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.
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 Telephone 07474 453153. Web is 
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:
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
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."
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.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Why is Maths Hard?

Some slight thoughts about maths being hard.

Prompted by a couple of things I saw in quick succession.

First, this exchange on twitter about an interesting post about politeness. That post is interesting in its own right but not the point. The point is that Michiexile is a mathematician.

Second, this post about the lottery of what you happen to be interested in, where maths is definitely not in the author's bag.

This certainly strikes a chord with me. I happen to like maths and be good and it and it is seriously fascinating. But I have a couple of memories that are slightly discordant...

  • I once went at a job interview at HP Labs Bristol, where I did their logical thinking test and they said I'd got their third highest score ever (amongst many smart people.)   But I didn't find it impressive because I thought "You gave me the kind of test I am good at, so what?"   It didn't help that the same day they had some charlatan psychologist who administered a personality test and nearly gave me a nervous breakdown. 
  • A few years later I was talking with a good friend in a pub during my PhD, and he stopped and looked at me and said "You did Maths... at Cambridge... you must be very intelligent."  What was odd to me was that we had known each other for a couple of years, and surely his view of my intelligence shouldn't then have been judged by my CV.

The point I'm trying to make here is this.  Why should skill at Maths or Logic make you more intelligent that somebody skilled at something else.  Why do people think Maths is hard?

Is it because maths is the school subject with the highest ratio between compulsoriness (100% for a long time) and difficulty to some students (some reasonable percentage of people find it hard)?  So for example English language (in British schools) is similarly compulsory but not as obviously difficult.  Almost everyone can write essays even if they are not actually very good.  But in Maths, if you are really not very good at it, you can't do certain things at all.

I really don't know why people think Maths is hard but just asking the question.

Sunday 10 August 2014

Why I Decided to vote No in the Independence Referendum

This post's title is very carefully worded: this is about why I decided to vote No.  This is not the same thing as why I am voting No. This is about the deciding moment: the straw that broke the camel's back, if you like.

We don't celebrate this enough!
Before I start, let me just say one thing that neither side has given the other enough credit for. We are having a referendum, and a 50.01% vote will decide it. The Yes side have not given the Noes, and David Cameron in particular, enough credit for the fact that they will accept the country being ripped apart by a wafer thin vote.  Compare situations like Quebec in Canada or Catalonia in Spain, where even a solid referendum majority might not be accepted.
From the Noes, there's not been enough credit to the Yes side for the fact there's been no hint of serious violence at any point, not just now but for decades.  Maybe the odd barfight or twitter trolling, but compare almost any other country's independence fight. This shows all of us what a great country we live in, both Scotland and the United Kingdom.

I always expected to vote No because I always felt I was a unionist. Much of it is emotional more than logical. I was brought up in England by a Scottish mother and English father. I have degrees from English and Scottish Universities. I have lived in Scotland for more than 20 years.  I have spent years of my life in Wales - split up over many family holidays throughout my life - and my sister and mother now live in Wales.  All of these have always felt to me to be part of the same country, they still do, and I want them to remain that way.

But while I always expected to vote No, I wasn't sure.  Maybe there would be the killer argument that convinced me to swap to Yes.  While this never came, neither did the killer argument to vote No.

What was it that decided me finally?

It was the currency union issue, which came to the front earlier in the year. But not in the way you might expect.

I don't think it matters very much whether there is currency union between between Scotland and the rest of the UK (from now on just "rUK", since it's important not to use England as shorthand for England and Wales and Northern Ireland.)   The other options are all credible and not obviously disastrous.  Scotland could use the pound without formal currency union, it could form its own currency (either linked to the pound or floating), or it could join the Euro.

Compare and contrast the standard Yes position on currency union and the debt.
  • It's Scotland's pound as much as rUK's!  We are leaving the UK. We get to keep control over the pound whatever rUK says!
  • It's the UK's debt!  We are leaving the UK. We get to throw away the debt if we feel like it!
The two issues are the same yet many Yes people treat them exactly opposite.  On the debt, all government debt was by definition taken out with the UK government.  Scotland would leave the UK and would therefore not be liable for it.  For that reason the UK government committed in January to honour 100% of the UK's debt whatever happened in the independence vote.   But this doesn't mean that Scotland gets to wave goodbye to its debt.  But the Yes campaign talks as if Scotland's share of UK debt is some kind of optional extra which Scotland can take or not as it wishes.

The situation is exactly the same with the currency as with the debt.  By voting to leave the UK the Scottish people would be voting to leave the pound.  Just as it is voting to leave the formal legal obligation to the debt, it is voting to leave the formal legal control of the pound.  But unlike the debt - which is treated as a "maybe aye and maybe hooch aye" deal - Scotland's choice is taken as absolute over control of the pound.  If it wants it, it gets it. Apparently, Scotland can decide if it has control over the rUK currency, but rUK is not allowed to decide if an external country controls its currency.

What is often said is that Scotland should receive it's fair share of the Bank of England's assets, and I completely agree.  The assets are things like its gold reserves, debt it is owed, and so on. (Not the key point, but interestingly there are several hundred billions of UK debt owed to the Bank of England because of quantitative easing, of which Scotland should get its share.)  So if the Bank of England's assets are (say) $500 billion, then an indy Scotland should get about $40 billion.

On the other hand, many people treat the pound as part of the assets of the Bank of England.  The pound as a currency is not an asset.  It's a medium of exchange in the UK.  It's not as if the UK is still on the gold standard and theoretically has reserves equal to all the money in the country.   In any case, it's indivisible.  And being indivisible, it would obviously devolve onto the rUK.  But it's not an indivisible asset, because it's not an asset.

If you still think the pound is an asset, here's what to do.  Put a value on it and ask in negotiations for about 8% of its value.  If you think the pound is an asset worth a trillion dollars, ask for $80 billion.  Obviously, as an asset, people can get different valuations but they'll be in the same ballpark. For example, the UK embassy in Washington might be worth $100 million or it might be worth $200 million, but some kind of estimate could be reached. If you're convinced the pound is an asset, value it. This is more or less a thought experiment: I can't imagine anyone being able to put a value on the pound, because it's not an asset.

The argument is pretty much the same as this: "We like having a permanent seat on the security council of the UN, and this seat is as much Scotland's as rUK's.  So after independence we'll have a permanent seat one month a year and rUK can have the seat the other 11 months."  Insisting as an absolute right to partial control of the pound after independence makes as much sense as asking for a permanent seat at the UN one month a year.

So my position is this, and is the same for both pound and debt.

  • If Scotland is independent, negotiations should include a fair solution to the question of what currency Scotland should use.  
  • If Scotland is independent, negotiations should include a fair share of existing UK assets and debts, on an agreed payment basis. 
And there is one final point
  • There is no direct linkage between debt and currency.  Both are important negotiating points, along with very many others. 
And it is precisely because of this last point that I decided to vote No.   After the currency question came into focus earlier in the year, with Osborne's intervention, it gradually became clear to me that pretty much all the SNP establishment believes it's reasonable to say that if they don't get their way with currency, they do not take on any debt.  

This is completely wrong.  It's immoral and - probably worse from the current point of view - it shows that the people involved have no idea how countries work when they are independent. Countries have debt and - except in extremis - they don't renege on their debt. 

It's completely reasonable - of course - for the Scottish negotiating position to start as wanting currency union.  It's also reasonable to expect some recompense if they don't get their way on currency union.  What kind of recompense would be reasonable?  For example, denominating debts in a new Scottish currency instead of pounds, or in dollars or in euros. Or agreeing that the debt would be on the interest rate the UK pays instead of the rate that Scotland would have to pay on the open market (higher since it would have no credit rating.)   There are probably lots of other options.

But that's not the way the Yes campaign thinks.  It takes as axiomatic that no currency union = no debt.  So an important but not critical point is equated with hundreds of billions of pounds of debt. Scottish politicians talk as if deciding to refuse currency union is the same thing as giving away debt.

What does getting currency union mean?  For all practical purposes it would mean Scotland getting to appoint one member of the Bank of England monetary policy committee.  That currently has 9 members, the Scottish Prime Minister would get to appoint a new one, with probably another one from rUK to make a total of 11 for an odd number to avoid ties.  There's been talk of the Bank of England becoming lender of last resort to rescue Scottish banks, which is a big deal, but if this happened it would probably mean massive contributions from the Scottish government.

And is currency union sustainable?  Ask the Czech Republic and Slovakia. They agreed currency union in the velvet divorce.  It lasted 6 weeks.

What does discarding its share of UK debt mean?

Well, the number Salmond uses is about £120 billion.  With roughly 5.3 million people in Scotland, this is close enough to £20,000 per person in Scotland.

The SNP position is - seriously - each Scottish person should get a present of £20,000 from the rUK government, if it doesn't get its way on currency union.

Except it's not £20,000, it's close to £40,000 per person.  Why?  Because the debt of about £120 billion as Scotland's share is net.  The UK's "whole of government accounts" say that "in 2012-13, the public sector liability was £2.9 trillion. Taking into account its assets of £1.3 trillion, the net liability was £1.6 trillion."   I assume that the £120 billion comes from £1.6 trillion times 0.08 = £128 billion, close enough.

Obviously Scotland wants (and should get) its fair share of current UK assets.  But the Yes campaign want the assets independent of debt, they want the assets and no debt if they don't get currency union. So actually the position is that it wants to forego about £230 billion of debt, while taking about £100 billion of assets.  So it wants a present of about £230 billion from rUK.  Roughly £40,000 per person in Scotland.

The Yes campaign wants to found Scotland as an independent nation on the idea that we take a present of £40,000 per person from citizens of rUK.  And this is on an imaginary equation between this outrageous pickpocketing, and a fairly minor negotiating point on the currency, which on nobody's imaginings can be worth £40,000 or even £20,000 per person.

I think I would like Alex Salmond if I met him.  I also think he's an incredibly able politician.  But he - and people who think like him on the debt-currency equation - are far too dangerous to be allowed anywhere near control of a major independent nation like Scotland.

It's often said by Yes campaigners who understand that not all potential Yes voters are SNP supporters, that this is not a campaign for one man or one party to lead Scotland.  This is true enough. But the currency/debt equation seems to be widespread, and not in one man's head.  And on the current plans of the Scottish Government, not only will all negotiations for independence be under their control, but there will not even be an election before independence.  That is, the first prime minister of Scotland and guider of negotiations and writer of provisional constitution would be Alex Salmond (or possibly his successor as SNP leader).

Alex Salmond is smart. From the very start of the serious independence debate, he has known that currency union won't happen. This is not because of statements made by Osborne or Balls or Alexander.  The UK has spent years not joining the Euro because of the potential loss of sovereignty. Can anyone imagine ceding even partial sovereignty over UK finances to Edinburgh moments after Scotland has left the Union?  It's totally irrelevant whether or not it's in the rUK's best interests or not. (Every country has the right to do things that are against its best interests.) For political reasons, even if not for economic, certainly rUK will not form a currency union with an independent Scotland.

And under Alex Salmond - or any credible successor - the intention is to found Scotland on taking £40,000 per person in Scotland from the people of the rest of the UK.

No thanks.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Why The Passing of the Turing Test is a Big Deal

June 10, 2014. 

A lot of my friends don't agree with me, but I think we should be celebrating the passing of the Turing Test.

Quick summary of the Turing Test?  Can people tell the difference between a computer printing responses on a screen and a person typing?  If not then .... well I think I'll leave what the consequences are.

Three days ago was the 60th anniversary of the death of Alan Turing.  The same day, there was a big announcement: The Turing Test had been passed.  Among others, for example, see this BBC News item.

Since this happened, and it got all over the media, there's been a bit of a backlash, with many in the "Artificial Intelligentsia" commenting negatively.  (I think the lovely name for the community I am a fully signed up member of  comes from John Searle.)  I think the main points in the backlash have been:

  • The narrow definition of the Turing Test that was passed is not important. Interrogators only had a 5 minute conversation and the chatbot only had to get a 30% pass rate (or fooling humans rate.)
  • The winning entry cheated, or more precisely gamed the rules, by pretending to be a thirteen year old Ukrainian boy, with limited English.  
  • The competition was organised by Kevin Warwick, who does not have a high level of respect in community, being viewed as a stunt-organiser. 
Taking the arguments in reverse order:

As an ad-hominem argument, the last point does not deserve response, except to express disappointment that it's even been brought up by people.  And of course to criticise it is also to criticise serious members of the AI community like Aaron Sloman and John Barnden, who took part.

There's no question the entry gamed the system.  In fact in my AI teaching at Strathclyde and St Andrews Universites for more than 15 years I've been talking about the wonderful paper "How To Pass The Turing Test By Cheating" by Jason Hutchens.  He won an earlier competition (without actually passing the Turing Test) and wrote a paper about how the tricks he used meant the Turing Test wasn't really worthwhile.  

The narrow definition of the Turing Test?  Well let's be fair here. This comes from Turing's original paper:
"I believe that in about fifty years' time it will be possible, to programme computers ... to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning."
Let's take a moment to remark on Turing's remarkable prescience.  I think most people would agree that 60 years from his death (64 from the paper publication) is "about fifty years".   This man was absolutely amazing.  In fact, and I've said this before, I think Turing ranks as one of the three greatest British scientists, with Newton and Darwin.  What a guy.

So yeah, the Turing test that was passed comes from Turing's original paper. It's hard to criticise on that basis.

But no, the Turing test that was passed is definitely not important. But it's not important in the sense that it is not driving research in Artificial Intelligence. This is the sense that academics mean when they say whether something is important or not. In that sense, I agree it's not important.

But here's my point. The passing of the Turing Test is a big deal.

I mean this in a few senses.

The first one is this.  Computers are getting very good at fooling people. This is something it's good for people to know. I'd be surprised if the likes of John Barnden and Aaron Sloman were fooled, because they know what to look for in a chatbot. But people were fooled, and let's remember they knew they were participating in the Turing test. When you talk online to somebody, you might not be talking to a person even if they appear to be one.  If you're not a Ukrainian teenager, I'm not sure you should be talking to 13 year old Ukrainian boys on the internet, but still: if you think you are talking to a person, maybe you are not.

(Random aside: my surprise is that interrogators didn't wonder where the organisers had rustled up a Ukrainian teenager with good but not perfect English.)

Here is the sense in which I think the passing of the Turing Test is a very big deal indeed.

If people get the impression that Artificial Intelligence is here to stay and is playing a huge part in everyday life, they would be absolutely right.   And this is something that we in the Artificial Intelligentsia don't shout about enough.

It used to be said that Artificial Intelligence is the stuff we don't know how to get computers to do.  Because once we do know how to get them to do it, researchers in Artificial Intelligence move on to something else.   It's still true to an extent, but less so

Computer Chess?  You might remember a computer beating Garry Kasparov.  Since then computers have got much better.  Nowadays computers are dramatically better than the human world chess champion, but you don't hear about it because the champion doesn't want to get whupped by a computer so they never play.  A few years ago a mobile phone won a grandmaster level chess tournament.   That's Artificial Intelligence.  But - by the way - computers have massively improved the quality of human play, because talented teenagers can learn by playing against world class competition many times a day on their home computer.

Big data and data mining?  That's Machine Learning, probably the largest area of Artificial Intelligence.

IBM Watson beating champion quiz players in punning quizzes?  That's Artificial Intelligence.

Voice recognition, handwriting recognition?  That's Artificial Intelligence.

Computer chips do what they are meant to do?  That's Artificial Intelligence proving mathematically that they do.  When the Pentium chip first came out, there was a bug that cost Intel hundreds of millions of dollars (in mid 1990s dollars).  Now they avoid that cost through Artificial Intelligence.

Google translate?  Certainly not perfect but gives you an idea of what something written in another language is about?  That's Artificial Intelligence.

Robots who can walk? That's Artificial Intelligence.

Self driving cars on everyday roads?  That's Artificial Intelligence.  A few years ago that seemed like a ridiculous dream.  Now they're real.

Artificial Intelligence has pretty much done what it set out to do.  The above achievements are exactly the kind of things that the visionaries who founded Artificial Intelligence wanted to do.   All of the above achievements once looked like being close to science fiction: and I don't mean a long time ago, but in my memory. To give you an idea, today happens to be my 50th birthday.

 Like any other science there is much still to do.  And there are many grand challenges to overcome. The key challenge that we are nowhere close to achieving is what you might call general intelligence. All the examples above are incredibly specialised, and don't play nicely together. So I promise that the Artificial Intelligentsia is not worried yet about running out of interesting things to do with computers.

Artificial Intelligence has been just incredibly and remarkably successful.  The passing of the Turing Test three days ago is not a big deal on the scale of the achievements above.  But it does give us a chance to mark the very big deal that Artificial Intelligence has become.  If this stunt makes people more aware of this - to mark the anniversary of the tragically early death of a very great man - I think that is a good thing.

And finally, here is a punning sense in which the passing of the Turing Test is a big deal.  It's been passed, in a reasonable sense. We can stop talking about it.  The Turing Test has passed in another sense: it's over.  You can get computers to pass the Turing Test.  Big deal.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Yes For Independence, Because Eton

Last night I attended a debate about Scottish Independence at the University of St Andrews.  It was very good and well tempered on both sides.  

One of the arguments from the Yes side was that the UK Cabinet is dominated by Etonians. Obviously this is a major problem with Westminster politics, since one only needs to look at the education of the last few prime ministers.   I've examined the evidence and present it to you now, and you can see the point is completely definitive.  

  • Eton.  There you are.  David Cameron went to Eton. You see!  The point is proved. 

You might want to look away now, because is there any necessity to look back further?   You want to?  Ok.

  • Fettes College.  Well that is an Edinburgh school, but it has been called "Eton of the North". So maybe we can count it.  So yep, let's count it as showing the dominance of Eton, or at least posh public schools. 
Really, look away.  Stop reading.  The point is made!  
  • Rutlish Grammar School.  Perhaps not a surprise that John Major didn't go to a major public school.  Or even a public school.  But again, he's the Conservative exception to the rule.
  • Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School.  Maggie obviously couldn't go to Eton, as a woman. As the Conservative hate figure of recent times, she must have gone to a posh public school. Though oddly the school's history seems to suggest it was a grammar school.
Really, there is no need to carry on reading.  A couple of Tory Prime Ministers didn't go to Eton, and one of them was a woman so she couldn't.  
  • Eton.  There you are!  The point is confirmed.  Of course it's a bit embarrassing that this was a Scottish Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home, but perhaps we could pass a law banning First Ministers from having attended Eton.  
From now on backwards it's really easy to see the point, because it goes Eton (Macmillan), Eton (Eden), Harrow (Churchill), and Haileybury (Attlee).   More public schoolboys back to the Second World War.  So there you have it, from 1940 to 1964 and from 2010 to 2014, the UK has been governed by English public school pupils. 

Pay no attention to the period between 1964 and 2010, because it's irrelevant.  The fact that not a single Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 46 years attended an English public school is totally irrelevant.

So if you don't like Eton, vote Yes for Independence. 

Author's note.  Like my previous piece, for avoidance of doubt I will state that this piece is not serious.  The point is to show that dominance of UK politics by Etonians, or even public school pupils, is not true. 

For avoidance of any more doubt, I don't think the educational makeup of the current cabinet is reason to vote against them.  The reason to vote against them is because you don't like their policies. I think that is a very good reason to vote against them: whether or not that is a good reason to vote for independence is another question. 

Tuesday 20 May 2014

I Shall Vote Yes

I shall vote Yes because after three hundred years in the United Kingdom, Scotland is one of the richest countries in the world 
I shall vote Yes because I like the Queen
I shall vote Yes because I want to carry on using the British Pound 
I shall vote Yes because I don't want border posts between Scotland and England

I shall vote Yes because I want to keep watching the BBC
I shall vote Yes because I want to carry on charging non-Scottish British students for an education   
I shall vote Yes because I want Scotland to carry on spending 50% more on scientific research than it pays for 
I shall vote Yes because I hate Londoners greedily taking resources and not sharing them with Scotland
because I want Scotland to greedily take resources and not share them with Londoners  
I shall vote Yes because in 2010 I hated being ruled by a Westminster government that got as little as 35.6% of the vote in Scotland
I shall vote Yes because in 2010 I loved being ruled by a Holyrood government that got as much as 32.9% of the vote in Scotland   
I shall vote Yes because I want to be just like that country which is currently successful and not at all like that other country which I wanted to be like a few years ago  
I shall vote Yes because my definition of a bully is a unionist politician who doesn't do what I tell them to do 
I shall vote Yes because I want the Scottish Olympic team to have the same kind of success that the Scottish football team has 
I shall vote Yes because the word Yes is positive and the word No is negative    
I shall vote Yes because deep in my heart I believe that everything I like about the country I live in is Scottish and everything I don't like is British 

by Ian Gent
20 May 2014

Author's notes: 

This is based on "I shall vote Labour", a 1966 poem by Christopher Logue, though more directly on "I Shall Vote No" by A.R. Frith.

I am reliably assured that some people got through Frith's piece without realising it was not serious, so I will state a disclaimer.  My current expectation is actually that I will vote No.