Thursday, April 21, 2011

Deep down I know Freud was right

I woke to hear a discussion on the radio about ageing and memory: it wasn't so much that older people forget things, someone was saying, more that they have so much information in their heads that it gets muddled up and hard to access.

Yesterday in the office I'd tried to find some information about a company I'd bought something from last week. But I couldn't remember the name and had left the receipt on my desk at home.

I tried the name Nixon, which I thought it might have been.

This morning, I picked up the receipt and found the name was Hague.

I wondered why I'd made that particular mistake. Was it something to do with David Nixon, the children's magician I used to watch on television?

I soon realised it must be because Al Haig was Richard Nixon's right hand man during Watergate. I'd enjoyed the book All the President's Men, probably when it came out in 1974 - 37 years ago.

The connection was still there, evidently, even if only a kind of an auditory memory, since I'd got the spelling wrong.

Freud might have been onto something.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The difference between counting votes and votes counting

The No campaign in the referendum is saying that one of the problems with AV is that if you vote for a minority party, your vote could be 'counted more than once' - the implication being that voters for mainstream parties are at some kind of disadvantage.

Here's how they put it on their website:

"Under AV, people are asked to rank candidates in order of preference. When the votes are counted, if the person coming first doesn't have 50% of the vote, the votes of the lowest ranked candidates are recycled until someone gets over the winning margin.

In this way it allows people who vote for the minor, fringe parties to have their votes counted several times, while those voting for mainstream parties can have their voted counted just once. AV is the opposite of one person, one vote. In fact, if you support a less popular party, you are more likely to have your vote counted multiple times."

The point was endorsed by David Cameron in an article he wrote for the London Standard last week:

"When they say: "AV will make every vote count", tell them it won't. It will actually make some people's votes - especially those who vote for extremist parties - get counted more than others.

They'll get two, three, four, perhaps even five bites of the cherry when many others only get one."

Hmm. It certainly sounds unfair.

But there's a sleight of hand about the maths here.

What will actually happen in an AV recount when no party gets more than half the votes is that people who voted for the smallest party will have their votes reallocated (if they chose to express a preference for more than one candidate.)

So their second preference votes will now go to one of the bigger parties.

But of course that doesn't give voters for smaller parties "another bite of the cherry" compared to the rest - because the votes of those who chose the bigger parties will also be added up again to make a new set of totals. Now whether they are physically "counted again" is not important: presumably the pile of votes for the leading parties stays the same and so doesn't need recounting.

But even if the first choice votes are not counted again, they will count, just as much as the new ones added to the pile.

If you're really looking for someone who's disadvantaged by the system, you could say it's the voters for the smaller parties because in the count that determines the result, they are only represented by their second or even third choices.

And incidentally, shouldn't we abandon the term 'first past the post' - since the main distinction between the two systems is that there isn't a post to pass under the current system, but there is (50 per cent) for the AV system? But the phrase has become so strongly associated with the current system that it is actually used to describe it in the Referendum question.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Tolstoy: too big for two hours?

The second part of Alan Yentob's Imagine seriesThe Trouble with Tolstoy on BBC1 last Sunday (April 3) told the story of the writer's life from Anna Karenina onwards.

On the day it was shown, A.A.Gill had suggested in the Sunday Times that part one, the previous Sunday, had proved that Tolstoy was 'too big for television'. Gill complained that "we were overawed by the cinemascope of his life."

This film went some way to proving Gill wrong, making time for plenty of detail, from the way Tolstoy's religious convictions led to his paying for the mass emigration of an obscure religious sect to a new life in Canada, to the destructive impact on his marriage of his intrusive secretary and follower, Vladimir Chertkov.

By the end of the series, we'd been given an absorbing and coherent account of Tolstoy's life. Only thinking about it afterwards, I realised that what had been missing was any scrutiny of what made him a great writer. Viewers would just have to turn to the books to discover what all the fuss was about.

If this was a failure in the series, it was an honourable one. Tolstoy himself, in his words and deeds, insisted in his later years that literature was less important than living an ethical life - which he insisted on trying to do, despite its agonising consequences for his family.

Indeed, in his concluding piece to camera, Yentob stood up for the awkard, sometimes embarrassing older Tolstoy, the one his readers would have preferred to have had turning out great novels than trying to make his own shoes.

"It's easier to applaud Tolstoy, the greatest of novelists, and dismiss Tolstoy the idealist as a krank, an artist out of his depth." said Yentob, "But the real trouble with Tolstoy is that so much of what he advocated - that love is all that matters, that violence begets violence, that no man has a right to take control over the life of another - is uncomfortably and unavoidably true."

There was a sense of Yentob getting so close to his subject that this was almost how Tolstoy himself might have defended himself against the charges of krankiness.

Maybe another time we could have a film about the great books?