Number of the Month

March  2004

Science fiction

It is one of the odder experiences of old age to revisit the literature that illuminated one’s youth and, if one suffers form the chronic inability to part with books, it is easy enough to do so. In days of yore your bending author was much taken with science fiction. Now, it is rather difficult to see why. Most of it is poorly written and formulaic. Some stories were not well treated by subsequent intrusion of technological reality, like the one in which communication was lost because all the electronic vacuum tubes were smashed on crash landing on a remote planet. There are one or two, however, that probably seemed pretty ordinary at the time but now stand out as beacons of accurate prognostication. One such is a novella by Jack Williamson, published a year before Nineteen Eighty Four entitled With folded hands.

The protagonist is a small time businessman living on the edge, selling domestic robots. Suddenly ultra-efficient hominids appear from another planet. Not only do they make his rather dodgy business insolvent, but they take over the lives of himself and the rest of humanity. They are all controlled by a central computer, which operates according to the Prime Directive: to serve and obey, and guard men from harm.

The deuteragonist is a rather seedy individual who actually invented the hominids and is now on the run while trying to find a way to destroy his creation. He fails and consents to have a brain operation to cure his “delusions”. The hero, like the rest of humanity finds himself with no interest in life, no work, no danger, no tension, no tools and his every need looked after:

Stiff with terror, he made a weak and hollow laugh.

'What is the matter, Mr. Underhill?' The alert mechanical must have perceived his shuddering illness. 'Are you unwell?'

'No, there's nothing the matter with me,' he gasped desperately. 'Absolutely nothing! I've just found out that I'm perfectly happy under the Prime Directive. Everything is absolutely wonderful.' His voice came dry and hoarse and wild. 'You won't have to operate on me.'

The car turned off the shining avenue, taking him back to the quiet splendour of his prison. His futile hands clenched and relaxed again, folded on his knees. There was nothing left to do.

To understand the relevance of this parable to modern life, for the Prime Directive read The Precautionary Principle and for the hominids read the teeming bureaucrats that infest today’s world.

And then…

Talking of science fiction, much of the media carried headlines exemplified by the Daily Telegraph’s Free radicals are innocent: millions may have been wasted chasing the wrong cause of Alzheimer’s and other diseases. Oddly, the web version was rather more demure. Now while the free radical scare has been of concern to experts such as Miss Deirdre Smallpiece, irresponsible sceptics, such as your bending author, have been relatively unmoved, particularly as the rather tenuous chain of dubious links in the theory have led to the anti-oxidant scam, which has been a nice little earner to the tune of billions of dollars. Mind you, to a bear of very little brain, the refutation is only slightly less tenuous. Like post-modernist philosophy, some of these theories leave you doubtful of your own status as a rational human being. Thank heaven for the small boys who consistently point out that the emperor has no clothes.

MMR rolls on

Several number watchers have dissented from the reluctant endorsement granted to the British Government policy last month. This is clearly a difficult subject, pitching two Telegraph correspondents, both of whom Number Watch has stopped just short of beatifying, against each other. In the red corner you have James Le Fanu, while in the blue corner there is Theodore Dalrymple. Let's face it, Wakefield might be right, but by the normal rules of statistical inference he is a long, long way from proving it. The starting presumption on which Number Watch  works is that the scare is always wrong. It almost invariably works, but by the laws of probability sometimes it must fail. Publishing the results of a study involving twelve patients by way of a press conference does not provoke a great deal of confidence. Any further comments via the forum please.

The scandal continues

Yet another HRT trial has been abandoned, this time on the basis of a relative risk of stroke of 1.38. The practice manages to combine two fallacies, that of the data dredge and that of extreme values. The "researchers" look at a number of diseases (in what is supposed to be a blind trial) and as soon as the random walk for just one of them crosses a given threshold they abandon it on so-called ethical grounds. Valuable therapies are condemned out of hand on a statistical whim.

A previous study was  called off in July 2002 after researchers found it increased the risk of breast cancer (RR 1.26)  and heart attack (RR 1.29). The number of the month for July 2002 was 1.0, which was the RR for breast cancer that was embraced by the Confidence Interval for the undemanding 95% level. This latest one  showed no effect for breast cancer.

The statistical reasoning might well be correct for the one disease picked out, but possible beneficial effects with other diseases will have been masked by the abandonment. This is the reverse situation from the Tamoxifen trial, the first spectacular abandonment, in which the purported beneficial effect masked possible adverse effects that were not fully investigated. It would serve humanity better if such trials were not started in the first place.



"End of an era" is normally too tired a cliché to use, but it is so apt in the case of the retirement at the age of 95 of Alistair Cooke. 58 is the number of years for which he delivered his Letter from America to the British people and for many of us his mellifluous voice is something we treasure from childhood, long before we could understand the import,  style and grace of his words. His was a different kind of journalism; insightful, yet promoting harmony and understanding, rather than the dissension and scares that so excite his modern counterparts. 


They have noticed at last

6 million is the number of animals required to be slaughtered in Mad Margot's massacre and British politicians have only just noticed. Fury at EU call for 'needless' chemical tests on animals says the Sunday Telegraph.  The tests will be absolutely meaningless, since they are based on the concentration fallacy, and most of the chemicals have been safely in use and tested by industry and governments for decades. The EU Reach directive, which as we noted last September was the last laugh for Michael Meacher  also puts a bomb under one of Britain's few remaining successful manufacturing industries. Whom the gods would destroy....


 The Rite of Spring

Eleventh of March and here in the famously mild Blackmore Vale in Wiltshire the snow is falling steadily. With an AlGorean sense of timing the Woodlands Trust launched its promised essay into phenology. This was adumbrated in January, but veteran number watchers might remember it from just two years ago, when the said trust inspired our advertisement for one of our scams schemes to establish a nice little earner. It is a phenomenon of the new sort of entryism that groups of zealots can take over an institution, like the anti-smokers in the BMA, and twist its operation to suit their own purposes. It was an inspired idea to recruit 13,500 ordinary punters to do the observing, as they are unlikely to appreciate that they are taking part in the exploitation of the extreme value fallacy in three dimensions and they are thereby inducted into the religion.

Last September we quoted a retired meteorologist  as saying "A month without a record would be a record". There is always something unseasonable going on somewhere, but it is new for such phenomena to be exploited for religious purposes.


Continued in our next

True to form, the very next day the whole of the media had swallowed the phenology scam hook, line and cliché. The Telegraph had Baffled bee lured out early by changing climate. The Daily Mail had As Earth hots up, bees are buzzing at Christmas, but give them their due they had a side box with But they’ll be flaked out today, which pointed out that up to four inches of snow was expected that day. Early UK springs become 'normal' says the BBC.

It is all part of a very clever promotion. In one simple scheme the promoters manage:

  1. to exploit the extreme value fallacy and enhance it by dramatically increasing the number of observers.
  2. to exploit the urban heat island effect. The Christmas bumblebee was seen in Isleworth, London.
  3. to ignore the workings of the theory of evolution.  Species variability is the basic mechanism of survival of the fittest. There are always individuals pushing at the boundaries of their niche. Most of them fail to thrive, but in rare cases they succeed.
  4. to exploit ratchet reporting. They never tell you about species that are diffusing south, only north; or how about the bumble bees that get up late?
  5. to involve ordinary punters, thereby getting them to identify with the cult. An even starker example of this was celebrated by the famous Alex Kirby of the BBC, who does not even understand how the greenhouse effect works. Tell “science” your fears  yelled the headline. The dubiety of computer models does not decrease with the number of computers on which they run. In fact, when you take the communication overhead into account, there is little point in such an exercise in comparison with running the whole lot on one supercomputer.
  6. to ignore the fact that such phenomena have been going on for generations without being reported. Who has never seen out of season plants and animals? Our ancestors quoted the proverb One swallow does not make a summer.

And it is all being done in the name of Science Week. Heaven help us!


It's a Kafkaesque, Orwellian, Carrollian world

Christopher Booker is the lone campaigner against Euro-insanity, who weekly comes up with startling evidence of the corruption and incompetence of the EU and its supplicants in the British Bureaucracy. Two contrasting stories in his Diary for March 14th illustrate only too well the state of the nation. € 2 billion is the order of magnitude of money that has gone astray on an EU backed airport project in Greece. No one is allowed any information on where the money went.

Meanwhile, the confidential advisors of ordinary citizens in the UK are blackmailed into betraying their client's secrets on pain of 5 years imprisonment, and they are not allowed to tell the client about the betrayal. To undertake the simplest transaction, such as opening a new bank account, you have to prove your identity, even though they have known you from birth. Your bending author had to go through all this to buy a minuscule plot of land and then provide his National Insurance number on an Inland Revenue form in order to be able to register it. Big Brother is watching you.


Big Brother and me

Talking of which, number watchers within reach of London might like to take note of the Sp!ked Seminar on Thursday March 18th.


And there's more

Old Tom used to walk half a mile every day to the village pub. He would sit there for an hour, contentedly smoking his pipe and consuming a pint of beer and a small liqueur, much as he had done for seventy-five years. It was his great pleasure, the thing that made his life bearable, but he feared that he would have to give it all up as the prices were continually rising and his pension was not. He has not been seen for a few months now.

The zealots within the medical establishment are intensifying their campaign to force the Nanny State to ration alcohol by price. They are doing this via a campaign about the costs of binge drinking by young people. The Daily Telegraph gives an account of how the Government came up with its figure of £20 billion as the cost of this activity. The largest component is £4.6786 billion for “emotional impact costs of victims of crime”. Note the precision of one part in 50,000, a dead giveaway for numerical fakery.

Erstwhile Number Watch hero Theodore Dalrymple joins in the chorus. Mass drunkenness has turned us into a nation of barbarians yells the headline. The Anglo-Saxons have always had a tendency to drunkenness. Dalrymple mentions Gin Lane, but it goes back much further than that. The Norman conquerors even had a word for it, à tirelarigot.

What do the times of Gin Lane and the present have in common? The answer is in one sentence buried in Dalrymple’s diatribe:

The impotent police, who would once have arrested people behaving in like fashion, wander through scenes of drunken debauchery that all too often turn to violence, but do absolutely nothing about them.

The police have been emasculated by bureaucracy. Every arrest generates a mountain of forms, followed by the attentions of a smart lawyer pontificating about his client’s rights. On the same day, the Daily Mail reproduced the form a policeman has to complete every time he stops someone. There are 77 boxes to fill in. When the present older generation were young, anyone found drunk and disorderly was immediately incarcerated in a police cell.

There are millions of people quietly enjoying a drink and a chat in their local pub, especially in rural areas, where it is often the only amenity (and disappearing at a national rate of one a week). It is the Old Toms of this world who would suffer from rationing by price. The drunken oafs have more money than they need, so will be little affected by a price hike, but the alcohol SIFs will make use of them (or anyone else) to attack the object of their hatred.

 Alcohol is a side issue. There are menacing gangs of even younger people, who take over town and village centres. Their attitude is " We can do what we like and you can't stop us." and, of course, they are right. They are a second generation that has never known discipline. The do-gooders have made them untouchable, and anyone who tries to interfere with their fun is likely to find himself in jail.

And there' more

Talking of the triumph of the bureaucrats of the Nanny State, another of our heroes, James Le Fanu, also has a regular column in the Telegraph, Doctor’s Diary. Here is a piece in the same edition as the above:

Many readers no doubt will have their own stories of impertinent questioning of the sort remarked on by the two "sixty something" ladies on the letters page of this paper recently. They were astonished to be asked, on applying for travel insurance, whether they were in a sexual relationship as this could affect the premiums they might have to pay. Such impertinence has become endemic in the health service in recent years as doctors, nurses and others cross-question their patients about their "lifestyles".

When a successful novelist of my acquaintance developed a nasty throat infection, he made tracks for the local surgery in the expectation of being prescribed a short course of antibiotics. But not a bit of it: he found himself being I grilled, not only about how much alcohol he drinks every week, but whether he might have contracted a venereal disease. His terse response is not suitable for a family paper. 

Such bad manners are not necessarily intentional, but too frequently a consequence a of the box-ticking, form-filling mentality required by modern management – as a former nurse from Gloucester recalls.

Despite the long hours and hard work, she loved her profession until, fed up with the inordinate amount of paperwork involved, she  resigned a couple of years before her 60th birthday. The last straw, she tells me, was the introduction of a new admissions form in which she was meant to record the patients' views on dying and whether they were still "sexually active". This seemed particularly inappropriate as many had serious, life-threatening illnesses. "I despaired and then burst into tears," she writes. "Who thinks these things up?" Good question.

Apology. It was wrongly reported here that the Le Fanu column was not available on the web version of the Telegraph. It can be reached by clicking Health. Thanks to Andrew Crosland for the correction.


Perishing publishing

An interesting piece on the explosion of scientific publication (via Bizarre Science) appears in Physics Today. Not much to argue with there, except perhaps the commendation of impact factor. This tends to favour the orthodoxy, which does so much to stultify science. Consider the example given by Ravnskov:

Two papers giving the results of trials were published in the same journal. The one whose results did not support the orthodoxy received 15 citations over the next four years. The one favouring the orthodoxy, however, received 612 citations in the same period.

The orthodoxy was wrong.

Theocracy rules, O Kyoto!

British Industry is now beginning to feel real pain from New Labour's greener-than-thou policies. A timely reminder of just how foolish this is is provided by S Fred Singer in a piece reprinted from the New Atlantis in TWTW for March 20 entitled The Kyoto Protocol: A Post-Mortem. The Europeans wonder why their economy is going down the tubes. How long before the British follow?


Nice fit

Apropos of last month's mention of the Emperor's new clothes, Robert Zendzian writes to point out that a lot of people do not know the last point of the story. A valid remark, and how apt when you consider how the establishment clings to its theories in the face of all the evidence.


Number of the month 0.005

How do they do that?

Several regular number watchers noted the claim that ocean temperatures have increased by all of 0.005ºC. Frank Borger found a particularly delightful account in the San Francisco Chronicle (where else?); headed, of course CHANGING CLIMATE. This sort of temperature change is about the limit you can achieve over a few hours in the laboratory using a Platinum Resistance Thermometer in a Dewar vessel with a magnetic stirrer to maintain uniformity; but a whole ocean over twenty years?

 There are some other interesting concepts in the particular article. 800 year old water – now there must be an opening for a good marketing man. And how about:

Computer models of ocean circulation – which are vital for monitoring climate change – are badly in need of a tune-up. The discovery was not explicitly predicted by any known computer models of ocean circulation.

Rather giving the game away about computer models aren’t we?

And look how the scare mongers climb aboard! Amazing what they can produce from the tiniest iota of  “evidence”.

It has been an interesting month here at Numeric Towers. Number Watch received over 1,100 hits on one day for the first time. A gentleman from the Netherlands submitted a lengthy paper establishing that the value of π is 3 exactly, including evidence from the Bible. It has not been included here, as number watchers tend to have a limited appetite for higher mathematics. In the above we have proceeded from science fiction to fairy tales, so perhaps it was a typical month after all.




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