Friday, 21 December 2012

Fears of Climate Change

Matt Ridley has attracted some attention with his article in the Wall Street Journal Cooling Down the Fears of Climate Change.  It's not a balanced presentation - for example he repeats the factoid that "global temperatures are no higher than they were 16 years ago" without mentioning that the two warmest years on record were 2005 and 2010.  But the main interest is his account of some work by Nic Lewis, not yet published as a scientific paper, but available on climate-dissenting blogs.  Lewis uses an energy balance method introduced ten years ago by Gregory et al. to get a median climate sensitivity of 1.62K, with a 5%-95% confidence interval of 1.03‑2.83K. That is he predicts that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide should lead to an global average temperature increase of 1.62 degrees, with considerable uncertainty around that number.

The idea behind the method is that in equilibrium, there's a balance between radiation losses from the earth, and the radiation it absorbs from the sun.  When something happens to disturb this balance - a forcing - the earth's surface temperature has to change to compensate - radiation increases with temperature.  However, it will take some time for the earth to heat up (or cool down) to reach that temperature, in the meantime there will be a heat uptake which must be included in the calculation if one wants to use current data to estimate an equilibrium effect.  One selects two time periods as far apart as practicable, takes an estimate of changes in the various forcings, subtracts an estimate of changes in heat uptake, and divides by the resulting temperature change to get the sensitivity to net forcing.  Then one scales the result to the estimated change in forcing for a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Lewis acknowledges in the comments under his article that this is estimating an Effective Climate Sensitivity rather than an Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity, but it's not clear to him or me why these should be much different (I could be wrong).

When Gregory tried this method, he got a median sensitivity of 6.1K, with a confidence interval stretching down to negative numbers 1.6 K and up to infinity - the method was interesting, but the results were useless did no more than establish a lower bound.  Lewis says he can do much better, taking his parameters mainly from the IPCC's draft of its forthcoming Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), which was recently leaked by a reviewer (anyone could sign up as a reviewer).

The report gives the IPCC's current estimate of sensitivity: I quote from page SPM-11 of the Executive Summary (the whole leaked report can conveniently be accessed on scribd)
Equilibrium climate sensitivity is likely in the range 2°C–4.5°C, and very likely above 1.5°C. The most likely value is near 3°C. Equilibrium climate sensitivity greater than about 6°C–7°C is very unlikely
So Lewis's range overlaps a lot with the IPCC's range, albeit the range is obtained by allowing a model's parameters to vary within their individual error bounds, and the choices that give the low estimates in the IPCC's calculation may be inconsistent with the choices that give the high estimates in Lewis's.

I had a look at the parameters Lewis uses; one section in particular caught my eye, discussing the heat uptake parameter.  (OHU is Ocean Heat Uptake, SOD is Second Order Draft - the leaked version.)  To make it easier to read I've omitted the error analysis:
I estimate 2002–2011 OHU from a regression over 2002–2011 of 0–2000m pentadal ocean heat content estimate...the trend equates to 0.433 W/m², averaged over the Earth's surface...There is no alternative to using GCM-derived estimates of OHU for the 1871–1880 period, since there were no measurements then. I adopt the OHU estimate given in [Gregory 02] for the bracketing 1861–1900 period of 0.16 W/m², but deduct only 50% of it to compensate for the Levitus et al. (2012) regression trend implying a somewhat lower 2002-2011 OHU than is given in the SOD...That implies a change in OHU of 0.353 W/m²... Although Gregory 02 ignored non-ocean heat uptake, some allowance should be made for that and also for any increase in ocean heat content below 3000 m. The (slightly garbled) information in Section 3.2.5 of the SOD implies that 0–3000 m ocean warming accounts for 80–85% of the Earth's total heat uptake... Allowing for all components of the Earth's heat uptake implies an estimated change in total heat uptake of 0.43 W/m²...Natural variability in decadal OHU should be the counterpart of natural variability in decadal global surface temperature, so is not accounted for separately.
The bit about deducting only 50% of the uptake in the reference period is hard to understand, and it's odd that he refers to the SOD value without specifying what it is.  And Lewis doesn't say a word about disagreeing with SOD on this.  So I went and looked up what SOD has to say.  The relevant section is Box 3.1 on page 3-11 of Chapter 3:
It is virtually certain that Earth has gained substantial energy from 1971–2010 — an estimated first-difference change of 273 [194 to 353] ZJ (1 ZJ = 1021 J), with a rate of 213 TW from a linear fit over that time period (Box 3.1, Figure 1). From 1993–2010 the estimated energy gain is from a first difference is 163[125 to 200] ZJ with a linear rate estimate of 27 TW. Ocean warming dominates the total energy change inventory, accounting for roughly 93% on average from 1971–2010. Melting ice (including Arctic sea ice, ice sheets, and glaciers) accounts for 3% of the total, and warming of the continents 3%. Warming of the atmosphere makes up the remaining 1%. The ocean component of the 1993–2010 rate of energy gain is 257TW, equivalent to a global mean net air-sea heat flux of 0.71 W m–2, and that for 1971–2010 is 199 TW, implying a mean net air-sea heat flux of 0.55 W m–2
The 27 TW given for the 1993-2010 rate is an obvious typo.  It's easy to convert from joules to watts (a terawatt is 1012 watts): one divides by the number of years then divides by the number of seconds in a year. That tells me that the right number is 287 TW: I suppose the middle digit has somehow been dropped.

It's also easy to convert from watts to watts per square metre, taken over the whole of the earth's surface, by dividing by the earth's surface area.  That gives 0.42 W m–2 as the average rate for 1971-2010, very close to Lewis's figure.  But he ought to be using a figure for 2002-2011, and the rate has increased sharply during the period - I reproduce the chart from page 3-66 of SOD Chapter 3
Reading off the chart, I estimate heat uptake in the last 10 years to have been 113 ZJ, corresponding to 0.70 W m-2. Subtracting the whole (rather than half) of estimated uptake in the reference period, and redoing the calculation using the rest of Lewis's numbers unchanged, I get a median sensitivity of 1.74 K instead of 1.62 K.

My guess is that Lewis has tended to choose parameters which nudge his estimate downwards, and has been somewhat optimistic in his error estimates.  But even with consensus parameters, this method will produce a significantly lower median estimate than the IPCC's.  It seems worth seeking to understand why.

James Annan comments
I think a lot of what Nic Lewis says seems reasonable, though I also suspect that some of his choices will have served to underestimate sensitivity somewhat. Don't forget, "the ipcc" does no research to estimate sensitivity, they only summarise the literature which generally lags the latest evidence.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Wage and Profit Shares, and Coffeehouse Chains

Some time ago, I posted a chart looking at how UK GDP divides up (I wasn't the first).  Chris Dillow has done the same.  He observes that "The wage share was unusually high in the mid-70s, and the profit share unusually low. It is, therefore a little misleading to speak of changes in income distribution since the mid-70s. Profits then were so low that they either had to rebound or capitalism would have collapsed." and "Since the mid-90s, the wage share has risen and profit share fallen."

Here's my almost identical version of Dillow's chart.  It's perhaps a trifle inconsistent of him to complain about the use of the mid-70s as a start point when his choice of the mid-90's is also unrepresentative:

My attention was drawn to this by a commentator on Richard Murphy's site, who had the temerity to cite Dillow's analysis that "Since the mid-90s, the wage share has risen and profit share fallen".  Murphy's reply is customarily brusque "Just add a trend line I suggest. Do and it glaringly obvious the claim he is making is just wrong" (and gets ruder after that).  He's making a testable claim, and I like to think of myself as an obliging sort of a chap, so I asked Excel to draw trend the lines.  In an attempt to be neutral I chose Q1 1996 as "the mid-90s", without looking at the data first.  Here's the result:

If drawing trend lines makes anything obvious, it's that since the mid-90s the wage share has risen and the profit share has fallen, just as Dillow asserted.

In turn, my attention had been drawn to Murphy by his brief appearance on the radio news, complaining that Starbucks' concession on corporation tax won't do.  He's right.  My brief thoughts on the issue are:
  • Starbucks is indeed gaming the system with its royalty payments.  It's obviously charging its UK operation more royalties for the brand than the brand is worth.  Because what it's worth is an amount that would allow the UK operation to make a reasonable profit, on which it would have been paying corporation tax.  (Its internal trade in coffee beans may also be at the wrong price.)
  • There's no reason to expect companies to follow any particular moral code of their own accord - they're in business to make money, not to gain your moral approval.  If you want to influence the moral behaviour of a company, you have to take action as a potential customer or employee to make it financially worth its while.
  • So boycotting Starbucks is the right thing to do if you want it to pay more tax.  (On the other hand, if you thoroughly approve of its tax affairs, you should show your appreciation by buying more coffee from it.)
  • If Starbucks is to pay more tax, it should be on the basis of a reasonable and open calculation of UK profits, not a number it's pulled out of the air to tempt the missing customers back.
  • I don't like Starbucks' product.  Caffè Nero is my coffee chain of choice (I know nothing about its tax affairs).
  • I'd tell you where to buy the best beans, but the shop's too busy already, and its business model won't scale.

Update: I may have been too quick to agree with Murphy.  Starbucks' UK managing director says they are going to pay UK corporation tax based on not paying royalties, and on buying coffee beans at cost.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Minimum Alcohol Pricing

The government is proposing a minimum retail price for alcoholic drinks of 45p per unit (a unit is ten cubic centimetres of alcohol), despite having received legal advice from the EU that minimum pricing is not permitted.  The EU suggests increasing excise duty instead.

The BBC has published a graphic showing the minimum price of various drinks under the 45p limit:
It's instructive to compare these prices with the duty + VAT on duty currently charged:

Can of lager Can of cider Bottle of wine Bottle of whisky Bottle of vodka 
Increase required53%456%85%40%40%

The bottom row shows what percentage increase would be required in excise duty to make duty+VAT come to 45p/unit.  What stands out is how low the duty is now on cider.  This is the result of pressure on successive chancellors to protect the cider industry, as depicted in adverts where the apples are hand picked in a scene of rustic simplicity.  In reality, very little apple and a lot of sugar go into the production of cheap cider.

Proponents of minimum pricing argue that the alternative of raising duty would not stop retailers undercutting the intended minimum price by selling at a loss.  I doubt that would be much of a problem, and if it were the government could revive its previous proposal, now abandoned, to prohibit selling at below duty + VAT on duty (I don't know whether the EU would object to that).  However, I don't believe that's the real reason to prefer minimum pricing - the real reason is the almighty fuss that would be raised by the trade if excise duty were radically increased.  With minimum pricing, the extra money paid by consumers goes to the trade, to compensate it for lost sales.

If minimum pricing were introduced, the effect would be to increase smuggling and illegal production, and to compress prices at the bottom end, leaving products to compete on brand recognition rather than price.  Can football fans look forward to the Diamond White Premier League?

What of the health arguments for minimum pricing?  Back in September I raised both eyebrows at a BBC report claiming that "The deaths of 50,000 pensioners could be avoided over the next decade if minimum alcohol pricing is rolled out in England, according to new research. The BBC's Panorama programme commissioned the research from statisticians at Sheffield University."  I've just discovered that the BBC corrected its report three weeks after publication:
Correction 28 September 2012: The main figure in this story has been amended from 50,000 to 11,500 after it emerged that there had been an error in the calculations carried out for Panorama by the School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield.
Well, it's good that they corrected it.  But this won't do.  Sheffield University has got a substantial team doing Alcohol Research, they produced a report for a television programme whose key findings were bound to be widely repeated, but they committed an error so obvious that it could easily be spotted by a random blogger (albeit not by a Panorama reporter).  It's common to make mistakes with numbers, so anyone doing statistical work needs to be checking every step for plausibility.  Evidently the Sheffield team isn't doing that.  I see no reason why one should trust their output not to be littered with less obvious errors.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

One more thing about two-point attempts

With the scores level late near the end of an NFL game, your side scores a touchdown.  You've worked out that the chance of success with a two-point conversion, for either side, is a little over 50%.  So you should try for two?  No.  It makes a difference only if your opponents are going to score a touchdown of their own.  Then if you've failed with a two-point attempt, they're certain to win by kicking a single point (under the simplifying assumption that these kicks always succeed).  Whereas if you've succeeded, they can still tie the game with their own two-point conversion.  In fact, to make your two-point attempt the right strategy the chance of success has to be more than (2 - sqrt(2)), about 58.6%.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Numerate Coaching in Sports

Moneyball documented the rising importance of numeracy in baseball coaching, starting with Billy Beane at Oakland in the late 1990s: gratifyingly for nerds this has spread to other sports.  There was a hint of this in a Thanksgiving game of American Football this evening (it's a good game for armchair coaches).

Dallas was behind by 22 points early in the fourth quarter.  The scoring system is that you score six points for a 'touchdown', and that qualifies you to attempt to kick a 'point after' - like a conversion in rugby.  As an alternative to the point after you can opt to try to score again from the two yard line: that's worth two points.  More easily than scoring a touchdown, you can get three points for a 'field goal' - the difference of 22 points was a difference of four converted touchdowns against two field goals.  In practice the success rate for two-point attempts is about 48%, whereas points after are a near certainty, assuming a regular kicker in reasonable playing conditions, so the two-point option is selected only at certain scores late in the game.

And this was one of them.  Dallas scored a touchdown, and tried (successfully) for two points.  This is clearly the correct strategy.  The only real chance of getting anything out of the game from 22 points down was to outscore their opponents by three touchdowns to none over the remainder of the game, and to get at least one two-point conversion.  It was right to make the attempt at the first opportunity because if it succeeded they could revert to points after following the next two (presumed) touchdowns*, whereas if it failed they could attempt to compensate with two more two-point attempts.

There's a more common application of this sort of strategy for a team behind by 14 points late enough in the game that its only chance is to score two touchdowns to none.  The correct strategy** is to attempt two points after the first touchdown, because if you fail you can attempt to compensate by scoring two points after the next, whereas if you succeed you can win the game with a point after the next touchdown.

However, having reduced the deficit to 14 points, Dallas did score another touchdown, and kicked a point after instead of trying for another two.  So perhaps I've overestimated the coach's intelligence.  Or perhaps he understood what he ought to do, but lacked the courage to do it.

Unsurprisingly enough, none of this affected the result.  Dallas lost.

*This consideration is sufficient to demonstrate the correctness of the strategy, but as the rest of the post suggests, it's not the whole story

**Assuming that points after are certain, this latter strategy is correct if the two-point success rate is more than (3-sqrt(5))/2, about 38.2%.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Thoughts on the US Election

Barack Obama has been duly re-elected president, winning the Electoral College by 332 to 206, and the popular vote by 50.6% to 47.8% (with the rest going to minor candidates).

The result was closely in line with the projections of the poll aggregators, so no one had any right to be surprised by it.  And yet much of the Republican Party seems to have been genuinely shocked.  A host of Republican pundits predicted a Romney victory - "I am now predicting a 330-vote electoral landslide" (by which definition the actual result was an Obama landslide").  Romney's campaign agreed that he was ahead.  Now, media pundits don't necessarily say what they think - they are writing to please their readers as much as to inform them.  And even pessimistic politicians need to present a reasonably confident demeanour during elections, so as to maintain enthusiasm among party workers and donors.  But Romney's campaign tactics in the final weeks - his cautious approach to the last two debates, and his decision to campaign in Pennsylvannia on the day of the election - seem to suggest that his campaign really thought he was going to win.

So how can they have been so wrong?  To win the election, Romney would have had to overcome not the 2.7% margin in the popular vote, but the 4.7% margin in Colorado, along with lower hurdles in Virginia, Ohio and Florida.  You deserve to be wrong if you make a projection based on reports of enthusiasm at Romney rallies and how many yard signs you've seen, but most of the Republican analysts were looking at raw polling numbers much the same as everyone else's.  What they did with them was different - they thought turn-out would be much higher among Romney supporters than Obama's.  One non-partisan polling organization - Gallup - agreed with them, so they've got some excuse.  But if your interpretation of what's happening is well away from the consensus, and if the consensus turns out to be right, you have to wonder whether you've overestimated your own competence.

The demographic breakdown of votes cast is interesting - Romney did as well among white voters as did GHW Bush against Dukakis.  But whites are no longer a large enough proportion of the electorate for that to be sufficient.  Since the demographics shifts are going to continue, the Republicans need a new strategy.  It's always a pleasure to offer advice to a defeated foe, so here's mine:

1) Ditch Bush.  You can't stop the electorate blaming Bush rather than Obama for the USA's economic difficulties, but you can stop them expecting more of the same from the next Republican they elect.

Republicans are convinced that Obama is woefully incompetent.  I really can't understand why they think so, but if they want people to take them seriously on the subject they need first to face up publicly to the fact, obvious to much of the electorate, that GW Bush was a disastrously bad president.  He failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks, then he invaded Afghanistan to follow up his demand that the Taliban must "hand over the terrorists" but failed to catch the most important terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, whom he'd said he wanted "dead or alive".  He invaded Iraq because it hadn't complied with demands to rid itself of "weapons of mass destruction" and the weapons turned out not to exist.  He had no sort of exit strategy for either war, with the result that the war in Iraq lasted officially for nearly nine years, and the war in Afghanistan is in its twelfth year.  And he destroyed the USA's reputation for respecting human rights by adopting the torture of suspects as a routine practice.  Meanwhile on the economic front he exploded the budget deficit by cutting taxes and expanding Medicare benefits, then steered the USA and the world into the worst financial crisis for eighty years.  And he indulged in government by crony, most visibly in the case of FEMA and its feeble response to Hurricane Katrina.  Against this litany of disaster, Republican charges against Obama are vanishingly small beer.

Politicians in the UK have learnt to disown their former leaders - Labour in particular have moved sharply away from Tony Blair, who shared in some of Bush's folly.  It's really not that hard.

2) Ditch vote-losing rhetoric that's not part of your core message.  The primary system forces presidential candidates to appeal first to their own parties, which makes it harder to occupy the centre ground when it comes to the general election, so Republican leaders need to get started now on persuading their members that Hispanic immigrants are as much a part of the American Dream as anyone else, and that women are entitled to the same sexual autonomy as men.  The examples of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock should make it easy to persuade the Neanderthals to keep their prejudices to themselves.

My understanding is that the Republicans' core believe belief is in low taxes and small government, and that it's a popular notion in the USA.  So concentrate on that.

3) Get out more.  Republicans have their own version of reality, not just when it comes to opinion polls.  Fox News is helpful to them if it attracts converts, but damaging if it hides the truth about what's happening in the USA from the Primary electorate.  A political party should have its own values, but not its own facts.

Meanwhile, what should Obama be doing?  All the talk is of a "fiscal cliff" - at the end of the year the "Bush Tax Cuts" will expire, and there will be an automatic cut of about 0.25% in federal spending.  The raw effect will be roughly to halve the budget deficit (fiscal multiplier effects will make the actual deficit reduction smaller, as they have when European governments have attempted to reduce their deficits).  But in reality, it's not a cliff, it's a slope - the effects will be gradual.  And they'll cause more pain to Republicans than to the president - why should he care if taxes go back to Clinton-era levels?  And most of the Democrats' favourite programmes are protected from the spending cuts.  And unlike most of Congress, Obama doesn't have to worry about re-election any more.

I think this is what Obama planned all along.  The Republicans have engaged in unprecedented levels of obstruction in Congress, so once the Democrats lost their super-majority in the Senate, Obama found it very difficult to get any legislation passed.  He has responded by extending the use of executive powers, and by exploiting the Republican's weakness - their lack of contact with reality which caused them to believe that they would win the recent presidential election. So he made short-term compromises, attracting much criticism from his own side, in order to get a budget deal which suits him this side of the election - the Republicans assumed they would have the presidency and a Senate majority by now, so they thought it didn't much matter what they agreed to.

Having won his gamble on re-election, all Obama has to do now is sit on his hands.  Income taxes will go up, and he can then offer Republicans proposals he actually likes to reduce them again.  Here are some suggestions from me:
- a carbon tax, in return for revenue-neutral reductions in income taxes.  The tax would be levied on all fossil fuels at a level corresponding to an independent scientific estimate of the global economic cost of carbon dioxide emissions.
- phasing out agricultural subsidies, in return for revenue-neutral reductions in income taxes.  Obama has always supported agricultural subsidies, but then he's always cared about re-election.  He's free now to do what's right.
- legalizing marijuana, and taxing it, in return for revenue-neutral reductions in income taxes.

I can't say I'm confident that Obama will propose any of these things.  But I'd love it if he did.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Vote Obama

Today is the day of the US presidential election.  The main candidates are the President, Barack Obama, who sits somewhat to the right of David Cameron in the political spectrum, and the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, who is off in the ultra-violet.  (You might prefer to call it infra-red if you favour the US political colour scheme.)

Intrade is currently selling Obama 'shares', which pay $10 if Obama wins, for $6.99 (it was $6.68 when I looked last night), i.e. they give him a 70% chance of winning.  Whereas you can back Romney on Betfair at 4.6 (£1 pays £4.60 if Romney wins), i.e. they give him a 21.7% chance of winning.  Since these chances add up to less than 100%, if you've got accounts on both exchanges you can lock in a profit by taking both bets in an appropriate ratio, provided you bet large enough to cover the fixed fees, and the exchange you win on doesn't default.  (Which suggests that arbitrageurs are none too confident in the soundness of one of the exchanges.)

Nate Silver, who got the last presidential election almost exactly right, is giving Obama a 92% chance of winning, based on his analysis of all the good quality state and national polls (recent reports that the candidates are neck and neck have been based on the national polls, which have been tighter, perhaps because sampling controls need to be determined state by state).  That suggests that it's the Intrade market which is off.

Conor Friedersdorf attracted a good deal of attention six weeks ago with his article Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama.  His argument was that the only way to get presidents one agrees with is not to vote for candidates one disagrees with, and his principal disagreement was over Obama's drone warfare in Pakistan.

I agree about the drone warfare.  The general counter-argument is that the primaries are for picking a candidate you like; the presidential election is for choosing a president from the candidates on offer.  Specifically, here are two reasons to vote against Romney, and therefore for Obama:

1) Romney supports torture.  I hoped this stain on the honour of the USA had gone with GW Bush, but Romney wants to bring it back.  He prefers to call it by the Gestapo name,Verschärfte Vernehmung, translated into English, but whatever you call it the US executed Japanese soldiers for it at the end of the second world war.  This is a line the US must not again cross.

2) It's possible to persuade oneself, based on Romney's more moderate statements of the last few weeks, that he'd be not much worse than Obama - that he won't start a war in Iran, or try to fix the deficit by cutting taxes and increasing military spending.  But that's a dangerous game, because he speaks in code, and it's a code you may not pick up on.

Here's a quote from his website, on the subject of Marriage:
Marriage is more than a personally rewarding social custom. It is also critical for the well-being of a civilization. That is why it is so important to preserve traditional marriage – the joining together of one man and one woman.
This might not be an important issue for you. But look at the argument, which can fairly be paraphrased as "Marriage is critical for the well-being of civilization: that is why we should stop some people getting married".  Which doesn't make any sort of sense.  Romney has got reasons to oppose same-sex marriage, but he's not telling us what they are, because the people he's talking to already know and he's better off not spelling it out for the rest of us.  (On the other hand, if he wanted to campaign for restrictions on divorce his argument would work quite well, I think that's a clue to what he really thinks.)

I haven't got a vote in this election. If you have, and you like Romney's policies, then thank you for reading.  Otherwise, please vote for Obama.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Evidence-Based Executions

Few people start with a careful study of statistical data before forming a view about the desirability of the death penalty for murder.  Proponents are looking for a fitting punishment, opponents are against killing people, or unwilling to risk executing the innocent, or (me) think that the operation of the death penalty is damaging to the body politic.  However, I suppose that many opponents would, however reluctantly, change their minds if it could be shown that the death penalty saves many people from being murdered - I'd be unwilling to put my own sense of what is fitting ahead of the lives of innocents.  Similarly, I hope that many proponents would be willing to give up on retributive justice if it could be shown that it results in more people being murdered, perhaps by legitimizing killing in the minds of potential murderers.  So statistical data do matter.

In the USA, capital punishment was suspended between 1972 and 1976, as a result of Supreme Court decisions against and for it, and subsequently restored piecemeal.  Currently, 32 States have an active death penalty statute, applied with various degrees of enthusiasm.  This would seem to provide much data for statistical investigation of the effect of the death penalty on the murder rate, but results have been disappointingly inconsistent.  This paper explores the modelling issues involved: I reproduce its chart showing the lives that would be saved or lost per additional execution, averaged across states, according to twenty different choices of model.

One approach is to study the competing models and decide which one likes best on its merits.  But few have got the time and knowledge of statistics to do that.  Even for those who have, the result will be a personal opinion of little use for persuading others - a more common approach for public discussion is to select the study which gives results which suit one's case.

I have a proposal.  The USA should abolish the death penalty for everyone whose date of birth is on an even day of the month.  (Date of birth as officially recorded as of the date of they commit murder.)  If the deterrent effect of the death penalty is important, we should soon see a disparity in murder rate between the odds and the evens.  There might be other effects - from legitimizing arbitrary killing, or, in the other direction, from having fewer executions to remind potential killers of the punishment they risk - but we would at least find out how big the deterrent effect is.

Perhaps the Supreme Court would disallow this under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
But it would take them a few years to get round to it, so we'd get some data anyway.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

On freedom of speech

William Connolley asks in a comment to my post on abortion
Are you going to allow the mental anguish of millions of wacko muslims to be a reason for banning films they don't like?
My answer is that any ban would be ultra vires, but I wouldn't if I could.

I think the law goes too far already in restricting free speech.  I agree with the 'Reform Section 5' campaign - "Nobody has the right not to be insulted or offended" - to amend Section 5 of the Public Order Act.  (This is the Section in relation to which John Terry was unsuccessfully prosecuted.)  I think it reasonable for the law to prohibit verbal bullying - monkey chants from football crowds for example - but not to attempt to enforce good manners.  Not everything which is undesirable should be illegal.

I'm reminded of an incident between Glenn McGrath, bowling for Australia, and Ramnaresh Sarwan, batting for the West Indies in a team captained by the star batsman Brian Lara.  McGrath had been talking to Sarwan a lot, apparently trying to wind him up - Sarwan was thought to be vulnerable to this sort of distraction.  Eventually, an exchange something like this took place:
McGrath: What does Brian Lara's dick taste like
Sarwan: I don't know, ask your wife
McGrath: If you ever fucking mention my wife again, I'll fucking rip your fucking throat out 
Outrageous behaviour by McGrath?  Well, he had recently found out that his wife's cancer had recurred (she died five years later).  Heartless by Sarwan?  Well, there's no reason to think that he knew about the cancer.  Homophobic?  No, probably not, but you could read it that way if you wanted.  It seems to me that the authorities were wise to make no public intervention - the players sorted it out.

But I digress: William C was asking about film censorship, not verbal insults.  Well, as a practical matter we should not ban films because people report being offended by them, because that would give general licence to get any film banned. How about banning visual depictions of the prophet Muhammad? - that seems to be something which causes genuine anguish to some Muslims.  If we were going to do that, should we not equally ban all visual depictions of people or animals, if they offend religious sensibilities? My understanding is that the hadiths cited in support of the proscription do indeed apply to all such depictions (5268-71 here, 646-7 here, 447-50 here.)  Evidently we cannot cater for all religious sensibilities without banning almost everything: I prefer to keep the films and give the religious the opportunity to demonstrate their fortitude.

There is one restriction I would countenance, which would be a ban on the representation of falsehood as truth.  So you could make a film about a fictional character - call it Life of Brian - and say what you want about him.  If you chose to make a film about a real character you could either represent it as a work of fiction, or restrict yourself to a narrative having at least some support in the historical record, except where the record is silent.  One would want the courts to err on the side of permissiveness.

If mental anguish is not a reason to restrict insults, or films, why should it be a reason to restrict abortions?  First,I didn't say it should; my main point was that campaigners against restrictions on abortion should recognize that it does cause real distress.  Second, I give reduced weight to the essentially arbitrary distress caused by offence against religious doctrine - arbitrary because the distress could be abolished merely by changing the doctrine.  Whereas the anguish felt by opponents of abortion is, I think, a consequence of an instinctive not a learnt feeling that a fetus is a person.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Thoughts on the abortion debate

Following the recent reshuffle, the new Minister for Women, Maria Miller, and the new Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, have separately reaffirmed their views that the time limit for termination of pregnancy under section 1(1)(a) of the Abortion Act should be reduced from 24 weeks, to 20 weeks and 12 weeks respectively*.

That provoked a flurry of media commentary.  Perhaps the most discussed contribution has been Mehdi Hasan's article asking for respect from the left for his anti-abortion views.  Kelly Hills declined to grant it.  Chris Dillow offered a utilitarian perspective.  Sarah Ditum agreed with Hasan that the issue shouldn't be about left and right, and disagreed with him about everything else.  Meanwhile the estimable Kate Smurthwaite appeared on divers radio programmes to give a feminist perspective, provoking Paul B (that's not me) to recommend moderation in debate.

What strikes me is that much of the argument is not very rational.  Why 24 weeks, or 20 weeks, or 12 weeks, or any other specified time limit?  And if abortion without time limit is ok (it's legal in some circumstances under sections 1(1)(b-d) of the Abortion Act), then why not infanticide?  The 24-week limit is usually presented as being related to the earliest time at which a fetus might survive outside the womb, but why should that be the criterion?

Matthew Parris wrote a trenchant piece in The Times on Saturday [paywall] pointing out that Michael Nazir-Ali's carefully constructed arguments against gay marriage seem rather insincere when one learns that he's actually opposed to all homosexual relationships.  Similarly, to get to the real point in arguments about abortion we need to understand the true motives involved.  So here's my guess.

First, the arguments against abortion are not primarily religious.  As Hasan points out, Islamic scholars are divided on the issue.  So are Catholics and Protestants.  So are Orthodox and Reform Jews.  Evidently scripture offers no unambiguous guidance on the question.  And while the Catholic Church is firmly against abortion, Catholics in general are often willing to ignore its teaching, for example on contraception, or the death penalty.  (It's worth noting here that Catholic teaching on the issue does not concern itself with the question of ensoulment, so we needn't consider it in discussing time limits,)

Second, there is an instinct common to almost all of us to protect infant children (I suppose it's an adaptive trait).  It's natural to extend that to fetuses who look like infants.  I believe that this is the basis for almost all contemporary opposition to abortion.

Third, no one of even a remotely liberal disposition wants to force women to bear children against their will.  For some, their reluctance is tempered by the extent to which they think the woman should have avoided getting pregnant if she didn't want to bear the child.

To me, it makes a lot of sense to frame the issue as a trade-off between our instinct to protect babies and our reluctance to oppress women.  I doubt that the two sides of the argument differ much in their feelings about babies, though those in favour of legal abortion may have made some effort not to attach their feelings to fetuses in the womb, while those against have gone the other way.  But there is a big difference, and to a large extent it's a left-right difference, in attitudes to women's reproductive autonomy.

Seen in that light, it's clear that infanticide is never permissible- the mother's autonomy is no longer at issue.  Earlier, a fetus which might be capable of surviving outside the womb is physically no different from a very premature baby, and therefore evokes very strong protective instincts, making us very reluctant to kill it.  Before that, the later an abortion takes place the more like a baby the fetus is, and the less likely we are to fall on the woman's side of the trade-off.    By contrast, a blastocyst at around the time of implantation is visually nothing like a baby: anyone who knows this but objects to abortion at that stage is making a moral argument about its status as a human being.

To return to the commentaries I cited earlier.  Hasan is, incidentally, right about the abortion law in other European countries: if we were to change the time limit in 1(1)(a) to 14 weeks, that would make the law here very much like that in France.  If that's what Hunt is proposing then it's not an extreme position by European standards.  And I agree with Hasan that his and other views against abortion should be respected.  One doesn't have to accept his argument about a right to life for fetuses to recognize that the pain many people feel at the fact of abortion is real (Dillow singularly fails to weigh this pain in his analysis).  I agree with Paul B (that's still not me) that “if you object to having an abortion then don’t have one” is avoiding the point, albeit it's an effective way to remind a man that he has less skin in the game than does a fertile woman.

If we accept the mental anguish of third parties as a factor, how should that affect our approach to abortion?  First, we should try to reduce late abortions by making access to early abortions easier.  Second, we should treat all abortions as a matter for regret - not blame, but regret - the more so the later they occur.

And what of the time limit?  It would certainly be more comfortable to have it on the short rather than the long side of the earliest time at which survival outside the womb is possible.  That's the argument for 20 weeks.  Hills writes "Approximately 1% of abortions – around 2,729 – are done at or after the 20th week; numbers that happen to correspond pretty closely to how many abortions are granted due to there being abnormalities with the foetus that are largely considered incompatible with life."  That would seem to be an argument for reducing the time limit in 1(1)(a) to 20 weeks, since abortion would remain legal without time limit under 1(1)(d) - "a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped".  However, if there are no abortions under 1(1)(a) after 20 weeks, then it makes no difference if we change the limit.  Whereas if, more plausibly, there are some, we should find out how many and why before we change anything.

I've steered clear of discussing any right to life for the fetus.  (Personally I don't understand arguments about rights: I'm more interested in obligations.)  Chris Dillow in his piece says "none of you should give a damn about my opinion".  But, if you want to know, I think that our obligations towards (or, if you prefer, the rights of) a blastocyst/embryo/fetus/baby increase progressively as it develops.  The only coherent alternative I can see is that they arise fully formed at the moment of conception, as the Catholic Church holds.  And I don't believe that, because a zygote is very obviously not a person.

*Hunt may mean 12 weeks embryonic age, timed from conception, whereas the current limit is in terms of gestational ago, timed from last menstrual period, about two weeks earlier.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Great Wages Grab

The TUC published a report this week The Great Wages Grab - how your pay has fallen behind for thirty years.  The report tells us that the wage share of GDP has fallen from about 59% thirty years ago to about 55% now. It adds that because of rising inequality the average worker's pay has fallen as a share of total wages (by which I think it means that the proportional gap between median and mean pay has increased).  Combining these two factors, it finds that the "average worker" is £7,000 a year worse off than they would be if the proportions had stayed constant since 1980.

The report has been welcomed by Brendan Barber and Richard Murphy, who add that increasing wages is the way to encourage growth.  Think Left agrees with them.  Seamus Milne uses the data to bolster his case for more powerful Trade Unions.  Tim Worstall in contrast is vehemently opposed to the wage share analysis: he points out repeatedly that the corporate profit share of GDP has not risen as the wage share has fallen, as the TUC implies when it says
The three decades when deregulation ruled may have been good for profits and fine for the wealthy, but the benefits did not trickle down to pay packets.
Worstall's view is that
...this is another one of those fake statistics that will be bandied around the political arena for years to come. And it’s one that needs to be killed...
Worstall is supported by data supplied by Britmouse, who remarks that
I think Tim is correct to note the (slight) rise in other income (which includes income from self-employment, so-called “mixed income”) and VAT are the significant secular trend.
For my part, I agree that looking at the wage share of GDP is not very meaningful.  I think we can do better. But first, a note on what the data represent.  They come (I think, and Britmouse says so too) from data produced by the Office of National Statistics giving the breakdown of UK GDP according to the income approach:

GDP = COE + GOS + GMI + TP & MSP & M
COE: Compensation of Employees of corporations (including public sector employers); includes employers' national insurance contributions (as well as employees' national insurance and income tax)
GOS: Gross operating Surplus, roughly the gross profits of incorporated businesses after paying employees
GMI: Gross mixed income, the money that goes to non-incorporated businesses (partnerships and self-employed)
T-S: Taxes less subsidies on production and imports, the difference due to money going to the government between what it costs to get stuff to market plus profits on it, and what it sells for.  This includes VAT and duties, but not income tax.

Worstall's objection is that looking at COE as a proportion of GDP is not very meaningful if self-employed income and taxes are rising disproportionately.  I agree with him.  Let's try instead looking at COE as a proportion of GOS+COE, ie the wage costs of incorporated businesses as a proportion of their income.

COE/GDP is the line the TUC has plotted, the three lines below it are as in Britmouse's chart, but I have added the top line, which is employees' compensation as a proportion of gross corporate income (I downloaded my data here).  It shows that compensation has fallen over thirty years from about 76% to about 72% of corporate income.  So the TUC has got a point.  However, this fall had happened by 1983 - it all occurred in Thatcher's first term; I recall that the TUC was unhappy at the time.

It's interesting to look at how things changed between between 1979 and 1983.  The fall in COE as a proportion of GDP went into increasing GOS and T-S.  The increasing tax take came from an increase in VAT from 8% to 15%.  Using this money, Corporation tax was cut, so companies got to keep a larger share of GOS, and income tax was cut but National Insurance was increased, so that a typical worker got to keep a slightly larger share of COE (higher earners did better).

Since 1983, the main shift has been a modest transfer of GDP from the corporate to the non-corporate sectors.  I suppose this arises from an increasing tendency to outsource work to contractors rather than engage permanent staff.  If a worker is paid similarly either way, then this is just an artefact of the way the statistics are compiled.

So does all this represent an unfair change - a "wages grab"?  If you take money out of the corporate sector by means of taxes on production, and use it to cut income tax, it seems fair for wages to adjust downwards to compensate.  On the other hand, if you use it to cut corporation tax, it seems fair for gross corporate profits to adjust downwards.  Looking at the changes from 1979-1983 only, it does seem that corporations benefited at the expense of employees.  This I think is what the government intended: it must be gratifying for them that the shift seems to have persisted.  If you take the view that the increased net profitability of corporations has encouraged growth and made us all richer, you will quietly applaud.  If you disagree with that, then you will see it as something to be reversed.

The TUC's other contention is that the average worker's wage has fallen as a share of total wages.  I'll have a look at the data in another post.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Saving lives by making alcohol more expensive

The BBC is excited about the possible benefits of a 50p per unit minimum alcohol price in England:
The deaths of 50,000 pensioners could be avoided over the next decade if minimum alcohol pricing is rolled out in England, according to new research. The BBC's Panorama programme commissioned the research from statisticians at Sheffield University.
That's a lot of deaths avoided - 5,000 each year. I compared it with ONS statistics on alcohol-related deaths, which can be downloaded here.  According to those data, there were 3,651 alcohol-related deaths in England in 2010 among people aged 55 and over (the State Pension age in the UK is currently 65 for men, and is in the process of increasing from 60 to 65 for women, with future increases to 66 and then 67 for both sexes).

So superficially the research is claiming that well over 100% of alcohol-related deaths can be avoided.  However, the official figures include only deaths obviously related to alcohol.  The analysis here uses a broader definition of alcohol-related deaths, based on the dubious method of Alcohol-attributable fractions, and gets a number (for 2005) of 9,005 deaths among people aged 55 and over, compared with 3,347 in the ONS data.  Of those 9,005 deaths, 5,803 are in people aged 65 and over.  If you use this number, and scale it up a bit to correspond to the slight increase in ONS figures, you find that the research is claiming that a mere 80% or so of alcohol-related deaths would be avoided.

I hesitate to commit myself before seeing what the Sheffield statisticians have actually done, but my initial reaction is that their numbers are a big overestimate.  It's disappointing, but not surprising, that the BBC should report this research uncritically.

I note that the NHS itself says that a 40p per unit minimum price could reduce alcohol-related deaths in England (across all age groups) by 900 a year.  It cites what "David Cameron is reported to have said".

I believe that alcohol is somewhat poisonous.  But I see no reason to use bad statistics to prove it.

There's one caveat, which is that the published methodology tells us that the ONS data are age-standardized, i.e. scaled to a European-standard age distribution.  In reality, there are more old people in England than in the standard, so actual deaths are higher.  (It's unclear to me whether the higher number using the AAF methodology is age standardized.)


Update: I watched the Panorama programme Old, Drunk and Disorderly? this evening.  The 50,000 figure was quoted a few times, but no information was given about how it had been arrived at.  It was juxtaposed with an estimate of 300 lives a year being saved by the introduction of a 50p minimum price in Scotland.  Scaling according to populations that would correspond to about 3000 lives a year in England, across all age groups.

Papers and reports from the Sheffield University group are listed here, not including the research reported by Panorama.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

The cars I made earlier

I took my children to the cinema on Tuesday, and was treated to an advertisement - this one - soliciting views on the appropriate plural form of the car name 'Prius'.   By way of illustration, the advert asserted that the plural of 'Octopus' is 'Octopi', but the plural of 'Platypus' is not 'Platypi'.  Which is strange, because the names mean "eight-footed"  and "broad-footed": in both cases the ending is from Greek πους.  The classical plurals would be 'Octopodes' and 'Platypodes', and the (sensible) English plurals are 'Octopuses' and 'Platypuses'.

The name 'Prius' would seem to be a Latin neuter comparative, meaning "earlier".  If so, the classical plural would be 'Priora'.  And the sensible English plural would be 'Priuses'.

I'm faintly surprised to learn from Toyota's website that voting is long since closed - did they show us the ad by mistake?  It seems hoi polloi were invited to choose between 'prii', 'prius', 'priuses', 'prien', and 'prium', and the plurality vote was for 'prii'.  My plan is to avoid any further encounter with this plural form, by means of not buying the things.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The law on rape

In among all the media chatter about Julian Assange is some important stuff about what actually constitutes rape.  Kate Smurthwaite has a good point when she wonders why this should matter to so many men.  The two she picks on in particular are Geroge Galloway, who says that
if the allegations made by these two women were true, 100 per cent true, and even if a camera in the room captured them, they don't constitute rape. At least not rape as anyone with any sense can possibly recognise it.
and Brendan O'Neill, who wrote that
in order for rape to have occurred, it is not enough to prove that the woman did not consent; we must also surely prove that the man knows she did not consent, or was utterly reckless as to the question of her consent, and carried on regardless
Both of them are entitled to their opinion as to what the law on rape ought to say.  But what's relevant to Assange's case is what the law, in England and in Sweden, actually does say.

The law in England and Wales in perfectly clear: it's laid down in the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Section 1, "Rape", states that "person (A) commits an offence if he intentionally penetrates the vagina...of another person (B) with his penis [and] B does not consent to the penetration [and] A does not reasonably believe that B consents". Section 75 goes into detail on "Evidential presumptions about consent", telling us that "the complainant is to be taken not to have consented to the relevant act...[if]...The complainant was asleep or otherwise unconscious at the time of the relevant act"

The law in Sweden is equally clear: it's given in Chapter 6 of the penal code (this is the official English translation).

"A person who ... forces another person to have sexual intercourse ... shall be sentenced for rape to imprisonment for at least two and at most six years.

"This shall also apply if a person engages with another person in sexual improperly exploiting that the person, due to unconsciousness, sleep, ... or otherwise..., is in a helpless state."

So one of the accusations against Assange is unquestionably rape in both English and Swedish law.

I don't mean to comment directly on whether Assange is guilty or innocent of rape - he denies the charges, and there are questions about the case against him which can best be decided in a Swedish court.  David Allen Green has discussed the case in detail (read the comments if you want to see the other side of the argument).

Re-reading O'Neill's piece, I'm unsure whether he means to defend Assange or just to make a more general point.  Either way, he's clearly wrong in English law: the relevant criterion for rape to have occurred is not "utter recklessness" about consent, but a lack of "reasonable belief" that it exists.  O'Neill goes on to write that "...rape must involve an intention on the part of the man to commit rape. The man must have a guilty mind - or what is referred to in law as mens rea;- in the sense that he knows he is committing rape."  This is plainly wrong too: it has never been the case that the mens rea requirement trumps the principle that ignorantia juris non excusat.

Monday, 3 September 2012

An exaggerated saving

There's a factoid popping up here and there on right-wing websites to the effect that that private-sector management at Hinchingbrooke hospital saved £1.6m on paper stationery.  Since the hospital's entire turnover is reportedly £105m, that seems wildly implausible.

In the absence of detailed accounts, one can't know exactly what's going on, but one can at least check the website of Circle, who are providing the management.  It tells us
£1.1m procurement savings banked.  £1.6m identified this year
So they've identified £1.6m savings on all procurement. It's surely impossible that the entire saving comes from the paper stationery budget. So how did this myth arise?  Well, according to the BBC, Ali Parsa, Circle's chief executive, claimed that
the company had saved £1.6m by ordering the hospital's paper supplies differently
and the Telegraph has him saying that
that on paper supplies alone they have saved £1.6 million
Which, in an editorial in the same newspaper, becomes
simply changing the way stationery was ordered, for example, saved £1.6 million
For one thing, "paper supplies" and "stationery" are not the same things. Hospitals use a lot of paper products - trays, bedpans, etc - for medical purposes.  But, more importantly, I think there's been a mistake somewhere along the way: my guess is that an assistant fed Ali Parsa with an example of something they'd saved money on, and a figure for all savings identified, and by the time he came to talk to the press he'd joined the two together.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

When lying becomes a habit

Paul Ryan, the Republican candidate for the vice-presidency of the United States has attracted some attention with the dishonesty of his speech to his party's convention.  He does seem to have been particularly brazen, but I suppose it can be said in his defence that his job there was to please the party faithful, not media fact-checkers, and that's just what he's done.  And the leaders of the Democratic Party are themselves quite willing to stretch the truth when they see political advantage in it.

So whereas I am horrified by the professed beliefs of today's Republicans, and sympathetic to Barack Obama, who does lots of things I disagree with but perhaps would do much better if he had more freedom to act, I don't propose to make much of Ryan's mendacious polemics.  But I am concerned with a small, but to me significant lie he told in a telephone interview he gave ten days ago, for radio broadcast.  I quote from the interviewer's transcript (the interviewer, Hugh Hewitt, is a supporter of Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate):
HH: But you did run marathons at some point?
PR: Yeah, but I can’t do it anymore, because my back is just not that great.
HH: I’ve just gotta ask, what’s your personal best?
PR: Under three, high twos. I had a two hour and fifty-something.
HH: Holy smokes. All right, now you go down to Miami University…
PR: I was fast when I was younger, yeah.
Now, running a marathon inside three hours is doesn't make you a champion, but it's a pretty good effort - Lance Armstrong ran just under three hours in his first marathon.  So running enthusiasts wanted to know more.  And they found out that Ryan has in fact run one marathon, in just over four hours.  Running a marathon in four hours is creditable enough, but it's not what you'd call "fast", so Ryan didn't just blurt out the wrong time, he clearly claimed to have been much better than he actually was.  (A spokesman has confirmed that Ryan "mixed things up".)

If you've never run a marathon you may have to take my word for this, but everyone I know who has run one (or more) remembers their (best) time quite accurately - mine is 3:15:52 .  It's inconceivable that one could misremember a time of over four hours as under three hours - the difference is huge, equivalent to knocking two and a half minutes off one's time for a mile.  (I'd welcome comments agreeing or disagreeing from any marathon runners reading this.)

Ryan couldn't have expected to gain many votes by claiming an impressive marathon time, nor if he'd thought about it could he have expected not to be found out.  The only explanation I can think of for this lie is that he'd told it so many times before that he repeated it without thinking.  That is, he's a man who's in the habit of lying about a question on which most people are scrupulously honest.  The only other politician I can think of who lies so casually is Jeffrey Archer (the British pulp novelist), who incidentally seems to have been a genuinely talented runner before getting himself locked up for perjury.

Does it matter if Ryan is a habitual liar?  Well, the vice-presidency of the United States is not usually an important office (would you recognize Joe Biden?), but there are exceptions (Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford).   And whereas I expect politicians to dissemble on occasions in their roles as populists and diplomats, I think it important for them to remember the difference between truth and fiction when they come to make decisions.  I suspect that George W. Bush often didn't care about that distinction.  I fear that Paul Ryan has simply forgotten.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Holiday Reading

Today I set aside my chosen reading material for a few hours in favour of a novel I picked off a bookshelf in the villa - Firefight, by Chris Ryan.  (I like to expand my cultural horizons from time to time.)  It's about a former SAS Captain undertaking a covert mission in Afghanistan and London: the dialogue's rather clunky but the plot moves along briskly.  And the hero displays a welcome revulsion against torture.  People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like, as Abraham Lincoln probably did not say.

However.  The prologue features a "young Pakistani student in Rome", who speaks English better than Italian, and uses it because it's "more widely understood than his native Arabic".  Pakistani muslims will know some Arabic from studying Islam, but their native language will be Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Urdu, or some other Indo-Iranian tongue.  Much later, the hero flies back from his mission in Afghanistan, and realises that something is wrong when he wakes up on the plane and realises that they should have landed in Oxfordshire hours earlier.  This turns out to be because they've been redirected to Poland.  Which is not very far east of a straight line route from Afghanistan to England.  How could an SAS operative, his editor, and the rest of the publishing team he acknowledges not know this?

Much more memorably, I've read The Rodwell Files.  If you're a bridge player with an interest in advanced card play, I strongly recommend it.

If I can't tempt you to that, you might try The Universe in Zero Words, a readable and not unduly technical history of various important equations. The author seems more at home in a couple of places with the maths than the physics, and in particular understates the genius of Maxwell's equations and their prediction of electro-magnetic radiation (which I miss no opportunity to emphasize). But the book is an excellent idea very well executed. If you read and understand it but learn nothing, you should have written it yourself.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

On giving and taking offence

In another forum, I made some cutting remarks about Todd Akin, with respect to his neanderthal views on rape.  Another commentator chided me for my rudeness, and I responded that I had no tolerance for Akin's "because he spouted offensive lies in order to minimize the consequences [of his opposition to abortion in all circumstances]".  The commentator rejoined that "there’s been quite enough offensive lies on behalf of the pro-choice side to balance out" with a footnote "If one wishes to be offended. Personally, I find lies irritating but often very instructive. Rarely offensive."

All of which set me thinking about my views on offensiveness.  I've long been aware of a conflict between my general view that no one has a right not to be offended, and my equally strongly held view that some things are too offensive to be said.  I hold for example that Salman Rushdie should write what he likes about the history of the Quran, but that racist remarks are usually unacceptable.

I think this is an instance in which personal feelings are instructive.  In common with the commentator I cited above, there are few things I fnd personally offensive.  But I recall once being told that someone had described me as a "Jew bastard" and feeling rather stung by it (ethnically I am mostly Jewish).  And latterly I have been aware that I would have no tolerance whatever to any sort of insult directed at my late wife (not that anyone has been so unkind as to offer any).  This is not a matter of wishing to be offended, it's being offended without the option.

I deduce that an insult is truly offensive if directed at someone's suffering, in a way that gives them no choice but to feel offended.  African slaves and their descendants are entitled to be offended by insults targetting their race: millionaire black footballers not so much.  Victims of the holocaust and their descendants are entitled to be offended by insults against Jews: 21st century millionaire Jewish bankers not so much.  Rape victims impregnated by their attackers: yes of course they're entitled to be offended by speculation that they weren't really raped.  There is no general right not to be offended, but there is a general obligation not to offend the unfortunate in respect of their misfortune.

I am opposed to laws making it an offense to use insulting words or behaviour - sporting bodies can reasonably seek to deter such insults, but the law of the land should take a loftier view.  But I am very much in favour of the electorate voting against candidates who give offense according to my definition.  If they do it on purpose, a pox on them, and if they do it unconsciously they are surely unfit to govern.

Monday, 20 August 2012

The Inefficiency of Free Markets

The small and faraway island of Imaginola is divided into two countries, Freeland and Episcopia.  Because of the local geography, each country has a single main road, with its population distributed evenly along it.  The population of each country is sufficient to support, among other services, two shoe shops.  All the shoe shops being excellent, the habit of the populace is to patronize the shop nearer to wear they live, except that if they find two shoe shops within sight of each other they will choose one in some idiosyncratic manner, which can be treated as random for the purposes of analysis.  The topic of this post is where we expect the shoe shops to be situated.

In Freeland, the shopkeepers choose freely where to put their shops, and naturally seek to maximize their custom.  The result is that the shops have converged to occupy nearby locations half way along the road.  Each shop gets half the custom, and shoppers have to travel on average a quarter of the length of the road to buy shoes.  Neither shop can move further away from the other without ceding some of its customers.

In Episcopia, government officials use fine control of the business rates system to encourage shopkeepers to position themselves where they can best serve the populace.  The result is that the two shoe shops there are to be found a quarter of the way along the road from each end.  Shoppers have to travel on average an eighth of the length of the road to buy shoes.

Whereas in Freeland the citizens congratulate themselves on the fine shopping experience afforded by its free markets, in Episcopia shopping is more convenient, the roads are less congested, and the citizens have more time for productive labour.  The economy is booming and there may be a need for a third shoe shop.  The interested reader can amuse herself working out where three shops will put themselves in Freeland (should it ever need them), and where the officials will encourage three shops to go in Episcopia.

I should mention that I have assumed that the start up costs (in shoe stocks and staffing) are sufficient that the shopkeepers in Freeland have no fear of a new store opening up, hoping to drive one of them out of business.  If that were a factor, the positioning of the shops would be different.

Monday, 6 August 2012

A law to stop poor people benefiting from good design

My attention has been drawn by a letter in The Times to clause 56 (formerly clause 55) of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill.  This clause has the effect of "extending copyright protection for mass-produced artistic works to life of the creator plus 70 years" from the current term of 25 years.

The bill recently completed its committee stage, with only perfunctory discussion of the merits of this extension of Intellectual Property rights - the clause was supported by the Opposition.  It continues to disappoint me that left-wing parties fail to see that extensions to Intellectual Property laws act against the aims of Left Economics - they put all the emphasis on encouraging production of intellectual property, and none on its efficient use, which, for non-rivalrous goods, is achieved when everyone is free to enjoy it.

The clause enjoys the support of the Design Council, and Terence Conran in particular:
By protecting new designs more generously, we are encouraging more investment of time and talent in British design. That will lead to more manufacturing in Britain, and that in turn will lead to more jobs – which we desperately need right now. Properly protected design can help make the UK a profitable workshop again.
Well, it's true that extended IP rights ought to make designs somewhat more valuable.  But it's questionable whether that would increase employment of designers, since the ability to make large profits for a century or so on old designs would seem to reduce the incentive to create new ones.  Either way, it's unclear why there should be any effect on where manufacturing takes place, except perhaps that when IP rights allow high retail margins, manufacturing costs become less important.

On the other hand, bloggers are unimpressed: Francis Davy questions the government's description of the legal effect of the clause, and techdirt doubts that it will achieve its economic aims.

For me the most interesting discussion is in an obscure impact assessment by the government's Intellectual Property Office (the Commons Committee showed no sign of having read it).  It gives a list of manufacturers of classic design furniture "all based outside the UK" who are campaigning for the law to be changed, and notes "the extensive use of the internet importers of the UK as a staging post for EU wide sales" because UK law gives less protection than in most of the EU.  I suppose that this trade is of some economic benefit to the UK.  (The impact assessment says that the clause will "update and clarify UK legislation in line with EU law", but as the letter in The Times points out, the UK is under no obligation to harmonize its laws in this respect.)

The impact assessment finds that furniture is likely to be the product most affected by the change, and surveys prices for various classic furniture designs: typically the replica price is about 15% of the price from the original producer.  It concludes that buyers of the replicas would be highly unlikely to switch to buying the much more expensive authorized product if the replica were made unavailable; they would buy less attractive substitutes instead.  So the original producers are greatly overestimating the benefits to them of the clause.

Surprisingly enough, there's even a mention for Paul Heald's recent talk as discussed on techdirt, and in particular his data suggesting that copyright extension on books has had the effect of making them unavailable: perhaps there would be a similar effect with furniture designs.

The impact assessment goes on to speculate about some possible benefits of the clause, but one gets the impression that its author is unenthusiastic.  For my part, I cannot believe that it's in the public interest that one should have to pay thousands rather than hundreds of pounds for this chair.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Safer cycling

There's one single rule you should follow to reduce your chances of being killed on a bicycle.  Never, ever, get trapped on the inside of a bus or lorry in the left hand lane (in the UK).  If you're tempted to go up the inside, don't.  If you do anyway, make sure there's a pavement you can jump onto if the traffic starts moving.

Very sadly, a cyclist was killed yesterday by an olympic bus, because he didn't follow that rule.  Bradley Wiggins may or may not have recommended wearing a helmet, but that would have been irrelevant in this accident.

The BBC was better four weeks ago

The BBC "did very well" in Understanding Uncertainty's survey of reporting of the Higgs Boson announcement on 4th July.  Today it carries an online report of the stronger result in this paper, which it says "equates to a one-in-300 million chance that the Higgs does not exist".  No it doesn't.

Update: The BBC has now fixed its story.  But there's almost identical wrong wording in the Telegraph.

Friday, 27 July 2012

De minimis

Paul Chambers' absurd conviction for sending an ill-judged joke tweet has finally been quashed.  (Jack of Kent has covered the case extensively.)   After the judgment, a spokesperson for the Crown Prosecution Service said:
Following our decision to charge Mr Chambers, both the magistrates' court and the crown court, in upholding his conviction, agreed that his message had the potential to cause real concern to members of the public, such as those travelling through the airport during the relevant time.  Neither the courts nor ourselves thought it relevant that no member of the public is known actually to have been so concerned.

Presenting our case obliged those courts and the High Court, as well as the defendant and his lawyers and supporters, to waste an extraordinary amount of time and money, and caused real damage and distress to an actual person, the defendant. We have noted and accepted the court's reasoning in quashing the conviction.  All of us responsible for this case at the CPS resign our positions with immediate effect, being resolved to spend the rest of our lives in poverty, doing such good works as we can, in the hope of mitigating in some small way the damage we have done.
There seem to be some not insignificant transcription errors in the BBC's reporting of the statement.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Second Amendment

From time to time, a nutter with a gun in the USA goes postal.  Everyone mourns the lives lost.  Europeans reflect that if everyone has guns, homicidal nutters have guns.  Americans observe that good people need guns to defend themselves from bad people, and that the Second Amendment says they're entitled to bear arms.

It's worth looking at what the Second Amendment actually says.
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
 Its meaning has been debated on three counts.  First, there are additional commas in the version passed by Congress: Geoffrey Pullum recommends ignoring them.  Since no one at the time seems to have troubled themselves over whether the commas should be there or not, that seems sound to me.

Second, what does "bear arms" mean?  It's been argued, notably in the linguists' brief in D.C. v. Heller, that it means to carry weapons in an army or militia.  The majority view of the Supreme Court prefers the more general meaning that one might expect; the minority view dissents, each side citing persuasive examples of usage to support its case.  It's clear to me that the meaning of "bear arms" depended then, as it does now, on the context, which doesn't get us very far since our problem is to understand what the context might be.

Third, and to me most importantly, what is the prefatory clause about the militia doing there at all?  Why not keep it snappy and just put "The right of the People..."?  The linguists' brief explains that grammatically the opening clause is an 'absolute construction' which should be interpreted by prefacing "Because", and the majority view of the Supreme Court was happy to agree with that.  Eugene Volokh argues powerfully that in explaining its objective the Second Amendment does not mean to restrict its scope to the satisfaction of that objective.

I suggest that another reading is possible.  Consider this:
The weather being so hot, staff are permitted to take off their jackets in the office.
Everyone would agree that the permission to undress applies only for the duration of the hot weather. This sort of interpretation has been considered in detail by Stump (p62), whose work is explained in less technical language by Fernald (p21).  The summary seems to be that if the absolute clause is time-limited, the operative clause applies only for the limited time.  So if the necessity of a well-regulated militia was envisaged not to be permanent at the time of the enacting of the Second Amendment, and if it has now lapsed, then the Amendment is now null.

So what was understood by the legislature at the time it passed the Amendment, and by the States when they  ratified it?  We might look at James Madison's earlier draft:
The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.
It's clear that he envisaged no temporal restriction.  But that's largely irrelevant.  The legislature in adopting the Amendment chose not just to delete the 'Conscience Clause' but also to move the absolute clause to the beginning, thus making the meaning less clear.  Why did it do that?  I can think of only one reason, which is that a certain ambiguity was required to get the Amendment passed - political fudge is not a recent invention.  The legislature did not agree to create an unambiguous constitutional right for the individual to keep and bear arms.  Very probably many of its members would have been in favour of such a right, had they considered the question at all, but then very probably they would have been in favour of all sorts of things that are not part of the US constitution.  (This is an example of the general weakness of interpretation according to original intent.)

I suggest that in this case, where the legislature has wilfully declined to make itself clear, it is the duty of the Supreme Court to consider present circumstances rather than to seek to divine what a majority understanding of the original meaning might have been in 1791.  And present circumstances strongly suggest that it is not best to permit the general population to keep and bear semi-automatic weapons.