Number of the Month

December 2013

Politics, science, journalism and noise spikes

As we have remarked repeatedly, one of the duties of a research supervisor used to be to cure graduate students of the natural propensity to get over-excited by the latest point on a noisy graph. Nowadays, professors and other propagandists make their reputations by doing just that.

The British Chancellor has just had the good fortune to be presenting his now traditional autumn statement in fortuitous synchrony with an upward spike in some of the dubiously estimated economic data. His hapless opponent (admittedly historically deservedly) has been consequently ridiculed for his response.

There was recently a negative noise spike in the extent of ice in the arctic. The estimated numbers now appear to have returned to “normal”, but the inertia in the propaganda system ensures that the world is still being told of this “evidence” of climate change (i.e. warm weather).

In fact, a significant proportion of the headlines, not only in popular newspapers, but also in once respectable scientific journals, derive from instant dubious estimates of physical, biological or economic data that happen to accord with current fashionable hypotheses.  

If you look back about a decade in our Number of the Month archive, you will find that most of the links to stories in the establishment media web sites are no longer operable. In these days of ever cheaper data storage, there is no cogent reason for doing this, other than a need to disown earlier coverage, generally and without discrimination. The main justification for our own frequent links to past entries in these pages is to disclaim membership of this tendency. This phenomenon not only occurs in the popular press but also in the zealot sites and (less forgivably) professional sites posing as scientific ones: see two consecutive stories in February 2004, for example. If true, they would be of momentous significance and worth preserving, but they have been quietly buried. Why?

06/12/13

 Where failure is forever forgiven

It is the world of the bureaucrat. It has made that saying attributed to Einstein “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” into a cliché; yet amazingly they are able to go on doing it with impunity. As we observed in Bureaucrats like big, the crowning glory is in giant computer projects. Peter Oborne has  commented more recently on examples of this phenomenon on both sides of the pond:

“Kathleen Sebelius, the US health secretary, believed she could introduce an online health insurance marketplace for 25 million Americans all at once. Not surprisingly, this “big bang” approach failed in spectacular fashion. President Obama’s popularity is crashing through the floor as a result.”

 Classical bureaucratic big computer project thinking with the virtually inevitable result! Oborne has also, however, pointed out mitigating features in the British scheme that suggests, somewhat surprisingly, that one politician and his team have learned from past debacles, such as the Great NHS Computer Fiasco:

“Nobody had ever planned to implement Universal Credit all at once. A series of pathfinder schemes, followed by a staged introduction across the country, was always the intention. As a result it has been relatively simple to slow down progress without compromising the entire project (the disaster that has befallen Obamacare).”

Other commentators (such as Simon Heffer) have written of the present shambolic state of the Civil Service. As in most aspects of British life, Tony Blair took a bad situation and made it made it much worse, to suit his own convenience; while his heir, Stuntman Dave, is only interested in gestures that are vote-catching (or at least intended to be).

The efforts made to keep the public ignorant of what is really going on are of staggering proportions: see, for example, the plot to Hide that HS2 report. Contrast this with the Government’s own report, which is 50,000 pages long and estimated to weigh several hundred kilograms if printed out. The time allowed for formal consultation is 56 days. If anyone were foolish enough to attempt to read it (which, of course, was never intended) they have to manage 1,000 pages a day and then set aside 6 days to formulate their comments, also doing without their Christmas break.  Naturally, we do not have to read it to know that it is nonsense, since it only takes a page to set out the counter argument. We don’t need the experts to tell us that it is made-up economics: we have seen it all before, over and over again, and we have seen the ultimate results, over and over again. Just think of the man-hours absorbed in creating 50,000 pages of gobbledegook; then think of the good that could have been done that time been devoted to useful work, though admittedly it is rather a gross assumption that those involved are capable of useful work. The only truth that matters is that HS2 is an EU inspired project and national politicians and bureaucrats, however much they pretend otherwise, do as they are told.

Even at the local level, politics and bureaucracy are living in clover while all about them is in decay. Where Number Watch comes from local political leaders have just awarded themselves huge increases in income, while council wages have been frozen, services savaged and redundancies rife. Car parking charges and fines are a nice little earner everywhere. This is particularly outrageous in NHS hospitals, where the victims are often already in distressful situations. Local parking restrictions are often barely disguised rackets to boost council income at the cost of residents. Access to local shops and services are woefully restricted, while high streets become rat-runs, particularly for heavy vehicles cutting off corners. Residents preferred the healthy congestion that kept these dangerous interlopers out. Councils are raking it in while killing off the town and village centres that are supposed to be in their care. They claim that the egregious levels of profit are ring-fenced for traffic control purposes, but we all know that bureaucrats are adept at manipulating such budgets to their own ends (and expenditure on road maintenance is continually on a downward trend).

Funny old world!

 25/12/13

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The thirteenth annual Numby Awards

Throughout the world, the ancient walls of the hallowed halls of academe reek with the history of human progress. So it is with the famed Assembly Rooms above the Takeaway Kebab in London’s cultural centre of the Balls Pond Road, which have a unique reek of their own.

I will gloss over the means by which I circumvented the ascent of the notorious staircase. The world is not yet ready for the tale of the confrontation between the breeches buoy and the London bus.

It appears that there had been something of a quiet revolution behind the scenes of the organising committee, as some of the old familiar names returned to the stage in new guises. There was an evident restoration of the jollity among the throng as they converged on the historic venue through the sodden streets of Islington.

In the chair was Sir Hugh Jerrors, Emeritus Professor of Modelling Those Little Fluffy Bits Round The Edges Of Clouds at the Metropolitan University of Nether Wallop and now President of Advanced Computer Modeling Enterprises Inc., which is engaged in several large scale projects for the British Government. He had only just flown in from Barbados, from where he presides over the ACME headquarters.

Presenting the awards was Baroness Effluvia Coldbottom, Former Deputy Chair of the National Spoon and Fork Regulatory Authority and now Chairperson of the Spoon and Fork Advisory Council Ltd, which carries out a number of important British Government contracts. In a moving opening address she reminisced about the old days at what was known affectionately as “The good old Foon and Spork”, but she was full of praise for the new organisation: “Now that staff are better rewarded for their skill and effort, there is an even greater spirit. Statistics cannot lie and, according to Government computer models, there has already been a 0.3% reduction in spoon abuse.”

“The great leap forward in our institutions has been fostered by the purge of conservatives, even in the Conservative party itself: for conservatives are people who are purblind to the advantages of change for its own sake. Our society has found a better way of working. Policy is now being formed by independent expert interest groups and carried out by new private enterprises working closely with government.”

The Baroness then gave a comprehensive survey of the glories and achievements of past winners (too long to be included here). She noted with sadness the withdrawal of former Numby Laureate, Chris Huhne, from public life for personal reasons and commended his profound contributions in areas as diverse as energy policy and applied statistics.

So to the awards.

Not for the first time, the UK Met Office is the recipient of a major award: this time it is the trophy for innovation in scientific method. This celebrated the development of the aftcast, which made the headlines in January. Also now known as hindcasting in countries without our nautical tradition, this technique allows prediction of the future by observation of the recent past. It looked as though the prediction had failed during the long hot dry summer, which gave encouragement to the noisy, ignorant claque of Met Office critics; but the predicted disastrous downpour finally arrived in the last few days of the year, proving that the Met Office had been right after all, thereby justifying the substantial investment of taxpayers’ money to underpin its activities.

 In the new climate of private enterprise, the committee has instituted two new awards for marketing. The trophy for International Marketing goes to the Pharmaceutical Industry for its success in promoting statins. Britain can be proud of its position as the statin capital of Europe, though it is way behind America. In the UK the humble taxpayer has the privilege of funding this triumphal progress, even to the extent of providing financial rewards to GPs who prescribe the drugs. Of course, there will always be carping critics, but the media must be given credit for ensuring that little is heard of them.

The British award for marketing goes to the online betting industry, which is manifestly growing by the proverbial leaps and bounds, though actual figures are hard to come by. The new army of customers have the honour of being important voluntary taxpayers as well as the funders of a vibrant new industry. As always, there are negative commentators, who attempt to portray this triumph as a social ill.

The committee also noted, with approval, that the consensus on the dire threat of global warming remains strong. It decided not to make any further awards in this area, as this might be seen as gilding the lily. It noted with satisfaction that extreme views, such as questioning whether the phenomenon actually ever happened, have received little coverage.

The next prize to be announced was the SPONG trophy, named after its donors, the well-known benevolent international organisation that rejoices in that acronym. It was awarded to Robert Lustig of California, who championed that slogan of the moment Sugar is Poison. At first, it was difficult to believe that, not only the human race, but many other species have been systematically poisoning themselves since the dawn of evolution; but we have of late become accustomed to the fact that substances, hitherto taken for granted as a familiar part of life, have sinister effects that are only brought to light by the power of the new sciences, such as epidemiology. As ever, naturally, there are those who seek to pour scorn on these truths, but they are reduced to delving into ancient myth and digging up such old chestnuts as the first law of toxicology. Even the inspiring campaign to ban fizzy drinks has been attacked by the ne’er-do-wells who inhabit the obscurer corners of the internet, but thanks to the solidarity of the media they make little impact.

A new trophy for Vision has been awarded to Geoffrey Lean of the Daily Telegraph. His wisdom has been recognised by the large number of column inches allocated to him. A typical achievement was the deft stroke by which he squashed all talk of the need for back-up supplies for wind power. The virtually simultaneous closure of the Didcot power station with the opening of the London Array of wind turbines is symbolic of the triumph of Lean and his ilk over the whingeing critics. His repeated condemnation of deadly diesel is indicative of his determination to save humanity. He is the prophet of our age, who will no doubt be recognised in the years to come as the results of his efforts achieve culmination.

A joint pioneering trophy was awarded to a number of pioneers of airborne electric generators and their backers (the list is too long to be included here). There is no doubt that one day the Earth will be festooned with cables reaching up into the sky, harvesting the free energy from the wind. It goes without saying that there are negativists who persistently raise trivial questions, but fortunately they make little impact.

The award for Scientific Revelation of the Year goes to the discovery of the fact that plants do maths. In making the award, the committee also made a recommendation to the University of Cambridge that for the next appointment to the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics Arabidopsis thaliana should be considered.

A new award for problem identification goes to Nick Boles, who has revealed that the UK suffers from too many boring fields. So, following the lead of the Noble Professor Lord Prescott, he is going to build on them. We can all now look forward to the time when the British Isles will be covered by interesting housing estates instead, to say nothing of high-speed railways.

Another new award for scientific innovation goes to scientists at the University of Boulder, who, by the application of powerful new techniques of computer modelling , have given a whole new meaning to the boring old concept of conductivity: one in the eye for the old fashioned physicists and their beastly equations.

But enough of new awards, tradition is what these ceremonies are all about. The trophy for page count goes right back to the second of these ceremonies. There was then much agonising among the rather partisan audience when the British entry was pipped at the post by the US Medicare Industry. Never mind! The British are back; they have new ways of running things. This time the Government, with the aid of its private sector co-operators, has weighed in with a thumping 50,000 pages in its HS2 report. It is a tribute to our commitment to new technology that they were distributed throughout the land on memory sticks. Critics say that it was all just “made-up economics”, while critics of the critics say that expression is a tautology. It was, however, heart-warming to end on a note of national triumph for an alleged “small island that no one listens to.”

And so the merry throng once again dissolved into the dank Islington night, leaving behind nothing but the faint echoes of past glories.

Footnote: The organising committee wish it to be known that hyperlinks in these reports may have been added without their approval.

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Number of the month – 50,000

It is the number of pages constituting the Government report on the HS2 project. Coupled with an impossibly short time-table for consideration, it is one of the most blatant examples of bludgeoning through drastic legislation in modern times. As an EU inspired project, however, this does not elicit surprise.

Number of the year – 74

This is the number of people on the tragicomic Ship of Fools that ended the year trapped in ice, miles from possible sea rescue. It included Climate “Scientists”, politicians, tourists and journalists. The purpose of the expedition was to establish the effects of climate change since a previous historic trek by Mawson a century ago. They await air rescue at the expense of taxpayers of various nationalities. Meanwhile, a group of injured soldiers walked with Prince Harry to the South Pole and back, though hampered by the icy conditions. Global warming moves in a mysterious way its wonders to perform.

Link to thix piece

31/12/13

Index, search box, begging bowl and FORUM 

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