Wednesday, 16 November 2005

planet Iraq

Whole load more bloggers added to planet Iraq, mostly via an excellent history of Iraqi blogging (available from the main page). The typography is still a bit of a mess - unfortunately the software I am using doesn't deal very well with the rather messy XML feeds coming off all these blogs.

There are getting to be so many of these people that a single page can't really do justice. Which is nice. If only all the news from Iraq were so cheerful.

worth reading

Friday, 11 November 2005

just one more thing...

Had to share this very cool link - a flash diagram of the world income distribution, 1970-2000. You can run it forward or backward, and examine different countries. It's based on Xavier-Sala-i-Martin's figures - I seem to recall, there is some controversy about his claims - but still very interesting.

(Update: you should also check out the Prof's website. For a Columbia economics professor, it's pretty funny.)

More on income

I was wandering around the library in my usual Friday haze when I noticed the DSS's publication Households on Below Average Income 1979-1996/7. Aha. Just the place to find more detailed data on the effect of Evil Thatch on incomes.

The basic picture is straightforward: inequality rose markedly under Thatch. From 1979 to 1995/6, the proportion of people below half average income more or less doubled.

Of course, partly that is because average incomes rose markedly (by about 40% adjusted for inflation). But the appendices have information on the percentages of groups below various fractions of 1979 average income, held constant. In 1979, 8% of people were living below half 1979 average income. In 1995/6, 5% of people were living below half 1979 average income (adjusted for inflation). The figures for 60% of 1979 average income are similar: 18% and 10% respectively.

However, the AHC figures are much less cheerful, with the proportions of individuals living below these thresholds remaining almost constant. And the very poor do badly. There were about as many people below 40% of 1979 average income in 1995/6 as there were in 1979, whether Before or After Housing Costs.

End of brief statistical lecture. Everything is much more complex than this - for example, what about the experience of different groups? Families with children? Pensioners? What about the persistence of inequality over time? What's the right way to define or even conceptualise poverty? Despite being a Sinister Rightwinger, I believe that relative poverty is very important. Being poor, and specifically being poorer than other people, is horrible. Of course absolute poverty is bad too. Oddly enough these ideas tend to be backed up by the (stereotypically, right-wing) Darwinian approach to society: beyond satisfaction of our basic needs, we care about our relative position rather than our absolute wealth.

Corrections from the people at ISER (who do this kind of thing seriously) are of course welcome. Perhaps I should now stop reading DSS statistics on Friday night.

Just one further thought. The distribution of "talent" of many kinds is probably normal, like most things that rely on many different factors (if you add a lot of random variables together, you approach a normal distribution - the famous bell curve). The distribution of income is not normal. It looks much more like a lognormal distribution, such as the lefthand picture below

- pictures filched from

Why? I am sure there are many extant answers to this question. My guess, keeping with the Darwinian theme, is that overachievers tend both to hang out with each other, and to compete with each other for income (or various correlates of income). This makes for a "long tail" distribution, with the mobile phone salespersons, the city slickers, and Bill Gates at the very, very top.

Seal and hard drive

I saw the seal again today. This time he (she?) was swimming. He ducked down under water after a few seconds, and reappeared a few minutes later and 200 yards downstream, just a black blob on the waves. Very nice.

Slashdot has a discussion on how long it would take for the police to decrypt an encrypted hard drive. This was one of the justifications offered for 90-day detention. Bottom line: 90 days is a slight underestimate. Good encryption cannot be cracked within the lifespan of the known universe, unless you can guess the password. Encryption is one of the subtlest parts of computer science, about which I know little, but the fundamental deal is fairly straightforward: every time you add a character (say just a-z) to your password, you multiply the number of potential passwords, and the time it takes to guess the password by brute force, by 26. Go type "26 x" into your calculator and hit "=" a few times. See?

Thursday, 10 November 2005

Via email from Becca

UK wages

A friend and me disagreed last night over a pint in the Rose and Crown about what had happened to wages during the period of the Evil Thatch and subsequently. is the place to look. The old New Earnings Survey has been replaced by something called the Annual Survey on Hours and Earnings. There's a nice summary of the Evil Blair period here:

Patterns of Pay 1998-2004

In particular, check out Figure 7 - Blogger seems to mess up the title:
This shows that the wages of even the lowest decile beat inflation consistently. Some credit due to New Labour? (But note that this is only for full-time employees. The pdf above has more details on the distribution of hours.)

The NES doesn't seem to have a similar time series available, but here is a useful webpage on historical average earnings. Clicking the link will show you real and nominal earnings, as well as the RPI, for 1979-2004. Really, we would prefer median earnings - they explain how they calculate average earnings but it seems complex, perhaps because they provide statistics going back to 1264!

That's all I can manage for the moment. Clearly average wages have consistently increased since 1979. The more interesting question is what has happened to the different percentiles.

Wednesday, 9 November 2005

Blair defeated over 90 days!

That rocks. I'm surprised and greatly pleased. When they withdrew last time, I guessed it was a tactical retreat. Now they failed to concede and apparently lost even more support. Hah.


Now everyone is asking whether this is the end of Blair's authority. I guess it depends on the causes of the vote. Perhaps, as a premier nearing the end of his shelf life, Blair no longer wields the power to threaten backbenchers. If so, expect more revolts. Can Brown step in to quell the rebels? That probably depends on his perceived chances of winning the next election. Major's experience shows that as a government's time in office draws to a close, discipline crumbles. If that in turn makes the government appear less popular and competent, you get a vicious circle.

(Polisci geek note: I wonder if anyone has written about the game theory of the UK parliamentary system. There's lots about the US and lots about coalitions in proportional representation systems, but I don't know of any stuff for our particular setup, beyond Bagehot's famous analysis in the 19th century.)

The latest initiative - standardised testing for tiny tots - isn't exactly an inspiring big idea. More like a New Labour self-parody. If they can't do better than that I think we can expect trouble for Labour in 2009.

Monday, 7 November 2005

I'm 30

To be honest I don't really believe it. I don't yet feel eighteen.

Anyway I had a party to celebrate the alleged event this weekend, which was excellent. Dave Padua, Clem, Emily Comyn and Kemal all came down from Outside. So the next day we sat in the Rose and Crown and continued to drink. Kristi put up very kindly with having a bunch of randoms on the sitting room floor, and came out with us the next day. Kemal got me a Prodigy CD. Charley says, never go out without telling your mother first. Mreowww! Clem got me the best. Card. Ever. Probably not safe to link here.

Cometh Monday, cometh the payoff....

Tuesday, 1 November 2005

iPod Nano

.... heh heh heh.

A present from the bruvs in America. You can see me on campus wandering around like the guy in the adverts, nodding my head in a hip and groovy way.

Epitonic have a really, really good selection of free music. I mean, St. Etienne.

A comment on ancient (direct) democracy

Further, for oligarchic cities it is necessary to keep to alliances and oaths. If they do not abide by agreements or if injustice is done, there are the names of the few who made the agreement. But whatever agreements the populace makes can be repudiateed by referring the blame to the one who spoke or took the vote, while the others declare they were absent or did not approve of the agreement made in the full assembly.... And if there are any bad results from the people's plans, they charge that a few persons, working against them, ruined their plans; but if there is a good result, they take the credit for themselves.

-- Old Oligarch, Constitution of Athens, quoted in Xenophon

Working paper available

A draft working paper on counter-initiatives is available from my Essex website. I presented this yesterday to the Political Economy Seminar, where it got a fairly good reaction.