Monday, 31 January 2011

Books Read Nov 2010 - January 2011

Stanlislaw Lem - The Futorological Congress (1974)
Jorge Luis Borges - The Book of Sand (1975)
Stanlislaw Lem - Solaris (1961)
Agatha Christie - And Then There Were None (1943)
Peter Vansittart - Voices 1870-1914 (1984)
Robert Harris - Lustrum (2009)
Edwin Williamson - The Penguin History of Latin America (1992)
Robert Harris - Fatherland (1992)
Erich Maria Remarque - All Quiet on The Western Front (1929)
Arthur C. Clarke - Profiles of the Future (1972)
Eugene P. Northrop - Riddles in Mathematics (1944)
Brian Cathcart - Were You Still Up For Portillo? (1997)
Eric Hobsbawm - The Age of Revolution (1962)
Charles Dickens - Great Expectations (1860-1)
Geoffrey Hosking - A History of the Soviet Union (1990)
Charlotte Bronte - Jane Eyre (1847)
Gyles Brandreth - Breaking the Code (1990-7)
Stanislaw Lem - A Perfect Vacuum (1971)

Wednesday, 19 January 2011


I was in a rectangular room, reminiscent of a public library. In the middle were lots of desks and tables and places to sit, although the whole place was busy and had less the atmosphere of a house-of-learning than a trading-floor. I met former chancellor Norman Lamont. Apparently I had invested £700 in some new scheme of his. However, I kept noticing him in conversation with shady characters over in the corner of the room, often taking a book out from the shelves at the same time.

I got involved in what can only be described as a form of poker-bingo. Everybody places their bets and each player is given a number of cards (I counted about 7 in the hand I was in). Then a special card is taken from a huge, separate deck and placed in the centre. This contains the community cards, so rather than actually using normal cards to create a flop, there are pre-created flops as if we were using bingo cards. My friend José (sitting to my left) had placed £3 down and had won the pot with a full house. I had only but down £1 but for some reason my KQJT9 straight was good enough to 'win the side-pot', which of course makes no sense in reality as if there would have been any side-pot it would have been between José and anyone else who staked more than a £1. I received my winnings in stacks of pennies (about 20 of them) and assorted silver. I was annoyed but amused. While the next hand was in progress I suddenly left and went across into another room.

This room was a bar, very similar to the Dirty Duck at the University of Warwick. I asked for a half-pint of coke, but he was having difficulty hearing me. I saw him pour half a pint of diet coke into a pint glass and then top it up with regular coke, as if he were preparing a bitter shandy only... with coke. He then asked for £3.60. Having left most of my coins on the gaming table I scrambled out my debit card. He said there was "-£1.15" on it, so I just whacked a tenner out of my pocket and paid with that. Of course, the fact that were was a negative amount was not actually a problem in real life: I have an interest-free overdraft facility.

I asked Oliver (a friend from school who happened to be there) whether he thought I had made a wise investment with Lord Lamont. Oliver said I should try to withdraw my investment immediately. I began to sense that I was here to play poker, and that I was at the Victoria casino in London. I then worried that I didn't have nearly enough money: I could only withdraw around £190 from my card. I began to curse myself for not having asked my employer for the two weeks of wages which were meant to come between me and this (scheduled) cardroom visit. A fight started to break out in the corridor. I am not sure what the fight was about, though it was concluded when a short, cartoonish fellow headbutted the protagonist. I heard a narrator saying that the short man was dimwitted but always a good laugh. A rating of '5' appeared above him in a golden star, as if he was a unit of that strength in some sort of card-based war game. The appearance of the short man seemed to be a mixture of Wilfred from The Bash Street Kids and that short guy from Sid the Sexist. The bully had had a rating of '11', and the short guy had used a special tactic (headbutting) to overcome this numerical disparity.

Then I woke up, around 20 minutes or so before my alarm.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Oldham East and Saddleworth By-Election

Well, a couple of hours ago the polls opened for what will be the first parliamentary by-election since the formation of the Coalition government in May. There was, of course, the postponed Thirsk & Malton poll on the 27th of May, but by then the coalition dyanmics had yet to really come into play electorally speaking.

Here are the 2010 results for Oldham East and Saddleworth:

LAB - 14,186 (31.9%)
LIB - 14,083 (31.6%)
CON - 11,773 (26.4%)
(and others, although they are not numerically signficant)

A great deal of analysis has been done on this by-election and it is generally expected that Labour will win. The general trend of the opinion polls since the general election suggests the Labour vote nationally is up around 13% whereas the Liberal Democrat vote is down by around the same amount. Notably, the Conservative vote remains more or less unchanged.

Much has been made of local factors. The previous Labour MP, of course, had his result voided following a court ruling which showed that the Labour candidate had effectively told untruths about the Liberal Democrat candidate in his campaign literature - a factor which may have proved decisive given the extremely close result. I don't expect this will damage the Labour vote here too much, indeed, there has been some resentment at what is perceived as their result being decided by a distant court.

It is significant that the combined Liberal/Conservative vote here is as high as it is: 58% compared to Labour's 32%. Although these are pre-coalition figures, it does indicate that for Labour to guarantee victory they will have to shift a lot of these votes.

Despite the Conservatives' strong third-place performance here in 2010 it is widely expected that many Conservative voters will vote tactically, lending their vote to the Liberal Democrat candidate to stop Labour from winning.

I shall make a prediction:
LAB - 13,476 (46%)
LIB - 7,531 (26%)
CON - 4,538 (15%)
OTH - 3,837 (13%)

Turnout being roughly 40%.
Based on these figures, the old saying that this will be the 'first real test for the Coalition' is somewhat misleading, as it is not a test they are expected to pass. The expectation is with Labour, although this may harm them: first it may encourage even more tactical voting from Conservatives to boost the Libdem vote. Second, any increase in expectation will just make defeat all the more unstomachable. The Liberal Democrats will only be humiliated if they come third. Labour will be humiliated if they come second. The Tories... if they come fourth I suppose. Despite the BNP polling 11% here in 2001, there is no single significant fourth party presence here.

Polls close at 10pm and results are expected at 2am.

Also, we'll be expecting another by-election sometime early this year! The MP for Barnsley Central has stood down after admitting fraud over his expenses. He was elected as a Labour MP in 2010 with 47% of the vote, 30% more than the second place candidate. Consequently, it will be rather a different type of by-election to this one, and potentially less interesting. Oldham East and Saddleworth is rare in that it was a genuine three-way marginal in the General Election. Barnsley Central is a definitive Labour safe-seat and so there's not even much chance of a two-way scrap, let alone a three-way scrap. More signficant would be a by-election in a Tory held marginal (with Labour in second place): or better still, a Tory held marginal with the Liberal Democrats in 2nd and Labour in 3rd. Of course the next major electoral test (one whose date is non-negotiable) are the Scottish Parliamentary and Welsh Assembly elections in May, as well as the council elections of the same month.