Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Category: Ideas (page 2 of 3)

John Terry vs Chris Huhne, Fred Goodwin vs Johann Hari: why it pays to wait

I can’t help thinking about four recent falls from grace. In essence, two are about awards, the other two about pre-emptive punishment. In all cases, we could benefit from being less hasty. I’ll explain why.

Let’s start with pre-emptive punishment. John Terry was stripped of the England captaincy while pending an investigation over racist abuse. Chris Huhne quit the cabinet following charges over his wife taking speeding points for him.

In these cases, the alleged crimes are totally different, but the principle is the same. Should someone step down from high office (the cabinet, the captain of English football) before their case is heard? And in both instances, the MP and player can remain just that. Why not go further – if they are not acceptable to lead the team, should they even be in it? If Huhne is not fit for cabinet, should he represent his constituents in Parliament?

Yet it was over the Terry case, the more morally worrisome and noxious case, and over an individual with prior bad behaviour (violence, infidelity), that Fabio Capello, England manager resigned. Capello said it was unfair to pre-judge the case. And surely, he has a point? If Terry is innocent, will the FA give him back the captaincy? About as likely as Capello managing England again.

Terry may be an odious person, certainly. But this is all the more reason to not give him the captaincy in the first place.

Which brings me neatly to getting things right in the first place.

Fred Goodwin was stripped of his knighthood. Johann Hari was forced to give back his Orwell prize for journalism.

In both cases, it seems the witch-hunt was hugely enjoyable for the press and public alike. Goodwin is an unrepentant, apparently unpleasant banker. Hari is a delusional journalist, protected by the Independent who should have sacked him when his dishonesty came to light.

In both cases, their prizes inflated their egos and should not have been given. Neither man can be blamed for accepting. If you are a multi-millionaire banker dealmaker, or a fêted journalist, darling of the left, a gong is exactly what you think you should be getting.

And yes, in both cases, a few checks would have made all the difference. Did Hari’s article stand up to scrutiny? It fell over pretty fast, as soon as a light was shone on his sources. Why give knighthoods to sitting CEOs? Why not wait and see if their deals work out, or if they bring a bank (and the country) to its knees?

In all four cases, it pays to wait, check and not jump in. Should Huhne still be a minister? If Terry was a good choice for captain before (he wasn’t), he still would be now. Hari should not have been awarded the Orwell prize; Goodwin should never have got close to a knighthood in the first place.

A banker, a footballer, a politician, a journalist. Very different crimes or charges. These men are problematic, certainly, but our eagerness to award or judge makes the problem far worse.

Occupy Wall Street: how quick were the media on the uptake?

The Occupy Wall Street movement is spreading and sprawling, into different countries and encompassing many issues.

But how fast did it take for the news media to catch on? This is possible to quantify using two things – Factiva to show the volume of news, and Google Trends to show how people are searching.

Factiva searches give the volume of news articles by day. Google Trends show the search relevance and volume. Plot them together, and you get an idea of when the public were searching for something, and when the mainstream media wrote about it.

Here’s the chart:

You can see straight away that there is a two day lag between the Factiva news peak and the Google peak, on October 15th for search and October 17th for news.

But there was a previous search peak on Oct 6th that was scored 15.7 by Google, not far below the peak of 18.1. But the Factiva volume at that point was 349, over 50 per cent below the highest single day news volume of 792.

In fact, up to the peak, there is a news lag, shown by the gap between the pink line and the blue bars. After the peak, the blue bars trend higher than the pink line, suggesting that the news media is playing catch-up while searching has tailed off.

Ok, some caveats. Google Trends is good – it made a big deal about how it could predict outbreaks of flu back in 2008. But it’s not everything, and Twitter data might be even more revealing. Ditto Factiva: an excellent source, but if we looked at their blogs results rather than news publications, it would be closer to the google trend line.

But I think it’s an interesting way to see what we are searching for, and writing about – and where the gaps are.

How Georgia rules the newspaper web fonts

What have the Guardian, Times, Telegraph, FT and Independent got in common (aside from being UK newspapers)? Politically? Not much. Ownership? Couldn’t be more different. Style? Now you are getting somewhere.

If you’ve ever surfed a few news websites and had a sense of deja vu, that’s because you have seen it before. All the papers listed above use Georgia as their main headline font – and most use it for the text as well.

While print editions of newspapers try their best to look different, it seems all broadsheet or quality press outfits online look the same. Georgia everywhere. It’s true of my employer, the FT, which has adopted the font in its last redesign, and it’s true of most US papers too.

Interestingly, the tabloid press are keener on Arial and other sans-serif (ie non-twiddly) fonts.

So why are the newspaper sites gravitating to one font? Georgia is a classy font, but why is it the be-all and end-all?

One reason is web standards. If you want a consistent look for your site, you have to use a font that is compatible with all browsers and devices, so you can be sure of your how it renders, and Georgia (along with Arial and a few others) is one of those ‘base’ fonts.

But this is crazy. In this web environment, you can pick any font using css (stylesheets) and tell the browser what to do if it doesn’t recognise that font. It’s just a list – you could start with something exotic, and then put Georgia as the backup. I’m baffled as to why sites don’t do this. The spacing issue isn’t an issue, as headlines change in length all the time. You can even specify different stylesheets for different devices if you need. The world has moved on, but we are retreating to a handful of fonts.

And before you point it out, yes, I’ve used Georgia as the font for this blog. I just like it, but maybe that’s the reason – it’s just really really good. In which case, hats off to Matthew Carter, who invented it (along with loads of other fonts.)

Here’s a quick rundown (not comprehensive) of who is using which font:

Georgia (for headlines at least):
– Guardian
– Independent
– FT
– The Times
– Telegraph
– Wall Street Journal
– International Herald Tribune
– NYTimes
– LA Times
– Washington Post
– New Statesman
– Time – Georgia and Arial mixed

– Daily Mail
– USA Today
– The Onion
– Reuters and Bloomberg use Arial in their sites (Bloomberg uses a Georgia derivative in its terminals)

Economist uses Verdana. Good for the Economist. A bit different.

Congestion vs population

I’ve seen a few references to a study on big cities and congestion recently, so I thought I’d take a closer look. It’s a survey by IBM – so caveats aplenty are needed. For starters, it’s based on a sample. And that sample is based on perception. (Perception is a good measure for some things, like happiness or success. It’s not so good for things you could actually measure, like travel times or car density or delays.) It also refers to lots of interesting auxiliary questions but gives no data in a usable format. Not very transparent, and weak for a company that you might think is data-savvy.

Anyway, at first glance, it’s quite easy to see where the congestion is: the Bric countries plus Mexico and South Africa. I’ve dumped all the available data into a Google Fusion table. The cities with a score over 75 out of 100 are the red markers. So is this a developing-country issue? Poorer countries don’t have the infrastructure, hence the congestion. QED.

But actually, is this a population issue? Perhaps the bigger the population, the harder it is to move people around, and the more congestion you get.

Without wanting to commit the classic correlation vs causation mistake, here’s the data plotted to population. (The population data is from Wolfram Alpha, which uses these sources.)

Although there isn’t a perfect correlation (score is 0.56), there is a basic grouping in the bottom left corner (lower population, lower congestion) and top right corner (with high for both).The outliers are Johannesburg, with a lower population but extremely high congestion, and New York, with a high population but low congestion.

Upshot: New York is a good place to live, Johannesburg not so. Assuming that there are benefits to a big city such as interesting things to see and do.

Omissions: Why did they leave Tokyo out? It’s a) huge and b) hard to navigate. It would have been interesting to see what the congestion perception was there.

How to live dangerously – a book that does statistics a disservice

Being a statistics junkie, a couple of people recommended to me the book How to live dangerously by Warwick Carins. Normally, I would read it, enjoy, and move on. But this book has prompted a mini-review (several years late, but who cares…), because it commits several statistical crimes.

One is that Cairns plays fast and loose with surveys. Surveys here, surveys there. No mention of how many people asked, by which method, or the sources. We can all cherry pick surveys to prove any point we like. A health warning is needed.

Second, Cairns is too casual to dismiss what we don’t know, and uses little data to back up the main thrust of the argument (which I broadly agree with), peppering his prose with “probably”s and “these days”. Example:

In 1970, eight out of ten elementary schoolchildren used to walk to school. In 2007, less than one out of ten did – and they were probably the ones who lived across the road, or whose dads were the school caretakers. Most children these days are driven to school in cars, even if they live just round the corner.


Thirdly, and far worse, it actually uses statistics to deceive, rather than prove a point. The worst offence is comparing the data on child abduction and murder with death from fires.

It is clear that the media make more of the former than the latter – a child killed in a fire is a tragedy that is maybe mentioned in the local news, while an abduction and murder will make national headlines quite often.

But Cairns breaks down the stats by pointing out that in any one year, only 100 or so US children are abducted by strangers, and of those 46 are killed. He then extrapolates that to say that the average child has a 0.00007 per cent chance of this fate, which equates to it taking 1.4m years for a stranger to murder your child if you left him or her unguarded on the street.

Obviously the idea of living for 1.4m years is nonsense, and a cunning way of pointing out our ridiculous fear of this event. But then he points out the relative danger of keeping a child indoors and the risk of fire, to show how foolish we are at stopping children going out.

Not citing which country (I assume the US again) he says “one child dies of [fire in the home] every ten days.”

So he sums up our fears thus (from p46):

So, they go out, and face the 1-in-1.4 million chance of being abducted and murdered. Or they stay in, where one child gets burned to death every ten days.

This is the worst statistical argument I have ever come across. Comparing a 1-in-1.4m chance (which is not the same as 1-in-1.4m years anyway) with one-in-10 days sounds like a logical slam dunk – why on earth would we care about the million chance when every 10 days a child dies in a fire? Except that these are far more similar stats than the way they are presented. Actually, using Cairns’ data, one child is abducted and then murdered every 8 days, compared to a death every 10 days in a fire. Or, put it another way, there are 46 abductions and murders every year in the US compared to roughly 37 fire deaths.

Either Cairns is being appallingly deceptive, or incredibly sloppy and can’t understand the stats himself. Either is hard to forgive in a book that tries to cut through the froth and present our fears and risk in a rational way.

Overall – for a book that cites statistics and tries to uncover our irrational fears, it is sloppy, prejudiced and patronising. It is poorly sourced, and although entertaining, lacks rigour. This is an important topic. It’s a shame that it is treated so badly.

The gender timebomb of India and China: a stab at the numbers

When I visited India in 2003, I was shocked by areas of the countryside where there seemed to be not a young girl in sight. It was all boys, as far as you could see.

When we asked our tour guide about the lack of girls, he scoffed at any suggestion of infanticide or selective abortion. Instead, he told us that women could conceive a boy if they slept on a particular side of their body just after intercourse.

This was a man with a degree, a full education and seemingly worldly-wise. He surely couldn’t believe the old-wives tosh, and was just peddling nonsense to avoid reality.

But the population time-bomb in India and China is soon going to be upon us. China pursued a one-child policy that has skewed a generation towards males. India’s gender imbalance is cultural rather than state-imposed, but has a similar effect.

Take India. If the 917 girls to 1000 boys ratio is correct, that means by 2020, we are looking at over 25m (and probably closer to 35m) shortfall in girls to boys in a 15 year generation.

The back-of-envelope maths:
There are 100m plus children aged 0-4. Multiply by 3 for a 15-year generation. 300m * (1-0.914) = 25.4m

In other words, there are going to be, in all likelihood, over 20m young men in India who have no chance of finding a partner.

In China, it’s around the same scale – over 20m young men left out of the dating game. The population data used in the CIA Factbook bears this out:

0-14 years Male Female Difference
India 187,450,635 165,415,758 22,034,877
China 126,634,384 108,463,142 18,171,242

In a generation, we are going to have over 40 million enforced bachelors in India and China. What does this mean for these societies? There are several trends we can expect, as outlined in Bare Branches:

high male-to-female ratios often trigger domestic and international violence. Most violent crime is committed by young unmarried males who lack stable social bonds. Although there is not always a direct cause-and-effect relationship, these surplus men often play a crucial role in making violence prevalent within society. Governments sometimes respond to this problem by enlisting young surplus males in military campaigns and high-risk public works projects. Countries with high male-to-female ratios also tend to develop authoritarian political systems.

In other words:
– rising crime in sex trafficking and prostitution
– social bonds weaken
– riots and disillusionment
– authoritarian crackdown
– high military enrollment

Not a wildly happy future. All those who see India and China as a one-way bet should perhaps think again.

Further reading:

BBC:India’s unwanted girls
Economist: The worldwide war on baby girls
Economist: China’s population – The most surprising demographic crisis
UNFPA: Sex-Ratio Imbalance in Asia: Trends, Consequences and Policy Responses

UPDATE: The economist has a great chart on China’s population and the impact of the one-child policy.

When monochrome should rule

I was in a deli near work yesterday, and used my debit card to make the purchase. So far, so ordinary. But then something caught my eye. The payment machine was new, shiny, and had a colour screen.

Now that may not seem like a big deal, but what is the demand for colour screens in a device like this? Let’s think about a card payment machine.

– It doesn’t belong to anyone (unless the business owner also runs the till)
– There is no experiential upside – you don’t stop using it because of the interface
– It’s not a “loved” device, like a phone, mp3 player or tablet
– You enter a price (till operator) or a Pin (customer) – that’s it

So why the hell does that need a colour screen?

Is this the end of the monochrome world? Happily not. There are still a lot of basic screens around, in stereos, on the phone in front of me (a Cisco IP phone), on bus stops. There’s a lot of virtue in keeping things this way – these devices convey simple information and have no need of the advantages that colour screens can bring. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they start to change in the next round of upgrades – the march to colour screens feels inevitable.

However, there is one device that seems to be resolutely black and white: the Kindle (and obviously, it’s imitators). I don’t have one, but I like the fact that it started in black and white, and is staying that way. It has a certain old-school charm to it. Plus of course it helps hugely with battery life, which isn’t a concern for the things I mentioned earlier (desk phones, stereos etc).

Amazon don’t release Kindle sales figures, but they are clearly in the millions. This seems to me to be the last non-colour big product release.

And although reading text has a certain logic of staying black and white, television, you would think, has left that all far far behind.

Except according to BBC figures (p22) there are 24,000 black and white TV licences registered in 2009 – from over 200,000 only 10 years ago. It’s an astonishing decline, although I suspect it will be a long tail that could drift for years.

So who are the B&W TV holdouts? I can only think of one group of people for whom it makes sense: the blind. You can get 50 per cent off the licence anyway if you are blind, but half of the full price – £72 or so – is a lot more that £24, which is the half price for the B&W licence.

Except… try buying a black and white TV. I’m sure it’s do-able, but it’s not easy. Currys don’t sell them. Nor do Argos.

Will debranding cigarettes cut smoking?

Today, March 9, is national no-smoking day (in the UK). Coincidence or not, it has also been announced that tobacco displays will be banned in shops, with the further possibility that cigarettes could be sold in plain packets.

Will this debranding help cut smoking? Because that’s what we want to do, I assume. Without an outright ban on smoking, which is still seen as a step too far, making smoking harder to do and less attractive to buy is the next best thing.

Leaving aside the costs of removing tobacco displays and other marketing bits and bobs, is this helpful? To understand what’s going on, we need to look at what has happened to smoking rates in recent years. The most recent ONS data is from 2009. (See sources at the foot of this post).

Basically, as seen in the chart above, it’s been on a downward curve, albeit one which has recently stalled. The downward curve is good news. The stall is not. Either the stall is temporary, or we have hit the ceiling (or floor, depending which way you look at it). The data is partial – 4 year intervals up to 2000, but you get the picture.

But dig deeper into the numbers, and you can see that, actually, people are still giving up smoking. All except one group: 16-19 year-olds. (Well, with a few blips here and there. There’s been a slight increase amongst the 60+ too.)

There was first a jump among women aged 16-19, and then the following year among men. (Trying to impress? Sounds familiar. Anyway…)

The uptake among 16-19 year-olds may be attributed to all sorts of things: rebellion, lack of education about smoking-related illnesses, doing the opposite of what your non-smoking parents do, fashion. Who knows? Even if you could ask every teenager in Britain, they would probably lie anyway*.

So: is debranding cigarettes a good idea?

FOR: teenagers are brand-aware, impressionable, and irrational. Removing tobacco imagery, with it’s intriguing logos and cool branding can only help. If you want to reduce smoking in the group where it’s on the increase, removing branding is a good move.

AGAINST: if there’s one thing that guarantees some level of intrigue and “cool”, putting things under the counter and in groovy plain brown paper is it. Teenagers will love the speak-easy status of cigarettes, the added bit of mystery. Brands aren’t really cool – teenagers are, and the whole no-logo thing will only help.

Sadly, I have no data to back any of that up. I’m sure there are tons of marketing studies that could prove it either way. The only measure will be whether smoking decreases or not, and as I mentioned before – statistics tell only what people are doing, not why.


ONS: Smoking-related behaviour and attitudes

Results from the General LiFestyle Survey (GLF)

ONS: PDF – General Lifestyle Survey 2009 Overview, Table 1.1, p16

* I was a teenager once, and I lied about stuff.

London – the new monolithia

The London skyline is rapidly changing. This is obvious, and has been much-written about. Since the 2008-09 hiatus in construction due to the credit crunch, building big is back on.

UPDATE: would be remiss of me to not mention the FT’s excellent Shard of glass construction multimedia extravaganza.

But although a few buildings with catchy names are well-known, what is remarkable is just how many buildings over 200m are being built, and how few there are currently.

The problem is that many of these buildings are pretty uninspiring. For every Shard or Gherkin, there are several bland towers. Here’s a list (it’s a Google doc) and here is an excellent diagram-based list.

Of the nine 200m plus buildings listed above in London, only one is built – One Canada Square in Canary Wharf. The rest are all in construction, or about to be. The cranes are going up.

Of the 26 150m plus buildings, only two were built earlier than 2000 – again, One Canada Square and Tower 42.

What does this mean? London is not about to join the list of mega-skyscraper cities, where Hong Kong, New York and others are way ahead in terms of height and number. But this is a changing of a city.

Big buildings have impact – both in terms of inspiring residents and attracting tourists, but also in the gusts of wind around their base, the anonymous and impersonal nature of their function, and the sense of detatchment they can create.

London is a modern city which competes with New York, HK, Singapore and others on the world stage. But it did so successfully without building up up up. Is there a need now?

London is often described as a city of villages. It is becoming a city of mid-sized but imposing skyscrapers. I’m not sure it is any the better for that. Welcome to London – the new monolithia.

What Sarah Palin has in common with Ludwig Wittgenstein

My college philosophy tutor* once told me why Wittgenstein was the most important philosopher of the 20th century. It was because he permanently changed the debate. All philosophers who came after him could agree, or disagree – but they couldn’t ignore him.

I’m worried that Sarah Palin’s Facebook page is going to become the modern equivalent of Wittgenstein on every news event –  you agree or disagree (in my case, strongly disagree), but you have to have an opinion. The latest use of her forum as a prism for news is the controversy over the Arizona shooting and whether she is inciting violence.

In fact, it’s not just her Facebook page. She has, like Wittgenstein, changed the debate, whether it’s via her silly comments on Twitter, or her TV show, or her book, or the fact that the entire 2012 presidential race will be in some way about her.

Sarah Palin has also one other thing in common with Wittgenstein – it’s all about language. Wittgenstein would have recognised her language games as having rules all of their own. Whether it’s the new word “betcha”, a conflation of two words (bet you) one of which is already a shortening, or “refudiate” with reference to the ground zero muslim centre, she’s mangling language like crazy. Allies or enemies? North or South Korea? What’s the difference? Palin didn’t know, but it changes nothing – her supporters couldn’t care less.

Sadly, Sarah Palin seems unlikely to follow Wittgenstein’s maxim which ended the Tractatus – “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. (Translation for Palinites: If you don’t know what you are talking about, shut the hell up.) Somehow I think we’re going to hear a lot more from her on things she knows absolutely nothing about.

* My tutor was Peter Hacker, the world’s authority on Wittgenstein and a wonderful philosopher in his own right. So he knows what he’s talking about.

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