Archive for September, 2008

Statistically speaking

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

My maths is no good – and I’m not proud of it. I failed at O level (twice) and continue to fail to understand mathematical concepts. I scraped a pass in my economics papers and had to be gently taken through my statistics by a patient and gifted medical statistician who I was working with who probably found it light relief after crunching big numbers and many variables in proper, serious work.

However, despite my admitted weaknesses on the maths front, the combined efforts of my tutor, my colleague and my professorial statistician friend (who has breathing difficulties when coming down to my level of ineptness) have meant that I do, at least, take an enquiring approach to statistics. Journalists are often very bad at stats – or possibly willfully negligent. Given how often statistical findings are used as the centre of a story it really isn’t good enough. And anyway there are plenty of people around to help out and to interpret. If a researcher says that the results aren’t statistically significant, really that should mean the story doesn’t run – or at least not as a stats based story.

In 1995 a report on deep vein thrombosis risk associated with the contraceptive pill indictated that there was twice the risk with a certain pill. Which there was. But as the risk was still lower than deep vein thrombosis in pregnancy, the scare that led to unwanted pregnancies and an increase in abortion, actually also increased the risk to women – to say nothing of the long-term effects of pregnancy!

There was once an advertisement for Goodyear tyres which claimed, if I recall (but it was aeons ago) 4 times the holding power and 6 times the strength – a claim that led the front man, a former chief constable to claim “I’m convinced they’re a major contribution to road safety” A comic in a TV programme of the time said that he’d found a tyre that was 145 times stronger and had 750 times the holding power but that as his test piece was a bit of banana skin he doubted the relevance. A pre-stats lesson to ask “times more than what.”

I’m only posting this because I have just found an excellent piece in the BBC magazine, part of a series of six. In an effort to continue to approach news stories with the right level of enquiry I shall certainly be reading all the series.

Post-festival fugue

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

This is a dangerous time for me. When I begin to get over the expense of the Edinburgh festival and, in this case, the extreme dampness. When friends ask how it was and I say “great” and when they ask me to let them know when I’m sorting out next year, I don’t say “What!? Are you mad? I have a pension and a cat to consider. Never again.” What I actually say is, ” Sure” and think to myself that maybe, when the time comes to cross that bridge I might well just do it.

The centre of festival is the Royal Mile and here is a video giving a very good feel of the frenetic nature of walking that particular walk each day. Just watching it reminded me of why I like to be there, even if only for a few days. Which can take some organising. Especially this year with the ticketing all over the place. It worked out fine for us but I do think the fringe organisers might like to consider the audiences.

It sometimes seems that the main preoccupation with fringe producers and organisers is internal power play – the Director resigned this year after only a year in the job. There are just so many venues and performances that one needs a native guide and although I’ve been for three years now, I doubt if I count as that although I do my best for friends who are festival “virgins”. It surely is a bit precious to have, in different locations, the Underbelly, The Udderbelly and the Baby Belly. And whilst it might make perfect sense for a group of venues to run as a separate unit as a Comedy Festival, it makes for increasingly complex decisions for the ordinary punter (and not all of us are aspiring, current or failed thesps).

Whatever I may or may not do when, in the middle of winter, the memory of the festival has faded, I have to admit, it’s still the greatest arts festival and Edinburgh is a great place.

For heaven’s sake

Monday, September 1st, 2008

Currently having rather more time to sit in front of my computer than normal, I picked up this piece on Sarah Palin, the woman who could be one of the most powerful people on the planet should McCain keel over.

Despite my previous post on women in power vis a vis Hillary and Margaret Thatcher, I thought the adoption of Palin as vice-presidential candidate was bizarre. Whatever I thought about Thatcher, there was no doubting her competence. Apparently, the women who supported Hillary Clinton, a woman who has certainly served her time in the cauldron of politics and a hugely experienced politician with clear views, are so one-dimensional that as long as there’s a woman, any woman, on the ticket they’ll vote for her.

Still, it’s caught me on the hop a bit. I couldn’t vote for this woman under any circumstances (which will never of course be offered) and so I suppose I’ve had to think a bit more about those women who opposed Hillary. Presumably some of them did so on her policies and some were more fired up by Obama and all that he represents.

I was in the US in 2004 not long before the presidential election and was asked by acquaintances of my hosts, who were driving us back to our hotel, what I thought of it all. I stepped with care, have good manners when commenting on another country’s politics, especially when I’m no expert and especially when I’m relying on the questioner not to abandon me in the middle of New York state. I replied that many Europeans were somewhat surprised that Bush had been voted in last time, especially with the questions over the election procedures. My new acquaintance barked a response “you know what’s worse – they’re going to do it again”

The swift boat campaign trashing John Kerry’s Vietnam war record was running at the time. My new friend was outraged that people who had done everything possible to evade service should attack a man who hadn’t ducked the call. His tirade lasted about 12 miles. I was appalled by what seemed such a crude attack, but as we know, it worked.

And that’s what is so worrying. It’s entirely possible that it will happen again and I shall have absolutely no understanding of how it could. It’s not just Sarah Palin’s inexperience that disturbs. It’s the creationism and Christian fundamentalism. I read that she thinks fossils are God’s way of testing faith. Hmm, well I won’t second guess God but apart from the fossils, it’s possible that this woman will be testing my faith in the sense of the voting public of the US