Number of the Month

March 2001

 

Government sees something nasty in the Woodhead

60+ is the number of initiatives launched by British Education Bureaucrats in the past four years. It is quoted in a lengthy diatribe by Her Majesty's former Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead in the Daily Telegraph of March 1st (Blair and Blunkett have not delivered. The Children have been betrayed). Is it any wonder that the whole system is in tatters and teachers have been departing in droves? According to the BBC, the number of unfilled vacancies in secondary schools has doubled since the summer. While the Great British Bureaucrat has never quite matched up to the Californian mentors when it comes to education-wrecking (nothing could ever compete with the inanity of  "whole math"), they have kept up such a pressure of  petty interference and form-filling that they have managed to demoralise the whole system. Their numbers, of course, prove otherwise and show that standards are rising year after year. If you believe that, Sir, you will believe anything. Watch out for the counter-attack from the Government's vast army of spin doctors.

Myth take

A regular correspondent from Puerto Rico is puzzled about Foot and Mouth disease and wonders how many human deaths have been caused by it. The answer is, of course, none. Others around the world have been equally mystified by the crisis, so here are some facts.

Foot and Mouth is a highly contagious but relatively harmless disease of cloven hoof animals.

It rarely affects humans and then only mildly.

The severity and consequences to the animals are about equal to the common cold in humans.

There is a very effective and very cheap vaccine for the disease.

The disease-free status is a construct of bureaucrats and has no other validity.

The wholesale slaughter is totally unnecessary. The disease would disappear with universal vaccination, but antibodies would be present, which is anathema to Eurocrats, though having no consequence for consumers.

Sorry to disappoint

There are some interesting numbers in the statistics of searches made on this site last month. Perhaps not surprisingly the most popular search item was "global warming" with ten searches. Some seekers must have been disappointed, however; particularly the six who were looking for "bible code", the three who were looking for "beast" and the two who were looking for "666". More mystifying were the three who were looking for "hoseasons" and the three who were looking for "waterguard". Third most popular at five searches was "weight loss by grapefruit extract". Is Number Watch missing something here?

A breath of fresh air

Regular number watchers will welcome the official launch on March 8th of spiked, the antidote to journalism. The first issue has a wide range of articles, all characterised by common sense and a dismissal of the panic-stricken, sensational mush that passes for the news media these days. It promises to be authoritative, intelligent, informative and entertaining; in fact, everything that the everyday press isn't. Let us hope that it thrives, as it has been sorely needed.

Poll Position

There is nothing like election fever to produce a rash of dubious numbers, as Americans have recently discovered.  The Presidential election generated a bigger electronic postbag at Number Watch than any other topic, though it seemed politic largely to refrain from comment.

Now it is the turn of the British to go through the trauma. Mind you, we have a much simpler and less stressful system. We employ an individual to choose our governments for us, one Rupert Murdoch. All we have to do in return is grant him a few monopolies and the right to debauch our culture. He has now announced his choice in his Newsletter to the nation (The Sun) and we are to have a further period of New Labour government. So there will be plenty for Number Watch to write about in the next few years.

Dr Pangloss joins the New York Times

Here's an interesting headline from the New York Times of March 11: Why Some Numbers Are Only Very Good Guesses. If only more numbers from governments and the media were even fairly good guesses! Still, full marks to the NYT for its opening sentence "Society runs on numbers."   At least they have noticed.

Alan Coruba's Warning Signs gives a somewhat more trenchant view of the NYT's contribution to the advancement of science.

The Professors of Panic strike again

It is a strange phenomenon that some professors, once they get a taste of media coverage, develop a headline hunger that dominates everything they do. You see the same few names over and over again. In order to generate the sort of stuff the media love to wallow in, they move further towards the fringe of real science and, almost inevitably, go beyond the fringe. They also manoeuvre themselves on to national committees that cover the sorts of areas that excite media comment.

Two of the established heroes of British junk science, Richard Doll and Colin Blakemore, have got themselves onto the Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation (AGNIR) of the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), though their qualifications for being there are somewhat obscure. Lo and behold, this group came up with a typical empty scare story about power lines and leukaemia, which to the joy of the media could be labelled “official”. The parent body in its response was somewhat less than enthusiastic, though it ended up with the classic formula that more epidemiological research was needed. Why don’t they just set fire to a pile of taxpayer’s money, achieving the same effect with little effort? Further comments from this author may be found at spiked.

The odd thing is that what they are discussing has nothing at all to do with radiation; so the whole nonsense is beyond the remit of this particular board anyway.

Here are one or two facts that might be worth considering;

The radiation at mains frequency is infinitesimal. What they are dealing with is electrostatic and magnetostatic fields, which depend on the voltage and current respectively, unlike true radiation where the electric and magnetic fields are inextricably bound together by Maxwell’s equations. It is possible to radiate efficiently at such frequencies, but you would need an antenna a thousand miles high.

Magnetic fields do not cause ionisation, only electric fields do, especially at sharp points or when the air is damp, when an electric breakdown phenomenon called corona occurs (which is why your AM radio crackles when you go under power lines in wet weather).

Because the voltages and currents are alternating and the phases balance, nearly all effects from power lines decrease extremely rapidly with distance from them. This includes magnetic and electric field strength and net ion charge. However, corona does produce in small quantities somewhat toxic gases such as ozone and the oxides of nitrogen, which in most areas would be lost in the prevailing pollution.

The only evidence offered by this group is epidemiological, i.e. very weak statistical associations based on cluster watching.

Just to establish his headline-hunting credentials Colin Blakemore made the front page of The Times again on March14. This time it was on the basis that he had written to the leadership of the Conservative party  expressing his dismay at the party's policy on animal experiments. Now many people write to the leadership of the Conservative party, including this author, but they do not call in the journos as well. It reminds one of the piece of dialogue in the film Arthur:

Arthur: Do you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to take a bath.
Hobson: I'll alert the media.

Gone with the wind

0.038 % is the proportion of its total energy that the UK derives from onshore wind turbines. The DTI estimates that the practicable limits to onshore wind turbine developments would amount to energy production of around 8,180GWh/year which is roughly 2.7 per cent of current electricity consumption. 

These are figures quoted by Lance Mytton, a correspondent to The Times on March 15, from Government sources. He goes on to say:

This is hardly the planet-saving solution to the problems created by burning fossil fuels that Friends of the Earth and the British Wind Energy Association would have us believe (letters, March 12). 

It also makes one wonder whether onshore wind energy isn’t one of Tony Blair’s eye-catching initiatives aimed primarily at diverting attention from the Government’s failure to come up with a long-term strategic solution to the problems of our near total dependence on fossil fuels. 

For this fatuous piece of gesture politics some of the finest landscape in Britain, and particularly Wales, has been sacrificed. Even if global warming were a reality, this would have negligible impact. Never mind the environment as long as the environmentalists are satisfied. Further comments from this author at The Science & Environmental Policy Project (March 24).

Update

In the short history of Number Watch some of the numbers have tended to go out of date, but none so spectacularly as last month's number. The number of animals slaughtered in the foot and mouth panic has  increased one hundredfold in a fortnight. Despite the minister for the Environment admitting that the precautionary principle has got out of hand the slaughter continues. The Times headline Million sheep die to reopen the countryside almost says it all. Nasty old cynics, however, are wondering whether this all has something to do with the approaching election, which many have been calling to be postponed. The Government could go on for another year, so why are they so anxious to cut and run now? Do they know something that ordinary electors don't? 

Alice Thomson of the Daily Telegraph puts it into perspective - There is an alternative to this animal slaughter. This extraordinary holocaust of animals that are innocent of any infection must be one of the most savage acts of political expediency in peacetime. As Alice reminds us, it was the British who foisted the vaccination ban on the rest of the world, and it is poetic justice that they are hoist by their own petard.

Wow!

From The Herald:

Closer to home, the Dounreay plant at Caithness has been the subject of much controversy following a catalogue of safety breaches.

In 1977, a shaft containing radioactive waste exploded, blowing off a huge concrete lid and blasting scaffolding poles up to 40 miles away. It is estimated that, between 1979 and 1999, some 380 radioactive particles, some lethal, leaked on to foreshore, into the sea and on to a public beach. The government was forced to ban fishing within two kilometres of the plant.

Easy being green?

The above extract is from a story about a plan to build a nuclear generating plant in Ayrshire. The politicians are taken aback by the vehement opposition of the green environmentalists, whose promoting of the Kyoto agreement has put pressure on the Government to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. When will they realise that the Greens will never accept any rational solution to the world's problems? They live in a fantasy world where even the simple laws of arithmetic no longer apply. Their objective is to return humanity to a primitive existence, bathed in the glow of an unreal, romantic and benign sun, which will provide for all needs. In the real world, where two plus two still equals four, this means mass starvation and disease. However, if your preference is to get excited about an estimated 19 particles a year, that is a luxury you can afford (unless of course the Greens get into power, when you will be more preoccupied with the fight for survival).

As for a non-nuclear explosion blowing scaffolding up to 40 miles away, do the naval gunnery experts know about this? Readers of Sorry, wrong number! will note that "up to" includes zero.

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Are YOU missing out on Global Warming?

Are YOU letting down your organisation?

Extensive research by the Number Watch Social Statistics Research Unit reveals that the inclusion of this simple combination of adjective and gerund can virtually guarantee blanket media coverage of the most  banal of copy. The BBC , in particular, will fall over itself to broadcast your message to the world. Don't believe it? Here is a story that actually appeared throughout the British media (this is the Independent's version):

Woodland life at risk from climate change 

Many of the best-loved sights and sounds of Britain's woodlands could disappear in this century because of climate change, a report by a woodland conservation charity says.

Bluebells and other flowers, birds of spring such as warblers, butterflies and other insects and even the great trees themselves, oak, beech, ash and Caledonian pine, are now at risk from global warming, the Woodland Trust suggests. Shifts in the seasons, increased temperature, droughts and floods, extreme weather, exotic pests and diseases may combine to changes woods irreversibly by the end of the century, rendering some of the woodlands' plants, animals, birds and insects extinct.

The report refers to the concerns of UN scientists and adds: "The UK's native woodland is at particular risk because it is already a highly fragmented and diminished resource as a result of clearance for agriculture and development, overgrazing, and conversion to conifer plantations." Britain's remaining ancient and native woodlands should be protected, extended and restored as a matter of urgency. 

Convinced? You too could get this sort of coverage. And, as just one small part of its comprehensive service to its clientele, Number Watch is offering a range of facilities for a small consideration. Here is just one example, the Number Watch Universal Press Release:

Press Release

Global Warming is threatening the very existence of [insert special interest here]. Because of  rising temperatures/floods/drought [delete as applicable] by the end of the century [insert special interest here] may be no more. Only the urgent investment of substantial amounts of Government money to [insert the name of your organisation here] can avert the catastrophe. Climate change is happening now. It is important to act before it is too late.

Why you must act now! 

Time is running out. It might be in fifty years time, but it might be tomorrow. Eventually the ordinary punters are going to realise that Global Warming just isn't actually happening. Will you be able to live with yourself if you have failed to hitch your organisation to the bandwagon? All the others will have cleaned up and you will be left behind. Sign up now for the Number Watch comprehensive support package. Why miss your place in the trough? For less than a six figure sum (payable to the Number Watch Swiss bank account) you can be in there pitching with the best. By a secret process, known only to the public, Number Watch can generate copious paragraphs of euphuistic prose, even more convincing than the quotation above, individually tailored to prove that your service/organisation  needs substantial injections of taxpayers' money to avert the crisis.

Gone, but not forgotten

Regular number watchers, being dedicated ironists, will revel in a piece by John Macgregor of the Sydney Morning Herald. He tracks down the destinies of  many of  the health gurus of recent years and finds that none of them managed to reach their allotted span of life. Among them, of course, is our old favourite  Jim Fixx, the shaman of jogging, who died of a heart attack at the age of  54, while jogging. Special affection, however, must be reserved for Adelle Davis, who sold 10 million copies of Let's Eat Right and many other best-sellers in the '60s and '70s. Davis came from the "high protein" generation which preceded today's high carbohydrate orthodoxy. She said she had never seen anyone die of cancer who drank a quart of milk a day, as she did. Davis died of cancer in 1974, at 70. The average age of female mortality is 81. An acquaintance reports "She simply led a very self-destructive life. She did some of the very same things she urged others not to do: smoke and drink."

In a parlous State

Having turned a problem into a disaster by years of bureaucratic incompetence (See February), the British Ministry of  Agriculture Fisheries and Food   is presiding over unprecedented scenes of carnage. An appalling photograph in The Times of March 22 shows cattle looking on, waiting their turn, while their former companions lie round them slaughtered. Now MAFF have called in troops armed with - wait for it - clip-boards and pencils. 

The treatment of livestock under the MAFF régime has long been a scandal. Having killed off all the local abattoirs by imposing gold-plated EU directives, they subjected the animals to long journeys to their deaths in mechanised tumbrels without food and water. A Government that was so concerned about the welfare of foxes condoned this wanton cruelty. Now all this unnecessary transportation has helped to turn a local infection into a national epidemic. Healthy animals are slaughtered and their bodies left to rot, bloated and unburned. Perhaps one lapse could be forgiven, but this is just one of a catalogue of  MAFF inspired scandals, ranging from senseless bans to the encouragement of dangerous practices.

If you think that Number Watch is being unfair, read Matt Ridley in the Daily Telegraph for a systematic analysis of the nine basic blunders committed by MAFF in the development of this crisis. If you wonder what this has to do with numbers, keep an eye on the death toll. If you doubt the scientific argument for a vaccination policy, see the valuable resource at Sheepdrove.

Cluster's last stand?

Just when you thought it had gone away! Absurdity piled on fatuity! "Experts" now claim to have identified the source of the famous  microcluster of vCJD (The Times March 21). Apparently it is all down to the techniques used by two butchers in the now notorious village in the 80s. Ignore the inconvenient fact that such techniques were widespread throughout Britain at the time. It is a pleasure to record that reformed scaremonger, Richard Lacey, was critical, succinct and to the point about the claim. Says The Times:

The findings of the report are not without their critics. Professor Richard Lacey, one of the first scientists to raise the alarm about vCJD, cast doubt on the value of the report, questioning the very premise upon which it was based - that the meat supply chain was “the only remaining factor” to be studied.  “It is really pure speculation,” he told the BBC.
Professor Lacey said the report was based on the premise that BSE was transmitted to humans through meat consumption, which he said, was “assumed but not proven”. The infection could also be passed via milk or through the air, he added.

He said that the aim of the report was “to reassure people, to find a scapegoat, a cause, a local butcher”.

Math production

To sit in darkness here
Hatching vain empires
                Paradise lost

Californians, sitting in the dark polishing their Green credentials, might be expected to reflect on the three year old report re-issued by the Greening Earth Society, in which the energy crisis was foretold by one David E. Wojick. But, as St Matthew tells us "A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country..." and denizens of the Dark State of Insanity, many of whom have now been brought up with "Whole Math", will continue in their faith that two plus two equals five.

Regular correspondent from the DSof I, Matthew, provides some links
http://www0.mercurycenter.com/local/center/pmcalpine112.htm

http://www.southsanjose.com/feedb04v.htm
http://www.edgertonpower.org/plant/media/reporter/er11.htm


Ifs and Butts

It is now well known that smoking causes every human disease from acne to zoonosis, including impotence (risk ratio 1.5). Now, by examining buttocks, scientists have discovered why smokers age prematurely (BBC March 23). What was the size of their sample? Believe it or not, fourteen. Note the frequent use of words such as "may" and "could" in the widespread media coverage, including the originators The Lancet.

Amanda Sandford, who rejoices in the title (an oxymoron, surely?) of research manager for Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), said she hoped this would act as a warning, particularly to young smokers.

Human waste

One of the crimes of our age is the waste of human time, our most precious possession, and only briefly held. Even if you are busy doing nothing, you are using time well, for relaxation is important to a healthy life. Modern bureaucracy is profligate in its wasting of man-hours, particularly in form filling. The ever expanding self assessment tax form is an egregious example. One of the greatest example of profligacy occurred this month when all the clocks were put forward. In six months time they will all be put back again. This piece of silliness was unimportant when the average household just had a few clocks and watches, but nowadays most of us have over a dozen clocks and timers in our houses and vehicles. So a small country like the UK pointlessly wastes about a hundred million man-hours every year on this fatuous exercise that is a left over from a previous age. The waste on a world scale is many billions, to say nothing of the confusion.

0.01 is the number of the month

One in a hundred per annum is the new record for an estimate of the mortality due to smoking. It is not a claim that was made modestly, but one that was delivered to every household in the UK free (i.e. out of stealth taxes) in a garish book called the NHS Direct Health Guide by Dr Ian Banks. 

The purpose of the book appears to be to discourage people from using the overstretched, over-managed and under-resourced service. This claim is twice the previous record, which was produced by the BMA many years ago in a table that has been reproduced many times to great effect.

Using a method described in Chapter 13 of  Sorry, wrong number! and used to evaluate the original claim, we can investigate the consequences of assuming such a number. The distribution of ages at death of the normal population is like this:

 

The distribution of ages at death of smokers according to Dr Banks’ claim is like this.

You are now able to attest to Dr Banks’ veracity from your own experience. Everyone has known 100 smokers. Think of 100 smokers you have known. If a quarter of them were dead by the time they reached 40, then the good doctor spake verily.

In this modern post-rational age, it is considered OK to lie as long as it is in a good cause, and in the world of politically correct medicine what cause could be better than the anti-smoking one? Within the remnants of real science, however, lying is still forbidden. The book also repeats the myth, originating from a multiple fraud by the EPA, that passive smoking is a health risk.

Missing numbers in the air

The BBC headline (March 29) reads Professor plans flying power station. It appears that one Professor Bryan Roberts in Australia proposes to launch what he calls gyromills 4.5 kilometres into the upper atmosphere. Suspended cables would bring wind generated electric power back to earth. To transmit a reasonable amount of power over a distance of 4.5 kilometres you would have to maximise the product of voltage and current. The problem you then have is that you need a large cross-sectional area of conductor (to minimise power loss through Joule heating) and a thick layer of dielectric insulant (to maximise the voltage without electric breakdown occurring). It is the cost of insulation that keeps our power distribution cables overhead and not underground. Furthermore the cable would have to provide the reaction force, since no power would be generated by drifting with the wind. The combined tension at the upper end of the cable would require a very strong (i.e. heavy) structure. Even without doing any calculations, the weight of a cable to provide a usable amount of energy would appear to be enormous. Furthermore, to generated electrical energy efficiently you would require an alternator with metallic magnetic and electric circuits, both of which substantially add weight. Then there is the hazard to aircraft and the damage a few tons of cable would do if it were to fall.

The moral is – if you don’t have to provide numbers you can keep any silly story in the air.

 

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