Thursday, 3 December 2015

Why the State Got Its Pistorius Prosecution Strategy Wrong

Why the State Got Its Pistorius Prosecution Strategy Wrong While the Oscar Pistorius trial didn't grab my attention, the judgment did, because to be honest I could not see how the judge could come to the conclusion she did based on the proper application of the law to the facts as she had found them, as I wrote about at the time. I was pleased then to hear this morning when I woke up that the State's appeal against the not guilty murder verdict had been allowed. The basis of the appeal was that Judge Masipa had erred in applying the principle of dolus eventualis - the very point that had troubled me about her judgment.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Man Bites Dog

As sure as night follows day, online disputes follow a mass-shooting or terrorist attack. They almost invariably follow a very predictable pattern of action and reaction, or statement and counter-statement that ends up focusing almost as much on assessments (or condemnations) of how social media have responded to the event in question, as it does looking at the event itself. The aftermath of the horrible events that enveloped Paris on an initially unremarkable Friday evening has not been broken this pattern. One of the main focal points of this discussion was Facebook’s decision to proactively offer a French flag filter to place over profile pictures. While it might be useful for Facebook to be more clear about what is the trigger for such an offering (is it subjective, or based on a ghoulish body-count or measurement of online mentions, for example), it offered people on Facebook the opportunity to do something, anything, in the face of scarcely imaginable horror. Putting a flag over your avatar is, of course, a largely futile and pointless gesture – it is not going to cause members of Daesh/ISIS, a jihadi death cult, to have a rethink about where they are going in life. But it does give people a tiny sense of control in the face of what is otherwise potentially overwhelming helplessness. And while I respect the right of those who choose not to adopt a filter/flag/photo to do so, it has been impossible not to detect a hint of superiority emanating from some who chose to exercise that right. When mass murder visited the streets of Paris earlier this year, I myself pointedly declined to adopt “Je suis Charlie” as my social media avatar. I explained my reasons in a blog post at the time, which related largely to the relationship between satire, religion and remaining united in the face of terror. Saying yes to the tricolore filter was less of a political statement than one of sympathy and empathy; it is the 21st-century equivalent of sending flowers and a card, except in the digital age many feel compelled to do so to strangers in far-off places. This then gets to a second complaint from the more churlish corners of the digital space: either that people are hypocritical for putting up a flag for country X and not country Y; or that it is unfair that the media is paying so much attention to Paris and not to Beirut/Ankara/Garissa or whichever outrage this individual feels went unreported. Except the problem is that whichever outrage the individual feels went unreported didn’t go unreported. They just weren’t paying attention. Did Beirut/Ankara/Garissa get the wall-to-wall rolling coverage on CNN, the BBC and Deutsche Welle that Paris did? No, they did not. But the reasons are not difficult to understand and are inherent in every human being: unfortunately, like Belfast and Sarajevo, Beirut is a byword for bombing and murder. A bomb in Beirut is, sadly, a “Dog Bites Man” news story. A bomb in Paris, on the other hand, is “Man Bites Dog.” And inherent in this dynamic of the news cycle is the fact that if bombs in Paris become commonplace, then bombs in Paris will too become “Dog Bites Man”. It will cease to be “new”s. There is also the question of empathy, which the begrudgers appear incapable of differentiating from sympathy. Paris is one of the world’s great cities, home to one of the world’s most instantly recognizable landmarks. It is one of the most visited cities in the world, with over 16 million international visitors annually. There is an extremely high chance that most of the people reading this have either been to Paris, or if they have not would like to. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s position: it is easier, for most people in Europe and North America, to imagine themselves eating in a restaurant in the 11th arrondissement, having a coffee at a sidewalk cafĂ©, attending a concert by an American band, than it is to picture themselves attending a residential agricultural college in rural Kenya near the Somali border or shopping at a market in a Shia slum in southern Beirut. It is easier to picture yourself in a place you feel familiar with than one you have never heard of. And without the ability to imagine ourselves as a victim, empathy is difficult to rouse. Someone who has never been on a plane is going to struggle more to imagine the terror felt by passengers in a hijacked airplane than someone who flies on a weekly basis. Students in Kenya paid more attention to the attack on Garissa than they did to the bombed Russian plane in the Sinai. And they should not be faulted for it. Ironically, many of those who complain about the imbalance in how “the world” treats Paris versus Garissa/Beirut/Ankara etc. are equating European and North American media with “the world”, thereby exhibiting the very Euro-/America-centric worldview they complain about in others. And how many of them posted stories about Garissa and Beirut, or took some other act to express their solidarity with the victims of these horrible tragedies? Very few, for the same reasons as everybody else. The goal of many of these people is not to raise awareness of what happens in Beirut or Ankara or Garissa or Kunming or Ciudad Juarez or anywhere else – for if it were the tactic to adopt is not to condemn people and call them hypocrites for caring about Paris. It is an unconvincing attempt to demonstrate their own moral superiority and supposed worldliness. It says there is great pain in the world, so we should not care about one more than the other, as if time, place and personal experience are irrelevant. It’s like responding to an African-American who stands in front of you and says “Black lives matter!” with the retort “All lives matter!”, as if their own personal experience and feeling should be subsumed and rolled up into the greater tragedy of the world. Before the digital age, the media could set the news agenda through what they chose to cover and what they chose to ignore. That remains only partly true, but what drives coverage in 2015 is clicks, and likes, and comments. If the death of an 85-year old man in Tajikistan was going to drive web traffic to news sites, there would be a crowd of reporters outside his door with a live blog giving minute-by-minute updates. If people want to raise in others awareness of, and empathy for, causes and deaths that they otherwise may show little interest in, the way to go about it is not to castigate them for caring about the loss of life that they do, or at least claim to do. Is it unfair that it should be this way? Yes, of course, it is. But if life were not unfair, then there would be no need for Black Lives Matter or flag filters of mourning on Facebook.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

GOP Truthiness on Syria

I don't know where to begin with this, though a warning that it was going to be tripe was contained in the rhetorical flourish at the end of the opening paragraph: >"Whether it’s in Ukraine or Syria, the Russian president seems always to have the upper hand." I respectfully suggest that's because Russia borders Ukraine and is acting in support of the Syrian government (whether you like it or not) and not a disunited and weak opposition movement. Geography and political reality give Russia "the upper hand." No amount of [truthiness]( is going to change that. Basically, the argument is that the United States needs to ramp up its military intervention in Syria and confront Russia until it can force regime change. Won't these people ever learn?

Friday, 9 October 2015

Single Transferable Vote 101 (or, why no-one in Britain knows how to report it properly and what they can do about it)

I am a fan of the Single Transferable Vote as a voting system. Being from Northern Ireland and having lived in the Republic of Ireland, I have voted using STV more often than I have first past the post (FPTP).

Naturally, then, I was pleased to see it introduced in Scotland for local elections, which helped some way to break Labour's hegemony over local politics in the Central Belt by ending the one-party state that existed in most councils in Scotland. (It also probably played a role in giving greater force to the SNP wave in recent years, in the Holyrood, Indyref and Westminster 2015 votes, by enabling the SNP to have a vastly increased number of local representatives on the ground.) It will also likely prove to be a life-support machine to the Liberal Democrats, and prevent Labour councillors going the same way in 2017 that their Westminster party colleagues went in 2015.

![2007 local election results]

However, the mechanics of STV are not that well known to many people, and it has been frustrating for me to read/listen to coverage of STV elections and by-elections as if they were the same as FPTP elections. This ranges from the terminology used to focus on the wrong elements to drawing erroneous conclusions.

A prime example was today when Mike Smithson (someone for whom I have enormous respect) from [Political Betting]( tweeted this:

With all due respect to Mike, there is absolutely nothing wrong in an SNP supporter reporting the result in that way, because from an SNP perspective it is actually more important than the fact they lost the seat.

That may sound a bit odd, clutching at straws even, but it's not, and here's why.

![2012 Aird and Loch Ness result](/content/images/2015/10/Screen-Shot-2015-10-09-at-12-24-12.png)

As you can see, in 2012 the SNP won one of the four seats available in the ward. They won it on the first count, with Drew Hendry getting 840 votes, which was 31 votes over the quota of 804. (The quota is, where n = number of persons to be elected and v = number of valid votes cast) (v/n+1)+1. So in this case, where four members are to be elected, you need to get 20% of the vote plus one vote, ((4044/5)+1) which in this case was 809). The SNP's second candidate got 7.1% - about a third of a quote. So all in all , the total SNP vote was a little shy of 28%. This is equivalent to 1.4 quotas or just over a quarter of the vote. This would, in pretty much any circumstances, be enough to get one of the two SNP candidates elected, but a long way short of enough to get two elected.

In the by-election to replace Drew Hendry, who took Danny Alexander's Westminster seat at the General Election, there is only one seat to be filled, therefore the quota is going to be 50%+1 vote. As you can see, this is rather a lot more than the 28% the SNP got in 2012. In FPTP by-elections, if a party got the same share of the vote as it did at the main election, the party would retain the seat. (For all its problems, FPTP is, unarguably, simple). Under STV, however, if the SNP had matched its share of the vote, it still would almost certainly not win the by-election, because of the likelihood of unionist parties to favour each other in transfers. To have had a realistic shot at retaining the seat, the SNP would probably have had to increase its vote share to over 40% (a 12 percentage point or 40% increase over 2012). That isn't impossible, but it is unlikely. Therefore, for the SNP to have increased their share of the vote, and still lost, is very respectable.

In short, it is very difficult to win by-elections under STV (which is one of the reasons in Northern Ireland councillors' and Assembly members' replacements are co-opted members of teh same party, rather than elected through a by-election that is highly likely to see the incumbent party lose a seat, even if they outperform themselves compared to the previous election).

And since I am on the subject, another pet peeve is the focus, when reporting results, on the "majority" over the first candidate not elected (i.e. the runner-up), either on the first or last count. This is a largely useless statistic, as it tells you very little about how the parties performed, and gives undue importance to something that tells you very little about the election. This should be obvious from the fact that the candidate who leads after the first count may not actually win a seat. So if the candidate who is second after the first count goes on to win the seat, do they have a negative majority? Nor is there any point in reporting, as [this]( does that
>She was the winner at the fourth and final stage of the count. She gained 1,511 of the 3,076 valid votes.

This information is pretty useless, unless we know what the quota is. Also, saying she won on the "fourth and final count" is like saying "she found her keys in the last place she looked." Nor would this phraseology make much sense when there was more than one member to be elected, and would therefore require reporting STV by-elections and general elections in different fashions, which is clearly undesirable. A more useful re-write of these sentences would be to say
>She was deemed elected on the fourth count, without having reached the quota of 1,539.

The most important information is the First Preference Vote (FPV) share (by party and individual), with a comparison to the previous election. Next in importance is how many quotas each party and individual has on the first count. And finally, transfer patterns are important, the patterns for which will vary from constituency to constituency and ward to ward because, well, people are weird and vote on all sorts of criteria that you often couldn't possibly imagine.

Also, it is the norm to talk about the "first count, second count, third count, etc.", even though technically they are "stages", but stages sounds boring and technical, whereas count gives a better flavour of what is going on.

British political reporters really need to get to grips with the intricacies (not "vagueries" - there is nothing vague about it) of STV and stop falling back on what they know (FPTP) when interpreting results. Otherwise they are doing a disservice to the public. A trip over to Northern Ireland or the Republic to observe how STV elections are covered and analyzed by people who understand the system well would probably be a good idea.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The UK's Trident "debate"

Very quickly, because it is not very difficult.

The new British Labour Party leader has sparked off a row over comments that he wouldn't use nuclear weapons as Prime Minister. The row/debate is totally and utterly pointless:

The UK is in NATO; the Americans have nukes; the British wouldn't use nukes without Washington's approval; under any circumstances where a British PM might use nukes, if he didn't the Americans certainly would.

Simples. Next manufactured controversy please.

The Sneaking Regarders of Dixie

A culture that believes that it is somehow acceptable to fly the Confederate Battle Flag outside the state capitol, having been forced to take it down from atop it only a few years ago in the face of national outrage, and which only put it up there as a "fuck you" to the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 or thereabouts, is at its core a racist one. Now, that may manifest itself in the sort of "we are only remembering our war dead and the Southern way of life, not slavery" sort of cognitive dissonance you got in that sort of nonsense David French wrote in National Review Online, but that's what it is. French also completely ignores history when he gives significance to the fact that it is the Battle Flag of the Confederacy that is still flown, rather than the 'national' flag of the Confederacy. The Battle Flag was always more popular, even during the Civil War. The Confederacy had three different 'national' flags during its short existence; the first change came "on account of [the flag's] resemblance to that of the abolition despotism against which we are fighting." The replacement was the Battle Flag on a white background.
Third Flag of the Confederacy
Third Flag of the Confederacy
First Flag of the Confederacy
First Flag of the Confederacy
Second Flag of the Confederacy
Second Flag of the Confederacy

Flag of Georgia until 2001

Current flag of Georgia. Spot the difference.

Of course whites in the South were able to have a gentlemanly and mannerly lifestyle, because it was paid for by the enslavement of African-Americans. John C. Calhoun made it clear in his writings that slavery was not just a necessary evil, it was a positive good that reduced class distinctions among white people, as they could all unite in white supremacism and superiority over the black untermensch. It was not just the Southern economy that depended on the enslavement of blacks, so too did the entire system of "genteel" social normss. And the idea that "my ancestors didn't have slaves - they were too poor to own them" is not a convincing one either. Just because your ancestors didn't own slaves because they were too poor to buy one doesn't mean the didn't aspire to being rich enough to own slaves, and supported the continuance social and economic system that would make that possible, even to the point of committing treason against the United States.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Which Lib Dems voted to (essentially) defenestrate Bercow?

In case you were wondering, by my reckoning four Liberal Democrat MPs voted for the Hague / Gove "student union politics" move that would have allowed Bercow to be unseated by a secret ballot.

They were:

- Tom Brake (no surprise; the Deputy Leader of the House dutifully sat alongside Hague throughout)
- Ed Davey
- Don Foster
- John Thurso

I read that 10 Lib Dems voted against, but don't have their names at hand.

Quite why the Liberal Democrats in government (and indeed William Hague for that matter, whose reputation as a "Commons man" must now be severely tarnished) agreed to go along with Gove's "clever" little scheme is beyond me.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Do Scotland's Tories Know on Which Side Their Bread is Buttered?

Alex Massie has a great piece in The Spectator on 'Why an SNP Surge at Westminster Could Mean the End of Britain'. I recommend you read it. I suspect he is fundamentally right about the obliviousness of English voters to the 'Rise of the 45' in Scotland. The referendum might have been won, but the Union is far from safe for as long as a majority of Scottish MPs are from the Scottish National Party. Moreover the collapse of Scottish Labour undercuts some of the structural advantages the First Past the Post electoral system gives the Labour Party, meaning that in the current electoral climate it is very difficult to see either Labour or the Conservatives getting an overall majority any time in the foreseeable future, unless something very fundamental changes.

Another important question, however, is whether Scotland's Conservatives are as tuned in to the dangers of the current political maelstrom as one would expect them to be. In short, Scottish Tories have it in their gift to deny Sturgeon and Salmond at least 10 seats, and there are perhaps 10 more held by unionist parties in which a combined unionist vote could deny the SNP a victory, as the chart below shows.

It may be difficult for Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, to hang on to his seat, even with a fair wind of tactical voting behind him (or so Lord Ashcroft's polls seem to indicate). The other 10 Lib Dem seats are probably salvageable if beating the SNP becomes more important to Labour and Tory voters than traditional tribal loyalties.  This is particularly true in seats with a strong residual Tory vote like Northeast Fife, Edinburgh West, Argyll & Bute. This also applies in a couple of seats where before the SNP surge the Conservatives were hopeful of making gains at their coalition partners' expense:  West Aberdeenshire and Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk. Returning the current coalition (Lib Dem) MP at least holds out the hope of the current government being returned; a SNP Member of Parliament makes that possibility even more remote.

If sufficient Labour and Conservatives vote tactically in Gordon, Ross, Skye & Lochaber and the Liberal Democrats' other Scottish seats, those seats could also be saved, though selling it to a mixture of Labour and Conservative voters becomes a lot more difficult.

The bigger challenge comes in Labour-held seats, where on current numbers the SNP may be about to sweep the whole lot of them away: can Labour drum up enough support in "Only we can stop the SNP" fashion to stem the nationalist tide? Can sufficient Scots Tories in East Renfrewshire be persuaded to hold their nose and vote for Jim Murphy? Similarly in Ayr, Carrick & Cumnock, Dumfries & Galloway, Glasgow North West and Airdrie & Shotts (!).

Nobody will know the answer until the early hours of May 8th, but if the SNP sweeps the board in Scotland it will be evidence that the continued existential threat to the United Kingdom remains little appreciated by unionists north of the border, let alone to the south.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Dear Snow...

Dear snow,
I know that when we first met I was young and pretty impressionable -- looking back I was so naive -- but I fell in love with you. You knew it. I knew it, and I also knew you probably didn't feel the same way. But to be honest, I didn't really care. I just loved you. You weren't really around that much, and sure, I knew rain and sleet and hail a lot better, and got pretty intimate with all of them (I'm sorry), but you were the only one I loved.

You would show up every now and again, get me excited, and then you would disappear, without so much as a note to say when you would be back. But that just made me love you more. You were so exciting, and sometimes a little bit dangerous. I liked that. Even as I did a little growing up and went off around the world myself, you always occupied a special place in my heart, and I still looked forward to the next time you would swing by, more or less unannounced, so we could spend some time getting slushy together.

When I moved to the U.S., I looked forward to spending more time with you. I thought it would be nice if we could get to know each other a bit better, instead of just one night you were there, and then in the morning you were gone, as mostly happened in Ireland. I was looking forward to walks with the dog and you, hanging out in the park at the weekend, maybe playing with your balls if we were feeling naughty or playing angels if we weren't. It all sounded blissful. I couldn't wait.
But in truth, snow, we have both changed. I am maybe a bit less idealistic and playful than I used to be, but since we have both been in New York I barely recognise you. Spending so much time together has been a lot less fun than I thought. You have been around a lot. Like, a lot. You showed up before Christmas and you haven't gone away. To be perfectly honest, I am getting a bit tired of seeing you every day. More than that, you are a lot less fun than you used to be. Since moving to NYC you have got really messy. You've also got really filthy. That's not my thing. And I just find you cold and boring. You were already starting to annoy me, but then tonight happened.

You had already forced me to change my plans on a few occasions, selfishly, to suit you. It happens, I said. Snow's like that, I said. No point in getting annoyed about it. It's part of the fun and excitement. And then tonight, even though it was literally just around the corner, 1 block away, you decided that you were going to dick about so much that the show I have been waiting to see got cancelled. That was the last straw. Let me tell you hunty, I want you out of here. Gone. Get the feck out of my life. I am sick of you. What we had is gone, and now you are just one giant pain in my A-hole, so you have until Sunday to get your shit together and GET OUT OF HERE. Take a cruise down the Hudson or across the Atlantic or something. Travel. See the world, whatever. I don't care. Just get the fuck out of my life before I kick the shit out of you before pushing you down a drain.

I mean it.