Archive for March, 2008

More Statistics…

Posted in G 1 with tags , , , , , , on March 29, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero

I continue here the theme of the previous post, i.e., predictions on the Senate election outcome in Italy, based on pre-electoral polls, and statistical analysis of the data. In the last couple of days, a few regional polls had been finally published. I tried to incorporate the more recent ones in my model. As before, I start by giving the results, then add a few comments:

PdL PD SA UDC Others
159 141 9 5 1

The model is now an hybrid, using local polls for 9 regions (Piemonte, Lombardia, Veneto, Liguria, Lazio, Campania, Basilicata, Calabria and Sicilia) and national polls for the others. In spite of having considered only recent polls, spanning the same period, the data are not uniform, in the sense that the 9 regions follow the general trend only approximately. In other words, the uniform national swing is not completely respected. In any case, I guess this is the best I can produce with the present data.

I invite you to have a look for a comparison at, a site that uses a very similar procedure, based on regional polls whenever available. Other predictions can be found (apart from noiseFromAmeriKa) also at The Right Nation, a right-wing Italian site and on the blog of Chris Hanretty, an English political scientists.

I repeat again the warning, the Senate electoral system is highly unpredictable, and several region are apparently an extremely close call. In some cases a couple of thousands votes can swing a few seats.

Just for fun, I put below another curiosity. It’s the plot of the correlation, for the model based on nation wide polls, between the PdL-PD vote gap and the projected number of seats in the Senate.


The nice thing is that there is no real correlation below 10%. Therefore, the distance between the two main competitors, in general taken as the main indicator to predict the outcome of the election, is irrelevant for the Senate race.

I’m sorry I never got proper training in chaos theory.


UPDATE March 31

In order to facilitate comparisons, I publish below a table with the Senate forecasts for PdL, split by Regions, made by the above mentioned sites during the last days. Please let me know if you spot any discrepancy/error in the Table.


Note1: I don’t have informations about Hanretty’s predictions split by regions – he predicts a total of 164 seats for PdL, though. I have taken the information directly from the corresponding sites for Right Nation (R. Nat.) and Politiche08 (Pol 08). For noiseFromAmeriKa (nfA) I derived the numbers myself using their published spreadsheet.

Note2: R. Nat. and nFA both use the polls superaverage published by R. NAt., while Pol ’08 uses 2006 results integrated by all regional polls available. I have used an average of all nation wide polls made in March (Grav 1), integrated then by recent regional polls for 9 regions (Grav2).

Note3: R. Nat. attributes one likely seat for Sen. Pallaro from South-America to PdL, on the ground that in the past he declared he would vote for the majority. In the table I took it out from PdL to ease comparison with other sites.


An Exercise in Elementary Statistics: Application to Italian Electoral Polls

Posted in G 1 with tags , , , , , , on March 27, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero


As political elections in Italy are getting close, several blogs and sites are publishing predictions, especially about the outcome at the Senate where, thanks to the peculiar electoral law, it is well possible that no clear majority would emerge.

So, I could not resist to make my own prediction. And I start by giving you the results:

PdL PD SA UDC Others
162 131 17 4 1

Which is indeed a very close call, possibly not enough for PdL in order to rule the country. Berlusconi would have only four seats more than the ones obtained by Prodi in the last elections. Who, however, had initially on his side all of the 7 senators nominated for life by the President, and not counted above. Actually, he got 165 favorable votes when he formed his government in 2006.

I should warn you however that I would be very surprised if this prediction will be exactly fulfilled, and I’m going to tell you why. But, before that, I should explain how I got the prediction in the first place. The method is the one developed by Sandro Brusco from noiseFromAmeriKa. Essentially, one takes the results of 2006 (Senate, divided by Regions), and re-normalize them using the ratio between whatever pre-electoral poll one is trusting and the global results (for the lower chamber) in 2006. Technically, a so-called uniform national swing is assumed. Simple, if not at all granted. But the main complication is how to take into account the different political alliances of 2008. For that I have used a slightly different logic than Brusco (for instance, differently from him, I had allocated UDEUR votes half to UDC and half to PD, while I counted for PD only half of the votes of the former alliance between Radicals – now with PD – and socialists – now independent). There’s more to it, but it does not amount to a large effect in the end. I have checked against Brusco system, using data from the last 7 polls. In 5 cases I obtained the same seats than him for PdL, while in 2 cases I had 2 and 4 seats less, respectively. A result that in my mind reflects well the quasi-chaotic behavior of the system.

In any case, my prediction above is obtained by using an average of all published polls from the beginning of March to the 26th (from Toqueville), a grand total of 41! Now, having taken care of the first order, and being a physicist, I could not refrain to have a look at the whole distribution. Here it is:


In the histogram the bars show how many times (out of the 41 samples) PdL had obtained in the simualtion a given number of seats, while the line indicates the cumulative percentage of the total samples below a certain number of seats. For instance, about 50% of the times PdL totalized 162 seats or less. The standard deviation is almost exactly 4. Now, I believe this information adds a lot to the bare prediction. If the polls are correctly done, if the hypothesis of a uniform national swing is correct, and if I have made no additional mistakes, the conclusions are:

1) It will indeed be a close call.

2) No need to discuss about a difference of plus or minus 4 seats in the predictions for PdL – one cannot possibly be more precise than that.

3) It’s quite likely that the situation in the senate will not be better for Berlusconi than it was for Prodi in 2006.

A couple of additional remarks:

noiseFromAmeriKa, like other sites, uses for its prediction an average of the last “few” polls, in order to better reflect the evolution of the public opinion. However, the spread between different polling institutes and individual polls is larger (at least since the last month) that the variation of the average, as one can see in the following picture, showing the simulated number of seats for PdL obtained for the different polls:


The line is a second order fit. The evolution of the average is negligible. However, if anything, it looks like the standard deviation is decreasing (especially discounting the 14 March MAKNO poll, really sticking out from the rest and with a low statistical coverage – less than 400 interviews). I have no idea of what this means. It could be a stabilization of the vote towards the smaller parties (there’s no evolution visible it the bare percentage for PdL, as shown below), or, one could mischievously suspect, a tendency of the polling institutes to uniform their results with each other.


The last plot shows the correlation between simulated number of seats and the percentage of votes in each poll, again for the PdL. As pointed out already by Brusco, the correlation is small compared to the spread, showing the impact of the distribution of the remaining votes among other parties. It shows as well that even exceeding 45% of the votes, the PdL could not be sure to obtain a clear majority.


I conclude with a warning: the hypothesis of a uniform national swing is far from being sure. There are reasons to believe that local factors could result in an uneven redistribution at the regional level, and the electoral rules makes the system very much sensitive to this. On top of that, in 2006 the pre-electoral polls had been shown to be not exactly reliable. Therefore, anything can happen. It’s well known it’s not easy to make predictions, especially about the future.

Hat tip to Dorigo, to whom I’ve stolen half of the post title.

Update 30 March – many pre-electoral polls have been published just before the black-out (no polls during the last 15 days before the elections). Using the average of all polls (now there are 50 of them), the prediction does not change. I did also an update of the distribution, which I show below. Note that the lowest (156) and two of the highest (172, 173) predictions are from one month old polls(1,2 and 3 March). The other high one (174) is the Makno one I talked about above. I would tend to exclude them, and I report them here only for completeness.



You had better find God before He finds you

Posted in G 0 with tags , , , , , , on March 26, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero


I’ve found today in Peter Woit’s blog a link to an interview with Steven Weinberg from yesterday’s Newsweek, in principle about potential physics outcome at the LHC.

Disappointingly, prompted by the unfortunate nickname of the Higgs boson (the God particle), the interviewer drove immediately the discussion towards religion. Therefore I missed the opportunity of knowing what kind of scientific output a leading scientist like Weinberg is expecting from our last big toy. I could however learn that Weinberg shares something else than the 1979 Nobel prize in physics with Sheldon Glashow: A hefty sense of humor, as shown in the brief excerpt below.

At some point will it be possible to find proof that God or the Ultimate Designer does not exist?
I don’t think that we can ever prove that God does not exist. But if he does exist it might be possible to prove it.

It might be?
Well, if God did exist and suddenly made himself known by sending thunderbolts to all the people who don’t believe in him [
Laughs], that would be pretty strong evidence that he exists.

Do you think he would send you one?
He hasn’t so far.

I had also found very interesting the following passage:

…People who expect to find evidence of divine action in nature, in the origin of the universe or in the laws that govern matter, are probably going to be disappointed.

Are they also going to be disappointed about our position in nature, our purpose?
We don’t see any purpose dictated to human beings in nature. Human life does have a purpose, but it is a purpose that we invent for ourselves. It takes a certain act of courage to look at nature, not see any plan for human beings in there and yet go on and live good lives, love each other, create beautiful things, explore the universe. All these take more courage without having some divine plan that we discover, but one that we rather create for ourselves.

Well, I haven’t learned anything new about the LHC physics, but I don’t feel like I’ve completely wasted my time.


P.S.: Back to lighter matter, fresh from today xkcd, alternative uses of LHC:



What is the right choice? Anyone left?

Posted in G 1 with tags , , , , , on March 22, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero


I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know yet for whom I will vote at the next Italian elections.

And of course I know even less if finally my choice will be the right one. I bet many, who are leaning to the left as myself, are in the same situation.

But if you are like me an Italian abroad, you can find an interesting hypothesis in the blog Scandinaria. A good exercise in games theory, if you like. In short, one way to maximize the gain for the left as a whole, in the European constituency, could be a split vote: PD at the senate (no chances anyway for other parties of the left to elect a senator), and SA (or IdV) for the chamber of deputies (where, with more places available, small parties could take out some from the right).

One other important point is that the electoral rules are specials for Italians abroad. If we don’t have the portentous flexibility one can have in French local elections, we’re still free to choose between candidates, and not only between parties like our countrymen at home. So, whatever your choice, use your vote to select among the candidates. So far so good.

But life is all but perfect. And so it happens that the one I would consider a very good candidate, Beatrice Biagini, is in the PD lists for the chamber of deputies, and not the senate.

I have actually never met her. But I happened to stay as a host in her place for a couple of days (while she and her husband were absent), when visiting a couple of common friends in Paris. Nice cozy house, as that, and lots of interesting books. The matter is, anybody who’s willing to lend her house to a virtual unknown, and reads these books, has quite a head start as far as my vote is concerned.

So Scandinaria did not completely solved my doubts. Thanks anyway, guys, it was a good try.

P.S.: In order to respect the par condicio rule, I insert as well links to a candidate from the right. No, I don’t think I’ll vote for him, though.

Words I wish I wrote myself, n. 1

Posted in G 1 with tags , , , , on March 21, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero

“Personally, I believe that when faced with an imperial power – and let’s not kid ourselves, that’s exactly what the USA is – one ought to do everything non-violent that one can do to resist it, just on principle.

The USA is a great country full of great people. It’s just their propensity as a whole for electing idiots and then conducting a foreign policy of the utmost depravity that I object to.”

Iain Banks, The Steep Approach to Garbadale

Possibly first of a series. I don’t think it will be regular, I’ll just post them when I meet them, whenever I feel like it.

And, to my US friends – nothing personal! As an Italian, I can teach you a few things myself about electing idiots.

Douce France

Posted in G 0 with tags , , , on March 18, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero


I already talked about the pleasures of French elections.

Well, such pleasures were confirmed after the second turn.

For one, the left had come on top almost everywhere. Not for the merits of its leaders, I fear. Like elsewhere, they seem to be more interested in their internal struggles than anything else. However, French people quite wisely wanted to give a warning to M. Sarkozy. The general understanding is that two main reasons lay behind this sanction: First, he made promises, like increasing the buying power, that he didn’t even try to appear to be keeping. Second, his not-quite-presidential behavior was apparently not universally appreciated. Quoting the Herald Tribune, The French have tired of the president’s tumultuous private life and his occasional short-tempered outbursts, and are increasingly doubtful about his habit of launching several policy initiatives at once.
I found as well these explanations by a French blogger: …many reasons: showing off all the time, his links with wealthy people, a tax gift to the very rich…

The Italian reader could maybe find some familiar trait in these descriptions, but rest assured, our chap is much, much worse.

Anyway, another good reason I have to rejoice is the fact that the local list I was supporting got 17 out of 19 places in the municipality council. I was actually offered a coffee by some of them last week (not exactly a bribe – the coffee was, how to say, sub-optimum) and had a chat about their plans for the village. They seemed reasonable to me, and the guys among them I knew beforehand are indeed quite reliable. I will keep an eye on them anyway, and possible have a few more chats in the future.

Only, next time I’ll probably make the coffee myself.

A phone call you can’t refuse

Posted in G2 with tags , , , , , on March 17, 2008 by Roberto Gravitazero


Mentioned in Massimo Morelli blog, I’ve found a noteworthy article published in Time by Roberto Saviano, in which he talks about the Mob influence on political life and elections in Italy. Saviano is a journalist, renowned for his best-selling book Gomorrah in which he exposed the activities of the Camorra (Naples mafia-like crime organization). He now lives under police protection. I recommend the article not just to non-Italians willing to better understand our country, but to Italians as well. It’s remarkable how I keep finding the most objective and informative pieces of informations on Italian politics in foreign newspapers. I report below an interesting passage:

Too many elections in Italy are won, even today, by the time-tested process of buying votes. It is an especially formidable weapon in the south, where high unemployment is so endemic that many ambitious young people emigrate to the more prosperous north or abroad. When I was a kid in the 1980s, an individual’s vote tended to cost more than it does today. It might have been worth a job at the post office, say, or in public administration or a school or hospital. By the time I grew up, votes were typically sold for far less: telephone and electricity bills paid for the two months before and one month after an election. In the last few ballots, the new bait has been the cell phone. Someone shows up and gives you one before the election, and you can keep it if you come back with a photo on this new, shiny handset showing your ballot marked for the right candidate. The phones, which are worth about $75 apiece, are even conveniently set up to snap the pictures silently. The fluctuating value of a vote seems to have returned to its level in the 1950s, when the businessman-mayor of Naples, Achille Lauro, offered packs of pasta and a new left shoe before an election. The right shoe could be collected afterward upon proof that the correct choice had been made.

I had many occasions to despise and condemn the inordinate passion shown by my fellow countrymen for cell phones.

One more reason to continue to do so.