The Man Who Knew Too Much

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His nuclear research helped a judge determine that former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko had been assassinated – likely on Putin’s orders. Just months after the verdict, the scientist himself was found stabbed to death with two knives. Police deemed it a suicide, but US intelligence officials suspect it was murder…

Theresa May to launch wide-ranging internet regulation and security changes despite not winning majority

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Theresa May looks set to launch wide-ranging internet regulation and plans to fundamentally change how technology works despite not having won a majority.

In the speech in which she committed to keep governing despite calls to stand down, the prime minister made reference to extending powers for the security services. Those powers – which include regulation of the internet and forcing internet companies to let spies read everyone’s private communications – were a key part of the Conservative campaign, which failed to score a majority in the House of Commons.

In the speech, given in Downing Street after losing her majority but still looking to form a government, she laid out a series of plans that she hopes to carry out at what she called a “critical time for our country”…

Tory MP ‘told schoolgirl to “f*** off back to Scotland” when she said she’d vote for independence’ | The Independent

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James Heappey MP

A Tory MP told a girl to “f*** off back to Scotland” when she said she’d vote for independence if a second referendum was triggered.

James Heappey’s outburst came as he addressed sixth-formers at the £12,000-a-year Millfield School in Somerset…

Looking for Wikipedia?

As you may have noticed, the English-speaking Wikipedia is “blacking out” in protest at SOPA/PIPA. This is a very important thing: SOPA/PIPA are potentially extremely dangerous bits of legislation (if you’re looking for a short explanation of why, here’s a great video).

I’m going to assume that you’re aware of the issues and have already taken action appropriate to your place – if you’re in the US, you’ve written to your representatives; if you’re in the rest of the English-speaking world, you’ve donated to the EFF (this issue affects all of us), etc. But if you’re in need of Wikipedia, here’s the simplest way to view it, today:

Accessing Wikipedia during the blackout

  1. Go to the English-language Wikipedia as normal. You’ll see the “SOPA blackout” page after a second or so.
  2. Copy-paste the following code into the address bar of the browser:


That’s all. You don’t even have to turn off Javascript in your browser, as others are suggesting: just surf away.

If you get sick of copy-pasting on every single Wikipedia page you visit… you can drag this link to your bookmarks toolbar (or right click it and select “add to bookmarks”) and then just click it from your bookmarks whenever you want to remove the blackout.

And if you just came here for the shortcut without making yourself aware of the issues, shame on you.

Apples To Alternative Vote

The other Earthlings, Statto, and I this week came up with a fun and topical variant of hit social board game Apples To Apples (which you might well have played with us at some point or another: if not, come over and we’ll show you). We call it AAV, or Apples To Alternative Vote, and it goes a little like this:

How'dya like them apples? An Applies to Apples (British Isles Edition) set and a sense of humour are all you need to play this game.
  1. Each player draws a hand of seven red cards, as usual. A deck of green cards is built to represent the voting populace. We used 9 green cards for 5 players, and I reckon that was too few: try doubling or tripling the number of players to get a green deck size. Round up to ensure you have an odd number.
  2. In turn, each player (or “candidate”) draws a green card from the constructed deck and explains: “Opinion polls show that voters in this constituency desire things which are…”, and then read out the card as normal. Play about with the language! “I represent the interests of voters who demand…”, etc.
  3. As usual, the other candidates play face-down red cards (policies) that will attract those voters, and the judge flips them over and chooses the one which best-reflects the interests of their constituents. The winning candidate wins their vote, and takes the green card as a prize.
  4. Play until one candidate holds the majority of the green cards. If you run out of green cards before this happens, eliminate the player(s) with the fewest votes (green cards): then they act as judge for these green cards among the remaining candidates. Continue eliminating and redistributing in this fashion until one candidate has a majority. This player is the winner.
  5. If this is all somehow too challenging for you, then declare that AV actually is too complicated, like the No-to-AV people say it is, and give up. Also: you should probably buy yourself some simpler board games, thicko.
An explanation of what all those complicated numbers mean for those too stupid to get their head around Alternative Vote.

We have in mind a possible variant in which different voting issue (green cards) represent different numbers of voters (perhaps using the “values” deck from For Sale), and the aim is to have a majority of voters, not issues, won over by your policies. “12,000 voters desire things which are… scary!” Give it a go, and let us know how you get on. And don’t forget to vote on Thursday!

Democracy At Work

Earlier this week, I had a strange experience, but it requires a little bit of back story.

Spend enough time with me, and you’ll hear me gripe about the problems of our democracy: the faults of the plurality voting system, gerrymandering and it’s long-term ripple effects, party politics, the motivations of politicians, and much more, even before I get down to talking about the apathy of constituents and our disgustingly ill-informed populace. I know how little my vote counts for (clue: pretty much nothing), and that’s why to make my opinions heard though occasional, carefully-researched letters to the people who represent me, and I encourage others to do the same – a letter, while in itself not particularly powerful, is still worth a lot more than a ballot paper. And thanks to WriteToThem, it’s really easy to send correspondence to the elected officials who represent you on the local, regional, national and international stages.

Perhaps inspired by some combination of (a) my recent experience with Pecky and the Squawkies, (b)  the mess created by their seagull buddies on and around rubbish collection days – which seems to have gotten worse recently (see photo, above) – and (c) the petitions that seem to be floating about town in general over the last few weeks, requesting that something (humane) is done about the troublesome Aber seagull population, I wrote to the council to express my thoughts on the matter, and to make a few suggestions based on things that have been tried by other towns affected by seagulls.

When I’ve written to representatives before, I’ve gotten a mixed response rate, and that’s fair enough – they’re busy people (at least, they are if they’re doing their job right). Writing to my MP, over the last decade or so, has typically gotten me a response rate of about 80%, which is quite impressive. Writing to MEPs gets a response rate of about 65%. Writing to a PM gets a response rate of about 50%, and that’s better than I’d have expected. So far, writing to my local council, although I’ve not done so often, has gotten me a 100% response rate.

And so I got an e-mail in response to my query about seagulls: great, it’s a pressing issue, apparently, and one that’s attracting a lot of attention from constituents (nice to know I’m not alone in my opinions), and it’s now scheduled for discussion on the next Department of Environmental Services and Housing Scrutiny Committee meeting, which is nice. What I didn’t expect was what followed.

The chap pictured above (thanks, BBC) is Ceredig Davies, Aberystwyth Central Ward councilor for Ceredigion Council. On Monday night, while I was on my way back to The Cottage after ReAnime Night (with a brief diversion to say goodnight to Claire on the way), he pulled up his car alongside me and leapt out, shaking my hand as he went.

He thanked me for my e-mail, explained that he’d e-mailed me and asked if I’d got it, and told me what he’d done about it so far and the challenges were that he thought might make it difficult to implement my suggestions (mostly only things I was aware of, but sadly not things I know the answers to). Then he dashed back across the street, hopped back into his car, and drove away.

This is perhaps the most pro-active response I’ve ever had from an elected official (even without the surprise meeting in the street, his reply to my e-mail was prompt and informative, and was followed-up by more information that interested me), but it left a question burning in my mind: Mr. Davies represents 15,000 or more people in this area, of which I’m just one – how the hell did he know what I looked like, let alone well-enough to spot me in the street. From his car? From behind? At night?

I’m impressed and all that, but it’s still a little spooky. I asked him at the time how he recognised me, and he mumbled something about being the kind of councilor who’s “a bit of an anorak” (what does that mean? does he sit up at night researching his constituents and memorising their appearances and daily movements? does he have a little book with all of our national insurance numbers in and cross them out when he meets us, like a trainspotter but with people?) as he made his way back to his car.

So, the verdict on Mr. Davies: very effective, but also a little bit scary.

Interview Sarah Palin

Remember about four-and-a-bit years ago, I downloaded Dadadodo, which I described at the time as a “word disassociator?” The program itself is a Markov chain generator/randomiser that works on sentence structures: in other words, given some text (speeches, poetry, blog posts, whatever – other kinds have been demonstrated to work on things like music) it will learn the frequencies in which words and punctuation follow other words and punctuation and use that to build resulting sentences.

Imagine the fun you could have if you took the combined speeches of any politician particularly famous for waffling through their answers. Like, say, US presidential election Republican party running mate Sarah Palin

Well, imagine no more – Interview Sarah Palin has you covered. Kick-starting paragraphs (“winding her up”) with particular topics (e.g. “Iraq and Afghanistan,” “John McCain,” etc.) sets off this fabulous little Markov-chain-speechbot. Even if you don’t understand even the theories of the mathematics, you can enjoy this site so long as you’ve got a suitable sense of humour around political waffling.

The Aber Masterplan

Have you seen the Aber Masterplan yet? The Welsh Development Agency/Welsh Assembly Government/Ceredigion County Council document that takes a SimCity-like approach to planning the future development of Aberystwyth.

No? You oughta. Here: download a copy [PDF].

Town Areas in the Aber Masterplan

It’s got some good bits. Re-routing some of the trunk roads to improve traffic flow and reduce dependence on the older, narrower roads through Llanbadarn and the town centre – good. Better use of Park & Ride schemes and a reorganisation of public transport – good. Reorganising parking spaces, making more space to park in the town centre and prioritising residents’ access to the parking spaces outside their houses – good. Better cycle lanes and cycleway connections – good. You see where I’m coming from.

And it’s got some… other bits. Moving the railway station quarter of a mile up the line and out of the town centre – not so good. Concrete everywhere – umm. Building a stadium – y’what?

A view of New Aberystwyth from the East

The whole thing’s filled with buzzphrases, like “The overall concept for this area is to create a new piece of town commensurate with that achieved in the Victorian period.” But with a bit of work, it’s possible to cut through the cruft and get to the key points of the proposal. Here are some of the more fascinating segments:

  • “Whilst a continuing University function for Old College is desirable, there are also possible complementary uses such as a high quality boutique hotel or art gallery.”
  • “Park Avenue could be developed as a positive, integrated part of town if the railway station was moved east to an area adjacent to the Vale of Rheidol Station.”
  • “Redeveloped football club site as high quality mixed use development developed on a grid pattern.”
  • “Mill Street car park development comprised of multistorey car park and retail units.”
  • “Redevelopment of cinema site.” (hint: it involves persuading the cinema to move elsewhere)

There’s a meeting open to the public in the WAG side of the Technium, on the marina, at 5:30 on Monday 10th December, so if you’d like to ask any questions about the plans, to enthuse or complain, or just to make your voice heard – in fact, if you have any opinion at all about these plans – you should come along and say your piece.

Further reading: Issue 10 of The Cambrian Snooze pokes fun at the Masterplan in it’s own way.

No Right To Complain

There are lots of good arguments as to why an individual should vote: perhaps I’ll write about some of those later, and talk about my own personal experience of the system. In this blog post, instead, I’m going to talk about a very bed argument for voting. It’s a very popular argument I’ve heard used by a great number of people who are in favour of compulsary (either at the legal level or just as a social pressure) voting. It’s a very popular argument, but it’s also a very weak argument. It goes something along the lines of this:

"If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain."

Over the remainder of this article, I’ll be taking apart this argument. To help me with the examples, I’ll be using a fictional character called John Voter. John is a resident of the United Kingdom, or a similar Western democracy. His political views are pretty moderate, and he isn’t a member of any particular party, but he’s open to new ideas and arguments: simply put, he’s the ultimate floating voter.

No One Candidate

Suppose the electorate is completely split between the candidates – every candidate gets exactly the same number of votes: there is only one ballot paper left to count, and it’s John’s. It’s a highly unfeasible scenario, but it serves for our purposes. In this scenario, John is responsible for choosing which candidate wins the election. This seems to some like an ideal oppertunity for many voters – a chance to choose exactly which candidate is elected – but not to John. You see, John can’t decide who to vote for. He likes the Red Party candidate’s promises of tax cuts, but he doesn’t approve of their foreign policies. Meanwhile, the Blue Party would increase taxes, but have foreign policies that he prefers. No single candidate is suited to John’s opinion. In the end, he flips a coin and votes for one of these two candidates.

Does John have a right to complain? He alone explicitly chose which candidate was elected, but he doesn’t approve of everything they’re going to do in their term. Does he have a right to criticise the candidate who he put in office. Think carefully before you answer.

If you answer no, then you’re saying that even if you do vote, you have no right to complain if your candidate is elected. It doesn’t actually matter whether or not John’s vote "makes the difference." More likely, he’s part of a larger group of people (all of the people who cast their vote the same way as him) who elected somebody who didn’t perfectly reflect their views, but reflected them more closely than any of the other candidates did.

More likely you answered yes; in this situation, where John singly "chooses" the politician who represents him, he still has a right to complain (you might even think that he has more right). So let’s take a different example. This one’s less hypothetical.

The votes are likely to be unevenly split amongst the candidates, just like a real election. There are candidates who will get only a few hundred votes, and there are candidates who will get tens of thousands. John still doesn’t know who to vote for, but – in this more realistic scenario – his vote will almost certainly not make a difference to which candidate is elected (note that I didn’t say that his vote will make no difference – perhaps I’ll look at arguments relating to whether votes "count" in a future blog post). Perhaps his chosen candidate will get in, or perhaps they won’t. Does he still have a right to complain?

Your answer is probably yes. Yes, John has every right to complain that his views are not being reflected, because no matter who he votes for – in fact, no matter who wins! – he will not be completely satisfied, because no politician is able to completely satisfy the things he cares about. He has chosen (either by concious decision or by flipping a coin, as before) to align himself with one of several viewpoints, neither of which he wholeheartedly agrees with. It doesn’t matter if he votes for one of the two tens-of-thousands-of-votes candidates in his constituancy, or if he votes for one of the less-popular candidates… the candidate that is elected remains the same (remember: I’m still not saying his vote doesn’t count). He’s still able, and probably feels the need, to complain about his elected representative.

So what’s the difference if he puts a blank ballot paper into the box? He was equally unhappy with all of the viable candidates anyway. And if he’s going to do that, he might as well not even bother going to the polling station, and make better use of his own time – he could draft a letter to be sent to the winning candidate, outlining his views, or he could write a blog post about why he isn’t voting, or he could go out with his mates for a pint. They’re all valid uses for his time (it is, after all, his time), and the net result is still the same as if he voted: a candidate he doesn’t 100% care for is elected, and he feels the need to complain about it.

And what right does anybody have to try to take away somebody’s right to complain. Complaining, otherwise known as "free speech," is a more important right than the right to vote. When you speak, you can influence people, whether they’re the unwashed masses or the people in power. When you vote, all you do is align yourself with somebody who represents less of the ideals you disagree with than any of the (limited) alternatives.

To say "if you don’t vote, you’ve got no right to complain," says a lot about the people who say it, though. When people say those words, what they’re actually implying that that they feel your right to complain should be dependent upon your duty to vote. On a personal level, they’re saying, "I feel that mandatory voting is important, and I plan to socially stigmatise you – by not listening to your complaints – as a way to try to coerce you into voting."

It’s sad that some people feel that the act of voting is more important than thinking about politics; that it’s more important for you to make an uninformed vote than it is for you to think about the changes you actually want to see, and help bring them about. It’s sad that everybody who "doesn’t vote" – from the man who just can’t be bothered and doesn’t care what happens (more on this in another post, as well, I think) to the anarchist who doesn’t want to support the system he opposes – gets lumped into a group of "apathetic voters."

The Personal Bit

Personally, I’ve very rarely felt the need to nominate a particular candidate as a preference over the others: most elections, I spoil a ballot, because no single candidate has a clear lead in my mind. I do, however, write to (well, usually e-mail and fax these days) politicians from time to time to try to persuade them of the validity of my viewpoints. I’d be more likely to vote in more elections if we had a better electoral system, such as STV. I’m not a non-voter (nor am I politically apathetic), I’m just, like John, unimpressed by most of the choices in most of the elections I participate in. The Liberal Democrats almost won my vote in the upcoming Welsh Assembly elections, but I challenged a representative of them on a couple of key issues I feel strongly about, and they seem to be adamant that they’re right (and I feel otherwise). It doesn’t look likely that I’ll find a candidate that reflects how I feel significantly better than any other, so instead of voting for a candidate, I’ll write a few letters (to whoever wins).

In the long run, if the system works, and politicians are at least slightly in it for the purpose of representing the views of their citizens, I’m having more of an effect than your average voter. If the system doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter anyway.

If I get the time, I’ll be talking about some of the (better) arguments for reasons to vote over the next couple of weeks. Don’t forget, those of you in Wales, Welsh Assembly polling day is May 3rd.