25 May, 2010

Well, do you drive a car?

This has been the response from some to the growing outrage and disgust over the oil leak in the Mexican gulf.  (It’s not a “spill.”  A spill is a finite amount that breaks its containment.  This slick is coming directly from the source, and it keeps on coming.)  The inference is that anyone who uses petrol, or any petroleum-based product, is implicated in this disaster. 

Let me be honest:  I like stuff.
I like stuff that lights up.  I like stuff that makes noises.  I like stuff that connects to other stuff.  I like stuff that stores lots of other stuff inside it.  Most of the stuff I like is made mostly of plastics, and that means oil.  Most of the stuff I like is made overseas, and that means more oil.  And I like going to places where there’s other stuff, which means lots more oil.  Most of the stuff I like is packaged in plastic too – more oil.  In fact, I dislike the packaging very much, but I like the stuff more than I dislike the packaging, so I end up erring on the side of stuff.  Not for me, the life of zero-footprint self-sufficiency.  I like my stuff too much.

Hello, my name is Bill and I’m a consumer.

So, to those who rationalise the BP disaster, we’re all a little bit culpable. 
Well wait just an oil-drillin’ minute!  I didn’t ask BP to drill there.  And I didn’t ask them to hire those contractors.  The fact that I drive a car doesn’t mean I have to condone industrial manslaughter.  (Please let’s not forget that eleven people were killed in the explosion.)  Do you have to be teetotal to condemn drink driving?  Do you have to be celibate to abhor rape?  I’ll take my share of the blame for the industrialised world’s dependence on oil.  I admit I’m part of the problem there.  But I’m calling the bluff of anyone who tries to draw a line between consumers of oil-based products and what’s happening in the Mexican gulf.  That was not done in my name.  I live in a house but that doesn’t mean I have to accept shonky builders.  I use Windows but that doesn’t mean I have to condone Microsoft’s business practices.  If BP had been putting similar resources into renewable energy, I would be cheering them on.

And it’s at this point, that this article takes a left turn with an idea that only came to me half-way through writing it.  The oil companies and car manufacturers have a chicken-and-egg problem when it comes to sustainable energy.  There’s no point in energy companies developing better energy sources if the car companies keep making vehicles that run on petrol.  And there’s no point in car makers producing hybrid or hydrogen powered cars if there’s nowhere that will fuel them.  And if the car manufacturers and oil companies were to work on a design together, that would be collusion.  It’s a rather convenient situation for them all.

What we need is a car designed by Apple.  The reason Apple products tend to be so reliable is because the hardware and the software is designed in tandem.  For some reason, Apple gets away with this monopolistic behaviour and is praised for it where Microsoft would be pilloried and probably sued if they did the same thing.  I wrote at length on that a couple of years ago and will post it here later for reference.  What we need is for Apple’s holistic design techniques to be applied to the automotive industry.  They would design the engine and the fuel source at the same time.  Then, since anything with an Apple logo on it inspires instant fascination and desire, retailers would have to do whatever it takes to get it onto the market.  Naturally, the designs would be copied by others within 12 months, but that’s kind of what we want, isn’t it?

Look into it, Steve.  A lot of people thought the world didn’t need another phone either.

23 May, 2010

Twourette’s Syndrome

We seem to have gone a few weeks without any public figures saying regrettable things on Twitter or Facebook.   Perhaps people are beginning to learn from others’ mistakes.

One of the earlier gaffes came last year when US Congressman Pete Hoekstra compared Republican obstructionism to Iranian democracy protesters.  Then there was the Fairfax sub-editor who was sacked for ’blogging about how boring his job was.  Earlier this year a rising star of the Queensland Young Liberals, Nick Snowden had his political career cut short (or at least postponed) after commenting on Twitter during Kerry O’Brien’s interview with Barack Obama that it would have been cheaper to send O’Brien to Taronga Zoo if he wanted to interview a monkey.*  And more recently, we have had Catherine Deveny’s outbursts.  Miranda Devine wrote a very good reply to her, then went and negated it all by suggesting that a critic of her position on gay marriage had been rogering gerbils.  She then redeemed herself with a sensitive defence of David Campbell.

All this is symptomatic of people thinking they understand the internet better than they really do.  It amazes me that so many apparently “tech savvy” people, are stuck in the 1990s notion that the internet is some kind of counter-culture where one can say what one wants, unobserved by the suits or the straights or the wrinklies.  They really need to drag themselves into the 21st century and understand that we all have the internet now.  The occasional clueless person talking about “the Google,” or “a series of tubes,” or even the hipsters’ own ironic references to “teh interwebz” is not going to change that.  Your boss has the internet too.  Your teacher has the internet.  Your parents have the internet.  Your partner has the internet.  Your opposition has the internet.  It’s not your private playground any more.

I think the other problem is that a lot of people are treating online social media like their own personal sit-com.  You know the shows where the audience can hear what the main character is thinking but the rest of the cast can’t?  I think that’s what a lot of people are expecting their Twitter and Facebook accounts to be.  They forget that online, the cast is also the audience and the audience is also the cast.  I expect Pete Hoekstra and Nick Snowden thought their comments would be as well received by their online audience as they would be by their mates down the pub, which is where such comments probably belong.  This is another thing that the internet is not.  It’s not your secret speakeasy, it’s not your own series of Herman’s Head, and it’s not like making comments to your mates while watching tele.

No-one is suggesting that people shouldn’t be able to say whatever they want in whatever forum they want.  But as I wrote last year, the right to free speech does not protect you from the consequences of exercising that right.  You don’t have to constantly act like Big Brother is watching, just remember where you are and act accordingly.  It’s possible to make a Twitter account private so that only approved followers can see what you’re saying.  I have a Facebook account, but I’ll lay odds that you won’t be able to find it, even if you know my last name, my email address and where I live. 

What’s missing, is a name for this impulsive behaviour that can often translate into a career limiting move.  I suggest, Twourette’s Syndrome – the frequent, uncontrollable posting of inappropriate comments online.

* Just for the record, although I’ve had a lot to say about George W Bush, and very little of it complimentary, I never had any time for all the Bush/chimp stuff.  That was inappropriate on several levels.  I’ll give Nick Snowden the benefit of the doubt that he was calling Obama a monkey in the same way people called Bush a monkey and that it was not a racist comment.  It’s still not a good look for an aspiring politician. 

11 May, 2010

My reply to Catherine Deveny

Catherine Deveny has written at the ABC's Unleashed site about her sacking from The Age.  I posted a reply, but if anyone would like to read it without wading through the 600 other comments, this is what I wrote:

Dear Catherine,
That was rather moving in places between the self-justification.  I think you're still missing a few points though.

You can't claim to be taken out of context on Twitter.  The whole point of Twitter is that there is no context.  You can't expect someone casually following the #logies tag to automatically know your back-story with Rove.  All they see is someone making what seems to be a really tasteless joke.  Personally, I didn't have a problem with the Bindi comment.  I saw where you were coming from with that but again, thousands following the tag wouldn't.  I can think of several other commentators who could have gotten away with it, since they don't already have such a history of trash talk.

As you said, "True sentiments are lost in Twitter."  If you knew that and chose to take your chances anyway, then you have to accept what happens next.  Freedom of expression doesn't mean immunity from blowback. If you'd chosen to show some contrition and admit that you'd made an error in judgement, I expect you'd still be on the payroll at The Age. If you choose to stand by it all, citing the "I'm edgy, me," defence - if you really think that's a fight worth fighting, worth losing a gig that thousands would give their left nipple for, then good luck to you.  I guess Miranda Devine chose differently.

There's nothing wrong with admitting you pushed the envelope too far and saying you're sorry.  Refusing to admit mistakes and blaming everyone else?  That's such a guy thing!

The other thing is, it's a bit rich to look for compassion a couple of weeks after calling soldiers greedy and racist.  I'm sorry you're heartbroken.  I imagine there would be a few diggers and their families who are heartbroken over what you said about them without knowing them.  But as you said at the time, fuck respect.  You get what you give.

08 May, 2010

Only Fools and Horse Traders

The result of the British general election brings up some fascinating questions – some old, some new, and some that are only new to certain countries.

Opponents of proportional representation, which is the method advocated as the fair alternative to the archaic first-past-the-post system, say that the problem with PR is that it always leads to hung parliaments and horse-trading between parties in order to form a workable government.  But as David Dimbleby mentioned, what they have ended up with under the existing system is a hung parliament and horse trading between parties.  So if there have to be negotiations between parties to form a government, why not have a more democratic, more representative version of it?  Discuss.

The Conservatives say they have the moral right to attempt to form government since they have the greatest number of seats of any party and the greatest primary vote of any party.  Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg said before the election that the party with the most seats deserved to form government, and he kept that position on Friday morning.  However, the constitution doesn’t mention moral right.  Constitutionally, the sitting prime minister has first dibs on forming a government in the event that his government has not been defeated outright.  Jeremy Paxman confronted a Conservative with the irony that the Tories, in asserting the moral right to govern, are in effect, trying to subvert the constitution.  Discuss.

So everyone now wants to woo Clegg and the Lib-Dems.  Some thought that the Tories would never abide a coalition but by Friday morning, David Cameron was making a public offer of partnership that was so flattering and seductive that I swear I almost heard a Barry White record playing in the background.  By comparison, Gordon Brown’s equivalent offer sounded more like, “You know, if your date with David doesn’t work out, maybe we could hook up for coffee later or something?”  In fact, Brown is doing the honourable thing by waiting on the outcome of talks between the Tories and Lib-Dems when he has the constitutional right to make the first offer.  Discuss.

Contrary to all predictions, support for the Liberal Democrats dropped this election with the party losing five seats, yet their power and influence over the next government has increased enormously.  Is this democratic?  Discuss.

However, if we’re going to talk about the moral right, we ought to look at a few other things.  While the Conservatives polled the highest of any single party, with 36% of the overall vote, an outright majority of 52% voted for one of the two centre-left parties. Source  Where does that leave the moral right to govern?  Discuss.

But then, an alliance of Conservative and Liberal Democrat would provide a good working majority of 363 – probably enough to absorb disgruntled members of either party who refuse to work with the other.  Even if the Lib-Dems support Labour, their combined numbers would still fall 11 short of a parliamentary majority. Labour would have to make deals with the Scottish Nationalists, and Sinn Fein to make up those numbers, and probably Plaid Cymru and the Social Democratic & Labour Party just to have some wriggle room.  (I’m assuming that a coalition between Labour and the Democratic Unionist Party is out of the question, but I could be wrong.)

It could be suggested that this is how parliaments are supposed to work all the time.  In principle, the parliament IS the government.  Parties are a more recent idea.  The so-called horse trading we are seeing in Britain and saw in Tasmania last month is what parliaments are supposed to do, with all members discussing the most acceptable way forward.  Discuss.

There are many countries where this is the norm, and with every election, various parties negotiate with each other to decide who will form government and which policies will be adopted or jettisoned in the process.  In these cases, it’s not always the party with the most seats that ends up governing.  Such horse trading is often the case even in the US, where the two party system is still going strong.  There is no assumption that Republicans or Democrats will always vote with the party, and so every bill has to be negotiated rather than passed along party lines.  We have seen how difficult it has been for Obama to enact the policies he convincingly won the election with, even with a majority in congress and, briefly, a supermajority in the senate. 
It is the opposition’s right and duty to oppose any legislation that it feels is not in the national interest, regardless of any public mandate.  Discuss.

It’s clear that many people vote strategically, because they don’t want to endorse the entire manifesto of any one party.  I have never voted for the same party in both the lower and upper houses for the very reason that there needs to be review.  Kim Beazley made a brave statement that almost worked for him in 1998.  That was the election that John Howard went to with the promise of a GST (a policy which he had claimed was dead and buried three years earlier).  Beazley announced that if the Liberals won the election, Labor would not block a GST in the Senate.  In other words, don’t vote Liberal expecting Labor to block the bits you don’t like – if you vote for it, that’s what you’ll get.  As it turned out, Labor won the popular primary vote that year, but not the election.  Howard still claimed a mandate.
The elected government has the right to enact its agenda unimpeded.  Discuss.

I think what it becoming clear is that voters no longer want to give a mandate to any one party or set of policies.  There is debate in the US about whether the president should have the power of “line item veto” rather than only being able to sign a bill or reject it outright.  I think voters want that kind of line item veto on party policies too, which is why we are seeing tighter and tighter election results, forcing all sides to compromise.  I kind of suspect the outcome will be a minority Conservative government, without backing from third parties, and that has to negotiate through all its major legislation. 

Regardless of who forms government and what constitutes the opposition in the UK, there’s no telling at the moment which policies will survive and which will be compromised.  There are some people, including Tory supporters, saying that a coalition of Conservative and Liberal Democrat would be the best of both worlds – Conservative management tempered by Lib-Dem sensibilities.  But how would that be different from the status quo?
Conservative + Liberal Democrat = Labour.

05 May, 2010

Why Preferential Voting Works

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve written this out, but if I post it here, I’ll be able to refer back to it, and with the UK election coming up tomorrow, and electoral reform on the agenda there, it’s relevant again.

Many, if not most, voting systems in countries that are universally recognised as democracies are fundamentally undemocratic.  The problem is with the simple majority, or “first past the post,” voting system.  You might think that it’s perfectly fair that whoever gets the most number of votes is duly elected.  However, that all depends on what you consider to be a majority.

Consider an election result that looks like this:

Candidate A:    40%
Candidate B:    35%
Candidate C:    25%

Under a simple majority system, Candidate A would win because he polled more votes than any other candidate.  The problem is that an overwhelming majority of 60% want someone else.   That’s just in a three-candidate election. If there were five, someone could potentially win with as little as 21% of the vote.  How is that democratic?

Simple-majority voting doesn’t elect the most wanted candidate.  It elects the least unwanted.  There’s a big difference.

Preferential voting elects the most preferred candidate.  Under a preferential system, instead of ticking a box, the voter ranks each candidate in order of preference, giving a 1 to the most preferred, a 2 to his second preference, and so on.  If no candidate has an absolute majority of 50% +1, then the candidate with the least votes is eliminated, and his second preferences distributed.  This continues until one candidate has a 50%+1 majority.

In the example above, Candidate C’s second would be counted.  Let’s say that four fifths of the people who voted for Candidate C chose Candidate B as their second preference and one fifth chose Candidate A.  That would mean that after preferences were counted, the result would be

Candidate A:    45%
Candidate B:    55%

And candidate B is duly elected as the most preferred candidate.  Although he does not have a majority of first preferences, he is clearly the most preferred candidate.

There are some places that go part way towards this system by holding run-off elections when no-one gets a clear majority.  However, these run-off elections are usually between the top two candidates.  If there are lots of candidates on the ballot, it’s possible that even the top two have less than 50% of the vote between them.  It could be that someone further down on the primary vote is actually the most preferred candidate.  Then there is the obvious expense and inconvenience of a second election.  This is why some advocates in the US refer to preferential voting as instant run-off voting.

Preferential voting also removes the problem of third-party candidates splitting a demographic, and the need to vote tactically to avoid such a split allowing less preferred candidates to sneak in.  Let’s take the example of the 1992 US presidential election:
Bill Clinton won 43.01% of the vote, George Bush won 37.45% and Ross Perot won 18.91%, which is a massive result for an independent candidate. (Source)  Perot’s vote was enough to tip the election one way or the other.  While it’s impossible to say for sure, it’s fair to suggest that Perot took more votes from Bush than from Clinton.  If two thirds of Perot voters had chosen Bush as their second preference, that would have given the election to Bush. 

I choose that example because I know a few people have me pegged as a mad, screaming leftie.  And I won’t deny that Clinton was the most preferable of the three options as far as I’m concerned.  The fact remains though, that the overwhelming majority of US voters in 1992 voted for a conservative candidate, but because there were two of them, the election went to the not-quite-so-conservative candidate.

It was, of course, a similar situation in 2000.  Ralph Nader’s 2.73% may have been paltry in comparison to Perot’s result, but that election was so close that it would still have been enough to tip Bush or Gore over 50% and the farce in Florida would be neither here nor there.  While it’s arguable as to which way Perot’s preferences might have gone, I would be gobsmacked if any Nader voters would have preferred Bush. 

With preferential voting, those who want to vote for an alternative to the major parties can do so safe in the knowledge that their preferences are recorded and their vote will not translate into a simple majority for a candidate representing the opposite party.

The movement for electoral reform in Britain seems to be advocating a system of proportional representation.  While it may be an even more representative system for electing an assembly, I have doubts about its workability.  Proportional representation makes it far easier for minor parties to be elected in numbers proportional to their support, rather than being squeezed out by the major parties on preferences.  Proportional representation almost always delivers a hung parliament.  Advocates say that hung parliaments lead to consensus government.  I can see their point.  Critics say that it allows minor parties to hold government to ransom and wield a power far greater than their numbers.  I can see that point too.  Every system has its flaws – some more than others.

In Australia, we elect the House of Representatives by preferential voting and the Senate (the states’ house and house of review) by proportional representation.  I see this as the best of both worlds.  All parochialism aside, I believe the Australian federal electoral system is the fairest there is. 

01 May, 2010

Texas-tea party in the gulf

So the oil leak from the drilling disaster is reaching the gulf coast, with the potential to be worse than the Exxon Valdeez spill.  After all, a tanker only holds a finite amount of oil.  What we have now is an uncapped well and there's no telling what volume will be released before it's brought under control. 

Louisiana Governor Bobby "No federal stimulus for us, but actually, we'll take it anyway, thanks!" Jindall has sought a federal disaster declaration and accompanying federal assistance.

So here's my question:
Wasn't BP insured against such an eventuality?  And if not, why should the poor US taxpayer have to pay to clean up their mess?

And why is a conservative Republican asking the federal government to assist business-people who may be adversely effected by the disaster?

Don't get me wrong, I think he's doing the right thing - it just doesn't square with the rhetoric.  It never does.  One week, you have the governor of Texas threatening to secede over taxation, the next week, he's asking for federal assistance.  What changed?  Swine flu, that's all.

So where are the teabaggers now?  Why isn't anyone demanding that big government get of of their lives and leave it all to private enterprise this week?  Where's Rick Santelli's outrage over having to help the "losers" whose livelihoods will be damaged?  And why isn't the "drill, baby, drill!" crowd lining up on the beach with their jerry cans?