Monday, 24 December 2012

Second-Chance elections

South Africa has a purely proportional representation (PR) election system at all levels, except for town councils, which have a mix of PR and ward councillors. A ward is essentially the same thing as a geographic electoral district (US terminology), constituency (UK and old South Africa) or electorate (Australia). To standardise the terminology, I choose the shortest term for the concept of voting for a representative in a given region: district, and MP for representative, since “member of parliament” is very common terminology.

A pure PR system as we have in South Africa, in which each voter chooses a party, and the party decides how to order its party list, puts a disproportionate amount of power in the hands of the party. How high you are on the party list determines your chances of election: the higher you are on the list, the fewer votes the party needs to win for you to make it. Yet your position on the party list is not in any way influenced by how you perform in the election. A party can reward a stalwart, or worse, corruption, by placing a candidate high on the list, while making sure they do no public campaigning that might reveal their weaknesses. Also, you have no concept of your own MP, so the line of accountability is very indirect.

It would be desirable to fix these problems without losing the benefits of PR system. But first, let’s examine the disadvantages of the alternatives.

A pure district system has the problem that it can skew representation relative to the popular vote. If a party has concentrated regional support, for example, it may score a low fraction of the vote nationally yet win several seats. A party with wide appeal but not quite enough to win anywhere may score significantly more votes than this regionally-based party. In Australia, we see this effect with the Greens, who win typically 10–15% nationally, yet only hold one seat in the lower house of parliament. By contrast, the Nationals poll about a third of the votes the Greens win, and have 7 seats. The Australian system, even so, is not as unfair as the lower house systems in the US and UK, which use a first past the post system (FPP).

The Australian system requires that voters rank candidates in order of preference. If your first-preference candidate has the lowest number of votes in a first-round count where no one has over 50% of the vote, that candidate drops out, and your ballot is reallocated to your second-preference candidate, and this continues until one candidate has over 50% of the vote. The advantage of the Australian system is that it doesn’t “waste” the vote of someone who votes for a small party or an independent. The disadvantage is it’s complicated to understand and difficult to audit results in a close race. And it can still result in unfair outcomes, as I explain above with the skewed representation of the Nationals versus the Greens in Australia.

To illustrate the point, I constructed a scenario for a 400-seat parliament, with each seat (to keep things simple) contested by one each of a small left party, a bigger left party, a bigger right party, a small right party and an independent. I didn’t do the distribution of preferences accurately, but the results represent a plausible outcome:
systemsmall Lbig Lbig Rsmall RInd
Australian 6276901414
FPP 15143392210

What we have is three very different outcomes (based on the way I chose to allocate votes geographically). In a PR election, the two left parties have 192 seats, enough to form a coalition if they can win over a bit over 20% of the independents. The right parties have 173, and need almost all the independents to form a ruling coalition. In the Australian system (based on plausible assumptions about preferences), the bigger left party has enough seats to rule in its own right. In the FPP system, the bigger right party has enough votes to rule in its own right.

Of these variations, arguably the PR outcome most accurately reflects voters’ intentions: they are reasonably evenly divided between left and right, with a slight preference for the left, but with a significant minority disenchanted with the parties, and who want an independent voice in government. In practice, in an FPP system, small parties lose because a bigger party tries to frighten voters of a smaller party of their side of politics into supporting them (think Ralph Nader’s Green votes being blamed for Al Gore losing in Florida), so an outcome like this FPP example is not too likely – but the stifling of the growth of smaller parties is bad for democracy.

How, then could you achieve the fairness of a PR system without the disconnect between voters and MPs resulting from a party-list system as in South Africa? There are various hybrid systems including the municipal election system in South Africa, where some candidates are elected from a party list, and others directly (on a first past the post district system). However that hybrid system still puts significant power in the hands of the party, and still has the risk that the party becomes a source of unaccountable patronage.

My proposal, which I call a second-chance election (2CV for second-chance vote, not the venerable Citroën car, illustrated), is to have two MPs per constituency. The first is elected on a first past the post basis, and the second on a party list system with the wrinkle that the party list is formed out of the candidates who ran and didn’t win in the first round, ranked within party by how well they did. If for example a party wins 70% of the vote in a constituency, 20% of their vote there is in effect wasted since they only need 50%+1 to win, and their second candidate should probably be in parliament. If on the other hand the first past the post candidate won with 30% in a highly split race, the second candidate from that party should end up a lot lower down the party list. The tricky part is working out exactly how to do the voting; I work through one approach here, and don’t prescribe it as the only option.

Going back to our example, if we only elect 200 MPs on a first past the post basis, assuming the votes split the same way as in the above example, on the first pass, the elected members will look as follows (with deficit indicating how many seats each party is short of its entitlement):

2CV stepssmall Lbig Lbig Rsmall RInd
FPP half87169115
error vs. PR-13-1945-7-6

We can’t completely fix the deficit, because one party, the bigger right party (big R), already has more seats than it’s entitled to in a pure PR system, so it gets no more seats. The other parties’ deficits have to be scaled to a correction that adds up to 200 (each proportionate to the number of seats they are short of the PR total), so we get 400 MPs in total. The bottom row of the table shows the error versus a pure PR election (a minus value means a party has too few seats).

Compare the revised chart with the original. The 2CV system ranks the parties in the same order as PR, which is an improvement, though the result is not exactly the same. The two right parties can form a ruling coalition, which is not an exact reflection of the electorate’s intent, but the result is not as skewed as the FPP result, or as inaccurate as the Australian system, for this example. This is however a fairly extreme outcome, as it requires that one party be able to win nearly 85% of the seats in an FPP election, with only 31% of the national vote.

You could reduce the probability of an inaccurate outcome such as this by having more MPs per district, or by converting the entire election into a party list system after voting in districts. Working through such detail is a secondary concern once the principle is accepted.

Finally, two issues are worth considering: how independents are handled, and how switching parties is handled.

Independents may be of extremely diverse views but treating them collectively as a party list after voting in districts ensures that those with strong enough support are elected. If their support base is diverse, this will be reflected in a diverse independent “party list” being elected.

Since representatives are directly elected, unlike with a party list, they should have a right to switch parties, and this creates a clear division of accountability between the party (which can provide resources for re-election) and the voter (who may reject a candidate who abandons their principles or fails to deliver). In a pure party list, switching parties (or “crossing the floor” as it is described in South Africa, though that technically only applies to joining or abandoning the ruling party) is less defensible because representatives are not elected in their own right – though they can argue that their party has deviated from its principles or platform).

Where does this all take us?

What I have here is a basis for discussion. There are many details to work out. To create a direct line of accountability, if there are two representatives per district, that implies you have 2 votes. Do you have a different ballot for a different slate of candidates, or are all candidates on one ballot, that has to be marked twice? If a party exceeds its quota in the FPP stage, is there a good way to correct for this? For example, you could have an upper house that absorbs some of the excess MPs – though typically an upper house is elected on a different basis to provide some sort of checks and balances.

There has to be a better way: pure PR has served South Africa badly. The Australian system has too many imperfections to be a good alternative, and a pure FPP system is too unfair and locks out small parties. I don’t like a mixed-member PR and representative system like the South African municipal system (with variations in other countries like Germany and New Zealand) because it retains a party list as a component. The party role should end at nominating and supporting the candidate; if the party chooses badly, they deserve to lose.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Real Significance of the Obama Win

As the 2012 election fades into history, let's take stock.

The Obama campaign made two major mistakes: failing to tout the president's successes in the early stage of the campaign when Romney wasn't advertising, instead focusing on defining Romney negatively, and failing to prepare adequately for the first debate. The first failure meant the second failure left the president with a very weak message: Romney is a flake, but I'm not very convincing in making that case. It also allowed the Republicans to run riot with defining him negatively. According to some of the propaganda, he's a fundamentalist Islamist Europe-loving Marxist. If you can believe all of that simultaneously, you have a very weird head. Or you're a tea party Republican. (Did I say "or"?)

That takes me to the real significance of the campaign.

Obama won despite these very significant mistakes in a year when the economy has been doing poorly. Had he defined himself positively, taking credit for health insurance reform (emphasizing it's essentially the same model as Romney's in Massachusetts), stopping the Bush-era slide, saving Detroit and putting an end to expensive and damaging foreign wars, he should have won easily. So why did Romney still contrive to lose? Part of if was an astonishing succession of mistakes, including:
  • having aligned himself with the tea party in the primaries, he compounded the mistake by choosing a running mate notable only for being the poster child of that side of politics (without e.g. the sort of state-wide profile that could deliver his home state... did Romney really think he needed to pander so comprehensively to one niche of voters who would never vote Obama?)
  • letting Clint Eastwood do an unscripted monologue at his nominating Convention, shifting the news coverage from the candidates
  • being caught on camera dissing 47% of the electorate (incorrectly claiming that non-taxpayers are all Obama supporters: retirees for example disproportionately vote Republican)
  • taking positions to win over the tea party, then reversing himself when those turned out to be unpopular, yet failing to repudiate in no uncertain terms weird views of Republican senate candidates on rape and abortion
  • an advertising campaign in Ohio that earned the ire of auto executives for inaccurately claiming that Jeep production was to be moved to China
  • a failure to offer a clear economic alternative: I'm a businessman and I know best is not exactly compelling
  • tying himself in a knot in the foreign policy debate over what was or wasn't said about the death of the ambassador in Libya
  • a chaotic attempt at converting a rally to a hurricane relief event
  • a last-minute dash to win over Pennsylvania, when the vote in Ohio, Virginia and Florida was much closer (the only rational explanation I can think of for this was an attempt at diverting Obama resources from tighter races, but it didn't work)
But the real issue is demographics. The Reagan winning coalition changed the Republican Party. It used to perform poorly in the South, yet no Democrat has won Texas since Carter's 1976 victory. Hubert Humphrey won Texas in 1968, the year of Nixon's first win: a hardly imaginable outcome today (see map: contrast it with the 2012 map at the top of the page). Reagan's combination of fundamentalist Christian "values", low taxes on the rich, spending wildly on the military and simultaneously pandering to plutocrats and the racist white poor can't win any more because it appeals to a dwindling constituency of ageing white males. CNN's exit polls show the demographic that splits most sharply Republican (61%) is whites aged 45 and above. As age drops, the skew narrows with 18-25-year-old white voters voting Republican 51%. CNN doesn't break out white males by age as category, but white males as a whole vote Republican 62% vs. white women 56%. Contrast this with other demographics: 93% African-Americans voted Democratic, as did over 70% of Hispanics and Asians.

Aside from demographics, there are other interesting breakdowns. Let's look at one, ideology:
  • liberal (25% of voters) voted Democrat overwhelmingly (86%)
  • moderates (41% of voters) voted Democrat by a significant margin (56%)
  • only 35% of voters identify as "conservative" and the Republicans win 82% of those
The last set of figures illustrates the Republican's dilemma. Having embraced the tea party, they are setting themselves up to be unattractive to all but 35% of the electorate. Conservatives may outnumber liberals, but the tea party brand of conservative is unattractive to anyone who thinks of themselves as "moderate".

As long as tea party activists retain their enthusiasm for voting in primaries that gives them a disproportionate say in choice of candidates, the Republicans will battle to nominate electable candidates. About the best they can do is find one who is willing to say different things to different audiences. And that worked, didn't it?

What about finding another Reagan, someone who can seem friendly, fun and caring, while promoting these positions that, objectively, most voters see as completely wacko? There's little chance of that. They've been trying since and not found anyone. And anyway, it's a hard act to follow. If you've done it once, the other side sees through it and attacks you on substance.

Finally, a word on polls. Various right-wing pollsters claimed that the mainstream polls were all wrong, and created their own. The narrative was that the polls were "skewed" so they "unskewed" them. This is all very reminiscent of attacks on climate science. Real-world data is noisy, and any proper analysis of it should eliminate sources of bias, like artificial warming in urban areas, and artifacts like moving the location of a weather station. Properly done, these measures produce reliable data. The anti-science position is it's all just data massaging, and they can do it just as well to produce the result they want. With electoral polling, we've seen how well that works. Good scientific analysis requires honest unbiased processing of data. That applies as much to polling as it does to climate science.

BONUS: Here's another view of the demographic time bomb facing the Republicans.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Tablet Wars

No, not anything to do with the war on drugs.

One thing Apple does well is secret. The 23 October iPad mini launch was widely leaked, though the originally rumoured date earlier in October passed uneventfully. What did take everyone by surprise was a major overhaul of the full-sized iPad. There had been some rumours of an iMac update; I don’t recall seeing any rumours of a Mac mini update.

All of this of course was designed to upstage the Windows 8 and Microsoft Surface launch scheduled for 26 October.

It remains to be seen whether people really want something closer to a full computer in this form factor. Once you add a mouse or trackpad, you can’t hold it in your hand any more, and stylus-based devices have been around more than 10 years and never sold in big numbers. The kick stand is not a great design feature, because it implies the need for a firm surface, reducing again the scenarios when you can use it comfortably. Currently this space is owned by Apple and Android variants (Kindle Fire, Samsung) and Microsoft does not have the app base to take them on. If you are going to buy one of these as a notebook alternative, why not get a notebook?

I bought an iPad mainly because it gave me the option to take something much lighter to a conference, where I need to read email and give a presentation. When I have that option, it works pretty well for me. If I need a real computer, I bring that instead, so I don’t need to compromise on issues like keyboard quality and a poor alternative to a mouse or track pad.

It will be great if Microsoft can bring new competition to this space, but I have my doubts (and an early review is not too promising). An important thing to understand what business a company is really in. Although most people focus on Apple’s hardware and the question of what value it really represents, Apple’s real competitive edge is in a huge bank of credit card numbers. If they wanted to switch their business model tomorrow to slim margins on hardware and making most of their money from their app and iTunes stores, they could. Microsoft on the other hand has built a business out of high-margin software. How can they turn that around overnight?

Check this out: current total app count in Windows 8 RTM Store = 4,284 (mostly free); compare with iOS total available apps: 694,566 and current number of Android apps in the market: 548,200.

The real big killer number is Apple has (at last count I’ve found) 435-million credit card numbers. Only Amazon is in likely to be in this league: a much higher fraction of of Android customers only download free stuff.

As for the new Windows look of huge fat, flat icons, if it works as badly as the Ubuntu Unity interface (some say worse), meh.

Back to Apple’s announcements: I’ll hold off judgment on whether the iPad mini is too expensive for the market (vs. more expensive than I’d like it to be). The overhaul of the bigger iPad is unexpected, and an indication that Apple is not willing to let Microsoft steal any territory back from them. The Surface RT (ARM processor, not able to run most Windows software) is the target. The Surface Pro will have to take its chances selling against Ultrabooks that are a little heavier and work better as a full computer. The ultra-thin iMac is an engineering marvel; my 2009 27" iMac has just had to go in for repairs because of a recall on its 1TB drive; had Apple designed it to be easy to repair as well as to look good, they could have couriered the drive to me rather than requiring that I send the whole machine in to repair.

Looking great is important, but if you end up with a Lamborghini that needs a specialist technician with special tools to service, even if it only costs as much to buy as a BMW, you have a practicality problem. So I am genuinely disappointed that no one is seriously competitive with Apple in the things it does best: providing a seamless end-to-end experience centred on the user.
This article lists Microsoft's lessons from the Zune fiasco. Did they learn? I have my doubts. Microsoft's development model, cemented by the success of Windows 95 at a time when Apple was floundering, is to get at least two iterations wrong: design refinement on the back of customers. With Apple on top form, I'm not placing any bets on the once good old strategy.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Frozen Raspberry Cheesecake

Enough with the US election. Obama is probably going to win and Romney is boringly predictable and will soon be forgotten. Here’s something for the future, a really easy recipe that’s better than anything you can buy.

  • 250g mascarpone
  • 125ml cream
  • 500g frozen raspberries (fresh will do but frozen gives you a head start)
  • 125ml sugar
Whip the cream lightly. Poor the sugar over the raspberries and work in the mascarpone: if too hard, let the raspberries thaw a little. Then work in the cream, making sure the sugar is well mixed.

That’s it. Serve as is, or put it back in the freezer to set a bit more. If you leave it overnight in the freezer, you may want to bring it our half an hour before serving.

Technically, it needs a crust to be a real cheesecake but it’s good enough just like this.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Is Romney Right on the Money?

For the delectation of those who like cryptic crosswords and wordplay:

And here’s one for the 47%:

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Truth hurts … less

An extraordinary feature of the current US presidential race is that Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan has managed to earn the ire of a Fox News columnist for lying. You have to go a long way to do that.

Why is lying so prevalent in politics?

In the US, an important factor is the way presidential candidates are selected. In primaries, most states only permit voting by registered party supporters, a minority of voters. Despite this fact primaries are very public campaigns garnering significant publicity and with high costs, so an energised minority of voters gets a disproportionate say in electing the candidate. In a purely internal party race, other factors like appeal to the broader population would play a bigger role. Among the Republicans, a very narrow range of views appealing to a small but stridently activist group of voters has become dominant because it does not take a lot of votes to swing a primary, compared with a general election. That puts candidates in a position where they have to appeal to this very narrow base, after a previous political history appealing to a much wider base. Then, once they get to the real election, they have to unwind some of their more extreme positions – or avoid talking about them.

This phenomenon is particularly acute in the Republicans, but all politicians to some extent suffer the need to appeal to different constituencies at different times.

But do they really need to be dishonest? Telling it like it is may sometimes hurt, but a person who does that is someone you can trust. And in a world of dishonesty, trust has high value.

Let’s personalise the issue to put it into perspective. This is a made-up story, but based on life as I’ve observed it:
Sue does something she knows will hurt a person she cares about, James, so she tries to cover it up, not thinking through that the cover story is a lot worse than the thing being hidden. James finds the story not only hurtful but illogical and tries to make sense of it. The more he tries to find out what really happened, the more she spins out the original lie, so obsessed with the fear that the truth will hurt him that she doesn’t see that the cover story is far worse. Eventually she fears him so much, she refuses to talk to him: still not realising that simply admitting to the original mistake would be much easier for him to accept than her weird behaviour. Suddenly she wakes up and realises what she’s done. One phone call including the word “sorry” and full disclosure goes a long way to repairing the damage. Trust isn’t rebuilt overnight, but James is willing to give it a try.
Take this back now to the Republicans. Romney as governor of Massachusetts enacted a health plan much like Obama’s, and had positions considered “liberal” in the US. Now he expects voters to believe he’s actually a creature of the hard right, who don’t accept abortions even in cases of rape, and consider any government intervention in society to be “socialism”.

Like Sue in my story, I wonder if Romney realises his lies are spinning him away from people who used to support him – and destroying trust in an increasingly irretrievable way. He may win a few votes on the hard right, and maybe this is what it takes to win nomination as a Republican candidate. But is it worth it to live out your life as a lie, without anyone you can trust, and with no one trusting you? And unlike my mythical James, the broader public is less forgiving. If you are known to be a liar, it’s very hard to shake that reputation.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Republicans Go To Hell

Something that no longer astounds me is the way people claiming extreme religious devotion are capable of unspeakable acts of barbarism. I grew up with a church-going mother who really believed the bits about good works, etc., and would never relate to this sort of behaviour.

In the latest example, Republican Missouri senate candidate Todd Akin has caused widespread offence and even a little dismay in his own camp by claiming that “legitimate rape” victims can’t get pregnant, echoing a superstition long debunked by medical science that you can only get pregnant if you enjoy it.

He’s subsequently issued a non-apology (I used the wrong words) and refused to withdraw (ironically the only form of contraception his end of the loony bin recognizes) from the race. Other Republicans have urged him to withdraw (that word again), without specifying exactly what he said wrong.

The problem is, they don’t want to say, because they want the votes women haters represent.

Women’s groups have been rallying to support Akin’s Democrat opponent Claire McCaskill, as they should – and I hope not only women but also men and others who have less bizarre takes on religion work hard to stop him too. I know my mother would have.

I wonder how soon we’ll see a PAC formed by Rapists for Republicans. If his views ever became enshrined in law, all a rapist would need to do to escape conviction (in line with 13th-century British law) is to ensure the victim became pregnant, thereby enabling the “she must have enjoyed it” defence.

If anyone cannot see how unspeakably barbaric these views are, tell us your secret. How did you manage to live to be 800 years old?

I should also add here that though this is very much a Republican disease – the “religious right” has become something of a tapeworm in the brain of the Republicans – there are plenty of Democrats on the wrong side of women’s issues. But the Republican position has become so extreme that I focus on them specifically.

The US right has a long and repulsive tradition of denial of rationality, including tobacco denial, ozone hole denial and climate change denial. If there’s evidence for something, that doesn’t count, if it contradicts you beliefs. It’s sad that this sort of thing has become mainstream in a country that could land astronauts on the moon and bring them back safely, and pushes the boundaries of science in so many areas.

The root cause of this sort of lunatic view is a deeply anti-rationalist view of the world that says you literally believe what you are told by your religion, even if it’s contradicted by obvious, verifiable evidence. The thing that’s behind that is the bizarre view that there is a supreme creator of the universe, who is infinitely wise and powerful, and has the ego of a spoilt toddler, who smashes everything if he doesn’t get his way. If you think about this for only a second, why would someone that wise and powerful care a jot what I think of her? This representation of the creator serves one and only one purpose: the personal agenda of the religious hierarchy. Create extremes of afterlife – a wonderful paradise versus an extreme of barbaric punishment in hell – and a set or rules that must be followed to get to the right place, and you have a wonderful control tool for the gullible.

Don’t get me wrong: I know some very religious people who are wonderful, and do not fit the characterisation here. The point is that there is a huge self-interest for the megalomaniac to twist this sort of belief system to advantage. And look at what they’ve done:
  • politicians who all but justify rape because they have a pathological objection to abortion
  • suicide bombers who have no scruples about killing dozens or even thousands in the most barbaric fashion
  • Zionist zealots who cannot see that the Palestinians may have some sort of case
I would personally rather believe that there is no supreme creator being and be totally responsible for my own actions. If I’m wrong, a being powerful enough to create a whole universe is unlikely to be so capricious as to punish an honest mistake. On the other hand, such a being is certainly not going to take lightly being held responsible for all manner of barbarism for such a feeble reason as “I thought I was meant to take everything literally, especially if I could read it as excusing extremes of cruelty and treating my fellow humans as worthless.”

One reason though I really would like there to be a hell is so I could see the faces of the Republican women haters, suicide bombers, apartheid politicians, Zionist zealots and others who used their creator’s name to excuse unspeakable barbarity at the point when they realise their mistake. To echo a line from The Simpsons: “See you in hell. From heaven.”

And since we are ending with comedy, here’s a starting point for the new Republican approach to trying rapists:


In case you think this is a random outlier, here's another one (not the actual candidate speaking but a pretty convincing take-down of Indiana Republican senate candidate Richard Mourdock's position that a woman gets pregnant from a rape because “it is something God intended to happen”):
Like Akin, he doesn’t understand what the fuss is about, and claims his words have been taken out of context. Then there’s the tea party Tennessee Republican congressman Scott DesJarlais who was recorded making a phone call to his mistress urging her to have an abortion. To add insult to injury, he's a doctor, so he's facing an ethics enquiry.

Small government, it seems, is one small enough to get into your bedroom. But not if you’re a Republican. Maybe they have smaller bedrooms.

You can’t make this stuff up. I write novels in my spare time, and I certainly wouldn’t.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Will Microsoft Surface Sink?

In the wake of complaints that Microsoft didn’t give their hardware partners sufficient notice of their Surface announcement, it seems Ballmer thinks he can get close to Apple’s success by copying the jerk side of the Jobs persona. Nice try, but there was more to Jobs than that. There’s also the perfectionism, the sense of style and the ability to get the best out of people.

Absent all that, why announce a product with so little detail? The biggest effect this is likely to have is chilling prospects of aggressive hardware development for Windows 8. Anyone partway through a design will be strongly tempted to go Android instead, with the threat of such a big player invading their space. An example of this effect: Intel’s IA64 (Itanium). IA64 never delivered in a big way, yet it essentially killed off development of future generation MIPS processors for the high performance market, and killed both the HP PA-RISC processor and the Alpha (by then also owned by HP, but for practical purposes killed by Compaq, who bought DEC and drank the Itanium Kool-Aid).

I don’t understand why the media have been so conned into reporting this as the product that will knock down the iPad. That story has been done so often it’s become ridiculous. The only thing Microsoft adds to the game is some hardware innovation that no one really wants. We have at this stage no data on some rather fundamental details like when it will ship, performance, battery life and what communications it supports besides WiFi. To add an edge to the bizarreness of the whole thing, the case is made with a technology called “VapourMg”. You can just imagine the jokes that will provoke around Microsoft announcing vapourware.

The big thing missing here is how Microsoft will tackle Apple’s massive lead in free and low-cost apps targeting this market. And also Apple’s massive lead in a customer base in hundreds of millions who’ve entrusted their credit card details to a 1-click order process. The x86 version will run standard Windows software and dropping the price on those will be a huge risk when Microsoft and partners are dependent on a much higher pricing model on desktops, and the cheaper model with an ARM processor will require recompiles at very least, and it will look very odd if Microsoft has two very similar looking options with radically different pricing policies on apps. The most likely scenario is that the two will have completely different software models, adding confusion to the market. It’s not just a matter of choosing based on speed and screen resolution; if trading up to the faster model means replacing all your software, the two devices might as well be different brands.

What they still don’t get about the Jobs story is the big breakthroughs happen when you don’t listen to your customers. Arrogant though that sounds, customers used to an old paradigm aren’t the best people to ask about game-changing ideas. I bet this thing was designed based on focus groups who said, “If only we could get a tablet that worked just like a desktop machine.” Guess what? The same people in those focus groups won’t buy one, any more than people in 1900, asked what an automobile should be like, and who said it should have a horse manure scoop, would buy one for that feature.

Tablets with keyboards have been done, and failed. Doing the keyboard better in some way (thinner, sort of possible to ignore because it’s a semi-rigid dust cover you can presumably fold out of the way) doesn’t fix that. I don’t see the value of a keyboard without tactile feedback (if they’ve achieved that with something a few mm thick, that would be a real first, and no one has mentioned that). It means you have to keep looking to type, negating the value of separating it from the touch screen.

Microsoft is trying to find a reason to use Windows in this new form factor, and it doesn’t add up. If Microsoft wants to get into hardware, they would do better making an Android tablet and adding value, as others like Samsung and Amazon have done. There really are only two operating system kernels in wide use (if you don’t count embedded systems where the market is highly fragmented): variants on UNIX (including Linux and Apple’s OS X and iOS), and variants on Windows. Maintaining your own kernel without some significant value you can add is nuts. The cost is huge for no perceptible benefit. Apple discovered that only after nearly going broke (I told them to use a UNIX kernel with a Mac outer layer in the late 1980s: there are times when they should listen).

Another missing detail: how well will it work away from a rigid surface (aka desktop)? If Microsoft have invented a notebook computer you can’t use on your lap top, that would be an interesting first.

In the meantime of course the rest of the field won’t stand still. Apple, Samsung and the rest of the Android crew have time to think up other ways to add value.

I’ve been wrong before but not as often as the journalists who’ve reported yet another iPad killer. Time will tell.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

The real significance of the Zuma wang painting

Some may be wondering why the ruling ANC made such a massive issue of a painting hung in a gallery that would have been seen by maybe a few hundred people had the government not made it such a massive issue. There’s been comment along the lines that the ANC obviously doesn’t understand the Streisand Effect. For those who haven’t heard of it, in 2003 Barbara Streisand’s lawyers tried to have a picture of her mansion, part of a web site illustrating coastal erosion, removed. Before they made the issue public, the picture had been viewed 6 times, 2 of which were her own lawyers. Arising from the publicity of the case, the picture was viewed over 400,000 times during the next month.

Of course the ANC knew what they were doing. All this happened in the context of a situation where the ruling party is facing increasing flak for corruption, nepotism and failure to deliver.

The thing that really brought it home to me was when I was listening to SAfm and right after we were told that  the gallery and the ANC had reached agreement, with some details to be announced after a march of 15,000 people, the Gauteng Transport MEC was on air explaining that e-tolls (an issue that had raised ire across a swath of constituencies that usually hate each other) were perfectly normal, in line with the accepted economic principle of user pays.

The thing is, the user pays principle is a cornerstone of liberal economics, and the ANC claims to be fundamentally opposed to liberalism, to the extent of a visceral hatred of the rather tame opposition Democratic Alliance. I’ve heard this hatred justified by a claim that the DA represents a throwback to the apartheid regime, a rather odd claim given that the rump of the National Party abandoned the DA project and joined the ANC.

So what’s this all about, really?

The ANC is mobilising around populist outrage to disguise the fact that they have not only failed to deliver, but they have become their own enemies.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Another day another election

With the dust barely settled on the Queensland state election, council elections are looming on 28 April. The last time I was involved in a Brisbane election, it was a by-election for the Walter Taylor ward, vacated by a sitting councillor who was elected as a federal member. The Greens candidate Tim Dangerfield made history by beating the once-mighty Labor party into third place.

Can this happen again?

After Labor's massive rout in the state election, I would rate Tim's chances highly for doing at least as well. And why shouldn't he? If the Greens run the sort of thoughtful campaign they ran in his by-election (I'm not on the team this time, but I know the people there), he deserves wider support.

What are the local issues?

Excessive and inappropriate development is a big problem. With the LNP riding high on their massive state win, unless they lose a few votes to candidates with strong local concerns, this trend is likely to continue. Public transport in the area remains a problem, with traffic on Coronation Drive and Moggill Road, and to schools and the University of Queensland, a testament to poor planning. Not only does public transport not serve the area well, but other options like bike paths are inadequate. There are some excellent bikeways around Brisbane, but they only solve the problem for longer-distance travel, and do nothing for the problem of riding safely through areas like St Lucia, where narrow roads with parked cars make cyclists vulnerable.

The area covered by the ward, the suburbs (or parts of them in some cases) Indooroopilly, St Lucia, Chapel Hill, Fig Tree Pocket, Kenmore and Toowong, is extremely diverse in density and local character, and includes some of the best areas of Brisbane in which to live. Messing up any of these by poor planning and favouring developer interests over community interests would be criminal. Even if Tim stands little chance of winning, a strong vote for a committed and informed candidate will give the incumbent, who has shown little interest in community concerns, a wake up call.

I'll be watching Tim's campaign to see how he handles these and other issues. Anyone else who can vote in the area with concerns about planning and community development should do so too.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Not so Liberated

In the latter half of 2011, an official from one of South Africa’s more disfunctional provincial governments, being quizzed on the popular radio station SAfm about a delivery failure, tried to weasel out by claiming that a study was in progress. The interviewer didn’t let him get away with this and wanted to know why this solved the problem when, the last time the issue came up, a study was commissioned, and nothing was subsequently done.

More recently, an academic told me of a story of how a dysfunctional municipal government commissioned a study on service delivery. Once the academic had started the study, it transpired that some consultants had already written a lengthy report covering exactly the same ground. The academic took this report to the town council, and asked whether this report could simply be used, rather than wastefully duplicate the work. “No,” was the response, “we want you to do this.” Naturally, both reports are now sitting gathering dust. The methodology it appears is to produce reports as a substitute for taking action. That way, each new set of incumbents can appear to take action without having to do any hard work.

This attitude that I can only characterise as stealing your salary is rampant in the (now not so) new South Africa. It is perfectly understandable that someone who starts out with nothing and who lands a well-paid job, after casting off the shackles of an oppressive system, should feel that they have arrived and do not need to do anything else. Like work. But that attitude is totally wrong. In a poor country, only a small minority have that option open to them. Not only is the majority denied the government services they are entitled to expect, but the money spent on high salaries for won’t work officials and politicians could be spent more effectively where the job actually would be done. What is ultimately behind this is a lack of leadership. The ruling party has no prospect of losing an election, and has become lazy in office.

I have a couple of examples of what can be done. The local hospital in Grahamstown was very poorly run, and a private operator offered to take over management in exchange for using a wing for private services. The staff expected to be fired but instead, with effective management, they are now doing the job they were being paid to do all along. In another hospital elsewhere in the country, a lawyer visited a family member who was in a ward that was filthy and where the nurses were failing to pay attention to the patients. He told a senior nurse exactly what remedies were open to a person savvy about the law and the next day, the ward was utterly transformed. The thing that struck him though was that the staff seemed a lot happier actually doing their jobs.

What has happened? How has South Africa’s liberation gone so far  wrong?

It’s as if those fortunate enough to land a government job, liberated from an ugly and unpleasant prison where they were unjustly incarcerated with no hope of escape, have placed themselves under house arrest in a mansion with all the facilities. They remain imprisoned in a mentality that says Black people are useless and unable to do a competent job. In that sense, apartheid has won. Steve Biko was right: liberation is not only about political change but also about psychological liberation.

What’s to be done? I fear the ANC is past redemption, and the overall situation can only improve in a big way if their political power is undone, something that is unlikely to happen in less than 20 years since liberation, roughly the time it takes for a majority of voters to be too young to remember the previous regime. In the meantime, people of goodwill who want change should focus on working with community members who want things to be better, and stop trying to work with government. Working with a government that is unwilling or unable to deliver beyond deploying cardres to plum jobs is not only a waste of time, but an exercise in frustration.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Lost Picture

Have you seen me?

Last seen at Whitlock Street, Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape. Lost while loading into a car.
If you spot it (whether retrieved from the street, or anywhere else), let me know via the contact form on this site.

The painting was last seen covered with bubble wrap, and has the contact details of Cape Town artist Inge Semple on the back (possibly not visible through the bubble wrap).

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Syria versus Libya

What’s the difference between Syria and Libya?

Of course there are pretty obvious differences. The countries have very different histories, demographics, economies and political systems. Even pre-revolution, Libya was a very different kind of police state to Syria. Whereas Syria is run ostensibly as a 1-party state (if with a dynastic succession), Gaddafi’s Libya was very much a 1-person show, a military dictatorship wrapped in leftist antri-imperialist rhetoric. Ironically, despite this military basis for Gaddafi’s rule, he had a relatively weak army, relying on a network of patronage and fear to rule. The formal military was kept weak so another coup could not follow his. Syria’s military, on the other hand, is designed to project power in the region.

Despite all these differences, there are some similarities in the popular uprising against the state. The uprising has largely been a grass-roots rebellion starting from younger members of society, initially protesting peacefully, but turning to violence in the face of an extremely violent crackdown on protest. In both cases, we have seen tanks and artillery turned on civilian populations.

Once the protest and crackdown proceeded, another big difference opened up: the international response. Whereas the Libyan uprising requested and received an international military response, that has not happened in Syria. Governments and analysts on the left side of politics in countries like South Africa argued that Libya’s crisis would better have been resolved by peaceful intervention, delegations and negotiators, and the like. I have heard tearful commentary on South African radio about what a pity so much of Libya’s infrastructure was destroyed. Well, it’s happening in Syria too, and no one this time can blame NATO bombers.

Of course Syria is not in Africa, but there are enough similarities in the unfolding of events to use this example to question whether the preferred African approach can work. What is happening in Syria is much closer to that option than what happened in Libya, where there was an external military intervention.

I remain very skeptical of the motivation behind the intervention in Libya but we now have a clearly contrasting situation where no outside military intervention is occurring. At time of writing, Al Jazeera reports claims of civilian deaths of 7,000, and the use of extreme force against centres of the uprising continues. The main international intervention so far has been an Arab League observer mission that had to withdraw after making no impact.

The South Africa model of negotiating with dictators for a “political solution” failed in Zimbabwe, and didn’t produce great results in Kenya. Africa as a whole is better off without electoral fraud, 1-party states and military dictators. Syria doesn’t need a South Africa-style intervention. But does it need a NATO-style intervention? At some point if the Assad regime continues to massacre its own people, something has to happen, otherwise why do we have organisations like the UN? And that is where the response really should come from. But with countries like Russia and China loath to set a precedent of intervening in countries with brutal tendencies towards their own people, that is unlikely. The Arab League is really the organisation that should mobilise an intervention. But will that happen? I am not holding my breath.

So on the balance, the NATO intervention in Libya, no matter how self-serving, does not appear to have been such a disaster, compared with a do-nothing (or to be less unkind, talk-shop) approach. Libya post-Gaddafi is no worse a mess than any post-dictator society with no recent history of democracy. But it’s unlikely to happen again, because the NATO intervention happened under a UN mandate, and there’s no sign that this can happen for Syria, which has more friends than Gaddafi’s Libya. The most unlikely scenario for Syria is that conflict will grind on until enough of the army switches sides to turn the tables on the regime. It is very unlikely that the regime will win, because there’s a limit to what a conscript army can do against its own people, and mandatory conscription means a large fraction of the civilian population have military training.

Meanwhile the people of Syria are in for a grim time with rising casualties and the kind of destruction that will make the NATO intervention in Libya look like a minor skirmish.

Finally, for those who thought the NATO intervention exceeded that UN mandate, why weren’t you paying attention when US Secretary of State Robert Gates argued that a no-fly zone required taking out ground defences? Anyone who thought it would be a limited operation is exceptionally naïve.