Saturday, 31 March 2007

Lord of democracy II

I think the issue of reform of the House of Lords, mentioned in yesterday's post, deserves a bit of perspective, historical and otherwise. The House of Lords was originally made up of hereditary peers (the Lords Temporal) and bishops, abbots and priors (the Lords Spiritual). In the 1950s, life peers gained the right to sit in the house, and in 1999, the Blair government began reform of the chamber, reducing it to 92 hereditary peers, 26 Church of England (arch)bishops and the life peers.

This was intended to be only the first stage of the reform, which would ultimately remove the hereditary peers altogether. Whether the new house would be appointed or elected or a combination of the two was yet to be decided. In 2003, the only option supported by the Lords was the all-appointed model, while the Commons rejected all models, with most support for an 80% elected house. A move to a wholly elected chamber is seen by some as giving the second house too much legitimacy, threatening the Commons' supremacy.

Since then, the cash for peerages scandal has raised it's head, and in the most recent Commons vote the fully elected model was the preferred option. Proponents of election suggest that it is clearly more democratic. However, many of the Lords who voted in favour of a fully appointed house, suggest that this would be more representative.

Recent posts by Byron on Democracy in action (again) comment on both the failings of democracy and ideas of representation. I tend to think that the event mentioned (the trial of Jesus) has more in common with the original House of Lords than other forms of democracy, but it does illustrate a broader point and put all the possible reforms in perspective. Whatever system of government we have will be imperfect and will ultimately have to submit to the Lord of all.

Friday, 30 March 2007

Lord of democracy I

In the news today are the Blair government's plans for new casinos, including a "super-casino" in Manchester. The plans, particularly the choice of Manchester rather than Blackpool, have been controversial, and passed through the House of Commons fairly narrowly, considering the size of the Labour majority. Opposition in the House of Lords was even stronger, including those against the super-casino in general as well as critics of the methods used to choose the venue, and the plans were defeated by three votes.

In response to this, several people have suggested that the elected lower house should have its way ahead of the unelected upper house, particularly as the main legislation behind the plan has already passed both houses. As I understand it, if the government chose to continue with the plans, the most the Lords could do is delay them for one year. In Australia, where the upper house (the Senate) is elected, we are more accepting of the idea that the upper house can veto bills. Deadlocks can only be overcome through a full election followed by a joint sitting.

You might wonder whether there is a point to having a chamber whose nature is such that the legitimacy of its votes is so easily questioned. In fact, reforming the House of Lords is another issue that has been in the headlines recently. Proposals for a reformed house were voted on in Parliament earlier this month. The Commons approved two models, one with members directly elected and one with 80% elected, 20% appointed for fixed terms. The all-elected model received the most support. The Lords, however, rejected this, and supported only appointed members of the house.

I find it interesting to consider the equivalents of the House of Lords in the former British Dominions. Not having hereditary peers, the Canadian Senate has always had appointed members and powers comparable to the House of Lords, although there are currently moves toward fixed terms and elected members.

The Australian Senate, more directly based on the US version, was meant to be "the states' house", with an equal number of members for each state. It was also deliberately given quite a bit of legislative power and was one of the earliest directly elected upper houses. Early drafts of the constitution required senators to be chosen by state parliaments, as in the US at the time. I wonder how different Commonwealth-State relations would be now if that model had been kept.

10 points for naming the building in the centre of the photo and finding the (very weak) link between it an this post.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

A rubbing stamp

Australia, since the introduction of the GST in 2000, has issued two different categories of postage stamps. International stamps, on which no GST is paid, are distinguished from the normal domestic stamps, whose prise includes GST. Australia Post also has a tradition of celebrating sport and particular sports success in its products, such as this label celebrating the Sydney Swans' Premiership in 2005. In fact, there has been a stamp issued for every Australian gold medal won at a recent summer or winter Olympic Games.

Considering this, it makes some sense that a stamp would be issued to celebrate Australia regaining the Ashes from England last December. It was quite a victory after the shock of the close loss in 2005. However, I have to wonder about the decision to make one of the two stamps an international stamp. Now it is being stuck on letters sent not within Australia, but to England, as well as places where nearly noone has heard of the Ashes. It looks like they're just trying to rub the 5-0 loss in to the English. Then again, why not?

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Changing more calendars

Yet another "Happy New Year"! The Iranian New Year, celebrated by many Iranian and Turkic peoples was yesterday. The new year according to the Indian national calendar is tomorrow. Of course, both these calendars are related to the many lunar calendars used in history from the Middle East to India which linked the start of the year to the vernal equinox. The equinox is also a holiday in Japan.

The arrival of the equinox means it should be well and trule spring, but despite two weeks of unseasonably warm weather, we've been hit by an arctic snap and have had snow showers the last two days! We appreciate the long hours of daylight, though.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

Algebra in the news

A certain person has repeatedly told me that this blog is "too nerdy". This post will be even nerdier than usual, because the news media has come probably as close as it ever will to a story abot my work. Another mathematician sent me this quote from yesterday's Metro:
Mapped Out: A mathematical conundrum has been solved - with an answer the size of Manhattan. A group of mathematicians successfully mapped E8, one of the largest and most complicated mathematical structures. If the answer was written out by hand it would cover an area the size of New York borough. E8 is an example of a Lie group, invented by Norwegian mathematician Sophus Lie in 1887 to understand the symmetry of three-dimensional objects.

Apart from being bemused at what the journalist's typically hyperbolic phrase "one of the largest and most complicated mathematical structures" might actually mean, he and I were not able to tell what these mathematicians had actually done. Of course, it is a free paper (see what The Shadow has to say about a free paper), but The Times and the BBC didn't do much better. I'm not sure what The Times' heading is about, but at least the BBC corrected their most obvious mistake, changing the sentence that originally read "E8 is a member of the "Lie group" that describe symmetrical objects."

Obviously, these articles aren't trying to tell mathematicians exactly what has been done, but to give readers with no background in the area a general idea of the story. We eventuallly worked out what was going on using Google, but I'd really like to know what non-mathematicians make of the articles. Do you think they told you anything more than "a computer calculated something really big"? Can you describe what they actually calculated? Please tell me, even if you think you didn't understand a word of it!

Also, 10 points to anyone who does enough research to say what the picture is.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Foreign money

Last week, the Bank of England launched a new £20 note. A picture of the economist Adam Smith replaces the composer Edward Elgar. Apart from the fact that hardly anyone who isn't an economist has heard of Adam Smith, he was a Scotsman. Obviously the peopel at the Bank of England would have a lot fo respect for eminent economists, but why would a Scotsman appear on an English note, when teh Scottish banks issue their own notes? Smith has already appeared on £50 notes from the Clydesdale Bank (owned by the NAB).

Perhaps more relevantly, when will the Bank of England catch up with the times and issue proper polymer notes?

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Targeted at what?

Google places "relevant" ads next to just about anything using it's AdSense, a "content-targeted advertising program". You can even choose to have ads on your blog, with Google supposedly choosing the most relevant ads for your readers.

I don't think I'd make any money out of it, but I'm curious enough to be tempted to put the ads on here just to see what sort of things the program would come up with. It can be quite funny to look at the ads it chooses. Yesterday for some vague reason, I sent an email from my googlemail address. It included some Chinese characters, and Google started giving me all sorts links to sites in Chinese.

Today I received a reply which included a mention of someone who has just moved to Sydney. What ads does Google decide on? Firstly, an ad for "100% Australian Ugg boots", with express delivery worldwide. Then, a slightly more relevant cheap phone calls to Sydney ad. Lastly, an ad for, with the words "Sydney needs 50,000 people now. Start your new life today!", which struck me as quite strange. I'm not so worried about Sydney's population that I'd discourage immigrants, but how does Sydney need 50,000 people?

Monday, 5 March 2007

Red moon

Last night there was a full lunar eclipse, with totality between 22:43 and 23:58 UT. We were very pleased to see that there was a very clear sky in London at the time, so we had a great view from our back windows. We saw the moon go various combinations of red and white as in went in and out of the earth's shadow, and somehow managed to get this surprisingly good photo.

I can't remember the last time there was a clear night for an eclipse, and this was better than any I've seen befopre. It's not exactly a action packed show, but quite spectacular. As for all of you in eastern Australia and other places that missed out on the view, I hope you enjoyed the sunlight that would have gone to the moon if you hadn't been in the way!

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Who needs a hand?

On Wednesday, New Zealand cricketer Jacob Oram wasn't sure his finger, injured attempting to catch a skied ball during the recent series against Australia, would heal enough to allow him to play in the World Cup. If not, he was considering amputation:
"If it means cutting the finger off, if that's the worse-case scenario, if that's the last resort, I'll do that, there's no way I'm missing this."

I don't know whether I'd be willing to lose a finger if it could gain me a place in the World Cup. Some would say his priorities are crazy, but I suspect most of us can at least understand the sort of thinking that would lead to that desperation. Fingers are fairly small, some are less important than others, and Oram has a chance to do something very important in his thinking at least - play in a World Cup. He is willing to decide that the World Cup means more to him than his finger.

Jesus told his disciples to cut off their feet and hands and pluck out their eyes if they caused them to sin. I have heard a lot of discussion about whether Jesus is speaking figuratively or exaggerating, or whether we should take it literally. It is interesting that in the book of Mark, this instruction appears in chapter nine, just a couple of chapters after Jesus tells his disciples that a whole smorgasbord of evils come from within, out of men's hearts. Whatever you make of that, Jesus' explanation is quite straighforward: It is better to enter life/the kingdom of God than be physically whole and thrown into hell. He accompanies this with a vivid quote from Isaiah to illustrate what hell is like.

This isn't an exaggeration, it is a simple statement of priorities based on logic that is hard to argue against. Just as Oram believed it is better to play in the World Cup with nine fingers than to have ten and miss out, Jesus says eternal life is more important than things like hands, legs and eyes, let alone fingers and World Cups. As it turned out, Oram didn't have to go through with his decision and will play without amputation. Our practical response to Jesus may not be to get out the axe or call the surgeon, but it probably is fairly drastic. Does that put us off, or are we desperate for the kingdom of heaven too?

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Bouncing through the year

The year is marching on, and while there was no leaping, spring has sprung upon us. I still need my jumper, though.

St David is said to have died 1018 years ago today. I wonder if that's why the daffodil became a symbol of Wales.

Trouble training

After the fatal derailment in Cumbria last Friday night, I expect the Virgin Trains people have better reasons to be worried about losing customers than damage caused by ticket stamp wielding train managers. More seriously, thank God that there were so few casualties in such a high-speed derailment. The driver of the London to Glasgow train, Iain Black, is being called a hero for staying in his seat and continuing to drive the train after it had left the rails, rather than trying to protect himself.

(Not the best photo I have, but it seemed the most appropriate. 10 points for naming the station this Virgin Voyager is at, and 10 more if you can guess where it was headed last Friday night.)