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Author Page for Dave Brockington

Born in San Jose, grew up in Seattle, received a Ph.D. in poli sci from University of Washington, worked for three years at Universiteit Twente in Enschede, Netherlands, and have worked at the University of Plymouth for eight academic years now in Plymouth, United Kingdom.

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Thoughts on the Scottish Independence Referendum III: Ramifications

[ 133 ] September 18, 2014 |

Unlike my previous two posts on today’s referendum in Scotland, on electoral ramifications for the remainder of the United Kingdom, and on interpreting polling data, this piece is more of a speculative nature. Here, I consider constitutional, political, and international ramifications of a yes vote, as well as the constitutional ramifications of a no vote.

A No result, which I consider likely, will have both constitutional and political ramifications throughout the United Kingdom.  Constitutionally, the devolved powers to the Scottish Parliament will be greatly enhanced.  This, of course, presents as many challenges to the constitutional order of the UK as problems it solves by retaining the union. The legendary unwritten British “constitution” encourages muddling through, and the implementation of devolution in 1997-99 makes for clearly delineated (and fair) distribution of powers as Heathrow makes for efficient air travel.  What the UK has at present is a vague form of ersatz federalism, and one that is asymmetrically distributed at that. Among its powers, Scotland’s parliament has control over health, education, and policing primary legislation, and it can vary its income tax by 3% (up or down) from the national baseline. Among things it can not touch are corporation tax. This is considerably greater power than the Welsh Assembly, and of course infinitely more than any English region.

Any increase of these powers (an excellent overview of the nature of these enhanced powers on offer and some of the pitfalls surrounding implantation was posted yesterday at the UK Constitutional Law Association) will cause resentment not only in Wales and Northern Ireland, witnessing yet more constitutional preferential treatment given to Scotland, but perhaps most of all, in England. Made famous by then MP Tam Dalyell, arguing in opposition to the devolution legislation under consideration in 1977 (which eventually went on to be referenda in both Scotland and Wales in 1979), perhaps the most stinging critique of the current implantation of devolution in the UK is known as the “West Lothian Question”, which identifies the bizarre situation: MPs representing Scottish constituencies get to vote on legislation that impacts England, while MPs representing England (as well as those MPs representing Scotland for that matter) can not vote on a range of devolved areas of policy.  This perhaps was most stark in 2004 when tuition for English and Welsh universities was raised to £3000 per year (from something around £1500 if I recall correctly, and I likely do not). Education, including higher education, is a devolved matter in Scotland and thus under the remit of the Scottish Parliament. Even to this day, Scottish universities are free for residents of Scotland. Yet, in the 2004 debate,  while Labour had a strong majority, the legislation passed by only five votes. Remove the Scottish Labour MPs from voting, the Act would have failed. Hence, Scottish MPs voted on legislation affecting only English universities (hence, students) while those same MPs can not act in that policy area for Scotland (nor can English MPs, for that matter).

With the promise of expanded devolution should No prevail, this asymmetry will only become more apparent, and English resentment is emerging:

Support in England for Scottish devolution has fallen from 57% in 1999 to 43% now; on the one hand a quarter now think Scotland should leave the Union, while on the other almost as many feel that Scotland should not have any kind of Scottish Parliament at all.  Meanwhile, although it remains the case that only a minority feel that Scotland gets more than its fair share of public spending, the proportion that do feel that way has more than doubled from 21% in 2000 to 44% now.

That was written a year ago. The current edition of The Economist has several articles on this subject (unsurprisingly), and brings more current public opinion data to bear. In one case, a poll in April suggests that by a four to one margin, the English believe that Scotland should receive a smaller share of public expenditure. This isn’t surprising, where north of the border universities are free (as mentioned above) and so too are prescriptions. As it stands, under the Barnett formula, Scotland receives a larger share of public expenditure per capita than England. Additionally, as reported in The Economist, the Future of England Survey identifies a growing desire for Scottish MPs to not be eligible to vote on England-only issues, from 18% in 2000 to 55% in 2012.

None of the proposed methods to circumnavigate the West Lothian Question are perfect, so long as the existing unitary parliamentary structure is retained. For example, if Labour were to win in 2015, but with a majority dependent on Scottish MPs, and England-only rules were in force such that English (or English and Welsh) MPs could vote on matters not impacting Scotland, the Government’s majority suddenly becomes a minority, and the Government can’t pass legislation meant to affect the largest nation in the UK. Assuming a No victory tonight, and the implantation of Devolution Max with the beginning of the next government following the May 2015 election, calls for some sort of representational fairness will grow louder in England, and to me it seems logistically only a true federal response will ensure equitable representation combined with a workable parliamentary system.

A Yes result brings up many issues of its own, of course. The Yes campaign assumes that the admittance of an independent Scotland into the European Union will be a mere formality.  However, it might not be that easy:

First it was claimed that Scotland would automatically remain in the EU, inheriting its UK membership. Highly unlikely. Then it was asserted that Scotland would be put on a fast-track to membership under a different article in the Lisbon treaty from the one dealing with accession and the only process that has been used so far to admit new members. This is also extremely improbable.

While admitting an independent Scotland to the EU would be a smoother process than, say, Turkey, it’s not going to be automatic. Furthermore, there are several countries with regional separatist problems (smile for the camera, Spain) which would not want to set this particular precedent. It’s not difficult to imagine Spain blocking Scotland’s admittance, or at least make it extremely cumbersome. Cyrpus as well. To a lesser extent, Italy, France, Belgium, and even Germany would not want to see a precent of automatic entry to the EU for break-away nations. Remember, every one of the 28 member states has to agree on membership. While the right to self-determination should result in virtually unanimous recognition of Scotland as an independent state, admitting it to the European Union is a different issue altogether.

This neatly segues into what currency Scotland would use upon independence. The Yes campaign insists it will be the Pound Sterling in a formal currency agreement with the remaining United Kingdom. There are only two problems with this. First, all three major party leaders in Westminster reject this idea, and the governor of the Bank of England (which would remain the central bank of a “Sterling zone”) recently stated that this would be “incompatible with sovereignty”. The rUK has no interest in a formal currency union with an independent Scotland while having no control over fiscal policy; the Eurozone crisis has taught them that much. The Scottish government has since threatened to not pay any share of the accrued public debt of the United Kingdom if it is not allowed a currency union, which is, well, bonkers.

Scotland could continue to use the Pound regardless, as several minor countries use the Euro or the US Dollar as their de facto currency, but this would leave Scotland at the mercy of the Bank of England’s monetary policy, which would not be responsible for Scotland. Furthermore, financial services in Scotland, which is a significant share of the Scottish economy (12.5% of Scottish GDP according to the Economist, 7.1% of Gross Value Added according to the BBC) would flee to London.

The second problem takes us back to the European Union. As it’s likely accession negotiations with an independent Scotland would be treated like any other new member application, Scotland would be required to adopt the Euro eventually as a condition of membership.

Finally, Scottish independence would also have far-reaching ramifications in the rUK. On Tuesday I suggested that an independent Scotland would make a Labour government in the rUK less likely, and if it does happen, more fragile. This would seem to, eventually at least, give the Conservatives an opportunity to form an outright majority. The Conservatives are on record as promising a referendum on continued EU membership in 2017 for the United Kingdom. Without Scotland, the rUK becomes even more Eurosceptic, thus increasing the probability of a “British” exit from the EU.  Again, The Guardian:

If Salmond wins his vote and Cameron wins his for a second term next year, the bizarre situation may arise where a new country called Scotland is clamouring to be let in to the EU after having forfeited 41 years of membership at the same time as a shrunken UK is heading for the EU door marked Brexit.

 

 

 

Thoughts on the Scottish Independence Referendum II: The Polls

[ 13 ] September 17, 2014 |

As I indicated yesterday, polling on the Scottish independence referendum has tightened significantly in the past couple of weeks, perhaps best illustrated here. Not surprisingly, I’ve been asked to do a bit of local media on this issue over the past few weeks, and yesterday on air I was asked the inevitable “who will win?” question. I suggested that the current polling is overstating the estimate of the yes support, and that in the end I’m expecting at least a four point (i.e. 52% No, 48% Yes) victory for the unionists. While interpreting the accuracy of polling data in this context is atypically difficult (which could be interpreted as a shifty, thinly veiled move to hedge my bets), we do have some theoretical and empirical guidance.

There are at least three variables to consider when evaluating the accuracy of these polling data. First is the effect of turnout on the accuracy of the likely voter models employed by the various polling houses. As discussed here at UK Polling Report, estimates of likely voters based on previous elections are of less help in this referendum than for a typical election., and additionally, turnout is expected to be impressive:

A stunning 97% of the electorate has registered to vote in the referendum, meaning turnout is expected to be very high, which could also delay the vote. There will be a lot of ballots to count. Turnout in Scotland at the 2010 general election was 64%.

To add some empirical lustre to this anecdotal extrapolation (again, from UK Polling Report):

Polls aren’t very good at predicting an actual percentage for turnout – people overestimate their likelihood to vote, and the actual turnout figures they are compared to are a bit ropey because of inaccuracy and incompleteness of electoral registers – that aside, they are pretty good at predicting relative turnout, and the referendum looks set to have a much higher turnout than any recent election.

If turnout is impressively high, the negative effect of variations in the reliability of likely voter models is somewhat attenuated. Likewise, expectations that we ordinarily would have based on variance in turnout, such as a lower turnout would mean a disproportionately older and wealthier electorate, are of lesser significance. Furthermore, as I discussed yesterday, the eligible voter pool for the referendum is, well, strange:

First, the eligible electorate is an interesting question, with the primary criterion being residence in Scotland.  Any British citizen resident in Scotland can vote, as well as residents of Commonwealth countries (with “indefinite leave to remain” in the UK, which is the British version of the green card), EU citizens resident in Scotland, and a few others. As a student of turnout, the voting age has been lowered to 16 for the referendum, which is intriguing. However, while a French (or German, or Polish, or Lithuanian, or Jamaican, or Canadian) citizen resident in Scotland is eligible to vote in the referendum and help determine whether or not Scotland becomes an independent country, Scots living in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, or New Zealand can not.

This is not an ordinary Westminster or Holyrood electorate, so extant likely voter models have to take this into account, yet there’s limited empirical experience to draw upon. This is not to say that we’re flying blind, because we’re not, but I expect polling data to be less reliable than it is for a Westminster, US Presidential, or US Congressional election.  Yet, as support for independence is stronger among the young, any decline in turnout from these super high predictions will asymmetrically reduce the Yes vote, as the young will stay at home at a higher rate than older cohorts.

Second is the social desirability factor, or to put it in British parlance, a variation on the “shy Tory” voter, what they also call “differential response”. Briefly, on average people prefer to offer what they perceive to be a socially desirable response to a polling question. The guess, given the enthusiasm and emotional appeal to nationalism and patriotism displayed by the Yes campaign, is that should social desirability have an effect in these polls, it would be a “shy No” supporter. In other words, the perception by any given respondent would be that the desirable response is pro independence, so the suspicion is that there’s a marginal, but significant, percentage of the pro Independence estimate that in reality will vote no on the day. I think this might be overstated a bit, however. The effect of social desirability is directly related to the form of the polling methodology. Not surprisingly, face-to-face interviews have the strongest impact on social desirability, as when one is confronted with a real live human being right in front of you, the desire to give the acceptable response is considerably stronger than in other polling settings. As the majority of the polls in the field are internet based, where the respondent is speaking neither to a physical presence nor a human voice at the end of a telephone line, this effect should be mitigated to a certain extent. Intriguingly, yesterday’s piece in UK Polling Report suggests a slightly different take on this phenomenon:

I think there’s more risk from the other side of the same coin – “enthusiastic yesses”. It is very clear from activity online and reported campaigning activity that YES supporters are more enthusiastic, what if that is also reflected in responses to opinion polls? What if the yes supporter, full of zeal and keen to share their view, happily agrees to do the phone interview while the less enthused No supporter doen’t want to interupt their tea? Eagerly clicks on the email when the No voter doesn’t bother?

Ultimately, while I think that social desirability could be overstated in this context, if it does have a role to play at the margins, it will be to over-estimate pro-independence support.

Additionally, while we’re in somewhat uncharted territory with the unique composition of this electorate and the difficulty in constructing likely voter models, we do have some historical precedence to draw upon, as discussed on Monday by Stephen Fisher here, with the takeaway:

So overall the evidence is mixed, but not balanced. It seems more likely that the headline poll figures are over- rather than under-estimating the vote for Scottish independence – and that this might be especially true of the final polls published between now and polling day.

Finally, Fisher highlights something that has been downplayed in both the media and in polling aggregators: the interpretation of the don’t knows:

The tendency for final polls to differ from the actual result does not necessarily mean that referendum polls are biased towards Yes responses. It might be that the Don’t Knows split disproportionately towards No, that those in favour of the proposition tend to be less likely to turnout to vote, while late swing is also a possibility. Whatever the reason, the experience of referendum polls in the UK and internationally suggests that the findings of final polls (from which the Don’t Knows have been removed) are typically flattering for the Yes camp.

We do have empirical evidence to make some reasoned, if imprecise, estimates regarding the don’t knows. As the ICM poll released yesterday still reports 14% Don’t Knows, this remains a significant chunk of the potential electorate. The literature on direct democracy, specifically referenda and initiatives in the United States (the literature about which I’m most familiar), suggests that in a yes / no dichotomous decision, the No option has some of the advantages of incumbency. I strongly suspect that of the DKs that do turn out to vote, they will break significantly to No. This makes sense. Given this is the most important and far reaching election in Scotland in a lifetime, if a voter has yet to make up their mind 48 to 96 hours before the election, the odds of them sticking with the safety of the status quo rather than the riskier unknown of independence is compelling. People tend to attempt a minimisation of maximum regret. Information about the status quo, even with the promises of “devolution max”, is readily available. Information about how an independent Scotland will operate, including basics such as the currency, the status within the European Union, the armed forces, and uncertainty of the disposition of companies currently based in Scotland is, at best, murky as hell. Hence, it’s safe to assume that those DKs that do vote will significantly favor the No side.

Considering the weight of the above, it’s safe to suggest that the extant polling data is overestimating support for Scottish independence.

 

Thoughts on the Scottish Independence Referendum I: Electoral Ramifications

[ 78 ] September 16, 2014 |

On Thursday, the Scots go to the polls to decide whether or not Scotland will leave the United Kingdom and become an independent country. This issue has been dominating British politics for the past few weeks, especially following the unexpected and rather dramatic tightening of the polls, following months of a seemingly unassailable No lead. This post briefly examines the future electoral ramifications for the remaining United Kingdom should Scotland vote for independence (England, Wales, and Northern Ireland).  I’m also writing a follow-on post that considers what we should expect on Thursday, the constitutional ramifications of both a Yes and No outcome, as well as the political and international ramifications of Scottish independence.

First, the eligible electorate is an interesting question, with the primary criterion being residence in Scotland.  Any British citizen resident in Scotland can vote, as well as residents of Commonwealth countries (with “indefinite leave to remain” in the UK, which is the British version of the green card), EU citizens resident in Scotland, and a few others. As a student of turnout, the voting age has been lowered to 16 for the referendum, which is intriguing. However, while a French (or German, or Polish, or Lithuanian, or Jamaican, or Canadian) citizen resident in Scotland is eligible to vote in the referendum and help determine whether or not Scotland becomes an independent country, Scots living in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, or New Zealand can not.

For the rest of Britain, an independence vote has the potential for a significant electoral ramification. For the past two years, aggregate polling has suggested that the Westminster election in May 2015 will result in a clear Labour majority. Today, assuming a uniform swing (which isn’t a safe assumption), Labour stands to enjoy an outright 44 seat majority, based on polling numbers of 32% Conservative, 36% Labour, 8% Liberal Democrat, 15% UKIP, and 5% Green. Note, the swingometer UK Polling Report uses is crude, and lumps in the UKIP support with “others” (including the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens, Respect, et al.) hence might underestimate UKIP’s seat share resulting from the election. Furthermore, I suspect that the resulting majority will be smaller than 44 seats, more along the lines of 20-30 (which is where it has been estimated for most of 2014). Nevertheless, those numbers are available, so let’s use them: out of 650 MPs, the Tories would win 256, Labour 347, LibDems 21, Others, 8, and Northern Ireland distribute their 18 seats across four or five parties.  Eliminating Scotland’s 59 MPs, and extrapolating using the 2010 seat distribution north of the border, a resulting House of Commons would have 255 Tories, 306 Labour, with 10, 2, and 18 remaining for the other three categories. Given a majority in a 591 seat Commons would require 296 MPs, Labour would still retain a thin, yet outright, majority.

Since 1974, Scotland has only marginally swung an election three times, but the feeling amongst Labour Party members is that independence would be a significant impediment to a working majority following the 2015 election.  The table blow lists the Labour governing majority (if one existed), the seats in Scotland and their percentage of the House of Commons, the number of Scottish seats that went Labour and the number that went Conservative.  The only elections where eliminating the Scottish seats would have changed the outcome were both 1974 elections, and  2010. In the first 1974 election, the Labour government that formed was a minority government (indeed, while the Conservatives “won” the popular vote, they had four seats more than the Conservatives. Take away Scotland’s 71 seats, of which 40 were Labour, the Conservatives end up not with an outright majority (only seven seats short) but with 15 more seats than Labour. Encouraged by strong polling numbers later in 1974, the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, called a snap election, which resulted in an outright Labour majority of three entire seats. Again, remove Scotland from the equation, Labour have 278 seats to the Conservative’s 261, which would have resulted in a minority Labour government. Finally, the results of the 2010 election, minus Scotland, would have resulted in an outright Conservative majority: the Tories only lose the one seat, while Labour loses 41 and the Liberal Democrats 11, resulting in 306 Tories, 217 Labour, and 46 LibDems. This would have saved both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats the ignominy of serving together in a coalition.


Election Labour Maj. Scotland Seats / PCT Labour Scot Tory Scot
2010 -39** 59 / 9.1% 41 1 (+11 LD)
2005 67 59 / 9.1% 41 1
2001 167 59 / 9.1% 56 1
1997 179 72 / 10.9% 56 0
1992 -21 72 / 11.1% 49 11
1987 -102 72 / 11.1% 50 10
1983 -144 72 / 11.1% 41 21
1979 -44 72 / 11.1% 44 22
1974oct 3 71 / 11.3% 41 16
1974feb -17* 71 / 11.3% 40 21

 

While Scottish influence on Westminster elections since 1974 have been marginal (February 1974 would have resulted in a minority Tory rather than minority Labour government, October 1974 results in a minority rather than slim majority Labour government, and 2010 becomes an outright Conservative rather than Con-Lib coalition government) Labour are justifiably concerned. Losing Scotland and the safe 40-odd seats there comprises roughly 13% of the MPs that Labour require to form a majority in the Commons. That’s roughly equivalent to the blow the Republican Party would face should Texas finally secede from the Union: the 38 Electoral College votes that Texas faithfully delivers to the GOP represents 14% of the 270 that they need for a presidential victory.

Eliminating Scotland from the future House of Commons electoral calculous might result in a marginal effect on the size and stability of any resulting Labour government. Should Labour only win 2015 with a 20 seat majority, once the elected Scottish MPs become unemployed and pack their bags to go live in their newly independent country, the extant Labour government becomes based on a fragile minority which can’t be expected to long survive a vote of confidence.

Brazil 2014 Predictions Redux: Reviewing the Ugly

[ 89 ] June 29, 2014 |

I intended to post this on Friday, but the time I had carved out on Friday for this unexpectedly became unavailable, and this past weekend (like most in England) was consumed by my lovely daughter.

This post is separated into two parts. First, a review of the predictions that I made on the 10th of June for the group stage.  If you’re busy and don’t have the time for this entire post, the executive summary is pretty simple: I sucked.  I only predicted 11 of the 16 qualifiers, and only three of the groups I forecast perfectly. There was one minor miscue that I’m pleased as hell to have got wrong (the USA), and one that’s just plain embarrassing (England). In the positive column, I predicted six of eight group winners (and six of eight group losers), and in going out on a limb to suggest that Italy would finish third in retrospect appears to be brilliant insight. Only if you’re drunk, because I did choose England to win that group.

In addition to England, I obviously blew Spain, having predicted them to be finalists (but not winners at least). I missed Holland, picking them third, Costa Rica, picking them fourth, and Algeria, whom I predicted fourth but qualified as second.

Group A

Prediction: 1. Brazil 2. Mexico 3. Croatia 4. Cameroon

Result: 1. Brazil 2. Mexico 3. Croatia 4. Cameroon

A good one for me, though I don’t think Brazil played as well as they should have done to be legitimate title contenders.

Group B (aka ‘sucks to be Australia’)

Prediction: 1. Spain 2. Chile 3. Netherlands 4. Australia

Result: 1. Netherlands 2. Chile 3. Spain 4. Australia

I watched the Spain v Netherlands match in the Green Dragon in Portland, Oregon as part of the celebrations surrounding my wife’s graduation from nursing school.  The Green Dragon isn’t known as a soccer bar, but it’s most definitely an excellent beer bar (and it hosted our wedding reception three years ago). If you’re in PDX, check it out. The Spain goal was a very soft penalty, and then the Dutch came on strong and haven’t looked back since that penalty. I was pulling for the Dutch of course. I adopted Oranje as my second national side while living in the Netherlands for three years at the beginning of the last decade (and this through their disastrous qualification campaign for Korea Japan 2002), and was thrilled to see them destroy that bracket of mine.

Group C

Prediction: 1. Colombia 2. Ivory Coast 3. Greece 4. Japan

Result: 1. Colombia 2. Greece 3. Ivory Coast 4. Japan

I downplayed Greece, and had more faith in Ivory Coast. I did call the key match as Greece v Ivory Coast, which went 2-1 to Greece. Even a draw would have sent Ivory Coast through, so I was only one stinking goal from getting this group perfect. Of course, that doesn’t make up for the bucket of goals away from getting Group B perfect.

Group D

Prediction: 1. England 2. Uruguay 3. Italy 4. Costa Rica

Result: 1. Costa Rica 2. Uruguay 3. Italy 4. England

Nothing to see here.  Move along, folks.

Group E

Prediction: 1. France 2. Switzerland 3. Ecuador 4. Honduras
Result: 1. France 2. Switzerland 3. Ecuador 4. Honduras

Nailed it.  France were 17th according to FIFA’s flawed rankings system, and Switzerland 6th.  France beat Switzerland 5-2.  In my write up a couple weeks ago, I did say that I originally had the Swiss winning the group, but upon further reflection, had to go with the French.  I also implied it would be close.  The table says that France edged out Switzerland by a lone point.  The reality is that the Swiss came three goals short.

Group F

Prediction: 1. Argentina 2. Nigeria 3. Bosnia and Herzegovina 4. Iran
Result: 1. Argentina 2. Nigeria 3. Bosnia and Herzegovina 4. Iran

Nailed it. Argentina did take all nine points as I predicted, but it wasn’t as easy for them as a perfect haul suggests. B&H were stronger than I thought they would be, and were only a goal away from qualification.

Group G

Prediction: 1. Germany 2. Portugal 3. USA 4. Ghana
Result: 1. Germany 2. USA 3. Portugal 4. Ghana

Well, cool.  I was one goal from getting this one right, and it was close in the end.  It shouldn’t have been close in the end, of course, had the US not allowed that stoppage time equaliser from Portugal to get in. When Altidore went down early in the Ghana match, I thought, that’s it, any chance we had just went out the window. This is what I wrote two weeks ago:

Well, shit. I’d have taken Donovan, as a sub, but it wouldn’t have made a difference. Germany win this tough group, and if things break just right, the US can come out of it. It would take another 2002-style surprise against Portugal, however, and I don’t think that will happen. Progressing out of this group would be to me more impressive than the 2002 run or the 2009 Confederations Cup. In the positive, the three warm up friendlies went OK, including beating both Turkey and Nigeria. If Portugal suffers an injury, if the US finally beats Ghana, and remember that Portugal had a mediocre qualifying campaign. There’s a chance.  Maybe a one in three chance that the US makes it out of the group.

Key Match: for the USMNT, all of them. We need all three off of Ghana, and all three off of Portugal, to ensure progression. If a strong Ghana side emerges to take points off of Portugal and possibly Germany, four points could get us through. I don’t see us taking a point off of Germany.  Or scoring a goal.  I don’t see Ghana being strong enough to help us, either. At least I think we’ll finally beat Ghana, who did us in the Group in Germany and the knock out round in South Africa.

On balance, that was more right than wrong.

Group H

Prediction: 1. Belgium 2. Russia 3. South Korea 4. Algeria.
Result: 1. Belgium 2. Algeria 3. Russia 4. South Korea.

This one I whiffed on a bit badly. Not only did I have Algeria finishing fourth, I also said “Russia might win it, but the distance between those two and South Korea and Algeria is pretty severe.” Where I got it wrong is that I should have included Russia in the pool of mediocrity with South Korea and Algeria, instead of placing them closer to Belgium in terms of capability.

Now, for part two. Two weeks ago, this is what I said:

In order to clean up after the wreckage that reality will mete out to my predictions above, I’m going to revisit the following after the group stages are complete. For now, it’s just for fun.

Knockout Stage: Brazil > Chile; Uruguay > Colombia; France > Nigeria; Germany > Russia; Spain > Mexico; England > Ivory Coast; Argentina > Switzerland; Portugal > Belgium.

Quarters: Brazil > Uruguay; Germany > France; Spain > England; Argentina > Portugal.

Semis: Brazil > Germany;  Spain > Argentina

Final: Brazil > Spain

I’m going to limit myself to cursory notes here given we’re already 30 minutes into Holland v Mexico, but I’ll include how I would have honestly predicted the two that were played yesterday.

Brazil v Chile.  This one will be closer than originally anticipated, as Chile are stronger than I thought (or, perhaps, they benefitted from an unexpectedly bad Spain) and Brazil less consistent. I still see Brazil winning this by a goal. Of course, it went to pens . . .

Colombia v Uruguay. Easy, Colombia. Uruguay without Suarez isn’t the same.  And it wasn’t.

Netherlands v Mexico.  Oranje. I have to hand it to Mexico, and CONCACAF more generally: our association qualified three of four.

Costa Rica v Greece. I’m not going to underestimate Ticos again this tournament. On paper, they played in a more difficult group, only dropping points int he final match against England, when England were already eliminated and Costa Rica only required a draw to guarantee topping the group. Greece were somewhat fortunate to make it out of Group C, and did so with only four points and a goal differential of -2.

France v Nigeria. France were simply more impressive. Nigeria’s best match was the 2-3 defeat to Argentina, and they could only draw against Iran.  France dominated Ecuador, and swept a theoretically strong Switzerland aside, only dropping point in the final match, when their position in the group had been all but settled.

Germany v Algeria.  No contest.

Argentina v Switzerland.  I’m liking Argentina more for the title than I was at the beginning.  The Swiss won’t pose a serious challenge.

Belgium v USA. Shit.  Belgium by a goal, but this US side has played better than I thought they would, and Klinsmann has proven in this tournament to be better at preparing the side for the given competition, and better at making tactical adjustments on the fly. He’s still not perfect, but I feel better with him going against Belgium than Bradley.

Quarters: Brazil > Colombia, Germany > France, Netherlands > Costa Rica, Argentina > Belgium.

Semis: Germany > Brazil, Netherlands > Argentina

Final: Germany > Netherlands

Yes, a replay of 1974, with the same bothersome result.

Ill-Advised Brazil 2014 Predictions

[ 115 ] June 10, 2014 |

The World Cup begins on Thursday, and runs until the 13th of July.  I’ll be in England for most of it, but tomorrow I fly to the US for a week, then back to England, then back to the US a few days before the final is played, so I’m going to miss the odd significant chunk here and there. Like the final, where I agreed to a camping trip in Oregon with my wife, stupidly without having consulted the World Cup calendar in advance, so that one’s on me pretty much entirely.

As I did for 2010, I’m offering up some predictions, with an eye towards generating discussion. Note, the 2010 predictions were before we migrated from where we were to where we are now, so formatting and comments were lost. Presciently, towards the end of the group stages I revisited those original predictions (and while I missed a few, I didn’t do too bad).

So, for 2014, with some limited commentary:

Group A

1. Brazil 2. Mexico 3. Croatia 4. Cameroon

Brazil suffer in the FIFA rankings (currently third, behind Spain and Germany) as they really haven’t had to play too many non-friendlies, having the automatic berth as hosts. They did have a stellar Confederations Cup campaign, but then remember in the 2009 Confed Cup that the USA finished runner up to Brazil (that after going 2-0 up), and beating Spain along the way. How did that work out for both Brazil and the USA in 2010?  The US lost to Ghana in the first knockout round, and Brazil lost to eventual runners-up Holland in the quarters. Mexico is magnificently fortunate to even be here of course, but El Tri have somewhat stabilised after a disastrous qualifying campaign. Only somewhat, however, and they benefit from being in one of the easier groups and should make the knockout round.

Key Match: 23 June, Croatia v Mexico

Group B (aka ‘sucks to be Australia’)

1. Spain 2. Chile 3. Netherlands 4. Australia

This is a tough group to peg. It’s easy to go either way with Chile and Holland. As much as it pains me (the Oranje are my backup national side after the USMNT on account of my stint in Holland for three years before moving to England), the injury to Roma’s Kevin Strootman, and the subsequent last minute switch to an un-Total Football 5-3-2 formation don’t help the Dutch, while Chile is playing very well, and on its home continent. Of course, Chile, too, has experienced some injury problems, so this one really could go either way.

Key Match: 23 June, Netherlands v Chile

Group C

1. Colombia 2. Ivory Coast 3. Greece 4. Japan

Seriously, this is a World Cup Finals group?  Colombia takes this one with relative ease, if not all nine points, then seven, and the following three can be interchanged at random. I know Greece has a high FIFA ranking at present (12th), and they’ve established a reputation for defensive solidity since Euro 2004, but Ivory Coast should be able to break that down. And hell, Japan are always underestimated at the tournament, though this is one of the weakest Japan sides in the past dozen years.

Key Match: 24 June, Greece v Ivory Coast

Group D

1. England 2. Uruguay 3. Italy 4. Costa Rica

Go ahead, laugh. Yes, I have Italy not making it out of the group. Even more cringe-worthy, I have England winning the group. From my vantage point in England, England are the most consistently over-rated team in any sport anywhere ever and always. That said, I think part of the key to England this tournament is that, for perhaps the first time in the history of the game (and definitely in the over ten years I’ve lived on this island), England and its supporters are being cautiously guarded, even realistic, about their chances. There’s no pressure. While I would have taken Jermain Defoe, the squad as selected is young and playing for the future. The weight of expectation surrounding the golden generation has finally been lifted (because, let’s face it, they weren’t that golden). I hate the obvious cliche, but England’s chances depend on the Wayne Rooney that shows up. If picking England ahead of Uruguay is risky, picking Italy to not make it out of the group is downright foolish. That said, they’re winless in their last seven, their defense is problematic, they seem to lack the ‘fox in the box’ on the attack, and they didn’t have a stellar qualifying campaign against a weak group.

I’ll get at least one of those two quite wrong, of course. Just watch, it will be Italy Uruguay England Costa Rica in the end.

Key Match: 14 June, England v Italy

Group E

1. France 2. Switzerland 3. Ecuador 4. Honduras

Like Mexico, France are fortunate to so much as be here. Also like Mexico, they’re fortunate to be in an easy group. They’re playing better now than they did throughout qualification, but the late loss of Ribery is a blow. Not a fashionable choice to top this group, I originally had Switzerland down to win it, but then had a better look at the France squad, and Ribery’s replacement (Antoine Griezmann, Real Sociedad), so cooler heads have prevailed. That said, FIFA have the Swiss ranked 6th while France is 17th. To hedge the bets, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ecuador snuck out of the group somehow.

Key Match: 20 June, Switzerland v France

Group F

1. Argentina 2. Nigeria 3. Bosnia and Herzegovina 4. Iran

Argentina take all nine points. Nigeria and Bosnia could flip. Don’t underestimate Iran. Does it show that I’m in thrall of Group F?

Key Match: 21 June, Nigeria v Bosnia

Group G

1. Germany 2. Portugal 3. USA 4. Ghana

Well, shit. I’d have taken Donovan, as a sub, but it wouldn’t have made a difference. Germany win this tough group, and if things break just right, the US can come out of it. It would take another 2002-style surprise against Portugal, however, and I don’t think that will happen. Progressing out of this group would be to me more impressive than the 2002 run or the 2009 Confederations Cup. In the positive, the three warm up friendlies went OK, including beating both Turkey and Nigeria. If Portugal suffers an injury, if the US finally beats Ghana, and remember that Portugal had a mediocre qualifying campaign. There’s a chance.  Maybe a one in three chance that the US makes it out of the group.

Key Match: for the USMNT, all of them. We need all three off of Ghana, and all three off of Portugal, to ensure progression. If a strong Ghana side emerges to take points off of Portugal and possibly Germany, four points could get us through. I don’t see us taking a point off of Germany.  Or scoring a goal.  I don’t see Ghana being strong enough to help us, either. At least I think we’ll finally beat Ghana, who did us in the Group in Germany and the knock out round in South Africa.

Group H

1. Belgium 2. Russia 3. South Korea 4. Algeria.

Belgium are being touted by some as a dark horse for this tournament. I don’t think they’re that good, but they’re good enough to win this group. Russia might win it, but the distance between those two and South Korea and Algeria is pretty severe.

Key Match: 22 June, Belgium v Russia.

In order to clean up after the wreckage that reality will mete out to my predictions above, I’m going to revisit the following after the group stages are complete. For now, it’s just for fun.

Knockout Stage: Brazil > Chile; Uruguay > Colombia; France > Nigeria; Germany > Russia; Spain > Mexico; England > Ivory Coast; Argentina > Switzerland; Portugal > Belgium.

Quarters: Brazil > Uruguay; Germany > France; Spain > England; Argentina > Portugal.

Semis: Brazil > Germany;  Spain > Argentina

Final: Brazil > Spain

 

UKIP Demands Fairer House of Lords Representation

[ 35 ] June 8, 2014 |

bnb-petitionI’m still writing my quadrennial World Cup predictions post, and this weekend (as are most when I’m in England) is all about the daughter, but I saw this and as it’s 6:30am and she’s not yet awake, I had to share:

“UKIP will “absolutely insist” on being granted new peers in the House of Lords, leader Nigel Farage has told his party at a conference.”

Lord Pearson of Rannoch, one of three UKIP members (erm, “peers”) in the House of Lords, is quoted as saying “Our democracy requires that we have more than three peers in the House of Lords when we’re getting 27 per cent of the vote in the latest national election.”

Lord Pearson used the word “democracy” in the same breath as “House of Lords”.

Cue Butthead: Er, democracy sucks.  Uh huh huh huh.  Lets go like call somebody and stuff (uh huh huh huh huh).

Warming Up For the World Cup

[ 34 ] June 5, 2014 |

The group draws for Brazil 2014, which starts next week, are not quite balanced, and I’m writing my usual ill-advised predictions for the group stages. As I wrote in December, there was much whining in England, but the USMNT has by most quantitative measures the most difficult group in the tournament. Indeed, the strengths of the eight groups are so asymmetrically distributed, the crime here isn’t that there is a group of death (because there’s two), but that there’s at least one “group of life”: Group E by the linked account (Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras):

Group E is an absolute joke. As mentioned with respect to parity, Group E provided teams like France and Honduras a chance to advance to the Knockout Round when few other groups would have allowed such an opportunity. Yes, it is the World Cup and anything is possible. But, can you honestly say it is fair and desirable to have nations working four years to be a top contender to find they may need to win 2 out of 3 just to reach the Knockouts? Additionally, should there really be groups with no one favored because no one is genuinely a World Cup Title contender?!

That breathless language overlooks the true contender for the group of life at this tournament: Group H (Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea). The 2014 World Cup includes one group with both finalists from 2010 (Spain and the Netherlands), one group where all four sides made the last 16 (Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA). Both outcomes would make sense if the quality of the teams or their qualitative relative rankings did vary that much in four years time, and that the group draws were based on a true competitive methodology.

But this is FIFA, so they’re not. Rather, as I pointed out in December:

If the goal of seeding teams is to ensure roughly equal competition across all the groups, there should not be appreciable qualitative distinctions in strength. FIFA does not operate that way, of course. The top eight were seeded, ensuring they’d be kept apart, but then the remaining “pots” were based on geography.

Or, to quote another voice:

The global parity has created group disparity. There is no reason why in a tournament field with such quality there are only 2 groups with an average ranking of less than 20. Additionally, with 2 groups having an average over 25 makes the tournament unbalanced. It warrants FIFA reconsidering the format of dividing pots by region. Why not simply rank the teams 1 to 32 and then divide them into 4 pots accordingly? Parity makes for better viewing pleasure and gives those countries that have deserved to be a top 8 nation more of an opportunity to progress.

In the NYT today, “A Fairer World Cup Draw” outlines a method proposed by a French mathematician named Julien Guyon. The abstract to his paper that the NYT piece draws on brings attention to a much underused term, potgate:

The recent ‘potgate’ which dominated the build-up to the final draw of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil attracted my attention both as a football fan and as a probabilist, and calls for a change of the rules. It is actually symptomatic of more fundamental flaws that are linked to the way FIFA enforces the geographic constraints that they put on the draw. In this paper I investigate these flaws and suggest three new possible sets of rules that produce fairly balanced and geographically diverse groups, and use a small number of bowls and balls, in the hope that for the next editions FIFA will adopt one of these fairer systems, as I believe that the biggest sporting event in the world deserves the utmost level of fairness.

Both the FIFA and Guyon method is simulated 10,000 times for each of the 32 teams in the tournament to explore how lucky (or unlucky) each national side was in its draw. What is plain by those distributions, in addition to the bit where the US was always likely to get screwed regardless, is that FIFA needs to adopt a better system for drawing the groups for Russia 2018 (in addition to a better system for drawing the host for Qatar 2022).  To quote Guyon directly from his conclusion:

In this article I investigated the flaws of the current rules of the FIFA World Cup final draw and I was able to suggest three new possible sets of rules that produce eight balanced and geographicaly diverse groups. The last two sets of rules are even totally fair, meaning that all the acceptable results of the draw are equally likely.

Oh, hang on, he just used the phrase “totally fair” and FIFA in the same paragraph.

Nevermind.

LGM at Ten, the Hungover Version

[ 5 ] May 31, 2014 |

I’ve known Scott (scooter), Rob (full beard Rob, sadly we’re missing his sidekick Bo, about whom last I heard is tenured in one of the Dakotas), and Dave (sideshow) since they foolishly signed on to get a Ph.D. at the University of Washington.  This was long before Paul schooled the world on the economic futility of such endeavours.  They followed me in the rough and tumble environment that was UW poll sci, but I took to them quickly.  Alcohol helped in that quest.  And my one best approbation was affording Watkins the nickname “sideshow”, as it stuck for a while.

When they started the blog, I received an email, so I followed it.  I wasn’t new to this internet thing, having written beer reviews for rec. food.drink.beer, and having them on the ‘web’ as early as 1994, as I chatted about this past autumn. Rob and Scott tried to get me on board prior to the 2008 election, but I was either busy, drinking, watching my daughter, or in some ER.  Let’s focus on the busy bit as I was chairing my department after all (which probably explains the nascent drinking problem).  When I did sign on, it was to be a guest blogger for Rob who was off on some ill advised mission to destroy the air force (I honestly don’t recall what he was up to those two weeks, but that sounds like a high probability endeavour of his).  I wrote a handful of posts over those two weeks, and they decided to approach me to be a masthead author here.  I had to say yes, as my credit cards were all maxed out and the vast sums of money suddenly flowing my way were appreciated.  I do remember telling the guys that I felt like the fan of the band who suddenly got to play bass for them.

I’m still a fan of LGM, and as we’ve added authors since (Charli, SEK, Erik, and Bethany, in particular) I’ve been exposed to different ideas, styles of writing, and people. As our readers know, I’m not part of the blogosphere per se. Yeah, I’ve interacted with Nate Silver when he was pre-NYT and especially when he wrote something boilerplate about the 2010 British elections, about which I took him to task here, and he graciously replied in the NYT. But, I am not part of the entire inside baseball thing that crops up from time to time. I’m a dad first, academic second, and latterly, the data guy for my local party third. But based on my Usenet days, I’d fit right in.

Since, I’ve made an effort to meet our authors during my many travels back to the US (my wife lives in Oregon and I don’t, and I like her a hell of a lot, so I’m there whenever I can be).  I have succeeded in meeting both Erik (in Eugene) and Kaufman (in New Orleans, following an epic visit to the LSU ER), and both meets involved not a tame amount of liquor. Both brilliant people FTF. One of my life goals, along with converting one of our Ph.D. students from Tory to Labour, is to find Dave Noon and make sure he’s still alive, and give him brewing tips. I’m thinking both have the same probability of success. I don’t have many regrets in life nor do I really do regret (I should and I guess I do as I’ve been married thrice, and one of my best friends is my first and I’ve got a good relationship with the mother of my daughter), but I do regret not being an omnipresence here. As I said a couple days ago, when things get busy in my life, LGM is one of the first commitments to go. I’m surprised that they still keep me around, to be honest.

I’ve also encountered many people back in the States, in bars, who read LGM (that might be a trend). Writing and blogging comes up, and I humbly point out that I, on occasion, write for some blog. For whom is asked, and I spill it, and with surprising frequency, this one is known.  This happened once in Chicago and twice in New York in April.  It still astonishes me. Indeed, several of my colleagues in my department read the damn thing to the point where they made me the blog guy. We have one now, but the release of that album won’t happen for a few more weeks.

So as for our commentariat, got to love them. I’m constantly fascinated at the time and effort that our readers expend on dissecting and peer reviewing our contributions (and each others’ comments). I barely have enough time in my life to write for LGM, yet anything I do write, I know if there’s anything I got wrong, it will come out.  That’s perhaps the most brilliant part of being part of the LGM team, exposing our sloppy musings to our readers.  You guys really make us better.

Here’s to the next ten years.

The Past Ten Years With Plymouth Argyle: Promotion, Relegation, And All That (Guest Post)

[ 89 ] May 30, 2014 |

The following is a guest contribution by Gordon Sparks, who has been broadcasting Plymouth Argyle’s matches for thirty years. Gordon’s been an on-air presenter with the BBC since 2001, and has been in radio since his teenage years in the late 1970s. He calls an excellent match, and more than once I’ve referred to him as Plymouth’s Dave Niehaus. I’ve known him since the first time he had me on his BBC Radio Devon show six or eight years ago. That interview was about some US election, so I came prepared for what I thought was any possible question on that election. Imagine my surprise when the final question was about who I liked for the AFC Championship Game that year (and the two or three seconds of dead air it took me to come up with something). When he’s not calling Argyle matches, you can catch him on Radio Devon at the agreeable time of 05:00 – 06:30.

—————————————

It is an honour to be asked to make a guest contribution – and I must first apologise to all Americans reading this for my English spelling of ‘honor’ and ‘apologize’. But hopefully, if you stick with my quaint English language as I attempt to prove my knowledge of American sports – but in doing so making one or two comparisons. So, in a blatant undertaking to court controversy, I shall deliver a few home truths to followers of American football, baseball and basketball. You don’t know how lucky you are!

This isn’t going to be one of those ill-informed English guys spouting off about baseball being a game similar to ’rounders’, a game played by English schoolgirls – the only difference being that in baseball the men wear trousers. Nor will it be a rant about why American footballers wear all that padding (as opposed to our butch rugby players); or why an NFL game is stop-start taking three-and-a-half hours to play 60 minutes.  I am a convert to American sports. Honestly. I have all the sports channels available and an avid fan of a particular NFL team (more of which I will discuss if permitted to come back here for a second edition).

Why do I think you are lucky?

Let’s paint a scenario. Your team suffers a heartbreak season. The coach has lost the plot and tactically forgot how the game should be played. Star players have left the team, going for bigger money or the potential of success elsewhere. The ‘loss’ column far outweighs the ‘win’ list. It has been a season to forget.

But there is hope.

The owner of the club can rebuild by hiring a new coach and acquiring new players. The same, of course, can happen with English sports clubs .. but here’s the big thing …

Your team will begin the next season as if nothing has happened. You can forget that in the previous campaign your highly-paid superstars failed to deliver and did not make the end-of-season play-offs. Those recent memories can be consigned to the record books and fans will arrive at Game One of the new season with all the excitement and anticipation of what success could be delivered. At Game One, every team is once again on an even keel. Competition will be as fierce as ever with divisional rivalries renewed.

Part of my professional duty is that of a football (soccer) commentator (play caller). Each week, I follow one team – Plymouth Argyle. Home or away, it matters not, my travelling studio goes with me and it is my responsibility to describe everything that happens on the pitch. In many ways, it is a labour of love as Plymouth Argyle is my chosen team. My home town club. The club in which my father gave many years of his life as a shareholder and vice-president.

This coming season, ‘The Pilgrims’ will play against local rivals Exeter City as well as going to such football coldbeds as Accrington, Morecambe, Hartlepool and Cheltenham. No disrespect is meant to those aforementioned places – they are a joy to visit and have good people running their clubs. But to any Americans reading, I wonder how many are familiar with those names.

Just a few years ago, Plymouth Argyle were playing against far bigger clubs such as Queen’s Park Rangers, Leicester City, Swansea City and Crystal Palace – all four of which are now proudly members of the English Premier League. [DB: and don’t forget Newcastle United, who both earned promotion to the Premier League and relegated Plymouth from the Championship in one match at Home Park four seasons ago].  Why the exchange of the comfortable seat and glorious elevated view of a perfect playing surface at Leicester, for the windswept position on a wooden seat at Morecambe?

If the club fails to deliver and finishes in the bottom places of the division, it is relegated. Dumped. Shamed. Ridiculed. That failure means dropping down to a lower tier for the next season to play against lesser teams. Attendances at games will suffer. There will be less TV revenue. Less advertising and commercial revenue. When a club gets hit by relegation it is not easy to finish in the top places of the lower division to reclaim its’ higher status.

How do I know all this?

Plymouth Argyle enjoyed six years in The Championship which is just one division lower than The Premier League. At the end of the 2009-10 season the club was relegated to League One. Three clubs were relegated and Argyle finished second from bottom of the 24 teams. The following year was also a disaster with relegation again after finishing bottom. This time to League Two. The 2011-12 season was another gargantuan struggle finishing 21st out of 24 and narrowly avoiding a third relegation — this time to The Conference, non Football League status.  For the record, 2012-13 matched the finishing position of the previous year.

Imagine my angst. For a club in League Two, attendances were healthy in comparison to many other clubs, and many hundred Argyle fans travelled to each and every away game. Plymouth is a south-westerly outpost on the map of England. The endurance of Argyle fans has been remarkable. In the season just finished, the club fared better. But a finishing position of 10th was still some way short of winning promotion.

Before you shed any tears for the heartache felt by fans of Plymouth Argyle over recent years, that is just the start.

There have been financial problems. So much so that the club was entered into administration. A new owner was found when the club was close to going out of business. Things were so desperate that fans rallied around during an extended period when players and club staff were not being paid. In a few short years, Plymouth Argyle went from a club playing in some of the finest stadiums in the land to being a charity case. Buckets and collecting tins were rattled as fans put on events to keep the club as a going concern. Many of the players could have walked away. One did. To provide another example of how bad things were, one member of staff could not eat, existing on cans of energy drinks each day. He moved back to his parents’ house having given up his own property because he couldn’t keep up the payments on it.

During the ungracious fall from The Championship, many of the bigger names of the playing staff did move on to other clubs, but we will enter the 2014-15 season with the rejuvenated hope that rears its’ head each year. Could this be the season of hope? Will promotion be the reward after an autumn, winter and spring of 46 matches?

Has such a series of events ever occurred with any American sports team? Your NFL team may have an 0-16 record next season. Yes, it will hurt at the time. But you have the assurance that whatever happens, your divisional rivalries are safe, as are millions in TV and sponsorship revenue.  Most important of all, the price of failure does not include losing the right to play at the top table again the following year.

Again, I shall repeat. I AM a fan of American sports.

But, American sport lives in a perfect world protected by a foam jacket that ensures your team will never fall from grace, always able to have big earners on the roster in sell-out stadiums. What more could you ask for?

Unless your team owner decides to move everything lock, stock and barrel.

That’s one thing I can guarantee for my team (finances permitting): Plymouth Argyle will never become London Argyle, Manchester Argyle or Birmingham Argyle.

God bless football! Sorry …. soccer.

The Count

[ 42 ] May 29, 2014 |

jonnyelectedI’ve been quiet here lately. March is generally my busiest month academically, in April I had several commitments in the United States, and when I returned to England at the end of April, I had the end of the year grading crunch (which I finished up just yesterday) and another week long morning run on BBC Radio Devon. Most weekends in England are occupied with my daughter, who craves constant interaction (while I am utterly unproductive during those weekends, they are my favorite times ever). When work backs up, sadly, my pattern has been that LGM is one of the first things to go. That, and beer.

A relatively new commitment is my activity with the Labour Party. I’m a member (they give you a card and everything) and I guess what you’d call an activist. During the run-in to the local and European elections held last week, I wanted to get involved in and familiarise myself with as many aspects of the operation as possible. This included stuffing envelopes, phone canvassing, leafletting, knocking on doors talking to people, getting out (our) vote on election day, and meeting a lot of very cool, like minded people. In the coming year, there will be much more of all of this, plus data analysis. I am impressed with the sophistication of the operation, but there are areas we can improve upon, and locally I’ll be making an evidence-based contribution in this area.

Also, I had the opportunity to serve as a count agent for Labour on election night and the next day during the formal count. Jonny Morris (pictured), an incumbent city councillor running for re-election, put my name forward. While not knowing what the hell it was, it sure sounded cool. I researched what the Electoral Commission has to say about agents’ rights and responsibilities, spoke to Jonny as well as two other Labour councillors, and following a fun, exhausting day working cleverly targeted GOTV in two of our target wards (from 05:00 to when polls closed at 22:00) went down to the Guild Hall in the center of town to do this thing.

The next 18 hours or so happened in two stages (separated by a few hours of glorious sleep). The 19 contested wards for Plymouth’s City Council were spread across three tables per ward in three different halls.  After the polls closed, the ballot boxes started to arrive. That night, the city’s job was to verify that the number of ballots coming out of a box equalled those that went in, and to stack them into groups of 25. My job was to gather data, both in terms of the overall picture in the ward, and ideally, by polling station. The ward I was responsible for had eight polling stations, and I was able to obtain a sample from six. This is the only time we can get this level of data as once the ballots are stacked, this information is lost for all eternity (the city keeps track of aggregate numbers by ward of course, and that’s the public record, but does not distinguish within the ward). This will be useful in the coming year.

There were three city counters per table, so I had nine in total to observe, by an large by myself. Our candidate was there for a couple hours but he was understandably exhausted considering all the effort he had been putting in, but at least I had three gregarious cool relaxed laid back UKIPers to keep me company. Having precisely zero experience with this, I had to devise a sampling method on the fly. The city was not obligated to show me the vote choice, just the ballot papers (as officially, my job was to observe for Labour that the count coming out of a ballot box was equal to the count that went in). Some counters were more cooperative than others; one entire table of three decided they would bundle the ballots face down, so I could not see a thing. Others would do so in such a way that I could see the bottom two candidates but not the top three, or the top two but not the bottom three; either were worthless in terms of obtaining a reliable sample. I did manage to find two or three who were transparent in their count such that I was able to obtain a decent enough sample. At one point, consulting with the candidate, I was able to say ”this is where you are. these are good numbers. I trust these numbers”. I didn’t know it until that moment, but I always wanted to say that to a candidate.

There was one flaw in my sampling, and that’s the postal vote, which I think worked out to about 40% of the total turnout. Those were piled into their stacks of 25 first, and it proved very difficult to devise a reliable sampling technique for those.  I’ve retained everything of course and I’m looking at my postal numbers versus my ballot box numbers to see if there’s anything I can learn.

I was at the Guildhall from a little after the polls closed at 10pm until 1:30am. I was back at 12:30pm the next day for “The Count”, where the city takes those stacks of 25 and distributes them by party (into stacks of 25 that are paper clipped, then bundles of 100).  My job here, again, is twofold. I’m to ensure that no Labour votes end up in the piles of the opposition. In the ward I was responsible for, we had five candidates: Labour, the Conservatives, an independent candidate who runs every election, the “Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts”, and, of course, UKIP. Meaning, five piles. Note, no Green candidate; and the Greens did quite well in a couple of the wards. Also, no Liberal Democrat, who stood candidates in merely four of the 19 wards. The only discrepancy I noted was twice one counter placed a Conservative ballot in the Labour pile. There was no Tory count agent present at the moment, only their candidate, who wasn’t observing this table. It’s not my job to do the Conservative’s job for them, so I said nothing. In each case, however, the counter caught his error before adding another ballot to the Labour pile, so in the end the Conservatives were correctly credited with those two votes, and the shaky foundations of the democracy held for another day.

The second job was to get an overall count of where we stand, and this is where the drama enters the narrative. We were well organised, with the candidate watching one table, me a second, and an additional Labour observer (who had done this many times before and was well on top of things) the third. We aggregated notes, and had confidence. My sample from the night before, 401 ballots out of ultimately nearly 4000 cast, indicated that it could be close, but we’d win and UKIP would finish second.

I was confident, that is, until I caught sight of the UKIP tally sheet, which credited them with over 200 more votes than we estimated. That our ward was called for a recount did not add to our confidence. I found solace in my numbers from the night before, and knew I had a much better handle on things than they had, but during the first of two recounts for the ward, I worked out that we had underestimated the UKIP vote. Telling the candidate that we didn’t have them where we thought was not my favorite part of the day / week / month. The situation was tense, and when we learned that turnout in the ward was 40%, we weren’t sure what to make of it. 40% is above average for local elections here, so did it mean that we got the boost higher turnouts usually afford Labour? Or did UKIP mobilize an atypical number of non-voters to their extreme right wing cause?

The second recount assuaged any concerns and the tension vanished. We had won. By 96 votes. The emotion was tangible. My estimates from the night before had the ward 34% Labour, 28% UKIP, 25% Conservative, 11% Independent, 1.5% TUSC. Again, those were without the postal ballots. The final result was 34.6% Labour, 32.2% UKIP, 23.4% Conservatives, 8.8% Independent, and 0.8% TUSC. My error was Labour -0.6%, UKIP -4.2%, Conservative +1.6%, Independent +2.2%, TUSC +0.7%.

Not too bad for one guy devising a sampling method on the fly, observing three tables, with nine city counters cooperating to varying degrees, while rejecting my estimates of the postal votes as being unreliable.

After that, we all gathered in the ballroom upstairs to watch the declarations of each ward (the source of the photo above), which culminated in re-elected Labour councillor Bill Stevens’ rousing speech that went viral on twitter here in the UK, and met with a decidedly impolite reaction from the UKIP contingent. Then, of course, it was off to the nearest bar, where every party, Labour, the Tories, Greens, TUSCs, even the odd Liberal Democrat were all in attendance, proudly wearing their rosettes and respective party bling.

Except UKIP. Even though they had elected three councillors to Plymouth City Council, they stayed away.

Random Airport Blogging About Airports, PDX Edition

[ 147 ] April 3, 2014 |

A friend posted this to my fb page earlier today. The story has been going around for a week or two, some survey somewhere indicates that American airports suck. Some do, yes; I don’t like Dulles, and have promised myself on at least two occasions now to never use it as a port of entry again. I’ve never had the delight to use LaGuardia, which the linked article quotes the Vice President as opining, with typical Bidenesque understatement, that it “feels like it’s in some third world country.” As your intrepid LGM reporter covering the airport desk, I’m going to visit LGA for the first time on Monday. Remember, I do it for the readers.

What bemuses me about the article is that the rankings in question originate from a British consultancy, and Heathrow makes the Top-10. As an American who has lived in Britain for over ten years, and one who flies too much, I have a hate-hate relationship with British airports in general, and the sprawling hell that is LHR in particular. To wit:

“The other source of harm to our global reputation has been the unacceptably long waiting times to process through customs at U.S. international airports.”

The only American airport where my wait is in the same league as Heathrow’s immigration queues is IAD. Usually, it’s five, ten minutes (and no, I’m not enrolled in Global Entry, though the airline that I’m in a relationship with did automatically sign me up for TSA Pre-Check), whereas with Heathrow, I schedule a solid 45-60 minutes for immigration alone to insure I don’t miss my bus or train back down to the Southwest. But that’s not entirely a function of the airport, but the staffing levels set by the agency involved with immigration.

The solution to the wasteland of American airports is clear:

Unlike many of their overseas counterparts, U.S. airports are predominantly owned and operated by city, county or state governments. “This means that how they are funded is far more restricted than the rest of the world,” Burke said. “For our large hub airports, their primary source of funding for capital improvement projects is the Passenger Facility Charge.”

Yes, let’s privatize airports, so they exist to make their shareholders profit! That improves everything everywhere all the time!

The problem, of course, should be plain. The mission of an airport is to get people onto airplanes which take them somewhere else. They aren’t destinations in their own right. I used to enjoy flying out of little Bristol Airport in England – there was a direct flight from Plymouth to Bristol (before the Plymouth Airport became unprofitable and closed over two years ago) and a direct flight from Bristol to the US. About six or eight years ago Bristol received a major remodel; suddenly, there was a lot less space to sit, and a hell of a lot more shops. A common British ploy is upon immediately exiting security, you’re funnelled through a string of shops before you can even see the gates. It’s no surprise that Heathrow is lauded thusly:

London Heathrow Airport kept its 10th place spot for another year, also winning the award for best airport shopping.

Because when I think shopping, I think airport. But, British airports (at least the handful I’ve used: LHR, BRS, LGW, STN, GLA . . . MAN, LBA) are shopping malls attached to runways. If the airport exists to make a profit, they have to find a way to separate their captured audience from their cash. Buying overpriced crap[*] is the best way to ensure that.

US airports should remain public entities. Their core mission is clear, and usually they efficiently get people onto their airplanes.

Incidentally, I’m off to Chicago for four nights for the MPSA. I’m on a couple panels, but otherwise my dance card is atypically clear. Drop me a line if you’d like to share a pint or 18 on Saturday or Sunday.

[*] Of course,

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every airport needs one or many airport bars. As I’m sort of technically scared of this entire flying malarky, airport bars could charge double and I’d still pay. Fortunately, I’m currently drinking at the Laurelwood Brewing outlet in the E concourse of PDX, so I get excellent beer and efficient self-medication in one go.

Various Thoughts on MH370

[ 45 ] March 24, 2014 |

March is typically my busiest month, as I always have papers to furiously finish at the last minute for one, often two conferences in the US. This year is no different; I’m in Chicago doing the MPSA for a few nights in a little over a week, and while I don’t have a paper at the WPSA this year, I’m going to crash the meeting anyway, being from Seattle and all. By meeting, I of course mean any of the panels being held in a bar.[*] Nonetheless, I have been paying perhaps too much attention to MH370, and as I’ve been busy to the point where I can barely keep up with LGM, let alone comment threads, I apologise if any of this was discussed in the comments to the two (?) posts about MH370 that appeared here earlier.

I have an irrational fear of flying, which makes the annual 50K+ I clock up every year in the air a bit ironic. I assuage that fear partially by paying close attention to the occasional accident, and over the years I’ve built up a near encyclopedic knowledge of various disasters (the other means of fear mitigation is the airport bar). Since 1999, pprune has been informative in this area, with active airline pilots, ATC controllers, engineers, etc. providing ample evidence that plays into my statistics and probability training. Typically, the professionals active on the site (and previously, rec. travel.air on old Usenet) will point out the path-dependent chain of extremely low probability events required to bring down the aircraft in any given accident. Those flying for a living weren’t concerned, citing the overall low probability of any single event. Of course, one of the few times this approach failed was AF447, when the attitude of the pilots seemed to be “thank god it wasn’t me up there” and I was introduced to the term “coffin corner”.  That dialogue was well in the front of my mind when nine months later I was in an AF A330 over Greenland and we hit some pretty rough turbulence for an hour. It being AF, I had a nice stash of wine and brandy, so I got through it just fine. Typically discussion on pprune is technical and informative, and interesting to the curious and / or geeky.

The pprune thread on MH370 has, I believe, set a record in terms of sheer volume. As it’s gained attention (something over 10 million hits), the signal:noise ratio has predictably declined, but perseverance pays off. While there’s plenty of borderline crackpot theories being aggressively pursued by some, the nature of natural peer reviewing dismisses the unbelievable and impossible out of hand. However, given the nature of this case, there’s still plenty of scenarios with some measurable probability, however small. Attempting to understand what happened hasn’t been helped by the Malaysian government’s inconsistent handling of the matter. On several occasions, facts have been rejected before being accepted several days later, or stated as fact before being rejected later. On the latter, I’m specifically thinking about how the turn left immediately following the cutoff of the transponder was programmed into the flight computer and transmitted to ground via ACARS, which was subsequently withdrawn by Malaysian authorities.

It’s useful to focus on the few facts we do know with reasonable certainty (cribbed from pprune) before moving on to the where, and of ultimate interest, the why.

Official Confirmed

01:07 Last routine engine data transmission
XX:XX ACARS disabled
01:17 Sign off Subang ATC
01:21 Transponder switched off (near IGARI)
01:21 Malasian military PSR picks up MH370 at IGARI
XX:XX MH370 moves towards VAMPI and then towards GIVAL
02:15 MH370 turns towards IGREX and is lost on Malasian military PSR
08:11 Last ACARS handshake signal detected

The latter point is critical — it indicates that the aircraft flew for hours following whatever event occurred along its normal flight path over the Gulf of Thailand / South China Sea.  Furthermore, the consensus on pprune suggests that the continuation of the flight for hours after leaving the general Malaysia / Indonesia area was intentional. Regardless of motivation (fire / sudden decompression / unauthorised incursion into the cockpit / some motivation of the pilot to do something inconsistent with a normal flight or safe landing during a problem on board) the aircraft took a meandering route under the direction of somebody at the controls. To quote a contributor to the forum:

I think that many of us who fly the 777 for a living agree with you. The AP is going to follow a limited number of lateral inputs–LNAV, HDG HOLD, HDG SEL, TRK, or LOC. Plus, for LNAV we know that it is a three-step process of selecting the waypoint, executing it, and then selecting LNAV on the MCP. How many times have we had that drilled into us about “Execute then LNAV?”

At the very least, the initial turn off course and the entering and/or selection of new waypoints reveals very deliberate actions–by whom I will leave open pending further discovery and investigation. I think however, that many posters have overlooked just how deliberate those actions need to be and that they were most likely not the result of a happenstance case of hypoxia or fire brigade duties…

Initially, in the first 48 hours or so after the aircraft went missing, the working assumptions were that there had to be some swift, cataclysmic event that would disable the transponder, ACARS, and prevent the flight crew from so much as communicating. Sudden decompression or fire were favorites.  Lacking any debris field or ELT transmissions within a few days of the disappearance over a patch of ocean known for being shallow and heavily populated by both fishing boats and oil rigs, these hypotheses were in doubt. Malaysia’s confirmation that military primary radar picked up what they believe to be the 777 in question flying to the west introduced further confusion. This led to several now well known theories, including this one, discussed here on LGM. That (or any fire theory) has been through consensus regarded as very low probability on pprune. Palau Langkawi airport has a one-way runway pointed in the wrong direction for the approach, there were airports somewhat closer and more convenient if you’re flying a 777 that is on fire, and of course the knowledge that the aircraft remained in cursory communication via hourly pings to the Inmarsat satellite for six to seven hours later:

(Diversion to Palau Langkawi airport) even though it was closed, a very dark place to land even when the lights are on, and a one direction runway for approaches (the opposite direction he was heading), Penang was closer (and open 24/7) with approaches on both runways, and full firefighting support. Both pilots had flown into and out of both of these airfields many times, and both knew one was closed one was open.

Any fire theory would require a fire strong enough to disable the pilots and the overwhelming majority of electrics on the aircraft (the transponder, ACARS via VHF, communication), but subtle enough to burn itself out while leaving the control surfaces and airframe integrity in tact for a zombie journey until fuel exhaustion. In most (if not all) mid-air fire cases (e.g. SR111, SA295, AC797, ValueJet 592, Asiana991) the pilots have had an opportunity to communicate with ATC before, in most cases, the fire damage resulted in loss of control of the aircraft. A fire scenario for MH370 would have had to immediately disable several redundant communication systems, ultimately overcome the crew (who have and are trained to use their backup oxygen supply) yet leave the 777 in an airworthy state to fly itself. While not an impossible scenario, the probability is quite low. To again quote a pprune contributor:

If you had followed this thread you would have read the factors that make the fire in flight scenario a less than likely option. Fire cannot deselect transponders, nor call up menu options to shut down ACARS systematically, let alone preselect route 2 waypoints on the FMS.

(a) the fire had to burn such it disabled the power to certain electrical components and not other electrical components despite the fact that these electrical components are on the same power circuit.

(b) that this fire was hot and heavy enough to result in the incapacitation of the pilots yet light enough to burn itself out before effecting any of the control surfaces, cabling, etc so the plane could fly for five more hours.

The sudden decompression / hypoxia theory received a lot of attention early on, especially once it was established that the plane continued on in possibly zombie fashion for hours, bringing up memories of Payne Stewart’s (final) Learjet flight and Helios522 in 2005. Again, this is a scenario that is not impossible, but considering what we do know, highly unlikely. In the time period immediately following loss of contact, the aircraft was under pilot control, heading west for roughly an hour, then turns to the south (or north).  Given the aircraft was under control, the pilots would have been using their own oxygen source, but failed to communicate; whatever caused the immediate decompression would have likewise had to disable the several means of communication that we do know ceased functioning.

The theory that the plane flew, controlled, on the tail of one of the many flights in the air corridor heading west across the Malay peninsula has also been questioned. According to contributors to the thread on pprune, military radar can distinguish targets 300 feet apart, even 1960s technology was capable of 600 feet separation. Flying that close, at cruising speed, is difficult in the best of circumstances.  This was at night, while your aircraft is essentially flying dark (no communications, no TCAS as no transponder, etc.). It’s possible, of course, but it would be very challenging, and with 300-600 feet of separation nearly impossible, it would assume that every radar observer consciously or subconsciously rejected two valid blips where there should only be one as a fault.

A more fanciful theory, initially pitched (and still occasionally claimed) is a new take on terrorism. This theory has the flight crew disabled, and the 777 essentially stolen, to be flown off to some hidden runway for future malevolent use. If I’m running a terrorist operation, and I need a new weapon, I’m not going to hijack a 777 on a scheduled route with 230+ pax, just to store it somewhere. Loads of people will be, you know, looking for me and my Boeing as it’s sat on some highly visible 7000 foot runway somewhere (not to mention the initial Oceans-11 level of sophistication operation to get it there). Rather, I’m going to set up some shell freight company and go buy a fleet of beaters hanging out in the Tucson desert — there are still some sweet NW DC-10s there (many of which I probably flew on once). Given the sheer number of people searching for this thing, the resources at their disposal, and the finite (and known) number of runways capable of both landing, and critically for a scheme requiring re-use, successfully allowing the departure of a T7, the chances that it was stolen and landed somewhere are slim. Not zero, but awfully damned slim. Unless, of course, they also built their own new secret runway somewhere as part of this elaborate master plan.

Given the data on pinging to the satellites as part of the ACARS infrastructure, we know the two broad arcs where it was last. Since it had anywhere from 0 to 59 minutes of fuel remaining at the time, there’s a lot of territory expanding out from those arcs. As it a) hasn’t been spotted on the ground, and b) there’s thus far zero reports of it showing up on any other primary radar (between Thailand and Kazakhstan), especially given some of the borders on the northern arc are well observed by air defence radars, my guess is that the probability of it heading north to be quite low. Of course, it’s not in the interests of any of those countries on the northern arc to admit that possibly in the middle of the night their air defence radars were not switched on for budgetary considerations, understaffed as it was late at night heading into the weekend, or inadequately staffed, but my guess is that something would have been released or leaked by now.

The southern arc includes a lot of territory over the Indian Ocean that is both very deep, and relatively free of busy shipping lanes. While it’s *possible* that it landed at some hitherto unknown airfield or ex-WWII grass strip somewhere, it’s highly improbable (and would likely have been observed by now). It’s more likely it’s somewhere in the Indian Ocean, under a hell of a lot of water. Whereas with AF447 there was a really good idea in what patch of ocean it went down in, this one doesn’t have that advantage.

We have precious scant factual evidence of the what, we have a probabilistic guess as to the where, but the why will likely remain unknown. The FDR, if found (it took two years to locate AF447′s), will provide ample evidence of the aircrafts systems, but the CVR only records on a two hour loop, so that’s unlikely to provide much from the cockpit, and will not provide anything from the key time period immediately following the loss of contact. Of course, it’s also possible that the smart fire which disabled most of the communications systems also took out the sensors and / or power to both the FDR and CVR.

I’ll close this out with a quote from a 777 pilot:

I am a 777 pilot and have waded painfully through all these pages.

Just a few points:

To be pedantic the 777 transponder cannot be turned off in flight from the flight deck. ie depowered with digits blank. There is no off switch, however there is a standy position which will stop it radiating. You would have to pull the circuit breaker to totally depower it. In flight on the 777 you never go to standby if you are given a change of squawk.

As to who made the last radio call. If the Captain is handling pilot the copilot would normally make the radio calls. However for various reasons i.e. the copilot out of the flight deck, copilot on the intercom to cabin crew , the Captain may have made the call. So role is not definitive proof.

In the event of a fire you do not climb to snuff out flames.

Can a 777 get to FL450? In true mythbuster spirit we put this to the test in a 777-2 simulator. A 777 with a full load of passengers has a zero fuel weight of between 170 and 180 tonnes, say 175 tonnes. 8 hours of fuel is approximately 52 tonnes. So a takeoff weight of approx 227 tonnes minus a bit of taxi fuel. At that weight the FMS says Max Alt FL409. The plane will climb easily to FL410.

Now it gets interesting. At FL410 There is a very small gap on the airspeed tape between the VMO and the yellow which is minimum manoeuvring speed. If you disconnect the autothrottle and firewall the thrust levers, then wait until the speed is about to trigger the VMO warning and then disconnect the autopilot and raise the nose you can do a zoom climb. Although into the yellow pretty quickly there is still a long way before you get to the red digits on the airspeed which is the point at which the stick shaker activates.. The elevator gets incredibly heavy as it is made artificially heavier as the Boeing 777 really doesn’t want you to do this. With P2 pulling with all his might he still could not raise the nose to anywhere near 10 degrees. Putting the flight controls into direct mode made it easier. We got it to FL 443 at which point the stick shaker activated and P2 gratefully reduced the back pressure. This sim had GE engines. RR are a bit more powerful and if they had used an hour more fuel than our simulation I think it would have been feasible. Interestingly at FL440 the cabin alt was still at 8000 feet as per normal, so it must have used a higher diff than normal but still had not reached the max diff where the relief valve opens.

As regards the possibilities:

I believe the event probably started with the flight deck door opening and either a pilot exiting or someone else entering. I suspect someone with knowledge then deliberately disabled transponder, acars and satcom.

As for the gradual depressurisation theory. I cannot buy that because the normal cabin alt is 8000, if it gently depressurised it might not be noticed but at 10,000 feet cabin alt there is a very loud horn and red “cabin Alt” warning. No pilot should be unconscious by this point, the passenger masks don’t even drop until a cabin altitude of 14000 feet so they would have seen the warning at 10,000 feet and taken action.

The rapid depressurisation theory and the pilots unconscious due to either failing to put masks on or failure of the oxygen system. This might have been a possibility except the transponder stopped radiating. In an emergency descent you do not touch the knob of the transponder switch. I have never put a 777 transponder to sby in flight and it would be totally alien. The transponder selector knob is not part of the emergency descent checklist.

A massive electrical failure or smoke in the flight deck? Possible but extremely unlikely for it to all happen at once with no chance to get even a radio call out. Also flying for 5 more hours. Would it not be better to head for land then circle and get attention?

A great mystery.

[*] Yes, I’m looking forward to next month, not having had the time to so much as have a single alcoholic beverage in over three weeks. Of course, my first leg across the Atlantic is on a 777, an airliner that has perhaps the best safety record in history, with prior to MH370 only three hull losses, one of those being non-operational, and only three lives lost. Of course, the return TATL leg is on a 787, which is made out of plastic and catches on fire for fun.

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