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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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The great British public

Oh, it’s been a long time since I posted anything here. So I’ll start with something light: the depressingly silly exaggeration made in the media’s vox pops after any kind of criminal incident.

It was earlier this week when a teenage girl was arrested near here, for setting fire to a disused garage. According to neighbours, ‘it’s getting like the Wild West around here’. That’ll be ‘cowboys and injuns’ then, or the mob rule and summary justice of bar room brawls and disputes over gold finds. No, just some bored teenagers making a nuisance and committing some crimes, dealt with by the police pretty promptly in this case.

These comments took me back to those after the shootings in Cumbria:

‘Things like this don’t happen around here’ (the local MP quoted here)
“You don’t expect things like this to happen. Especially not here because it’s such a quiet area. It’s really, really quiet, nothing ever happens, just quiet families live here.”
and my favourite: ‘it’s much quieter today, after all the shootings and police running around yesterday’ (not an accurate quote as heard on the radio.

Unless you live in Dunblane or Hungerford, things like this don’t happen in anyone’s neighbourhood. However, these comments do reveal the feeling that ‘down in London’, or nearest feared urban centre, there are shootings and stabbings all the time, and you’d best stay away because you’re risking your life. Because if you watch Eastenders you’d be under the impression that a quarter of all people die in violent circumstances.

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Concert tickets and the free market

Earlier this week I heard another discussion on You and Yours about ticket touting and the ‘no ticket’ scammers that try to rip off gig goers. One comment by the chair of the culture, media and sport select committee had me spitting out my tea, and then laughing heartily.

The story was ostensibly prompted by Muse’s plan to only sell tickets through their own site, so hoping that only the fans who actually want to go (‘the true fans’) can get tickets, as opposed to those who want to buy some and then resell at a higher price. This reselling, known as the ‘secondary market’, won’t be outlawed as government can see the ‘advantages for consumers’ (, p. 2), and as society seems to believe in the primacy of the market it would seem absurd to say that reselling has to be at face value. If this were the case, then those who get the tickets are just those quickest to act, and some ‘true fans’ still wouldn’t be able to go. At least with the clearing mechanism of the touts, those who want to go most (as measured by willingness to part with cash) get to go, and one never hears complaints about being able to buy tickets at less than face value from the touts!

But the concern here is the selling of tickets that haven’t been released yet. Of course there are some scammers who pretend to have a ticket, sell and fail to deliver: this is fraud. However, there are others who sell a forward contract on the tickets, taking someone’s money to deliver tickets that they are sure they will have at the point at which they need to sell:

Winifred Robinson: Would you support the idea of making it illegal to sell tickets that you don’t have in your possession? Because often in defence afterwards, these online sellers who don’t deliver will tell you that someone else let them down.

John Whittingdale, MP: Well, if you are trying to sell something you don’t deserve(?), then that is a criminal act in itself…

This is where I laughed. I laughed because selling something you don’t have in your possession is pretty common, and arguably the basis of our entire financial market, and a large part of our non-financial economy too. Futures trading, forward trading and a whole host of derivatives are based on buying and selling ‘promises’ as opposed to the actual commodities or shares.  Even in the old-fashioned manufacturing industries, importation and retail, money can be handed over before the goods are in existence, never mind in the sellers hand (known as ‘paying up front’, and I imagine the MP has heard of this). And sometimes someone further up the chain may let the seller down, and the deal doesn’t happen. Money can be returned, bankruptcies occur, and so on. Some end consumers can make losses like this too: if you pay for a telly online, and then the import company goes bust, you an end up with nothing. I don’t think the government is thinking of making all of this economic activity illegal too… that would be ridiculous.

If regulation is needed to counter the risks of default, perhaps they should start with the financial markets. After all, if we take the most cited reason for the current economic difficulties – sub-prime mortgage defaults – what we find is a number of financial bodies trading in future income streams (the repayments of homeowners) that in the end didn’t come in. They may have been wrapped up in credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations, but effectively people were trading in the the future monthly payments of householders, as this is where the profit would come from eventually. It wasn’t these payments that were in the hands of the sellers, but promissory notes for these payments, and as we have seen some of these payments aren’t being made. How this differs from selling a gig ticket you don’t own yet, I can’t see.

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On Monday, Andrew Gilligan’s Dispatches created a scare story about an ‘extremist’ Islamist group (Islamic Forum Europe: to be fair, they are Islamist but hardly extremist) infiltrating local politics in East London. This comes close to some of my work on ‘extremists’ in local politics, and the idea of ‘entryism’ just made me laugh… it’s what I call a minor conspiracy theory, that easily elides into the grand conspiracy theories of global organiations and elites who secretly control everything.

‘Entryism’ suggests a group of IFE people meeting, and secretly deciding to join a particular party en mass without revealing their prior affiliation. They hope to get enough numbers to steer the organisation in the way that they (who are stereotyped as being all of one mind) think will achieve the goals of their ‘actual’ organisation.

The reality, as far as I have found in my research, is much less conspiratorial.

First, ‘extremist’ activists are the same as everyone else involved in community stuff. They are the ‘do-ers’, who join a number of groups. In my research Islamist and far-right activists want to do good in society, and see their ideology / worldview as contributing to the good society. But their work isn’t limited to their specific ideology… they might be involved in charity work, residents’ groups, local consultation bodies, a religious group. Just like a Labour party person might be involved in their local church or community group. If members of the CofE join the Conservatives is this entryism? Given that involvement in community organisations is highly correlated with other involvement, we should expect this. It seems natural that when someone finds that having their say in a community group doesn’t achieve change, they then get involved in formal politics.

Second, they don’t come as a bloc: the activists do not all think alike in ‘extremist’ groups or any other for that matter. Groups as diverse as the BNP, IFE, Islam4UK, the Catholic Church, Labour, are attributed with a collective ideology, but ‘extremists’ suggests that this collective ideology is unbending and the only thing the activists think about. But, ‘extremists’ disagree just like those in Labour or the Conservatives. Some in IFE might see the local Labour group as a good way of gaining influence, others might detest the idea of joining a party which took us in to the war on terror. A conspiracy theory would have IFE members joining Labour, despite their reservations, on the orders of some IFE grand plan. I’m more inclined to believe in individuals, making little decisions that collectively make democracy work.

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Press releases as news

This is a second post about one article in the Guardian. One of the reasons why claims such as this get repeated without question is the news sources’ reliance on press releases. Nick Davies, in the excellent Flat Earth News shows how rushed journalists don’t get chance to check all the facts, and have to rely on what government, companies and others tell them. Here’s a good example. Below I compare a Guardian article with the Metropolitan Police Service press release. The Guardian version has only two sentences that aren’t in the press release, one of which was an excuse to use a picture of Vivienne Westwood to illustrate the article:

One online security source said the operation was ground-breaking in its scale and in the way it attempted to protect the UK system. The source said this was thought to be the biggest mass “deregistration” of scam counterfeit goods websites anywhere in the world.

It is understood other designer brands targeted by the criminals include jewellery firm Links of London and clothing labels Vivienne Westwood and Ed Hardy.

Now that’s criminal.

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