Thursday, May 14, 2015


The plan ( is to solve a lot of problems at once:
  • Keep Scotland in the fold by making a better fold;
  • Get the UK out of the EU to allow both to move forward separately, because it is increasingly clear that they can't move forward together;
  • Allow a group of nations that are culturally aligned to come together to build something that is more than the sum of its parts;
  • It would be really nice to bring Ireland into the fold as well. Unification is the obvious carrot. That could be ugly, but so might other options that I've thought of.
  • Address Australia's anxiety about being a minnow in a tough local area where we are not well liked.
Previously I picked the CANZUK acronym (and later found that others had done the same). However in my mind the idea is to replace the UK with this new federation, with the nations each having complete home rule for domestic matters. So I like the CANZEWSI acronym better. There might be a better arrangement of letters, but remember to keep "NZ" together.

It is a bit hard to see why Canada would join, but it will be a bit strange without them. Somehow I feel that emotionally they will want to join if the other 6(7) ask them. One carrot would be to put the capital there: maybe Halifax. Another might be support in establishing an Arctic presence and opening up the NW passage.

The widely spread Federation would have good reason to reestablish our ancestors' strong involvement with shipping. The world needs a revolution in shipping to significantly reduce the carbon emissions. Nuclear powered ships are the only plausible solution. The next generation of nuclear power generation will be ideal since it fails safe and is very hard to adapt for weapons. Nuclear powered vessels can produce the energy needed to act as ice breakers over extended periods of time.

The people who had the idea before me are The United Commonwealth Society. There are a couple of reasons why it is probably best not to link the plan to the British Commonwealth.
  • It suggests that other poorer parts of the Commonwealth might be included at some stage. This will not go down well with voters and explicit denials won't get through to all of them.
  • It will probably be best if the chosen name avoids identifying one location (i.e. Britain) over the other parts. Of course British heritage and English language are core unifying factors, but it is hard to get that in the name without annoying some folk unnecessarily.

The importance of proofs

For at least 2 thousand years mathematicians have been constructing proofs, and everyone else has been saying "that is not important to me, I'm only interested in algorithms for real world problems". Now two things are happening: proofs are important; computer software can help us check them and even generate them.

Bug hunting can be a fun intellectual exercise. Here's a nice story if you like that sort of thing: What it illustrates is the ubiquity of software bugs. We already knew that because of all the security bugs that hackers (good and bad) love to find.

What we want is that software is proved to be correct to the greatest extent possible. One thing we explicitly don't want is perfection, which is unattainable. The weakness of perfect systems is one of the key discoveries of 20th century mathematics. What we want is to know the axioms that we are assuming, and the things that we expect to be true which we don't yet have a proof for.

So what do we do about assumptions that we don't have a proof for? Use Science. Experiment. In other words: test. Try to disprove it. Testing is expensive and error-prone. The reason for proving as much as possible is exactly so that we know what needs to be tested and to reduce that to as little as possible.

So who is going to build these software development systems incorporating proof technology? We can't trust government research to do it, because governments everywhere are addicted to using software bugs as a vector for surveillance and even for acts of war. It will need to be done by the independent open source community. Doing this will be the 21st century equivalent of defending freedom by bearing arms in a well regulated militia.

Monday, May 11, 2015

We shouldn't always do what we are optimized for

Here's a mistake I made a few years ago. The question I wanted to answer was "How do you decide how much UV you should get?". Now it turns out that your skin colour is correlated with the Autumn UV levels where your ancestors come from. We are optimized for sunlight levels where our genes come from. So I thought that that level of sunlight is what will be best for us.

It was a particularly dumb case to get wrong. The English may be designed to survive a UV-free dull grey winter. But that doesn't mean that it is optimal for them to experience that. It actually seems extremely likely that, however pigmentless your skin, it is a good idea to get some extra UV in some way during winter, or at least take vitamin D supplements. Extremely likely but not certain. Maybe our genes have developed some trick that depends on that break in UV exposure to work correctly.

This error is related to the logic error called Modus Tollens, and humans seem particularly prone to errors of this general type. And we can see why. If there is absolutely no other factor that you can think of then it is a reasonable starting point to assume that what we are optimized for is (arguing backwards) what is optimal for us. Still, as we see, we can nearly always think of other factors.

A case where this style of argument is being used is the Paleo Diet. Maybe we are optimized for a paleo diet. That doesn't mean we can't improve on it. It does mean that we shouldn't reject aspects of it too quickly.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

How to integrate political parties into the electoral process

Traditionally in Australia, political parties were invisible in the electoral process. Suppose you were voting for 5 senators for your state. All you see on the ballot paper is the names of individuals. The voter numbers the squares, and the magic of single-transferable-vote means that you get proportional representation. So maybe the winning party gets 3 senators and the rival party gets 2. But as far as the electoral process was concerned it was just electing 5 individuals.

This beautiful system was difficult for the voters, so the rules were changed. Now political parties are registered and their names appear beside the individuals, or at the top of a list of individuals. I think this is the way it is in other countries. The problem is that it is no longer clear whether we are voting for people or parties. What should happen when an elected member of parliament decides to leave the party which they had claimed to represent? What if the member was expelled from the party?

The answer is that the voters have to be given some reasonable level of control. This can't extend to reconsulting the voters, which is almost impossible for multi-member electorates. Nor may it depend on the political parties having any rational behaviour or even continuing existence. I have a plan.

The idea is that the ballot paper will show a mixture of individuals and parties. Voters can vote for one or the other or in some systems (such as STV) a combination. More detail on this below. The important thing is: what happens when a party wins, rather than an individual.

When a party registers as a candidate for an election it would provide a list of individuals who will be the custodians of that seat should the party win it. There should also be an individual nominated who will be the person to initially hold the seat.

Now suppose the party wins the seat and their representative is installed. At a later time the nominated custodians can send replacement votes to an appropriate electoral authority. If, during the first half of any month, more than half of the nominated custodians request that the elected representative be replaced with some specific willing person, then that nominee will become the new holder of that seat starting from the beginning of the following month. Additionally 2/3 of the custodians can vote to replace some other custodian in the list.

A nice thing about this is that, for seats held by parties there is no need to make any special arrangements should the sitting member become unable or unwilling to continue.

This can work with any electoral system. For multi-member STV electorates, the political party candidate will only appear once on the ballot paper. It can translate into multiple winners if, after preference distribution, it collects multiple quotas. Also parties can endorse individuals to stand in the same election as well, to gather the votes of those who want a known individual who can't be replaced. However this would be problematic in first past the post systems because it would split the vote.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The CANZUK Solution

Three of Britain's prior colonies are substantially populated by people of British descent: Canada, Australia and New Zealand. 150 years ago it was obvious that these colonies were so far away that they needed to become independent. Then 60 years ago it seemed that Britain was close to Europe and needed to find its future there. But now communication technology (particularly the Internet) and air travel have made the world a very small place.
The UK is very dysfunctional, not knowing if it is one country or several. The result of the UK election suggests that the Union is not long for this world. The huge population imbalance between England and the other nations in the union is a significant factor in making the Scots uncomfortable.
Well I have an idea that might solve the UK's problems, and some of Australia's and hopefully some others I haven't thought of. The plan is:
To create a political Union of the current UK nations, plus Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The Union will have the following features:
  • The separate nations will retain their identity for sporting and many other purposes.
  • The central government will handle foreign policy and defence.
  • There will be a single currency and a central bank with full power.
  • The central government will collect the bulk of the taxes and redistribute wealth to provide balanced service delivery, as happens in all well functioning unions.
  • However national and subnational units will deliver most government services.
This is the way successful unions work, and not the way the EU works. It is possible because all the proposed constituents are about equal in per capita wealth.
I believe this plan will have various benefits:
  • Scotland will be happy to stay in a union in which England has less than half the population.
  • The British people will not be uncomfortable to return to being part of a world-wide entity.
  • Australia will get a nuclear deterrent, and generally beefed up defense. This means we won’t have to suck up to America all the time and go on all their stupid wars.
  • The UK will get help in paying for their nuclear capabilities.
  • One country, with historically good financial regulation, on which the sun never sets (almost), is a natural to dominate the world financial industry.
  • Australia (and NZ) get an operating nuclear industry in case we need to stop burning coal (which we do).
  • I think that all the participating nations will be more comfortable with this union than the various regional groups which they are currently involved in. (Except Quebec will likely be grumpy).

[Update: I did a google for "CANZUK" and found that this is not a new idea. An obvious name, since all the parts have retained the British monarchy, is the "Federated Kingdom of ..." It is a delicate balancing act but it is most likely to work if the individual countries (with England, Scotland and Wales separate) are regarded as independent, so that the FK (and the old UK/GB) doesn't have any sporting teams.]