Saturday, June 19, 2010

In Clive Tyldesley's world, Nena saw 66 red balloons go by

For a good forty minutes I thought Mr Tyldesley was finally conquering his chronic case of 1966-mentionitis. He regaled us (I use the word in a relative sense) with tales of how Gordon Banks had been temporarily replaced in 1970, and how Italy had gone on to win the World Cup in 1982 despite drawing all of their first three games.

But then he went and spoiled it.

"Actually, only two sides have ever failed to win their opening match and gone on to win the World Cup. One was Italy in '82, might remember the other one.

That's right. It was England. In 1966."

But that must you mean to say that England actually won the World Cup in 1966, Clive? Why has no-one ever mentioned this fascinating historical curiosity before?


Things that Clive Tyldesley actually said, no. 43 -

"Algeria have looked the better of the two sides. ALGERIA."

One word, Clive : class.

Lies, damned lies and...

This is a bit of a random post, but as "voodoo statistics" have been something of a recurring theme on this blog, I thought I'd draw attention to a textbook example of an area in which no-one seems to have the slightest clue which numbers are accurate or what they actually mean. A few weeks ago, there was a batch of stories about a possible method to slow down the aging process, and they all confidently asserted one central 'fact' - that, as things stand, an individual only has a one in 10,000 (0.01%) chance of living to 100. Those seemed startlingly long odds, given that most people probably know at least one person who's lived well into their 90s. But I just automatically assumed the figures must be authoritative - until, out of curiosity, I did a quick search engine check. It turned up these curiously contradictory nuggets of "information" -

According to the BBC, a baby boy has an 18.1% chance of living to 100, and a baby girl has a 23.5% chance.
BUT a 40-year-old man has only an 8% chance, and a 40-year-old woman has an 11.7% chance. (So the longer you live, the less chance you have?)

According to (catchy title) an individual has a 2% chance of making it to 100.

This American actuarial table seems to imply a 0.7% chance for men, and a 2.2% chance for women.

So what is the actual truth? Is there an actual truth? Answers on a postcard...

Friday, June 18, 2010

The ugliness of being right

Total Politics marks the fortieth anniversary of Edward Heath's elevation to the premiership with an overview of 'the good, the bad and the ugly' of his term of office. Actually, 'the ugly' has got far more to do with what happened after Mrs Thatcher deposed him as Tory leader, and is summarised in the following terms -

"Withdrawal: Heath delivers a comprehensive lesson in how to best ‘cut off your nose to spite your face’. He refused to take part in Thatcher’s shadow cabinet and later declined the post of British Ambassador to the United States, going on to criticise the ideological direction of the Conservative Party."

Hmmm. Heath may have made a mistake by refusing the initial offer of a place in the shadow cabinet (although his successor was hardly the model of good grace when she was toppled in a similar manner fifteen years later), but the rest is a transparent attempt to rewrite history from a Thatcherite worldview. He was practically begging for a role in Mrs Thatcher's cabinet on the night of the 1979 election, but was totally rebuffed, and if he'd accepted the offer to become the ambassador to Washington he would have been completely sidelined from British politics. As for "going on to criticise the ideological direction of the Conservative Party", that wasn't so much "ugly" as...well, right.

Mmmmama used to say, take your time

A few weeks back, I observed over at Political Betting that the coalition didn't seem to be enjoying much in the way of a honeymoon, with the first post-election polls showing the Liberal Democrats significantly down, and the Conservatives enjoying only a slender lead over Labour. The site's owner, Liberal Democrat Mike Smithson (who's firmly on the Tory-leaning wing of the party) shot back as quick as a flash - "honeymoon or not, the next election isn't until 2015. Get used to it." It was an oddly touchy comment given that I hadn't been making a prediction about the longevity of the coalition one way or the other. But in the light of Smithson's remarks, it's even more strange to see him now suggest that Labour are mad to take as long as 15 weeks to select a leader, because they need someone in place to respond to the coalition's cuts NOW. Why? Forget about an election in 2015 - even if we were expecting the coalition to collapse in a heap in 2012, what Labour say or do right now wouldn't be terribly relevant.

In truth, the question I would have is not so much whether Labour are taking too long, but whether this is all happening much too fast. Gordon Brown left them no choice, of course, but it seems to me the unreal period immediately after an election is absolutely the worst moment for party members to be trying to reach a sound judgement over who they want to be - as the broadcasters would now put it - their "Prime Ministerial candidate". The Conservatives made two utterly disastrous choices at the same stage of the electoral cycle - William Hague in 1997, and Iain Duncan Smith in 2001. It may not be entirely a coincidence that they made a wiser choice (from an electability point of view, I mean) in 2005 on a slightly more prolonged timetable - indeed, we know it's not, because it was the party conference in September of that year that was the dramatic turning-point in Cameron's fortunes.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Salmond still a class apart

Although I share Jeff's concerns about the way the wind seems to be blowing with just eleven months to go until the next Holyrood poll, I must say I couldn't disagree more with certain parts of his diagnosis of the problem. Specifically, the suggestion that the SNP would do better with Nicola Sturgeon rather than Alex Salmond at the helm seems to me fundamentally misguided. Nicola will be a fine leader when the moment arrives, but if anyone needs a reminder of the folly of assuming the grass is always greener on the other side, just think back to the naive hopes for how the SNP might somehow benefit from Salmond's first departure as leader back in 2000. Whatever his political skills, the theory went, Salmond was simply too abrasive and divisive a figure, and John Swinney - regarded almost universally as the nicest man in Scottish politics - would be able to assemble a far broader coalition of support. The logic seemed impeccable, and indeed even Salmond seems to have convinced himself of it. As it turned out, polls consistently showed that Swinney was regarded as the least impressive of the four party leaders, and the SNP went on to suffer the painful loss of eight seats in the 2003 election.

In contrast, Salmond today - for all that the honeymoon may be long over - is still clearly the most popular of the party leaders, and indeed is far and away the most impressive Scot currently in active politics at any level. Yes, the SNP face a huge challenge to retain power next year, but that - much as it's always uncomfortable to acknowledge a degree of powerlessness - has very little to do with anything the SNP have done wrong, and has everything to do with the outcome of the UK general election. In the months leading up to the election, I repeatedly said in my contributions at Political Betting that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the SNP ought to be hoping for Labour to somehow pull off a surprise win. Now that Labour are in opposition at Westminster, the SNP lose the advantage of being able to galvanise an angry anti-Labour vote, while Labour regain the advantage they used to enjoy of being the default repository for much of what might be termed the 'gut anti-Tory vote'. At a stroke, the Scottish political weather has changed, without anyone actually doing much to 'forfeit' or 'earn' it.

However, it's far too early to abandon hope - and the most important reason for that is precisely because Alex Salmond is a class apart from Iain "the Snarl" Gray. The electorate know that perfectly well, and will receive a timely reminder of the fact during the televised leaders' debates next spring.

The best things in life are free

Political Betting's Mike Smithson poses the question 'are you going to pay to keep reading the Times online?', and makes this prediction - "If this succeeds then one thing’s for sure - the other newspaper websites will follow." Just as well it's not going to succeed, then - or at least (lest those words come back to haunt me), I'm struggling to see how it can as things stand. Other online editions of newspapers are now going to gain a competitive advantage, and may well start to see revenues gradually increase. After all, who in their right mind is going to fork out substantial sums for a service that is available in equivalent form elsewhere? Even if every newspaper removed free online access to their content, there would still be the BBC news website to turn to - so no great mystery as to why the BBC is the Murdochs' favourite bogey-man at present.

In spite of its political agenda, it is a little bit of a pity to see The Times retreat behind a paywall, as certain sections of the newspaper (Life and Style for instance) are probably superior in quality to other UK newspapers. But with the whole Wild West of new media to fill the breach, that's scarcely going to be sufficient motivation for most people to pay a whopping entrance fee to Uncle Rupert.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Labour leadership debate : Burnt ham

When Michael Crick mused that it was very difficult to tell who had won the Newsnight leadership debate, I couldn't help wondering if what he really meant was that Diane Abbott had been the most impressive, but it felt odd to say that out loud when we know (or we think we know) that she can't win the ultimate prize. I certainly agree with Crick, though, that the one definite conclusion we can draw is that Andy Burnham lost tonight. His delivery was wooden, and the content of some of his answers was distinctly peculiar, especially on Iraq. How precisely has the invasion of Iraq made it easier to deal with Iran now? Surely the polar opposite of that statement is true. And in the unlikely event that Tony Blair was watching, his jaw would have dropped to the floor to hear Burnham advance the eccentric argument that Hans Blix's weapons inspectors couldn't be allowed more time because it might have triggered a domestic uprising against Saddam Hussein. That drives a coach and horses through Blair's perennial excuse for why it had still been justifiable to invade in the absence of WMDs - namely that Saddam would otherwise have been certain to remain in power to this day.

It also became painfully obvious tonight just what a cynical campaign Ed Balls is running, and that there's almost nothing he won't now say in an attempt to neutralise his biggest perceived weakness - ie. his closeness to Gordon Brown. Dredging up the Gillian Duffy incident just to take a swipe at his old political mentor is a tactic that thoroughly deserves to backfire, and I suspect it will. Declaring Tony Blair his favourite Labour leader was a fairly obvious affectation as well. He also coined a phrase that may one day be cited as a textbook example of how not to wriggle out of responsibility for something - "In retrospect, as I said at the time..."

The other Ed was the slightly stronger of the two Milibands, and there were plenty of signs that he is indeed consciously tacking a little to the left - by denouncing the invasion of Iraq, by pledging to tackle the gap between rich and poor, by calling 90 days detention and ID cards a mistake, and by suggesting the 50p tax band should be made permanent. As always in leadership elections, the $64,000 question is - just a tactic, or does he (to use Blair's irritating phrase) "actually believe this stuff"? If the latter, there may be just a glimmer of hope for the progressive strain of opinion in the Labour party, for the first time virtually since the day John Smith died in 1994.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Brazilian ballistics

I've been having yet another exchange with Nate and a few others on gun control (this time on his blog), in which I reiterated my fundamental proposition that the huge disparity between gun crime rates in the UK and US, and the substantial difference between the general homicide rates in the two countries, means that the gun rights proponents' argument that our strict gun laws somehow make us less safe utterly beggars belief, and that the onus thus has to be on them to prove that extraordinary claim. Nate's response was that a one-on-one comparison between Britain and the US represented too small a "sample size", and that once other countries are taken into account a different picture emerges. To illustrate his point, he directed me to a Wikipedia 'league table' of countries ranked by their firearm-related death rate.

Looking at the table, my first reaction was frankly bemusement that Nate would choose to highlight statistical evidence relating to western European countries that clearly weakens his own case. Finland in particular sticks out like a sore thumb that's gone septic with its place close to the top of the rankings. It's almost impossible to see what other significant factor distinguishes it from the many western European countries well below it in the table other than its notoriously lax gun laws. And then there's Switzerland, where guns are ubiquitous due to mass military conscription, although ammunition is more tightly controlled. For a small, relatively harmonious country with a low general crime rate and a high quality of life, a gun homicide rate almost four times as high as England and Wales is startling enough - but a general gun death rate sixteen times as high speaks for itself.

However, Nate was naturally keen for me to look beyond these particular details and instead zone in on countries at the top of the pile, such as Brazil and Mexico, which have in his words "extremely strict controls". If my general assumptions were correct, how could I explain that? My answer was that I couldn't off the top of my head, but that the compelling evidence I'd just seen of a correlation between lax gun laws and a high gun death rate in European countries made me more inclined than ever to think there must be an explanation, and a very good one. Brazil and Mexico are of course extremely different both to European countries and to the USA (not least due to levels of poverty), so there may be any number of factors at play. And while I've always said that I'm not remotely interested in the debased "let's fling convoluted statistics around" type of debate that Kevin Baker and his disciples so revel in, I must admit curiosity finally got the better of me, so I had a little rummage around to see if the claims of "extremely strict controls" on firearms in Brazil and Mexico are really telling the whole story. As it turned out, I didn't have to look much further than Wikipedia once again.

In relation to Mexico, although there are 'UK-style' laws that impose even harsher criminal penalties on transgressors, a rather significant caveat leaps out -

"On the other hand, possession of non-military-caliber small arms by citizens is largely a non-issue. Gun politics are thus not the major issue in Mexico that they are in the neighboring United States, since few Mexican citizens have any gun law difficulties."

Mexican citizens are legally allowed to possess :

"* pistolas (handguns) of .380 Auto or .38 Special revolvers or smaller in either case except the .357 Magnum and auto (Sig),
* escopetas (shotguns) of 12 gauge or smaller, with barrels longer than 25 inches, and
* rifles (rifles) bolt action and semi-auto."

Further information :

"Although there is no legal limit on how many firearms an individual can own, UCAM sells one hand gun for home protection and nine more for shooting and/or hunting. Once any individual has purchased ten firearms from the only retail governmental outlet, he cannot get a permit to buy any more. However, private party sales are legal and are largely uncontrolled, and wealthy gun-collecting citizens thus can legally buy more firearms from other private owners.

Collector permits, somewhat analogous to the FFL Category 03 Curio & Relic permits issued in the United States, are easy to obtain from the Mexican Government and allow the ownership of a wide range of firearms, even including military firearms."

So much for the impossibility of a private citizen legally arming himself to the teeth in Mexico. But the nuggets of information on Brazil are even more jaw-dropping -

"The total number of firearms in Brazil is thought to be around 17 million with 9 million of those being unregistered...

Brazil has the second largest arms industry in the Western Hemisphere. Approximately 80 percent of the weapons manufactured in Brazil are exported, mostly to neighboring countries; many of these weapons are then smuggled back into Brazil. Some firearms in Brazil come from police and military arsenals, having either been 'stolen or sold by corrupt soldiers and officers'."

So a country with no fewer than - if my mental arithmetic isn't letting me down - eight million 'registered' weapons, the second biggest arms industry in the Western Hemisphere, and two clearly-identified routes by which a large number of weapons that start out as legal are ending up in the wrong hands. Does that sound to you like a country that has cracked down with any degree of effectiveness on the problems caused by the legality of firearms? Combine these facts with appalling levels of poverty, and Brazil's place on the leaderboard suddenly starts to look a good deal less mysterious.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Iain's freedom to snarl

Are we finally seeing some glimmers of understanding in the top reaches of London Labour for the basic principles of the devolution settlement their own government introduced? Leadership candidate Ed Miliband has declared that it's time to "lighten up", and allow the Scottish party to run its own campaigns in future and develop its own independent policy platform. Not before time - I still wince when I think of the "all together now" campaign in the Holyrood election of 1999, in which the "together" bit was code for Donald Dewar continuing to treat Blair as his overlord in exactly the same way as he had as Secretary of State for Scotland.

The only snag with Ed Miliband's approach is of course that it leaves Scottish Labour's immediate fate entirely in the hands of Iain "the Snarl" Gray. But then it would hardly be the first time an absolutely correct principle has thrown up significant problems in its practical application.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

There's only really one rule you need to know : never underestimate Clive Tyldesley's predictability

Not the most riveting of games tonight, but up and down Scotland people were - as is customary when England play - making their own entertainment by holding sweepstakes on how long into the match it would be before ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley deemed it utterly essential to remind us of the fact that his country won the World Cup in 1966. As it turned out, the drinks were on those who chose the 'three seconds' option.


To (only very slightly) misquote the words in question - "For most of you watching, 1966 is just a legend. But for me, it's my entire script."