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Alternative Vote

2. May, 2011

So, we're having a referendum on the voting system on Thursday, which is pretty cool. What hasn't been cool is the campaigning that's been done — more so from the No campaign, but true also of the Yes people. Before I go further I should state my allegiances, which lie with AV. In fact I would prefer a system of proportional representation, but I think that is true of a lot of people who will be voting Yes.

My main issue with the arguments being levelled is that the majority of them, either by number or by weight accorded, are missing the main point. In my opinion, voting reform is fundamentally about what is fair, not about who benefits. Of course, no-one is going to act without regard for the practical consequences likely to follow, but the voting system, as we know, is not something that is changed easily, and to vote either way out of concern for short term gains or to "punish" someone is short-sighted and somewhat disgusting.

There will always be problems in disentangling the arguments because the people saying their favoured system is fair are generally the same ones whose party stands to gain from it. That said, I've not heard any arguments tackle head on in just what way FPTP is fairer than AV when faced with just how prevalent "tactical voting" seems to be. Which is perhaps not surprising; to do so would require someone to honestly declare they think it is fairer to vote categorically and unambiguously for someone other than the one you want to win than to be able to list a few preferences in order.

So far I've had two pieces of No literature through the door, and it is true that the second is better than the first. That said I think this is mainly because it's shorter, but no longer are they claiming that some people get more votes under AV (presumably because their votes get transferred, but this seems to be quite a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be transferred.) Nor are they claiming it is too complicated. I like to think the No campaign realised they were making themselves look too dim-witted to understand the system (which really isn't complicated, although of course more complicated than FPTP) but really — all the voter needs to understand is that they list any candidates they wouldn't mind winning in order of preference. If they want to know what happens after that, it is not hard to find out and, after all, the number of countries which use STV or D'Hondt is high, and those are pretty crazy in comparison. AV is sufficiently easy that organisations everywhere (my own favourite, COGS, uses a near-equivalent method with runoffs in the case of no absolute majority) use it at their AGMs and so forth to elect just about anything.

They're still saying that AV will lead to more hung parliaments (probably true) but neglect to mention that plenty of countries manage with coalition governments, that no-one will vote for the Lib Dems next election anyway and that the people in favour of keeping FPTP by-and-large approved of the "broken promise" we're all thinking about anyway; talk about preaching to the choir. Of course, it'd be more likely that we'd have Labour and Lib Dem coalitions, and so they'd be more likely to more or less agree on more policies, which again would mitigate this allegation.

They're also still spreading the downright lie that AV will cost £250m to implement. By now anyone who has been following the debate knows that this figure includes £130m on installing imaginary electronic vote counters (other legislatures do not use these to count votes for AV, and there is no intention of installing them in Britain). This is the first lie. The second is that it includes the cost of the referendum itself, which is, needless to say, already spent and not a reason to vote No. This has understandably riled the Yes campaign enough that they have even muttered about legal action. Perhaps futile, but this is electoral fraud of the grandest scale, and I really hope it does not disappear into the mire of old news after the referendum.

On the other side of the debate, the main irritation I have with the Yes campaign is their cheap stab with the expenses scandal. I am fairly convinced that fiddling expenses is a fairly low priority in the grand scheme of British politics, and if there is a culture of doing so the entire blame cannot be lumped solely on the individuals. The ensuing media frenzy still seems to have people convinced that people who tweak their expenses are the root of all that is wrong with the world, but I suspect that the ethos that it was "alright" to charge for flatscreen TVs could easily have survived whatever the voting system. It is worth noticing also, that the MP they like to cite — the one who charged for polishing his moat or something — had the support of over 50\% of his constituency.

"Greater accountability" is a nice woolly term that is bandied about by the Yes party too. While it might be true that MPs will be worried about maintaining a broad base of support while in parliament, I doubt that you will change such an unquantifiable thing quickly or with any one measure. Regardless, this must come secondary to whether or not the right people end up in parliament.

But as I stated initially, my core anger is that so many people seem to be advocating voting no to "give Clegg a kicking" or to "vote Yes to keep the Tories out." For the first, Clegg is going to have more of a kicking than anyone could ever administer in a referendum at the next general election, and indeed at the coming local elections. The second I can more identify with, of course, but on its own it's way wide of the point, which is that the Tories should (in general) not be in government because that's what most people would prefer, i.e. that's what they'd democratically choose.

The same goes when talking about the BNP (who come up whenever the voting system is mentioned.) Now, quite apart from the fact that it would be impossible for the BNP to gain the support of 50\% of a constituency (which, I feel like adding at this inopportune moment, is not necessary if people don't list enough preferences, although I guess near enough correct for a headline) I find it useful to point out that the BNP got more votes than the Greens yet the Greens have a seat in parliament. There really is no possible way that this can be considered "fair" and, ultimately and regrettably, if a bunch of people vote for the BNP it is their right that they be represented fairly. Now even in fully proportional systems there are usually measures to ensure that parliament doesn't get swamped with a ton of small, extreme parties, and this would likely exclude the likes of the BNP, but this is not inconsistent with them being fair, because a bunch of small parties is undesirable for other reasons. But to vote on the voting system with a specific party's gains or losses in mind as a significant point is overly cynical.

The real shame is that there is a real debate to be had. If you head over to YouTube there are people there hashing out the pros and cons of FPTP and AV, whether tactical voting is truly eliminated (it's not, but it's made so difficult and unreliable as to be pointless given the political landscape in Britain) and getting on with inserting kittens into everything. But this important discussion has been rejected in favour of mudslinging. Hardly surprising, but deeply disappointing, especially if, as it appears will happen, the No campaign wins out. (Although, from what I've heard, the campaigning might not have had much effect either way)

For my part, I'll be voting Yes on Thursday because I think AV is a fairer system than what we have now, because it makes tactical voting difficult enough that people will probably stop doing it, resulting in a parliament more representative of the people's preferences. Analogies to races and appeals to "one man, one vote" are presupposing that the system ought to work like a race, where the person judged to be better than any other individual candidate is the best. This is as opposed to an election, where the person who gains the most support from the electorate should win, and since people can rationally support more than one candidate in differing amounts, this should be reflected in who is elected. Some real information on the relative benefits and shortcomings of AV can be read on this wikipedia article, and see also the main article on AV.

Portal 2

29. April, 2011

Exams are finished and the 4th year project is near complete so I thought I'd say something about That Game. Some small spoilers follow.

It was good, but not as good as I was hoping, which is probably what I should have expected. Part of the problem with reviewing (or "talking about", since this is hardly a review) Portal 2 is that there are two very different halves to it - the puzzles and the humour. I think I'd tentatively say that, in both games, the humour is more important and the thing that makes them stand out.

However, humour is largely a matter of taste. Not that that will stop me explaining how and why I did not find Portal 2 as funny as I remember Portal being. Wheatley was quite hilarious, although this seemed to tail off after the swap. The moment that stood out as the funniest though was right at the start with the "can you talk?" after you wake up - which is a shame, because that is a distant memory by the end of the game.

The end of the calm, dystonic evil GLaDOS was unfortunate, I felt. She's not as funny when being emotional - either evilly so or otherwise. In a way the coop reminded me of the old GLaDOS and I think I found her much funnier there. At least she's not Cave Johnson though, who, while definitely amusing in his first few appearances, took a sharp dive after that you realise he's as one dimensional as the real line (or maybe less). A redeeming feature is that he is the spitting image of Alexandr Buinov of youtube fame.

With the humour out of the way though, I must say I was distinctly unimpressed with the puzzles. The original was not exactly a game on which you'd get stuck for hours, but it hardly seems too cynical to wonder if they intentionally made this one easier for the console crowd. This Nerf NOW! comic pretty much sums up one massive problem. In the original, as far as I remember, you were generally faced with a white (read: portlable) environment with a few surfaces on which you couldn't place portals where that was important for the puzzle. This varied as you went through, but in general working out where to put portals was a big part of the challenge.

In Portal 2 you almost always know where one portal goes: it's underneath a gel dispenser or opposite a funnel or something like this. The other end might be up to you, but it's often the case that you just have to pick between one of a few white squares (which even snap your portal so it lines up nicely) This vastly simplifies the puzzles, and turns it in many cases of a brute-force "imagine each portlable surface in combination with every other one" game. I like puzzles, especially logic puzzles, and there are some brilliant ones you can do with portals and all the new stuff they added, but I don't feel like there are any.

This also led to many situations where I didn't know where I was going next, but could tell what to do simply because of the available surfaces. "Oh, there's a slanted surface, I'll fling myself out of there and see where I end up" went one example. In another, there were two squares on a wall in front of a stretch of solid walkway. Since there was a timed element on this puzzle, it was an immediate conclusion (we didn't have to even try out the level to determine it) that speed gel needed to be placed on the floor.

Of course, just making things harder doesn't always make them more fun. But in terms of difficulty, Portal 2 feels like half a game. You learn to use each of the elements - portals, flinging, cubes, turrets, lasers, bridges, gels and funnels, but then the game is finished. You hardly have to do anything except work out what each one does, leaving me unsatiated. Not to mention that, with all these new puzzle elements, we are hardly challenged to fit them together. There are a couple of levels involving putting gel in the funnels and shielding or stopping yourself with the walls while in funnels, and putting gel on bridges, but these are maybe one example of each combination, and there could be so much more. Even at the expense of dropping a puzzle element entirely I think it would be better to combine them more, because it feels like some were just thrown in for the heck of it.

With puzzle games, I would not expect to be able to finish one in a single sitting without the aid of a walkthrough. Towards the end of the game, at least, there should be some puzzles that take a bit of thinking to crack, otherwise they hardly deserve to be called puzzles. The co-op did get us stuck a couple of times, but only for a minute or so. That said, when you have two minds attacking a project you are less often stuck looking at a problem the wrong way, so this is not a great comparison to single player puzzle games. The fact remains though that only when I was dead tired did I ever stop playing due to not seeing a solution. Upon returning, the answer was pretty much obvious.

And to return to the end of the game and matters purely of taste, I felt the credits song was a flop. Of course it would never have the same element of surprise as the first one, but nonetheless — Still Alive made me grin the whole way through, this one made me smirk a couple of times.

Now, I remember saying at the start of the post that I thought Portal 2 was good, so I feel I ought to apologise for what amounted to a rant, having essentially only focused on the bad aspects. The puzzles were fun and it was funny, but — especially after so long — I hoped for more.

And on one final and terrible note, Valve had the temerity to get Russell's Paradox wrong, which I consider nigh-on unforgivable. There's no inherent contradiction with "The set of all sets," (although normal set theory does derive a contradiction in combination with other axioms) unlike with "The set of all sets which don't contain themselves." Sad mathematician was sad.