Friday, 28 May 2010

Star Trekkie stuff, or reality?

The IET magazine recently celebrated 50 years of lasers. It says that the military and security services are looking to sensing technology to give them Tricorders for finding telltale chemicals that indicate whether the barrel on the road is just a barrel or something far more deadly.
A while back there were flip-up cell phones that looked like Star Trek communicators. We have Bluetooth earpieces that look like the earpiece that Lieutenant Uhura wore. Could we next gat a real Tricorder?

On the subject of cell phones, I read ages ago about the radio waves next to your head being able to produce an image of what was inside your head. It just took some extra modulation of the phone signal. I have been googling for the article, but have not found it yet.

I also read in one of the BCS magizines (I think) about software radios. As its name suggests, the processing of signals both transmitted and received are handled by software controlling any number of radio Integrated Circuits.
One could combine one of the new laser chips, software radio and mobile phone to make the Tricorder. There is already an Android App to use your phone's real sensors to detect magnetic fields, gravity etc.
The instruction say: Use the buttons on the left to select the mode:

* GRAV: monitor the local gravitational field and acceleration
* MAG: monitor the local magnetic field
* ACO: acoustic analysis; waveform, frequency and sound level analysis of the ambient sound
* GEO: display geographical information (enable GPS for full info)
* EMS: scan the electromagnetic spectrum for radio signals -- currently displays cellular and WiFi signals (you have to enable the WiFi to get the latter)
* SOL: display current solar activity data -- downloads current solar data in the background (may take a while) and displays it along with current images

How close could we be to a read Tricorder?

Monday, 10 May 2010

Mathematics, democracy, paradox and pitfall

The New Scientist Editorial refers to an article in the magazine, and says that “The mathematics of democracy turns out to be so fraught with pitfalls and paradoxes that complete fairness is probably unattainable.”

The principle of voting in the UK is currently simple. Each of our electoral divisions/constituencies elects just one representative. The candidate who gained the most votes in the election is the winner. In this system votes for anyone other than the winning candidate are disregarded. In Bracknell the winner was Dr Phillip Lee who gained over 50% of the vote.
In the NS article it points out that if more than two parties with substantial support contest a constituency, a candidate does not have to get anything like 50% of the votes to win. In this case a majority of votes may be considered to be "lost".  Take somewhere like Hampstead and Kilburn where Glenda Jackson got just under 33% of the vote. It could be that 67% of the people there are now quite dissatisfied.
From the NS Article an example by mathematician Donald Saari at the University of California:
Suppose 15 people are asked to rank their liking for milk (M), beer (B), or wine (W).
6 rank them M-W-B,
5 rank them B-W-M,
4 rank them W-B-M.

In a plurality system where only first preferences count, the outcome is simple: milk wins with 40%, followed by beer, with wine trailing in last.
Do voters actually prefer milk?
9 voters prefer beer to milk, and
9 prefer wine to milk
Clear majorities in both cases. Meanwhile,
10 people prefer wine to beer.

By pairing off all these preferences, we see the truly preferred order to be W-B-M - the exact reverse of what the voting system produced.
Saari showed that given a set of voter preferences you can design a system that produces any result you desire. You can read more about systems/anomalies in the article.

Preferential voting comes closer to being fair than plurality voting, but it does not eliminate ordering paradoxes.
Given three candidates, A, B and C, and three voters who rank them
B-C-A and
Voters prefer A to B by 2 to 1. But B is preferred to C and C preferred to A by the same margin of 2 to 1.
Every one a winner!

In a proportional representation system each party is awarded a number of seats in proportion to the number of people who voted for them. This may be fairer in a mathematical sense than plurality or preferential voting, but implies large, multi-representative constituencies and central lists of people that may be quite remote from the voter. This system also carries with it the possibly of paradoxes occurring.

The NS article points out that there will always be the possibility that one voter, simply by changing their vote, can change the overall preference of the whole electorate.
It seems that in any system we could end up with a hung result. One way to quantify this is the Banzhaf power index. First, list all combinations of parties that could form a majority coalition, and in all of those coalitions count how many times a party is a "swing" partner that could destroy the majority if it dropped out. Dividing this number by the total number of swing partners in all possible majority coalitions gives a party's power index.There are a number of calculators available that one can Google for.

There is a bit in the article about the word gerrymander, which  was coined by a newspaper editor in reaction to a redrawing of boundaries.  Governor Elbridge Gerry. It included one sprawling supposedly salamander-shaped constituency. This leads me on to the Conservative policy to reduce the number of MPs by 10%, and ensure each vote has equal value by reducing the wide discrepancies between constituency electorate sizes. 

The Guardian says that the adoption of the "alternative vote" electoral system would have had only a minimal impact on the outcome of last Thursday's general election with the Liberal Democrats gaining only an additional 22 seats, according to analysis by the Electoral Reform Society. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives would have benefited significantly from transfers based on last Thursday's vote. Significant regional imbalances would remain between the parties.

The newspaper also has a useful bit on the AV and Plus systems. AV Plus was recommend by the Jenkins Commision. PDF of report HERE. So much for the promises made by Labour since 1997?

Saturday, 1 May 2010

IT, Technology, and the General election

I have visited some IT and technology related blogs recently, and found a lot of misinformation about. I thought I would post here what you can find on the Conservative party website. The information is all there. One of the reasons I first got involved in politics, was down to the introduction of IR35. As was usual with the Brown/Blair administration, this was not in the headlines of the budget, but in the small print. The aim of the legislation may have been laudable, but the outcome has been farcical. It has cost both IT contractors and the country a lot of money for nothing. If you are in IT please read through the following links. The blog may read a bit strange, but it is a collection of replies/cut and paste to other blogs.

From the Conservative Technology Manifesto:
“The Labour Government have spent more per capita than any other government in Europe on IT – but too much money has been wasted on failed projects, and they have failed to use these procurement projects to stimulate innovation and growth in the economy. Conservative government will open up government IT procurement to innovative new companies and small businesses. Under Labour, just nine IT companies received 60% of public sector IT spending. We can’t go on like this.”

Conservative will provide a boost to British business and help create highly paid new jobs across the country. Our plans will give Britain the fastest high speed broadband network in Europe, helping to create 600,000 additional jobs. Conservatives will make the British government the most technology-friendly in the world, and meet the ambition that the next generation of Googles, Microsofts and Facebooks are British companies.

See “Where we Stand” – The Conservative goal is simple: to make Britain the easiest and the best place in the world to set up and grow a business.

Mark Prisk, the Shadow Business Minister, has announced that a Conservative Government would undertake a full and fundamental review of small business taxation, including IR35.

The aim will be to provide a simpler, clearer and lasting tax regime, so businesses can plan with confidence.

"For the last 13 years, Labour have constantly meddled with the tax rules for freelancers and self-employed, Prisk said. "IR35 has especially proved to over-complex, uncertain and often unfair".

IR35 has cost business £73 million over 10 years but it has barely raised revenue for the Treasury. Prisk criticised Gordon Brown for making it harder to be self-employed at a time when Britain should be open for business.

"This is why a Conservative Government would mandate the independent Office of Tax Simplification to undertake a fundamental review of current arrangements with the aim of providing a clearer, lasting and fairer tax regime".