Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"How can I be silent? How can I rest?"

"When Enkidu whom I love is dust and I too shall die and be laid in the earth for ever?"
Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 10

RIP, Enkidu. But what a beautiful obituary, and I think he was a very lucky cat to be loved so much.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

SET for Britian
Away day at the House of Commons?

Via my big sister, poster competition at HoC, being run by SET for Britain. I'm out the country, but it looks like a lot of fun. Happily, they've divided the competition into physical sciences, engineering, and bio-stuff. Deadline for abstracts is Monday 21st.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

These things are sent to try us
Or possibly just me

There is quite a lot of special in the comment threads at LibCon, but I think this is my favourite:

"To continue… physicists can’t agree whether energy travels in “waves” or “packets” (google qualtum mechanics if you are interested), so there are competing theories, and the technology doesn’t yet exists to falsify (or not) the theory of relativity, so it remains a theory until/unless falsified.
I make my point again – you cant’ have empirical “consensus”, 2+2 either = 4 or it does not. If someone could prove that it equalled 5, then it would equal 5, not by consenus but by empirical evidence"

More seriously, an excellent article by John B taking the fight to the people-who-self-identify-as-climate-sceptics own turf, by considering two opposing conspiracy theories. (If only the editors would restore the sarcastic footnotes, my joy would be complete...)

Would write more about this, but I'm off to disagree with a colleague about wave-particle duality, and must google "qualtum mechanics" first.

Monday, November 30, 2009

THEY are tunnelling under Mr. Delingpole's house
Dark forces are at work

Mr. Delingpole suspects foul play:

What is going on at Google? I only ask because last night when I typed “Global Warming” into Google News the top item was Christopher Booker’s superb analysis of the Climategate scandal.

It’s still the most-read article of the Telegraph’s entire online operation – 430 comments and counting – yet mysteriously when you try the same search now it doesn’t even feature. Instead, the top-featured item is a blogger pushing Al Gore’s AGW agenda. Perhaps there’s nothing sinister in this. Perhaps some Google-savvy reader can enlighten me…..

UPDATE: Richard North has some interesting thoughts on this. He too suspects some sort of skullduggery.

There are forces at work on this climate of which we know nothing.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Modern McCarthyism
Have you no decency, Mr. Monbiot?

I hope everyone who thought that while George Monbiot was a scientific illiterate, at least he was our scientific illiterate, are jolly well feeling ashamed of themselves.

It's no use pretending this isn't a major blow. The emails extracted by a hacker from the climatic research unit at the University of East Anglia could scarcely be more damaging. I am now convinced that they are genuine, and I'm dismayed and deeply shaken by them.

Yes, the messages were obtained illegally. Yes, all of us say things in emails that would be excruciating if made public. Yes, some of the comments have been taken out of context. But there are some messages that require no spin to make them look bad. There appears to be evidence here of attempts to prevent scientific data from being released, and even to destroy material that was subject to a freedom of information request.

Worse still, some of the emails suggest efforts to prevent the publication of work by climate sceptics, or to keep it out of a report by theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I believe that the head of the unit, Phil Jones, should now resign. Some of the data discussed in the emails should be re-analysed. -[source]

The idea, presumably, is that by throwing Jones under a bus, this will show the public that while there were a few bad apples, there is no problem now. This will not work: feeding crocodiles only makes them hungrier. This make-believe scandal is going to be spun into an attack on all climate science and every time the old nonsense gets warmed-up and served as left-overs ("Climate change stopped in 1998!"[cheap LOLZ]; "There's no such thing as the greenhouse effect!" [seriously: we're along way down the rabbit hole when people are pretending classical thermodynamics doesn't work]) people will think "Oh, wasn't there some fuss a while back when that bloke had to resign - scientists, eh, what do they know?". It's a masterstroke: the mere fact of having expertise means they don't have to take your opinion seriously. Brilliant. Horrifying, but brilliant.

A number of the more excitable brethren are describing the email hack as a "blue dress" moment. This is quite correct, only not in the way they mean it.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Wonky logic

It is quite remarkable how many people think you can move from the premise:

"Someone said something nasty about a dead person in an email"

to the conclusion

"Thermodynamics is wrong, and changing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will have no effect on the average temperature"

Whilst I have no expertise in climate change, I don't think physics works like that.

Relatedly, via PJ, this is composed entirely of win.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Britain, 2009

"The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret." - [source]

Saturday, September 12, 2009

CiF belief bingo

Andrew Brown has created CommentIsFree-Belief bingo. This is an important achievement, as it will permit a suitably gifted programmer to create an ELIZA-style comment-bot. Will we be able to distinguish between the remarkably facile comments produced by - allegedly - real live CiFers, and an automated alternative?

This will certainly prove something, unless it proves something else.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Another Anscombe
Something completely different

When I read the phrase Anscombe's quartets, I thought of the mighty GEM herself, but this is brilliant:  4 datasets with the same x,y mean and variance, the same regression line and the same correlation coefficient, but with completely different properties that are obvious as soon as you graph them. Suitably modified, this would make a lovely introduction to practical work for 1st year undergraduates: if nothing else, it might get them away from bunging the data into excel and plotting a regression line without graphing them first. Hmmmm.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Or not
Ian Buruma attempts Japanese history, with mixed success

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you possibly the most ignorant paragraph to appear on comment is free, ever:
Even if the system were to become something like Japan's democracy in the 1920s, with two more or less conservative parties competing for power, this would still be preferable to a one-party state. Any opposition is better than none. It keeps the government on its toes.-[source]

I mean, really.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


It's hardly unexpected, but WOW:

Exit polls and early vote counting indicated the DPJ was heading to a victory much larger than the LDP's landslide win in the Lower House election four years ago, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's postal privatization plan gained widespread attention.

As the DPJ racked up seats to push it above the 241 needed for a Lower House majority--and even beyond the 296 seats won by the LDP in 2005--a who's who of prominent LDP lawmakers were going down in defeat.

Although Prime Minister Taro Aso won his seat in Fukuoka Prefecture, he indicated Sunday night he would step down as LDP president to take responsibility for the drubbing that many blame on the unpopular leader.

"We will have to accept the voice of the people that has produced such a severe result," Aso said.

The LDP now appears bereft of leaders. Party Secretary-General Hiroyuki Hosoda said he told Aso earlier Sunday that he and other top party executives would resign to take responsibility.

"We will seriously atone for our faults and prepare for the next election," he said.

The LDP came into the election in an unfamiliar spot: as the heavy underdog. Public opinion polls proved accurate, as the LDP was struggling to match the 113 seats the DPJ won when it was humiliated in the 2005 election.

So, a retread of 1993-4, or actual change? I liked this summary [via James Annan]:

One of the parties is led by an immensely wealthy grandson of a former conservative party prime minister, and the other is led by an immensely wealthy grandson of a former conservative party prime minister. One of these princelings 's tongue frequently gets tied in knots when he is trying to explain himself and the corruption of his colleagues, while the other's tongue frequently gets tied in knots when he is trying to explain himself and the corruption of his colleagues.
We'll be treated to a load of tribalist bollocks in the UK, of course, of both the "DPJ? Oh noes, teh leftisses and there socialism!!1!" and the "Democratic Party Japan = UK Labour Party = WIN!" varieties. 

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Blast from the past
Toyama Kooichi rides again

Via Blood and Treasure, Toyama's speech from the 207 election for governor of Tokyo:

He came 8th, out of 14. And you thought Ishihara Shintaroo was colourful...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

"The thing's hollow - it goes on forever- and oh my God!"
It's full of hippies

Selections from the climate camp programme [link via LC]:

Interactive Theatre on Climate Justice

SM1, Sat, 14:30-16:00

2% of fear and desire. A fun but challenging interactive show that uses Augusto Boal's Cop in the Head techniques helps examine what stops people taking effective action on climate change.

Eco-Feminist Story Telling (Part 1)

Kids' Space, Mon, 10:30-11:30

We will read some eco-feminist stories for children, and then you will get a chance to create your own story! We will play ‘circle stories’ and each child will add to the collective story line-by-line. We will write down the story, and it can be illustrated and printed within a zine. We can make puppets and act out our story too!

DSEi 2009: 8th September, City of London. Destroy the Banks! Destroy the Investors! Destroy the Arms Trade

MM4, Sat, 14:30-16:00

This year's DSEi will be making the link between climate chage and the arms trade. Come to the workshop , find out more, get involved, and let's hold the investors accountable for the death and destruction they cause worldwide!

Everything you Need to Know to Occupy your University

Student Space, Sun, 10:30-11:30

Occupations are back in vogue and this participative workshop - run by a student involved in organising the Cardiff University occupation in February of this year- will give a you step by step guide to practical knowledge of what you need to do to successfully occupy your university.

If not Carbon Trading, then what?

MM4, Sun, 16:30-18:30

We know the European Trading Scheme is a disaster, and Kyoto was a joke. But is it possible to design a carbon descent framework which would guarantee equity as well as the necessary carbon reductions? If so, what would it look like? And what possible steps could an activist/campaigner take to get us closer to this ideal? Is it worth our precious time thinking about this nerdy stuff at all? This is a mini-plenary discussion with Charlie Kronick (Greenpeace’s senior climate advisor), Ruth Davies (head of climate change policy at RSPB), Oliver Tickell (architect of the "Kyoto 2" initiative), Niel Bowerman (advocate for Contraction & Convergence), and Shaun Chamberlin (advocate for Tradable Energy Quotas).

Copenhagen and Carbon Trading - where did it all go horribly wrong

MM3, Sat, 16:30-18:30

What is going to be discussed at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in December? What is carbon trading, and why should we care? What role does the European Union play? Discussions on a new global climate agreement are shrouded in a cloud of acronyms and obscure market schemes. This workshop decodes what is at stake in Copenhagen, exposing how the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), sectoral carbon markets, and schemes aimed at Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) would exacerbate local social and environmental conflicts and incentivise land grabs whilst failing to tackle the climate crisis. It will then explore some alternatives needed to promote climate justice in the UK, the EU and beyond.


The thing I want to go to is the workshop on Nuclear Power, which is fairly and unbiasedly called "If Nuclear is the Answer, you're asking the wrong question". 


Monday, August 24, 2009

Promises, promises

The DPJ and LDP manifestos are here. More comment on this tomorrow.

Both parties are promising to ban "hereditary" Diet seats. "Hereditary", in this context, means seats that were held by by the candidates father[1] and then "inherited". The DJP don't say how this ban will be enforced, but the LDP say they will not "endorse[ment n]or support" candidates "within three degrees of kinship" of a retiring candidates, although only from the next general election.

Meanwhile, Yomiuri is reporting : 

The Democratic Party of Japan has featured "three icons" of the party in its campaign for the Aug. 30 House of Representatives election to convince voters that the main opposition party is well equipped to take the reins of government.

The prominent coverage given to DPJ President Yukio Hatoyama, Secretary General Katsuya Okada and Acting President Naoto Kan--the latter two also have served as party leader--stands in stark contrast to the approach adopted by the Liberal Democratic Party, many of whose candidates hope to cash in on the popularity of Health, Labor and Welfare Minister and House of Councillor member Yoichi Masuzoe to boost their campaigns. - [source]

I don't think we're going to see anything comparable to the phenomenon that was Kazuhiko Yamauchi this time round, tho'.

[1] The actual Hereditaries, the Peerage, were abolished after the second world war, and the House of Peers replaced by the elected House of Councillors. The adoption of a bicameral rather than a unicameral legislature was one of Matsumoto's few successes in the face of GHQ's "advice".

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Wipeout for the other Liberal Democrats?
Election count-down

A week to go, and a DPJ victory seems almost certain:

The Democratic Party of Japan appears likely to sweep into power by securing over 300 seats in the Aug. 30 Lower House election, a Kyodo News survey showed Saturday.The ruling Liberal Democratic Party looks set to lose its grip on government and be reduced to slightly over 100 seats in the House of Representatives, down from the 300 it held heading into the campaign.

I had assumed the previous poll from July was an outlier, but this looks conclusive. 

The Liberal Democratic Party has something to hold on to:
Of those surveyed, 36.3 percent said they have yet to decide which candidate or party to vote for in the single-seat districts, while 32.8 percent remain uncommitted in the proportional representation section. It is thus possible the overall situation could change suddenly ahead of election day.

but I don't think I'd be betting on it. It's remarkable - except for 1993, the LDP has been in power since 1955.

[I was going to write a post comparing DJP with the LDP manifestos, but I've been ill for the last few days. Hopefully, I shall be well enough to write it before the election]

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tale from the White Hart

I used to love Arthur C. Clarke's short stories set in the White Hart.Not everyone cares for "club tales", and the stories are woefully deficient in monoliths; but Harry Purvis is a fun character, you get to meet lightly fictionalized versions of the UK SF writing establishment, and "Silence Please" must be the first suggestion of noise canceling technology.

I think in "Silence Please" the White Hart is described as being close to Kings and that if you cram your head out of the window in the gents you can see the river. Clarke also describes the pub as a fictionalized version of a pub called the "White Horse".

Which brings us to last night, when I was enjoying a most agreeable pint in a pub called the "The White Hart" which is close to Waterloo and the Kings physics department. There were no windows in the gents. 

So - is it the right one? I think I shall pretend it is. 

Monday, August 10, 2009

Folk philosophy
Are you sure "dualism" means what you think it means?

The real problem about commenting on this is that we have yet to see the full proposals. The Lib Dem blogosphere, particularly the Libertarians, love to get terribly exercised at the prospect of banning thingsIt’s just not liberal! we are constantly reminded, or more precisely, it is Fundamentally Illiberal(complete with scary looking capitalisation). Personally however, I tend to take a more evidence-based approach before banging on about John fucking Mill (I think the Lib Dems should produce their ownGod Trumps inspired Liberal Trumps, with the Mill card always winning. It would save a lot of time). Philosophy is always reached for, psychology or sociology almost never. It is as if the last 100 years never happened. More to the point, it is as if dualism was never critiqued. Frankly, if we did all live in a state of complete seperation of mind and body, the libertarians would have a point. The fact that time and again we learn that environmental factors affect behaviour is a problem they have never come to terms with.- [source]

I don't have a view on banning "air-brushing", but I don't see how whether dualism or d'Holbachian materialism is correct can have any possible bearing on the necessity or efficacy of the proposed ban.

For bonus hilarity, the previous instalment of this row involved people who couldn't diagonalize a Hamiltonian expressing firmly-held opinions on the implications of quantum mechanics on "free will" and, remarkably, the amount of time physicists spend on different problems. Favourite comment:
"You ask for “proof” - well, how is thousands upon thousands of accumulated scientific knowledge? We live in a closed, causational universe (you could, again like a theist, argue for some kind of quantum-get-out-of-jail-free card but that don’t wash). That is what science, from Newton to Darwin to Einstein tells us. " - [source]

which was a surprise, as the last time the political blogosphere tried to dress up as David Deutsch, we were assured:

"Quantum mechanics screws with the whole concept of a personal god at such a fundamental level that even the most ardent religious apologists steer clear of arguing with the cosmologists and trying to take on the uncertainty principle.

They just ignore it and hope that everyone but a few physicists will go on thinking that quantum mechanics is way to difficult to bother trying to understand."

The things you learn on the internets!
They're back!
Excellent news

After a long absence, Andrew Rilstone and Steven Poole are back. Excellent stuff.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Robotic ramen

The Reuter's transcript describes the robot- produced dinner as ramen. 

Of course, given it's in Nagoya, they should be serving misonikomi udon rather than ramen

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

BYO satellite
"No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to burn up on re-entry"

Amateur satellites have been around for years, and there's a fairly active community of hams [via Alex]. But via the Register, I learn that "Interorbital systems" are offering to launch you a satellite (albeit one that'll burn up in a couple of weeks). 

As the companies business model includes selling futures on moon rock, I'm a little bit sceptical. But on the other hand, it's $8,000 for your own satellite...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I do not find this persuasive 
Barbara Ellen reports 

How quaint that the Conservative party is planning to punish naughty children by taking away their mobiles. Labour is proving much more hardline: taking away the educational futures of tens of thousands of British teenagers, who will be denied university places this autumn.

This shortage of places, between 60,000 and 80,000, has been caused not only by cutbacks, and higher numbers of young applicants, but also by older applicants, "mature students", who have lost their jobs and want to "sit out the recession" at college. Well, fine, so long as the younger applicants get priority.

Admittedly, I am biased. I am one of Britain's beleaguered Pots (parents of teenagers) and this is a headache too far. Don't our young already have it tougher than recent generations? And, while I have nothing against mature students, surely they should be given places purely because they want to study. Otherwise, all we are doing is enabling the government to hide appalling unemployment figures.

It is almost reverse ageism - the young being bumped out of their rightful places so that universities can be employed as higher education catacombs for the fiscally dispossessed. Suspicion deepens when one hears of Brown's response to the crisis - the creation of a measly 10,000 places, with priority given to "maths, science and engineering".

Brilliant, except it would be surprising if there was a shortage of places in such technical subjects, though, if they had the relevant qualifications, these may be the sort of degrees mature, probably male, students would go for. What a coincidence.

I suspect there may be other reasons why the government may wish to give priority to "maths, science[,] and engineering" than to directly conspire to deprive Ellen's offspring of places reading sappier subjects. I'm not going to engage in fashionably smug sneering at "humanities graduates"[1], but stuff like this makes you wonder...

[1] Why is so much opprobrium directed at "media studies", BTW? Why is this subject derided in a way that related subjects like "political science", "history", and "english" aren't?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Attention, legal beagles!
Could this happen in the UK?

I am an assistant professor (about 3 years into starting my lab) at a research university. On Monday of this week, I received an email from a freedom of information act specialist saying that a secretary at another research university had requested a copy of my recently funded R01 and that I had 5 days to comply. I called the secretary (who was requesting for an anonymous physician) and explained to her that there was a ton of unpublished data and a research plan for the lab that I thought when writing was confidential. I then offered to send her the grant in its entirety without government involvement if she would have the physician send me an email promising to keep it confidential. I should point out that I am very good about sharing reagents and have given out my grants (funded R01, R21, R03 and foundation grants) to others with the agreement that they stay confidential. Two days after my phone call (and subsequent email), this secretary sent a very curt email saying that they "preferred to go through the freedom of information act."

The same bloke adds in comments:
"Also, it actually makes you wonder if the lab notebooks filled with data generated with NIH money are also subject to the FOIA."

Over here, the EPSRC publish a synopsis - usually a 1-3 paragraph lay summary of the research that you contribute with your proposal  - on each successful application. Do the other RCs do the same?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Everyone's a critic!
A 19th century "higher" critic 

Via Phil, I learn that German biblical criticism has been challenging the bastions of other "historical" events:
  1. If you watch programs about the moon landings, some show certain film clips near the start of the program and some show the same clips near the end. This shows that the producers of the programs are not interested in preserving truth, but just in getting across the message that suits their preconceived aims. They are therefore not to be trusted.
  2. The release of Led Zepplin 1, the Beatles’ last performance, Yasser Arafat’s election, the Boeing 747’s maiden flight and Robin Knox-Johnston’s solo nonstop circumnavigation are not mentioned anywhere by any of the astronauts. These were major world events that happened in the months before the mission, so their non-inclusion shows that the astronauts’ lines are clearly fakes, read from a script.
  3. Neil Armstrong’s accent sounds different sometimes,, which leads scholars to believe in the presence of a deutero-Armstrong who recorded the scenes while on the moon, and possibly a tritio-Armstrong for the scenes on the way back. That Neil Armstrong could actually sound a bit different at different times, is considered too improbable to countenance.
  4. Man has always dreamed of walking on the moon. By making up this moon landing story, NASA were merely channelling stories they’d cherished for years, and passing on the truths they’d learned around the campfire. They felt the need to create a ‘moon-community’ who could pass down this myth they’d created, as it contained the truths by which they now lived their lives. This must be true, as any other explanation would require NASA to actually innovate and do something nobody had done before, ie land on the moon. Innovation involves doing things that haven’t been done before, and as we judge things by the standards of the past, we can never judge an historical event was the result of innovation. - [read the rest here]

[I suspect that 9, which reads differently to the others, was an interpolation by a redactor, which we will need to transcend to access the real proto-Greg text]

Ignore the wailing of "fundamentalists" (by which I mean people who disagree with me) who insist on the literal truth of the moon landings, a mere counjouring trick with stones:  what really matters is that Armstrong walked on the moon in our hearts

Sunday, July 19, 2009

This post should not be construed as supportive of Brian Haw
Will they be any better?

"Mr Cameron today told Sky News' Sunday Live a future Tory government would take steps to have it removed.

He said: "I am all in favour of free speech and the right to demonstrate and the right to protest.

"But I think there are moments when our Parliament Square does look like a pretty poor place, with shanty town tents and the rest of it.

"I am all for demonstrations, but my argument is `Enough is enough'."" - [source]

That isn't an argument, it's a tautology. 

Thursday, July 16, 2009

How utterly vile
But leftists are TOO caring!

I think the best way to deal with unpleasant rubbish like this is just to file it away, and wheel it out when some halfwit tries to tell you how uncaring and "nasty" Tories are.

[via Ben]

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Should we teach maths like music?
"High School Geometry: the instrument of the devil"

Via Scott Aaronson, I read this glorious rant by mathemetician Paul Lockart about maths teaching in schools. 
Now, I don't agree with most of it, and hope to discuss why in a future post, but it is such a pleasure to read a critique that isn't by a laudator temporis acti who took his O-levels in the 1970s and has been sulking about it ever since. This bit, in particular, is splendid:
"“The area of a triangle is equal to one-half its base times its height.”  Students are asked to 

memorize this formula and then “apply” it over and over in the “exercises.”  Gone is the thrill, 

the joy, even the pain and frustration of the creative act.  There is not even a problem anymore.  

The question has been asked and answered at the same time— there is nothing left for the 

student to do. 

Much as Stephen Fry is the stupid person's idea of what a clever person looks like, an exam that require the rote memorization of  endless formulae before plugging in a series of random numbers is what some non-physicists  think a physics paper should looks like.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The difference between physics and economics

Straight lines, baby! There was no need to take 3 data points, or it might have spoilt the fit.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Oh well, at least it wasn't bloody Widdecombe.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Great minds think alike
And the pounds took care of themselves

Via Alex at the Fistful of Euros, I learn that John Graham-Cumming, Slayer of Spam, has had similar ideas regarding Benford's law. He has looked at the figures in the forms submitted by the chancellor, the prime minister, and Harriet Harman. The PM and HH expenses follow the distribution, but the chancellor's do not. There are rather more 3's and 4's than you would expect by chance. He has identified the source of these: the chancellor claims exactly £300 for food every month, and reqularly claims £45 for his telephone bill.
He also observes that Hazel Blears has submitted claims for whole number of pounds. Hmm.

Were I to fabricate my expenses, I -or at least, whichever of my sons was working for me full-time whilst also a full-time student  - should be sure to add an appropriate and possibly random number of pennies to each of my more creative claims, if only to add an air of vermislitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. [Benford's law probably wouldn't be able to pick up divergences south of the decimal point, as the distribution tends to uniform as the order of the digit increases]
On the other hand, you are allowed to round down in (some of) the boxes on your self-assesment, so it might well be legitimate to do so on an expenses form. 

In any case, I think the best test is reciepted expenses vs. unreciepted expenses. As soon as we see some tabulation at the Guardian project, it'll be time to break out the Benford's.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Benford's law and The Commons
A modest proposal

Have you ever tried to make up numbers? I mean, to write a series of random numbers on a bit of paper? It's a problem faced by fraudsters: how to fabricate a series of plausible data. 

Consider the digits. I had always supposed that, in a given series of numbers, you'd expect the likelihood of a number starting with a 1, a 2, a3,..., or a 9 would be about equal (for a large enough sample of numbers) at ~11%. 

I supposed erroneously. 

Actually, for a surprisingly wide range of data types -from the lengths of rivers in an atlas to amounts of money in an account- numbers beginning with a '1' are much more common, appearing about 30% of the time. Numbers beginning with a '2' occur about 18% of the time, and higher digits with decreasing frequency. This is called Benford's law.

This remarkable result has been put to use in fraud detection, by using it to pick out suspicious sets of accounts for further investigation.

Now, there's a few caveats: it doesn't work for all data - sequentially assigned numbers like bank account numbers, for instance. However, the MPs expenses scandal (via the Guardian data blog) provides a natural test for this, as MPs expenses are all either:

(a) amounts over £250, which had to be supported by a receipt, or

(b) amounts under £250, which didn't. 

Will both sets of figures follow Benford's law? Will neither? Or will most sets of expenses (a) follow the law, while the un-receipted expenses (b) won't? This might raise some interesting questions. 

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Does my privilege look big in this?
It's not about you, either, it's about the facts

[UPDATE: PJ has some comments from a different perspective in the comments]

 Laurie Penny, who wrote this fantastic article, has a post up defending Rowenna Davis' string of untruths that I discussed last week. I do not find it persuasive. She writes:

Dear white, straight guys: it’s not about you.

No, really, listen up. I have been stunned this week by the cybersquall that has erupted over Rowenna Davis’ Guardian article, entitled – although not by her – ‘Stupid White Heterosexual Male’. The article was well written, reasonable, and managed to make points about equality without getting personal, which is unsurprising, as Rowenna Davis is at the tender age of 24 one of the finest and most ethical journalists I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. But the piece got almost as many negative comments as Charlie Brooker’s denouncement of the BNP in the same paper got supportive ones – all because Davis had the temerity to suggest that perhaps white, heterosexual males might not actually need their own anti-discrimination officer at Oxford University of all places (45% private school students, almost entirely white and with a tenacious male bias in finals marks), especially not when Andrew Lowe’s policies included ‘to replace St Anne's college crèche with a finishing school, ban women from the library and save money by getting female students to serve food in halls instead of kitchen staff.’ - [source]
You can, and should, read the whole thing here. I was particularly impressed by the claim:

No, really. You might not think that you personally, sitting behind your computer, reading this rant and getting pissy, are part of the problem -but you are. The people who attacked Rowenna Davis’ on-the-money article with such bile and vitriol are part of the problem, even though many of those are the very same hands-up-harries who were the first to condemn the BNP.

Because there is a heartbeat’s space between the blind stupid rage of otherwise sensible people who felt hard done by reading that article and the creeping influence of right-wing policymakers in parliament. There is a heartbeat’s space between the growing tide of otherwise non-idiotic white male resentment in this country and the breathtakingly idiotic racist, homophobic and misogynistic logic with which we have just sent two far-right representatives to the European Parliament. And if you are not prepared to step up, own your privilege and be part of the solution, then, my darlings, you are going to become part of the problem.

Of course, I would have been more impressed to see some actual evidence for the claim - which brings us to the problem with both Davis' article and Penny's defense. 

My objection to Davis article is not "because Davis had the temerity to suggest that perhaps white, heterosexual males might not actually need their own anti-discrimination officer at Oxford University of all places", but because Davis makes a number of statements that are untrue. 

1) Davis claimed that Oxford admitted 5 black students last year. This is untrue. An underestimate by a factor of 9, the correct figure can be found in the document "Undergraduate Admissions Statistics 2008", page 5, table 5, [source]. Happily, Davis has corrected this claim, although the fact she thought it was remotely plausible raises profound, not to say disturbing, questions about her own privilege.  

2) Davis claims that "The only thing harder than spotting the black kid in my college photo was trying to find a woman on my reading list.". This is untrue. You can  readily falsify this for yourself by reading the politics department PPE reading list, as I thought - clearly rather optimistically - that Davis would have done. [In Davis 2007 article (about institutional sexism  at Oxford) in the Times Higher Education supplement she claimed "trying to find a woman on my reading list was analogous to playing "Where's Wally"?" - [source]]

3) Davis claims "Class: Despite over 90% of the country being state educated, just 55% of Oxbridge students come from state schools. New figures suggest that these class divides are getting worse, not better. ". This is untrue. As I wrote in my original comments on Davis article, "it is instructive to compare the results from 2006(2007) ([source], page 3 table 1), when 47.1%(46.8%) came from state schools. Certainly in the short term, things seem to be improving. " . I also wrote "But 98.4% of candidates who are offered pre-qualification places achieve AAA ("Undergraduate admissions statistics 2008"  page 4, table 3). As 28.6% of A grades are awarded to pupils at Independent Schools [source] and  33.8% of Oxford applicants come from Independent schools  ("Undergraduate admissions statistics 2008",page 2, table 1), perhaps the over-representation is not entirely Oxford's fault.".  I hope all numerate readers will appreciate why this is relevant.

These are matters of fact, rather that "privilege". The statements Davis has made do not correspond to reality. They are untrue. It matters not at all how white, male, privileged, disadvantaged or publicly-schooled the person who makes these statements is: they are untrue. 

I move to statements who are not untrue, but are simply peculiar. They display a mixture of petty bigotry and misunderstanding of a university.

4a) Davis complains of "competitive tutorials". The whole reason/excuse for the college fee - the 3000 pounds a year extra that is lavished on Oxbridge students - is the tutorials system. Every other university in the country can't afford to provide two-to-one or one-on-one tuition , although some try by cannibalising their research budget. If Davis was so unsuited to the tutorial system - and I agree it is not for everyone, and I am agnostic on the question of whether it is the "best" system - there are 107 universities she could have attended.   It is unfortunate to attend Oxford for 3 years and not realize that "competitive tutorials" are the nominal reason the taxpayer stumps up the additional three grand. Doubly so, to enter a privilege-ridden profession like journalism, where they'll be plenty of  competition. No walk of life is a Caucus-race, and academics would be doing a disservice to their students by allowing them to believe that all must have prizes. Again, this is not unique to Oxford, or even university.

4b)  I thought the statement "arrogant public schoolboys" was bigoted (try replacing the noun in that sentence and you'll see what I mean. Moreover, if the public schoolboy(s) in question were such idiots, thickos who glided into Oxford on the back of the privilege-fairy, they can't have been that hard to out-compete. 
Can they?

I do not believe I have met Davis, but Penny describes her as "one of the finest and most ethical journalists I’ve ever had the privilege to meet". Accordingly, I am certain she will correct the untrue claims she has made on the website of a national newspaper. It is, of course, embarrasing to admit messing up, all the more so when 5 minutes on google combined with numeracy could have avoided the matter, but it is the honest and ethical thing to do. I am delighted to see see has made a step towards this by correcting the ludicrous error in point 1 above. 

Point 4 is more tricky - it is not about facts, but opinions. I am aware that I must be viewing the situation with privilege-tinted spectacles. That said, so must Davis, Penny, and everyone else in the world.

There are two possibilities: either
(a) privilege obscures our view of the world so severely as to prevent us from make true judgements about it; or,

(b) privilege does not obscure our view of the world so severely as to prevent us making true judgements about it.

Suppose (a) is true: my inability to make judgements about the world must also preclude me from accepting the claim that my privilege obscures my view of the world : after all, that's what "being unable to make true judgements about the world" means. This applies not only to me, but Davis, Penny, and everybody else. 

If we are not to lapse into solipsism, therefore, we must accept (b), that we can make statements about the world that are not obscured with privilege.

My initial response to Davis, in the form of an open letter, is here.

[Editted fur spolling]

Friday, June 12, 2009

Fact-Checking Rowenna Davis
An open letter

Dear Ms. Davis,

I write with reference to your recent article on Comment is Free, entitled "Stupid White Heterosexual Male", in which you make a number of statements which are untrue. I am pleased to have the opportunity to correct them, and also to offer some collegial advise as to how you can avoid intellectual humiliation in the future.

Happily, you have corrected your most ridiculous error - a bizarre claim that Oxford admits only 5 black students, out by a factor of 9 [source - document "Undergraduate admissions statistics 2008"  page 5, table 5]. 
(Indeed, your own source continues: "With more than four students applying for every place, competition is intense and the success rate among ethnic minority UK students is nearly 29%, compared with an overall average of 23.7%, but it remains below the hit rate of independent school candidates which is 29.4%."). 

You write:
"The only thing harder than spotting the black kid in my college photo was trying to find a woman on my reading list."

Given you read PPE, you can't have tried very hard. You can read, perhaps for the first time, the Politics department's PPE reading list here for the first year exams. I can see Gutmann, Nancy Rosenblum, Catherine MacKinnon, Anne Stevens, Mary Volcansek, and Sheri Berman. Guinier (of course) is there, as is Fulbrook. The Philosophy reading list is inaccesible outside the university, but are you seriously claiming you were never advised to read Anscombe? 

You write:
"I wonder if those voting for a white, heterosexual male rep have ever faced the reality of the figures. In case they're reading, I'll take the issues in turn. Class: Despite over 90% of the country being state educated, just 55% of Oxbridge students come from state schools. New figures suggest that these class divides are getting worse, not better. "

But 98.4% of candidates who are offered pre-qualification places achieve AAA ("Undergraduate admissions statistics 2008"  page 4, table 3). As 28.6% of A grades are awarded to pupils at Independent Schools [source] and  33.8% of Oxford applicants come from Independent schools  ("Undergraduate admissions statistics 2008",page 2, table 1), perhaps the over-representation is not entirely Oxford's fault.
Regarding the claim "class divides are getting worse, rather than better", it is instructive to compare the results from 2006(2007) ([source], page 3 table 1), when 47.1%(46.8%) came from state schools. Certainly in the short term, things seem to be improving. 

Wisely, you turn from statistics to your own personal experience: "When I was studying there, I felt wedged between overly sexualized bops (college parties) and competitive tutorials with arrogant public school boys.

I am sorry to hear you have had a negative experience at Oxford. However:

Be honest now: did the sub-editor insert that definition of "bops"? Did you remember that the vast majority of readers won't know what the word means, and won't care? Anyway, the last bop I attended I saw a man dressed as a post-box dancing with a woman dressed as Richard Branson. I can say, without fear of contradiction, I have never felt less "overly sexualized". 

As adults, and all students at Oxford are technically adults, we have control over what we wear, the company we keep, and the bops we attend. At any university, there are plenty of other things to do on a Saturday night.

Further, you complain of "competitive tutorials with arrogant public schoolboys". If you don't like arrogance, prolonged exposure to academics is ill-advised. I am sorry to see you judge a person by the school she attended, but more alarmed that you see "competitive tutorials" as a bad thing. I used to struggle with tutorials. My tutorial partner (as it happens, from a state school) was considerably cleverer that I am, and I always felt like the Red Queen, having to run faster and faster just to stand still. I certainly don't believe the tutorial system is the best possible system for everyone, but it certainly made me into a better physicist. The tutorial system is the reason it cost the taxpayer £3000 more each year for you to study PPE at Oxford rather than something useful elsewhere. You must have known this when you were applying. Had you not wanted this, there are 107 universities in the UK that aren't Oxford and Cambridge. If you found your tutorial partner disagreeable, even for the rather bigoted reason you give, in life and work we often have to put up - even be polite to! - people we dislike. This is not unique to Oxford, or even to university.

So where does this leave us?

There are some great stories to be written about tertiary education in the UK: you could talk about the difficulties of contract research staff, the funding of middle eastern studies departments or how physics is becoming the new classics. You could talk about those 107 universities that aren't Oxford and Cambridge.

It would also be nice if, from time to time, the debate on education could focus the vast majority who did not go to Oxbridge, or even the majority who didn't go to university. You could talk about what's happened to adult education and how to change it. You could talk basic qualifications, and about teaching reading, and about the way political groups manipulate the syllabus in subjects from biology to history.
If it is essential to discuss Oxbridge at such tedious length, why doesn't CiF run a series of articles on Oxford where people wrote that they had quite a nice time, really, didn't do enough work, made some good friends and generally grew up a bit. Just like any other university, except with older buildings  and worse facilities. 

Or, you could write another retread of the "Tales of Terror:  Trapped Among the Poshes!" where the author complains that she was forced to meet people who went to a  school that was funded differently to hers, and spoke with a different accent, and had tutors who expected her to think, and how the college drama society re-enacted Brideshead bloody Revisited 24 hours a day, and in general the sheer awfulness of attending one of the oldest universities in the world, having the taxpayer stump up an additional three grand a year more than your mate who went to London, having contact time and a student-teacher ratio other unis only dream of, and meeting clever, hard-working people from a completely different background to you. The horror, the horror.

The choice is yours.

I remain, yours sincerely,

A Stupid White Heterosexual Male

[Thanks to Ed and Duncan for the tip]
"Is the BNP racist?"

Matt Wardman spells it out.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Rot about I.Q. and voting
Not just wrong, but stupid 

It's all very well our enemies being wrong and evil, but wouldn't it be great if they were stupid, too?

There's been a 4 way discussion going on over twitter between John Band, Mike Power , Joseph Edwards and Alex Gray regarding voter IQ. Mr. Gray informs us:

@mrpower A study done last year found that BNP voters had an average IQ of 98.4, the lowest. Greens, highest, had 108.3. - [Twitter here]

@mezza1959 Labour voters have an average IQ of 103. Fourth highest (Conservatives are third at 103.7, Lb Dems second at 108.2) - [Twitter here]

Those of us who prefer to have citations for our half-remembered pub-talk factoids will ask Mr. Google and find the actual paper: it is Deary, Batty, and Gale, "Childhood intelligence predicts voter turnout, voting preferences and political involvement in adulthood: The 1970 British Cohort Study", Intelligence 36, 548-555 (2008). If you have institutional access to Intelligence you can get it here, otherwise you can get it off the University of Edinburgh website here
We will also note the correction (institutional access here, although the department is insufficiently proud of this to put it on its website. I wonder why.)

The first thing to note is that this is a study of child IQ (measured at age 10) of members of the 1970 cohort study. They were asked about their voting preferences at age of 34, and how they voted in the 2001 election. The results the paper headlines in the abstract are the intelligence-green party and intelligence-liberal democrats correlation; however, they note that the IQ-Green can be accounted for by occupational social class.

The figures which Mr. Gray quotes are drawn from Appendix Table 1 (p.554) although, alas, the means have been lost their associated standard deviations. (In fairness this press release is probably to blame). Let's reunite them (format mu(SD)):

Voted (2001) 104.0 (14.2)
Didn't vote 99.7 (14.1)

Supported in 2001 election
Con 103.7 (13.5)
Lab 103.0 (14.2)
Lib Dem 108.2 (14.4)
Scot Nat 102.2 (14.2)
Green 108.3 (12.9)
Brit Nat 101.1 (15.7)
UK Ind 99.7 (13.4)
Plaid C 102.5 (16.5)

Intended to vote 2004 election

Con 103.1 (13.9)
Lab 101.6 (14.6)
Lib Dem 106.9 (14.5)
Scot Nat 100.2 (12.8)
Green 107.1 (13.7)
Brit Nat 99.6 (13.5)
UK Ind 97.4 (12.2)
Plaid C 98.7 (17.0)
None 98.1 (13.4)

I invite readers to consider the means and standard deviations of these sub-groups, and make up their own minds as to the significance or otherwise of these result. Comments are particularly solicited from LemmusLemmus and PJ.

Those of us with longer memories will remember the time The Economist recycled a fake IQ/Red State Blue State correlation from an internet news group.

[For the avoidance of doubt: the BNP are fascist scum, certainly evil and probably stupid. However, I do not think this data set can bear the interpretation that Mr. Gray rests upon it. I am also less afraid of stupid fascists than clever fascists.]