen. I’m not sure it is in the nation’s long term interest to raise future generations by teaching them they’re not worth listening to, and not even democracy itself is a subject worthy of objective consideration.

The Global Village Construction Set

From fusion physicist to open source farmer, Marcin Jakubowski is on an incredible journey through life. His Open Source Ecology site is the kind of thing that “it blows my mind” is meant for. You absolutely must watch his five minute TED talk:

Distributing the means of production is at the heart of what I might call genuinely progressive thinking i.e. the non-socialist variety that doesn’t demand a backwards move to the state ownership of the means of production.

As with all great ideas, this isn’t entirely new. The 3D printer and the 50kW Wind Turbine are well known examples of open source hardware. But open source hardware itself is an idea that lags far behind open source software. Open source software, in turn, is not yet an idea that is truly widely known outside of techheads. That’s why the “Global Village Construction Set” seems so powerful to me. It’s a “real” idea, both concrete and readily pictured by anyone in their mind’s eye.

I haven’t got my head around this idea of a basic construction kit for civilisation. It has everything from basic agricultural tools, to sophisticated-but-basic-in-the-OECD tools such as a 3D scanner. Assuming that Marcin has correctly identified the essentials, then this project has a deep beauty. It deserves deep contemplation.

Imagine a world where all mathematical geniuses did something like this instead of try to get a job developing Wall Street trading algorithms.

Warwick professor thinks poor kids are stupid

I should probably calm down and review this properly, but this does seem a grotesque abuse of expert authority. The idea that a professor would dismiss efforts to improve the education of children by shoddy analysis is deeply offensive to me. There is a graph (included below) in the government’s social mobility paper Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers, which shows that poorer children who perform well at a young age will tend to see their relative performance fall as they grow up.

Many would conclude this tells us something about the importance of good education institutions and learning environments. Professor Read’s suggestion is that over time, poor children simply prove themselves to be stupid (or as he might put it, their extreme scores would regress to a lower mean).

Yes, he really does say that. Not quite so explicitly, and not in his press release, of course – even a professor can figure out that certain thoughts are best expressed discretely. You have to dig deeper – about halfway down the more in depth article. Here’s the relevant paragraph:

So if the rich group has a higher average ability than the poor group, we expect the mean toward which the extreme scores will regress to be higher. In fact, this is the case. In Figure 1 of Feinstein’s paper, we see that the average rank of the rich group is indeed higher at all ages. The data do not tell us why this is the case, and clearly this is an important if somewhat unsurprising observation, but because this is true we can predict that both rich groups will end up closer to their own population mean, and both poor groups farther from their mean. And this is what occurs.

The important bit is where he says this is an “unsurprising observation” i.e. he apparently thinks this confirms his belief in the superiority of the rich group. Here’s the graph in question:

Now, I could tell just by looking at this that his press release is complete and utter bullshit. Pure bollocks. Worthless shite. The kind of piss poor wank that gives “experts” a bad name. Pardon my language; I just want to be clear in how much contempt I have for it.

When I find the time I’m going to write up a longer piece covering the various schoolboy errors in his article, but here are the essential points that screamed out at me:

  1. He talks about regression to the mean effects due to measurement error and population selection.
  2. This effect is well known, and indeed appears to take place from 22 to 42 months.
  3. From 42 to 122 months, however, while two of the lines have levelled out, two continue to show an upward or downward trend.
  4. Therefore, RTTM alone does not explain the graph.

A couple of fellow bloggers (Tim at Just One More Ten Pence Piece and Jonathan at Liberal England) seem to have been blinded by science. I don’t blame them, either. Warwick is a good university, and the press release came from a professor. The RTTM explanation sounds convincing, and the layperson should be able to trust such a person to have intellectual honesty. Burying an extremely suspicious premise halfway down an article is extremely poor form.

Words are failing me in trying to express just how fucked up I think it is for a PROFESSOR to attack the case for improved education for the poor based on the premise that “the rich group has a higher average ability“.

Incidentally, perhaps you’re a female, or even just a man who thinks that women can do math, too. You might find it interesting to compare this situation to Larry Summers at Harvard. Larry (one of the genius architects of the global financial crisis) was President of Harvard University when he rather notoriously suggested that the lack of women in technical subjects might be best explained by “issues of intrinsic aptitude“.


Fairer Fridays: The Dubya Disaster

(One of a series of regular posts on the run up to the AV referendum on May 5th. As the post makes clear, I’m in favour of voting Yes. For those whom it concerns, I believe the question is either a choice between FPTP and AV –  or between standing still and electoral reform – and not what I think is the best voting system.)

Perhaps the best argument in favour of dumping First Past The Post is George W. Bush. Ralph Nader split Al Gore’s vote, allowing Dubya to squeeze in, and therefore making the Iraq war possible and the financial crisis much worse. The final count in Florida was famously close, and if voters had been able to express their full preferences the ensuing catastrophes might not have happened.

A single X on a ballot paper really doesn’t work when there are more than two candidates in the election.