Thursday, 29 September 2011

Piranha Maths

From  Stephen Colbert's Twitter stream: "100 people were bitten by piranhas last weekend in a lake in Brazil. Proving what I always suspected, piranhas love round numbers."  Well, made me chuckle.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

More educated people voted Yes in the AV referendum

Although I'm disappointed with the result of the referendum on the alternative vote system (AV), the outcome threw up some interesting results.  Of all the constituencies, only 10 voted in favour of reform.  Among these 10 are Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh Central and Glasgow Kelvin.  It struck me that the great university districts of the UK might voting for reform, while everyone else was not.  Even in those areas where it was a close call, it seems that major university districts are prevalent.  Some of the constituencies with high yes votes included Brighton Pavilion (49.8%), Manchester (44.5%), Cardiff Central (45.7%), Bristol (44.7%) and several others.  There's quite a spread of areas here, and there doesn't seem to be a specific north/south divide on the issue.  At the other end of the scale, some examples of low Yes votes include South Holland and The Deepings (21.4%), Broxbourne (20.46) and South Staffordshire (20.9%).  No great university presence in these regions.  

So, is it the case that those areas where people were better educated were more likely to vote yes to AV? Well, the geek that I am, I correlated the electoral results for each constituency (% of yes votes) against a number of different socio-economic indicators including general socio-economic status, economic activity, level of industry and lastly level of educational qualifications.  These data can be gotten from the parliament.uk site.  It turns out that level of education is the most closely correlated with the tendency to vote yes to AV (r = .52), while level of industry (r = .37) and socio-economic status (r = .12) showed weaker relationships.  Level of economic activity was not related at all.  

Now, these are pretty rough calculations as the two sets of data do not overlap completely in terms of constituency boundaries (and so there are a few approximations in the calculations), but there is enough power to highlight some indicative relationships. While it would be wrong to say that "smarter" people were more likely to vote yes, it does look like "more educated people" were more likely to vote yes.  

I've always thought that increasing educational attainment was a way of dealing with many of the issues that face society today, and here is another piece of evidence to support that!  


Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Why would you NOT vote yes to the alternative vote?

Picture yourself in a restaurant.  You decide to treat yourself and go for dessert, opting for your all-time favourite: the chocolate ice-cream. Or, if that's not available: the strawberry ice-cream, a close second favourite on your ice-cream wish list.  The one thing you don't want is the banana flavour ice-cream. You've never quite understood it, and it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.  To your dismay, the waiter says, "I'm sorry Sir, the chocolate ice-cream is all out, you'll have to have the banana ice-cream"…"but you have strawberry left?", you inquire.  "We do Sir, but I'm sorry Sir, your first choice isn't here so you're stuck with the banana.  That's the way the system works.  It's always been that way and we see no reason to change it now". 

We don't always get what we want in life, but if we can't get our first choice, then it's probably preferable to get our second choice rather than something we really, really do not want. 

This is basically what the alternative vote (AV) tries to do.  We all get a first choice vote (as we do under the current first-past-the-post system - FPTP), but we can also list our second, third, fourth choices…and so on.  

Now the question is, what sort of person would NOT want to have their second choice if they couldn't have their first?  It's slightly bewildering I think.  However, when you take a look at the list of politicians supporting the "No to AV" campaign, it's liberally peppered with old-school political dinosaurs from the left and the right (Margaret Beckett, Lord Falconer, Dr. John Reid, Ken Clarke, Baroness Warsi...and many more).  And let's not forget that the ruling government is split on this issue.  While the Lib Dems have long-campaigned for electoral reform, the tories are dead against it.  

The conservative party; long-time supporters of giving people "more choice" - "We think  people should have choice when it comes to their NHS treatment" or "we think people should be able to choose to which academy school they send their children", but for whatever reason, choice on the ballot paper is just plain wrong!  The Tories  have failed to articulate why choice is so good in some areas, but so bad in others.  Of course, it is a beautiful gift of the Tories (and right-wing politics in general) to simultaneously hold contradictory beliefs in mind.  And we'll have more on this in due course.  

But in the mean time, wouldn't rather have the strawberry ice-cream than the banana?  Who wouldn't?

Monday, 28 February 2011

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Canals to be used to transport the poor: New Tory Proposals

So the government spending review is imminent, and one of the chief Tory targets in this review are the quangos.  Quasi non-governmental organisations (as they are rarely referred to) look after everything from teaching school kids how to cycle bikes safely (Cycling England) to looking after Britain's canal system (British Waterways). The Tories hate quangos because they see them as big government interfering in the lives of people, although the "non-governmental" part of the title clearly escapes them.  

A spokesman for British Waterways was adamant that while British Waterways might be axed the canals and their management would be protected for all eternity for the british people to enjoy.  However, there are contradictory messages emanating from the Tory camp. 

In a statement, the Tory transport minister, Lord Tottermouth Fotheringill claimed that actually as well as British Waterways being abolished so too would the canals in their current form. Lord Fotheringill argues that full use is not being made of the canals with current usage statistics signifying massive waste in the system.  Instead he is proposing to drain and clean the canals to use them as a new, below-eye-level, dry-transport system.  Lord Fortheringill claimed that "Such a system will be an invaluable way of transporting poorer members of our society around the country.  It is an efficient, low-cost, and importantly low-visibility solution", adding that "If everyone was being honest they would admit that they do not want to have to look at or smell poor people as they move from place to place, regardless of whether they are making their way to work in the mines or if it is part of their annual migratory patterns".  Appealing to fairness, Lord Fotheringill pleaded "Isn't it right that poor people should be able to travel freely around the country in the same way as their betters? My goal is to remove the social barriers built into our current, arcane transport network".  

Downing Street later responded to these statements saying that these are only policies that are under consideration and it is wrong to read too much into the transport minister's statements. 

Friday, 20 August 2010

Progressive Smrogressive

Joe earns £200,000 per annum, while Derek earns £15,000.  If you think that everyone should "share the pain" in the current government's programme of cuts, you might think that knocking 10% from both Joe and Derek's salary would be the most equitable thing to do.  If you do, you are wrong.  And possibly a member of the conservative party.

To suggest that leaving Derek with £13,500 would not have a more deleterious effect on his life than leaving Joe with £180,000 is, quite frankly, ludicrous.  Over a certain amount of income, you need incrementally much larger sums of money to make substantive improvements in quality of life, life chances, health, well-being, and so on. In other words, taking £1,500 from Derek has a far greater negative impact on his life than taking £20,000 from Joe.  One means not being able to run a car this year, the other means not being able to buy the new Ferrari this year.

The government's current approach to making the tax system more equitable really tells the tale of a government with a split personality.  On the one hand, the Lib Dem backed tax plans will raise the amount at which people begin paying tax to £10,000 over the next 3 years. Obviously this will massively benefit low-wage workers, but it will also help everyone else who earns over this amount.  This is a relatively progressive tax.  On the other hand, there is the new Labour-proposed and Tory-backed 50% tax rate targeting the "middle classes".  Except that this will only apply to individuals earning over £150,000 per year.  If you think this is going to affect the middle classes you are either a) mad, b) a conservative party member, or c) both.  This £150,000 threshold will only affect the top 1% of earners - since when did this mean "middle class"?

Given the tax avoidance strategies routinely employed by the very wealthy ,which some estimates put at upwards of £40 billion every year (and yes, if you earn over £150,000 a year you ARE very wealthy), it remains to  be seen how much money this will even bring to the Treasury.  Realistically, this threshold needs to be considerably lower if it can be considered anything approaching this "progressive" word that Dave and Nick (or "Dick Clameron" if you prefer) have been bandying about. What are the chances? Progressively low, I'd say.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Would you give BT £1 million just for being a helluva nice company?

We're doing a bit of a Watchdog service today.  Let's talk about phone calls.  Because it's good to talk!
Let's say you make a call of 3 minutes and 20 seconds at a cost of 2.45 p per minute.  How much should it cost?  Well, that's a duration of 3.4 minutes x 2.45p = 8.1666585p (£0.081666585). Oh, and there's a call connection charge of 9.9p, and then we should add VAT to this (17.5%), which gives us 21.2283237p.  Ok, so on your bill it should read £0.2123 as the cost of this call. Right? Wrong!

For BT and many other companies, they do this instead.

The call lasting 3.4 minutes is rounded up to the next minute, making the call duration 4 minutes.  Now, anyone who has completed primary school maths will tell you that you only round up then the number after the decimal is .5 or greater.  Ok, so they've rounded - it's not a big deal. Well, it might not be, if they just rounded once, but they don't. 

The cost for that call is now 4 x 2.45p = 9.8p.  Guess what? That's now rounded up to 10p.  Ok, so now the call-placement charge is added, which is 9.9p, except before this is added, guess what happens? That's right, it's rounded to 10p.  So lastly we add our VAT which gives us a grand total of 23.5p.  Phew, finally got there. Oh, except I forgot to round that one too.  Right, so the actual final cost is 24p for my call. This amounts to an additional 2.77p just from rounding at these various stages.  That's an extra 13% on your call cost.

Ok, so this is just a toy example, but it does illustrate the ridiculous nature of the phone companies' approach to maths.  You could do many examples where the cost of rounding would be greater (for even shorter calls with greater rounding discrepancies) or lesser (for longer calls that have lower rounding discrepancies). 

But how much would a company like BT actually make from this little mathematical sleight of hand? Well, it was recently announced that BT would be increasing call charges by 10%, which would affect about 12.5 million customers. How much could they make from these customers with their method of rounding?

If customers made say three calls per week, with similar rounding discrepancies to the example above, this would raise BT an additional £1 million per year (actually £1,038,750).  Does this seem fair to you?  Of course, this amounts to just pennies to individual customers, but I'm still not sure that justifies this particular billing formula.  BT made a profit of over £1 billion in 2009, surely they don't need to be multiplicatively  rounding customers' individual calls as well as increasing their call charges by 10%. 

I've mentioned BT here simply because they are the biggest telecoms company with the largest number of landline customers.  However, almost every other phone company operates a similar approach.  Is there any need for it?  Is there any justification for it? Absolutely not.  This is simply corporate greed creaming off as much as they can from people who can little afford in a time of deep recession.  These companies should feel shame, but of course that's the great thing about corporations; they have no heart.