Monday, 18 October 2010

How to rank 39 candidates

If you're a voting rep to the Lib Dem conference, you should have ballot papers and manifesto booklets for six panels and committees, with a total of over 200 candidates. The task is to rank the candidate in each election, with between 20 and 45 candidates in each. That's a pretty daunting task, and promises to be quite time consuming.

I'm not going to tell you who to vote for, but here are some tips that'll make it a lot easier.

First, start with one of the shorter ballots: the ELDR council delegation or the International Relations Committee. Read through all the manifestos once, to get an idea of the range of candidates, and what they're saying. Some of the candidates are excellent, others have -well- let's say they've not communicated their qualities quite so well. The point of this stage is just to get a feel for the range of candidates.

Next, you need to break down the daunting task of ranking 20 candidates, by sorting them into a few groups of a few roughly equally qualified candidates.

Think about the experience and qualities required for the panel that you're voting on. Then construct a marking scheme for the candidates. It doesn't have to be rigorous: the point is to sort the candidates into a few categories, with just a few candidates in each. Go through each manifesto, and give it a score out of four or five.

I gave a point for having submitted a manifesto; a point for having clear relevant experience (like having worked abroad for the International Relations panel); a point for sitting members (to promote continuity); a point for mentioning policies that matter to me (for example, for abolishing the Lords in the Interim Peers Panel).

During this process, I found I made a few exceptions. For example, I downgraded a candidate who referred to himself as "one of our sharpest policy brains", and I gave Chris Wiggin my first place vote for the Interim Peers Panel because of his opposition to the Digital Economy Act.

Now, take the highest ranking group, and rank the individuals in the group. Since you've given them the top grade, and there are several places on the committee, it doesn't matter too much what the exact order is. However, you'll find that sorting a handful of candidates is much easier than trying to tackle the whole field at once. The important thing is that you don't miss any out at this point.

Once you've ranked the top group, move to the second group, and so on, until you're finished. Note that you don't have to give scores to everyone, but I found that there were some people who clearly hadn't given any impression that they were qualified (for example, some hadn't submitted a manifesto). Others said things that just irritated me. In order to rank them last, you have to rank the middle range, too!

Sunday, 10 October 2010

10:10 - done!

Today is 10/10/10, and naturally the 10:10 campaign made a big deal of that. I pledged to meet the 10:10 objectives, and more importantly supported Lewes District Council's pledge.

I think I've met my commitment, and this is how I did it.

First, some cheap and easy stuff, that'll pay for itself quite quickly.

I was already buying my electricity from Ecotricity, because they invest more of their income in renewables than any other supplier. But, they have two tariffs. The very slightly more expensive tariff is "100% green", which means that they match every unit that they supply by buying a unit from a renewable supplier, like a wind farm. I upgraded to the 100% green tariff.

To work out how to cut down electricity usage, I borrowed an electricity monitor from Lewes Library, and spent a few hours working out where my electricity consumption was coming from. We already have compact flourescent lightbulbs (cfl) throughout the house, and thought we were doing quite well in general. But, we did find two ways to make significant savings:

We watch TV through a computer. Although the computer has low standby consumption, the monitor and other peripherals weren't so good. I invested in a "Standby Saver" power strip at £21, which switches those things off when the computer is switched off. We've also started shutting down rather than putting to sleep the computer. I think we'll save at least £50 per year in electricity.

We also discovered that our microwave oven uses about 50VA on standby, but only 3 Watts. That's because it has an abysmal power factor of about 4%. It's not costing us much, because we're charged for Watt hours, not VA hours. But, it is (I think) drawing power unnecessarily, that has to be generated, even at peak times. So, we've plugged it in to a separate, switched socket, and turn it off when we can.

However, it's space heating that accounts for about 60% of domestic energy use in the UK, so this is the most important place to look for savings; by insulation to prevent loss of heat, and by efficient supply of that heat. Our space heating is mains gas, which produces less CO2 than oil, and currently less than electricity. That'll change as we remove coal, oil and gas power stations in favour of renewables and nuclear. In the long term though, electric heat pumps will probably be the most effective way of heating existing homes, and passive solar gain the best way to heat new super-insulated housing.

Second, some mid-price stuff, with big savings. It'll also pay for itself quite quickly.

Insulation: our 1950s house was already double glazed throughout, when we bought it a few years ago. Not the best double glazing, but generally in good nick, and upgrading that would be very expensive. We were amazed to find out that it didn't have cavity wall insulation, and the loft insulation was minimal. So, we used an LDC grant to help get the cavity wall's insulated for a few hundred pounds. We also upgraded the loft insulation. These measures not only kept the house much warmer in winter, but also much cooler in summer. Gone were the long, sticky, sleepless nights!

It turned out that DIY was cheaper for the loft insulation, but tricky if we wanted to use the loft for storage. So, we added 8 inches of insulation above the main bedroom, but put boards over the spare bedroom. Now, with the 10:10 commitment, we wanted to upgrade the whole loft. We've now got decent insulation throughout, under a properly boarded floor. We also had plywood sheets put under the roof, to stop dust falling through the tiles. Finally, we had a proper loft ladder, and lights fitted. The consequence is that we not only have a properly insulated loft, but much more usable loft space, in which we can keep stuff that we need to access only occasionally. For example, its much more practical to keep luggage, winter coats during summer, spare bedding, and so on - all alongside the stuff that we only ever see when moving house!

Now, all that work in the loft was quite expensive, but the insulation itself would cost only a couple of hundred pounds, save at least £100 per year on heating costs, and cuts out the worst of winter cold, and summer heat.

Third, some more expensive stuff that should pay for itself over five to ten years. Maybe quicker if fuel prices keep rising as expected.

The most important thing is that we've replaced our boiler. It was installed in 1979, and was probably about 60% efficient. That is, it wasted 40% of the gas that it burned. Modern are typically about 90% efficient. They manage this by carefully controlling the gas/air mixture, and by recovering heat from their exhaust gases.

At the same time, we chose a combi boiler, which needs no hot water cylinder. As we use an electric shower, we tend only to use hot water from the boiler for washing up and hand washing. There's no point keeping a huge tank of water hot for that. This has given us a lot of new storage space in the old airing cupboard, and on top of that, we no longer need a water tank in the loft.

And, we've also got much better heating controls. Thermostatic radiator valves (TRVs) throughout mean that no rooms become overheated. Programmable TRVs in the bedroom and living room mean we can focus heating on the bedroom in the morning, and the living room in the evening. We've also chosen a weather compensator, which measures the outside temperature, and allows the heating system to deliver the right amount of heat, at a steady rate to match the heat loss through the walls.

Finally, we picked an Ariston boiler which is compatible with solar hot water systems, and with underfloor heating (giving us a gradual route to heat pumps). Those are much more expensive systems, that we can't afford at the moment. Solar panels would have cost us much more, and saved much less energy. Heat pumps would also have cost more, and probably have saved no carbon emissions, given the current mix of the UK energy supply.

I don't drive, and we don't fly, so there's not much room for improvement there. My wife works as a rural community occupational therapist, but she's about to get a new car which should reduce her fuel consumption but at least 50%.

Now, we don't know the results yet, and they'll be somewhat weather dependent, but the new central heating system might be expected to reduce our domestic CO2 footprint by 20%. Add in the electricity savings, and we'll hope to do much better than the 10% commitment.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Alternative Vote: on the road to STV

Nick Clegg announced that the UK will hold a referendum which could change our general election voting procedure from "First Past the Post" (FPTP) to "Alternative Vote" (AV) in May 2011. It's a proposal that came from Labour before the 2010 election. That proposal allowed the Liberal Democrats to secure a commitment from the Tories during the coalition negotiations.

Of course, the Lib Dems would prefer another voting system, "Single Transferable Vote" (STV), but a referendum on Alternative Vote was the best that could be secured.

Alternative Vote is fairly similar to FPTP. The difference for voters is that instead of putting a single cross on the ballot paper, they get to rank the candidates by writing numbers "1", "2", "3"... That's called "preference voting". So, AV is FPTP with the additional feature of preference voting. In fact, in an AV election with fewer than three candidates, you're left with FPTP: after you've marked your first preference, your second is obvious.

Single Transferable Vote looks the same as Alternative Vote, except that constituencies are larger, and have several MPs in each; perhaps three to five. For example, Denis Mollison of Heriot-Watt University) has produced a map of proposed boundaries that you can see at Just as AV reduces to FPTP in some circumstances, so STV reduces to AV when you're there's only one winner - in a single member constituency. In fact, a few of the constituencies in Mollison's proposal (like Shetland and Orkney Isles) only elect a single MP. In those constituencies, the voters are actually using Alternative Vote.

So, there's a clear sense in which AV can be considered as a partial victory for advocates of STV. One of the two features is won. At a later date, multi member constituencies could be added.

The question then, is should advocates of STV support AV. To me, the answer is a clear yes. If the referendum is lost, that won't create a clamour for STV, it'll simply let people argue that the electorate don't want preferential voting. On the other hand, after a couple of AV elections, people will see that preferential voting isn't hard, doesn't produce crazy results, and is actually much simpler for voters because they don't have to worry about tactical voting.

At that point, we'll be ready for a debate about multi-member constituencies. It won't be clouded by claims that preferential voting is complicated. It'll simply be a debate about the balance between proportionality of representation on the one hand, and the constituency link on the other. Mollison's proposal looks to resolve that quite nicely. It should produce much more proportional representation than FPTP, or even AV. On the other hand, the constituencies look quite natural, being based on traditional counties, and being small enough to retain a good constituency link.

AV isn't inherently proportional; it can be more -or less- proportional than FPTP depending on the distribution of voters. However, several commentators have suggested that the UK electorate are distributed in such a way that AV would, in fact, produce a more proportional result in general elections. And that means more coalition governments.

My guess is that only a coalition government is likely to produce further electoral reform. So a win in the AV referendum, means that future governments are more likely to be coalitions, and therefore more likely to give us STV. OK, I guess it's unlikely that the next government will introduce a new electoral system. That's probably not something that happens twice in a decade. We'll probably have more than one AV election. But, if we don't get AV, the next government is more likely to be a majority government with no interest in electoral reform, and we could be waiting another century for STV.

Finally, a quick look at history. Votes for women weren't achieved in a single step. Women over 30 were given the vote in 1918. The sky didn't fall in, and ten years later women got the same rights as men.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Popularity of social networks

The University of Sussex IT Service surveyed students recently. Among the more interesting results was this. They love Facebook, but mostly don't use MySpace or Twitter. Skype and Youtube are popular. I imagine that Skype is more popular among overseas students.

Click on the image to enlarge it.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Lewes refuse and recycling update

I received the following update from Andy Bryce, head of Lewes District Council's waste and recycling department, today:
Almost all staff have turned up for work, with very few exceptions
where people have not been able to get out of their local areas.

Refuse collection: Hazardous conditions with snow on top of ice haveresulted in us calling off collections today. We lost a vehicle
yesterday into a ditch in Barcombe (photos attached). The vehicle was stationary when it started to slip and ended up in the ditch. Nobody was hurt and we expect limited damage to the vehicle because it was so slow
moving, however, we are unable to recover the vehicle as yet because the
recovery company felt it was too hazardous.

We aim to try to catch up with the refuse work by having the crews work
on Saturday and this is currently being worked on. This will, of course,
also be weather dependent but we are very aware that the worst hit
areas, generally on slopes on back roads, will potentially have had a
number of missed collections. We would ask people in these areas, where they are able to do so, to bring their rubbish to the nearest passable
main road where we may be able to collect.

Kerbside Recycling collections have also been suspended today for the same reasons. Our aim is for staff to work through doing extra hours
over the next week and a half to catch up. We would ask residents to
still keep putting their boxes out, or to leave them out if it will not
cause problems, so that we can come back to get them where we can.

Street Sweepers are out and doing path clearing in the main town
centres to assist the Highways Authority where possible. There is too
much work for too few people but we are doing what we can.

The Recycling Centre is open and operating but HGVs are not out
working. We are looking to see if we can do some catch-up work over the

Vehicle Workshops. All staff are in and working and so two MOTs and
servicing work will not be held up thus avoiding additional problems
later on.

Again we apologise for any inconvenience.
Kind Regards
Andy Bryce
Andy's team did a great job keeping up with collections in the run up to Christmas, and I know they'll continue to do the best possible in the conditions.