Friday, February 06, 2004

Registration required.......

Now that the Spectator has jolly well gone turned itself into registration required, I wanted to explain my registration required paranoia and see if any others feel the same way.

I really hate having to register for a free online service. It’s so pointless. If you’re not going to ask me to pay, don’t try and make me register because I’ll lie.

First, I never give my real name, date of birth or location. Or any other data point. For example, I have a Zip code (the stunningly original 12345, which is somewhere in New York State) that I always use. I vary my age between 18 and 110.

Second, I have a fake e-mail address which I use to sign up to receive confirming e-mails. That means that even if you do see my e-mail to someone else, or use it in some brilliant marketing campaign, I won't see it, until I sign up for some other registration required service, in which case I'll just open their email, and click the delete all button.

Third, I have a separate password and user name that I only use for non financial registration required services. This is the one I really hate, since I occasionally delete cookies I never used to be able to remember my passwords. (Hey, I just don’t like the thought that my computer knows everything about me, and I really like to throw Amazon of the scent occasionally.) So I decided just to have one password. For everything. If I didn't have just one, I'd never be able to get anything, and having just one makes the whole password thing pointless, as by a rough count there must be about 100 websites that have my password, my fake name and my fake e-mail address stored somewhere, which is hardly the definition of security now, is it.

Why do I do this? Why lie to these kind people who give me all this free content, and ask only in return that I introduce myself? Because the only purpose they can have for this information is Evil. Either they want to construct some kind of demographic profile of their readership to design advertising for me, or they want to e-mail me special offers, or they want to tune their content to meet my needs.

I am stalwartly opposed to all this. I want badly targeted advertising that does not persuade me to buy some overpriced crock of shit because it understands my life, I don’t want pricing budgets diverted to expensive special offers when the resources could give me overall lower prices, I certainly don’t want personalised content. Think about it. The Spectator’s personalised content for me would be the New Statesman.

Most important of all, I just don't trust 'em. They say they won't sell my name to someone else, or that they won't send me exciting information about their partners, but somehow my fake e-mail still gets some very strange spam. I'm looking at you, and I only logged in to send taunting messages to a friend on the internet dating scene.

Incidentally, I didn't actually taunt my friend because I found out you had to pay to send messages. Frankly, I'm a bit disappointed that Joanne, a 22 year busty blonde from Bolton, has totally failed to pull ever since. What's wrong with her, guys?

Any other tips for sidestepping the curse of registration required?

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Are you in the Target market for the Independent Tabloid edition?

If you are, you should admire the following small things, all of which are referenced in their TV advertising. If you score 5 out of 5, you are Johann Hari and I claim my five pounds:

An i-pod
A Smart Car
A bonsai tree
An espresso

Question 1: How gay is the Independent tabloid edition trying to be?

a) Metro-sexual
b) Male skincare
c) Queer as Islington folk
d) Julian Clary and the village people in a Civil partnership

Question 2: Which newspapers tabloids advertising would feature the following 5 small things to define their target market?

a) A hip-flask, a cravat, a fishing fly, a pony & a little place in the country.

b) The Jaguar X-Type, a golf ball, a cucumber sandwich, a share certificate and a single malt.

c) Gail Porter, a hamster, Jamie Theakston’s member (allegedly) & Jordan’s breasts (wrongly, but they have to be included)

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Thursday, February 05, 2004

Game Theory and political strategy

I’ve been thinking a bit about strategy in the US democratic presidential elections.

Let’s assume the scenario is this. Candidate K currently has 50% support in all states. Candidates E, C, and D share, between them, the remaining 50% of support at roughly equal levels nationally, but each has significant strengths in each of the three regions of the country, each with current floor of 10% (so the maximinum D, C or E currently have in their strong states, is 30%). There are three primaries to be held once a week over the next 8 weeks. (However, it is quite not random how the states are distributed over time- any given week could only have two out of three primaries held in each region)

Should candidate K win more than 66% of the vote in 1/3rds of states or a plurality in more than half the states that have chosen a candidate at that point (as long as total states contested is over 6, he will be deemed to "win" the nomination. If any candidate fails to win a quarter of contests or scores less than 10% in ¾ of contests, they will become non-viable candidates.

Each viable candidate can positively add 15% points to their poll ratings in any given week, distributed across any of the states to be contested.

In addition, each viable candidate is able to decrease support for candidate K by 10%/week by going on the attack, although this attack will not help their own candidacy. This support will be disributed to the nearest challenger in each state. However you cannot go on the attack in a state where you choose to go positive or you will lose the impact of both moves.

Non-viable candidates have half the impact of a viable candidate.

Let’s assume for the purposes of this that candidates E, C and D would each prefer one of themselves to win than candidate K, but each of them still believes that they have a viable shot at the nomination. What is the correct strategy for D, C and E to ensure that they defeats candidate K? What is candidate K's best strategy?

Any mathematicians, economists or game theorists have thoughts?

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Should Britain Ban Qat?

Qat is a narcotic leaf used in Yemeni communities for generations as a drug. It's not illegal, is cheap, and has narcotic effects that can be compared to alcohol, cannabis and amphetemines depending on your perspective.

If you watched "Dirty Pretty Things" Qat is the drug Taxi Driver/Night Porter Okwe uses to stay awake.

There's little evidence of a Qat driven crime wave or addictive qualities, but it is banned in many western countries and there is evidence of negative physical and psychological consequences of usage.

The Guardian reports today that the Government is considering re-classifying Qat as an illegal stimulant.

So here's a chance for a genuine policy debate. What should we do and why?

All responses, from libertarian to social conservative, will be fed into Labour's Policy Process, via my party membership.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Except when Andrew Gilligan is on the air.
Except when Andrew Gilligan is on the air.

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In defence of trimming

Alice Miles, who may be one of the last outposts of social democracy in the Murdoch empire, disagrees with David Blunkett on terrorst legislation for a remarkable reason. She thinks he is trimming to public opinion.

"The time is well overdue to reassert a truth most unfashionable to acknowledge: that the public do not necessarily know what is best for them."

First of all, it's not unfashionable to acknowledge this particular truth. It's very fashionable every time the opinion of the speaker and their audience contradicts that of the great mass.

Trimming is a term of abuse in politics. In sailing it is just a vital skill. On reflection, perhaps on this one, we should agree with the experts.

The argument of "trimming" against a policy, that the public should not be indulged on topics they "don't know what's best", annoys me. Why? Because it is entirely missing the vital qualifying statement. "but they know better than any other available method of determining what's best for them".

Without that qualification you open the door to aristocracy, dictatorship, kingship, segregation, the tyranny of the 30 or whatever other rule by elite that picks itself.

Alice clearly doesn't want this; her article is an argument for the smack of firm government. She wants a 4 year tyranny, to be ruled by leaders with cold eyes and a clear direction. Less compassion, less empowerment, more orders of the day.

All of which sounds great until you get it.

Politicians who do not trim tend not to be messiahs but very naughty boys. Pick a politician who did not trim and you find huge flaws alongside great strengths. We all know it. We need trimmers far more than we need the iron resolve of the crisis leader.

All of us have opinions in which we are in the minority. I do not believe in the death penalty and I'd like to see taxation on petrol a high to subsidice LPG. The majority of my fellow countrymen and women agree with me on neither. If I were Prime Minister, should I ignore their concerns and blithely ram through my entire agenda? Of course not, I should trim, to try and steer my course slowly and carefully through the changing winds to get where I wish to go.

In the end, that's the difference between a skilled politician and an unskilled on, the skilled one trims just enough to get where he wants to go. The unskilled one gets carried away with the wind, or has his mast snapped off mid-journey.

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Crisis Command: Disaster odds.

Anthony Cormack over at Plastic Gangster summarises my opinion of Crisis Command perfectly. It actually turned out to be very good.

As an aside he makes an interesting point about one of the contestants.

"She didn't seem able to get it into her head that instead of gambling 218 innocent lives in the plane for the safety of thousands upon thousands of innocent lives on the ground, she was in effect gambling the lives of potentially thousands upon thousands of people on the ground for the safety of 218 people on the plane."

He is exactly right, and the thought occurs to me that a basic understanding of probability theory and game theory could prove very helpful in these horrific decisions.

Let’s take the situation with the leaking tunnel and a tube train that can be sealed off from the rest of the network. Let’s say there is a 50/50 chance of the tunnel collapsing in the next hour and a 25% chance of it collapsing in the next half an hour.

If the tunnel is sealed when the tunnel collapses, 500 will die. If it isn’t, 10,000 will die. You have to decide now which is decision is most likely to save human life. How about if 2,000 will die if the tunnel floods unsealed?

How about if you send in an emergency repair team? That takes half an hour, but after that time would reduce the chance of a collapsed tunnel to 25%. What about if you send in an emergency repair team, and seal the doors, effectively increasing the number at risk, but also the possibility of saving all?

Is there someone out there who has an understanding about how probability and game theory principles can be applied in crisis management -not at the theoretical end but for policy makers? Where could one find out more about it?

Interestingly there was a BBC 3 programme called situation room, which effectively did the same thing for genuine experts- and they ended up in a similar mess- and certainly didn't seem any better at looking at the probabilities.

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Last night I watched the Primary coverage on CNN

I was struck by two things. First, despite the sheer number of commentators and experts, (I counted about 15) very little was added to the sum of human wisdom. The polling expert basically just said "Kerry wins amongst those who are looking for an electable candiate" all night and one of the main "experts" simply said "Edwards needed to win in South Carolina and he has" the whole time.

Despite two "real people round tables" designed to focus on issues the commentators went straight back to the horse race, and discussed that in only the most vapid terms. This blandness and lack of content meant that despite the graphics and the number of spokesmen, the BBC's general election coverage from 1964 was more exciting than this. Even the interviews with the candidates were abysmally bad Howard Dean was asked whether the Al Gore endorsement had been the issue with his campaign and despite giving a clear answer was wilfully misinterpreted for the rest of the night.

John Kerry was asked whether he agreed with John Edwards that the somone's family should not dictate their success in life ("No, Larry I don't. I am the only candidate in this race with the nerve and the principle to stand up for hereditary privilege. It served the nations of Europe well for a thousand years.") Edwards was asked a random question about if he agreed with what some other guy said about President Bush.

Second, It was vicious about Howard Dean. Not on policy, but just High school vicious. Paul Begala said Dean was "running away", Novak said he was "whining", Judy Woodruff said "people are going to wonder if this man is serious about being president" because, horror of horrors, he wasn't having a campaign rally.

I've seen a lot of the resentment about US political coverage around left wing blogs, but for the first time I felt it too. I'm not sure if it was an ideological problem with Dean, or something more primal. For some reason these commentators wanted to stomp on Dean hard.

This might have been purely ideological- but it didn't feel like it. It felt like Heathers.

There wasn't a single dissenting voice on Dean and the tone varied from feigned sympathy, through contempt to sheer venom. Most stupid example? Bob Novak saying that Dean lost because he wasn't a "professional candidate". Right, because the one thing that US voters always want is a slick insider rather than an outsider. That's why Al Gore is President and Joe Lieberman is the nominee of his party.

I guess what was most depressing was that the focus wasn't just on results not policy- that's understandable on an election night, it was on process, about expectations about process and about interpretations of expectations, then about the impact of the interpretations of expectations. Then some consensus is decided and the losers are confronted with it an dismissed. No wonder they want to wrap up the primaries quickly, this stuff is exhausting.

Note: People I saw on CNN last night who spent most of their time there offering opinions rather than straight reporting: Bob Novak, Paul Begala, Donna Brazile, Bob Dole, Bob Woodward, Bill Schneider, Judy Woodruff, Guy whose name I didn't catch, Larry King and Wolf Blitzer. Each of the campaign correspondents mixed opinion with reportage too.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2004

My god.. would you want her advice?

There's a new gameshow on BBC2 tonight. Crisis command, Three contestants have to guide the country through a simulated crisis.

The catch? Their source of advice on how to handle the media is Amanda Platell.

We're doomed, I tell you, Doomed.

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Monday, February 02, 2004

Explaining Politics.

Harry's wonderful Friday Afternoon mini-blog feature raised the question of whether you would have a relationship with someone of a different political persuasion. I replied that I would, and could back this up because I was having such a relationship. So X and I are living proof that love could cross the partisan divide and so forth.

Eh? Readers may ask, who is this X of whom you speak? Well, X is my girlfriend and jolly wonderful she is too. More than that you do not need to know. (Her name doesn't actually begin with X, but I've always thought it would make a cool initial.)

Then it occurred to me. I didn't know much about her politics. I knew she came from a rather different background to me, assumed she was one of the generally sane right-wingers one meets occasionally, clocked that I really, really liked her, then got on with the exciting business of falling in love.

From that day to this (and dear reader, this is a relationship of oooohhh, several months standing) we have barely discussed politics. Political obsessive though I am, the subject hadn't really come up. She reads the website (and is the only person who knows I write it- which indulges my Superman/Lois Lane fantasies no end) in the same sense one might indulge an interesting but typically male obsessive hobby. In return, I am interested in her hobbies, not because they have always fascinated me, but because she does them, and I'm interested in what interests her (aaaah).

So strange to say, I, whose mission is to convert the 200 or so readers of this blog into a messianic army of social democratic moderates, had not addressed the gulf between my dearest darling and myself. Spin Doctor, heal thyself.

So this weekend, I gingerly raised the topic of politics, not to persuade or berate, but to seek to understand.

The response I got was an even greater challenge that if my darling honeykins (Oh, alright, I'll stop. I don't talk like that) had been a Thatcherite in tooth and claw. X simply isn't that interested in politics. Sure, she's more or less on the right on a few issues (crime, hunting and so on) but in general, the cavalcade of delights of political debate passes her by.

While explaining this to me, she saw the blank look on my face, a look that said, "how can politics not be everything in the world, the thing and the whole of the thing?" So she challenged me to explain to her why British politics matters, what the choices were and why she should care.

It seems an excellent challenge and one that I feel you lot would relish too. So I shall embark on a mini-series of essays here, entwined with the usual old guff, that will seek to explain our politics to my darling. I aim not to force her to my way of thinking, but to let her choose her corner and be proud to do so.

Sketching out a rough series of topics to cover: I should definitely not write like a text book, but like a Bill Bryson of the political world. But i think I need to cover Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as parties, and the political debates within the right, left and centre.

So this is a call for the aid of the blogosphere- I need your contributions. I can only really write honestly for my view, so I need your best efforts too. E-mail me, comment, write blog posts to tell me what to write about, perspectives to include and angles to take. Set out your creed. Oh come on guys. You write blogs. Surely the chance to write your own personal manifesto is irresistable?

At the end of this, hopefully my darling will have a clear idea of why she is utterly right about everything and I am a buffoon. Then we will be ready to be married.

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Random thought about the BBC

Since several thousand BBC journalists are mad as hell about the resignation of Greg Dyke- and most of them are friends with lots of other journalists, and this is bound to affect their attitude to the Government- No matter what the merits, was this a pyrhhic victory in media management? Can you ever win an argument with the media?

Next random thought after reading the newspapers this weekend: No matter the subject or the intricacies involved, there is always a someone out there who can master it in an hour and deliver a thousand words by deadline. This is not always a good thing.

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Read John Denham on the Labour Party..

Well worth reading, especially the slapdown to the No 10 policy office.

"Small groups of people, many with little experience of running anything, are brought to claim half-worked ideas are fully formed policy without any involvement of those who have to support them or who will need to make them work."

(The not so subtle subtext that Labour insiders will get but others might not:
Oi, rebellious Labour MP's and activists, I resigned over the war and am being rude about number 10- so you can trust me when I tell you to grow up and get serious about being in government.)

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Why those of us who supported the war should support a WMD inquiry

What do we have to be afraid of? It's my firm belief that the Government did not exaggerate the intelligence it received- so why not enquire into the sources and background to the case for war? To drag out opposition just makes it look like you're scared. I'm not, and I don't think the Government is either.

My concern is only this- no matter what form it takes, the inquiry should not be structured, presented or spun as an attack on the intelligence services or the information they supplied.

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Sunday, February 01, 2004

Today I shall be mostly..

Sobbing into my Sunday lunch at my failure to make the Guardian's top political weblogs list. I didn't even make it into the honourable mentions category. Bastards. That horrific blunder by the media aside, I have to say it's generally a good choice - at least of the blogs I know of.

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