Goodbye wordpress

I haven’t written anything for this for a long time (or anywhere for that matter). Now I have a new site at, so I think I’ll be closing this site down in the next week or so. So long, WordPress.

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Hard to reach?

A long time ago I worked for a company specialising in researching the ‘hard to reach’, by which we meant the poor, the needy, including the elderly, drug users, asian Muslims, the white working class. Essentially, the kind of people that don’t respond to mail surveys as often as other groups. And in order to talk to these people we went to where they were: the street, bingo halls, community centres, drug treatment centres.

Which is why the headline ‘Church of England eyes £5m of state funds to combat extremism’ (Guardian) made me laugh. The CofE claims it can enable “Mr and Mrs Smith, Mr and Mrs Patel, and Mr and Mrs Hussain” to engage with each other through coffee mornings and so on.

First, they will use money so that vicars and imams can get to know each other. Fair enough, but there’s plenty of that going on already, and I don’t think vicars and imams are failing to get on (unless we’re thinking about the fundamentalists and crazies and they aren’t invited). But once this has happened, then what. In a working-class estate where I’ve worked recently, of around 7,000 residents only 50 or so have any regular involvement in the church. The vast majority of UK adults go to church less than once a year, probably for weddings and funerals (tearfund) and as I expected, it’s the middle classes (AB) and pensioners that are most likely to attend church.

Now forgive me if I’m wrong, but the government isn’t worried about middle-class pensioners starting riots. The kids that fight each other over their backgrounds won’t be reached through the church, and many won’t be reached through the mosque either. Contrary to stereotype, Muslim youth also ‘stop going’, rebel against their parents. If government wants to bring people together why not invest in the truly public sphere: make our parks more appealing, set up sports events, invest in council housing with genuine public spaces where neighbours can get to know each other.

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Filed under government, Statistics and simplicity

What’s in a name?

We’re doomed… or so many people would have it. It seems to be a common thread in newspaper articles and their responses, and blogs too, that Britain is changing demographically at a huge rate, and so in X number of years ‘we’ll be a Muslim country’. The latest versions of this were the stories on baby names – an annual affair – and the recurring story that such and such a city will be majority Muslim, or majority X, or ‘whites will be in a minority’.

The baby names story is interpreted as:

‘Mohammed is top boys name’ (Express), Mohammed, the nation’s (secret) favourite name (Telegraph)

Often, this data is presented in terms of a conspiracy: the ONS is disguising the fact that Mohammed is the most popular boys name by treating all spellings separately. This is, of course, nonsense: the data is available for people to do these calculations, it isn’t buried. If we think about spellings and variants both the boys and girls lists would change. Do we count Harry and Henry together? What about Isabelle and Isabella? Putting these two together would make Issy the 2nd most popular girls name.

This discussion also misses the most important question about trying to translate baby name tables into demographic analysis. How do these name distributions relate to religious distribution? For if we are to look at the boys list, Mohammed is the only Muslim boy’s name in the top 100, and it accounts for 6,535 of 204,494, around 3.2%.

And this needs to be put in the context of how Mohammed is used as a name. Globally, one in five Muslim men have Mohammed as a first name, and I think in the UK it would be even higher. Often, though, it isn’t the name that is used: lots of people have Mohammed as first name, but are referred to by the name after (see the Indie for an example). It’s this convention that means that Mohammed getting to number one in the list does NOT mean that more Muslims were born than anyone else. I’d guess that the 3.2% of boys born being Muslim is probably close to the actual figure.

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Filed under bad social science, News, Statistics and simplicity


Now I like small and beautiful as much as the next person, and would use a MacBook Air as a second PC for travelling, but the latest marketing message is just dumb. As the BBC put it, ‘The MacBook Air is 0.11 inches thick at its thinnest point’.

But the important info isn’t that of the thinnest point, but of the thickest point. A really thick laptop could have a thin wedge sticking out; even an equilateral triangular prism has a thinnest point approaching zero.

No, what matters is the thickest point. It’s the thickest point that determines whether it fits in a given laptop bag, goes through your letter box. If the laptop was 0.11 inches thick at the thickest point, then that would impress me.

In fact, that’s what drew me to the story. At first I thought it said simply that the laptop was 0.11 inches thick, and I assumed it was a misprint as it’s impossible. But hey, many people actually have reproduced the story as ‘MacBook Air now 0.11 in thick’, and have fallen for the spin completely: I take it they failed geometry at school.

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Burglary and education: two for the price of one

I love analysing social science statistics, especially when they’ve been in the hands of PR professionals and journalists. I think it’s probably because errors are easily disputed and easily traceable, so we can see how social knowledge is created and transmitted: tracking back sources is usually easier as one can search for specific ‘facts’, and where those ‘facts’ feel wrong one can search out the original data. Here I’ll discuss two of this weeks stories, one on burglary and one on university entrance.

The ‘burglary’ story caught my eye because the hotspots seemed unlikely (Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Blackheath) and there seemed to be some slippage in what the story was about. The story is originally from (so it’s a PR story) who analysed their insurance inquiries. So the first important observation is that the data is from a) people using the internet, to b) renew their insurance, and c) doing some shopping around. This is a biased sample in lots of ways: obviously they are people who buy online and have insurance (around 10% of people aren’t covered, presumably the poorest). That they are shopping around suggests that they have made a claim recently too. It’s not hard to imagine that this biases the sample towards 25-34 year old professionals.

Furthermore, the original press release gives away the slippage. Although it has ‘home theft hotspot’ in the title, and spokesperson quotes like ”Home is where the heart is and there’s no denying that having it burgled is an emotional and frightening experience”, the data refers to ‘claim[s] for theft on home insurance’. So this includes muggings, thefts from the beach, bikes being stolen, lost wallets on the bus and so on. Again, this is probably biased to young professionals: the kind of people who get their phones nicked in the pub, or have their bike nicked from outside.

So to education.

‘Just 1% of poorest students go to Oxbridge’ cries the Guardian. ‘In contrast, 10,827 students attending Liverpool John Moores University and the University of East London claimed a full bursary – 4.7% of the total for the whole country’

This is statistical nonsense. Without knowing how many students in total go to each university we can’t know if these figures are better or worse than average, or bang on. Perhaps 10% of all students go to Liverpool John Moores or UEL, so they aren’t attracting as many poor students as they should. We also don’t know if there are other of the poorest students who are attending and not counted as they get other forms of support or none at all, but I’ll let that go.

The original report has the more important figure, ‘the proportion of full fee-paying students this number [those receiving bursaries in the lowest income group] represents’. This in itself is problematic as bursaries are only for UK students, and I don’t know if the ‘full fee-paying students’ include EU and overseas students: I suspect not, but if so then those with more non-UK students will have a lower percentage.

Anyhow, the figure for Cambridge of full-bursary over students is 11.1%. This is low, but some are lower: Grennwich – 9.1%, Guildhall – 11%, Leeds Met 0.4% (very strange, I need to look into this). UEL is high at 61% but LJM isn’t particularly high… it’s just a big university.

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Cover stories

The ‘Russian spy ring’ story is playing out as a return to the cold war, with the female spies being labelled Bond girls or femme fatales. And like the Bond stories, the narrative seems to suggest a controlling force back in Russia, and controlled agents and ‘sleeper cells’ who can be switched on where necessary, much like the baseball player in Naked Gun. In this analysis everything the person does is part of the cover story, hence this quote:

Their friends and neighbours today expressed surprise and shock at their double lives: some of the accused even had children with each other. (Guardian)

But why are these conspiracy theories and the idea of single-minded evil at all necessary. Perhaps this couple were a couple before they even thought about spying. Maybe one became a spy and then the other, or perhaps only one did the real spying but they both took a wage.
More pertinently, some of the career paths that have been mentioned should be seen as incidental to the spying, as opposed to being wholy to facilitate the spying. The ‘glamorous’ Anna Chapman appears to have married a Brit, worked at Barclays, divorced, worked for other financial companies and set up a successful property business. Now unless the Russian government has ways of getting her a job and building the business, she must have put a lot of effort into this (one also imagines she earned more from this work). Was all this career in the hope that she would find herself in the US in a legitimate job? It would have been much easier to give her a typing job in the embassy.
Similarly, Vicky Pelaez was a succesful journalist:

in the public spotlight for more than 30 years – first as a trailblazing TV reporter in her native Peru, and then as a reporter and columnist for New York’s own El Diario-La Prensa (Daily News).

Surely a more likely explanation is more like Our Man in Havana. Someone approached them and asked them if they wanted to earn extra money, they said yes, and started looking for information they could sell. They were probably approached for a number of reasons: in a good job so likely to know useful sources, living in the right place, some loyalty to Russia, contacts back in Russia, trusted. Perhaps they had a job interview at this stage, and some don’t get work.

There is no need for ‘cover stories’ and the idea that they have been trained since their teenage years until they are sent on their mission. Instead, some of them could be ordinary people living their lives, becoming spies and continuing with these same lives, with some spying tacked on. The best ‘cover story’ isn’t a cover story at all. Sadly this fails on the glamour, conspiracy, and evil registers, and so makes a dull story.

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A better class of England fan

A bit of stereotyping here, courtesy of the police and the BBC:

it was “refreshing” to see some England supporters congratulating the Algerians, many of whom were celebrating the surprise draw”… Considering the number of supporters that were there I think they have been extremely well behaved”… many of the supporters were “well-heeled” and “not your normal England followers”… “It’s a different set of supporters than we would normally see.”

According to this, it’s working-class people that are the problem, whereas the middle class are lovely people who never put a foot wrong. Perhaps we should all be “well-heeled”.

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