31 December 2009


Although Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's underpants may have failed to go off, they have certainly ignited the debate around the use of profiling to assess the risk passengers pose to aircraft security. This has been the elephant in the room ever since 9/11, but this week the British government admitted passenger profiling was "in the mix". Is this simply a detached, dispassionate practice, or is it also subject to unhelpful cultural bias?

As the press sifted through the known facts from his time spent studying in the UK, The Times noted last Wednesday that Mr Abdulmutallab was the fourth head of a Muslim Society from a college of the University of London to be arrested on terrorist offences. It's the sort of statistic that actually says very little, because on its own, its a dead end: does that put all Muslims in the frame, heads of Muslim Societies at UK universities, or, indeed, anyone at all? It's an innuendo in search of significance. But it has power in the mind because of the power of the crime of terrorism. It only takes one person to panic an entire nation. If we were to find that, statistically, several heads of the Rugby Society at University of London colleges had been arrested for drunkenness, it would be just as insignificant as a statistic, but we are likely to take a measured view because of the perceived threat to ourselves posed by drunks versus terrorists.

Does the activity of Mr Abdulmutallab put us in the clear to consider Muslim devotion a threat to our bodies regardless of the individual or to insist on more rigorous searches at airports? The fact that high-profile recent terrorist incidents in our sphere of interest have been committed by Islamists leaves those of us outside the faith conducting our own unconscious profiling whenever we are at an airport. But it is interesting how this form of cultural risk assessment is reported, when compared with something closer to home.

At about the same time as Mr Abdulmutullab was buying his special y-fronts, the Murphy Report was released in Ireland, as a follow up to the earlier Ryan Report published in May. Between them these reports set out in depressing detail the astonishing levels of abuse perpetrated by officers of the Roman Catholic church in Ireland upon children, decade after decade, and how that behaviour was covered up, denied and explained away with complicity at the highest levels of the church.

It would be possible to argue that, given the numbers of victims involved, the Church in Ireland has destroyed more lives than Abdulmutullab ever could have - though that would be to create a sick competition. However, we do feel able to idly speculate whether being a Muslim makes you more likely to be a terrorist - yet at the same time, I hear no debates in the press about whether being a Catholic priest makes you more likely to be a child abuser or pederast. In the one case, we can see beyond the collective to the individual, in the other they are all tarred with the same brush.

Returning to our original question, it seems about the only thing Mr Abdulmutullab didn't do was print a "I'm a Terrorist" T-shirt, since he was granted an entry Visa to the USA, despite being on at least one list of suspicious or undesirable persons, paid cash for the ticket and took no luggage with him. The nonsense reactions of those in charge of US air security reflect a desperate desire to reassure people than actually any useful precautions, not to mention to deflect a degree of political embarrassment. Under the precautionary principle, I am reasonably happy to accept a degree of profiling based upon intelligence and statistcal evidence, and sorry if that upsets a few people who fit an unfortunate profile. On the other hand, I'd also insist on the same level of scrutiny being applied to all religious zealots put in a position of where they are capable of causing harm.

30 December 2009

Fin de siecle

As befits a rubbish year, the end of the decade has felt something of an anti climax. In fact, I didn't even realise it was going to be a new decade until last week. Yet before we know it, we'll be having Noughties Nights at nightclubs, when people can dance to Girls Aloud wearing Ugg boots, drinking bottle of blue WKD.

I wonder when we became quite so self-conscious about bundling up the years into neat packages to be consigned onto certain shelves, as though on New Year's Day 1980 we went from being striking punks to greedy Spandau Ballet fans. I suppose the idea of the Roaring Twenties was the first, with the Wall St Crash to put clear daylight between the delicious abandon of 1929 and the sobering depression of 1930. Looking back on this first decade of the 21st century, what will we say were defining themes? And looking forward to the next, what on earth will we call it?

The Noughties sort of stuck in the absence of anything better, but how will we collectively refer to the years 2010-2019 when we come to look back at the end of the century? The Teens? Teenies? The Wunies? All horribly twee and silly - too much so for what looks set to be a serious time.

If the aforementioned 1920s can also be known as The Jazz Age, then I suggest the next 10 years hereby be known as the Teen Age. First, because we are about to go through a horrible transformation, where our comfortable existence is turned upside down, the lack of money will make us collectively grounded, plus where everything will seem so unfair, what with taxpayers subsidising bankers' bonuses. And by the end of it, we may just be able to afford to buy our own drinks.

20 December 2009

The final countdown

This week there has been a bit of a ding-dong, and not just from Santa's sleigh bells. Forget Copenhagen, the nation has been gripped by whether X-Factor winner Joe Schmo will get his Tiny Tim dream of a Christmas number one, or whether a spoiler campaign will propel another group to the top of the seasonal chart, in the form of a Rage Against The Machine song from 1993, "Killing in the name of". Simon Cowell has been harrumphing like a bad loser in tones of such unwitting irony that my head almost turned inside out with the mental gymnastics it took to realise he wasn't joking.

For me the most interesting thing is the passion aroused on both sides (or as near as Simon Cowell can come to it) about what is really a curate's egg. I mean, why does anyone give a toss what happens to be the best-selling song at the time of a public holiday? It's not as if there is a religious dimension to the rivalry, reclaiming the feast from the heathen hoards, a la Cliff Richard. The papers will not be filled with speculation as to what is the best-selling book, or the most popular movie on release. Is the Christmas single meant to say something about us as a nation, the aural equivalent of the Queen's Speech? If so, it may explain the sense of national decline.

Once upon a time, of course, it mattered financially. When singles came in vinyl format and you had to shift three quarters of a million units to hit the top, it was the biggest week for sales, thanks to their popularity as gifts. This habit has always puzzled me - you want to buy a record as a Christmas present for someone, but you know so little about them that you have to guess at a song. And if you had used the number one single as some sort of quality benchmark, more often than not the recipient would have been disappointed, as this accolade is won, as often as not, by the likes of Bob the Builder and Westlife - and going back further Shakin' Stevens and Benny Hill. You may as well select number 18 every year and hope for the best.

These digital days, when more people own soft copies than hard copies, actual singles sales are a tiny proportion of revenue for an artist, and given there is not even a Christmas Day Top of the Pops anymore, the question remains as to why people actually care. No-one strives to achieve an Easter Number One or August Bank Holiday hit. Have we let the nation down if the X Factor machine secures its fifth consecutive Christmas number one? What about if it's number one for New Year, not to say a new decade, as it almost certainly will be?

Where do we go from here? Is this the sign of Cowell's waning influence after four consecutive hits? Are the charts of the future going to represent the results of random social media campaigns rather than the current favourite tunes? I'd like to think it marks the end of the idea of a singles chart, which smacks of the bad old days of no commercial radio, three TV stations, and a waiting list at the GPO to get a phone installed. In the multi-channelled world we live in today, a monopoly system that claims to signify something of importance to everyone is an anachronism, and irrelevant to most people. Let's hope Simon Cowell goes the same way.

15 December 2009

Voting in the name of

As the steroid-injected, bloated cash cow that is X-Factor collapsed off the TV schedules, no doubt ITV executives were cheered by the advertising and phone-vote revenue raised, and Simon Cowell is calculating the precise number of burgers the carcass will make. And newspapers anxious about the sudden lack of stories can fill some time this week by talking up the viewing figures - 15 million on average, apparently, across the weekend's shows. The Evening Standard described the fact that more people voted for the final's contestants over the weekend than elected the current government at the last election as "the most interesting statistic".

No doubt the Daily Mail will join this chorus tomorrow, as a fitting subject for much tutting about lack of interest in politics (all Gordon Brown's fault) and the dumbing down of the population (also Gordon Brown's fault), probably as part of a dismal A N Wilson piece. But even if we ignore the millions of citizens ineligible for the electoral role who do vote for TV talent shows (the under 18s), it seems an odd comparison to make, much as the media loves to do it.

If, in order to vote for Bill or Ben (or whatever the finalists' names were), viewers had to go to their nearest school with a registration card between 7am and 7pm on a Thursday, as opposed to sending a text or ringing a premium rate number, the number of votes polled on X-Factor would diminish considerably. I'm sure over the weekend more people ordered takeaway pizzas than voted Labour in 2005, but that doesn't necessarily represent a collective expression of disillusionment.

But it does seem to have given Simon Cowell an idea for greater political engagement, as he says he wants to organise X-Factor style shows involving politicians ahead of the general election. Debating issues, fortunately, not singing (story here). According to the BBC, he wants to create a "bear pit" atmosphere, with a live studio audience and viewers voting via telephone. He wants to put on a show where a large studio audience was divided up according to its view on an issue, and then "a red telephone would allow politicians to ring in to state their case", which leads me to believe that he's gotten Prime Minister's Questions mixed up with Deal or No Deal.

Although I would welcome Mr Cowell's creative involvement in organising such an event, my greatest fear is it would spark a counter-campaign on Facebook, and before we knew it, the lead singer of Rage Against the Machine would be Prime Minister.

As you like it

"Shakespeare? I'd rather stick pencils in my eyes". So runs the quote on an ad I saw today, promoting the new Jeremy Clarkson book, presumably as an example of the author's wit and wisdom. Which is uncanny, because, faced with the prospect of Shakespeare, I too would rather stick pencils in Jeremy Clarkson's eyes. Actually, I don't even need to hear Shakespeare.

13 December 2009

Assuming the position

Tony Blair has caused a bit of a stir this week by claiming he would still have invaded Iraq in 2003, even if he had known there were no weapons of mass destruction. As much as anything, this is a corner into which he has painted himself. To admit otherwise - that he would have gone to war only because of the WMD - would throw uncomfortable light upon the evidence, dodgy dossier and all. Better to tough it out as a moral position.

At the same time as Blair was undergoing his sofa grilling (at the hands of fearsome political interrogator Fern Brittan), the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, was complaining that politicians didn't take religious faith very seriously but as an "eccentricity" practised by "oddities". Since Tony Blair's positions are driven by his deeply held Christian convictions, Dr Williams' comments seem timely, although probably not in the way he intended. If Blair is the poster child for politicians taking religious views seriously, then long may we continue to seek their mutual separation.

It also highlights a contradiction at the heart of Blair the politician. He is often painted as a focus-group fanatic, unable to express the simplest opinion without knowing how it would play with key voter demographics. Yet time and time again, on some of the biggest calls, he would adopt a position based upon instinct and adjust his arguments, or even the facts, to suit it - from Kosovo to ID Cards, PFI and, ultimately, the Iraq invasion.

While this approach might work in the imaginary bubble of politics, I'm not sure how successful a strategy it would be for those who live in the real world. Suppose I want to go to the cinema, and so I tell everyone that a new James Bond movie is playing that evening in town. But when we get there, not only is the movie not showing, but it hasn't even been made. I then turn to my disappointed friends and offer them the opportunity to watch the latest Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy - if they don't like it, and tell me I should have checked the listings, I simply tell them that someone had to take the decision to come to the cinema, and that I believe the trip was worth it. And then spend my friends' annual wages on the tickets.

09 December 2009

Paying Liddle attention

I really don't want to talk about Rod Liddle, but I feel drawn towards his odious journalistic malfeasance like a moth to the flame. At the risk of giving him the oxygen of publicity, in last week's Spectator magazine, the journal of choice for all swivel-eyed loons, he wrote what he probably thinks is a "brave" article about race and crime in the UK. Once again he was speaking the unspeakable, or in his case writing the unreadable. Here's a sample, to give you a taste of what passes for work in Rod's world:

The overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is [sic] carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community. Of course, in return, we have rap music, goat curry and a far more vibrant and diverse understanding of cultures which were once alien to us. For which, many thanks.

As with all good debates, at the beginning I should declare an interest: I think Rod Liddle is a crypto-fascist troglodyte, and did before I even read his loathsome article. He's Clarkson without the brains, Littlejohn without the sophistication. Hitler without the moustache.

Not surprisingly, the article has attracted a fair share of attention, and not all of it says "well done Roddie". Most of the ire is directed to the fairly fundamental point that he actually has his facts wrong (and he cites no sources in the article - for more detail, click here). Black men do not commit the majority of the crimes he mentions, even in London (which he scurrilously tries to extrapolate across the country). But to me this is missing the point.

Let us suppose it were true - in some categories it nearly is true - would that make him a visionary? The question is, as it should be always when applied to statistics, especially in the hands of a dyspeptic boor like Liddle: what are you doing with this information? He presents it as though it were the dispassionate, neutral release of pure data, untainted by spin or innuendo. Does Rod suggest that we abandon all our present crime-fighting tactics and opt for an approach based upon racial profiling? Would I be allowed to pre-emptively attack Afro-Caribbean young men in the street, on the statistical probability of preventing an assault upon me? Rapists are 100% male - should the police start to profile all men on the assumption they will attack women?

Sometimes it's hard to spot the inference, we are so used to categorisation. If I say the majority of knife crimes in are committed by black men, you might think I was making a statistical observation (an incorrect one, as it happens). But what if I were to say that most insider trading in was committed by Jews? Leaving aside whether it is true or not (and I have no idea), suddenly it doesn't sound so dispassionate - I am cutting the data to make a point, and a pretty unpleasant one.

Liddle believes he is the heroic standard bearer for the Silent Majority, taking a stand against the woolly-minded forces of political correctness. Whereas 86% of people think he is a racist dullard with mercifully limited publishing channels. Probably. But who's counting, eh Rod?

3D or not 3D

We're now knee-deep in the Panto season, and I have noticed a curious phenomenon sweeping seasonal shows across the land: 3D. From Bromley to Aberdeen, pantomimes are being advertised as starring a particular children's character in 3D, illustrated above by a snippet from a promo for St Alban's theatre. (Incidentally, why are all panto posters set out the same way, regardless of location, star, story or quality? It's like a state industry - has no-one ever heard of design?)

I was always under the impression that the point about theatre is that it's all 3D. I can't recall a night at the live performing arts where someone didn't occupy the space in three directions, though obviously some occupy it better than others. Advertising a theatre show as "3D" is like advertising ice cream as cold, though in the case of Keanu Reeves' Hamlet, I suspect some clarification might have been needed.

Such multi-dimensional confusion is not confined to the stage; conversations with expectant parents have made me aware of something called a 4D scan that creates a very high resolution image of a child in the mother's womb. Because this is such an improvement on the normal ultrasound scan in terms of clarity, it was felt calling it a 3D scan just wasn't enough. It needed taking to the fourth dimension, although as I understand it, there is no prediction for the baby's development, unless the foetus is so wrinkly it also shows what the child will look like as a pensioner.

Spacetime is a slippery phenomenon even for those scientists who know what they are talking about, so I would suggest the lay world tries to cope with getting its use of 3D right before they start dabbling with String Theory. The metaphysical equivalent of remembering their lines and not bumping into the furniture.

06 December 2009

The bank of laughter and forgetting

My favourite cartoon series is Bloom County, which ran between 1980 and 1989, charting the incongruous banalities of an eclectic mix of characters in a mythical mid-American small town. In one strip from 1988, a ne'er-do-well propositions Opus, the naive penguin, about a hypothetical drug habit he is considering starting. He suggests to Opus that, if he were to develop a serious addiction, the cost in terms of crime, law enforcement, treatment and rehabilitation would be about $1200 per American, but if Opus were to pay him $100 now, he'd take up philately instead. I felt a little like Opus this week about the news of RBS's proposed £1m+ bonus payments and subsequent row with the government, its main creditor.

While I am not above a little banker bashing, I also recognise, as the part-owner of several banks, it is in my interest to get as good a price for them as possible. And it is not a total myth that the best people in any labour pool will attract the best remuneration, though it can be overstated. To suggest the best Investment Bankers will work for RBS out of public spiritedness is absurd, and to pay them below market rate is to leave cash on the table in New York. So how do we express our displeasure while recognising the realities of a fluid labour market? I think I have the answer, and I shall call it Clown Day.

Last year, at the height of the bank bail-outs, some senior members of the banking community did actually go on the record to say sorry. But in the intervening months since then, we've heard precious little of the 's' word from the lips of increasingly cocky members of Investment Banking world. While levels of champagne consumption at Canary Wharf may not quite have reached 2005 levels, the bonus bleating seems to indicate horrifically short memories. So here's where the clowns come in.

I would decree that for one day a year, say 15 September, everyone who works for a bank who is in line for a bonus above a set level, such as £297,920, must dress as a clown in full regalia: wig, funny nose, braces and long feet. Furthermore, they would have to spend the day on street corners in the west end of London hawking for change; any change they do receive would be given to victims of their folly, any abuse received they would keep. It would become an annual spectacle, even a tourist event to raise badly needed cash for the Exchequer.

This is not class war (which is apparently back in fashion), but the chance to show humility. September 15 is the date Lehman Brothers went bust, and should serve as a chilling reminder to all in the world of finance just what can happen if a government doesn't choose to underwrite their foolishness. The world, much less the taxpayer, does not owe them a living, and the day would give them a period of reflection away from the alpha male bear pit of the sales floor to appreciate the enormously privileged position they are in, and the responsibility they carry.

£297,920 is the annual salary of the Governor of the Bank of England, dwarfed by the opulence of the Square Mile's highest earners, but someone who does, at least, have to consider the national interest. In years to come, when the memories of this recession are as distant to our grandchildren as the Wall Street Crash is to us, we will have an annual reminder of what can happen to those who, entrusted with other people's money, are foolish enough to believe their own publicity

I don't think a day of ashes-and-sackcloth (or in this case, greasepaint and nylon) is too much to ask for a million pound bonus. For that sort of money I'd eat the sweepings from my garage floor. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, a wiser man than me once said. For the bonus boys of RBS who cannot remember it, they should be condemned and repeat the day they were shown to be clowns.

04 December 2009

Paper tigers

A government-backed report into cancer this week revealed some interesting statistics, and a treeful of newspaper stories. Most preferred to focus on the negative aspects of Professor Mike Richards' findings in Cancer Reform Strategy, and there was certainly enough material in there for indignation by those papers for whom it is the stock-in-trade: "postcode lottery" for survival rates, lower one-year survival rates than our European neighbours and the call for improvement in early diagnosis.

For me the most interesting aspect of the report was the positive macro findings which gave reasons to give at least two cheers: "There has been a further fall in cancer mortality, with the latest data (the average for 2006–08) showing that, among people under 75, cancer mortality has fallen by 19.3% since 1995–97. We are well on track to achieve the target of a 20% reduction by 2010....For breast cancer, five-year survival rose from 80.6% in 2000 to a predicted level of 86.0% in women diagnosed in 2007. The equivalent figures for colon cancer in men are 47.6% rising to 53.4% and in women 47.6% rising to 52.7%."

Whether you live in Paris or Peterborough, across the board, cancer survival rates are improving across the western world - in short, fewer people are dying of cancer at ages that we would consider 'young'. Terrific news if you are a human being but bad news if, instead, you write for the Daily Mail. For example, the Mail has warned us that the following things are likely to give us cancer: mouthwash, obesity, wine, shampoo, mozzarella cheese, chips, underarm deodorants, your height, vitamin C and candles. With all those threats lurking in every corner, it's a wonder we can even leave the house, never mind attend a screening appointment.

Even more disappointing for the Daily Mail is the apparent cause behind these reductions: evidence-based medicine. Those really boring things like better dietary advice, national screening programmes, vaccination, scientific research and improved surgical techniques. Because they are often difficult, slow and take a long time. They require some patience, rational thought and careful observation. All the things the Daily Mail is against.

The Mail likes its cancer solved quickly - preferably through a cheap, easily available, everyday commodity that can tackle a terrifically complex and various condition, such as cancer, in a simple way. So, again, according the Daily Mail, the following things will probably cure cancer - a balance, if you will, for all that shampoo and mouthwash: mushrooms, kangaroos, raspberries, a special gene, aspirin, tea and uncut carrots.

It is often said that fear of crime is much more prevalent that crime itself - no matter how much crime rates decline, people still put it high on a list of worries when polled in the street. In the same way what the Daily Mail writes about is fear of cancer rather than cancer itself, at least in terms of writing about its risks in a meaningful or sensible way. We see Jade Goody dead at 27 from cervical cancer, we listen to horrific statistics from cancer charities that 1 in 3 of us will die from it (or 1 in 2, depending on the type of cancer or who you ask). We conflate the two points, and imagine middle aged cancer as disturbingly common, smack bang in the middle of the Mail's demographic. But leaving aside unusual cases like lung cancer, which correlate strongly to a single cause, there is one overwhelming factor that determines the risk of you dying of cancer of whatever type and ferocity: age.

Cancer is a disease of the elderly, or at least the over 60s. Over 75 and the rates skyrocket. We all have to die of something, and for the elderly, cancer is a high risk. Of course some young people die of cancer, and when they do it seems cruel, baffling and capricious - the sort of thing that might make you throw up your hands and buy another punnet of raspberries or rub a kangaroo.

The relentless coverage of what is, to the majority of the population, actually quite a low risk, and the giddying array of PR campaigns to promote cures, products, drugs and quackery through the media has the effect of making cancer seem inexplicable, random as though a punishment from the Almighty. Certainly if every day you are told of a different test in a lab that produced a surrogate outcome on a mouse, and that is filtered through the Daily Mail to a simplistic cause and effect: today drink more tea to prevent cancer, tomorrow don't cut up your carrots. It is latter-day shamanism, and rather than empowering readers, or making them better informed, it stops them seeing the wood for the trees - from concentrating on what we know from long-term studies has a meaningful impact on risk insofar as you can control it: better diet, healthy exercise, moderate alcohol intake, no smoking and reduced stress. Evidence-based medicine saves lives, but where's the angle on that?