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Much fuss in the Conservative Party's internal newsletter over the (lack of) activities of so-called `bed-blocking' older Tory MPs. Apparently, the Conservative Chief Whip is,
Michael Mates, a member of Lord Butler's committee, voted in only 30 per cent of divisions, the worst record of any Tory MP. Stephen Dorrell, the member for Charnwood and once secretary of state for health, asked no oral questions and voted in only 33 per cent of divisions.
To be honest, this story sounded like bollocks when I read it and a little work demonstrates that I was right. They Work For You collects `performance' data for individual MPs: the number of speeches they make and written questions they ask, the number of divisions (votes) they attend, and what fraction of messages sent them through Fax Your MP are answered within a fortnight. The Tories' own site has biographies of the individual MPs, which usually mention their dates of birth. (I couldn't find the dates of birth of 16 of 169 Tory MPs; this won't significantly affect the results.)
The ages of Conservative Parliamentarians are (slightly surprisingly) approximately normally distributed with mean 52.6 years and standard deviation 8.5 years. This tells us that `young' is a relative term here; picking an arbitrary cut-off, I've assumed that `young' Tory MPs are those aged 50 or less.
With outliers -- like John Bercow MP, who asks hundreds of written questions per year -- excluded, there are no statistically significant performance differences between `old' (>50 years) and `young' (<50 years) Tory MPs.
... then you don't need any advice. In this vein, the Government is about to send out 25 million copies of this leaflet to every home in Britain. The booklet hovers for twenty-two pages between the banale and the criminally stupid, offering up such nuggets of information as the suggestion that, when a terrorist attack occurs, you should, (emphasis mine)
- Go inside a safe building
- Stay inside until you are advised to do otherwise
- Tune in to local radio or TV for more information
-- because, after all, terrorists have never been known to plant secondary devices in places to which survivors of a blast might flee. Quite apart from the fact that we're repeatedly being told that al Qaeda might use a bomb to distribute radioactive or poisonous materials, in which case staying in the area is unlikely to be wise. (This particular piece of advice is a little upsetting, since it could actually kill people.)
About the only piece of advice in the leaflet which isn't obvious is the suggestion that, to secure one's business premises, one should look at a website run by MI5. This even contains -- would you believe -- a section on protecting your business from KGB moles. Errm, I'm sorry, I meant `terrorists', obviously.
The new booklet, Preparing for Emergencies, makes for an interesting comparison with Protect and Survive and other `how to survive a nuclear war' advice from the same era. Back then, we were expected to show initiative and DIY skills, for instance by propping a door up against a wall and hiding underneath it for two weeks, occasionally emerging to shit in a bucket and try to tune into the BBC. When it was published, Protect and Survive was ridiculed for the uselessness of advice such as,
If you live in a caravan or other similar accommodation which provides very little protection against fall-out your local authority will be able to advise you on what to do.
Your local authority? Really? I wouldn't trust my local authority to advise its way out of a wet paper bag, but we may just be unlucky in this bit of the country. I am reminded of the (perhaps apocryphal) leaflet distributed by the Iranian government during the war with Iraq in the 1980s. The leaflet was entitled (roughly) `What to do if you are attacked with modern chemical weapons' and ran, in summary, like this:
In fact, the 1980s nuclear leaflets, like Preparing for Emergencies, never really got to grips with the fact that, in a nuclear war, lots of people will die. Even the leaflet on the work of the UK Warning and Monitoring Organisation can't quite bring itself to mention this simple fact, instead stepping to the brink and then swiftly retreating:
Life goes on.... Through the existence, readiness and prompt response of UKWMO, ten million lives may have been saved -- to see the dawn of another day.
There was, however, a chilling TV and radio broadcast on the subject:
If however you have had a body in the house for more than five days, and if it is safe to go outside, then you should bury the body for the time being in a trench, or cover it with earth, and mark the spot of the burial.
For another interesting contrast, it is worth reading the 1940 leaflet, If the Invader Comes. Unlike the later leaflets, this extraordinary document supposed that, in the event of a dire national crisis, the people of the country will not lose all ability to think rationally and automatically rush about like headless chickens. There are various helpful suggestions (in CAPITAL LETTERS, no less):
DO NOT GIVE ANY GERMAN ANYTHING. DO NOT TELL HIM ANYTHING. HIDE YOUR FOOD AND YOUR BICYCLES. HIDE YOUR MAPS. SEE THAT THE ENEMY GETS NO PETROL. IF YOU HAVE A CAR OR MOTOR BICYCLE, PUT IT OUT OF ACTION WHEN NOT IN USE. IT IS NOT ENOUGH TO REMOVE THE IGNITION KEY; YOU MUST MAKE IT USELESS TO ANYONE EXCEPT YOURSELF.
IF YOU ARE A GARAGE PROPRIETOR, YOU MUST WORK OUT A PLAN TO PROTECT YOUR STOCK OF PETROL AND YOUR CUSTOMERS CARS. REMEMBER THAT TRANSPORT AND PETROL WILL BE THE INVADER'S MAIN DIFFICULTIES. MAKE SURE THAT NO INVADER WILL BE ABLE TO GET HOLD OF YOUR CARS, PETROL, MAPS OR BICYCLES.
and without a helpful leaflet in pastel colours to explain how to do so. All in all, If the Invader Comes is quite an inspiring document. Perhaps this just results from our romantic notions about the Britain of the 1940s, but certainly it's better written than its modern cousins and its unspoken assumptions are uplifting rather than depressing. I wonder if, in analogous circumstances today, we could expect people to behave as suggested in rule five: (emphasis mine)
You may be asked by Army and Air Force officers to help in many ways. For instance, the time may come when you will receive orders to block roads or streets in order to prevent the enemy from advancing. Never block a road unless you are told which one you must block. Then you can help by felling trees, wiring them together or blocking the roads with cars. Here, therefore, is the fifth rule:-
Update: had I seen it in time, I would certainly have linked to this splendid spoof of the new Government leaflet. Its contents are probably just as useful as those of the real document....
Just a brief comment on the crime figures. I'm willing to bet that, as long as both reported crime numbers from the police and data from the British Crime Survey have both been published (since 1982, I think) the government have pointed to the lower of the two and the opposition to the higher. This may be sound politics but it is intellectually dishonest. That not all crime is reported to the police is a fairly obvious point which opposition politicians presumably do understand (and will themselves point out if they ever form a government...). To claim, as David Davis does, that,
Crime is falling but the number of crimes reported to the police is rising. This combination isn't even necessarily surprising: people are more likely to report crime if they think that doing so will achieve something useful so you'd expect the fraction of crimes reported to the police to rise as crime falls.
Elsewhere it has been pointed out that crime has been falling just as unemployment has been falling. This has been true since the early 1990s, certainly: (NB that crime figures in this plot excludes Scotland and Northern Ireland, while unemployment figures are for the whole UK, so it should be taken as a general indication of the trend only)
but not really before then. This doesn't tell us anything about causation, but the implicit theory -- that people who can't find jobs go a-burgling instead -- seems fairly plausible. New Labour may have created 661 new offences and all sorts of new schemes for stopping crime since coming to office, but chances are the fall in crime is just the result of an improving economy.
Elsewhere in the BCS it is reported that two thirds of the population believe that crime is rising; half of them believe that it's risen `a lot' in the past year. Probably they always say that, but fewer do so this year than last, when the figures were 78% and 38% in the previous survey. Since 1992, fear of crime (rather than perception of its incidence) has actually been falling as crime falls, but in MORI's polls of the most important issues facing Britain today, the numbers expressing concern about crime, law and order, violence and vandalism are only poorly correlated with the actual crime rate:
(I've plotted fear of burglary specifically, as this has been reported by the BCS for longer than fear of other crimes.) Of course, the people expressing concern in MORI's survey are expressing concern about all crime and violence (and other sorts of antisocial behaviour too); even so, the figures for fear of car crime and violent crime in the BCS have also fallen during the few years they've been recorded, and don't reflect the recent peak in concern from MORI's polls. I'm (cynically) convinced that people's view of `the most important issues' facing the country is completely dominated by media coverage of those issues. As a little bit of evidence tangential to the point, try to guess which issue is which in this plot, also from the MORI data:
The answer is here, but trying to guess is probably more fun.)
No doubt each of my half-dozen readers sees the Guardian every day and there is little need to draw their attention to yesterday's front-page headline, titled, 90% of whites have few or no black friends. The story relates to a recent poll conducted by YouGov for the Commission for Racial Equality, for a report to be released later this week. Besides the headline number we learn,
Data on the ethnicity of the UK population were collected by the 2001 census, and are presented in an appallingly non-accessible table on the National Statistics website. Reformatting this properly and crudely amalgamating categories, the proportions of the whole UK population in 2001 were,
(Note that I've followed the Guardian Style Guide in capitalising `Asian' and not `black'. I'm not sure I'm happy with that, but then I am quoting from their article....)
Suppose that the population were homogeneously mixed. How would we expect those headline numbers to turn out? We need one more assumption, which is the number of friends each respondent has. God know how you'd find that out, so let's plump for 15, in the middle of YouGov's suggested 10 -- 20 range. `Most' of this group is, let's say, three quarters: 12 or more. (More detail: the argument here is that if people make friends in a homogeneously mixed population, then the probability of each friend being from a particular ethnic group simply reflects the fractions of the population belonging to those groups; it is then simple to compute the fraction of people we would expect to report a particular number of their friends being of certain ethnicities.)
That exception in (2) is that members of the ethnic minorities tend to have more friends from the ethnic minorities than we would expect in a homogeneously mixed population. This is a measure of the extent to which Britain's population is not integrated: if we imagine a simplistic model with a white majority and a single non-white minority, which is split into an integrated population and an isolated non-white minority, where a `mixing fraction' of the minority's members have joined the integrated population, we find something like this:
Note that this model doesn't really work (it always predicts values too high for the fraction of white people having mostly white friends). But it does illustrate that the extent of population mixing has a huge effect on the number of non-white people reporting mostly non-white friends, and very little effect on the number of white people reporting mostly white friends.
When it comes to race and religion this clearly demonstrates we are dealing with a difference of which most people in this country have no first-hand experience, and therefore it is not surprising that they can be misled about blacks, Gypsies and Muslims, and it's not surprising that for no apparent reason they can become hostile and racist.
This is superficially plausible. Certainly I remember when I first encountered that idiot Peter Cuthbertson I put his prejudices down to the fact that he grew up in 98.5% white Darlington. But from the above it's clear that, at least on the measures in YouGov's survey, the extent to which -- in aggregate, at least -- white people have ethnic minority friends is currently not that far off the extent to which they would do in an homogeneously mixed population. If there is a solution to white racism, I suspect that further integration alone isn't it (though obviously these results will differ from place to place).
Phillips proposes summer camps for 16-year-olds, to be used (basically) for social engineering. This idea makes me pretty uneasy, but clearly something has to be done to fix one horrifying problem mentioned in the Guardian's article:
In January, a MORI poll found that 41% of white people and 26% of ethnic minority people surveyed wanted the races to live separately.
(I can't find the MORI report but note that in a -- say -- 1,000-person survey, we'd expect about 79 ethnic minority respondents. One hopes that, like the YouGov survey here, the MORI one asked a separate ethnic minority sample; otherwise, the margin of error on that 26% would be huge.)
Congratulations to Francis and Julian on winning a New Statesman New Media Award with Public Whip. Since he's also published this photo of the Downing Street Says team from a separate event, I suppose I can too without looking too much of a self-publicist:
Elsewhere we discover that David Blunkett is organising a five-year plan (I wonder why nobody has thought of doing that before) and that fascists get just as lousy service from the banks as everyone else. The latter, I suppose, is heartening, in a way. And don't forget to send in your consultation responses to the Home Office by half-past-five today. It won't make a bit of difference, but it's the thought that counts.
One very brief comment on yesterday's BBC story about racism in the labour market. As usual, the BBC did not elaborate in their story on exactly how the data were obtained, and the verbal description of their results is unsatisfying:
(Having read that, you might -- for instance -- be wondering how, out of 50 cases, they can have obtained a particular result in an odd-numbered percentage of trials; or, more generally, whether these results really tell us anything.)
(I mentioned some of this in comments on Matthew's web log; the discussion there is mostly unenlightening, but it's worth reading Tom's contribution, since he actually knows something this area, which the other participants mostly, I think, do not.)
|implied race of applicant||number of applications resulting in invitation for interview||not invited for interview||no reply received||application `lost'|
At the simplest level of analysis, these results provide strong evidence (chi² = 21.2731, p = 0.0011) for the hypothesis that the result of a job application is influenced by the apparent race of the candidate. Race doesn't significantly influence whether a rejected candidate is told to piss off (`not invited') or simply never contacted again, but it is significant (p = 0.01681) in determining whether their application is `lost'.
It is of course true that a test of statistical significance does not of itself show that the conclusions of the study are accurate: the design of the study must also be sensible. But there's nothing obviously wrong with the methodology here, and as Tom points out the conclusions of this study are similar to those of various previous studies (sadly those he refers to -- Half a Chance, Still? published by the Nottingham and District Racial Equality Council in 1994; We Regret to Inform You... published by the CRE in 1996; and Racial discrimination against doctors from ethnic minorities, BMJ 306:691-2, 1993 -- are not available on-line).
Anyway, it turns out that, British employers are racist (at least where it comes to black african and Asian job applicants). This sucks pretty badly, and I'd say the fact that there exist purportedly intelligent apologists (they know who they are) for this state of affairs sucks almost as much.
(On a tangentially related note, this story in yesterday's Guardian describes how hard it is to get a booking in a restaurant if your surname is `bin Ladin', and also tells us that the enemies of civilisation are terrible at interior decor:
[Carmen bin Ladin, estranged wife of Osama's brother, Yeslam bin Laden] cattily remarks in the book that the Bin Ladens have no taste in interior decor, all gold taps and terrible paintings....
In other news, don't take up photography if you're a US citizen with dark skin. Elsewhere, John Band elaborates on one of my darker fears, illustrating it with a short visit to the edge of reason, personified by crank right-wing web loggers. Actually I disagree with John on one point; he writes,
But we also need to ensure that in the horrible event that the intelligence fails [and there is a further serious terrorist attack], we don't let the macho headcases dig our graves for us.
-- my fear is not that we will have our graves dug for us, but that if the West overreacts and embarks on a war of genocide, it will be brutally effective in prosecuting it.)
(This may as well be filed under `pointless graph update', in fact.) First the good news: the amount of spam I'm getting (by an extraordinary leap let's assume that this is true of the amount of spam other people get, so that this is of any possible interest to other people) seems to be increasing only linearly (and not, for instance, exponentially).
Related news: Microsoft Windows viruses are still a minor pain in the arse, but nothing compared to fucking idiots who send `virus-warning' error messages to forged addresses:
(Another slightly surprising observation from the above is that there does not appear to be any significant `seasonal' component to the rate at which spam arrives in my inbox. That is, the average number of spams I get on a Monday is pretty close to the number I get on a Tuesday, Wednesday or indeed any other day of the week. This suggests that spammers, in aggregate, don't take any days off. Serves the fuckers right, quite frankly.)
Many people will have seen the big publicity campaign for `chip and PIN' authorisation for credit and debit card transactions. This is advertised through a website for the whole scheme, numerous lesser websites from individual banks, adverts in the windows of shops which have installed the new equipment, and occasional breathless articles in the press about how `chip and PIN' will stop fraud using the POWER OF TECHNOLOGY!
(John Band has already covered some of this stuff.)
For those who haven't encountered this spectacular innovation yet, the idea is that, rather than signing a slip when you make a transaction, you type in the same four-digit code you use to withdraw money from a cash machine. (You might imagine this change being motivated by the observation that even trained staff get comparisons of signatures wrong in about 40% of cases, and anyway staff at shops usually don't bother to check the signature on a credit card counterfoil.)
The `chip' part refers to the fact that the scheme can only be used with new `smart' credit cards, which have both a magnetic strip bearing your account number and various other details, and a silicon chip with the same data and some other stuff. The `other stuff' includes the ability to check whether a PIN entered by a user is correct, and to shut down the card if an incorrect PIN is entered three times. It is supposed to be impossible to copy the data off the card's chip, and anyway it is protected by the magic of cryptography. Of course, none of this matters a bit, because the magnetic strip is easy to copy and is the only thing read by a cash machine. So if you want to embark on a lucrative career in cash-card fraud, all you need to do is to get a job in a shop, install a little bit of electronics to record the PINs which customers enter into the `chip and PIN' terminal, and surreptitiously swipe their cards through a magnetic stripe reader. Copy the cards, find a cash machine, and plunder their accounts. (Note how this is much more efficient than traditional credit card fraud which requires the crook to buy goods or services; with `chip and PIN' the dishonest shop assistant can nick actual cash.) Now, criminals are already doing this with auto-tellers, but it'll be even easier with `chip and PIN', since, (as the `chip and PIN' people helpfully point out)
You might be wondering how this scheme will make you `more secure', as the above quotation suggests. If so, you need to read it more closely. It's not claiming that `chip and PIN' will make you more secure, as that's not the point of the system. The intention is to reduce losses from banks and merchants resulting from fraud. (It is frequently said that the implementation of `chip and PIN' in France reduced losses resulting from card fraud by 80%.) There are two ways that losses to fraud can be reduced:
From the point of view of a cardholder, the reason that it's safe to pay for things using credit or debit cards is nothing to do with PINs or chips or cryptography; the reason is that you're insured by your bank against losses. `Chip and PIN' ostensibly doesn't change this; if a criminal obtains your PIN and card number and robs you via an ATM (or obtains your PIN and nicks your card, then uses it to pay for items in a credit card transaction), then you should be insured against the loss. On this theory, `chip and PIN' is a nuisance, but not a financial risk.
Unfortunately, this theory is wrong, not for any technical reason but because banks in the UK have historically been very effective at pretending that their computer systems are secure when they aren't. There are several examples mentioned in Ross Anderson's paper, Why Cryptosystems Fail, (and numerous others in his book, which is well worth reading); sometimes victims are refunded, but often the pattern followed looks like this:
(There's a list of some of these cases on Mike Bond's web pages about `Phantom Withdrawals', including references to the shocking Munden case and various other miscarriages of justice. It's worth noting that in Bond's list, a case is marked as `resolved' if the courts have reached a decision either way, so `resolved' cases include ones where banks have screwed over customers for thousands of pounds lost because of crap security, and the courts have stood by and done nothing about it.)
In one case Anderson mentions, the bank's defence rested in part on the laughable claim that their computer system could not suffer from bugs because its software ``was all written in assembly language''. With friends like these, who needs enemies? The only mystery is how they've kept card fraud down to only £400 million per year.
And, despite twenty years of ATM fraud, banks are still trying to pull off the `PINs can't be forged' stunt to avoid (a) compensating customers for fraud, and (b) being exposed as completely hopeless. (This doesn't work in the United States, where the courts decided that banks were liable for such losses unless there was actual evidence that the complaining customer was trying to defraud them; see this paper for more on the situation there and here.)
Of course, nobody would try to claim that forging someone's signature is impossible, and if the bank tried to use that as an argument against compensating you for losses from fraud, they'd be laughed out of court. So one consequence of `chip and PIN' is that it will be easier for banks to avoid paying out for losses from fraud, thereby cutting their losses. (I was astonished to hear from a friend that their signature was frequently questioned when they paid for items with a card. Often cashiers draw attention to the fact that my signature written in the large space available on a credit card slip looks completely different to my signature written in the tiny little box on the back of a credit card, but none of them have ever suggested that I'm forging someone else's scribble....)
You'd expect that retailers wouldn't be very happy with a system designed to let banks screw over their customers (who are, as you will recall, `always right'), so the banks have decided to shift liability for fraud onto retailers, in cases where `PIN [sic.] could have prevented fraud' to encourage them to sign up to the new scheme. Since most businesses have lots of customers but only one bank, it's probably rational for them to let a few of their customers get shafted by the banks just to avoid making any trouble.
There is a solution to this problem, in fact: you can ask to be issued a `PIN-suppressed' or `chip and signature' card by your bank; when you use the card in a `chip and PIN' terminal, the terminal will prompt you to sign the slip as usual rather than entering a PIN. When I rang my bank to ask about this, they explained that it was only available to disabled people. While it's nice to see a company offering, in one small way, better service to disadvantaged members of society than to others, this is scant reassurance for those of us who want a good chance of recovering our losses when we become victims of fraud. (Current figures suggest that about one in four bank customers will be victims of ATM fraud at some point in their lives.) So, I've written to my bank (Barclays) to ask for a `PIN-suppressed' card. I'll report on the response, but so far I am not hopeful.
Alex Tabarrok on `Marginal Utility' (rapidly descending from list of links to vaguely entertaining economics stuff into advert for foaming-at-the-mouth Randism) writes,
Despite the fact that I am Canadian, everytime I see this sign my stomach churns with anger and I must suppress a desire to turn back to the U.S. The sign is a reprimand from the rulers to the ruled reminding them of their place. I want to tear it from the ground but my fellow Canadians think my reaction odd. More Americans, I think, would understand and that I suppose is why I call America home.
Now, ignoring the fact that he was a day late posting this -- were I an americanophobe I would obviously make a comparison with the second world war (or even the `war on terror[ism]') here -- let's look more closely at this. Tabarrok is apparently claiming that the United States is superior to Canada on the basis that the latter's government believes that,
in the United States. Now, I haven't spent enough time in the United States to make an objective assessment of the driving skills of residents of that country, though I will say that they have an annoying tendency to sound their horns before, during and after performing the simplest of maneouvres. But what about Tabarrok's claim? For whom is driving a right? He doesn't qualify the sentiment, so we must assume that it's a right for everyone: people who are drunk, or unqualified, or medically unfit to drive a car, or who don't own a car, or whatever. (Happily for the residents of the United States, that nation of course does not follow his recommendation.)
I want to tear [the sign carrying the slogan] from the ground but my fellow Canadians think my reaction odd.
(In a previous episode of Tedious Libertoonian Twaddle Update -- not published under that name -- John Band pointed out that it's always worth checking that alleged internet libertoonians aren't taking the piss. In this case I don't think he is -- taking the piss is, apparently, a collectivist thing to do -- but I'm prepared to consider evidence to the contrary.)
Good news: as suggested by Anthony I emailed BT's chief executive, Ben Verwaayen, in an attempt to get my phone line installation sorted out some time before the next ice age. He responded within hours and put me in touch with a manager who arranged for an engineer to call the next day. The engineer -- in exchange for only two cups of tea -- very competently installed a new phone line. It'll still take bloody ages to get DSL installed, but whatever.... In any case, I'm impressed.
(I've had other -- much worse -- customer service experiences lately. I won't inflict them on you, but some advice: never, ever, ever buy anything from `Twenty-Four Seven Electrical'. They are incompetent lying scum and deserve... oh, I don't know, all sorts of unpleasant things. Also, if you have the misfortune to have bought something from Dabs Electronics lately, you'll have noticed that they don't have customer service phone numbers any more. However, there is still a phone number in the WHOIS record for their domain name, which puts you through to someone in their technical support department. In case they remove it, the number is +44 (0)1942 853488.)
(I've mentioned in-car telemetry systems before; today's Sun did a review piece on a trial that's presently taking place of a system which uses GPS and -- relatively -- nonintrusive user interface features -- bleeping noises and vibrating accelerator pedal -- to warn drivers when they are exceeding the limit.)
Update: I bet you thought I'd forgotten the ID cards / holiday photos rule. Well, err, I had. Here it is, anyway:
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