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#defenduss document alert: action this day

Via Mike Otsuka on Facebook, here is a very important document for the future of USS and for UK pensions more broadly. A group of eminent statisticians, mathematicians, and economists have prepared a detailed critique of the USS valuation methodology, highlighting the points made here, as a letter to the USS Trustee.

They argue that the assumptions used are so tendentious that without them, the fund would actually show a surplus on defensible assumptions. If this seems implausible, it is important to remember that the compounding calculations that underlie this stuff are typically very, very sensitive to the initial values.

This week, the UCU, Universities UK, and the EPF will be holding consultations on the valuation. It is therefore absolutely vital that their attention should be directed at this document. You can get it here. Action is required this day, like the man said. We need a little togetherness…

and we might get what I want.

#lazyweb: my notes are trapped in a Kindle.

A technology thing. I am getting increasingly annoyed with the process of getting notes I take on a Kindle back out of the device and into posts on this blog. The problems are numerous, but:

  1. Notes aren’t returned with any context
  2. Notes aren’t available in a sensible format
  3. The web page they show up on is very, very slow to load
  4. There are DRM restrictions about how much you can quote, trampling all over fair use
  5. Notes on documents I upload myself aren’t identified to the document in any way

At the moment, I find it actually more effective to take notes on paper. This is why the Symbian/Android/David Wood post and the one on William Langewiesche’s AF447 piece are dragging. It’s especially annoying that although the way you get ad-hoc documents in is via e-mail, you can’t use the subject line or the message body to give the document a title.

Can anyone recommend apps that address this?

Forget letters from 20 MPs. Remember Scotland

Here’s an astonishing piece of journalism from last weekend’s Labour mini-crisis. Daniel Boffy, The Obscurer‘s policy editor tells us:

Even more significantly, this newspaper has learned that 20 Labour frontbenchers have indicated they are “actively considering Ed Miliband’s future”. The information came from a senior Labour MP who last week canvassed the parliamentary Labour party for support for a coup. “There isn’t a letter. But there could be one very quickly,” the Labour MP said.

Boffy was re-using a quote from Nicholas Watt at the Guardian earlier in the week. So much for the Observer being a totally different paper to the Guardian.

But why would anybody care if there was a “letter” or if 20 MPs, not a penny more, not a penny less, signed it? In the Conservative Party, 20 MPs can write to the 1922 Committee chair in order to start the leadership election process. This is, though, something that exists in the Tory charter and nowhere else. The process to elect a Labour leader is as different as it could be and the number 20 is not significant. Neither are MPs as such.

Actually, the number is 15% these days although I think it used to be either 20% or 20. See Nick Barlow’s comment below

The rule book states that the leader is re-elected by the party conference, annually, and that’s it. (Where were these guys at conference, then?) In between times, the only mechanism I can see to initiate a leadership election would be if the National Executive Committee were to call a special conference, with the Conference Arrangements Committee putting the matter on the agenda.

This is a pretty high bar as the plotters would need a majority of both committees as well as among the MPs, the union members, and the activists. When the party is in government, the bar is set higher still, as a simple majority of conference is required on a card vote to have an election at all. Where the Tory charter gives a great deal of power to backbench MPs to overthrow the leader, the Labour one gives them very little and involves the membership early on. In the Tory system, the MP makes the party; in the Labour one, the party or rather the movement makes the MP.

You’d think being familiar with the main political parties’ constitutions, at least as they apply to something as fundamental as sacking the party leader, would be a basic skill for a political journalist. But apparently not. After all, Alan Watkins maintained a reputation as a sage for many years by pointing out that you need a hands-up vote at conference to sack a Labour prime minister, and therefore this week’s ration of Blair/Brown drama was going nowhere. They never learned, though.

Part of the problem, I guess, is that if you’re a national political journo, there is no story that is more exciting or more suited to your contacts book than a party leadership crisis. Because the Tories have more of them, everyone in the business has learned all the drills for a Tory crisis. Are there 20 MPs? Is there a letter? (Note that there are only 24 frontbenchers, so they were either bullshitting or counting has-beens.) You’ll notice that no coverage at all last weekend even mentioned the NEC or any of its members.

In this light it’s unlikely indeed we’ll get any meaningful reporting from Scotland. Scotland? Yes. Look at this chart. I was arguing with various people on Twitter about this, and I pointed out that if you want to argue that the Labour poll lead is collapsing it helps to trim the X-axis so you only get the exciting bit. Trust me – I used to be a Lib Dem, so I know all about dodgy charts. Here’s a plot of poll leads since the 15th September.

Screenshot from 2014-11-16 20:04:53

First point: Wow, there’s a lot of noise in there. Second point: I’ve marked the Labour conference between 21-24 September on the chart – that’s the first grey box. The Tories were the week after. Didn’t we do well? If there’s been a “melting” of the lead, it sure as hell didn’t happen at conference and in fact it happened in mid-October, which leads us to the second grey box. That’s the week Johann Lamont resigned as Labour leader in Scotland.

If you look at the Ipsos-MORI poll (the green triangle on the chart), about 11 per cent of the weighted total sample is Scottish. Therefore, the 39 percentage point uplift in the SNP share of vote they picked up in the November political monitor translates to 4.3 percentage points of national voting intention.

So it’s just a pity it’s practically an official secret that the Tories have given up on English-votes-for-English-laws. Labour said “no deal”; William Hague made a fuss; and Ed Miliband got his way.

representatives from all parties agreed on Wednesday that enhanced devolution should “not be conditional on the conclusion of other political negotiations elsewhere in the UK”.

This is what I predicted would happen. But EVEL as a scare seems to have worked up to a point, by sticking a rocket under what seems to be the SNP’s “whatever it takes to get revenge on Labour” strategy. I do think, though, that Scottish Labour politics at the moment has become very important and nobody seems to care.

A serious suggestion.

Perhaps they could have an empty chair? Or what about a serious suggestion? As Chris Brooke was saying in the other place, couldn’t we borrow a Commonwealth judge? In fact we could do better than that. Either Canada or Australia could offer someone who has experience of leading an inquiry like this one. Murray Sinclair? Mick Dodson? Marcia Langton?

Thiel-ing out at Google

Does anyone know what Larry Page means by this?

Even more than technology, he puts this down to policy changes needed to make land more readily available for construction. Rather than exceeding $1m, there’s no reason why the median home in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley, shouldn’t cost $50,000, he says.

stuffing envelopes and getting stuffed

Mark Pack has a very good post up on how the Lib Dems’ distinctive approach to campaigning evolved, and what that meant for the party. Essentially, since the 1980s, the party was reshaped entirely around one particular technique: direct mail.

I didn’t know that the LDs’ identification of target seats isn’t, or isn’t just, based on their psephology or demography, but rather on how many leaflets the local party has dropped relative to their target. More leaflets mean more resources, and specifically, more resources to help you generate more leaflets and deliver them. In a functional sense, the organisation within the party headed by Chris “Wandering Hans” Rennard was a direct mail agency, designing, printing, and delivering bulk leaflets, selecting the targets, and vetting their content.

This essentially, although Pack won’t say as much, hollowed out the party’s incredibly complicated structures for internal democracy and paved the way for the jump into coalition with the Tories. Eventually it took over the press office and the staffers supporting MPs. Nothing that mattered, as far as I can see, was left under the control of the federal executive or the conference or the regional federations or God knows what, and as activists, we sure as hell weren’t consulted or even informed. There were leaflets to get out!

In a wider sense, you get the impression that the real role of the Lib Dems has been to publicise an incredibly cynical version of politics. You set the message and dump the leaflets out. Interestingly, direct mail played a really big role in the growth of movement conservatism in the States through the 1970s, with people like Richard Viguerie.

If you get elected, you say whatever the opposite of the local council says on any issue, but most of all, you turn around correspondence as fast as possible. The role of activists is unpaid direct mail. The role of MPs or councillors is as a sort of service function processing public whining in an expeditious fashion. The role of the party is to get in a position where it can buy electoral reform off another party, in order that it can stay in that position forever.

And if you want to be an MP, you better do whatever it takes to please Lord Rennard, because he’s got all the leaflets. In that sense, Pack’s closing remark is on the money:

electoral politics in Britain has followed where the third party led

China changes government. Exclusive in the Observer.

The Observer is a strange newspaper. Here’s a bit from its business page today:

Disturbed by the lack of similar action in Brussels and in Frankfurt – home of the European Central Bank – investors fear that the eurozone is sliding ever closer to recession. They are also worried about a sharp slowdown in China, following moves by the ruling People’s party to tackle escalating state sector debts.

China is ruled by the People’s Party, rather than the Communist Party of China? How did that happen? Shouldn’t this seismic world-historical event be on the front page?

The worrying bit here is that the Observer‘s shtick is a sort of cold war liberal style. It throws a ton of reporters at international news and takes it very seriously, although it always adopts a very pronounced westernist tone, if that’s a word. It has the good bits of this – lots of foreign coverage – and the bad ones – far too close to our spooks and the diplomats it likes.

The second worrying bit is that the best thing about the paper is usually the business section, which is tightly reported, critical, and readable. Back when it was a whole pull-out broadsheet in its own right, I often thought that I’d happily pay for the business section on its own.

But here we are with the business section of the paper that prides itself on big-letter International news, and it doesn’t know which political party is in charge of China. There must be more stuff in there that’s as wrong as that, just I don’t know what it is.

I expect this sort of shit from opinionators like Andrew “that book was a while ago now” Rawnsley, but I hope for better from the business pages. Here’s Rawnsley.

I’m a tad suspicious of big, round numbers. Complex problems rarely resolve into anything so neat as a figure ending in a zero. The merit of big, round numbers in politics is this. They make people sit up and pay attention…

The Lib Dems’ promise to spend £1bn more than the Conservatives is turned into peanuts and Labour’s pledge of an extra £2.5bn is chump change compared with the £30bn that Mr Stevens says will be necessary if the next government, whoever forms it, wants to avoid a crisis.

Rawnsley ought to be more suspicious of big numbers. The £30bn is over the six years from here to 2020. As far as I know the others are changes to its annual, but recurring, budget. So the Labour offer is 6×2.5bn, about half the Stevens report, not the whole wad, but not “chump change” either. It might be rather more or rather less depending on how Labour and Stevens respectively deal with inflation.

It’s not hard. Is the number in real terms, or cash terms? Is it annual, or over several years? How many years? Is that a total, or an average? What is it as a percentage of the budget? What is it as a percentage of GDP? If it’s a growth rate, is it comparing years or months or what, and which ones?

I would love it if a national newspaper would commit to stating all numbers in money as real terms, annualised, and all numbers in budget proposals as percentages of GDP. Newspapers have style guides for words. They should have them for numbers. And their sub-editors should enforce them.

But if they don’t check if they got the ruling party of China right, what hope is there of that?

Open newslist 8

Things I’d like to include:

Phil Lapsley’s book Exploding the Phone and some observations about telecoms billing records and the police that arise.

David Wood’s book Smartphones and Beyond about how the future was right here and then it…wasn’t. (“right here” includes Macclesfield and Bury St. Edmunds.)

Circling back to Scottish and other devolution. Is full fiscal devolution actually a good idea? Also, reviewing my forecast (that Labour has an effective veto, and therefore it will go down to the wire, but the Tories would be better off agreeing).

Retrieving anything from here. I still have some #Savileweek content in reserve even though I couldn’t hack the whole week.

I could do more about Hack Attack, too.


Update: Oh yes. Response to William Langewiesche’s AF447 piece.

er, spark plug. thingy. germans. ha ha.

Michael Hofmann reviews Martin Amis and it’s a stinker. This is the bit that stuck out for me. It will look pedantic but there’s a lot that can be recovered from this paragraph.

I walked on for another ten minutes; then I turned and looked. The Buna-Werke – the size of a city. Like Magnetigorsk (a city called Sparkplug) in the USSR. It was due to become the largest and most advanced factory in Europe. When the whole operation came on line, said Burckl, it would need more electricity than Berlin.

There might be something to be said about the role of industry and technology in the Holocaust, although plenty has been. There might be something to be said about the fascination, hatred, cooperation, similarities, and differences between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, although plenty has been. There might be something to be said about German imagination of the two vast Fordist industrial superpowers, although quite a bit but maybe not enough has been. And clearly Amis wants to say it.

But he doesn’t want to say it enough to look Magnitogorsk up in Wikipedia and find out that the vast iron and steelworks city the Soviets built with the help of consultants from all over the world, like John Scott and Ernst May, is named for the immense magnetic mountain where the iron ore comes from. That is of course why they built it there. (A magnetic mountain; not a bad title, eh?)

Further, he doesn’t know or doesn’t care that a magneto is not a spark plug. A magneto is a device that produces electricity from rotational motion; a spark plug uses that electricity to light off the fuel-air mixture in the cylinder head. Evidently he only got the idea because if you spell the place correctly, as he didn’t in the final copy, it sort of looks like it might be Magneto City, not Magneticville or even just Magnetite, a good name for a mining town out west (or east). It only looks like that if you don’t care that it’s Russian and that’s a language that isn’t English.

But this is his shtick. Lionel Asbo; hur hur funny name. John Self; hur hur funny name. 21 virgins; hur hur funny the word is a bit like raisins in foreign. Apparently this time out he’s discovered German. It’s what he does, smart as in smart arse, never as in smart bomb. He aims for seriousness, over-pitches because he won’t put in the effort, and pulls out of the pratfall by sniggering at foreigners, broadly defined. He’s the Boris Johnson of literature. Like Johnson, somehow he fits into London in ways it would deny.

Also, it would be remiss not to point out that his chancer/liaison officer antihero of ambiguous and prolific sexuality and stereotypical cultivation sounds remarkably like yer man from Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillants, as does his relationship with his aunt, and indeed with his boss.