Thursday 20 September 2007

Lies, damn lies, and bloody idiots.

In my experience, the problem with statistics is not so much that they are regularly prodded by purveyors of half-truths — after all, such shenanigans can be discovered and exposed — but that they are accepted so uncritically by people with no real intention of being dishonest. It's much more difficult to debunk a lie when it has no liars in its origins.

What the hell am I on about now? Well, here's a for instance. The Hotel and Catering Industry Training Board once asked one of their staff to perform a study into recruitment and staffing. He duly conducted a load of surveys and discovered, perhaps interestingly, that a large number of graduates were working as hotel porters. This, of course, was mainly because they were going on to do post-graduate academic work and were earning a bit of easy money over Summer or during a gap year or while studying. But the thing is, that last sentence is the result of common sense, not statistical analysis; it is the result of criticising, not accepting, a perfectly true statistic that makes too little sense. The HCITB employee in question didn't do this; he simply stuck all his data through his stats rules and presented his conclusions to the board, recommending, among other things, a vigorous graduate recruitment program to meet the industry's needs for hotel porters over the coming years. For this, he was rightly fired. True story.

A lot more damage is done to the reputation of the discipline of statistics by this common failure to factor in the thought that what you're measuring is usually too messy to be measured in the way you'd like. See also the profoundly held belief among too many statisticians that the effects of intentional acts can be measured in the same way as the effects of blind chance.

Anyway, 6 out of 10 Britons would rather die than exercise, according to The Mail:

Six out of 10 Britons would not be motivated to do more exercise even if their lives depended on it, a poll has found.

Pick a hundred Britons at random. Place them in a narrow alleyway with high walls. Drive a truck with electrified razor-sharp spikes welded to its front down the alleyway towards them at 6 mph. Apparently, only forty of your subjects will run away.

I realise they have an agenda to push and that they have our best interests at heart, but that's no excuse for the British Heart Foundation to be publishing such utter bollocks. And, even allowing for the number-blindness of your typical journalist, was there really no-one on The Mail's staff who thought to question this? Nah, it's in a poll, so it must be true.

Monday 17 September 2007

Run in fear.

Earthquake? Volcano? Alien invasion? Worse: an economist has made a prediction. Thing is, even The Telegraph, who have published said prediction, aren't entirely sure what it is.

Alan Greenspan warns of UK house prices drop

warns the headline, but the article itself says that

He warns of "difficulties" ahead for UK home owners, as rising interest rates bring house price growth to a shuddering halt.

Shuddering aside (and I'd love to see the graph of that), which is it? Are house prices going to go down or merely cease to go up? Since the journalist who writes the article very rarely gets to write the headline, it's a good rule of thumb to trust the article. So house prices are going to cease to rise. Since insanely rising house prices are one of the biggest economic problems facing Britons today, this is Good News. Even if they were to go down a bit — ten percent, say, or even twenty — most houses would still be realistically unaffordable to most Britons, and most of us would still have to get in debt up to our eyeballs for forty years in order to have a decent place to live.

Look at it this way. The value of my house has tripled in under three years. Yes, some of that is due to improvements we've made, but obviously not most of it: we haven't built an underground Olympic swimming pool or a heliport. Yet. And that's a fairly typical increase round our way. If house prices were to drop by a massive fifty percent UK-wide next week, that would still leave our house having gone up in price by fifty percent in three years, which is a massive increase by any reasonable standard.

It's good and right that the value of a house should go up when that house is improved. It's reasonable that the value of all houses should go up roughly in line with average pay increases. But neither of those things have been happening in the UK for many years now. House prices go up simply because houses are things whose prices go up. That certainly can't go on forever, and it will stop. And, when it does, the housing market can begin the long road back to something approaching sanity.

Says it all, really.

MRSA latest:

[Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary,] says he is determined to ensure that patient safety is a priority in the NHS.

In most of the world's hospitals — including the cash-strapped understaffed electricityless ones in the middle of Third-World hell-holes — patient safety is a priority. In most of the world, the mere presence of doctors and nurses is enough to ensure that patient safety is a priority. It's taken as read.

In the NHS, the Health Secretary feels the need to announce it. As if it's something new.

I feel like I should be wearing a tri-cornered hat.

Of all the things I never thought I'd see in Britain in my lifetime, a run on a bank? Incredible. What's next? A gin craze?

Thursday 6 September 2007

Tories and Conservatism.

Peter Oborne gives a perfect example of the problem with the British Conservative Party:

Sir Patrick Cormack, a Conservative Party backbencher, invited me to his room. He wanted to ask what questions he should put to a government minister who would soon be giving evidence on Zimbabwe to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, of which he was a member.

So I told Cormack about a strange event that had occurred the previous month. President Mugabe had been invited to Paris by President Chirac for a summit meeting. This example of European approval of a barbarous dictator caused uproar.

When Downing Street was asked about the episode, it gave the impression to reporters that it had neither been consulted nor informed, while ministers spoke out angrily against the invitation.

In fact I was able to show Cormack evidence that the British government had known all along about the invitation, raised not the slightest objection, that its protestations of ignorance were false, and that the angry pronouncements by ministers were no better than a cynical device. I suggested to Cormack that he should expose this wretched business at the Foreign Affairs Committee, and offered to draft him a list of questions.

Sir Patrick gazed around his large and beautifully appointed Commons office. He looked appalled. "Oh, I could never do that," he stated. "It might embarrass the Government."

Even by the standards of a man who devotes a large amount of time to slagging off the Tories, DumbJon has outdone himself:

Both the Tories and the left have an interest in passing off the Tories as the antonym of Leftism: you either have the collectivist insanity of socialism, or you have the Tory Party, aka the Legion D'Entitled, the smug, sneering, snobbish collection of over-privileged degenerates, wasters and amoral weasels, looking down their nose at the ordinary, decent working people of this country. The only reason half these morons are even in the Tory Party in the first place is the lurking fear that if they joined Labour, they might have to sit next to a Scouser.

I can't emphasise enough how good it is to see the Tories' monopoly over the right-wing parts of the British electorate slipping away. May they never recover.

Tuesday 4 September 2007

Thorough incompatibility.

Thorough incompatibility appears to be what English has with Chinese. Exhibit A: the time sex thing.

This label shows a disposable coffee cup and a bilingual legend whose English half is "A TIME SEX THING". But it's not from the cover of a racy new novel about coffee-break quickies among over-scheduled young Hong Kong investment bankers. Nor is it from the latest CD by the Shanghai rockers Assembly Line Love Machine. It's not even the lead-in to a shocking tabloid exposé of caffeine-fueled Olympic stopwatch-fetishism in the Beijing elite. No, it's a word-by-word mistranslation into English, apparently without ironic intent ...

The correct literal translation of the Chinese phrase should be something like "daily use article for single use." More loosely, one might say simply "disposable cup."

One might think it was pretty tough to outdo that, at least by accident. Step forward, Cisco, with their downright interesting-sounding new ethernet switch.

The Ethernet switch tool reach 5/8/16/24 10/100Mbps from accommodative a works port, is an ideal product to establish small scaled, medium-sized or large network need, establish for the demand exclusively the fleetness link to take with the breadth ministrant work set but design, match theIEEE802.3. Ethernet completely with the IEEE802.3u Fast Ethernet standard. Can provide the ability of the fast ether in 10/100Mbps net, take each work a breadth for or table's top computer offering whole network taking breadth, dissolves conjunction serves hour the bottleneck, and can is current the customer 10/100Mbps a work a function for linking a fast ether lord fucking net ascending, suiting different demand in various situations, can to a large extent increasing network with dependable.

And quite right, too: without dependable would be useless.

In other news, the French are annoyed that everyone's speaking English these days.