Saturday, 30 April 2011

Voting Alternatives

When I was nine there was a general election, and we were talking about politics in Sunday school. "What would be the first thing you'd do if you were Prime Minister?" asked our leader. Most of the kids had to think about it, but I piped up immediately: "Proportional representation!"

Of course, I was asked to explain to the other children what on earth I was on about: "I want to see a voting system where the number of MPs from a given party is roughly in proportion to the amount of support they have across the country." (Yeah, I was a very strange nine-year-old.)

That was nineteen years ago. This Thursday, the UK is having a referendum about our voting system. The choice is between our current system, called 'First Past The Post' (FPTP), and a ranking system called 'Alternative Vote' (AV).

At the moment, when we go to vote, we get a list of names and we get to pick one. The calculation in FPTP is trivially simple: sort the ballot papers into piles, and the biggest pile wins the seat.

Under AV, we would be able to write down a number against each candidate, ranking them in order of preference (1 for first preference, 2 for second preference, etc). Just like the present system, the first step in counting the votes is to sort the papers into piles according to each voter's first choice candidate. The count would take slightly longer than under FPTP, because if the highest-scoring candidate hasn't got 50% of the vote, then the lowest-scoring candidate is eliminated, and their papers are distributed to their second-preference candidates. This continues until one candidate has over half of the vote. It's approximately equivalent to having multiple run-off elections, except that you write all your preferences down at once (so you can't change your mind based on the results of the first round).

FPTP allows you to express your first preference, and nothing beyond that. And not everyone even votes for their true first preference - you see a lot of election literature claiming that a particular party "can't win" in a particular seat, encouraging their supporters to instead vote for the politically-closest alternative who might stand a chance. In the town of Cheltenham, not far from where I live, it's generally believed that the Labour party "can't win" and so a lot of Labour supporters voted for the Liberal Democrat candidate at the last election in the hope of keeping the Conservative candidate out of office. (I know of several people who were consequently very upset when the Lib Dems formed a coalition with the Conservatives.)

Under AV, it would be a lot harder to orchestrate this kind of tactical voting - and it would arguably be less necessary, since Labour supporters could simply rank the Labour candidate first, and the Lib Dem candidate second, if that was how they felt.

Any debate about the mechanics of voting necessarily raises the question of what we mean by a "fair" system. Unfortunately, an economist called Kenneth Arrow took a set of things he thought would make a system "fair" and proved that they can't all coexist in a single system. This is kind of a pain, but even if an absolutely fair system is impossible, that doesn't mean we couldn't improve on what we've got.

For me personally, a fairer system would be one with a proportional outcome. Under the present system, it's possible (and actually quite common) for a party to win a significant majority of seats with less than 50% of the vote. AV isn't a proportional system, but would be likely to generate results somewhat closer to a proportional outcome.

My personal concern with this referendum is that AV is no-one's "ideal" solution. Most people who have been campaigning for voting reform really want to see a proportional system. But if people who want proportional representation don't go out on Thursday and vote in favour of AV, then supporters of FPTP are likely to interpret the result as a mandate for not changing anything, and in that case I don't think we'd see a similar referendum on proportional representation in my lifetime.

PS. In the interests of fairness, I should note that a lot of people don't agree with me about proportional representation. The main reason seems to be a belief that having a 'strong' government (with a big enough majority to pass legislation easily) is more important than how closely that government represents the views of the population. And proportional systems will always result in more coalitions and minority governments, because people's preferences are diverse.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

One Cuban Iguana

We only saw one iguana in Cuba, though we heard rustling in the undergrowth a few times that might well have been others in hiding, just a few feet away from us. This one only stayed visible for a few seconds before scuttling away, but Andy managed to snap a picture. I was taken aback by how big he was, as well as by his shyness (which was quite beyond that of most other Cuban wildlife).

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Bolsover Castle

Andy has relatives who live just around the corner from Bolsover Castle, so we've now been there a couple of times. It's a beautiful place to wander around on a spring afternoon. On this occasion the castle's own car park was full, so we only had a short-stay space at the side of the road outside, which meant we had to do a whistle-stop tour.

As well as some of the spectacular ruins that I mentioned previously, there's also a well-preserved section with some impressive surviving interiors. Can you imagine having rooms of sufficient stature to get away with this kind of gilded wood panelling?

Friday, 22 April 2011

Sutton Scarsdale Hall: One House, Two Continents

There are plenty of grand country houses dotted around the English countryside. It's somewhat less usual to find one that's lacking its roof, but when you're making use of an English Heritage membership, that's hardly uncommon either.

Possibly the most surprising thing about this ruin is how recently it was not ruined at all. It was only 1919 when Sutton Scarsdale was last put on the market, but apparently big houses weren't selling well, and no buyer came forwards.

What happened next is astonishing: some of the interior was ripped out and shipped to the USA, where it can now be seen in the Philadelphia Art Museum! I hope I'll have chance to visit there one day, and wander around the same room for a second time.

Meanwhile, back in Derbyshire, we have to make do with a few left-behind pieces of plasterwork.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Framing Ruins

I've always loved ruins. If you were to ask my parents, they'd tell you that I've always strongly preferred English Heritage properties (typically falling down) to nicely-preserved National Trust houses.

I think it's partly about letting my imagination take over, but one part of what I love about ruined buildings - especially large ones - is the range of options for framing scenes. Windowless windows, door-free doorframes, and tumble-down walls all provide interesting outlines for beautiful pictures.

In Derbyshire this weekend, we enjoyed visits to two different English Heritage houses - Sutton Scarsdale Hall and Bolsover Castle - which both have significant ruins. I'll post a little more detail shortly, but for now, here's a selection of fun framing shots.

Monday, 18 April 2011

A Cuban Crocodile Farm

One of the strangest things we saw on our trip around Cuba was a crocodile farm. I didn't even know that anyone farmed crocodiles, but there they were. Wandering around the complex, we saw that they were separated into large pens according to their age - from heaps of tiny toddlers to grizzled old men who looked like they'd quite like to sink their teeth into a passing tourist, if only they could be bothered to move out of the shade. I'd never seen crocodiles before, so in a sense it was fascinating, but it was sad to see them so far removed from their natural habitats.



Saturday, 16 April 2011

Planning a Baltic Odyssey

The Train
We're thinking about our travel plans for this year, and somehow the idea of taking trains and ferries around the Baltic has captured my imagination.

My first attempt at an itinerary is to fly to Warsaw (Poland), take the train to Vilnius (Lithuania) via Sestokai, then another train to Riga (Latvia) via Daugavpils, either another train or a ferry to Tallinn (Estonia) and then the ferry from Tallinn to Stockholm (Sweden). Anyone who's been here a while knows how much I love trains and boats, so I'm sure you can see why it appeals to me. With two or three nights in each city, we should be able to build a great two-week trip. We might be taking Andy's mum with us, so we also need to make sure we come up with something that's suitable for all of us.

I've been to Tallinn before and really liked it, but the others are all cities which are new to me, and my only travel in the area is limited to the Tallinn-Helsinki ferry. If anyone has any tips, I'd love to hear from you.

The picture is the train we took from Mongolia to China on our honeymoon.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Traditional Simnel Cake Recipe

Simnel cake is a traditional Easter treat in the UK. Apparently this marzipan-and-fruit cake recipe originated as a cake made for Mothering Sunday, but I've only ever associated it with the Easter holidays. The eleven marzipan balls are to represent Christ's apostles, minus Judas, for obvious reasons.

This may just be the perfect balance for a fruit cake: it's light and fluffy, but every mouthful is packed with lovely, juicy fruit. And I love marzipan, so having a marzipan layer through the middle probably improves any cake...

Most traditional recipes have some lemon or orange zest thrown in, but I didn't have any fruit in the house. This recipe makes a large cake suitable for feeding the whole family, but you can easily scale it to make a smaller quantity.

Simnel Cake Recipe
Makes 8in/20cm cake

500g/18oz marzipan
225g/8oz butter
225g/8oz soft brown sugar
4 eggs
225g/8oz plain flour
2tsp mixed spice (or 1tsp cinnamon and 1tsp ginger)
310g/11oz raisins
140g/5oz candied peel
110g/4oz glace cherries (quartered)

  1. Grease and line an 8in/20cm round cake tin - or cheat like I do, and use a non-stick tin.
  2. Preheat the oven to 140°C.
  3. Take one third of the marzipan, knead until soft enough to work, and roll out into an 8in/20cm circle.
  4. Cream the butter and sugar together, then add the eggs and beat until thoroughly combined.
  5. Fold in the flour and mixed spice.
  6. Stir in the dried fruits and mix thoroughly.
  7. Spoon half of the cake mix into the bottom of the tin. Lay the marzipan circle in the tin on top of the cake mixture, and add the remaining mixture on top.
    Smooth the surface with a spatula.
  8. Bake for an hour and a half (or until risen and firm) at 140°C, then transfer to a cooling tray to cool.
  9. Use half of the remaining marzipan to make a circle for the top. Form eleven balls from the remainder, rolling them between your palms to get a nice round shape (I find that I get the best results when I really tense the muscles in my hands). Arrange the balls around the outside of the cake, using a little water to stick them in place.
  10. Grill the top of the cake at a medium heat until the marzipan begins to brown (it will bubble, and then start to go brown very fast).

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Videos from Greenland

When we went to Greenland last summer, we'd just bought a new camera: our first one with proper video abilities. We hadn't appreciated how fast video would drain the batteries, so we didn't get quite as much footage as we would have liked, but we came home with a few clips.

It's taken me this long to learn how to edit them - or rather, to delegate the learning to Andrew, and then have him teach me!

I'll definitely be trying to take more videos on future trips - you can't capture singing in a still photograph. This colourful Greenlandic choir were singing as part of the National Day celebrations in Nuuk on 21 June.

We also took some film of the adorable baby huskies, playing and fighting in Ilulissat.

Friday, 8 April 2011

A Walk Around Meldon Reservoir (Devon)

IMPORTANT UPDATE: We attempted to repeat this walk in December 2011, only to find part of the path blocked by the landowner. It is no longer possible to make a complete circuit of the reservoir.

Rachel near Meldon Reservoir

While we were on holiday in Devon last month, we were looking at a map of the area and spotted a small reservoir nearby. Now, I don't know about you, but reservoirs always seem to me to be good places to go for a walk. They usually have a path around the outside and you get loads of great views over the water as you walk. This was no exception, and the bright yellow gorse bushes added an extra splash of colour to the landscape.

Meldon Reservoir

Meldon Reservoir

Being a strange kind of tourist, I also find myself fascinated by the incredible hulks of engineering that are dams. It must be quite a challenge to build one of these in the path of a river.

Meldon Reservoir

Thanks to Andy for taking most of the photos on this walk!

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

New Tax Year

Today is the first day of the new tax year in the UK. This would hardly qualify as a fun fact, if it weren't for the fact that it's on such an odd date. So odd, indeed, that I got it completely wrong this year and tried to make up my annual accounts at the end of March.

Having got suitably cross with myself for messing up my nice neat record book (um, obsessive, moi....?), it was all made right when I found out that the reason for us having such a silly tax year is due to the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar. Yes, really. The financial year used to run to the 25th March, but it was extended so that those in power didn't lose 11 days' revenue when the calendar changed over.

Somehow, the fact that it's an interesting historical artifact makes me feel rather better about the whole thing. And having learnt the background, I think I'm less likely to make the same mistake next year!

Monday, 4 April 2011

Mothers' Day

Yesterday was Mothering Sunday in the UK.

When I first started blogging and using Twitter to chat to friends on the other side of the pond, I was surprised to find that Mothers' Day was on a different date in the US. I suppose I should have expected it to vary (indeed, Wikipedia has a list of dates for Mothers' Day around the world), but somehow it just hadn't occurred to me.

This year I needed to make two cards, one for my mum and one for my mother-in-law. I used identical card blanks, but picked different papers and colour schemes to create two different (if clearly related) styles:

Mothers Day Cards
The letters are hand-drawn and cut out, though my mum (who makes plenty of cards herself) asked me whether I'd had a special cutter! So they must be neat enough to pass.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Names in the Philippines

Andy and I were in the car last when we happened to catch an episode of From Our Own Correspondent on the radio. This is a BBC programme that I've enjoyed now and then over the years, but a section of last week's programme was one of the most interesting and entertaining pieces of radio I've heard in years.

The article in question focused on names in the Philippines, where English words are appropriated seemingly at random to be used as personal names. Highlights included a senior public figure called Joker (apparently he comes from a card-playing family) and a guy called Robert who also named all four of his sons Robert.

But I won't spoil it by sharing all the funny parts: head over to the From Our Own Correspondent page at the BBC and download the programme from 26th March 2011. (Let me know if there are problems downloading this overseas, please, and I'll see what I can do!)

Don't forget to think about entering my photo competition to win an early copy of Revolution.

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