Friday, 1 July 2011

Letter to MP about bus franchising in Birmingham

Dear ,

I read a report in the Birmingham Post today:
which states in very factual terms that National Express have had a
good year and driven up profits 6%. It then goes on to say that they
did this primarily by charging passengers more (increasing the price
of travelcards 20% at a time of great financial uncertainty for the
people who rely most on the bus) and by cutting rural or less-popular
services (again, hitting the poorest hardest).

However, NXWM can get away with this as they run the vast majority of
bus services in Birmingham and commercial competition is practically
zero. Buses are important to people in this city (up to 1 million
journeys per day according to NXWM's own literature) and those without
access to cars, such as students, pensioners, and poorer households,
rely on them the most. Surely the operator of such a vital public
service shouldn't be allowed to hold the city to ransom for the sake
of increasing its profits?

Labour introduced the Local Transport Act in 2008 which allows
transport bodies such as Centro to specify the routes and fares which
should be run in an area, and to allow bus operators to bid for the
exclusive right to run services on these routes. Bad operators can be
fined if they fail on punctuality or fail to bring in agreed
improvements. London was spared the disastrous deregulation of buses
which occured during the Major years, and bus travel has continued to
increase in that time far beyond the growth levels seen in Birmingham
and other deregulated areas. However, Centro have continuously ignored
these powers, preferring to work on a voluntary partnership basis
which has led to a monopoly commercial operator holding the city to
ransom, and frustratingly slow take-up of new technology (which is now
standard in other areas of the country) such as smart card ticketing,
reliable real-time bus information, and audible announcements of the
next stop.

Franchising of bus routes in Birmingham would be fairer for
passengers, and fairer for other bus operators who are currently
effectively shut out due to NXWM's monopoly. I would urge you to look
further into this issue and do whatever you can to ensure the people
of Birmingham can travel to work, college, and the hospital without
being held to ransom by an out-of-control monopolistic operator.

Best regards,

Mark Rowan

Monday, 18 April 2011

Conference paper and RSMG4 report

Both of these are now up on my research page. The paper is to be presented at IJCNN 2011 in San Jose, California, in August of this year.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Maths of the voting system referendum

Let's be honest, there's a lot of ridiculous arguments coming out from both sides in the Yes to AV and No to AV camps. I decided to write this short guide to my understanding of the referendum so far, partly to clarify my thoughts, and partly to help anyone who may be thinking along the same lines as me. I welcome comments and other points of view, as well as any "yes" or "no" arguments I may have missed out.

I've tried to be as fair as I can as I haven't yet decided myself which way to vote, although I'm currently hedging towards "yes" -- not because of any political allegiances, or indeed the strengths of any of the two campaigns' arguments as we'll see, but because of the maths.

Acronyms (in case you needed to know) are First Past The Post, the current electoral system, and AV, the proposed new electoral system.

"No" campaign arguments

  1. "It's too expensive; the money should be spent on soldiers / children / sweets for midwives"
    The referendum is already taking place, so the argument is moot. In terms of the actual cost of running the elections, it's admittedly going to be more time-consuming to count the votes under AV. But talk of electronic voting machines being necessities is disingenuous; if they are ever introduced, they would cost pretty much the same if used for FPTP elections. This argument is quite a desperate one; the same argument could be used to say "the NHS is too expensive" or "the Royal Family is too expensive".
  2. "It will let extremists get in"
    This is an important argument. The argument goes that more people are likely to vote for smaller parties with AV, so parties such as the BNP stand a real chance of getting in. Yet, because of the requirement in AV for candidates to reach 50% of voter support, this actually makes it harder for the likes of the BNP to win.

    For Nick Griffin to become an MP, at least 50% of all voters in his constituency must put him down as one of their choices, AND enough of them have to put him down as their first choice for him to be able to get through the first round (and so on for however many rounds it takes). Is that ever really likely to happen?

    And yet, if it did happen, then by the arguments of democratic representation he should win (especially as he would have won under FPTP too anyway; in fact he could win with just 20% of the vote under FPTP if the other 80% was split across a number of other candidates, each with less than 20%). Democracy is no good if you tell people that their majority-elected candidate can't be an MP, no matter how much of a dick he may be.
  3. "It destroys the principle of one person, one vote"
    An important point. This is how I see it: if the result of a FPTP election was inconclusive, everyone would be polled again, and again, until the result was clear. But this isn't counted as voting multiple times, as everyone has the same opportunities to vote each time.

    AV sets the bar for winning at 50%, so it simply has the effect of increasing the likelihood that the first round of voting gives an inconclusive result. Everyone is therefore "re-polled", but the least successful candidate drops out. This would mean that anyone who voted for that candidate actually loses their vote; so these people's second choice vote is used instead. It's still only one vote per person that actually gets counted by the time a winner has been found.
  4. "It's too complicated"
    It's clearly not so complicated that the Tories, Labour, and many other political bodies use it to elect their leaders. The Electoral Commission leaflet which dropped through everyone's doors recently explains it clearly with diagrams so I won't repeat it here. Needless to say, from the voter's point of view the only difference is that they can either still choose just one candidate, as under FPTP, or they make a second, third, fourth, etc. choice in addition should their first choice candidate drop out of the re-counting in subsequent rounds.
  5. "We want to stick one up at Nick Clegg"
    The anger over the Lib Dems' U-turns is understandable, particularly over issues such as tuition fees and spending cuts, but using petty personal vindictiveness as a reason to vote for or against such a historic change to the way the country is run is shooting yourself in the foot.
"Yes" campaign arguments

  1. "It will make MPs work harder for your vote"
    I think a lot of MPs already work very hard. Mine certainly does. By the implication of this argument, if one candidate works less hard, another candidate will get their votes by default, so that's no different from FPTP either. Ultimately, someone will win in each constituency under FPTP or AV, even if they're just the best of a bad bunch. A pretty weak argument, yet it's the main thrust of the "yes to AV" campaign.
  2. "It maintains the principle of one person, one vote"
    See point 3 in the "no" campaign. As well as maintaining one counted vote per person, AV would reduce the effect that a handful of marginal seats has on the overall make-up of Parliament. At the moment, sometimes the Tories or Labour win enough marginal seats from each other to give them an outright majority of MPs in Parliament. The majority of voters in the other "safe seats" under FPTP have a much smaller effect on the final national outcome, but AV increases the likelihood that elected MPs represent the constituents' preferences by eliminating tactical voting (see below).
  3. "It's proportional"
    No it's not. It levels the playing field in constituencies with more than two candidates (i.e. pretty much all constituencies) but Parliament is still made up in exactly the same way: the biggest number of seats wins. So the electoral system is still FPTP at its heart, and it will still be possible for any party to win control of Government with less than 50% of the national vote.
  4. "We want to stick one up at David Cameron"
    See number 5 in the "no" campaign....

The Maths
As you can see, neither camp has particularly killer arguments; certainly not strong enough to sway me one way or the other either way. The reason I'm hedging towards "yes" is not towards political allegiances of any kind, but because of the multi-party political system we use, and the maths behind it.

Let me explain:

Imagine a constituency, much like any other around the country today, where traditionally there is one party which does well (say the Tories) and another which is the main contender (say Labour). The electoral system is FPTP. If you're a left-of-centre voter (e.g. Lib Dem or Green) you have to vote tactically to stop the Tories winning; your vote has to go to Labour regardless of your true allegiences if you want a left-of-centre candidate to win. The system only allows for two real contenders and therefore encourages tactical voting whenever there are more than two candidates.

Now imagine the same constituency under AV. You might be a Green person at heart, but rather than having to vote tactically for Labour to stop the Tories, you can safely vote for the Greens knowing that if, as expected, hardly anyone else does, your vote isn't simply thrown away. If you put Labour as your second choice, and the Greens are eliminated early in the counting, then your vote still counts towards a left-of-centre candidate. AV allows a level playing-field for all parties in constituencies with more than two contenders whilst ensuring that a voter's true left/right preferences are recognised, which eliminates the need for tactical voting.

(It's easy to imagine these scenarios for a right-of-centre voter too, eg. preferring UKIP whilst voting tactically under FPTP for the Tories to keep Labour out, before I get accused of bias).

So that's the maths behind the voting system. In a country with just two main parties, such as the USA, FPTP makes sense. In the UK, which prides itself on smaller and independent parties, FPTP squeezes them out in favour of the two biggest parties, whichever ones they may be (and they may not always be Conservatives and Labour). I guess your choice is between these two principles.

Friday, 11 February 2011

First paper, next steps

Last week I submitted my first ever paper (yay!) to IJCNN 2011 in San Jose, having found some interesting results using my implementation of the Ruppin and Reggia (1995) model, most notably that:
  • Synaptic compensation using remote memories (which of course are easier to obtain in AD) actually accelerates cognitive decline due to the decreased variability in the data set used to calculate compensatory terms.
  • Where small-world connectivity occurs in the brain, this has the effect of increasing redundancy and resilience to damage, at the expense of lower overall capacity.
  • Selectively partially muting, rather than deleting, synapses in a spreading area of damage can be used as a simulation of tau pathology, in which vesicles become blocked and axons degrade. This type of lesioning offers a much more graceful decline in performance as the compensatory mechanisms keep up with the changes, but catastrophic damage occurs after a certain level of lesioning and the decline in performance is much more dramatic than with plain synaptic deletion.
Once I get feedback from IJCNN and make any required changes, I'll put a copy of the paper up on my website. In the meantime, I need to think about next steps.

Firstly, my RSMG4 progress report is due in April. This will be a simple 2000-4000 word write-up of my progress over the last 6 months, including what I learned in Göttingen and Zürich on the neuroscience and reservoir computing courses, and of course the IJCNN paper.

Beyond that, I guess I will have the following tasks to choose from:
  • [OPTIONAL] Continue work on the Ruppin and Reggia model -- design experiments to explore the above effects further.
  • [ESSENTIAL] Collate definitive medical data against which my models should be compared, and lay out the way in which my model can be shown to be a small part of the overall larger brain organisation (i.e. hippocampal vs neocortical organisation). This is hard and will require much thought!
  • Incorporate amyloid (including N-APP and anaesthesia) pathology simulations to test cutting-edge medical theories in computational networks.
  • Begin working on implementation of a reservoir computing network which incorporates synaptic compensation (very important, as the reservoir network's dynamics change dramatically with only slight changes in the internal reservoir).
    • Can reservoir networks be shown to be better models than, or at least as accurate as, Hopfield-style associative networks (a la Ruppin and Reggia)? What are the differences in behaviour?
    • What other symptoms of AD can be represented in a reservoir network, other than just failure to accurately recall a stored pattern? As the computational power is much greater, could a basic model of degradation of language / motor skills or some other feature be implemented?
Lots to do!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Birmingham Oyster cards on their way!

According to Centro the roll-out of smartcard ticketing machines on all the West Midlands buses* is now complete. Currently the card readers can only be used by national Concessionary passes, but plans for paid Oyster-style ticketing are apparently in the pipeline.

Optimistically, it looks as if Centro might even be implementing some of the policies which I called for in my previous post: "passengers [will] pre-load their card with cash which is then deducted as it is used on the public transport network, regardless of which bus company’s service they get on", indicating that the card will indeed be an integrated Network West Midlands-branded product rather than simply directly deducting different amounts electronic cash depending on which bus operator's vehicle a passenger gets on. The other piece of good news is that Centro "are also looking at giving Smartcard holders discounted fares" just like in London, which will be a massive boost for the ever-increasingly squeezed West Midlands public transport users.

Let's just hope the roll-out occurs trouble-free, and before the short-sighted Tory cuts to bus services drives a critical mass of passengers away from public transport forever.

*Except for the smaller companies with rather dodgy-looking and shabby buses who, presumably, are just there to make money off the Concessionary scheme by under-cutting the established bus operators.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

West Midlands Smartcard

According to this story, now one third of the buses in the West Midlands are fitted with Smartcard machines as part of the project to get the bus, metro and rail networks all onto Oyster card-style ticketing systems. This is fantastic news for passengers in the region, but at the moment in this trial phase the readers only accept free national concessionary passes.

When the times comes for letting the wider public use paid-for smartcard technology, there are some serious considerations which Centro must make regarding how the issue of pay-as-you-go fare charging will be tackled.

Obviously the easiest solution in terms of implementation of a fare structure would be simply to use the smartcard as a stored-value ticket, and subtract each journey's current cash fare from the balance on every use of the card. However I would strongly encourage against this for a number of reasons:
  • This does nothing to address the current unacceptable situation where bus fares are different, and unpredictable, depending on which operator a passenger uses and at what time of day, and which leads to passengers avoiding catching certain buses simply because they are run by the "wrong" operator. I strongly believe that individual operators' fares should not be taken into account for the smartcard; the product should strictly be a "Network West Midlands" travel smartcard, as this will present a much more coherent product to potential passengers.
  • Fares should be capped more intelligently than simply at a daily limit. e.g. A day's usage should be capped at the price of an nBus/nTrain/nNetwork daily smartcard rate, but if sufficient days' travel are undertaken during a week, the daily caps within that week should be replaced with the equivalent weekly ticket. Similarly, if enough days/weeks are used in any given month, the monthly rate should be charged instead. This will enable infrequent passengers to truly feel they can trust the smartcard product to give them value for money, instead of worrying in advance whether or not they need to purchase a one-off weekly/monthly ticket and whether they will get full usage out of it if they do so.
  • Use of public transport in the region is liable to increase with the added convenience of using a smartcard instead of requiring potential passengers to hunt for change or queue to buy tickets. Additionally the requirement to swipe a smartcard rather than flash a strip of paper to the bus driver will lead to a reduction in the current high levels of fraud seen on the region's buses. Incorporating the above recommendations will also lead to much greater uptake of the product by people who would not otherwise consider using the transport network (just look at the number of pay-as-you-go Oyster cards now in use in London). This increase in passenger volume should be reflected in lower overall fares for smartcard users, just like in London, with cash fares remaining as the most expensive option.
At the moment I fear that Centro will just take the easy option and give us a poor excuse for an integrated smartcard ticketing system which basically just replaces cash with an electronic card and gives passengers no other benefits. What is really needed is a London-style universal fare structure and, ultimately, proper franchising of bus services to ensure that operators are not competing against each other and the trains and metro in a free-for-all at the basic passenger level, but at the more appropriate level of bidding against each other to run pre-determined routes.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Racism UK

I don't normally blog on politics, but I'm so frustrated and angry at what our Government is proposing with regards to immigration that I feel I have to speak out on this one.

In short, David Cameron is currently consulting on what level to set a non-EU migration cap above which workers - regardless of ability or skills - will be barred from entry to the country on the basis of their nationality.

The policy which is about to be implemented is nothing short of outright racism. It says that once the cap is reached, "you can't come to this country if you are not European". If you're Indian, Pakistani, Australian, American, Chinese, even if you're a highly-trained medical practitioner or scientist, you can't come in. Because you're from the wrong country.

Now, I appreciate that immigration can be a thorny issue when talking about sharing the UK's resources around its ever-growing population, and I would never argue for a free-for-all policy with wide-open borders, but it should be remembered that immigrant workers are also the ones who help run our hospitals, lead our scientific research, and even cook our curries for goodness sake. Similarly, many of us Brits become migrant workers when we head overseas to work or study. The head of my University department, a world-renowned scientist who pays his taxes to the UK Government, is Chinese and would have been barred from coming to this country if the arbitrary cap had been reached at his time of application.

In addition I strongly believe that rather than achieving the stated aim of reducing the malaise often shown towards the foreign cultures present in the UK by reducing their numbers, this policy will actually foster greater suspicions and racial tensions amongst communities as people view foreigners with an air of "are you even meant to be here? Hasn't this year's cap been reached?"

The best solution, as has already been shown in Australia and elsewhere, is to admit people based on their skills and what they can bring to the country's economy, NOT on the basis of the country printed on their passport. You'd rightly be appalled if a job was advertised based on nationality rather than skills, and the same should apply for entry to the country.

To be fair, the Tories always proposed this policy during the election campaign and yet nearly a third of the voting population fell for their racist policies dressed-up as "support for the indigenous population" (now where have we heard that before, Nick Griffin?), but now it comes with the full support of the "Liberal" Democrats too.