Thursday, 7 May 2015

In which I feel unexpectedly elated about voting

It's a glorious day today and I just voted in the general election.

I feel unexpectedly elated.

The last time we had a vote - the Scottish referendum - that ended up with me taking two months off work with anxiety.  This time there are no parties I can wholeheartedly support.  I've avoided almost all the coverage because I don't want to get sucked in.  But the little I've seen indicates that very many people will vote for the Conservatives and the SNP, two parties who have led their governments for five years or more and led their countries in awful directions (very different directions for the UK and Scotland but both awful).  

I was always going to vote though, so I went out a few minutes ago.   It's a glorious sunny day here, and I chatted to a neighbour who said she often sees me running and I obviously enjoy it. I walked across the park to the polling booth a few yards the other side of it. 

When I got there I waited a little in a short queue, and then went to a booth, thought for a moment, put down an X, and put my paper in the ballot box (actually couldn't find the slot for a second but did and put it in.) 

I walked home feeling unexpectedly elated.

I'm reading a book called "She-Wolves" about the female rulers of England before Elizabeth. I'm reading now about the Empress Matilda, who had a civil war with King Stephen in the 12th Century.  They wandered around the country besieging castles and trying to take over from other one.  Every once in a while they made the political mistake of not executing the other one. 

20 odd years ago I saw footage of Desmond Tutu voting in the first free South African elections. After he voted, he celebrated by pumping his arms above his head. Not for his party but because he had been allowed to vote.  That came after the white South Africans had voted in a referendum to allow everybody to vote.  I can't find a picture of the celebration, but there is him voting. 

After the election it looks like there will be messy coalition building or minority government forming. There will be backroom deals and frontroom deals and lies told with a straight face to camera.  But none of the leaders will be taking their opponents prisoner, putting them in irons, and deciding whether or not to murder them.  And if Cameron is ousted, he will leave Downing Street because of millions of Xs on bits of paper, not because his castle has been starved into submission. The amazing glory of democracy is leaders willingly giving up power peacefully. 

I was unexpectedly elated, but it shouldn't have been unexpected. I love democracy.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

My eponymous domain name: ian.gent

There's not a lot to say in this post.  Simply that I bought the domain name


This is possible because recently the Belgian region of Gent (usually spelt Ghent in English) started its own top level domain .gent

I don't know how people have domain names which are their name, i.e. eponymous domain names. It's not that unusual to have a domain like iangent.com, which I also own.  

Right now I've just pointed these URLs to my university address, but it's nice to be able to point people at http://ian.gent. It's basically a modern-era version of a vanity number plate.

Update: I've now moved my main blog URL to be http://blog.ian.gent. I wouldn't have done this but it looks like all the old links still work, which is nice.   So e.g. if somebody sends you to the Petrie Multiplier blog post at http://iangent.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/the-petrie-multiplier-why-attack-on.html, you should find yourself at http://blog.ian.gent/2013/10/the-petrie-multiplier-why-attack-on.html

Saturday, 20 September 2014

How Cupar Food Bank Made Me Happy

I am incredibly fortunate that I have never had to go to Cupar Food Bank. Today I was incredibly fortunate that I went to Cupar Food Bank.
From Cupar Food Bank you can see my house. Though you can't see Cupar food bank from my house. Sounds impossible but the bits of my house you can see aren't the bits with windows.
I have passed it many times. Also, many times I have paid for my shopping at Tesco and passed the box that you can donate food in and gone "oops, forgot to buy any." I have occasionally remembered and donated a small amount of food to it.
Food banks became a political football during the referendum. It was only yesterday that I suddenly realised what should have been obvious all along.  Food banks are not a bad thing, they are a good thing. It's the need for food banks that is a bad thing. Absolutely I believe that current UK government policy is a major factor behind the need for food banks. Benefits penalties, forms you have to fill in online when not only the £300 computer but the £3 bus fare to the library might be impossible. But I don't believe the need for Food Banks will ever be zero.
You're a woman with an abusive husband and two toddlers. You take them for a walk in the park, maybe the beautiful park between my house and the Cupar Food Bank. You decide you can never go back. You can't even risk going back for your handbag. What are you going to eat tonight? What are your children going to eat tonight? If your baby is in nappies, where is the next one coming from? If they're out of nappies what are you going to wipe their bottom with tonight?
This is the kind of problem the Cupar Food Bank deals with on a daily basis - they deliver food to the refuges and safe houses in Cupar so that the women don't have to come out at risk to themselves.
It had literally never occurred to me that Food Banks need to provide nappies and toilet paper. But it occurred to them and they do it because they are wonderful.
Rewind.
Because the referendum moved me so much I decided to donate my modest winnings gambling on it, and the stake, slightly less modest, to the Cupar Food Bank. 
I looked online and watched the video (not of Cupar) there. Everything is about no shame. There is no shame in going to the food bank. It's not an easy thing but the hard part is needing to go there. It's not your fault that you need to eat. I was incredibly moved by the bit where somebody said to them "You saved my life", they say "Well I mean thanks but it's just a bag of food" and he says "No, I mean I was going to kill myself. You saved my life."
So I decided donating to Cupar Food Club was a good idea.
Picked up my daughter from After School Club and stopped off at the Food Bank. I asked if I could give them some money. Not to my total surprise, they said yes.
I thought we'd be in and out in a couple of minutes. We were there about an hour. A wonderful hour that made me very happy.
We had a cup of tea and juice for Sophie. A jammie dodger each. I explained why I was there - because of the referendum - and we chatted about it and this and that. A couple of the volunteers quickly picked out our house and said extremely nice things about our new extension. Not guilt tripping about me having a nice house, just neighbourly interest.
They didn't offer us a biscuit because I was donating, it's because they offer it to everyone who walks in. People less lucky than me come in and shove half a packet down their throats. Just as they are starting to apologise for their greed (hunger) the volunteers ask if they'd like another packet.
Anyway, it's time for a tour. I think it's going to be a room with some food in it. Still think I'll be out in ten minutes.
The first room is where they sit you down if you are a client. They talk to me and my daughter like we were clients. Pro tip. Talk to an 11 year old like she's an adult. Guess how the pros at Cupar Food Bank talked to my daughter? "Wow, that's a house captain badge, were you chosen for that or elected?"....
What do you like for breakfast? Cereal or porridge? Cereal? Ok, yeah, most people say cereal. Tick that box. Do you like full fat or semi skimmed milk? Tick that box.
Do you like tea or coffee? Or both? Do you have sugar with your tea? Ok, tick those boxes.
What about the kiddy? What's his treat? Sweeties? Crisps? Once they had a two year old come in and mum said he loved tomato soup as his treat. No problem, here's some tomato soup.
And so on and so on and so on. Nothing is: you'll take this and be grateful. Everything is: you need food but you also need to be happy with what you are given. And by the way, do you have a can opener to get into these cans?  No? Here's one. That's a lovely dog, do you need dogfood?
That's the first room. The next room is where they pack the food. They've got the shopping list so they go next door and pack the bags.
Unless it's today and they ask if my daughter would like to help pack a bag. They shove an apron on her and she starts to pack. This family likes porridge. It's over there. They're a tea family, get that down from there. They like sugar in their tea. You can't reach? Let me get that for you....
Somewhere in Cupar or nearby, somebody maybe tonight is eating food that my daughter packed for them. It might be one of her classmates. If you can think of a better lesson in civics, let me know.
I'm off exploring more with another volunteer. There's another room with more food in it. The one my daughter is in is the supplies to be used up next. This is the one with longer term storage. It's on rotation, with each section labelled with the expiry date. Some things will be labelled October 2014, but there'll be jams labelled 2017.
There's the milk - UHT of course. Sometimes we run out of milk. We email the churches and they get the word out to their donors so that our clients can have milk that weekend.
No nappies though. Too many sizes for it to be sensible to stock all the options. If somebody needs nappies a volunteer will pop to Tesco to get the right size. Remember that bin at Tesco in Cupar? As well as passing on the food, Tesco donates 30% of the value in cash. If they need nappies they've got that money to get them. Every little helps.
Saved the best for last. They get lots of plastic bags from all the shops, CoOp, Tesco, Lidl, whatever. If you go in to the Cupar Food Bank and leave with four bags of food, they are all bags from the same shop. If you pass somebody in the street they'll just assume you are walking back from that shop. Somebody. Thought. Of. That.
They didn't even tell me this. They told my daughter and she told me. I love my daughter so much. She is incredible.
Just like the people at the Cupar Food Bank are incredible.
While we try to get UK government's disgraceful policies changed, let's change the world we live in as well as the world we want to live in. And along the way let's make ourselves happier as well.
People talk about the "democratic deficit". But the democratic surplus from the referendum is just immense. Yes or No, I know you voted the way you did because you want a better Scotland. I say this:
Make it so.
And if you can't think of anything else to do, take your daughter to a food bank. It made me incredibly happy today.

Cupar Food Bank is at 21 St Catherine Street, Cupar, Fife, KY15 4TA, right on the corner of the War Memorial roundabout. Email info@cupar.foodbank.org.uk. Telephone 07474 453153. Web is http://cupar.foodbank.org.uk/ 
If you need to go to Cupar Foodbank as a client, here's what you need to know. The Cupar Foodbank opening times are: Monday, 11am - 3pm, Wednesday  4pm - 6pm, Friday 11am - 3pm then 5pm - 6pm. You need to be referred by one of the front line agencies - but honestly, if it's too urgent for that, just walk in.  They'll help you get in touch with the right people. 
If you are not local to Cupar, find your nearest food bank here: http://www.trusselltrust.org/map
For this post "today" means 19th September 2014. Photos were taken with permission of the Food Bank volunteers, and posted here with permission of my daughter. 




Sunday, 14 September 2014

Please vote No. Don't make Scottish poverty worse.

Why am I voting No? 
This was Cupar yesterday. Please keep it like this.
There are two main reasons. One is my love for my country, which is the United Kingdom. That's no reason for you to vote No if you don't feel that.
But please please please vote No because of poverty.
For the longest time it's inflamed me that so much of the Yes campaign is about making Scotland richer and England poorer - as if that was an axiomatically good thing. It's incredibly selfish, and will increase poverty in the UK and I oppose it vehemently.
But apparently most Yes campaigners don't care about that at all. Ok, so be it.
But it's now become clear that a Yes vote is the best guarantee of an increased level of poverty in Scotland.
Yes campaigners can shout "food banks" and "UK inequality" as much as they like. Do you think I think those are good things? No.
Surely all that Scottish oil wealth will eliminate poverty? It's not *quite* impossible but I'd certainly take a bet at say 3-1 that in 5 years after Independence Scottish poverty will be worse. (I'm serious, I'll take the bet if I know you, and you can even choose the measure of poverty). 
Why am I so sure?
Scotland will start off with - assuming geographic share of oil revenues - a deficit which is roughly the same percentage as that of the UK as a whole. There is no such thing as "Scottish Oil Wealth." There is major income from oil, but it's not a game changer for Scotland - because without oil Scotland is significantly poorer than the rest of the UK. So that's roughly neutral.
And it will start off with a decimated financial services industry. Which employs 100,000 people. I use the term decimated carefully, since probably the rapid loss of jobs will be about 10,000. Probably over time it will be far worse. That's just one industry. If we lose thousands of jobs, take a wild guess who will be the losers? Right, it's not middle class people like me, it's the poor.
And Scotland will start off led by politicians who have spent their whole careers aiming for independence for richer or poorer. That's noble and I respect it, but remember what it means. They literally will take independence at the cost of making people in Scotland poorer. Their entire career is founded on that basis. Remember what that means. Whatever your hope is for an independent Scotland, many longstanding campaigners on the Yes side would grab at an independent Scotland even if it meant the exact opposite of that.
And it will start off in a country where the bogey words "Westminster" and "Tory" have become hate filled code for the unacceptable use of the word "English" as an insult. Led by a party who use this code as much as they can. Just the other day Salmond was talking about "Team Scotland" versus "Team Westminster". You know what, Alex? We are all on Team Scotland. And you can choose not to believe it, but Westminster politicians are too.  
Food banks? Bad that we need them - but where is the SNP support for making them full of food for the poor? At a trivial cost to the taxpayer the government could have made them (literally if they wanted) flow with milk and honey.
Inequality? Where are the SNP policies for redistribution? What have they done to help? I give them credit for exactly one thing - giving money to councils to help ameliorate the bedroom tax. They didn't even have the guts to boast about it - as they had every right to - and I assume that's because they don't want people to know that the bedroom tax is not a big issue in Scotland now. And then they didn't even bother to show up for a vote to eliminate parts of it nationally.
Health poverty? I have watched in disbelief - and fury - at the health minister of my country using the terrible horrible life expectancy in parts of Glasgow as a reason for separation. For example, arguing as a positive point that the reduced life expectancy in Scotland makes pensions more affordable. The health minister of Scotland! I know it's not an easy problem to fix, but my god if it was my responsibility and it was this bad after 15 years of devolution and 7 years of SNP, I would be looking everywhere I could to find solutions, not saying it was all the bogeyman's fault.
Poverty full stop? Why am I paying the same tax rate as my friends in England and Wales? Because the SNP government for 7 years has not raised it to help people less lucky than me. They even let the power to change tax rates lapse.
Yes, some of the reasons I just mentioned are criticisms of the SNP.  I've already blogged about how Salmond tells us that a Yes vote is a vote for him: and indeed he made it even clearer in the second tv debate after I wrote that. But my main point is that - with most of the powers necessary to make things better for the poor in Scotland - the Holyrood government has failed after 15 years.  Actually, to be more precise, I'm sure they have succeeded in various ways, but not as much as we would have liked.  And for complete clarity, I absolutely believe we'll see increased poverty whether Scotland had an SNP, Tory, LibDem, Labour or any coalition government.
Please vote No. Don't make Scottish poverty worse.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Public service announcements on the Referendum.

These are Public service announcements on the Referendum.  Honestly!  Not a disguised attempt to sway your vote. 
For more information go to aboutmyvote.co.uk
If you've got a vote in the referendum, please use it. I think I can say that people who know me know that I want people to vote even if I think they are voting the wrong way.
The result of the referendum is decided on 50% + 1 vote of the valid votes cast. Actually 50% + 1/2 vote if it's an odd number. I was surprised that somebody I thought was well informed thought there was some additional bar, like needing to get 66% or a certain turnout. Nope, it's majority winner.
So if you've got the vote and hadn't made up your mind, please do think about it - if you consciously choose to abstain, great, but please either vote or not deliberately.
If you've got the vote and are in one the non British categories like Commonwealth or EU citizens, please use it too. You mean just as much to Scotland as anyone else who lives here.
My hunch is that high turnout is good for No and I'm a No voter but honestly - and I can't believe I'm saying this - I'd rather Yes won on a 90% turnout than No won on a 50% turnout.
And please please please do NOT take a photo of your ballot paper with the X on it and put it up on twitter or facebook. We have a secret ballot for a very good reason, and that reason is that people can lie about their vote and get away with it. It might not matter to you or me, but if our culture makes that acceptable, it brings back intimidation to the ballot box. Because the person intimidating the voter can beat them up for not taking a picture.
End of public service announcements.

p.s. if somebody is forcing you to take a picture of your ballot, take a picture, then after that spoil your ballot paper and ask the desk for another one.  Also report them to the police if you can.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Counterfactual Conditionals and the Fundamental Flaw in an Otherwise Powerful Argument

Sexy title, huh?  I bet you can't get enough counterfactual conditionals in your blog posts!

I want to explain why an argument - which looks at first sight enormously powerful - is actually fundamentally flawed.  The argument is one used by George Monbiot in this very powerful piece which argues in favour of independence.  I've always thought that the central argument here is a powerful one: "If it was the other way round, and Scotland was independent, would it vote to join the UK?"  It's a powerful argument because it looks like the answer is obviously no, but it ain't so obvious.  In fact it's so fundamentally flawed, all we can say is "well, nobody knows one way or the other."

To see why it's so flawed, we'll need a bit (quite a lot) of history and a bit (much less) about counterfactual conditionals.   We'll do that second bit first.

Looks fun, huh? 
I have a little bit of a history with counterfactuals.  My late father taught me what they were: they are an if-then statement where the if-part is not true (counter-factual) and so expresses what might have been or what could be.  E.g. "If my father was alive today he would be wearing a monocle".  My father also taught me that the truth of counterfactuals is essentially unknowable: since we don't live in a world where my father is alive, how do we know he would wear a monocle - even though he did regularly when alive.

Yes, my father he was a monocle-wearing logic-imparting kind of father and he was exactly as awesome as he sounds.  My favourite quote from him: "When you've discovered the furthest known object in the universe, the rest of your career is a a bit of an anticlimax".  It was QSO B0642+449, since you ask.

Years later - and now years ago, my first academic paper was about the logic of counterfactual conditionals. The picture shows an excerpt from it to add to your life's store of entertainment.

Now onto the history.

Monbiot writes as if no state has ever been crazy enough to form a union with another state.

Absolutely states have formed unions in their best interests. We are not talking about minor little countries here and there. We're talking about the USA, Germany, and Italy. The idea of German and Italian nations existed for centuries - in fact millennia - before the unions that formed the countries were formed. (In the 'Social Wars' of about 90BC, the rebellious Roman Allies hopefully called their capital "Italia", but no such country existed as a state until 1861).  The USA did not exist as an idea for centuries, but was formed as a federation of thirteen separate colonies in 1776.  Thirteen colonies fighting for independence and forming a union to help them be the greatest they could be.

Oh but obviously that is all ancient history, right?  Well, if you regard 1990 as ancient history when the two Germanies unified.

The example of East and West Germany illustrates the other problem and the fundamental flaw with Monbiot's argument.

The argument is flawed because it has a hidden false (well actually unknowable) premise. The argument is actually:

If Scotland was independent, and was basically exactly the same as it is now, would it vote to join the UK?

If Scotland was independent, it would not be the same as it is now.

What would it be like? Obviously nobody knows: that's the nature of counterfactual conditionals. But the case is strong that Scotland would be exactly the kind of place - like East Germany in 1990 - that would love to join its larger neighbour.

If you are interested only in Scotland's economy, it obviously benefitted massively - I mean absolutely ludicrously massively - from being in a Union with England and Wales. Economically, being in one country where the industrial revolution was taking place was exactly where you wanted to be. And then as that finished exploding, it wasn't half bad for your economy being in the same country as had a massive empire with things like India as parts of it. Scots were pretty good at empire too: for example it was basically the Scots who colonised Canada (I'm sitting writing this in Cupar, Fife: the only other Cupar in the world is in Canada.)

Without the Union, it's clear that Scotland could have been massively poorer than it was at least until oil kicked in about 30 years ago.  Of course the rest of the UK would have been poorer too. Everybody would have lost.

What about since oil? Well, if Scotland had magically gone independent on the right day, then fair enough, it would have made a lot more money from oil than it did. Also we wouldn't have had Thatcher. But don't fantasise about a beautiful liberal social democracy with a Norway style oil fund - or if you like fantasise about it, because it would have been a fantasy. At exactly the same time - early 80s - was the peak of the hard-left labour party. Hard left labour have been in total control in Scotland and would absolutely not have been interested in investing billions in the stock markets. Certainly there would have been no Thatcherism in Scotland, and while that would have been much better in many ways, not necessarily in all of them. How much of Scotland's oil money would have been spent on loss making steel, coal, and ship production? Yes, people in those industries would not have lost their jobs. But would the economy be better than it is now?

So basically, my version of the counterfactual history is that Scotland would now be a deeply impoverished country if it had never been in a union, or at best (independence in about 1980) throwing its oil money away on deeply uncompetitive industries.

So my counterfactual conditional I offer in response to Monbiot is:

If Scotland was independent, we'd have grabbed at union as eagerly as East Germans did in 1990.

Yes, my counterfactual is as deeply and fundamentally flawed as Monbiot's.  But now I hope you can see why his piece - while undeniably powerful -  is a powerful piece built on foundations of air.

I leave you with a joke, and I think it may be the best joke I know in an academic paper.  In his paper on counterfactuals, Matt Ginsberg says that counterfactuals are sometimes used to indicate precisely no linkage between the if and the then. He gives an example:
"Even if I was free for dinner tonight, I still wouldn't go out with you."
and then he says
I am indebted to a former Miss Texas for this example. 

Thursday, 21 August 2014

It's not a vote for Yes, it's a vote for Salmond and the SNP - according to Salmond.

A common line of argument from Yes campaigners for Scottish Independence is:
"It's not a vote for Salmond or the SNP, it's a vote for Yes"
A Vote for Yes is a vote for theWhite Paper
Well I agree that's what it should be.  But oddly I don't often hear the same people saying (as they should)
"It's not a vote for Cameron or the Conservatives, it's a vote for No"
But that's an aside.  It turns out that Alex Salmond says that those Yes campaigners are just wrong. He said this in the Scottish Parliament.   Answering a question from Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, he said on 14th August: 
"I say to Ruth Davidson that, on September 18, if people in Scotland vote for what is in the white paper and the proposals to keep the pound, that is exactly what will happen and any Scottish politician who does not recognise the sovereign choice of the Scottish people will pay a heavy price. Incidentally, that is something that the Conservatives are long used to in political campaigns in Scotland."  theyworkforyou.com
I've put in the full quote to avoid being accused of quoting out of context. I don't care about the barb about the Tories, I care about this:
"on September 18, if people in Scotland vote for what is in the white paper and the proposals to keep the pound, that is exactly what will happen... the sovereign choice of the Scottish people"
Until I read that I really did believe that this was a vote for Yes, not for Salmond or the SNP or the white paper. But now the First Minister has told me - in the most sacred forum of Scottish democracy - that a Yes vote is a vote in toto for the white paper.  The white paper is exactly what will happen.

You can feel free to disagree with me.  But I'm quoting the First Minister.

If you vote Yes but don't agree with what Salmond, the SNP, and the Scottish Government have written in the white paper, then you are going against the "sovereign choice of the Scottish people". You don't want a lower corporation tax on the first day of independence?  No, you can't oppose that because it's against the sovereign choice of the Scottish people.

Maybe Alex Salmond misspoke.  Well, maybe all those other people he delights in quoting out of context in debates misspoke too.  Maybe he was joking.  Like Andy Burnham was.

But whether he meant to say what he said or not, it's essentially true.

There's an odd point of view that many Yes campaigners have, that somehow Scotland will be fundamentally more democratic as an independent country than the UK is.

Obviously, it will be more Scottish, but more democratic?

Let's assume that independence occurs on the timescale the Scottish Government wants, by March 2016.  There are no Scottish Parliamentary elections before then.  There is no suggestion of a second referendum on the outcome of negotiations, or a draft constitution.  There is no democratic control over the process except that exerted by The First Minister of Scotland (SNP), the Scottish Government (SNP), and the Scottish Parliament (absolute SNP majority).   Salmond has said (to his credit) that he would invite non-Yes campaigners into the negotiations, but the SNP will have absolute control of what happens.

Just like the rUK you say, with Cameron in control? Apart from anything else, rUK will enter negotiations with a two party government instead of one party, a two chamber legislature instead of one, and no referendum which they can say represents the "sovereign choice of the rUK people". And there is guaranteed to be a UK election before independence in which the negotiations are certain to be a central issue if Yes wins.

Scotland will be more democratic than rUK?   You can guess what I think.

To close, please remember what the First Minister implies:
"It's not a vote for Yes, it's a vote for Salmond and the SNP"
Or if you still insist I'm wrong (and I wish I was), remember that if you think 
"It's not a vote for Salmond or the SNP, it's a vote for Yes"
then at the very least you must also think:
"It's not a vote for Cameron or the Conservatives, it's a vote for No"


p.s. I'd like to thank Mulder1981 on Twitter for tweeting the picture below, which alerted me to the quote.  I spent a few minutes googling to confirm the quote was correct, since it seemed so unlikely. But it's true.