Archive: Books

The Indianapolis 500: A Century of Excitement cover

On Sunday, motorsport fans around the world will be tuning in to watch one of the sport’s most prestigious events, the Indianapolis 500. The following day will be the 100th anniversary of the 1911 Indianapolis 500, the first running of this famous race.

Marking the centenery, Ralph Kramer’s book Indianapolis 500: A Century of Excitement attempts to sum up 100 years of history in one book. A formidable task.

The results are mixed. It is difficult to imagine that such an accessible and full history of the Indianapolis 500 is available elsewhere. But at the same time, it’s hard to escape the feeling that detail has been sacrificed for the sake of brevity. This book is more towards the ‘coffee table’ end of the spectrum.

You progress through the book at a breakneck pace, as fast as Arie Luyendyk. Each decade has its own chapter. While the bitesize approach is certainly appreciated, I would have liked to see the book have an extra 100 or so pages in order to provide a more comprehensive history.

I also find that the text sometimes gets bogged down in technical aspects of the cars. While this is often interesting, some of it goes straight over my head, particularly in aspects of the earlier cars that bear little resemblance to anything found in a modern-day race car. This side of the book failed to get my pulse racing.

Exacerbating this, there is little about the racing itself in the earlier chapters covering the first few decades. Perhaps it is not well recorded in general, as this improves in the later chapters that cover more recent decades.

But the book comes alive with the wealth of photographs, cuttings and factual interludes. There are comfortably square inches dedicated to photographs than to text, giving this book the approachable feel of a scrapbook.

However, this does make reading the text itself rather more difficult than it needs to be. Sentences are cut midway, sometimes with multiple pages of photographs to wade through before you can read the end of the sentence. But if a picture paints 1,000 words, it is a small price to pay. The photographs of the cars, drivers, spectators and circuit do much more to convey the evolution of the race over the past 100 years than any text could.

Also scattered through the book are profiles of notable figures through the Indianapolis 500’s history. Again, these suffer from being rather too brief.

Following the chapter about the 2000s, the book is rounded off with a photograph of each and every Indy 500-winning car, with a short blurb explaining the subsequent fate of each car. This provides a neat at-a-glance overview of 100 years of motorsport heritage. That is the best way to approach this book — as an at-a-glance overview.

All-in-all, this book should be commended for attempting to cover 100 years of history in one book. It is a decent attempt, and what exists is quite enlightening. But it is impossible to do full justice to the full century. I was left wanting more depth.

Having said that, there is no denying that it is quite special to flick through this book and browse through the great photographs from the past. The breezy approach makes this a very accessible and relaxing read.

This week, I have decided to make another attempt at reading more books. I read stuff all the time, but almost all of it is on the web. A few hundred words at a time. Lots of breadth but not much depth.

I have never done much in the way of reading books. Fiction is not for me, so novels are more-or-less out of the question. However, I do enjoy reading non-fiction books. But I somehow never get the time to read them.

Time is the scarcest resource imaginable, and I have a tendency to build these backlogs. Not too long ago I wrote about the huge number of podcasts that are stuck in my backlog (I am just about getting that under control). I also have a small pile of CDs that I bought several months ago and still haven’t listened to, and a slightly smaller pile of DVDs from before Christmas that I still haven’t watched.

The unread books shelf But books are the big daddy of my backlog. I have special shelf just for unread books! Currently, 15 books sit there. Some of them I must have got almost a decade ago.

I think they are perhaps the wrong books. How tempted am I to ever reopen the ten-year-old book about US radio stations that I started but didn’t finish? How about the two political books that I started but never finished? Or the two books about economics that I started but got bored of?

In the summer of 2006, between my second and third years at university, I went on a big drive to read economics books. I had begun to realise that I was struggling at economics, and decided to spend the summer reading less academic, more accessible economics book in an attempt to soak up some of the subject and hopefully become a better economist in third year.

I happened to read a blog post by Greg Mankiw called Summer reading list, which seemed to fit the bill perfectly. After a bit of research, I selected five books from the list and ordered them. Sadly, it took me a year to read one of them. I finished another of them last year. I started one of them this year but gave up, and two others sit on the shelf virtually unopened. (I finished Freakonomics very quickly, but I think I bought that afterwards.)

My lack of talent in economics became clearer in third year, when I performed abysmally. My motivation plummeted. I later bought the Penguin History of Economics, which was on the reading list for the History of Economic Thought course that I took. This, also, has been started but not finished.

For a while, my main plan was to get through these economics books, and the other books in my backlog, before buying any others. But having not done any reading for several months, I had to recognise that this wasn’t a good plan.

Before I completed my degree, I had already more-or-less made the decision not to pursue economics further. I was lucky enough to somehow get a 2:1, but mostly due to the politics courses and my dissertation. It was clear to me that I just wasn’t cut out for economics, even though I planned to maintain an interest in it.

But there was no point in pretending I was going to start reading these books. So I have decided to buy more books on different subjects and start reading them. Last week I acquired seven new books — six that I had bought, and one surprise gift. It’s a mixture of stuff — some about writing and editing, a humour book, some motorsport books that I will probably blast through, and… an economics book.

Well, I figured that since I liked Freakonomics so much, I would probably actually read Superfreakonomics. Wish me luck. I will keep my LibraryThing thing updated.

Warp20 box setWarp Records celebrated its twentieth anniversary this year with an extravagant box set, Warp20 (Box Set). Measuring in at 10 inches × 10 inches × 3 inches, it truly is a thing of beauty. Packed in there are five CDs and five 10 inch records, full of Warp goodness old and new.

It was not cheap either, so was only for the most fanatic of Warp followers. Luckily for Warp, there are plenty of fanatical followers — myself included.

Warp20 (Chosen)

Warp20 (Chosen) coverAlso released separately as a 2CD album on its own, Warp20 (Chosen) is designed to be a collection of the best of the first twenty years of Warp Records.

The first ten tracks, making up disc one, were chosen by voters on the internet. As such, the top ten is sadly predictable. You really could have forecast in advance the inclusion of the likes of ‘Windowlicker’, ‘Roygbiv’ and ‘My Red Hot Car’ in the top three.

The inclusion of most of these tracks was surely never in doubt. Certainly, the top eight are bona fide Warp classics (I am not so sure about Jimmy Edgar’s ‘I Wanna Be Your STD’ or Clark’s ‘Herzog’, but I can understand their inclusion). There is also a noticeable skew towards the late 1990s / early 2000s. Only one track, LFO’s ‘LFO (Leeds Warehouse Mix)’, is from before 1998.

It is clear that the current fans of Warp Records — at least those who voted in the internet poll — are a bit like me. They were not around for the birth of the label, and cling on to the late 1990s IDM explosion as Warp’s classic sound. I think this is Warp’s best period too, but I would have preferred a greater variety in the first disc.

Luckily, the second disc is on hand to provide some of that variety. Label boss and co-founder Steve Beckett chose a further fourteen tracks which make up disc two. While all the usual suspects are again present and correct (giving the likes of Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and Autechre two appearances on the compilation), other periods and genres are given rightful recognition.

Ultimately, though, while there are a couple of gems here that I didn’t previously own, Warp20 (Chosen) is a bit redundant for me, and no doubt for almost everyone else who bought this box set. If you are such a great fan of Warp that you are going to shell out eighty quid or so, you almost certainly need no such overview to the label.

Perhaps of more value is the fold-out poster of comments posted by the internet users who placed their votes, providing (relatively) qualitative information to accompany the raw top ten.

Warp20 (Recreated)

Warp20 (Recreated) coverThis is the surprise highlight of the package — a double-disc album of Warp artists covering classic Warp tracks. It shows you how far Warp has come in the past ten years. For its tenth anniversary, Warp released an album of Warp artists remixing classic Warp tracks.

But with a more diverse range of artists on its roster, and plenty of artists with a different set of skills, it seems as though it makes more sense to ask artists to do covers rather than remixes. The results are pleasingly wonderful. Clearly, when you take maverick musical geniuses and ask them to take on the works of other maverick musical geniuses, the results are going to be deliciously skewed and entertaining.

The album opens with Born Ruffians covering Aphex Twin’s classic humorous tracks from the mid-1990s, ‘Milkman’ and ‘To Cure a Weakling Child’. The band’s stripped down approach works surprisingly well. The vocals are shouted out as though from the rooftops, rather than being distorted by electronic effects, adding to the comedy effect.

Another surprise highlight is Maxïmo Park’s take on ‘When’, originally by Vincent Gallo. This is a wonderful piece of dark synth-pop. Hopefully it signals a new direction for Maxïmo Park, whose sound has otherwise become stale.

Meanwhile, Jamie Lidell’s version of Grizzly Bear’s ‘Little Brother’ is just as beautiful and organic as the original. It is another instance of an artist revealing something otherwise unheard in his audio arsenal.

But the real highlight of the album is ‘Phylactery’ by John Callaghan, which is based on Autechre’s ‘Tilapia’. This transforms one of the first signposts of Autechre’s foray into increasingly unique and obscure electronics into a wonderfully wonky pop song.

One instance where a remix may have been a better idea is when Luke Vibert tackled ‘LFO’. The results are actually rather good — undoubtedly a Luke Vibert take on a classic Warp track. But it certainly lacks the punch of the original. This makes it a slightly trudging, though intriguing, listen.

Overall, though, Warp20 (Recreated) is a marvellous document. It reveals sides to Warp artists that hadn’t been revealed before. It’s like peering into the fourth dimension of an already-extraordinary label.

Warp20 box set contents laid out

Warp20 (Elemental)

This disc contains an hour-long mix of 65 Warp tracks, created by remix maestro Osymyso. A similar mix, by Buddy Peace and Zilla, was released five years ago along with the WarpVision DVD. Although Osymyso had five years’ worth of extra material to work with, I am less fond of his effort. Nonetheless, the creativity involved in creating such a mix, containing a diverse array of Warp music from the past twenty years, still astounds me.

Warp20 (Unheard)

Warp20 (Unheard) coverMoving on to the vinyl in the box set, we have three ten inch records made up of eleven previously (sort of) unheard tracks. Incidentally, these are smartly presented with a minimalist design and debossed text.

The selection kicks off with Boards of Canada’s immersive ‘Seven Forty Seven’. This is not, strictly speaking, unheard. It was originally featured in an interactive Boards of Canada website several years ago. But it is the first time it has been presented as a track itself. It is so good that I can’t work out why it hasn’t been released before.

This is followed up by the equally exciting ‘Oval Moon (IBC mx)’ by Autechre. Named after IBC, the Manchester-based pirate radio station through which Autechre first made their name, this is real old school stuff. Having been produced in 1991, it is almost as old as the Warp label itself! And it’s excellent.

After these two stonkers, the rest of the collection does not quite stand up to the same level. But it is still a good listen. Fair efforts from Clark, Plaid and Flying Lotus are included, along with classic unreleased material from Elektroids and Nightmares on Wax.

Meanwhile, the plodding and uneventful ‘Sixty Forty’, originally from a 2003 Peel Session, is probably the most disappointing Broadcast song I have ever heard. The collection is rounded off with ‘As Link’, a new Seefeel track, whetting appetites for their rumoured comeback.

Warp20 (Infinite)

Warp20 (Infinite) Musically, the box set is rounded off with a couple of records made up entirely of locked grooves. There are fifty loops in total, plundered from Warp’s back catalogue. It is an interesting experience to experiment with them for a bit, but probably of limited use to anyone who is not a DJ.

Warp20 (1989-2009) — The Complete Catalogue

Warp20 (1989-2009) - The Complete CatalogueThe final item in the box is a large book that documents the artwork for every release on the Warp label. It is interesting to leaf through and assess how the label progressed over the years, and recall the memories of hearing all of this wonderful music for the first time.

Warp Records is almost as well known for its strong visual identity as for its music. There is some fantastic artwork in the Warp catalogue. While this book is not at all the best way to appreciate the artwork, it does serve as an excellent historical document cataloguing Warp’s classic covers.

There was an interesting blog post over at the Telegraph by Geoffrey Lean over the weekend. He asked if GDP is “past its sell by date”, noting that “the EU is due to publish a paper which will conclude that GDP is too limited a measurement.”

I agree with the view that GDP doesn’t tell you the whole picture. I have written before about the obsession that the media and others have with what this or that will “cost the economy”. These stories normally come along with some kind of figure of the effect some trend or other will have on GDP.

GDP is quite a useful measurement in a lot of ways. As a barometer of how things are ticking along, it isn’t bad. When GDP rises steadily things are ticking along quite nicely. When it decreases people generally feel it. In truth, no-one needed to wait for the GDP figures to come round to work out that things were bad. But GDP does give us a vaguely useful way to quantify how things are going.

However, it omits a lot of useful information that might help us to measure our quality of life. Perhaps most strikingly of all, it takes very little account of leisure — surely the best part of life.

You can be fairly certain that the economy is producing more between 8am and 8pm than it is between 8pm and 8am. The economy goes into recession every night! But in which part of the day is your quality of life higher? The part where you’re slaving away in a stuffy office, or the part where you’re relaxing with a cold beer?

Enjoying yourself and relaxing, whether it’s having your nightly kip or spending an afternoon in the park, often means removing yourself from economic activity. This in turn leads to a reduction in GDP. That is “the cost to the economy”. This is despite the fact that sleeping and having a stroll in the park are both very valuable activities.

I am currently reading The Armchair Economist by Steven E. Landsburg (I’m only 15 years late to the party). This book points out that GDP is also unable to account for the value of housework. If you pay someone to do your dishes, the value is counted in GDP figures. If you do them yourself, GDP is unaffected. But in both cases you have a rack of clean dishes of equal value.

Geoffrey Lean also points out that GDP fails to take the environment into consideration. An economist would say you need to internalise the externalities. But the question is how? (Pigovian taxes are a nice idea.) Some extreme environmentalists go further and advocate zero growth, an idea rightly lambasted by Adopted Domain.

I guess it all depends on what you want an indicator to tell you. GDP has become the one everyone talks about as a proxy for our standard of living, but clearly has deficiencies in that it leaves out important elements that contribute to our standard of living.

Unemployment figures are a possible alternative. On one level, it can be said that unemployment is the main thing that worries people. Despite the often-made point that unemployment is a lagging indicator, for many it is the bottom line.

But this has many of the same problems as using GDP. We look forward to our weekends, our holidays, and ultimately our retirement. Not working is actually a good thing. Few people want to work. They only want the money they earn from working. That brings us right back to GDP.

In recent years there has been a bit of hype about happiness economics (which I have previously written about). This field likes to measure Gross National Happiness. But this too is fraught with difficulties, not least the fact that it relies on shaky survey data based on people’s varying interpretations of what “happiness” is.

Perhaps you could stop paying attention to aggregate statistics in general. On one level, what really concerns me is my own personal well-being. How much I earn, how much disposable income I have, whether I have a job and how happy I am all concern me greatly. I am less concerned about other people’s well-being.

But that’s not quite right either. Even though I, like most people, am primarily worried about myself, I do care about the general well-being of other people.

It looks like we have to make do with GDP as the main measure to be concerned with. However, it does seem that it is creaking a bit with old age. No doubt there will be plenty of criticisms of GDP to come in the future, particularly from environmentalists.

Beware of the alternatives people advocate though. They will probably all be biased one way or another. Any proposed new measurements will probably be put forward by some interest group trying to manipulate the terms of the debate in its favour. Were that scenario to arise, I would rate myself 3 out of 10 happy.

Rupert Murdoch’s decision to experiment with charging for content has ruffled a few feathers. Fair play to Murdoch for being brave enough to put his head above the parapet. If anyone can take the risk, it’s Murdoch — and the rest of the media will have him to thank if the gamble pays off and it reveals the business model that other outlets can follow. Malcolm Coles certainly makes a fairly good case to suggest that Murdoch can get away with it.

Without doubt, monetising content online has been a very tough nut to crack, so much so that many appear almost to have given up. Indeed, the controversy surrounding Murdoch’s decision shows just how much some people now believe that it is impossible to charge for content.

No doubt the advent of the web has changed the game. It is much more difficult to charge for something that doesn’t physically exist, and something which can very easily be distributed for almost zero cost. This more or less means that, if you want to, you can probably get it for free.

I know of one major national newspaper that found that having a paywall was detrimental to their business because they made more money by removing the paywall and instead displaying Google ads to the extra readers. Anyone who has used Google ads will know that we are talking about pretty low amounts here. It is a real demonstration that a simple subscription model will not work for everyone.

But we know that there are plenty of people who are willing to pay for content. As Malcolm Coles points out, there are countless examples of people paying for music, audiobooks and whatever else, when they could have got it for free. That is because, contrary to what many people assume, most humans have a conscience.

For instance, the pay-what-you-like or “honesty box” model actually seems to work. There is the example popularised by Freakonomics about the bagel man. Radiohead seemed to make it work when they released In Rainbows.

Just last week I heard an interview with a taxi driver from Vermont, USA who invites all of his customers to pay what they like. “Nobody has shortchanged me yet,” he says. Even in cases where cash payment was not forthcoming, payment in the form of CDs was.

The problem is, you won’t be able to charge anyone anything if you only serve up a pile of samey crap. Your product needs to be distinctive. The bagel man wouldn’t have done so well if he was trying to sell pens. Radiohead made it work because they are the best band in the world with a loyal fanbase.

But how many media outlets can offer something so attractive? The problem as I see it is not that you cannot monetise any content. The problem is that the content newspapers are producing just now is not the sort of content they can get away with charging for.

Jeff has suggested that there needs to be a sense of duty to buy newspapers, just like there is a sense of duty to vote. But people should only really pay for something that they value, otherwise inefficiencies will result.

If people still value newspapers, they should be willing to pay — and many still are. Most people would feel guilty otherwise, as the honesty box examples suggest. But the problem is that many people just don’t like newspapers any more, as is evident in the comments on Jeff’s post.

It is not as if there is anything wrong with the physical product, despite the jibe about newspapers being “dead trees”. I can imagine a parallel universe where the newspaper was invented after the internet, where the physical paper would be seen as a luxury item. You don’t have to be connected to the internet. You can fold it up and carry it about with you. You can scribble on it if you want to. You can frame it if you love it enough.

But the problem is with the content. With the advent of new technologies, newspapers have become much less useful to consumers. Once, newspapers were almost the only way to find out about the news. Today they are the slowest of many ways to find out the news.

How many times does a major story break late in the day? That story will be all over the breakfast radio and all over the 24 hour news channels. There will be countless reports about it on the internet, and to add insult to injury the bloggers will have had their say too. But if you want to read it in the newspaper, you will have to wait until tomorrow.

Maybe a major story doesn’t break so late very often. But even in these cases, the chances are that you have had ample chance to hear analysis about the front page stories on the radio or the television the night before. In essence, newspapers now do little more than peddle what is literally yesterday’s news.

Like the music industry, the newspaper industry’s mistake was to fail to adapt. They arrogantly assumed that they could carry on with the same template and tinker round the edges, fumbling around for a business model that would work.

Of course, most newspapers have websites these days. But if anything, that has exacerbated the problem. It has led to phenomena like churnalism, with journalists producing more and more content with fewer and fewer resources. As such, much of newspaper websites’ content is watered-down crap. Worse still, much of it is Digg-bait which has been SEOed to death.

That is the crux of the matter. The media is sullied, and journalism as a profession is held in contempt by much of the general public. No wonder people won’t pay for content — it’s not any good, and there is nothing to distinguish it from free alternatives. Why pay to read Telegraph Digg-bait when you can read BBC churnalism for free?

So is there a solution? Keep an eye out for my next article where I will put forward a few suggestions.

A Useful Fiction coverHave you noticed that there is a lot of introspection about devolution just now? I suppose it underlines the fact that devolution is a process rather than a settlement that everyone is still looking at how to tweak it. Maybe it is just the newness of it. The Scottish Parliament is very young as these things go, just ten years old. As such, there is inevitably a sense that we haven’t quite got it right yet.

Mind you, you can never get it “right”, in the sense that everyone will be happy. Westminster is as well-established as they come, and yet people are constantly suggesting reforms from every angle imaginable. That has, of course, gained even more momentum in the past year or so, particularly with expenses scandals and the like.

So it is only natural that people should be wagging their jaws about devolution all the time. But the chat has seemed particularly intense of late. The SNP are having a National Conversation, while the other major parties have thrown their lot in with the recently published Calman report.

I guess you can put a lot of this down to the fact that the SNP are in government. That was an epoch; completely new territory that demanded introspection. What are the reasons for the SNP being in power? Unless it is an anti-Labour vote (which, to be fair, is highly likely), it may be because people are unhappy with the constitutional situation as it stands. An SNP government is perceived to be a major step towards independence, even if a number of major hurdles remain.

The tenth anniversary of the Scottish Parliament is also a good excuse to look back on how devolution has panned out so far and to work out how to refine the system for the future. All of this has been a useful hook on which to hang Patrick Hannan’s latest book, A Useful Fiction, of which I recently received a copy to review.

But that is largely a marketing device. The tenth anniversary of devolution is barely, if at all, mentioned. Meanwhile, thoughts on the Calman Commission feel as though they have been slightly shoehorned in, rushing to mention it lest the book feel out of date by the time people get round to reading it.

But the book could not have been written six months ago. Indeed, the sheer amount of important events that actually happened in the past year or so (chief among them the credit crunch and the collapse of RBS and HBOS) become quite clear as you read the book. For that reason, it probably will feel out of date by the time many people get round to reading it. But that is the peril of writing a book about current events, especially a process as unpredictable as devolution.

Mind you, not all of the book is about current political events. That is simultaneously the book’s main strength and its main weakness. On the one hand, it ensures that the book isn’t completely preoccupied with political points that are very salient in 2009 but will be fish wrapper come 2010. On the other hand, any politics geeks who read the blurb and expect to be able to immerse themselves in interesting constitutional arguments will be disappointed.

While the second half of the book focuses very much on the politics of devolution, it takes a while for the book to reach that point. Much of the front end of the book is preoccupied with more general points about national identity. I spent a lot of my time thinking, “well there’s plenty about cricket, rugby, the meaning of flags and other cultural issues; but not much of the politics I was looking for”.

That is not to say the early part of the book is useless; far from it. These reflections on Britishness and the nature of national identity are fundamental to the subject, not to say interesting to read about. But I did feel as though the book was taking its time to deal with the questions I was seeking answers for.

But when the book does move on to ask these questions, answers are few and far between. In his review of the book, Will Patterson said that A Useful Fiction is a book for moderates, which is a good way of putting it.

It is not exactly to say that Patrick Hannan constantly flits cowardly around the middle ground. I did raise my eyebrows from time to time in the course of reading this book. But after making an interesting suggestion, he often fails to commit it. The reader feels almost like the victim of a practical joker who looks like he is passing you something only to snatch it away as you reach out for it.

This left me finishing the book feeling as though I had read an interesting book, but one that lacked any central themes or arguments. It makes me wonder what Patrick Hannan sat down to write the book for, other than to set out an interesting collection of thoughts on Britain’s constitutional situation.

Nonetheless, I would say it is well worth reading A Useful Fiction because it is an interesting collection of thoughts. It certainly provided me with some fresh perspectives and Mr Hannan is an engaging enough writer.

But if you think you’ll want to read it, I would hurry up before it gets overtaken by events.

Here it is: that post I’ve been sitting on for upwards of a year. Before I start, I am going to make a few introductory notes about what I do and don’t mean when I call democracy disturbing. I find that all too often debates about this subject are clouded by dogma, which leads to poor thinking and boilerplate arguments.

Before some cheesy person wheels out that Churchill quote about democracy being the worst system apart from all the other systems, yes of course I have heard it. And it is true. I am a democrat because I believe it brings about favourable conditions. For instance, there is the correlation between democratisation and higher GDP per capita. (Whether democracy is cause or effect does not matter. If the value of the higher GDP per capita is greater than the cost of democracy per head — as it almost certainly is — then democracy is a price worth paying.)

Furthermore, I should define more closely what I mean by democracy. Most of the flaws I will point out are actually problems with elections rather than democracy as a whole. Aspects of democracy such as civil liberties, human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, due process, and so on and so forth, are of course things that I am deeply supportive of. This will become clear in my first point.

I tackle the issue not from an anti-democratic perspective. Far from it. My problem is with the approach which sees democracy almost like a religion which ought not be questioned — what Bryan Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter called “democratic fundamentalists”:

Its purest expression is the cliché, attributed to failed 1928 presidential candidate Al Smith, that “All the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.” In other words, no matter what happens, the case for democracy remains untouched.

No case should remain untouched. That is why, for me, there is not enough scrutiny placed on democracy. There is a fear of investigating it, because the benefits of democracy are perceived to be so self-evident that anyone who stops to ask what the disadvantages are is instantly regarded as a fool. That must be dangerous. If we agree that the system is imperfect, the only way to improve the situation is to investigate it and have an awareness of what the problems are.

Just as a final point, much of my thinking in this area came about as a result of the research I did for my dissertation, which was about the “paradox of voting“. In case you want to read more about voting behaviour, I have uploaded my dissertation here.

Having got all of the caveats and explanations out of the way, it is time to move on to my five points.

1. Democracy is not guaranteed to uphold freedoms

This is more or less a rehash of The Devil’s Kitchen’s post which I referred to yesterday. Above I said that “aspects such as civil liberties, human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, due process” are important. Arguably, these have all taken a battering by recent democratically elected governments.

Wave goodbye to your right to peacefully protest, have a fair trial and take photographs in public. Say hello to ID cards, the database state, endless reams of CCTV footage, mass DNA collection, control orders, detention without charge and extraordinary rendition. Thanks, democracy!

2. Tyranny of the minority

Most people are familiar with the concept of the tyranny of the majority. Thanks to the system of democracy adopted in this country, it doesn’t even take a majority to construct a tyranny. In the 2005 General Election, 9,562,122 people voted for Labour candidates. Assuming a population of 60 million, this translates to around 16% of the population.

The votes of this small percentage of the UK’s citizens has given the Labour Party 55% of the seats in the House of Commons, a majority of 67 seats. What gives the government the right to rule the country with such dominance? Not the people, that’s for sure. Only 16% of the people expressed a preference for the current government. In fact it is the way the system is constructed, and nothing else, which gives Labour its “legitimacy”.

That brings me neatly on to…

3. The system can’t be fixed

Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem states that there can be no voting system which will be able to fulfil a number of desirable criteria:

  • The Pareto principle — if everyone prefers x to y then y should not be elected
  • Anonymity — every voter should be treated equally
  • Neutrality — every candidate should be treated equally
  • Independence of irrelevant alternatives — the ability of x and y to win an election should not be affected by the entrance of a candidate z
  • Transitivity — if x is preferred to y and y is preferred to z then x should be preferred to z

Independence of irrelevant alternatives is the one that riles up proponents of electoral reform the most. Just think of Ralph Nader, or the farcical events of the 2002 French Presidential election. In this case, the voting system is far more important than the voters themselves. The fifth item on the list refers to Condorcet’s paradox, whereby attempts to find a winner of the election leads you on an endless circle.

We can argue among ourselves about which voting system should be adopted. But (and I’m not saying this will necessarily come as a surprise to anyone), you will never find a system that will please everyone. It will be a matter of choosing the least worst option, as every system has a fatal flaw of some kind. For what it’s worth, my preference is Single Transferable Vote — but that’s a matter for a different post in the future.

For more along these lines, read this post about a talk I attended a couple of years ago. It was given by economist Eric Maskin en route to collecting his Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. He had some very interesting views on electoral reform.

4. An individual vote is almost worthless

If you are concerned with affecting the course of history by having your say on major political issues, going to cast your vote in an election is more or less a complete waste of your time and energy. It is said that you are more likely to be killed on your way to the polling station than to actually cast the deciding vote.

The probability the the outcome of an election will hinge on your vote is minuscule. Even under the fanciful assumption that in a two candidate US Presidential election each other person is likely vote for either candidate with a probability of 0.5, the probability that your vote will be the deciding vote is 0.00006.

Yet the costs of voting are actually rather large. You have to spend time and possibly money learning about each of the candidates and their policies. The time and money spent travelling to the polling booth is not exactly negligible in the context of the minuscule probability of your vote actually meaning a damn thing.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that voting is wrong. People don’t vote because they believe it will affect the outcome. They vote because it makes them feel good. But the fact that you need to resort to non-instrumental incentives in order to justify the act of voting leaves wide open the possibility that people with bad motives (or motives with bad effects) are more likely to vote…

5. Many who do vote base their decision on prejudices

In his very interesting book The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan said that the fact that people vote can be explained by the fact that they like to hold certain political beliefs. Let’s call our voter a sheep. He may hold suboptimal opinions and support policies that would actually make him worse off. This might be due to social pressures, a sense of self-image or whatever. It is, after all, all too common to meet someone who votes Labour just because their dad did.

It is precisely because a person’s vote is so worthless that sheep are encouraged to vote. They like to go and vote because it makes them feel good, reaffirms to themselves their ideological loyalty and so on. But sheep never stop to think if the policies they support would make them worse off. They don’t have to because their vote doesn’t matter anyway. The cost of ideological loyalty is low. Indeed, the benefits of it are enough to outweigh the costs of voting.

Those who hold no strong ideological loyalties, and who may therefore be expected to enter the polling booth ready to judge fairly based on all of the information they have gathered, are actually far less likely to vote. This is because they feel no warm glow from the act of voting for their favoured party.

As such, the traits of voters are the sort of traits you would normally expect to find on a football terrace. They will trudge along to express their tribal feelings, and will keep on doing so even in the driving rain, even if their football team is rubbish and the game is low-quality.

One might say that the political party you support is rubbish and the state of politics just now is low-quality. Who wants to buy a season ticket? Is it not better to leave that sort of behaviour on the football terraces?

My new year’s resolution for 2008 was to get my sleeping pattern into check. To help me do this I recorded data about my sleep on a daily basis throughout the year. Although it was clearly impossible to get precise measurements of things such as the time I fell asleep, I managed to make estimates for every single day of the year. As with a graph of my taste in music, graphs about my sleep tell a surprising amount about my life.

As before, these large graphs show seven day rolling averages of the variables, each of which should be self-explanatory. The smaller graphs concentrate on one variable each. The blue line represents the daily change. The red line is the seven day rolling average, while the grey straight line is a trendline.

Sleep graph 1 - 12 months
Sleep graph 2 - 12 months

The final quarter of the year didn’t start very well. After a relatively well-behaved summer, I began to slip into nocturnal habits at the beginning of October. At first this happened by accident, but I also encouraged it because at the time the following two Formula 1 races were “flyaways”, races in Asia that happen in the middle of night UK time.

What I didn’t think of, though, was that while it was perhaps, just about, feasible to stay up until about 6am to watch the Japanese Grand Prix, it was totally stark raving bonkers to stay up until about 9am watching the Chinese Grand Prix. Which is why the graph drops more quickly than it rises, as I changed my tactics for approaching the grands prix at the last minute.

In mid-November, my work situation changed. Instead of working primarily at nights, which I had done more or less since I started working at Woolworths, I was now working during the day (I don’t know why — must be the excellent customer service I provide!). This completely altered the path that my sleeping patterns took, and also led me to view the project in a new light.

Insomnia - 12 months The week I woke up the earliest all year was the seven day period leading up to 1 December, when I got up at an average clock time of approximately 09:13. At the same time, my “insomnia”, which was one of my primary concerns through the year, fell through the floor, lasting an average of just 21 minutes per night by the end of the year. The average “insomnia” for the whole year was 1 hour and 30 minutes per night.

Asleep for - 12 months All the while, the amount of time I was sleeping didn’t change too much, despite the earlier-than-normal starts. It fell to an average 7 hours and 1 minute per night on 18 December. That is pretty low, but it that was a one off (it normally hovered around 7½ hours) and it had been as low as 5 hours and 59 minutes in March.

Indeed, the fact that the amount of time I slept per night was pretty much stable at the recommended 8 hours per night was the pleasant surprise of the project. Maybe I had nothing to worry about all along.

All-in-all, my taste of what life in a 9–5 routine might be like left me with optimism about how I would cope. I adapted to regular early starts without a great deal of bother. I slept a bit less, but not uncomfortably so. And I was actually saving a lot of time by falling asleep much more quickly when I got to bed.

I came to realise that perhaps all of the sleep “problems” I had were actually down to a lack of routine rather than any genuine trouble with sleep. Of all the experiments I tried to help me sleep better, having a reason to get up early regularly was by far the best. And there’s no use in setting the alarm early if there’s no reason to get up, because I’ll only switch the alarm off and sleep in until at least the mid-morning. And why not? Maybe my new year’s resolution for 2009 should be to relax more about everything.

Slept from - 12 months You might be asking, “what’s with that mad spike on most of the graphs on 31 December?” Well, I was hit by a dodgy winter-related disease. I went to bed at about 16:30 and more or less slept right through until 08:30 the following morning. Apart from making me feel rotten, the illness caused a right mess of my graphs! Mind you, the finishing point of the seven day averages looks fairly normal because I had been so indulgent during that Christmas week.

Overall, I am pleased with how the year-long experiment has gone. The trendlines for almost every variable I measured went in the right direction as the year progressed. The exception was ‘lazy’, to my shame. The experience of the final few weeks of the year have assured me that I probably don’t actually have much of a sleeping problem at all.

But I found the whole thing fascinating, and I already kind of miss logging every detail of my sleeping habits. I referred to the graphs often just for interest. But I have decided that I had better stop graphing elements of my life in minute detail, before it jeopardises any relationships.

All of the remaining sleep graphs are included below the fold.

My new year’s resolution for 2009 is to read more books. I have quite a daunting pile (actually, it’s a shelf) of books that have gone unread, some for several years. I will make my aim to reduce the existing pile to zero by the end of the year. I think my primary strategy will be to get more reading done in bed before I go to sleep. After all, now that I’m no longer worried about my sleep, it’s probably the easiest place to cram it in!

Click for more »

Sorry to make my first post for a couple of weeks a meme. I was much busier than I expected last week, and with a grand prix this week my blogging activities were focussed on vee8. I’ll still be busy this week but Steven Hill has tagged me in a meme and these are quick posts to do so I may as well do it.

I have to say where I was when each of these events happened.

Princess Diana’s death – 31 August 1997

I was in bed. I first heard about it when my brother came into my room wanting to play the PlayStation but ended up watching the television a bit instead. At first I thought it must have been the Queen Mother who had died, and when I found out it was only Princess Diana I struggled to see what the fuss was about. Never liked her.

Margaret Thatcher’s resignation – 22 November 1990

No recollection whatsoever. I did know of a time when Thatcher was Prime Minister, and I of course remember John Major being in charge. But I remember nothing of the transition.

Attack on the twin towers – 11 September 2001

I remember this very clearly. I was at school in my German Writing class. The first time I realised something was up was when the lesson hadn’t started after we had been sitting there for ten or fifteen minutes. Our teacher was constantly moving between the classroom and the staff room. I didn’t mind because German Writing was my least favourite subject at that time.

Eventually our teacher wheeled the television through and said, “I’m going to show you this because it’s very important and there will be a lot of consequences” (or words to that effect). I was a bit peeved that he chose ITN over the BBC, but never mind. One of my strongest memories is the fact that one certain person in our class particularly struggled to grasp what was happening. In retrospect, I suppose he was right to be so sceptical of the idea that people would be mad enough to delibrately crash planes into buildings.

Of course, we did not get any learning done in that class. Of course, not everyone’s teachers wheeled the television through like ours did. I suppose most teachers will have been completely oblivious. It was the major talking point among my classmates after school, but people from other classes thought we were tacking the mickey.

It was also strange going home, and I got the feeling that I could kind of tell who knew what was happening and who didn’t. I remember seeing a few people driving cars who obviously looked like they were listening to what was happening on the radio. When I got home my parents were both in the living room watching the television (my dad had the day off for some reason that I can’t remember). I carried on watching it for around two hours.

England’s World Cup Semi Final v Germany in – 4 July 1990

Ciao I have no recollection of this match in particular, but I was aware of Italia 90. I liked the mascot, ‘Ciao’! I also took in the design of the graphics used during the matches — an early example of my interest in television presentation.

President Kennedy’s Assassination – 22 November 1963

I was 23 years away from being born.

I now I need to decide who to tag:

For those who haven’t put the two and two together, my dad is Jack Stephen who can sometimes be found in the comments on this site. (I can tell you, it’s strange calling my dad ‘Jack’ just so that other people can follow the conversation properly.)

Over the weekend I set up a blog for him at which he posts as his science fiction writing alter-ego, Jack Deighton. It’s called A Son of the Rock.

I did the “gold” and black masthead because I thought he would appreciate that being a fan of Dumbarton Football Club. However, coming up with a complementary colour for the links was a tough job. Despite a plethora of suggestions I received on Twitter and Facebook (thank you all), nothing looked right to me. Perhaps that’s because I just don’t like the mustard colour. In the end I settled on the blue.

The eagle-eyed among you will spot that the theme is basically the one I use for Scottish Roundup but tweaked a bit (which, in fairness, is in turn just the default WordPress theme tweaked). That was part of the problem with the blue links. If it was scrolled down and I couldn’t see the masthead it reminded me far too much of Scottish Roundup. Hopefully I’ve tweaked it enough to keep it fresh and different.

Incidentally, my dad is now the third member of the family to have started blogging. He joins me (obviously) and my brother who blogs at Onebrow along with his girlfriend Laura.