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Archive for April, 2010

Last week I was lucky enough to be lent a Canon 550d (Rebel T2i in the States) by a friend so that I could have a play about with the high definition video capabilities of Canon’s latest high end comsumer digital SLR, and the results are the video above. This post is basically some thoughts on video DSLR’s based on my experience making this short.

There’s been a huge amount of interest in the developments of SLR stills cameras which do video recently from independent filmmakers for several very good reasons:

1) Chip size:

Whereas professional camcorders going from old SD favourites  like the Sony PD170 to solid state HD camcorders like the Panasonic HVX201 and Sony EX1 had 3 CCD or CMOS chips which range between 1/4 of an inch (PD150/170) through 1/3 of an inch (Canon XL1 Panasonic HVX201) to 1/2 an inch (Sony Ex1/3) the 550d and 7d use a sensor which is a 1.6x crop from 35mm. As you can see in the sensor size comparison diagram above, the 1.6x crop sensor in the 550d/7d is absolutely massive compared to the chips in dedicated camcorders, which is one of the reasons why you would expect the DSLR’s to have a huge advantage shooting in low light (more light gets through onto a bigger chip than a small one). It also means that the very wide depth of field associated with digital video whereby everything is pretty much in focus, isn’t something you’ll find with video DSLRs unless you crank the f-stop way up. This means that filmmakers get far greater control of the depth of field, allowing material in the frame but which is not the primary subject to be out of focus, drawing the viewer’s attention to the desired subject or point within the frame.

2) Interchangeable lenses: To get a camcorder with interchangeable lenses you’re looking at several thousand pounds. All DSLR’s however do this, and additionally there are an abundance of cheap old film SLR lenses to be found on ebay. Being able to gradually build up a collection of lenses to use in different situations makes the video DSLR’s incredibly versatile, allowing the use of fish-eye, macro, big telephoto and super fast prime lenses. Any camcorder for less than four times the price of a 550d and you get a lens built into the camera, and while you can add converters to make things a bit wider or a slightly longer telephoto, you don’t get anything like the breadth of creative possibilities unless you spend thousands more pounds on a special converter to allow the use of 35mm lenses.

3) Low light Shooting: In addition to the large sensor, video DSLR’s allow the filmmaker to adjust the iso in the same way that a photographer would. With the amazing feats of engineering that go into stills cameras, this means that you can shoot watchable video at up to around 3200 iso, while most camcorders shoot somehwere between 300-400. This means that you can film under streetlights without needing a bunch of lights and a power source for them. It also means that you don’t need to buy/rent expensive and powerful film lights to shoot in less than ideal lighting conditions (such as indoors). Instead of a lighting rig needing several redheads (850 watt) or blondes (2kw) and a generator to power them, a few colour balanced florescent or led lights run off a power pack or a car battery and inverter can be used to give the filmmaker creative control over lighting. However not needing to take a lighting rig out at all is perhaps the most exciting possibility offered by the video DSLR’s here.

4) Cost: Whereas the camcorders I’ve been talking about generally cost somewhere between 2 and 4 thousand pounds the 550d costs £600 for the body only or £670 with a kit lens. The 7d costs around £1k and the full frame sensor 5d can be found for £1700. While many people will feel the need to spend the same amount as the body again on lenses/rig/sound kit/etc with a DSLR, even with these additional costs you can have a filmaking setup for a fraction of what it cost just a couple of years ago. For Waves and Particles i used one lens, a tamron 18-55mm f2.8, no rig, no sound recording and the only other accessory I had was a Z-finder which I ended up not really using. Without the Z-finder that’s around a thousand pounds worth of kit to take images which are higher quality than on a £4,500 ex1. If you’re shooting music videos or any other kind of film that doesn’t need sync sound that’s a huge saving in terms of cost as well as getting a superior image.

These four points mean that at the moment most of the really exciting new possibilities for indie filmmakers seem to be coming from stills cameras?! It must however be noted that alongside the pro’s of shooting video with a stills camera there are currently some pretty big downsides

1) Rolling Shutter: The sensor in a DSLR scans across the chip, meaning that if you pan quickly vertical lines will distort as by the time the sensor has scanned across the chip the line has moved. This means the subject can appear to wobble in a manner incongruent to real life, rendering that part of your shot useless. If you intend to spend a huge amount of time whip panning around video DSLR’s aren’t for you.

2) Sound: The 550d has a fairly poor onboard mic (although I wouldn’t use the onboard mic on many cameras), and while it does have an audio input, it’s a 3.5mm jack rather than an xlr. Also professional camcorders tend to have two xlr inputs to allow stero sound, whereas the DSLR’s only have the one input. For Waves and Particles this didn’t matter as I didn’t need to record audio, there are of course many filmmaking situations where you want to be able to record high quality stereo audio as well as video. The way to do this with a DSLR is to record seperate sound onto a solid state audio recorder such as this and then sync up your sound in post production. This is a bit more hassle, and the amount of extra work will depend on the kind of material you seek to create; having to re-sync 40 hours worth of interview rushes for a feature length documentary is probably a task best avoided if at all possible, but then no-one is suggesting that video DSLR’s can do everything better than a dedicated camcorder, just that they take better quality images at a similar price point and that in many situations the negatives are unlikely to be enough of a problem so as to outweigh the benefits they offer.

5) Handling: Stills cameras are set up to handle like a stills camera, wherein the photographer rarely needs to handhold the camera still for more than a fraction of a second, whereas camcorders are designed to be used for continuous filming. Saying that though, camcorders like the Panasonic HVX201 and Sony EX1 are quite a pain in the ass to hand hold for a long period of time, and many people advocate the use of a support of some kind to improve hand held stability and comfort. Unsurprisingly you can also now buy a DSLR rig for varying amounts of money ranging from quite affordable, through to hideously expensive or of course you can make one yourself for a fraction of the price.

So how did my first experience of shooting with a video DSLR go? Well to be honest I was massively impressed. I only had 75% of a single battery to play with, so didn’t have a huge amount of time to play with different setups or to familarise myself with the camera, so I was pleased that most things on the camera are fairly intuitive. One feature which isn’t, or at least wasn’t is the way you change the aperture. Whereas Canon’s professional DSLR’s have separate control wheels for shutter and aperture the 550d has just a single wheel. This shouldn’t pose a problem while shooting video as you’d have thought that the wheel could be used for aperture and on the extremely rare occasions where you want to alter the shutter speed you could hold another button in while scrolling, however for some reason Canon have set things so that the wheel controls shutter speed and you need to press another button to change the aperture. It isn’t a massive problem, just an irritating piece of design. It could be that by delving deep into menu’s this can be altered, but with a limited amount of battery life and time I wasn’t able to explore this further.

I was lent a Zacuto Z-Finder to use with the camera which is a very expensive bit of plastic which turns the lcd screen on the back of the 5d/550d/7d into an eyepiece and magnifies the image slightly. I actually found it not to be terribly useful, although it does make the screen clearer, which does help when focusing, the Z-Finder restricts you to using the camera at eye level. Maybe this would be less of an issue for people without any kind of disability, but as I haven’t got much of a bend in my left leg at the moment, having to hold the camera at eye level was very restrictive, so more often than not I chose not to use the Z-Finder. If you have money to burn by all means grab one – they are useful – but for the price of £270, I think they’re hugely overpriced and 95% of users would do better to spend the money on lenses/tripods/sound kit/support rig.

The images the 550d creates in 1080p are absolutely stunning. There’s no other way to put it. I was immensely impressed with the image quality. The images look as good if not far better than anything you’re likely to get out of a camcorder which costs under £10K. And this is from a body you can pick up for £600. Quite frankly it puts the camcorder manufactures to shame that kit exists at this price point which is capable of producing such high quality pictures. Ironically Canon themselves still sell camcorders for many times the price of a 550d/7d/5d which shoot 1080i onto small chips and don’t let you change lenses or adjust ISO.

The rolling shutter is a problem if you want to pan with any speed – and following some of Ed’s movements made for quite wobbly images, but under most conditions this isn’t going to be a problem, just something you learn to work around. Handling wise I actually found the 550d quite good; I’m still not really able to carry much about, so compared to a camcorder like Panasonic HVX201 the 550d was small light and super portable, even for someone who is currently cumbersome at the best of times. Despite being a ‘small’ consumer DSLR, the 550d was heavy enough to hand hold relatively still, we only used a tripod for a couple of shots and I haven’t added any image stabilisation in post production either. While I could see many situations where a shoulder support would be useful, there are by no means essential for doing hand held work; much like using a support with a camcorder in fact.

Not having zebra bars is a bit irritating, usually you can set these on a camcorder so that areas that are overexposed, or at 95% exposure have stripes on them, giving you easy visual feedback as the where your white point is and allowing you to set aperture accordingly. Without this, working out what is overexposed becomes educated guesswork, and especially with the amount of light that fast prime lenses let onto the big sensor this might be an issue for some people. Magic Lantern have added zebra bars with their hacks to the Canon 5d firmware, it would be great if similar alterations were made to make the 550d/7d more exposure friendly.

I was concerned before we got going as to how hard focusing would be with the shallow DoF. Fortunately, focusing is actually quite simple, you can digitally zoom into an image, focus, and then return to a regular view with a few button presses,  so even with a fast moving subject generally focusing wasn’t too hard. To pull focus with machine like precision you could buy a follow focus unit, however again these aren’t cheap, and I found that actually manually focus pulling was hugely enjoyable and visually effective. 

Overall I found the 550d to be a joy to use and shoot with, and after this brief test I intend to buy one once I’ve managed to save up some money. For under £1000 even with a couple of lenses the 550d offers truly stunning value for money as a video camera; and that’s ignoring the fact that it’s also a very capable stills camera.

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During the time that I’ve not been writing, the so-called Climategate ‘scandal’ has been one of the major talking points regarding climate change and the media. In a fairly sickening way it’s a really interesting example of how communication can be distorted by a combination of willing idiots and paid PR people who have an agenda to push – in this case right wing think tanks linked to fossil fuel industries who are hell bent on opposing any kind of binding international agreement or national laws which will curb the emissions of their industries. It’s an issue I’ll probably spend some more time analysing here sometime soon, but today I briefly wanted to look at the latest developments and how the BBC in particular chose to cover them.

So firstly, what was the conclusion of this report… well

We saw no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit and had it been there we believe that it is likely that we would have detected it.

Given the hysterical claims made by the global warming denial lobby over the CRU email hack that is pretty unequivocal. The data was not fudged, made up, or invented and the CRU was not involved in a duplicitous process of scientific malpractice and fraud aimed at deceiving the public and the world’s politicians into taking action on a non-existent problem.

This is the second report into the CRU hack which has now reached the same conclusion following the publication of the UK Parliament’s Commons Science and Technology Committee report into the affair. So after months of mainstream media and right wing blog speculation and hearsay about how anthropogenic climate was a fantasy concocted by conspiring climate scientists, which just happened to coincide with the UN COP15 confere4nce on climate change, it turns out that all of these claims were absolute rubbish.

So how does the BBC website cover this story? Well they start well with a headline of ‘No Malpractice by Climate Unit’ and briefly cover the actual report and it’s contents with a quote from Lord Oxburgh stating that

We found absolutely no evidence of any impropriety whatsoever. That doesn’t mean that we agreed with all of their conclusions, but these people were doing their jobs honestly.

The article then goes on to to state that sceptics have criticised Oxburgh’s appointment as the panel’s chair as he ‘is currently president of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association and chairman of wind energy firm Falck Renewables. Critics say clean energy companies would benefit from policies to tackle climate change.’ Which is fair enough – revealing the economic interests of interviewees which may impinge on their judgements ought to be a part of journalism. They don’t however mention that Oxburgh was only one of a seven man team of experts who oversaw the inquiry.

What really irked me about the BBC piece however is its concluding section in which we find

Dr Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, criticised the panel for producing a report that was “not even-handed” and appeared to be the product of a “rushed job”.

He said: “This has produced a very superficial report. The panel should have taken more time to come to more balanced and trustworthy conclusions.

“They should have heard evidence from critical researchers who have been working in the same field for many years.”

First of all, for those who aren’t familiar with Benny Peiser while he is indeed an academic, simply describing him as a Dr within an article concentrating on science and scientists is somewhat misleading. Peiser is a senior lecturer in social anthropology and sports sociology. Yup that’s right, instead of getting information about climate science from climate scientists, or maybe physicists or atmospheric chemists the Beeb turns to a sports sociologist. Right… Well he has published peer reviewed papers. Three in fact, in the following journals: Sports Medicine, 2006; Journal of Sports Sciences (2004); and, Bioastronomy 2002: life among the stars (2004).

Peiser’s main claim to fame, is that in 2005 he tried to publish a response to a paper published by Naomi Oreskes in the journal Science which carried out a survey of 928 abstracts of peer reviewed papers on the ISI database which contained the keywords ‘global climate change.’ Oreskes found that of these 928 papers, none of the abstracts contradicted the IPCC position, which was used as evidence corroborating the strength of the scientific consensus on climate change. Peiser couldn’t get his response published in Science, but did publish in the Daily Telegraph and online. He claimed that Oreskes had lied about the number of abstracts that her search should have turned up, and claimed that he found 34 abstracts among these which directly contradicted the IPCC position.

Firstly it turned out that Peiser had a different number of abstracts because he had entered different search terms, Oreskes had excluded journals which were not peer reviewed whereas Peiser had not, leading to one of his 34 abstracts being an un-reviewed industry publication by the American Society of Petroleum Geologists. Thats right, the oil industry.

Following his online publication of the 34 abstracts he claimed contradicted the consensus position, Tim Lambert who writes the Deltoid blog published the list and dissected whether or not they turned out to support Peiser’s claims. By October 2006 Peiser’s initial 34 abstracts had shrunk to one, making him a mere 97% wrong.

So not only do the BBC decide that they should be getting opinions on climate science from sports sociologists, but that they should get them from from sports sociologists who can’t use a search engine or comprehend the abstract of a scientific paper.

What about the official sounding Global Warming Policy Foundation which the BBC states Peiser is a director of? It’s an anti-global warming group launched by that scientific colossus Lord Nigel Lawson of Blaby, the former Tory chancellor who prior to becoming a politician had been a financial journalist.

If the Beeb really feel the need to include the views of sports sociologists and retired Tories on scientific issues it would seem professional courtesy to at least state what these sources really are rather than simply presenting them as a rival group of experts who disagree with the both the scientists at the CRU and the scientists who carried out the Oxburgh report.

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Commonwealth is the third in the series of socio-political analyses from Hardt and Negri which began with Empire (2000) and continued with Multitude (2004). To briefly summarise the series so far; Empire provided an overview of the changes to the structures of power and economic forces from the 1980’s onwards which Hardt and Negri characterise as moving from a nation state dominated imperial system to a globalised networked imperialist power and Multitude subsequently elucidated the emerging forms of networked resistance to the newfound global hegemonic forces of Empire.

Commonwealth seeks to further build upon the work laid out in the first two books through a deeper and more sustained engagement with some of the key concepts originally presented in the first two books, while dealing with some of the most pertinent criticisms leveled at the theoretical frameworks of Empire and the Multitude by other leading left-wing academics and theorists (a point which I will return to later).

Consequently while the book can be read as a stand-alone piece, it certainly helps to have read the prequels which give a thorough contextualisation of where Hardt and Negri are coming from, and also provide far more detailed analyses of the economic background from which they draw the conclusion that since the early 1980’s there has been the beginning of a paradigm shift away from industrial production and towards a form of information-led production which Hardt and Negri argue requires a revised understanding of both power and contemporary forms of resistance.

While throughout the series Hardt and Negri have referred to this newfound mode of production (amongst other things) as biopolitical production – using a term first developed by Foucault – both the Foucaultian orgins of the term and the differences between Foucault and Hardt & Negri’s usages are proscribed in far greater detail in Commonwealth.

Our reading not only identifies biopolitics with the localised productive powers of life – that is, the production of affects and languages through social cooperation and the interaction of bodies and desires, the invention of new forms of the relation to the self and others, and so forth – but also affirms biopolitics as the creation of new sunjectivities that are presented at once as resistance and de-subjectification. If we remain too closely tied to a philological analysis of Foucault’s texts, we might miss this central point: his analysis of biopower are aimed not merely at an empirical description of how power works for and through subjects but also at the potential for the production of alternative subjectivities, thus designating a distinction between qualitatively different forms of power. p59

Crucial to this reading and Hardt and Negri’s reading of biopolitics then is that as a emerging hegemonic form of power in the globalised world, biopolitical production is constantly producing new subjectivities and affects which escape and exceed the capitalist form of value extraction and thus produces newfound alternatives to global capitalism. While they are at pains to stress that this in itself does nothing to guarantee any kind of crisis for capitalism, or that capitalist contradictions and crises necessarily lead to revolution, they do argue forcefully that this opens up new spaces of conflict and resistance and produces alternative possibilities to the current status quo.

As the book’s title suggest, one of the primary focuses of the book is on common wealth, or the commons, again a concept which Hardt and Negri use in Empire and Multitude, but which is explored in far more depth in Commonwealth. Hardt and Negri employ a Deleuzian ontology which combines two traditionally distinct usages of the common, firstly the demarcation of a non-human commons in terms of the ‘natural world’ which is posited as an outside set of resources ripe for expropriation, and also the socially constructed commons, such as language, social bonds, affects, thoughts, and ideas

Wheras the tradition notion poses the common as a natural world outside of society, the biopolitical conception of the common permeates equally all spheres of life referring not only to the earth, the air, the elements, or even plane and animal life but also to the constitutive elements of human society, such as common languages, habits, gestures, affects, codes, and so forth. Whereas for traditional thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau, the formation of society and progress of history inevitably destroy the common, fencing it off as private property, the biopolitical conception emphasises not only preserving the common but also struggling over the conditions of producing it, as well as selecting among its qualities, promoting its beneficial forms, and fleeing its detrimental corrupt forms. We might call this an ecology of the common – an ecology focused equally on nature and society, on humans and the nonhuman world in a dynamic of interdependence, care and mutual transformation. p171

One important way in which Hardt and Negri extend their conception of commonwealth is the caveat that not all common forms of wealth are liberatory and positive. Indeed they contend that many of the ways in which the commons is currently experienced is through what they deem corrupted forms in which commonwealth is partially constrained and thus creates not a resource for all, but a means of exclusion and expropriation which striates the social field and creates hierarchies. Chief among these corrupted forms of the common identified by Hardt and Negri are the nation state, the corporation and the family.

H&N go on to contend that whereas the common is produced through love, which they trace conceptually back to Spinoza’s writings on love and joy arguing that love is what produces cultural forms of commonwealth ‘Every act of love is an ontological event in that it marks a rupture with existing being and creates new being…To say that love is ontologically constitutive then, simply means that it produces the common.’ (p181) However Hardt and Negri go on to warn that

Just like the common itself, love is deeply ambivalent and susceptible to corruption. In fact what passes for love in ordinary discourse and popular culture is predominantly is corrupt forms. The primary locus of this corruption is the shift in love from the common to the same, that is, from the production of the common to the same or a process of unification. p182

As such the identitarian forms of love such as patriotism, racism and certain religious fundamentalisms which are grounded on a love of the same and seek to impose that sameness or unity upon heterogeneous elements they classify as ‘outside’ of their identity. Thus Hardt and Negri characterise these belief systems and structures not as grounded in hatred, but in a form of love, albeit a corrupted form which seeks to reproduce unity and homogeneity rather than the diverse and heterogeneous positive forms of the common. This they define as evil; not evil as in the traditionally transcendent binary which stands diametrically opposed to the category of good, but as instantiations of particular forms of love and the common gone bad. This theortisation of evil,

Gives us a Spinozan explanation for why at times people fight for their servitude as though it were their salvation, why the poor sometimes support dictators, the working classes vote for right wing parties, and abused spouses and children protect their abusers. Such situations are obviously the result of ignorance, fear and superstition, but calling it false consciousness provides meager tools for transformation. Providing the oppressed with the truth and instructing them in their interests does little to change things. People fighting for their servitude is understood better as the result of love and community gone bad, failed and distorted. The first question when confronting evil then, is, what specific love went bad here? What instance of the common has been corrupted? p194

Whilst this does provide a novel approach for understanding why people fight for their servitude as though it were their salvation, one criticism to be made here is that Hardt and Negri are vague as to what kind of social forms they envision replacing ‘corrupted’ forms such as the family and the state, contending instead that these forms are currently unimaginable and must arise out out of the practical experimentation and experience of the multitude. While there is a logic which reflects their political position in refusing to project a teleology of the multitude, the failure to provide alternatives to contemporary corrupt forms of the common is somewhat unnerving, the lack of propositions for constructive alternatives to current systems makes the focus of Hardt and Negri’s theorising primarily negative, seemingly aimed at combating corrupt forms of the common without really suggesting the kind of positive alternatives they wish to see created. Where I found Commonwelath far stronger, was where Hardt and Neri reiterated some of the concrete proposals they first outlined in Empire with the addition of far more nuanced details in arguing for a living wage for all, the removal of the restriction on human movements imposed by state borders and universal open access to the commons in order to

Develop fully and put into practice the multitude’s abilities to think and cooperate with others. Such an infrastructure must include an open physical layer (including access to wires and wireless communications networks), an open logical layer (for instance, code and protocols) and an open content layer (such as cultural, intellectual and scientific works). p308

The criticism of the lack of concrete progressive forms for the multitude with respects to the family and the state feed into the second major current of criticism of their earlier works which Hardt and Negri seek to contest in Commonwealth. The first strand of critique, as advanced by the likes of Pierre Machery and Ernesto Laclau, is the argument that a plural and polyphonic choir such as Hardt and Negri’s conception of the multitude cannot function as a coherent political actor due to its heterogeneous composition. Whereas in the past the figure of the party, the people, or even the state and the nation have functioned in a way to unify differences and mobilise populations to create social transformation, and certain critics have argues that without a similar point of unification the multitude can act only as a cacophony of contradictory voices which cannot act commonly. Hardt and Negri’s retort to this is that

It is true that the organisation of singularities and decision making is not immediate and spontaneous, but that does not mean that hegemony and unification, the formation of a sovereign and unified power – whether it be a state a party or a people – is the necessary precondition for politics. Spontaneity and hegemony are not the only alternatives. The multitude can develop the power to organise itself through the conflictual and cooperative interactions of singularities in the common. p175

The second main line of critique which Hardt and Negri respond to are the arguments brought forth by Paolo Virno, Etienne Balibar, Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, that whilst the multitude may be capable of acting as a political actor – albeit one which substantially differs from traditional forms based around unity – there is no guarantee that the consequences of such a political form would be liberatory and progressive. The actual contents of these critiques of the multitude vary widely, from Virno’s realist position which acknowledges that the formal structure of the muiltitude in now way guarantees the contents of its politics, to Zizek and Badiou’s positions which effectively argue that the multitude is merely an oppositional figure to contemporary character, and that this oppositional resistance can never be more than a mere component of that power from whence it derives, and I find myself giving more credence to Virno’s line of thought than Zizek/Badiou’s.This line of critique is dealt with far less effectively, and while Hardt and Negri do outline some very useful protocols for a liberatory or progressive politics of the multitude, and trace a genealogy of progressive political groups and movements, Virno’s critique in particular seems valid when assessing forms of contemporary networked radical Islamist groups, which exhibit many  structural properties similar to the composition of the multitude, however their ideology exhibits extreme forms of what Hardt and Negri descibe as corrupt forms of love and the common.

On the whole then, Commonwealth provides a useful exploration and expansion of a number of key concepts previously presented by Hardt and Negri, while partially addressing some of the most pertinent criticisms directed at their earlier works. As such it certainly provides interesting points for discussion and reflection for people involved in the various social and ecological movements which have grown out of the alternative globalisation movement, and provides some concrete proposals for an alternative to the current global system alongside some detailed analysis of geo-political and economic developments over the last few years. Personally though, I would recommend most readers new to Hardt and Negri’s work to start with their earlier writings, in particular Multitude, which provides a more accessible point of entry to the writings of two of the contemporary left’s most exciting political theorists.

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According to this, living in North-West Bristol my vote is worth just 0.521 of a vote. More shocking than that though, is the fact that this is apparently over twice the average amount of voting power of most UK citizens (the average is 0.253). At first glance this is really useful way of illustrating the obvious deficiencies of the UK’s first past the post system, which last time out elected a majority Labour government despite the fact that they only won around 37% of the votes cast

But how accurate is the voter power index? How is is worked out? And does it actually provide more useful information than simply looking at the numbers and percentages of the votes cast in each constituency alongside the constituency size (both of which are also provided by the VPI page but appear lower down)? And does the fact that no-one in the UK has a vote equal to one vote make the figures look artificially low? Well… from about voter power index

By Nic Marks, fellow, nef (the new economics foundation)

I went to vote at the last general election with a heavy heart as I knew full well that my vote wouldn’t really count towards the result as I live in a safe seat. Straight after voting I felt really angry about the whole system and whilst out walking my dog the idea came to me that I must be able to work out how much my vote didn’t count – you see if you make a statistician angry he tries to fight back with numbers.

So how did I calculate the Voter Power Index? Well I figured there were two main factors that would illustrate how much or little power voters had. The first is how marginal the constituency you happen to live in is (the more marginal the more power) and the second is how many registered voters there are (fewer voters means each individual vote counts more). The problem was how to estimate exactly how much power you have in a particular constituency. I decided that if I looked at as many elections as possible I would be able to figure out what was the probability of a seat changing hands for different levels of marginality. By creating a probabilistic model I could then estimate this probability for every constituency and hence calculate (to three decimal places) the Voter Power Index. The details of all the calculations are available in the original report but much more fun is that web designer Martin Petts has created an interactive web-site so everyone can see how much their vote is actually worth.

I must admit that even I was staggered when I first calculated the VPI just how much most people’s votes don’t count. It is clear that our current system is hugely inefficient at translating the will of the people into the result of a general election. In fact the VPI allows us to put a number on the level of this inefficiency – the current system is only 25% efficient – whereas some sort of proportional representation system would approach 100% efficiency (for example the 2004 European Elections were about 96% efficient). Not only is the system inefficient it is also chronically unjust with Voter Power very unevenly distributed in the UK, with the luckiest 20% of voters having over 33 times more power than the unluckiest 20% – the graph below shows this spread. Note that this is a far more uneven distribution than household income in the UK. Even before the redistribution through taxes and benefits – the richest 20 per cent of households ‘only’ earn 15 times as much as the poorest. After redistribution this inequity factor is reduced to under 4 times.

The Voter Power Index shows that the first past the post system is profoundly undemocratic in that it gives considerably more power to some voters than others and so betrays the fundamental principle of democracy – one person one vote. It is high time we changed the whole rotten system.

The biggest problem I have with their stated methodology is that they think marginality should be calculated by how many times a seat has changed hands in the past going back to the 1954 election and only looking at the top two parties votes. This isn’t what they say on the about page (confusingly) but if you go back to the original report they link to this is what they appear to have done. That this isn’t what their about page suggests does little for clarity.

While frequent changes would suggest a marginal seat, this is a very broad brush stroke approach which doesn’t seem to factor the actual number of votes or percentages involved in the elections into account. The idea of a three way marginal seat is completely alien to this method and I find that lack of complexity concerning. Furthermore they seem to give equal weighting to every electoral change since 1954, meaning that a seat which was very marginal between 55 and 25 years ago changing hands every election, but which has remained in the same hands in every election since then is still counted as fairly marginal, although in practice it may now be a very safe seat.

Essentially despite the pretty pictures on the VPI website this means that in many cases you can get a better idea of how marginal your constituency is by looking at the results from the last two elections and seeing how close they have been. At the last election Bristol NW was 38% labour, 32.5% tory 25% lib dem. Anyone with half a brain can tell that’s a marginal seat. Similarly if you look at somewhere like Henley and see figures for the last election of 53% tory, 26 % Libdem and 15% labour you can easily understand that it’s a safe seat. Trying to put a three figure decimal place number on how much more likely Bristol SW is to change hands than Henley is always going to be a rough and inexact endeavour. Except admitting this would remove the rationale for the VPI existing.

An interesting statistic which isn’t included in the VPI is the percentage of voters who turned out per seat. For example while the VPI site lists Henley as having 72,681 voters it doesn’t tell you that at the last election only 67% of the electorate there voted. It would be interesting to see whether safe seats have similar, lower or higher turnouts than marginals. Do people who live in safe seats feel sufficiently disenfranchised to not bother voting? Or is voter apathy evenly distributed across the country as people turn of from politics as they feel that the three main parties are so similar to one another that there is no point in voting at all?

Another problem I have with the way the VPI’s presentation of the issue is the claim made by Nic Marks that the voting system is more unequal than household income in the UK. In order to justify this he looks only at the top and bottom 20% of each. Firstly both on the website and the original document the income figures are unreferenced. It’s hard to check on the figures someone has used if they decide not to link to where they obtained those figures from. Secondly there’s a question as to why only one figure, for 20% and 80% were used in the report. If he had decided to look at different numbers such as the top and bottom 5% of income and voting power the figures may well be completely different. However that wasn’t what he intended to say so perhaps he used the statistic which suited his argument. Without referencing the data who knows? Does the data actually look at per capita income for everyone in the UK or does it exclude pensioners and people on benefits? If it does (as most government stats which look at income look at those paying income tax only) then this would again distort the data into giving an appearance of economic equality which does not exist in practice among the electorate. This kind of statistical cherry picking does nothing to add to the important point that voting power in the UK is unequal, and in fact casts doubts on the honesty and integrity of the research as a whole.

On the whole while I like the idea of VPI site, the fact that it does present some very useful and easily comprehended information about the differing worth of UK votes dependent on area, there are always likely to be problems with adopting the kind of reductionist quantitative approach they implement. While some of the information displayed there is really interesting and informative, particularly the last election result pie chart, the percentage of votes discarded and the size of the constituency, in general it just produces answers which are extremely obvious: first past the post is a highly undemocratic system in which voters have differing abilities to impact the make up of parliament depending on their constituency, a safe seat is by its very nature undemocratic, and that electoral systems based on proportional representation give far more agency to voters.

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Writing Again

Well it’s been over six months since I last wrote anything here… Well in fact since I wrote anything at all. It’s been a pretty hard time for me, with an operation in October to remove the plate and nine screws from my left leg and then another operation to reconstruct my medial collatoral ligament and to put a polymer scaffold around my posterior cruciate ligament in January this year…

…But things are finally looking up for my on the physical front, which they haven’t done for a long time. my knee’s still painful and swollen but it isn’t unstable as it had been since getting hit by a car in February 2008, and so I’ve been able to trade in my crutches for a far more stylish walking stick. With a bit of luck if things keep progressing smoothly I’ll be able to get around without a walking aid at all sometime soonish. and i cant wait…

…So now that I’m on considerably less mind-melting medication I’m going to try and start writing things here again.

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